There’s a lot going on that I’m avoiding writing about. A lot about the world feels ugly and hard right now, and writing about it feels like rubbing against an already raw wound; I’m in between a sermon series on Sex/uality and the Bible and one tailored for our stewardship campaign, so I’m spending a lot of energy talking about two things no one wants to talk about in church: their body and their pocketbook; and then, there’s all of the “What?” and “Why?” and “What if?” questions that are keeping me up at night. For one, Frances McDormand’s dad was a Disciples minister and they lived in Chattanooga during her childhood (at least, according to the Lyin’ New York Times). Why did I not know this? And did they have any connection to my good little congregation?
But instead of writing about all of the things that are keeping me from writing more important things or are keeping me up, counting angels dancing on a pin, I thought I might add a post that is anything but heavy: a list of my favorite albums from 2017.
It’s been a really productive year for a number of my favorite artists, and these are the albums that–in my car, at the gym, while I’m answering emails–have grabbed me, and that I can’t take off repeat. The ranking is not etched in stone. It’s likely to change based on which of these I’ve most recently listened to.
so. here you go:
7. Paramore. After Laughter. I’ll admit, I only listened to this because Jason Isbell (who appears further down on this list) tweeted that he loved the album. They have an 80s-Pop influenced sound that evokes cheesy music videos from the early days of MTV, and despite the fact that that is not usually what I cue up when I’m listening to music, Hayley Williams’ songwriting is killer. “Fake Happy” may be the smartest pop song I’ve ever heard. For proof, check out their Tiny Desk Concert, complete with tiny synthesizer.
6. Ryan Adams. Prisoner. The master of sad songs writes his saddest to date. This album, reflecting on Adams’ divorce from actress Mandy Moore, dives into his insecurities, depression, and regrets. The most vulnerable moments allude to his infamous self-destructiveness and emotional fragility. It’s not an album to turn to when you’re already sad, and though it’s not my favorite of his albums, the songwriting is strong. However, one of the reasons I’m not ranking it higher is that while Adams is good at interior emotional exploration, his songwriting doesn’t really examine social realities outside of his own relationship and other struggles. Maybe that’s not his thing, and that’s okay. I have more of a need for a social conscience this year, though, and I’d be curious to see him do that. He’s a gifted storyteller, so I’d be curious to see how he might utilize that gift to do more social critique.
5. Josh Ritter, The Gathering. A really lovely album. I pre-ordered this, so I got to hear a couple of tracks as they were released early. “Showboat” was the first to arrive, and it made me nervous–it’s a tongue-in-cheek song about missing an old love, a type of song that Ritter is good at writing, but because he has frequently written clever songs like this and this, using mummies and nuclear catastrophe to talk about breakups, and a whole album about his divorce, I cynically asked myself if he was going to become a version of Taylor Swift, and only write songs about his exes. The Gathering, though, covers much more ground than that. He collaborates with Bob Weir on the gospelish “When Will I Be Changed?” offers some playful rollickin’ country-fried tunes, and includes a couple of lovely instrumentals that evoke some of the best of American traditional music.
4. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway. A classically trained singer and multi-instrumantalist who fronted the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a number of years, Giddens has carved out a reputation as someone who not only performs Americana music, but innovates, writing and interpreting the genre’s history and importance in this very divided United States of America. Freedom Highway, as a collection, highlights the African-American experience from Slavery to the era of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. She writes harrowing stories fearlessly–The title track, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” begins with a heart-like drum beat and hits the horrors of slavery straight on, and “Better Get it Right The First Time” takes on racial profiling and its often violent consequences. Love songs and laments, and an instrumental remembrance of The Underground Railroad fill the rest of the album’s contents. Not long after she was invited to join the likes of Elvis Costello in “The New Basement Tapes,” I heard an interview with Giddens where she referred to herself as a “baby songwriter.” With Freedom Highway, Giddens can no longer get away with that humblebrag.
3. The National, Sleep Well Beast. It’s hard to beat 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, but this is a great album. Two Tracks, “Walk it Back,” and “The System Dreams in Total Darkness” became immediate favorites of mine and while I was initially lukewarm on the title track, I found myself putting on repeat when I ran errands one Sunday afternoon. Anthemic, Melancholy Dad Rock works best for them, so I’m not as big on “Turtleneck” but the rest of the album serves to create the dark ambiance the title suggests. And while, yes, the same critique I made of Ryan Adams could be made of the songwriting, their vulnerability and interiority doesn’t seem to hold them back, but propel The National forward.
2. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. It’s a short list of artists who crank out three albums of as high quality as Isbell’s Southeastern, Something More than Free, and The Nashville Sound. The best storyteller on this list, Isbell crafts characters, autobiographical confessionals, and even finds a way to beautifully call his buddy Ryan Adams (I don’t mean to keep harping on Adams, but he makes it easy) to task in “Chaos and Clothes”. “Last of My Kind” and “Something to Love” bookend this album nicely, “White Man’s World” deconstructs Dixie in a way only an Alabaman in diaspora can, and the gorgeous “If We Were Vampires” is a once-in-a-lifetime writing achievement about a once-in-a-lifetime love. This is a great album, and in any other year, it’d be my number one. But, by a hair, I have another favorite.
1. Hurray For the Riff Raff, The Navigator. This Album, Guys. THIS. ALBUM. While I love the evocative introduction, and I think “Living in the City” is a great opening tune, the bass guitar echo that begins “Hungry Ghost” is where this album begins for me. Alynda Segarra blends her punk roots with a vision of Americana that, like Giddens’, tells more immigration stories than just that of Western Expansion, and brings Nuyorican moxie and political struggle to the conversation. “Fourteen Floors,” about her father’s experience living in a high rise not long after arriving in New York is gorgeous, and “Pa’lante” (“Forward” or “Go For it”), which is a Call to Power that includes a recording of Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” will knock you over. Segarra’s defiance is at the heart of this album, whether she’s singing a tender lament or throwing her fist in the air.
So far, a good year for music, y’all. Let me know what you think–and let me know: What did you love that I miss? What did I love that you hated? Did I get anything right?