It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one. Yet, despite all of the bleakness, there were many good things that occurred. In the realm of music for instance, a wonderfully copious amount of it was created, recorded, and released for all to enjoy, reminding us of both the goodness of humanity and the vitality of the art form.
Below, I have compiled ten of my favorite albums of this past year, which includes classical as well as non-classical releases. Along with a short blurb on each album, I have included one sample track (when available) and links to both iTunes and Amazon. If a particular album piques your interest, I encourage you to support the artists by purchasing their work.
So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite albums of 2017:
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (Hollywood Records)
Although not quite as satisfying as its predecessor (both the original Guardians of the Galaxy film and its accompanying Awesome Mix Vol. 1), this compilation of 60s and 70s pop tunes added a delightful variety of sounds to the quirky summer blockbuster. From well-known songs (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”) to lesser known gems (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”), this nostalgia-fulled mix was the perfect soundtrack to those long summer road trips.
Danish String Quartet – Last Leaf (ECM Records)
The Danish String Quartet is one of the most intriguing chamber ensembles on the classical music scene today and their new release Last Leaf only confirms this. (It also helps that the foursome look like they could be members of an Indie rock group.) This particular album features a collection of string arrangements of Nordic folk melodies, with some original folk-like compositions thrown in for good measure. Throughout, modern playing techniques intermingle with traditional fiddling, creating a deeply rewarding recording that sounds both old and new. (Further, the liner notes, written by the quartet members, provide revealing insights into the album’s source material.)
Portland State University Chamber Choir & Ethan Sperry – Ēriks Ešenvalds: The Doors of Heaven (Naxos)
Conductor Ethan Sperry leads a gorgeous and evocative recording of four works by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, which are masterfully performed by the Portland State University Chamber Choir. In these and his other works, Ešenvalds’s harmonic language is rich and expansive, drawing from a wide range of sources such as religious chant, folk traditions, and modern composition. This results in awe-inspiring sound worlds in which the human voice is utilized in illuminating and often surprising ways.
Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Gurrero, et. al – Jennifer Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto, Oboe Concerto (Naxos)
Those who think that modern orchestral music is lackluster and forgettable need only take one listen to the works of American composer Jennifer Higdon. In this album, which contains three of her compositions (two concerti and one full orchestra piece), Higdon reveals herself to be a composer whose musical language is not only approachable, but original and engaging. Her knack for rhythm, texture, and instrumental color are fully on display in these fine, live performances by the Nashville Symphony and soloists.
Lecrae – All Things Work Together (Reach Records)
Even though he is frequently labeled a “Christian rapper,” Lecrae has artfully managed to reach a broad audience without pandering or being “preachy.” His honesty and realness clearly show in his latest album, All Things Work Together. Featuring a diverse lineup of guest artists, Lecrae’s music addresses relevant themes all while providing a beacon of hope and encouragement amidst the chaos of our modern-day world.
San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas – Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (SFS Media)
Alban Berg’s thrilling orchestral showpiece received a stunning treatment in this summer release from the San Francisco Symphony and their soon-to-depart music director Michael Tilson Thomas. While most of Berg’s output was composed in the atonal idiom, his music is perhaps the most approachable of the Second Viennese School, full of tonal references and familiar forms (such as marches and waltzes). His impeccable gift for orchestration is also fully on display in this stunning high-definition recording, highlighting everything from the instrumental whispers of the opening movement to the devastating crash of the piece’s final moments. This is truly a work that pays off dividends through multiple listenings, especially in this marvelous performance.
Max Richter – Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (Deutsche Grammophon)
Dubbed a “postminimalist” composer, Max Richter has written music for a variety of mediums and achieved acclaim for his paired-down and accessible style. (His 2012 reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is absolutely fantastic.) This particular recording features music which Richter wrote for the ballet Woolf Works, which was inspired by three of Virginia Woolf’s books. Mixing recorded narration, electronics, and live orchestra, this recording sweeps the listener away on a bed of emotions, mirroring the English author’s rocky personal life.
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch – Blade Runner 2049: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Epic Records)
Blade Runner 2049 was one the year’s most pleasant surprises – a film sequel that both stands up to (and maybe even surpasses) its classic 1982 predecessor. Complementing the film was a wonderfully evocative score co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, which pays homage to Vangelis’s iconic, electronic-heavy score for the original film. Ranging from moments of soft serenity to overwhelming sonic power, the score added an air of mystery and intensity to this thrilling dystopian science fiction film.
Seattle Symphony & Thomas Dausgaard – Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (Seattle Symphony Media)
The Danish composer Carl Nielsen is one musical figure whose works are sadly underplayed in many concert halls. Hopefully recordings like this will change that. These live performances by the Seattle Symphony and their music director designee Thomas Dausgaard capture the fiery, life-giving power of Nielsen’s two middle symphonies. Particularly stunning is the slow movement of the Third Symphony, where soprano and baritone soloists sing a wordless vocalise underneath a sumptuous orchestral texture.
Bjarte Eike & Barokksolistene – The Alehouse Sessions (Rubicon Classics)
There are certain albums that, even without the aid of visuals, seem to exude the joy of the musicians who are creating the music. The Alehouse Sessions is one such recording. Made up of pub songs and instrumental dances from seventeenth century England, the Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike and his band seem to have a blast recreating the raucous, party-like atmosphere of these public taverns. This album is so fun in fact, that it’s almost impossible to listen without grooving along!