Sunday, January 28, 2018

Top 10 Local Albums of 2017

Well, it's that time of the year again, when I (finally) post my Best Of music lists for 2017.

I'm still working through my Top 20 Songs list -- finalizing what tracks to include, and what order to put them in. But I've got my album lists together, so I'm going to go ahead and start posting them, and hopefully, I'll be done with my Songs list by the end of this week.

I left myself a good suggestion when I did last year's lists, and that was to reverse my previous practice, and post my Top 10 Local Albums list before my Top 10 Albums. The reason for this is suspense: If I post my Top 10 Albums list first, it's pretty obvious that any local albums that are on it are going to also make my Top 10 Local Albums list as well. If I do it the other way around, you have no way to tell how many, if any, of these albums will be also make the Top 10 Albums overall. I don't think I've ever had a year when none of my Top 10 Local Albums made the overall Best Albums list, but who knows, this year could be the first time. Last year, there was only one album that made both lists, although it happened that that one was also #1 on both (it was Bayside's Vacancy album). And even if the top few albums on this list also make the overall list, you won't know how high they are by reading this one first, so we'll reserve a little mystery.

A few words about the rules, as I've changed them a little this year. What is eligible: It has to be a full-length album of at least 7 songs (unless you've got one or more epic-length songs). No EPs. It also has to be all by one artist -- no compilations. The change is that this year, for the first time, I've had to grudgingly change with the times. While I still greatly, greatly (did I say greatly?) prefer hard copies of an album on CD, this year, if there was an album by an artist I really felt needed to be included for consideration, and there was nothing available to me but a digital copy, I've allowed it be included. I'm less likely to take a flyer on a digital-only album for an artist I'm not familiar with, or one I'm only so-so on. But I realize that it's much cheaper for bands and artists to release a digital album than it is to press a bunch of CDs, and I know that as the years go by, more and more albums will be released in digital-only versions. So reluctant as I am to do so, this year, some digital-only albums have been included.

In 2017, I listened to almost 95 albums to put together these lists, not counting EPs and compilations, which is ridiculous -- I'm really planning to cut that number down in 2018. I tried to include a variety of genres, but my tastes are what they are -- I like classical, but no classical albums were included. I don't much like pure hip-hop or jazz -- I just don't enjoy/understand those genres -- and this year, no pure jazz or hip-hop was included (although certainly some jazz and hip-hop influenced rock was.) I listened to a few metal or metalish albums this year, but none of them made either of my Top Album lists. I did listen to some country or country-rock albums in 2017. But the majority of the new albums I listened to this past year fell somewhere on the rock/alternative/folk/pop spectrum.

As for the definition of the word "local", I try to keep it very loose. For the purposes of picking a Top 10 Local Albums list, here's what I consider "local": 1. Long Island, for sure; 2. The 5 boroughs of NY (especially Brooklyn, where a lot of Long Island bands have run off to); 3. Sometimes Jersey or a little ways upstate, if the mood takes me. (I'm not giving away money or anything, so I kind of get to make up the rules as I go along). Also, if a band or artist spent a decent amount of time living on and playing on Long Island or in the City in the past, they get to qualify, even if they've moved to another area of the country.

My overall feeling is that 2017 was a strong year for music, stronger certainly than 2016. Consequently, because each album list only has ten slots, a lot of very good albums fell by the wayside this year. In terms of this Top 10 Local Albums of 2017, there were at least ten other albums I would have been proud to have on this list. I briefly considered expanding it to a Top 20 list, but 1) I don't need to make more work for myself, and 2) My experience is that that's not the case every year -- 2017 happened to be exceptional. So I kept the Top 10 format.

So without further blathering ... um, I mean ado, in reverse order, are my Top 10 Local Albums of 2017:

Top 10 Local Albums of 2017

10. Pete Mancini - Foothill Freeway

Pete is the lead singer/songwriter of the local Americana band Butchers Blind. This is his first solo album. He's a good songwriter with a great voice. He's got some terrific tracks on here, the best of them being the song that leads off the album, "Sweethearts of the Rodeo", a catchy country-tinged tune that city (and suburban) folks can enjoy as well.

9. Gogol Bordello - Seekers and Finders

This is a "gypsy-punk" band from the Lower East Side of Manhattan that has been in existence since the late '90s. They played out here once last year at The Space in Westbury, but unfortunately I missed them. The band mixes gypsy, punk and dub, and incorporates accordions and violins into their music. This is their tenth studio album, and it's fast-paced and filled with examples of their unique sense of humor.

8. The Nancy Atlas Project - Cut and Run

The Nancy Atlas Project is a band from the East End of Long Island that can often be found playing venues like The Stephen Talkhouse. They're basically an Americana/countryish band, but they mix in some other styles on this album, including Hawaiian. The best song here, though, is a seven-minute-long sea shanty that tells a stirring (and true) story about the rescue of a missing fisherman, called "The Tale of Johnny Load".

7. The Movielife - Cities in Search of a Heart

This album marks the welcome return after a 14-year absence of the Baldwin pop punk band The Movielife. Normally, I lean towards melodic voices rather than gruff ones, but somehow the projects of lead singer Vinny Caruano (who's also the lead singer for I Am the Avalanche) always seem to end up on my Top 10 lists. My favorite song here is a track called "Lake Superior".

6. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister - Planetarium

This is a concept album written by composer Nico Muhly that was originally commissioned by a Dutch concert hall. Muhly collaborated with Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for The National. (McAister is the drummer from Stevens' touring band).  The music is mostly low-key and atmospheric, and all of the songs are inspired by the various planets, moons and stars of the solar system. Many of them also incorporate bits of Greek and Roman mythology.

5. Torres - Three Futures

Torres (aka MacKenzie Scott) is a Brooklyn-based indie artist (originally from Georgia) with a chocolate-rich voice. Her 2015 album Sprinter made my Top 10 Local Albums list from that year. Her music is often quiet but intense. She doesn't fit into the traditional singer/songwriter mold -- there's a lot of synth included in her songs. My favorite track on here is an ardent-but-restrained number called "Righteous Woman".

4. Neil Cavanagh - City of the Sun, Valley of the Moon

I reviewed this album on this blog a few weeks ago. Neil is a Queens/Long Island native who loves to experiment with guitar and synthesizer sounds. He wrote, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered this project himself. It's a great album full of amiable psychedelic rock sounds that makes me think of Todd Rundgren. My favorite track is a gentle ode to a place I remember well from my own childhood, "The Gates of Crocheron Park".

3. Brand New - Science Fiction

Yes, these guys have gotten a lot of bad press lately for a scandal allegedly involving the sexual exploitation of a minor by lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Jesse Lacey, and given that this was intended to be the band's farewell song anyway, I doubt we'll be hearing from them again. But basing my appraisal of the LP solely on the music, this album is a stunning achievement, especially given that the band has been MIA for the last eight years. It bounces back and forth from quiet and creepy to manic and frightening in a heartbeat, and it plays like something of a nightmare that you can't wake up from. If they had to go, this was a great swan song.

2. Matisyahu - Undercurrent

This is an album I reviewed over the summer by former Brooklynite (and White Plains native) Matisyahu. It's a very spiritual work that mixes elements of reggae, hip-hop, jam rock and jazz that was created by gradually honing a series of improvisational songs into a more coherent whole. It's a work of great musical depth and positive energy. My favorite track here is the first one, "Step Out Into the Light".

1. The Magnetic Fields - 50 Song Memoir

I consider Stephin Merritt to be one of the best songwriters of our age, and this album is a dazzling return to form for him. It's a five-disc, 50-song concept album that features one song for every year of Merritt's life. I'll admit, I was almost dreading this project beforehand, because I wasn't sure if the man still had it in him to pull off something this ambitious, but I was wrong. I can't claim that every song is a winner, but the percentage of good songs to throwaways is high, and with tracks like "A Cat Called Dionysius", "Have You Seen It in the Snow?" and "A Serious Mistake", this is clearly this band's best album since the equally impressive 69 Love Songs in 1999.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this list. I hope that maybe you see something interesting here that you weren't necessarily familiar with and that you check it out.

Coming tomorrow (hopefully), my overall Top 10 Albums of 2017. Will some of these albums make that list as well? Read it and find out.