2017 was a brutal year in many ways, and no less so in the world of music. Many of the musicians who informed the sensibilities of my past lists died, some long before their time. That directly shaped this year’s list and inspired the creation of the records at the #1 and #10 slots. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.
Karl Hendricks died in January at the age of 46. During his life, he wrote, taught, was the buyer for (and eventually owner of) Pittsburgh’s best new records store, and released nine records. In all of these endeavors he set a standard for excellence combined with a quiet, wry decency that sought to help people find hidden excellence. His life made many lives better.
No surprise, then, that when Karl became ill, the community of people he touched came to his aid with fundraisers in 2014 and 2015. In the days after Karl’s memorial service, a plan to use Bandcamp to assemble a benefit record for his family quickly fell into place. The musicians on this tribute range from the highly recognizable (Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, Chris Brokaw) to those that toured with Karl (Kyle Sowashes). Tracks by fans who never met the man adjoin those from friends and coworkers who knew Karl for more than a quarter of a century. Karl’s lyrics tempt comparisons to Raymond Carver for his precise details about the lives of working people, though my mind goes to Pittsburgh writer Jim Daniels as the closest analogue. His melodies and beautifully composed guitar parts produced songs sturdy enough to withstand adaptations into country music (The Beagle Brothers), electronica (Entertainment), and, well, incompetence (The Card Party).
That last track is mine. Yes, a record I played on is #1 on my list. I make no claims to objectivity here, nor do I see this fact as a conflict. Music does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of the cultural fabric of communities. I am part of the community that benefited immeasurably from Karl’s contributions to Pittsburgh and the world, and so I am part of this small contribution by the community paying respects to the man as well as a listener who deeply appreciates the music on this compilation.
One of the benefits of making this record a Bandcamp release is the project could grow gradually over time from its initial release date. As of this writing, 22 different artists have contributed to a living, evolving tribute. The Wheel & the Alphabet is not the only home of a Karl Hendricks tribute this year (the Gotobeds’ brilliant cover of “Flowers Avenue” came out late in the fall), but it does a fine job of showing the influence and brilliance of the man. Thanks always to Karl for showing us the best way forward.
You know Cohen from his work in Silkworm and Bottomless Pit over the past quarter century. (If you do not, and you are somehow reading this anyway, just BUY EVERYTHING NOW and enjoy.) Here, Chicago trio Light Coma acts as his Crazy Horse for a mostly-electric set of new songs. Cohen’s ability to turn mundane details into poignant character sketches has defined his work at least as far back as “Don’t Make Plans This Friday,” and here it shines through in the opening “Repack,” a collection of overhead children’s dialogue that becomes a swirling anthem. Neil Young comparisons come with the alternately gentle acoustic fingerpicking and shrieking electric lead lines, as well as the decision to close each side of the record with alternate versions of “Midwest DTs.” If these are Cohen’s “ditch years,” may a flurry of releases come soon, as his voice is a distinctive one that I always have time to appreciate.
In the three decades since the Dream Syndicate’s last proper album Ghost Stories, leader Steve Wynn has sharpened his writing further, become an even better guitarist, and forged a partnership with stunt guitarist Jason Victor that has been the most sustained collaboration Wynn’s had with any lead guitarist. Here Wynn and Victor team up with the Ghost Stories rhythm section (as well as that album’s coproducer Chris Cacavas on keyboards and, for one track, original bassist Kendra Smith on vocals) to create a record as informed by the care and craft of the Miracle 3 records as the cacophony of 1980s-era Dream Syndicate. What is especially glorious is how Victor takes to the sound and sensibility of the earlier band, matching the violence of anything Karl Precoda or Paul Cutler did on record. The result is a record that is fully in the spirit of past triumphs without ever feeling derivative, and possibly Wynn’s finest record since Here Come the Miracles.
The singalong (yell-along) album of the year comes from veterans of Kalamazoo’s Minutes, who bring the rock and then get out of the way…eleven songs in half an hour, none feeling rushed nor wasting a second. “Left for Dead” is one of the more inspiring songs possible with a title like that, and if you manage to listen to “Cyclists” or “Back That Truck Up” and don’t get their hooks lodged in your consciousness, then we simply are wired differently. I am grateful (though not surprised) that Swim Buddies is sufficiently faithful to OUT’s exhilarating live sound.
Covering “Vegetable Man” while with the Soft Boys no doubt cemented Hitchcock as an acolyte of Syd Barrett, but his own music reveals a writer more grounded on Earth…indeed, his placement of people within ecosystems featuring insects, fish, and birds make him one of the least anthropocentric songwriters I know. He is also a terrific guitarist influenced by the 60s British folk-rock movement at least as much as he is by Barrett and John Lennon, and these ten tracks show off his chops and wryly fatalistic lyrics alongside contributions by past collaborators Gillian Welch and Grant Lee Philips as well as new ones in his current Nashville home. The mood reminds me of a cross between 1989’s Queen Elvis and 2004’s Spooked, though more electric than the latter and less self-consciously weird than the former. (No less funny, though, including a song about the lead character in the ridiculous film Mindhorn.)
Joel Phelps is a master interpreter of songs, as evident by the inspired covers he has released of songs as diverse as the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Iris Dement’s “Calling for You.” Here he and the Downer Trio (joined by Marino Correia) reinterpret four of his own songs, all spare acoustic versions of tracks from Gala, their 2013 album. The effect evokes the skeletal arrangements of the mostly-covers Inland Empire record while reminding listeners of how strong the Gala songs are. Brilliant as always, and a fine companion to the 2013 LP.
This came out in 2016, but I didn’t hear it until the winter. (Somehow my attention span for Daveed Diggs’s work in the fall was absorbed completely by his recurring role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.) Splendor and Misery reminds me of science fiction radio plays of the early 80s (most famously the original version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as filtered through an Afrofuturist perspective ranging from hiphop to gospel and just enough white noise to make this lodge into my brain.
Halvorson’s Away With You was on last year’s list; this record departs from the ensemble sound of that one by emphasizing the virtuosic interplay between Halvorson’s guitar and Courvoisier’s piano. That said, the contrast is not that great. Initially, Crop Circles lulls you into complacency as tracks start slowly, then gradually pick up in intensity as both spew dense clusters of notes that flesh out the sound as if a large band was playing. Not recommended listening if it makes you lose faith in your own guitar or piano abilities, but if insecurity is not a problem, enjoy this spirited duet of two confident, dexterous musicians.
The first half of this record is vintage Scott Miller. Witty lyrics, incredibly melodic guitar and keyboards, and that distinctive voice singing songs that rank with the best of his 90s work with the Loud Family. Hell, they rank with his 80s classics, making the resurrection of the Game Theory name worthy.
The second half is distracting. Painfully so, due not at all to the people who worked on it and entirely due to the circumstance that necessitated its existence. The problem is Miller’s voice is only detectable as writer, as friends and fans ranging from Aimee Mann to Ted Leo take over lead vocals. This was unavoidable, as Supercalifragile is a posthumous release painstakingly assembled by Miller’s widow and Ken Stringfellow, and their work is remarkable in achieving the level of detail that was a hallmark of Miller’s craft. In a vacuum, these tracks are beautiful and thoughtfully rendered in Miller’s style. Listening to them just reminds me that this distinctive, talented, and very nice man is no longer with us. The one exception is his onetime bandmate Alison Faith Levy’s one lead vocal, as I can fool myself into thinking it a spotlight feature for her made under normal conditions. I may grow to enjoy these tracks more and greatly appreciate the work that went into them, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed them as much as the great Miller tracks on the first half.
Archival Release of the Year
Alternate title Thank You So Much Terry Katzman. This 3 CD/4 LP set documents the early years Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton played together, with much better audio fidelity on contemporary live work than found on Land Speed Record. Katzman’s tapes made this possible, and this surpasses the Rhino edition of Everything Falls Apart and More as the best sounding CDs from the band. May Numero Group have the opportunity to treat the band’s later work with the same care; for now, this serves as a fitting tribute to Hart, who died a few weeks before the set was released.
Check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators, or in the case of too many of these records, the creators’ surviving loved ones.