Best Musical Notes
In dark times, it's easy to see how music can be a perch of solace, an escape from everything that threatens to wear people down into unthinking, unfeeling nubs. But in a year as dreadful as 2017, it's easy to see how music—like all art—is so much more. It's the true beating heart of life. Music isn't merely a chance to shuck off bad shit for a song or few. Music is empathy in action. It's pure human connection.
The Trump year(s) will yield both defiant protest music and escapist pop. But just as important is the fact that artists continue communicating how they always have, sharing their views of what life is and what it can be. There's togetherness to be found in all of it, in any song that you connect with. So here's to a better 2018, and the tunes that guided the way in 2017.
Favorite Local Albums
Big Black Heart, Hank Topless
Timekeeper, Steff and the Articles
The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, Lando Chill
You gotta love a town that can offer up the honkytonk countryblues of Hank Topless, the mystical hip-hop of Lando Chill and the sophisticated pop of Steff and the Articles, all in a matter of months. All three albums, each in its own way, delivered honest emotion, flashes of insight and an irresistible pull that had me listening again and again.
Local Release Show of the Year
Lando Chill, The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind
Chill gets the nod here for transforming the old Presidio into his stage on a sweltering June night. The out-of-time effect created by the ancient adobe walls and the still night was a fitting presentation for the new music. And standing eye to eye with the performers, the crowd was transfixed.
Best Arizona Record of 2017 (non-Tucson category)
decker., In the Red
Sedona's Brandon Decker and his bandmates blend soul, blues, rock and folk and if you need a song that encapsulates the way desperation and hope comingled in 2017, look no further than "Matchstick Man."
Best Local Festival
Tucson Hip Hop Festival
The expanded second edition of the multi-genre Dusk Festival brings a welcome slice of Coachella to town. The venerable Tucson Folk Festival is always a joy. The Labor Day weekend at HOCO Fest killed it in 2017 with Thundercat and Lee Fields. But the DIY Tucson Hip Hop Festival rose above the others, delivering an excellent showcase of the most exciting musical scene in town.
Tucson Record Label of the Year
Lonesome Desert Records
Hank Topless was just the tip of the iceberg for Lonesome Desert in 2017. The upstart label focuses on raw, stripped-down acoustic music and put out records by label boss Austin Counts, Mark Matos and Tom Walbank.
New Venue of the Year
The Owls Club
Shortly after opening, the funeral-home-turned-bar launched a Sunday night residency featuring the revived Friends of Dean Martinez, and those intimate, off-night shows set the tone. A musician's hangout, Owls Club has a bit of the old Red Room feel, giving bands and DJs free rein to do their own thing.
Best One-Two Punch in Concert
Frank Turner and Jason Isbell
With apologies to Ty Segall and the Japandroids—who played to an unfortunately light crowd in October—the Rialto's top bill of 2017 featured a British folk-punk artist and an Alabama native who just might be America's best current songwriter. Turner and Isbell in combination was stupendous.
Best Music Book of the Year (Fiction)
Don Lee, Lonesome Lies Before Us
Lee's novel centers on Yadin Park, a nearly forgotten musician setting out to make one final album. A musical cousin of sorts to Thomas Cobb's Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, Yadin has long put aside bigger aspirations and is looking for personal validation in his music. It's a book about struggle, persistence, a yearning to create and ultimately the seductive and redemptive power of music.
Best Music Book of the Year (Non-Fiction)
Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes
There are 2017 biographies of Otis Redding, Van Halen and Jann Wenner in my to-read pile, so Wainwright's memoir might have some competition later, but for now it's the clear winner. The off-kilter humor in Wainwright's songs comes through, but so to does his honest reflections about family relationships. Equal parts fascinating and funny, Liner Notes is the perfect reminder to dive into (or back into) Wainwright's music.
Here are a dozen of the albums—not ranked per se, but in the order that they spring to mind—that meant the most to me in 2017:
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
Broken Social Scene, Hug of Thunder
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in this Town
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
The National, Sleep Well Beast
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman
I like to think those records have made it a year of understanding, of chasing the wild heart of life, of embracing the world, of finding hope in the midst of fear and of celebrating the indomitable human spirit.
I'll leave the last words on 2017 to Tom Petty, the everyman laureate of rock 'n' roll. The first words that rang through my mind when I heard of his passing weren't from one of his many hits, but ones that always captured for me the power of music:
How bout a cheer for all those bad girls?
And all those boys that play that rock and roll?
They love it like you love Jesus
It does the same thing to their souls.