This week at Paste, we continued to take stock of the calendar year, rolling out our rankings of the 50 best songs of 2017 (a sequel to our 50 best albums of 2017 list). But we stayed current too, digging the new albums by Bitchin Bajas (pictured above) and Noel Gallagher, and grooving to new songs by Sufjan Stevens and Strand of Oaks. We welcomed banjo virtuosos Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn (among others) to our New York recording studio for a live session, and we featured overlooked ‘70s rock heroes Big Star, who managed to have their biggest year ever in 2017 despite not being a band anymore. Catch up with Paste’s favorite albums, songs, live performances and feature stories of the past week.
Bitchin Bajas: Bajas Fresh
The instrumental bliss-out band Bitchin Bajas (pictured above) were all set to exist in relative obscurity—the kind reserved for residents of the sonic fringe, makers of weird art, interstellar sound travelers. Then, last year, the Chicago-based trio made a collaborative album with odd-folk legend Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose high profile dragged them into the knowable zone for a larger number of folks. With more ears on the hook, Bitchin Bajas have returned with their best work yet. The perfectly titled Bajas Fresh is a dynamic set of patterned tones, docile drones and burbling dervishes that prove there is real momentum to be found in meditative music. —Ben Salmon
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Who Built The Moon?
“You gotta get yourself together,” Noel Gallagher sings on album opener “Fort Knox,” its massive beat and ring-the-alarm strings signaling that he intends to do just that, as he paints with a broader sonic palette than he has in years. The honking sax and glam-rock rave-up of “Holy Mountain” sees him chasing a bird who “smelled like 1969” (does that mean she smells like patchouli? Richard Nixon?), and he backs it right up against a heady swirl of Primal Scream/Rolling Stones horn punches and gospel-tinged backup vocals on “Keep On Reaching.” It’s a bracing one-two punch that, with every vicious stomp of Jeremy Stacey’s kick drum, batters away the accepted notion that this Gallagher only does mid-tempo acoustic numbers. —Madison Desler
Sufjan Stevens: ‘Tonya Harding’
demonstrates his fascination with disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding by releasing two versions of this song in different keys (D major and Eb major) that make her the heroine. Both versions are ethereal, the former supported by an electronic backbeat, and the latter driven by twinkling piano lines. “Tonya, you were the brightest / Yeah, you rose from the ashes and survived all the crashes / Wiping the blood from your white tights,” Stevens croons. He also shared a video for the D major version, set to footage of Harding’s performance at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. —Lisa Nguyen
Strand of Oaks: ‘Passing Out’
Much was left on the cutting room floor when Tim Showalter was preparing Strand of Oaks’ Hard Love for release earlier this year. It wasn’t that the tracks that didn’t make the cut weren’t good enough; they were just deemed “too weird” for the official release. Now, Showalter is giving them a second chance with Harder Love, a collection of unused and alternative takes. “Passing Out” is warm and mellow, acting as the day to Hard Love’s night. It takes a sharp turn away from simmering, hedonistic psychedelia, and drives into folky territory with a lighthearted melange of guitars and relaxed vocals. —Lisa Nguyen
Art Feynman: ‘Shelter’
Earlier this year, Here We Go Magic member Luke Temple released Blast Off Through The Wicker under the name Art Feynman, exploring Afrobeat grooves and Krautrock anthemics, searching for something to stimulate both hip flexor and hippocampus. Now he’s quickly turned around a new EP, Near Negative, ahead of a brand new full-length next year. “Shelter” is a lo-fi dancefloor shaker that envisions a cheerful kind of response to a disaster. Temple/Feyman actually makes it sound fun to go seeking shelter as the shit goes down. —Robert Ham
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
The first couple of banjo are back with Echo in the Valley, a breathtaking follow-up to their acclaimed debut that earned them the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album. At Paste, they played three songs from the record, and even through in a little dancing.
Born in Chicago to Indian Muslim immigrants, Zeshan Bagewadi was raised on the sounds of blues, soul and R&B, as well as the music of his parents’ homeland. As he matured, Zeshan developed a voice that combined the two cultures like few before him. He recorded his debut album, Vetted, with a mix of originals and overlooked deep soul gems—in three different languages (English, Urdu and Punjabi).
Known as a vocalist, songwriter, and founding member of indie-rock legends The B-52s, Cindy Wilson has finally stepped out on her own with an extraordinary solo debut, Change. The album marks a personal and professional milestone for Wilson, abounding with pop creativity, confident songcraft, and deeply felt emotion.
The 50 Best Songs of 2017
We found ways to cope in 2017 both by turning inward and turning outward with our favorite songs. Some artists, like Hurray for the Riff Raff, Jessica Lea Mayfield, and Sheer Mag, took shots at the resurgent patriarchy, whether by stoking public outrage or inviting us into their personal pain and redemption. Others, like Jay Som, Thundercat and Kevin Morby, fixed their gaze on the quiet pleasures and absurdities of everyday life. That was the balance that kept us sane in 2017, even as we lost some of our lodestars—Chris Cornell, Gregg Allman, Fats Domino and Tom Petty to name a few. Here are the 50 songs that made us laugh, cry, rage, relax and generally feel better about ourselves. —Matthew Oshinsky
Big Star, the Great Forgotten American Band, Is Bigger Than Ever
If the fandom of Big Star—one of the great and greatly underappreciated American bands of the 20th century—was once merely a cult, it has grown into something closer to a full-blown religion in recent years. The Big Star reissue market is something of a cottage industry, and it’s never had a better year than 2017. Fueled by the vinyl revival, the complexities of licensing deals and some buzz stirred up by the 2010 deaths of Chilton and founding member Andy Hummel, record store shelves are now groaning under the weight of fresh editions of this 45-year-old music. How many reissues, repackagings and reunions are too many? —Robert Ham
The Top 10 Singing Drummers in Rock History
Drummers are typically relegated to the rear, consigned to keep the pace while driving the music forward and earning the spotlight only for the occasional—and increasingly rare—solo. Singing lead and playing drums simultaneously is one of the great feats in popular music, the province of an elite batch of musicians who can carry both the melody and rhythm of a band, even if no one in the crowd can see them doing it. From Karen Carpenter to Phil Collins and Levon Helm, here’s our list of the best singing drummers in rock history. —Lee Zimmerman