I promised myself I wouldn’t do one of those “Year In Review” pieces. They’ve become a complete and utter cliche. But there’s no getting around the fact that, for me, 2017 was one of the most musical years ever.
The amount of music I heard and purchased this year is nothing short of staggering. It would be a real shame not to hit the highlights, with the hope I can influence someone into checking out these amazing bands and their recordings.
So cliche be damned! Let’s do this! Here are a few particularly sparkly gems from the diamond mine that was records in 2017.
Bent Knee, Land Animal. There are few albums I eagerly anticipated more than this one. Bent Knee ensnared me in their avant-pop web back in 2013, and I’ve been obsessed with them ever since. Land Animal is the band’s first record on a major label, and Bent Knee pulls out all the stops. Lead vocalist/keyboardist Courtney Swain is in top form, as she and the rest of the band display the kind of chops that only come from endless months on the road, playing gig after gig night after night. In a just world, Bent Knee would be up for a Grammy or three. The fact that they’re not explains why I’m not a fan of the Grammys. This album is a must for any true music fan.
Steven Wilson, To the Bone. Progressive rock stalwart Steven Wilson shocked much of his fan base by deciding to get in touch with his “pop” side on his latest solo album. Wilson was quick to remind his fan base that he is a musician above all else, labels be damned. The burden of expectation can be tough, but To the Bone allows Wilson’s genius to shine, thanks to influences like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Talk Talk, and Tears for Fears. For once, I was reminded of what was good about 80s music. I can’t wait until May, when I finally get to see Steven Wilson in concert.
Living Colour, Shade. I’ve been waiting three years for this one. It was worth the wait. Most people seemed to forget about Living Colour after the relative novelty of “Cult of Personality” came and went in the late 80s. That was a mistake. This album is a striking reminder of why they’re still highly relevant in the modern music landscape. Living Colour digs into the blues on this album, but do it in their own way. Corey Glover’s voice continues to smolder, while guitarist Vernon Reid flat-out smokes, taking the blues to a whole new level. Along with marvelous original tunes like “Program,” the band does fantastic covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya.” Do not miss out on this record!
Brand X, But Wait … There’s More. I’ve loved Brand X since the early 80s. I never thought I’d get to see them live. So imagine my thrill when they came to my hometown, and I got to watch these legends perform in a small-ish venue from less than ten feet away! Turns out they were promoting their new live album, released a couple of months before I saw them. The set they played before me was essentially the set they played on the CD. That doesn’t matter: Brand X played it to perfection!
Brokeback, Illinois River Valley Blues. I made more than a few purchases on blind faith this year. I based my leaps of faith on the word of employees in Chicago record stores. I must confess, I cheated a bit where Brokeback was concerned. The band is on the Thrill Jockey label, where many of my favorite Chicago-based bands, like Tortoise, reside. This is a lush, atmospheric record that works well in both the foreground and the background. Post-rock fans would do themselves well to explore this album.
Five of the Eyes, The Venus Transit. I caught these guys at Progtoberfest in Chicago, and they absolutely blew my mind! It was like watching Mick Jagger front The Mars Volta. Tricky riffs full of attitude helped set this band apart from the 37 groups I saw all weekend. I couldn’t get to the merch tables fast enough to get a copy of this album, which is just as good as the live performance. I’ll have my eye on this band. You should, too.
The National, Sleep Well Beast & Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins. I learned about these two bands four or five years ago, at almost the same time. So it’s kind of funny how I can rarely think of one without thinking of the other, even though they don’t sound the same. How funny is it that they both released new albums this year, went on tour at the same time, and I saw them both in Chicago just two weeks from one another? The National has a darker tone, leaning heavily on the brooding vocals of Matt Berninger, and can veer musically into much heavier places than Grizzly Bear, who have more atmospheric sound that relies on lush vocal harmonies. Both albums are basically extensions of their previous efforts. It’s not uncommon for me to put both bands into my CD player and hit the “shuffle” button. Makes for an interesting musical afternoon.
Coupler, Gifts from the Ebb Tide. Another “blind faith” purchase, this one is from Nashville. It’s a lush tapestry of organic and electronic sounds that could easily have been produced by Brian Eno. The album feels relatively short, so I’m hoping this album is a precursor to something bigger.
Various Artists, Impulsive: Revolutionary Jazz Reworked. It’s a fascinating concept: take artists and songs from the legendary Impulse label, and hand their tracks to modern day producers for remixing and augmentation. This double-LP contains some fascinating musical moments that are better heard than explained. Let’s just say it’s not every day you hear a collaboration between Sun Ra and the RZA. Find this album and check it out!
I bought an embarrassing amount of music in 2017. These are just a few of the records that stuck out. I’m sure there are others, but we’ll leave those for another day.
Now, tell me about your favorites.