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JOHNNY VINYL: Rock and roll isn’t dead — it’s just gone underground

Top 10 albums of the year by East Oregonian’s music critic


Ride the vibe

Published on December 23, 2017 12:01AM

“Hot Thoughts” by Spoon is Johnny Vinyl’s top album of 2017.

Album cover

“Hot Thoughts” by Spoon is Johnny Vinyl’s top album of 2017.

Lincoln Barr has played in Seattle-based bands and recently moved to Eastern Oregon. He will play at Echo Cellars on May 27.

Contributed photo

Lincoln Barr has played in Seattle-based bands and recently moved to Eastern Oregon. He will play at Echo Cellars on May 27.

Mavis Staples performs at the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Franklin, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Mavis Staples performs at the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Franklin, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

If one were to listen to Kiss’ Gene Simmons or refer to Rolling Stone’s Top 20 albums of 2017, it might seem that rock music is indeed dead.

For those who care, rock and roll is as alive and well in 2017 as it has ever been, it’s just not mainstream anymore. There were some great albums released in 2017, maybe even a classic or two.

10. King Woman: “Created in the Image of Suffering”

Finally something completely fresh in the metal scene. A three piece sludge-metal band with a powerhouse vocalist in Kristina Esfandiari that catapults them far from any genre limitations. This lady can go from sinister to serene and all points in between with operatic precision and control. She could give Diamanda Galas a run for her money. The band guides her where few have gone before.

9. Mogwai: “Every Country’s Sun”

To attend a show of these men from Glasgow is to experience sonic bliss. There is truly nothing quite like them. Sadly, they are one of those artists who have a really difficult time recreating that feeling in the studio. Mogwai have been focusing on soundtracks (Zidane, Atomic, Before the Flood) as of late and it has helped them harness the studio more effectively than ever before. “Every Country’s Sun” is the soundtrack for you, the listener, to play as you live.

8. Lincoln Barr: “Trembling Frames”

Lincoln Barr has taken off his Red Jacket for this intimate jazz record. With song titles like “Admit You’re a Monster,” “How To Escape,” “Desperate Tormentors,” “Memory Up and Die,” “Giving Up My Inheritance,” “Tell it to the Judge” and “Fellowship of Hunted Things” you know going in that it’s not a party record. What it is — it’s one of the most poignant collections of music to come out this year.

7. Robyn Hitchcock: “Robyn Hitchcock”

Robyn Hitchcock’s 21st solo release is his first eponymous album. His career is what Syd Barrett’s should have been. Few can infuse their songs with such clever word play, self-deprecating admissions, wry and dry sense of humor while adding social commentary in such an articulate presentation. Musically, “Robyn Hitchcock” is much closer in sound to Hitchcock’s former band, The Egyptians, than his more recent solo offerings. Magical storytelling from a master of the craft.

6. Dream Syndicate: “How Did I Find Myself Here?”

As one of the main purveyors of the Paisley Underground (amalgam of jangle pop, punk and psychedelic), The Dream Syndicate have decided that the 2017 music scene really needed an influx of electric guitar music. “How Did I Find Myself Here?” accomplishes that task in spades, especially on the 11-minute title track. Former bassist/vocalist Kendra Smith performs on the album’s closing track, “Kendra’s Dream,” bringing everything full circle. A very welcome return.

5. Mavis Staples: “If All I Was Was Black”

Mavis Staples, along with her father Roebuck and various siblings as the Staple Singers, was often the opening act for Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave public addresses. If there is anyone qualified to deal with race issues in the U.S. with credibility, it’s Mavis. However, white musician Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco fame wrote all of the songs from a black perspective. On paper, it appears to be a train wreck. In actuality, it’s one of the most compelling releases of the year. Together, they make some pretty bold statements. Musically, it’s all over the place. As you’d expect a gospel groove exists throughout, but there are jams heavier than anything Wilco has done in years. This is the third time that Tweedy has produced Staples and there’s an obvious mutual love and respect that flows equally between the two that permeates these proceedings.

4. New Pornographers: “Whiteout Conditions”

All three internationally recognized Canadian musical collectives (Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and New Pornographers) released albums in 2017. Broken Social Scene’s “Hug of Thunder” is a pleasant though largely innocuous affair; Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” is one of the worst albums ever released, by anyone! The New Pornographers “Whiteout Conditions” is the sublime, “feel-good” record of the year. It’s one of those releases that gets better as the listeners’ familiarity with the songs increase. How can you lose when one of your five singer/songwriters is Neko Case?

3. Ryan Adams: “Prisoner”

Ryan Adams used to record every song that he wrote. Some years would see three or more releases. Every album had a few gems, some mediocre and a serious dud or two. Then he married Mandy Moore. A normal life for a while. The songs came much fewer and farther between. He and Moore divorce. He immediately puts his emotions down in song. The result “The Prisoner” is Adams’ most complete, rewarding release of his career. The pain is clear and so is the fact that he still has a tremendous amount of love and respect for his ex. The best “breakup” record in a long time.

2. Grails: “Chalice Hymnal”

They hail from Portland, but they hardly ever perform anywhere on the West Coast. They recently started playing infrequently on the East Coast. They tour Europe regularly; they’re huge in France. They do an instrumental form of rock that incorporates whatever is necessary to convey the groove. “Chalice Hymnal” is intense and pastoral, beautiful and brutal, mighty and meek. Progressive music at its most majestic.

1. Spoon: “Hot Thoughts”

Indie, alternative band from the Austin, Texas, that is equal parts R.E.M. and Dr. John infuse their rock with southern hospitality and charm.

Spoon have steadily released entertaining alternative music with a southern vibe since the late ’90s. While all of their releases have their moments, a minor criticism of the band has been that they are a little monochromatic — everything begins to sound similar.

As evidenced by the psychedelic human skull on the cover, that has all changed with “Hot Thoughts.” On their ninth album, they finally feel comfortable in the studio to literally try anything, even a five-minute instrumental as closing statement that may be the boldest of the album. This studio confidence has helped make this their most consistently engaging album.

Dance beats smash into indie rock social melancholia creating an amalgam that makes you go “hmmm” while shaking your booty.


A retired educator, Johnny Vinyl spends his days with Lucifer, an 8-year-old German shepherd, reading and riding the vibe. His column, Ride the vibe, focuses on entertainment. Contact him via tmalgesini@eastoregonian.com


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