Top 20 Audio 2017: Top 10 Albums, Top 10 Podcasts

So here it is again, my list of the 10 albums I listened to the most this year, plus my 10 favorite podcasts this year. The average number of listens for all ten of the top 10 albums this year is way lower than usual -- I listened to music overall far less often this year than I have most years to date, with the exception of 2014 -- and that's because I spend so much more time while getting ready in the morning, and while at work, listening to podcasts now than I do listening to music. There's also the fact that 2016 was a truly great year for new music and 2017 didn't even try to compete. By anyway, let's get to it:

Supertramp, Free as a Bird (1987)

I can't remember how in the world Supertramp got on my radar again this year, only that this was the first album I purchased in 2017 -- and until shortly before I did that, I did not even know this album existed. It came out thirty years ago! And it was also the last album they released in the eighties. Strangely, I've had a copy of their 1997 album Some Things Never Change for ages, and for years I thought it was their first album since Brother Where You Bound in 1985. Nope! There was this one other album, by far their least successful mainstream release -- charting at #93 in the U.K. and #101 in the U.S. And, I am a completist! Unfortunately this was too obscure even for the Seattle Public Library to have a copy, but it was selling on iTunes for $5.99, so I thought, what the hell. And while it's predictably nowhere near as good as their early albums from the seventies, it's actually not half bad -- and actually better on the whole than this one single they released from it would suggest.

Number of plays in 2017: 16

Bjork, Utopia (2017)

This album almost qualifies as a disappointment. It's by far the least number of times I've listened to a new Bjork album during the year in which I purchased it -- it's even less, by one number, than the 18 times I listened to Telegram in 1997, and all that was, was a remix album of tracks from 1995's Post. Hell, I even listened to Volta 34 times in 2007, and that's my least favorite album of hers. There's some real irony here, because Utopia was billed as her bright and happy follow-up to the deeply dark Vulnicura, which she wrote in the wake of a painful breakup -- I listened to that one 53 times in 2015. That had some great sounds and potentially cathartic lyrics. Utopia, by contrast, works surprisingly well as background music, but is almost pointedly devoid of beats of any kind, on pretty much any of the tracks. It's practically just 72 minutes of ambient sounds. Often pretty and soothing, sure, but pretty far off from what made most of Bjork's fans fall in love with her to begin with. I was hoping for something a little more infectious than this -- but, I guess you have to hand it to her, Bjork has always followed her own path, with little regard to fan service.

Number of plays in 2017: 17

Tori Amos, Native Invader (2017)

The last time Bjork and Tori Amos released an album the same year, it was 2007. That was a year of relative disappointments for both of them, Volta from Bjork and American Doll Posse -- her weakest offering to date, although she would surpass that more than once thereafter -- from Tori Amos. Amos's output since then has been spotty at best; her best releases in the past decade have been concept albums -- the Midwinter Graces holiday release in 2009 and the fantastic, classical music-inspired Night of Hunters in 2011. After the collection of covers of her own songs featuring string arrangements called Gold Dust in 2012, she finally returned to a more typical "alt-pop" Tori Amos release with Unrepentant Geraldines in 2014. And to call that album forgettable would be an understatement. And so it goes: I'd call Native Invader Tori's best album since 2005's The Beekeeper, but that's not saying much. I do wonder if I'd like this album less if she hadn't released so much comparative mediocrity in the meantime, but now with that to compare it to, this album comes as somewhat of a relief. It's far from earth shattering and is still fairly quiet on average, but it's pleasant and engaging and has nice melodies.

Number of plays in 2017: 18

Prince, Plectrumelectrum (2014)

Here is one that I sort of had to come back around on -- it's billed as an album by Prince and girl-band 3rdeyegirl, which sort of made me regard it as not quite part of "canon" Prince discography. I gave it a listen on Spotify around the time it came out -- the same year as Prince's triumphant comeback album Art Official Age -- and it did not speak to me. Prince's death early last year managed to change that, however, and I went back to give this one another listen, ultimately deciding to purchase it in May. This guy released at least one album on average every year between 1978 and 2016, and even though by now it was technically three years old, turning my attention to Plectrumelectrum made it feel like he had one more new release in 2017. It's hardly Prince's best and far from his worst; it sits pretty well in the middle of his wide range of quality. Several of the songs are quite nice, though, and I found myself getting a bit more into it than expected.

Number of plays in 2017: 19

Pet Shop Boys, Format (2012)

I did not find out until this year that the Pet Shop Boys had ever released a follow-up to their 1995 collection of B-sides, Alternative -- Format is yet another two-CD set of B-sides to singles released between 1996 and 2010. The key difference is that actual CD stores were far more common in 1995, making collections like these less easy to come by in the 2010s. I couldn't even purchase this on iTunes; it's not available for sale there -- I could only purchase the physical CD set on Amazon. But I said this already, I am a completist! (Which means there's still a couple of other Pet Shop Boys releases of similar obscurity I need to get one of these days.) By definition, of course, with the inclusion of all B-sides rather than cherry picking the best, the quality of the songs varies. I made a much better sequenced playlist of the better half of all these tracks, among which there are some really great ones.

Number of plays in 2017: 20

Sheryl Crow, Be Myself (2017)

My reaction to this album is in a similar vein to Tori Amos's Native Invader, even though they are radically different types of music. I truly loved Detours in 2008; Sheryl Crow followed that up with a "blue-eyed soul-inspired" album (1000 Miles from Memphis) in 2010 and a country album (Feels Like Home) in 2013, both of which were all right. Be Myself is better than those couple of albums that were genre departures for her, if not quite as good as her earlier, more straightforward pop-rock records. It enjoyed some good rotation on my iPod for a while, and will likely never get all that much attention again.

Number of plays in 2017: 23

Prince, Purple Rain (Deluxe) [Expanded Edition] (1984 / 2017)

EROTIC CITY- PRINCE from Christopher Carter on Vimeo.

Note on the video above: I have no idea who those people are. The thing with Prince is that, even in death, finding specific Prince tracks to share online -- and particularly on YouTube; the above is from Vimeo -- is difficult. The remastered, expanded edition of Purple Rain includes a lot of Prince's best B-sides and alternate mixes, though, including this great mix of Erotic City. I even used some of the tracks on this edition to create an "enhanced," 10-track playlist version of Purple Rain itself, with "Erotic City" added and a few of the songs replaced with what I feel are better, extended mixes.

Number of plays in 2017: 23

Katy Perry, Witness (1987)

This seems to be a year characterized by artists who once released game-changing albums but are now releasing throwaway blandness. Teenage Dream, this is not -- hell, it's not even nearly as good as PRISM. Hell, it only ranks this high on this year's list -- #3! -- because I had nothing else new to listen to for a month after I purchased it, until Kesha put out her album. More on that momentarily! Anyway, the flip side here is that this album got a weird fan backlash that I don't quite understand. It's not terrible. Just because it's not nearly as good as her previous stuff -- why get so angry about it? I mean, sure, her intent with the marketing of this album was a little misguided, but seriously: there are more important things in the world.

Number of plays in 2017: 30

Sia, Everyday Is Christmas (1987)

Yay for Sia! I only found out about this because I looked up new Christmas album releases, and then was delighted to discover this was coming. The ten tracks average hardly more than three minutes each which gives it a run time of all of 35 minutes -- and also gives it an unfair advantage over another album that runs, say, seventy minutes: I can listen to this a lot more times in a much shorter span of time. And listen, I did! I quite enjoy this album, uneven as it may be. Who cares about unevenness when at least half the tracks are truly wonderful? And the highlight is "Ho Ho Ho," possibly the best ode to holiday drunkenness ever recorded.

Number of plays in 2017: 50

Kesha, Rainbow (1987)

This is the one release in 2017 that stacks up to the many great albums of 2016: Sia's This Is Acting; Pet Shop Boys's Super; Gwen Stefani's This Is What the Truth Feels Like; Lady Gaga's Joanne; Beyoncé's Lemonade -- all truly great albums, and Rainbow stands right up to all of them. And it's by Kesha, of all people! Her first two albums were throwaway fun odes to partying, catchy but truly superficial stuff. Rainbow, clearly largely informed by her notorious battles with a record company that protected a man alleged to have assaulted her, is some deep shit -- but also cheeky in a specific Kesha style, and fun, as well as earnest and musically infectious. I might even go so far as to say that among the ten albums I list here, this one is better than the other nine combined.

Number of plays in 2017: 57

. . . And now my Top 10 Podcasts of the year!

10. Dumb People Town, hosted by Dan Van Kirk, Jason Sklar and Randy Sklar

I was introduced to this one via My Favorite Murder, I believe because Karen Kilgariff was a guest on one of their episodes. (I love Karen Kilgariff so much, I seek out other podcast episodes on which she's just a guest. But, she also talked about this on My Favorite Murder.) I don't listen to every single episode of this, as it kind of serves as filler when I've run out of other podcasts to listen to -- but I do generally enjoy it. The three hosts, and a guest, just read each other news stories about people doing dumb things.

9. Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, hosted by Peter Sagal

Here is another one that often gets put on standby and winds up ignored maybe a little more than it should -- because, honestly, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is always entertaining -- especially when frequent guest Paula Poundstone is on. And given that they play games relating to current events and news, it's at least slightly informative to boot.

8. Little Gold Men, hosted by Mike Hogan, Richard Lawson, Katey Rich, and Joanna Robinson

I only know about Joanna Robinson because of her co-hosting the A Cast of Kings podcast, about Game of Thrones, which Tommy introduced me to. There are no current episodes of Game of Thrones to record podcasts about, but since I follow Joanna on Twitter, I know about other podcasts she's on -- and I've been into this one about potentially awards-contending movies (and, to a degree, also television shows) for a while now. The hosts of this show are insightful and fun to listen to, which in my experience is rare with a podcast including so many people.

7. Homophilia, hosted by Dave Holmes and Matt McConkey

Entertainment Weekly introduced me to this one -- and it's very gay focused! Gay hosts Dave Holmes and Matt McConkey talk to a single guest each week, always someone who is LGBT, often a comedian. The follow the same format, getting introductory chit chat out of the way, mentioning whatever projects they're working on, taking a commercial break and then coming back to grill them about their love and sex lives. Some guests are better than others, but on average the podcast is charming enough to keep me coming back.

6. Savage Lovecast, hosted by Dan Savage

A longtime standby, and arguably indispensable: Savage Lovecast can be relied on to be both eye-opening and mind-opening, and really underscores the diversity -- and normalcy -- of human sexuality. Also, I've said it before and I'll say it again: two decades ago I wrote Dan Savage off as an asshole, and I still think he was at the time. He mellowed as he aged, and although he can still be harsh when he needs to be, I actually think his is one of the most empathetic voices out there today.

5. The Complete Guide to Everything, hosted by Tom Reynolds and Tim Daniels

Somehow this got omitted from last year's list, and that could not possibly have been deliberate -- I guess I somehow accidentally spaced it. The Complete Guide to Everything has been a standard on my podcast rotation since I first asked Gabriel for recommendations -- he texted me several, including this one, Savage Lovecast and Doug Loves Movies, which I believe are the only ones left of those initial recommendations still on this list. And this one still seems like an unlikely favorite -- two straight guys who are best friends just talk about a specific random topic each week, often in blatantly misinformed ways. You listen to them long enough, though, and you start to feel like you're part of the group, just hanging out with these guys who, in spite of yourself, you just can't help but laugh with.

4. Do You Need a Ride?, hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Chris Fairbanks

I moved this one up two spaces from its ranking of #6 last year -- I already mentioned how much I love Karen Kilgariff (and I listened to this podcast before I even made the connection that she was also hosting My Favorite Murder, which Tommy was into a bit before I was, because a comedian I liked happened to be a guest on it once), but Chris Fairbanks is actually nearly as delightful to listen to. The original concept has gotten a bit muddled, as in the beginning it was all about recording podcasts in the car while these two drove a friend to or from the airport -- but that proved to be both complicated and dangerous. So, keeping the title, they took to recording an hour of chit chat in a studio -- someone coming in for the first time during those episodes must have been super confused. Every once in a while they do an episode in the car giving someone a ride again, and those still remain my favorite. But against all probability, listening to these two just shoot the shit with each other for an hour -- especially when Chris makes Karen laugh -- is a reliable delight. They record these fairly randomly so its one major drawback is how seldom they release episodes, as compared to others done once or more a week.

3. My Favorite Murder, hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Have I mentioned My Favorite Murder? Two woman friends -- Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark -- with an eager interest in true crime take turns telling each other the story of a specific murder case. Now that this podcast has become a bona fide phenomenon, it might be slightly more difficult for newbies to get into it -- they spend a lot of time talking about unrelated stuff at the beginning of episodes, which hold the interest of longtime listeners but could have others thinking, What the hell are they talking about? The best advice I could give there, really, is simply to go back and start from the beginning. That's what I did after starting with the especially disturbing episode 18, which was their latest when I first checked them out in May 2016 -- that episode was so unsettling that I wondered if I could stomach the podcast. But, I decided to give it a chance and went back to episode 1, and haven't missed a single episode since. I'm not even all that into true crime myself and never have been, but I just love the chemistry and rapport between these two women. I am clearly not alone there.

2. WTF with Marc Maron, hosted by Marc Maron

The first podcast I ever listened to, and I still listen to it religiously -- largely the reason I bumped it back up to #2 above My Favorite Murder, since that one's novelty has subsided slightly, and I've now listened to both for plenty of time. The best thing about Marc Maron is how he can make interesting conversation with literally anybody. On other podcasts you might see a certain name as the guest and immediately write it off as skip-able and potentially dull. But it really doesn't matter who Maron is talking to, with very few exceptions, his conversations are worth listening to. He likes to say that he doesn't have a specific format, but he does ask certain same questions of all his guests -- most consistently what their parents did for a living. He then jumps off from there to get through their education and careers, nearly always getting his guests to open up in a way no other interviewer could, mostly because he's so casual that he puts virtually everyone at ease.

1. Doug Loves Movies, hosted by Doug Benson

My #1 always: Doug Loves Movies. I never, ever tire of this podcast, which combines two of my favorite things: comedy and movies. It's basically a movie trivia game show in podcast form, with a panel of usually three guests, usually comedians but sometimes singers or actors or, in rare cases, a member of the audience. I've gone to live tapings of this podcast more than I have any other. And something I noticed about Doug Benson this year I really want to mention: he is very much a friend to women, a guy who, while he'd never likely boast "I'm a feminist!" (perhaps because it would make him sound like the guys who do who typically have no clue how misogynistic they really are), really is a genuine feminist. Any comments -- or even jokes -- he ever makes about the plethora of stories about sexual harassment and mistreatment of women always come from a place of clear empathy, and bafflement at the behavior of predatory men. And I've been listening to this guy so much for so long now that I can tell he's the real deal: a proud pothead, sure, but also just an all around good guy. Being able to sense that really makes a difference, particularly in the current cultural climate.

[posted 7:35 am]

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