Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Year In Music 2017, The Best Live, Tribute, Remake, Reissue, and Best Of - Albums of the Year, Starring Steve Winwood, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Steve Forbert, Lucinda Williams, Aretha Franklin, The Who, Elton John, and More




Welcome to Part 2 of my year in music, 2017. In my best of the year lists, I usually only include new original studio albums, I usually disregard live albums, tributes, remakes, reissues, and best of collections. This year there were far too many and too many good ones to disregard. If I included them in my top ten and top fifty lists it would knock out too many other fine recordings. So, this year we have Part 1 and Part 2. Let's get busy.

Best Live, etc. Album of the Year:
Steve Winwood - Winwood: Greatest Hits Live
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Christmas came early this year for fans of Steve Winwood in the form of Winwood: Greatest Hits Live. Rather than collecting tracks from the original albums that his fans probably already have, this is a set of recently recorded live renditions of Winwood's finest material, curated by the man himself. Winwood's musical legacy runs deep and over the last 50+ years he has covered a lot of ground. He played rock in the 60s with the Spencer Davis Group. He incorporated many genres during his Traffic years including the groundbreaking combination of folk and jazz on the album John Barleycorn Must Die. He has been similarly adventurous in his solo career and his band, as you will hear in this package, is the best with which he's ever played. Winwood shines on two major instruments: the electric guitar ("Had To Cry Today," Blind Faith) and the Hammond B-3 organ (his cover of Timmy Thomas' "Why Can't We Live Together").
Steve released his first-ever live album as a solo artist on September 1st, 2017. ‘Winwood: Greatest Hits Live’ is a new 2CD/4LP collection sourced from Steve’s personal archives of live performances. With a 23-song tracklist handpicked by Steve, featuring his best-loved songs, ‘Greatest Hits Live’ offers fans a definitive musical portrait of his five-decade career.

The expanded 2CD/4LP gatefold package features rare, previously unreleased material touching on all aspects of Winwood’s extensive catalog, including contemporary arrangements of the music he created with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, and on his classic solo recordings. The collection channels R&B, Jazz, Funk, Folk, Classic Rock, Pop, and Afro-Caribbean & Brazilian rhythms, highlighting Winwood’s unique ability to fuse multiple genres into a singular, cohesive musical expression. [from the Winwood press release]
When I first heard this album, I could not believe how many great songs were included, and when I had that thought, I wasn't even finished the first CD. Plus, it's not just the hits and it's not even just the classic album tracks, it has some amazing deep tracks like "Rainmaker," "Walking In The Wind," and "Fly." It also has plenty of long songs clocking in at approximately eight minutes plus or minus.
Listen to: "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys," "Walking In The Wind," and "Why Can't We Live Together"

The Top Ten, alphabetically by artist:

Kenny Chesney – Live in No Shoes Nation
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In an online five star review of Kenny Chesney's Live in No Shoes Nation, a customer wrote, "This has to be the best live album ever made!" Despite this fan's tendency for overstatement, this Chesney album offers plenty of justification for such words. Chesney's music is by nature good time music, and on this record he played to stadiums full of adoring fans.

The thirty tracks are spread over two CDs with a total running time of over 2.25 hours. Two thirds of the tracks were recorded all over the country, with each track from a different city. The remaining tracks are from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA where Chesney has played a remarkable seventeen times. The overall effect is that if you've been to a Chesney concert, this is the ultimate souvenir.

The full band features plenty of excellent guitar work. Throughout the record, the performances are impeccable as is the recording quality. The only thing I would do differently to make this any better would be to cross fade the audience and avoid the fade to silence after each track. That production detail suggests that they expect this album to be heard one track at a time.

In addition to everything else, Chesney has guests joining him on select tracks, like Taylor Swift who trades verses with him on "Big Star." At the end, Chesney gets a nice birthday greeting from Swift. Other guests include Eric Church, Mac McAnally, David Lee Murphy, Old Dominion, Dave Matthews, Grace Potter, and the Zac Brown Band.

Whether you're just looking for a good country record, or if you're a Kenny Chesney fan who doesn't have this yet, Live in No Shoes Nation is as indispensable as they get.
Listen to: "Flora Bama", "Big Star," (fea. Taylor Swift) and "One Step Up" (Bruce Springsteen cover)

The Cranberries - Something Else
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On the album Something Else, The Cranberries have rerecorded ten of their best songs plus three new ones played acoustically with an orchestra. Lest you think that these songs loose anything in the acoustic format, let me reassure you that these songs have never sounded better. The keyboards may not actually be acoustic, but the guitars are and they blend perfectly with the string section. Dolores O'Riordan sounds phenomenal. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that setting her voice against acoustic instrumentation sounds exceptionally good. I've been listening to The Cranberries since they started, and I can say that for an "acoustic record" this album both surprises and delights me.

The Cranberries had reunited to make this album and the word was that the band was so pleased with the result that they planned to continue. Prior to the tragic death of Dolores O'Riordan, a new album was recorded including O'Riordan's vocals. Watch for this in 2018, as well as an anniversary reissue of The Cranberries first album.
Listen to: "Dreams," "Zombie," and "Ode to My Family"

Dan Fogelberg - Live At Carnegie Hall (4/17/1979)
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This album is remarkable in several respects. It is a snapshot of Dan Fogelberg's early career, the period in which he crafted a number of successful albums and made a name for himself as a first rate singer-songwriter. Importantly, he had not yet turned into the singles artist he would soon become (not that there's anything wrong with that, his singles were the best). During the concert, Fogelberg plays a number of songs that he had recorded for his next album, the double LP The Innocent Age. Although that album contained many of the tracks that would become hit singles, the only one played during that show was a gorgeous reading of "Same Old Lang Syne."

This is an excellent performance and it is well recorded. By itself perhaps that wouldn't make it all that remarkable, but this recording finds Fogelberg alone on stage at Carnegie Hall NYC armed with nothing but a piano, acoustic guitar and a microphone. That would have to be one of the most daunting situations in music. You would never know it listening to this album. Fogelberg introduces the songs, cracks jokes (even taking some jabs at himself) as he shows all the confidence you might expect from someone playing a small and intimate venue. Fogelberg was equal parts gravitas and grandiose; he came by his reputation for pretentiousness honestly and it helped define who he was, and he was that good. With a unique facility for writing melody, and his high level musicianship, vocals, and songwriting, Fogelberg remains one of the finest songwriters that the 70s produced.

Finally, this album is remarkable in that it seems to present the concert in its entirety. If there was any kind of editing, you can not tell. As such, Live At Carnegie Hall (4/17/1979) is my favorite kind of live album, and the fact that it's Fogelberg at Carnegie makes it totally essential.
Listen to: "Nether Lands," "Old Tennessee," and "Same Old Lang Syne."

Elton John - Diamonds (Deluxe)
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Elton John, along with his lyricist Bernie Taupin, is arguably one of our greatest living songwriters. Nowhere is this more evident than on Diamonds, a new greatest hits collection selected by Elton himself. The standard release contains thirty-four tracks spread over two CDs. There is also a pair of limited edition box sets. One adds a bonus disc of seventeen more key singles and comes with a 72 page hardbound book which tells the story of each song. The other has a bonus CD of his greatest hits live, One Night Only - The Greatest Hits.

Even if you have all of John's albums, you won't have all the tracks on Diamonds. Included are non-LP singles such as "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", his duet with Kiki Dee. Also included are soundtrack classics like "Circle Of Life" from The Lion King. The bonus disc gives you even more; tracks like "Skyline Pigeon" (piano version), which was the B-side of "Daniel" and is one of my favorite John tracks. There is a non-LP cover of "Lucy in Sky With Diamonds" with a nice reggae twist. "Mama Can't Buy You Love" is a track from the Thom Bell sessions, cut at Philadelphia International Records with the iconic Philly soul producer. It also contains Dionne Warwick's all star collaboration, "That's what Friends Are For" (with John, Gladys Knight & Stevie Wonder).

I was fortunate enough to start listening to Elton in 1970, and for most of that decade I had the pleasure of playing his records on the radio. John, is also an avid record collector and musicologist, which adds another dimension to his success. The tracks on Diamonds are presented chronologically with the seventies hits filling disc one. As amazing as disc one is, there is no slack on discs two or three; there is just one great song after another. The bottom line of Diamonds is that it collects all his biggest hits in one place.
Listen to: "Your Song," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and "Daniel"

Kyle Riabko - Richard Rodgers Reimagined
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Richard Rodgers Reimagined is an excellent tribute by Canadian singer-songwriter Kyle Riabko, whose debut album was stunning, and not only for its excellence in songwriting, performance, and production. What knocked out many listeners was the fact that Riabko, working in his native Saskatoon, Saskatchewan wrote and recorded the album while still in high school. He spent summer vacations on tour with the likes of Buddy Guy and John Mayer.

Riabko resurfaced a few years later with a batch of Burt Bacharach tunes reimagined for the musical stage. The resulting show received a strongly favorable reaction when it played in NYC and London. Bacharach attended the premieres in both cities, “Kyle has done something truly unique with my music. He's a beautiful singer and one hell of a guitar player.”

Riabko's latest project is an another "reimagining," this time the songs are of Richard Rodgers. Even though all these songs originated in theater productions, many of them have amassed a level of popularity that placed them squarely into the Great American Songbook. What sets these reimagined versions apart from any rendition of Rodgers that you have heard before is that Riabko arranges material to sound like a modern day singer songwriter, which he is.
Read what Riabko had to say about his treatment of "My Favorite Things:"
The only reason to record this fun but sort of silly song was to unearth something about it otherwise undiscovered. So I took it to a darker place—focusing less on the cute little list of objects and more on the minor chords of the verse and the ominous, final phrase: “Then I don’t feel so bad.” Plus, I love ripping an electric solo over a song that doesn’t usually get one.
To read Riabko's complete track by track description, click here.
Listen to: "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "My Funny Valentine," and "Some Enchanted Evening"

Paul Simon - The Concert in Hyde Park London - July 15, 2012
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Paul Simon closed London's 2012 Hard Rock Calling Festival with a whale of a concert in the outdoor setting of Hyde Park. Performing with a full band, Simon played a career spanning set that included all of his solo hits and even two Simon & Garfunkel classics.

The centerpiece of the show was a reunion of the South African Graceland band including Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing the landmark Graceland album in its entirety. Hugh Masekela and Jimmy Cliff also made guest appearances.

This show was so good that we don't even need to worry about the occasional liberties Simon takes with the melodies, but that's just him. They're not saying why it took five years for this to come out, but the attractively priced set includes both CD and DVD/Blu-Ray versions. There is only one difference between the concert on CD vs video; t\he four songs on which Jimmy Cliff appears are split with two of them on the CD version and the other two are on the DVD/Blu-Ray discs.
Listen to: "Kodachrome," "Graceland," and "Mother and Child Reunion"

Various Artists - Mavis Staples: I'll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration
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This is both a tribute album and a live album, and a phenomenal album it is. Phenomenal because of the cavalcade of stars who appeared to perform in celebration of the 75th birthday of Mavis Staples. Phenomenal also because of the song selection on this set of two CDs plus DVD. But the single most overriding factor is the quality of the house band as directed by bassist Don Was, who also served as music director. This superb band plays on every track and they are so good that I would pay just to see them.

The supremely well crafted set had guests perform fifteen selections accompanied by the house band, including a duet by Aaron Neville and Mavis, before Mavis did a five song set of her own with selected guests on each. Mavis sang the last of her songs solo, an epic version of "I'll Take You There." After that, the show closed with an all star finale of "The Weight." I would list the show's highlights but it would look exactly like the tracklist. Even so, it was great to hear Gregg Allman (recorded November 19th 2014). Also good to hear was Philadelphian Phil Roy's composition "Hope In a Hopeless World," a song sung by Widespread Panic, who previously recorded this for one of their earlier albums. Grace Potter did a nice job with Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands." The overall guest list was amazing, including Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, Patty Griffin, Taj Mahal, and Jeff Tweedy (producer of Mavis' last few albums) to name a few. Like the live Steve Winwood album, this would also have made my unqualified top ten, it's that good.
Listen to: Joan Osbourne - "You're Driving Me (To The Arms Of A Stranger)", Aaron Neville & Mavis - "Respect Yourself", and Bonnie Raitt & Mavis - "Turn Me Around"

The Who - Maximum A's & B's
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Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who's recording career includes numerous singles that were not on their albums. The same applies to most of their B-sides. This set is just dynamite, it gives you a picture of the band that you could not get any other way. Here are all the details from the press release:
...We present the singles - A-sides, B-sides and EP tracks from the legendary Who on CD. 86 tracks from the Brunswick, Reaction, Track and Polydor labels including classic hits, and rarely heard B-sides. The Box also features the band's first single, as the High Numbers 'Zoot Suit' b/w 'I'm The Face.' Five CDs, in separate wallets, housed in a rigid, lift-off box with a 48 page booklet featuring track by track annotation and period photos.
The singles tell a fascinating tale. You have the Southern California Who doing the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" and "Bucket T." There are more 60s covers including several Rolling Stones tunes and even "Batman. This set, for the first time, collects every single and EP, and you get all tracks in the order in which they were released. "Long Live Rock" indeed.
Listen to: "I Can See For Miles," "The Seeker," and "Join Together"

Lucinda Williams - This Sweet Old World
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Two the best records I've ever heard are Sweet Old World by Lucinda Williams. The 25th anniversary version initially threw me a curve ball, as it was not just remastered but totally newly recorded for this release, complete with four new bonus tracks.

I consider the original album to be one of Williams' best and one of my all-time favorites. It had been a while since I listened to the original, but I must say that the new version knocked my socks off. Every time I played it, I liked it more. At first glance, the new version is immediately different because it has two lead guitars, both played by supremely talented guitarists, Greg Leisz and Stuart Mathis. I should add here that Lucinda has always featured the best electric guitar work on her records, she has a keen sense of guitar talent. The 2017 version, with its slight title change to This Sweet Old World, sounded so good to me that I was thinking that it couldn't get any better than this. So then I went back to listen to the original, Sweet Old World, and as I listened I began to feel strongly that this was the ultimate version and that it could not get any better. So, my next move was to listen to the songs old and new next to each other for direct comparison.

I think that the original production by Williams, Gurf Morlix, and Dusty Wakeman is in fact for me the definitive version. The amazing guitar work by Morlix combined with some gorgeous violin and some just right keyboards is untoppable.

On the new version, there may be no violins or keyboards but the twin guitars are jaw-dropping in their excellence, and every fan of either Lucinda or the guitar needs to hear this. The best way I can put this into perspective is to compare the new version to one of those live concerts where the artist performs a classic album in its entirety. Of course, This Sweet Old World is much more than that. My comparison rings true though, because Williams took her touring band into the studio and completely remade the album. Some songs have been reimagined including one that was rewritten and retitled ("He Never Got Enough Love" became "Drivin' Down a Dead End Street"). The album was resequenced and sports a new cover.

My bottom line is that I love this album in both of its incarnations. So, for me, it will just have to stand as an embarrassment of riches.
From Sweet Old World, listen to: "Six Blocks Away," "Something About What Happens When We Talk," and "Pineola"
From This Sweet Old World, listen to: "Six Blocks Away," "Something About What Happens When We Talk," and "Pineola"

Here are more releases that excelled in this category (live, etc.):

ELO, Jeff Lynne's - Wembley Or Bust [Live]
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Jeff Lynne may lead one of the most charmed lives in music. In the early 70s, he took a side project of the U.K. group The Move to great heights as the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). ELO released a string of excellent albums and singles whose depth I had somewhat forgotten until I listened to Wembley Or Bust, the new live recording by Jeff Lynne's ELO as he is calling it these days. This album, which is both a live one and a greatest hits collection, features 2 CDs that will knock you out with their quality.

Foghat - Live At The Belly Up [August 11, 2016]
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Sounding better than they ever did when their albums were getting airplay in the 70s, this hot live recording documents Foghat's recent appearance at The Belly Up, a most music oriented watering hole in San Diego.

Steve Forbert - Tin Angel Farewell 2-03-2017
Buy at Bandcamp

When Philadelphia's Tin Angel closed its doors in February 2017, Steve Forbert was asked to take part in the farewell festivities by performing on the next to last night. Not that many performers can command every bit of your attention with only an acoustic guitar and a microphone, but Forbert is one of the best. This 22 track download offers the set in its entirety for the more than fair price of $8.

Aretha Franklin – A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin (with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
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A Brand New Me is an Aretha Franklin greatest hits record, with a twist (purists may want to skip to the next item). The twist is that the original stereo masters of Aretha's best loved songs have been "enhanced" with judicious amounts of strings, horns, etc. from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Not withstanding the fact that I would call myself a purist, I must admit that my skepticism dissolved into appreciation as I listened. These new versions just sound great. In addition to the instruments, new backing vocals by Patti Austin were also added.

Even though Aretha herself was not involved with this project, the producers say that she likes it. Since she is living and does not seem to object, I'm going to give this record a pass and just say how much fun it is to listen, period. On the other hand, I cannot abide similar projects these guys have done with Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison because these artists are long deceased and their recorded legacy should not be tampered with.

David Gilmour - Live At Pompeii
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Revisiting a site that is imbued both with history and past Pink Floydian glory, David Gilmour gives both solo and Floyd material the full treatment in multiple formats. Even though Richard Wright is no longer with us, and even though Roger Waters had a permanent falling out with Gilmour, this still sounds for all the world like Pink Floyd. Live At Pompeii is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, digital download, 2 CDs, 4 LPs, and a deluxe box set containing 2 CDs and 2 Blu-Ray discs the second of which consists of live material (5 tracks each) from two additional concerts plus five documentaries.

Grateful Dead - Cornell 5/8/77
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The good folks at Dead.net can describe what's unique or special about any given Grateful Dead concert and make the vault release seem utterly indispensable. Even so, the run of shows they did in May 1977 seems to bring consensus among the Dead's audience that this tour was, for a number of reasons, one of the high water marks for show quality. That, combined with the discovery of tapes recorded from the soundboard by sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, affectionately known as "Betty Boards" for their superb quality, the mail order 5 show box set was a quick sell-out. One show from that box set was released commercially on 3 CDs known as Cornell 5/8/77. As Dead listeners know, no two Grateful Dead setlists were ever the same and Cornell 5/8/77 offers up a very Jerry Garcia-centric setlist. And the show is all that.

Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood
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Jethro Tull's tenth album Songs From The Wood (1977) got the full 40th anniversary remix, remaster, and reissue treatment in a super deluxe box set that includes a 96 page book. Let's start with the set's DVDs.

On the first DVD you get Steven Wilson's new stereo remix, you get Wilson's new 5.1 surround mix, you get the original 1977 stereo mix, and you get 4 tracks from the original 1977 quadraphonic (4-channel). On the other DVD you get a complete concert recorded November 21, 1977 at The Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland. The three CDs contain the following: CD 1 has the new stereo mix and six bonus tracks worth of rare and unreleased alternate mixes and alternate versions. CDs 2 & 3 contain the same 1977 live concert that's on DVD too, except "Beethoven's Ninth" which is on the DVD only. Songs From The Wood is a well crafted Tull album. The 5.1 mix on DVD 1 may knock your socks off and show you why they give these things to Steven Wilson.

Carole King - Tapestry: Live In Hyde Park
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Carole King's Tapestry: Live In Hyde Park follows a format similar to the Paul Simon concert above. Recorded on July 3, 2016 the concert included a performance of the iconic Tapestry album in its entirety, along with a complete setlist and a full band. Among her many hits I especially enjoyed "Jazzman" and a medley of the sixties hits that she co-wrote for others with her husband Gerry Goffin. The package includes the concert on two CDs and one DVD.

Sonny Landreth - Recorded Live in Lafayette
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On Sonny Landreth's second live album, Recorded Live in Lafayette, Landreth serves up a double heaping helping of the guitar work he does so well. On the first CD, he plays acoustic and it has all the fire and intensity of his best electric work. Landreth still finds a way to take it up a few notches on the second CD, which finds him demonstrating his mastery of the electric guitar. Spread the word to all lovers of guitar, as well as fans of music from southern Louisiana and New Orleans. It doesn't get any better than this.

Stevie Nicks - Bella Donna (Deluxe Edition)
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This is a 35th anniversary remaster of Stevie Nicks' first solo album, Bella Donna. The package contains three CDs. The first bonus disc has a number of rarities including a real cool previously unreleased early version of "Edge of Seventeen." The second bonus disc is worth the price of the package, with a great sounding live set recorded at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in 1982 that includes songs from Bella Donna and Fleetwood Mac, as well as a Tom Petty cover.

Billy Porter & Various Artists - Billy Porter Presents: The Soul Of Richard Rodgers
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Richard Rodgers seems to be the beneficiary of a resurgence in 2017. It's nice that Billy Porter explores the soulful side of Rodgers compositions, but that in itself is not the most remarkable thing about Billy Porter Presents: The Soul Of Richard Rodgers. With different guest artists on every track Porter made what sounds more like a current day soul record, essentially updating Rodgers for the new millennium. If you give this baby a spin, don't miss "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" featuring Pentatonix, "My Funny Valentine" featuring Cynthia Erivo, and "Bewitched" featuring Ledisi & Zaire Park. Talk about Richard Rodgers "reimagined"...

Queen - On Air: BBC Sessions
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What I wouldn't give to be a tape archivist for the BBC. The material they must have in their vault boggles the imagination. This year the BBC offered some previously unreleased live Queen. The basic release was 2 CD set of performances. At the same time, they also released a 6 disc all-in box set which adds a third CD of additional Queen performances only available with the box. The other three discs contain Queen interviews which are presented in chronological order. You may wish to note that all of the interviews and performances were conducted in the BBC studios, hence the name On Air: BBC Sessions. For anyone who may buy this set specifically to get the third live CD, let me assure you that the interview discs are no throwaways. They form a first person narrative of the band that is more compelling than most articles or books on the subject.

The Rolling Stones - Havana Moon [Live]
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The Rolling Stones played a free concert in Havana, Cuba on March 25, 2016. As part of the Stones moderately priced archival series, this show is offered as Havana Moon, with the complete concert on 2 CDs and 1 DVD or Blu-Ray. This is as good a live Stones record as they have ever done. Yes, I know that's a rash statement, but if you listen to any track in this tight two hour set you will hear a band playing like they mean it. Perhaps most incredibly, you will hear Jagger doing a vocal in which he doesn't sound any older than when the songs was first recorded; it doesn't matter whether it's a rocker like the set opener "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or a sensitive ballad like "Angie". Read the full review.

Frank Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim - Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim
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There are only a handful of albums that I would consider the personification of perfection. This is a fiftieth anniversary remaster of one of them, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim. The playing and the singing on this recording is so soft, so delicate and so precise that even now, fifty years later, one can only marvel at the achievement. Jobim, one of the creators of the Brazilian form of music known as bossa nova, cowrote seven of the original album's ten tracks and sings duet with Sinatra on one, "The Girl From Ipanema." For this remaster they added two amazing bonus tracks. One is a live medley recorded for television. If you ever wished that you could be a fly on the wall at an historic recording session, the second bonus track is the uncut session tape from the recording of "The Girl From Ipanema," including three complete takes.

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Live From The Fox Oakland
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The Tedeschi Trucks Band was formed when Susan Tedeschi and husband Derek Trucks decided to combine their bands. Even though neither of them are what you would call a household name, they continually sell out shows wherever they go. They are on the road more than they are not.

See my live review of their concert at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia. That show was one of a three night stand, and those three nights were only the second of three times that Tedeschi Trucks played in Philadelphia in 2017. Thus the release of a live album, Live From The Fox Oakland. And a generous ‎live album it is, with two CDs running over two hours in length. In addition to the Derek Trucks Band, Trucks also was one of the two guitarists in the second generation of the Allman Brothers Band, and as such he knows his way around a large repertoire. Like the Allmans, the TTB plays a long show and changes the set from night to night often adding inspired covers. All of this is well expressed on Live From The Fox Oakland. The concert is also included on DVD or Blu-ray in a three disc package.

U2 - The Joshua Tree (Deluxe)
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U2's landmark album The Joshua Tree won the Grammy Award for album of the year and went on to sell twenty million copies. To honor its 30th anniversary, a super deluxe edition was released that included two CDs worth of bonus tracks, a live concert, and an 84 page hard bound book in addition to the remastered Joshua Tree. For U2 fans who passed on this due to its hefty price tag, they also released a simplified two CD deluxe edition containing the remastered album on one disc and the live concert on the other. The Joshua Tree contains a full share of U2s most iconic tracks, but the live concert recorded at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1987 is worth the price of the package, which I found to be about the same price as a single CD. The concert contains all eleven Joshua Tree songs as well as other U2 concert staples. This is a truly amazing show and it feels much longer than the eighty minute maximum run time of a CD. During the show Bono talks about walking around NYC where he encountered, in Harlem, the sound of the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir singing his song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It was a classic moment when, during the encore, the New Voices of Freedom took the stage to sing with U2 on their final two songs.

Various Artists - An American Troubadour: The Songs Of Steve Forbert
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There are two significant takeaways from An American Troubadour: The Songs Of Steve Forbert. The first is just how good a songwriter Forbert is. The second is the interesting line-up of artists; eclectic might be a good word to describe it. I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that for every artist that you know in this project, there are going to be at least two more that you don't. There are many avenues to discover new artists and this is certainly a good one.

All of Forbert's best loved songs are here along with a bunch of lesser known ones that are equally worthy. I love that James Maddock is included; the texture of his voice almost makes him sound like a British Steve Forbert.
Listen to: Kelly Fitzgerald - "Thinkin'," Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers - "Romeo's Tune," and James Maddock - "Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977"

Various Artists - Rock And Roll Music! The Songs Of Chuck Berry
Preview at Ace Records

Chuck Berry is widely considered to be one of the fathers of Rock and Roll. This album collects a widely varied assortment of Chuck Berry covers, without regard to genre or decade. In all my years of listening to music, I don't think I have heard more than a few of these tracks before. There are some very interesting artists included, such as Marty Robbins, Ian Gomm, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Jay & The Americans, Elvis Presley, Carlos Santana (featuring Booker T. Jones), The Beach Boys, and Dave Edmunds to give you a sampling of the album's twenty four tracks.

No doubt Chuck Berry was a singer and songwriter of great consequence, and although I want to hear him do his own classic songs, covers like these are important too. Without a compilation such as Rock And Roll Music! The Songs Of Chuck Berry, most of these tracks are ones that would go unheard.

Meredith And Rini Willson - ... and then I wrote The Music Man/The Music from Meredith Willson's The Music Man (Conducted by Meredith Willson)
Preview at Stage Door Records

I should say off the top that show tunes are not necessarily my forte. The Music Man is one show in particular that I've grown up with and I find I have a special place in my heart for the music. I just happened upon this album in the new release list. It's on Stage Door, a specialty reissue label from England whose main focus is the musical theater. They have a knack for finding rare and interesting content to reissue. In this case, this release contains two rare LPs that had never before been issued on CD. The first album, ... and then I wrote The Music Man, presents Meredith Willson sitting at a piano telling the story of The Music Man and playing the music and singing the songs, with some help from his wife. Listening to this is intended to sound like what Willson might have done to introduce what he had written and composed, performing in his home to potential investors for a possible Broadway musical. The performance is spot on, however, due to the time limitation of an LP, the first act gets a more thorough treatment than the second. This should have been a double LP and we can only speculate that the limited appeal of such a project might have precluded the additional expense. Still, this is a true gem and it will be cherished by anyone who loves The Music Man.

The other LP on this CD, The Music from Meredith Willson's The Music Man, is an orchestral rendering conducted by the composer Meredith Willson. These orchestral performances are not part of either the show or the movie, they are something altogether different but a welcome and totally unexpected treat. Bravo Stage Door.

The Young Rascals - The Complete Singles A's & B's
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Some artists have a career that is more oriented to singles than albums. The concept of The Complete Singles A's & B's is a collection of every single in chronological order presented with the A side followed by the B side. Real Gone Records has done their usual thorough job of preparing such a collection for The Rascals, originally called The Young Rascals. The story these singles tell is fascinating, not just the hits, the smaller hits, the almost hits, and even the stiffs, and especially the B sides. My indelible recollection from my childhood when "Good Lovin'" was a hit is from one day when my mom was watching Merv Griffin and he read the lyrics to "Good Lovin'" as if to ridicule rock music. For me, it did the opposite. "Good Lovin'"put the Young Rascals on the map, but it was a number of singles later that "Groovin'" sent them into the stratosphere.



The Best Music of 2017, Album of the Year: The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper; Plus My Picks for the Top Ten and Top 50 Albums of the Year Starring Gregg Allman, Calico the Band, Bill DeMain, Julia Fordham, Garland Jeffreys, Denise King, Laura Marling, Shannon McNally, Raul Midon, Van Morrison, The War On Drugs and Many More




I have a general rule, when I make an end of the year list, I normally only consider new original works from that year. I rule out live albums, tributes, remakes, best of collections, and reissues. It seems that this year brought some really terrific entries in all of those categories. So much so that I am going to do a separate article on them, even though I was sorely tempted to include Steve Winwood's live greatest hits and the live Mavis Staples tribute concert in my top ten. Yes, they are that good. All that said, I must break my own rule to offer a fifty year old album as my choice for album of the year. I will explain fully below.

Following that is my top ten. My methodology hasn't changed. My choices for top ten each need to possess the goods to be the album of the year. Forty more albums follow to complete my top 50. Each of those picks is something that might place in the top ten in a lesser year. Which is not necessarily saying that one album is better than another. End of the year lists like this one are highly subjective; they only reflect the preferences of the writer. In my case, these are the records that drove me wild the most this year.

Last year, in this space, I commented about the toxic environment caused by the intersection of politics, media, and social media. I'll stand by what I said, with one exception. There is one thing I got terribly wrong; I said that "we've lived through worse." I stand corrected. The result is that we have an even greater need to focus on things like the arts, more specifically music, that fulfills us in many different ways.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy, and peaceful new year.

Album of the Year: The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and producer George Martin conspired to create the work of a lifetime in Sgt. Pepper. Volumes have already been written about this seminal work. I'll just add that their achievement, both in composition and production, is so earthshaking that it is not hyperbole to say that music has never been the same since. It was such a game changer that the rest of this list would look very different had there not been a Sgt. Pepper. So, too, would each of the other forty nine years (between then and now) be completely different.

As amazing as this is, one listen to the 50th anniversary remaster makes it clear that the music isn't just better than anything else that was released this year, it also sounds amazing, too. When you listen on a good system, you would never know that you are listening to a fifty year old recording; it sounds like it might have been recorded now. And that's incredible because what they had to work with was a magnetic tape recorder that could only record four tracks at once. When you combine the songwriting, performance, arrangement, and production, the end product is nothing short of astounding.

Listen to the whole thing. Although I have no business picking tracks, listen to "With a Little Help From My Friends", "She's Leaving Home" and "A Day In the Life".

The Top Ten, alphabetically by artist:

Gregg Allman - Southern Blood (Deluxe Edition)
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In a year that wasn't the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, Gregg Allman's final solo album Southern Blood might have been my album of the year. The song choices are beautiful, the production is perfect, Allman could not have asked for a better bookend to his career. You can tell that he knew this would be his last while he was recording it; the voice which is so synonymous with the Allman Brother's Band, has just a a slight patina of wear from having spent his life on the road. This album totally lives up to the potential that the legacy of the ABB would suggest. He began his solo career in the 70's with the album Laid Back; Southern Blood is the fitting conclusion. Rest in peace Gregg.
Listen to: "My Only True Friend", "Song For Adam" and "I Love the Life I Live".

CALICO the band - Under Blue Skies
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With a name that literally means California Country, CALICO the band is a classic L.A. band, fully rooted in the tradition of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Tom Petty, with a side of Dixie Chicks. They play finely honed country rock, led by principle songwriters, singers, and musicians Manda Mosher and Kirsten Proffit. Under Blue Skies is their brilliantly written, performed, and produced second album.

Of the thirteen tracks, eleven are originals with Mosher and/or Proffit co-writing every one. This is one of those album that is so good that I am reluctant to specify several tracks to preview. The two cover songs are both telling, each in their own way. Their take on the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" should be Calico's calling card. They do a beautiful version with some gorgeous harmonies and all the right production touches. The album concludes with another most apropos song. They do Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon" in a manner that retains the lyrics but the music makes the song their own. About this, Proffit said,
"... it dawned on us that Ladies of the Canyon was about us, in a sense. Her version of the song is beautiful and light, it is epic Joni. We felt like we could change the chord progression and give a new feeling to the song overall, feature some of our strengths (harmonies, tremolo guitar, string arrangement) and still keep the message of the song in focus.

We created a rhythm track that was an homage to another 60's band, The Zombies. The arrangement came together pretty easily once we got the rhythm track in place."
Listen to: "The 405," "Roll Away The Stone," and "Under Blue Skies"

Bill DeMain - Transatlantic Romantic
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This one harks back to a time when melodies, harmonies, and voices were king. You know I am talking about the sixties and early seventies, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Grass Roots, Motown, Todd Rundgren, etc. Bill Demain's Transatlantic Romantic is his first full length solo album after years with Swan Dive, now on hiatus.

"Leroy Boy" offers a delightful reference to Todd Rundgren's "We Got To Get You A Woman" from 1970. Not actually an answer song per se, it follows the Leroy character from the song, asks for a follow-up ("Did you get this thing together?"). It takes a special mind to conceive a song like this and by putting it at the beginning of the record we can begin to know, going in, that things will be slightly "left of center" to use DeMain's words. Songs like "Honey Bear" and "Lemon Yellow" also evoke comparisons to Emitt Rhodes and Fountains of Wayne in addition to Rundgren.

There are some excellent arrangements for orchestral instruments on Transatlantic Romantic. They are employed in various proportions throughout. Covering the Beach Boys' "Wendy," the powerhouse vocal performance is all DeMain. He built layers upon layers of lead and harmony vocals with his falsetto soaring to (Brian) Wilsonian heights. Transatlantic Romantic is a treat not to be missed. Read my full review.
Listen to: "Leroy Boy," "Brewster, Illinois, April 3rd, 1952," and "Wendy"

Julia Fordham - The Language of Love
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Julia Fordham has been a frequent flyer in these pages at year's end, and would have been even more so if this blog had existed prior to 2004. Let's just say that she has been responsible for some of the best music I have had the privilege of hearing over the course of her nearly thirty year career.

Her latest effort, The Language of Love, is a covers album; some more familiar, some less. She sings current classics from Sting, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles to name three. These are jazz interpretations with Grant Mitchell providing the ideal accompaniment on piano and keyboard, with a simple arrangement using drums and upright bass. Additional instruments (guitar, trumpet), percussion, and backing singers are used judiciously; Mitchell arranged and produced the album.

There are some really nice surprises in this set of thirteen songs. "Sir Duke" is an unusual choice for a Stevie Wonder cover, unexpected and well done. I quite enjoyed her version of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love;" with another person singing it you can really hear the beauty of the songwriting, and Fordham's take on it is a treasure. Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" is one that doesn't seem to get covered that often and yet it's good to hear it in the context of the other tracks on this record. On the other hand, Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" might be engrained in the British DNA. There's a Bee Gee's song just for fun, she even covers her own "Happy Ever After" with a version significantly different than the one on her first album. Perhaps the coup de grâce for me is having Julia sing "Moon River". Note that there is a bonus track (#14) which is an additional version of "Moon River" with strings. All told, The Language of Love is a charmer.
Listen to: "I'm Not In Love," "Fragile," and "Moon River"

Garland Jeffreys - 14 Steps to Harlem
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I've been aware of Garland Jeffreys for some time, listened to a few songs ("Wild In The Streets," "35 Millimeter Dreams"), but I never took the deep dive into one of his albums until now. Yes, I've known about the Springsteen connection, but it was the strength of the title track of 14 Steps to Harlem that attracted me to give the album a proper listen. I found myself going back to it again, and again.

Now in the fifth decade of his career, Brooklyn native Jeffreys has recorded a gem. As a sort of bonus, Jeffreys has a voice that somewhat resembles Mick Jagger's, lending the air that this just might be a great lost Stones' album. Knowing that's not the case doesn't diminish the achievement, it actually makes the record that much more impressive. The songwriting is as varied in tone as it is consistently high quality; the performances are top notch and the production puts it all together quite nicely.
Listen to: "14 Steps to Harlem", "Venus" and "Help" (Beatles cover)

Denise King & Massimo Faraò Trio - In the Mood: Romantic Dinner (La musica per una cena romantica)
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Denise King is a consummate jazz singer from Philadelphia. Her career spans nearly twenty-five years and 2017 was a particularly productive year, at least in terms of recording. Working with the Massimo Faraò Trio, Faraò is an Italian jazz pianist, King recorded a trove of cover songs, dozens of them. Eighteen of these appear on In the Mood: Romantic Dinner. It's a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, and the Beatles.

The song choices are interesting. The opening track "Back In Black" came from Amy Winehouse. There are a pair from Wonder, "I Wish" and "Another Star." King's version of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" is a slow and bluesy jazz take. King sounds very much at home on jazz standards like "Nature Boy" and "The Girl From Ipanema." Billy Joel's pop standard "Just the Way You Are" also gets the Denise King treatment.

If you are interested in purchasing this album, you might want to consider The Best of Soul, R&B, Smooth Jazz, also released in 2017, which contains all of the tracks from In the Mood: Romantic Dinner in a whopping sixty track collection. Additionally, La Vie En Rose was released in Japan only and contains eleven more tracks, completists only. Finally, in December King released a full length I'll Be Home For Christmas, just missing my article on new Christmas releases; I'm looking forward to diving into that in the late fall 2018.
Listen to: "Sunny," "And I Love Her," and "Nature Boy"

Laura Marling - Semper Femina
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Over the years, Laura Marling's singular style of songwriting and performing has earned her consistent comparisons to Joni Mitchell. As someone who holds Mitchell in the highest regard, I can't argue with these accolades. Somehow Marling continues to come up with new, original, and compelling music every couple of years.

This year's effort, her sixth, is called Semper Femina and I think it might be her most accessible album to date. Most people's accents disappear when they sing but every now and then there is an exception, like Marling's "Wild Once," and I find this endlessly endearing.
They put my hands in water
Told me I'm a god
I might be someone's daughter
Might be somewhat odd

But I was wild once
And I can't forget it
I was wild, chasing stones
Semper Femina has garnered two Grammy nominations, Best Folk Album (Marling) and Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (Blake Mills). Read my live review.
Listen to: "Soothing," "Always This Way," and "Wild Once"
1/29/2018 Update - Marling did not win a Grammy, Aimee Mann won for Best Folk Album.

Shannon McNally - Black Irish
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Black Irish
is Shannon McNally's ninth album and her Compass Records debut. Even though the songwriting of the originals on this album is so strong and the covers so impeccably chosen, I think that the thing that impresses me most are the performances and the production. I am more familiar with Rodney Crowell as a recording artist, but on this album he completely knocks it out of the park as producer.

I absolutely love the sound of Black Irish. Right in track one, the band sounds surprisingly muscular. I could single out every instrument because they all excel throughout the record. The arrangements, the instrumentation, the pacing and the sequencing are superb as well.

Regarding McNally's performance on the cover versions, they compare her to great interpreters such as Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and Emmylou Harris. To that list, I would add Joan Osborne; I thought of her especially during Stevie Wonder's “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It”. And there are many excellent aspects to this record, as you'll see below, but the bottom line is that this is Shannon McNally's career defining album. Read the complete review. See my live review.
Listen to: "You Made Me Feel For You," "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It," and "It Makes No Difference"

Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind
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Raul Midon is one of the most inspiring musical artists that I have ever run across. My first encounter was when he opened for Shelby Lynne at the North Star Bar in Philadelphia in 2005. As a relative unknown, he blew the crowd away. A series of excellent albums and about eleven years later, I saw him again at the Sellersville Theater in the fall of 2016. This time his performance was even more impressive and it included several tunes from this album, which was yet half a year away from release.

If you did not know that Midon is blind, you would not know it from the manner of his performance. During his show he talks about it frequently, and it's also the subject of some of his songs including the first three tracks of his wonderfully titled latest album Bad Ass and Blind. Midon has been blind since infancy and as such has no memory of actual sight. So, even though he knows intellectually about colors, he has never experienced them. That's what the song "Red, Green, Yellow" is essentially about.

Midon is a gifted singer, songwriter, musician, and storyteller; he has a flair for the comic as well. The songs on Bad Ass and Blind run from folk to jazz to rock and blur the lines between them. Most of these songs are acoustic guitar based; there are also a couple of piano songs.

At Sellersville, Midon remarked that he had been working hard on his guitar technique. On this album, there are a few electric guitar solos and they are so melodic and well played that I want to compare them to what you might hear on a Steely Dan record. A year ago I might not have made that particular comparison, but when Steely Dan's Walter Becker died recently, Midon recorded a beautiful tribute, a solo acoustic performance of "The Caves of Altamira." That one is not your everyday Steely Dan cover song, and I only mention it because it reveals a certain love and respect for the music that shows in the musicianship on Bad Ass and Blind.
Listen to: "Red, Green, Yellow," "Pedal to the Metal," and "If Only"

Van Morrison - Versatile
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Van Morrison - Roll With The Punches
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Van Morrison is not the only artist on this list prolific enough to deliver two new albums during 2017, but he's the only one of the three who is a septuagenarian; he is 72. Morrison released these albums separately, and both are so good that I must make them share a spot on this Top Ten. One is blues and R&B, the other is jazz but they both have a few things in common. Both are combinations of covers and new Morrison originals. Along with Morrison producing both albums, his voice sounds amazingly good and his bands sound like the ultimate crème de la crème of musicians.

Roll With The Punches is the blues album. It came out first and in addition to his hand-picked band, it features guests Chris Farlowe on vocals, Georgie Fame on vocals and Hammond organ, Jason Rebello on piano, Paul Jones on vocals and harmonica, and Jeff Beck on electric guitar; Beck's solos are all over the set.

The level of musicianship on this record is sky high. The originals fit so well with the covers that you wouldn't notice a difference until you hear something familiar like "Stormy Monday," "Lonely Avenue," or "Bring It On Home To Me."
"From a very early age, I connected with the blues. The thing about the blues is you don't dissect it – you just do it. I've never over-analysed what I do; I just do it. Music has to be about just doing it and that's the way the blues works – it's an attitude. I was lucky to have met people who were the real thing – people like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bo Diddley, Little Walter & Mose Allison. I got to hang out with them and absorb what they did. They were people with no ego whatsoever and they helped me learn a lot." - Van Morrison
Versatile is the jazz album. The level of the performance on this is likewise through the roof. Also similar to the blues album in its construction, Versatile pairs six new Morrison originals with classic covers. Familiar songs like "A Foggy Day," "Makin' Whoopee," and "I Get A Kick Out of You" mesh seamlessly with the originals, a testament to the skill level of all involved. I'll wager that you've never heard "Bye, Bye Blackbird" quite like this. "Skye Boat Song," which follows, is all instrumental with lots of tasty solos, like sax, trombone, and a very jazzy piano.

A few musicians got to play on both albums, including the rhythm section of Mez Clough on drums and Paul Moore on bass, also Paul Moran on keyboards & trumpet and Dave Keary on electric guitar. All the other musicians were selected by Morrison to play on one album or the other. Morrison was in complete control, doing the arranging, producing, writing, vocals, and he played sax on both records. He also played harmonica, electric guitar, and percussion on Roll With The Punches. Finally, there are two guest artists on Versatile, James Galway on flute ("Affirmation") and Chris White plays sax.

Considering his fifty plus year career, all the twists and turns, all the highs and lows, and the many styles of music that he has explored and absorbed, it's great to see Van Morrison so into the music, so comfortable in his own skin. I can't stop playing these two albums and the best part is the way they're recorded; you feel like you are right there in the studio. This is a man working at the top of his game.
From Roll With The Punches, listen to: "Roll With The Punches," "Bring It On Home To Me," and "Ordinary People"
From Versatile, listen to: "Broken Record," "Bye, Bye Blackbird," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me"

The Top Ten, bonus disc:

The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
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I have listened to this latest album by The War On Drugs and I like it. I like it better than most of the alternative rock that you hear on Triple A stations like WXPN. Still, when pondering this article I felt that I must be missing something. So, I asked a long-time friend (who has sent me over a hundred emails about this album) if he would explain. He kindly accepted.
By Robert Schneider
Yes, I mean every word of what I've said about A Deeper Understanding. You know how I get all excited about an album, play it to death, then three days later my interest is gone. Here it is four or so months after the album's release and I still listen to it at least once a day and my enjoyment never has subsided.

Interesting that you speak about the lyrics/vocals. Although I pick up on isolated bits of them, to me these are not songs that one sings along to. They are soundscapes that one allows to wash over you and immerse yourself in. I have read all the lyrics and the songs are basically sweet romantic ballads of longing and loss. But the immaculate way the album was produced, it's layers of sound (wall of sound if you will), and the way each song is like a sonic drama that builds to a wild crescendo of guitar ecstasy and then seamlessly melds into the next song is what does it for me.

Sure you hear the influences that everyone talks about, but this is a totally original work and not derivative in any way. The song progression as you point out..high energy songs with slower tempo ones interspersed to let you catch your breath, couldn't be better. The variety of guitar sounds, even within one solo, is astounding. The guitar riff that starts at 3:45 into Pain and takes you to the end I find especially compelling.

These songs breathe, they are little novellas, not just short stories. They average 6 minutes or so and I think max out around 11. I don't know man, it just makes me feel good like I don't remember a rock album making me feel since the 70s.
I love the sound of the drums when I focus on it...yes very Weinberg like. I believe they use a drum machine as well as live drumming, not sure of the significance of that or how it affects the sound.
Listen to: "Holding On"...Catchiest song on the album, "Pain" Spectacular guitar riff starting at 3:45,"Thinking of a Place"...Clocking in at 11:10, the longest cut, and a beautifully developed soundscape. Really though, the songs are all so great and flow together so naturally I would just suggest listening to the album in its entirety from start to finish repeatedly. Works for me!
1/29/2018 Update - War On Drugs won the Grammy for Best Rock Album.

The rest of my picks for the Top Fifty Albums of 2017 (alphabetically by artist):

Ryan Adams - Prisoner
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Prisoner is another excellent outing for Ryan Adams; his rock is solid, smart, and completely cliche-free.

Candace Bellamy - Undone EP
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Empowerment is the bottom line on this powerful EP from Candace Bellamy. The Austin singer-songwriter brings superb composition, performance, and production on this follow-up to her full length debut.

Ronnie Baker Brooks - Times Have Changed
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Produced by Steve Jordan, Times Have Changed is as strong a soul album as it is a superb blues album. This is the fourth album from Ronnie Baker Brooks; the son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks has made a record on which every track excels (Brooks' recently deceased dad even appears on one terrific track, "Twine Time"). Read the complete review.

Kasey Chambers - Dragonfly
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Kasey Chambers released one of the strongest albums of her nearly 20 year career with Dragonfly. The double CD consists of one disc featuring her own band and long time producer Nash Chambers (brother), and the other disc is essentially a solo album produced by legendary Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. In addition to the wide ranging scope of her writing on Dragonfly ("Talking Baby Blues" is a must hear), the album features a string of A-list guests including Kelly, Keith Urban, Foy Vance, and Ed Sheeran.

David Crosby - Sky Trails
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I almost fell off my chair listening to this: so much does it sound like the logical follow-up to David Crosby's first solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971). Crosby's songwriting goes perfectly with the soft jazz elements, he has a co-write with Michael MacDonald, and he does an exquisite cover of Joni Mitchell's "Amelia." What more could you want?

Sheryl Crow - Be Myself
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Sweet singing voice; check. Superb backing musicians; check. This is a another fine set of songs from Sheryl Crow. It would be a shame to miss this one just because she is not all over the radio like she used to be.

Jenny Gill - The House Sessions
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Jenny Gill is the lucky recipient of good musical genetics from her parents, Vince Gill and Amy Grant. The House Sessions, her debut EP, features excellent vocals from Jenny, fine songwriting, and the instrumental performances of Nashville's best.

Ari Hest - Natural
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Ari Hest is at the top of his game on Natural, his latest release. The New York singer, songwriter, and musician offers an irresistible blend of his smart songcraft, his comforting voice, and beautiful uncluttered production that ties it all together.

Hurray for the Riff Raff - The Navigator
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Hurray for the Riff Raff is essentially a vehicle for Alynda Segarra. Now based in New Orleans, this Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent was justifiably buzz worthy at SXSW 2017. The centerpiece of The Navigator "Settle/Pa'lante" took on all the more resonance after Puerto Rica's recent devastation by Hurricane Maria.

The Isley Brothers & Santana - Power of Peace
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This long awaited collaboration between Ernie & Ronald Isley and Carlos Santana far exceeded expectations on its last four tracks, gems all. Listen to the entire album - you might not feel that the louder tracks underperformed potential, but I'd have preferred more jazz and blues in the mix, which is dominated by R&B and rock.

Kesha - Rainbow
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I don't usually spend that much time listening to pop radio, but something about Kesha's album caught my ear. The songwriting and performance sounds natural and more likable than most of what populates the upper reaches of the singles chart. An accomplished songwriter for others, Kesha has a lot to say and it seems to come direct from the heart. On some tracks, Kesha uses language that is not for everyone, while several of her songs are downright cute. There is even a guest appearance on one track by Dolly Parton.

Diana Krall - Turn Up The Quiet
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Diana Krall returns to playing jazz with a good number of tunes from the Great American Songbook. She also reunites with one of my favorite producers, Tommy LiPuma, for Turn Up the Quiet, a record that dramatically lives up to its name. You can feel the upright bass combine with brushed drums beneath guitar and/or piano work that has such a light touch that you may conclude, as I did, that this is one of Krall's best.

Joey Landreth - Whiskey EP
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Joey Landreth's Whiskey EP is his solo follow-up to Let It Lie, the excellent 2015 debut album by The Bros. Landreth. All of what was great about Let It Lie continues on Whiskey: top notch guitar work, superb blending of acoustic and electric guitars, and excellent songwriting and vocal performances. Read the complete review.

Little Steven - Soulfire
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As one of his many careers, Steven Van Zandt (or Little Steven) may have the best job in the world as the rhythm guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Longtime listeners know that Van Zandt's first love is soul music; with his first release of new originals in over twenty years, Soulfire gets to the heart of what makes him tick.

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer - Not Dark Yet
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Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer are sisters, each with their own excellent career as a singer-songwriter. Not Dark Yet is the title of their Teddy Thompson produced debut, the first time ever that they have recorded an album together. For this project they selected some of their favorites, nine of the ten songs are covers. Once recorded, they took their newly minted sister act out on the road; read the live review.

James Maddock – Insanity vs. Humanity
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This album had me at the title, Insanity vs. Humanity. If you count James Maddock's debut album with his band Wood, this is his seventh long player. Since we're counting, I should point out that this does not include two live albums and all of them except for Wood (2000) came after he moved to NY from his native England. Insanity vs. Humanity is full of Maddock's unique brand of social commentary. All the songs are good, but I especially love that he includes another of his co-writes with Mike Scott of The Waterboys ("November Tale" also appears on The Waterboys' Modern Blues album).

Aimee Mann - Mental Illness
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Having spent the last few years recording and touring with Ted Leo in their side project The Both, Aimee Mann released her own album, Mental Illness in 2017. Mann, never one to mince words takes on lots of issues which, when coupled with her familiar voice and accompanied by the simple acoustic guitar based production, might actually bring you a comforting sense of security.
1/29/2018 Update - Aimee Mann won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

Delbert McClinton & Self-Made Men - Prick of the Litter
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Over fifty years into his career, Delbert McClinton has added something new to the mix, it's jazz and it suits him incredibly well. Prick of the Litter opens with "Don't Do It" a track that both rocks and swings with guest vocalist Lou Ann Barton. I love the band sound that kicks in on track two and continues for the rest of the record. Every track is another solid reason to love Prick Of the Litter by Delbert McClinton. Read the complete review.

Michael McDonald - Wide Open
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Michael McDonald's career really got going when Steely Dan dealt him to the Doobie Brothers (sort of like a baseball player, you could look it up). In his solo career, he's made two huge selling albums of Motown covers and his guest appearances have bestowed his golden voice on many tracks by many diverse artists, which brings us to Wide Open, McDonald's first album full of new original compositions in about seventeen years. He had some amazing players on this record too, iconic bassist Marcus Miller, a number of sax players including Tom Scott and Branford Marsalis, and among the many guitarist were the troika of Robben Ford, Warren Haynes, and Michael Landau. McDonald plays a plethora of instruments and ties it all together with that amazing, unique voice (the Forty Year Old Virgin not withstanding).

Murray McLauchlan - Love Can't Tell Time
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Murray McLauchlan is a Canadian folk singer, musician, and one of the finest songwriters that I've had the pleasure of hearing. I have connected with his roughly fifty year career on and off. I had the fortuitous luck to reconnect once again in time for his latest release Love Can't Tell Time. On this record, McLauchlan mixes three standards from the Great American Songbook (we're talking "American" in the sense of North American) with seven new originals so finely written and performed that they might as well be standards. I'd call this an album of modern standards. Read the complete review.

Katharine McPhee – I Fall in Love Too Easily
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Nicely echoing the sentiment of the Diana Krall album, Katharine McPhee turns up the quiet on her own I Fall in Love Too Easily. McPhee takes her material from the Great American Songbook and sings it with a voice that's hard to resist. The music is arranged, performed, and produced ever so delicately.

Leslie Mendelson - Love & Murder
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It's been a long eight year since Leslie Mendelson's last album Swan Feathers. By comparison, Love & Murder is as quiet and versatile as last one was bubbly and mainstream. On the new one, you will find some classic Mendelson melodies and several rollercoaster references including the very memorable "Coney Island." At times the delicate production is reminiscent of Rosie Thomas' These Friends of Mine. In addition to her originals, Mendelson offers up several covers including a ukulele version of “Just Like a Woman” and a very nice “Blue Bayou” featuring guest vocalist Bob Weir.

Gurf Morlix - The Soul & the Heal
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I'll submit that many of the artists on this list are not exactly household names. Gurf Morlix, as you might expect, gets a lot of questions about his. Gurf is not made up, it's an old Welsh name. That name first came to my attention as the superb lead guitarist and producer for Lucinda Williams. Morlix plays SXSW regularly and the last two years I enjoyed hearing his sets streamed live on Sun Radio. This year's set was drawn primarily from his latest album, The Soul & the Heal. Although Morlix describes his music as coming from the muddy swamp between rock and country music, the new album is decidedly the work of a singer-songwriter. There is lots of great guitar and although some might find his voice an acquired taste, it is especially well-suited to his material. Top that off with fantastic production and we have another winner.

Willie Nelson - God's Problem Child
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Willie Nelson albums are timeless. God's Problem Child could just as easily been recorded ten, twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. Willie reminds us that he is not quite as timeless himself with "Still Not Dead." This record is a pure delight, especially the title track with guest appearances by Tony Joe White, Leon Russell & Jamey Johnson.

North Mississippi Allstars - Prayer for Peace
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Here is an excerpt from my complete review: ...if you're into electric guitar, this is heaven. The guitars growl, purr, pound, and soar. There is slide guitar that would make even Nashville's best players weep. And all this is in the service of making some rootsy rural blues sound both old and new at the same time. Whether it's the North Mississippi Allstars or the next chapters of Luther Dickinson's solo career, I say bring it on. I still can't get enough.

The Original Blues Brothers Band – The Last Shade of Blue Before Black
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"Essentially begun as a one-time musical skit that debuted on NBC-TV’s 'Saturday Night Live' in 1978 and fronted by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues, the band became an overnight sensation." Fiction became reality when the SNL sketch, which was loosely based on the actual soul duo Sam & Dave, used many of the Stax musicians who had played on their original records including Steve Cropper, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and many more.

The current band is fronted by Cropper along with “Blue Lou” Marini. Their latest album, The Last Shade of Blue Before Black, includes special guests Eddie Floyd, Joe Louis Walker, Paul Shaffer, Dr. John, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Joe Morton. "Everyone played their asses off on this CD." (Marini)

Nerina Pallot – Stay Lucky
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Having originally been inspired to a music career by hearing Kate Bush, Nerina Pallot is one of the U.K.'s most listenable singer-songwriters. Stay Lucky may be her most accessible and melodic effort yet, which is not really surprising considering that Pallot once professed a love for Steely Dan, and regarding the songwriting for this, her sixth album, she has said it goes "straight into the heart of Yacht Rock." Pallot explained the title, "I made it during 2016 which was one hell of a weird year, so I figure those of us who made it out alive need all the luck we can get, especially when you look at the state of the world right now…" Works for me.

Holly Palmer - A Family Album
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In the ten years since Songs for Tuesday (2007), Holly Palmer toured with Gnarls Barkley, acted in a movie, and among other things, started a family. Since the birth of her son Maceo, Holly's life has taken some unexpected turns that have inspired her latest effort, A Family Album. Beyond the fact that it's great to have Holly back on record, the inescapable conclusion that you get from listening to it is that the silver lining of every song is love, even (or maybe especially) "High Heel Boots," classic Holly. The other take-away from this album is that music may be the best mode of expression.

A Family Album was distributed to PledgeMusic backers during 2017. Watch for a wider release in 2018.

Allison Pierce - Year Of The Rabbit
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Twenty years into a duo singing career with her sister as The Pierces, Allison Pierce stepped out to record her first solo album Year Of The Rabbit. “Over the years, I’d write these songs knowing they weren’t Pierces songs, and I collected them in anticipation of the day when I could record them myself,” says Pierce. “I’d envisioned the whole thing, so I was ready, and waiting patiently for the opportunity to make it.”

The first two tracks sound like the obvious choice for singles, with a bright combination of pop, rock, and country. The rest of the record sounds equally accomplished, only you might substitute folk for country in the musical mix on some of the tracks. The bottom line of the whole project is Allison's irresistible voice.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – Pizazz
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This album made a last second end run onto this list. I saw their somewhat silly name and I curiously dialed up one of their songs on YouTube. It sounded remarkably good, so I looked a little further and discovered that they had released an album this past year, Pizazz. They call it psychedelic funk; listening to Pizazz I'm hearing plenty of funk, but not so much psychedelic. I'm hearing well written and tightly played funk, with no horn section. The rhythm guitar, bass, and drums lay down the funk, on top of which are placed some good vocals and some epic guitar solos. It's a winning combination. The Pigeons have been at it for about ten years, Pizazz is their fourth album.

The Rails – Other People
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Not counting several EPs, Other People is the second full length album by The Rails. Listening to it always produces the same reaction; I always say to myself, "I love this band." Not because I know who they are, but they do sometimes remind me of another British husband and wife band, Richard and Linda Thompson. It's no coincidence that the former Mr. and Ms. Thompson are the parents of Kami Thompson, who with her husband James Walbourne formed The Rails. Take a listen, you'll thank me.

Savoy Brown – Witchy Feelin´
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When I think of my first experiences listening to the blues, I think of the vinyl albums I had in the late 1960s, British blues bands like Cream, Ten Years After, and Savoy Brown. I loved those albums back in high school. Savoy Brown was so cool with albums like Raw Sienna and Street Corner Talking to name just two. Founded by guitarist Kim Simmonds, the band is still active as a power trio with Simmonds as frontman. I had the pleasure of seeing them play live this year (read the live review). About half the songs in their live set are the classics; the rest are drawn from their latest studio album, Witchy Feelin´. Fifty plus years of playing the blues has made Simmonds a master, and you can hear the evidence on Witchy Feelin´. Highly recommended.

Southern Avenue - Southern Avenue
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I took an instant liking to the debut album by Southern Avenue before I knew anything about them. I've always had a thing for Memphis soul, but what I didn't know was that Southern Avenue not only came from Memphis but they are named after an iconic street "that runs from the easternmost part of the city limits all the way to Soulsville, the original home of Stax Records" [from press release]. I also didn't realize that this album was released by the recently revived Stax label. One thing that was pretty clear to me after just a few spins was that the principles of the band had to be the singer and the guitar player. Which, turns out to be true: the singer with a powerhouse soul voice is Tierinii Jackson, and the guitarist is Ori Naftaly who has fantastic chops and together they formed Southern Avenue in 2016. They added sister Tikyra Jackson on drums, bassist Daniel McKee, he of a jazz background, and keyboardist Jeremy Powell. The production by Kevin Houston is exceptional, too. When you put it on it just sounds different; everything stands out. Their music is a mix of rock, blues, country and gospel, all of which make up their particular brand of Memphis stew. It's another winner.

Stephen Stills, Judy Collins – Everybody Knows
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This new Stephen Stills & Judy Collins album is remarkable for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it marks the debut pairing of two folk and rock icons, longtime friends, and one time lovers. The centerpiece of the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album (1969) was "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," a song Stills wrote for Collins way back when. Secondly, this fits right into Collins' recent predilection for collaboration (Ari Hest). Thirdly, regardless of the above, this is simply one excellent album. I can't remember when I've heard a Stills album this good. Come to think of it, I haven't heard a Stills album for quite a while. On Everybody Knows Collins and Stills offer up a mix of their own compositions and some really nice covers, like the opener "Handle With Care" (Traveling Wilburys) and the title track (Leonard Cohen); they also do a nice job on "Girl from the North Country" (Bob Dylan), "Reason to Believe" (Tim Hardin), and "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" (Sandy Denny), a song that Collins has had success with in her career.

The Strawbs - The Ferryman's Curse
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The Strawbs are a folk-rock group from Britain. Like Savoy Brown, they began their career in the 1960s. They became sentimental favorites in 1972 with the release of Grave New World. During the early '70s they, like Genesis, mixed their softer acoustic tunes with a penchant for flat out progressive rock. Their classic prog album was 1974's Hero and Heroine. After traveling the world for some years as an acoustic band, the Strawbs reassembled most of their players from Hero and Heroine and recorded a new album and took it out on the road. That album is The Ferryman's Curse and it is every bit the worthy successor to their progressive glory days. The faster songs rock with precision lead by Dave Lambert's glorious guitar. The slower songs are no less majestic. The combined acoustic guitar and keyboards blend with gorgeous synth and lead guitar lines. The bottom line of all this, be it old or new, is the distinctive voice of David Cousins. Read my live review.

Nora Jane Struthers - Champion
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Nora Jane Struthers' roots may be in folk and bluegrass, but her recent work sounds more like a tasty blend of country, folk, gospel, blues, and rock. Her latest release, Champion, excels in several areas including composition (thirteen new originals), vocals (Struthers' true and clear tone), and instrumental performance (specifically Josh Vana's electric guitar and Joe Overton's magnificent pedal steel and fiddle). Read my live review.

Taj Mahal & Keb' Mo' - TajMo
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I love this record. These two artists complement each other perfectly. Keb Mo sounds a little more rootsy when paired with Taj Mahal, and Mahal sounds more accessible. The material is well selected and the recording is expertly produced. Guests on this album include Sheila E., Joe Walsh, Lizz Wright, and Bonnie Raitt, who sings on the cover of John Mayer's “Waiting on the World to Change.” "The collaboration merges their distinctive voices, personalities and guitar styles to create vibrant, immediate music that’s firmly rooted in tradition yet ruled by a playful sense of adventure." [Press Release]

George Thorogood - Party Of One
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George Thorogood may be the quintessential blues rocker. In his four decade career he has only ever fronted his band, The Destroyers. He can bring boundless energy to a performance, be it vocally or with his roaring electric guitar. Party Of One is his first solo album and it finds him playing solo (acoustic), hence the name. The program is a classic set of blues tunes. Songwriters include the masters such as Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and John Lee Hooker. Thorogood also covers the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, a track on which Thorogood sounds a lot like the man in black. He covers the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," one of the record's highlights for me. Party Of One is a superior set of songs by a superior singer and musician.

The Waterboys – Out of All This Blue (Deluxe)
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Two years ago, the Waterboys' Modern Blues, placed in my year end top ten. This year's entry, Out of All This Blue, could have (and perhaps should have) done the same. The album certainly has the goods, but if you've read this far then you know how much great music there was to work with in 2017. Out of All This Blue offers a watershed of new original compositions, two CDs worth; three CDs even, if you bought the deluxe edition with a bonus disc of alternate mixes and rarities, etc. Waterboys' frontman, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Mike Scott is in the fourth decade of his career, and for him there is apparently no shortage of material. In fact, when it was released this September, Scott told Mike Marrone of Sirius XM's The Loft that he is already recording tracks for his next album. Out of All This Blue (2 disc) offers twenty-three tracks running over 1 1/2 hours, all high quality. Most of it deals with matters of the heart (some dance on the border of the TMI) but there are also fascinating side trips. Songs like "Kinky's History Lesson" in which he both slaps down the slightly subversive sixties singer and brings him more attention than he probably deserves, and "Nashville" which contains the lyric "My soul is in Memphis, But my ass is in Nashville, Tennessee."

Coming soon: The Year In Music 2017, Part 2; The Best Live, Tribute, Remake, Reissue, and Best Of - Albums of the Year, Starring Steve Winwood, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Steve Forbert, Lucinda Williams, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, and Elton John