Kendrick Lamar, Billy Strings, The National, Perfume Genius, Jaco Pastorius and The Accidentals earned high marks from Local Spins writers. See who else made the grade in 2017.
Talk about a turbulent year – and we’re talking politics, natural calamities and music.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
Aside from a confused/perturbed public and Mother Nature, the music of 2017 often cut through the turmoil providing both dynamic commentary on the state of things and soothing respite from the tumult.
Sadly, we lost some of the voices we’ve come to lean on in times of stress: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, Gregg Allman, Al Jarreau, Chester Bennington, Mel Tillis, Prodigy, Pat DiNizio, David Cassidy, Della Reese, Charles Bradley, Malcom Young and more.
But as always, life – and music – carried on, with a bevy of beguiling releases from established and emerging artists alike. And as always, Local Spins asked its astute writers and critics to choose the year’s best music and most memorable concert experiences.
Check out their picks of songs and albums here, then come back next week for the best music of 2017 as selected by West Michigan musicians. If you have your own favorites, share them in the comments below. As for me, I’ll just say that Spoon (“Hot Thoughts”) topped my 2017 list of national releases, not to mention my most riveting concert experience. – John Sinkevics
THE WRITERS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2017TRICIA WOOLFENDEN (Local Spins writer and co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
Female artists reigned supreme for me in 2017, plus a few local and regional (Absofacto is formerly of Michigan) choices.
1. Perfume Genius, “Slip Away” (off “No Shape”) -Mike Hadreas, better known by his performance moniker, in his fourth record offers a beautiful collection of raucous and reflective numbers that live up to the promise of “Queen” (from 2014’s “Too Bright”). According to Spotify’s Big Brother-like data-mining prowess, this track — and album — dominated my 2017 listening experience by miles. No wonder: in a roller coaster, dumpster fire of a year, this perfect little package proves once again why music is the salve for witnessing a society that is seemingly falling apart at the seams.
2. Grizzly Bear, “Mourning Sound” (off “Painted Ruins”)
3. Lorde, “Green Light” (off “Melodrama”)
4. Haerts, “Your Love” (single)
5. case/lang/veirs, “Atomic Number” (off “case/lang/veirs”)
6. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless” (off “MASSEDUCTION”)
7. Jidenna, “Bambi” (off “The Chief”)
8. Lazy Genius, “Get Some” (off “Holographic”)
9. Absofacto, “Done With Love (feat. Herizen)” (off “Thousand Peaces”)
10. alt-J, “Adeline” (off “Relaxer”)
BEST CONCERT: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, June 3 at the Masonic Temple in Detroit – An incredible light show and magnetic stage presence underscored a flawless set of old and new material, most of it with the strange, gothic, murdery vibe that only Nick Cave could possess. Witnessing Cave perform live is a religious experience. I’d heard this for years. His Motown appearance this summer proved his proselytizing fans correct, and I am converted.
RICKY OLMOS (Local Spins writer)
These are listed in no particular order.
1. The National, “Sleep Well Beast” – Within the first few seconds of spinning The National’s latest record, you realize you’re listening to something magical, a collection of deeply moving, intensely emotional songs draped in a uniquely lush soundscape. Although it seemed like Matt Berninger couldn’t be any more vulnerable or transparent, “Sleep Well Beast” finds him spilling his guts with a new level of brutal honesty amidst beautifully dark and brooding musicality.
Listen/Watch: “Day I Die”
2. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Hallelujah Anyhow” – Traditionally, it’s easier to pen sorrowful songs, and far more difficult to harness happiness with composing and songwriting. But “Hallelujah Anyhow” is pure, soul-soaked joy, distilled into a bright and hopeful record. Ripe with a plethora of horn sections, honky-tonk pianos and gospel choirs, then counterpointed by the traditional folk instrumentation of acoustic guitars, mandolin and banjo, the album abounds with sonic diversity. The genres blend seamlessly with the unifying texture of MC Taylor’s scratchy-yet-smooth vocal melodies and the end product is a musical equivalent of a sunny, mid-morning drive through rolling backroads of rural America.
3. Ryan Adams, “Prisoner” – The iconic rock ’n’ roll songwriter returned this year with one of his most captivating releases yet. With “Prisoner,” Mr. Adams crafts another collection of emotionally-charged songs, but augments them with a backdrop of ambient, atmospheric soundscapes, reminiscent of a musical era somewhere between 1983 and 2005.
4. Kendrick Lamar, “DAMN.” – A masterpiece of epic proportions by a modern day prophet, “DAMN.” is aggressive, unapologetic, honest, intelligent and relevant. A portal into the confines of Lamar’s brilliant psyche, each track evokes deep contemplative thought while simultaneously providing fresh beats and ultra-creative instrumental tapestries.
5. Sylvan Esso, “What Now” – There’s a charming quality to Sylvan Esso’s unique brand of electronic indie-pop. Nick Sanborn’s catchy loops, infectious beats and luxurious synths lay a wondrous foundation for Amelia Meath’s wide-eyed lyrics and dreamy voice. Cultural commentary, self-reflection and nostalgia make up only a fraction of the album’s thematic elements. “What Now” is a refreshing release in the sphere of pop-leaning music.
Best Concert and Honorable Album Mention – David Ramirez, “We’re Not Going Anywhere” / Live at Founders – When David Ramirez unleashes his rugged baritone voice and raw lyrical poetry, it cuts to the bone. This was the case even with his stripped-back, folk-centric efforts of previous releases. Now he’s flanked by a fiery rock ‘n’ roll band and a fistful of anthemic, angsty, inspired songs from a bold new full-length. During his Grand Rapids stopover, a capacity crowd at Founders Brewing raved and reveled in the electric, rollicking vibes. The Austin, Texas songwriter commanded the stage with searing confidence and swagger, and fledged a set chock full of protest-worthy songs and socially aware provisions.
The War and Treaty, “Down to the River” – https://open.spotify.com/album/3JiILntTtRreadH6W8ftB2
Greta Van Fleet, “From the Fires” – https://open.spotify.com/album/6uSnHSIBGKUiW1uKQLYZ7w
Various Artists, “Scene Sessions” – https://open.spotify.com/album/3k7wabOP00HZoWGLpW7tsS
Mark Lavengood, “We’ve Come Along” – https://open.spotify.com/album/5hYMa4ewdnnovZn4YzyiId
RYAN BOLDREY (Local Spins writer)
1. Billy Strings, “Turmoil & Tinfoil” — From the opening notes of “On the Line” to the hard-picking “Meet Me at The Creek” and “Turmoil & Tinfoil” along with the sentimental, sad and fictional “While I’m Waiting Here” Billy Strings’ long-awaited debut LP hit on every note, leaving fans from coast to coast wanting more and every Michigander that has been part of his journey proud as can be. The Nashville-living Mitten native has been winning fans over at bluegrass festivals everywhere he lands the past couple years, and after this release it’s hard to comprehend that his recording career is only just beginning.
Watch: “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” “While I’m Waiting Here” (Local Spins on WYCE)
2. The Infamous Stringdusters, “Laws of Gravity” — The Dusters may be best known for their jam-packed live shows, but there is a reason the band’s latest release is up for a Grammy in the category of Best Bluegrass Album — it’s just that good. Bassist Travis Book may have the best voice in the genre and he’s not the only one who can sing. Jeremy Garrett is at the top of his game on songs like “A Hard Life Makes a Good Song” and dobro-player extraordinaire Andy Hall soars on “Vertigo,” while Chris Pandolfi’s banjo and Andy Falco’s guitar do plenty of singing of their own throughout the album. The Virginia grass act is without a doubt one of the tightest there is on stage out there and they’ve managed to tie things together even tighter on their latest work as they explore new depths lyrically and musically.
Watch: “Gravity” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7iTCru7Umw
3. May Erlewine, “Mother Lion” — Calling the album her “most honest and vulnerable” release to date, Erlewine’s “Mother Lion” may be her strongest and best work yet. At times power pop and at others soft and melodic folk, the northern Michigan songstress captivates and inspires with tracks such as “Never One Thing,” “Shake the World” and “Beautiful” as she waxes on themes that touch on love, loss, finding strength within and discovering new beginning. It seems like Erlewine was really going for it on this album, and get it she did.
Watch: “Never One Thing” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH0qrHdb8jg
4. Son Volt, “Notes of Blue” — With more than 20 years in the rearview mirror with Son Volt, Jay Farrar has rediscovered the sound that launched the St. Louis alt-country act into the spotlight on the band’s debut album “Trace” back in 1995. Farrar, who shared the stage with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo prior to the two artists going their own ways in the early 90s is at his lyrical best on this latest release. For any fan of the alt-country genre, this album, driven by steel guitars and road-weary vocals, is an absolute must to indulge in.
Watch: Live on KEXP – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkVE5bVH5XI
5. Mark Lavengood, “We’ve Come Along” — From introspective dobro-driven tunes that wax poetic about heartbreak, addiction and modern America to up-tempo bluegrass cuts played with a traditional flair, Mark Lavengood and the Bluegrass Bonanza’s new album “We’ve Come Along” puts the listener right in the moment and keeps them moving down the metaphorical road to the next big feel. The album, in a nutshell, resonates life. “Huggy Bear,” may be best known for his multi-instrumentalist work with Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, but with tunes such as “Vulpes, Vulpes” and the old winter/sessions cut “Three Day Blow,” he’s truly come into his own on his second full-length release.
Watch: “Three-Day Blow” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsa4GFPXHeM&t=36s
BEST CONCERT: Railroad Earth: Boulder Theater, July 15, 2017 — Railroad Earth began headlining Red Rocks in 2013 (with support from Kalamazoo favorites Greensky Bluegrass) and has done so every year since. In the past couple years, what has become even more special than the night on the rocks for Railroad fans is the “other” night that has become part of a two-night Colorado tradition. After spending a night under the stars with 9,499 other people there really, truly is nothing more special than sharing space in the intimate Boulder setting with 800 fellow die-hard fans. This year’s show dwarfed the night at Red Rocks as the band — which also played Grand Rapids’ Meijer Gardens this summer — fired on all cylinders, connecting with every member of the audience over the course of the evening while playing numerous uplifting fan favorites such as “Dandelion Wine,” “Like a Buddha,” “Bird in a House,” “Cold Water” and “Elko,” the latter of which saw the entire theater, in true Hobo tradition, littered with playing cards.
TROY REMINK (Local Spins writer, music maven, musician and co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
1. Kendrick Lamar, “DAMN.” – The prospect of following up an era-defining work like “To Pimp a Butterfly” might have been a crippling challenge for basically any artist besides Kendrick, whose imperial dominance of mainstream rap continues mostly unchallenged. “DAMN.” just sounds like muscles being flexed, a performance so self-assured that Kung-Fu Kenny just dropped a collector’s edition with the tracks sequenced in reverse, seemingly just for the hell of it, and it’s every bit as good. Damn, indeed.
2. LCD Soundsystem, “American Dream” – There was every reason to be cynical about James Murphy and friends sheepishly returning after not quite enough time had passed for everyone to really miss LCD Soundsystem. But the dance-rock standard-bearer more than justified his group’s reemergence with a record that matches peak LCD, only it’s wiser, more reflective, more mortality-obsessed. And for the guy who turned aging-hipster ennui into generation-defining anthems, that’s saying a lot.
Listen: “oh baby” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrc1zGEPPmg
3. Alvvays, “Antisocialites” – This Toronto indie band doubles down on the promise of their breakout hit, “Marry Me, Archie,” with a second record capitalizing on every promising facet of their self-titled debut. It’s pristine yet dreamy, giddy yet weary, expansive yet concise and stacked, top to bottom, with great melodies.
Listen: “Dreams Tonite” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXu6q-6JKjA
4. Slowdive, “Slowdive” – It’s been a sweet handful of years for us O.G. shoegaze nerds. By now the big four acts of the initial late-’80s/early-’90s British wave have reunited to produce exemplary albums, starting with My Bloody Valentine in 2013 and Swervedriver in 2015. This year saw the revival of both Ride and Slowdive, whose self-titled album not only recreates the band’s glory period, but offers a surprising refinement of a blueprint that has been copied by countless bands but never quite reproduced.
Listen: “Sugar For the Pill” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogCih4OavoY
5. Sylvan Esso, “What Now” – The winsome electropop duo proves its calling-card single “Coffee” was a prelude rather than a fluke. Their second record bursts with arresting moments and clever production, a forward-thinking but familiar-feeling artifact for those of us who have accepted that we’ll die before shedding our preference for album-long statements.
Listen: “Die Young” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-_NNIX8cDA
Honorable Mentions: Jay Som, “Everybody Works”; Vince Staples, “Big Fish Theory”; Julien Baker, “Turn Out the Lights”; Waxahatchee, “Out in the Storm”; Sorority Noise, “You’re Not as _____ as You Think”; Bjork, “Utopia”; Gang of Youths, “Go Farther In Lightness”; Lorde, “Melodrama”; The War on Drugs, “A Deeper Understanding”; Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”; Fever Ray, “Plunge”
Favorite Local Release: Hollywood Makeout, “Speedo Spider”- A perfect collision of vibe (’60s beach party!), execution (six airtight garage-pop jams), execution (analog production via the Goon Lagoon) and release fanfare (a show on a boat!). The band’s second EP is proving a good source of escapism during the gray winter months.
Watch: “Wheelhouse” (Local Spins on WYCE) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhxy4GW7ZoM
Favorite Concert: LCD Soundsystem, Masonic Temple Theater, Detroit – Like an idiot, I missed LCD’s previous Detroit show in 2010, which closed out what was thought to be the band’s final North American tour before its ceremonious breakup. The group’s reunion took a while to gather steam, but by the time Murphy & co. got back to Detroit, they had reclaimed their status as a bucket-list live act with a behemoth new album in the can. I’m still disappointed in myself for missing LCD during its original heyday, but it hurts a little less today.
MATT MARN (Local Spins writer)
1. The Accidentals, “Odyssey”– One of the most highly anticipated albums of the year comes from a group which has been making waves for years, both across Michigan and across the nation … impressive, since they are each barely 21. That’s right – The Accidentals. From the first time I saw them live, and even hearing them on local radio broadcasts on WYCE, I have a blast each time one of their songs start to play. And after a lot of hard work, the Traverse City trio signed with Sony Masterworks to put their heart into this new album, “Odyssey.” And it shows. The varied styles of songs and tones in the album span the gamut from new originals to previously unrecorded songs that fans have enjoyed at live shows for years. But if you enjoy the album, make a point to see them live. They are lighting up the airwaves and charts for a very good reason.
2. May Erlewine, “Mother Lion” – May Erlewine’s newest album, “Mother Lion,” is more of what many of us have come to cherish from the iconic local songwriter. Her inspirational message – a fearless call to action in many cases – urges us to do what we can to make the life we live beautiful. And you can clearly hear this, in every word of her music – with not only a beautiful voice, but the words to inspire a change for the better in the world around her. With so many lyrics in her albums, she can bring crowds full of fans to tears; they are moved by the message, as well as the melodies. In a recent Grand Rapids appearance this fall, she introduced her new single to the crowd in was to become a call-and-response style, but the crowd sang it back to her right away. They already knew it. Her devoted fans love everything she puts out, as well they should. From gorgeous piano and guitar melodies, to lyrics that can give listeners the strength to stand up for what is right in life, “Mother Lion” truly is something special, from a truly special songwriter.
Watch: “Never One Thing” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH0qrHdb8jg
3. Jake Kershaw, “Piece of My Mind” – Ever since Jake Kershaw won the competition for Best Band during Grand Haven’s Walk the Beat 2016 Festival, West Michigan knew the teenage blues-rock guitar prodigy was destined for greatness. Now that his debut album is making waves with blues lovers everywhere, he has been selling out crowds across Michigan, even recently opening for blues great Tab Benoit in Kalamazoo. With his blazing solo riffs and the powerful vocals and lyrics of a performer twice (or in this case, perhaps three times) his age, he backs up that stage presence with a great debut album, with a variety of style and tone that any soulful broken heart would be proud of.
Watch: “Going Home” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MdIa5dZg1U
4. Dan Rickabus, “Void/Journal” – As a solo project, “Void/Journal” is a bit of a departure from Dan Rickabus’ work with The Crane Wives, but “Void/Journal” is just as fun to hear and enjoy. As well as insightful lyrics and a variety of tones and melodies to experience, the album hosts a vast array of instrumental guest performances from other West Michigan musicians and friends. For me, this ambient track listing is best experienced with your eyes closed, absorbing and enjoying the music while gathered around with friends and loved ones, which, as it so happens, was the same way Rickabus celebrated the album’s release in Grand Rapids earlier this year.
Watch: “Bluegreen” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GijHL1n0evA
5. The War and Treaty, “Down to the River” – From the first line of the first song of “Down to the River,” you can tell how soulfully and powerfully this duo can bring it. The roots Americana group from Albion has been catching attention with every performance, from Walk the Beat Albion to even getting a nod from Rolling Stone Magazine from their set at AmericanaFest 2017 earlier this year in Nashville. The only thing more stunning than the story of how the two performers got involved in music, met, fell in love, and took to the stage to set airwaves ablaze nationwide is hearing them belt out the emotional notes of their original lyrics. From high-powered up-tempo numbers like their single “Hi Ho” to the softer ballad, “Till the Mornin,” the desperate emotion in their voices is nothing short of captivating.
Watch: “Down to the River” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfkPgfzuVAc
Bonus Mention: Jessica Fogle, “365 Day Songwriting Challenge” – Another project that grabbed fans’ attention over 2017 has been the Song-a-Day project, “365 Days,” from Grand Haven songwriter Jessica Fogle. No stranger to the local music scene, Fogle has several groups and projects currently underway, as well as traveling around the Lakeshore, teaching piano to several students, and saving plenty of time to support other local performers at house shows around West Michigan. But somehow, she made time to take on one of the most intimidating challenges I have ever heard of: writing a song every day, for every day in 2017. Well on her way to completing this challenge, Fogle religiously posts a song to her Facebook and Instagram pages every day – sometimes at her piano or keyboard, sometimes with her trusty ukulele, she pours out her heart and emotions for all to hear and enjoy. Sometimes, they are uplifting, happy tones; while others are dark and somber. But either way, this speaks to her versatility as a songwriter, and her passionate approach to her music and passions. I am blown away by this effort, and I encourage everyone to check out Fogle’s project; cheering her on to finish strong as 2017 winds down.
Best Concert: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, June 29 – After a family emergency during the opening night of the new Grand Rapids venue 20 Monroe Live, I soon got a second chance to see this New Orleans showstopper in person at the Meijer Gardens Summer Concert Series earlier this summer. Even as the initial threat of rain gave way to a full-blown rainstorm, leaving everyone in the crowd soaking wet, the New-Orleans jazz-rock inspired party barely even slowed down. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews further stoked the event’s flame by calling out to the crowd: “I’m from New Orleans! You think we’re afraid of a little rain?” Later in the drenched concert, Andrews even left the covered performance stage area to climb down the stairs, joining the cheering crowd in the downpour! After his impressive solo out among the crowd, the bone-soaked horn player – surrounded by cheering fans – threw both fists up in triumph, as if proving music is stronger than any storm nature can throw our way. That was truly a party I will not soon forget.
DEVIN ANDERSON (Local Spins writer)
1. The Turnips, “StopWatchTimeDrop” – It’s a windows-rolled-down kind of album that just doesn’t get old. The unique brand of folk-rock which defined The Turnips’ self-titled debut album has been supercharged with funk on “StopWatchTimeDrop.” The band maintains its rootsy sensibilities throughout the work – on tracks such as “In Time” and “The Screen Between”– while finding a deeper rhythmic pocket on the album’s opening declaration, “Bon Jon Brovi.” It’s been just as great a pleasure hearing these tracks embellished upon live throughout the year, including an epic performance at Cowpie Music Festival. Let co-producer Seth Bernard’s eccentric rap on the title track serve as proof: there’s not one lyric, guitarmony or groove out of place in these 10 songs.
Listen: “Bon Jon Brovi”
2. May Erlewine, “Mother Lion” – May Erlewine seems to have had a breakthrough with “Mother Lion.” It’s the vulnerability of Erlewine’s voice and maturity of her songwriting that inspires hope with tracks such as “Wild,” “Shake the World” and “Never One Thing.” Reserved and tasteful playing by members of Vulfpeck (a band which almost makes my list for its funky 2017 release, “Mr. Finish Line”) on each track unify the album sonically. Endlessly listenable, it’s a delight to indulge in the raw emotion “Mother Lion” eovokes.
Watch: “Get It Back” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCZgwVkpx3A
3. Tyler, the Creator, “Flower Boy” – Tyler, the Creator was 17 years old when his hip-hop collective, Odd Future, exploded in popularity on the internet. Tyler has since honed his skills as a rapper, producer, director and clothing designer, and is the true auteur of his fourth studio album, “Flower Boy.” It’s ambitious on every level, with Tyler performing almost every instrument. Tracks such as the crude “Who Dat Boy” and the balledesque “See You Again” couldn’t be more opposed lyrically and dynamically, but work together in the context of the whole album. I’m enamored the vision and concepts at work on the album, visually, musically and lyrically. “Flower Boy” recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album.
Watch: “Who Dat Boy” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUXX55WqYZs
4. Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers, “Pluto” – Joe Hertler and his eccentric band of space cadets have distilled pure fun into their third studio release. Seeing this Michigan band live or hearing any track on “Pluto” seem to be lessons in how to be happy. The anthemic “Lonely” is the album’s standout single, and there are melody-driven, saxophone-laden gems throughout. Hertler’s bubbly attitude is infectious, and I’m humming along to the album even after it’s done playing.
Watch: “Lonely” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR7AvFlSBBI
5. Thundercat, “Drunk” – From yacht rock ballads to jazz-funk, the alien-like essence of Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is most fully encapsulated in his latest and most sporadic outing, “Drunk.” Bruner has made a name for himself lending his voice and freakishly fast 6-string bass chops to artists ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Erykah Badu to Suicidal Tendencies. There’s an equally impressive list of features on “Drunk,” including Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Pharrell Williams and Mac Miller. Songs such as “Captain Stupido” and “Friend Zone” are simultaneously earnest and absurd. And hear the genre-defying groove in “Them Changes” It’s a strange combination of intense conviction and humor–met with mind blowing playing ability– that makes Thundercat’s music so enjoyable.
Watch: Tiny Desk Concert – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhVgbZdMdb0
Best Concert: Punch Brothers, I’m With Her and Julian Lage, Aug. 13 at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park – The audience at this show was tepid at first, but that soon changed as this all-star cast of musicians performed in several combinations before joining forces for an epic 40-minute finale. All nine musicians– whose talents span folk, pop, bluegrass and even classical–played and sang into just two microphones. There were many moments to marvel at, including a note-perfect performance of Punch Brothers’ “Familiarity” and a better-than-the-original cover of the The Beatles’ “Julia.” If the jumping, hugging and ear-to-ear grins by the artists were any indication, it seems they enjoyed the evening just as well.
ROSS BOISSONEAU (Local Spins writer)
1. Jaco Pastorius, “Truth, Liberty and Soul” – The World’s Greatest Bass Player was in rare form for this performance at George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival in 1982. It was captured for broadcast by NPR and restored by the magicians/geniuses at Resonance Records. Jaco was at his musical peak, having released two solo albums as well as just ending his six-year stint with Weather Report. His playing was always audacious, but while he clearly loved the spotlight, he was a brilliant accompanist as well, supporting and challenging his band members. Here he leads a 23-piece (!) band filled with brilliant musicians, like Peter Erskine, Bob Mintzer, Lew Soloff, Lou Marini Jr. and the inimitable Toots Thielemans on harmonica. Jaco’s tragic downfall, drugs and mental illness leading to a beating by a club bouncer followed by a fatal stroke, took from us a brilliant musician. This joyous, incredible recording, featuring classics like “Invitation,” “Fannie Mae” and the haunting “Three Views of a Secret,” as well as a 100-page booklet featuring interviews with his contemporaries, serves as a fitting epitaph.
Listen: “Truth, Liberty & Soul”
2. Steve Hackett, “The Night Siren” – Still think of Hackett as the ex-Genesis guitarist? His tenure with that group ended 40 years ago, and he’s made nearly that many albums since. The Night Siren is unabashed progressive rock, but it’s not all about lengthy suites or abstruse time signatures. Instead, Hackett borrows from and melds classical music, world music, even the blues, synthesizing it all into a mix uniquely his own. He often uses massed voices rather than a single lead singer, as on the hypnotic “In the Skeleton Gallery,” though it’s his soaring, sizzling guitar on tracks such as the concluding “The Gift” that the fans tune in for. Hackett is unafraid to challenge his listeners, incorporating Uilleann pipes, duduk and flageolet into the mix. Another winner from the maestro.
3. Steps Ahead, “Steppin’ Out” – One of the top fusion bands of the 80s and 90s reemerges with an assist from the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. Led by vibraphonist Mike Manieri, Steps Ahead is more melodic and less electric than many fusioneers. Manieri is joined by the late, great Chuck Loeb on guitar, saxophonist Bill Evans (who tears it up throughout) and all-world drummer Steve Smith. The ensemble revisits tunes by various versions of the band, reaching as far back as 1983. The big band enhances the music and gives it great depth, as well as providing additional soloists.
4. Taylor Haskins, “Gnosis” – Trumpeter and electronic adventurer Taylor Haskins explores heady sonic territory, from rock to jazz to ambient. Beats and loops exist alongside harp and kalimba, and atop it all is the leader’s trumpet, synthesizer and EVI (electronic valve instrument). The title track encapsulates it all: Spoken word intro, flute floating on a bed of synth sounds, deep beats, and the leader’s trumpet coolly leading things. You may need to adjust your equalizer to diminish the heavy bottom end. Though there’s a lot going on, the mix is spacious and invites the listener in.
5. Jethro Tull, “The String Quartets” – This is not the first time Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson has employed a string quartet; the group even toured with one several years ago. But Anderson isn’t living in the past, even though that classic opens this disc. The combination of string quartet and Anderson’s flute is inspired, as are these new arrangements of slightly renamed tunes, such as “Bungle,” “Songs and Horses,” “Loco” and “Aquafugue.” He even sings a bit, though his voice isn’t a focus. Proof that a great song has many lives.
6. Mark Papagno, “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” – Soaring instrumental prog rock with a fusiony edge by a masterful though lesser-known guitarist, with evocative textures and occasional almost singalong parts. “Darkness Falls” seems to incorporate Elton’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” before Papagno’s guitar riff takes over.
7. Oregon, “Lantern” – This latest version of the world music quartet is more jazz-inclined, and features a panoply of sounds. Paul McClandless’s various reeds often command the spotlight, as on “The Water is Wide,” featuring his bass clarinet.
8. Isamu McGregor, “Resonance” – The versatile keyboardist expands the sound of his jazz on this creative, kaleidoscopic album. Bonus points for the bouncy rhythms and title of “Thor vs James Brown.”
9. The New Triumph, “Keep on Push’n” – Speaking of fun titles, “Count Dracula’s African Vacation,” with its looping rhythms and sinuous sax is one of the standout tunes on this disc, which melds grooves from Afro-funk to soul jazz.
10. Joe Caro and the Met Band, “Every Dog Has His Day” – Swaggering, soulful rock from a group of NYC vets, including Paul Shaffer, Bones Malone, Chris Parker and Anton Fig, with the leader’s guitar and vocals out front.
Best Local Album: Organissimo, “Live at the SpeakEZ” – On the regional scene, standout efforts from Joshua Davis (“The Way Back Home”) and May Erlewine (“Mother Lion”) are sure to please their fans. But this live set from Lawrence Barris, Jim Alfredson and Randy Marsh – the collective known as Organissimo – stands apart. While the band’s other 2017 album, B3tles, was great fun, this live disc shows off the trio at its everyday best. It returns listeners to the halcyon days of organ-based soul jazz of the late 60s and early 70s on “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” while the group stretches out on “Jan Jan,” Then there’s the relaxed groove of “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and “Quem Diz Que Sabe,” plus two more tracks where the three showcase their chops without ever losing the audience.
Watch: “Jan Jan” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah0d1SDW-oY
Best Concert: Steve Hackett at 20 Monroe Live, Feb. 28 – It’s tempting to pick Brand X at the Magic Bag in Ferndale with Joe and Jim, my longtime concert-going buddies. The band was on fire, and the last time I’d seen the group was 38 years ago in Chicago with Joe. But I have to go with Hackett. The first set was a rousing showcase of his solo work, from his initial 1975 solo album “Voyage of the Acolyte to The Night Siren” (see above). The second set was Genesis Revisited, with Nad Sylvan handling lead vocals. Since Sylvan debuted with Hackett in 2014, he’s grown more comfortable with the material, and now owns the songs as much as Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins did. The band was muscular and lithe, and when Hackett concluded his set with “Supper’s Ready” the crowd roared. Taking the audience back in time while keeping the delivery thoroughly contemporary is a difficult trick to pull off, and Hackett and his bandmates delivered.
Local Spins Rewind: The Critics’ Picks for Best Music of 2016. Did they hold up a year later?
Copyright 2017, Spins on Music LLC