Best Musical Notes
In dark times, it's easy to see how music can be a perch of solace, an escape from everything that threatens to wear people down into unthinking, unfeeling nubs. But in a year as dreadful as 2017, it's easy to see how music—like all art—is so much more. It's the true beating heart of life. Music isn't merely a chance to shuck off bad shit for a song or few. Music is empathy in action. It's pure human connection.
The Trump year(s) will yield both defiant protest music and escapist pop. But just as important is the fact that artists continue communicating how they always have, sharing their views of what life is and what it can be. There's togetherness to be found in all of it, in any song that you connect with. So here's to a better 2018, and the tunes that guided the way in 2017.
Favorite Local Albums
Big Black Heart, Hank Topless
Timekeeper, Steff and the Articles
The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, Lando Chill
You gotta love a town that can offer up the honkytonk countryblues of Hank Topless, the mystical hip-hop of Lando Chill and the sophisticated pop of Steff and the Articles, all in a matter of months. All three albums, each in its own way, delivered honest emotion, flashes of insight and an irresistible pull that had me listening again and again.
Local Release Show of the Year
Lando Chill, The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind
Chill gets the nod here for transforming the old Presidio into his stage on a sweltering June night. The out-of-time effect created by the ancient adobe walls and the still night was a fitting presentation for the new music. And standing eye to eye with the performers, the crowd was transfixed.
Best Arizona Record of 2017 (non-Tucson category)
decker., In the Red
Sedona's Brandon Decker and his bandmates blend soul, blues, rock and folk and if you need a song that encapsulates the way desperation and hope comingled in 2017, look no further than "Matchstick Man."
Best Local Festival
Tucson Hip Hop Festival
The expanded second edition of the multi-genre Dusk Festival brings a welcome slice of Coachella to town. The venerable Tucson Folk Festival is always a joy. The Labor Day weekend at HOCO Fest killed it in 2017 with Thundercat and Lee Fields. But the DIY Tucson Hip Hop Festival rose above the others, delivering an excellent showcase of the most exciting musical scene in town.
Tucson Record Label of the Year
Lonesome Desert Records
Hank Topless was just the tip of the iceberg for Lonesome Desert in 2017. The upstart label focuses on raw, stripped-down acoustic music and put out records by label boss Austin Counts, Mark Matos and Tom Walbank.
New Venue of the Year
The Owls Club
Shortly after opening, the funeral-home-turned-bar launched a Sunday night residency featuring the revived Friends of Dean Martinez, and those intimate, off-night shows set the tone. A musician's hangout, Owls Club has a bit of the old Red Room feel, giving bands and DJs free rein to do their own thing.
Best One-Two Punch in Concert
Frank Turner and Jason Isbell
With apologies to Ty Segall and the Japandroids—who played to an unfortunately light crowd in October—the Rialto's top bill of 2017 featured a British folk-punk artist and an Alabama native who just might be America's best current songwriter. Turner and Isbell in combination was stupendous.
Best Music Book of the Year (Fiction)
Don Lee, Lonesome Lies Before Us
Lee's novel centers on Yadin Park, a nearly forgotten musician setting out to make one final album. A musical cousin of sorts to Thomas Cobb's Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, Yadin has long put aside bigger aspirations and is looking for personal validation in his music. It's a book about struggle, persistence, a yearning to create and ultimately the seductive and redemptive power of music.
Best Music Book of the Year (Non-Fiction)
Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes
There are 2017 biographies of Otis Redding, Van Halen and Jann Wenner in my to-read pile, so Wainwright's memoir might have some competition later, but for now it's the clear winner. The off-kilter humor in Wainwright's songs comes through, but so to does his honest reflections about family relationships. Equal parts fascinating and funny, Liner Notes is the perfect reminder to dive into (or back into) Wainwright's music.
Here are a dozen of the albums—not ranked per se, but in the order that they spring to mind—that meant the most to me in 2017:
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
Broken Social Scene, Hug of Thunder
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in this Town
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
The National, Sleep Well Beast
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman
I like to think those records have made it a year of understanding, of chasing the wild heart of life, of embracing the world, of finding hope in the midst of fear and of celebrating the indomitable human spirit.
I'll leave the last words on 2017 to Tom Petty, the everyman laureate of rock 'n' roll. The first words that rang through my mind when I heard of his passing weren't from one of his many hits, but ones that always captured for me the power of music:
How bout a cheer for all those bad girls?
And all those boys that play that rock and roll?
They love it like you love Jesus
It does the same thing to their souls.
Favorite Songs of 2017
Although the entire album is beautifully heart-crushing, this is the one I feel is the most concise and powerful. It's the entire story of losing of a loved one, the grief thereafter, and the existential dread that comes from facing death head-on, all wrapped into a perfect folk song. And to send it all off, it ends with an astonishingly poignant scene. — Jeff Gardner
Flotation Toy Warning
"I Quite Like It When He Sings"
Absolutely the most slept-on release of the year. These guys make some of the most interesting pop music around. Their textures, instrumentation, and experimentation keep it interesting while their catchiness keeps you coming back. Honestly, many songs off their new album would have worked, but I think this is the best. — Jeff Gardner
Kamasi Washington isn't good at doing things subtly or small. Case in point: following up his three-hour album with a 14-minute single. He's easily the most important new name in jazz, and for good reason. This song blends drums with piano with sax with electric guitar and they all mix around with a momentum rarely heard in modern jazz. Without a single word, this song makes a statement. — Jeff Gardner
Fleet Foxes were silent for quite a while (six years), but they came back swinging, in the most delicate way possible. The icy pianos, the hollow vocals, the fantastic imagery all work wonders together. Not only is this one of the best songs of their new album, this is one of the best songs of their career. — Jeff Gardner
When a rap trio that usually makes wild party bangers changes up their style, it's a risk. And when they completely turn their sound on its head and offer up a delicate, fragile, even vulnerable track, it's a major risk. But this sparse yet powerful R&B confessional is one of the best things the Phoenix group has ever made. Go in expecting to dance, come out feeling depressed, and love every minute. — Jeff Gardner
A very interesting way for indie rock to be going. It's like if the members of The Clash were all zombies. It's nocturnal and rocking and a little jazzy and just too damn cool.— Jeff Gardner
Lil Uzi Vert
"XO Tour Llif3"
Emo rap? I know, that sounds horrendous. At least that's what I thought until I heard this. You may raise your eyebrows at his name, and at the nearly unpronounceable song title, but you can't deny the catchy hook or sleek black swagger of this melodramatic anthem. — Jeff Gardner
"Mystery of Love"
Stevens doing what he does best: Breaking your heart and making you fall in love at the same time. Tender acoustic guitar, hushed vocals, what more do you need from him? — Jeff Gardner
Do not play this song at a party. Not because people won't like it, in fact they'll love it. You just won't have a house left afterward. — Jeff Gardner
While his latest album might not have been my favorite if his, this song absolutely blew me away. With its pitch-shifted vocals, dreamy percussion, infectious chorus, and a staggering rhythm that gets nowhere but has fun along the way, there is no other song I've heard that sounds quite like this. It is straight-up psychedelic rap, and I really wish he further explores this area in the future. — Jeff Gardner
The War on Drugs
The tour de force track by the Philadelphia-based sextet launches with a shimmering electronic intro, before a wave of guitar and drum, mixed in with singer Adam Granduciel's high-pitched vocals come to the forefront. The track is one of the many excellent ones found on A Deeper Understanding—the band's latest album. It's a can't-miss addition to anyone's playlist, with "Pain" serving as the most memorable cut from the collection. — Christopher Boan
"End of the World With You"
The single off Tucson-based Calexico's latest album (The Thread That Keeps Us) is another toe-tapping piece of art that hits all the high notes we've come to expect from the band over its two-decade existence. The song blends existential lyrics with a disembodied guitar riff that harkens back to the likes of Johnny Clegg and other international artists. The full album won't hit stores (or iTunes/Amazon/Spotify, etc.) until 2018, but the first few cuts I've heard so far have been spectacular. — Christopher Boan
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
The award for odd couple of the year in music has to be the unexpected, yet lovely duo of longtime indie rocker Kurt Vile and Australian sensation Courtney Barnett, for their album Lotta Sea Lice. The single off that 2017 release is "Over Everything," which is a back-and-forth dialogue between the two singers, discussing their lives. It's the type of musty, jangly rock that Vile has perfected, and that Barnett does well at herself. The pair produce a harmonious album that's worth your time if you haven't listened to it yet. — Christopher Boan
The War on Drugs
"Thinking of a Place"
I'm a War on Drugs homer—with A Deeper Understanding being my favorite album of the year, by far. Thinking of a Place is the single released from that album, and features the typical synth-heavy stylings that the Philly band has perfected. The 11-minute-long cut keeps you fixated throughout, with a methodical beat and soothing guitar riff that is sure to cause toe-tapping and head-bobbing throughout. — Christopher Boan
I've been a huge fan of the Providence-based rock group since Born on Flag Day hit the streets in 2009, but grew disappointed with the band after a subpar effort on 2014's Negativity. They more than made up for their past misdeeds, however, with a double-release (Deer Tick Vol. 1 and 2), which features an all-acoustic and all-electric side. "Jumpstarting," the first single released off either album, is the punch-drunk, high-energy track that harkens back to the band's glory days. It's the type of track that'll make you want to run through a wall, or pour yourself a tall glass of whiskey. It's a phenomenal track, regardless, and is worth your time if (as is the rest of their work)—with Jumpstarting being a great start point. — Christopher Boan
Concerts of the Year
By Christopher Boan
Band of Horses at the Rialto Theatre
The mid-May concert takes the cake for me, as singer Ben Bridwell and his band of merry men blasted unrelentingly high energy rock music through the sellout crowd at the Rialto for two-plus hours. They hit all the typical crowd favorites (The Funeral, The Great Salt Lake, Ode to the LRC, etc.), and touched on several deep cuts as well. Bridwell discussed his adolescent years, which were spent in the Old Pueblo after his parents' divorce, and seemed more energized than normal. It was a legendary night of great music and a fun crowd, which makes a concert that much more enjoyable.
The Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club (Washington D.C.)
I've seen the Athens, Georgia-based rock group probably a dozen times in my life, including several of their runs at D.C.'s legendary 930 Club. I did so once again earlier this year, heading home to catch all three of their sets in April with my parents, with Southern rocker Hiss Golden Messenger opening each night. It was a phenomenal experience, with lead singer Patterson Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley trading off licks and songs all night long. The band has such a deep catalog that they can play virtually an entirely different playlist each night, so it's hard to get bored watching them multiple times on a given run. It's just a shame that the group hasn't hit the Old Pueblo since I moved here in 2014, as I'd love to catch them without having to fly four-plus hours to do so.
Deer Tick at 191 Toole
This was a special night of music, with Deer Tick making its first appearance in Tucson in many, many years (at least, according to singer John McCauley). The band tore through their double-set at 191 Toole in November, playing both their albums, before touching on a few crowd favorites (such as my favorite, "Baltimore Blues No. 1"). Deer Tick is one of the finest live acts touring these days, and is definitely worth the money, should they come to our fine city in the near-distant future.
Jason Isbell/Frank Turner at the Rialto Theatre
I went to the show at the Rialto in all honesty to catch my old pal Frank Turner, who I hadn't seen in four years. The English rocker was the opening act and put on a typically high energy spectacle that included all of his well-known hits, as well as a few lesser known tracks. He played for about an hour, before ceding the stage to the former Drive-By Truckers singer, who played an equally-spectacular set of music. I've seen Turner and Isbell several times in the past, though this was the first time I'd seen them on the same bill. It was a truly unique night of music that I'll remember for a long time (as the ringing in my ears can attest to).
Steve Earle and The Dukes at the Rialto Theatre
My parents have played Steve's greatest hits for years, leading me to know the words to cuts like "Copperhead Road" and "Transcendental Blues" like the back of my hand. It was awesome to get to see Steve, and he played a phenomenal night of music, even taking time to denounce our president and his fetish for walls, which brought about a duke's mix of boisterous applause and hearty boos from the crowd. Steve's a one-of-a-kind fella and puts on one of the best concerts of any rock artist out there.
Honorable Mention: Social Distortion at the Rialto Theatre
Top five music videos of 2017
By Brett Callwood
We've been spoiled for choice this year, a point highlighted by the fact that wonderful videos by Lorde, Arch Enemy and Lana Del Rey, among many others, didn't even make the final five. But still here are some of the amazing videos musicians blessed us with over the past 12 months.
Just when you think Grimes is at the top of her game, the multitalented Canadian steps it up another level. "Venus Fly," which features the sassy vocal talents of Janelle Monae, was already a banging electro-pop tune, blessed with bags of attitude and an insistent hook. The video, which seems to combine '90s LSD-inspired imagery with a weird Mad Max dystopian future, all somehow entirely contemporary, is spectacular.
To be fair, who wouldn't feel awkward if they found themselves in an elevator with a down-on-his-luck Thom Yorke? That's the theme of this video, adding to what is already a gorgeous, melancholy song. Typical of Radiohead, this thing soars on the strength of Yorke's vocals, and some technically brilliant, delicate musicianship. And the video is fittingly bizarre. Yorke remains in the elevator while other people pass in and out. It's deliciously awkward, working with the song perfectly.
This one came out in December, just in time to make lists like this one. But you can always count on these power-metallers to put out a song that is epic and operatic. This pirate-themed video has the band performing on an old sail-ship, out on the open seas, while they, pillage and plunder, and drink. It's wonderful, overblown, ludicrous fun.
A pulsing electro-pop beauty from Annie Clark, who gets better with every passing month. The video is beautifully weird—a sort of day-glo version of a utopian New York, passed through a terrifying filter. It's almost as if somebody is having a nightmare about a Katy Perry video. The "Los Angeles" video equally magnificent.
When Bjork is in top gear, she's simply unparalleled. This video starts with some sweet folkish, otherworldly singing and Bjork blowing a few notes out of a flute while weird floating creatures look on. From there, it only gets more bizarre. Bjork morphs into some sort of digital flower fairy as she carefully enunciates this slice cyber-folk gorgeousness. More an experience than a mere music video.