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2017 YEAR IN REVIEW: pop music — the album as art form

Dismal year for pop yields several wildly creative sonic tapestries



It’s been such a shell-shocking year in so many ways that the luxury of being diverted by artists who continue to create richly inspired new music is perhaps more important than ever. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the dreadfully malnourished pop charts, but 2017 yielded a long list of superb new albums.

The 10 (well, make that 12 actually) albums listed below are among those that must not be lost in the cacophony of a constant stream of music and endless other information bombarding us. Each album reinforces the certainty that music is for catharsis and healing as much as for entertainment, and this process manifests itself in wildly diverse styles and voices. All have substantial LGBT followings as the lines between gay and straight acts becomes increasingly a non-issue for music fans.

10. Ride ‘The Weather Diaries’/Slowdive ‘Slowdive’

Yeah, it’s cheating, but it’s impossible to choose between these superb comebacks by two of the cornerstone bands of the ‘90s “shoegaze” sub-genre: Ride’s first album in 21 years and the first for Slowdive in 22. “Slowdive” is perhaps more in line with the narcotic rock dreaminess for which the band is known, while “The Weather Diaries” is spikier and explores a wider palette of sonic space. Despite being pigeonholed with a lazy and meaningless label (“shoegaze” is almost as annoying as “grunge” or “Britpop”), the albums are quite different. Both have an added poignancy and world-weariness, perhaps inevitable for artists who were in their 20s during their “heyday” and are now in the upper-reaches of their 40s. Still, both bands are obviously fully invested in the new material and the songs glow with unmistakable inspiration and intensity.

9. Kehlani ‘SweetSexySavage’

This year was dreadful for pop music overall, but “SweetSexySavage,” the sleek and bold debut by Kehlani, is an obvious exception. The album is perfectly described by its title, much the same as TLC’s “CrazySexyCool” two decades earlier. Kehlani is a talented and versatile singer, able to deliver a wicked edge when she chooses. She merges pop, soul, EDM and hip-hop vibes on songs that show off the power of her voice (“Piece of Mind,” for instance) and range from doggedly defiant (“Undercover”) to achingly vulnerable (“Advice”). The hit single “CRZY” could be a younger and more fiercely untamed version of Rihanna. At only 22, Kehlani’s debut is the kind of triumph on which a massively successful career can be built.

8. Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’

Always prolific and restless, Ryan Adams has settled into what might be the finest sustained groove of his career. His self-titled 2014 release was his best in a decade (and perhaps his career peak so far), and his first collection of original material since then is almost as good. “Prisoner” shows Adams continuing a seemingly endless ability to churn out great songs, but there’s a gravitas and grittiness borne from experience that his early-career classics “Gold” and “Heartbreaker” lack. Emotions are raw and close to the bone on “Prisoner,” with a garage-rock sensibility somewhat reminiscent of early Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

7. Moon Duo ‘Occult Architecture Volumes 1 and 2’

The pairing of Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson with keyboardist Sanae Yamada as Moon Duo continues to work magic with two thematically connected albums released several months apart. The two volumes of “Occult Architecture” are zoned-out psychedelic bliss, music for late at night when the haze of smoke is so thick the stereo lights might as well be blurry red eyes staring out from some lost corner of space. The tracks are long, trippy and resplendently beautiful. They are also timeless: Moon Duo’s hypnotic rhythms, rich layers of dreamy guitar and keyboard, and sinuous melodies travel from the late ‘60s, weave through the ‘70s into the present and back again. Put it on for any random music aficionado and ask what year it was released, you’re liable to get guesses of any year from 1968 through … 2017? Yeah, we still need excursions into hazy psychedelic dreamland to escape the sometimes rotten stench of reality and Moon Duo provides the perfect vehicle.

6. Moses Sumney ‘Aromanticism’

Maybe it’s the year, or generation, for “Aromanticism.” It’s always been mythology that one must attach to another human to attain happiness, although that angle isn’t often explored in popular music. Of course, it’s hard to even put that kind of label on Sumney’s work. His debut “Aromanticism” exists in a gauzy connective dimension that touches on sweet soul, jazz, electronica, orchestral and folk — kinda. Sumney never really lands on any of these labels, but rather hints and swirls like a glittery mist just out of reach and firmly in his own realm. Sumney’s sublime voice, often presented in an exquisite falsetto, is the human anchor that wraps the ethereal sounds of his imagination around a heart trying to function alone in a culture that typically views such a state as naturally unfulfilling and incomplete. “Aromanticism” is as stunning a collection of decidedly unromantic yet life-affirming songs as you’re likely to ever hear.

5. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

Cerebral but also soul-baringly real, there are few bands that tap so convincingly into the human experience as the National. The wounded baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger is often whispery and half-spoken, somewhat akin to Lou Reed. There is no more wrenching and honest a periscope directly into a soul’s internal monologue as the stream-of-conscious “Walk it Back.” On the tense title-track, Berninger croaks out in jaded melancholy but, as always, never allows himself to break. Stripped down electronic-tinged rock with plenty of space for the sounds to breathe, “Sleep Well Beast” is the latest top-notch offering by a band that for all their acclaim still flies under the radar. But then, given the unflinching introspection of their music and the time and repeated listens required to truly unravel it, they could hardly fly any other way.

4. Margo Price ‘All American Made’

Following her outstanding 2016 debut “Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter,” Margo Price digs even deeper into the heartland on “All American Made.” Although generally defined as a country singer, Price incorporates a variety of flavors into her gritty and deeply felt studies of life and love. It’s not all weepy maudlin ballads, though, with rave-ups like the opener “Don’t Say It” channeling the dynamic charm of Dolly Parton with the steely-eyed vision of the great Lucinda Williams. Price’s voice is fresh and disarming and there is always more there than first meets the ear. “All American Made” is loaded with piercing observations on modern life despite its sometimes breezy nature. Price is a first-rate songwriter, able to express poignancy while still tappin’ the toes when she feels like it.

3. Thundercat ‘Drunk’

Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat showcases his razor-sharp wit, dextrous musical versatility and boundless imagination on “Drunk,” his third and by far most accomplished release. “Drunk” is a bracing marriage of hip-hop, jazz and electronic elements expressed through song snippets with soulful melodies sparked with sonic flourishes in every direction. Some of his collaborators include A-listers with whom he’s worked before (Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington to name a few) and some less expected names (Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins). “Drunk” is bold but not overbearing, colorful but dreamy and pleasantly chill. It’s an epic 23-track midnight mix-tape cobbled together by an intuitively talented artist that will indeed have the listener drunk on sound by the end.

2. Algiers ‘The Underside of Power’

It’s a tall order to follow a debut as good as Algiers’ self-titled 2015 release, but their second album “The Underside of Power” is a steamroller of human angst, raging against the machine not in slogans or cliches but with viscerally gripping and emotionally charged electro-rock assaults. Complex, tense and defiantly in-your-face, Algiers doesn’t hold back for a second. Fortunately they have the boundless talent and innovation to present their dystopian visions with enough manic energy to reach out of the speakers and physically shake the listener into action. “The Underside of Power” is audacious and experimental electronic rock that sounds exactly like much of 2017 has felt. Now do something.  

1. LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’

“American Dream” is a very different album than Algiers’ but it sounds like 2017 as well, albeit different aspects through a different prism. James Murphy had famously retired LCD Soundsystem, concluding with an epic farewell show turned into a box set, so his announcement of a return was met with some degree of cynicism. “American Dream” shows conclusively that Murphy made the right decision, as it may be his finest work yet.

Murphy operates via long electronic grooves that echo the hypnotic rhythms of Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” while seamlessly appropriating from sources like alt-rock and disco, among others. “American Dream” is a sharp collection of sardonic pop, alternately melancholy and defiant. Murphy presents a different kind of struggle: the bubbling uncertainty that dominates our reality, the pent-up anger riddled with a gnawing fear that perhaps things really are too late and the bad guys have won.

Lest that sound like a misery we can achieve simply by reading the day’s news, Murphy sets the percolating unease to a consistently thrilling and inventive feast for the ears, surprising and ingeniously constructed. Listening to “American Dream” feels like waking up and wanting to believe you are indeed reading fake news, but the pulsing anxiety building in the pit of your stomach tells you that it’s all very real. It’s no American dream at all.

We are untethered in a strange land with no maps to find our way, but hey, at least we can shuffle off into oblivion jamming to funky airtight grooves that wrap around our brains as tightly as Paul Ryan’s chokehold on the throats of the 99 percent.


Music & Concerts

Musical icons and newer stars to rock D.C. this spring

Brandi Carlile, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj, and more headed our way



Brandi Carlile plays the Anthem this month.

Bands and solo artists of all different genres are visiting D.C. this spring. Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will team up to perform at the Wolf Trap in June, and girl in red will play at the Anthem in April. Some artists and bands aren’t paying a visit until the summer, like Janet Jackson and Usher, but there are still plenty of acts to see as the weather warms up. 


Brandi Carlile plays at the Anthem on March 21; Arlo Parks will perform at 9:30 Club on March 23; Girlschool will take the stage at Blackcat on March 28.


Nicki Minaj stops in D.C. at Capital One Arena as part of her North American tour on April 1; Bad Bunny plays at Capital One Arena on April 9 as part of his Most Wanted tour; girl in red performs at the Anthem on April 20 and 21; Brandy Clark plays at the Birchmere on April 25; Laufey comes to town to play at the Anthem on April 25 and 26. 


Belle and Sebastian play at the Anthem on May 2; Chastity Belt performs at Blackcat on May 4; Madeleine Peyroux stops at the Birchmere on May 5; The Decemberists play at the Anthem on May 10; the rock band Mannequin Pussy performs at the Atlantis on May 17 and 18; Hozier plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 17 as part of the Unreal Unearth tour. 


Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will sing soulful melodies at Wolf Trap on June 8; Joe Jackson performs at the Lincoln Theatre on June 10; the Pixies and Modest Mouse are teaming up to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 14; Maggie Rogers plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 16 as part of The Don’t Forget Me tour; Brittany Howard headlines the Out & About Festival at Wolf Trap on June 22; Sarah McLachlan plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 27; Alanis Morissette performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 29 and 30

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year



When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena



Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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