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The 20 Best Paste Studio Sessions of 2017

Paste recorded more than 500 unique live performances this year, from newcomers to hall of famers. Here are our favorites.

Music Features

Paste recorded more than 500 unique performances in our New York Studio during 2017, showcasing just about every kind of music in the process. Some of our artists were legends, like Taj Mahal, Bill Frisell and Steve Martin, who brought their devoted audiences to us. Others were baby bands seeking an introduction to the listening public. In every case, our Midtown recording library, with its perimeter of concert master tapes going back over 60 years, helped coax inspired performances from singer-songwriters and 10-piece Afro-jazz orchestras alike—well over 1,000 musicians in all. Choosing our favorite Paste Studio sessions was obviously a difficult, painful process, with spirited debate shifting into outright argument as we narrowed them down. Here are the 20 that stood out in our collective memory.

20. Native Sun
Dec. 20
Every 15 years or so, right when you think New York City has finally forgotten how to sprout great roll bands from its concrete soil, a crew like Native Sun comes along to remind everyone that the anarchic, wild spirit of the city cannot be killed, no matter how many J. Crew branches open up downtown. This quartet from Brooklyn has been around for all of six months and positively gives no fucks—and that’s what you need in a young band: hunger, amplifiers, and something to scream about. Watch these guys shred, and remind yourself why you loved rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. —Matthew Oshinsky

19. The Drums
June 14
Abysmal Thoughts , which arrived June 16, is packed with delightful hooks offset with a familiar doom-laden whimsy that only Jonny Pierce could balance so well. As Paste noted in our review of The Drums’ latest album, Pierce “wrote every song and plays all the instruments, but each sound is so distinct that one might think a whole mess of session players are packed in the studio with him. The resulting sound is simultaneously lo-fi and electro-dreamy, as though Morrissey found a magical reverb unit that gave him three wishes.” At Paste, the newly solo Pierce went minimal, with just two guitars and light drums backing his elegant tales of doomed love and cold blood. —Matthew Oshinsky

Read: The Drums’ Jonny Pierce Talks About Making Art From Abysmal Thoughts

18. Grace Vanderwaal
Jan. 23
The 13-year-old America’s Got Talent winner starred in Paste’s most-watched session video of the year, flooring us with her soulful, wise-beyond-her-years vocals and delicate strums of the ukulele. Most impressive was her cover of Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” which she played for on guitar for the first time ever—that is, she was playing the guitar for the first time ever. Vanderwaak also played “Gossip Girl” and “I Don’t Know My Name,” from her 2016 EP Perfectly Imperfect. —Matthew Oshinsky

17. Durand Jones & The Indications
Aug. 28
When these Midwestern soul throwbacks started playing at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, leader Durand Jones was a budding saxophonist with no plans to sing. Then he got in front of a microphone at an undergrad party, and plans quickly changed. With a tingling rasp that screams James Brown and coos Otis Redding, Jones simply has to be heard to be believed on these vintage R&B pleas. On singles “Smile” and “True Love,” the Indications back him with tight rhythms and street-corner backing vocals. And on “Is It Any Wonder,” soft-spoken drummer Aaron Frazer steals the mic for a falsetto ode to his sweetheart. —Matthew Oshinsky

16. Steve Earle
June 13
So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Earle’s 2017 record with his longtime backing band, The Dukes, marked a stylistic return to his 1986 debut, Guitar Town, which almost singlehandedly launched an era of alt-country outlaws. More than a reclamation, though, Outlaw imbues a more fluid application of his roots attack and tattered romanticism. Earle went solo for his Paste session in June, showcasing his rare ability to play the part of hard-bitten Texas narrator in the grand tradition of outlaw country music with three new songs: “Lookin’ for a Woman,” “The Girl on the Mountain,” and “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” —Matthew Oshinsky

Read: Steve Earle: On the Trail of an Outlaw

15. Ani DiFranco
June 9
When Ani DiFranco first visited the Paste Studio back in November 2016, three days after the presidential election, the room felt bleak. Shock had yet to subside, heads were down, and even the sanctuary of music felt marginal and useless. DiFranco returned to Paste in June to mark the release of her 20th studio album, Binary, and along the way she reminded us how music can both heal us and push us forward. In one word, she said: “Hopeful.” “Alrighty” was poetic and sarcastic; “Binary” was stripped back from its funky studio incarnation to a spare acoustic format, but with all the vibrancy coursing through it; and “Zizzing,” a track featuring Justin Vernon on the record, served as a quiet and haunting way to cap the performance. —Natalia Barr

Read: The 11 Best Ani DiFranco Songs

14. Songhoy Blues
Sept. 27
Formed after a jihadist militia took over their homeland in the north of Mali and forced them south to the capital of Bamako, Songhoy Blues capture the spirit of global musical fellowship with an uplifting combination of Western blues and traditional West African music. Inspired by B.B. King and The Beatles as much as Malian legend Ali Farka Toure, the quartet—the first African group signed to Atlantic Records in 40 years—can boogie with the best American bands, yet never lose sight of the violent conflicts that led to their formation. This is both the pain and joy of blues music, wrapped in the swathe of an unquenchable artistic thirst. Their second album, Resistance, was released in June, and tackles much of the history that forced their exodus. Watch the band play “Sahara.” —Matthew Oshinsky

13. Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan
Aug. 16
Guitarist-composer and sonic innovator Bill Frisell paid a nearly 45-minute-long visit to Paste with his bass-playing partner, Thomas Morgan. Together, the two brilliant instrumentalists danced around and with each other on tunes from their new ECM recording, Small Town, showing an uncommon empathy and a conversational chemistry on the title track, as well as Morgan’s beautiful “Pearl,” an intimate reading of John Barry’s James Bond theme “Goldfinger,” and a highly interactive rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy.” —Bill Milkowski

12. Colter Wall
May 16
The 22-year-old Canadian troubadour with a jaw-dropping Johnny Cash bass performed tracks from his debut self-titled record, which was one of our 50 favorite albums of 2017. His third song of the day, “Kate McCannon,” resurrected the traditional murder ballad, telling the story of an honest guy who quits his rambling to settle down with his beloved, only to find her out by the creek with another man. After some mild cajoling, Wall also offered a chilling rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Snake Mountain Blues,” which also appears on his debut. —Natalia Barr

11. Nai Palm
Oct. 5
“I wanted to make something really raw and simple and direct and emotional,” Hiatus Kaiyote frontwoman Nai Palm proclaimed of her debut solo album, Needle Paw, at Paste. Armed with Michael Jackson (that’s the name of her guitar), the singer-songwriter swept through the Studio to perform a stripped-back session showcasing her new sound. Fans of Hiatus Kaiyote, the future-soul quartet that burst out of Australia in 2012, may be in for a shock. Although Palm’s preternatural guitar work and emotional performance are ever-present, much of Needle Paw strips away the lush instrumentation found on Hiatus records in favor of just a guitar, a voice, and some light accents here and there. Few solo artists commanded the room this year like Nai Palm. —Matthew Oshinsky

10. Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Dec. 7
There’s virtuosity all over Echo in the Valley, the sophomore record by the first couple of the banjo, from the telepathic chemistry of the instrumentals to the historical prisms through which they tell their stories. Quite apart from Fleck, who has been nominated in more categories than any other instrumentalist in Grammy history, Washburn brings a sophistication and artistry that shines bright on its own. At Paste, the duo played us a sonic history course in three songs, complete with explainers on the difference between three-finger and clawhammer banjo, the relationship between Appalachian and Eastern music, and they even threw in a dance lesson via Washburn’s percussion on “Take Me to Harlan.” Prepare to be inspired. —Matthew Oshinsky

9. Ian Chang
Sept. 25
Son Lux Drummer Ian Chang is on the cutting edge of his instrument, blurring the boundaries between electronic music and analog performance. Using Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion system, Chang can program a huge array of samples into his drum kit and play a veritable symphony of electronic shades and colors based on where and and how hard he’s hitting each drum. Technically speaking, this may be the coolest thing we saw (and heard) in the Studio all year. Watch Chang conduct a digital orchestra of rhythm on “Inhaler.” His EP, Spiritual Leader, came out Sept. 22. —Matthew Oshinsky

8. Phoebe Bridgers
July 31
At its core, Phoebe Bridgers’s debut LP, Stranger in the Alps, is a collection of sad folk songs, presented with nifty sonic accoutrements (mournful fiddle here, electro-noise there) and clever references (David Bowie, Jeffrey Dahmer) that give them added dimension. But its her plainspoken lyrics and airy, inescapable melodies that made Alps not just one the year’s best debuts, but also one of its best albums by anyone at any stage of their career. At 23 years old, Bridgers already has a masterpiece under her belt. Her spare arrangements of three songs from the album—”Smoke Signals,” “Motion Sickness,” and “Georgia”—left us breathless. —Ben Salmon

7. Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’
Aug. 14
The first collaborative album from this pair of blues icons, Tajmo, showcases everything that has made each of them a torchbearer for American music over the past few decades. Taj Mahal has been representing and redefining blues music since 1968, when he released his debut, an eclectic mix of traditional songs and modern revamps. Twenty-five years later, Keb’ Mo’ emerged with the blues resurgence of the early ‘90s, reaching back to Robert Johnson and the deepest roots of the music just as another generation was coming around to the origin story of American songwriting. Both men have spent many years and many albums infusing the blues with sounds and styles taken from the far corners of the music world, from reggae to folk to calypso to rock ‘n’ roll, each with an immediately recognizable voice and guitar-picking style. —Matthew Oshinsky

Read: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Play a Century’s Worth of Blues

6. Mike Stern
Sept. 5
Following a terrible accident last July, where he tripped over some hidden construction in the street outside of his Manhattan home, breaking both his arms in the process, jazz-guitar hero Mike Stern underwent two surgeries to restore feeling to his nerve-damaged right hand. A year later, he still can’t hold a pick in that right hand, so he attaches his fingers to the plectrum with special wig glue in order to play. He began recording his 2017 album, Trip, six months after the accident, and the result it a triumph of human will over the cruelties of modern life. Playing with all the fire, finesse and soul he ever had when he played with Miles Davis and Earth, Wind and Fire, Stern jumped in and out of various jazz and rock lanes with forceful glee. This is a guy who can pretty much play guitar with both hands tied behind his back. —Bill Milkowski/Matthew Oshinsky

5. Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers
Sept. 29
Steve Martin  has been playing the banjo his entire life, which makes his most recent phase as a touring bluegrass musician all the more rewarding: In some ways, all the comedy, the writing, and the performing have led to this moment. In September, Martin and his sometime backing band, Steep Canyon Rangers, released their second record together, The Long-Awaited Album, an LP brimming with masterful bluegrass instrumentation and Martin’s unique lyrical sensibility. A week later, they visited Paste Studio in New York for an exclusive three-song performance, with Martin leading the crew on both three-finger and clawhammer banjo. He even threw in a little backstory from the Three Amigos set. —Matthew Oshinsky

Read: Steve Martin Talks About His New Album and How He Tells Stories in Song

4. The Marcus King Band
Feb. 27
This South Carolina-born guitarist and singer was raised on the blues, playing shows as a pre-teen sideman with his father, bluesman Marvin King. At age 21, he’s basically a veteran, leading his band through psych-inflected, horn-happy soundscapes of jazz and deep-fried vocals reminiscent of a young Gregg Allman. At Paste, King and the gang cooked the whole menu, running through a killer jazz instrumental (“Thespian Espionage”), a countrified acoustic shuffle (“Sorry ‘Bout Your Lover”) and an inflamed slow-blues (“Rita Is Gone”). King’s double-threat guitar skills and vocal depth augur a long career of insane performances like this one. —Matthew Oshinsky

3. Tank & the Bangas
Sept. 15
Though Tank & the Bangas hail from New Orleans, their hodgepodge of sounds—derived in large part by poetic superstar frontwoman Tarriona Ball (aka Tank) and Joshua Johnson, the group’s drummer and musical director—has more in common with the personality of the city than the styles associated with it. Mostly steeped in soul and jazz, the group also draws on influences from around the globe, which makes sense given the members’ eclectic origins and backgrounds. But the music has an authentic, almost improvised sound, which is a credit to their organic songwriting process. At Paste, Tank and Co. mesmerized us with four journeys via song, a veritable roller coaster of artistry and emotion. —Claire Greising

Read: Tank and the Bangas Gleefully Blur the Lines Between Music and Poetry

2. Christian Scott
May 22
One of a handful of young jazz artists on the scene today—along with Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, Kamasi Washington—who are espousing jazz as protest music, the 34-year-old firebrand trumpeter addressed sociopolitical concerns on 2007’s Anthem (which contained the post-Hurricane Katrina ode “Katrina’s Eyes”) and 2010’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. The trumpeter-bandleader’s 2017 release on Stretch/Ropeadope, Rebel Ruler, kicked off his Centennial Trilogy, an ambitious series of records meant to commemorate the centennial of the first jazz recordings in 1917 while tackling themes of social and political peril. For his first Paste session, Scott (aka Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah) was backed by a stellar crew of longtime collaborators—Zaccai Curtis on bass, his brother Luques on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. —Bill Milkowski

Read: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: The Best of What’s Next

1. Violents + Monica Martin
April 26
Despite releasing their first record together in April, Awake and Pretty Much Sober, on Partisan Records, Jeremy Larson (aka Violents) and PHOX frontwoman Monica Martin had never performed in public until they arrived at Paste Studio on April 26. On top of that, the duo was backed by a string quartet that they’d just met that morning. It all proved how magical spontaneity (and a little rehearsal) can really be. Their performances of “Equal Powers,” “How It Left” and “Unraveling” were absolutely breathtaking, combining Martins’s soft, raspy alto with a classical-jazz accompaniment in a soulful envelope. Part of the lightning-in-a-bottle greatness of this session came in the fact that the project lived in 2017 for all of three total performances, making it a luminous flash of musical power that we were able to capture and let go like a butterfly in a forest. —Matthew Oshinsky