Best Albums Of 2017: Two Views

For the 9th consecutive year, two music loving septuagenarians set out to prove that “you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll” by sharing what they consider to be the greatest albums of 2017.

 Dr. J’s Top 20 Albums (in alphabetical order by artist name)

Mental IllnessMental IllnessAimee Mann“Mental Illness”. Comprised of beautiful, somber, acoustic songs featuring subtle backing vocals and strings, “Mental Illness” is a departure from the pop rock of Mann’s previous solo album, 2012’s “Charmer”, as well as her recent collaboration with Ted Leo on “The Both”. I’ve been a fan of Aimee Mann’s music since her days in ‘Til Tuesday, and “Mental Illness” ranks as one of her best. It has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Dr. J’s Favorite Tracks: “Stuck In The Past”, “You Never Loved Me”, “Lies Of Summer”, and “Patient Zero”. Watch the video for “Patient Zero” at: 

Beatles“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 2 CD 50th Anniversary Edition”. The sound on this lavish reissue is amazing, revealing little details that enhance the listening experience for this classic album. The second disc contains “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, originally intended for the album, as well as a fascinating collection of alternate takes and unreleased recordings from the “Sgt. Pepper’s” sessions. Favorite Tracks: “With A Little Help From My Friends”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, Fixing A Hole”, “A Day In The Life”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “Penny Lane”. Watch the video for “A Day In The Life:

Cloud Nothings“Life Without Sound”. I found the Cloud Nothings’ earlier albums to be chaotic and uninteresting; but the band has transformed themselves into something much more powerful and vital with the release of “Life Without Sound”. Producer John Goodmanson helped the band hone Dylan Baldi’s compositions into a sound that is both rich and massive. This was one of the first albums I purchased this year, and it has not worn out its welcome one bit. Favorite Tracks: “Up To The Surface”, “Things Are Right With You”, “Enter Entirely”, and “Sight Unseen”. Watch the video for “Up To The Surface”:

Dream Syndicate“How Did I Find Myself Here?”. Much like the Long Ryders, the Dream Syndicate are one of the bands that somehow managed to miss grabbing the brass ring during the 1980’s. If you can find it, Rhino Records put out a CD that collects an impressive sample of their 80’s material called “Tell Me When It’s Over: The Best of the Dream Syndicate 1982-1988”. On the band’s first album in nearly 30 years, Steve Wynn resurrected his long-dormant band to reintroduce their influential and atmospheric guitar rock to a new audience with stunning results. Favorite Tracks: “Filter Me Through You”, “Glide”, “The Circle”, and “Out Of My Head”. Watch the video for “Filter Me Through You”:

SincerelySincerelyDude York“Sincerely”. This outstanding second album by the Seattle trio is the power pop album of the year! They sound a little like early Weezer but have two great vocalists: main singer Peter Richards and secret weapon Claire England. Dude York serves up a bundle of catchy, guitar-centric songs on “Sincerely”, made all the more appealing by the combined production skills of Cody Votolato and John Goodmanson. Favorite Tracks: “Black Jack”, “Something In The Way”, “Tonight”, and “Love Is”. Watch the video for “Love Is”: 

Feelies“In Between”. The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed have been major influences on every one of the Feelies’ albums. “In Between”, with pronounced use of acoustic guitars and a more subdued and gentler sound, is no exception. It brings to mind the Velvet Underground’s classic third album. The Feelies end things with a freak-out reprise of “In Between” that gives the listener a glimpse of what the album might have sounded like if “White Light/White Heat” had been used as the model. Favorite Tracks: “Flag Days”, “Gone, Gone, Gone”, “Make It Clear”, and “In Between” (Reprise). Watch the video for “Gone, Gone, Gone”:

G-Man“Sax Machine”. Self-produced and released by New Jersey saxman Dave ‘G-Man’ Gonos, the album is made up of a mix of his funky instrumentals and other sax-based originals that feature the talents of ten different vocalists. Dr. J's Favorite Tracks: “Sax Machine”, “Play It Cool”. “Big Man” (For Clarence Clemons), “The Only Thing”, and “Uptown Lowdown”. Watch the video for “Big Man”: 

John Mellencamp“Sad Clowns & Hillbillies”. This is the first Mellencamp album on which another singer, Carlene Carter, is prominently featured. Their duets are good but the strongest songs feature Mellencamp alone. It’s good to hear him rocking a little more on this one, as his previous album, the tedious “Plain Spoken”, may have been his all-time weakest release. Favorite Tracks: “Mobile Blue”, “Grandview”, “Battle Of Angels”, and “All Night Talk Radio”. Watch the video for “Grandview”:

SoulfireSoulfireLittle Steven“Soulfire”. Little Steven Van Zandt’s collection of songs that span his career sounds very much like a Springsteen record, full of the 60’s-based rock and roll and R&B that formed the bedrock of Little Steven’s music as well as that of his partner in crime. This album rocks big time from start to finish. Favorite Tracks: “I’m Coming Back”, “Love On The Wrong Side of Town”, “The City Weeps Tonight”, “Saint Valentine’s Day”, and “I Don’t Want To Go Home”. Listen to Little Steven’s doo wop tribute “The City Weeps Tonight”: 

Lydia Loveless“Boy Crazy and Single(s)”. Loveless is the finest young female singer and songwriter around today, be it rock, country, or Americana. This is a collection of some of her older material – “Boy Crazy” is a terrific five-song EP that she first released in 2013. The remaining six songs are non-album singles featuring original songs as well as covers of Prince and Elvis Costello.  Favorite Tracks: “Lover’s Spat”, “Boy Crazy”, “Mile High”, and “Alison”. Watch the video for “Lover’s Spat”:

Neil Young“Hitchhiker”. Another blast from the past, this cool collection of ten Neil Young originals was recorded at a studio in Malibu in 1976. He is accompanied by just his acoustic guitar on the first nine songs and a piano on the last. Although most would appear in different arrangements with bands on future albums, Young is most powerful and haunting when performing his music solo. Favorite Tracks: “Pocahontas”, “Captain Kennedy”, “Hitchhiker”, and “Human Highway”. Listen to “Hitchhiker”:

Replacements “For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986”. A rip-roaring, great sounding 2 CD document of a classic live show in a New Jersey club featuring the Replacements’ original lineup of Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, and Bob Stinson. Put on the shelf because of the departure of Bob Stinson shortly thereafter, and then forgotten about for 30 years, the show aptly displays the ‘Mats in all their raw, rocking glory! Favorite Tracks CD 1: “Hold My Life”, “I Will Dare”, “Can’t Hardly Wait”, “Bastards Of Young”, “Kiss Me On The Bus”, and “Black Diamond”. Favorite Tracks CD 2. “Johnny’s Gonna Die”, “Left Of The Dial”, “Take Me Down To The Hospital”, “Baby Strange", and “Go”. Listen to the “Live at Maxwell’s” version of “Can’t Hardly Wait”: 

On AirOn Air

Rolling Stones“On Air (Deluxe)”. What a treat for fans of the Stones! The 2 CD deluxe edition collects 32 live recordings done in a 23-month period from 1963 to 1965 on five different British radio programs. “On Air” documents the band’s early days as they were making the transition from playing covers of Blues and R&B classics to Jagger/Richards originals. Besides having surprisingly great sound, especially on Disc 1, the deluxe edition includes a total of eight songs that were never released on vinyl by the Stones! Favorite Tracks CD 1: “Come On”, “Satisfaction”, “The Spider And The Fly”, “Cops And Robbers”, “Oh! Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’)”, “Mona” and “Fannie Mae”. Favorite Tracks CD 2: “If You Need Me”, “Walking The Dog”, “Confessin’ The Blues”, “Beautiful Delilah”, and “Crackin’ Up”. Listen to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from a Saturday Club performance in 1965: 

Ryan Adams“Prisoner”. Adams follows up his cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989” with one of his strongest and most consistent albums. Although most of the songs deal with heartbreak and the emotional baggage that result from the breakup of a relationship, the songs are uplifting in the sense of one being able to move on despite the pain. Great singing and musicianship throughout. Favorite Tracks: “Prisoner”, “Doomsday”, “Outbound Train”, and “Broken Anyway”. Watch a live performance of “Doomsday”:

Son Volt“Notes Of Blue”. According to several interviews, Jay Farrar claims to have used guitar tunings from Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, and Nick Drake to compose the ten songs on “Notes of Blue”. The result is an enjoyable mix of blues, folk, and country anchored by Farrar’s world-weary and deeply engaged singing style. Favorite Tracks: “Promise The World”, “Static”, “Cherokee St.”, “Sinking Down”, and “Back Against The Wall”. Watch the video for “Back Against The Wall”:

Steve Earle & The Dukes“So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Deluxe Version)”. A wonderful tribute to the 1970’s “outlaw movement” in country music that was spearheaded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Earle dedicated the album to Waylon and claims that he tried to “channel” him during the sessions. Earle’s vocals are remarkably similar to Waylon’s, and the Dukes do a great job of capturing the outlaw sound throughout. Willie Nelson pitches in to sing on the killer title track, and the deluxe version comes with four extra songs that are all top notch. Favorite Tracks: “So You Wannbe An Outlaw”, “Lookin’ For A Woman”, “If Mama Coulda Seen Me”, “Sunset Highway”, and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”. Watch the video for “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”:

Van Morrison“Roll With The Punches”. Van Morrison grew up listening to American blues and R&B from his father’s large record collection in Ireland, and it was that music that kicked off his early music career, most notably in the band Them. It’s great to hear Morrison revisiting his roots on his new album which contains ten covers and five original tunes. In addition, Morrison is joined by fellow enthusiasts from Britain’s 1960’s music scene: Chris Farlowe, Georgie Fame, Paul Jones, and Jeff Beck who delivers some tasty guitar solos. Favorite Tracks: “I Can Tell”, “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue”, “Bring It On Home To Me”, and “Roll With The Punches”. Watch a live performance of “I Can Tell”:

War On Drugs“A Deeper Understanding”. Led by Adam Granduciel, Philadelphia’s War On Drugs has carved out a unique niche in the world of rock. Granduciel’s vocals sound a little like Dylan’s but the band’s music deftly blends guitars and synthesizers into a beautiful and unique kind of psychedelic music that is structured rather than free-wheeling, but doesn’t seem so while you’re listening to it. “A Deeper Understanding” has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. Favorite Tracks: “Up All Night”, “Pain”, “Nothing To Find”, and “In Chains”. Watch the video for “Pain”: 

Out In The StormOut In The Storm

Waxahatchee“Out In The Storm”. Katie Crutchfield, backed by an impressive all-female band, is the driving force behind Waxahatchee. She bares her soul on this fine collection of songs that center around a painful breakup and a kiss-off to the cad who did her wrong. Co-produced with John Angello, Crutchfield and band provide plenty of muscular guitar crunch as a counterpoint to her plaintive ballads. Favorite Tracks: “Never Been Wrong”, “Silver”, “Brass Beam”, and “Fade”. Watch a live performance of “Never Been Wrong”:

Willie Nile“Positively Bob”. With a lying, Twitter-addicted, narcissist in the White House and Congress under the control of a party of soulless dipshits, the songs of Bob Dylan take on added importance in 2017. Willie Nile’s cover album works best when he rearranges Dylan’s songs, but the faithful renderings of some of these timeless tunes are great as well. Favorite Tracks: “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. Watch the video for “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”:

Honorable Mention:

  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit“The Nashville Sound”
  • Samantha Fish – “Chills & Fever”
  • Bash & Pop“Anything Could Happen”
  • Rips“Rips”
  • George Morris “George Morris”
  • Spoon“Hot Thoughts”
  • Greta Van Fleet “Black Smoke Rising” (EP)
  • Bob Seger“I Knew You When”
  • The Kickback“Weddings & Funerals”

Best CDs of 2017 by Larry Van Cleve

This was a year where the usual suspects came through with, if not classic, very good albums. It was also a year where I didn’t come across that many new or unfamiliar groups that would surprisingly show up on the final list. Encouragingly though I did come across a number of artists that have some real potential (check the recommended list). We’ll see in the future.

For Sale: Live At Maxwells 1986For Sale: Live At Maxwells 19861.) “For Sale: Live At Maxwells 1986”The Replacements. Seminal rock band that still has influence today. A group that could be very, very sloppy on stage (depending on what they imbibed) or, in rare cases, be a transcendent rock and roll band. This is one of the good nights. This concert was a short while before lead guitarist Bob Stinson was ejected from the band. When they had it all together, these guys really put it out there. (I’d also like to mention a new box set by fellow Minnesotans Husker Du called “Savage Young Du”.  Consisting of studio, live and rehearsal tracks done just before their first release, it is just as revelatory as “Maxwells 1986”.)

2.) ”Anything Could Happen” - Bash & Pop. Ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson formed his own band (Bash & Pop) in the 90s following a series of Replacements blowups. The resulting 1991 album (“Friday Night Is Killing Me”) is a delight in a Faces kind of way. Twenty six years later we get the second Bash & Pop album with Tommy as the only original member. This is a very satisfying rock and roll album, more polished, with a similar feel. The addition of one of my favorite guitarists Luther Dickinson adds to the overall feeling of the album. A rocking good time. Watch a live performance of "Anything Could Happen":

3.) “Prayer For Peace” - North Mississippi All Stars. Speaking of Luther Dickinson (a regular member on this list), his main group with his brother Cody has been around for 20 years now. Their father Jim is a famous record producer and keyboardist who worked with the above mentioned Replacements as well as recording with the Rolling Stones. The influences are rather evident. This time around the All Stars lean heavily on blues, folk and country covers with that expected greasy blues rock bounding stride. I dare you to sit still during this album. Watch a live performance of "Prayer For Peace":

4.) “Prisoner”Ryan Adams. To these ears, Ryan Adams has had a rather spotty discography. Solid music for sure but weak tracks hurt the overall albums. “Prisoner” is the antithesis of that. This is a cohesive listenable album (with assist from Don Was). That it was written after his breakup with Mandy Moore only adds to the emotional impact and supports a cohesive theme throughout. NOTE: “Prisoner: B-Sides” is also available. While not as polished as the original there is some good music here. Taken together, this is quite the creative outpouring. He should wait a few years between albums as he did here. Notes Of BlueNotes Of Blue

5.) “Notes Of Blue” Son Volt. Jay Farrar has been giving us solid music since his breakup with Jeff Tweedy and Uncle Tupelo. His first solo album “Trace” is a classic in the country rock hard guitar vein. He’s pretty much kept on track since then but the results have been somewhat varied. He doesn’t do anything different here but the tracks are more consistent and the vocals are great as usual. That and the appearance of that occasional dirty electric guitar make this a real listening pleasure.

6.) “Southern Blood”Gregg Allman. Opening with the only track he had a hand in writing (“My Only True Friend”), the late Gregg Allman lays down a great swan song. The rest is a tribute to other’s music that he loves. Dylan is here along with Tim Buckley (excellent rendition of “Once I Was”), Jerry Garcia, Willie Dixon, Lowell George and the list goes on. Knowing the end was near during recording, Gregg’s vocals emote a particular empathy. Great Don Was production. This is one that makes you feel good and a bit sad. Watch the video for "My Only True Friend":

7.) “Poor David’s Almanack” - David Rawlings. David is largely known for his work with Gillian Welch. She’s a big presence here, co-writing many of the tunes and providing backup vocals. But it’s Rawlings guitar, vocals and song structures that make the day. The production is clean and clear and he covers many styles in the folk, country, blues tradition. A delight. Watch a live performance of "Cumberland Gap":

8.) “Soulfire”Little Steven. Whoa! This is what you’d expect from the E-Street guitarist. Many tracks sound like outtakes from Bruce and E-Street back in the day but there’s much, much more here than that. The influence of the music he obviously loves on his “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio show is clearly evident. The joy of rock and roll. A smile on your face. Great stuff.

Everything NowEverything Now

9.) “Everything Now” - Arcade Fire. There’s a lot of negative criticism on this one. Playing it too safe, too glossy, or, on the other hand, too experimental and all over the place. All of that is actually true. Only thing is, I get great pleasure listening to “Everything Now”. Maybe it’s my fault but I still like the direction Will Butler is taking. Sigh. Watch the video for "Everything Now":

10.) “American Dream” - LCD Soundsystem. Seven years since last hitting the studio, James Murphy is back and as good as ever. Combining synths, guitars, dance, punk and beats with his distinctive catchy vocals, LCD Soundsystem hasn’t lost a step. If you’ve been a fan in the past you won’t be disappointed. If not, jump on the bandwagon. Watch the video for "Call the Police":

11.) “Villains” - QueensOf The Stone Age. On their seventh album, Josh Homme has really solidified the evolving Queens sound. Last year’s outing with Iggy seems to have crystallized something. Rock influences abound in an interpretive manner rather than slavish imitation. Classic rock, boogie, pop, dance…it’s all there. Sounds like they’re having a good time folks. Watch the video for "The Way You Used To Do":

Volume 2Volume 212.) “Volume 2”Deer Tick. Yes, there is a “Volume 1” and it was released at the same time. “Volume 1” is more acoustic and laid back and worth listening to but this volume is loud and cranky and more like Deer Tick live. Great song hooks. This is a band influenced by the Replacements (that band again) with a distinct Westerberg bent. Watch the video for "Jumpstarting": 

13.) “Out In The Storm”Waxahatchee. Everyone kept touting this release and try as I would I couldn’t get into it. Then one day it clicked. Really a solo project with an alt rock supergroup of players and producers, this is another release based on a recent relationship breakup and it’s the better for it. Lyrical and shattering at times there is a pleasing feel to this work. The guitars are hard and dreamy and there is a momentum that propels you through the album. NOTE: The Deluxe version includes the entire demo version of the album.

14.) “As You Were”Liam Gallagher. Ok, you have the two Gallagher brothers and their band, Oasis. Constantly battling, the breakup of that band was inevitable. Now both Noel and Liam have released albums in 2017. Liam’s is his first solo record. The Noel vs. Liam verdict? Hands down to this listener, Liam. Both have good songs, Liam’s vocals are a bit better but no surprise since he was Oasis’ vocalist. It’s the overall sound that makes the difference. Liam’s album sounds like a tight classic rock band. Noel’s seems more like a giant arena rock symphony, which at times was a problem I had with Oasis. Good outing, worth giving a listen. Watch the video for "Wall Of Glass":

15.) “Mental Illness”Aimee Mann. This is a real outlier on this year’s list. I just can’t shake this album. Acoustic, lilting and very melodic, there’s a flow to this album that’s addicting. You think it would be depressing but I find it uplifting. Song craft is the star here. Maybe not for everyone, but give it a try.

I Knew You WhenI Knew You When

16.) “I Knew You When”Bob Seger. I’ve always had trouble with Seger’s studio albums. Outside of “Night Moves” I don’t find them very consistent. For the classic rockers that often show up, there are too many forgettable tracks. That’s why I was so surprised when I listened to “Knew You When”. Outside of one track (“Marie”), I look forward to each track on the album (a good sign). I found the guitar work inviting. There is a variety to the tunes on this album that seem to work together. The tributes to Glen Frey are moving, the covers right on (get the Deluxe version). A real surprise. Listen to "Busload of Faith":

17.) “On Air” - Rolling Stones. This is an obvious choice. If you’re a fan then I don’t have to say much more. The Stones 1963-1965 BBC Sessions presented in great quality. Not much else to be said. The 2-disk “Deluxe” version is a must, especially because the second disk isn’t processed for stereo.

Recommended List.

Three newer alt rock British guitar bands that deliver the goods:

  • “Lemon Memory”Menace Beach. Leed’s band, very creative and fuzzy.
  • “Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect”Sundara Karma. Reading band, anthemic rock.
  • “Haunted Heart”Cowbell. Roots rock duo. Shoulder shaking.

The Rest:

  • “Robyn Hitchcock” Robyn Hitchcock. From the Soft Boys to his solo work, experience and talent win out here. One of his better recent studio albums.
  • “Waiting On A Song”Dan Auerbach. The talent of this guy just keeps growing. Good songs, closer to The Arc than the Keys.
  • “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” Japandroids. If you’re a fan this will keep you one.
  • “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”Steve Earle. Ahh, the country rock Steve Earle. Welcome back.
  • “In Mind”Real Estate. Even with a major lineup change, their dreamy sound is intact.
  • “A Deeper Understanding”The War On Drugs. Their major label debut, this release expands on the melodic, experimental depth of their excellent 2014 release.
  • “Graveyard Whistling”Old 97’s. Still doing the fun alt country/rock mix, they go a little more minor key here but still keep you bopping. Love their guitars.
  • “More Fast Songs About The Apocalypse”Moby. More fast songs in the same vein as last years release. That’s a good thing.

*Last word. I couldn’t not mention the death of Tom Petty. Managed to see his last tour and it still really hasn’t sunk in that there’s no more new Petty music. His releases almost always made the best of list…