1: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
I’ll be honest, ranking the best albums of the year can be kind of an arbitrary process. (Shocking, I know!) I employ no failsafe algorithms to ensure each record is assigned its proper numerical spot in the top 10, I just go on gut feeling. Is the latest soft-rock opus by the War on Drugs really one notch better than the first full-length collaboration by country siblings Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer? Ask me again in a few months and I may tell you a different answer. But there was no dithering over my #1 choice for the best album of 2017. American Dream, the fourth release by hipster Brooklyn act LCD Soundsystem, practically wallops you over the head with its greatness. It’s the first LCD recording since 2011, when ringleader James Murphy announced the band’s “retirement.” Coaxed by hero and colleague David Bowie—the two joined forces on Bowie’s brilliant final album, Blackstar—Murphy got the gang back together and American Dream is an exhilarating example of second-wind success. It’s got most everything longtime fans want: witty, incisive lyrics, groovy electro beats that stretch into epic club jams, and the usual Rolodex of cool musical references — here you’ll hear echoes of Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Joy Division, and of course, Bowie himself. But there’s a newfound maturity to the work. Gone are tossed-off novelties like “Drunk Girls” from 2011’s This Is Happening. The expansive compositions on American Dream flow and evolve more seamlessly than on previous efforts, and the lyrics are more complex. The breathtaking “tonite” skewers the current state of pop culture, calling out “these bullying children of the fabulous, raffling off limited edition shoes.” But it also manages to be astutely self-aware as Murphy, now 47, frets over his advancing age. “I’m a reminder, a hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition,” he sings/raps, “sent to parry the cocksure mem-stick filth with mine own late-era middle-aged ramblings.” Modest as those sentiments are, that’s some bravura writing there. The emotional highlight is the final track, “black screen,” a dreamy tribute to Murphy’s relationship with Bowie— “You fell between a friend and a father”—that musically recalls Bowie’s legendary Berlin sessions with Brian Eno. Ambitious, whip-smart, hilarious but also surprisingly poignant in parts, American Dream is not only far and away the best album of 2017, it’s one for the ages.
2: Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
Here is perhaps the most misleading album title of last year. Beast Epic may refer to the literary genre in which animals take on human voices, but music fans would be forgiven for thinking they’re about to slog through a bombastic heavy metal concept album – it’s a wonder Iron Maiden didn’t get to the name first. Fortunately, the sixth solo release by indie-folk hero Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine, is succinct, stripped down, and simply gorgeous. (The homey embroidered cover image is a much more fitting indication of the contents within.) After dabbling in electronics and studio embellishments on his most recent albums, Beam circles back to the intimate, unadorned sound of his earliest recordings. Close your eyes and it may seem as if he is playing right in your living room. You hear the strings of his acoustic guitar creak and its hollow body reverberate as he raps out a laid-back tempo. Muted percussion, keyboards and strings are used sparingly for accompaniment. Beam’s formidable talents as a songwriter shine brightest in this natural state. His lyrics here are full-hearted meditations on the human condition and the wonders of nature, studded with the occasional barbed observation. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and orphans,” he sneers on “The Truest Stars We Know.” A cozy masterpiece, Beast Epic ranks with 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog as Beam’s finest work.
3: Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock
This year’s comeback award, which I benevolently bestowed upon Martin Fry and ABC in 2016, goes to an Englishman who also did his most high-profile work in the 1980s. London-born singer-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock reached peak popularity in 1988 with the jaunty MTV hit “Balloon Man.” And while he’s never really gone away, continuing to release albums every few years, his recent output has been uneven and all too easy to ignore. Hitchcock’s latest is a heartening, supremely tuneful return to form. After 21 solo albums, he’s not reinventing the wheel here. Robyn Hitchcock serves up exactly what longtime fans want, witty, surreal lyrics set to jangly college-rock riffs with frequent Beatles-style flourishes. (The psychedelic pop gem “Autumn Sunglasses,” with its prominent cello accompaniment by Emily Nelson, digs particularly deep into the Fab Four’s bag of production tricks.) On the album closer, “Time Coast,” Hitchcock looks back on his 40-year career and seems to wonder if his best days are behind him. “I’m singing like a fossil, time goes by so fast,” he frets. But this dazzling collection of songs is proof positive that he’s still got it.
4: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Some of the most interesting acts in pop music today– the 1975 and M83 among them—tease fresh sounds out of the stalest of sources, Top 40 radio staples from the 1980s. Count the War on Drugs and its mastermind, Adam Granduciel, among these intrepid hipsters. The band’s fourth album is a trash heap-turned-treasure trove of Reagan-era pop-rock melodies. Stripped of Granduciel’s scratchy, Dylan-esque voice and sporadic squalls of abrasive indie guitar, the songs on A Deeper Understanding could easily qualify as deep cuts on albums by Don Henley or the Grateful Dead circa In the Dark. (Some critics have thrown Bruce Hornsby and Steve Winwood into this mix.) As on 2014’s breakthrough Lost in the Dream, Granduciel lets his nostalgically disarming compositions stretch and breathe. Most of the 10 tunes on A Deeper Understanding are six to eight minutes in length, and the centerpiece “Thinking of a Place” goes to 11. (11:10 to be exact.) Scrawled across these expansive canvases in broad, satisfying strokes are Granduciel’s heartfelt lyrics, classic singer-songwriter reflections on loneliness, yearning and the possibility of redemption. This is one of those rare records that makes you reevaluate music you likely wrote off ages ago— hey, come to think of it, Henley’s The End of the Innocence does have its high points– while also forging an invigorating path forward.
5: Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet
Separately, sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have forged enduring careers in country music— Moorer has released 10 albums, Lynne 15. But they haven’t gotten around to recording together in earnest until now. Their first full-length collaboration is a superb collection of covers that runs the gamut from comfort-zone picks by Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers to surprising curveballs by Nick Cave, the Killers, and Nirvana. In a close race, the cover to beat is the Bob Dylan-penned title track. Taken from the 1997 late-career masterpiece Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s hushed ode to creeping mortality is handled with tender loving care by the siblings and an ace backing band that includes Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench. The most unexpected cover, Nirvana’s “Lithium,” is also the one that doesn’t quite work. While Lynne and Moorer get points for thinking outside the box, the comparatively tame country arrangement lacks the grunge trio’s dynamic punch and Kurt Cobain’s singular genius-stoner delivery. The one original song here, “Is It Too Much,” written by Lynne, is a haunting meditation on the weight of pain and loss that is wrested from the gloom by the sisters’ rapturous harmonizing. Here’s hoping for many more collaborations to come.
6: Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm
Katie Crutchfield, the creative force behind Waxahatchee, steps on the gas for her fourth full-length outing. While the Alabama native’s early work mined an introspective indie-folk vein and 2015’s promising Ivy Tripp toyed with various styles and tempos, Out in the Storm flat-out rocks. It recalls the dynamic ‘90s grunge-pop of Belly and the Breeders. Collectively a rumination on the dissolution and aftermath of an unhealthy relationship, the songs crackle with raw emotion. “I’d never be a girl you’d like or trust or respect,” Crutchfield laments on the bitter “Brass Beam.” If Crutchfield’s lyrical confessions can be at times uncomfortably intimate, the alt-rock riffs are so buoyant that it’s possible to tune out the heartache and just pogo around the living room. But the pain is impossible to ignore on “Fade” the gorgeous ballad that ends Out in the Storm. Here we find the protagonist post-breakup, battle-scarred but ultimately wiser. “I poured everything out/It never would be enough,” Crutchfield acknowledges mournfully. It’s an apt moment of closure on this electrifying album.