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.