The Critical Mass

I listened to 30,000 albums

It used to be said that 30,000 albums are released each year. I’m not sure if that was ever true, and it most likely isn’t true today: Many different internet-driven platforms, independent of record labels, are available for musicians get their work out to the world. Who can evaluate more than 30,000 albums a year? A “Best Albums of 2017” simply isn’t possible.

“My Favorite Stuff of 2017” is more accurate.

1, Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert. Like another long-lost Evans recording, 2016’s Some Other Time: The Lost Session From The Black Forest, this album is a vinyl-only release I picked up on my favorite holiday, Record Store Day. These albums look and feel like artifacts from another era. They engage sensibilities that don’t come from the antiseptic process of downloading.

Evans was like a lot of the jazzmen of that time, brilliant and tragic. Drug addiction, the suicide of the woman he lived with for years, an early death. A Harrowing life lived in contrast to the beauty of the artistry, Another Time is pristinely recorded, a trio with Evans on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Music that’s both melancholy and whimsical: “Alfie,” “Embraceable You” and Evans’ own “Turn Out the Stars.”

My picks for album of the year always seem to be something socially relevant. But 2017 has been so disturbing, with each day dawning to some new chaos, that I didn’t need musical pundits reminding me of where we’re going wrong. This year, I found myself repeatedly turning to the peace and elegance of music that assured me that the world can be a beautiful place.

2, Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman. I first encountered Eitzel’s songwriting in 1993 and Mercury, an album by his then-band, American Music Club. The song that stunned me was “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” a worshipful portrait of the singer and artistic doubt. In the years that followed, Eitzel has continued to write downbeat words of powerful self examination, songs often set in bars. He put American Music Club back together in 2004 for Love Songs For Patriots that included “Patriot’s Heart,” a sadly harrowing story of a male stripper that left me feeling uncomfortable. And I like feeling uncomfortable. When I finally saw him perform live a few years ago, I understood Eitzel for what he is: An over-the-top torch singer, ripping off his skin, exposing raw nerves.

3, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman. She was a late bloomer, a former prison guard who recorded her first album when she was in her 40s and became a shooting star of R&B and soul, only to die of cancer at age 60 in the months after she finished Soul of a Woman. I interviewed her once; she came off as quiet and thoughtful. But onstage, she played life big.

4, The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. I saw this band in its early days, and I didn’t like it. That’s changed. Its beautifully elegant, 11-minute song “Thinking of a Place” is my favorite alternative alternative-rock song of the year.

5, Joywave, Content. Even though it’s gone national and tours the world, we can still call this the local album of the year, as Joywave never fails to remind people that it is from Rochester. Content manages to be introspective while expanding an ambitious sonic palate that would bury other bands’ efforts to make a statement.

6, This is The Kit, Moonshine Freeze. Not really a group, but the English alternative-folk singer Kate Stables and whoever’s around her at the moment. I find words and sounds scattered like brilliant gems that have been tossed along a path through the woods. Life is upheaval. “This is the natural order of things,” she sings, “change sets in.”

7, Mondo Cozmo, Plastic Soul. Born in Philadelphia, now living in LA, Josh Ostrander has taken on the name Mondo Cozmo for this set of excellent and quirky pop songs, drawing on the old and the new. The title track samples Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart,” which you probably know better from the Janis Joplin version.

8, Kronos Quartet, Folk Songs. The avant-garde classical chamber ensemble adds another genre to its bag of successful experimentation: American folk music. A collection of sad old songs and contemporary singers, including Rhiannon Giddens and Natalie Merchant.

9, Vijay Iyer, Far From Over. Raised in Fairport, there is no pianist doing what Iyer is doing now, and he does it with ferocity. This is very nearly a big-band Iyer, as he’s added saxophones and a coronet for the first time in a decade.

10, Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard. Well, at some point we must surrender to the 21st century. The jazz pianist, playing in a trio format, has made this available only through It’s one of those 30,000-plus albums released this year that flies beneath the radar. So there is something on value to be found on the internet, after all.

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