As it was with my recent year-end list of the top 40 songs of 2017, it was difficult to whittle the list of my favorite albums of the year down to a mere 25. Here they are, along with mini-reviews of each selection:
- The Stanleys – The Stanleys (Pop Detective/Off the Hip/Rock Indiana) – The Stanleys’ debut full-length is a cracking, 11-song effort chock full of sharp guitars and even sharper melodies, played and sung with passion and heart by the Australian trio. Each and every song here provides a joyous burst of energy, and the choruses are some of the most memorable you’ll run across this year – or any other.
- A View of Earth from the Moon – Closer to a Ghost (Self-released) – A wonderfully evocative record from this heretofore unknown (by me, anyway) Seattle combo, which is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter Jonathan Fickes. Sometimes evocative of Teenage Fanclub, other times recalling early Posies, it’s all melodically stimulating with undercurrents of melancholy and mystery running through the proceedings. The glorious “Distance Runner” is the highlight.
- Nick Heyward – Woodland Echoes (Universal/Sony) – A new record by Nick Heyward is always a cause for celebration, and Woodland Echoes is another low key, often pastoral joy. Spring for the deluxe, two-CD version if you can find it; it features three additional tunes, including the wonderfully rockin’ “Make it Happen.”
- Sitcom Neighbor – Shag (Gravity Works) – The fresh-faced, sprightly sound of this wonderful little record recalls the late ‘90s heyday of the “second coming” of power pop; it’s all ridiculously catchy, immaculately constructed, and comes at the listener in a flurry of tunefulness. Songs such as “Tourist Attraction,” “Pimpmobile,” and “No One Really Knows” are pretty much impossible to shake after a listen or two.
- Corin Ashley – Broken Biscuits (Murray Hill) – A f*cking tour-de-force, this is, with a rather incredible backstory: midway through the recording, Ashley suffered a debilitating stroke and had to re-learn to play guitar and sing before he could finish the record. Highlights: the delightfully jaunty “Edison’s Medicine” sounds like it could have leapt straight off Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake; a duet with Tanya Donelly titled “Wind Up Boy” is sweet and catchy as hell; and the kickass “Little Crumbles” is a white-hot raver that recalls mid-‘70s McCartney at his rockin’ best.
- Cait Brennan – Third (Omnivore) – Cait Brennan is the asshole who stole your boyfriend. She’s bad at apologies. She’s giving a song to Benedict Cumberbatch because you don’t deserve it. Oh, and she also released one of the finest, most twisted (that’s a good thing) and most original albums of 2017. Sonic touchstones are all over the map: there’s some slightly demented near doo-wop (“Bad at Apologies”); soulful strutting (“Stack Overflow”); a deliriously catchy dance number (“A Hard Man to Love”); and a Big Star Third-like confessional with some tasty wah-wah guitar (“Catiebots Don’t Cry”).
- Plasticsoul – Therapy (Big Stir) – Brooding melancholic sounds (“My Heavy Soul”), fierce rockers (“All Died Pretty,” “Come Down From Your Raincloud”), Tom Petty-ish jangle (“In Her Raincoat”), gentle, bossa nova-inflected pop (“The Girl of Many Tribes”), punky swagger (“Monkey on a Stick”), psych-dipped Byrds (“Babylon”), and an awesome Creation cover (“Biff Bang Pow”). Plasticsoul brings all these sounds to the table on Therapy, mining influences such as the Who, early Pink Floyd and other ‘60s icons to fashion a record that’s steeped in tradition while still sounding totally fresh and entertaining as hell.
- Ryan Hamilton and the Traitors – The Devil’s in the Detail (Fanny Pack) – Picking up right where 2015’s Hell of a Day left off, Hamilton offers up another collection of smart (and sometimes smart-assed) guitar-pop with melodies that linger and guitars that bite. “We Never Should Have Moved to L.A.” and “Scottish Mud” are good places to dig in, but nothing here will disappoint.
- Derrick Anderson – A World of My Own (Omnivore) – LA pop veteran Derrick Anderson steps into the spotlight with his first-ever solo release, and it’s pretty darn fantastic. Key tracks include the funk-dipped “You Don’t Have to Hurt No More,” the punky shouter “Stop Messin’ About” (a bit of a Little Richard vibe on this one); the sweet, jangly “My Prediction”; and the power poppin’ “Happiness,” probably the catchiest 1:42 you’ll hear anytime soon.
- The Wellingtons – End of the Summer (Off the Hip) – Another excellent long player from the Wellingtons, with more of the juicy melodies, boy/girl vocals (courtesy of Zac Anthony and Kate Goldby) and powerful cascades of guitars that make certain that the Aussie quintet’s brand of power pop fulfills the power quotient. “1963” features two candidates for Lyric of the Year: “It’s not easy hating almost every song on the radio” and “I don’t wanna live in a world that thinks that the Kings of Leon are better than The Kinks.”
- Mo Troper – Exposure & Response (Good Cheer) – The enigmatic Mo Troper is a mite quirky and often sings in what can best be described as a likeable wail, but I’ll be damned if this record isn’t a hopelessly catchy gem. Songs such as “Freebin,” “Dictator Out of Work” and (especially) “Jumbotron” will stick with you long after the disc stops spinning, and Troper’s wry lyrical asides are humorously sharp.
- The John Sally Ride – A New Set of Downs (Kool Kat) – John Dunbar whips up a sweet musical soufflé on A New Set of Downs: there’s some lighthearted near-skiffle, the riffy power pop of “Not Taking Credit” and “The Girl You Won’t Leave Your Wife For,” a touch of mid-period Squeeze on “From Expectation to Surrender,” the self-deprecating “I Can Really Disappoint You,” and “Forgetting That I am Forgotten,” which comes off like some unknown Irish drinking song. Filled with twists and turn and Dunbar’s signature inventiveness, this is an under-the-radar delight.
- The On and Ons – Welcome Aboard (Citadel) – Self-described as being influenced by the Hoodoo Gurus and Paul Collins’ Beat, the On and Ons specialize in snappy three-minute tunes that take dips in both the garage and power pop pools – in that regard they’re similar to their Aussie pop forefathers DM3 and the Stems. Check out “No Good for Yourself,” “She’s Leaving” or “Sugar Anne” for three shots of the melodic goodness to be found on their sophomore effort.
- The Connection – Just for Fun (Rum Bar) – Just for Fun is a rockin’ little covers record, and sports ten expertly chosen and enthusiastically performed tunes from the likes of the Del-Lords, Sylvain Sylvain, Cheap Trick, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys (the jangly gem “I Can Read Between the Lines”). It’s bookended by Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver” and George Thorogood’s “Get a Haircut,” and the fun doesn’t let up from start to finish.
- Ruby Free – Shades (SodaStar) – Rick Hromadka’s latest project invites sonic comparisons to ‘70s pop-rock acts such as Wings, with the vocal harmonies and all-star ensemble playing sounding simultaneously tight and laid back. Favorites include the super-Beatley “Take a Ride,” the bright ‘n’ poppy “Walking Along,” the easygoing sway of “Say Goodnight” and the soulful ballad “Billboards and Buses.”
- Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie – S/T (Atlantic) – You can either look at this one as a Lindsey Buckingham solo record with a little help from Christine McVie (Buckingham had a hand in composing 8 of the 10 tunes, and his sonic imprint is all over the record), or a Fleetwood Mac album minus Stevie Nicks. (John McVie and Mick Fleetwood provide the rhythm section). In any event, it’s filled with ear-catching melodies alongside some typically wonderful Buckingham guitar playing, and it’s always good to hear Christine McVie’s smoky voice.
- The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails (JLM) – One of the UK’s prime purveyors of mod-influenced guitar-pop, a new LP3 LP is always a cause for celebration. While Kentish Longtails isn’t as immediately gratifying as some of the band’s previous records, everything here is worthy of repeated spins and some of the cuts (“Saturday Morning Film Show,” “Stop Start Lilly”) rank among their best.
- Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream (1965) – Elements of glam, power pop, ‘60s AM radio and bubblegum inform the overall sound here, and the result is a highly enjoyable collection. Fuller recorded most everything on his own, and there’s a little T. Rex stomp here (“It Can Change My Ways” at times sounds like a distant cousin of “20th Century Boy”), some sunshiney sounds there (“Wish You Would”), and a whole stack of hummable popsongs littering the proceedings (the swirling, keyboard-laden title track, the slightly sinister “Better of Me,” and the insidiously catchy “No More Chances” among them).
- Chris Church – Limitations of Source Tape (SpyderPop) – Not many limitations to be found here, honestly, as this one brims with nicely sung, sharply written tunes that reveal new layers with each successive listen. Church’s vocal doppelganger is Matthew Sweet, although the liveliness of tracks such as “Worse Things Happen at Sea” muster up an energy that Sweet hasn’t displayed in years. Most all of the tunes here are immediately engaging, literate and passionate pop-rock numbers that deftly glide along on cushions of acoustic and electric guitars sitting pretty underneath Church’s urgent vocals.
- Biters – The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be (Earache) – Two songs sound like updated T-Rex homages. Another deftly recycles an old Bachman Turner Overdrive guitar riff. Most of the rest are fueled by fist-in-the-air, shout along choruses with loud guitars and snotty vocals, and as a bonus, even the two ballads are pretty darn good. The Biters may not have fashioned the most original record of 2017, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.
- Gentle Brent – Just Dandy (Jigsaw/You Are the Cosmos) – He’s Brent, he’s gentle, his last name is Randall, and his 11-song CD is warm and fuzzy in a Nilsson-esque, sunshine pop sort of way. It’s not powerful by any means, but it pops like mad, especially on the fab “Lollipop Girl” and the oh-so-twee “Tea and Butter Tarts.”
- Smart Patrol – Overage Underachievers (Off the Hip/Screaming Apple) – A straight-up power pop record, this German quartet seems to audibly worship at the altar of forefathers such as the Plimsouls and Paul Collins’ Beat. No frills, no fuss, no muss, and it’s available on both CD (from Off the Hip) and LP (from Screaming Apple).
- Richard X. Heyman – Incognito (Turn-Up) – Incognito ‘s 14 songs run the gamut from the slightly mysterious, harmony-filled title track and the pure pop charmer “A Fool’s Errand” to the powerful “Chalk it Up” and the timeless-sounding, beautifully sad breakup song “In Our Best Interest,” which sounds like it could have been a hit single in the mid-‘70s. The tracks where RXH makes like a soul man may be the best things here: the horn-infused “So What” and “Terry Two Timer” both glide along like classic R&B, and they’re the cornerstones of what stands as Heyman’s finest album in 20 years.
- Duncan Reid and the Big Heads – Bombs Away (Little Big Head) – Snappy, well-produced, guitar-oriented pop-rock from the UK that manages to avoid any of the trappings of the form – it’s never overly cutesy, avoids clichés, and doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a garage in 1982. Songs that’ll reel you in from the get go include “Hey Frank Sinatra,” “C’mon Josephine” and “Let’s Skip to the Good Bit.”
- Chris Price – Stop Talking (Omnivore) – Price offers up 14 tasteful, gorgeous tunes that owe a debt to songsmiths such as Nilsson, McCartney and Lindsey Buckingham, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Price’s thoughtful lyrics and passionate vocals bring tunes such as the slightly ELO-like “Sigh,” the quirky, Big Star 3rd-influenced “Darkness”, the soulful “Man Down” and the vocal-and-piano-only “You and Me (and Everyone Else)” to life. Personal favorite: the piano-based “One of Them,” which features sparse verses giving way to a sunny, sing-song chorus.
Compilation of the Year – This is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio – Volume 4 (Kool Kat) – Journalistic integrity and conflicts of interest being what they are, I suppose I should alert you straightaway to the fact that your humble scribe appears on three tracks on TiRRR4 as your even humbler drummer. But hey, you know what? There are 26 other tracks on this fabulous comp that I don’t appear on, so screw it. It’s so good that I’d actually be doing more of a disservice if I didn’t talk about than I would if I did, so I will. I mean, I am. Or something.
Anyway, the veritable bounty of delightful tracks on TiRRR4 were curated by radio hosts Carl Cafarelli and Dana Bonn, who spin records and gab about ‘em every Sunday evening in Syracuse, NY (and online, too). Most all of it is either rare/hard to find or previously unreleased, and the disc is positively crawling with great tunes from accomplished titans of the power pop genre (Rubinoos, Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat), indie faves (the Gripweeds, Chris von Sneidern, Lisa Mychols, P. Hux), lesser-known-but-still-cool acts (Stepford Knives, The Rulers, Michael Oliver) and Cafarelli/Bonn fave raves (the Flashcubes, Ronnie Dark, 1.4.5.). Personal picks would be Ray Paul’s insistently rockin’ “I Need Your Love Tonight” (the best thing he’s ever done, to these ears), Pop Co-Op’s “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” (sounding like a long lost Walker Brothers track), the bubbly “I’m On Your Side” by Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, The Rulers’ “I Want My Ramones Records Back” (who wouldn’t?), Lisa Mychols’ “Almost Didn’t Happen” and The Legal Matters’ faithful take of Teenage Fanclub’s “Don’t Look Back.”