1. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – The Balrog

King-Gizzard

I struggle mightily to describe my love, love, love for KG&LW — as this blog post a couple months ago attests.

Is it the psychedelic, frenetic, free-form madness these 7 nutty Australians create at a pace somehow faster than their prolific American counterparts, Thee Oh Sees? Quantity rarely correlates with quality, but for KG&LW, 2017 was a watershed year, with the band releasing four (Yes! Four!) full length albums in twelve short months. And, this may be seen as a disappointment to the band themselves, as they had set out to release five albums this year. Don’t be so hard on yourselves guys! You had to fit in eating and sleeping somewhere!

I will admit that I haven’t given their extensive output equal attention — I did need to listen to other music too — but one of the four albums did stand out for me: their second–Murder of the Universe. As proof that my tastes rarely match critics, Allmusic and Metacritic rate this one the weakest of the four.

Perhaps I’m a sucker for a concept album. The first 2/3 of this is some sort of continuous story about cyborgs taking over the world or something like that; really, I haven’t paid attention to the lyrics much. It’s all very pretentious, with the song titles going like this: Altered Beast I, Alter Me I, Altered Beast II, Alter Me II, Altered Beast III, and so on. Do I have any idea which Alter Me is which? No. No one does, probably not even the band.

But the inspiration and creative energy coming from this album is palpable and when I really listen to it (often pre-lubricated), I become coated in that energy and it hugs me like the softest, warmest blanket. The album transports me to a bizarre, mostly frightening planet, yet I feel like it’s a planet of my people; I feel at home there and am able to breathe in deeply. Finally.

I chose “The Balrog” because it encapsulates all that is KG&LW for me. Crazy time signatures, drumming that is off the charts frenetic (the band has two drummers) with high-speed fills on seemingly every measure, lots of screeching guitars, wall-of-sound keys, and of course, several spoken word interludes which, I guess, are supposed to explain the story of Balrog. Here’s the ending stanza. It seems more like the middle section of yet another concept, on an album overstuffed with concepts.

For them, the future was as laid out as the burnt path he swathe
And so the damned remaining lot knelt before the red behemathe
And as they prepared for afterlife there appeared the endemic monstrosity
The Lighting Lord is back and charged the Balrog with animosity
Furious he pummeled his breast, and a blaze alit the heavens
The stage was set for war, and to the Balrog, the Lord’s finger beckoned

And this is why I struggle to write about these guys. They don’t deconstruct. I have a hard time breaking apart their pieces, because with KG&LW it’s all about the whole. No one musician stands out from the rest, no one song stands out. When I put on a KG&LW album, I’m committed to sticking it out for the whole thing. There’s no beginning and no end, man.

But this is a top 10 “songs” list, so I’ve chosen Balrog, because it’s like a mini album. It’s like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard concentrate. Which is a scary thing indeed.

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2. BNQT – Hey Banana

BNQT (1)

Most supergroup projects are disappointing and uninspired. That’s just a strange statistical reality. But thankfully there are exceptions and BNQT is one of them. BNQT (pronounced: Banquet — I know the whole leaving out the vowels band title thing is so over baked at this point) is essentially the band Midlake, with guest vocalists getting a chance to co-write and sing on two songs each. Jason Lytle of Granddaddy, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferndinand, Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, and Fran Healy of Travis.

It’s the sort of musical experiment that could go horribly wrong, but I think what keeps it all unified while still stretching to the talents of the various singer-songwriters, is the solid foundation that the guys of Midlake provide. They’re like the funk-brothers of alternative 90s bands.

It would be so easy to pick a Jason Lytle song here. His two songs, “Failing at Feeling” and “100 Million Miles” are lovely and could be Granddaddy outtakes. But the song that stands out for me on an album loaded with standouts, is the Alex Kapranos-led “Hey Banana.” It’s very silly, a bit creepy, with a classic, 60s psychedelic vibe to it. Alex is giving the song his best Jim Morrison impression, and the strings and horns that build and fill out the song during the choruses take it from the wacky and elevate it to fully formed. For me: one of the best songs of the year.

The prerecorded voices at the end — a child and a woman both whispering, “I love you banana” is perfectly odd and so fitting for a song this catchy and lyrically both obtuse and unsubtle:

Hey banana, how you doing?
Hey banana, hey
Hey banana, won’t you stay, won’t you lay down with me?
Down with me?

So stop what you’re doing
You gotta stop what you’re doing
If you don’t get down
I’m gonna knock you down
I don’t wanna have to do that
But I’ll knock you down

No need for psychoanalysis on this one. Just enjoy it and dance along in your PJ and slippers. The perfect song for a cold winter morning.

3. Styx – Hundred Million Miles From Home

styx

I’ve aurally travelled through so many different musical galaxies during my several decades of having discerning ears, it’s hard to believe that Styx has been around from essentially the beginning. I can remember hearing them, along with more quieter bands  like Bread and Seals & Crofts playing on the FM stereos in our mother’s station wagons, all us kids squished together in the way back, dipping our fun sticks into pockets of colored sugar fun dip, our tongues and teeth supernatural shades of purples, red and blues. I can still remember, in 5th grade, how it seemed every morning, when Mrs. Davidson would pick me up for carpool to Pomelo Elementary, that the song “Babe” by the band Styx would always be playing on the radio, and how both Mrs. Davidson and her daughter Leslie who sat up front (she was in 6th grade) would sing along, us boys in the back groaning and rolling our eyes. Though I secretly liked the song, liked how it made the girls eyes moisten, the lyrics hitting all the right buttons to touch their heartstrings.

’Cause you know it’s you babe
Whenever I get weary
And I’ve had enough
Feel like giving up
You know it’s you babe
Givin’ me the courage
And the strength I need
Please believe that it’s true
Babe, I love you

I’m sure all high-school and junior high dances had “Babe” cued up for just that perfect slow dance moment. The rocker kids hated this song, it was too corny and TOO slow. But we didn’t hate Styx, we forgave them their pandering to the female fanbase, because they also gave us “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man.” Hard rocking songs with screeching guitars and tough, macho characters.

Styx would remain relevant and on the charts for the next four years, with albums such as “Paradise Theater” and “Killroy Was Here.” But by the 1984 oddity, Caught in the Act, which did spawn a couple of hits, “Mr. Roboto” and “Too Much Time on My Hands,” Styx would find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant in the musical maelstrom.

Dennis DeYoung would split from the band and for the next twenty years both DeYoung and Styx would fade into the musical ether. Even though they never really broke up and continued to release albums, poor critical reception, uninspired songs and more interpersonal dramas kept Styx from mounting the resurgence so many fans had been hoping for.

Cut to 2017, their first album of original songs in more than 11 years is released and it’s called The Mission. Returning to their progressive roots, Styx 19th studio release is a concept album, all about a mission to Mars in the year 2033. I wouldn’t spend too much time analyzing the lyrics if I were you.

As awful a year as 2017 has been, politically, at least we can say we saw Styx bring their A game to their recording career, giving us perhaps one of the best prog-rock albums of the year.

“A Hundred Million Miles From Home” finds the Tommy Shaw-led band combining the perfect blend of truly catchy melodies, mixed with some conceptual outer-spacey lyrics, just the right amount of keys, and of course, James Young’s muscular guitar work. It’s a prog-pop song of the finest order. And under 4 minutes! And the rest of the album ain’t too bad either!

Styx is back!

4. Nicole Atkins – Darkness Falls so Quiet

naThere are artists that are influenced by the music of the 60s and 70s (and other eras), and then there are artists that are essentially modern day versions of the great artists of the past. Nicole Atkins falls in the latter camp.

Capturing the lush, Brill-building sound to a T, Atkins’ 2017 album Goodnight Rhonda Lee, is a musical marvel. It manages to conjure not just the sonics, but also the feelings and emotions of those turbulent but musically rich times. “Darkness Falls so Quiet” is slightly less retro than many of the other tunes on the album, which definitely remind the listener of Dusty Springfield in her prime.

Apparently Rhonda Lee is an alter-ego, the side of Atkins who tends to drink too much and make bad decisions. I wondered if it was also a nod to Brenda Lee, who seems to have a passing influence on the songwriting here.

When I was younger I found that most retro artists bored me — why not listen to the originals if these copycats are simply mimicking what came before? But as I’ve aged, I’ve found a comfort and a salve in so many of these same “retro” bands. Part of it could be that artists such as Nicole Atkins do it so well, the songwriting really holds up, and the fact that the music isn’t pushing any boundaries hardly matters anymore. If someone can recreate the sounds that I love and make me feel — I don’t know a sweet nostalgia? — well that’s a hell of a lot more than most of the “new” music does for me anymore.

As long as we have music like this, like Meyer Hawthorne and Jamie Lidell and Nikka Costa, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, I’ll be happy sticking with the new wave of retro music for as long as it lasts.

5. Wolf Parade – You’re Dreaming

wolf-parade-return-2016It’s funny. All the top 10 or 20 albums of 2017 lists are coming out and I’m finding very little overlap with my personal favorites of the past 11 months (December releases always get short shrift).

I see the same repeating hipster choices on so many blogs like Pitchfork and Metacritic: Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, LCD Soundsystem, Father John Misty, War on Drugs, Thundercat, etc. Some of these I like a bit, but they’re such automatic critic favorites that it’s almost a clichè.

Not one of them has listed perhaps my favorite album of the year, Wolf Parade’s Cry, Cry, Cry. Every song, without exception, is catchy, energized, quirky without being precious, sonically interesting and lyrically wide-ranging and intriguing.

I know that Dan Boeckner’s trembling, vibrating vocals can be something to get used to, but I personally have always loved his singing style, caught somewhere between Britt Daniels of Spoon and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse.

Whichever of the many bands Boeckner writes songs for, Wolf Parade/Divine Fits/Handsome Furs/Operators, each of them succeeds because his songwriting is so singular, yet wide-ranging. Clearly a fan of the more dance-oriented music of the 80s and 90s, Boeckner takes that influence and brings it to a modern day sensibility.

With so many albums from 2017, I find I play a few songs over and over, skipping past the chaff to get to the wheat. But with Cry, Cry, Cry I find I almost always let it play all the way through, saying to myself, “Oh, I like this one too!” when each new song starts.

Though if I had to pick a standout, I’d have to go with “You’re Dreaming,” the second track. Probably it’s the poppy keyboard notes that start it off, the way the drums join in and propel it forward, then the guitar and bass filling it out like a long lost power-pop classic. My head bobs so aggressively when I heard this song, it can never be background music. I have to let my whole body feel it and bop along. Just like the animated man in the video below.

In fact, if you hear this song and don’t love it, I’m pretty sure you and I don’t have much in common, musically speaking. It’s like a test song to determine compatibility with a new friend/potential partner.

6. Juana Molina – Cosoco

juana-molina-2-sonar-bcn-2017Juana Molina has been described as the Argentinian Bjork. And I suppose I get the comparison in that they are both women who like to experiment both musically and visually, but where Bjork tends to go big and bold, Juana has veered mostly in a minimalistic direction.

Cosoco, the song I’ve chosen here, is the most upbeat track on her 2017 album, Halo. It’s the closest the album has to a “single,” and it’s got a hypnotic 7/8 rhythm (a time signature Molina uses a lot) pulsing through it. The looping guitar line, sort of off kilter, doubles and triples up on itself, becoming sort of it’s own percussion as well as melody. But there’s actual percussion too, which is what brings me back to this song over and over. Some parts feature a whirring hi-hat that mirrors the guitar line, at other times there’s only the ride cymbal, and then it’ll switch to just brushes on snare with some bass drum. It’s like drumming deconstructed.

The only other instruments here are some bloopy-beepy, theramin-with-a frog-in-its-throat keyboards and a deep-in-the-mix bass line that holds it all together. Musically, it reminds me a bit of something Brian Eno and David Byrne may have created during one of their collaborations.

Although the rest of the album is quieter, it’s definitely worth checking out, especially with a pair of good headphones and a glass of your favorite beverage.

I don’t speak Spanish, so I tried to paste the lyrics into Google Translate and it didn’t help much. Cosoco didn’t translate and the best I can gather is something about Juana getting her art inspiration from her mother and then she got older and something changed inside her. And then the last stanza, quite intriguing, translated below, ends the song.

everything that I did not go
and everything that I did not give you,
everything that these years I hid,
that red apple because I ate it,
although I never lied,
there are things that I did not mean
and a mistake
it is a humiliation
and a confusion
It could be the end of both of us.

7. Cloud Nothings – Enter Entirely

Cloud-NothingsThis has been a year of disappointments for many of my favorite alt-rock/pop/punk bands (Japandroids, Weezer, Beck to name a few), so thank goodness for Cloud Nothings. Their 2017 album, Life Without Sound, is their most accessible, their least sonically angsty, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less urgent. Dylan Baldi’s usual raspy, hold-nothing-back vocals show more range here, expanding the palette rather than muting it.

I hear a bit of Britt Daniels from Spoon in a few of the album’s tunes, especially on my favorite from Life Without Sound, “Enter Entirely.” Also, musically, it’s more stripped down, a la Spoon, but when the chorus kicks in, and the drums explode with Keith Moon-style abandon, it brings the song just the right amount of added dynamics to turn this into an instant classic.

Lyrically, I’m not quite sure what “Enter Entirely” is about, though it seems to be about loneliness or at least a profound fear of revealing one’s true self. Baldi sings:

And now the lights are turning on
My mind has fallen

And taken everything it knows
About belonging

There’s someone I would like to be if I could be but
The path is frightening
So when I fall away then I would like to see
I enter entirely

Lots of “falling” imagery — mind has fallen, when I fall away — but the first falling seems scary, like something is lost forever, but the second fall, Baldi seems to suggest that it might be necessary in order to enter entirely. In order to fully commit. So perhaps it’s a hopeful song? I think it can be read a bunch of different ways, which the best songs do. They don’t spell it all out, they let the listener relate, and then put their own stories on top of the lyrics.

Moving on but I still feel it
You’re just a light to me now

Baldi sing/screams this over and over for the last minute and with each repetition, the words morph, expressing an evolution of emotion: from anger to denial to fear to curiosity and finally hope.