What distinguished the best popular music recordings of the past year? Was it stylistic invention? Exceptional songcraft? A willingness to create something new out of inspirations from the past?
Well, yes, there was all of that. But try this as a selling point. Half of the entries in this critic’s pick list of the Top 10 albums from 2017 came from women — women working largely in the areas of soul and pop. From the contemplative strength of an ageless Mavis Staples to a time-tripping Brit-pop excursion co-piloted by Offa Rex’s Olivia Chaney to a sweet soul sendoff from the late and awesomely great Sharon Jones, 2017 was a year women artists made their collective voices heard alongside remarkable works from American megastar Jason Isbell, new generation jazz journeyman Kamasi Washington and Kentucky’s own country renegade Tyler Childers.
Listed here in random order, the Top 10 are:
Rhiannon Giddens: “Freedom Highway”
Following her stunning 2015 solo debut “Tomorrow is My Turn” that emphasized remarkable stylistic reach, interpretive prowess and crystalline vocal delivery, the principal Carolina Chocolate Drop placed the focus of her sophomore album on her own songs as well as a deep rooted social consciousness. What we get as a result is a record of tremendous soul, grace and humanity.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “The Nashville Sound”
“The Nashville Sound” is perhaps the most dubiously titled record from 2017 by a major artist. That’s because it has nothing in common with the homogenized country sounds one normally associates with Nashville. Instead, the record furthers Isbell’s reputation as a masterful and tastefully emotive songsmith that echoes everyone from John Prine to R.E.M. Most of all, though, it furthers his own expert, Alabama-bred voice.
Mavis Staples: “If All I Was Was Black”
The working partnership between gospel-soul empress Staples and Wilco chieftain Jeff Tweedy reconvenes for their third album together. This time, Tweedy wrote or co-wrote all the material in addition to producing. But the magic comes from combining his very complimentary songs with a vocal charge from Staples that takes a step back into a more simmering, controlled intensity that recalls her majestic Staple Singers legacy.
Chuck Prophet: “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
From 1999’s “The Hurting Business” onward, Prophet has created a body of work that celebrates rock ’n’ roll’s mighty heritage with a voice that recalls Tom Petty, but with more abandon. Hence, new songs like “Jesus Was a Social Drinker,” “If I Was Connie Britton” and a title tune that chronicles the mysterious death of a 1960s rock idol. From songs of protest to tales of salvation, Prophet remains a force of pure rock ’n’ roll vigor.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings: “Soul of a Woman”
It’s easy to champion the final album by the late soul songstress Jones for purely sentimental reasons, but the bottom line is that “Soul of a Woman” is the singer’s most fully realized and exquisitely executed work — a record that doesn’t just reaffirm her place at the forefront of a new soul music generation. It also keenly addresses vintage pop, robust gospel and vintage R&B with tireless power and dignity.
Tyler Childers: “Purgatory”
Childers has been a musical force in his native Kentucky for so long that one assumed the rest of the country knew about his gifts as a songwriter and his natural ability for assimilating country soul sentiment and restlessness. That changed with the Sturgill Simpson/David Ferguson-produced “Purgatory,” a record that relishes in a hybrid roots cocktail best described by the title to one of the record’s finest songs: “Universal Sound.”
Offa Rex: “The Queen of Hearts”
Offa Rex is a stirring summit between American pop voyagers The Decemberists and British singer and instrumentalist Olivia Chaney. The resulting sound on “The Queen of Hearts” owes greatly to the ’60s and ’70s music of Fairport Convention and the Albion Band, two of the first bands to plug traditional British folk into American rock ’n’ roll. As such, Offa Rex sounds both beautifully ancient and artfully progressive.
Kamasi Washington: “Harmony of Difference”
Saxophonist Washington’s sprawling 2015 breakthrough album “The Epic” was a three disc, three hour opus that announced the arrival of a jazz visionary. The new “Harmony of Difference” is a mere 35 minutes in length, but is more commanding because of sheer efficiency. Styles and themes rotate before coalescing in the extended finale tune “Truth,” yielding an organic soul-jazz charge that sounds more like 1971 than 2017.
Nicole Atkins: “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”
Take a road-tested Jersey Girl, re-route her to Nashville, let her toss in a few epic pop influences that bolster her singing and add in the help of veteran rock/pop tradesman Chris Isaak and you have the new and vastly improved Atkins at the helm of her fourth and by far finest album. “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” has the vocal grandeur at times of Roy Orbison and the narrative daring of Lucinda Williams.
The Old 97s: “Graveyard Whistling”
Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond and Philip Peeples has been dispensing a sound comprising equal parts power pop and cowpunk for nearly 25 years. “Graveyard Whistling,” the band’s best album in over a decade, proudly stands its musical ground with truckloads of twang, distortion, punkish turns and trippy narratives that sound like a cross between Sons of the Pioneers and Link Wray.