Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2017

Once again, we find ourselves on the precipice of a new year. But before we hang our new calendars and valiantly charge into days of future passed, let’s take a quick look back at the ten albums that brought your Craven Hermit the most enjoyment in 2017. And, as always, feel free to leave your personal Top Ten list in the comments!

It was a fun year for record collecting. Vinyl sales continue to gain momentum, and most of the problems associated with short supply & increasing demand seem to be abating. Plenty of stores are now selling vinyl records, even here in my backwater slice of suburbia. Vinyl release dates seem to be catching up to CD release dates, suggesting to me that some of the manufacturing presses have expanded capacity and/or streamlined their operations. And, if you poke around in enough brick & mortar indie record shops and brave the crowds on Record Store Day, you can find many of your favourite new releases on coloured vinyl. Which may seem like a gimmick to the serious audiophiles that insist that everything other than heavyweight black vinyl is rubbish, but I’ll counter with the belief that music is supposed to be entertaining! I readily admit that seeking out special editions in zany colours is half the fun of collecting. The other half, of course, is actually listening to your new prizes at ludicrous volume!

Let’s see what made the grade for your trusty correspondent this year. Here they are, arranged alphabetically (by artist) on my billiards table in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of the Star Wars scroll. Go on, Disney – sue me.

2017_favourites

Colors by Beck
After teasing us for years with random bits and bytes, everyone’s favourite musical guero finally dropped a complete album on us. Would the chameleonic Beck be in a playful mood, or besotted with broken-hearted misery, or would he perhaps re-inhabit The Purple One’s paisley funk? It turns out that Colors will likely be remembered as Beck’s “summer album”, chock full of pop songs and sun-kissed rhythms. It’s entirely possible that all this exuberance is simply a vacuous veneer over a troubled soul, but hilarious lyrics like “Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu” make it sound like Beck is enjoying the absurdity of life again. Best tracks: “I’m So Free”, “Dreams”, “Wow”

Little Fictions by Elbow
Guy Garvey and co. return with a new batch of songs, minus one original drummer but with a clutch of new ideas. The music is, as always, magisterial and immaculately produced. Garvey’s dissatisfaction with the status quo occasionally creeps in from the margins but Little Fictions, at its core, is a grown-up album dealing with grown-up concerns. The album artwork even evokes the same sort of pastel hues and twilight shadows as the music within. Best tracks: “Magnificent (She Says)”, “Gentle Storm”, “Little Fictions

Beast Epic by Iron & Wine
Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Sam Beam has spent most of the past decade learning how to overlay his quiet folk songs with a kitchen sink of new influences. But just when you might have thought that there were no more ingredients to throw into the sonic stew, he’s ditched the pot altogether, gone back to basics and made what’s essentially a straight-up folk record. The difference between Beast Epic and early works like Our Endless Numbered Days is that the new songs have a melodic depth and structural sophistication that Beam has clearly added to his songwriter’s toolbox along the way. Best tracks: “Thomas County Law”, “Call It Dreaming”, “About a Bruise”

The Hanged Man by Ted Leo
Left for dead without a record contract, Ted Leo embraced Kickstarter to secure the funding for his latest solo venture. Our man Teddy has made a career out of penning what I like to call “exuberantly pissed-off anthems”, and some of those are certainly on display on The Hanged Man. However, Leo’s also used this new lease on life to explore some different sounds and textures. For my money, “Gray Havens” is the best thing he’s written since “The Toro and the Toreador”, unfolding in melodic Mellotronic waves like a long-lost Zombies single. Best tracks: “Used to Believe”, “Gray Havens”, “Lonsdale Avenue”

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem
But they’re dead! We had a funeral at Madison Square Garden for them and everything! Well, yes, that’s true. But before running down the curtains to join the choir invisible, David Bowie reportedly exhorted James Murphy at one of the Blackstar recording sessions to do things that “make him uncomfortable”. And from that, LCD Soundsystem was reborn. American Dream picks up where Murphy and friends left off, with broken disco beats and an often hilarious and weary middle-aged assessment of the musical landscape around them. It’s a brilliant home-on-a-Saturday-night-with-a-bottle-of-wine record. Best tracks: “Other Voices”, “How Do You Sleep?”, “Tonite”

Sleep Well Beast by The National
To be honest, these guys could release sixty minutes of nothing but Jazz Odyssey and police sirens and I would line up on its release day to buy my copy. Then buy it again a few months later when the inevitable “expanded edition” comes out. Fortunately, even when The National tell people they’re making a deliberately fucked-up record, it turns out handsomely. Their stock in trade remains 21st century disillusionment and anxiety, but Sleep Well Beast is spiked with some of the nervous angst that dominated earlier albums like Boxer. “Turtleneck” is probably the closest this band will ever come to recording a proper rocker, and will surely be cathartic on the live stage, but it’s the indelible splendour of songs like “Carin at the Liquor Store” that will follow you into darkened alleys for years to come. Best tracks: “Walk It Back”, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Carin at the Liquor Store”

Hot Thoughts by Spoon
After taking a busman’s holiday with Divine Fits, Britt Daniel returned to his main gig with some exciting new ideas. 2014’s They Want My Soul nudged the classic Spoon template of angular guitars and sinewy drums in different directions, but new album Hot Thoughts pushes the boat out even further from shore. Daniel’s reverb-laden vocals are still accompanied by precision-honed guitar riffs and the incomparable Jim Eno’s snap-tastic drum fills, but now they’re often counter-pointed by electronic snatches of synths. Most intriguingly, in “I Ain’t the One” the chords from a Fender Rhodes hang in the air like ghosts of lost lovers. Spoon’s show at the Winspear Centre in August was also the highlight of my concert year, a masterclass in the possibilities of sleek, beat-driven, modern rock. Best tracks: “Hot Thoughts”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “I Ain’t the One”

A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
Loads of people are putting this album on their Best of 2017 lists, and with good reason. It’s taken three long years to follow up their excellent Lost in the Dream album, but A Deeper Understanding was well worth the wait. Adam Granduciel and co. still sound like Bryan Adams fronting Dire Straits or the Heartbreakers, but I sincerely mean that in the nicest possible way. These ten widescreen epics unfold at their leisure, comfortable to take the scenic route to their ultimate destinations. Sometimes the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented, merely perfected. Load this one into the car stereo and drive an hour out of town in any direction. Best tracks: “Up All Night”, “Nothing to Find”, “Thinking of a Place”

Panther in the Dollhouse by Whitehorse
Songwriters Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have once again joined forces to pen a new batch of Americana-flavoured adult alternative songs. Their past albums were notable for tunefulness with tasteful restraint, sounding to me like a more polite and introspective Canadian cousin to the Black Keys. So I was pleasantly surprised upon my first spin of Panther in the Dollhouse that the duo has deftly incorporated electronic melodies and modern drum loops into their sound. The new-found sonic seasonings add a dash of excitement to Whitehorse’s always impeccable songcraft. My only gripe is that this is the only album on my Ten Best list that didn’t come with an mp3 download code. Their record company are cheap bastards (just so you know). Best tracks: “Epitaph in Tongues”, “Trophy Wife”, “Pink Kimono”

To The Bone by Steven Wilson
Often I discover artists early in their careers, but once in awhile I stumble across someone in a mid-career purple patch and I have a golden opportunity to work backwards through their body of work. Steven Wilson appeared on my radar by virtue of his brilliant post-production work in recent years for prog stalwarts King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Rush. I was delighted to discover that Wilson has released a number of albums under his own name, plus a boatload of Porcupine Tree records and a veritable smorgasbord of collaborations. To The Bone is everything that I wish a David Gilmour solo album would be, featuring tasteful guitar solos, intriguing rhythms, and beguiling musical ideas. Constantly engaging, it makes me want to seek out his previous works to see what sort of road led Wilson to this immaculate place. Best tracks: “To The Bone”, “Nowhere Now”, “The Same Asylum

Happy New Year, everyone, and roll on 2018!

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The Man Cave

Well, hello again! It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to post something. 2017 just seemed to get away from me. Plenty of travel for work, plus a couple of weeks spent back in ‘The 204’ to visit family, and a few all-too-brief mini-vacations. All that travel and stress has left me a little road-weary and happy to spend Christmas week safely ensconced at home sweet home. Santa has left what appears to be some new music under my tree – we’ll find out for sure tomorrow morning. I made some cool upgrades to my ‘LCD soundsystem’ this year, so chances are good that any new LPs will be spinning at ludicrous volume somewhere between brunch waffles and turkey dinner tomorrow.

So, about that sound system. A long time ago, krispykirk76 was nice enough to ask about my audio rig. I promised to write a blog about it so… why not tonight? Here’s a quick synopsis, as I sit between the speakers, rocking out to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s immortal Charlie Brown Christmas. On festive green vinyl, of course!

music_rig_1

The backbones of my man cave rig are the PSB speakers. The mains are Imagine T2 floor-standers, with an Imagine Centre speaker parked under the Sony 3D-compatible, edge-lit LCD HDTV. There are two more Imagine Minis at the back of my listening area, on top of my vinyl storage shelf, and a Monitor Audio Bronze subwoofer is tucked behind a loveseat to complete my 5.1 layout.

This year’s big acquisition was a new A/V receiver. I felt it was finally time to replace my trusty Yamaha amp. It served me well for years, but the Yamaha coloured the sound too much (i.e. way too bright) in any of its goofy “sound enhancing” modes and just didn’t have the power required to make my PSBs sing. After doing my research, and test driving some new equipment at local hi-fi shops, I settled on a brand new receiver from NAD, the T777 v3. This model is so new, I actually got one of the first 40 units shipped in Canada. I’ve wanted to buy an NAD amp for so long – they are legendary for putting musical performance first, instead of loading up on superfluous bells & whistles.

As you might have guessed from the model number, my T777 is a seven-channel receiver, pumping out 80 continuous ass-kicking watts per channel at full volume, into all seven channels simultaneously, all with minimal distortion. What really makes this rig work with my PSBs is the ability to reassign two of the rear surround channels to the front. I was able to do this because I’m running a 5.1 system, not a 7.1 system. Effectively, I now have the T2s bi-amped with 160 watts each – 80 to the woofers and 80 to the midrange coils and tweeters. The improvement made by upgrading to NAD has been remarkable. Everything now sounds far more realistic and less distorted and just plain LOUDER. I can only imagine how the neighbours feel about hearing AC/DC at 90 decibels 🙂

Look carefully and you’ll see a few media sources tied into the T777 v3. I’ve got Telus fiberoptic service to the house, so TV comes in via a Telus HD set-top box. I’m still toying with the idea of upgrading it to their 4k model – maybe next year, when more 4k content is available. I’ve also added a new Sony blu-ray player, the UBP-X800. Not only is it a sweet 3D-compatible blu-ray player, but it can play pretty much any audio format you can throw at it. Listening to music in high-resolution 5.1 channel sound has been a lot of fun. The new 5.1 mix of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People is stunning. It even plays the DVD-A and SACD discs I collected years ago. The Sony UBP-X800 has a USB slot on the front where I’ve parked a 64 GB stick, placing my growing collection of high-res audio files at my fingertips. The USB stick is a stop-gap measure until I figure out a good way of streaming music wirelessly in my home; the NAD receiver has a built-in BluOS app that I plan to exploit some day. For now, my Apple TV is a decent enough way of streaming mp3s to the receiver, though you pay for the convenience with a small hit to sound quality.

And last but not least, my turntable. It’s made by Pro-Ject, and it’s the 1Xpression Carbon Classic model from about five or six years ago. It has a carbon-fibre tonearm and came from the factory in Czech Republic with olive veneer and a nifty Ortofon 2M ‘Red’ cartridge pre-installed.

music_rig_2

Naturally, I’ve made some tweaks over the years in the never-ending search for sonic perfection. First, I added a Pro-Ject Phono Box S pre-amplifier, so that I didn’t have to rely on the mediocre phono pre-amp in my Yamaha receiver. This has worked out well, since the NAD doesn’t even have a phono pre-amp! Next I added a Pro-Ject Speed Box S for more accurate speed control. What started out as a fun anachronism with the stock turntable became a royal pain in the ass, after pulling up the aluminum platter and carefully moving the drive belt from sheave to sheave about twenty times too many. Now I can switch speeds from 33 and a third to 45 with the simple push of a button. Luxury!

Underneath the deck I’ve added some sorbothane feet for better isolation from the pine table I custom built in my garage. Meanwhile, to reduce the amount of static my rig picks up in winter – no thanks to the 20% relative humidity here in the tundra – I replaced the stock cork mat with a deer leather one I bought online. It helped – a little. As did replacing the stock audio-out cables with nice Audioquest shielded cables and a dedicated grounding wire. But what’s made the biggest difference was replacing the Ortofon 2M ‘Red’ stylus with a 2M ‘Blue’. Ortofon makes it so easy to swap out the stylus, and this sub-$200 upgrade paid me back immediately with much clearer sound and noticeably less hiss & pops.

What’s left to tweak? Someday I’d like to re-upgrade the stylus and cartridge to a Ortofon 2M ‘Bronze’ model, which apparently sounds divine, but I’m very content with the ‘Blue’ for now. My Souther Clever Clamp does yeoman’s work of holding down records, but I’d love to see if something with more mass would be better able to flatten some of those warped 180g pressings that Amazon occasionally ships my way. A true record-cleaning vacuum system would be nice, instead of using my Audioquest carbon-fibre brush to knock dust and debris off my records. I’m told that Herbie’s turntable mats are the best for isolating static electricity, so that’s worth checking out. And I’m keeping an eye on 65″ OLED televisions – once the very similar LG and Sony OLED screens drop another $500 or so, I will give them serious consideration.

But those ideas certainly aren’t pressing. This Christmas, I’m more than content to sit between my speakers and listen to the glorious sounds made by my current rig. And as I mentioned off the top, I can’t wait to tear the wrapping paper off my gifts and find out if Santa brought me any new vinyl, blu-rays, or high-res audio files 🙂

Stupid Poetic Justice…

I’m thrilled to report that a vinyl compendium of brilliant new songs by the venerable New Pornographers has just arrived in my mailbox. It’s called Whiteout Conditions, and it’s eleven new tracks of pure power-pop glory. 

Unfortunately, it arrived just as central Alberta has been caught in the throes of an actual whiteout. On Easter weekend!


Doh!

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to heading downstairs to the trusty man-cave with a beer or three and giving this new, blue musical platter an inaugural spin. 

I see from the liner notes that Neko Case was part of the recordings, and I’ve heard that she’s going to be on the tour, too. Cool! But not the inimitable Dan Bejar, who is sitting this NP record out. Presumably he has a new Destroyer album and tour in the works this year. Bejar’s oddball songs are often the perfect counterpoint to A.C. Newman’s clever, electric pop confections. Most charmingly, I think Bejar comes up with his song titles by randomly flipping through a dictionary and picking the first three words that catch his eye. Look for “Verily Trombone Unicorn” to feature prominently on a future New Pornographers release 🙂

For now, as the snow continues to pile up outside, it’s always great to unwrap new music by Canada’s greatest exporters of intelligent power-pop. To the man-cave I go!

Anticipation

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For me, one of the most exciting parts of being a record collector (and, more generally, a music fan) is taking a peek at the upcoming release schedule and counting down the days until my favourite bands release their newest works to the world. It’s one of the reasons why I feel sorry for the folks that are content to go with the flow and listen to whatever Top 40 radio or Spotify curates for them. Even though the process is nearly extinct, there’s a little spark of magic to be found in dropping by your local record store on ‘New Release’ day – it used to be Tuesdays, now it’s Fridays – and exchanging your hard-earned cash for some new musical adventures.

It certainly appears that 2017’s new release schedule will not disappoint me. Over the next few months, a bevy of artists that I greatly admire will be unleashing new records and possibly going on tour to promote them. I can hardly wait; I’m vibrating like my five year old niece on Christmas Eve.

The upcoming releases that I’m most looking forward to are as follows:

Prisoner by Ryan Adams (17-Feb-2017)

ryanadams_prisonerI won’t dispute that, at times, Ryan Adams could have benefitted from an editor to bring coherence to his ramshackle albums. Why put out three half-assed records a year, when you could have put out one lean & mean, 10-track compendium and ruled the musical landscape? Alas, Adams has dialled down his self-medications and grown wiser in recent years. Prisoner will be his first album of original material since his 2014 self-titled record, not counting 2015’s well received but oddly unsatisfying track-by-track remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Three years is like three decades by Adams’ standards.  Like all great introspective divorce albums, Prisoner is reportedly fuelled by the breakdown of his marriage to Mandy Moore. Rumours abound that the music is infused with 1980’s touchstones, so presumably Adams is finally conjoining his trademark melancholy with his unabashed Smiths fandom. Song titles like “Do You Still Love Me”, “Doomsday”, “To Be Without You”, and “Breakdown” are a pretty good indication of where his head is at. I pre-ordered this LP online, and I will continue to check my mailbox every night until it arrives.

New Album by Beck (date and title TBD)

beck_dreamsThis record was supposed to come out in the summer of 2016. Singles “Dreams” and “Wow” hit the airwaves, and bounced with an energy that screamed “day-glo festival performance staples”. Yet despite a series of rumoured and subsequently abandoned 2016 release dates, the full album never hit the shelves. We got bits and pieces on various Record Store Days, and nothing but vapours otherwise. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the long-awaited follow-up to Beck’s morose yet achingly beautiful Morning Phase will finally come out in 2017. But I’m trying not to hold my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop from everyone’s favourite funky-guero Scientologist. Beck has always worked in mysterious ways, and he seems to revel in confounding conventional wisdom and his fans’ expectations. But whenever the new album finally drops, expect to see me in the record shop on its day of release to buy it.

Little Fictions by Elbow (3-Feb-2017)

elbow_littlefictionsThe band Elbow makes the kind of music that words like “elegiac” and “majestic” were meant to describe. Their tunes are tailor-made for people who love to revel in wistful British melancholy. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear an Elbow song in, say, a beer commercial, but you could very well expect to hear one in an advert for prudent financial planning. Their last album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, was a minor masterpiece, marrying subtle rhythms and timeless melodies to a widescreen tableau of the struggles and victories of modern life. Fans are expecting more of the same from Little Fictions, despite the departure of Elbow’s long-time drummer, Richard Jupp. Perhaps they will take inspiration from R.E.M. after Bill Berry’s abdication and turn to electronic drum machines as a new source of inspiration. Like the new Ryan Adams record, I am certainly looking forward to having this pre-ordered album finally arrive in my mailbox.

New Album by LCD Soundsystem (date and title TBD)

lcd-soundsystemThe cat came back – they thought he was a goner – the cat came back, he just couldn’t stay away. James Murphy retired his LCD Soundsystem alt-disco project a few years ago with a cathartic performance at Madison Square Garden. Yet, hardly five years on, the band has been reassembled to not only headline various festivals (including this year’s Forecastle festival in Kentucky) but to tour in support of a new album. I’m excited to hear what Murphy and co. have been working on in what one imagines to be a claustrophobic studio stacked to the rafters with analogue synths, vintage drum machines, and sci-fi ephemera. To say the new album has a reputation to live up to somewhat understates the situation. At any rate, I’m eager to learn how LCD Soundsystem picks up on the free-floating existential angst of 2017 and turns it into rousing, rhythmic dance anthems for the homely and disenfranchised.

Risk to Exist by Maximo Park (21-Apr-2017)

maximo_park_risk_existMaximo Park are one of those UK acts that I’ve had a soft spot for ever since the early 2000’s, when I used to get my new-music recommendations from magazines like Q and MOJO. Maximo Park have been making angular, polyrhythmic music since their 2005 debut A Certain Trigger and a clutch of energetic hit singles loudly proclaimed their arrival on the modern rock scene. It’s very difficult to find their albums on this side of the Atlantic, but I had the good fortune to buy 2012’s The National Health on my UK trip last year. God, how I wish those Soho record shops were closer to my home! I recently noticed on a British upcoming releases website that Maximo Park are putting out a new album, called Risk to Exist, in April of this year. Advance word from the band’s publicist suggests the new record is “informed by the dire state of world affairs in 2016 and crumbling political systems”. So, not big Brexit fans, then!  Doubting that it would get a simultaneous release on physical formats outside of the UK, I’ve ordered my copy directly from the band’s merchandising website. And I’m told the LP will be autographed by the band! Not too shabby for 20 quid, including international delivery.

New Album by The National (date and title TBD)

thenationalI try to avoid making blanket declarations like “so-and-so is the best band on the planet”. But I will freely admit that The National have been at or very near the top of my ever-evolving Favourite Bands list since I first heard them back in their Alligator days. There is just something about the way their insular, occasionally miserable, but very inviting and introspective music connects with me – it’s essentially the soundtrack for my endless internal discourses. If I’m ever stranded on a desert isle without a copy of High Violet I will be crushed, even though I’ve long since memorized every musical passage. Last year, lead singer Matt Berninger confirmed that the band has been wrapping up a new album in the studio, presumably for a 2017 release. He describes the sound as “weird, math-y, electronic-y stuff… we’re in the middle of the wilderness, in a rainforest full of really fun noises”. I take that to mean that The National are experimenting with new sounds and textures, but I trust the Dessner Brothers to rein things in enough to make yet another gorgeous desert-island disc for my collection.

Northern Passages by The Sadies (10-Feb-2017)

sadies_northernThe Sadies are something of a Canadian roots-rock institution. Lanky brothers Dallas and Travis Good have been making music with their compadres for over two decades. Sadies records are mainly about atmosphere and texture. Sometimes the music is quiet and thoughtful, other times it’s quick and propulsive, but there is always a palpable sense of multi-dimensional power. Their musicianship is also second-to-none; watching them perform live is like spending the evening at Hot Licks School. I was thrilled to pick up their new album, Northern Passages, at my local record shop yesterday, and even happier to see the glorious Northern Lights adorn the cover. We haven’t had a display quite like that so far this winter, but those green curtains bring back memories of my teenage years, making 3 am trips outside to check on the cows in calving season. Today is Family Day in Alberta, which means that most of us have the day off of work. I’m going to celebrate tonight after playing hockey by coming home, lighting the fireplace down in my man-cave, cracking open a cold malt beverage, and giving my copy of Northern Passages its first spin. Three cheers for Canadiana.

Heartworms by The Shins (10-Mar-2017)

shins_heartwormsIn recent years James Mercer has been splitting his time between the synth-pop duo Broken Bells (with Danger Mouse) and his day job as lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for The Shins. It’s great to see that another Shins record is due for release next month, once again on Mercer’s Aural Apothecary label, suggesting the perfectionist remains in full control of the band’s musical direction. Based on the evidence of first single “Dead Alive”, there hasn’t been a huge shift in musical direction, although perhaps The Shins are growing a little more cross-pollinated by the crystal-clear production and subtle electronic bleeps and bloops of Mercer’s other band. I trust that Heartworms will provide Shins fans with many new earworms to enjoy, either in album form or via their inevitable placement in various Zach Braff movies.

Hot Thoughts by Spoon (17-Mar-2017)

spoon_hot_thoughtsIn my Best of 2016 list, I quietly hoped for a new Divine Fits record in 2017. It doesn’t appear that we will get one, but for a very good reason – singer-guitarist Britt Daniel will be busy launching a new Spoon record instead! Dave Fridmann is apparently back to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders on Hot Thoughts, so I’m not expecting it to sound vastly different to 2014’s excellent They Want My Soul. Spoon records always seem to have an innate ability to push the sparse, rhythmic envelope without devolving into tuneless cacophony. It’s interesting to see that Hot Thoughts will be coming out on Matador Records,  the Austinites original label. Hopefully that doesn’t cause them any distribution headaches, although fans have had to wait weeks or even months to get their hands on vinyl lately from some of the music world’s smaller labels.  Perhaps it would be wise to pre-order this record, just in case they are scarcer than hen’s teeth in the shops.

New Album by The War on Drugs (date and title TBD)

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Philadelphia band The War on Drugs turned the indie rock revolution on its head with 2011’s Slave Ambient and 2014’s Lost In The Dream. Both records recast the music of their forefathers (most notably Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen) into the 21st century, giving their songs a uniquely modern, hazy sheen. Lost In The Dream especially pushed the re-invention to new levels, incorporating shimmering keyboards and other thoughtful production touches. And I would be remiss to not to mention the wonderfully engaging songwriting and indelible melodies. The results were a timeless series of songs that flowed into one another, sounding especially great on vinyl (as any Pink Floyd fan can attest). Details of the new record continue to be a closely-guarded secret, but the band’s Instagram account would suggest that they’ve been holed up in the studio, no doubt perfecting something marvellous. If a new record appears in 2017, and lives up to the high standards set by “Touch of Grey”, the War on Drugs’ recent contribution to the excellent Day of the Dead compilation, it could be really special.

As if these epic new releases aren’t enough, here are the upcoming vinyl re-releases that make me giddy with anticipation:

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five (24-Mar-2017)

benfolds_reinholdmessnerThis is the album that made me a fan of Ben Folds and his fearlessly rambunctious cohorts for life. I can still remember the day that I bought this CD, at the St. Vital outlet of HMV in Winnipeg, as though it was yesterday. The lady behind the counter gave me a sexy sideways glance that said “you don’t know it yet, but you are going to love this record”. I had heard lead single “Army” on MuchMusic and thought its horn-driven, smart-ass vibe was really cool. Much to my delight, I was completely blown away by the rest of this album as well. Named in honour of the Swiss mountaineer that inspired drummer Darren Jessee’s fake IDs as a teenager, Reinhold Messner is a masterpiece of piano-driven rock. “Don’t Change Your Plans”, “Mess”, “Magic”, “Army”, “Regrets”, and “Jane” all unlocked compositional doors in my mind that I hadn’t previously realized were even there.  I am so thrilled to see this album getting a proper release on vinyl; I plan to enjoy it at outrageous volume in my man-cave.

Wildflowers by Tom Petty (date TBD)

petty_wildflowersAt the time, it was billed as a Tom Petty solo record.  But Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein, Steve Ferrone, and Benmont Tench all appear on the record, so who’s kidding who? Wildflowers might as well be a Heartbreakers record. And what a record it is – Petty at his most stripped back, emotionally naked, and endlessly tuneful. Songs like “You Wreck Me”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “Crawling Back to You”, and the sublime title track will always have a special place in my heart. And the simply gorgeous “Wake Up Time” was the song I woke up to on the fateful day that my BFF chose to irreparably damage our life-affirming friendship. To this day, it’s still my ringtone whenever I set my alarm on holiday. Perhaps that makes me a masochist, but you could do a lot worse than to start your day with those chiming acoustic guitar chords and strings that just seem to hang on the air like fair-weather clouds. “Well if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl to help him to shoulder the pain in this world”. Indeed, Tom. If the rumours are true, then a two-LP re-release of Wildflowers is in the works for 2017, in accordance with Petty’s original plan for the album. Expect to hear some of those extra tracks in a feature role on this summer’s Heartbreakers tour.

Live at Leeds by The Who (24-Feb-2017?)

who_liveatleedsFor my money, this is the greatest live rock & roll record ever released. Live at Leeds captures The Who at the peak of their performance power, late in their February 1970 tour of England. The original album featured just six frenetic, explosive tracks; it was later augmented by other crowd favourites and a slightly abridged version of the Tommy suite that The Who pummelled their audience with on the same tour. The results are a tour de force of unadorned rock music. Pete Townshend layers his Gibson SG power chords and Roger Daltrey howls in anguish over John Entwistle’s fearless, melodic bass runs and Keith Moon’s incomparable, frantic drums. The vicious ensemble sounds like it’s going to fly apart at any moment, yet a palpable sense of nervous energy miraculously holds the proceedings together. The versions of “Young Man Blues”, “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, and “My Generation” should be required listening for anyone under the age of 30 who’s contemplating starting a band. These hallowed recordings are finally coming back to vinyl in a half-speed mastered 3LP format, and I can hardly wait to pick up my copy. Quick update: February 24th has come and gone, and the release date has been pushed back yet again. I will let you know when I finally hold those magical platters in my expectant hands.

Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2016

As it turns out, modern technology is not impervious to careless douchebags in big pickup trucks.

I was out of town for Christmas, visiting family back in wintry Winnipeg. In between cacophonous family gatherings and bouts of spoiling my precious little nieces (hereafter known as my precious little ‘disease vectors’, as they sent me home with a lovely dose of rhinovirus), I sneaked away to do some record shopping. Hey, a leopard doesn’t change his spots just because he finds himself in Canada’s coldest provincial capital.

While I was travelling, some careless twit in a Dodge Ram wannabe monster truck apparently crashed into the telecommunications box at the end of my street. From what I can gather nobody was seriously injured in the collision, but Billy Joe and his Gravedigger sure smashed five kinds of shit out of the telecom panel that feeds my neighbourhood. It took all the king’s horses and the local utility’s men almost a week to put the fibre-optic Humpty Dumpty together again. To make a long story slightly longer, the impromptu internet blackout (and some general sloth on my part) is why I couldn’t write and post my Favourite Albums of 2016 list… until now!

Let’s review the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They may not be groundbreaking or hugely original. They may not float your boat. They certainly won’t cover every genre of music. You may accuse me of having a shamelessly beige, guitar-driven, Anglocentric view of the musical landscape and I won’t be able to refute it. But I do know what I like, and that’s catchy melodies, interesting rhythms, and that elusive “X” factor that helps new music wrap itself around your DNA. The question I always ask myself when I pick my top ten is “will I still be listening to these records a decade from now”? Chances are, the highlights of these records will remain on my playlists for years.

Without further ado, here are my favourite albums of 2016, sorted alphabetically by artist. If you’ve read my Top 10 lists from previous years, you are unlikely to be shocked when you see who topped my charts this year. What can I say? It was a great year for new releases by well-established artists, less so for breakout artists (with a few notable exceptions).

And, most importantly, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom if you want to salute (or heckle) any of my choices – that’s half the fun!

Ellipsis by Biffy Clyro

biffyclyro_ellipsisScotland’s finest power trio was back with a new album in 2016. Coming on the heels of an ambitiously sprawling double album, the eleven sinewy tracks featured on Ellipsis seem positively efficient. The album oscillates nimbly from percussive rockers like “Wolves of Winter” and “Flammable” to mid-tempo, melodically driven songs like “Rearrange” and “Medicine”. Regardless of whether their multi-layered guitar attack is aimed at your brains or your balls, Biffy Clyro’s huge stadium-ready choruses are destined to entertain. Somewhere, Dave Grohl is head-banging in admiration and approval. Best track to seek out online: “Howl”

American Band by Drive-By Truckers

dbt_americanIt says something profound about a band when they can lose a songwriter of Jason Isbell’s caliber and still deliver album after album of the finest southern-fried rock. On this, DBT’s eleventh album, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to illuminate what it’s like to be alive and conflicted in 2016. These days, you can scarcely switch on a television without being confronted by self-aggrandizing shills, screaming at each other about red states and blue states and other complete bullshit. But if you’re keen to understand what’s really going on south of the Mason-Dixon line, you can glean more from these eleven painfully honest tracks than you’ll learn from a month of watching the bloviating heads on cable news. Best track to seek out online: “Ever South”

Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

frightenedrabbit_panicIt was never going to be easy to follow up 2013’s excellent Pedestrian Verse, but Frightened Rabbit gamely gave it a go. They enlisted Aaron Dessner to produce their new songs, and The National’s guitarist brings a bit of his band’s melancholy sparkle to the Scottish fellows’ proceedings. Long-time fans will be happy to know that Frightened Rabbit’s stock in trade – guitar-driven music – still hopscotches from hope to disillusionment to misery to unbridled fury. And perhaps no other band on the planet can reliably deliver heart-wrenching lines like “blood seems black against the skin of your porcelain back” with such grace and aplomb. Best track to seek out online: “Get Out”

Meet the Humans by Steve Mason

masonsteve_humansMany moons ago, I had the privilege of watching the Beta Band open up for Radiohead in Vancouver and Seattle. I became an instant fan of their quirky, laid-back, dub-inspired rock and infectious melodies. They had an unmistakable groove that I’d seldom heard before (or since). I was deeply disappointed when the Beta Band broke up in 2004 and scattered like chaff to the wind. Vocalist Steve Mason plied his trade as King Biscuit Time and various other pseudonyms for a while, but eventually he stepped into the limelight and started releasing new works under his own moniker. Meet the Humans is Mason’s third, most accessible, and (by my reckoning) best solo release; by focusing on tight & tidy songwriting and re-emphasizing the groove, he nearly matches the highest highs of his Beta Band days. The new record is effortlessly melodic and hypnotically rhythmic, though I’m at a loss to explain why there are so many cartoon dicks and boobs on the cover. You have to see this record on vinyl to fully appreciate all the pastel penises and bodacious bums! Chalk it up to cheeky British humour, I suppose. Best track to seek out online: “Alive”

Blue Wave by Operators

operators_bluewaveFans of Divine Fits and the dearly departed Handsome Furs (myself included) were delighted that Dan Boeckner fully realized the potential of his synth-pop project Operators with a full-length album in 2016. Blue Wave is a hurricane of analog synths, whip-smart danceable rhythms, and hooks galore. Imagine LCD Soundsystem rummaging through New Order’s record collection, and you’ll get the gist of it. “Control” is the latest hyperkinetic ringtone on my mobile phone, “Bring Me The Head” is the ultimate workout for your new hi-fi speakers, and the title track is pretty much a perfect Saturday night “going out” tune. Here’s hoping that another Operators record is already in the works – unless, of course, Divine Fits beats them to it. Best track to seek out online: “Bring Me The Head”

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

radiohead_moonshapedIn 2016, Radiohead did the unthinkable. They delivered a record that was forthright and unabashedly pretty. Not pretty in a conventional Hollywood starlet sense, of course. More like finally noticing that the shy, introverted girl on the periphery of your life is actually an overflowing fountain of mind-expanding thoughts and quietly sexy gestures. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead turns guitar rock on its head, yet again, by incorporating symphonic elements into the sonic stew. Jonny Greenwood’s mastery of the London Contemporary Orchestra essentially adds a vital new member to the band. And for a band that’s become known for synthetic robot vocals, it’s refreshing to hear Thom Yorke singing in such a human (if a little weary) voice again. It’s as though he’s yearning to be understood, after a decade or more of hiding behind disguises. You can reliably expect Radiohead to reinvent their sound yet again on whichever new music comes next. But whenever you have a quiet Saturday evening to contemplate that crush you have on the introverted girl, there will be A Moon Shaped Pool right there at your fingertips to provide the soundtrack. Best track to seek out online: “Burn the Witch”

Winter Wheat by John K. Samson

samsonjk_winterwheatA stalwart of the Winnipeg indie rock scene, John K. Samson fronted bands like Propagandhi and The Weakerthans to various levels of critical success. Now going it alone under his own name, Samson has solidified his place amongst Canada’s greatest songwriters. In my mind, Cohen –  Lightfoot – Bachman/Cummings – Keelor – Newman – Samson forms quite the lineage. Though if I had to guess, JKS sees himself as part of a much different punk rock continuum. No matter. Winter Wheat is his second full-length album, and it continues to mine Samson’s wryly oblique yet highly literate observations of life on the Canadian prairies. Lines like “The payday lonely pray in parking lots, a one-bar wi-fi kind of town” could come from no other. Meanwhile, acoustic guitars and melancholy folk tales of damaged people are framed by production as wide and as sparse as a Manitoban sunset. Best track to seek out online: “Capital”

Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater

shearwater_jetplaneHo hum – yet another brilliant album by the criminally underrated Shearwater. Jet Plane and Oxbow features the return of some of Jonathan Meiburg’s favourite muses – wildlife, widescreen imagery, and the unbridgeable chasms that sometimes keep people apart. But this time out, several songs are notably infused with the corrosive influence of troubled times; Meiburg (or at least his protagonists) seem to be struggling to suppress their anxieties at every turn. Synths are turned up to eleven, the drums clatter with martial beats, and a palpable dissatisfaction with “the way things are” rises to the fore. Challenging the status quo has rarely sounded so engaging and comforting. Best track to seek out online: “Quiet Americans”

SVIIB by School of Seven Bells

sviibIt’s impossible to listen to this album without reflecting on the tragedy of losing a key band member so young to cancer. In a way, the sadness casts a revisionist shadow over many of the crystalline dream-pop confections on SVIIB, even though they were reportedly written before Benjamin Curtis’s diagnosis. As a casual listener I won’t pretend to know anything about the intra-band relationships, and I sincerely hope that we haven’t heard the end of these very talented artists. That said, it must have been excruciating to sort through Curtis’s last recordings to assemble this album. It’s a fitting tribute that the results are so engaging, with flat-out gorgeous washes of synths, multi-layered vocals, pulsing beats and plenty of modern hooks. Best track to seek out online: “Ablaze”

Schmilco by Wilco

wilco_schmilcoWilco, to my mind, has become the quintessential American rock band. With each new record, you’re never quite sure if you’re going to be treated to alt-country, psychedelic rock, screwball folk music, jazz odyssey, or some strange new hybrid. Inevitably, long-time listeners will find something to love. Schmilco covers enough bases that it’s tough to categorize, but it’s a mostly mid-tempo, autumnal affair built around acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s introspective vocals. The overall tone is one of a band that is comfortable in their own skin, yet casting a wary eye at the world around them. God only knows how they’ll react to the forthcoming Trumpocalypse, but their next album may well be the most important one these Chicagoland dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters will ever make. Hopefully Schmilco doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as the dreaded “transitional record, since it’s a lovely sounding album that richly rewards a few extra listens and an open mind. Best track to seek out online: “If I Ever Was A Child”