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Senior Editor Dave Cantrell’s Top Ten (non-postpunk) Albums of the Year

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So, OK, here’s the deal. I’ve long found it less than credible that writers across the indie journalistic spectrum have had such a clear-eyed (-eared?) view of what’s been great in a given year that they’re able to make believably grand pronouncements at the end of said year as to what was the finest of the lot. The reason? Well, speaking from personal experience, the idea that any writer can spend the requisite time reviewing any single album while simultaneously paying dutiful attention to other releases that arrive during the time they’re distracted by that particular record they’re working on, is, in a word, ridiculous.  Or at least specious. There’s just no way. Though, y’know, perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I’m just not capable of such Herculean efforts that would find me hearing every release over a year’s time with the same level of attention that I’m giving whatever work I’m currently engaged with. I don’t know about those other writers, but I have to commit a shitload of focus to whatever it is I’m reviewing in order to provide a reasonable impression of what it is I’m hearing. How am I supposed to divert my attention to, say, the new St Vincent album (which I’m guessing is terrific but there’s been little opportunity to hear it) when I’m buried up to my gills in the newest Matthew Edwards? Which brings us to an additional point. So much of what’s considered ‘the year’s best’ in the most read online music publications comes from prominent artists, those with publicists, on well-known labels, with histories that guarantee future listens. Quite naturally, this leaves ‘lesser’ artists of equal if not superior attributes toiling away in obscurity while the War on Drugs of this world skate in to end-of-year lists without question. This isn’t to downplay WoD’s latest opus (for the record, I love them), it’s simply to suggest that, when it comes to this yearly roundup ritual, we’re all being taken for a fucking ride. It’s absurd to think any writer has been so present that they’ve been able to hear everything there is. No, what’s more likely the case is that the so-called ‘important’ releases are privileged over those of perceived lesser import. I mean, how can a Granite Shore album possibly compete against the newest Kurt Vile? And maybe it shouldn’t, maybe the way it is is exactly the way it should be, what with the primacy of the market and all. I don’t know, can’t pretend to know, and will leave that to far more capable pop theorists and/or pop music economists than myself. What I do know is that I refuse to front. Refuse to pretend I’ve had my nose twitching feverishly as the crumbs of new releases are scattered on the crowded road that leads to album-of-the-year honors. If I had to guess I’d give that award to Kendrick Lamarr, simply because I don’t see anyone being a more committed, genius artist than that guy. But that’s just it. I’m not going to guess. I’m going to shuffle back through the stack of albums I did manage to have time for because they presented themselves as interesting candidates for review, due either the lineage of those involved or because their sound, the dynamics of their recording, were of such arresting quality that I had no choice but to lend them my ears. This isn’t some quixotic quest to ennoble the ‘little guy.’ That would be insulting. No, this is to, very basically, give credit where credit’s due. The only reason anyone comes to a site like Stereo Embers is if they’re lured by the exciting outlier, by otherwise very established musicians and bands that don’t have the advantage of a Pitchfork profile. Our world is rife with possibility, it’s teeming in the shallows with enough promise to sustain your most fervent musical jones. By all means stay tuned to National-level goings-on (I love them too but also wasn’t able to ‘consume’ their latest to any intimate degree) but please don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve got it covered. No one does, that’s my point. So, here’s the ten finest records I actually heard close-up in 2017. Someday, in my dotage, I’ll catch up to those other titles that have dominated all those ‘other’ best-of lists. I promise.

1. THE GRANITE SHORE Suspended Second (Occultation)

There’s simply no fucking way this work shouldn’t have been hailed from not only the Brexit-wounded rooftops but from any parapet and balcony from which right-thinking people wailed the abhorrent rise of a false – and narrow-minded – populism. A peerless masterpiece of Abba-esque pop exquisiteness sharpened by a sadly mordant aspect, burnished with both a deeply British pride and resoluteness and an intensely wounded sense of betrayal, the beauty here, while peerlessly poignant, was in the resilience inherent. Even as the borders of sanity closed in around him, Granite Shore mainman (and Occultation major domo) Nick Halliwell spoke with eloquence to the consequences of reckless abandonment, reflecting along the way the personal costs that would soon be borne by all those left within the boundaries of this electoral disaster. No matter how anyone voted, the results would not yield any level of compassion or even reason. The (very warped) fix was in, and it wasn’t pretty. BUT…the music herein was exactly that. Elegiac, uncompromising, transcendently gorgeous despite the resignation that couldn’t help but weigh it down, Suspended Second defied its own sense of despair and created in its stead a monument of lasting hope. We heard nothing even close to this beautiful all year. [original review here] [buy Suspended Second here]


2. JAD FAIR & KRAMER The History of Crying (Shimmy 500)

While, clearly, not coming out of nowhere – there are few artists as well established in the annals of idiosyncratic pop and extraordinary as these two – this release on the resurrected, renamed Shimmy 500 label nonetheless shook us with its indomitable pop suss. Which is to say, one can have certain expectations, and they can even contain a soupçon of extravagance, but at times the resulting record is going to so far outdistance those expectations that you’re left burbling on the sidelines, wondering what hit you. Both primitivist and sharply knowing, The History of Crying was pop down to the marrow of its unbreakable bones and while, again, this should have surprised no one, the actual quality of the artifact still left the unsuspecting listener – and even those that ostensibly knew better – breathless. All we ask from any release in any year is to leave us suspended in some giddy haze of timelessness. To have that accomplished while simultaneously providing us with layer after layer of sui generis songcraft is almost too much to ask. But the beauty here was, we didn’t have to ask. It was offered, with an off-kilter generosity, free of charge. Lucky us.[original review here] [The History of Crying available here]


3. H. HAWKLINE I Romanticize (Heavenly)

While I’m rue to be so lazy as to quote the original review, in this case it feels unavoidable, as first impressions are nearly always more palpable and immediate – which is to say more accurate – when it comes to audio wonders such as this. Hence…”Arming himself with the light-but-heavy whimsicality of your Hitchcocks and Partridges while mostly echoing, naturally, his Cymru-based colleagues Gruff Rhys and those Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci guys, abetted further by a Field Music-level ability to build shining art-pop constructions with what seems a casual mastery, [Huw] Evans here has crafted something of a gilded masterpiece.” Beguiling beyond all measures of reason, I Romanticize was the sort of record it’s just very hard to imagine being conceptualized, meaning it’s almost certainly the work of a certified – if brilliantly batty – pop genius. Astute, aloof, committed and whack, very little compared within this writer’s realm of exposure this year, nor last year, nor the year before that, and quite likely the year to come. Ignore it at your own pop peril. [original review here] [purchase I Romanticize here]


4. MATTHEW EDWARDS & THE UNFORTUNATES “Folklore” (Gare Du Nord Records)

While always something of a ‘brave voice in the wilderness,’ inveighing against the bewilderments that attend any of us mere mortals as we attempt to navigate the simple challenge of being alive, on 2017’s outing with the estimable Unfortunates, former Music Lover Matthew Edwards, due unavoidable personal circumstances of some magnitude, delivered a suite of songs that seemed nothing less than a treatise on mortality itself, spoken from inside the marrow of shared experience. With an oblique intimacy of detail – a task to which the songwriter has long been well-suited – matched in almost eerie synthesis by his supporting cast’s sustained musical empathy, the entire project took on a tonality of timelessness met square on by its nasty brutish and short opposite. On Folklore, the personal was universal and the vice was versa, and we all knew in our hearts exactly what he meant. [original review here] [purchase Folklore here]



5. THE BASTARDS OF FATE “Suck the Light Out” (Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records)

So OK, I admit it. There are certain bands/artists that, on years they release some new work, they’re very likely going to show up on my end-of-year. To some that may imply a blind allegiance formed out of, perhaps, some obligation to the label or publicist or whatever (though I would hope you’d not insult my integrity that way but that’s your choice), but the truth is that, whether or not the ‘world’ ever catches up, the goods are here right in our midst, all one need do is discover them which is where I come in. Because, really, I would dearly love to join the preponderant hordes and declare ‘X’ and ‘Y’ the winners of 2017 but seeing as I’ve heard contradictory evidence, and it’s been this compelling, I’ll have to stick to my esoteric alternatives. I don’t choose these titles for their obscure cache but rather because they challenge and/or reward me in ways I just cannot ignore, in those ways – and we’re all familiar with this – that lead us to assailing strangers on the street and saying ‘Have you heard THIS?!?!” And so it is with The Bastards of Fate, whose latest outing didn’t so much eclipse their previous effort from 2014 (Vampires Are Real and Palpable) as sustain that record’s legend-making status. No one quite makes records like this anymore, so full of verve you think they’re going to collapse from the sheer weight of their hubris and yet they pull it off with a shrug of casual legerdemain. We love that, we love it to death, and long live Roanoke VA’s Bastards of Fate. [original review here] [buy Suck the Light Out here]


6. R. STEVIE MOORE & JASON FALKNER “Make It Be” (Bar/None Records)

OK, lessee…pairing a DIY legend that encompasses a kind of Brian Wilson of the dadaist pop set that, by this point in his exceedingly lengthy career, sports an image midway between a surrealist Santa and a full-grown pixie, with one of the key members of the so-called Paisley Underground, a guy that made both a popsike-sounding band name – The Three O’Clock – and an absurdist portmanteau of sorts – Jellyfish – into near-household names, and we’re surprised the results would end up on a list like this? Nah, I don’t think so either. The only surprise, really (though, y’know, not) is that said record Make It Be, even when released on institutional indie imprint Bar/None, didn’t shake the charts down to their contrived ankles. Oh well, life goes on, and for those of us fortunate enough to have been exposed to this jouncing piece of pop perfection, it goes on with an extra added layer of utter pop grooviness. 2018 is already begging for such riches. [original review here][buy Make It Be here]


7. Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas “The World of Captain Beefheart” (Knitting Factory Records)

OK, let me start like this: Oh…my…fucking…god!! Not to give away my sentiments too early but holy hell was this record a revelation, especially as I had no idea of its existence until it landed in my mailbox back in September or early October. For all my post-punk bona fides, the fact is I am, at heart, just as much an obsessive fan of those artists that, through the 60’s and 70’s, took the form far beyond its Beatlesque pop chart yearnings and into the canyons and caverns of intense experimentation where few dared to tread. Put simply, there simply is no performer in the ‘rock’ world that more exemplified the persona of the committed artist than Mr Van Vliet. Others were in his league, perhaps – Zappa, obviously, and the likes of Can and Magma and even Gary Wilson – but really none brought the sui generis chops like our dear Captain. So, to find out that none other than former Labelle member Nona Hendryx was a fervent Beefheart fan, and that she had been pairing up with the Magic Band’s last ever guitarist Gary Lucas for a while, well, revelations don’t come more mind-blowing than that. This record is essential. It was quite arguably without peer this year in terms soulful virtuosity and the plain astonishment factor. I kept shaking my head while writing up the review, going “Wow. Wow wow wow.” I’m quite confident you will as well. [original review here][but The World of Captain Beefheart here]


8. MATT NORTH “Above Ground Fools” (self-released)

Look at that phrase up there, “self-released.” Then, when you click on the link down at the bottom there that takes you to the original review, look at the number of ‘likes’ it’s generated. Look at the name ‘Matt North’ and catch yourself saying “Who?” Look at all of that and stuff it in a very deep dark box and ship it off to the city of Inconsequence, located in the state of Utter Irrevelance. Here in a single release do we have the very essence of what I was railing on about in the intro up top. This record arrived with zero fanfare from a trusted publicist – the guy has been around, both as musican and beyond – who, doing his job, gave it a solid round-up full of praise and polish. And whereas I do indeed trust this individual it’s nonetheless the case that we don’t always hear things ear to ear, if you get my meaning. Thus it was with some unmitigated glee and rambunctious joy that I greeted this dazzlingly confident, blazingly rocking solo debut from this ” journeyman session drummer and consummate musician (not to mention occasional actor and stand-up comedian).” Here, HERE was the very stuff of rock’n’roll suss, of a musician striking out on their own with virtually no help from the hype machine saying ‘Fuck it. I’ve got the songs, I’ve got the chops, I’m going for it.’ And go for it he did, skinning up 10 electric, soul-baring tracks that spoke intrinsically of everything his hometown of Nashville had ever represented and everything it had abandoned. Within the grooves of those perfect ten tracks were the sorrows, hubris, and pure rock’n’roll instincts of a musician reflecting via personal narratives the very essence of that storied, conflicted city in Tennessee. Believe me or not, I don’t give a shit, but this was the unsung masterpiece of the year. [read original review here] [get yourself some Above Ground Fools here]

9. THE DISTRACTIONS “Kindly Leave the Stage” (Occultation)

It’s questionable as to whether the words ‘elegiac’ and ‘poignant,’ in terms of a pop record, have ever had a more pointed currency. This, from the outset, was to be the resurrected, original post-punk underdogs’ final album, thus guaranteeing at least some measure of autumnal reflection. And considering that exactly that level of innate introspection was an intrinsic piece of the Distractions’ remit from the very start – check landmark 1979 single “Time Goes By So Slow” for the most immediate evidence, though there are many other examples – that Kindly Leave the Stage would be such a touching departure, rapturously sad yet abidingly resilient, was not only to be expected but would rather be a shock of great emotional dissonance had it been instead some breezy pop waltz into the sunsetting horizon. All that said, the actual results still left us bereft in the most sublime way imaginable, the record effortlessly aligning our shared sense of mortality with those brief flashes of timeless beauty that has us thinking, if just for a second, that we’ll never die. And that, folks, is some powerful pop music, especially as the flow of melody and resolved tension has us yearning for more, more, more even in the face of this most assuredly being the last dispatch from the Distractions’ camp. And really, what more speaks to the ever-elusive eternal than a request for just one more encore before the band leaves the stage, however kindly. [read original review here] [buy Kindly Leave the Stage here]


10. VANESSA COLLIER “Meeting My Shadow” (Ruf Records)

Fittingly, it would seem, that the #10 selection on this list would have the exact same number of likes on the original review. In many ways I want to despair at this, as it seems to, at the very least, point to the inescapable sense of futility one takes on when trying to get word out about a record, and a musician, that has very little cache to speak of and yet whose talent is so glaringly obvious as to border on true, modern genius. It’s at moments such as this that the entire venture feels hopeless. There is every bit the fire and the pure ability on display on this small-batch record as there was on anything else I heard this year, and yet one’s efforts make that known have as much impact as shouting into a void ever has. And yet, and yet…What’s the reason any of us do this? Not just write about music but seek out its most compelling examples in the first place? It’s naught but for the stinging possibility that we might be taken unawares to a place we weren’t expecting, made to exult in the purest sense to a groove that moves us, playing that stuns us, arrangements and interpretations that challenge us. I loved this record as much as I loved anything this year, if only for the fact I wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t expecting to be knocked out the way I was. But it’s also a kickass record with soul to spare that will make you relish the idea of music as the universal power you already believe it to be, and that right there is worth the price of admission. [read the original review here] [buy Meeting My Shadow here]