Courtney Barnett / Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
This one ended up being my favorite of 2017. At first I laughed at it sounding exactly as expected: witty yet abstract observational songs about writing songs and playing guitar. Then it grew and grew into something warm and fuzzy all over - just what was needed this year. It's debatable as to whether Lotta Sea Lice is more like a Courtney Barnett album or a Kurt Vile album. Let's just say it's the perfect mixture of both influences. The drumming on here is great, by the way.
The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding could pass for an ahead of its time 1986 album by a German band trying to sound American. Its expansive, 66-minute running time follows a pretty consistent path throughout, relying more on atmosphere and sonic delivery than on variations in song form and time signatures. The overall mood is one of cautious optimism.
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Small Town
Small Town might now be my all time favorite Bill Frisell record on account of song selection, demeanor, instrumentation, arrangements, and more. This is an intimate live album of just Bill Frisell, guitar and Thomas Morgan, bass from a March 2016 run at the Village Vanguard. The sound is clean and sparse, occasionally adorned by the clinking of cocktail glasses. Not since East/West has Bill's artistry been so clear. Thomas Morgan's impeccable bass accompaniment is subtle and psychic.
Ches Smith's We All Break - We All Break
Primarily a percussion album, We All Break combines traditional Haitian drumming with the avant-garde. The band/concept of We All Break is the creation of Ches Smith, a New York city based jazz drummer. Smith composed this music for drumset, two hand percussionists and acoustic piano, and recruited Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz - two of his early traditional music mentors - to play the rada and petwo tanbou (Haitian drums) alongside adventurous piano player Matt Mitchell. Success!
Jenny Scheinman - Here on Earth
It is one thing to compose new fiddle tunes, it's a whole 'nother thing to do so from a place of legitimate inspiration that elevates such a traditional practice into an artform. The music on Here on Earth was inspired by footage captured between 1936 to 1942 by a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, taking short movies of ordinary, small town folks living through the Great Depression.
Conor Oberst - Salutations
Over half of Salutations is a re-do of 2016's brooding solo demo Ruminations. All ten songs from Ruminations plus seven additional ones make up Salutations, now with more polished full-band folk-rock arrangements (thanks to the Felice Brothers). It's boozy, dark and druggy. Not really a background music kind of album. Best for listening with your full attention, hanging on every word.
Afro-Zen Allstars - Greatest HitsReady to groove? Then check out this release by Richmond, Virginia's Afro-Zen Allstars. Despite its title, Greatest Hits is the studio debut by this 8-piece+ that channels the psychedelic-soul sounds of 1960's/70's Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. With horns at the forefront, Afro-Zen Allstars' tunes frequently jump out out of the gates with arresting melodies, but also have a way of settling into reflective jams - hence the "zen" part of the band name. The all star band members are cut and pasted from several renowned RVA groups of the past and present, including Bio Ritmo, No BS! Brass, Hotel X, Rattlemouth, and more.
Greg Saunier/Mary Halvorson/Ron Miles - New American Songbooks, Volume 1
Recorded for the magazine Sound American, this concept album documents a first-time meeting between cornetist Ron Miles, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and guitarist Mary Halvorson. The idea was to suggest new standards for the American Songbook: songs with simple, catchy and easy-to-sing melodies that were open to interpretation. Selections include pieces by Elliott Smith, the Partridge Family and from the score to Star Wars. The instruments function well together and no one musician outshines the other.
Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
I had a thing for trumpets, world fusion and vibraphones this year. All three of those elements combine on this album by London-based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed. On La Saboteuse, Ahmed takes modal style jamming and applies it to middle eastern scales, and then adds a level of modern production acumen beyond what you might expect from jazz.
WOLF! - 1-800 WOLF!
This actually came out in October 2016 but I didn't hear it until this year. On record, WOLF! explores guitar driven micro-jams over simple themes inspired by surf rock and spy movie / spaghetti western soundtracks. Nothing too complex here or overly serious. Lots of fun. I bet they can really take these out there live.