Best Albums of 2017

by Andrew Elias

PERHAPS IT WAS a recent visit to New Orleans that skewed my opinions of last year’s best albums, but I’d like to think that the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band and Delfeayo Marsalis would have made my list nonetheless. The Crescent City has a long and legendary history as a hotbed of musical talent and the latest releases by the aforementioned artists continue that tradition and push it even a bit farther.

On The Spot, the fifth album by THE HOT 8 BRASS BAND, explodes with unbridled energy, infectious passions and an unequalled zeal to party. The record is a roaring celebration of life. Originals like ‘8 Kickin’ It Live,’ ‘Can’t Nobody Get Down’ and ‘Keepin’ It Funky’ are exactly what you’d expect — all party all the time. Songs like Stevie Wonder’s ‘That Girl,’ and Sade’s ‘Sweetest Taboo’ get the New Orleans treatment and become brand new. But it’s the band’s 8-minute take on the classic blues of ‘St. James Infirmary,’ that somehow sets it apart from all previous versions (no small feat) that best exemplifies how great the Hot 8 are.

This is Mardi Gras music at its best, a clamoring of horns and chants impossible to resist, music that uplifts as it gets down.

Possibly the greatest of all New Orleans’ jazz bands, the iconic PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND, might have made their best album yet of their long and illustrious career. So It Is is a combustible gumbo of Crescent City funk spiced up with Cuban rhythms.

The title track opens the record with a smooth, jazzy shuffle, before exploding into the frenzied pace of ‘Santiago,’ which like ‘La Malanga,’ showcase the influence and inspiration of Cuba on the album, re-invigorating their sound, infusing their more traditional New Orleans-style jazz with newfound fervor. This is classic jazz performed with the impeccable taste and unequalled class that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been famous for for decades.

With the release of his two previous albums (Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak and The Last Southern Gentleman), DELFEAYO MARSALIS has achieved a level of acclaim nearing that of his older brothers, Branford and Wynton. The New Orleans native has made his best record yet, Kalamazoo, a live recording of Delfeayo fronting a quartet that included his father, Ellis, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ralph Peterson.

From the very first honks of ‘Tin Roof Blues’ to the last muted musings of ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,’ the concert features Delfeayo’s slinky, sultry, sensual trombone playing, cementing him as possibly the best jazz trombonist of our time. The album also features the too-often underappreciated piano playing of Ellis. The two together make for a formidable team. Although the band’s renditions of standards ‘Autumn Leaves,’ ‘If I Were a Bell’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ are outstanding, reverent yet new, it is their surprising take on the ‘Sesame Street Theme’ (which he declares he recently realized was a blues) and ‘My Funny Valentine’ (which is as soulful and delicate as any) that stand out. With Kalamazoo, Delfeayo has become an equal among brothers.

CHANO DOMINGUEZ may be the greatest jazz pianist alive that you have never heard of, and Over The Rainbow, a remarkable recording of a 2012 solo performance, is just the album to make you a fan.

An endlessly inventive and often provocative player, his music is infused with the many and varied Spanish musical traditions. Throughout the album you will be awestruck by the sophisticated eloquence of his music. A pristine live recording, you will be hard-pressed to find a more gorgeous 74 minutes of piano playing, not the least of which is Chano’s breathtakingly beautiful version of ‘Over the Rainbow.’

With equal parts Chicago, Memphis and Delta blues, the man known as THE SOUL OF JOHN BLACK (John Bigham is his real name) has released, Early In The Moanin', the album his career was always leading him to. After years with the band Fishbone and working with several producers on previous solo records, Bigham produced this record himself and the result is as impressive a blues record as any in recent years.

Imagine a mix of Bill Withers’ rich vocals and Gary Clark, Jr.’s raunchy guitar, a mix of John Lee Hooker and Dr. Dre, and you’ll have some idea of what The Soul of John Black is all about. But although he sounds familiar he is an original. Standouts are the title track, the swampy blues of ‘Crooked Leg’ and ‘Cher,’ on which you might think you were listening to Bill Withers himself (it’s that good!). There isn’t a blues fan alive who won’t love this record.

IMELDA MAY burst onto the scene with a kick-ass rockabilly band, a nouveau-retro look and a bunch of ballsy, bluesy songs. But after a few albums and guest spots singing with Jeff Beck, it was clear that her shtick would limit her creativity. Along comes producer extraordinaire, T Bone Burnett to guide her back to her music roots and help her find a newfound depth to her songwriting. Songs like ‘Call Me’ and ‘The Girl I Used to Be’ show off a far more vulnerable side than evident on her previous records, but it is songs like ‘Black Tears’ and ‘When It’s My Time’ that showcase that same sassy, sexy voice. Old fans will not be disappointed with Life Love Flesh Blood — songs like ‘Bad Habit’ wouldn’t be out of place on her previous records — and she should gain a whole lot more new admirers.

JIM LAUDERDALE’s velvety vocals and easygoing style are hard to resist, and coupled with some of the strongest songwriting of his long career (it’s his 29th album), London Southern is among his best work to date. The Nashville veteran teams up here with Nick Lowe’s band and whether it be the horn-enhanced soul of ‘I Can’t Do Without You,’ the gospel influenced ‘What Do You Have to Lose?,’ the jazzy blues of ‘If I Can Resist,’ the honky tonk fun of ‘Don’t Shut Me Down,’ or the melancholy ballad, ‘I Love You More,’ Lauderdale has put together a collection of original songs with a soulful country groove that defies easily definable genres.

Things have recently gotten very real for JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE and if Kids In The Street is any indication of how he hopes to meet his new life’s demands — sobriety, marriage, impending fatherhood — he should have nothing to worry about. At the very least, he’s making the best music of his life. With the experience and confidence of six albums behind him, Earle tackles rockin’ rockabilly (‘Champagne Corolla’), heartbreaking honky tonk (‘What’s She Crying For?’), jazzy swing (‘What’s Goin’ On’), New Orleans’ R&B (‘15-25’), and bluesy soul (‘There Goes A Fool’) with the same songwriting prowess and sense of fun.

Earle has a way of being both of the country and comfortably urban, thoroughly modern and somewhat old-timey, a serious social commentator and a good-humored balladeer. Perhaps that is why he can embrace so many and varied musical genres to convey his maturing personal angst and world view. His best album to date and a foreshadowing of better things to come.

if you were to hear just their heartbreaking versions of Townes van Zandt’s ‘You Are Not Needed Now’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Minstrel Boy’ you might become a fan of JOLIE HOLLAND & SAMANTHA PARTON, but you would be missing so much more that they have to offer. Their own ‘Make It Up to Me’ showcases both their beautiful harmonies and insightful songwriting, and might be the best track on Wildflower Blues.

Originally two-thirds of Americana darlings, The Be Good Tanyas, Holland & Parton have an undeniable chemistry when they sing, Holland sounding at times a lot like Lucinda Williams at her most vulnerable and Parton adding sweet harmonies as support.

Their sound can best be described as soulful folk music, with simple instrumentation, sultry vocals, and thoughtful songs.

VAN MORRISON released two albums within weeks of each other in late 2017 and you would be hard-pressed to choose between the two for which is best. Roll With The Punches is bluesier and Versatile is mostly jazz and pop standards, so the one you choose will have a lot to do with your musical predisposition.

Roll With the Punches features blues classics like T Bone Walker & Doc Pomus’ ‘Stormy Monday/ Lonely Avenue,’ Count Basie’s ‘Going to Chicago,’‘ Lightning Hopkins’ ‘Automobile Blues,’ and Bo Diddley’s ‘Ride On Josephine’ as well as Van’s more topical takes on the modern condition like ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Fame.’ And it also features Jeff Beck on guitar on five tracks. Hearing these two rock giants together is a real treat. Morrison is still one of the great vocalists of our time and if his range and power may be diminishing slightly it is more than compensated for with his religious devotion to the music.

On Versatile, Van dives into standards like ‘Makin’ Whoopee,’ ‘I Get a Kick Out of You,’ ‘The Party’s Over,’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’ But it is his versions of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ ‘Let’s Get Lost’ and ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ that stand out and prove again that Van is the man. After releasing a few albums in recent years that were not among his best work, it is nice to hear him return to form with not one, but two outstanding albums filled with great songs and an even greater spirit. •

January-February 2018