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

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? I am on a roll with the women authors this year. I finished two fantastic books, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (audio) and The First Collection of Criticism by a Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper, this week. Just excellent books, the first on gender and family and the second on music—reviews coming this week. Yesterday I started My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway back in October. I’m sorry to say I haven’t gotten around to it until now because it’s great, I’m already a quarter through!

Last week I enjoyed my usual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with Irish music and Irish food—shepherd’s pie (with ground lamb), soda bread, and this year (new) I made Guinness stout chocolate-chocolate chip cookies with Bailey’s buttercream frosting and sparkly green sprinkles. The recipe I went by yielded more than double what I was expecting so we have a ton leftover!! I also didn’t get around to making colcannon, even though I have the ingredients, and I picked up bangers at the Local Pig on Thursday with the ground lamb, so I guess I’ll be extending my St. Patrick’s celebrating into next week as well. We watched Brooklyn and Boondock Saints too.

I downloaded a couple of audiobooks for a Wisconsin trip next weekend: Get In Trouble by Kelly Link and The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.

What are you reading this week?

st. patrick’s day

st pats imageHappy St. Patrick’s Day! I’ve never been one to go all-out and get crazy drunk on this holiday, rather I like to celebrate my heritage and family and the music and food of Ireland.

The last couple of days I’ve been listening to my Irish music playlist which includes Van Morrison, the Chieftains, and Danú, among others. I had a great time at Hozier‘s concert last month at Liberty Hall, and though he doesn’t play traditional Irish music he is from Bray, County Wicklow! But recently I’ve been revisiting Danú a lot because they just played a concert in Wisconsin last Friday, which my parents attended. I really enjoyed its concert here in Kansas City a few years ago: read my review at KCMetropolis.org. If you have a chance today, check it out on youtube!

I also like to reflect on Irish history, either by watching a film or documentary or reading some articles. Last year I was captivated by the “Potato” chapter in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which outlined the Potato Famine in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, resulting in the tidal wave of Irish immigration to the United States. Here’s a great (fairly short) article from Common Dreams about the famine, bringing up some thought-provoking questions and touching on how it compares today globally and economically.

Kansas City is rich with Irish ancestry an we like to celebrate it well beyond March 17! I highly recommend stopping by the Kansas City Irish Center in Union Station, open year-round, and spending Labor Day weekend at the Kansas City Irish Fest. Both are great fun, and full of culture and history. The festival hosts several bands and of course has Irish food and drink on tap! We also have a pretty epic parade for St. Patrick’s Day, but I just can’t bring myself to take a vacation day off work to go see it. It’ll fall on a weekend, eventually!

Speaking of food, on Sunday I made my annual “Irish Feast”: shepherd’s pie and soda bread. I used freshly ground lamb from Local Pig for the pie, and (because I’m from Wisconsin) I did add cheese (not authentic, I know) but it was Kerrygold cheddar and Dubliner, at least! I also have Kerrygold butter for the soda bread 🙂 Maybe later I’ll dip into the store to pick out one of these Irish beers listed on Thrillist.

irish food

Lastly, I’m currently reading a book set (mostly) in Ireland, by an Irish author: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. I’ve had my eye on Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín since it came out last fall, he’s been on my radar ever since I read his Brooklyn a few years ago.

I hope you are enjoying a fine St. Patrick’s Day! Sláinte!

top ten tuesday: holiday wishlist books 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

December 23: Top ten books I wouldn’t mind Santa bringing me

Happy holidays, everyone, whatever holiday it might be that you celebrate! I celebrate Christmas, and though I do go with as many local, handmade, and consumable gifts as possible, almost nothing beats books. Here is my books wishlist, no expectations, and in no particular order:

  • Power Politics: Poems … Margaret Atwood
  • All the Light We Cannot See … Anthony Doerr
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers … Katherine Boo
  • The Secret History … Donna Tartt
  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • All That is Solid Melts Into Air … Darragh McKeon
  • Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy … Jeff VanderMeer
  • An Untamed State … Roxane Gay
  • No Country … Kalyan Ray
  • Find Me … Laura van den Berg

What books are on your holiday wishlist this season?

hmc + mafb

KCMetropolis.orgI can’t believe we’re halfway through December already! I’ve been wrapped up in holiday concerts for a couple weeks now, with two of my own via the orchestras I’m in and reviewing two for KCMetropolis.org. It just so happens that I ended up covering two of Kansas City’s major LGBT arts groups, Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Mid America Freedom Band. HMC is one of my favorite choirs in town—its shows are so much fun, with a lot of humor, heart, and awesome production value. MAFB is growing by leaps and bounds itself, adding shows and break-out factions of the group all the time. What I appreciate the most about these two shows I saw, though, is that while they were holiday concerts, the programming was adventurous and creative enough to warm even my semi-grinchy heart. As a musician, the performing arts offerings can become mind-numbingly repetitive this time of year—the same carols, the same arrangements, the same Handel’s Messiah, the same the same the same—so to hear some interesting, uncommon arrangements and programming themes that stray from the usual was the best, and these two groups didn’t disappoint on that front.

Read my full reviews at KCMetropolis.org:

virtual advent tour: holiday concerts

Virtual Advent TourWelcome to Day 19 of the 2013 Virtual Advent Tour! I’m pleased to be a part of the tour this year. Special thank you to hosts Kelly and Marg for including me (visit their blog for all the posts, and my fellow Day 19 poster Heather @ Capricious Reader today).

For my advent post, I’d like to talk about holiday concerts. Confession: I’m not too much of a “Christmas person.” My favorite holidays are by far St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Super Bowl Sunday (what? 🙂 ). But one aspect of the holiday season I do have a lot of fun with is participating in holiday concerts around the Kansas City metro.

For the past seven or eight years I have been a member of the Kansas City Civic Orchestra (currently as principal bassist), and we always have a holiday concert titled Sounds of the Season. This one has grown and grown every year, so much that now it’s a two-concert series (Friday and Saturday). We typically play a wide variety of holiday favorites:

  • Leontovych: Carol of the Bells
  • Traditional: The First Noel
  • Anderson: A Christmas Festival
  • Anderson: Sleigh Ride
  • Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a
  • Holcombe: Festive Sounds of Hanukkah
  • Reed: Russian Christmas Music

I always liked Russian Christmas Music because it has a great bass part, and I appreciate our music director’s acknowledgement of other religious holidays as well (Festive Sounds of Hanukkah). This year, we only played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite—trading off movements with our guest the Washburn University Jazz Band playing Duke Ellington’s arrangement of Nutcracker. It was really great to experience two strikingly different versions and the crowd loved it!

Kansas City Civic Orchestra

(That’s me—the bassist in front, wearing yellow.)

I’m also in two more local orchestras, Heritage Philharmonic and Kinnor Philharmonic. Heritage’s holiday concerts usually include a children’s choir, and we’ve also played familiar classics (Silent NightO Come All Ye Faithful, etc.), even ranging into medleys of holiday movie music (Home Alone theme, A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc.).

Kinnor Philharmonic is the premier Kansas City Jewish orchestra, now in its third year. Kinnor has an annual New Year’s Day concert to start of the year with inspiring, hopeful music. This time around we’re playing Strauss waltzes and marches (The Blue Danube, Kaiser Waltz, Egyptian March), Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Weber’s Oberon Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and the Allegretto (last movement) of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (which you’d recognize from Disney’s Fantasia film).

Outside of these orchestras, I’ve taken gigs playing bass for various churches around the holidays, most recently for Handel’s Messiah (on my birthday, December 8!) and I’ve played Fauré’s Requiem around this time of year in the past, too.

In addition to playing concerts myself, I also end up reviewing holiday performing arts offerings in the Kansas City area for my online arts journal, KCMetropolis.org. Here are a few favorites over the years:

I have found so many great, fresh twists on holiday standards every year attending local arts organizations’ holiday events, and I urge you to do the same in your town!

Happy holidays and a merry musical new year! 🙂