Favorite Albums of 2017

Hard to believe that 2017 is drawing to a close. Where did the year go?? 2017 brought us some amazing albums from some of my favorite artists and it was kind of tough to rank them in a top 10. What music inspired you, made you dance or brought you to tears this year? Let me know in the comments!

10. Halsey – Hopeless Fountain Kingdom

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Turn on pop radio and you’ll probably be flooded with songs by female singers trying to sound just like Lorde. Halsey’s vocal stylings are definitely similar to that of her New  Zealand rival, but her music is distinctively her own and has taken on a more electropop feel on her second album. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is full of infectious,  mid-tempo songs about the ups and downs in relationships. The lyrics seem personal and she’s at her very best vocally on raw songs like “Sorry” and “Bad at Love.” “Alone” has a fun, throwback beat and “Hopeless”, which closes out the album, sounds like it belongs on an Imogene Heap record.

Other than a few odd interludes between songs, this is a solid sophomore effort.

Songs to Download: Eyes Closed, Alone, Now or Never, Sorry, Walls Could Talk, Bad at Love.

 

9. Harry Styles – Harry Styles

The former lead singer of One Direction surprises – in a good way – on his first solo effort. This is not another bubblegum pop album; in fact, Styles has crafted a moody ode to the 70s that solidifies his credibility as an artist and shows some real vocal talent, especially on the lead single, “Sign of the Times.”

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This is one album you’ll want to put on when it’s cold and rainy outside as most of the songs are quiet ballads that sound even more beautiful when mixed with the sound of rain beating against the window. Not to worry though, Styles still throws in a few groovy mid-tempo rockers  here and there.

Major props to the former boyband leader for taking a risk and releasing a near perfect first solo album.

Songs to download: Sweet Creature, Sign of the Times, Woman, Two Ghosts, Meet Me in the Hallway.

 

8. Paramore – After Laughter

After_Laughter_Paramore_album_cover It’s been five years since Hayley Williams and crew released any new music and After Laughter finds the group moving away from the pop/punk sound toward a more 80s sounding synth pop.

On the surface, the album sounds pretty happy with its upbeat poppy feel, but start digging into the lyrics and you’ll find that Williams has been working through some dark times in her life. “All that I want/Is to wake up fine/Tell me that I’m alright/That I ain’t gonna die,” she laments on the lead single “Hard Times.”  And on “Fake Happy” she sings about putting on a fake smile, pretending everything is alright and making people believe everything is alright.

Shortly after the album was released, Williams revealed she actually quit the band in 2015 to deal with depression. During her time of hopelessness, the band’s guitarist would send her demos for songs that eventually turned into new music for the album and she says After Laughter kept her alive.

While not as good (in my opinion) as their previous self-titled effort, After Laughter is still a solid pop album that delivers some lyrically honest moments.

Songs to download: Hard Times, Told You So, Fake Happy, Caught in the Middle, Idle Worship.

 

7. Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

miley-cyrus-younger-now-2000No one stays the same/ You know what goes up must come down.” That line from “Younger Now”, the first song off Miley Cyrus’ new album pretty much sums up the entire album. Twerking with a foam finger Miley is gone and replaced by a mellow, more mature sound that lightly evokes her country roots.

Godmother Dolly Parton joins her on “Rainbowland” a classic country toe-tapper about making the world a better place. “Miss You So Much” and “I Would Die For You” are beautiful love songs, probably written for her fiance Liam Hemsworth. “Love Someone” showcases the unique tone in her voice and is probably the best song on the whole album.

Younger Now is overall a very mellow album but the simple arrangements bring out the more interesting qualities in Miley’s voice and showcase the kind of artist she just might become.

Songs to Download: Malibu, Rainbowland, I Would Die for You, Love Someone, Bad Mood.

 

6. P!nk – Beautiful Trauma

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It’s been five years in between albums, yet Beautiful Trauma still feels fresh, blending P!nk’s signature sass and tongue-in-cheek lyrics with songs that carry a bit more weight lyrically.

The lead off single “What about Us?” is an ode to a nation who’s leaders have left their people behind. “Barbies” yearns for younger years and simpler times when the only thing you had to worry about were grass stained knees and making it home before dark. “Better Life” finds the singer lying awake at night, wondering if her husband asleep next to her is wishing for a better wife.

Musically, Beautiful Trauma is a little lighter than some of P!nk’s previous albums and most of the tracks are  ballads or mid-tempo pop/rock tracks. A solid release that should please both fans and critics alike.

Songs to download: Beautiful Trauma, What About Us, Whatever You Want, Barbies, Better Life.

 

5. Kelly Clarkson – Meaning of Life
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American Idol’s first and BEST winner returns with a soulful album that (mostly) leaves behind her pop roots. Clarkson says this is the type of music she’s always wanted to make and her big voice is made for Aretha style throwbacks.

Let’s be honest – Kelly could sing the phone book and make it sound good so there’s no shortage of quality material on this album. “Heat” confronts a lover who’s let the flame of romance burn out and “Whole Lotta Woman” channels Bruno Mars, promoting girl power and body positivity.

Maybe the only complaint is that Clarkson didn’t take the soul train far enough. Yes, this album is a departure, but it’s still commercial, slickly produced soul pop. It would have been more of a risk artistically to pull a Kesha (see below) and take the album just a step further by losing the pop beats and truly going with the organic sound of the 60s.

Songs to Download: Love So Soft, Move You, Heat, Medicine, Whole Lotta Woman.

 

4. Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic

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Michelle Branch burst onto the music scene in the early 2000s at the height of the female singer-songwriter surge. Her first two solo albums were the soundtrack to my high school and college years and when she joined forces with Jessica Harp to form country duo The Wreckers, my music loving heart just about exploded.

Then nothing. Years went by with news of new music, followed by record label spats and several albums getting shelved. Finally, ten years after The Wreckers split and twelve years after Hotel Paper, Hopeless Romantic was released.

It’s a gorgeous, grown-up, moody alt-rock record produced by The Black Keys (and Branch’s fiance) Patrick Carney. The songs are about relationships, falling in and out of love and showcase Michelle’s folky vocals.

Hopeless Romantic is everything a long time fan could have hoped for – a mature album from an artist who grew up along with her fan base.

Songs to Download: Hopeless Romantic, Fault Line, Best You Ever, Living a Lie, Last Night.

 

3. Haim – Something to Tell You

somethingtotellyou_haimIf 70s and 90s pop had a baby, it would be Haim. The trio of sisters from California is back with their sophomore effort that was four long years in the making.

From start to finish, Something to Tell You, deals with relationships that seem to have gone bad, lack of communication between the parties involved and dealing with with the fallout of the break-up.

Musically, the three sisters are a force to be reckoned with – their arrangements are tight, unique and bordering on perfection – and most critics consider them brilliant.

I’ve always said siblings make the best music and Haim are a prime example of that.

Songs to Download: Want You Back, Nothing’s Wrong, Little of Your Love, Something to Tell You, Found it in Silence.

 

2. Taylor Swift – Reputation

Taylor Swift - Reputation Credit: Mert & MarcusIn a heartfelt letter to fans included with the physical copy of reputation, Taylor Swift writes: “Here’s something I’ve learned about people. We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us. I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15 years old. On the beautiful, lovely side of that, I’ve been so lucky to make music for a living and look out into crowds of loving, vibrant people. On the other side of the coin, my mistakes have been used against me, my heartbreaks have been used as entertainment, and my songwriting has been trivialized as ‘oversharing’.  Let me say it louder again, louder for those in the back … We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us.”

And on reputation, the version of Taylor she chooses to show us is an older, wiser and more grown up woman. Some of the songs are probably about Kanye (“Look What You Made Me Do”) and Katy (“Call it What You Want”) but the love songs are still here too and if we’re to read between the lines, it sounds like Taylor may have found a keeper in her new beau Joe Alwyn.

Sonically, reputation boasts huge beats, electronically layered vocals and no traces of the country sound that made her a star. In fact, she’s moved even further away from the straight-up pop sounds of 1989 and more toward an edgier, harder rock/R&B mash-up.  Even though she claims that girl is dead, hints of the old Taylor are still there, especially on songs like the album closer “New Year’s Day.”

The album is very much a story of how sometimes it’s hard to shake off the haters. Taylor is in full on defense mode and this album is meant to be listened to as a whole as she works her way through some dark times at the beginning and finds the shiny light at the end of the tunnel as it comes to a close.

Songs to Download: Ready For It, End Game, I Did Something Bad, Don’t Blame Me, So it Goes, Call it What You Want, New Year’s Day.

 

Kesha_-_Rainbow_(Official_Album_Cover)1. Kesha – Rainbow

And the biggest surprise of 2017 goes to…Kesha. This album is a weird mix of folk, pop, country and rock but it really works and with such a diverse set of tunes, she couldn’t have picked a better title for her third album.

For years, Kesha has been struggling emotionally as well as professionally. She sued her producer Dr. Luke for sexual assault, battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, emotional abuse, and violation of California business practices. The court threw the lawsuit out multiple times and it was a messy process. She went to rehab and desperately tried to get out of her record contract so she wouldn’t have to work with Dr. Luke in the future. Sadly that didn’t happen and this album was released on his label, though many of the songs, deal with the matter head on.

“Praying”, “Learn to Let Go” and the acoustic folk tinged “Bastards” are downright therapeutic. “Woman” is a girl power anthem that sounds the most like old Kesha, while “Let ‘Em Talk” pays homage to Joan Jett. Elsewhere, Kesha embraces classic country and duets with Dolly Parton on “Old Flames” and “Hunt You Down” sounds like something off a Johnny Cash album.  The only bad song is “Godzilla” a weird (probably drug induced) song about taking Godzilla to the mall. If there’s some symbolism in the song, it’s lost on me.

This is an amazing album and it’s been on constant repeat ever since the first listen.

Download the entire thing.

 

 

 

It’s time to say goodbye to American Idol

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When American Idol premiered back in the summer of 2002, probably no one could have predicted it would last twelve seasons (with no sign of stopping), see copycat shows on nearly every other television network, or single-handedly save a tanking Fox. The first season produced a viable star in Kelly Clarkson, who has gone on to sell over 23 million albums worldwide and ten years after she won the title, had her most successful hit yet last year with “Stonger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

The show  continued to see ratings climb for the next several seasons until it’s peak during season six, when an impressive 37.4 million people tuned in to watch Jordin Sparks take the crown. It also gave us Carrie Underwood in season four, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson from season three and Chris Daughtry, who placed fourth on season five and went on to form the multi-platinum selling band, Daughtry.

There’s no arguing the importance the show has played in pop culture and without it, Kelly Clarkson might still be waiting tables in L.A., but after twelve seasons, it’s time to shut the machine down.

The first few hiccups came when the show’s producers decided to introduce new faces to the judging panel. In season eight, a fourth judge was added and songwriter/music producer Kara DioGuardi joined Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell at the judges table. Paula left at the end of season eight and was replaced by Ellen Degeneres, who only stayed one season and along with Simon Cowell, departed at the end of season nine.

Simon and Ellen were subsequently replaced by Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, who did nothing more than use the show as a platform to re-energize their dwindling careers – a move that surprisingly worked, propelling J-Lo back to the top of the charts and making a best-selling author out of Steven Tyler. A win for the two judges, but a huge misstep for the show.

That brings us to the present, where we now have Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj. Randy Jackson’s still hanging around too, uttering his staple phrases of “We got a hot one tonight!” and “This dawg’s in it to win it!”

Mariah Carey, like her predecessors, seems to be using the Idol stage as a way to be seen and heard again in the mainstream music scene. She offers nothing useful to the contestants and most of her comments are so convoluted that viewers have no idea what she’s really trying to say. Expect her to only stick around for one season.

Keith Urban, while nice enough, needs to be tougher on contestants. He’s actually a pretty good choice as a judge, but plays it safe and rarely criticizes anyone other than on their song choices. His next tour kicks off this summer and goes well in to fall and right around audition time for next season, so it’s a pretty safe bet to assume he’s a one-season judge too.

Surprisingly, the only breath of fresh air this season is Nicki Minaj. While she may have one of the most annoying personalities ever, she’s usually spot on with her opinions of the contestants performances. She tells them what they did right, what needs improvement and spares no one when she dislikes something.

Unfortunately, everything else about the show is formulaic and doesn’t stray much from the first season. We still have the same old “theme” nights, where contestants are forced to sing country songs, Beatles songs, songs from the movies and songs that topped the charts the year they were born. If a contestant doesn’t change the song enough, it’s too predictable. If they change it too much, they should have stuck with the original melody. Why not let the contestants pick any song, from any genre, so the audience can get a better feel for what kind of artist they really want to be? Instead, we’re left hearing the same songs year after year, which makes for a very boring, predictable two hours.

Results night is still painfully drawn out – how long does it really take to sort everyone in to the bottom 3 and tell us who goes home? Not long at all, but when you work in non-Idol related performers every week so they can shamelessly promote their new albums, it turns into at least an hour long process. Two, if it’s finale night.

And really Ryan Seacrest, don’t you think the viewers know by now that you won’t really reveal anything important until “after the break”? To his credit though, he’s the best reality TV show host by a long shot (see either season of The X Factor for an example of how not to host a television show).

It’s also lost a lot of its “fun” factor too – remember the days of sending thousands of text messages to vote for your favorite? Now, the super vote, which casts 50 votes at a time through a Facebook app, takes care of that. It probably also serves the purpose of skewing the voting  numbers so Fox executives can boast record breaking numbers each season to make it seem like the show is still as popular as ever.

Of the eleven Idol winners, only five still have record deals. Season nine winner Lee DeWyze was dropped from his label a year later after he won. So if the show can’t produce lasting artists like they claim, what is the whole point of the competition in the first place? American Idol’s focus seems to have shifted away from the contestants and more toward attracting viewers who tune in to see the antics of high profile celebrity judges. It’s lost it’s purpose and for that reason, it’s time to say goodbye to an old favorite.

2013 Grammy Awards Recap

The Grammy Awards are my favorite awards show all year – partly because I’m such a huge fan of music and partly because I enjoy picking the winners and seeing how many I get right. I’ve been watching the Grammys for as long as I can remember & still have several years in the late 90s taped on old VHS tapes. (Side note: I’m still bitter about Paula Cole and her hairy armpits robbing Hanson of the Best New Artist Grammy in 1998 – it was a tragic moment for a 14-year-old super fan.)

The past few Grammy Awards have just been so-so, but last night was one of the best I had seen in a long time. There were a few, good surprises, like Kelly Clarkson’s AMAZING album Stronger winning (and beating Fun, the favorite to win) for Best Pop Vocal Album. And as a long-time fan of the female-fronted rock band Halestorm, I was pleasantly surprised to see them win their first Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal performance.

The Black Keys had a fantastic performance and went on to win best Rock Album, best Rock Song and best Rock Performance for Lonely Boy. 

In the Country category, Little Big Town is FINALLY getting some recognition from the recording industry and stealing awards away from Lady Antebellum, who in my opinion, shouldn’t be winning them anyway. I am disappointed that Miranda Lambert lost to Zac Brown Band for the Best Country album, though.

The Grammys got it right by awarding Mumford and Sons’ Babel the Album of the Year and it’s refreshing to see a fantastic folk-rock band like Mumford and Sons winning in major categories as well as outselling Justin Beiber on the charts.

So let’s talk about the performances. Taylor Swift opened the show with We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and while she sounded great, her performance was really quite baffling. Why she chose a stage get-up resembling something from Alice in Wonderland is beyond me, but it really just did not work. She should take a few cues from Kelly Clarkson, whose tribute to Carol King and Patti Page was simple and straight-forward but showed that if you’ve got the voice, you don’t need all the flashy gimmicks to go along with your performance. I believe KC could sing anything and it would sound amazing.

I’m not a fan of reggae, but the Bob Marley tribute with Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Sting and Ziggy and Damien Marley was a pretty fun time. Bruno Mars has been killing it lately with his songs and stint as a SNL host and I think his star is only going to get brighter.

Speaking of Rihanna, it was nice to see her do a stripped down performance for once. The song may not have been that exciting, but sometimes her vocals can get lost in her flashy performances. It was nice to be reminded that the girl can actually sing. Now if only she’d use her brain to ditch Chris Brown.

Let’s talk let-downs. Country wasn’t cool last night. Miranda Lambert’s duet with Dierks Bentley sounded weak and strained. Over You was one of the best Country songs last year, but the beautiful melody somehow got lost in the overpowering backing band. A real disappointment.

Carrie Underwood’s color-changing dress distracted everyone from her flawless performance, not to mention she had to stay in one spot throughout her medley of Blown Away/Two Black Cadillacs.

Frank Ocean’s performance was off-key and bland. His song, Forest Gump, sounded like a bunch of random ideas thrown together over a few piano chords. I do not get this guy at all.

While, the Lumineers easily have one of the catchiest and sweetest songs of the year,  they’re just not meant to play for big stadiums. Their style and sound works best in a theater or intimate club & while it’s great to see an indie act get some well-deserved recognition, I have a feeling they’re going to be a one-hit wonder.

I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for this, but Justin Timberlake’s new song is terrible. It conjures images of leisure suits, disco ball and the Bee Gees and I can’t help but think that if this song is the best thing he can come up with after a seven year hiatus from music, then he should probably stick to writing funny songs with Andy Sandberg for SNL skits.

All in all, though, it was a pretty good night of performances and well deserved winners. Only 364 days until the 2014 Grammys 😉