Tops in 2017

“America, America

Liberty welcomes everyone

America, America

Now she’s blushing in the sun…”

–Paddy McAloon

 

“I want to make my home

Where the buffalo roam

In that great panorama

My baby brother and me

In the land of the free

Americana”

–Ray Davies

 

The time has arrived to look at 2017. A tough year for news in general, so we needed music more than ever. And there was plenty to listen to and admire.

New music from: Ray Davies, Michael Head, Jens Lekman, and BMX Bandits.

New discoveries for me: The Hangabouts, Florist, and Julien Baker.

A brand-new Paddy McAloon tune and a surprise year end entry from the fabulous Silver Seas. And so much more. So, allow me to share with you the music that moved me. Made me think. Made me cry. And helped me dream. As usual after the top 10, the albums are in no particular order. It’s all good. So here we go:

TOP 10:

1) Bill DeMain “Transatlantic Romantic”

“Show me that you really care and be my Honey Bear…”

There is so much to love on this remarkable album. There are gorgeous harmonies enhanced by piano, strings, woodwinds, and horns. Bill’s terrific songs that touch on Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and tin pan alley. And I have to mention Bill’s vocals, rich with American pop, charm, and wit.

It all starts with some Bacharach piano on “Begin” and is immediately followed by perhaps the cleverest song of the year, “Leroy Boy,” which updates the Todd Rundgren classic “We gotta get You a Woman.”

“Did you get this thing together…?”

I played this song over and over and fell in love with it just like I did when Todd’s came out. There is the sweet “Honey Bear,” a car song “Lemon Yellow,” and the nostalgic “Brewster, Illinois April 3rd 1952.” And there is a lovely cover of the Beach Boys’ “Wendy,” with strings arranged by Austin Hoke. The other instrumental arrangements are by the renowned Jim Hoke [related?]

In his praise for the album, Alan Haber wrote “this is the kind of album that hardly anyone makes anymore.” I second that emotion. This is the “feel good” album of the year. 

Hooks:

-the trumpet solo on “Brewster Illinois April 3rd 1952”

-the line on “Lemon Yellow” – I can really relate to:

“and the soundtrack all that summer ‘Selling England’ on cassette.”

-how about the vocals, particularly the high notes on “Wendy”

 

Thank you for the music, Bill. We needed it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfMqeQXHCgA

 

2) Sondre Lerche ” Pleasure”

“Hello stranger don’t let me stay too long

Goodbye pleasure I must be getting on ….”

 

Continuing the path set on his previous release “Please,” Sondre has pushed his sound in new directions.  He is one of our finest pop artists, but instead of the Bacharach sound of his earlier work, he is filling his music with club atmosphere including dance synths, studio effects, and reverb. His songs are exploring desire, longing, heartbreak, and even voyeurism. The good news is that even with this new direction his vocals and his pop craft remain intact. If anything, he seems invigorated by it all, and has put out one of the best sounding albums of the year.

So much to love here. The seductive “I’m always watching you,” the lovely synths on “I know something that’s gonna break your heart,” and the clever Asian melody on “Siamese Twin” sung in Sondre’s marvelous falsetto.

 

Have to mention the thrilling “Bleeding out into the Blue,” one of the best songs of the year. It features the twisting melodies at which Sondre is so adept.

“It’s ok you’ve had a lot to say

I can’t hear you out on the dunes

It’s alright I made it out alive

but bleeding out into the blue…”

There is an amazing moment towards the end where his wordless “Aahs” ride up with the ascending synths. It is invigorating.

 

This song is followed by another classic tune, “Reminisce ” with a terrific minor key chorus  and a nice guitar shred at the end.

“Are you dancing without me?

Dancing with tears in your eyes…”

 

On “Hello Stranger” he sings a line from “Alfie” and then, does he really go there? He sure does. He sings a quote from Paddy McAloon’s “Appetite.” Nice!

 

I have watched a lot of live tracks from the album with his band and they take on a new meaning. Sondre is a true rock star. Also, for Record Store Day, he re-recorded the entire album with just a guitar. It is a revelation well worth checking out, for it shows that stripped of the production these are wonderful pop tunes.

 

A remarkable album!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDvekevPmhY

 

3) Ray Davies “Americana”

“When night turns into day There’s another town so far away

Waiting for me on the great highway…’

“Message from the Road”

 

Because of my love of Ray and the Kinks, this release was perhaps my most anticipated. And what a treat it turned out for me. First off, this record sounds great. It was recorded at Ray’s studio in England, Konk Studio. He was quite fortunate to get the Jayhawks as his backing band, who must have been thrilled to back such a legend.

 

The album refers to Ray’s love/hate relationship with America.

” ‘cuz since I was a teen

you know I had this dream…”

Songs are about Ray’s early fascination with America, the dream of it, the cowboy movies he watched. Then when he made it here touring with the Kinks, along came the reality homesickness and he became disillusioned with it all.

 

The tunes and Ray’s singing are simply wonderful. Some highlights:

“The Deal”- the search to get signed

“Isn’t it wonderful, marvelous, Utterly surreal…

“Message from the Road” – the loneliness of touring

“The Great Highway” – on the road in this huge country

“Hey, hey, hey, I am riding on the great highway

All across America from New York to L.A. …”

“The Invaders ” – the fact that the Kinks were part of the British Invasion

“Said that we were dangerous like space invaders from the moon…”

“Americana” –

“Kentucky moon, Montana sky, Sierra Nevada it’s an epic ride…”

“A Long Drive to Tarzana” – Perhaps the most beautiful track, with a sighing guitar and Ray’s most effective vocal.

“It’s a long long way to Paradise isn’t it.”

It all ends with the touching “Wings of Fantasy”

“Living in denial, chasing the dream, Living the illusion on the wings of fantasy…”

So we have Ray in superb voice, and the Jayhawks an inspired choice for a backing band. There are two duets with the Jayhawks’ Karen Grotberg. Ray does a few readings from the book that preceded the album. 58 minutes of entertainment from one of our best. So nice to have Ray in top form. And this is volume one. There is another volume to look forward to.

 

God save Ray Davies!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlmomFOkprw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtWAKml7wtQ

4) Boo Hewerdine “Swimming in Mercury”

“But everybody smiles when you sing There’s nothing else to do but sing…”

 

A very pleasant surprise. One of the best singer songwriters out there with a lighter touch.  More of a pop album, and it’s wonderful. Like “The year that I was born,” a song off the “Born” EP from last year, he continues to share details from his past. There are tunes about his home town, his first band, and watching American TV.  The music is quite playful, evoking The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Doo Wop.
Here are some of the highlights: “Satellite Town” – a great pop tune with a nice sax break

“A letter to my younger self” – His advice? “Let somebody love you” “My First Band” – Shades of the Beatles with a swell guitar solo “Theme from Boo” – a bright sunshine pop into “American TV” featuring Beach Boys like vocals “Drinking Alone”

“And when the morning comes, the morning always comes…”

“An Atheist in a Foxhole” a truly moving song

“I’ve never prayed before, but I am praying now…” My favorite song is the lovely “Voice behind the Curtain” – Brings tears to my eyes

“People like you and me, we never get to shine…”

The Bacharach trumpet is sweet. There are trumpets, clarinet, banjo, uke and background vocals to add to the mix.
Excellent work from one of the best!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QLqJTDCUwQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckI24U0Xzks

5) Real Estate “In Mind”

“The Chorus only interrupts

I sing to serve the song…”

 

Lead song “Darling” was my song of the summer by far. With its hypnotic guitar opening and the gorgeous vocals, I could not escape its allure. The chorus “Impatiently as I wait for you” was impossible to escape. Local radio station WXRT was playing it a lot and I just crumbled every time it came on.

Real Estate’s 2014 album “Atlas” was my introduction to their catchy guitar pop and it placed high in my best of list. “In Mind ” continues their sound of chiming guitar and clear, wistful vocals. They have lost their original guitarist and replacement Julian Lynch is more than up to the task. He adds some grit to the jangle, so if anything, they have opened their sound up.

 

Some highlights:

“Stained Glass” – the lovely guitar intro and the swelling harmonies

“There’s no place I would rather be right now

I’d love never to leave but I don’t know how…”

“Two Arrows” – the long psychedelic guitar close which the band describes as their “She’s so Heavy” tribute.

White Light”- Byrds like:

“Play my songs so softly in a room without a view…”

“Holding Pattern” – The psych flashes throughout

“Same Sun” – the lush harmonies

“When does one thing ever end and the next begin

Every day back then felt like a hyphen…”

“Saturday” – the piano intro which immediately jumps into chiming guitar

“The line you’re hanging on is fraying

You may as well loosen your grip…”

“Time” – One of my favorites is this soft samba with its smooth sweet vocals. It’s a charmer.

 

Martin Courtney composes beautiful tunes. He has a solo album that is worth checking out. This is a fine guitar pop band that excel at melancholy. We need pretty music these days and this is one you can get lost in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUFr4SK1-l4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv6eqzGOXOE

6) Nicole Atkins “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”

You asked me once what good is love if hurt is just around the bend…”  This is a sheer delight. Nicole Atkins is an incredible vocalist famous for her powerful torch songs. There are a couple included in this excellent album. The news with this release is an emphasis on soul and a bit of country. That’s fine with me. There isn’t anything this talented lady can’t sing and sing well. There are two songs that rank with her best.

 

First the opener, “A Little Crazy,” one of two she composed with Chris Isaak.

“Walkin’ spend a lot of time walkin’ that’s what people do getting over you

Smiling did you see me smiling the whole acts just for you what else can I do…”

In her best Roy Orbison like voice she belts out this tune of loss and regret featuring a sensational “Please” in falsetto that melts the listener. And the final “I’m on my knees” breaks my heart every time. Awesome tune!

Then there is “A night of serious drinking,” a nourish tune with soul horns, a sighing pedal steel, and an opening piano that echoes “A Rainy night in Georgia.” The song builds to the memory of

“those nights of drinking I rest my head back on the shelf…”

It ends with the piano it opened with and the sigh of a sax. It’s quite a tune that needs to be heard.

 

The other Chris Isaak tune she composed with is the title song “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” It’s in the country vein with a sweet pedal steel solo. In interviews she has claimed that Rhonda Lee was the name she gave to her drunken alter ego. She talks openly about a drinking problem she had prior to recording this album. That puts the tune “Serious Drinking” in perspective.

 

There is “Sleepwalking,” more in a pop vein, and more noir and horns on “I love living here [even when I don’t],” which is an ode to her Asbury Park roots. I saw her perform these tunes with a great band at Space in Evanston, Illinois and I heard them before I had the cd. So it was kind of cool to have these new songs to look forward to. And if she plays near you, do go see here sing. She is amazing.

 

Nicole, I love you!  Dusty Springfield would too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7hpQkuj3Ig

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2GdIuE4-5o

 

7) BMX Bandits “Forever”

“Forget the pain forget the knocks

Love me til my heart stops

It’s easier to take the blame

Love me til my heart stops…”

 

“Love me ’til my heart stops” is a fitting lyric for the BMX Bandits. A statement on their site from June 2017 reads “BMX Bandits believe in the power of love and music.” Now that is a great mission statement from a band that has been playing love songs since 1985. Main singer/songwriter Duglas T. Stewart is still out there getting it done. “Forever” is a marvelous collection of pop tunes that has made me quite happy at a time when I needed it. His warm “heart on his sleeve’’ vocals, and the tunes are top drawer pop. Some highlights:

“My girl Midge” – a sad song about what didn’t work

“Oh, Midge it’s killing me

Our future together will never be…”

“That lonely feeling”- classic sad pop with sighing guitar

“Savoursmiles”- declaring to be someone to lean on and find those smiles

“Tonight I need some you and I think you need me too…”

“It’s in Her Eyes” – This snappy number shares vocals with Chloe Philip, who has a perfect pop voice and appears to be the other main member of the band.

“No matter what you say”- Chloe hangs on to her love no matter what

“I could never give up on you, no matter what you do or what you say….”

There are three well-chosen covers:

“Somewhere” – The Bernstein/Sondheim song from “West Side Story.” The fragile vocal was recorded by Duglas at his home

“Forever” – The Dennis Wilson tune. The influence of the Beach Boys is no secret.

“Mais Do Que Valsa [Just a memory]” – This is such a brilliant move by the band. This is composed by Brazilian artist Marcos Valle, but it fits perfectly with the rest of the album.  It is also one of the best tunes I’ve heard all year.

 

The group has some help from David Scott of the Pearlfishers, Stuart Kidd, and Anton Newcombe. This is Scottish pop at its best. I can’t recommend it enough. I follow Duglas on Twitter and he is always posting great pop tunes. Like myself, he loves music and it certainly shows. The album is on the excellent Elefant label. I should mention that Norman Blake of the fabulous Teenage Fanclub is an honorary member of the band. He’s a favorite of mine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZI6cR5XAqU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guOhS0l8KM4

8) Elizabeth and the Catapult “Keepsake”

“to live every day like it’s the best days of our lives…”

“Ambrosia”

 

I am such a fan of her past three albums that I joined the Pledge pre-release campaign. Don’t usually do that, but she made a very attractive offer with lots of demos to download and updates on the recording process. The demos were very cool, with some of the songs that would turn up on “Keepsake.” The album took a while to come out, but I can’t complain. The finished product is exquisite.

 

In a recent interview with the Bluegrass Situation, Elizabeth was asked about her mission statement. One of her quotes was “No point in doing something that doesn’t bring you great joy.” I hear that joy in her music and it rubs off. Whether the songs are up or down they always give me a good feeling. I love her expressive voice and marvelous piano playing. “Keepsake” is filled with a lot of nostalgia.

 

Two of my favorite tunes are dreamy ballads. First is “Magic Chaser” with a gorgeous vocal. I love when the song dips into minor key and she whispers. It ends with the soaring

“Watch it fly everywhere and nowhere. Fly, fly, fly, everywhere and nowhere…”

The other is “Land of Lost Things” with just piano vocals and ethereal strings. As the title goes it is pure magic.

“don’t care much to dream any more…”

Both these songs leave me breathless.

 

Other hooks and highlights:

“Mea Culpa” – the dizzying piano flourish that ushers in the song shows off Elizabeth’s classical training.

“Method Acting” – with its sly theater references

“the critics decline maybe practice doesn’t make perfect every time…”

“if we don’t get the joke then why why are we laughing…”

“Underwater” – a cool tune that Pledgers got early, with a nifty chorus that is so Elizabeth

“and I’m not afraid of sinking like I used to be

Oh, I can take to dreaming like a fish in the sea…”

“Wishing Well” – with a pretty falsetto vocal and more dreaming

“and perhaps our sweet love is not enough to live on but I can always dream…”

 

The album is full of great musical enthusiasm and talent. With my pledge I have a nice autographed cd. Being old fashioned that suits me well. The music gives me joy which takes me back to her quote: Mission accomplished!

 

Elizabeth Ziman and her Catapult is a talent that deserves to be discovered.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxJZQYeQ1p8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5qWieXZixs

 

9) Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band “Adios Senor Pussycat “

“There’s a song I’m playing round my room.

It’s Untitled…”

 

Michael Head does not change. After his pop band The Pale Fountain split, he began a journey with Shack for several albums and then began doing solo work. The music reflected his love for folk rock bands like The Byrds and Love. After a long absence he’s back, this time with the Red Elastic Band. However, the music has not changed a bit. He does have a new guitar player, Steve Powell, who is fantastic. For example, there is the full rush of the Byrds on “Working Family” including a chiming guitar solo. Then halfway through “4&4 makes 8” a guitar solo explodes, very reminiscent of Love.

 

Other hooks and highlights:

“Picklock” – the somber minor key strings that highlight

“good conversation is the key but wine is the picklock that opens the box for me…”

“Winter Turns to Spring” – the lovely piano ballad

“It’s time to hit the door. No more shadows on the wall.

Thanks for being honest with me. I’ve got peace of mind, peace of mind…”

“Queen of all Saints” – the school days memoir

“I asked my school teacher Miss McCoy for a kiss

She said guess my first name and you’ll get your kiss…”

“Josephine”- the guitar jangle on the addictive song made it stick in my head for a while

“Rumer” – gorgeous, folk rock at its best

“Met a minstrel in the park where have you gone…”

“Wild Mountain Thyme” – to keep the Byrds references going, he does this one cover with more chiming guitar and a stunning ending.

It all ends fittingly with “Adios Amigo” with a sing along chorus.

Throughout the music is elegant with strings and horns and a touch of jazz here and there.

In 1997, Michael released “The Magical world of the Strands” to critical acclaim. I never got a copy and it went out of print and could not be found. It made my permanent wish list. It would pop up at ridiculous prices. Then in 2015, my patience paid off as it was re-released. It was well worth the wait and just may be Michael’s masterpiece. At the same time, “The Olde World” was announced, which were tracks recorded at the same “Strands” sessions. I ordered a copy but for some reason the release was cancelled. Hopefully, one day it will be released. In the meantime, I have this beautiful Red Elastic Band album to satisfy me.

 

So nice to have you back, Michael. Your smile on the cover says a lot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqfrnJmJ1ss

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqYLztpLw3k

10) Sparks “Hippopotamus”

“Something to tell you, but now I forget. Probably nothing. Let’s just forget it, the sun’s gonna set. I’m sure it was nothing…”                                                                      “Probably Nothing”
I can truthfully say there is no band like Sparks. While several artists on my list can lay claim to that statement, Sparks may have the edge. For nearly 50 years, and over 20 albums, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael have dabbled in many musical styles: glam rock, power pop, electro-pop, show tunes, classical art songs, and even opera. They say this new one is a return to pop form, but it also incorporates nearly all their previous styles. The outcome is a wildly creative and fascinating album.

It begins with “Probably nothing” a poignant ballad that lasts only one minute and 20 seconds. It is one of the most moving songs I’ve heard them do.

A favorite of mine “Edith Piaf [said it better than me],” a catchy classical pop tune that quotes the French singer.

“Edith Piaf said it better than me ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ Pretty song but not intended for me. Time to put some Muzak on…”

In Mojo magazine Ron talks about Charles Dumont, the composer of the Piaf song, contacting a French radio program and saying how much he enjoyed the Sparks song. How cool!

Some of the highlights [way too many to mention]: “Missionary Position” – not unusual for Ron to write about sex

“it’s a little retro and a bit passé, but you know you make her feel AOK..”

“What the hell is it this time” – a song about an irritated God “I wish you were fun” – A cute upbeat melody I found myself singing out loud. If only his girlfriend was fun, but her favorite color is brown.

“in every other way I find you amazing but one  I wish you were fun…”

“So tell me Mrs. Lincoln, aside from that how was the play?” How about that for a song title? This song is the most conventional rock tune on the album, even with that title. “Hippopotamus” – the title tune, sounds a lot like a Gilbert and Sullivan aria. It proceeds to list objects that somehow appear in the singer’s swimming pool. Objects like a hippopotamus, a book by Anonymous, a painting by Bosch, and a Volkswagen Microbus.  In a recent Mojo article Russell claims that the objects are not metaphors. When asked how Russell would analyze the writer: “I’d say he was out of his mind. But in the best possible sense.” “Life with the Macbeths” – the final song is about a reality show featuring the famous literary couple. It features an actual opera singer, Rebecca Sjowall.

“each murder the ratings soar…”
So, 15 tracks composed by Ron and sung by Russell in his wonderful high vocal range. In all, a highly entertaining set of music by these very talented brothers. Next up for them is a new musical, “Anette,” that is being made into a movie directed by Leo Cara, who appears on the “Hippopotamus” track “When you’re a French Director.” Can’t wait.

 

The first video for “Edith Piaf” won a Global Independent award.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5jtqCo43WM

https://www.youtube.com/wa tch?v=YnwWH38nGFM&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lx-qAdiszueYWX-&index=1&t=0s

NEXT 10 (in no particular order)

11) St. Vincent “Masseduction”

“I can’t turn off what turns me on…” Impressive techno attack that furthers Annie Clark’s sound. Her emotional vocals highlight two incredible ballads “New York” and one of this year’s best “Slow Disco.”
12) Jens Lekman “Life will see you now”

“I say if you’re gonna write a song about this, then please don’t make it a sad song…”

Perhaps the Swedish pop artist’s best work. There’s dance music, calypso, and bossa nova, all performed with a wink and  his warm pop croon.
13) Tristen “Sneaker Waves”

“Only the lonely would find themselves inside of your bed…”

Excellent pop music from Nashville chanteuse [top 10 in the Nashville Scene]. Tunes like “Get some,” “Glass Jar,” and “Partyin’ is Such Sweet Sorrow” are highlights on an album full of them. She also put out an excellent Christmas single which I played a lot this past holiday.

Check out this fun video for “Get Some”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQ5L0grgFDQ

 

14) Dana Countryman “The Joy of Pop”  

“Be strong put away your sad song  You’ve had it on for too long…”

I have Alan Haber of Pure Pop Radio to thank for this gem, and it sure is pure pop. The picture inside the cd case [Beatles, Jimmy Webb, Nillson, and the Carpenters] says it all. Tunes like “Perfect Sunny Day” and “Hang on Little Girl” give me pop chills. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffb7IwpELX4&index=0&list=PLvrlwYCsY0vvNycFi0QEc4IfwMFH_Vm

15) The Hangabouts “Kids and Cats and Saxon Wives”

“when kids like to play on computers all day, It’s Cricket Time…”

Another Alan Haber pick and it’s a real find. These guys know their pop well. They have the smarts to include the talented Molly Felder [Swan Dive} to join them on “Sinking Feeling.” How did they know she’s my favorite female vocalist? Irresistible tunes like “Cricket Time” and “Twelve Songs” get me every time.  Chip actually contacted me after I posted last year’s list. So Chip, if you read this, your band is terrific! Pop fans alert!

 

16) Brent Cash “The New High”

“Dreamer don’t you know, the time is slipping through your hands today…”

The third release of classic pop from Brent Cash on the impressive Marina label. In the style of Todd Rundgren, all the instruments except for the strings are played by Brent. Songs like “Out for Blood” and “Every Inflection” even sound like Todd. The album is like a master class in perfect pop with lots of minor key melodies and gorgeous vocals. An amazing album!

 

17) Beck “Colors”

“Girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini Shih Tzu…”                                                                                      “Wow” We needed this one. After the wait we needed Beck to dazzle us. And “Colors” does just that. Working with Greg Kurstin, a top-notch producer, we are treated to a mix of psychedelic dance music with plenty of pop/rock. Songs like “I’m so Free,” “No Distraction,” “Dreams,” and “Wow” bounce out of the speakers and engage us in their musical invention. The pop joy of “Up All Night” has me singing along. The final song “Fix Me” returns Beck to his introspective side with a tender ballad full of longing. With all the styles on display it is difficult to define “Colors.” I call it fun. And yes, we all needed some fun.
18) Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile “Lotta Sea Lice”

“When I’m all alone on my own by my lonesome

And there ain’t a single ‘nother soul around

I wanna dig into my guitar bend a blues riff that hangs over everything…”

I first saw these two artists on Colbert. I remember sitting straight up thinking “This is great.” I am a fan of Courtney’s music and had heard a few of Kurt’s songs but never a whole album. Watching these two perform “Over Everything,” a tune about songwriting, with each trading vocals and then singing together at the end got me hooked. The effect of listening is less a duet and more like a conversation. The song was composed by Vile for Courtney and is the lead-off track on this fascinating album. There is so much to admire and linger on like the “Neil Young” guitars on “Fear is Like a Forest.” Courtney performs a Vile cover “Peeping Tom” and he returns the favor by covering “Outta the Woodwork,” an early Barnette tune. Their voices complement each other well, as each has kind of a lazy, droll singing voice that is always very musical. On “Let it go” Courtney sings “What comes first, the chorus or the verse.” Kurt answers “I’m a bit lost at the moment.” Two unique artists offering the joy of collaboration and we get to hear it all. I hope there is more to come, Note this: It’s Kurt and Courtney. Remind you of any other famous rock musicians?

 

19) The Shins “Heartworms

“I don’t want to show you my feelings

I don’t want to bore you to death

I just want to crash through the ceiling…”

“Fantasy Island” There has been a lot of pop on this list. Well make room for one more. James Mercer’s Shins are consistently cool. He can always be counted on for intricate melodies, shimmering production, and his impossibly high vocals. Echoing the Cars and Beatles, tunes like “Half a Million” and “Fantasy Island” showcase Mercer’s flair for pop yearning. A wordless chant opens “Rubber Balls,” a song about the inability to end a relationship “so much for Simon’s 50 ways.” A stand-out and a good example of classic Shins is the very pretty ballad “So now what.” Opening song “Name for You” is inspired by his three daughters. A retreat from pop is the folk-like “Mildenhall,” a true tale of musical beginnings for James.

“I started messing with my dad’s guitar

Taught me some chords just to start me off

Whittling away on those rainy days

And that’s how we get to where we are now…”

The album ends with “The Fear,” an epic tune with haunting strings and lyrics that address James Mercer’s anxiety problems.

So, a fine pop songwriter, soaring vocals, and sweet synths and guitars, all lead to hooks galore. James Mercer continues to stay the course. And we reap the benefits.
20) The Silver Seas “Moonlight Road”

“Lights are on, I’m coming home, Feel the soul connection Don’t know how, Don’t know when, Gonna find answer to this melancholy…”                                                                               “Neon”

What a Christmas present. Being a huge fan of the Silver Seas, a Nashville pop band, I had been waiting for a long time for their new album. There was a working title of “Emoji,” and in 2015 they dropped three new songs. Since then nothing. Then on Christmas Eve 2017 they dropped “Moonlight Road” as if Santa delivered it. I debated adding it to this list since Amazon gives Jan. 1st 2018 as the release date. But once the holidays were over, I listened and fell in love with the music. So why not spread the good word. The only review I’ve seen is one from Dublin, and they rave about it. First off, Daniel Tashian is one of the best pop singers in the universe. Now I don’t have credits, but I have to think he’s working with Jason Lehning. The music itself is unlike the previous releases. No guitars.  Mostly synths, but the way they adorn these tunes is pure magic.  There’s the beautiful “Neon” and “Wildlife.” There are two songs featuring the fine talents of Thad Cockrell, an upbeat “Good Sign” and the gorgeous “Even When You’re Wrong” with the refrain “Even when you’re wrong  you’re right…” One of Daniel’s best vocals is on the emotional “You give me Faith.” The instrumental “Colors” is an example of Daniel’s love for ambient music. He has mentioned in interviews his love for Harold Budd. And he saves the best for last, with the lovely and poetic title song:

“You’re a dreamer by night, a sleeper by day

Clouds roll by you don’t have much to say…”.

Throughout we hear that honey melancholy voice of Daniel. He is a Nashville treasure. Of course, it is a crime that the band is so under appreciated. I’m a fan. You may be as well. “Moonlight Road” is only available as a download presently. Look for it. There is already a brand new solo EP released by Daniel to check out for 2018. And here is an idea: Daniel posted several jazz versions of standards. I would love it if Daniel would record a standards album with a jazz combo. It is on my personal wish list!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pE7tvCdTwyY

BUBBLING UNDER (also in no particular order):
21) The Clientele “Music for the Age of Miracles”

The soft lilt in Alasdair MacLean’s voice is always welcome.

22) Fleet Foxes “Crack Up”

This one took a while but it payed off. Ambitious!

23) New Pornographers “Whiteout Conditions”

Crashing Melodies just keep coming, and of course there is Neko Case.

24) Spoon “Hot Thoughts”

Britt Daniel gets his groove on. Irresistible “up” music.

25) Hurray for the Riff Raff “The Navigator

My introduction to Alynda’s music and it’s fascinating. Rock history meets world music.

26)   Squeeze “The Knowledge”

As fresh and wonderful as always.

27) The National “Sleep well Beast”

More guitar opens up their remarkable sound. “Day I Die” is a stand out.

28) The Waterboys “Out of all this blue ”

Mike Scott still making exciting and vital rock. 2cd’s worth.

29) Todd Rundgren “White Knight”

An album of collaborations with some fine results.

Standouts include Robyn, Moe Berg, and

An awesome “Tin Foil Heart” with Donald Fagen, one of the year’s best songs.

30) Foxygen “Hang”

Over the top effort by a couple of wild and crazy guys, with an orchestra on every track.

May alienate some, but I love it.

31) Grizzly Bear”Painted Ruins”

Gorgeous vocals

. 32) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “The Nashville Sound”

He calls it rock, not country. I call it amazing.

33) Kelley Ryan “Telescope”

Another Alan Haber pick and it is wonderful.

There is a Don Dixon and Marti Jones connection and that always helps.

34) Karla Kane “King’s Daughters Home for Incurables”

And yet another spirited selection thanks to Alan Haber.

Sweet tunes like “Wishing Tree” and “Don’t hush Darling” make for pure pop pleasure.

35) Florist “If Blue could be Happiness”

Just appeared in my Radar on Spotify and it’s lovely.

Emily Spraqgue’s fragile vocals are the real hook here.

MORE GREAT SELECTIONS :

36) Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer “Not Dark Yet” 37) Saint Etienne “Home Counties” 38) Julien Baker “Turn out the Lights” 39) Randy Newman “Dark Matter” 40) Susan Sundfor “Music for people in trouble” 41) Cotton Mather “Wild Kingdom” 42) Feist “Pleasure” 43) Neil Finn “Out of Silence” 44) Father John Misty “Pure Comedy” 45) Mac DeMarco “This Old Dog” 46) Amber Coffman “City of no Reply” 47) Alvvays “Antisocialites” 48) Lana Del Rey “Lust for life” 49) LCD  Soundsystem “American Dream” 50) Molly Burch “Please be mine”

RECORDINGS OF SPECIAL MERIT: Glen Campbell “Adios”

“Our dreams of endless summers were just too grandiose. Adios adios…” A fitting farewell album from a gifted entertainer who gave us so much. Some classic tunes like “She thinks I still care,” and four Jimmy Webb covers including the title cut which ends the album. An emotional and very beautiful album. Adios Glen. We miss you dearly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzQQoUx1oOU

“Unsung Heroes: Songs of Eleni Mandell” Sixteen artists including Jackson Browne, Mike Viola, Van Dyke Parks, and three of the Living Sisters, all doing Eleni Mandell covers. It works as a great showcase for Eleni’s sharp songwriting. It ends with Eleni herself doing a new tune “Empty Locket.” Seek it out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfF_iTQc_DM

Colin Steele Quartet “Diving for Pearls” This is such a novel idea. A trumpet led jazz quartet performing the music of the phenomenal pop group The Pearlfishers. Lush tunes like “We’ll get by” and “You’ll never steal my spirit” and other David Scott compositions work very well in this setting. How about volume two? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vSxdJjsG0g

Dana Countryman’s “Girlville” Another Alan Haber pick and it may be the most fun entry in this whole list. An entire album of girl group tunes by various female artists. All the songs are composed by Dana Countryman and they are all winners. Pop singers like Andrea Perry, Lisa Mychols, and Molly Felder know how to put these songs across. With clever tunes like “I’ve run all out of tears” and “I’m in love with George Harrison” – how can you miss? The album ends with “Johnny still loves me” which is dedicated to Shelly Fabares. This is a groovy album. Perfect for your next sock hop. Listen to Lisa Mychols.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXtgLdpGt8

Angel Olsen “Phases” An album of demos, B-sides, and covers and because it’s Angel Olsen it is a vital release. There is the powerful torch “Fly on your Wall” from the “My Woman” sessions, and a nice cover of Springsteen’s “Tougher than the rest.” Essential for fans

. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6o1jHDyol8

EPs: NRBQ “Happy Talk” Any “Q” freak like myself will take anything they can get. This is only a 5 song set but hey it’s Terry Adams and crew. Only a couple originals plus a slowed down “Only the Lonely” cover and from “South Pacific” the show tune “Happy Talk.” Under 20 minutes, but it rocks!

Emily West “Symphonies” I discovered Emily from following the Silver Seas and what a find she is. A powerful singer from Nashville with a 6-song set that never lets up in talent and enjoyment. I love the title tune as well as “Don’t ever go to Paris when you’re lonely,” but every song works. Her vocals give me shivers, she’s so wonderful. I need more! An incredible musical discovery.

SONGS OF THE YEAR: 1) Prefab Sprout “America” Came early in the year and I haven’t stopped watching. One of the greatest pop singers ever with an emotional snapshot of our country. Simply mesmerizing.

 

 

 

2) Bill DeMain “Leroy Boy” Can’t say enough about this clever follow up to Todd Rundgren’s “We gotta get you a woman.” For more about this remarkable tune and video see #1 on the Top 10 list above.
3) Todd Rundgren with Donald Fagen “Tin Foil Hat” It is no surprise that Todd would be critical of our current president. But this song is so clever, funny, and musical in a Steely Dan way, that it is nothing short of brilliant. I have watched this video a bunch and still haven’t caught all the visuals. I will say it again. Brilliant!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=los9WulxBjM&t=0s&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=3

4) Cage the Elephant “Whole Wide world” This is such a cool cover of a Wreckless Eric tune from Stiff Records in the 70’s. Somehow they make it their own with their yearning vocals. Cover of the year!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYGakznEllM&index=5&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX

5) Real Estate “Darling” My song of the summer. Could not get enough of it. See #5 in the Top 10 list above.
6) Ray Davies “A long drive home to Tarzana” On an album filled with great vocals this stands out. Ray sounds as good as ever.
7) Emily West “Don’t ever go Paris when you’re lonely” One of my favorite discoveries of the year. Emily has an incredible voice.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb8c2hSbi4c&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&t=0s&index=8

 

8) The Loch Ness Mouse and Tenant from Zero “The sound of crying” A Prefab Sprout cover from my favorite group discovery of 2016, The Loch Ness Mouse together with Tenant from Zero, who I don’t know.
9) Lisa Mychols “Don’t want to close my eyes” Absolute pop perfection from Lisa, who I adore. Her site is full of gems like this one. This is irresistible. It was playing in my head for a week.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcRvjJLM7c&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=4&t=0s

 

10) Neil Young and the Promise of the Real “Children of Destiny”

Neil standing up for what he believes. A stirring American anthem with a full orchestra. This is the official video. There is also a nice video of the recording session.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RKBUG9VLFU&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=9

 

11) The Roots and Bilal “It Ain’t Fair”

From the soundtrack to “Detroit” and it is quite moving. Why this didn’t get more exposure, I’ll never know. Just watch this performance on the Tonight Show with an orchestra. As it builds to a powerful conclusion see if you are not affected by it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vJDBVJ2HeE&list=PLUgFdWYKBYfnkw_qAGfUMRRCiTx9U

 

12) Elizabeth and the Catapult “Magic Chaser”

I have a soft spot for this lady’s music. Her vocal on this tune gives me shivers. For more see Top Ten #8.

 

13) Randy Newman “Putin”

Only the distinctive Randy Newman can pull off political humor like this. “Putin putting his pants on one leg at a time…”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vS5MXV3Zg

 

14) Sufjan Stevens “Mystery of love”

Haunting song from the movie “Call me by your name.” The video is from the Academy Awards.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgO3TbjFiuY

 

15) The Hangabouts “Cricket Time”

I fell in love with this snappy tune the first time I heard it. From an album full of winners. See Next Ten #15

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQoWY1Th6aY

16) Phoebe Bridgers “”Motion Sickness” A dreamy song from an artist Greg Kott wrote about in the Chicago Tribune. I really like her voice and the tune has an emotional tug. Need to hear more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l1JwAYDMbQ&t=0s&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=7

17) Sondre Lerche “Bad Liar” For his annual holiday gift to his fans, Sondre covered this Selena Gomez tune. It is a hypnotic version and quite compelling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3uUc8YyJsM

18) Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile “Over Everything” Less a duet and more like a conversation between two musicians about songwriting. Fascinating tune. For more and video clip see Next 10 #18 .

19) Alex Lilly “Firefly” A sweet song about love coming undone by a member of the Living Sisters.

“Almost beautiful I was almost the one…”

20) Kesha “Praying” A strong emotional vocal from the return of Kesha. Guaranteed to move you. Her performance of “Praying” was the highlight of the Grammy show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buM8OErfvu0

21) Lorde “Green Light” Lead off song from her “Melodrama” album about the fallout of  night life. Totally addictive, it stayed with me for a while.

22) The New Pornographers “This is the world of the Theater” In an album full of buoyant melodies, I kept coming back to this pop gem. It’s got the usual pop twists and turns A. C. Newman is famous for. And then there is the great Neko Case who just seals the deal.

23) The Waterboys “The girl in the window chair” A classic minor key Mike Scott tune that is the best on the latest 2-CD album. An intense Scott vocal and some haunting strings add to its beauty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cig00kIkk4

24) Lake Street Dive “Take on me” Lots of choice covers on this list. Lake Street Dive turn this AHa classic into an upbeat blue eyed soul version with fantastic trumpet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5z7cYSbsFU&index=10&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&t=0s

25) Sad Penny “Addison” I found this from following the Silver Seas. I don’t have information on her/them just that it’s a moody song with beautiful female vocals. Oh, and they are from Nashville. Addictive! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq3L9vZVoTc

26) Brent Cash “Out for Blood” A tune for all Todd Rundgren fans or pop fans in general. Like Todd Brent sings and plays everything except the strings. Listen to the piano cascading at about the 3-minute mark. Cool! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEe1BeIoKuo&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=12

CONCERTS:

 

NRBQ at the Hideout, Chicago May 26th

They never let me down. A great night watching them rock the house. Any time you get the chance to see Terry Adams perform take it. Check out the solos on this blues number.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWbvsAa_Tgc&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=

14 Nicole Atkins at Space, Evanston, Illinois August 8th

My first time watching this powerful singer and it was a treat. She started out in the back of the house singing acappella. She did a lot of her new album (#6 in Top 10 above) and I hadn’t heard it yet. So, it was nice way to introduce myself to her new music. She ended with a searing Roy Orbison cover, “Crying.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHN850S1bPE&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=

15 Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at City Winery, Chicago  August30th

The best part of seeing these two sisters perform was after they did their new album, “Not Dark Yet,” they traded off doing some of their solo songs. So great! Opening act was the amazing Kelly Hogan with Casey McDonough. Highlights for me were a nice David Mead cover and the Tommy Edwards oldie “It’s all in the game”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5CEdU5BNs&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=16

 

“Lady Parts” with Kelly Hogan and Nora O’ Connor at The Hideout, Chicago Nov. 20th

An entertaining night of laughs and terrific tunes like this Lucy Wainwright Roche cover

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKXO8kiCSs&list=PLmKOSiZH7uQMT0Y_q0lxqAdiszueYWX&index=18

I NEED TO CHECK OUT:

Ariel Pink, Joan Shelly, Big Thief, Aldous Harding, Nadia Reid, This is the Kit, Sylvan Esso, Jay Som LOOKING FORWARD IN 2018: Cracker Boots, Belle and Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, The Decemberists, Okkervil River, Neko Case, Courtney Barnett,  Josh Rouse, John Prine, Frankie Cosmos, Natalie Prass, The Loch Ness Mouse, Glen Hansard, Laura Viers, Eleni Mandell,  Xcerts, The Yearning, Lake Street Dive, Nedelle Torrisi, Brandi Carlile, David Byrne, Math and Physics Club, Kacey Musgraves, Lily Allen, Lykki Li, Dr. Dog, Michael Simmons, David Myhr

I CAN DREAM (my very personal wish list):

  • Prefab Sprout “America” was a start
  • Gary ClarkI – read he’s composing a musical. And he’s been appearing live. Maybe that will spark a new pop album.
  • Roddy Frame
  • Edwyn Collins
  • Molly Felder – Would love a Swan Dive album, but perhaps it’s time for a solo album from the chanteuse.

SHOUT OUTS: Alan Haber – for the past few years my list has been enhanced by albums from his Pure Pop Radio alerts. He also was the first to write about Bill DeMain’s solo album which is my #1 in the Top 10 above. Keep up the good work.

Email alerts from Ray at Kool Kat Music, Darla Records, Matinee Records, plus there is Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Mojo Magazine, Uncut’s Music playlists, Pause and Play, Stereogum, No Depression, and Spotify Release Radar. All contribute to my constant quest for new and exciting music.

Have to thank my internet friends at Beyond a Wizard and Audities for the sharing of ideas and life’s great mysteries.

WRAP UP:

That’s it. A great year and I hope you enjoy some of my picks as well as videos. Sharing musical ideas is what this list is all about. So, if you do find something that moves you please let me know. I love to hear from music fans.  I’ve been putting this together in my spare time for over three months, but I do it every year. It is my statement. I’m no writer, just a massive fan. Share my dreaming, please.

I want to thank my wife Amy for putting up with music obsession (and for editing).
Keep listening my friends.  It is the best escape we have. Now it is time to start on 2018. Already some choice items out there. Can’t wait. Gene Good

javagene@hotmail.com
God Save the Kinks!

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