Posts Tagged ‘2017 in Review’

The annual Old Grey Cat Awards fete, in which the Album of the Year nominees gather in the great hall that is our living room while anxiously awaiting the word, was more crowded this year than most. Were the Las Vegas oddsmakers correct? Or would an underdog be crowned king or queen? (Canines are much loved by the admittedly feline-centric OGC Committee, so it’s always a possibility.) By the time the gala’s host finally scampered onto the mantel to bellow the mews, well, the tension could’ve been cut with a claw.

Except, as often happens with this, the most ballyhooed of music awards, the many contenders could and should have saved their Xanax for another night. Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life was and is just one of those albums. And the runners-up…aside from the late entry from the sister collective known as the Staves, not surprising. (The winner and four runners-up can be seen here.)

But awards ceremonies never tell the full story of a year.

While sorting through the year’s top contenders for my Album of the Year honors, I was shocked – but not appalled – by the many great albums and EPs released in 2017. I thought I’d share my numbers 6 through 11 – aka, the Honorable Mentions – here. Some I reviewed during the course of the year; others, unsurprisingly, I didn’t. They’re all worth buying or, at the least, adding to one’s Apple Music or Spotify library.

6) Garland Jeffreys – 14 Steps to Harlem. “As a whole, 14 Steps to Harlem finds Garland looking back, surveying the present and contemplating the future – and doing it all to melodies that linger long after the music has ceased.” Here’s the title track:

7) Paul WellerA Kind Revolution. “Long Long Road” is such a tremendous song that, even if the rest of the album was just so-so, A Kind Revolution would be an honorable mention. But the album is among Weller’s best.

8) Tift MerrittStitch of the World. “While we listened to it earlier today, me for probably the 10th time this week, Diane noted that certain songs would’ve been at home on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel – or, I’d add, Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner. I.e., there’s a timelessness about them.” Here’s one of its stellar tracks,  “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb.”

9) Kasey ChambersDragonfly. “Ain’t No Little Girl” is just tremendous, bluesy and – in concert, especially – jaw-dropping in its intensity. The remainder of the double album is damn good, too.

And, two ties at No. 10…

10) Paul McCartney – Flowers in the Dirt (deluxe edition). “The set features the original album; a second disc of 10 demos recorded with Elvis Costello; a third disc of 9 of the same demo songs recorded with the nascent Flowers in the Dirt band and produced by Elvis; a fourth disc of b-sides and remixes; and a DVD of videos and behind-the-scenes stuff. ”

10) Natalie Merchant – Butterfly (available as part of The Natalie Merchant Collection). Here’s “Frozen Charlotte” from it…

Breathe deep, and exhale: We, as a people, have survived another run around the sun. I may (or may not) share my thoughts on the year writ large later this month, but suffice it to say that 2017 has had its share of good and bad times, and many moments that fall somewhere in-between. We’ve all weathered days not with smiles or frowns, but a stoic determination to get the job – whatever it may be – done. We soldier on.

Anyway, this is my 126th post of the year – almost double the 68 missives I made in 2016. That increased activity has resulted in increased traffic – 3000 more visitors this year than last, and 5000 more page views. Thank you to every one who stops by. Time is a precious commodity; I appreciate that you spend some of yours here.

And with that – drumroll please! – Here are the top 5 new posts of the past 12 months…

1) The Natalie Merchant Collection – The Review. “When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)”

2) Neil Young: Hitchhiker – The Review. “1976 was a weird year to be Neil Young. From February to June, he and Stephen Stills were hunkered down at Criteria Studios in Miami recording their lone duo project, Long May You Run, that didn’t turn out as hoped. And in June, Neil embarked on a much-anticipated tour with Stills – only to quit after nine dates for reasons that may or may not have had to do with a throat ailment. The now-infamous telegram he sent his compadre read ‘Dear Stephen, Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.’”

3) The Essentials: Stephen Stills – Manassas. “In today’s age, the double album seems almost quaint: two vinyl slabs that, combined, hold anywhere from 70 to 100 minutes of music. But they were a Big Deal back in the day, as that second slab substantially upped the cost to the consumer. Instead of $5.99-7.99 (plus tax), which was the average price of an LP when I began buying them in the late 1970s, a fan had to plunk down almost twice that ($9.99-11.99) – unless it was an Elvis Presley compilation on Pickwick, that is. I picked up the 2-LP Double Dynamite for $3.99 at a Montgomery Ward. (Of course, one look at the song list explains the low cost.)”

4) Of Concerts Past: Maria McKee @ the TLA in Philly, 9/18/1993. “Ah, Maria. Sweet, sweet, sweet Maria. Last night she tweeted a link to a YouTube video of a 1993 TV appearance with the Jayhawks…and I was thrust through a time portal to that very year, which is when I first saw her in concert.”

5) Today’s Top 5: Albums MIA From NPR’s “Made by Women” List. “There are far more important concerns than NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women list. This, we know. Yet, while breezing through it Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but to (silently) scream.”

And, just because, here are No.s 6 and 7…

6) Juliana Hatfield’s 1993. “When Juliana Hatfield and the Three reunited in 2015 to record the album that became Whatever, My Love, they funded themselves via PledgeMusic. There was a cornucopia of cool premiums, from autographed CDs and photos to musical instruments, but what I’d hoped to snare—the soundcheck/concert tickets—sold out before I got there.”

7) Grrrl Rock: The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle in Philly, 4/24/2017. “The Juliana Hatfield Three delivered a loud, sweaty and raucous show at the Boot & Saddle in South Philly last night. In fact, you could say it was a night of true grrrl rock (it is the Pussycat tour, after all). The 20-song set opened with a ferocious “Got No Idols” from Become What You Are. As evidenced by the video, Todd Phillips was a monster on drums, Dean Fisher equally brutal on bass and Juliana – well, Juliana was Juliana, full of grace, grit and growls on guitar and vocals.”

And here’s the list as a whole…

The Delaware Valley faces a variety of weather-related advisories and warnings this morning. The same historic storm that brought snow to Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South is brushing the Delaware and Jersey coasts, and is large enough that those of us inland are facing slushy and slippery roads if we dare to leave the comforts of our homes.

It’s a reminder that the year is coming to a close.

‘Tis the season for merriment, of course, with office parties, family gatherings and auld lang syne, and our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the greatest movies ever made), but it’s also a time for reflection. In the case of this blog, that means contemplating the music that stirred my soul over the past 12 months and selecting my Album of the Year. I gather the contenders, listen to them from start to finish, listen to them again and again, and cogitate long into the night. What’s No. 1? What’s No. 5? Should I list honorable mentions?

First, though, the caveat that I first penned in a Facebook post back in 2010: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

Second: The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.

Third: I’m not prone to highfalutin analysis, per se, and only think about meters and rhymes if they teeter or grind a song to a halt. On American Bandstand’s “Rate-a-Record” segment, the cliched “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” critique became a thing of jokey scorn, though it had much merit. Likewise, my pet phrases of “it takes you there, wherever there is” and “wow, just wow,” though overused, have merit. Great music takes us away from the immediate – it makes good times better and bad times manageable.

With that in mind, here are the Old Grey Cat’s Albums of the Year…

5) Neil Young – Hitchhiker. Neil released two albums in 2017: the archival Hitchhiker, which he recorded in one night in 1976, and the Promise of the Real-backed The Visitor. Hitchhiker, which was released in September, is a gem that shines brighter with each play while The Visitor…I like what I’ve heard, but – given that it was released on December 1st – haven’t heard it enough to weigh in, as of yet. But Hitchhiker…as I said in my review, “it’s a magical, mystical set.”

4) The Staves & yMusic – The Way Is Read. The Staves, of course, are sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, whose luscious harmonies are a thing of utter wonder. yMusic is a chamber ensemble that, honestly, I know little about, but their musical flourishes on the album are reminiscent (to me, at least) of the instrumental passages in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. In short, The Way Is Read is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year – or decade, for that matter. It’s bright, dark, brave and hypnotic, with swirling strings and intertwining vocals.

It’s also why I’ve barely listened to The Visitor, as it was released a week earlier. There’s a strong undertow to the music that just pulls me in.

3) Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing. Before this year began, I’m sure I saw Lucy Rose’s name in one of the British music magazines I flip through (and sometimes buy) at Barnes & Noble. But it took the Staves for me to hear her. They sing on “Floral Dresses,” which was one of the lead singles from this five-star delight, and mentioned that fact on their Facebook page in March. That led me to discover this video…

As I wrote in my review of Something’s Changing, “The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern.” I’ve turned to it many times throughout the year. Lucy recently tweeted out a picture of her day’s listening – Joni and Neil albums, all. Those influences are in the grooves, just beneath the surface; anyone who enjoys either of those greats would do well to snap up this set.

Oh, and if I named a Single of the Year? “No Good at All” would be near or at the top.

2) Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat. The Boston-based singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire took out her anger over the Chump election with this cathartic set. As I wrote in my review, “Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane. There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.”

Oh, and for what it’s worth, she played all the instruments except drums.

I mentioned in my original review that Pussycat likely won’t age well – 25 years from now, when Chump’s but a bad memory (akin to Nixon now), this set will take a backseat to such classics as Become What You Are, in exile deo, Made in China and How to Walk Away. And that’s okay. But for right here, right now? It hits the spot. It’s my second-most played album of the year.

It’s also home to one of Juliana’s greatest songs of all time (says I, of course), the nostalgic – and decidedly nonpolitical – “Wonder Why.”

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. Yes, Honest Life was released in the U.S. in late 2016 and, as a result, shouldn’t qualify for this list, let alone for the year’s most ballyhooed music honorific, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year. And, yet, here we are.

My contorted logic is thus: It was released in the U.K. in January; I read reviews of it in Mojo and Uncut the following month; so, ergo, it qualifies.

It’s my most played album of the year. As I wrote in my review, “In a sense, it’s a simple singer-songwriter album that, due to the age we live in, has been categorized as country because of the country-flavored overtones on some of the songs. In another era, though, ‘Table for One’ or ‘Put the Fire Out’ would have been played by radio stations that also programmed Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.”

“There is nothing revolutionary in the grooves, in other words. And, yet, there is everything revolutionary in them. That conundrum-powered clarity, carried forth by Andrews’ evocative vocals and lyrics, echoes everything from Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town to the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, to say nothing of Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul and First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold. Each of those LPs, after all, chronicle the human experience in ways that are unique yet familiar.”

I not only stand by that assessment, but – after a year’s worth of repeated plays – would argue that Honest Life stands shoulder-to-shoulder with each of those albums. It speaks to the heart and mind. It’s soulful, country and folk. The songs are plaintive and pretty, mesmerizing and wondrous, and dozens of additional superlatives rolled into one.

Like any great art, Honest Life takes you there, wherever there is. In other words, wow. Just wow.

Any year that I see Juliana Hatfield in concert is a good year. And a year when I see her twice? Logic, at least my logic, says it should be good times two – i.e., great. And to see Juliana cover not one but two Olivia Newton-John songs while backed by Wesley Stace & the English UK? The surreal sweetness of the moment just can’t be beat. For that alone, 2017 should be damn near the best year of them all.

But this has not been a normal year. It’s as if someone spiked the water supply with mescaline in January and the hallucinations have yet to end. I’ll sidestep diatribes about America’s answer to Hugo Chavez, the human Scrooge McDucks that call themselves Republicans, and the leches that call themselves men, and instead share this:

When the music starts, we just slip away – just like a river rollin’ down…

Live music often has a more visceral impact than via CD, LP or digital download. It’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he or she feeds off you and … you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. The worries of the world cease to be, albeit for a few hours, and when you leave the venue you feel spiritually renewed.

From Lights Out in January to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) this past Thursday, and including such stalwarts as Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys and Shawn Colvin, we enjoyed more live music this year (21 shows by my count) than the past few years combined. Some shows were good, others great, and a handful absolutely sublime.

First, though, a caveat: As all things “best of” on this blog, I work from a deck stacked by my aging demographic, idiosyncratic tastes, and budget. I enjoy singer-songwriters with folk-rock and/or country overtones, and delight in discovering new artists within that realm, and generally rock out to the same artists I’ve rocked out to forever and a day, including (but not limited to) Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Kinks, Joan Jett, Paul Weller and Juliana Hatfield, among others.

And, with that, here’s Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year. (Click through to read my original reviews.)

1) Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA, 10/4/17. This show fell in what was the awful week that included the mass shooting at a country-music festival in Las Vegas and the passing of Tom Petty. Perhaps that explains the jubilation I felt at being able to forget, if only for a few moments, and let go. And, too, it was just a killer concert.

2) Kasey Chambers at the World Cafe Live, 7/5/17. Breathtaking. That’s the only word for this show, which found the Aussie country-music maven weaving heartfelt odes from thin air. Even now, watching this video, I’m stunned at how good she is.

3) The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle, 4/24/17; and Juliana Hatfield with Wesley Stace & the English UK at the Ardmore Theater, 10/12/17. When formulating this list, I found myself going back and forth as to which of these shows should be third or fourth on my list. At the Boot & Saddle, Juliana and the Three personified “brutal grace.” It was raw, raucous, loud and great, and – given than the bulk of the setlist was Pussycat-heavy, cathartic. The only strike against it were the muffled vocals.

The Ardmore show, both in her solo set and when backed by the English UK, was near the reverse, with an expansive set list that included such gems as “Slow Motion” and “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” and way-cool covers of two Olivia Newton-John songs. Here’s one:

Watching that clip again, just now, I couldn’t help but to smile.

Anyway, both shows spoke to me in equal measure. Her songs, new, old, rocking, mid-tempo or ballad, are ingrained in my soul. So, why rank one above the other? For the purposes of this list, the two concerts are a tie…

4) Courtney Marie Andrews at the Boot & Saddle, 5/9/2017. As I wrote in my review, this was as magical and mesmerizing a concert that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in my concert-going career. Courtney reminds me of Shawn Colvin circa the early and mid-‘90s, who synthesized a wide swath of influences into a hypnotic whole.

5) The Staves at the World Cafe Live, 3/9/2017. What did I love about this show? Everything! Within moments of its start, it felt as if we’d stepped through a time portal to some point in the early ‘70s. About the only thing missing: bell-bottom jeans.

And, finally…honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway was the definition of compelling, but not a conventional concert due to the monologues. Thus, I’m not including it within my Top 5 (though, if I did, it wouldn’t knock Weller from the top spot). Also, Garland Jeffreys at the World Cafe Live Upstairs was grand; Lulu at the Sellersville Theater was wondrous; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the World Cafe Live were sublime; and Tift Merritt at the World Cafe Live was utterly captivating.

As Tift sings, “Love Soldiers On.” And it does.