By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
Every year around this time, I sit down to start work on this feature and I marvel at the sheer number of wonderful albums released during the previous 12 months. And then, I’m off and running.
The process of reviewing contenders for this list results in a survey of the absolute top of the pops that came out during the last 12 months. There were a lot of great indie records released in 2017. These are the ones that I came back to the most.
There are 21 entries in this year’s feature–18 albums and three singles, all followed by links you can click on to purchase them. They are presented in no particular order. As in years past, I do not rank them; I have trouble deciding which album should sit at number five versus number six and anyway, if I did rank them, the placements would likely vary depending on the day. So they are presented as a group of highly listenable creations, all of which I recommend without reservation, every day of the week.
And so, without further ado, here is Pure Pop Radio’s Favorite Records of the Year: Stars of 2017. The choices are mine; the pleasure, listening to them, is all yours.
Bill DeMain | Transatlantic Romantic
Built around the Nashville, Tennessee artist’s piano and lovely vocals, and co-producer Jim Hoke’s tasteful string and horn arrangements, Transatlantic Romantic is a delicious, wonderfully arranged song cycle stacked high with sweet, beautifully written and performed classic-sounding songs in the style of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, and Harpers Bizarre. Case in point: “Lemon Yellow,” a lovely waltz blessed by Van Dyke Parks-meets-George Martin strings, Randy Newman-esque piano, and the charming story about the love of a car that came “all the way from Germany.” There is charm to spare in this gem of an album, a warm, beating heart full of joy. Purchase
Bill Lloyd | It’s Happening Now
It’s Happening Now bathes listeners in the warm glow of tremendous acoustic-based songs evoking mid-’60s folk-pop aesthetics. Lovely melodies, nimble acoustic guitar playing, and emotive vocals combine for an affective listening experience from a contemporary music master. A couple of heartfelt numbers are among the best songs that Lloyd has written thus far: the gorgeous, beautifully orchestrated and tenderly sung “Happiness,” about really and truly and completely giving in to love (“Happiness/As much of a choice as a chance/You simply decide that you’ll dance/This time…/Then maybe you’ll finally be blessed with/Happiness”), and “Let Me In Your Life Again,” a gentle upbeat plea for rekindling a romance (“Back inside your grace/Warm in your embrace/Only face to face/Do I feel anything so true”). It’s Happening Now is Bill Lloyd’s finest hour, by far. Purchase
The Bye Bye Blackbirds | Take Out the Poison
Bradley Skaught’s Oakland, California-based outfit’s best offering yet presents 11 finely wrought, emotionally charged songs in an album stocked full of classic tracks. Variety is the key: “Let Your Hair Fall Down,” an out-and-out pop workout, complete with horns and sounding as if it were plucked from the J. Geils playbook, sits comfortably alongside such numbers as the mid-tempo, string-laden country ballad, “Duet,” which features a lovely vocal by Lindsay Paige Garfield, who co-wrote the song with Skaught. A career-defining release. Purchase
Karla Kane | King’s Daughters Home for Incurables
The Corner Laughers’ Karla Kane steps into the spotlight with this enchanting solo set bringing together modern folk and soft pop sensibilities. Kane’s lovely vocals and melodies power these heartfelt songs, such as the gorgeous ballad “Under the Oak in May” and the amazing, percussive piano marvel “All Aboard,” which sports a traveling, train-inspired beat and builds to a seductive close. A true marvel of an album. Purchase
Fun of the Pier | 14:42
Nottingham, England’s Fun of the Pier paints their debut album in bright, happy folk-pop hues for a pleasing listening experience. Songs such as “Past/Future” and “(In My) Time” are drenched in lovely, clever and catchy melodies. Beautiful ballads “Lost and Lazy” and “I Live this Life (She Said)” hearken to classic artists such as Claire Hamill and Kate Rusby (and there is a correlation worth noting). 14:42 is a wonderful, delightful collection of songs, expertly performed, with Helen Luker’s alluring vocals particularly noteworthy. Purchase
Kelley Ryan | Telescope
astroPuppees veteran Ryan’s long player is a master class effort of melodic proportions, stocked deep with luscious, carefully crafted compositions. Telescope’s enticing mix of balladry and radio-friendly should-be-top-of-the-pops creations includes the catchy, mid-tempo closer “Real Gone Girl,” with its enticing melody and lovely, memorable and magical harmonies; and the gentle, so pretty “Pulling for Romeo,” from which this album gets its title (“You’re at the end of your rope/Don’t need a telescope…”). How does this album fit into the current melodic pop landscape? It fits like a glove. Purchase
Dave Caruso | Buddha Pesto Manifesto
Dave Caruso’s new songs, which form the whole of this career-defining new album, play with the duality of the times in our lives when decisions must be made. Easy or hard to fathom, these decisions are the fabric of our lives, set within this album to glide along atop durable melodies that beat to the heart of the matter. The album’s closer is a particular highlight: “I Get to Make You Laugh,” delivered emotionally by way of Caruso’s tender vocal and keyboard, finds the narrator self-realizing that another man has the woman’s commitment at the same time that the narrator has her soul. Coming three years after the bravura performances captured within Caruso’s breakout album Cardboard Vegas Roundabout, Buddha Pesto Manifesto sets a high bar for future musical endeavors. Purchase
Cindy Lee Berryhill | The Adventurist
A deeply felt, melodic, invigorating and emotional song cycle looking back on and celebrating Berryhill’s time with Paul Williams, the creator of Crawdaddy, the first, authoritative rock publication of record, The Adventurist shows the future unfolding for Berryhill one day at a time with each new step forward informed by steps already taken. The album’s heart-filled center is the heartbreakingly honest, emotionally melodic “Somebody’s Angel” (“The first time I kissed somebody new/I cried when I thought about you/And all the good times we had and the living we’d been through,” Berryhill sings. “Now I’m here for you forever or long as I am able/I gotta be somebody’s angel.”) The Adventurist, a remarkable, many-hued cycle of life, will grab hold of your heart as it summons your deepest emotions to the surface and affects you to your core. (Omnivore) Purchase
Cait Brennan | Third
A miraculous, astounding, and audacious album pairing Brennan, a one-of-a-kind artist, and multi-instrumentalist and ace producer Fernando Perdomo, Third is surely one of those fortified-in-heaven happenings that make life on earth a wonderful thing. Recorded at Memphis, Tennessee’s legendary Ardent Studios, fortified with Big Star heart, Third is a roller coaster ride through all of life’s travails, an emotional wake up call for all humans negotiating the pathways of their existence. The album’s highlight? “Catiebots Don’t Cry,” a gut-wrenching you-love-her-I-love-her-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it slow-to-mid-tempo burner, a skewed kind of aromatic love song featuring Brennan’s multi-tracked, thing-of-beauty three-dimensional vocal harmony stacks. This Third is astonishing, bold, and seemingly effortless. (Omnivore) Purchase
The Blood Rush Hour | Who Folds First
The followup to 2014’s astounding And Then… The Unthinkable Happened is just as miraculous and entirely satisfying, encompassing a variety of song styles, all finely wrought melodic microcosms and performed with perfection. Who Folds First brings the hits and a few happy surprises, like the Manhattan Transfer-like, a cappella opening that introduces the Todd Rundgren-esque “No More Excuses,” and “The Space that We Have Made,” about getting to the heart of the matter, a triumphant Steely Dan-ish number sung by Pure Pop Radio favorite Christian Phillips, who devised the three-dimensional vocal arrangements with Hour leader Robert DeStefano. Joyous and quite special. Purchase
Chris Price | Stop Talking
Stop talking? Hardly. The aim is for you to listen to these wonderful songs, recorded by Price between 2013 and 2016, and tell your friends about them, thereby creating a groundswell of support for this exceptional artist. From the catchy Paul McCartney-meets-Stephen Bishop-meets-Rupert Holmes “One of Them” to the tender, Nilsson-esque “You and Me (And Everyone Else),” co-written by Price and The New Pornographers’ Joe Seiders, and the toe-tapping, orchestrated charmer “Once Was True,” which puts a lovely chord progression and melodic structure center stage, Stop Talking is a classy keeper. (Omnivore) Purchase
The Weeklings | Live at Daryl’s House Club Vol. 1
Ten Beatles classics, inhabited and driven with red-hot enthusiasm by this ever-passionate New Jersey foursome, blow like missiles out of your speakers for a fun time that, yeah, yeah, yeah, cannot help but be had by all. Top tracks? Take your pick: “I Saw Her Standing There” (energy to spare and take-that drumming), “Nowhere Man” (tight, three-dimensional harmonies), or “Helter Skelter,” (a pulse-pounding showcase for the band and Lefty’s in-your-face vocal). Or, really, any of the other tracks on offer. Short of being transported to an alternate universe where the actual Beatles are playing at a club in your neighborhood, this is as real as this fab thing gets. (See below for more Weeklings fun.) Purchase
Coke Belda | Coke Belda 3 (Gs): A Tribute to the Bee Gees
The long-awaited followup to 2013’s Coke Belda I and 2015’s Nummer Zwei breathes new life into the art of musical homage. This alluring celebration of the charms of the Brothers Gibb, a virtual explosion of Bee Gees joy, hits the mark at every turn. Playing all of the instruments and singing all of the vocals, save for a welcome guest appearance from Gretchen’s Wheel’s Lindsay Murray, Coke delivers smile after smile. “Claustrophobia,” arranged and played as a sweet Merseybeat romp, will book you on a virtual time travel trip back to the 1960s. The album closer, a beautiful take on “Our Love (Don’t Throw It All Away),” a top 10 Billboard chart hit for Andy Gibb in 1978, written by Bee Gee Barry and keyboardist Blue Weaver, is a welcome, perhaps unexpected nugget. Follow with glee. (Bonus Belda joy follows below.) Purchase from Kool Kat (CD), Purchase from Futureman (Digital)
Scott Gagner | Pins and Needles
A way-more-than-worthy followup to 2014’s five-star Rise and Shine, Pins and Needles elevates Scott Gagner’s art to six stars, at least. Boasting 10 literate, affecting pop songs and a lovely, emotional reading of “America the Beautiful,” the album is one of the great pleasures of 2017. Top numbers include the bluesy “Heart Attack” (“It seems I was a victim of love/Not heart disease”), the classic pop sounds of “The Ghost of Me and You,” and the aforementioned “America the Beautiful.” Lovely through and through. Purchase
Robyn Gibson | Bob of the Pops Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Buoyant exercises in the art of homage, Bob of the Pops Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 find The Junipers’ multi-instrumentalist Robyn Gibson having a good old time putting his warm, wide-eyed spin on some of his favorite pop songs from across the decades. All across this lovingly essayed two-volume landscape, Gibson’s softhearted vocals and obvious love for the material cast a warm glow over every melody line and emotional keystone communicated. In Gibson’s hands, these classic constructs breathe new life into familiar musical landscapes. From Vol. 1, The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” fairly drips with joy; the opening, harmony drenched a cappella couplet is sweetly delivered, and the song reveals itself as a modern-day folk song, every harmonic element glimmering with life and hope. Among the other top spins: The Hollies’ “Listen to Me” and the Who’s “I Can’t Reach You.” Vol. 2’s take on the Monkees’ “Girl that I Knew Somewhere” and Matthew Sweet’s “I’ve Been Waiting” are winners, as is “Bob’s” version of a well-known little group from Liverpool’s “There’s a Place.” Unmissable, and so much fun. Free Downloads
Scott Brookman | Smellicopter Two
Four years and seven months on from the mighty Smellicopter, Richmond, Virginia’s favorite son returns with this top-flight five-song sequel, a sterling collection of pop songs that should not only please fans but also draw in new Brookman connoisseurs. From the opening marriage of ’70s Todd Rundgren and late-’90s June and the Exit Wounds ambiance, “Consideration,” to “Old Bones Found,” a clever, catchy mix of pure pop styles, Smellicopter Two delivers the goods. Purchase
Dana Countryman | The Joy of Pop
The fourth time’s the charm, although it certainly can be said that the previous three times have been equally charming; The Joy of Pop is nothing less than a joy, another in a growing line of wonderful retro-pop albums from a master of melody. With compatriots like Matt Tyson, Dana’s wife Tricia and Klaatu’s Dee Long in tow, you’re bound to have a rousing good time bathing in the glow of such gorgeous songs as “August Dream,” a Broadway-styled creation influenced, no doubt, by the work of Richard Carpenter, Burt Bacharach and Gilbert O’Sullivan; “Tell Me that You Love Me,” an early-1960s mid-tempo ballad dripping with Buddy Holly-isms; and “Can’t Stop Thinking ‘Bout You,” a jangly number graced with Dee Long’s beautiful guitar work. There is even a jolly holiday number, “It’s an Amazon.com Kind of Christmas,” that begs to be played year-round. Joy? There plenty to go around here. Purchase
Richard X. Heyman | Incognito
One-man-band Richard X.’s 12th album, no less than his best work by far, is powered by stellar playing, singing and songwriting that gets better with each passing year. Dazzling songs and equally dazzling performances greet you at every turn. In the pure popper “A Fool’s Errand,” the narrator tells the world that his love for his partner is solid and for the ages. “Her Garden Path” is a muscular track with a grandly attractive riff that chronicles a man’s escape from a woman’s web. And the horn-infused, soulful pop number “So What” finds Richard sounding as though he’s channeling the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere. All of Richard’s albums are fantastic listens, but if you’re new to Richard’s work and you wonder where you should start, Incognito is a great place to jump in. Purchase
Winterpills | “Colorblind”
Upon first hearing this Massachusetts band’s music and, in particular songwriter Philip Price’s top-flight, three-dimensional songs, I could do nothing except flip for joy. This single, not yet represented on an album, is a great example of what Winterpills does best, and that is envelop the listener with lovely melodies and hooks galore. Beyond that, this description from the group’s Bandcamp page sums the process up nicely: “‘Colorblind’ features an infectious wall-of-sound vocal hook, samples recorded into an iPhone in a DC parking lot, out-of-tune pianos colliding over a burned-out city, a fat R&B beat, all poured through the alchemy of producer Justin Pizzoferrato’s overdrive brain.” Add this song, and all of Winterpills’ glorious albums, to your collection today. Purchase
Coke Belda | “Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels)”
Coke Belda, who is ably represented above in this year’s Favorite Records of the Year feature, released this past November this heartfelt reinvention of Jim Croce’s top 20 hit. “My lovely wife, Verónica, introduced me to Jim Croce many years ago,” says Coke on his Bandcamp page. “I was captivated by his tunes and voice and I always thought this song was a clear power-pop song disguised as an acoustic piece.” Playing all of the instruments and singing all of the vocals, Coke has introduced Croce’s perennial to new listeners, as well as listeners who grew up with the song when it was first released. Stellar work. Purchase
The Weeklings | “Paperback Writer”
New Jersey’s Fab Four reconvened in the studio during the last few months of 2017 to record and release a couple of jolly Christmas singles–“Revolution Wonderland,” a mash-up of the Beatles’ “Revolution” and the perennial Christmas classic “Winter Wonderland,” and a lively take on the original Fabs’ “Christmas Time is Here Again,” with dollops of “Flying” and “Baby You’re a Rich Man” skillfully sewn in. Last September, they released this, and here’s that word again, joyous slice of Weekling-ized fun, reviewed by me thusly: “Lefty, Zeek, Rocky and Smokestack huddle together and Weekling-ize the number one 1966 Billboard chart Beatles smash with an in-your-face-and-your-ears-too injection of contemporary immediacy, tight-knit harmonies, a surprising and smile-inducing…break, rhythmic whirligigs, Lefty’s spot-on Paul McCartney-esque bass runs, and a daring dose of Monkees derring-do for a rip-roaring, must-play-it-again-and-again two minutes and 47 seconds-long eargasm.” Still sounds about right. Purchase
Pure Pop Radio’s signature shows, Alan Haber’s Pop Tunes Deejay Show, playing the latest and greatest melodic pop songs from today and across the decades, and Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation, the premiere Internet melodic pop talk show, air weekly on Pop that Goes Crunch Radio.
Listen to the Pop Tunes Deejay Show on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 pm ET (two different shows every week); In Conversation airs every Wednesday night at 9 pm ET. Don’t miss a minute!