2017 should be remembered as a strong year for many kinds of music, but it might be more memorable for one big disappointment – when was the last time a band as good as Arcade Fire released something as bad as Everything Now? But nevermind, we’ve probed the collective wisdom of our writers and deduced our top 10 favourite albums of 2017, so you can focus on the best of what the year had to offer. We’ve also compiled a list of 20 albums that didn’t quite make the cut here but are still well worth your attention – find them at the bottom of the page.
These are the albums our writers liked the most in 2017:
10. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream
Everything Everything have long restrained their rockier impulses, but on their fourth album the brash simplicity of The Big Riff becomes a fitting way to reflect the crudeness of the post-Brexit, “post-truth” discourse. From the unsophisticated guitar hook of ‘Run The Numbers’ to the bombastic outro on ‘Ivory Tower’, this is Everything Everything’s heaviest album to date. Jonathan Higgs’ lyrics are similarly direct. Whether it’s the liberal elite being mauled to death in Waitrose or Donald Trump’s MASSIVE HANDS, HUGE! (“wrinkled little boxing glove”), the frontman is at his hyperactive best, jumping between strained falsetto and nasal semi-rapping at will. Though rockier, the RnB-inspired choruses that gave Get To Heaven such a broad appeal remain, with singles ‘Can’t Do’ and ‘Desire’ emerging as sparkling successors to ‘Distant Past’ and ‘Spring / Sun / Winter / Dread’. Another perfectly perverted pop album for our precarious times.
9. King Krule – The OOZ
Part of what made Archy Marshall so compelling when he emerged as Zoo Kid at the start of the decade remains unmistakable – that deep voice, always sounding like its scraping along the floor of his range, sung through a sneer. But his other USP, those melancholy guitar figures which were the cornerstone of ‘Out Getting Ribs’ and ‘Baby Blue’, are virtually absent from The OOZ. Instead Marshall’s music takes a step into a more absurd, abstract direction – and this bold decision pays off. These tracks ooze like viscous slime out of cracks and crevices in the fabric of South London streets – the uneasily and queasily-rendered setting for these depressive narratives. Every element sounds sickly. Marshall’s London is the dark, dank, vicious one, of estates and night buses and deprivation, where you can be surrounded by millions but completely alone. This is a long, frightening sink into the depths of Marshall’s psyche. ‘Dum Surfer’ may be the best thing he’s ever recorded.
8. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel always sounds like he’s trying to write the same song – and on A Deeper Understanding he seems to have perfected the formula. This is a lush, powerful album to be listened to at night. His lyrics are hazily filtered and out-of-focus, stumbling agnostically around recurring themes of pain, water, travel, defiance, depression. His motorik drums underpin huge arrangements, always with a core of bass, guitars, and downbeat-Dylan vocals. But what’s so absorbing is what’s going on in the margins – dynamic decorations of synths, glockenspiels, all manner of layers and ornamentations, intense guitar solos, adventurous transitions. A Deeper Understanding is overshadowed by sadness, the sound of Granduciel resolving to fight the spectre of depression through love and through music. This is a big, sincere, serious rock album, that reminds you why the genre was once the world’s greatest.
7. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
If you’re listening to Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, it’s already too late for you. You’re in Tillman’s Panopticon, and, guess what, auditor, it’s a life sentence (or at least for the duration of the album, then you’re on parole). Not only have you no idea whether you should be enjoying or despising this, you don’t even know how FJM wants you to respond. You’ve been swept away by FJM’s apocalyptic, sarcasm tsunami, which he alone can surf where other less-satirically minded auteurs would drown. And you already know what this aforementioned sarcasm means – it means FJM is adept at GIVING A FUCK about NOT GIVING A FUCK (or the other way round, no one is quite sure.) One thing you can be certain about on Pure Comedy – FJM shoots from the hip, and there will be collateral damage – “bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift”. It takes a work of great intelligence, and uniqueness, to create an album that sounds like Elton John at a Philosophy Seminar – it is frustrating, witty, camp and self-reflective.
6. Roger Robinson – Dog Heart City
On Dog Heart City, dub poet Roger Robinson guides us through a London haunted by the voices of the invisible. Robinson cultivates a picture of the capital that takes you into the moulding crevices, an examination of a divided society that is bold in its approach. From the playful retro chiptune of ‘Corridors’ to the rippling bongo of ‘Ruins’, the layered instrumentation of this album is pleasing and adventurous, a well-rounded album that is as musically intense as it is poetically beautiful. A highlight on the album is “New Maps”, the moody bass and lyrics focusing on the alienating impact of gentrification and how it can feel like an invalidation of established and diverse communities. The album feels like a dissolving photo, homemade delays and industrial reverb submerging Roger Robinson’s passages of poetry so that the stories he tells feel incomplete, echoing the theme of erasure. There is a bittersweet element to this album – its muddiness and blurred soundscapes serve to emphasise what escapes representation. He introduces us to the calloused feet of the hardworking nurse, cleaners cooking with gari and children playing in carparks, but we are left feeling a sense of loss and no solution.
5. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
Though promoted as Flower Boy, this album’s title is in fact four words long. But the scandal of Scum Fuck Flower Boy isn’t in the censored title. In fact, there is hardly a scandal at all. Sure, Tyler says that he’s been “kissing white boys”. A bit of a surprise. But once you get past this oh-so-scandalous morsel of homosexuality, the album is without shock value. Shock value would be too easy for post-OFWGKTA Tyler. Instead, Flower Boy is sincere, a journey through a surreally-coloured landscape. Tyler does not pretend: this journey is not a parade of unrelenting pseudo-positivity, it is not insta-worthy. It is unsurprising that Rex Orange County contributes so heavily (listen to his Apricot Princess!). Tyler is heard agonising over his feelings of ennui and isolation; his loves are unrequited, resolved neither sooner nor later. There is no grand narrative, no moral to the story. Tyler wouldn’t want to be lectured to and he won’t lecture you. The advice we are left with is unspoken: Enjoy Right Now, Today.
4. Various – Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of quality compilations of ‘re-discovered’ global sounds: Awesome Tapes From Africa, Music From Memory, Fortuna, Soul Jazz et al. put out solid releases in 2017. But the best comp crown goes to Ostinato Records and their third full-length release. Even before we’d heard any of the music, the story of the album had us intrigued. Tracks were recovered and remastered from the archives of bombed Somali radio stations, where stashes of dusty tape reels and cassettes had been hidden underground by heroic technicians eager to preserve their country’s cultural history. The quality is consistently high (not to mention the beautiful booklet of liner notes – a smorgasbord of interviews, history and detail), and LS’s favourites are all found on the first side. Slow-burning opener ‘Buuraha U Dheer’ (“The Highest Mountains”) has one of the wildest synthesiser sounds we’ve yet to hear, a plaintive vocal and an almost reggae groove. It’s followed by Aamina Camaari’s beautiful ‘Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo’ (“Men are Cruel and Kind”), which combines pentatonic Middle Eastern scales — those psych synths again — funky dunbek and a soaring top line. With the material surviving dictators, censorship and war, these tapes reveal essential music brimming with soul and wonder. It’s proof that you just can’t keep a good thing down: as Jeff Goldblum nearly said in Jurassic Park, “music uhhh… finds a way”. Broken Dates is a triumph for Somali music and in particular its rich history of female vocalists, as well as compilers Vik Sohonie and Nicolas Sheikholeslam. We’ll be hoping they win at the Grammys.
3. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Legend has it that James Murphy had his Saul moment in a Manhattan nightclub in the early 2000s, MDMA facilitating his epiphany that dance music could be just as transcendental as rock music. Converted, he formed LCD Soundystem, a syncretist ensemble that plundered an eclectic mix of popular culture’s greatest hits and near-misses from both sides of the divide – The Beatles, Bowie, Jonathan Richman, Talking Heads, Liquid Liquid, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk. In 2017 Murphy had his Lazarus moment, resurrecting the band 7 years after their “final album” This Is Happening. And it’s clear why he came back – he had so much to say, and an abundance of great tunes. Their time in the grave has subdued and deepened the sound a touch, but Murphy remains the funny, self-deprecating, self-confident commentator who writes intelligent, infectious songs. ‘Tonite’ is the answer to the question “How few notes can a great bassline be made of?” we didn’t know we needed so badly, and ‘How Do You Sleep?’ showcases the kind of transformative song structure that only LCD can pull off. It’s great to have them back.
2. Four Tet – New Energy
Kieran Hebden’s ninth studio album New Energy explores a number of tensions: that of nature and machine, culture and science, acoustic and digital. In the process it gave 2017 both killer dancefloor tracks and some of the year’s most nuanced ambient cuts. The deep house of ‘Planet’ is a standout here. Pretty kora and a sensual vocal sample weave in and out of the mix, underpinned by a heavy kick, providing New Energy with its most transcendental moment. ‘LA Trance’ and ‘You Are Loved’ offer a glimpse of what the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack could have been, with jittery digital high hats, glitches that lock in the groove, meandering soft-synths and plucked sounds rich in melody and pathos. It’s also an album remarkable for its process of creation, having been made with an inspiringly modest studio setup: a small midi keyboard, Ableton software and audio samples, a laptop, and a nice view from the window. The internet went wild, and the resulting memes are definitely worth a look.
1. Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. has many critical accolades, none more emphatic than its aggregate rating being higher than that of any other album this year, but I still feel like it needs a defence. Pitchfork’s readers rated it the most overrated album of the year, and the Guardian’s prestigious end of year list had it miss out on the top spot, to – bizarrely – St Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION. FACT magazine and The Needle Drop didn’t even rank it among the 40 best albums released in 2017. But look – Damn. is a compelling and furious work of genius. Topically, it matches all great albums about the African-American experience; structurally, its themes and narratives weave and twist like any great modern novel. Of course, the same could be said for good kid m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly, and maybe Damn. looks worse in their shadow for being more obtuse and less instant, but it’s worth giving it the close attention it demands.
Rather than isolating different elements of the African-American experience and packaging them clearly and digestibly as Lamar did on, say, ‘King Kunta’ or ‘The Blacker the Berry’, you experience them on Damn. as Lamar experienced them: chaotically and unpredictably. His narratives are fractured, fragments littering the album like bullet holes in the body of a car. His raps are a blur, switching from life in Compton, to police brutality, to personal struggle, to gang warfare, to poverty, to religious confession, to bragging, to family life, to ignorance, to theology, to his fears, to structural racism. The complexity is intoxicating, and the speed at which he raps deep, important lyrics is both impressively skilful and serves to bury his points deep within these tracks, confounding detached listening.
On Damn., Lamar simultaneously reprises the themes that fuelled his two previous albums: the conflict between a ‘Good Kid’ and the ‘Mad City’ of Compton, and the inter-generational conflict between Whites and African-Americans that served as the conceptual grounding for To Pimp a Butterfly. These conflicts are far from new to rap, but what makes Lamar’s treatment of them unique is that he not only documents the nature of the struggle, but seriously considers the idea that he is damned to be on the losing side of each. It doesn’t matter if you agree with him – what is striking is the force of Lamar’s convictions, and the dizzying, furious and complex art they have propelled him towards creating. These twin struggles are united by the common theme of an abandonment of God, and an impending sense of doom. They weave and intersect, the distinctions between them becoming ever more blurred, until there is just one tangled mess of American carnage. When he asks “Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?”, is he speaking of his own suffering, or on behalf of African-Americans? The distinction ceases to matter.
“How you let a conscious rapper go commercial only doing conscious albums?” Lamar asked on his remix of Future’s ‘Mask Off’, and Damn. is the proof that he is the supreme conscious rapper of his generation, and indeed the greatest of any persuasion right now. It’s remarkable really that Lamar has bent his audience round to his philosophical, literate approach to lyrics – but his thoughts resonate, and his obvious conviction is infectious. He outstrips everyone else not by doing the same things better, but by eschewing their methods and going completely off into the deep end of his own thoughts. Lamar deconstructs everything he is – everything that is in his DNA – and exposes it, however hideous, to the judgement of God and to his audience. But what he ultimately reveals are the horrors of racism. Damn. is the sound of all the thoughts spilling out of his head at once – profound, complex, astounding, and the best of 2017.
These 20 albums didn’t make it into our top 10 but still got plenty of love from us in 2017:
Algiers – The Underside of Power Read our review
Arca – Arca
Big Thief – Capacity
Björk – Utopia Read our review
Chastity Belt – I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone
The Cribs – 24/7 Rockstar Shit Read our review
Girlpool – Powerplant
Girl Ray – Earl Grey
Infinite Bisous – w/ love
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – On the Echoing Green
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
The Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
Mount Kimbie – Love What Remains
The National – Sleep Well Beast Read our review
Quantic and Nidia Gonora – Curao
Sampha – Process
St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION Read our review
Thundercat – Drunk!