Best albums of 2017: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Friday everyone! And the last Friday of the month to boot! To celebrate, I’ve got a bit of a treat for y’all: the start of something new for this blog.

But first, some background.

Some of you might well be aware of my previous blog, Music Insanity, and if you are, you likely remember that I made a big production of counting down my favourite albums of the year, culminating in two or more weeks of posts and thousands of words at each year’s end. I’ve decided I would do the same on these pages but in a more toned down way. My first thought was to limit it to a top five, detailing each in its own post, each Friday, in the last five weeks of the year, but it proved too difficult a task to limit myself to just five albums. So instead, I will still detail my top five albums in the coming weeks but today, will give the next five as a sort of honourable mentions post. (And then, I cheated even more by hinting at the albums just outside my top ten in the photo of record covers above. Bad, blogger, bad.)

And yes, I intend to continue this tradition on annual basis going forward and over the coming months, will likely sprinkle in some of my favourite albums lists from past years to break up all these lists of favourite songs I’ve been throwing at you.

So without further ado, here are albums ten through six of my favourite albums of 2017. Stay tuned for album number five next Friday!

#10 Phoebe Bridgers “Stranger in the alps”

It’s been quite a while since an album like Phoebe Bridgers’ caught my ear. Her debut album, “Stranger in the alps”, is a mostly quiet, deeply personal, female singer/songwriter collection, which doesn’t in and of itself sound very exciting. The young Ms Bridgers, however, is a fine and mature writer, whose strong musical knowledge and awareness is displayed in her lyrics, making this a very cool listen indeed.

Gateway tune: Smoke signals

#9 The Rural Alberta Advantage “The wild”

Despite being a huge fan of the Toronto-based indie folk trio’s first three albums, I didn’t think I would, and if truth be told, almost didn’t want to like “The wild”. Yet here it is, squeezing its way into my top ten. Just when I think there must be a limit to what can be produced by Nils Edenloff’s raw vocals and guitars and Paul Banwatt’s frenetic drumming, they find yet another gear. In the case of “The wild”, they found themselves with a new member, Robin Hatch, who replaced the departed Amy Cole, and immediately made her presence felt.

Gateway tune: White lights

#8 Allison Crutchfield “Tourist in this town”

Funnily enough, I didn’t immediately make the connection with Waxahatchee but sure enough, Allison Crutchfield is the twin sister of that band’s driving force, Katie Crutchfield. “Tourist in this town” is Allison’s full-length debut after years of collaborating with others, notably with Kyle Gilbride in Swearin’ and her sister in a number of bands, including Waxahatchee. It’s a great breakup album, but one nowhere near as angry as Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged little pill”, and focuses more on change in a more global sense. It’s power pop with synths and is as fun as it is touching.

Gateway tune: Dean’s room

#7 Alvvays “Antisocialites”

Alvvays’ self-titled debut was on pretty much everyone’s lips three years ago on the back of its collection of lovely, jangly indie pop gems. Their sophomore doesn’t disappoint, feeding us more of the same sweetness, but this time with better production (and an appearance by Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake!). If there was a critique to be made, it’s that “Antisocialites” does not adventure very far from what made its predecessor so successful. But I’m not so sure I would have been happy with anything else than what we got.

Gateway tune: Dreams tonite

#6 St. Vincent “Masseduction”

Second and final disclosure of this post: though I’ve always respected what Annie Clarke (aka St. Vincent) was doing artistically and musically, I haven’t always been a fan. That pretty much changed when I saw her live at Ottawa Bluesfest in 2014 and I realized she was the female David Bowie. The similarity is not necessarily musical but in ethos and persona, she’s a true performance artist. “Masseduction” is her take on the pop album but she does it without compromising her sound and art. And it’s pure brilliance.

Gateway tune: Los ageless

For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.


100 best covers: #93 Billy Bragg with Natalie Merchant and Wilco “Way over yonder in the minor key”

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As I understand it, the story goes something like this. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, approached Britain’s modern equivalent, Billy Bragg, after seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert with the proposition of bringing some of her father’s unrecorded compositions to life. Bragg agreed, but not before enlisting the help of American indie folk/rock group, Wilco. The extraordinary and perhaps a bit surprising results were recorded and released as 1998’s Grammy-nominated album, “Mermaid avenue”. In fact, it was so successful that a second volume was released two years later, followed by a three volume box set that included outtakes in 2012.

This song, “Way over yonder in the minor key”, is a bit unique on this list of covers series in that we don’t have an original recording to which to compare it. Apparently, when Woody Guthrie died, he left behind manuscripts containing the lyrics to over a thousand songs but because he never read or wrote music, we’ll never know for sure how these were really meant to sound. Yet without a solid guide, I think Billy Bragg has done a fine job here, keeping to Guthrie’s spirit but adding his own personal touch. It’s simply strummed on his acoustic guitar and sung in his inimitable and working class accented vocals. He’s enlisted Wilco’s Jay Bennet to lay down a lovely Hammond B-3 backbone, some Eliza McCarthy fiddles, and of course, Natalie Merchant’s lovely backing vocal track.

“Way over yonder” is one of the lesser politically-charged of Guthrie’s tunes and is not overtly making social commentary but perhaps is more personal. It’s light and jocular, calling to mind a simpler time. Childhood. And all of those childhood teasing games.

“She said it’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my luttle girly, that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me”

The cover:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.


Best tunes of 1990: #9 New Model Army “Purity”

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This fact may come as a shock to some of you but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t go to my first ever concert until I was 19 years old. I’m not making excuses here. It’s just that I lived in a small town in southern Ontario, country music territory for an alt-rock fan, and just far enough away from Toronto for a teen without a driver’s licence or a job to make things impractical. Add to that the fact that many of the concerts I really wanted to see were limited to attendees 19 and over and you have some serious challenges.

So the first show came in the summer of 1993. My friend Tim asked me if I wanted to go see New Model Army with him at the now famed Lee’s Palace and I couldn’t say no. He drove us into Scarborough Town Centre and we took the subway downtown, where we spent the day leading up to the show trawling the used CD stores. I purchased copies of Primus’s “Sailing the seas of cheese” and Buffalo Tom’s “Let me come over”. However, neither of them would make it home with me after being left somewhere at Bathurst subway station in our haste to catch the last subway back to Scarborough. I remember being particularly nervous when security was checking ID at the door to Lee’s (as I said, I didn’t have my licence at the time) and they did hesitate when I showed a roughed up copy of my birth certificate and some questionable photo ID but then, shrugged and let me in.

The opening acts that evening were friends and frequent contributors of the band: tattoo artist and poet, Joolz Denby and electric violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson. The latter performer made quite the impression on Tim and me, utilizing all sorts of tricks and pedals to bend and mutate the sound of his instrument and also to record, loop, and play back these sounds until it felt to us like he had a whole string orchestra up on the empty stage with him. It goes without saying that the headliners were the real highlight that night, effectively hooking me on the energy of live performances for the rest of my life, but Alleyne-Johnson’s set has also stuck with me almost 25 years later, whereas I had to do a bit of research to remember the other opener.

Ed Alleyne-Johnson was also a proper member of New Model Army between the years of 1989 and 1994, which is incidentally my favourite period in their 37 year career. His fiddle introduced a folk sound to the band’s already gigantic palette of music, whose oils always served mainly as an intriguing base layer for the lyrics of the band’s frontman and driving force, Justin Sullivan.

The rains move in eastwards, in waves of succession
Drawing lines of grey across the sky
With history just as close as a hand on the shoulder
In hunger and impatience we cry
The battle against corruption rages in each corner
There must be something better, something pure

These, the opening lines of “Purity” give you an idea of the types of words and the imagery invoked by Sullivan, the poet laureate of ‘hopeless causes’, ranking up there with Billy Bragg as one of alt-rock’s best political consciences. On this track, he takes arms against corruption in both the science laboratories and the church pews, making us question what is pure, what is good. All the while, the acoustic guitar is given a serious workout, the drums stomp and the Alleyne-Johnson’s fiddles scream and we wish we were anywhere else but this world described by Sullivan. Yet in all its dystopian angst, it’s a lovely track that always transports me back to an early summer night back in 1993.

If you’ve never heard “Purity” (or any other track by New Model Army), I strongly suggest you give it a spin now.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.