Top Albums of 2017

Lists are arbitrary and burdensome, but why not join the fun everyone else is having? We gathered our lists, separate lists for all of us, then combined them into one that had 50 albums. What you get here are the four writers/contributors of ATH, giving you their meaningless opinions on what we thought was the jam in 2017. It’s alphabetical, and we put the initials next to it so you could track down your enemy!

 

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Slightly Late To The Party: Sundayman

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So this track has been gaining a bit of attention in internetland, and when you listen you’ll understand why. Sundayman is the project of Kyriakos Moustakas, who has been making tunes since the new millennium, but has only started to go public with them in the last five years or so. This track below, “On The Run,” is a simmering synth pop jam that somehow reminds me a bit of The Magnetic Fields in its hazy vibe. While this song is great from the start, it is taken up to the next level of infectious with the addition of guest vocals from Sarah P, whom you may know from Keep Shelly In Athens. I’ve been grooving to this song all day, and you should be too.

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Personally, The Magnetic Fields is one of those bands that I can’t explain to people, let alone explain to myself.  For almost two decades Stephin Merritt has used the group as his primary outlet for songwriting, but the last couple of years he’s definitely led the group in varying directions, with various effects.  For all intents and purposes, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a great return to form, demonstrating the prowess of Merritt and his band of merrymakers.

“Andrew in Drag” is the second song on the record, but it’s so phenomenal it’s hard not to start with such a track.  The sound’s definitely on the more playful side of things, at least with the accompanying instrumentation, but Merritt’s soaring voice will win you over.  His gifts as a poet, oddball that he may be, shine through here. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” has the same childish tone in the lyrical matter, which harkens back to the days of 69 Love Songs in its accessibility and clarity.  Electronic flourishes seem to be the sound du jour on this outing, rather than the more distortion-based tracks we found on the last two efforts.

“I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is a great track, featuring vocalist Claudia Gonson, but what really sticks out is its remarkable similarity to Bob Dylan‘s “You Belong to Me.”  I’ve played this song so many times tonight that I’m not sure if I love it for its similarities or on its own merit; regardless, you’ll find this song playing in your mind for days to come. What does stand out when listening to this song is the vocal presence of Gonson throughout Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though I’ve always found myself gravitating more towards the Merritt led tracks.  She’s got a certain light-heartedness in her tone that makes it easy to find that union between music and voice; the band’s usage of electronics definitely fits Gonson here.

But, with Gonson taking a more prominent role here, Merritt seems oddly missing for parts. Of course, “I Don’t Like Your Tone” finds Merritt gently wooing the audience, using the deepness of his voice to draw you into the song.  However, when he comes in on “All She Cares About is Mariachi” it sort of seems like a one-tone approach that he’s used on this Magnetic Fields effort, minus the outstanding “Andrew in Drag.”  I guess I miss the man on the oft-overlooked i.

For all intents and purposes, there are some great songs here on Love at the Bottom of the Sea–one that’s probably goes down as a top in the band’s long cannon.  However, the songs by and large just don’t stand out the way you expect from a Merritt penned tune.  You’ll find the juvenile playfulness and short songs, but for once, theses tracks don’t demand your attention and adoration; they sleek by as cute and enjoyable, yet not wholly remarkable. I’ll still stand by this as a good record, just not my favorite from The Magnetic Fields.

 

Stephin Merritt – Obscurities

Rating: ★★★ · ·

For some, Stephin Merritt probably ties into their lives at every corner, as he seems to craft brilliant tunes at almost every turn.  Yet, despite his work with Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, and various other projects, he remains largely a cult hero to most, and an oddball to dissenters.  That being said, fans of his work will probably find endless enjoyment in Obscurities, while other will, sadly, continue to look the other way.

“Forever and a Day” begins the record as only Stephin can, offering up a solemn bit of ukulele, meant to accompany many on their way to the altar.  It’s easily one of the standouts on this collection, demonstrating how delicate his songwriting can be.  If you wished for someone to write the perfect love song for you, the odds are Merritt has it stored away somewhere.  Even those longing for the love of nature will find their needs met with “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky,” an ode to the remarkable powers of the environment to shine into our lives.

Perhaps one of the things that has kept the masses from adoring Stephin Merritt is his tendency to amuse himself with either his writing or his instrumentation.  Take, “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There,” for instance, which seems to have sort of a glitch approach to Merritt’s typical construction, filled with beeps and blips, oddly uniting to fit the song’s goals.  Even the touches used on the out-of print 7″ track ” I Don’t Believe You” seem to disjoint the song, but I suppose that my own love of the later version that appeared on I, which is one of my favorite works by The Magnetic Fields.

Still, even when he’s crafting mock numbers, such as “Plant White Roses,” which alludes to the works of Patsy Cline, he’s successful.  Yes, there’s a female vocal here, but Merritt’s always employed that touch in parts on his work, so it truly is the crafty melody that warms you over.  Or you can take a look a listen to “Rot in the Sun,” just to see what he’s been able to accomplish, using electronic sounds oddly reminiscent of “Eye” by Smashing Pumpkins.  For me, it illustrates his ability to start somewhere, either a bar or his bedroom, using the melody to build the song, and using whichever instrument fits the melody the best.

In the end, Obscurities, is definitely a collection piece.  It’s not nearly as thematically cohesive as the majority of his work tends to be, so this, in my opinion, is not the place to start your love affair with Stephin Merritt.  However, those who adore him will find pleasant things, was nostalgic, and revisit his entire collection.  Merritt’s one of those musicians who you can’t ignore, and even here, on a haphazard collection, you’ll find him sinking beneath your skin, finding his way to your heart.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Stephin-Merritt-Forever-And-A-Day.mp3]

Download: Stephin Merritt – Forever And A Day [MP3]

The Magnetic Fields – Realism

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

When The Magnetic Fields last put some tracks down on tape with Distortion, we saw the band with a wash of feedback and, well, distortion.  They return, however, with Realism, a record with cleaner production, purposefully, and one that allows the minimalist chamber pop group to open up their doors once again to the more enchanting orchestration of mastermind Stephin Merritt.

Choosing to open the album with “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” is an appropriate choice for the group, as it reflects the traditional songwriting structure that the band used to win over so man fans with 69 Love Songs. Combining the low-end vocals of Merritt with Claudia Gonson creates a sublime juxtaposition.  Musically, it also goes back a bit, which will immediately remind avid fans, and new listeners, how great the band can be when they’re at their best.

By the third song, you find the group at their most playful during “We Are Having a Hootenanny.”  Well, lyrically, its extremely playful, especially with the buzz Merritt attaches to words ending in “s” or “z.”  For some listeners, this will be the precise moment when they get lost in the joy that is the listening experience of having The Magnetic Fields on repeat. Sure, the lyrics aren’t something that will shake you to your core, but the wit used with the rhyme schemes, as well as supplying bountiful oddities, always creates a pleasurable listen.

“Walk a Lonely Road” and “I Don’t Know What to Say” are those perfect pop moments that we all appreciate in Merritt.  You find him low in the vocal range, barely above the level of the music itself, which makes you listen even more closely.  Gentle strumming of the ukulele, or one of its cousins, in these songs consistently resembles some sort of medieval folk tune, which is perhaps why they get lumped into the chamber pop group.  Still, for me, there is always something magical in those moments, as if I’m listening to something that I feel doesn’t fit into my everyday listening, yet it only makes me adore it even more. If you listen to “Seduced and Abandoned,” and do not feel yourself immediately transported back to the times of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms then perhaps you’re not listening close enough.

Yet, the one thing that keeps this album from rising to the top of the band’s overall catalog, which in all honesty is near perfect.  There seems to be a lacking in creativity that was present early on in the album, despite having “The Dada Polka” near the record’s end. For some reason, you feel as if the earlier passion and creativity sort of ran out near the end of recording; it loses the cohesiveness of the album as a whole. Still, there is the saving grace in “From a Sinking Boat.”

It’s strange, but the end of The Magnetic Fields‘ albums always has this one brilliant moment that inevitably brings you back to falling in love with the band. Once again, you find the cello entertaining the tinkering piano, while Merritt sings, barely audible above the instrumentation.  It’s a slow mover, yet it’s a bookend to the entire album. It closes with a bright moment, just as it began.  While the moments in between may not always be the band’s best, it’s hard to find something truly wrong with any of the songs in this collection; this is just another record to enjoy time and time again, as like all MF albums, Realism sort of feels timeless.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/01-You-Must-Be-Out-Of-Your-Mind.mp3]

Download: The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind [MP3]