Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Best of 2017: Album of the year, and more

OK, so here we are, beyond the genre-centric year-end lists I've posted recently (jazz, metal). The below might seem like a round-up of stragglers or honorable mentions, but that's not at all the case. Other records I loved in 2017 included:

Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
My album of the year, full stop. (Here is my write-up for the Rolling Stone year-end list.) This won't come as much of a surprise to readers who recall my 2015 and 2016 wrap-ups. Sheer Mag just continue to deliver, and by that I mean, micro-refining their already extremely refined asethetic. Now that they've finally (well, really, it's only been a few years, but it seems like a mini career in 2017 terms) proved themselves in the full-LP format, I feel comfortable labeling them the best band in America that isn't a longstanding institution like the Melvins, or something.

My listening brain has many different facets, but one of my Basic Truths as a music fan is that I'm a song guy. Others are that I really love ripping rock guitar and soulful, hooky vocals. With Sheer Mag, you get all this and more. Their music is as addictive and instantly gratifying as candy, but without the queasy after-effect: Beyond the catchiness, the level of craft is outrageous. I've spent the past couple months learning this one on guitar (yes, months; I'm a beginner on the instrument), and I've probably played it a hundred times or more. I still rock out with abandon on every single listen.



As with so many of the greatest pop/rock songs, at this point, less than a year after I first heard this one, I can't imagine it not existing. You can step back and look at this band as some pastiche of a thousand retro moves (Rich Bienstock's Rolling Stone feature is an illuminating deep dive into what makes them tick aesthetically) or you can marvel at the almost prog-like detail that the Seely brothers bring to their arrangements (check out that beautifully gnarled intro to "Suffer Me" or the tastefully rangy bass lines in the "Just Can't Get Enough" verses), but to me, their songs, again like all the best pop/rock, demand instant surrender, suspension of disbelief, whatever that state is where the music is just happening and you're on board and happy and lost and absolutely content.

There's a good amount of variety on this record, and for me, it all works more or less perfectly, except — and this threw me a bit at first — opening track "Meet Me in the Street," which is maybe the first track I've heard by the band so far that strikes me as just faintly less-than-convincing, a moment where their spot-on style seems to teeter on the edge of hamminess. I go back and forth on it, because it's a both a convincingly tough rock anthem and a sensible album opener, but to me, it seems to lack that X factor, that emotional ante-up, that makes Sheer Mag songs not merely effective but also consuming and shattering in turn. (In that sense, "Turn It Up," a somewhat similar track from later in the album, is much more satisfying.)

I have nothing but love for the rest of the album. I saw Sheer Mag for the second time last November and noted that the new songs they played then seemed to be moving in a dancier direction. These tracks, specifically "Need to Feel Your Love" and "Pure Desire," both of which contain as much disco as rock, turn out to be the anchors of the album, super-funky insta-hits that allow the band to fan out on either side of that approach and either rage and blare (as on "Turn It Up") or chill out and emote (as on "Milk and Honey") as the given song demands. Superheroically, they sound absolutely convincing at either pole.

I saw Sheer Mag for the third time in July, after I'd heard the album, and sang along to every word. I bought the album on vinyl and spun it endlessly and shared it with everyone I know. The list of contemporary artists that inspire that kind of ardent fandom in me (fuck "criticism") is very short, and right now, these folks are at the top. I just love these goddamn songs — much as I do the 12 that preceded them.

Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
Josh Homme's behavior of late, an echo of the old-school macho BS he's perpetrated onstage in the past, has been dumb and disappointing and has muted my considerable goodwill toward his art in general and this album in particular. Which is a shame, because this is another great record from probably the best mainstream (or quasi-mainstream) rock band on the planet. Maybe not quite the masterpiece that ...Like Clockwork was, but the patented QOTSA combo of bent yet boogie-friendly party rock and more melancholy, foreboding fare (e.g., "Fortress" the standout track for me here) still flows forth with typical ease and grace. Big thumbs-up on the stylish, surreal-yet–timelesss-sounding Mark Ronson production job.

Cheer-Accident, Putting Off Death
I'll keep pushing this agenda for as long as these guys exist. They remain a national treasure, stubbornly eclectic and eccentric yet profoundly coherent. With the passing years, their music continues to accrue a kind of heartbreakingly melancholy and tender gravitas to go along with their inherent whimsy and adventurous compositional spirit. Cheer-Accident represent the true spirit of prog — not some backward-looking collection of worn-out moves but a truly expansive vision of rock-based sound-organization, at once inviting and resolutely avant-garde. They're still operating at the highest level, which means this record stands comfortably alongside earlier masterpieces like Enduring the American Dream, Introducing Lemon, The Why Album, etc. You must hear. And Jesus Christ, if they're playing anywhere near you, go. I was fortunate enough to share a bill with them in June, and their set was easily the tightest, most mesmerizing set of live music I saw this year. (See this recent radio sesh for further evidence; and don't miss various auxiliary releases, such as this fine solo effort from drummer/singer/co-mastermind Thymme Jones, on the C-A Bandcamp page.)

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And here are some songs I love. A couple are from records I've already shouted out but most are just isolated tracks, singles or otherwise, that grabbed me, including A) masterful ballad/downbeat fare either tragicomic, elegantly grandiose. disarmingly vulnerable/candid or brooding, emo and haunted/haunting (courtesy Father John Misty, Harry Styles, SZA and Ryan Adams / Lil Uzi Vert, respectively), metal either bruised or triumphant (courtesy Code Orange and Arch Enemy, respectively), pop either immaculate, scrappy or ragtag (courtesy Haim, Sheer Mag and Diet Cig, respectively); righteous neo-prog either cosmic or theatrical (courtesy H√§llas and Leprous, respectively); and Fleetwood Mac–by-another-name goodness from Buckingham/McVie;



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