Best CDs of 2017 According to an Old Guy Who Bought 8

Weezer and Japandroids!

One drawback to tangible recordings: they damage more easily. One of these arrived from Amazon pre-fractured; the other got knocked around a little in my car. But that lived-in look is part of the charm, too.

It’s that time again! The annual entry where I look back at the previous year as one of eight people nationwide who still prefers physical media to digital. I don’t splurge too much because new music tugs at my ear less and less as I grow older and stodgier, and as my favorite acts of yesteryear die, stop recording, or turn toward musical directions that take them beyond my zones of interest. Sometimes that means missing out on what the majority loves, even when it’s acts I’ve liked in the past. Exhibits A and B: the latest samples I caught from both Lorde and Taylor Swift left me underwhelmed and got left unsold on the few shelves still carrying CDs on our side of town.

The following list, then, comprises every CD I acquired in 2017 that was also released in 2017. On with the countdown in all its lack of diversity, from the least okay to the mostly splendid:

8. Weezer, Pacific Daydream. From those prolific guys who recorded my favorite jam of 2016 comes the complete opposite of their White Album, a ten-pack of blatant chart fodder, digitally Turtle-Waxed to minimum corporate guidelines, neutering the guitars and drums to better fit in with the other tame, mid-tempo time-wasters that overpopulate SiriusXM’s Alt Nation. All the unnecessary artificial enhancers, and then frontman Rivers Cuomo has the audacity to invoke the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the vapid “Happy Hour”, which follows an anemic tribute to the Beach Boys that feels about six hundred miles away from the nearest beach party. Recent interviews with Cuomo indicated the conscious style change reflects what he’d been listening to lately, which apparently means America’s beloved mainstream. Not that Weezer were ever anarchic rebels, but to me they were…y’know, different from exactly this. I feel like one of those old, recalcitrant Star Wars fans whining and bragging in the same breath about how their favorite thing left them behind and they’re awesome for refusing to buy in, and I’m triply annoyed to sense any parallels between me and them. That said: UGH. NO.

(Sample track: the single “Mexican Fender” leaves the rhythm section intact and feels least like an Owl City outtake. Special bonus: its somewhat risqué for-the-dudes video gets funnier as it goes, capped with an upending scene after the end credits.)

7. Foo Fighters, Concrete and Gold. If someone has to keep hard rock alive, it might as well be Dave Grohl. Recorded after a 2015 concert injury sidelined him for months, it’s his most depressing set yet — understandable given the current sociopolitical climate, but the wallowing manages to be both structurally complex and largely unmemorable, except possibly the plaintive choruses of “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)”, in which Grohl chants to someone who used to be happy, “There ain’t no superheroes now.” Not even celebrity guests can cheer him up, like backup singer Justin Timberlake, smooth-jazzman Dave Koz (wait, what?), and, even more oddly, Sir Paul McCartney playing drums (!) on “Sunday Rain”, for his five or six Wings fans looking for a Throwback Thursday bop. Name-checking notwithstanding, if I need repetitive depression, I can find it for free anytime on Twitter.

(Sample track: might as well go with the first single “Run“, which at least lyrically points toward team-up and escape rather than surrender, and whose video guest-stars Missi Pyle from Galaxy Quest. For what it’s worth, somehow “Run” teleported into my head this morning out of nowhere and got stuck for an hour, so maybe I’m being a bit too hard.)

6. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Damage and Joy. What’s nineteen years between a band and its fans? The Reid brothers’ first four albums (along with the early B-side collection Barbed Wire Kisses) — full of fuzzbox guitars and aggressive feedback squalls and sneering power-pop harmonies that sounded like the Beach Boys’ evil twins — were a seminal force in the pivoting of my primary musical tastes away from Top-40 circa ’89-’92. I presumed 1998’s Munki would remain their modest farewell, barring some recent reunion concerts too far away from me. At last they’ve emerged from Scotland and from retirement to dust off their guitars and make something of a new millennium. They’re older and raspier now, settling for the tempos and acoustic strumming of ’94’s Stoned and Dethroned, their most reserved and mellow album and coincidentally not my favorite. Even the nominally more electrified tunes like “Amputation” are more like mellow strolls than the melodic snark of old. I’m slowly coming to terms with how all my favorite 20-year-old alt-rock bands tend to turn the volume halfway down in their later phases, but I reserve the right to fuss about it even though I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, by which I mean more guitar feedback, which I really missed. No one does guitar feedback anymore.

(Sample track: just as Dethroned featured their first real duet with an outsider, so does Damage revisit that idea on three tracks, the best of which is the happy-couple anti-drug of “The Two of Us” with Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian.)

5. Rupert Gregson-Williams, Wonder Woman Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. I was hoping for sixty solid minutes of fierce war drums and Fury Road guitars, but I forgot those only bedecked small yet extremely memorable sections of one of the year’s best films. Most of this is typical movie soundtrack, with whole notes and occasional softness and themes so subtle that I have to ask my wife to point them out to me, because she’s more attuned to such classical-music niceties than I am. But the few numbers that do have that Super Awesome New Wonder Woman Theme sound to them are fantastic to put on Repeat and then pretend they’re the entirety of the album.

(Sample track: honestly, “No Man’s Land” is everything I wanted. And I guess the music is cool, too.)

4. CJ Ramone, American Beauty. The youngest of the last three surviving Ramones has kept busy in recent times, but the old bandmates who gave him his big break are never far from his thoughts. His third solo album is basic yet energetic punk-pop, with Easter-egg lyrics for the longtime fans proclaiming “the cretins wanna hop again” in the opening “Let’s Go”, and wishing for moonlight walks “in the Garden of Serenity” with a cheesy Elvira/Vampirella date in “Girlfriend in a Graveyard”. The short, acoustic “Tommy’s Gone” is presumably a more direct tribute, and from the heart as a fan since the two never recorded together. CJ lacks the street-level weirdness of Dee Dee or Joey, but he’s got chops picked up from playing with legends, though a few song titles are more banal than they should be. And he has interesting taste in covers, ending the album by transforming an obscure Tom Waits dirge called “Pony” into a mariachi fiesta, in the spirit of parties yet to come.

(Sample track: “You’ll Never Make Me Believe” is the closest CJ comes here to stand-your-ground defiance in ye olde Ramones tradition.)

3. Gwen Stefani, You Make It Feel Like Christmas. Once every few years I feel the urge to add to my Christmas music collection. No Doubt were never in heavy rotation on my tape or CD players, but they were on my radar, so I figured why not try this. Stefani and her collaborators whip up catchy big-band arrangements under heavy Phil Spector filters to bring new life to a predictable mix of traditional carols and golden oldies. I’m not sure I needed new versions of “Santa Baby” or “Last Christmas”, but her “White Christmas” sounds tailor-made for a nifty ’70s variety special, while “Jingle Bells” is very nearly a welcome return to her ska days. Yes, there are attempts at new Christmas songs, usually the low point of such projects that head quickly to the clearance bin, but hers are thankfully not terrible. Granted, I won’t know for sure if they’re memorable till I replay this next year and see which ones come back to me first. On the first few listens, the Ben E. King-ish “My Gift Is You” was an early standout, and two others (“When I Was a Little Girl” and the closing ballad “Christmas Eve”) would be perfect lyrical fits for Christian pop radio. The weakest of the lot, the couple’s-first-holiday ode “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes”, is about as Christmassy as Lethal Weapon (swap out two lines and you could make it a summer single), but for the kid in me who once performed in a couple of school Christmas pageants, Stefani’s old-fashioned medley is one of the best I’ve heard in many a December.

(Sample track: I preferred “My Gift Is You“, but people who like popular people should like the title track, a half-country duet with The Voice co-host and current beau Blake Shelton.)

2. Wesley Stace, Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding. I could waste an entire paragraph trying to explain how the British folk-rocker’s birth name closely resembles a classic Bob Dylan album, which he then used in its entirety as his stage name for the first twenty years of his career before reverting to the basic parts of his birth name, and now has mashed all of that together into his latest album’s masthead. Or I could skip that headache recipe and instead just wonder aloud to myself how he has such a knack for recruiting classy backup bands on past releases like the Attractions, the Decemberists, and the alt-rock supergroup The Minus Five. This time around it’s the alt-country stylings of the Jayhawks that support Stace’s 13th lineup of earnest folk tunes and tongue-in-cheek ruminations, from the contrarian renouncement of “I Don’t Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which is more about impressing a girl than reflecting on changing tastes, to the modest acoustics of “Audience of One” and “What You Want Belongs to You”, which might have escaped my memory seconds after tapping Eject if they’d come from any other performer. I’d be oblivious to this album’s existence today if not for an upstanding record store in Baltimore to whom I remain grateful in perpetuity for their impeccable shelf curation.

(Sample track: “Better Tell No One Your Dreams“, whose Moral of the Story is that sometimes sharing your deepest secrets may be nowhere near as embarrassing as giving them glimpses into the weirdness your subconscious conjures up in the middle of the night.)

1. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Two guys, no frills — just eight tracks of anthemic vocals, crusading guitars, heavy-handed drums exactly the way I like ’em, and a will to simply and unapologetically rock, pure and primal and free of clichés and fashion trappings and any desire to appear on network game shows. Their general soundscape is what if the Replacements went through rehab with Springsteen as their sponsor but wound up addicted to caffeine but in a good way. Sometimes the lyrics bend obliquely beyond my interpretive capacities (I don’t get the sludgy “Arc of Bar” at all), but sometimes I don’t feel like donning an English-major cap and overanalyzing to the point of nullification…though there’s room for that, too. Sometimes poetry and windswept emotion and a powerhouse rhythm section are all I need to get me carried away.

(Sample track: if you can buy only one rawk album and that album can only have one song on it, make that album-sized song the title track — a boisterous, thunderous, epic soundtrack for a road-trip getaway from a harried, decaying life. Just don’t let its unreliable narrator goad you into doing anything rash and/or stupid.)

Also: an unranked honorable mention to the one 2017 archival edition I bought: a three-disc Hüsker Dü anthology called Savage Young Dü, compiling dozens of lost live recordings and buried obscurities from the trio’s early-’80s beginnings as scruffy hardcore pioneers, before they signed to increasingly larger labels and progressed toward more polished power-pop leanings in their final, tumultuous years. Parts of their primordial history, from their first singles up to the Metal Circus EP, are partly reprised here greatest-hits style, and partly replaced with alternate takes from various live gigs, much of it annoyingly out of order but nonetheless gifted with the best possible engineering and cleanup. Their signature theme “Do You Remember?” kicks off the project with a renewed verve, and several of Land Speed Record‘s one-minute ditties of fury are intelligible for the first time ever. Regrettably, this was released two months after the death of co-founder Grant Hart in September, but the deep-cut retrospective is an apt and thoughtful salute to the legacy of what he, Bob Mould and Greg Norton accomplished together.

So that’s the limited scope of my 2017 in musical purchases, then. See you next year, assuming music scientists don’t discover that CDs cause cancer!

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