You’ll note that we’re not calling this the Best Albums of 2017. There are plenty of those lists out there, and they are pretty much dominated by this year’s critical darlings with some heavily promoted mainstream names thrown in. Instead of repeating that, Part-Time Audiophile asked its writers to share their favorite releases.
Some of our recommendations indeed may show up on a few of the other rankings, but many are farther off the beaten path. They are not all audio spectaculars, either, although a few are especially worthy of being system-demo material. They are simply albums we played regularly and enjoyed listening to during the past 12 months. The music entertained us, touched our hearts and spoke to our souls. Isn’t the desire to maximize that experience the reason we go to such great lengths to assemble the perfect rig?
So, here you have what’s been in heavy rotation on the turntables, CD players and digital streamers of PTA creative director Rafe Arnott, contributing editor John Stancavage; editor Panagiotis Karavitis and writers Lee Scoggins, Marc Phillips, Paul Ashby, John Richardson, Mohammed Samji and Richard K. Mak. We hope you give some of these records a listen, if you haven’t already.
Valerie June, The Order of Time
I’m only recommending one record this year, and this is it. I resisted June’s soft crooning on her 2013 album Pushin’ Against a Stone because I got it into my head I didn’t like her raspy, twangy, Ozark-tinged Americana, but slowly I came around the more I listened to it. In particular, I grew to love this disc because of her voice, and the strong percussive structure that allowed a delicate guitar presence to wax and wane within the incessant, bleating horn combos used in support.
On 2017’s Time she’s back at it, but with more astral space in the recorded mix to ponder the historical echoes she’s amplifying through her storytelling. Powerful, emotional, cadenced. An absolutely outstanding album in my humble estimation.
Luna, A Sentimental Education (LP) and A Place of Greater Safety (EP)
Dean Wareham’s criminally underrated, post-Galaxie 500 dreampop band Luna last dropped an album in 2004. The band broke up shortly after, apparently frustrated with having to hawk T-shirts to make a living. Twelve years later, an offer surfaced for the group to do a few dates in Spain. That sparked an unlikely reunion of Wareham, bassist/wife Britta Phillips, guitarist Sean Eden and drummer Lee Wall.
Luna, at least for the moment, is back as a touring and recording unit. The band has live dates scheduled in 2018 and recently released two albums. Education has 10 covers, while Safety contains six instrumentals. The covers record finds Wareham and Eden applying their atmospheric guitar interplay to songs by David Bowie, Bob Dylan and early Fleetwood Mac. The EP, meanwhile, features original instrumental music.
Highly recommended for fans of the Velvet Underground, Television, The Clientele and The Feelies. Hey, guys, please stay together this time. We’ll buy the T-shirts!
The War on Drugs A Deeper Understanding
After my first listen to the new War on Drugs album, I braced myself for the critical backlash. Adam Granduciel’s last WOD release, Lost in the Dream, was both a masterpiece of indie guitar pop and an unlikely commercial smash. Granduciel moved to a major label and recorded Understanding. The LP further refines his sound, which combines Bob Dylan-esque vocals and Dire Straits-ish soundscapes, with a little of The Edge’s echoplex fetish thrown in.
I worried that the fact Understanding sounds a lot like Dream — although it doesn’t shamelessly copy it — would result in carping that would lead Granduciel to soon abandon his trademark sound to try to “evolve.” So far, though, the new album is getting only praise, thank God. This means we still have a chance of the next WOD record continuing in the same vein, which is a very rich vein indeed.
Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice
Vile, a guitarist-vocalist who co-founded The War on Drugs, had a solo song that he felt needed the voice of another singer he admired, Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett. That tune, the charming, chiming “Over Everything” launched a partnership that soon was being celebrated by an entire collaborative album.
Barnett’s often-sardonic vocals blend with Vile’s low-key drawl to draw listeners in to what sounds like two friends have a relaxed sing-along in the studio. The solid songwriting, though, raises this project above the slacker dash-off it could have been. A real grower.
Luna isn’t the only ‘90s band to mount a comeback in 2017. Shoegaze stalwarts Slowdive re-formed 22 years after they spit to record this self-titled LP. Their concept appears to have been to take everything that was iconic — and laconic about the band — ethereal melodies, gauzy instruments and loads of delay and echo — and lay it on even thicker. Guess what? It works. Nice to have you back.
Chris Hillman, Bidin’ My Time
Chris Hillman helped create the country-rock genre with his work in the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and the Desert Rose Band. After five decades in music, though, Hillman was ready to call it a career until Tom Petty convinced him to record one more album. Petty produced, creating an comfortable atmosphere where Hillman could simply play music for the pure love of it, free of any commercial expectations or record company interference.
The result is a masterful mix of country, folk, rock and bluegrass. Petty’s considerable skill as a record-maker never got as much attention as his writing and performing, but Bidin’ shows the late artist creating a loose precision in the studio that perfectly presents the strong material. Hillman is in good voice and he’s backed by a deep roster of talent, including old Byrds bandmates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. The album also likely contains some of Petty’s last recorded performances. A gem.
The Feelies, In Between
If there’s a theme to my picks this year, it’s that many involve bands that developed a small, fervent following and then went away for a long while before making an unexpected comeback. Count The Feelies in that scenario, as the New Jersey-based group recorded four acclaimed albums of jittery, droning indie pop from 1980-1991 and then splintered.
Against all odds, the band’s members — now scattered across the country — reformed for 2011’s Here Before. That album revealed the band hadn’t lost its fondness for acoustic strumming punctuated by crackling electric guitar solos. In Between continues The Feelies’ revival with a slightly more laid-back vibe, which only serves to allow listeners to be immersed in the lush textures of the rhythm section and the enigmatic, half-buried vocals. Totally captivating.
Lyn Stanley, The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 1 and 2
Jazz singer Lyn Stanley has carved a niche in the audiophile world with her impeccably recorded albums of mostly standards. She displayed her growth as both an artist and a performer this year by releasing two albums a few months apart. Some of the songs featured Stanley melding classical elements into Great American Songbook tunes, while others bore equally innovative arrangements.
Stanley, who has only been recording for seven years, sings with more confidence and emotion on Vol. 1 and 2. Her vocals on such songs as “The Very Thought of You,” “In the Wee Small Hours” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” are among the strongest of her career.
The singer is backed by A-list players such as pianist Mike Garson and guitarist John Chiodini, with sonic genius Bernie Grundman mastering. Both albums are available on SACD and limited-edition 180-gram, 45-rpm vinyl. The latter discs, pressed using the one-step process, are some of the best-sounding audiophile recordings available. (See full review here.)
China Crisis, Working With Fire and Steel (expanded)
China Crisis was an ‘80s British band that got lumped in with the New Romantic movement, but were really influenced more by the cool precision pop of Steely Dan. In fact, they eventually recruited Dan co-founder Walter Becker to produce two later albums. Working, however, was their second recording, released in 1986 and helmed by Mike Howlett.
Liverpool-born core members Gary Daly and Eddie London had moved beyond the electronic experimentation of their first LP and crafted a collection of energetic, pure pop tunes distinguished by Daly’s heavily accented vocals. The lyrics frequently are intriguingly obtuse. One example is the title track, which seems to predict Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster three years before it happened — or, maybe not.
The 2017 reissue contains a remastered version of the original album, along with a second disc of demos, B-sides, singles, extended versions and live tracks, and a third has a collection of radio performances. If you’re new to China Crisis, this reissue likely will have you searching out its entire catalog, which is uniformly excellent.
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Giles Martin, son of original producer George Martin, was tasked with remastering the Fab Four’s most celebrated album. He decided to create new stereo mixes that emulate the mono version of the album, which the Beatles themselves personally approved, rather than the stereo mix, which was knocked out quickly to try to dazzle fans of the new format.
The tapes were digitized for the project, which raised the hackles of some audiophiles, but the vinyl pressings still became an audio-show demo staple. Love it or hate it, the success of the revamped and expanded Pepper likely establishes the template for a flood of similar remastered/bonus track sets from other classic bands. That sure beats tracking down the bootlegs.
The Jazz Butcher, The Wasted Years
England’s Jazz Butcher, essentially singer/songwriter/guitarist Pat Fish and an ever-changing cast of co-conspirators, gained what might charitably be called a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s with its blend of jangle-pop guitars and literate, often barbed lyrics. After a quiet period, Fish resurrected the moniker and has been recording sporadically for the past few years. In fact, the band’s Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers made Part-Time Audiophile’s 2016 year-end list.
As for the revival, Fish must have come across some compromising details about the executives at Fire Records, because they inexplicably offered him a contract. That dossier has got to be really worrying, because Fire not only re-released the crowd-funded Gentlemen, it now has produced a box set (!) collecting the Jazz Butcher’s first four albums, A Bath of Bacon, A Scandal in Bohemia, Sex And Travel and Distressed Gentlefolk. Those are four of the band’s strongest LPs, and all feature its best guitarist, Max Eider. It’s inconceivable anyone like a young Fish would be signed to a label today, which makes this intelligent, highly enjoyable music that much more essential.
David Bowie, A New Career in a New Town
The serious mining of the late David Bowie’s undoubtedly ample vaults has intensified with this box. It covers the 1977 to 1982 period, which includes his infamous “Berlin Trilogy.” The 12-disc/13-LP set contains remastered albums, single edits, B-sides, live performances and various other rarities, along with a hardback book.
The new masters, prepared by producer Tony Visconti, have generated some controversy among hard-core fans. In addition, there have been questions about the overall quality control on the project, mainly centering around a volume drop at 2:50 into “Heroes.” Parlaphone first blamed the source tape, then agreed to offer buyers of the original CD and/or LP package (or download) a replacement recording of the album.
Despite that glitch, Part-Time Audiophile’s Paul Ashby gave the box a generally good review and said he liked some of the sonic enhancements, particularly the improved bass. I’m betting Parlaphone and partner Rhino will run double- and triple-checks, with focus groups for good measure, before the next Bowie box drops.
Fleetwood Mac, Tango in the Night (expanded, deluxe edition)
In 1985, Fleetwood Mac was in disarray. Guitarist and sonic architect Lindsey Buckingham was working on a solo album and at least several members were suffering from various addiction problems, including singer Stevie Nicks. Mick Fleetwood, ever the caretaker of the band, talked Buckingham into turning the solo record into a Fleetwood Mac comeback vehicle.
The idea was to try to recapture the California-pop vibe of their mega-hit Rumours. The band didn’t quite achieve that, but they still produced a fairly strong album. The 30th anniversary box set includes a remastered version of the original LP on CD and vinyl, along with CDs of demos, outtakes and 12-inch mixes, and a DVD of singles videos. The new master, as with some other previous Mac reissues, seems to be cut louder than the original. Still, the demos and unreleased songs are generally worthwhile. The new material is especially desirable for fans since it seems the band’s egos will prevent any more music being recorded in the future.
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land OST and Original Score
This record technically was released in December 2016, but I’m fudging a bit. A great score. The piano compositions by Hurwitz were brilliantly orchestrated for the film’s needs. An instant classic.
Yo Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax, Brahms Piano Trios
A breath of fresh air, an energetic performance with depth and focus and a fantastic new view on some of the greatest trio works.
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, Verdi Rigoletto (Constantine Orbelian, conductor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky baritone)
The opera aficionados know that we lost one of the best voices way too early, Hvorostovsky lost the battle with brain cancer but left us one final gem, his take on the Rigoletto. A must-have.
Murray Head, Nigel Lived (Intervention Records Reissue)
I did not know what to expect on this except I was very optimistic after the superlative Joe Jackson “Look Sharp” and Erasure “Wonderland” releases from Shane Buettner and team. Based on a diary of a stranger, this 1972 artist-approved, breathtaking concept album is spectacular in every way.
The sound is sublime. The artwork and production is reference-level printing. You can see the love that went into this from the artist to Shane’s production to Stoughton’s gorgeous jacket and textured artwork in the gatefold. I’m very much looking forward to the artist-approved release of Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day next.
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (Tidal MQA)
Oh, the voice of this artist! I just discovered Rhiannon last weekend, but I am impressed. Love her voice and the variety of the genres on her tracks. It seems to shuffle between blues to pop to bluegrass to soul to urban/rap. It doesn’t really matter, as it’s all good. Freedom Highway was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards.
Liz Brasher, Cold Baby (an iTunes single, but a proper album is due out soon)
Liz was, up until recently, a local Americana artist that was a favorite of my friends. Then she got signed to Fat Possum Records and decamped to Memphis. Brasher’s musical education has been rich in swamp blues and gospel for a while now and they are truly infused in her music since her days singing in a Baptist church choir.
I think she is going to be a big hit as she is great live and has a wonderful voice. Her band mates Todd Kerstetter on bass and Lee Corum on drums are terrific. Her music is well worth tracking down. To be honest, I’m kind of in love with her and when you hear her voice, you will be too. (See her here on YouTube,)
Lars Jakob Rudjord, Indiepiano
This Norwegian pianist has been impressing me with his complex, moody music for years. Just three years ago I picked Clockwork as my favorite release of the year, and last year I gave Ingvild Koksvik’s Og Sangen Kom Fra Havet the top honor. (Lars and Ingvild were married last year, and each of them usually appears on the other’s releases).
Indiepiano, which clocks in at a little over half an hour, consists of eight moody piano pieces that appear to belong in some fascinating yet unknown film — one that’s about winter, ice and plenty of emotional longing. These pieces are simple and beautiful in every way, and after repeated listening you’ll start to hear these haunting melodies in your dreams at night.
Thurston Moore, Rock and Roll Consciousness
I’d call this the best Sonic Youth album ever — by far — except only half of that legendary group is present here. Thurston Moore and his band, including SY’s Steve Shelley on drums, have created the purest expression of rock and roll I’ve heard in many years. Moore introduces many psychedelic themes into the mix, which suggests that we might have missed something vital in rock and roll history that begs to be re-discovered.
These five songs, which average over eight minutes in length, are epic without being “progressive.” As they slowly evolve over time, they reveal incredible depths while maintaining lean and muscular structures. Yet Rock and Roll Consciousness is anything but ponderous … it’s lean, mean and exhilarating.
Imagine you’re walking across the Sahara Desert and you spot on oasis where you find a nightclub featuring a band playing Mississippi Delta Blues. You follow a group of armed rebel fighters through the front door, only to be surprised when they jump on the stage, grab their instruments and start playing some of the most blistering guitar-based African blues you’ve ever heard.
That’s Tinariwen in a nutshell. These guys have been playing together off and on for 40 years, taking occasional breaks to fight in the Resistance in Mali and neighboring countries. With that sort of build-up, you might be wondering if their music is really that good. Every time I play this LP for people, however, they ask what it is and where they can buy it. So yeah, Elwan is amazing.
Sasha Matson, Tight Lines
Many audiophiles know Sasha Matson from his association with Stereophile, but he’s also an accomplished composer. This new collection of chamber music, recorded by none other than John Atkinson, is astonishing in its ability to sound like the soundtrack to an Elia Kazan film from the 1950s — lean, spare and dry in a uniquely New England autumn sort of way.
Like Lars Jakob Rudjord’s Indiepiano, Matson’s music is unusually effective in planting very specific images in your mind — images that might be difficult to shake during subsequent listens. Tight Lines also is noteworthy for its use of different ensembles for each suite — string quartet and piano; mixed septet; violin, harp and echoes; string orchestra and keyboards. The sound quality, as you might expect from these people, is exquisite.
Robt Sarazin Blake, Recitative
Blake has been one of my personal favorites for years: A dry and sardonic folk singer who uses an old manual typewriter to send me thank-you notes. He comes from the Phil Ochs school of plaintive folk singers, but his wit and humor are more firmly planted in the Utah Phillips School of Bumpy Night University.
Recitative is the type of album that performers put out when they get famous — big, brash and confident. Blake decided to use the “Hudson Valley Sound” as a template, and these songs are so strong and confrontational that you think Blake’s been listening to too much Springsteen — far from a bad thing, I know. But the amazing part is that my favorite beatnik is still sleeping on people’s couches in between gigs, although he deserves to be famous after an album like this.
Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone
LAW’s unbending commitment to Real Country continues on her first release since 2014’s The Way I’m Livin’. While her albums are wonderful, they don’t come close to the powerhouse awesomeness of her live shows. Check her out in the wild if you get a chance.
Slow Meadow, Costero
While past releases have shown a tinge of homage to A Winged Victory for the Sullen, this latest one displays a deft, deep, and more uniquely minimal take on all-instrumental, soundtrack-y beauty. Find it on Bandcamp.
St. Vincent, Masseduction
Annie Clark seems hell-bent on showing us how much she adores Kate Bush (with perhaps a touch of Imogen Heap), leavened by a love-hate relationship with L.A. (mostly hate). The accompanying videos for the album show that Clark’s grasp of the visual is as intensely vivid as the imagery in her songs.
Midori Takada, Through The Looking Glass (reissue)
Insanely rare 1983 Japanese LP album is reanimated via the charmingly titled Swiss imprint We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want Records. A jewel of organic synthesis, subtle acoustic instrumentation and environmental recording.
In Pursuit Of Silence (DVD/BluRay)
Not a record, but an important work nonetheless. This documentary — actually more of an advocacy piece — examines the invasive role of noise in our lives. Certain portions verge on the avant-garde in the realms of both filmmaking and storytelling (and I say that in the utmost admiration). One of the more life-changing movies I’ve seen over the past few years.
The ECM catalog on Tidal and other streaming services
This one is an easy recommendation. ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded by Manfred Eicher in Munich in 1969. It developed a deep roster of jazz, classical and world musicians. It is particularly known for its jazz titles, including records by Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal and Pat Metheny. For an example of some newer music on this label, try Avishai Cohen’s album Into The Silence.
Richard H. Mak
Carl Orff, Die Kluge
If Carl Orff’s musical style is represented by Carmina Burana, then his operatic style is best represented by Die Kluge. The album was first introduced in Dietrich Brakemeier’s well-written work “Living Stereo,” published in German in 1994. Brakemeier, is well known designer of the SMARTractor, and CEO of Acoustical Systems. When I visited Brakemeier in November 2017, I received a copy from him as a gift.
I quote Brakemeier: “The recordings were made between 1976 and 1980 and, alongside Herbert Kegel’s Beethoven cycle, are remarkable among the conductor’s recordings for the quality of their sound. For many years now this record has been a regular choice on the turntable of many German audiophiles wanting to demonstrate a truly impressive atmosphere and dynamic low-frequency impulses… It is one of the most impressive recordings to be made in Europe during the last 30 years.” (Dietrich Brakemeier, Living Stereo, Munich 1994).
Berlin Classics’ reissue of Die Kluge has bass drums that rival the dynamism of the famous “From the New World” conducted by Istvan Kertesz on Decca Recording’s original ED1 (SXL 2289). The vocals and soundstage of Die Kluge rival Britten’s Noye’s Fludde on Argo’s ED1 (ZNF-1). A must-have, reference-quality recording.
Ella Fitzgerald, Ella At Zardi’s (Live At Zardi’s/1956)
Sometimes it’s worth the wait for something special. Recorded in February 1956 at Zardi’s Jazzland in Hollywood, a young and relaxed Ella whisks us away.
Released for the first time in December 2017, the 21-track compilation contains the complete performance across two wonderful evenings. Recorded by Norman Granz to celebrate Ella’s move from Decca to Verve Records, it includes some standards not available on any other Ella album, including “It All Depends on You.”
I love my Ella LPs, but this FLAC recording (192/24bit) of her in concert had me toe-tapping through the holiday season on repeat. On a recent trip, I missed it so much that just playing it back on my phone from TIDAL provided me that Ella fix.
— Compiled by John Stancavage