Here is my top ten list for albums I listened to in 2017, plus a few honorable mentions for good measure.
10. TLC, TLC
From the moment TLC’s self-titled, fifth and final album kicks off with the vibrant opener “No Introduction,” a contradictory yet inspiring reminder of this R&B girl group’s indomitable spirit, I knew that I was in a for a good time. I’m so glad that Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas returned to the studio for a follow-up to 3D, which came out shortly after Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ death in 2002. T-Boz and Chilli bring elements of R&B, pop and funk to TLC, infusing many tracks with a 90s-throwback vibe that never feels dated. Lead single “Way Back” is the album’s best example of that particular style, but I love the atmospheres created by acoustic guitar on the empowerment anthem “Perfect Girls” and on the sultry ballad “Start a Fire,” as well as the social commentary of “American Gold,” the braggadocio of “Scandalous” and the retro groove of album closer “Joy Ride.” I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to know that T-Boz and Chilli are still crazy, sexy and cool enough to put together an album this enjoyable from start to finish.
9. Feist, Pleasure
Feist’s Pleasure is a slow-burner. Like the title track, the album as a whole takes a while to warm up, but after a while I found that the melodies had stuck with me and didn’t leave. Without question the best song on the album is “Century,” an uptempo masterwork of songwriting, performance and production; many of the album’s highlights have relaxed paces, though, and it’s hard to argue against the loveliness of “A Man Is Not His Song” (which has my favorite lines from Pleasure: “A man is not his song/And I’m not a story/But I wanna sing along/If he’s singing it for me”), “Baby Be Simple” (which, dare I say it, begins to feel magical at the 4:39 mark) and “I’m Not Running Away.”
8. Marika Hackman, I’m Not Your Man
The rock influences of the 1990s are all over English singer-songwriter’s Marika Hackman’s second full-length album. This is a good thing, like how opening track/lead single “Boyfriend” recalls Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” and how “Gina’s World” contains echoes of Nirvana. And for my money, “My Lover Cindy” is probably the #1 song of the year; with a dark sense of humor and sunny guitar licks, it’s an ideal pop-rock jewel that will lodge in your brain and never leave.
I love that Hackman’s songs wittily observe the highs and lows of queer identity while maintaining a universality that every music fan can appreciate. With I’m Not Your Man, Hackman has shot to the top of my list of the most talented women in indie rock right now, alongside Angel Olsen and Courtney Barnett.
7. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (aka Buckingham/McVie)
It may be uncool or corny to admit it, but I love the recent album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Few critics feel the same way, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a well-crafted tune. Buckingham/McVie, as they are often credited, have been in this business for half a century, so it’s safe to say that they know a thing or two about how to make memorable music. Whether you’re a fan of the duo from back in their peak Fleetwood Mac days or you’re a younger listener who just wants to savor some great earworms, you can’t go wrong with the infectious melodies of “In My World” and “On with the Show” and the slower, more sensual motion of “Carnival Begin.”
6. Texas, Jump on Board
Like the Buckingham/McVie album, Jump on Board by Scottish band Texas was labeled mediocre by most music critics. But I knew that Texas’s tenth studio album (their debut, Southside, came out in 1989) would be fun before I even heard it; I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I heard a charming BBC Radio interview with lead singer Sharleen Spiteri – isn’t that a fantastic name for a rock band frontwoman? – and the radio show’s host played the wonderful Texas song “Detroit City.” I became an immediate devotee of the group and have adored their work ever since. Jump on Board’s “Tell That Girl” has a similarly 80s-ish aura, but the sound branches out on “Won’t Let You Down,” which evokes classic Pretenders ballads; “Great Romances” (my personal favorite), which borrows its beat from the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”; the shimmering rhythms of “It Was Up to You” (like updated disco, reminiscent of Roxy Music and solo Bryan Ferry); and the smoldering rockabilly voodoo of “Sending a Message.”
P.S. Last year, Sharleen Spiteri wrote a really nice piece for The Guardian about Harry Dean Stanton, whose film Paris, Texas sparked her band’s name. If you haven’t read it, please do.
5. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Full disclosure: I don’t know much about Father John Misty, outside of some essays and reviews I’ve read over the years. I’m not familiar with his catalog prior to Pure Comedy, although I keep telling myself that I’ll listen to Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, in addition to his releases under the “J. Tillman” name, at some point. As a newbie who approached his Pure Comedy album from what I hope is a fairly fresh perspective, I must say I’m impressed. I know that his music is polarizing and engenders a lot of “masterpiece”/”overrated hack” arguments, but I like when that happens with artists; it makes me think that they’re doing something right to inspire such extreme views.
The lyrics on this album are superior to just about everything else that has been released this year and I could easily put a spotlight on nearly every song, although “Total Entertainment Forever” – the first track I heard prior to the album’s release – is the one that will probably stay with me the longest, capturing our freaky zeitgeist with insight, morbid humor and a little snazzy saxophone. There’s no way to top the sheer audacity of its opening lines: “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift/After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes/And now the future’s definition is so much higher than it was last year/It’s like the images have all become real/And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror…” Truly a songwriter for these bizarre, unbelievable times.
4. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album that I have loved from beginning to end. I wasn’t enamored of the opening track, “Love,” when I first heard it last year, but hearing it in the context of the entire album has given me a renewed admiration for the lushly produced songscapes that Del Rey creates. You really fall into a different world when you listen to her music.
“Lust for Life” is yet another 2017 song to reference “My Boyfriend’s Back” (as well as having “do-do-do-dos” similar to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”), while the lyrics of “Cherry” allude to the classic duet “Summer Wine” by two of Del Rey’s heroes, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” and “Tomorrow Never Came” are collaborations with Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, respectively, while the uplifting album closer “Get Free” cites Neil Young (”out of the black… into the blue”) and the chord progression of Radiohead’s “Creep” (Lana’s not alone; Angel Olsen kind of did that too on her single “Fly on Your Wall,” although the bigger similarity is with Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”). But my absolute favorite track on Lust for Life is “Change,” a haunting statement about realizing the abilities we all have to learn, grow and improve our world that pays homage to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along the way.
3. Blondie, Pollinator
If there is any truth we can rely on in this weird world of ours, it’s that Blondie can always deliver top-quality records. Pollinator, the renowned band’s eleventh album since 1976 (they were on hiatus during 1982-1997), has the same glorious New Wave/pop-punk dynamism that Debbie Harry and company have gifted us with for these past forty years. They worked with some excellent collaborators this time around, featuring Joan Jett on the chorus of “Doom or Destiny” (which has a terrific, politically charged music video), as well as the lyrical contributions of Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) on “Long Time” and Johnny Marr on “My Monster,” plus a cover of “Fragments” by An Unkindness (Adam Johnston). Chris Stein is still a legend on the guitar and Clem Burke – in my most humble of opinions – continues to be one of the best rock drummers on the planet, worthy of going toe to toe with anyone half (or even a third) his age. Extra special mention goes to the Greg Cohen Spirit of 79 remix of “Fun,” which is even better than the version on the album.
2. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
I was never a serious follower of the ultra-successful boy band One Direction, but you can put me down as a fan of “What Makes You Beautiful,” “One Thing” and “Temporary Fix.” Those are three genuinely delightful songs. So I looked forward to what Harry Styles had to offer as an individual performer, interested in what, uh, styles (sorry) he would display on his first solo effort. Luckily, his self-titled debut turned out to be an entertaining achievement, filled with the exuberance and sincerity of a man eager to forge his own path in the music industry. I knew as soon as the album’s first song, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” began that this was not going to be a typical millennial endeavor, and I remained impressed throughout the next nine tracks. I applaud young Mr. Styles’ high levels of ambition.
Worldwide hit “Sign of the Times” has timeless appeal, while “Only Angel” and “Kiwi” burst with brazen vigor, “Woman” is a soulful jam and the love songs “Two Ghosts,” “Sweet Creature” and the Badfinger-inspired “Ever Since New York” are more quietly impactful. Styles shows further maturity on the album closer, “From the Dining Table,” perhaps not lyrically but certainly from an artistic POV. If I have to pick one favorite cut from the album above all, though, I might have to go with “Carolina,” Styles’ most exuberant ode to his muses from the 70s. (I especially love the la-la-las in the background vocals.) Does Harry Styles want to be David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan and Pete Ham, all at the same time? Yeah, probably. But it works for me.
1. Slowdive, Slowdive
In the early 90s, Slowdive was a pioneering band in the shoegaze subgenre of indie rock, lending the dreamy vocals and guitar sounds of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead to the albums Just for a Day (1991) and Souvlaki (1993), in addition to the more experimental textures of Pygmalion (1995). (Some favorites of mine from this era include “Spanish Air,” “Brighter” and “When the Sun Hits.”) The group – which I gather was pretty underrated in their early years, never popular with mainstream listeners and disliked by music critics – disbanded shortly after the critical and commercial failures of that third album, but Slowdive’s triumphant reunion in 2014 led to their latest, self-titled release. And it’s incredible.
Slowdive is only eight tracks long, but each one shines in a unique way. “Slomo” is a perfect opener, slowly unfolding with a classic Slowdive ambience. The feeling endures as the album progresses, especially beautifully in “Don’t Know Why,” which melts my ears into heavenly bliss and is definitely one of my top five favorite songs of the year, and in the final track, “Falling Ashes,” an eight-minute epic propelled by an insistent piano hook. You could listen to any of Slowdive’s recordings, though, and be dazed by the constant splendor. More than any other album in 2017, Slowdive fused past, present and future to shape a collection that glows with both alt-rock imagination and delicate, poignant finesse.