by David Evans
2017 has been a difficult time for music. We’re in highly politicised times. We’re also in the middle of a homogenized, mainstream-driven agenda that doesn’t want us to talk about it. The days of popular music making a statement seem to be waning. Instead, we’re nearly surrounded by musicians focusing inwardly and not on the totally batshit ‘WTF-is-happening?’ chaos that surrounds us all.
This isn’t a criticism. It’s also not new. All artists focus on themselves and the ‘big four’ (sex, love, birth and death – y’know, the universal truths) as they pose questions that don’t have easy answers, but put a crisp beat and a squelchy harmony on that bad boy, and it’s gonna get the tushes shaking.
However, there’s been no ‘Ghost Town’, no ‘Anarchy in the UK’, not even an ‘American Idiot’ to infiltrate the public consciousness this year. That seems peculiar. There’s a revolution coming, but it won’t be televised; we’ll be lucky if we even get the chance to hear about it on BBC6.
As such, 2017 will go down in history as the weirdest year EVER in mainstream music. Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN’ and Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ aside, the rest of these albums have not reached the general public in the way they deserve; despite anyone’s views to the contrary, there’s great music out there and it’s waiting for you to find it.
Our year-end look at the top 25 LPs of 2017 starts with a quick rundown of fifteen unmissable albums and a more in-depth look at the top-ten. Check it out.
…DIDN’T THEY DO WELL?
25) Father John Misty – ‘Pure Comedy’
24) Lorde – ‘Melodrama’
23) Oh Sees – ‘Orc‘
22) Stormzy – ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’
21) Bicep – ‘Bicep’
20) Pissed Jeans – ‘Why Love Now’
19) Sparks – ‘Hippopotamus’
18) Queens of the Stone Age – ‘Villains‘
17) The Weather Station – ’The Weather Station‘
16) Wu Tang Clan – ‘The Saga Continues’
15) The Horrors – ‘V‘
14) Beck – ‘Colors’
13) Thundercat – ‘Drunk’
12) Mavis Staples – ‘If All I Was Was Black’
11) St. Vincent – ‘Masseduction’
AND THIS YEARS ’TOP OF THE POPS’…
10)Ibibio Sound Machine: ‘Uyai‘
If you’ve ever had the please of seeing Ibibio Sound Machine live, you will know the frustration that came with listening to the more sedate recordings on their self-titled 2014 debut. This follow up, however, captures all that is wonderful in their joyful, life-affirming live shows. Disco-centred bass, swooning 80’s synths, and of course, vocalist Eno Williams genre-defying vocals, highlight the joys of liberation and freedom in a time when we need to be desperately reminded of such things.
What truly startles are the slower songs, (you’d be hard pressed to called them ballads) which give Williams the chance to truly enthrall you with her octave-bashing voice. Their next album could be a genuine game-changer.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Give Me A Reason’
- For fans of:The Very Best, Bonbino, David Byrne
9) Girl Ray – ‘Earl Grey‘
I was always going to love Girl Ray, especially since every review of the album mentioned perennial none-more-indie 90’s favourites of mine Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
Yes, the mighty Gorky’s are a fine comparison, mainly due to the fact both bands use rudimentary instruments as a building block for their own unique take on pop music. Like, proper pop music, you know the kind, with melodies about the opposite sex being a bit shitty and how being young is sometimes ace, but often a total drag, man.
What I really love about Girl Ray is how they are the first unashamedly indie band since Camera Obscura that seems to genuinely enjoy this whole pop malarkey. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Now, pass me my cardigan whilst I blush unapologetically round that girl I fancy.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Don’t Go Back At Ten’
- For fans of: Gorky’s (obvvvvvvvsss!); Cate Le Bon, The Winter Club
8) Protomartyr – ‘Relatives in Descent‘
The majority of post-punk is navel-gazing drudgery, don’t you think? Serious men in serious coats having a bit of a whinge, admired by serious men in serious coats who like watching people have a bit of a whinge. Which makes the work of Detroit-born Protomartyr even more worthy, seeing as I enjoyed it whilst still sporting that snazzy indie cardigan.Armed with militant bass, exploding drums and, in Joe Casey, a Nick Cave/Lou Reed aping frontman with some of the sharpest lyrics this side of, er, Nick Cave and Lou Reed, Protomartyr’s latest is an album that can only be fashioned in troubling times. Holding a mirror to America, (in the same way Idles does to Britain), ‘Relatives in Descent’ is an uncomfortable and difficult listen at times, but repeated listening brings out its nuanced, claustrophobic charms. Casey’s vocal refrains burrow under the skin long after the album has finished, and you can’t help but feel that this is a band close to reaching a creative peak.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘A Private Understanding’
- For fans of: Gang of Four, The Rapture, The Cure
7) Robyn Hitchcock – ‘Robyn Hitchcock’
You know what a self-titled album means when 40 years into your career? It’s a defining affirmation of ‘Yes. This is it. LOOK! I’VE FINALLY SUSSED THIS OUT!’ It usually highlights an artist’s confidence in their new direction, and with this, Hitchcock’s 12th solo album, the confidence is totally warranted. Melodically astute, aided by an experienced and experimental backing band, and some of the best lyrics the Nashville-based songwriter has ever written, the album is a joyous ode to power chords and juvenile humour.
In fact, I would go as far to say it’s the best album that includes the themes of cat dynasties, Sylvia Plath and cannibal overlords. In 2017 at least.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Mad Shelly’s Letterbox’
- For fans of: Weezer, Warren Zevon, The Only Ones
Sampha had already featured on the work of Frank Ocean, Solange Knowles and Kanye West before releasing his debut this year. Heady company indeed; fortunately for him and ourselves, his own music is of equal standing.
Low-key electronica and modern r’n’b is his blueprint, but what truly astonishes is his voice. ‘Blood On Me’ which hears him breathing heavily, his vocals panic-stricken, is almost theatre, Sampha playing the lead actor beckoning you into a personal world of love, regret and all the unpleasant stuff in-between.
It’s to his great credit that you find yourself drawn in, and are soon first-row, gawping in awe at a truly masterful vocalist and his bewildering world.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Blood on Me’
- For fans of: James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Julia Holder
5) SZA – ‘Ctrl‘
Following last years double whammy of Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ and Solange‘s ‘A Seat at the Table’, SZA’s ‘Ctrl’ seems to be the final instalment in a similarly themed trilogy.
Often only backed by minimal beats, gentle drunken synths and haunting samples, SZA’s melodies and harmonies take centre stage which only highlight her, often alarmingly, knuckle-biting lyrics. It helps that she is also one of the best new rappers to appear post-Lamar.
Speaking of whom, he and fellow zeitgeist-waving musician Travis Scott also guest on the album, which begs the question on how this beautifully written album hasn’t (as of yet) swung SZA into the mainstream. Surely it’s only a matter of time.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Love Galore’
- For fans of: Beyoncé, Solange, Kendrick Lamar
4) Kendrick Lamar – ‘DAMN.’
Though DAMN doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of genuine-album-of-the-century contender To Pimp A Butterfly (Lamar’s 2015 sophomore effort), it continues the theme, marrying old-school ideals with new-school production. Percussion, as always, is kept tight and flare-free, allowing Lamar’s main weapon, his catapulting voice, to take centre stage. Verses flow with a casual grace and ease, phrases are edited and tightened to keep with the albums relaxed rhythms.
Immediate and mysterious – though not as experimental as its predecessor – DAMN shows how possible it is to remain challenging and accessible, currently being America’s best selling album in 2017. Which is truly, truly batshit.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Humble’
- For fans of: Run the Jewels; A Tribe Called Quest; Wu-Tang Clan
3) Sharon Jones – ‘Soul of a Woman‘
Sharon Jones‘s posthumous release could easily have been an exercise in mawkish sentimentality. Instead, Soul of a Woman’ is a rollicking, ‘isn’t-life-great’, feet-tapping wonder.
With her joyfully talented backing band The Dap-Kings keeping a tight and restrained ship, Jones is free to use her voice as nature intended. Her warm and inclusive tone means you soon find yourself grin-deep in the middle of some much-needed optimism. Lyrics like ‘It’s a matter of time before justice will come/ It’s a matter of time before we are all united’ made even the more poignant due to Jone’s passing away in late 2016, denying her the chance to sing these career-defining songs live.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘A Matter of Time’
- For fans of: Mavis Staples, Gloria Jones, Charles Bradley
2) Four Tet – ‘New Energy’
Four Tet (British DJ Kieren Hebdon) has been releasing consistently great albums since the last century. From 2009’s sumptuous ‘There is Love in You’, he has drifted further from the dance floor and focused his attention on post-club music (you know the drill: gentle beats, plucked stings, liked by people who tell you about ’the system keeping us in boxes, man!’).
Incredibly, ‘New Energy’ succeeds thanks to its warm, heavenly production, and more importantly, hypnotically beautiful songs. Harps, steel drums, and woozy synths all melt into your ears in one glorious reminder of how an artist 20 years into their career can still surprise you.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Lush’
- For fans of: Jamie XX, Luke Vibert, Nightmares on Wax
1) Idles – ‘Brutalism’
It’s not often I start a sentence by reciting the views of British architectual critic, Reyner Banham, but one quick perusal on the always-factually-correct Wikipedia (ahem!) sees him describing Brutalism as ‘the expression of an atmosphere among architects of moral seriousness.’
Of course, he’s referring to some ugly, humongous buildings and not this ferocious album from a gang of angry Bristol punks, but upon the first thirty seconds of listening to Idles’ debut, it’s soon apparent why they named it so. Because it too is ugly and humongous, it’s also sad, hilarious, and angry. Oh, it’s very angry.
Opener Heel/Heal sets the bar high with discordant guitars and driving drums. Vocalist Joe Talbot’s lyrics (“I want to move into a Bovis home/And make a list of everything I own/And ride into the amber setting sun/Marching to the beat of someone’s drum”) showcase all that is wonderful about Idles’ visceral energy.
Spoken loudly over rumbling bass, and tumbling drums, the t-shirt friendly phrasing of ‘Mother‘ – “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” – arguably highlights it as one of the best songs of the year.
Is it political? Yes, it’s fucking political. Is it satirical? Yes, its fucking satirical. Is it the best album of the year? Without doubt. ‘Brutalism’ is essential listening.
- Add it to your playlist: ‘Mother’
- For fans of: Future of the Left, At the Drive In, God Damn
Hey, thanks for reading all about our top 25 albums of 2017. As a bonus, we made you a Spotify playlist that includes most of the big hitters on this list and also some crackers that didn’t make it. You lucky sausage, you.
David writes, DJs with The House That Jack Built, and sometimes appears in comedy sketches; he loves bacon rolls, kind people, and John Candy.