Written by: Alex Green
“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight,” Milan Kundera once wrote. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”
Hard to argue with that sentiment, but when it comes to music, that repetition is within our grasp by way of a button. To apprehend the manic pop thrill and to relive the velocity of a rushing chorus is the one bit of control we have over the muscular straight line of time. When we hit ‘repeat’ we get to re-experience that blast of momentum and though it’s illusory–because really it’s all getting absorbed in that unforgiving horizontal blast of our finite existence–it feels great.
Paradoxically, music makes our hearts go faster and it makes time stand still.
In other words, a painting of you listening to a song that knocked you out, would be a still life with a hummingbird heart blasting through the canvas.
These are my favorite releases of 2017–the ones that did that very blasting.
- Justin Currie—This Is My Kingdom Now
This Is My Kingdom Now is an album which not only elegantly distinguishes between what we have and what we’ve lost, it gives agency to the latter and suggests that regardless of the outcome of our battles, there are always palaces that need to be built–both in the heavens and in the murk. Justin Currie has been building these palaces over the course of a rather winning career, both as the singer of Del Amitri and in his own solo work, this being the fourth entry in that category. The Glasgow-born Currie’s voice is a wondrous thing—it brims with confidence, it aches with heartbreak, it rolls with darkness and it flows with power. And on This Is My Kingdom Now, he has never sounded better. From the soaring “The Dead Sea” to the wistful “Hey Polly” this is a record of poetic finesse and musical precision–an electric mixture of hope, grief and soul-probing honesty.
- Gang Of Youths—Go Farther In Lightness
Arguably the most massive band in their native Australia, Gang Of Youths’ second album has all the passion and fire of The Joshua Tree and the muscle of Soundgarden’s Superunknown. But it’s more than that. It’s experiential. It’s emotional. And it’s transformative. But don’t just stream a song while you’re on the treadmill—take it in on a long drive or while you sit back on the couch. Let it overtake you because it will. Filled with driving rock anthems, wrenching ballads and interstitial orchestral pieces, Go Farther In Lightness is a spiritual blast of everything light and everything dark all at once. It’s a life-affirming song cycle that’s nothing short of a workout for your soul, or what’s left of it. Singer Dave Leaupepe has all the power of Chris Cornell, the swagger of Michael Hutchence and the smoldering intensity of a young Bono. Just like life, this one never lets up.
- Philip Stevenson—Azalea
Over the course of his career–whether with his old bands (Carnival Of Souls, Quinine) or on his own–Philip Stevenson has proven to be one of the most unreasonably gifted songwriters around, his compositions ringing out with battered majesty, swerving blues and rhapsodic whispers. A double album of staggering range, Azalea boasts smoldering blasts of hook-laden rock and roll, swirling psych-blues freakouts, meditative acoustic ballads, bluesy instrumentals and wailing hard rock. The album ends with a suite of inventive instrumentals and the whole thing gets polished off by the fading glimmer of “Gwendolyn Betrayed.” If a song can evoke the fevered sepia of a summer of longing and romantic devastation, this is the one and it’s a stone cold killer. An ambitious, artful effort, Azalea is impressive in its scope, of course, but even more impressive is that Stevenson moves through each varying number with such alacrity. This is nothing short of a musical decathlon, a towering effort redolent with ambition, precision and virtuosity. I’m sick of Mr. Stevenson being one of the best kept secrets in rock and roll. You guys need to catch on.
- Jimmer Podrasky—God Like The Sun
Jimmer Podrasky is one of the wisest songwriters I’ve ever come across. The former Rave-Ups front man has an observational gift that falls somewhere between Raymond Carver and John Prine—he’s a big-hearted songwriter of such emotional honesty and generosity, when you listen to his music, it sounds like you’re listening to your own thoughts sung right back to you. Podrasky’s songs are filled with wisdom, humor and humanity. He’s not afraid to be caustic or smirkingly dark, but don’t be fooled—underneath it all are acres of tenderness that he’s urging you to run through. This rather perfect record is a reminder that Podrasky is one of the most important American singer/songwriters around. The Pennsylvania-born musician’s tuneful songbook has always been brimming with intelligence and heart and the ten numbers here only add more gold to an already luminescent musical legacy. Beautiful work.
- Matthew Ryan—Hustle Up Starlings
Matthew Ryan has the right hook of a heavyweight. Over the course of his career his oeuvre’ has been filled with bruising anthems about heartache, loneliness, longing, class warfare, and America’s withering republic. He’s as sonically stratospheric as Mike Scott, circa This Is The Sea and he’s as deliciously doleful as any dark dirge found on Crocodiles or Nebraska. Hustle Up Starlings is as battered as it is sterling. And somehow Ryan remains the only guy around who can tear the cover off the ball on even the slowest, most woebegone numbers. He’s a class act and this is a high water mark in his discography.
- Matthew Edwards And The Unfortunates—Folklore
Matthew Edwards is one of the last great gentlemen of song. He’s erudite and thoughtful and his voice is devastatingly beautiful. From “Birmingham” to “When We Arrived At The Mountain,” this is a dashing collection of literate pop music that’s filled with finesse and heart. These are torch songs for those torn asunder, ballads for the broken, and waltzes for the wistful. “I Can Move The Moon” is a stunner and “A Young Man” may be the best album closer I’ve ever heard. Edwards is poet, a craftsman, a precise traditionalist–however you want to call it, he’s a master class songwriter and this is a modern classic.
- Fast Romantics—American Love
This Canadian outfit’s new album has my favorite line of the year on it (“Although I couldn’t afford it/I bought a beat-up guitar”) and it also has some of my favorite songs. “Julia” “Why We Fight” and “American Love” tear through the speakers with breathless authority. Singer Matthew Angus has a big, lusty voice that’s filled with wisdom and grace and his phrasing is original, yet familiar. Why We Fight is a speedbag of an album that keeps pumping out great song after great song—the whole thing sounds like Neil Diamond fronting Easterhouse. And it’s awesome.
- Bye Bye Blackbirds—Take Out The Poison
On Take Out The Poison Bradley Skaught has never been better–the Bye Bye Blackbirds singer has the musical aplomb and grace that puts him alongside everyone from Elvis Costello to Alex Chilton. Skaught has always been a fabulous songwriter and the ‘Birds have always been a great band, but by topping himself each record, he’s laying down a perfect artistic template for growth and progression. For the past decade or so, Skaught has been one the most thoughtful and engaging singer/songwriters around and his band’s albums are always redolent with a delicious blend of pop and poetry. Literate and catchy this is a crisp pop offering that’s dynamic, unreasonably melodic and loaded with the kind of musical momentum that makes every number a rushing pop thrill. Although throughout their career the Bye Bye Blackbirds have been consistently great, this is an album of such muscle and punch, it marks a leap in artistic confidence that brings to mind R.E.M.’s transition from Fables of the Reconstruction to Life’s Rich Pageant.
- Brennan Hester—Tell Me Where You Are Today
One of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters, Brennan Hester used to front the late, great Sextants. Hester’s first solo record is filled with aching ballads (“Waited Too Long”), punchy rockers (“You’ll Do”) and pop perfection (“Block Out The Sun”). A perfect blend of The Gin Blossoms and The Chameleons UK, Hester’s music is loaded with texture and nuance and though the choruses may be catchy, there’s layers of darkness behind them. Check out “Goodbye” or “On The Ground” and you’ll see what I mean. That said, this an album that’s informed as much by loss as it is by love and the intersection of those two is where Hester firmly plants his feet. Wisely observed, tenderly played and brimming with intelligence, this is a beautiful, beautiful record.
- Mark Bryan—Songs of the Fortnight
Mark Bryan is the Kris Bryant of rock and roll. The Cubs third baseman has played virtually every position effectively and Bryan does exactly the same thing. Whether he’s producing, playing guitar with Hootie and the Blowfish, writing songs, fronting his own band or hosting his new PBS show, Bryan’s a dexterous talent who can pretty much do anything. Songs Of The Fortnight is his third solo album and front to back, it’s an all-star performance. Opening with a cover of Scruffy The Cat’s “Mybabyshesallright” and ending with the moving acoustic number “Maybe Then,” this is an eleven song collection that’s filled with wistful rockers (“Forgetting About Me”), elegant call-and response numbers (“The Great Beyond”) and elegies about home (“Song For Maryland”) and every single track is on the mark. Bryan is a commanding and genial presence and his music is honest, breezy and pure. Perfect work.
- Are We Static—Embers
For the month of March, Are We Static’s “Brighter Days” was the #1 most requested song on my radio show “The Heart Goes Boom.” One listener from Oregon wrote: “Obsessed with that band. Explain to me why they aren’t filling stadiums across the world.” Although I can’t offer an explanation as to why the world hasn’t caught on yet to how brilliant this band is, I can confidentially say it won’t be long before Are We Static are huge. Mixing the anthemic choruses of Coldplay with the melodic grace of Keane, Are We Static’s songbook is catchy, arresting and altogether moving. Embers is front to back a perfect record, filled with rippling pop wonder (“Take Your Time”), punchy radio ready classics (“Love and Maths”) and aching ballads (“New York and California”). Kev Bolus is a captivating singer whose delivery is riveting and arresting and he commandeers his band with grace and dexterity. Embers is filled with texture and heart and repeat listens keep reaping rewards.
12. Golden Curtain—Underwater Gospels
I almost didn’t include this one, because I’m a tad biased. I wrote the lyrics for this New Zealand outfit’s fourth album, but my words are the Trojan Horse to get you to enter this below the wavers world of sheer wonder and majesty. There’s no finer drummer than Andrew Gladstone, Brad Gamble’s bass is plangent and filled with nautical prowl, and singer Andrew McKenzie’s gruff howl brings to mind The Chills fronted by Keith Richards. “Etc. Etc.” is a pure pop rush, the percussive blast of “Amen” sounds like summer when it worked in your favor and “The Captain” sounds like a memory you forgot you had playing back from the parting clouds of the past.
13. The Paranoid Style—Underworld USA
Shining Mirrors—Shining Mirrors
The Paranoid Style’s Underworld USA is the perfect example of what makes this D.C. outfit so great. Sounding like Naomi Klein fronting the Attractions in 1981, The Paranoid Style play a tuneful blast of New Wave that’s incisive, comedic, moving and sharp. Singer Elizabeth Bracy is a fast-talking wonder (check out “Dominoes In Drag”) and her delivery is filled with authority and charm. “I Believe You Believe You Can Fly” and “Hawk Vs. Prez” are shots of pop that have all the quirky brilliance of They Might Be Giants but the payoff with this band is that through the whirling keyboards, quick-twitch guitars and prowling bass lines is punch to the gut precision that makes a lot of their songs unexpectedly and deeply moving.
I’ve been lucky enough as a music journalist and radio host to interview everyone from Bowie to R.E.M., but perhaps my favorite interview ever was with Drew Robinson from Shining Mirrors. Genial, thoughtful and smart, Robinson and I covered a lot of ground and you’ll have to listen to the interview to hear the transformative nature of what he had to say, but let me just say this: his band’s self-titled EP is as transformative as our conversation. “Cardiac” sounds like it could have been a hit in 1968, “All Action” boasts one of the most heavenly pop tugs in recent memory and “Holy Men” sounds like The Strokes produced by Phil Spector. I love this band.
And while we’re at it…
Favorite book of 2017: Bianca Marais—Hum If You Don’t Know The Words
Favorite movie: Wind River, Molly’s Game
Favorite podcast: The Trap Set With Joe Wong