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My Top 10 of 2017

I'm not generally a late sleeper, but for this past week off I've slept til noon pretty much every day. I think that has a lot to say about how this year was for me. Unlike 2016, this year was pretty good to me personally, but I have also had to help my undocumented students navigate a new and disgusting hurdle pretty much every week. The young people around me are more generally pessimistic and stressed than in the past. And why shouldn't they be? My exhaustion comes from helping manage that secondary trauma. I'm not writing this to expect a lot of accolades or to make my students subjects of pity. It's the background to the music I listened to and selected for this blog in general, and it's particularly true of my top 10. Even as there were moments of quiet beauty in my life, for the most part (and like for many people) I was more engaged than I'd ever been. This list reflects that.

A note about the compilation of the list. I was joking with Highway Queens, who had an insightful Twitter thread about the dearth of women on mainstream publications' top 10 lists, that my list would look a lot different. My criteria for compiling this list was

  • Did I love this album the first couple of times I listened to it?
  • Did I then listen to it multiple times? Or at least think about it a bunch since writing about it?

As it turns out, the list skews heavily queer, heavily trans*, but also heavily white. (This list is also more rooted in Americana than last year's.) While this is a reflection of some serious imbalances in roots music in general, it's also a reminder to me to continue to expand my horizons and pass them on to you.

A lot of musicians discovered their political songwriting muscles this year, which is nice. But the albums featured here, where they deal with politics explicitly, were being written well before the election and even the campaign. These are the voices who have been living with all kinds of oppression and have been persevering long before November 9, 2016 and will do so long after Trump leaves office (by hook or crook). These are the albums that gave me strength through this year. May they bring strength to you.

10. Darth Nater's People Are Animals was a late entry here. The title pretty much gets to the heart of it. This is an incredibly imaginative collection of character studies that imagines people as animals. Don't let the conceit turn you off, though. It's one of those albums that'll make you stop and think a little, and hopefully call the people who are closest to you.

9. Dougmore's Outerboros touched me in a lot of personal ways (which I go into more for the review.) Doug's intertwining interests in mythology, bluegrass, and psychedelia swirl together in an enchanting album by one of the smartest guys I know who also happens to play a mean banjo.

8. Will Johnson's had a bang-up year musically. He produced Chris Porter's final album, Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You (an honorable mention for this list) on the heels of his own Hatteras Night, a Good Luck Charm and supported John Moreland on tour. Johnson's album is a ghostly series of desperate character studies and Americana that pushes the envelope to the edges of the genre.

7. Jesus and His Judgmental Father's Kings and Queens lives in that comfortable gap between pop punk and British folk. Perhaps it's my own perception, but I've just recieved a whole lot more hostility on the street based on my haircut and my (dashing) appropriation of men's clothing. While it hasn't been as bad for me as for many of my other friends and community members, the threat of potential violence is present whenever I walk out of the house. "Kings and Queens," the album's title track, breaks these complex experiences down and gave me life throughout this year.

6. The Narrow Place couldn't have been a better album to launch Karen and the Sorrows into the spotlight they deserve. Landing the band spots on Rolling Stone Country, the venerable magazine's print edition, the Village Voice, and Noisey, it's no wonder the album has widespread appeal. Karen's songwriting has never been stronger, exploring Judaism, white privilege within the Jewish community, queer identity, heartbreak and new love -- all with three chords, the truth, and Elana Redfield's sorrowful pedal steel.

5. Sera Cahoone's From Where I Started just might be the world's most perfect love album. Cahoone's light melodies and confident voice haunted me throughout the year. While most of the songs seem to be written for and about her now ex-fiancee, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, the album treats serious themes like domestic abuse with powerful gravity.

4. Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires' manifesto on Southern white identity, Youth Detention\\\Nail My Feet to the South Side of Town is a dense album that's worth all of your time. Rumor has it that the album was too political for their label Kill Rock Stars, so the band closed shop and took it elsewhere. It was worth whatever hardship the band went through to get this out to the public. When you take a listen, be sure to read the lyrics. Bains' rapid-fire delivery and the band's furious wall of sound can make these gems a little hard to get the first time around.

3. Hurray for the Riff Raff's The Navigator just needs to be on this list. While I tend to avoid putting the usual suspects on such lists, there's no questioning that The Navigator is so transcendent and powerful that it deserves every single accolade it gets. Anything to put this album in more people's ears. This is a quasi-allegorical album that celebrates life in New York City -- particularly in Puerto Rican barrios like East Harlem and the South Bronx, and the devastating losses the city faces as these communities fall prey to "revitalization." (A theme that also runs through the Lee Bains album with respect to Birmingham.) "Pa'lante" in particular should not be mistaken as anything other than a call to the Puerto Rican community. We all have a lot to learn from and to honor of the Young Lords' legacy, and this song stands testament to that struggle.

2. Would it be a top-ten list on this website if there weren't a project related to Micah Schnabel or Shane Sweeney? I only listened to Micah Schnabel's Your New Norman Rockwell a few times. It just cuts too deeply. But Micah happened to be playing New York the day after the election, and his songs about poverty in the Midwest have taken on an especially heavy weight this year. But Micah's own strength and perseverance will buoy you no matter the storm.

1. When I wrote the review for Worriers' Survival Pop, I said that I would never need another album again. In spite of the previous nine entries, that's still true. When I was happy, I listened to this album. When I was depressed, I listened to this album. When I felt pissed off about politics, I listened to this album. When I was annoyed by yet another stranger on the street baldly trying to guess my gender (as if it matters to them), I listened to this album. One of the most fun I had a concert this year was with all the other queer punks at their concert. Lauren DeNizio's gift for distilling complicated themes about gender identity, mental health, and politics is a rare one. I hope to see you at their next show.

I don’t know much about the musicians on your list, I’ll look each up. I will say this, though - you get my vote for favorite new ND reviewer.  You are consistently concise, entertainingly effective at explaining your viewpoint. 

What do you do that you are guiding undocumented students?

I'll second that Jack, and Rachel, with you being a Will Johnson fan you might want to check out Don Lee's "Lonesome Lies Before Us".  The author mentions Will as an inspiration in the acknowledgements. And yes, the novel is about a musician's struggle as an alt-country singer/songwriter. 

Blurb lifted from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

"Drawn to the music of indie singer-songwriters like Will Johnson, who helped shape the lyrics in this book, Don Lee has written a novel that unforgettably captures America’s deepest yearnings. Beautifully sad and laced with dark humor, Lonesome Lies Before Us is a profound, heartfelt romance, a soulful and memorable song."

 

Will Johnson performs the song "Lonesome Lies Before Us".

I didn't post about many of them here because they're punk, but you'll enjoy them I think!

I'm an academic advisor at a community college in the Bronx.

Thanks for the recommendation, R! I'm adding it to my very lengthy list!

And of course, thanks to both of you for the kind words! Stay tuned on Monday. I think you'll like it. :3