Friday, August 31, 2018

McQ's Best Of 2017 Vol 1 - Best Of The Best

2017, like many of the music years that have immediately preceded it, continued to reinforce one school of thought - in the music era we are presently in, genuine classic albums are getting harder and harder to come by, but if you look just below that tier, excellence is everywhere.

To that point, I only discovered three albums in 2017 that I felt were worthy of a Highest Recommend - LCD Soundsystem's American Dream, The War On Drugs' A Deeper Understanding, and Kamasi Washington's Harmony Of Difference EP - and not one of those three albums will land near the top of my best of the decade list, but overall, 2017 was probably my favorite music year of the last half-decade, and produced the most Strong recommend albums I've hit upon since 2010.

Bottomline, there's a lot of exciting music coming in these 2017 mixes.

We'll dive into the year's trends as we get into the themed mixes, but for now let's just kick start 2017 today as we did 1977 yesterday, with the 2017 edition of Best Of The Best.


1. Green Light - Lorde: Starting off on an upbeat, pop note. May be to mainstream for some but I adore this song, as well as the album, Melodrama, it opens. The production on Melodrama by Bleacher's frontman Jack Antonoff was off-the-charts, full of fascinating contemporary tricks, and I don't think I've gotten so caught up in a young woman's crazed personal life narrative on album this much since Lily Allen's Alright, Still in 2006. That, and this song is simply the catchiest thing I heard all year.

2. Pure Comedy - Father John Misty: This may the best song of the year, best lyrical effort of the year with the one possible exception of Kendrick Lamar's Damn for sure.  But a caveat: This wickedly cynical and forcefully argued atheistic song, which traces most of today's political woes all the way back to the dawn of humankind through our evolutionary roots, will seriously offend some. You've been warned.

3. Young Lady, You're Scaring Me - Ron Gallo: Ron Gallo is just another irreverent, snarky, Paul Westerberg-styled rocker starting to cut his teeth in 1 pm small tent festival slots around the country, so it's possible we may never hear from him again. But damn if this silly number about a young man's conflicting worry over and attraction to his goth girlfriend's disturbing occult obsessions isn't the best garage rocker I've heard in ages. 

4. Diving Woman - Japanese Breakfast: In addition to 2017 being  dominated by women (I know I've made that claim before, but this is the first year I've actually included a higher percentage of songs by women than men), we're also seeing the promising emergence of a number of Asian-American artists who are bringing an exciting new twist on some age old rock and pop tropes.  Japanese Breakfast's eclectic bedroom-pop album Soft Sounds From Another Planet was a great example of this, one of the best indie albums of 2017, and opens with the to-die-for shoegaze track Diving Woman here, a song that hits an irresistible jangle pop groove and rides it so well you'll never want it to end.

5. Other Voices - LCD Soundsystem: After a seven-hiatus, LCD Soundsystem returned with a vengeance in 2017, delivering possibly their strongest collection of songs ever, and my choice for album of the year, with American Dream.  Since all but one or two tracks on the album are great, this is another song selection that  came down purely to what track from the album worked best with this mix, which ended up being the Us V. Them-styled Other Voices

6. Shark Smile - Big Thief: We'll get way more into this in another mix, but one of 2017's biggest trends was the emergence of an army of young female singer-songwriters who have come to recognize a new reality in today's music world: In the streaming/headphones era - quiet and intimate plays more impactfully than big and loud. No band in 2017 captured this budding devotion to quiet better than Big Thief on their at times breathtaking sophomore effort Capacity, even though the song I include here is basically the album's rowdiest track, an odd, surprisingly effervescent take on the last glance between two people before a fatal car crash.

7. Masseduction - St. Vincent: St. Vincent just continues to get better, and the title track here is a great example of the searing, vibrant electro-rock that powers the bulk of her catch-phrase-loaded ("I can't turn off what turns me on!") fifth release, my new favorite in her discography.

8. Up All Night - The War Drugs: If there is a rival for album of the year honors in 2017, imho it isn't Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize winning Damn, but The War On Drugs A Deeper Understanding. A fascinating album, it's not nearly as immediate as the band's previous effort, Lost In The Dream, which ran away with the 2014's year-end polls. A lot of the songs on Understanding have a super basic four-four propulsion to them that can feel pedestrian at first, and band leader Adam Grunduciel, while actually quite passionate and soulful on this album, is never going to win an award for male vocalist of the year. But then the instrumentation and the arrangements and the production touches kick in and this album becomes the greatest thing ever. I am dead serious when I say that with a little more perspective, I can see A Deeper Understanding being looked back on as the best produced album of all time, just as Oliver Stone's JFK continues to be referenced as the gold standard for film editing to this day. The way Grunduciel elegantly weaves seemingly hundreds of instruments and distortion effects in and out of the deep background layers of these mixes is nothing short of miraculous. A mandatory headphone listen for sure. Oh, and Grunduciel is also one of this era's most transcendent guitarists, as the midpoint and closing solos on Up All Night make abundantly clear.

9. I Dare You - The Xx: Ten years in, after crafting multiple albums of the most mature, adult sounding music to be found anywhere in the electro-pop landscape, The Xx finally discover their youthful, romantic yearnings just as the band members near thirty. While still not loud, third full-length effort I See You is the band's most exuberant release to date, and I Dare You captures this new spirit as well as any song on the album.

10. Heel / Heal - Idles: Man, watch out for Idles over the next few years! Their debut full-length Brutalism laid out some of the nastiest, archly political Joe Strummer-y punk I've heard in some time, and early word on their just released follow up Joy As An Act Of Resistance is it's a serious 2018 album of the year contender. We'll hit a few more of Brutalisms scream-truth-to-power tracks over the course of this 2017 collection, but for this mix here, I ignored message and just went with the track that had the hardest visceral punch.

11. Knowledge - Kamasi Washington: After blowing minds with the sheer expansiveness of his wondrous debut, 2015's three-disc, three-hour-plus statement of purpose The Epic, which almost single handedly reintroduced jazz to the millennial generation, LA-based saxophonist Washington went in the opposite direction for his 2017 follow up, the Harmony Of Difference EP.  Though there are 6 tracks spread out across Harmony's brief 31-minute run time, the EP is really just an extended exploration of one song, album closer Truth.  The first five tracks, then, are preparatory fusion-styled reworkings of one each of Truth's five main counter melodies, and it's a fascinating listening experience to take in the five component numbers first, then hear them all come together at the EP's end. Knowledge isolates the third of the five core melodies, but I guarantee it's not the only track we'll be hearing from this stunning EP.

12. The System Only Dream In Total Darkness - The National: A Pitchfork review a few years back nailed how this band of Ohioans has been able to maintain such remarkable consistency and emerge as one of the very best acts of the past decade without ever drastically changing their style. For all the marital power in the Devendorf Brother's rhythm section, or all the charisma in Matt Berringer's moody, baritone croon, it's the Dessner twins ability to keep coming up with an ceaseless supply of subtle guitar surprises that have kept The National sounding fresh for so long. This song, my favorite from 2017's Sleep Well Beast, with its aggressively spikey signature guitar accent, is a spot-on example of that talent. 

13. Evening Prayer - Jens Lekman: God bless Jens Lekman.  Outside of Elbow's Guy Garvey, is there a warmer personality working in the industry today than this sensitive, disco-crooning Swede.  Or an artist that more consistently finds the strangest of lyrical entry points to get to the most life-affirming of emotional truths. In the past we've profiled Jens riding in cabs driven by pyscho-killers, spilling beers on the atmosphere, ruminating on the love life of Rocky Dennis, arguing out loud with himself in the streets of Stockholm, and pretending to be the straight fiance of his lesbian best friend Nina when her father comes to town.  This time we start with a 3D printed model of a cancer tumor, but as is usually the case with Jens' songs, Evening Prayer ends someplace endearingly good-natured that brings a smile to your heart at the same time it brings a tear to your eye. 

14. Feel - Kendrick Lamar: Though the undisputed king of hip-hop right now, I did not respond to Lamar's latest album of the year winner on quite the same level I did to his previous two near masterpieces. But Damn is still an amazing album, a touch less interesting and more mainstream musically than what's come before, but stunningly produced and flat-out brilliant on a conceptual and lyrical level in its deep exploration of the Book of Deuteronomy, modern day sin, and the need to return to more godly ways if we are to improve our society and find redemption. Though the album has its share of bangers, all of which were huge hits, it was the mournful acid-jazz-anchored tracks - Feel, Love, Pride, XXX, God, Fear - that struck me most, so I went with personal favorite Feel here, which lays bare one of the album's central conceits, Lamar's sad belief that while he and by extension his African-American community are continually praying for the betterment of the world, no one in the world is praying for them.

15. Real Death - Mount Eerie: So you may have caught wind recently of actress Michelle Williams marrying some indie-artist you've never heard of. Well, that artist was Phil Elverum, who often records under the moniker Mount Eerie, and once you take a listen to this song and the album on which it was originally released,  keeping in mind that Heath Ledger passed not long after Williams had given birth to their child, this new marriage will make perfect sense.  But to back up a bit, the last 12 years have produced an amazing run of exceptional albums focused exclusively on death. Rosanne Cash's Black Cadillac, The Antlers' Hospice, Sun Kil Moon's Benji, and Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree, just to name a few.  Now it's time to add Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me to the list. Recorded just weeks after the death of his first wife Genevieve Castree to pancreatic cancer two-plus years ago, Crow is the sparest and possibly the most haunting of all the titles mentioned above. The music in many ways exists almost an afterthought - it's just Elverum, alone with his thoughts and his acoustic guitar, ruminating on the overwhelming sense of absence that's suddenly taken over the rural mountain home he now shares with only his one-year-old daughter. It's a profoundly experiential album everyone should hear at least once, but for many, once will be all they can take. It's that devastating a listen.

16. Silver - Waxahatchee: All right, enough with the sadness and despair of the last few tracks. This is just a super fun indie rocker from the talented Katie Crutchfield, who always seems to produce at least one home-run track with each new release that is a shoe-in for inclusion on Nancy's Favorites or Best Of The Best.  This year was no exception.

17. Baby Blue - Wolf Parade: There were times in 2017 when it felt like every major indie act of the last twenty years came out with a later career return to form release, and American Dream aside, none excited me more than Wolf Parade's Cry Cry Cry.  After a long hiatus, the oddball prog-new wave Canadians returned with all their passion and characteristic quirks intact, but added to the mix a newfound appreciation for epic, anthemic endings. It's no exaggeration to say that several of the best song endings of the year can be found on Cry Cry Cry, and the absolutely bonkers final three minutes of this bizarre but awesome prog-rocker Baby Blue are proof positive of the claim. 

18. Got Soul - Valerie June: Valerie June has to be one of the most intriguing singer-songwriter / soul artists working today, and her second major label release The Order Of Time, especially its almost perfect back half, is a revelation. Chock full of leisurely, ethereal ballads that hit as softly as morning dew, there's an indescribable spiritual otherworldliness to most of the album, and on the few occasions when June decides to ratchet up the energy, as she does here on Got Soul, her unusual Appalachian drawl has this delicious tendency to linger a beat too long over every note in a way I just cannot get enough of. One of 2017's best albums for sure. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

McQ's Best Of 1977 Vol 1 - BEST OF THE BEST

1977.  What a year in music!

Or just like Muddy says in the song that opens this year's retrospective collection - "Oh, Yeah!"

After spending the last 13 months listening down to the best this pivotal year in rock's evolution has to offer, I think the quote that summarizes 1977 best actually came three-fourths of a century earlier, in Charles Dicken's A Tale Of Two Cities, that being...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

On the excitement front, punk and to a lesser degree new wave exploded in 1977, in what probably remains the single greatest year for the genre.  Reggae was smack dab in the middle of incredibly fruitful late 70s period. Fleetwood Mac proved that just because their rock was soft and accessible didn't mean it couldn't be great, and in bars and roadhouses and pubs around the world, bands were following Springsteen's lead in showing there was still plenty of gold to be mined from rock tradition. Disco, on the heels of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, was enjoying one last year of peak popularity before its precipitous demise, and off in Europe, especially Berlin, the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, Jean Michael Jarre, Cerrone, and Giorgio Moroder were crafting a set of radically new sonic palettes that in the final analysis might have been 1977's most influential work of all.

On the downside, there was a seemingly bottomless supply of dreck in 1977 as well, most of it hugely popular at the time.

Prog rock had devolved from an already suspect start a decade earlier into an at times comically bad (but also in some way endearing) bastardized, Americanized AM form. Hard rock and Heavy Metal, while immensely popular and not without signature albums and classic singles during the year, was overall closing in on the bottom of the well as to just how dumb and juvenile music could be (and not in a good way like The Ramones).  And Pop, dear lord, Pop music completely lost its bounce in 1977, clearing the way for a barrage of cringe-inducing singer-songwriter ballads, cross-over country duds, and bland midtempo soft-rockers, every last one of them slathered in what just might be the worst guitar tone trends of any rock 'n' roll era from the 1950s to present day.

So yeah, I don't think there's another year in rock history that was so over-the-top loaded with both brilliance and cheese, vision and inanity, in such equal measure, and over the next fourteen volumes we'll take a listen to and celebrate it all.

But first, as always, before diving into the themed mixes, we start with a mix of tracks representing my very favorite singles and albums of the year.

So here we go, the 1977 edition of Best Of The Best....

On The Songs:

1. Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters: Like many of you, I've always loved this song, but I had no idea this iconic version was actually a late career redo of an earlier Chess recording. Taken from the fantastic, down and dirty, Johnny Winter-produced Hard Again, while not a song one normally associates with 1977, it just felt like the perfect collection opener.

2. Psycho Killer - Talking Heads: One can argue which version is better, the original here from the band's debut, or the ace live version recorded for Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense seven years later, but at the end of the day there is just no denying this early new wave classic, or the equally fantastic quirky gem of an album on which it arrived.

3. Sheep - Pink Floyd: I'm probably in the minority here, but the Roger Waters dominated riff on Orwell's Animal Farm that is Animals has always been my second favorite Floyd album after Dark Side Of The Moon.  It just works a little more consistently for me on a musical level than Floyd's other classics like Pipers, Wish You Were Here, or The Wall. As to why I choose Sheep over the equally excellent Dogs or Pigs, that's a secret only a select few of my best college friends will ever know.

4. Teenage Lobotomy - The Ramones: The Ramones 1976 self-titled debut usually lands higher in the all-time polls, but I've always felt the more tuneful and playful Rocket To Russia was the band's apex. Most of the songs on Rocket went on to form the soundtrack for the Roger Cormen cult classic Rock and Roll High School two years later, and amongst all the puerile greatness found on the album, with apologies to Sheena Is A PunkTeenage Lobotomy has always stood out to me as the band's single finest and most quintessential song, the ultimate musical personification of young male stupidity.

5. Brick House - The Commodores: Yeah, I know. The lyrical focus here ain't exactly a good fit with 2017.  But at the end of the day, with the possible exception of Parliament's Flashlight, was a better funk groove laid down to vinyl in 1977, with cooler funk vocals?  I think not.

6. Alison - Elvis Costello: My favorite comment I've ever read about Elvis Costello came in a Rolling Stone retrospective some years back, in which the writer opined that few rock artists have ever emerged so fully formed as Costello.  Armed with an innate mastery of just about every trick in the rock 'n' roll playbook, this album, which so dexterously straddle punk rock, new wave, pub rock, and trad rock was an instant classic, and in the bittersweet Alison, it's only ballad, produced one of the most timelessly romantic songs of the era, even though that romanticism is actually conveyed through the prism of a failed romance.

7. See No Evil - Television: Of all the punk acts to emerge in 1977, Television is without question the most unusual and atypical. Their songs were neither short nor particularly political or angry, and unlike most of the other punk acts of the day, they could flat-out play. They felt no disdain for the guitar solo either... hell, they jammed, leading many in the day to consider them the "Grateful Dead" of the New York punk scene. And yet, with their knotted, twisted, jazz-inflected guitar attack and twitchy, nasally vocals, there was still something decidedly punk about them.  The epic ten-minute title track has always been the cut historians latch onto from this landmark album, but for me, the highlight has always been the album's opener included here.  Along with Teenage Lobotomy and Alison and a pair of tracks to come later in this mix, See No Evil is one of my personal all-time top fifty songs.

8. Solsbury Hill - Peter Gabriel: The last song to make the cut on this mix, Solsbury Hill was the first single of Gabriel's solo career, released just a short time after leaving Genesis. Not surprisingly, given where Gabriel was at this moment, a sense of reflection, taking stock, and hope for the future dominates the song, and that sense struck a chord with listeners as well.  It would remain Gabriel's most popular song until the album So blew up the charts nine years later.

9. Submission - The Sex Pistols: "Submission over Anarchy?" you say. "Are you crazy?" No I am not. Not because Anarchy isn't the best song on this all-time classic that has aged way better than it has any right to, but because Anarchy was first released as a single midway through 1976, and is presently considered in consensus polls the #1 song of that year.  I will occasionally steal from the year prior for these mixes when the song actually peaked on the charts in the year under consideration, as I do on an upcoming disco mix with Disco Inferno and A Fifth Of Beethoven, but not the overall #1 song of a different year. That left a tight four way race between this track, Holiday In The Sun, God Save The Queen, and Pretty Vacant, and Submission just worked the best here.

10. Go Your Own Way - Fleetwood Mac: While possibly the finest song Lindsay Buckingham ever wrote for Fleetwood Mac, Go Your Own Way is just one of so many songs I could have gone with here to represent what has arguably proven over time to be the greatest and most enduring soft rock record ever.

11. Complete Control - The Clash: Though included on the 1979 American re-release of the Clash's self-titled debut, Complete Control was originally released as a single, which meant, in keeping with British tradition of the era, that it could not appear on the original UK release of the album. Regardless, this song is an awesome representation of the fierce political fire that hallmarked so many of the Clash's early recordings.

12. One Love / People Get Ready - Bob Marley And The Wailers: Damn, does this song come from one unbelievable reggae album - could Exodus be top three all-time in the genre along with The  Harder The Come soundtrack and the Wailers own earlier effort Burning? Maybe. But what's most interesting here is how much warmer the tone of this album is compared to that earlier Wailer efforts.  The political side still surfaces from time to time, but most of this album is focused on togetherness and community and celebration. Like Rumors, could've gone with so many tracks from this album, but this track so nails the album's open-armed, communal vibe that in the end I had to go with it.

13. Stayin' Alive - The Bee Gees: I'll be the first to admit I'm not the world's biggest disco fan, but excluding a cut from this album on 1977's Best Of The Best would be like excluding a track from Sgt. Pepper's or Thriller in their respective years, and of all the cuts on this soundtrack, as fun as so many are, and with the one possible exception of Disco Inferno, Stayin' Alive is the clear standout.

14. Annie - Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane: The most underrated album of 1977. Easy call.  Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's Rough Mix. As the title implies, it's basically a grab bag of  Lane and Townshend songs with little interplay between the two artists, but despite the album's scattershot nature, it really hangs together. Many of the Townshend songs- Keep Me TurningMy Baby Gives It Away, the comical ditty Misunderstood, and the blazing instrumental title track - rank among his best solo efforts,  but it's the rustic, plaintive Lane ballads, built around his one-of-a-kind carnival barker voice, that really brings the magic, and of those tracks, Annie here is the most indelible of all, another one of my personal all-time top 50 songs.

15. Lust For Life - Iggy Pop: 1977 was the biggest year of Iggy Pop's post-Stooges career, the year in which he released not just his best solo effort ever, represented by the title track here, but also the second best album of his solo career, the aptly named, David Bowie produced The Idiot, which we'll visit in depth in a later mix.

16. Paradise By The Dashboard Light - Meat Loaf: Okay, maybe another controversial choice here, a song and album that has many detractors, but I stand the choice. I've always found this song to be one of the all-time camp classics, very much of a piece with the work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show Meat Loaf did a year or two earlier, and however silly some may find this song, I think the dynamics as it shifts from passage to passage, including legendary baseball announcer Phil Rizzuto's double-entendre call, which he claimed (falsely by most accounts) to not know how it would be used when he recorded it, are just exceptionally well executed.

17. Heroes - David Bowie: As with Iggy, 1977 was a monster year for Bowie, after retreating to Berlin with Brian Eno to produce a pair of incredibly influential half avant-garde pop/half instrumental  albums, Low and the follow up Heroes, that as alluded to above, pretty much created the "skronky" electronic vocabulary for so many electronic and synth acts to follow. Low is generally regarded in most circles as the edgier and better of the two albums, and it may be, but I've always preferred the slightly more accessible Heroes and it's staggeringly great title track, possibly the high point in the entirety of Bowie's massive catalog, and the last of my personal all-time top 50 tracks to land on this mix.