The critics have had their say. Now, Local Spins asks some West Michigan musicians to name their favorite 2017 releases: The War on Drugs, Rapsody, The Main Squeeze, Jonny Lang, Queens of the Stone Age, Twin Peaks, Father John Misty and more made the grade.
What music from 2017 inspired West Michigan musicians?
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It was a diverse mix of releases, based on this year’s “best of” lists supplied by a flock of artists from across the region.
Last week, Local Spins writers had their say, with publication of our annual “Critics’ Picks.” And as is tradition, musicians this week pipe in with their own roster of thought-provoking and influential recordings that stirred things up over the past 12 months.
THE MUSICIANS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2017
This year’s contributors: Michigander, Yolonda Lavender, Brent Shirey of Valentiger, Jake Kershaw, In the Valley Below, Alexander Lynch, Conrad Shock, Stefan Schwartz of Melophobix.
MICHIGANDER (Jason Singer)
1. “A Deeper Understanding,” The War on Drugs – At their core these songs are very simple and very basic, but they convey SO much emotion and it shows that you don’t need fancy production to make a timeless masterpiece. That bass line on “Clean Living” is one of the greatest things I’ve heard in a while.
LISTEN: “Clean Living”
2. “Sleep Well Beat,” The National – Although you don’t need fancy production to make a good record there is nothing wrong with having it. This record came out while I was tour earlier this year and I remember being in a coffee shop in Atlanta the first time I heard “I’ll Still Destroy You” and I literally started crying. Such a good record.
3. “Landmark,” Hippo Campus – Hippo Campus is one of the very few bands I’ve followed since their beginning and I pride myself in that. The songs are great, The guitar work is unreal. Really excited to see where this band goes.
4. “This Old Dog,” Mac DeMarco – Mac just gets it. He knows how to write songs. No tricks. Just great songs that will be around for a while. This record is no exception.
5. “What Now,” Sylvan Esso – I’ll be honest and say that I used to hate this band. But now I can’t get enough. Was really excited to hear the follow up to their debut. They hit it out of the park on this one. Plus the Echo Mountain versions of these songs really prove just how talented these two are.
YOLONDA LAVENDER (Kalamazoo)
1. “Laila’s Wisdom”, Rapsody – Rapsody is not to be boxed in or classified as a “female emcee.” She is one of the dopest emcees to ever do it, period. The production on this album is a breath of fresh air. Of course 9th Wonder never disappoints, but Jamla introduces a few new producers who round out the project nicely, not to mention all the dope features! Most importantly it exudes black girl magic and the empowerment of women. I’ve had it on repeat since it dropped in September.
WATCH: “Live at Vevo”
2. “4eva Is A Mighty Long Time,” Big K.R.I.T. – I love southern hip hop and I’ve been a Big K.R.I.T fan for a while now. This project is the first from K.R.I.T as an independent artist and you can hear the liberation in every song. This double-disk project focuses on who he is as a person and artist and it’s full of live instrumentation from some of my favorite musicians including Robert Glasper and Bilal. An incredible body of work and I’m looking forward to the tour in 2018.
3. “Gumbo,” PJ Morton – I’ve been a huge PJ Morton fan for quite some time. PJ is a preacher’s kid so he has very heavy gospel influences in his music, but he also was a member of Maroon 5. I love the versatility he expresses through his artistry. This album feels so personal. It feels like this is a defining moment for him. The lyrics are amazing and the arrangements are classic PJ which is always impeccable.
4. “CTRL,” Sza – I was so excited to finally get an album from Sza. I’ve been up on Sza for a while. The writing on this project is what got me. The subject matter and arrangements are awesome. I definitely kept this one on repeat for a while.
5. “Voyager,” Moonchild – I’ve been following Moonchild for at least three years. I am all about live instrumentation and that’s what encompasses Moonchild. The icing on top is the smooth vocals that you get from lead singer Amber Navran. The Moonchild sound can be explained as soultry with a deep groove. This project topped the others which I thought was impossible to do.
Bonus: “Freudian,” Daniel Caesar – Daniel Caesar is a newer artist that I found out about around a year ago. He has a pure voice and plays several instruments which is what drew me in. The lyrics and arrangements on this project are what I’d describe as honest and real. He has a really dope sound and I’m looking forward to more from him.
BEST CONCERT: This year I attended seven concerts and five music festivals! They were all amazing, but my favorite would have to be Afropunk which I attended in Brooklyn this summer. The roster was insane and the culture and atmosphere of the festival was like something I’ve never experienced. The focus on empowerment and positivity mixed with good food, great drinks and incredible music was absolutely amazing. From Solange and Sza to Thundercat and Raphael Sadiq, the entire experience was one I’ll never forget.
STEFAN SCHWARTZ (Melophobix)
Here are my Top 5 sizzling, smoking, smoldering hot best albums of 2017 (in no particular order).
1. “Without a Sound,” The Main Squeeze – This album takes the group into a somewhat electrical direction, adding to their soulfully charged pop-funk of albums prior. We get some serious hints of EDM influences among heavy guitar riffs and big bumping bass. Corey Frye’s vocals cut through the mix exactly like they should. Half the tunes on the album encourage bodily movement and intensive head banging. Tracks like “Get at Me” and “Sweat” will certainly be fan favorites in the dance/jam community. Can’t wait to see these guys again when they come back into town. The Main Squeeze supplies the feel-good party music at the absolute maximum level.
LISTEN: “Without a Sound”
2. “Mouth Full of Dirt,” Paddlebots – Headlines for this album should read:- “Pop/Funk/Soul band Paddlebots launch career from tiny Michigan town and MELT MINDS.” Sweet Jesus, can these dudes play. I have not only had the opportunity to see them several times, but also shared stages with this insanely talented group of individuals. Combining the influences from the jazziest of jazzy, and the funkiest of funky, these gents reach a level of on-stage enthusiasm I can honestly say I look up to. In my most biased of opinions, these guys are the best thing to come out of Michigan this year. Their future looks bright as gold, and if they continue to release tracks like the album’s “Hush” and “Out of the Blue” then the Bruno Mars’ of the world need to watch the heck out. Paddlebots are THE REAL DEAL, and people better recognize.
3. “Seekers and Finders,” Gogol Bordello – Gypsy Punk for the lost and found, who are now able to seek and find. Punks not dead. Their warn-torn upbringings fuel the politically charged rhetoric that continues to echo in the current climate. You haven’t seen it all until you’ve seen Gogol Bordello live, and this album’s tour provided no exception to the rule. Violins and accordions accompany punk rock riffs and heavily accented non-native English on this album’s feelings of home, family, the road and the journeys to and fro. Gogol Bordello has always fueled a global cause. Listeners may find themselves invoking deep in self reflection during the title track, when the band asks, “Not all seekers will be finders, which one are you?”
4. “Heartbreak Hits,” Theo Katzman – Heartbreak Hits is pop music that doesn’t suck. Theo’s also a premier member of the group Vulfpeck, who’s 2017 release “Mr. Finish Line” continues to skyrocket their careers. Theo however, dropped this album in the beginning half of the year having since launched a very successful tour around it. Summed up in a few short sentences, this is an album about the loss of love and the love of loss. It hits far too close to home for some of us (myself included), and the upbeat sing-a-long lyrics of tracks like “Hard Work” and “My Heart Is Dead” are sure to reel in any listener. I’ll excitedly anticipate more releases from this soon-to-be award-winning songwriter.
5. “Hot Thoughts,” Spoon – The first time I ever heard a Spoon record I was blown away. It was music in an unconventional form. Some of the melodies were barely tangible, let alone recognizable. Somehow they managed to enthrall all the senses despite opposition. “Hot Thoughts” continues to deliver the same classic Spoon sound we’ve all come to know and love. It gives equally as gratifying to listen to this album as it is to blast “Kill the Moonlight” or “Gimme Fiction.” It’s good to know these guys haven’t sold out to the forks and knives.
BEST CONCERT: By far, Beaver Island Music Festival (BIMF) 2017. The atmosphere and climate touched my soul in places that needed some serious love. What a fantastic experience! Combining an eagerly awaiting crowd full of fine folk, and a grass fed lineup of Michigan-made greats, Beaver Island’s shores truly swept me away. Twas love at first sight, and I can highly recommend future attendance to anyone looking to get away from cell towers and just groove for a long weekend. BIMF’s extreme lack of cell service made me realize that technology is a burden our souls, and for once in a long time, I felt free.
ALEXANDER LYNCH (Grand Rapids)
1. “Freudian,” Daniel Caesar
2. “Ctrl,” SZA
3. “Broke Royalty,” Flint Eastwood
4. “ANGST,” Sam Austins
5. “Nydge x Norty,” Nydge, Norty
BEST CONCERT: My favorite show of 2017 was Flint Eastwood’s April 14th performance in the lobby of the historic Fisher Building in Detroit. I love shows in places that aren’t typically venues. It gives people a sense that the show is a very unique and personal experience that they get to share with the artist they love and a few others.
JAKE KERSHAW (Marshall)
1. “Signs,” Jonny Lang – Jonny really packs the heat in this new album with screaming guitar and insane vocals. The songs featured really speak to me on as they have a very “earthy” vibe to them with lots of rock and grit, and the vocal work along with the lyrics really completes the package of modern blues-rock.
WATCH: “We’re All in this Together”
2. “We’re All in this Together,” Walter Trout – Walter really shows us he’s came back from his near-death experience in full swing with this new edition to his repertoire. His guitar sounds fantastic, and the guest artists on this album really make it shine with originality. Each song shows a classic blues setup, but is twisted and torqued into something new and exciting that really gets you stomping your feet.
3. “Stompin’ Ground,” Tommy Castro – This album has a really good feel to it, and showcases Tommy’s ability to really make the blues his own. It has a very “raw” feel, and has an all around “low down and dirty” vibe to it. A classic Tommy album with killer vocals and guitar.
4. “Hi Rhythm,” Robert Cray – I actually found out about this album after watching him perform on Conan, and I was hooked. A man of simplicity, Robert always amazes me that he can make blues so easy to understand, with his powerful riffs, soulful guitar playing, and his soothing, yet cutting vocals.
5. “The Search for Everything,” John Mayer – John really shows us how he can make a simple song and melody have all the emotion in the world. His subtle riffs speak to me in a way that is really quite calming, and his vocals help add that soothing touch to many of the more groovy tunes.
BEST CONCERT: It was really a festival verses a concert: Anthony Gomes at the Jackson Bluesfest. Anthony just loves pestering blues traditionalists with his killer guitar work and also is one of my favorites to watch as he engages a crowd. He makes eye contact with every person he can reach out to from the stage. If you ask any of his fans, they’ll tell you they feel they know him on a personal level after just one show. He knows how to make you feel like family. And of course his band is uber-talented.
IN THE VALLEY BELOW (Jeffrey Jacob and Angela Gail)
Our favorite albums of the year … the answer to this changes every day, and we haven’t heard everything, but we like an album that isn’t safe and gives us some meat to bite into.
1. “Villains,” Queens of The Stone Age
LISTEN: “Villains of Circumstance”
2. “No Shape,” Perfume Genius
3. “Sorry is Gone,” Jessica Lea Mayfield
4. “Phases,” Angel Olsen
5. “Visions of a Life,” Wolf Alice
BEST CONCERT: Our favorite concert was PJ Harvey at The Royal Oak Music Theater on April 24, 2017. She has a special power on stage and put together a totally unique show with all male vocalists singing and playing with her. Like some dream of a smoking marching band. It was simply enchanting.
BRENT SHIREY (Valentiger)
‘Best’ or not, rather, here are five songs that struck me personally in 2017.
1. “On the Line,” Twin Peaks – Released as a single from the road as part of their “Sweet ’17 Series,” this more subdued track from the band reveals a depth that may fly a little under the radar in comparison to the aparant war path that is their live show. I’ve enjoyed watching Twin Peaks from the comfort of the Internet this year, and hearing their name come up more and more makes me glad. With “On the Line,” I get Pink Floyd’s moodiness mixed with Stephen Malkmus-brand guitars; add a dash of Black Francis’ well-placed dissonance and you’ve got a track full of some of my favorite things. Plus, I can appreciate anytime a band decides to clock it in around 2 minutes, for whatever reason. Keep it up, boys.
LISTEN: “On the Line”
2. “Yer Killin’ Me,” Remo Drive – This is everything a band wants to do in a single song. Truly one of those “couldn’t do it again if you tried” moments from a band who simply isn’t taking themselves too seriously. Call it pop punk, emo revival, indie rock, whatever; I found it refreshingly sincere, straightforward and just plain fun – both in terms of the song and production. Sometimes pretensions must give way. Enjoy something raw, that’s shot straight from the hip, regardless of the genre. I just like what’s going on with this band on the whole. Hearing them talk between songs on their AudioTree session, there isn’t a lick of pompous here. I get the sense they genuinely believe in what they’re doing, while having fun. I think that’s the dream, no?
3. “Hard Times,” Paramore – You can count this as my guilty pleasure – every good “Best” list should contain at least one, I suppose. If anything, Paramore has done an excellent job adapting, changing and growing. Their last record produced a couple singles that caught my ear and put them back on my radar. When I heard “Hard Times,” I wanted to hear it again – and there’s always something to be said for that. It could be the hard play on the ’80s here, but I like what’s going on. Hayley Williams’ voice is no secret, but I feel like they’ve honed in on a ‘signature’ vocal production and focused a little more on the sound of her voice rather than her power. The lyrics are relatively simple and not overthought and she has just enough fun with the vocal performance. But I think what keeps me intrigued is the soundscape and textures throughout the song. The sparse, slap-back guitar mixed to the back, the excellent use of affected gang vocals to nail the “hard times” part of the chorus that might otherwise fall flat. When a song is done right, it’s done right and I think that’s the case, here. Plus, Andrew Joffe absolutely nailed this throwback video, in which both he and the band sealed the deal for me.
4. “Nothing Feels Natural,” Priests – A tune that gets better with repeated listens. The title track gives me strong Sonic Youth vibes, making them feel instantly familiar. But I think what’s important here is the space they’ve left that’s often filled with studio overdubs and guitar or synth solos or three additional members. It feels as though the track has captured four people doing what they do. That’s a hard to thing to accomplish in the first place and an even harder thing to hold back on. The band is riffing on a relatively simple structure, keeping it interesting in all the right ways, while leaving enough room for the listener to really embrace the soaring vocal. Drenched in a perfect amount of reverb, everything is tied together. Punk with a somber yearning, indie pop coating; strangely addicting.
5. “Pursue the Nightlife,” Greg Ashley – I haven’t heard a group of tracks this forthright and darkly compelling in a long time. Lyrics are the key here, as Greg Ashley (formerly of influential psych band The Gris Gris) paints his “Pictures of Saint Paul Street.” Seeing him live (VALENTIGER shared a bill with him this year), I was strangely sucked into the songs. Each lyric kept me wondering what the next would be with a brutal honesty; not even so much for better or worse, but just what it is. And the images are dour. Maybe “Pursue the Nightlife” isn’t for everyone, being slapped with lines like, “You’re a drunk in a river of piss/Lost without what you miss.” But, either way, he’s captured these scenes well and lays everything on the line, which is something worth pointing out. At the very least, killer clarinet solo in the center of the track. There is a lot to think about here, if you’re up for it. https://youtu.be/Kk_CNkDLUCo
John Conrad Schaak (Cønrad Shøck + the Nøise)
1. “Pure Comedy,” Father John Misty – Did 2017 leave you feeling like the world around you had become some sort of twisted TV show? Far too many words could be said about this exquisite record, and no human on this “blue marble” could say it better than Josh Tillman himself. With a high price of admission, “Pure Comedy” requires undivided attention and an alert mind to digest. The complex words of this album are mirrored by complex musical arrangements and take you on a journey you might not be ready for. It is an ugly album about the current climate of the world, and what happens when entertainment and instant gratification are valued above all else.
WATCH: “Pure Comedy”
2. “Waiting on a Song,” Dan Auerbach - The songwriter in me fell in love with this infectious album. It’s cheeky, it’s fun, and whatever tune you listen to last will be stuck in your head for a week. Dan made a huge move by releasing this record, and lost a lot of old fans in the process. Most people think of Auerbach as the raunchy blues machine of The Black Keys, and were shocked to see him set free an album of what seems to be a compilation of AM radio hits. “Waiting on a Song” isn’t going to make any groundbreaking leaps in music, but Auerbach sure can write a damn good song and isn’t afraid to push himself out of his comfort zone.
3. “Little Dark Age / When You Die,” MGMT – These two singles alone have me estatic for music in 2018. MGMT have released both of these songs along with some truly haunting music videos and art in anticipation for a new album due in early 2018. Depression, death and cynicism all wrapped up into an easily palatable synth-pop format that will have you dancing with your demons.
4. “New Beginnings,” Radio Moscow – Whenever I start to get confident in my guitar playing I just kick on this album to remind myself that people like Parker Griggs exist. Listening to this wizard’s guitar playing is enough to make me run out of breath. His fingers seem to move faster than the human brain can process, yet throughout it all Griggs maintains soul and emotion in his playing. For me, the highlight of this album is the song “Pick Up the Pieces.” The recording is a work of art, and features guitar playing that will undoubtedly send shivers down your spine.
5. “Savage Times,” Hanni El Khatib - I always love a good “stream of consciousness” lyric. That being said, “Savage Times” is a stream of consciousness album. Numbering at 19 songs, you can tell Khatib embraced every muse that came to him, and executed the ideas without a second thought. Fuzzy guitars & acoustic guitars, electric drums & acoustic drums, soft vocals & harsh screams … it’s all over the place, but an honest look into one of my favorite artist’s minds.
Check out the 2017 Picks by Local Spins Writers, from Kendrick Lamar to Billy Strings: The Critics’ Picks from Local Spins
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