END OF YEAR REVIEW:
2017'S TOP 10 ALBUMS
Welcome once again to this End of Year Music Review countdown.
It’s been a strange old year and the music world hasn’t escaped some of the turmoil and weirdness on show. Jay-Z was publicly lacerating himself about cheating on Beyoncé, Harry Styles surprised everyone with an unexpectedly listenable soft rock solo debut, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme started kicking people in the face during live shows, the hideous waste of human organs that are Jake Paul and Danielle Bregoli (aka Bhad Bhabie) still plagued the airwaves and lowered the standards of music and humanity, and oh my giddy fuck, if I hear either ‘Despacito’ or Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’ one more time, I’ll set fire to my left nipple.
On a more sombre note, Chuck Berry, Chris Cornell, Charles Bradley, Chester Bennington, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Malcolm Young and Chuck Mosley all joined the choir invisible this year, and the music world is poorer for it.
Thankfully though, there was enough good music released to make sure that not all hope was lost.
Like the previous years, this Top 10 list is a personal appreciation of the year’s musical releases, and the suspense shall be preserved, as we work our way from the n°10 to the n°1 spot. Unlike previous lists however, everything goes in 2017: not only full-length albums, but also soundtracks and re-releases.
So, without further ado, let the countdown to the best album of 2017 begin…
- 10 -
Yep, that’s right, and I’m as shocked as you are.
Opening the proceedings and at the bum-end of the countdown is Taylor Swift’s sixth LP, Reputation. Granted, this new album won’t win Swift many new converts (not that she needs them): tracks like ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ are in many ways monumental helpings of crack for her detractors, as they come off as queasy cocktails of tone-deaf PR and her proclivity for whipping out of the victim card. However, Swift’s capacity to send-up her petty antics with some self-deprecation is on show here; matched with her knack for an earworm, Reputation cements once more her status as pop royalty, as evidenced by tunes like ‘…Ready For It?’, ‘Something Bad’ and euphoric album standout ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’. Love her, hate her, love-to-hate-her… Wherever you stand on the Swiftian spectrum, it’s hard to argue when faced with these polished bangers and this album’s potency as a bold return to the charts following 2014’s excellent 1989.
So, try to ignore the meta-narratives about score-settling in the public eye; attempt to dismiss her vomit-inducing, faux-feminist squad antics; work to put aside the fact that many are getting (somewhat justly) uncomfortable about her striking silence vis-à-vis Trump, especially for someone so keen on social media promotion and always happy to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to sermonizing about empowerment… and simply succumb to the fact that this is a slick pop offering and a cracking listen.
Listen to: ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’
- 9 -
For her third record, Nadine Shah still managed to make the gloomy sound sublime, positing that an uplifting-sounding song can temporarily diffuse even the bleakest of situations.
Her previous albums - the wonderful Love Your Dum And Mad and her excellent follow-up Fast Food - graced the listener with candid and immersive stories about death, toxic relationships and heartbreak; Holiday Destination focused less on these, taking its inspiration more from current events.
The most evident touchstone when listening to Holiday Destination is PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, as the thematic spine of the album also sees Shah casting herself as an observer of the world’s woes. The former travelled to Kosovo and Afghanistan for last year’s journalism-rock hybrid; here, the story goes that Shah was initially inspired by a documentary her brother made about the Gaziantep refugee camp on the Syrian border. This Al Jazeera documentary, as well as news reports, showed the xenophobia of holidaymakers and how tourists unashamedly complained about the sight of migrants ruining their picturesque holidays. Shah used this as a springboard to comment on the sorry state of a world gradually losing its grasp on compassion, and how we get lost in the trivial. The end result merges post-punk sounds, brooding percussions and some funky basslines; and while the description above may make it sound like a wearily righteous endeavour, the results are immensely listenable, without a trace of hectoring and a refreshing lack of plaintive tones when dealing with weighty topics.
Listen to: ‘Evil’
- 8 -
I SEE YOU
It had been five years since we last heard from them, but The xx were back with a third album this year, their first following band member Jamie xx’s solo project. That last detail has its relevance, as The xx’s in-house producer Jamie Smith’s fantastic debut In Colour was far sunnier and more sonically buoyant than the minimalistic sounds of his band’s self-titled debut or their 2012 album Coexist. It’s therefore no surprise that I See You sounded less forcefully introspective and altogether warmer than anything they’d done before.
From the opening track’s trumpet calls and calypso vibes, to the always wonderful sounds of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim duetting, via the moodily textured come-down club anthem ‘A Violent Noise’, I See You is in many ways the product of a band stepping out of their electro-minimalist comfort zone and confidently moving forwards. That said, even if Smith’s influence is undeniable, I See You remains resolutely a The xx album: the London trio haven’t compromised their sound, but rather expanded it. It also helps that the album makes up for a slight dip in the middle by ending on a perfect high, with the triptych ‘On Hold’, ‘I Dare You’ and ‘Test Me’. All in all, a fun listen and arguably their richest effort to date.
Listen to: ‘On Hold’
- 7 -
Like The xx, it had been a long five-year wait…
Half a decade since Shields, Grizzly Bear released Painted Ruins this year, a nuanced and exhilarating return to form about break-ups, loneliness and the tender moments that manage to survive hardship.
The band’s blend of chamber pop and psychedelic-tinged folk rock is this time met with more percussions and synths ('Three Rings'), some funk inflections ('Aquarian'), jazzy goodness ('Glass Hillside') and some direct pop hooks ('Mourning Sound'). As Daniel Rossen sings on ‘Four Cypresses’: “It’s chaos, but it works.” The result is a sophisticated record that benefits from uninterrupted listens: from start to finish, Painted Ruins gathers a fascinating momentum from its atmospheric opener to the horns and saxophones present on the finale, a progression which allows you to further appreciate an exciting mix of sounds and zone-in on Ed Droste’s wistful and moving lyrics. The words always strive to wean out hope and acceptance even in the darkest of places: “With every passing day / Our history fades away / And I’m not sure why / There’s nothing left to say”.
All said, Painted Ruins is an inventive effort that will delight fans and rightfully earn the band some new followers.
Listen to: ‘Four Cypresses’
- 6 -
STORIES FROM FAR AWAY ON PIANO
Following a series of EPs and a Glastonbury performance of his Modulations recordings comes this debut album by British pianist James Heather.
Following in the footsteps of the new school set of “post-classical” artists like Max Richter and Johann Johannsson, Stories From Far Away On Piano, released on the label Ahead Of Our Time (founded by Coldcut), is an absolute must-listen. On a surface level, the minimalist solo piano compositions appear straightforward, deceptively so; there’s an intricate and layered beauty to these stunningly emotive soundscapes, which evoke some of Nils Frahm’s best work and the aforementioned Max Richter and his 24 Postcards In Full Colour. Furthermore, the nine pieces are interpretations of real world events ripped from the news headlines, and while the stories themselves are in no way the main focus, they reinforce the beautiful dynamic between a tender outpouring of empathy and the stark intensity that the songs convey.
Stories From Far Away On Piano is 2017’s under-the-radar gem and don’t be surprised if you find Heather’s name attached to film soundtracks very soon, as his breath-taking melodies frequently feel tailor-made for cinematic escapism.
Listen to: ‘Last Minute Change Of Heart’
- 5 -
(REMIXED & REMASTERED)
Tom Waits reissued his entire catalogue with ANTI-Records this year, from 1999’s Mule Variations through to his last album to date, 2011’s Bad As Me. One of the albums, 2004’s Real Gone, was given preferential treatment… Frequently and unfairly labelled as an experiment gone tits up, with piano and traditional instruments thrown out the window in favour of more cacophonous sounds that meshed blues and hip-hop rhythms, Real Gone remains one of the musical Dadaist’s most fascinating achievements, an underappreciated album which has been newly remixed.
Now, granted, why tamper with an album which was already great to begin with? And with all the cynicism in the world regarding cash-grab reissues, this is one of those rare occasions where it makes perfect sense. Personally remastered by Waits and his wife / music collaborator Kathleen Brennan, who went through the original master tapes, the updated result sounds noticeably different and boasts a texture that was apparently originally envisioned by Waits. This update doesn’t detract from the fact that the original cut of Real Gone was excellent – but there was clearly another idea for this album, and we finally get to hear it. Some songs are given a raw retooling, others are even radical departures, with less beatboxing and clearer vocals. There are more percussions and a bigger helping of Marc Ribot’s guitars on ‘Shake It’, some jazzier undertones on ‘Hoist That Rag’, a sinister dose of drone noises on the nightmarishly mesmerizing ‘Don’t Go Into That Barn’ and even a more jaunty and playful vibe to ‘Metropolitan Glide’.
It all boils down to the following: How often do you get to listen to a familiar album anew, getting to appreciate the storytelling and musicality seemingly for the first time? Rarely. When does the musical equivalent of a director’s cut allow you to peek so satisfyingly into the creative process of an artist and one of his most undervalued releases? Never. It'd be a shame to miss out...
Listen to: ‘Hoist That Rag’
- 4 -
RUN THE JEWELS
Digitally released at the arse end of 2016, RTJ3 deserves honorary 2017 status, and while everyone was waxing lyrical about Kendrick Lamar’s admittedly excellent DAMN., RTJ3 remained the bar to clear for hip hop this year.
Killer Mike and El-P delivered a call to arms, one which flips the bird to the fraught times we find ourselves in. After hitting out at Darth Cinnamon on DJ Shadows’ Mountain Will Fall last year with the line “Quicker than Trump fucks his youngest”, they’re on the war path once more, especially on ‘Talk To Me’ and ‘A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters’. Other socio-political issues inherent to the state of unrest plaguing modern-day America get a look-in, from apathetic acceptance, police brutality, to passive-aggressive misogyny (“Ballot or bullet, you better use one”; “Poor folk love us, the rich hate our faces / We talk too loud, won’t remain in our places”; “You wanna kick it, I’ll give you the rock / You kiss the wood chipper blade if you balk / I’m fuckin’ magic, in face I’m a warlock of talk / I got a unicorn horn for a STOP!”).
It’s confrontational, cathartic and a supremely entertaining listen, with finely tuned rage, rapid-fire zingers, far more subtlety than they are given credit for. Their humorous, borderline cartoonish approach to their image continues to set them apart from the habitual toxic braggadocio so many cultivate in the rap / hip-hop genre. Run The Jewels proved that they remain just as urgent and furious as before, perhaps in a less obvious way than on RTJ2, and have also gifted us their strongest track since 2014’s ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)’: the riotous ‘Legend Has It’, which sounds even better live. Don’t let them pass you by.
Listen to: ‘Legend Has It’
- 3 -
SLEEP WELL BEAST
“We’re in a different kind of thing now”, The National frontman Matt Berninger croons on lead single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’. In many ways, this was a statement of intent, a way of heralding the band’s newest, possibly darkest turn they’ve taken, four years since their last and more emotionally-resonant album Trouble Will Find Me. Sleep Well Beast was indeed a departure of sorts and saw the band confirm that no one writes a beautifully morose ballad quite like The National. Moreover, it shows that while they are without a doubt one of the most consistent bands out there, they aren’t afraid to explore new avenues, populated by synths, electronic beats and more guitar-centric compositions.
From the stunning opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ to the ‘Pink Rabbits’-evoking waltz ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ via the brilliant and grungy ‘Turtleneck’ and the doomed romanticism inherent to tracks like ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, the conceptual and sonic coherence at the heart of the album is impressive. The electronic experimentalism subtly creeps into the comfortable-sounding slow-burners, and the distorted guitars burst into calmer soundscapes. Its homogeneity, however, is mostly due to Sleep Well Beast’s themes, dealing with struggling relationships, specifically marriage. This allows the band to whip out their ever-faithful calling card: superbly introspective and ornately crafted lyrics about self-doubt and uncertainty.
Theatrical, gloriously written, at times overtly political and featuring some of the brashest tunes they’ve recorded since Alligator, Sleep Well Beast is the sound of a band embracing the total darkness to better fight it, and our ears were better for it this year.
Listen to: ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’
- 2 -
TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN
MUSIC FROM THE LIMITED EVENT SERIES
Sound has always been crucial for David Lynch, a way to enrichen the inimitable atmospheres of his films, and Twin Peaks: The Return shone in particular for its sound mixing. The bequiffed director was credited as the Sound Designer for this third season, and following the release of the TV event of the year, two soundtracks came out. The first featured original show composer Angelo Badalamenti’s moody instrumental compositions; the second is this eccentric and eclectic soundtrack, and this year’s runner-up spot in the Top 10.
It features the tracks performed in The Roadhouse / Bang Bang Bar by artists handpicked by Lynch who all agreed to appear on the show. Not only does the soundtrack showcase Lynch’s musical tastes and his talent for curation, but is one of the most dizzyingly diverse line-ups in recent memory, a mix of original songs written specially for the show and remixed versions of existing tracks. There’s the dreamy pop of up-and-comers Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone, the electro stylings of Blunted Beatz, the hard-industrial rock of frequent Lynch collaborators Nine Inch Nails, the old school fare of The Paris Sisters’ ‘I Love How You Love Me’, The Platters’ ‘My Prayer’, and the live version of Otis Redding’s 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' (all of which didn’t physically appear on stage, for obvious reasons). Standouts include Eddie Vedder’s folk ballad ‘Out Of Sand’, the Roadhouse remixes of Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Tarifa’, Lissie’s ‘Wild West’ and The Veils’ ‘Axolotl’, as well as the entry by Rebekah Del Rio – who Lynch worked with previously for Mulholland Drive – whose ‘No Stars’ is an eerie lament which perfectly encapsulates the world of Twin Peaks. The only bum note is the inclusion of ‘Just You’, which, like the original version by character James Marshall on the first Twin Peaks soundtrack, is the musical equivalent of having a horse fucking you in the ear while a chipmunk serenades the bloody proceedings.
This new soundtrack is not the sonic hodgepodge it should by every right have been. The motley collection comes together in a quintessentially Lynchian way, and while all the songs have thematic and emotional links to the episodes they featured in, this album is equally as enjoyable for non-fans, as the quality of the tracks and the diversity of genres on show is its own reward.
Listen to: Rebekah Del Rio – ‘No Stars’
Which all brings us to the best album of 2017…
- 1 -
HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF
Dedicated to Yun-Hua, my two-time gig-going partner for Hurray For The Riff Raff this year.
Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sixth LP kept the band’s troubadour style and bluesy sound but branched out and embraced the Puerto Rican heritage so dear to frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra. They have crafted a folk concept album which deftly merges elements of folk with salsa, Hispanic percussions with more romantic strings and even some spoken-word poetry. It’s a brilliantly rich album which not only mirrors Segarra’s own experiences via her alter ego Navita Milagros Negron, a street-smart Puerto Rican woman, but also acts as a timely protest record. The 12 songs are separated into two acts - bookended by the superb ‘Entrance’ and ‘Finale’ - and chronicle Navita’s journey out of the oppressive urban landscape, how she is “ready for the world” and how she eventually comes to miss what she has lost.
The theme of identity is key here, and it is a testimony to the musical and lyrical maturity on show that these songs of resistance don’t limit themselves to easy finger-pointing or angsty rumblings. When Segarra sings on ‘Rican Beach’: “Now all the politicians / They just squawk their mouths / They say: ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out’ / And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease”, she, like Patti Smith and PJ Harvey before her, laments as much as she condemns, empowers as much as observes.
Powerful, catchy, at times gentle and wonderfully intersectional, The Navigator is Huray For The Riff Raff's best record to date, as well as 2017's most memorable release. Here's hoping they don't fall to the “silence disease” any time soon...
Listen to: ‘Pa’lante’
That’s right: no St Vincent - MASSEDUCTION because choices had to be made; no Relaxer by alt-j because it’s their weakest yet; none of Bjork's Utopia because as intriguing and daring as it is, I miss the tunes; a lack of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds' Who Built The Moon because it’s overrated and not as strong as their first two albums; no Arcade Fire because Everything Now is just the worst; and no Foo Fighters - Concrete And Gold because I haven’t found the time to listen to it yet, but I will, I’m sorry Dave, I’m sorry.
Honourable Mentions go to:
Call Me By Your Name OST
Benjamin Clementine – I Tell A Fly
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Ibeyi – Ash
Feist – Pleasure
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Gorillaz – Humanz
Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun
Any striking omissions or downright unforgivable inclusions? As always, let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope your year was filled with musical goodness and happy holidays to all!
- D - 22/12/17