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The It’s Time to Play B-Sides Top 20 Albums of 2017

2017 to me felt like a transition year in many ways– personally, politically, culturally and certainly musically. For me personally 2017 will represent the year that my wife and I made the biggest steps away from 2011 when I was unemployed for eight months following a 13-year run in IT middle management. We bought a house after renting for over six years– the house hunt was a crazy one with lots of ups and downs. But we found a house that we love and it ends up being kind of perfect for being a place our grandson can come hang out and listen to records with Papa.

2017 was another year in a troubling pattern of musician deaths. The biggest of these is the unexpected passing of Tom Petty which for me was as big a loss as Prince was in 2016. I discovered Petty in 1986 with the release of Southern Accents. Although I had heard the big singles on the radio up to that, Southern Accents was released when I was searching for music that spoke to me. In that regard I look at Tom Petty as being “my Beatles.” The Beatles were a big part of my musical rearing, but they were already broken up by the time I started striking out on my own musical tastes. Petty was someone whose career set a benchmark for everyone who made guitar driven rootsy rock and roll. Petty continues to be something I can put on at any time and never tire of listening to. I was fortunate to be able to see him during his 40th Anniversary tour this summer in Des Moines and it was kind of full-circle as I was there with my dad and my brothers– just about 30 years after the first Tom Petty concert we saw in Chicago.

As far as new notable albums for 2017, I’m kind of out in left field again. My other writing gig as album reviewer for Little Village Magazine ends up determining what I listen to the most at any given time as I crash-listen to new Iowa-based or related albums and that is reflected again in my list.  That said, these are all really strong releases that hold up against the deluge of new major releases. Albums that others are including in their lists that I probably need to give at least a cursory listen to include the new Foo Fighters album Concrete and Gold, Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Some releases that nearly made the list were the new National album, the new Fleet Foxes album, and the new War on Drugs.

Here’s my Top 20 for 2017 (In no particular order):

Beth Bombara – Map & No DirectionBeth Bombara has been cranking out really solid albums for a while now. She’s a gifted songwriter and musician and her releases are always really strong. With her 2017 album, she has taken her spin on folk, Americana and rock and turned the “rock” knob up a bit putting out a record that is up there with the best releases Sheryl Crow put out. Bombara is kicking off 2018 with her first tour of Europe which will give her more deserved exposure.

Pieta Brown – Postcards – Brown’s latest album is a collection of “musical postcards” which are made up of collaborations with folks like Calexico, Mark Knopfler, The Pines and David Lindley. The resulting album still sounds like a Pieta Brown album which is always a good thing. You can read my interview with Brown for Little Village Magazine here.

Charlie Parr – DogDog is Charlie Parr‘s second release for Red House Records and he’s continuing the full band trend for releases. Dog doesn’t have Phil Cook and friends behind him like Stumpjumper did, but the album still has the same energy and blistering slide guitar and picking we’ve come to expect from Parr.

Crystal City – Bartenderly – Iowa City’s Crystal City is primarily the duo of Dave Helmer and Sam Drella who stylistically occupy an intersection somewhere between John Prine and Paul Westerberg. Their latest album Bartenderly is a celebratory salvo of headbuzz rock for the bruised blue collar. You can read my review for Little Village Magazine here.

Deer Tick – Deer Tick 1 & 2 – This couple of albums from Deer Tick is as close to a #1 as I’m willing to commit to on this list. Aside from John McCauley’s stint in the supergroup of Middle Brother with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit I really hadn’t listened to any Deer Tick until this two LP release this year. The band took a four-year hiatus while the members did things like start families. They came back together and pulled a Use-Your-Illusion two album release this year. The band says that these are not to be considered as one release, but really it would be tough choice to only buy one of them. The band said that they were always kind of two bands: an acoustic folk band or an electric rock band. So, this is what we got, an acoustic album in Vol 1 and a rock album in Vol 2. These records are both full of brilliant songs– no filler (unlike the Guns ‘n’ Roses pair mentioned earlier).

SUSTO – & I’m Fine TodaySUSTO is a “friend of Codfish Hollow” band that’s played there a few times and I managed to catch them during the first GARP Festival in 2016 and was really impressed. They played a few songs from this album, so I was interested in hearing it when it came out this year. & I’m Fine Today is an album that slides around stylistically with ease and comfort making this album musically more interesting than their previous releases to me. This album was on a very regular rotation for me in 2017 and one that I never get tired of spinning. The song that rips me up every time I listen to it is what I consider to be the spiritual successor to “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat : “Gay In The South.” Brilliant song.

Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow – If you’ve been following my Year End posts, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this album on here, since M.C. Taylor has been a favorite of mine since before he launched Hiss Golden Messenger. His partnership with Merge Records and with Phil and Brad Cook (formerly of Megafaun) has created a music juggernaut: touring nearly incessantly and creating four albums in three years of head-nodding rhythm and groove albums which draw inspiration from the golden era of Van the Man and The Dead. Releasing Hallelujah Anyhow so soon on the heels of the double album Heart Like A Levee and Vestapol is counter-intuitive based on the typical album release/tour/album release cycle. Taylor said that when he and manager Brad Cook were talking about wanting to release an album right away, they thought it felt good to do it and Merge was amenable to the idea, and certainly it was the right time because this album fires on all cylinders.

Game Theory – Supercalifragile – Prior to his unexpected passing in 2013, Scott Miller of Game Theory and The Loud Family was working on a new album of collaborations. To be titled Supercalifragile, it was going to be the first album of songs under the Game Theory moniker since the 1988 album Two Steps from the Middle Ages (itself was reissued in 2017 as part of the massive Omnivore Records reissue campaign). Miller’s wife Kristine took the mantle of finishing the album by taking the notes and her memories of what he had planned and called in friends, former bandmembers and collaborators in to finish the album. The songs were in varying degrees of completeness: some had demo recordings Miller had created, some just notes. The resulting album is bittersweet: equal parts official posthumous release and tribute to the fallen songwriter. I find it to be a fitting closure. You can read my post on this site here.

Grateful Dead – Cornell 5/8/77 – When the Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux announced that Cornell 77 was going to be released as a Dead Archives official release, I was really excited (as many were). Cornell was one of the first full Dead tapes I ever heard and was really amazed by how good it sounded– both performance and recording itself. I had pretty much been avoiding Dead tapes due to how much of a mixed bag they were. As luck would have it, one of the early peer-to-peer trading networks (pre-dimeadozen) had the full cache of the Betty Boards tapes, which included the legendary 5/8/77 show. These were early rips of the reel-to-reels done by a close-knit group of Dead fans who bought the contents of the storage facility that she’d let lapse. Eventually the Dead pulled electronic trading of soundboards, but I had the show I cared about downloaded. I managed to snag one of the 5 LP box sets of which 7700 were pressed used on eBay. It had a crumpled box corner, but the contents were in fantastic shape. They did a fantastic job of cleaning up this recording and somehow even fixing the first missing couple of minutes. The bootleg that circulated had spliced in part of an audience recording which created a really annoying transition. The box has has re-energized my interest in the Dead, and I’ve added some LPs to my vinyl collection and I’ll continue to do that, I’m sure.

Ryan Adams – Prisoner B-Sides – 2017 brought the newest album from Ryan Adams titled Prisoner. It was his third release since his signing to Blue Note Records, and second album of original work (his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 was also on Blue Note). In many ways Prisoner was kind of self-titled part 2. Most of the songs to me seemed like outtakes from Ryan Adams. Pretty good, but ultimately just more of the same 80’s influenced power pop mixed his trademarked Americana. For me, Adams is most interesting when he’s experimenting, and to that end, the massive 17-track collection of “B-Sides” from Prisoner is far more satisfying a listen. He still brings on the Smiths-influence here, but I just like the songs more. The B-Sides were released as a box set of 7-inch singles (that I should consider picking up at some point) and digital download. I’d love to see the 17 tracks released as a 2 LP (hint, hint Blue Note).

Loess – Pocosin – 2017 brought the glorious reunion of Clay Emerson and Ian Pullman as Loess. Their particular spin on electronic music comes from the Boards of Canada and early Autechre diced up and distorted ambient influence. I have loved everything that Loess has put out and Pocosin was an exciting addition for me this year. You can read my article about the release here.

The Right Now – Starlight – Chicago R&B and Soul band The Right Now’s third album came out this year and it veered a bit away from their more classic sound towards a sound very influenced by more recent disco and funk. While still fronted by the signature powerhouse vocals of Stefanie Berecz, the update is a welcome one as the push in this direction has inspired some of the best songwriting to date from the band. All Killer No Filler indeed! Here is my article about the release on this site. Here is an article about a remix from Starlight that has a 60 minute mix of songs that inspired the album, Here is an article I wrote for Little Village Magazine about a show at The Mill.

Gloom Balloon – Drying the Eyes of the Goddess of Gloom, Underneath the Stars and the MoonGloom Balloon is the moniker for Des Moines producer/artist/label head Patrick Tape Fleming. This album ends up being kind of the sonic brother from another mother of Christoper The Conquered’s album I’ve Given Up on Rock and Roll. I love this record– it sits somewhere around The Flaming Lips and ELO for experimentation and bombast at times. My review for Little Village is a good place to start reading about what I think.

Har-di-Har — we will will you – Julie and Andrew Thoreen released their first full length album as Har-di-Har in 2017. They used to live in Cedar Falls, but relocated to St. Paul a few years ago. we will will you is an album that captures a marriage in a precarious state of doubt. The resulting album is a compellingly personal album featuring their signature vocal harmonies and spiderwebby chord and percussion infrastructure.

The Pines – Pasture IIThe Pines returned with a second EP of covers. This time we get covers of a Bo Ramsey and a Pieta Brown tune. Read my review for Little Village here.

TIRES – LP1 – Phil Young is in a whole bunch of bands in and around Des Moines including The Wheelers. His instrumental side project TIRES put out their debut album in early 2017. It comes from the same “emergency rock” post rock space as bands like Trans Am and Cougar and I dig it a lot. The vinyl has a hand-screened cover, which is really cool. Here is my review for Little Village.

Colleen – Vol. 1 – Cedar Rapids synthpop duo Colleen put out their debut EP in 2017. Reminds me of Polica or Portishead. They have a new EP already recorded and should come out pretty soon. Read my review for Little Village Magazine.

NAOMI – Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish – Iowa band NAOMI is named after its lead singer and cranks out “snarky pop rock” which is as apt a description of the proceedings as any. A fun, anthemic guitar driven album that picks up where Avril Lavigne and No Doubt left off in the early oughts. Check my review for Little Village here.

Ryne Doughty – Date Night – Ryne Doughty has been crafting is particular singer-songwriter folk for a few years. I happened to catch him opening for The Pines at CSPS a while ago. He openly admits to worshiping at the temple of Greg Brown and that influence is obvious, but he’s got his own style and really we don’t have enough of the storytelling songwriters around. Read my review of Date Night for Little Village.


The Dawn – WoolyThe Dawn are the jam band ambassadors for the Quad Cities. Their latest album Wooly is the first for Cartouche Records and, I think is a bit of a departure for them. Wooly draws more R&B influences– specifically Prince into the mix which makes this album my favorite of their catalog to date. Here is my review for Little Village.

(Upcoming Release) Friends Gather to Finish Last Game Theory Album – Supercalifragile Out 8/24/17

At the time of his death in 2013, Scott Miller of seminal power pop bands Game Theory and The Loud Family was working on a new record. He was in varying degrees of completed on a bunch of songs– some songs had vocals and guitar, some of them had detailed notes. His wife Kristine reached out to Ken Stringfellow of The Posies to help coordinate finishing this record titled Supercalifragile based on conversations she had with Miller about the album (which, incidentally always included collaborations of singers and co-writers). In May of  2016, a Kickstarter was established to help fund the completion of the record. By July 4th it was 161% funded! At the time of the launch of the Kickstarter, they had already been recording for over a year, so the fundraising was primarily to wrap up some of the sessions, get mastering done and the rest of the process to get physical and digital product completed and distributed.

The list of contributors to Supercalifragile include former members of Game Theory (Jozef Becker, Nan Becker, Dave Gill, Shelley LaFreniere, Gil Ray, Donnette Thayer, and Suzi Ziegler) and notable guests including (of course) Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, R.E.M., Big Star), Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Doug Gillard (Guided By Voices, Nada Surf), Mitch Easter, Alison Faith Levy (The Loud Family), Anton Barbeau, Jonathan Segel (Camper Van Beethoven), Allen Clapp (The Orange Peels), John Moremen, Stephane Schuck, Chris Xefos, Dan Vallor (GT Reissue producer for Omnivore),  The inclusion of the former Game Theory members helps add continuity of this release to the Game Theory catalog, which has enjoyed renewed focus in the Omnivore Recordings reissues.

In a post to the Facebook group dedicated to Scott Miller, his wife has posted a lot of wonderful insight into how she and Stringfellow curated the release.

“This album is as close to what Scott would have created as is possible. I knew the artists he wanted to work with (he had even contacted a couple himself before he died as the artists confirmed this with me), and in a few cases which instruments he wanted them to play or which songs he wanted them to sing. Yes, he wanted guest vocalists and cowriters all over the record. Scott and I talked about his ideas and as he had worked with (and socialized and played tennis with) Ken Stringfellow, he proposed Ken help him organize and help produce this project. Scott spoke of having various artists bring their “arcs of influence” to the record. He said he would ultimately have veto power if anything got too out of hand (😉), but he was looking forward to having lots of great artists he admired and/or worked with to participate. (Scott even considered making track breaks mid-song when a new artist was introduced to the album. This was an idea we went with in the traditional sense by bringing on artists for entire songs. Not sure Scott would have brought this unusual idea to fruition or not.) So, in this case, with this record, completed without Scott’s final “veto,” no, we can’t possibly make the exact record Scott would have made. (And in fact, even Scott wouldn’t know what it would become until after working with everyone and it was done!) But with so much overwhelming respect for Scott’s work and in honor of his life, we all kept as much of it “Scott” as we could. All his ideas, all his lyrics, all his riffs, all his ideas for bridges and choruses…everything preserved and used as much as musically possible. In some ways, it might in fact be more “Scott” than the record Scott would have made. ❤️ And that’s why I think we all love it so much.”

In August of 2017 the finished product was shipped out to everyone who contributed to the Kickstarter and early reviews and posts to the Facebook group have been glowing. Now that the Kickstarters have been shipped out the team is ready to make the release generally available. In an email sent to people who signed up from the website, the album will be available on Bandcamp (the link isn’t available yet) this week: August 24th in download, CD and vinyl.

Click Here to Order

Tidal featured the first song from the album, a duet with Aimee Mann called “No Love” and it is striking how Mann’s vocals compliment Miller’s.

Here is a video of a rough take of “I Still Dream of Getting Back to Paris” shot at Abbey Road Studios in London during the recording sessions with Anton Barbeau on vocals. Miller (credited as The Loud Family) and Barbeau put out a kind of split release in 2006 titled What If It Works?

As a long-time fan of Scott Miller’s work, I’m really looking forward to getting this release. Like many, Miller’s sudden and unexpected loss was painful; too early in a career arc that certainly would have generated more significant releases. Supercalifragile brings some closure with this release in that regard and should provide influence for future artists the way the Big Star catalog has.

Order CD, LP or digital at Bandcamp:

B-Sides in the Bins #46: Cheapo Discs – Fridley, MN 1/31/09

The weekend I was in the Twin Cities for the Umphrey’s McGee concert at First Avenue, I had the opportunity to hit Cheapo Discs in Fridley, MN. While not as “hip” or “cool” a location as the Uptown locale, they have a surprisingly decent selection of CD’s and LP’s and would recommend it. I had a gift certificate for Cheapo from my birthday in October that was burning a hole in my pocket. I had started by perusing the CD’s there and had amassed a decent pile, but ended up putting it all away after I started flipping through the vinyl! I ended up paying a lot more per record than I usually do, but I found some really great pieces to add to the growing collection.

Smash Hits – Jimi Hendrix Experience (LP, Reprise Records MSK 2276, 1968) ($12.60) Labeled as “fine” condition. This was a later repressing of the record as it has a bar code on the back and the inner sleeve was mylar. Super minty condition! Brilliant collection even if it is generally accepted that Reprise was a bad custodian of Hendrix’s catalog. I remember borrowing a copy of this in 6th grade from Mr. Latham and taping it and playing it all the time. All the big hits are on here: “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Hey Joe,” “Foxy Lady,” “All Along the Watchtower.” Interesting writeup about Smash Hits at Wikipedia.

Wake of the Flood – Grateful Dead (LP, Grateful Dead Records GD-01, 1973) ($8.50) Labeled as “good” condition. It is a notched copy with the bottom left cover cut off. There was a lot of Grateful Dead in the bins that day including Live From the Mars Hotel, but this was in the nicest shape. Wake of the Flood represented a lot of firsts for the band–  first release after their contract with Warner Brothers ended, first release on their own Grateful Dead Records, first studio release after 1970’s American Beauty and first after the death of Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan. Wake was recorded during what some fans consider to be the Dead’s most transcendent touring period and all of these songs had the benefit of being worked out for six months on the road before the band hit the studio. The band sounds better on this album than they did on others, maybe all the firsts that this album represents gave the band a feeling of starting fresh. “Stella Blue” is a classic piece of Garcia music that would stay in the Dead’s concert sets for the rest of their career.

Robbie Robertson – (self titled) (LP, Geffen GHS 24160, 1987) ($3.60)  This is a Columbia House pressing which I would normally avoid, but I hadn’t seen this in the bins before. I’ll upgrade if I see it in the future in a non-Columbia House pressing. Robertson’s debut release 11 years after the breakup of The Band! He chose to leave the rootsy country influences of The Band behind and focused instead on the U2-ish sounds of Daniel Lanois’s production. When this came out, I bought it because U2 and the Bo Deans were on it, it ended up being one of my favorite releases for at the end of 80’s. Listening to it now, the two tracks with U2 sound like U2 outtakes, really. Not that it is a bad thing, but it would be expected if you use them as your band like he did on “Testimony” and “Sweet Fire of Love.” In fact, the release does sound pretty dated, but still a favorite release for me next to Storyville– the 1991 follow up.

Gone to Earth- David Sylvian (2 LP, Virgin Records VDL1, 1986) ($6.30) I wouldn’t start listening to David Sylvian until his 1987 follow-up Secrets of the Beehive. I heard this album when it was included in the beautiful Weatherbox Sylvian boxed set. This was an ambitious release as a 2 LP, and that was probably why the subsequent CD release was only a single disc chopping out about half of the tracks. The first LP was vocal tracks and the second LP was instrumentals. The CD picked and chose from both records. In the Weatherbox, they restored the 2 CD’s. This release is notable as the first time Sylvian would collaborate with Robert Fripp from King Crimson. A typically lush and melancholy release– just the way I like my Sylvian. “Taking the Veil” is still one of my all-time favorite Sylvian tracks. Sherry and I had tickets to see David in Minneapolis a long time ago– ironically while he was living there– and he cancelled the show. I’ve been disappointed ever since. I want to see him perform live one day.

Real Nighttime – Game Theory (LP, Enigma Records 70722-1, 1985) ($4.20) Well, I don’t really know what to say about or where to start about this release. I should probably write a whole article about Scott Miller’s bands Game Theory and Loud Family. My fascination with things Scott Miller started with the epic Lolita Nation which I first heard played on KUNI (the song “One More for Saint Michael”) while I was in college. Real Nighttime is the final record by the original lineup of Game Theory that started in 1981. That said, it includes some of the most notated songs by that version of the group with “Here Comes Everybody,” “24,” Rayon Drive,” and “Curse of the Frontierland.” These songs would stay in the live sets of Game Theory until their breakup following Two Steps From the Middle Ages in 1988. Real Nighttime also marks the beginning of the production relationship with Mitch Easter. I have all of the Game Theory releases on CD, and have most of them on LP at this point.

Treat Her Right – (self titled) (LP, RCA 6884-1-R, 1988) ($3.97) Still sealed! Treat Her Right is notable as the precursor to Mark Sandman’s group Morphine. This album was the debut release on their signing with RCA. It is in fact a reissue of their self-released first album. It did pretty well on college radio, but their second release did not fair as well and they were dropped from RCA. While the band is a slightly different lineup than Morphine, the distinctive sound is similar. The standout tracks are “I Think She Likes Me,” “I Got A Gun,” and “Jesus Everyday.”

Cypress – Let’s Active (LP, I.R.S. SP70648, 1984) (3.60) Let’s Active was producer Mitch Easter’s band. The story goes that he did such a great job producing the early R.E.M. records that I.R.S. gave him a shot making his own records. The EP Afoot was released first in 1983 and did well enough that I.R.S. let him record three more records, Cypress in 1984, Big Plans for Everybody in 1986 and Every Dog Has His Day in 1988. His particular high-pitch vocal tone makes for an acquired taste, but Let’s Active is still one of my all-time favorite 80’s acts. It looks like the entire catalog is back in print on CD through Collector’s Choice with new liner notes and bonus tracks! It looks like I need to make some purchases! I love this whole album, perfect pop.

4 A.M – Full Fathom Five (LP, Link 019, 1988) ($3.60) You may have read my B-Sides in the Bins article recounting my trip to Bill’s Records in Dallas back in October 2007 (or maybe you didn’t!). Bill had a collection of still-sealed Link Records releases including most of the Full Fathom Five releases. Full Fathom Five was an Iowa City band back in the 80’s that I was a fan of– KUNI played their music frequently. When Head Candy was signed to Link as a result of a battle of the bands it seemed that Full Fathom Five made it there as well. I have 4 A.M. on cassette and it was a regular-rotation album for me when it came out. So, when I saw it in the bins I had to buy it. Brings back memories of college. Back when I thought– as many did– that Iowa City would become the next Athens, GA for a music scene. Recorded at Catamount Studios in Cedar Falls by Tom Tatman.

Doug – The Coolies (LP, DB Recs DB 88, 1988) ($3.99) Oh boy, more hits from my formitive college years! A still-sealed hole-punch cutout of the Rock Opera Doug by Georgia crazy band The Coolies. I had this on CD and cassette. Apparently I love this album, LOL. From Trouser Press,

“a trenchant “rock opera” about a skinhead who murders a transvestite short- order cook, gets rich by publishing his victim’s recipes, falls into paranoia and substance abuse and ends up in the gutter. The sad tale is related through ingenious knockoffs of the Who (“Cook Book”), John Lennon (“Poverty”), the Replacements (“Coke Light Ice”), rap (“Pussy Cook”) and metal (“The Last Supper”), and in a comic book — not included with the cassette or CD, alas — designed by Jack Logan, of Pete Buck Comics fame. A quantum leap from its predecessor’s one-dimensional silliness, Doug is a work of demented genius.”

I never got around to sending in for my free comic book, so now I have it. I never realized that Jack Logan was the artist for it! Very cool! Someone needs to reissue this album. “It’s a hot night, and I’m wound tight, and the crack pipe– is burning my hand!”

And last, but not least!

V-Notes – The Verandas (EP, Graphic Records NR 16382-1, unknown year) ($1.90) LOL. This one was the big find– Cedar Rapids college rock band The Verandas. Scored for a paltry $1.90. Unfortunately, this is not the album I know from them. They were on the Blue Band’s record label Hot Fudge for an album I think was called American Tradition. That is the name of a song on here. It was recorded at the infamous Catamount Studios in Cedar Falls by Tom Tatman. I had a cassette dub of their other album which had a great song called “Get Out of My Car (You Drive Like Shit)” that I’d like to find again. I haven’t put needle to vinyl on this one yet. I should see if I can put together a band history of this group– I don’t know much about them, but they were kind of notorious around here.

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