Top Albums of Q1 2017
Leif Vollebekk, Twin Solitude
All too often, heartbreak or tragedy pulls the best out of musical artists, and this rings true yet again with Leif Vollebekk’s latest effort.
He has been around since 2008, but I was only very recently introduced to the Montreal singer-songwriter. It's hard not to gravitate toward his poetic, somewhat dark folk songs, each of which reveals his battered soul. This year's release, Twin Solitude, is only Leif’s third since 2008, but man does it tug at all the feels. His inviting falsetto voice ropes you in and fails to let go until long after the record stops spinning.
The album has a minimalist aspect to it, but beauty is created by all the piano, strings, and synthesizer soundscapes that are paired with Leif’s honest lyrics. Vollebekk describes the fragile nature of love and relationships in the opening track, “Vancouver Time,” which is a gorgeous ballad that perfectly sets the tone for the record. From there, he effortlessly bounces from a jazz-like vibe on “Into the Ether” to the relaxing, ambient final song, “Rest.”
Twin Solitude is already a complete winner, and I only see this one growing on me as time goes by.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Tourist
Living in New York City when Clap Your Hands Say Yeah dropped their legendary debut, it was hard to avoid. Pitchfork put their stamp of approval with a lofty 9.0/10 rating, which carried some serious weight back then, and their fate was sealed. Unfortunately for CYHSY, they were a modest, introverted band that didn't thrive in the limelight and quickly fell off the pedestal that the internet propped them up on in 2005. Since then, like many people, I have written them off for years after Some Loud Thunder, their hugely disappointing follow-up.
After years of mediocrity, The Tourist kind of came out of nowhere. With only lead singer Alec Ounsworth remaining, CYHSY is now a shell of the band it once was, so I don't think anybody was anticipating a return to form, which may have been just what Ounsworth needed. At this point, it seems like he is more comfortable without expectations and is finally back to just making great music. Right from the very well-crafted opener, "The Pilot," it's apparent that this isn't just some forgettable solo project to toss aside. Ounsworth is singing with purpose and that unmistakable CYHSY rhythm is oozing from every direction. From there, he doesn't miss much from start to finish, with the three-song run "Unfolding Above Celibate Moon," "Better Off," and "Fireproof" proving to be a sturdy foundation. If you were ever of fan of CYHSY, give The Tourist a chance - you won't be disappointed.
Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors
Like CYHSY, Dirty Projectors have also gone through some major changes, most notably the departure of Amber Coffman, longtime member and ex-girlfriend of frontman Dave Longstreth. Amber was a huge part of Dirtry Projectors’ previous success and last two breakthrough albums, Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan, so her void left the group with a massive hole to fill.
Understandably so, Longstreth turned this into a break-up album, but instead of being depressed and sappy, he is reflective and experimental. Amber's absence is immediately addressed in "Keep Your Name," which is one of my favorite songs this year. The glitchy beats and vulnerable lyrics combine for an engaging track. Another standout is when Dave is recalling happier times on the reggae-infused"Cool Your Heart."
The album is complex and layered, which adds to the enjoyment even when it is imperfect. This is another one I can see moving up the ladder the more times it's on my turntable.
The XX, I See You
Even after three months, I still don’t know what I think of this ablum. It has as good of a chance to be featured in the year-end Top 10 as it does to be forgotten by summer’s end. I liked The XX’s last album, Coexist, even if it was a tad on the timid side, but I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the first single off I See You. “On Hold” hinted at major influence from Jaime XX, which is always a good thing when it comes to the group’s sound.
I See You has no shortage of catchy melodies, head-bobbing beats and passionate vocals. It can get a bit repepitive when played in its entirety but enhances what they’ve already accomplished.
Hippo Campus, Landmark
The suburban foursome hailing from St Paul, MN look like they’re barely old enough to buy cigarettes, but don’t let their adolescene fool you, as their sound is more polished than groups twice their age. After 2015’s The Halocline EPs, fans have been clamoring for a full-length release, and Hippo Campus finally delivered with Landmark.
To be expected by a group still learning to grow beards, some of the lyrics can be juvenile, but the production is top-notch, with a laid-back, beachy vibe. The vocal harmonies and suprisingly intricate instrumentals all weave together to form some very melodic indie-pop. How well this one will age is TBD, but I’ll definitely be interested to hear what this band matures into.
Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
Lots of artists have launched sustainable music careers relying on the simple combination of a voice, acoustic guitar, and quality songwriting. An even greater number have tried and fallen short. In order to succeed, some element of magic is needed within at least two of those elements. What Bob Dylan lacked in a singing voice, for instance, he more than made up for in lyrics and songwriting.
Julie Byrne isn’t Dylan, of course, but goddamn if she doesn’t have a beautiful blend of singing, guitar, and songwriting. Her voice is probably the thing you’ll catch first, which recalls the smokiness of Cat Power mixed and the poise of Norah Jones. Her songs, and especially her guitar work, emanate a calm and deep spirit.
The biggest lyrical themes on Not Even Happiness revolve around nature. You’ll hear references to blue skies, double rainbows, doves, passing clouds, woods, and rivers. That connection to the natural world feels almost Fleet Foxian, but it makes more sense in context, as the album was conjured as something of a travelogue over the past four years.
From the delicate opening chords of “Follow My Voice” to the gorgeous coming to terms of “I Now Live as a Singer,” at just 32 minutes, it’s the kind of album you can toss on and get lost in its daydream before it outstays its welcome. And that’s really a significant thing, considering there’s barely any percussion on the entire album. Byrne has created something special here, utilizing a classic combination that feels as fresh as the arrival of a new season.
Real Estate, In Mind
Look, this might not be the best Real Estate album. It might not even be the second best. But In Mind’s blend of polished, easy-going rock has been a reliable transportation device out of the cold and rainy Portland winter doldrums. The bright melodies of opener "Darling," retro-tones of "Holding Pattern," and sleepy sway of "Serve the Song" felt like rays of sunlight over the past few weeks. And for that, I really can't thank it enough.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, Navigator
I have a hard time not rooting for Hurray for the Riff Raff’s songwriter Alynda Segarra. She’s got a fiery voice that can recall classic soul singers but she’s typically put it over the likes of banjos, violins, and acoustic guitars to create gorgeous Americana. Navigator is a big swing at a concept album, focusing on one Puerto Rican woman’s experiences within a city, and it mostly connects. Its sound is a slight departure from the more traditional, rootsy instrumentation of past HFTRR albums, adding elements of Latin American music, but songs like “Life to Save” and “Living in the City” don’t stray too far for longtime fans. Plus, Segarra’s sharp perspective on Navigator— which includes frank societal observations of those struggling in darkness— is a guiding light worth following.
Conor Oberst, Salutations
I had no strong connection to Oberst’s October 2016 guy-and-a-piano album, Ruminations. I gave that album a cursory listen last fall and wasn’t feeling it, for whatever reason. Maybe it felt too dark at a time when there was already too much to feel moody about. Or it could be because I’ve never really been a huge fan of dire straits Oberst either; I much prefer free-wheeling folk band Oberst. Comparisons between the two albums seem invited, however, since Salutations takes all the songs from Ruminations and gives them the full band treatment, while adding seven more, like the excellent opener “Too Late to Fixate.” The wider perspective adds a brighter spectrum to the music, and while it doesn’t always suit some of the Ruminations songs, it's a worthwhile companion.
Why?, Moh Lhean
I had written Yoni Wolf & Co. off sometime after 2009’s Eskimo Snow failed to grab me like its excellent predecessor, Alopecia. On Moh Lhean, Wolf doesn’t sound like he’s trying to repeat past successes. Instead, Moh Lhean is a steady-handed approach to Why?’s unique hip-hop, folk-rock sound. Its best moments may not reach the heights of previous releases, but its consistency makes it a welcome surprise in 2017.