Pop culture consumption is personal, often accidental and really time consuming.
Which is to say, as a fan and a critic, you get to December and make best-of lists of your favorites. And then, as soon as you post those, you start thinking about the records from earlier in the year that you liked but forgot about, or the artists that you meant to explore but never got around to, or you hear about acts for the first time that somehow evaded your notice.
Here then, is one more list, consisting of a dozen could-have-been contenders that either, in this critic’s estimation, didn’t get as much attention as they deserved, or maybe did from other quarters but not from me. It’s 2017 stuff assembled in no particular order that fell through the cracks, and things I slept on that I’m glad I woke up to before the 2018 onslaught starts in earnest.
Alex Lahey, I Love You Like A Brother. Australian punk-pop songwriter whose full-length debut comes on with an abundance of Ramones-y energy and no shortage of hooks. Tender wit is also displayed on the 25-year-old Melbourne guitarist’s tunes like as “I Love You Like a Brother” and “Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Shorthand for understanding Lahey’s sensibility: Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen are her favorite songwriters.
Cindy Lee Berryhill, The Adventurist. The first album in nearly a decade from the California songwriter associated with the anti-folk movement of the mid-1990s. Berryhill took a break in part to care for her husband Paul Williams, the rock critic pioneer who founded Crawdaddy at Swarthmore College in 1966 and suffered from early onset dementia in after a 1995 bike accident. Williams died in 2013, and The Adventurist excels on emotionally fraught songs like “Somebody’s Angel” that struggle with grief before moving on with grace.
SZA, Ctrl. The Maplewood, New Jersey, alt-R&B singer with the Wu-Tang Clan inspired stage name — she was born Solana Rowe — is hardly unappreciated. She’s up for five Grammys, after all. But I never really honed in on Ctrl, the 28-year-old’s breakout debut, until 2017 had run its course. What becomes clear from a focused listen is what a frank, emotionally truth-telling songwriter SZA is. She works in a wide range of styles as she refuses to be boxed in stylistically, in a way that recalls celebrated contemporaries like Frank Ocean. She headlines the Fillmore on Jan. 31.
Neil Young. Yes, Neil Young got back to the business of making better-than-decent new music in 2017 with his Trump-inspired protest album The Visitor. But the exciting stuff came from journey’s into the Canadian iconoclast’s past. First, there was Hitchhiker, a 10-song acoustic recording cut in one night in 1976 that includes versions of “Powderfinger” and “Pocahontas,” as well as unreleased songs. And in December, the singer opened up the rabbit hole of his Neil Young Archive, which includes every album he ever released plus 10 more he didn’t over the course of a 50-plus year career. It’s streaming for free with high quality audio up to Young’s persnickety standards until June 30. Sign up at neilyoungarchives.com.
Radiator Hospital, Play ‘The Songs You Like.’ My excuse for falling behind on non-Philadelphia music is often that there’s so much Philadelphia music to keep abreast of. But even keeping pace with local acts can be a challenge. Radiator Hospital are a West Philly indie-rock band fronted by guitarist-songwriter Sam Cook-Parrott, and the quality of his own songs collected here (and often sung with Cynthia Schemmer) was overshadowed by the Philly acts whose albums he contributed to, including those by Allison Crutchfield and Japanese Breakfast. But there are plenty of perky and catchy memorable tunes like “Pastoral Radio Hit” and the title cut on this fifth Radiator Hospital album.
Patti Cake$. It’s not an album, it’s a movie. Director and screenwriter Geremy Jasper’s drama chronicles the aspirations of fictional North Jersey rapper Patti Dombrowski, played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. She’s nicknamed “Dumbo” by haters due to her size, but in her own mind — and in that of her hype man Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) — she’s a superstar with stage names like Killa P., Marilyn Mansion, Juicy Luciano and Patti Cake$. The empathetic music movie was a hit at Sundance last year, and it astutely establishes authentic Jersey mise-en-scene with an obscure Springsteen song, “The Time that Never Was,” on the soundtrack. On demand and on DVD.
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band, Dreaming in the Non-Dream. Veteran Philadelphia guitarist Forsyth stretches out as he sees fit on an album with a title inspired by a William Burroughs quote: “America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream.” The opening instrumental “History & Science Fiction” and the title cut on the four-song album stretches over 11 minutes, but Forsyth’s thoughtfully constructed explorations, which bear the influence of German motorik bands like Kraftwerk, contain few wasted notes, and will be a natural step for fans of other Philly guitar acts like The War on Drugs and Steve Gunn.
Tyler Childers, Purgatory. Fans of unexpurgated hard truths from down South were well served by rootsy end-of-year list standouts like Margo Price’s All American Made, Angaleena Presley’s Wrangled and Jason Isbell’s more-rock-than-country The Nashville Sound. Also way worthy is the third album by Childers, which was produced by fellow Kentuckyan Sturgill Simpson, who also sings and plays guitar on it. Purgatory is bluegrass flavored collection that packs a Steve Earle-worthy punch, particularly on the pungent cocaine-fueled “Whitehouse Road.”
Kelly Lee Owens, Kelly Lee Owens. Dreamy folktronic music from a Welsh songwriter and former nurse whose becalmed melodies and bewitching techno-pop beats recall the understated soulfulness of fellow Brits such as Tracy Thorn of Everything But the Girl. I hadn’t heard of her — or of the similarly folkie but more psychedelic Jane Weaver, who’s Modern Kosmology is also a find — until they started turning up on year end lists. Subtly entrancing.
Syd, Fin. It’s been a little tricky tracking the career of Sydney Bennett, who first came to prominence as Syd tha Kid, the openly gay DJ-producer of the often-homophobic hip-hop collective Odd Future, before distinguishing herself as the singer of the awfully named alt-R&B duo The Internet. Now simply Syd, she’s moved on from Odd Future (whose leader Tyler, the Creator, also made a surprisingly mature record this year) making coolly sophisticated observational soul music that avoids clichés and showcases her luscious voice.
Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir. Stephin Merritt hasn’t released anything as grand in scope as his masterwork 69 Love Songs. And even 18 years later, the droll, deep-voiced songwriting savant still couldn’t escape the shadow of his former work. How else to explain how little year-end attention was paid to this often dazzling five-volume musical autobiography, which includes one song for each year Merritt has spent on the planet?
Pop Makossa, The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon, 1976-1984. ‘Invasive’ sounds scary, like a surgical procedure that might require anesthesia. Rest assured, though, this set showcasing the lighter-than-air West African dance music that melds rumba and funk from the nation that also produced Sixers center Joel Embiid will not put you to sleep.