Friday, January 5, 2018

My Favorite Albums of 2017

Another year has passed and it’s time for the obligatory year-end album list. I have been thinking a lot about the album as a concept lately. And I feel like it is a poised for a comeback. About 7-12 years ago when iTunes was dominating the digital market, the market felt like we were reverting back to a pre-1960’s era of a singles-driven consumption. Why spend $9.99 for a 12-song album when you can get the two singles you really want for $0.99 each? 

But now I view the iTunes era as a bridge of sorts from the past to the future. From the time that file-sharing sites like Napster made it possible for people to download anything by anyone at any time for free, the industry has been playing catch-up. iTunes offered a short-term solution. “Let’s put the pirates out of business by giving people consistently high-quality downloads for a lower price” was the theory. 

Entire high-quality album downloads for less money than CDs (but of course without the cool artwork and liner notes that physical releases have). And that sort of worked to discourage stealing music anyway, but in the process the industry became more wedded to singles again. Overall album sales started to stabilize in the mid-2000s, but then fell sharply again by the end of the decade. And the industry struck some bad deals with Silicon Valley in the process, always with an eye on next quarter's earnings report and not the next five years of growth and stability. Physical media sales still outpaced digital sales until 2014.

But we're in a weird situation now where album sales (both physical and digital) are only about 40% of what they were 10 years ago. And you can take either your personal music library or nearly every song ever recorded via a streaming service with you on a portable listening device everywhere you go. Music has never been more a part of people's lives.

I still rarely stream anything yet but streaming services have been growing and as of 2016 were the top way people consume music. If you factor in streaming with purchases the industry is experiencing healthy growth. And perhaps partly due to streaming without forcing a purchasing decision – "song or album? If a song, which song?" – albums seem to be making a comeback. A business model where you don't pay to "own" the music could maybe help revive the album.

Of course since Silicon Valley has made itself the new evil middle man and is barely compensating artists through digital sales/plays these days, there really is no financial incentive for most established artists to even release an album unless it was something they were proud of as an artistic statement. 

Back in the heyday of the “album era” (which I'm bracketing as mid-1960s to mid-1990s), there was more pressure on artists to release albums every year or two. That’s why so many artists in those days were cranking out ten-song albums with only two or three good songs and a lot of filler. "Here are a few singles and a new album to go out on tour promoting." Now artists don’t have those same financial incentives. I mean sure Green Day or the Foo Fighters or Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars probably feel some pressure from their labels to keep up the write/record/release/tour cycle every 2-3 years, armed with a few radio-friendly singles. But most established acts with a hardcore set of fans can really just wait until they have 10 or 12 new songs they feel are worthy of releasing. 

In short there are less reasons than ever before for an album to be bad or contain a large amount of filler, at a time when people are listening to albums more often again. It seems like a perfect storm of events to revive the album in the near future.

Anyway, let's get to it. 

20. Gang of Youths - Go Farther in Lightness (Sony).

19. Low Cut Connie - Dirty Pictures (part 1) (Contender Records).

18. Capitalist Kids - Brand Damage (Brassneck).

17. Waxahatchee - Out in the Storm (Merge).

16. The Regrettes - Feel Your Feelings Fool! (Warner Bros).

15. Cayetana - New Kind of Normal (Plum).

14. Ryan Adams - Prisoner (PAX AM/Blue Note).

13. Alvvays - Antisocialites (Polyvinyl).

12. Old 97's - Graveyard Whistling (ATO).

11. Worriers - Survival Pop (SideOneDummy).

10. Deer Tick - Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Partisan).

9. Partner - In Search of Lost Time (You've Changed Records).

8. Sheer Mag - Need to Feel Your Love (Wilsuns).

7. Alex Lahey - I Love You Like a Brother (Caroline Music).

6. Rips - Rips (Wharf Cat).

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound (Southeastern).

4. Protomartyr - Relatives in Descent (Domino Recordings).

3. The Jesus And Mary Chain - Damage And Joy (Artificial Plastic).

2. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - The Hanged Man (SuperEgo).

1. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic).

Honorable Mention

Afghan Whigs - In Spades (Sub Pop).
Bash & Pop - Anything Can Happen (Fat Possum).
Benjamin Booker - Witness (ATO).
Billy Bragg - Bridges, Not Walls (Cooking Vinyl).
Bully - Losing (Sub Pop).
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice (Matador).
Dude York - Sincerely (Hardly Art).
Filthy Friends - Invitation (Kill Rock Stars).
Japandroids - Near To The Wild Heart Of Life (Arts & Crafts).
Juliana Hatfield - Pussycat (American Laundromat).
Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights (Matador).
Langhorne Slim - Lost at Last (Dualtone).
Margo Price - All American Made (Third Man).
The Mountain Goats - Goths (Merge).
Nothington - In the End (Red Scare).
The Preatures - Girlhood (Universal).
Queens of the Stone Age - Villains (Matador).
Slaughter Beach, Dog - Birdie (Lame-O).
The Stevens - Good (Chapter Music).
Thomas Patrick Maguire - Irish Silence (Weemayk Music).
Wavves - You're Welcome (Ghost Ramp).

2017 Shows

Ty Segall/Purling Hiss at the Trocadero 5/20/17
Mr. T. Experience at Kung Fu Necktie 11/10/17
Deer Tick at the Union Transfer 12/1/17