Music Director's Year-End Faves: Top 10 Albums 2017

Jan 10, 2018

Juana Molina
Credit La Voz

The past year's notable recordings come from wide, eclectic influences, with many of the favorite 2017 albums released were from women artists.  As with all of these type of year-end lists, this is a subjective look at albums, which emerged from huge piles of recordings that I went through the past year, that caught my ear as something unique, special and made me repeatedly play it over and over. 

01. JUANA MOLINA, Halo (Crammed Discs)
Argentinian singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Juana Molina has carved an impressive musical career employing a distinctive style of looping and experimental vocal treatments. With her seventh full-length release, Halo, Molina has confidently evolved into an original, innovative artist, who can be viewed as a leader (and, to some degree, a pioneer) of the now-growing female DIY (Do-It -Yourself) artists in the contemporary music scene, one that includes tUnE-yArDs and Jay Som.

02. BEDOUINE, Bedouine (Space Bomb)
Born in Syria, from Armenian parentage, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian emigrated to the U.S. (via Saudi Arabia) with her family when she was ten. Recording under the moniker of Bedouine, Korkejian deliver s a stunningly subtle, spare and sublime self-titled debut brimming with straight-forward, narrative folk songs that exhibit influences from ‘60s and ‘70s Laurel Canyon and British folk, and most prominently from the late Canadian bard Leonard Cohen. With the assistance of producer Guy Seyffert, Korkejian executes an unforced, natural delivery, with a slight detached Nico-esque quality, adding an edge to her overall arrangement. Listen carefully to “Solitary Daughter,” one of the album’s outstanding tracks, and you will understand Bedouine’s subtle beauty.

03. SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS, Soul Of A Woman (Daptone)
Like her Daptone colleague the late Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones knew the definition of true soul: it comes from the gut and heart. Jones, who succumbed to cancer in November 2017, made her final studio release, Soul Of A Woman, a lasting statement and powerful document, combining the explosive elements of Jones’ gritty, Stax-influenced vocals (what Rufus Thomas termed as “cornbread”), with the tight, Motown-like accompaniment of the Dap-Kings (many of the same musicians added the majestic accompaniment to Charles Bradley’s 2016 final recording, Changes). Perhaps such a statement makes the sadness that much deeper that we’ve lost a great soul.

04. JAMILA WOODS, HEAVN (Jagjaguwar)
Chicago-based contemporary soul artist Jamila Woods has intricately designed a wide-ranging debut release, HEAVN, which a bulk of was originally released last year from her SoundCloud page, culling from soul-R&B, contemporary jazz, electronica and alternative hip hop influences and integrating it into her own personal sound. And, HEAVN, is also a personal, intimate record. Samples of phone conversations, diary-like observations or narratives from her upbringing under the focus of a coming-of-age of a young black woman. From the title soul-jazz track, which creatively quotes part of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” to the uplifting “Blk Girl Soldier,” to gospel-influenced “Holy,” Woods, who thoughtfully chose numerous producers-collaborators for each individual song, presents an overall declaration of the social, political and spiritual elements of an independent African American female.

05. JAY SOM, Everybody Works (Polyvinyl)
Jay Som, pseudonym for Oakland-based singer-songwriter Melina Duterte, has elevated her DIY bedroom-studio pop with her sophomore release, Everybody Works. Duterte has created a more expansive musical palette, with sophisticated, textured arrangements, taking an impressive leap from her excellent 2016 introductory work, Turn Into. For Everybody Works, Duterte, again taking care of all the instrumental lead vocal and production duties, stretches the borders of indie and dream pop by blending in an eclectic musical range of genres, to produce a varied and engaging release.  

06. THE WEATHER STATION, The Weather Station (Paradise Of Bachelors)
Under the “band” name of The Weather Station, Canadian singer-songwriter Tamera Lindeman has adopted a more dense, electric sound to her folk-based compositions for her fourth full-length self-titled release. As the sole producer, Lindeman handles a bulk of the instrumental duties, enlisting an impressive stable of musicians, including keyboardist Ben Boye (Sun Kill Moon, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Ryley Walker), Daniel Martin Moore (whom she collaborated with on a previous EP release) and guitarist extraordinaire Nathan Salsburg, for specific parts, shaping a focused work, juxtaposing her spare vocals (one cannot help hearing the influences of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell) against a darker, industrial arrangement.

07. MOSES SUMNEY, Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
After the release of his 2014 EP, Mid-City Island and several singles, Ghana-born, San Bernardino-reared, Moses Sumney offered a stunning debut full-length, Aromanticism. Sumney intricately constructs his album with a complex blending of modern ambient textures, providing a perfect bed for his wide-ranging vocals, informed in equal parts from contemporary R&B-Soul and layered Brian Wilson-Beach Boys-esque harmonies. The result is a distinctive and ethereal aural landscape.
08. ROBYN HITCHCOCK, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
Former leader of The Soft Boys, Hitchcock has embarked on a 36-year solo career as a rock’s oddball surrealist, who often adorns himself in a psychedelic pop jacket. With his twenty first album, Hitchcock recorded his self-titled release Nashville, without losing his sharp-witted edge, and importantly, his, um, vitality. If anything, Hitchcock seems lively than ever. Remarkable.

09. MAVIS STAPLES, If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
Stax soul icon, Mavis Staples again collaborates with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to produce a modern soul-funk-blues record that directly confronts the seemingly misdirection of our Trump-era times. Backed by Tweedy’s compositions, Staples’ delivery is full of chutzpah and heartfelt anger with songs like the funk-blues “Little Bit,”  “Who Told You That” and “No Time For Crying.” However, with Ms. Staples, her strength could best be encapsulated in her answering refrain in the title track, “If All I Was Was Black,” where she simply answers, “But I’ve got love.” And on this album, as she has exhibited for her entire career, Staples fills the brim in that – her cup definitely runneth over.

10. KELLEY STOLTZ, Que Aura (Castle Face)
Producer, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Stoltz, after touring with Echo & The Bunnymen as a second guitarist-instrumentalist, felt inspired to create Que Aura, though it hardly bears any resemblance to the Liverpool band’s discography. Instead, it may be viewed as a logical extension and jumping board from his excellent previous 2015 Castle Face full-length, In Triangle Time. Here, Stoltz appears to more confident, and Que Aura is an eclectic album with an eccentric array of garage-based pop gems.