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Critics' Choice
BETTER THAN A HIT: MIDYEAR 2017 FAVES & FINDS, EXPANDED
7/7/17

A playlist by Bud Scoppa

Rock’s not dead yet, boys and girls. The proof is this batch of irresistible songs released during the first half of 2017—although one, Radiohead’s “I Promise,” dates back to the sessions for 1997’s OK Computer, the great band’s third album and the last that presented them as a (relatively) conventional five-piece rock band from end to end. The other two dozen tracks are from some of today’s most beloved standard bearers: The War on Drugs, Spoon, Dan Auerbach, Arcade Fire and The National, alongside still-vital veterans Todd Rundgren (the greatest artist never to be deemed worthy by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee), Daryl Hall and four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac, along with Thundercat’s wicked-clever use of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins’ instantly recognizable voices.

But the most compelling case for rock’s ongoing viability on this playlist are those bands and artists who are making ecstatic, sophisticated music below the radar.

Austin’s Cotton Mather have made two terrific LPs since reforming in 2012 on the occasion of the 15th anniversary reissue of their latter-day power-pop classic Kontiki. Last year’s Death of the Cool and the recently released Wild Kingdom contain memorable songs written by Robert Harrison as part of his project to write a song inspired by each of the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, which seems unbearably pretentious but has yielded recordings that evoke the likes of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Squeeze, XTC, Beck circa Sea Change and The Beatles, a reference point deepened by Harrison’s Lennonesque vocals. His “Better Than a Hit” struck me as the perfect title for this playlist of mainstream outliers.

Back home in Nebraska, Matthew Sweet has cooked up his most immersive album since his ’90s heyday with Tomorrow Forever. In my bio, I called the sprawling 17-song record Matthew’s All Things Must Pass. He’s back and swinging for the fences again, accompanied by his core collaborators and some scintillating new contributors.  

BNQT is the retro-rock alter ego of another Texas band, Midlake, as a premise for inviting the frontmen of other groups to bring songs and collaborate on their presentation. The resulting Volume 1, which features Band of HorsesBen Bridwell, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and, most winningly, TravisFran Healy, is a sheer delight throughout, but “Restart,” one of two tracks Midlake composed and worked up in character as BNQT without a featured guest, is an instant classic in its melding of crunchy groove, supercharged riffage, soaring harmonies and layer-cake chorus hook.

Californian Miranda Lee Richards, whose new Existential Beast locates powerful parallels between the turmoil of the late ’60s and today’s bizarro world, Adrianne Lenker of Brooklyn-based Big Thief and Alyse Vellturo of pronoun, another young Brooklyn band, make a captivating case for themselves as three of the most striking frontwomen to emerge in this decade. And pronoun’s “A Million Other Things” sounds like an Alternative radio smash to me and to others I’ve played it for.

Chris Price was raised in Miami, but his music is quintessential L.A. This was delightfully apparent in his insightful production of Rainbow Ends, Emitt Rhodes’ first album since 1973, and now on his own Stop Talking, which stopped me in my tracks. With 14 songs, each conceived and executed with jewel-like precision and withering candor, Price has made an album of revelatory musical and lyrical eloquence, a work that reminds me of Harry Nilsson at the peak of his powers. Imagine Nilsson Sings Newman with George Harrison on guitar and string arrangements by George Martin—and one guy playing all these roles.  

When I asked Chris via email what he picked up from Nilsson’s records, and what other artists helped shape his style and sensibility, the 32-year-old polymath responded: “Nilsson had a knack for locating the humor in tragedy, and the tragedy inherent in humor. He was like a great stand-up comic in that sense, always letting you know that things were deeper and more complex than what’s on the surface and actively trying to reveal that complexity to you. It helped that he was perhaps the greatest male pop vocalist of the 20th century. Other artists I am drawn to for similar reasons are The Kinks and the wry, cutting songs of Ray Davies; Nick Drake, who nailed alienation and longing better than almost anyone; Antonio Carlos Jobim, who reveals emotions through chords almost more so than through lyrics; Randy Newman, obviously; and of course, Lennon/McCartney/Harrison.”

Price is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the 40-odd songs he recorded during the Stop Talking sessions, while also finishing up the debut album of the power-pop supergroup Bebopalula. “It’s incredibly gratifying to be back in a band, especially one where everyone else is such a good singer/songwriter in their own right,” he says. “It takes so much of the pressure off when you only have to deliver 1/4 of the material, and the rest of the time you can really focus on making your contributions as a musician as impactful as possible. The album has a very unique sound, I think unlike anything else around currently.”

Can’t wait. 

7/7 update: Just expanded the playlist from 25 tracks to 30, with selections from Fleet Foxes, Real Estate, Curse of Lono, BNQT with Fran Healy and one more from Sweet. (Yes, it looks like there are 32 embed below, but that's a Spotify glitch.)

Only yesterday did it hit me that 24 of the 25 tracks on the initial playlist are from North American bands and artists, the exception being Radiohead. Of course, you could also throw in Christine McVie on the two collabs with Lindsey if you want to be picky. In any case, I find that fact encouraging. But I’ve added some Brit flavor in two of the additional five with Healy and up-and comers Curse of Lono.