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Rusty's Top 5 favorite albums of '17

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"In Spades" by The Afghan Whigs is RDR's top album of 2017.
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The Afghan Whigs – In Spades (Sub Pop) (Read original review here)

When I first listened to In Spades, back in June, I had no idea that the second incarnation of this Cincinnati, Ohio-based alt-rock (is that even a “thing” anymore – dear god, I’m old) was going to get even better with age.

As singer/songwriter Greg Dulli puts it, In Spades "is a spooky record."

And that's a big part of its charm. It takes you places you might not want to necessarily go, but once there ... wow!

Sure, I’d loved Greg Dulli and the guys since the Gentlemen days and stuck with them over hill and dale of their interesting musical career. Sure, I had really enjoyed 2014’s Do To The Beast, but In Spades took things to a new level for me, an altogether different beast, as it were. Yes, In Spades proved to be emotionally jarring, musically deep and honest in its badassery.

Greg Dulli is wise beyond his years, jumping from “Birdland” to “Oriole” in a matter of minutes – and seemingly crossing the space/time continuum almost effortlessly.

The album art was created by Ramon Rodriguez Melo and even inspired its own deck of cards! (Sub Pop)

“Demon in Profile” is wickedly soulful and “The Spell” casts its own, well, “spell” on this listener every time. And when I’m needing a little pick-me-up in the bleary-hours of the morning, some black coffee and “Arabian Heights” cranked to 11 seems to do the trick. The day is that much better, I swear. In fact, on their tour date in Dallas in October, they kicked the set off with “Arabian Heights,” appropriately enough. Commence ass-shaking. And they're all really nice guys as well! They love the fans! 

The Whigs still include bassist John Curley as an original member along with drummer Patrick Keeler, guitarist John Skibic and multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson. Guitarist Dave Rosser, sadly, died at age 50 of inoperable colon cancer. However, he did still have energy enough to contribute to In Spades.

All in all, I would have to say that In Spades is now my favorite Afghan Whigs album and the best record released in 2017. I would say it again, in spades.

The Church - Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Unorthodox) (Read original review here)

I guess it should not come as a surprise that deep thinkers like Steve Kilbey and the aforementioned Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs are pals of a sort, having spent time together in Australia bouncing musical ideas off of one another and doing who knows what all. To be a fly on that wall!

In any event, that was a few years ago. Since then, The Church have marched forward, and we the dutiful congregation (ooops! sorry, Whigs!) have waited for the next reading, as it were. And what a fine and majestic follow up Man Woman Life Death Infinity is to 2015's Further/Deeper, which we treasured as well. 

As I wrote in November: "Kilbey has long been a fearless lyricist and paints surrealistic pictures in your mind, while casting his aural spell in a way only Kilbey can. Their last album, Further Deeper, was a strong record, but Man Woman Life Death Infinity seems to be that next step on a journey that has proven to be quite remarkable, as far as the shelf-life of rock bands go. The creativity is definitely still there, and then some. 

Recall that The Church have outlasted a lot of their 80’s-era New Wave peers, and blazed their own trail into the musical unknown. And you know, it’s exciting to be able to join them on their trek, wherever it take us."

The aquatic theme on the record is unmistakable and seemingly apropos in a year when folks seem to be keeping their heads just above the water, in a matter of speaking. 

Man Woman Life Death Infinity asks big questions as we drift along in a remote corner of the galaxy, wondering what it all really means. A major musical highlight of my year.

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (SuperEgo Records) (Read original review here)

Although not included with The Afghan Whigs' In Spades record, the "In Spades Oracle Card" decks were being made available this Mithras season, just as former 'Til Tuesday singer-songwriter Aimee Mann was offering up her own cards to her listeners, in hopes of better understanding themselves. And isn't that a part of what popular music is there to do? To help us better understand ourselves, in the bigger scheme of things?

Or, as I wrote in my original review back in April: "I should note that Mann included something called “Hand / Mind” cards that come across like a mix of Tarot cards and Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. They are very cool and I have yet to complete them. Once finished, Mann said she wants folks to send the results to her. I may do that."

Like it or not, Mental Illness takes on a theme that still carries a heavy stigma, even though folks are becoming more open about discussing it as prisons across the land are jammed with people suffering from mental illness, or as I wrote: "The issue of mental illness – afflicting musicians, actors, prison inmates, the general populace – is a real issue that more and more people are addressing, and helping in its destigmatization."

I think it's a brave topic for Mann to tackle. And the music she created - "Lies of Summer," "Rollercoasters," for instance - stands as among her best, while "Philly Sinks" demonstrates Mann's deep empathy for others as the protagonist appears to far gone from drink for anyone to help at this stage.

Many, many people are silently suffering out there, in a world that is becoming more detached and shut off - from one another and from ourselves. We will only make the same mistakes if we don't learn from the past. Aimee Mann understands that and demonstrates it on Mental Illness.

Phoenix – Ti Amo (Loyauté / Glassnote) (Read original review here)

Phoenix's Ti Amo was not one of those records I was expecting to eagerly pick up. But it's funny what spending time in France can do to a person. You find yourself eating snails and not bathing for days on end. But those are stereotypes. Would it help if I mentioned my mother's maiden name is Boudreau?

Anyhoo ... in the weeks before Ti Amo's release, I was inundated with mentions of the Paris-based disco-rock band. I knew only a little about the band up until that time, and that singer Thomas Mars was with Sofia Coppola, the movie director and daughter of director/living legend Francis Ford Coppola. Remember, she appeared in The Outsiders when they filmed in Tulsa in the early 80's.

Anyway, when Ti Amo finally came out, I threw the platter down and gave it an honest-to-god listen. What's the peppy, poppy "J-Boy" thing? I don't really listen to dance-pop of current vintage. I just can't help myself. But I already realized it was sometimes impossible to resist, as I discovered a year or so ago when I found myself really enjoying Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling," a song you can't help but dig. 

Phoenix understands that appeal, that desire to dance and smile and go with a solid, disco groove. Don't fight it, you jerk. This is good stuff! "Fleur de Lys" samples Fela Kuti's "Expensive Shit." I love their internationalism and love of things in Europe and beyond. It's reflected in their music. Phoenix can only go up from here.

Because of their limited appeal and visibility here in the States, it takes a little more effort to keep up with English rock band The Charlatans (having been known as The Charlatans UK in their early days, because of a 60's rock band also had the name The Charlatans).

But upon first hearing them in 1990, as the who Britpop/shoegaze/Madchester/indie-rock/dance-rock thing got going over there, I picked up Some Friendly and never looked back. Amazingly, The Charlatans have stayed active over these many years, releasing solid albums, and enduring the loss of some original band members like longtime drummer Jon Brookes, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2013. There were other problems, but The Charlatans have persevered through it all.

Tim Burgess, the lead singer, has led the group all these years and has somehow managed to maintain a youthful appearance, with his voice only changing just a smidge (lower) in the intervening years. That's to be expected, of course. 

So, with the current lineup, along with New Order drummer Stephen Morris and Verve drummer Pete Salisbury (with The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr helping out a bit), Different Days, their 13th studio album, really shines and pops and grooves. Just listen to album opener "Hey Sunrise" with its optimistic and sunny bounce. "Solutions," with its steady beat and keyboard flourishes - classic Charlatans - but sounding quite modern and relevant. 

The title track features Burgess delivering a bittersweet sort of lyric where the protagonist was once "frightened," is now "enlightened." I note some anti-authoritarian themes here, sort of Killing Joke-lite. And that's a good thing.

While on "Plastic Machinery," Burgess warns us to not be part of the machinery and that "at times its good to be rejected." Great point. This song is preceded by the Ian Rankin-spoken word piece "Future Tense." 

Another New Order member, Gillian Gilbert, offers up her keyboarding abilities on the bouncy "Over Again." 

It makes me very happy to hear Different Days, and know that the Charlatans are still making great music, in fact this is some of their best and most inspired material since the mid-to-late 1990's. Maybe not as good as Between 10th and 11th or Up To Our Hips, but then that was like a million years ago.

And my favorite reissues of 2017 are the following two re-releases: 

Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 by George Michael, originally released in 1990. Here is my review of the re-released version, which includes a 1996 MTV Unplugged gig. 

Hearing "Praying For Time" after all these years - still brings tears to my eyes. George Michael has been dead for nearly one year now. It was just last Christmas ... 

and ... I Am the Cosmos by Chris Bell, an Omnivore Recordings release that has gotten a dignified and broad release, with the original record from 1974-75, a few years after he left Memphis, Tennessee-based pop-rockers Big Star to go solo. I Am the Cosmos was the result. And what a wonderful record it is. 

The singer-guitarist died at age 27 (yeah, I know) in a car crash and his album was never properly released until 1992. Still, the music is a joy to hear, from the title track to "You And Your Sister" and a number of half-done, alternate and other interesting song snippets and fully revealed slices of heaven.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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