Published on January 10th, 2018 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Feedback Society’s Top 20 Albums of 2017
Every January, one of our resident music experts, Dave Scaddan, gives us his Top 20 favourite albums (well, sort of) of the last year. Enjoy!
Here, again, is the year in music as I saw it. My list this year seems to skew towards musicians who’ve been at it for a while (and some who’ve already stopped) but there are still a few artists here who are younger than I am, ones who made this a somewhat promising year in music, which was probably what we needed more than anything.
Each time I do this list, the notion of a “best albums” list makes a little less sense. I still treasure the idea of the album as an institution, but I know that it’s a fading entity. Even Barack Obama, who is more than a decade older than me, has done a faves of 2017 list, and it’s done in tracks, not albums. Nothing wrong with that; just because you’re streaming and making playlists doesn’t mean you’re a philistine (although it doesn’t mean you’re not, either). Maybe it’s just good to remember that most musicians still work with a “big project” attitude, for better or worse. The basic unit of musical recording is the song, not the album, but strung together properly, those units can often link into something that’s equal to more than just the sum of the parts.
20 Sufjan Stevens et. al – Planetarium
This is a record that shouldn’t work – these collaborative pieces between members of various groups tend to feel like side-work much of the time, and high-concept albums are risky at best, but Planetarium is solid, and rewards repeated listens. Sufjan Stevens strikes the same tone here as he did on The Age of Adz, auto tuning his voice, singing softly to songs that try to tell (sort of) the story of the solar system and the mythology behind some of the planets’ names. The fact that it was commissioned by a Dutch concert hall probably tells you plenty about how it ends up sounding.
19 The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy
Although many of these songs had been around for years and William and Jim Reid actually worked together on very few of them, it was still good to have a quality new JAMC record after so long. Over time, their sound has evolved to place less emphasis on the texture and more on the songwriting, which in my opinion, has always been excellent. Their penchant for a simple, expressive, memorable turn of lyric is not to be taken lightly.
18 Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock
It is inspiring to see such an experienced and established songwriter still doing great work. Even this late in the game, Robyn is still crafty, joyful, charming and cryptic. Hopefully his recent relocation from London to Nashville means he plans to be in the studio more.
With a new backing line-up, a great blend of songs and a touch of country and western dipping its boot into a pool it never seemed to belong in, this record will be a very distinct addition to an incredibly rich and underrated catalogue. It’s great that Robyn still has enough clout to put out whatever he wants in the modern market, but it’s also a shame that he’s always dwelt on the fringes, so to speak, unknown to many who would probably dig him big time.
17 Funkadelic Live at Meadowbrook
This is a thousand-copy release that came out on vinyl for the first time this year. It’s the oldest known Funkadelic performance put to tape, taken straight from the soundboard at a show in Rochester, Michigan in 1971 with about 2000 people in attendance. At that time, the band had an unsteady lineup, only a few albums of material, and a small fan base compared to where they’d be by the middle of the decade. But still, they had Eddie Hazel on Guitar, Bernie Worrell on keys, Billy Nelson on bass and a “throw it in the pot” approach that made them sound like The Mothers of Invention adjusting their set for the Apollo Theatre.
One really cool thing about this set is hearing Maggot Brain as a live piece with a full backing band. The studio version we’re familiar with has Hazel and a little guitar arpeggio, and everything else is pulled way back in the mix. George Clinton made this move to accentuate one of the greatest guitar solos ever, and he was right to do so, but the Meadowbrook version puts all the fixins on the table: Bernie’s spooky keys, Billy Bass Nelson’s fuzzed-up bottom end, and Apollo house drummer Tyrone Lampkin (playing with the group for the first time) losing the pocket a few times, but getting it just wrong enough to give the performance an unhinged, anything-can-happen-here feel. It’s also amazing that the group made a set list where Maggot Briain was second in a nine-song lineup. What balls. To throw one of the most powerfully emotional songs at the audience that early, to blow it out even louder than on the record that bears its name, and to not make it the finale – that devil-may-care approach says it all about what’s on offer on Meadowbrook.
The biggest gem here is All Your Goodies are Gone, a song the band had been playing since they were called The Paliaments, but which wouldn’t be recorded until Up for the Down Stroke three years later in 1974. Jamming on a sad song is about the only thing that can make this band even heavier than they already are, and that’s exactly what Funkadelic did that night in ’71, not even knowing that their manager was recording the show for a possible live album he would later lose interest in releasing.
Legend has it that Billy Bass Nelson stormed off the stage at the end of this set, angered by the styles of his brand new rhythm section counterpart – about a month later, he and Eddie Hazel would leave the lineup for good.
16 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
This is the first Kendrick album to really draw me in, mostly because of two tracks: DNA. and HUMBLE. I know To Pimp a Butterfly is supposed to be a modern classic, but . . . maybe it was hyped to me too hard before I heard it. Maybe in time, I’ll be on the bandwagon having given it a fair shot – for now I actually prefer DAMN. Most of the rappers from Kendrick’s era remind me of someone else (usually someone whose style I don’t love) but Kendrick just reminds me of Kendrick.
15 LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
In many ways, LCD are sticking to the well-proven LCD template on American Dream. If there’s anything new going on, it’s that it sounds more like a band performing than like a producer finessing – so much grooving and pure rock ‘n’ roll energy. The “ain’t broke” philosophy ain’t a problem, especially with all the sweat behind it. The lyrics are interesting as always, the groove is succinct, and the whole record oozes skill.
14 Jamiroquai – Automaton
First, a disclosure of my own nostalgic snobbery. When I listen to this year’s Jamiroquai release, I get excited. It usually starts with little wack-ass hand gestures and nods of the head. Pretty soon I’m actually doing a few dance steps (once I’m sure that no one’s looking – or that if they are, they’re in on the gag – even though it’s not really a gag). Part of this effect comes from the music itself – it’s infectiously bumpy. The other part comes from the fact that this has been Jamiroquai’s wheelhouse for a couple decades: funky frivolity getting asses out of chairs, even fueling the victory of Napoleon and Pedro over Summer Wheatley’s reign of elitist, Bonne Bell boredom.
I have to be honest – if this record was produced by any other outfit, I might not give it the time of day. It’s because I know what to expect from Jamiroquai (and because they consistently deliver it time after time) that I love how it feels the moment I put it on. This is fun, electrified, dancy pop/soul, and it gets me groovin’.
13 Frank Zappa – Halloween 77 (Live at the Palladium, NYC)
This is a well-preserved batch of six concerts that were released this year in a cheesy package with a vinyl Frank Zappa mask inside. At first, one of the potential setbacks to this collection seems to be that all six concerts have almost identical set lists, so while there are many hours of music here, it’s mostly the same 25 songs (in the same order) done six times in four nights.
As it turns out, the repetition is not such a bad thing. When one hears how tight Zappa’s band had to be to get through these numbers, and how many changes in style and rhythm he put them through, it’s no wonder they couldn’t afford to wander off the path of the set roster too much. And the songs don’t sound identical every time – the band has fun with different songs in different ways and gives each show its own attitude. Plus, since the format here is a USB, one could easily make a playlist of one’s fave version of each number and piece together a little “best of” if one wanted.
Opinions vary about which Zappa band was the best, but the truth is there were never any scrubs on stage or in the studio with Frank, and the ’77 lineup is no exception. Terry Bozzio’s drum work is fascinating to hear throughout, there are plenty of Zappa’s trademark solos, all the vocals sound just as good as in the studio, and hearing a great band work through all these kooky, complex compositions is a rare treat.
These shows also remind us that musicians can be funny without sacrificing their integrity. While one gapes in awe at the musicianship on display here, one also laughs a lot, and might wonder why so many musicians work so hard to be taken so damn seriously, when after all, music (like Halloween) really is the perfect vehicle for loose, abandoned fun.
12 Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child
Apart from a few touches of modernity, this list dates me in some pretty obvious ways. Many of the artists named here have been making music for a very long time; a few of them are just getting started. This record by Willie Nelson – more than any other this year – actually makes me feel like it’s another time, like I’m listening to an 8-track tape in my dad’s station wagon, singing along with the stranger, not big enough to see out the window. What more can I say? You know how great Willie Nelson is, I’m just making sure you know how great he still is.
11 Fever Ray – Plunge
The last time Karin Dreijer Andersson did a record as Fever Ray, it was 2009 and the world had a lighter tint of dark than it does now. Her music on the first Fever Ray album is pretty muted, moody and mellow compared to say, Shaking the Habitual, the album she did as half of The Knife in 2013. Plunge sounds more like Habitual than anything else Dreijer Andersson has done – it’s jagged and forceful, with very few of the soft edges the other Fever Ray album has. It is also more visceral, more personal, and more sexual, while still remaining political.
Andersson is one of the few pop artists I can think of whose music actually carries a strong agenda. Her fiercely expressed beliefs about elitism, sexism, violence, and ecology have been pressing harder and harder into the grooves of her music since The Knife’s 2006 album, Silent Shout. She gets the political pop thing right in ways that someone like Bjork (too nebulous) or Bono (too clueless) never does – she does it strictly through the poetry of her lyrics, and on Plunge, that poetry is more frank than ever. “This country makes it hard to fuck,” is about as direct a grievance as one could make for a chorus refrain in a pop song. It’s a pretty thought-provoking one too. 2017 was a year when many of us experienced a kind of centric shift in our ideas about how power and sex overlap, informing our politics and bodies – Karin Dreijer Andersson’s lyrics have been working on those shift controls for a long time, and Plunge finds her handling them with force and skill.
10 Primus – The Desaturating Seven
Combining colourful storytelling and air-tight musicianship equals a win for Primus with their ninth album in 18 years. The Desaturating Seven takes on an album length telling of the story of Ul de Rico’s The Rainbow Goblins in song. The Rainbow Goblins is an illustrated oil-on-oak painted book about seven monsters that feed on colour by lassoing rainbows and squeezing their respective hues from the sky.
Musically, the Les Claypool-led trio is snappy, yet restrained. This is the kind of eerie record The Residents made in the nineties when pursuing some freaky concept in an extended narrative. Primus have always been torch-bearers for the eyeball-and-tophat crew, and that’s very much the mission on The Desaturating Seven, though they manage to throw a little Tom Waits and King Crimson in there too.
9 Bjorn Torske and Prins Thomas – Square One
Two great dance music producers team up here to make a record of simple, but consistently pleasant tracks. This is not some loud, banging house record, but it does have many of the earmarks of the EDM genre both collaborators came up in. While one could dance to any of these tracks, they may work best as a trancy backdrop to your workday, workout or commute.
8 Toro y Moi – BooBoo
Right when Chaz was heading to the “what have you done for me lately” zone, BooBoo. Much like Neon Indian and Tame Impala did last year, Toro y Moi went for a much more crowd pleasing, pop ‘n’ soul sound in 2017. The insignia Toro textures are still in place, but with a new thrust. Chaz has upped his game as a vocalist and lyricist, and ‘Girl Like You’ is a good song to sample if you want to hear all these new touches working together at once.
7 SZA – CTRL
In a year where so many pop, hiphop and RnB songs were about self-aggrandizement, Solana Imani Rowe wrote a whole album that shows she understands the strength of vulnerability. I’m too old to relate strongly to a lot of the twentysomething issues she writes about, but I’m not too old to remember them – the rift between recklessness and responsibility, the feeling that it’s too late to become someone new, all the drama of friends, lovers, work; this is where CTRL takes root in the human heart. I love the production too – there are so many perfectly placed chimes, bells, breezes and swirls on this record that it gets me a little differently each time.
6 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – The Punishment of Luxury
Even though OMD have always tipped their caps to the German synth outfits that first inspired them to purchase, modify, and play with electronic instruments, they deserve their own credit for putting a stamp on the pop landscape. Any time you hear someone in a pop song singing over a synth and drum machine track, you’re hearing the basic template that OMD (along with Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode) first pushed into the mainstream.
The Punishment of Luxury gives me the same odd feeling that George Clinton’s First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate has been giving me for a few years. I listen to a modern Parliament record and think, cool, this sounds like Prince, this sounds like Outkast, or this reminds me of The Gap Band. Then I wake up and realize the chronology – none of those artists would sound like they do if not for George. So even if he’s being influenced by them, he’s really still just influencing himself, getting change at the corner store and receiving a worn and weathered dollar bill he first spent in 1970. OMD are headed in that direction as well – their influence can be felt now more than ever before in the work of acts like Cut Copy, Nicolas Jaar, and Bjork, yet Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries aren’t done making music yet, and could be on one of the stronger rolls they’ve ever had.
There are three types of OMD songs: Kraftwerk-styled left field synthesizer pieces, quirky pop songs, and honey dripping Brian Ferry-styled torch songs; all are done well on this LP. McCluskey and Humphries have been at it so long now they sound like they belong together. I recently read a Gibby Haines interview about a new Butthole Surfers album, and he said something about no group ever putting out a good record after 35 years of making music. I think OMD might have something to say about that.
5 Run the Jewels – RTJ3
Although Jaime and Mike technically free-released this piece on Xmas in 2016, 2017 was the year when we could pay for it, and it was the year when we “absorbed” it.
El-P the producer can sound like he’s outdoing Skirllex at his own game on Hey Kids (Bumaye), and then turn around with a track like Down that’s so clean it could have New Edition singing over it. The man’s style has remained innovative, unpredictable and interesting for years in a genre that’s arguably stagnating, spontaneity-wise.
Mike just sounds like all the voices we need right now: focused, brutally honest, loud. Or: downcast, frustrated, irreverent. Or: bizarre, randomly sophomoric, arrogant. And El-P matches him at the mic through all these forms. We’re lucky to have these guys putting out records so often right now.
4 Drab Majesty – The Demonstration
The Demonstration finds the same sweet spot between doom and bliss that The Cure found in 1989 on Disintegration. I regard that record very highly – it’s one of my favourite band’s best – and so if someone’s biting on it, shit better be right. Deb Demure, who, in the studio at least, is Drab Majesty, creates an incredible atmosphere on his second album, one that is simultaneously bright and gloomy, poppy and gothy at the same time.
As with The Cure (I’ll admit it) there’s a fair bit of pretentiousness to get past with Drab Majesty. The band’s image, the ample sprinklings of nu-goth pageantry, the dead serious attitude that makes it impossible to imagine Deb Demure smiling, all these elements are just (or should be) a sideshow to some very good songs. Playing all instruments, writing and singing all songs, Demure puts together a set of tracks with no weak moments and maintains a consistent, true-to-self flavour throughout.
3 Cornelius – Mellow Waves
Mellow Waves is the result of Cornelius’ style becoming more softened and mature. If his classic Fantasma was a sharp, bright orange cheddar, Mellow Waves is a creamy, pale brie. He still pastes and patches his tunes together with clips and snips of sound – that’s his schtick, right? But creating a cushy, melodic lullaby with that technique seems more impressive than doing it uptempo and shiny. Either way, the man has a great ear, and this time around, he’s using it to soothe.
2 Delvon Lemarr Organ Trio
DLO3 are the band who make me want to abandon the whole “best albums” thing and convert it to a “best things musicians did” thing instead. As of yet, the trio have yet to release an album, but thanks to the luxuriousness of KEXP radio’s Youtube channel, we can enjoy the glory while we wait for the debut album in February of 2018. As the very concept of “the album” as we know it strains to maintain meaning in 2017, as our collective attention span shrinks its way into the inevitable synapse-long song, this band is here to remind us that it was always the show, never the record (or mix tape, or disc, or playlist) that really mattered.
The Delvon Lemarr Organ Trio play straight out funky instrumental soul, burning the same fuel that outfits like The Meters, The Bar Kays and King Curtis have before. But instead of using horns or choreography to get the mood across, DLO3 use in-the-pocket drums, intricately plucked guitar parts, and some of the smoothest Hammond you’ll ever hear. Lemarr effortlessly tickles the keys with groovy little hooks and patterns while stepping out the band’s baselines in sock feet. Jimmy James, meanwhile, plays guitar parts that channel Gatemouth when he’s picking, and Hendrix when he’s soloing. Ahem. (I know how stupid it sounds to compare a guitarist to Jimi, but honestly, watch Jimmy James play a solo; he can turn that thing into a siren, a tortured animal or a piece of dental floss at will.) David McGraw lays in the pocket though every live number, sealing every song in air-tight plastic. Get your ass on Youtube and listen to DLO3.
1 King Krule – The OOZ
Now that I’m in my forties, I occasionally think, ‘maybe I’m done with discovering new bands.’ How can taking a risk on something brand new pay off more than just putting on one of my hundreds of old favourites? Then I give my head a shake and think about RTJ or Sturgill Simpson or Deb Demure. I’ve known some intense music fans over the years who’ve eventually given over to this “I’m done” thinking, and I’ve always thought, ‘how can someone shut it down like that?’ Sure, the classics of our collective youth have remained untouchable, and the thrill of a great new track may not hit us as often anymore, but it still feels great when it does – could I ever give that up?
Archy Marshall’s music is the reason (lately) why the answer is definitely no. Though he’s still only 23, The Ooz is already his fourth album (under various monikers) and the first to see him take over the production. What emerges is a muddy, groovy, blunted, grunted amalgam of soul, jazz, folk and lounge that’s as unpredictable and exhilarating as anything else I heard this year.
The tracks Marshall leaked before the full record came out, Czech One and Dum Surfer, represent the two different sides of King Krule this time around. First is the hazy, shimmering, introspective side, the half-asleep, vulnerable, languid side. Next is the drunken, shambling, rollicking side, and these two sides overlap on each other intermittently throughout the album, creating quite a cool effect, like being wakened from sleep every ten minutes by something cool enough to keep you awake for another nine.
Fittingly, the lead-off track, Biscuit Town, gets the haze and the head nod going simultaneously – the rest is a real back and forth, from fragility to force, from gentle to jagged, baffling the mind with what such youth might be capable of achieving throughout adulthood.
King Krule won’t let you in without a fight – this isn’t easy listening. Archy’s voice can get downright difficult at times, his accent thick, his Black Francisian grunts and growls, umm . . . uncomfortable, his lyrics often tricky to discern. But dang if under all that atmosphere there isn’t a young talent riding on all the great influences (everything from The Damned to Dilla) he’s put into his system in his short amount of years.