Courtesy of the artist
Moses Sumney's Aromanticism was one of Bob's favorite albums this year.
Courtesy of the artist
Moses Sumney's Aromanticism was one of Bob's favorite albums this year.
Courtesy of the artist
Five out of my top 10 albums for 2017 are debuts, and that makes me happy. Moses Sumney, Overcoats, Tom Adams, Gracie and Rachel and ALA.NI all made exceptional first albums, finding a place in my fervent listening over artists I've loved for many more years. In fact, the most senior artist on my list (in terms of album-making) is 27-year-old Laura Marling with her sixth album, Semper Femina.
So I'm hoping you also find something new to fall in love with. That's why I make these lists, and what drives me to read other lists — it's about discovery, not competition. There is no "best" music, but these were my favorites that I'm thrilled to share.
1. Big Thief, 'Capacity'
As I wrote in NPR Music's list of the 50 Best Albums of 2017: "I don't recall the last time I had the same band in my top five albums for two years in a row. But this year's Capacity (my No. 1 album) and last year's Masterpiece(my No. 4 album) did just that. And they were favorite records not because they were innovative, but because they were albums filled with story-songs, with tales of memories that were touching, poetic and thoughtful. 'Mary' recalls the feelings of comfort alongside her grandparents at a time in life when singer Adrienne Lenker needed it most. 'Shark Smile' is the tale of a car crash where one person lives and one dies. We may each want something different from music — when melody and memory tell a tale, I'm in. And right now, no one does it better for me than this band."
2. Aldous Harding, 'Party'
Aldous Harding's second album, Party, was my constant companion in 2017. I first fell for these somewhat disconcerting songs by this New Zealand singer when we premiered her video for "Horizon," a haunting film featuring her mom dancing in an open field. About a month later, Aldous played an outdoor space in Austin, and, it being SXSW, at least three other bands were blasting their sounds nearby. Accompanied only by her own guitar and her keyboard sound-wizard mate, Invisible Familiars (a.k.a. Jared Samuel), she completely transfixed us all. Her stage presence reminded me of an intense version of Charlie Chaplin, with exaggerated facial expressions and body language adding commentary to the songs she sang. As Aldous put it in an interview with NPR Music's Andrew Flanagan, this is an album "about all of the ... tender and frightening thoughts that come with being in love. And growing up, and trying to figure out what the hell it is that you want." The record couldn't be more intimate and transfixing.
3. Moses Sumney, 'Aromanticism'
Aromanticism is about a vibe — a warm, soulful, mysterious sound. The NPR Music team puts this album at No. 14, and as I wrote for our year-end wrap-up, it "explores notions of longing and coexistence, and our modern construct of romance. Inspired by Plato and Aristophanes' account of the origin of humanity, rooted in the fear of loneliness and craving for affection, the album imagines the meaning of life in the absence of love. Moses Sumney told me that he made this record 'about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape. That 'sonic dreamscape' was created over the past three years with horns, the bass of Thundercat and at the center of it all, that voice. He layers those voice tracks, up to 50 at once, and the choral effect is translucent, heart-rending and ethereal, with the backdrop of electronics adding to the harmony. The songs flow from one to another, while his economical use of words makes the 35 minutes of this journey concise and compelling."
4. Overcoats, 'Young'
It's thrilling to know that one of the best albums of 2017 is made by two of the best friends you'll ever witness on a stage. As I wrote when I first talked about this album for our First Listen series: "Overcoats' Young is a record driven by ambition and passion, not craft. That's not to say Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell aren't terrifically talented singers and songwriters: What sets them apart is that I believe them. That the emotion in their harmonies and the space they give each other is filled with compassion. I believe their songs of loneliness and doubt."
Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell unfold sentiments as two friends would share a tale. In the case of the song "Walk On," we go from missing her man to realizing the need to go separate ways to unexpected empathy: "I wrote this down for you / I hope it lets you rest your head / Even though there are words left unsaid / Don't you know that I loved / Every part of it." It's not a bitter ending, but a loving and necessary one. This care, this tenderness, are integral to this minimalist but memorable album.
5. Alt-J, 'Relaxer'
This English band has now made three of my favorite albums of the 21st century. alt-J weaves unimaginable and otherworldly tales. Sometimes their art-rock songs lean heavily on folk traditions — their version of "House Of The Rising Sun" or their inclusion of lines from the Irish tune "The Auld Triangle" on "Adeline" or Shakespearean references in "3WW" come to mind. (That title refers to "3 worn words": "I love you.") And there are also lots of other literary references, including "Pleader," inspired by Richard Llewellyn's book How Green Was My Valley and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. But with all that said, it's the sonic soundscapes that make these eight songs an album worth spending time with; no one makes music like this. Relaxer is choral, quirky and bewildering.
6. Tom Adams, 'Silence'
Who? Tom Adams has a voice that comes along only a few times in a generation — think Jeff Buckley, or Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós. He may have grown up in the flattest part of England, but his haunting piano melodies resemble mountainous terrain, with all its spaciousness and detail. But Tom Adams' life was changed in a courtyard in Berlin in the summer of 2014. It was in that courtyard that pianist and composer Nils Frahm was performing on his new piano, the Una Corda. Frahm invited people in the audience to play something on it and Adams took him up on the offer, managing a spontaneous, jaw-dropping performance.
When I listen Tom Adams' debut album Silence, something I've done often this year, this poignant, atmospheric music seems to slow time. Its stories become part of my landscape, details come into focus in vibrant new ways; ordinary objects along my daily drive, photographs on my desk, become cinematic. If you're looking for a quiet record for these harrowing times, this is it.
7. Laura Marling, 'Semper Femina'
Every two years since she was 18, Laura Marling has put out a brilliant record. Semper Femina, her sixth album, finds the English singer and songwriter spending time in Los Angeles, writing songs sparked by the women she's meeting and reading about. Laura Marling's music encourages critical thinking without telling you how to think, and on this record there are moments that ask us to look at our own make-up and the masculine and feminine inside us all. Musically, Semper Femina is a brilliant mix of rich, searing and restrained guitar tones played by Marling with perfect accompaniment by producer Blake Mills and brilliant orchestrations reminiscent of how producer George Martin added breadth to The Beatles. And of course, on top of it all is that stunning voice.
8. Gracie And Rachel, 'Gracie And Rachel'
Gracie and Rachel are two high school friends from Berkeley, Calif. now making music as roommates in New York City. There's a mix of classical and pop in their music, with Rachel Ruggles on her sonically-treated violin and Gracie Coates doing much of the lead singing and pop-leaning melodies on keyboards. And it's that tension between styles that makes the songs on this album stand out.
9. Weaves, 'Wide Open'
Weaves has all of the markings of a familiar rock band, but what comes out rarely resembles what you'd expect to hear from a drums-guitar-bass-voice quartet. When the Toronto-based group came to NPR recently for a Guest DJ session, I wrote about my love for Morgan Waters' angular guitar playing and the dynamic driving force of the rhythm section. All this great playing fuels the songs that singer Jasmyn Burke sets on fire. Jasmyn is on her own planet, one that's both dauntless in tone and affirming in message. But there are many welcoming moments on Wide Open that can win over a relatively less intrepid listener. The opening track, "#53," will make Bruce Springsteen fans smile, and hopefully draw brave fans to the wild sounds of the more adventurous "Scream," featuring the extraordinary voice of Inuk throat singer and fellow Canadian Tanya Tagaq. Wide Open is a thrill ride worth taking.
10. ALA.NI, 'You & I'
If the 21st century makes you weary, there's ALA.NI to sing you back in time. As I said back in June for our First Listen series: "You won't hear another record that sounds like this one this year, or dare I say this decade. ALA.NI's You & I seems to draw inspiration from Holiday and Garland, but she draws more on the sweetness from Billie and Judy than the pain. Her musical journey is inspired by her great uncle, Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson, a cabaret star in the 1920s and 1930s. Originally from Grenada, he spent time in Harlem, London and Paris, where he recorded songs by Cole Porter, including 'Begin The Beguine.' Like her great uncle, ALA.NI too is influenced by two cities: She's London born but Paris based. 'Cherry Blossom,' the opening track on You & I, is filled with an undeniable yearning. Play it now, and you'll know by the second line if You & I was meant for you in these times."
Honorable Mention: The Beatles, 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Remixed'
I want to give honorable mention to two albums, not to just sneak two more records into my top albums but simply to honor the album both past and present. We take this art form for granted for good reason, it is mostly the way artists put out their music. But for an album to be a great album it can't simply be a great collection of songs for me, it has to have some sort of cohesion, an over-arching tone or theme, that captures a moment in time for the artist. Before 1966 bands would put out not just one, but two or three albums in a single year. They were mostly collections of songs, often with a lot of filler ... cover tunes or not so good tunes. This year marked the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And that record, released in June of 1967, changed forever what I wanted from an album. It marked a moment in time where technology and an art form merged. It was a record full of songs that could only be on that record, it was singular and brilliant.
For the 50th anniversary, Giles Martin, the son Beatles producer George Martin, remixed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was a masterpiece that that brought original intent to light through current technology. 1967 was the beginning of a turning point in record releases. Albums were now coming out in stereo on a regular basis, along with their mono counterparts. But the main sellers were the mono versions, since few people owned stereos capable of reproducing that enveloping two speaker field effect resembling what you'd hear if you were in the studio with the band. So when George Martin mixed Sgt. Pepper he put his time in the mono mix. The stereo mix, the one most available for the past 45 or so years, was mixed almost as an afterthought. And that's why this release is so remarkable. Giles Martin scoured and studied the original mixing notes, then went back to the original tapes to get as close to the original sound as he could. What he recreated must be heard. I wonder if this will become the version that we'll listen to in the coming 50 years. I don't want the old one to go away and nor would Giles, but I think this is the one that gets closer to playful imagination that unfolded at Abbey Road Studios in 1967.
Honorable Mention: Brian Eno, 'Reflection'
My second honorable mention goes to another legend, Brian Eno, and his album Reflection. This album looks to the future of what albums may be. Though there's a standard 75-minute version of this ambient soundscape, the idea fully comes to fruition as an app. It's here where the sound is ever-changing based on written rules, where the length is endless and where the "album art" is also alive and ever changing with eye sucking rectangular pallettes of color morph in time with the music. Album art died with the CD and iTunes Spotify and the rest have failed to uncover the code to bring album art uniquely into the digital age. For his 26th album, Eno is hinting at a possible future and we should all take note: It's astonishing and it's simple.