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.
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!