Before you correct me, let me explain: This really is my 2017 list, posted here more than a year late.

In 2017, I posted my favorite recordings countdown on the Looking Closer Facebook page and enjoyed conversations about those records with my community there. But then, somehow, in the busyness of a heavy January teaching load, I never got around to posting the full list here.

So, since I want to keep my archive of favorites as complete as possible, here’s a flashback to last year’s list, posted here at Looking Closer for the first time. Reading over it and revisiting these tracks, I’m still happy with this list. Yes, you get two year-end favorites lists for the price of one this year.

Before I dive into the top 15,
here is a list of 25 honorable mentions.

Any one of them could arguably be #15, but right now I have to surrender the list in its current state.

  • a-ha — MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice
  • Anais Mitchell — Hadestown: The Myth, The Musical
  • Andrew Bird — Echolocations: River
  • Arcade Fire — Everything Now
  • Beck — Colors
  • Big Thief — Capacity
  • Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile — Lotta Sea Lice
  • David Bowie — No Plan
  • Feist — Pleasure
  • Japanese Breakfast — Soft Sounds from Another Planet
  • Jay Som — Everybody Works
  • Jessica Hoop — Memories Are Now 
  • LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
  • Lily Hiatt — Trinity Lane
  • Lizz Wright — Grace
  • Lo Tom — Lo Tom
  • Magnetic Fields — 50 Song Memoir
  • Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked at Me
  • Robert Deeble — Beloved
  • Shabazz Palaces — Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines
  • The National — Sleep Well Beast
  • The Secret Sisters — You Don’t Own Me Anymore
  • Tinariwen — Elwan
  • U2 — Songs of Experience
  • Various Artists — Twin Peaks: Music from the Limited Event Series

And now, the top 15.

15.

Mental Illness

Aimee Mann

This is the album for everyone who loved Mann’s song “Save Me” in the movie Magnolia. To listen to that album is to cast a net deep into your aches, regrets, losses, and mistakes, and then to draw them up out of your heart where they’re doing you no good at all. Bringing them out into the light can feel like weeping — might even trigger some actual tears. But it feels so much better to have them out in the light, so beautifully defined and expressed, so beautifully and tenderly sung. “They’re such sad songs,” one listener says. “Yes,” says another. “It feels so good to set them free.”

Essential tracks: “Rollercoasters,” “Good for Me”

14.

The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell’s lyrics are always worth close attention, and he’s always challenging himself — and all American males, really — with humbling introspection. The sound on this record is less aggressive, less electric, and even more affecting for the deepening tenderness, humility, and moments of quiet contemplation. He’s giving particular attention to his responsibility as a husband (to violinist Amanda Shires) and as a father (to Mercy Rose) in a year when any man with even a spark of conscience must have felt the burden of privilege and hear a summons to repentance and humility.

Essential tracks: “Something to Love,” “White Man’s World,” “Last of My Kind”


13.

Bone on Bone

Bruce Cockburn

As Andy Whitman so succinctly said, “Faith makes a belated return here; shaky, jaded, yearning, cautiously, perhaps impossibly hopeful in the midst of an unraveling world. This is the territory Bruce Cockburn has worked for almost 50 years. But he works it better here than he has in a couple decades.”

Essential tracks: “States I’m In,” “40 Years in the Wilderness”


12.

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13:
Trouble No More 1979-1981

Bob Dylan

What a privilege and a thrill to sit in on some of the most daring punk rock ever played: Bob Dylan’s launch into gospel music. Slow Train Coming is about as influential as any album in my life story, and here are the shows where those songs raged like a Holy Spirit wildfire in rooms that were blessed by the burn. For more, I’ll point you to the reflections of Joe Henry on the significance of this release.

This was a “Public” post from Joe, so I’m assuming it’s okay to re-post here:

It has been tempting to many over years to marginalize the trio of so-called gospel albums issued by Bob Dylan between 1979-1981, and as well, the tours they inspired. Given how deeply invested we’d all become in the man’s mercurial vision and irreverent authority, it rattled the throng when, like a wounded and skittish Hazel Motes listening only for the wisdom of the blood, we heard the man disavow so much of what we embraced to be new social doctrine in favor of an old-time religion as coarse and sticky as that rock upon which Abraham first willingly laid his beloved son for sacrifice.

But even a cursory listen through the just-released “Trouble No More” collection of live recordings and outtakes challenges the notion that the spiritual reckoning on evidence was incidental and inconsequential to the pilgrim’s true progress. The man was never more committed to a path than he was along this one, singing as he does throughout this set with an urgency that is visceral, and a desperation that is frightening to behold. As much as in the blistering, chaotic tours of 1966, the man is possessed; and he assumes to save nothing for later.

My personal read is that this period stands as the artist’s 40 days in the desert, from which he emerged raked clean and hollow; and as such, righteously prepared to, within the decade, fully return to his true lexicon of American folk and blues idioms, by which his truth is most wholly discerned and engaged –a music, incidentally, no less Christ- or death-haunted.

I of course can well remember the shock that accompanied the albums upon release and, as well, the shows surrounding them –which were the first I was to witness in the flesh (and still the finest); and I am not sure I considered them differently in real time than I did, say, Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” album, in regard to power and commitment.

What was clear then is clear now: Bob had a hellhound on his trail, and still does –as do we all. As do we all. And with both St. Paul and Robert Johnson as his witnesses, he presses on.”


11.

Masseduction

St. Vincent

A fireworks show of imagination and inventiveness in which one of the world’s most talented guitarists puts down her guitar and embraces synthesizers with wild abandon. (Or, perhaps, she transforms the guitar into a keyboard? I’m not exactly sure. Whatever she’s playing here, she’s shredding.) Appropriately, this glossy, glitzy, glam-pop production is all about the seductions of the digital age, the ways we reach for each other in desperation as our pills and our passions threaten to pull us apart. The refrain “I can’t turn off what turns me on” is a refashioning of a previous refrain: “Save me from what I want!” Some of these songs teeter on a precipice of despair, but there is always a last-minute lunge for love and its promise of salvation.

It may not be the most popular track on the record, but my favorite track is the last one: “Smoking Section.”


10.

Darling of the Afterglow

Lydia Ainsworth

The dreamiest pop record I heard this year. It scratched a Kate Bush itch.


9.

Structures

David Friesen

My favorite bass player released a double-album this year that reminded me of why I’ve gone back again and again to his records since high school. I still can’t believe it happened, but he did a concert at my high school and talked about a dream or a vision that had inspired him to pursue this music. That story is preserved in the liner notes of his album “Color Pool” — and I have a feeling that it planted seeds in my imagination that would eventually take root and grow into my own creative expression: Auralia’s Colors. (Read this story. It’s wild.)

These notes appear on the back cover of Friesen’s album Color Pool.

8.

Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens

It was a year when white supremacy took over the White House and began dismantling America’s engines of democracy, the very institutions that enable heart-and-soul Americans from striving for “liberty and justice for all.” And here was Rhiannon Giddens singing songs to remind us of the horrors of slavery, the plight of the oppressed, the glory of the Civil Rights movement, and the hope of the Gospel. What surprised me was the restraint demonstrated throughout — I wouldn’t have minded if there had been some wild abandon here (Giddens can burn down the house if she’s in the mood). But in focusing on songcraft instead of righteous anger, she’s created an album that is built to last.


7.

DAMN

Kendrick Lamar

I once saw a woman recoil from a news report about protestors who were marching and shouting against police brutality: “I just wish they wouldn’t yell,” she said. I believed her — she was uncomfortable, seeing such alarming outrage and grief. If the oppressed don’t yell, then we can go on being comfortable, ignoring the abuses that our society permits, supports, and legislates. If they yell, then we might have to actually listen and experience the hardship of loving our neighbors.

My society taught me to respect the idea of African Americans as my neighbors, but my all-white church and my 99.99% white school made it clear that the actual *work* of listening to, living with, and loving our disadvantaged and oppressed neighbors was risky and best left to the professionals. I am beginning to realize just how much I learned from things that weren’t said, things that weren’t done, people who weren’t seen or heard or invited or embraced.

So consider me a student. A beginner. I feel like a high school poetry student trying to fathom T.S. Eliot when I listen to Kendrick Lamar. But I know poetry when I hear it: These lyrics are meant to be parsed and pondered, even though they are as playful as they are purposeful. So much happens so fast here: Lamar’s lines are densely layered with references to other work; the storytellers and characters keep changing; the sounds zigzag from rage to reverie, the modes from from repentance to righteous anger.

Where I come from, the standard response to a record like this would be knee-jerk condemnation for “offensive” and discomforting lingo and lines. But it’s better to start from a place of asking questions about context, motivations, and meaning. What character is the artist playing, moment by moment? What conventions is he subverting? What standards is he criticizing? Are these heavy rants aimed at his own ego?

The more I listen, the more I read, and the more I begin to understand, the more I feel amazement, respect, even awe listening to an artist whose work will be a subject of study for decades to come. And it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s just getting started. Also: I really like the sound of it all.

Read Nick Olson, my friend and Seattle Pacific MFA brother, writing from a similar place, at Image.


6.

The Queen of Hearts

Offa Rex

Time travel, via Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists. Okay, so this is a honey trap for fans of Fairport Convention and “Dreamboat Annie”-era Heart, but it is such a beautiful honey trap. So much that I love and miss about ’70s rock, and so much I wish I’d been alive to experience during the British folk revival of the ’60s, are recaptured here in this perfect convergence of sounds and spirits. Some classic songs revived with passion and reverence. These are songs that will auto-play in my head in the years to come if I find my attention straying into the fog of autumn mornings, when forested hills of the Pacific Northwest may as well be portals through space and time to Wales or Ireland.


5.

The Underside of Power

Algiers

Speaking of T.S. Eliot… a little “Hollow Men,” anyone?

Oh no
On no, no, no
This can’t be how it all falls apart
Constant fear of explosion
Crypto-fascist contagion…

Oh yeah
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah
They took no time to unwind it all
Manufactured suggestion
Wag the dog and then drown him…

Here’s a text worthy of study right here, right now. A call to arms. A fever-pitch roar of lament, righteous anger, and prophecy about judgment over the hatred and violence of our times.

Since I am only beginning to find my way through this labyrinthine work of literary lyrics and thunderous polyrhythms. I’ll share some of the essays, interviews, and reviews below so that you can explore too. It’s an unsettling, discomforting, even frightening experience at times, but it all feels vital and necessary, and is never less than extravagantly creative.

I’ll be chewing on this one for a long time, bitter as it often is.

Here’s NPR’s track-by-track guide to the album.


4.

Thrum

Joe Henry

Joe Henry makes a career of celebrating America’s ideals and music in his own unique sound. He wears so many hats — he’s one of American music’s best and most accomplished producers, but I think he’s an even better poet than producer. And THRUM stands shoulder to shoulder with the best titles in his growing catalog of beautiful, meaningful, substantial albums. He sees what is happening in the world so clearly, and with such a sharp conscience, that he could turn his axe into, well, an *axe* and chop down the rotten trees of America’s current corruption — but he is also exemplary in his humility and wisdom, and so he turns his righteous anger inward here, more intent on rooting out the influence of evils in his own heart than in the agendas of those who grieve him. Thus, THRUM is an album about a heart broken by darkness, flowing with light, and intent on growing stronger in the midst of the storm.

Unfortunately, I can’t find my favorite tracks from this record — “Dark is Light Enough,” “Blood of the Forgotten Song,” “Hungry,” or “Keep Us In Song” — on YouTube or elsewhere, so I’ll share this one, which is still fantastic:


3.

Little Fictions

Elbow

This U2 fan cringed through their latest album, which suffered from an overzealousness for charting hits, pleasing everybody, and making a blockbuster. I could feel All the Hot Producers standing around polishing everything until I had to fight for a sense of a personal connection with the material. It sounded like a catalog of commercial-jingle hooks tinkertoyed together by companies rather than artists.

But I’m not here to complain about U2. I’m here to say that I heard Elbow achieve what U2 — and so many other great bands — could still achieve if they focused on sounding like who they are now, as a band in a room, with lyrics that sound like they were carefully and artfully composed instead of cut-and-pasted from a notebook of catchy rhymes and forced to reference the Crisis Headline News of the Day.

Here, Elbow takes the departure of their rock-and-roll drummer as an opportunity to refresh their sound with some electronic energy, and the songs are soaring and soulful expressions of struggles to sustain hope and to become a better human in the context of new love, parenthood, and community. These songs are *musical* — that is, they’re not shiny delivery devices for clever lyrics; they’re allowed to stretch, explore, and develop deep moods like pools worth diving into.

And I’m thrilled to report that the band I hear on this record is the band that I heard live in their recent Seattle stop — an exhilarating show.

This doesn’t feel like a record made by a committee and approved by marketing geniuses. It sounds like a rock band with imaginations as big as their hearts, ready to open their arms to a club full of fans and give everything they have in order to fuel us up for another hard year. I feel so much gratitude listening to this record.


2.

Moonshine Freeze

This Is the Kit

I love Kate Stables’s voice. I love how her compositions begin with seemingly simple riffs and then build into complex interlocking rhythms and layers of sound. I love her playful and minimalist poetry which is both childlike and yet rich with suggestion about hardship and hope. I was hooked by the title track, which I heard on NPR’s All Songs Considered, and then delighted to find that the full album produced by John Parish is a seamless, beautifully sequenced, consistently intoxicating work. I’ve been listening to it every day for weeks without tiring of it.

Watch this Tiny Desk Concert, and I’ll bet you’re hooked too.


1.
Semper Femina
Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s finest record yet is the most satisfying, rewarding record I heard this year. And it’s so strong, she includes it twice on the Deluxe release — a complete live performance that is every bit as strong, if not stronger, than the studio album.

From lyrics to performance to production, this is masterful stuff. It seemed to resonate with me more and more as the year went on and became the year of the “Silence Breakers.” These are not laments about abuse — they are assertions of confidence, independence, intelligence, and strength. The characters on this record have suffered in relationships, yes, and the men seem exploitative and needy by comparison. But Semper Femina is ultimately hopeful in its portraits of women healing and rising up, stronger on their own. The relationships between women in these stories are testimonies of solidarity and expressions of gratitude for good counsel.

The guitars and strings are much more restrained in than in most previous Marling records, and they are always graceful, whether in the playful and knowing nod to the Beatles in “Don’t Pass Me By”; the Nick-Drake-y passion of “The Valley”; the rapid-fire Dylan-esque rhymes of the punchy finale, “Nothing, Not Nearly”; or the way the funky bass line of “Soothing” blooms into lush orchestration to become one of the year’s most addicting and perfectly realized compositions.

This record arrived so quietly that I had no idea it would be the one I’d fallen in love with most deeply by the end of the year. It’s enthralling.

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