favorite albums of 2017

2017 was not a great year. Even though I had some good times, overall it was tough, for myriad reasons that this post is not about. Music, however, is always there for us, something we can always count on to soothe, evoke, and inspire in good and bad times. I was nervous about being in Singapore without my turntable and losing my interest in seeking out new music but luckily that didn’t happen. I know a few of these albums were released in late 2016, but I listened to them a lot this year and it’s my list! It was hard selecting favorite tracks, which can and do change all the time, but I liked challenging myself to choose for the purpose of this list. Here are my favorite albums released (mostly) in 2017, in order by release date:

***Links on album titles take you to the full album stream on Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud. All these links go to videos or posts uploaded by the artist or their record label. If you like it, buy it! 🙂

Soul Jazz Fridays … Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7
Funky as shit, son. Reminiscent of old-school 1960s–70s soul; it really transports you to that musical era thanks to Hazelton’s phenomenal jazz organ playing and his stellar crew. Bonus: Kansas City! Listening to this makes me feel like I’m at the Green Lady. I really wish I had this on vinyl. Favorite track: “Theme for Theo

• Darkness and Light … John Legend
Smooth and groovy as usual. Legend’s not necessarily the most adventuresome artist, but I’ve been hooked since Get Lifted and his music almost never lets me down. Favorite tracks: “Love Me Now, “Surefire

Run the Jewels 3 … Run the Jewels
RTJ’s third album straddles a line between rage and humor, with commentary on politics, somewhat archaic pop references, and sex jokes. That seems like it wouldn’t work, but Killer Mike and El-P play off each other lyrically so well and the hooks are so memorable that it weirdly does. Great guest spots by Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington. Favorite track: “Down

Fin … Syd
A simultaneously cool and hot, sensual neosoul debut dripping with pleasure and confidence. Syd’s songs here convey the affections of one woman for another, and it’s awesome. Favorite track: “Smile More,” “Got Her Own

Drunk … Thundercat
The whole thing is a genre-defying, idiosyncratic masterpiece. I’m pretty convinced Thundercat is from another planet—this technicolor music seems to exist on another plane and follow zero rules, and I love it. DYING to see him perform live. Favorite tracks: “Uh Oh, “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)

The Mood … Maurice Brown
I found this album randomly on Youtube and kept coming back to it for weeks, finally bought it, and discovered my friend Solomon is the bassist! Brown’s album is a seamless fusion of jazz, blues, and hip hop with impeccable melodic phrasing throughout memorable, soulful tunes. I love the guest appearance by Talib Kweli. Favorite track: “On My Way Home

• DAMN.Kendrick Lamar
Despite declaring “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout religion” (“Yah”), this is deeply political, theological, and intimate. It’s scathing critique of conservative news media and racism in America; philosophical and personal; contradictory, conflicted, and complex. The double-play concept is genius. Favorite tracks: “FEEL.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.”

Made in America … Bobby Watson
This makes me feel like I’m home in Kansas City. I love the theme of paying tribute to notable black Americans from history, some well known and some obscure. You know it’ll be good, too, when he collaborates with Curtis Lundy, Lewis Nash, and Stephen Scott. Bobby’s such a gifted composer, and every time I listen to his solos I hear something new. I feel privileged to count Bobby as a friend! Favorite tracks: “The G.O.A.T. (for Sammy Davis, Jr.),” “The Entrepreneur (for Madam C.J. Walker),” “The Real Lone Ranger (for Bass Reeves)”

Voyager … Moonchild
Dreamy, laid-back neosoul in the vein of Sade and even Stevie Wonder. Maybe not the most original music out there or here on my list, but I still played this album a lot when I needed to chill out. Favorite track: “Cure

Live at High Noon … Phat Phunktion
Another great live album on my list! I love all these classic Phat tunes. Live albums can be tricky, but this one manages to make you feel like you were there at the show. It brings up great memories from back home in Madison when I listen to it. Seeing them play live again last month during my visit home was a major highlight of the trip. Favorite tracks: “Untitled (Weekend Special), “Miss Madison

• Binary … Ani DiFranco
Ani’s music is always wise, inspiring, and on point. I’ve enjoyed her more mellow approach to sharing her political and humanitarian messaging in her music the last several years, and this album is no exception. Her signature funk-soul-folk style is here serving as foundation for topics like reproductive rights, nonviolence, and empathy. Maceo Parker and Justin Vernon have welcome supporting cameos. Favorite track: “Play God

Ctrl … SZA
SEXY AF, holy shit. Love and sex and relationships are amazing and messy and complicated. So is feeling like an adult (or not) and sexual freedom and dating in the modern age. Expectations vs. perceptions. Damn. This is a stunning album. Favorite tracks: “Love Galore, “The Weekend,” “Broken Clocks

The Nashville Sound … Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Thanks to Isbell’s deft songwriting on relatable subjects that are both introspective and turn a critical eye on society, this is just the kind of Americana/country rock that hits me right in the feels. I need a whiskey and a good cry after a couple of these songs. Favorite tracks: “Tupelo,” “If We Were Vampires

• 4:44 … Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (my #1 favorite album from 2016) is perfection and perfectly complementary. His humility and maturity here are revelations, not to mention his sharp commentary on our current sociopolitical and cultural realities. Favorite tracks: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Family Feud

Royal Mint … The Cash Box Kings
What can I say, I’m a sucker for my hometown bands. The original tunes here are especially good and timely, even cheeky at times. Oscar Wilson (vocals) and Joe Nosek (harp and vocals) are a dynamic pair, backed by several excellent local musicians from Madison and Chicago, including Joel Paterson, Al Falaschi, Alex Hall, Mark Haines, and Mel Ford, among others. Favorite tracks: “Build That Wall,” “Blues for Chi-Raq

• Southern Blood … Gregg Allman
I cried the first time I heard “My Only True Friend,” a meditation on life on the road and mortality written from the perspective of Allman’s late brother, Duane. This isn’t all about death, however. There are several covers due to Gregg’s health, but they’re selected in a way that are meaningful and reflective of his life and experiences. What a poignant, soulful final album for his fans and the world. RIP to a true master. Favorite track: “My Only True Friend

• Masseduction … St. Vincent
Hot hot hot HOT. Her guitar work is not as prominent here as usual—more textural than lead—but the album is full of bold, forward, and personal lyrics on top of awesome, catchy beats. This was solidly on repeat for a long time right after I got it. Favorite tracks: “Hang On Me,” “Masseduction,” “Los Ageless

Soul of a Woman … Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I was in love with Sharon Jones’s music the moment I first heard it. Vintage-sounding soul at its finest thanks to Sharon’s singular voice, which retains its strength and personality on Soul of a Woman despite her cancer treatments during recording. I feel so fortunate to have seen her perform in Kansas City in 2016. I still can’t believe this is her final album. Rest in power, Queen. Favorite tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Pass Me By,” “Call On God

If All I Was Was Black … Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples is angry about the political unrest and racial climate in our country right now, but her delivery of these songs (by Jeff Tweedy) is patient, compassionate, dignified, and even hopeful. Favorite tracks: “If All I Was Was Black,” “We Go High

Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar … Joel Paterson
I can’t believe I have a holiday album on here. Joel is magical and turns everything he’s involved with to gold. His meticulousness in overdubbing so many flawless guitar parts on each track is staggering to me. Super fresh take on old classics. Favorite tracks: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas Time is Here”

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by artist):
Pikes 244–273 … Buckethead
Vignettes … Damu the Fudgemunk
Big Fish Theory … Vince Staples
Far from Over … Vijay Iyer Sextet
Harmony of Difference … Kamasi Washington
One Room Blues … Oscar Wilson

Honorable Mention “Hangovers” from 2016 (alpha by artist):
Coloring Book … Chance the Rapper
“Awaken, My Love!” … Childish Gambino
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth … Charlie Hunter
Become Zero … Helen Money
The Olympians … The Olympians
Periphery III: Select Difficulty … Periphery

my cross to bear

I was turned on to My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman when it first came out and I bought a copy for my dad for Father’s Day… only to find he had already gotten it for himself! I exchanged it for a different gift, but then couldn’t resist when I saw it on sale on iBooks a while ago. From Goodreads:

As one of the greatest rock icons of all time, Gregg Allman has lived it all and then some. For almost fifty years, he’s been creating some of the most recognizable songs in American rock, but never before has he paused to reflect on the long road he’s traveled. Now, he tells the unflinching story of his life, laying bare the unvarnished truth about his wild ride that has spanned across the years.

I had fun reading My Cross to Bear. Sure, it’s not the most eloquently written, but it is authentic to Allman’s conversational voice and I think it would be even better on audiobook, if he’s the narrator! You get more of a feeling of kickin’ back with Allman and him telling you stories from his life he feels like telling. He comes across as salt of the earth, humble, and a bit mystified at his dumb moves and astounding luck. Allman was, is, and forever will be a Good Ol’ Boy who just wants to play music, man. The chapter on his brother Duane Allman’s death was heartbreaking. I loved when he talked about his songwriting, recording iconic albums and some of the stories behind them, and playing gigs both small and large. He’s honest about his shortcomings and a father, and his drug and alcohol abuse, however…

Since he went there, I found myself wanting more depth on recounting his drug abuse and rehab. And while I wasn’t shocked or surprised by Allman’s experiences with women (lots of girls, lots of wives, etc.—it’s totally a boy’s club throughout the whole book), I would’ve appreciated more introspection here, too, especially on his six failed marriages, which he basically attributes to the wives all being crazy or expecting him to change. It doesn’t matter that the marriages ended, it happens, but I mean, who’s the common denominator here, bud? You’ll take no responsibility for what went down here? Just sayin’.

One thing I made sure to do as I read the book was to listen to the albums he talked about. It was wonderful to have them as background to the stories, especially the early stuff—Idlewild SouthAt Fillmore EastEat a PeachBrothers and Sisters. My dad loves the Allman Brothers—Duane is his all-time favorite guitarist—so listening along brought back great memories of our shared love for music. I forgot how much about these albums and Duane I already knew thanks to my dad!

Bottom line—not the most in-depth account of the history of the Allman Brothers, but a great, easy summer read after which you’ll feel like you just hung out with one of America’s living rock legends, which is pretty damn cool.

ETA: Fun facts I just remembered to include—I share a birthday with Gregg Allman (Dec. 8) and I saw The Allman Brothers Band in Madison, Wisconsin, August 2000! Awesome.

My Cross to Bear is my sixth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from June 29 to July 29, 2015.

hozier at liberty hall

On Monday night I headed back out to Lawrence, Kansas to see Hozier perform at Liberty Hall. I’ve been a fan ever since I first saw his Tiny Desk Concert on NPR last May. When I saw he had a concert coming up just a 40-minute drive away I had to get tickets!

My friend Lee and I got to Lawrence around 5 p.m. After a quick bite we waited in line (which snaked around the corner and down the block) for about an hour. It was pretty cold, but not unseasonable for late February—some kids in line were snuggled up on the ground in sleeping bags! Not quite as cold as a Packer game, though 😉

hozier 2pic 1The opening band, Ásgeir, was okay. A band from Iceland, its sound and vibe was in the same vein as sigur rós and Bon Iver. It was a pleasant enough 25-minute set, but I wasn’t blown away. All the pieces pretty much sounded the same. Today I read more about this band and discovered its kind of a big deal in Iceland, so I’m a little surprised they didn’t have more of an impact.

Hozier and his six-piece band took the stage at about 9 p.m. “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” opened the set, followed by four more uptempo songs including Lee’s favorite (“From Eden,” surely Hozier’s next radio hit) and my two (current!) favorites, “Jackie and Wilson” and “Someone New.” Hozier’s stage presence at a live show is completely different than what I’ve seen on TV—he’s much more energized and engaging live, though still possessing a modest, earnest demeanor.

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The pacing of the concert was just a little awkward in spots, especially placing a few solemn and solo tunes right in the middle (“In a Week,” “Like Real People Do”). “In a Week”—a voice duet plus acoustic guitar, Hozier performed this one with his cellist Alana Henderson—was stunning and held the crowd spellbound. “Illinois Blues,” a Delta blues legend Skip James song which Hozier explained was an inspiration to him when he first started learning music, unfortunately was a dud in the eyes of the crowd. I loved it, though! It really showed off Hozier’s fingerpicking skills and depth of musicianship. I think I might have been the only person in the room singing along to that one…

Saving the pièce de résistance for last, closing his set with his massive hit “Take Me to Church.” The crowd went bananas for it, as expected. Personally, I can take or leave this song by now—I’m over it, and judging by his slightly phoned-in performance it appears Hozier might be as well. It’s certainly not the best song on his debut album! Not even close.

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After a short break, Hozier returned for a short encore set, which included “Cherry Wine,” “Run,” and the Amerie cover “1 Thing.” Is there anything this man can’t turn to gold?? His cover was better than the original by leaps and bounds. If Hozier doesn’t have time to come up with new material because of his ridiculously intense touring schedule this year he could release an album of covers next—I’d buy the hell out of that.

It had been a long time since I attended a rock concert like this, and I while I had a blast on Monday night and Hozier put on a great show, I remember now why I don’t go out of my way much for them anymore, especially for new, hot artists. Hozier is so much more than the pop machine through which he’s currently being fed. That voice—swoon! I think he has real, natural talent and depth that you just don’t really see much in pop anymore.

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But, you have to play the game, and you “have to give the people what they want,” as the saying goes, so Hozier did just that. He played every track off his debut album, plus a couple of extras associated with the album, in exactly the way you hear them on the album. I just wanted a bit more performance-wise—he’s obviously got the guitar and vocal chops, why not rock a wailing guitar solo or two? Why not spice up a last chorus with some melodic variance? Of course, that said, I don’t know him and I don’t know whether he likes or wants to improvise at all, but I’d be surprised if not given his propensity for traditional blues, gospel, and old-school soul and R&B.

He was really fantastic in person, and I loved seeing more personality come out in his live show (and I LOVED that he totally ignored the ridiculous, desperate shouts of “I love you, Andrew!” “I love you more!” HAHAH shut down!) He was classy, charming, and an excellent showman. If you have a chance to catch Hozier on tour this year, don’t hesitate!!