Can you believe we’ve been doing this since 2011?! Notice both the exclamation point and the question mark, combining for double enthusiasm. Indeed, this is the seventh year-end list I’ve compiled for 72 Hours/Frederick News-Post/Frederick Playlist/my own damn archives. I say that last part, of course, because I know nobody’s reading. But I digress.
2017 was quite the year in music (at least for me, as I wound up in a band called DoubleMotorcycle — shameless plug fully acknowledged). It was a particularly great year for R&B on a national scale, which means a lot to me. And as for things that aren’t so national … well, we debuted the Frederick Playlist podcast this year, as well as a video series called Frederick One Take (to access that, you must go to the World Wide Internet), and those things have been a lot of fun. We also continued the Frederick Music Showcase (coming back at you, Feb. 15!), and The Thing (coming back at you … hopefully).
Yes, it was quite the 12 months, and now we have an opportunity to look back. What does that mean? Well, it means that I revisit all the records we reviewed in 2017 (yes, I know some of these were released in 2016, but hey — our catalog is backed up!), and pick my favorite local songs of the year. Why songs? Because, as I always explain, there are many more local songs from which to choose than there are local albums. Variety, friends. That’s what we’re looking for.
And so we stand: My 10 favorite local songs, picked from all the albums reviewed for The FNP in 2017, as well as my 10 favorite national albums and 10 favorite national songs. Debate them. Hate them. Ridicule them. Make fun of them. Smile at them. Throw tomatoes at them. It’s all in good fun. Except for those who take it wayyyyy too seriously — I mean, honestly, dudes: Settle down.
So. A Happy New Year to all, and to all, a good night. Now, let’s go.
10. The Fun Boys — “Boringville”
Perhaps Frederick’s most eclectic rock band, The Fun Boys have been turning heads with their live show for months, but it wasn’t until 2017 that we finally received a studio effort from the quartet. And while “Boringville” might be the simplest of the bunch lyrically, the music, structure and attitude of it vaguely recalls Frank Zappa, which is a compliment not handed out regularly. “Nobody loves me,” lead singer Sam Whalen insists through the track’s second verse, yet with songs like these, hate couldn’t be further away from the proceedings.
9. Miss Lonelyheart — “A Call”
From the band’s first EP in more than 15 years, Miss Lonelyheart came back better than ever with the three-song “Ordinary Living,” a release no less memorable for its lack of length. Better yet, “A Call” harkens back to when Chicago pop-punk flirted with the mainstream on a daily basis, allowing a band like Spitalfield to sell tens of thousands of records. Propelled by an inescapable chorus, check the most grin-tastic moment of the song when the bridge appears and the whisper of “Swing to the rhythm, to the beat, to the rhythm/Swing to the rhythm, to the rhythm, to the beat” takes hold. It will make you want to renew that subscription to Alternative Press pronto.
8. Hard Swimmin’ Fish — “No Shortage Of The Blues”
For being around as long as Hard Swimmin’ Fish have been around, it’s a wonder that they don’t churn out records every couple years. And yet, they don’t, which means whenever they do, we oughta listen. This, off their most recent excellent release, “True Believer,” is quintessential Fish: jangly harmonica on top of lazy, bluesy, funky guitar and Waverly Milor’s uniquely gruff vocals. Plus, once guitarist Demian Lewis gets to shreddin,’ you can practically feel the blues leap from the speakers and into your soul. It’s like walking down Bourbon Street in the middle of July — the atmosphere sticky, the mood sweaty, and the music sincere. No shortage of the blues, indeed.
7. Mr. Husband — “Can’t Sleep”
It’s just so … beautiful. The brainchild of Kenny Tompkins, he of New God and Yellow K Records fame, Mr. Husband uses Tompkins’ Brian Wilson instinct and indie rock upbringing to craft the prettiest song Frederick heard in 2017. Though he amassed a killer band behind him for the project, the singer flies largely solo here, his angelic, layered vocals translating into a bed of feathers for the listener. With barely more than a quiet acoustic guitar filling out the canvas, this is the perfect piece of sound to help get you to sleep … as you listen to someone else’s battle with insomnia. Ironic? Yes. But Mr. Husband wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. Middle Kid — “Black Out”
Zack Willis sure knows how to craft some serious angst-rock, and this, the epic centerpiece of his debut EP, “Yeah, Sure,” is Middle Kid at its most dynamic, its most memorable. Eased in by grunge-d out electric guitar, Willis begins telling the tale of a wasted night with his quirky, emotive voice, eventually landing on a line like, “The incredible string band/Delivers its melody/Haunting at half-speed.” Foreboding? For sure. And this is all before the band explodes into a furry of rock that borrows as much from Pixies as it does Pearl Jam. Getting the spins never sounded so inspiring.
5. Cheshi — “Thank You”
2017 was a breakout year for Cheshi as they released their debut EP, played the Weinberg Center as part of the Frederick Music Showcase and established themselves as one of the premier music acts Frederick has to offer. This, the opening track off that aforementioned debut EP, is the most exercised song of the set, rising up with angst throughout each hook and mellowing out with grace as the verses unfold. Ashli Cheshire has the most moody, trance-like voice in town these days and each note that escapes her mouth is shrouded in atmosphere. Not only does it impress; it leaves impressions. And lasting ones, at that.
4. Gloop — “I Heard Her Talkin’“
Perhaps the most intense local album of 2017, Gloop’s five-song EP, “Junk Drawer,” produced a wicked shot of adrenaline impossible to ignore and imperative to turn up from front to back. This, the best, most defining moment of the record, sums up the trio perfectly, spotlighting dynamism in the verses and aggression in the choruses. From the buried vocals to the driving drums to the petulant guitars, this is local hard rock at its finest, most ominous. Turn the lights off, turn the music up and let it all out.
3. Karen Jonas — “Ophelia”
Karen Jonas can do no wrong, and with “Country Songs,” the anticipated follow-up to 2014’s brilliant “Oklahoma Lottery,” she proved once again that hers is an essential voice in local music. “Ophelia” is the best example of as much, Jonas showcasing her signature snark and top-shelf storytelling by way of advice for what may or may not be a daughter figure. She’s never been one to put up with crap of any kind, and her advice here is equally poignant and imperative — most notably when she advises her mentee to take a deep breath. Combine that with Tim Bray’s excellent honkytonk guitar work and Jonas scores another undeniable hit.
2. Christian Lopez — “1972”
From the only album to receive four stars in the 72 Hours/Frederick Playlist pages, Christian Lopez’s “Red Arrow,” comes a shot of Southern-pop-rock-soul that’s as irresistible as it is comforting. There’s just something about the woolly production that makes this one of the year’s best songs, matching the Band-lite approach with the same type of recording ethos only really found in Nashville these days. Add in a B-3 Hammond and a quirky breakdown for a bridge and you have the best song that a year like … well … 1972 never heard.
1. Fractal Cat — “Streets Are Burning”
This Baltimore collective went from Beatles-esque retro-fitted Brit-pop to slinky, sweaty, horn-filled soul-funk between 2014’s “Lovingkind” and 2017’s “The Tower,” and man, did that step do them well. This, a slightly more epic, funky track than the group’s other candidate for Song Of The Year, “The Tower,” is a tour de force through everything that made their 2017 set so memorable: Spectacularly soulful drum work, powerhouse horns that give the song character, confidently light vocals, and some serious guitar shredding.
… And that’s only for the first half! Just when things seem to settle down, a second movement unfolds with Mary-eL scatting beneath a deliciously lazy groove and the whole thing blasts into a higher stratosphere. Two-stepping their way to the finish line, that warm horn section provides a fun backbone while handclaps emerge to kick up the party. “We need an answer, not a new excuse,” Keith Jones asserts at the end of the first verse, before concluding, “We’ve got to end this culture of abuse.” Looking back on 2017, there isn’t a more apt lyric in all of local music.
10. The Killers — “Wonderful Wonderful”
Going the route of Train and … well … pretty much every other pop rock band that has experienced a lull in popularity after a string of hits, The Killers have downsized and essentially become The Brandon Flowers Show. But that’s OK, considering how much fun “Wonderful Wonderful” is. “The Man” is the 2017 version of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the title track drives with a menacing bass line and drum pattern that suggests a rock harder than they’ve called upon previously. And “Some Kind Of Love” is a blend of beauty last seen in 1988. Nearly 30 years later, these guys make it sound as gorgeous as ever.
9. Starsailor — “All This Life”
Yeah, make fun of me for this, but honestly: After breaking up for a handful of years, nobody really thought Starsailor would ever matter enough to make a comeback, let alone sound this good while doing it. A more diverse band now, the Wigan lads get groovier than ever (see “Take A Little Time” and “Caught In The Middle”) and experiment with textures darker than even they have seen before (“Fall Out”). Plus, once you realize what “FIA” means, you’ll have a chuckle yourself. Even so, take notice: The notion that “All This Life” could be one of the year’s best is no laughing matter.
8. Sampha — “Process”
It won the Mercury Prize this year and for good reason: The debut LP from Sampha is simply one of the most promising releases an R&B artist has released in a long, long time. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is quite literally the saddest song of 2017 as the singer sits with — surprise! — nothing but a piano and pulls on all the heart strings with the help of sparse production and that outrageously solemn croon. “Blood On Me” then gets up to get down, a funky backbeat leading the way, and opener “Plastic 100°C” has a hook that will take a lobotomy to get out of your head. If there’s only one new artist from 2017 you pick to check out, it’s gotta be Sampha.
7. Jay-Z — “4:44”
You knew Jay couldn’t not make an album like this, right? The extended apologies to Beyonce were both expected and affecting — the title track is almost uncomfortable with how raw it feels at first glance and “I’ll f— up a good thing if you let me/Leave me alone, Becky” from “Family Feud” is both defiant and hilarious — but it’s his reflection on other issues that ultimately lands like glitter to a glue stick. “The Story Of O.J.” comments on continued racial inequality in a world where so many insist things are getting better and “Kill Jay Z” is as humble as the guy has ever sounded on record, more than two decades into a career that has dominated hip-hop in a way like none other has before it. I saw him in D.C. a month ago on this album’s tour and it had been years since he sounded as inspired as he did then. Such motivation is captured brilliantly throughout all of “4:44.”
6. Kendrick Lamar — “Damn.”
He’s the most important rapper today and it’s not close. It’s hard enough to craft one classic, like he did with 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” but you reach entirely new heights if you come back and do it again, only two years later. And not only did he do that with “Damn.,” but Lamar also did it while expanding his palate to become as accessible as he became, brilliantly combining his conscious-heavy storytelling with production that isn’t not made to dominate clubs. Check the Rihanna collab “Loyalty” for proof of that. And while “Humble” might be anything but, it’s still one of the most unforgettable songs of 2017, no matter the genre. If dude somehow one-ups himself again in 2019, he might just kill hip-hop.
5. Somi — “Petite Afrique”
Shame on you for not going to see this angelic voice dominate the Weinberg like no other artist has done this year! Do you even know how great you have it, Frederick!? Inspired by the gentrification of an African community in Harlem, Somi expanded on her 2014 breakout moment, “The Lago Music Salon,” with an album as assured as it is gorgeous, as provocative as it is accessible. “Alien” borrows from Sting in the most affecting of ways while “Black Enough” takes no prisoners with its Caribbean funk and “Am I black enough for you?” hook. “I’m trying to disrupt the model,” she told me in October before coming to town for her performance. Never stop trying, girl. Never stop trying.
4. Ambrose Akinmusire — “A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard”
One of the most innovative, exciting players in contemporary jazz music, Ambrose Akinmusire thrills with “A Rift In Decorum,” a two-disc masterpiece of a live set from the Vanguard that also features his longtime band behind him in inspiring form. The 12-plus minute highlight “Maurice & Michael (sorry i didn’t say hello)” is a whirlwind of insight, the star trumpeter stepping up with provocative phrasing and palpable energy as Justin Brown’s drums fearlessly unfold like a fury of Fourth of July fireworks. And if you don’t feel like completely attacking the day, “Taymoor’s World” is a work of beauty, Sam Harris’s piano often leading the charge with pretty, subtle brushes. If Ambrose Akinmusire is a painter, the Vanguard spreads broader than any other canvass he’s faced. It’s a must for any fan of jazz in 2017.
3. Brand New — “Science Fiction”
“So, what do we do with Brand New?” a friend texted me only a couple months ago. It was in reaction to the sexual misconduct accusations made against bandleader Jesse Lacey, and I had no idea what to say in return. Catching up with the friend recently, he told me he has since refused to listen to any Brand New records. Similarly, if you check other year-end lists, this album is by in large omitted, most likely because of what we now know about Lacey.
So, I don’t really know what to do here. When the album came out, I said to anyone who would listen that I believed this was the best Brand New album ever. I still believe that. And because Brand New is one of my favorite bands, I would be lying if I said this wasn’t one of my favorite albums of the year. Thus, its placement on this list. I realize that it’s useless to dissect the album if only because I don’t defend or condone or forgive any of Lacey’s actions, but if we’re talking about favorite albums — and only albums, outside of everything except the music — “Science Fiction” is near the top. Please don’t hate me.
2. Becca Stevens — “Regina”
It was hard to think Becca Stevens could follow up the brilliance of 2015’s “Perfect Animal” with something as diverse, complex and memorable, but here we are. “Regina,” her fourth LP, is slightly more accessible than her previous efforts yet no less intriguing because of it. Based around queens in every sense of the word, you can call it a concept album if you must, but don’t let that cloud the fact that Stevens is making some of the most interesting pop music in America.
Take “Mercury,” a clever homage to the Queen singer, which sounds like nothing she’s ever done before, complete with a Police-esque groove and percussive handclaps that keep the energy moving from measure to measure. Still not sold? Check “45 Bucks,” one of the most biting songs of the singer’s career, that expertly marries her simplest musical tendencies with her fantastically vivid storytelling. Need more? Well, “Lean On” has fun with time signatures while “Venus” is harmonious on infinite levels. There isn’t a single misfire throughout all 13 tracks here. Gorgeous. Intricate. Poignant. Catchy. Unforgettable. “Regina” is proof that brains can coexist with pop. And in 2017, that means Becca Stevens is the closest thing to a miracle worker that music has.
1. The XX — “I See You”
And for the XX’s third trick, watch as they dazzle you with florescent lights, singalong melodies and undeniable hooks! No, but honestly, though: “I See You,” Album No. 3 from the London trio, is easily the group’s most accessible thus far, continuing the upward trend of their releases with a fuller, more complete sound. Sure, they made their bones by living in the World Of Minimalism, but as the band grows so does the excess and these 10 songs spotlight a group not afraid to expand beyond the skeletons for which they’re so brilliantly known.
Opener “Dangerous” cements that very reality with its bright electronic horns and Ibiza-loving, rave-inducing percussion to which sitting still is an impossibility. Shoot. Even their signature sparse evolves from rainy English afternoons to sweaty Brazilian nights on songs like “A Violent Noise,” which adheres to the strobe-light-ification of today’s pop music, and “Lips,” which is quite possibly the sexiest song the XX has produced, tropical groove and all. Plus, where else can you find such an infectious use of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” than the way this trio inventively weaves the 1981 hit into their “On Hold?” It’s a victory in vision.
It’s also a microcosm of why “I See You” is so addictive. The XX have always known how to keep you hooked, yet here, they make it easier for your electro-pop-hating, jaded-music-fan uncle to grab onto it as well. “I’ll put on a show,” singer Romy Madley-Croft croons on the heartbreakingly beautiful “Performance.” With “I See You,” the lights have never been this intense, the future never brighter. And that says something for a group who’s lived its life almost exclusively under the heat of a spotlight.
10. Paramore — “Told You So”
That chorus, though. To think this came from the same band who wrote “For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic” a decade ago … well, it’s pretty remarkable. Making the leap from pop-punk to pop-pop is never easy, but these guys utilize the secret weapon of retrofitted ’80s-style pop-funk to help make the transition and it works in spades. The clean guitar run that announces each chorus is so unique in contemporary pop that it almost feels wrong, and singer Hayley Williams provides an attitude imperative to exude in order for this song to work. And boy, does it.
9. Khalid — “Young, Dumb & Broke”
It’s the anthem of a generation! Or, well, something like that. Anyway, Khalid was easily one of 2017’s breakout stars, his “American Teen” one of the best R&B releases of the year, no matter the age. It’s one of the few times in recent memory that an artist actually lived up to the hype, the singer being buzzed about for what felt like lightyears before his first official release. “Young, Dumb & Broke” cemented the fact that Khalid, with his laid-back, vaguely tropical voice and wise-beyond-his-age wit, deserved all the accolades he received. Here’s to never growing up.
8. Haim — “Want You Back”
Weirdly, Haim’s “Something To Tell You” felt like it came and went without much fanfare, considering how 2013’s “Days Are Gone” was universally praised by critics and fans alike. This, “Something’s” best single, is everything you could hope to find in a Haim song: synths, impossibly beautiful vocals that are smartly layered, and finger snaps to which a toe must tap. They still have that staccato enunciation that would make Michael Jackson grin and they also know how to write anthems made for stadiums. “Want You Back” has it all.
7. Kendrick Lamar — “DNA”
“My DNA not for imitation/Your DNA an abomination/This how it is when you’re in the Matrix/Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow/And stackin’ up the footage, livin’ on the go/And sleepin’ in a villa/Sippin’ from a Grammy and walkin’ in the buildin’/Diamond in the ceilin’, marble on the floors/Beach inside the window, peekin’ out the window/Baby in the pool, godfather goals/Only Lord knows, I’ve been goin’ hammer … “. I mean, really. I could go on, but this doesn’t even begin to do justice to the tantrum Kendrick throws as he offers these words during the song’s latter half. Do yourself a favor. Stop reading this nonsense and look up the song. Fast-forward to 2:06. Press play. And let the greatest rapper of his generation blow your mind.
6. Starsailor — “Take A Little Time”
It’s just so smooth. Clearly learning a thing or two from their time on the road with Mike & The Mechanics, Starsailor somehow went from early Aughts Brit-pop-rock to mid-‘80s-adult-contemporary-brit-pop-funk and man, it works. The groove here is something the band never revealed they could do previously and lead singer James Walsh’s falsetto is as strong as it’s ever sounded. Bonus points for the elevator-music acoustic guitar that obscurely lands in the background, giving the song a grown-up texture these guys have lacked. The Weather Channel should be collecting royalties.
5. Jay-Z — “The Story Of O.J.”
This deserves to be on any year-end list if only for Jay-Z’s bewildering “OK” that you hear early in the song. No matter how many times you listen to it, you can’t help but laugh just a tiny, tiny bit. On an album filled with admissions and apologies and regret and humiliation, perhaps the most striking track is the one where the man born Shawn Carter ruminates on adult-ing. “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club?” he asks at one point. “Credit.” And the award for Things I Never Thought I’d Hear In A Rap Song goes to … .
4. Brand New — “Same Logic/Teeth”
See, National Albums No. 3.
3. Sampha — “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano”
Indeed, the most touching track of the year comes from the most stunning debut of the year as well. Left to only a piano and Sampha’s exquisitely soulful, undeniably lasting voice, there’s no reason to feel ashamed if you need to grab a tissue or two upon first listen. Brave and sparse, this song reminded us that in a musical world filled with advanced technologies and formulas and gadgets and innovations, real, honest, raw music can still reign supreme and be as powerful as ever.
2. The XX — “On Hold”
I’ve listened to this song so many times that I’ve played it out. But if I can transport myself back to when it first attacked my conscience, more than a year ago, I remind myself that there was a time when I couldn’t get enough. The lead single off the band’s excellent “I See You” is a fantastic reflection on the kind of failed love that you just know had every reason to succeed. The interplay between singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim is always delicious in its own right, but when you add a Hall & Oates sample as the cherry on top, you oughta know that you have a hit on your hands. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another five years to hear from a band that constantly leaves us thirsty for more.
1. Becca Stevens — “45 Bucks”
“Why don’t you just try writing a really simple, catchy song. Do your own thing with it; make it interesting to you. But just try.” That’s what Becca Stevens’ manager told her before she wrote “45 Bucks.” “My response to that,” Stevens told me earlier this year, “has always been, ‘Well, I fart those things out for breakfast.’ Ever since I was a kid, I make a billion of those songs a day and they bore me.’”
Maybe. But man. If she could just sacrifice a few moments of boredom every now and then … .
“45 Bucks” is my favorite song of the year for a lot of reasons. It’s biting, yet subtle. Bouncy, yet solid. Powerful, yet reserved. The adjectives could go on and on and on. But the true intangible here is that sometimes a song comes along and it just grabs you by the throat and there’s nothing you can do about it. It had been a long time since I felt that feeling, yet “45 Bucks” broke the curse. When Stevens asserts, “I don’t even think you’re funny/I only laugh ‘cause I could tell you wanted me to,” you can feel the soul of whomever she’s confronting crush itself and wilt into a pile of nothing. Fade out with some pop-jazz drums and a touch of stunning harmonies and you have a classic spurned-love song (even though — spoiler alert — spurned love is not what the song is actually about). For sounding so innocent, Becca Stevens can cut deeper than the blackest of black metal, expertly proving here that sometimes being bored isn’t that bad at all.