My music lists tend to be eclectic as they usually reflect different things about me. One, I tend to lean on musicians that I have admired and like for a long time. It should be no surprise that Cold War Kids or Andy Mineo make the list. The other thing my lists often reflect is what I was doing that year. Nicky Jam makes a surprise appearance because I spent a huge amount of time this year writing in coffee shops. And St. Vincent makes an appearance because I spent a huge amount of time at her sister and brother-in-law’s taco shop just a mile down the street from my house. Actually, she makes it because she’s brilliant and deserves it, but man those tacos are so good.
10. Fénix, Nicky Jam
I get it, this is a weird one. But for some reason this year I got really into reggaeton. Oh wait, did I say for some reason? Because the reason is that it’s awesome.
I listened to a lot of Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee this year because I was writing my book and I needed some uptempo background noise. But listening to it so much I began to love it and now I listen to it all the time. It helps keep my Spanish sharp, Nicky Jam helps with that more so than any other reggaeton artist. Though he started his career in Puerto Rico, the home of the genre, where they speak some of the roughest and most slang-filled Spanish, Jam lives in Colombia where some of the most “pure” Spanish is spoken.
Jam explained this in an interview with the New York Times. Musically, Jam can do it all. He writes, plays instruments, raps, and sings on his albums. He’s got a great voice and a great ear for what makes a hit. Reggaeton, like every pop genre, can really lend itself to repetition and retreads, but Jam was able to create a full album of fresh takes on the genre. The best songs are “Si Tú la Ves”, “El Perdon”, “Hasta El Amanecer”. The worst songs are the songs Jam sings in English (he grew up in Massachusetts before moving to Puerto Rico), these come across as earnest but ultimately lame attempts at American pop/love songs.
9. A Long Way from Your Heart, Turnpike Troubadours
The best country band around, the Troubadours do everything right. They are country in every sense of the word, their songs still bring the storytelling and truth-telling elements of country music. These elements of country music are what make the genre so powerful and important, and, unfortunately, there aren’t many country artists out there doing it anymore. My favorite song is the bonus track “Come As You Are” which was co-written with the Old 97’s Rhett Miller. Other great tracks include “Pay No Rent” and “Something to Hold On To”.
8. Andy Mineo and Wordsplayed Present Magic & Bird
This was by far the most fun album released in 2017. Andy Mineo, the most successful and popular artist not named Lecrae on the Reach Records label, and his buddy Wordsplayed decided to adopt these Magic and Bird personas and released a mixtape themed around basketball.
It’s a silly concept, and Mineo (Bird) and Wordsplayed (Magic) are definitely the only rappers in the game that could pull this off. As Christians in the rap game, they are open for criticism constantly from fans on social media if every single song on an album doesn’t meet the unreasonable standard that it explain the Gospel every time. Magic & Bird totally subverts this expectation by just straight up declaring that it’s a basketball theme mixtape, while mentioning faith, Christ, etc in every song. In between those lines are hilarious punchlines and straight fire from Magic & Bird.
They also feature some great back and forths, bringing to mind the Beastie Boys or A Tribe Called Quest.
“360 in the contract, never that
I just take the contact, I’ll bring it back
I’m runnin’ on the fastbreak, behind the back
Yeah, this that, this that, this that Penny with the Shaq
Yeah, if he’s passin’ me the rock, they might not get it back
They never gave a hand, now they wanna give me dap” – DUNK CONTEST
I listened to this album more than anything else this year. It was perfect work out music.
7. MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent
There’s no one in music, or, frankly, the world, like Annie Clark aka St. Vincent. Everything she does is so indelibly her, so leave it to Clark to put a pink photo of someone else’s butt in a leopard leotard as the album cover for her most personal album to date. Almost all of her other albums feature a portrait of her face, yet this one which explores her romances, her struggles, and her life in general doesn’t have a picture of her at all. St. Vincent is known for being one of the most creative and unique guitar shredders in music, yet the most powerful thing on MASSEDUCTION is her voice. This must have been an intentional choice by Clark and producer Jack Antonoff, who, I must admit, did a great job on this album.
David Byrne and Clark collaborated on the album Love This Giant back in 2012 and toured together. Byrne said afterward that he felt he knew almost nothing about her, even after spending all this time together. I imagine the choice to make this album as personal as it appears to be was a tough one for Clark, but it resulted in her most complete and approachable album yet.
“New York” and “Los Ageless” are obvious companion pieces, with “New York” being a longing piano ballad about a lost lover in the Big Apple, while “Los Ageless” seems to be more of a bitter song about a lover too caught up in the excesses of LA.
“Happy Birthday, Johnny” may be the best song on the album, it seems to a continuation of the “Johnny” story in “Marry Me” from her 2007 debut Marry Me and “Prince Johnny” from 2015’s St. Vincent. It’s Clark singing to “Johnny,” wishing him well and recalling past memories. Johnny is self-destructive and St. Vincent seems to have lost touch with him, she hopes he’s doing well, but doubts it.
Honestly, me writing about St. Vincent feels stupid because there’s probably a million things in each song I don’t understand so I’ll stop now. Just listen to this album like 50 times.
6. LA Divine, Cold War Kids
If you know my musical tastes at all, this shouldn’t surprise you too much. Hell, I ranked every single one of their songs earlier this year. With LA Divine, Cold War Kids have continued their streak of excellence that began with Dear Miss Lonelyhearts back in 2013. Up to that point they’d been former indie darlings trying to figure out exactly the type of band they want to be. What they figured out with DML is that it was ok to make pop songs in their own unique and sometimes weird way. Whereas DML and it’s follow-up Hold My Home feature several radio-worthy songs mixed in with some artsy/indie style songs, LA Divine is basically 12 songs you could hear on alt rock radio stations across the country (there are only two that don’t fit this mold).
When CWK tried to turn themselves into an alt rock radio band in 2011 with Mine Is Yours it mostly fell flat because it wasn’t authentic. But these last three albums they’ve been able to stay true to themselves while making accessible music.
The first four songs on LA Divine are the best by far, “Love Is Mystical” is a brilliant up-tempo rocker. “Can We Hang On?” is almost like a B-side to “First” from the previous album, but “Can We Hang On?” stands on it’s own as a great raise-your-voice-to-the-rafters sing along. It kind of sounds like a song by the band fun. except Nathan Willett can actually sing and doesn’t use autotune like Nate Ruess.
“Can We Hang On?” transitions directly into the best song on the album, “So Tied Up”, a foot stomping, piano-driven duet with the phenomenal Bishop Briggs. The song on the album is great, but Briggs gets a little lost in the mix, something Willett realized after the album came out. To rectify the situation, they re-recorded the song and released it as part of an EP with some other songs with Briggs. “So Tied Up -moreBishop” is even better than the original.
Following that is the slower “Restless” which has some of the best lyrics on the album.
“It is a talent staying young.”