2017 has been a bad year for silly things like international relations and basic human decency. It’s been a good year, though, for really important things like albums. Grime, rock, singer-songwriters with great facial hair – it’s all here.
His playful basslines perform somersaults, and it’s no surprise everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Flying Lotus has worked with Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner. ‘Drunk’ is the strongest statement he’s made on his own two feet, navigating stoned inner dialogues across freewheeling jazz and murky R&B. 23 tracks might be burdensome at first, but where else would you find a record packing Bruner’s wizardry, Lamar, Pharrell Williams and soft rock legend Kenny Loggins? Exactly. Nowhere.
Largely turning her back on the electrified stylings of her fifth album ‘Short Movie’, Britain’s best singer-songwriter broadened her folk palette with this nine-song knockout detailing womens’ perspectives of women. Adapting production to match each song’s subject – wilted friendships, spiky self-analysis – Marling showcased her supreme vocals (‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, ‘Wild Once’), her multifaceted guitar work (‘Next Time’, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’), and her ability to write utterly transcendent melodies (‘The Valley’). As ever with Marling, just one question remains: ‘What next?’
A wired-up, electronic record fully obsessed with being human, producer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s sixth LP ‘The Kid’ is a concept album separated into four stages of life: birth, early youth, early adulthood and the wisdom that comes with age. Across the same record, Smith goes from playful, young and free naivety to stubborn self-assurance. She can sound like a kid being let loose on synths, and a veritable pro mastering gadgets, Kraftwerk-style. It’s like watching someone grow up across 51 strange, wondrous minutes.
Give it a couple of decades and Kiran Leonard should be universally recognised as the wild-thinking prodigy his early work hints at. Not least on ‘Derevaun Seraun’, a devastatingly gorgeous album written two years ago when he was asked to play a show at newly-opened Manchester Central Library. In keeping with the gig, it’s based on five separate works of literature Leonard admires. Bookish it may be, and many will dismiss it as highbrow, but there’s a style and craft here that pits Leonard as the UK’s answer to Sufjan Stevens.
After two records of elegant, sparse pop, ‘I See You’ found the trio mixing their trademark sound with dance and RNB too. Elements from Jamie xx’s solo offering ‘In Colour’ are evident, in the shuffling garage rhythms and jubilant instrumental breaks; but also the use of a jittering samples like the chunks of ‘Hall and Oates’ ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ on ‘On Hold’, which is straight out of the producer’s playbook. We never lose the vulnerability or melancholic euphoria that drew so many to the band; just this time around we have it with killer beats and club ready choruses, and it’s all the more fun.
Very little makes sense in the real world, so forgive brilliant oddballs The Moonlandingz for creating their own strange universe. Styled as fictional band Johnny Rocket – although you may recognise Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski and Lias Saoudi – they’ve created a bizarre, limit-pushing prog rock opus with ‘Interplanetary Class Classics’. In this parallel world, anything goes – even a collaboration between Yoko Ono and The Human League’s Phil Oakey. Fed up of the doomsday-style 24 hour news cycle and an impending nuclear apocalypse? Try this instead.
The cracking debut album by Juliette Jackson and co was nominated for a Mercury Prize this year. “It’s batshit crazy”, they said of the news at the time – and yet it’s easy to see where their plaudits come from. The indie crew win on almost every front: they write material you can sing along to (‘Sucker’), they show a thorough awareness of dynamics’ power (‘Formidable’), their guitar lines are a delight (‘The Road’), and they’re really, really funny. Just look at how savagely they mock the louche douchebag on ‘Cupid’: “He said, ‘I’m gonna make the Earth shake tonight’ – pineapple juice, tropical Rubicon courage.”
French four-piece Phoenix made ‘Ti Amo’ in the wake of Brexit, and recorded it in a wintery, disused opera house just minutes away from Le Bataclan – the venue at the heart of Paris’ tragic 2015 attacks. Somehow, they created a fun, celebratory album about Europe, cheese, gelato and love, bursting at the seams with glitter-clad synths and light-footed pop. Combating political fear with all-out fun, ‘Ti Amo’ is more defiant and relevant than it might first appear.
Detroit’s Protomartyr felt more vital than ever this year. ‘Relatives In Descent’, their fourth album, kicks off with a raging belter in the shape of ‘A Private Understanding’ which tackles a truly-modern American tragedy – the Flint water crisis. There’s no relenting: from ‘Male Plague’ to ‘the Chuckler’, frontman Joe Casey offers a sardonic and captivating performance. If any album truly reflects our collective mood this year, it’s this one.
Two years since Swedish experimentalists The Knife split and eight years since her solo debut as Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer made a surprise return in 2017. ‘Plunge’ is a record about infatuation – the “plunge” being the decision you take before fully falling for someone. This subject matter’s hard to pick out at first glance: despite slight shifts, the album still possesses Dreijer’s signature icy vocals and doom-laden electronics. But burrow deeper, and ‘Plunge’’s heart belongs to someone else.
Philly native Alex Giannascoli is a songwriting machine. Having released seven albums since 2010, and writing and touring with Frank Ocean over the last couple of years, he still found time to release ‘Rocket’, earlier this year. There’s no sign of a shortage of ideas, mind – folk-pop bopper ‘County’ is a soothing highlight, and there are some Rancid riffs on the hardcore-tinged ‘Brick’. Once again, Giannascoli flexes his songwriting muscles in fascinating new ways on this 14-song delight.
Following 2014’s beloved soft-rock gem ‘Lost In The Dream’ was an impossible ask, and yet on ‘A Deeper Understanding’, Adam Granduciel continues to deliver more of the heart-wrenching, Springsteen-inspired melancholy that made that album such a success. Inside this sincere collection was the same, delicate balance of uptempo highway tunes (‘Holding On’, ‘Nothing To Find’) and sublimely pensive ones (‘Thinking of a Place’, ‘You Don’t Have To Go’), the latter of which is up there with the best album closers of the year.
Things are only getting stranger when it comes to Alt-J. On this album of just eight songs, there’s a Hans Zimmer-inspired tune about a Tasmanian devil falling in love with a lady. There’s a banging, bassy song about two of the trio’s dead ‘crushes’ from history. There’s a song about wizards scissoring in a sex club. It’s perhaps not what we might have expected from the 2012 Mercury Prize winners, but it’s almost certainly what we needed.
Jay Z had a lot to get off his chest. Thirteenth album ’4:44’ addresses his alleged infidelities and his hugely publicised Tidal business venture, as well as taking on a new breed of rappers who criticise hip hop veterans. Via old-school samples, a trusty Frank Ocean guest spot and the headline-baiting appearance of Beyoncé on ‘Family Feud’, he more than gets his point across. But testament to ‘4:44’ is the strength of its songs are more of a draw that the rumour mill it landed in.
If they weren’t a rock band, Creeper would be stars of a vampiric musical, or at the very least a more risky version of School of Rock. In frontman Will Gould, they possess a half Meat Loaf, half Gerard Way dynamo who helps make their wildly ambitious ‘Eternity, in Your Arms’ debut a theatrical odyssey. Best of all, they have the songs to match their grand ideals. Creeper have brought pomp and fun back to UK rock, and the scene is all the better for it.
Josh Homme: the renaissance man of rock and one of modern music’s most effective collaborators. While 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’ featured an all-star cast of everyone from from Alex Turner to Elton John, and the years in between saw him work with Iggy Pop and Matt Helders on ‘Post Pop Depression’, ‘Villains’ is the first Queens album carried by the band alone. With only Mark Ronson to make their groove seem all the more perverse, the result is pure QOTSA: feral but meticulous and mechanical. A devious fucker, and every bit the beast you wanted.
Despite being just 21 years old, Alex Crossan (aka Mura Masa), already has a signature sound. The scattered, syncopated rhythms and shimmering instrumentals that dominate the electronic wunderkind’s self-titled debut are instantly recognisable; but never once get boring. Joined by a bevy of a-list pals, ‘Mura Masa’ is an album of proper bangers. From the dancehall tinged Charli XCX collab ‘1 Night’ to the tropical BBQ jam ‘Love$ick’, this is one party you’ll never want to end.
A party record for troubled times, ‘For Crying Out Loud’ is the sound of four mates uniting to create their own euphoria. Written against the backdrop of Tom Meighan fighting his own personal demons while Serge Pizzorno was living on cloud nine, the result is a rabble-rousing call to arms of wall-to-wall shameless bangers. Did it “save guitar music from abyss?” Does that even mean anything? Whatever. At least someone’s trying to “take all you fuckers and blow you away”.
First a 2016 mixtape, ‘1992’’s deluxe expansion acts as the perfect introduction to New York prodigy Princess Nokia’s fun, dorky dimension. Never afraid to delve into dark stories about her troubled childhood, each of ‘1992 Deluxe’’s tracks reveal another side of her personality. Whether it’s the school-skipping boasts of ‘Bart Simpson’ or “little titties and fat belly” chants of ‘Tomboy’, each song feels like a glimpse into Nokia’s past and present, the ups and downs that defined her youth, warts ‘n’ all.
The old Taylor is dead, and her untimely demise brought us ‘Reputation’, a trash-talking, shade-slinging record of nothing but proper pop songs. From the blistering ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ a brazen diss-track that is almost certainly about Taylor’s ongoing beef with Kimye, to the sultry electronic pop of ‘Dancing with Our Hands Tied’ this genre hopping offering is Taylor’s boldest album yet.
Beck had been teasing ‘Colors’ since 2015 – first with US hit single ‘Dreams’, then with ‘Wow’, which arrived last summer. When the completed album landed, it was clear to see why it had taken quite so long. Aided by shimmering production by Greg Kurstin, the album is a kaleidoscopic and varied collection of songs which sees Beck embrace the mainstream like never before. From Men At Work-like flute riffs to the unashamedly vibrant ‘Up All Night’, his 13th solo album proved he’s still an essential listen.
“Some girls hate themselves/Hide under the covers with sleeping pills” Arcade Fire vocalist Win Butler croons cheerfully on the sugary synthpop laden ‘Creature Comfort’; this juxtaposition between absolute musical jubilation and gritty, candid subject matter is a recurring theme on their fifth album ‘Everything Now’. Mixing ’70s MOR, ’80s disco and funk with their trademark art-rock, they address the current state of the world, all the while sounding a bit like an overdriven ABBA (in the best possible way). It might be the end of the world, but Arcade Fire are still going to throw a party.
From Perth – the same psych wonderland that spawned Tame Impala and Pond – Methyl Ethel make complex indie that for some reason just sounds mathematically correct. This second album from the Aussies contains their first out-and-out banger, ‘Ubu’, whose nonsensical whirlwind of a chorus about a haircut will benevolently haunt your brain. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s way more songwriting nous to be enjoyed here, from pulsing synthpop opener ‘Drink Wine’ to the moody ‘Hyakki Yako’ and the dimension-twisting ‘No. 28’.
The first seconds of ‘Concrete and Gold’ suggest Dave Grohl might have settled down, or even that he might be giving up his place on rock’s throne. “I don’t wanna be king, I just wanna sing love songs,” he begins on ’T-Shirt’. It’s a misleading intro, as the track suddenly breaks into Queen-style bombast and ground-shaking cries, the kind you’d expect from Glastonbury headliners and a band who show no sign of slowing down. What follows is another triumphant, skyscraper-high entry to the Foos canon, all hints of subtlety thrown out the nearest window.
Jack Antonoff has become The Absolute Boy for pop records which mix introspection with stone-cold bangers in 2017. Producing songs on Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’, the former Fun. frontman had every right to take the rest of 2017 off. Instead, he made a hyperactive, emotional rollercoaster of his own with Bleachers’ third album ‘Gone Now’. Antonoff mixes bright pianos, heart-on-sleeve lyricism and emo candour, without ever sacrificing the ultimate goal of writing stratospheric hooks.
Previously a member of indie group The History Of Apple Pie, the Welsh musician’s debut is a far cry from the sickly-sweet indie-pop they excelled in. Instead, her self-titled solo debut is a journey through house, techno, ambient sounds, indie and pop. On each track, Owens breaks new ground on her unpredictable album. From the dreamy ‘Keep Walking’ to the club-ready banger ‘Evolution’, Owens proves that her diverse musical identity is a beautiful and intriguing thing, indeed.
The beginning of ‘No Shape’ is a gorgeous gambit. Delicate piano ballads have become a staple of Mike Hadreas’ music, and they are how this fourth album, too, begins – but one minute into ‘Otherside’ he explodes expectations with a gigantic bass throb and a million glittering notes. The songs that follow musically and lyrically subvert his past albums’ themes – alienation, addiction, anger – instead exploring various facets of lasting love, over hugely ambitious instrumentation. At the album’s tender peak (‘Die 4 You’), he channels Sade in a slow-jam about erotic asphyxiation. It’s a bewitching leap ahead.
Sampha has become the guy to collaborate with, counting Solange, Drake and Kanye West amongst his co-workers; but his Mercury Prize winning debut ‘Process’ sees him taking front and centre, showing he doesn’t need an A-list crutch to support him. The glittering stream of intricate instrumentals and devastatingly honest lyrics (that candidly speak of losing his mother to cancer) are glorious; but put the shimmering production and powerhouse vocals aside and strip each track down to the bare bones, and ‘Process’ is a master class in what Sampha does best: crafting impressively perfect songs.
On his fourth solo album, the US musician turned in what may be his most relatable and intimate album to date. Previous record ‘Singing Saw’ was born in the sleepy neighbourhood of Mount Washington, California – but ‘City Music’ proved all change. Tales of modern urban living were rife, like on ‘Aboard My Train’ and ‘Cry Baby’, as the songs show Morby to be in a celebratory, albeit curious mood. ‘1234’ acts as a thrilling tribute to punk legends The Ramones, and the album’s title-track and centre-piece is a twisting, riff heavy affair. Wherever Morby is, his talent is undeniable.
Philly rockers Sheer Mag are ready to fight. Their debut album’s opening song ‘Meet Me In The Street’, for example, was inspired by the activism and protest at Donald Trump’s inauguration, which happened six months before its release. So not only is there a rebellious stench right from the off, each heavy metal-infused guitar lick and every second of front-woman Tina Halladay’s piercing vocals on ‘Need To Feel Your Love’ is what it probably feels like to be right in the thick of it. A blistering beginning.
Pop went the emos on their fifth album, a deceptively perky release that showcases frontwoman Hayley Williams’ struggles with mental health. Sure, tracks like ‘Hard Times’, ‘Fake Happy’ and ‘Told You So’ might sound like an explosion in a 1980s power-pop and new-wave hit factory, but lyrically they deal candidly with anxiety, depression and the s**ttier side of life. The Tennessee band’s first release since the return of drummer Zac Farro (who left in 2010), and the departure of bass player Jeremy Davis, meant it was all change in the house of Paramore – yet the result is a band not only refreshed, but refreshingly honest.
Odd Future’s former ringleader used to love stirring controversy, but he finally softens up on this fourth album. ‘Flower Boy’ was originally called ‘Scum F**k Flower Boy’, only for Tyler to ditch the first two words – a move demonstrative of his transition from trolling, crass rapper to a more human, relatable figure. When released back in July, the song ‘Garden Shed’ was taken as a ‘coming out’ announcement. Testament to its strength, however, the record goes way beyond its media-baiting talking points.
A hypothetical question informed ‘Humanz’ during its 2016 recording sessions. For the animated band’s fifth album, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett asked contributors from Vince Staples to Grace Jones to imagine a night where “everything you believed in was turned on its head”. The unsurprisingly nightmarish result is this strangely prophetic soundtrack for Trump’s America – but the buoyant optimism of closer ‘We Got The Power’ suggests there’s reason to hope even amid the darkness.
Honing the crystalline melodies and lyrical bite of their debut, the Canadian janglers returned with this “fantasy breakup arc”. On ‘Your Type’, singer Molly Rankin draws blood – “You’re an O and I’m AB” – while ‘Plimsoll Punks’ finds her raging, “You’re the seashell in my sandal that’s slicing up my heel”. Closer ‘Forget About Life’ is the highlight, though, pitting dark thoughts against the warmth of basic human connection.
Only Archy Marshall can combine ska, rock’n’roll, sentimental ballads and mystical poems into the same magic potion. The 23-year-old’s second album ‘The Ooz’ finds Marshall just about keeping a lid on his ferocious imagination. Inspired by a break-up and spanning 19 tracks, it’s an often miserable record that threatens to outstay its welcome, but there’s a magnetic appeal to his tormented tales.
“This is my Afrofuturism,” Vince Staples said of ‘Big Fish Theory’ before its release. The vocally straight-edge 24-year-old’s second album is a hulking, paranoid beast featuring experimental producers Flume and Sophie as well as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and its guest stars include Damon Albarn and Kendrick Lamar. Dense and avant garde, ‘Big Fish Theory’ is full of good questions, such as “How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” and “Where the f**k is my Grammy?”
Stormzy is a mercurial, complex figure and nowhere is that more apparent than on his acclaimed and commercially massive debut. It’s half massive grime bangers – see the Imperial Death March of ‘Cold’ and the barbed clapbacks that comprise ‘Mr Skeng’ – and half woozy gospel-influenced tracks such as ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1’, on which he delivers a sincere dedication to God or a lover. No wonder the album went gold in just two weeks; in Stormzy we got us a man who can do both.
This year The National stuck with what they know – grand, swelling, glorious doom – ramping up the atmos to almost boastful levels on their seventh, wondrous album. Never knowingly shying away from ennui, frontman Matt Berninger plunges himself headfirst into middle-aged misery, with the hushed ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ beginning the mournful, 12-song procession that includes the equally chirpy ‘Day I Die’ and electronica-dabbling ‘Guilty Party’. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ sees the band experimenting more than usual, with the thrashing ‘Turtleneck’ owing a debt to Pixies rather than the usual Leonard Cohen-shaped suspects.
Ben Coyle-Larner kicked off 2017 with as much grace and aplomb as his hero Eric Cantona with the release of his devastating debut. ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ is a beautiful, emotional record, but it’s also home to high-end bangers such as the thumping ‘No CD’ and smoky ‘Ain’t Nothing Changed’. A poem written and read by his mum on ‘Sun Of Jean’ makes for a highlight with a twist on this Mercury-nominated gem. British hip-hop is in very safe hands indeed.
Gyrating well away from the angularity of her fourth album, this glam-pop confection’s title track has St Vincent yelling, “I can’t turn off what turns me on”. Annie Clark’s raw look at the high life – fame, pills, surgery, heartbreak – sees her tearing at old ground with a career-peak vocal (‘Young Lover’) and moments of stunning clout: “How can anybody have you and lose you,” she demands, “and not lose their minds too?”
We all expected Liam’s debut solo album is do well, but not this well. Outselling the rest of the UK’s Top 10 albums combined on its release in October, ‘As You Were’ proves that Liam still has just as much clout as he did when Oasis were at the peak of their powers. He wasn’t just coasting by on reputation either: this is a thoroughly decent record, featuring anthems with massive singalong choruses such as ‘Bold’, set-starting big ’uns with gospel choirs (‘Wall Of Glass’) and gentle weepies such as ‘Paper Crown’. Nice one, brother.
Wiley returned to reclaim the genre he helped to create with a swaggering, self-mythologising 11th album. Jam-packed with knock-out punchlines (“’Nuff of dem are spring leg just like frogs / But man ah man are old-school like Joe Bloggs”) and dazzling beats, this is a classic grime album full-stop. What makes it even more thrilling is that it’s a classic from the man who was there from the start. With ‘Godfather’, he makes us an offer we can’t refuse.
Opening with ‘Love’, her most grandiose song yet, Lana Del Rey’s fourth major-label album sees her practising her usual trick of mixing doo-wop and girl-group sounds with hip-hop and trap influences. Yet this time her usual furrows into darkness are infused with a certain light. The swooning ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ and the gusty ‘In My Feelings’ skitter along with a devout sassiness while she proves herself part of the most powerful coven in pop by bringing high priestess Stevie Nicks in for a guest spot on ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’. A$AP Rocky shows up for two tunes too. Solid crew – solid album.
SZA’s long-awaited debut was well worth the wait. After songwriting stints for Beyoncé and Rihanna, the Top Dawg signee released an R&B record that is soulful, sex-positive and so intimate it often feels like SZA is baring her soul to you on a girls’ night in. The languid, lush ‘Drew Barrymore’ is pure relationship goals, as she coos, “Somebody get the tacos / Somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”, while ‘Prom’ shows a deep understanding of millennial pop. Don’t take your eyes off her in 2018.
In 2015, J Hus was hospitalised following a gang-related incident. In 2016, he found himself behind bars for a weapons charge. Fortunately, ‘Common Sense’ manages to channel the east Londoner’s recent struggles into a positive, vibrant statement of intent. The looming shadow of life on the streets is never far, but on colourful and fully charged singles ‘Bouff Daddy’ and ‘Spirit’, J Hus sounds like he’s fled the past.
It’s the classic story: band breaks up, gets back together five years later and releases a seminal, career-defining album rather than some cash-cow dross… Oh, wait – that never happens. Unless you’re LCD Soundsystem, who this summer put out their sublime fourth album, a grown-up club record with the heart and soul of an indie band behind it, as well as a whole lot of love for David Bowie. From meditative opener ‘Oh Baby’ through to the squelchy techno-lite of ‘Tonite’, these aren’t just songs for dancing – they are songs for living and songs for loving.
Joshua Tillman’s third album under the Father John Misty name takes the temperature of 2017 with grace, humour and the elegance of the 1970s singer-songwriter greats. “Ladies, I hope we don’t end up regretting this,” he sings on the album’s epic title track, a cradle-to-the-grave showtune that both treasures and laments the endless oddness of human life. There is little to regret about ‘Pure Comedy’ however, an album that manages to be clever-clever as well as tender and touching.
When someone puts every track title on their album in caps, you know they mean business. Kendrick Lamar was certainly not d**king around when he released ‘DAMN.’ in April. With his fourth studio album, he rightfully retains his crown as the greatest rapper of his generation. Socially conscious, politically aware and a straight-up master of wordplay, Kendrick pushes things forward while still paying his dues to rap’s original heavyweights, from the heady ‘HUMBLE.’ to the more laid-back – but just as powerful – ‘YAH.’ Rihanna and U2 even stop by for guest appearances. King Kendrick indeed.
The London band took a massive step up on their follow-up to 2015’s excellent ‘My Love Is Cool’. These 12 tracks flit between grunge revival and hazy dreampop – yet even on the most ethereal songs, the band bears teeth, with singer Ellie Rowsell alternating between a snarl and wistful sigh. On the pulsating, insidious punk anthem ‘Yuk Foo’ she takes aim and spits, “You bore me to death”. A response that no one could have to this compelling, coolly assured record.
The New Zealand star sums up the raison d’être of her stunning second album with the understated chorus of fourth track ‘The Louvre’: “Broadcast the boom-boom-boom-boom and make ’em all dance to it”. This is a regret-drenched break-up album that waves a magic wand at pain and transforms it into pure pop magic. From house-influenced lead single ‘Green Light’ to the deliciously overwrought ‘Supercut’, ‘Melodrama’ gives you pause to reflect on the past even as it takes your hand and leads you to the dancefloor.
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