I was happy that Aimee Mann kept me interested with "Mental Illness" longer than a few minutes, for the first time since her brilliant "Bachelor No. 2" oh, so many years ago. A good record, but not a great record.
I can't say the same for Matthew Sweet and "Tomorrow Forever," which bored me to death. But man, he had some run starting with "Girlfriend" and ending with "Blue Sky On Mars." Not sure what's been missing, but it has been a long time since Matthew Sweet has put out something I can sink my ears into.
I am on the fence, still, about the new record from Squeeze. Difford and Tilbrook remain two of my favorite songwriters in music history and their last record, "Cradle To The Grave" was a fave of that year. But there is something about "The Knowledge" that is rubbing me the wrong way. I think part of the wrong rubbing has to do with it not really sounding like a Squeeze record. "Cradle To The Grave" took some chances sonically and I loved it, so maybe the songs on "The Knowledge" just aren't doing it for me. Undecided, but will stick with it, because these boys haven't really let me down...ever.
Every record Jason Isbell releases mesmerizes me and "The Nashville Sound" was no different. I loved it...the first time I played it. He truly is one remarkable songwriter. But nothing ever sticks. I'll hear songs like "Dress Blues" and "Elephant" and If We Were Vampires" and think, "Holy crap!" Those three songs alone are enough to secure Jason Isbell a permanent spot among the music elite. But whenever I reach for the record, it feels like too much work. I recognize the brilliance of Jason Isbell, but I just prefer listening to someone else.
Mojo Magazine's pick for Best of 2017 was LCD Soundsystem's "American Dream," which I only just listened to. I liked what I heard, but grew impatient, as every song was twice as long as it should be. Maybe that's their thing, but there was enough on that record to remind me of what I like---David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music. None of it as good, and all of it too long. But okay, Mojo, I doubt my Top 15 appears anywhere at all in your Top 50, so whatever.
Many of you have a hard time listening to Sparks, mostly because of the vocals. I understand, because Peter Perrett's record, "How The West Was Won" got raves all year, and during the entire spin I thought,"Good song. Hate his voice. Good song. Hate his voice."
The Magpie Salute consists of the friends and musicians Rich Robinson got in the divorce from brother Chris, whose As The Crow Flies will debut the friends and musicians he got this coming summer. As a long time fan of the Black Crowes, I wish this would all stop and they'd just do what they do best, and that is make music together. That being said, I really like The Magpie Salute, an album featuring a new tune, some Crowes tunes and some choice covers. And don't tell anyone but, I kind of like singer John Hogg. I don't miss Chris Robinson. Still, this is all too messy and as good as it is, it didn't make the final list.
Whatever people have been hearing in The National has escaped me for years. But with "Sleep Well Beast," I was intrigued enough to try again. It was a #1 record in the U.K., and the raves just kept coming in. And...nope. I was left cold. I don't hate U2, but when I do, it's because they sound like "Sleep Well Beast."
Speaking of U2 as a fan and not a hater, the new one is growing on me. "Songs Of Innocence" was by far, their worst record, so I guess anything that followed would be better. But I am hearing a lot I like on "Songs Of Experience."
I thought the Paul Weller record really stank.
And now, my Top 15 of 2017, in absolutely, positively random order.
Wesley Stace featuring the Jayhawks- Wesley Stace's John Wesley Harding
I loved this album's opener, "I Don't Wanna Rock and Roll No More," so much, it wouldn't matter if the rest of the record sounded like Jim Nabors, God rest his soul. Thankfully, it does not. What it does offer are some of Stace's best songs handled beautifully by the very capable Jayhawks. Truly a marriage made in heaven and one of Stace's very best in a long, respected career.
Todd Rundgren- White Knight
Having Todd Rundgren on my year-end list is not a gesture or a favor. You all know I am a fan, but I am the first to call him out when a record feels lazy, uninspired or just unpleasant. "White Knight" is none of those things. Sure, Todd fans can quibble about handing off lead vocals on such outstanding ballads as "That Could Have Been Me" and "The Beginning (Of The End)" to Robyn and John Boutte, respectively. But both deliver in a big way and so does Todd, on what I feel is first truly cohesive record since 2004's "Liars." "Tin Foil Hat," the duet with Donald Fagen, came at the right time, and is as catchy as heck and the collaboration with Joe Walsh, "Sleep," is simply gorgeous pop, something Rundgren fans have been craving for years.
Stanton Moore Trio- With You In Mind: The Songs Of Allen Toussaint
Talk about a record in my wheelhouse! The trio, comprised of Stanton Moore, James Singleton and David Torkanowsky is augmented by the Crescent City's finest, including a brass section featuring Trombone Shorty, Nicholas Payton, Mark Mullins and Donald Harrison Jr., as well as the soulful vocals of Brother Cyril Neville on five of the tracks, one of which is an impossibly funky version of "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky." Neville also lends his vocals to "Night People" and Ernie K-Doe's "Here Come The Girls," both of which, again, have been reimagined in ways only this fine trio can produce. Another highlight, is also one of the most beautiful pieces of music you will hear this year, an absolutely stunning take on the title track, showcasing the enormously talented David Torkanowsky on piano. You will be moved.
Shelby Lynne & Alison Moorer- Not Dark Yet
"Not Dark Yet" is not for the faint of heart. It may appear to be another "covers" record, but there is something going on here that is very special. I am sure it has something to do with Shelby and Alison being sisters, but every song is hauntingly beautiful. Their take on Nirvana's "Lithium" gets under your skin, just as the original did, in the best possible way. And "The Color Of A Cloudy Day" might be my pick for most devastating performance of the year. Just typing that last sentence put a lump in my throat.
Roger Waters- Is This The Life We Want?
If you're not a fan, I can't imagine this record changing your mind. But if you are a fan, I can't imagine not loving everything about "Is This The Life We Really Want?" It's a stunning collection of songs addressing love, hate, power, religion and war. It is beautiful and tragic, and classic Roger Waters.
Don Bryant- Don't Give Up On Love
Records like this can be hit or miss. Take a legend and give him new life with a new producer. Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash? Bingo! Rick Rubin and Neil Diamond? Swing and a miss. In the case of "Don't Give Up On Love," R&B legend Don Bryant's first secular record in almost 50 years, there wasn't any high profile producer looking to incite a comeback for Bryant. Just two southern guys, Scott Bomar and Bruce Watson, with smart ears and the Hi Rhythm Section. It also helps that Bryant's voice is still a powerhouse. This record might as well have been recorded in 1969. Every track a winner, especially the take on the late great David Egan's "First You Cry."
The Darkness- Pinewood Smile
I've gone on about The Darkness and their 2012 release "Hot Cakes" a number of times on these pages. It is a record that continues to get some seriously heavy rotation. If "Hot Cakes" set out to keep the hard rocking and glam sounds of Queen, Sparks, and AC/DC alive, the follow-up, "Last Of Our Kind," if you could somehow accept this, sounded more like a parody than the parody that was already the band itself.
Now we have "Pinewood Smile." While it may be more of the same....a very good thing...it is more of what grabbed me on "Hot Cakes," with as many hooks and crunching riffs as one could handle, and the addition of new monster drummer, Rufus Tiger Taylor, son of Queen drummer, Roger Taylor. It is no wonder then that the patented, operatic harmonies of Queen are more prevalent than ever. This is what a rock album is supposed to sound like. Fun, damnit!!
Valerie June- The Order Of Time
It's been 4 years since "Pushin' Against The Stone," Valerie June's major label debut and a record that was one of my favorites of 2013. I honestly forgot all about her and that fabulous record. But with the release "The Order Of Time," she is back on my radar for good. This is a fantastic follow-up. June does not abandon the raw blues, folk and gospel of her roots. She only tweaks it a bit, making the same heartfelt music with just a bit more polish. I love this record, maybe more than "Pushin' Against The Stone."
Cheap Trick- We're All Alright
Well, y'all know how I feel about Cheap Trick. I've been here since day one. And I love the fact that 2009's "The Latest," a record over 30 years after their genius debut, is one of my five favorite CT records. Now, we get another record less than a year since their excellent "Bang, Zoom, Crazy, Hello!" As much as I loved "BZCH," I love "We're All Alright" even more. It opens with a relentless rock assault of five bashers in a row and then settles into the gorgeous, "Floating Down," a new classic in the vein of "Mandocello." The Move cover, "Blackberry Way" is what it is, but there are few missteps on this one.
Neil Finn- Out Of Silence
One of my favorite songwriters of the last 40 years returns with another left turn and it is a heartbreaker. Unlike Neil Finn's last, "Dizzy Heights," "Out Of Silence" is missing the textures, electronics, beats and sonics that made "DH" different than any of Finn's previous releases. "Out Of Silence" is beautifully orchestrated with piano, strings and voices and will leave you breathless by its finale. Finn seems to have abandoned the pop hooks of Crowded House for a more unconventional way of expressing himself. This is not to say he is no longer musical. Not at all. But like "Dizzy Heights," this new one kept begging me to come back and with each spin, I embraced something new and amazing.
Living Colour- Shade
Man, did I want this to be great! I am not embarrassed to say, I was a Living Colour groupie for about 5 years. I saw them as an instrumental trio. I saw them with D.K. Dyson on vocals before Corey. And then, it seems like all I did was see them with the classic quartet. "Vivid" was my record as much as it was Living Colour's record. Countless nights in CBGBs and Tramps, watching this band get better and better. Now, 30 years later, we have "Shade" and it is a monster! Corey Glover's voice is better than ever. Vernon Reid has fine tuned his playing for the better, if that is possible. It has matured, it's as if he shreds with melody. Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun are still a rhythm section like no other. "Shade" is a keeper, still on heavy rotation.
You are either in or your out with Sparks. As I mentioned up top, one man's Peter Perrett is another man's Russell Mael, or Rufus Wainwright or Geddy Lee. These artists have a distinct instrument in their voice, and if you can't embrace it from the word go, then it will be an uphill climb. That said, I have loved Sparks since "Kimono My House" and it couldn't thrill me more to see the Maels release one of the greatest albums of their career over 40 years after that classic. Critically acclaimed, totally unique and absolutely hook-filled... if you like songs about Ikea. And who doesn't? I know I said this list was in random order, but "Hippopotamus" is very close to the top.
Chris Hillman- Bidin' My Time
Here's one of those records I was talking about earlier. A rock and roll legend and a high profile producer. This time it's Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Burrito Brothers with Tom Petty taking over as producer. Of course, neither knew what was to come so soon after "Bidin' My Time" was released. The sudden death of Tom Petty shouldn't add any melancholy to an already gorgeous record. It does, but try not to let it. This record was brilliant before we lost its producer. Petty nailed it. It is understated, with just the right amount of slick to keep you honest and remind you that this is 50 years after The Byrds. Still, "Bidin' My Time" is pure. Hillman and Herb Pedersen's harmonies will make your hair stand on end. This record is a subtle masterpiece.
Finally...my top two favorite records of 2017.
Dion- Kickin' Child
I don't think I played a record this year as much as I played "Kickin' Child." On paper, this could have gone either way. The final product, a stunning reissue from Norton Records, both visually and sonically, is a masterwork. Dion's lost record of 1965 stands up to any of what would have been its competition, if it had been released along side those classic albums, such as The Beatles "Help," Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," or The Byrds "Mr. Tambourine Man." Everyone should own this record.
The John Sally Ride- A New Set Of Downs
My friend sent me his Spotify screenshot this morning. I posted it at the head. He was very excited that one of his top tracks of 2017 was by The John Sally Ride. Maybe some of you saw this coming and maybe not. A shameless plug? Sure, why not! But sincerely, I couldn't be more proud of the work on "A New Set Of Downs." I've been in and out of bands for 40 years and as any musician could tell you, it's not always fun. Sometimes, it's work and you forget you're even playing music. But with songs as amazing as this set from John Dunbar, you not only rise to the occasion, the words and melody make you sing and play better. Just listen to Sal Maida's bass playing. Here's a guy who played and toured with the best, and somehow he managed to put some of his greatest work down behind John's melodies and me as his drummer. As I always say, it always starts with the song, and I know...and those who know me know, I would NOT have been here if I didn't like the music. Thank you John Dunbar. Thank you Sal Maida. The John Sally Ride is my favorite record of 2017. I am thrilled to be singing and playing with such talent as you two kids. Everyone should own this record.
I look forward to your comments, picks, misses, disappointments and suggestions.