Top 10 is an arbitrary number and I felt like there were at least two projects that were worth tagging on regardless of the format. Before we start, however, I’d like to give honourable mention to a couple of artists whom my appreciation of did not coalesce around the medium of a single album. Namely, Toro y Moi, Kendrick Lamar and the band No Vacation; they all released new material in 2017, but here I loved the singles more than I did the finished products. So, without further delay, here goes, a list of my favourite sounds this year has had to offer:
- In Mind by Real Estate
Melt into 45 minutes of gorgeous jangly glory. This album will rock you gently; while perhaps lacking in drama this doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. Supremely crafted guitar textures and fertile counter-melodies abound. If you escape being lulled into a blissful slumber, then there is much detail to drink.
‘Saturday’ is for me the highlight here. It has a measured and sombre reverb-heavy piano intro, which gradually gives way to a guitar’s arpeggiated embellishments before the drums kick in and we find ourselves in the familiar, uppity, shimmering world to which we’re accustomed. The tone remains melancholic though, and we are reminded of the plodding chords with which the song began when the train winds down for a jilted phaser-filtered lead solo in the bridge.
- In Memory Of by Catholic Action
This is the only debut album on this list, but it’s earned its place just like the others. Catholic Action sound like they’ve been around for longer; their first full-length release is a witty, angst-ridden opening statement that promises good things to come. Their sound is shaped in Scottish indie tradition – I’d point to Franz Ferdinand and Belle and Sebastian in particular with a nod to Weezer for good measure. That being said, the band has a unique voice in the stories they tell and the post-punk sheen they wear on some of the more charged tracks.
The song that really drew me in was ‘Propaganda’ – a mere 1.49 burst of concentrated energy. It gets right down to business with a fraught melodic bass line accompanied by bright soaring synths. Never letting up, the song’s rallying cry is frustrated mantra of “music to tick boxes”.
- Masseduction by St Vincent
Annie Clark’s fifth studio album under the name of St Vincent was released four years after her self-titled project. Since this it seems she has undergone a stylistic transformation, embracing the slick and provocative world she so deftly satirises in a radical re-imagining. This is reflected in the musical direction also. Where St Vincent was a rip-roaring ride of quirky angular riffs and abrasive synths, Masseduction looks to the brash and bombastic pop music of the eighties as an overarching framework. This doesn’t mean that the fuzzy acrobatics are forgotten; they just appear less often as part of a wider, decidedly more sugary landscape. The album is huge in scope, and for that reason struggles to be entirely coherent; nonetheless it’s worth a listen for the valiant attempt to work from such a varied palette.
‘Pills’ is probably the song that sums up the new trajectory most succinctly. Don’t be put off by the childish refrain, its hook is punctuated by cutting verses and Prince-esque guitar moves. There is also a majestic bridge with saxophone thrown in for good measure.
- Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
This is a dream collaboration between two witty self-styled slackers from opposite ends of the globe. Melbourne-born Barnett and Philadelphian Vile bounce off each other in a way that feels meant to be – that being said, if there was criticism to make it might be that neither really challenges the other; the music they create sounds just as you’d expect it. Nevertheless, it is humorous and spread thick with interesting guitar textures making for ideal lazy day listening.
Top pick from this record is the charming ‘Continental Breakfast’. It speaks about the vagabond and interconnected life of the touring musician that allowed such a meeting of minds to take place.
- Memories Are Now by Jesca Hoop
Jesca Hoop seems to have kept a remarkably low profile for being such a manifest and accomplished song-writing talent. Memories Are Now is her fifth album and demonstrates just what a practised craftswoman can achieve after years of refinement and experimentation. As a genre it’s difficult to pin down with elements of folk, country and electronic sounds; one thing is certain, however – it is utterly beautiful.
‘The Lost Sky’ is an exemplar of this wrought, sensitive approach. The tension it weaves is spectacular, full of crescendos that build to abrupt retreat – Hoop is an artist operating at the height of her power.
- Uyai by Ibibio Sound Machine
This album is distinct fusion of disco, post-punk and afrobeat your ears will likely never have heard before. It’s a bold and confident statement of a band who know what they are about. With lyrics a mix between English and the Ibibio language and influences including West African funk, Talking Heads and Joy Division there seems to be an inexhaustible well of sounds to draw from.
A personal highlight is ‘The Pot is On Fire’, which is a frantic and paranoid electro banger accentuated by tense retro synths.
- A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs
I was mesmerised by Lost In The Dream in all its sweeping shoegaze-y grandeur. At last, a real rock band beyond the millennium was prepared to take us over the eight-minute threshold on a single. With supreme confidence in its motifs, finally a group was prepared to devote the time to expanding them to their fullest potential. If I had one criticism, however, it was that these songs seemed to tend to linger rather than drive forward. Cue the release of the first single from A Deeper Understanding, ‘Holding On’ – I was thrust firmly aboard the hype-train.
Where Lost in the Dream was expansive to an almost incomprehensible extent, A Deep Understanding is punchier and more clearly focussed. Nonetheless it retains a sense of sprawling vastness that made its predecessor so impressive. The vocals are pushed further into the foreground too, but this is perhaps to the album’s detriment, as the poetics seem rambling and illogical where the music is minutely arranged. Lost In The Dream’s abstract blending to create a euphoric unified soundscape gives way to a crisper style of production where each element has its chance to shine – particularly effective on the album’s epic fuzzy guitar solos.
As mentioned above, ‘Holding On’ was a favourite and perhaps demonstrates the band’s shift in sound the best.
- Antisocialites by Alvvays
By contrast, I seem to have been a little later cottoning on to this band’s well-deserved acclaim. This Canadian outfit takes shoegaze and imbues it with a human touch, managing to tell heartfelt stories through the layer upon layer of distorted guitars. The ethereal and pixie-like vocals cut through the mix and bring more than just an elegant contrast to the gritty overdriven tones below; Molly Rankin’s tales are tragic, defiant and witty.
‘Plimsol Punk’ gives me hope for the future of music. The tones are fantastic and reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their best, yet Alvvays are firmly their own, making equally inventive use of synthesisers.
- Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting
As with about a third of the bands on this list, I first heard PSB on BBC 6music. It was then their Race for Space album in the spotlight, and particularly the furiously paced single ‘Go!’ Invited through the University of Edinburgh’s student radio station, FreshAir to cover their concert in Usher Hall, I became completely enthralled by their unique approach to crafting music.
Every Valley is an album about the decline of the coal industry in South Wales. I love that I can type that sentence. The subject matter is so daringly unglamorous and out-of-fashion – but so is almost all great art. PSB are bold, but they are so lacking in pretension that this pays off massively. They weave archive recordings in and out of epic and sensitive instrumentals, letting the people who lived and worked in these villages do the talking. My album favourite is probably a song that’s half in Welsh and half English bare clean guitar and a swelling string section towards the close.
For an introduction to the piece I would recommend ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’.
- This Old Dog by Mac Demarco
I got introduced to Mac Demarco in what was probably exactly the way he would have intended: mindlessly browsing YouTube videos in the search for something new. His videos are in some ways anti-YouTube, harkening to a bygone era of home video. With the parting shot of ‘Ode to Viceroy’, where he smokes several dozen of said cigarette in one overwhelming puff, the character of Demarco is unforgettably branded onto my mind.
This Old Dog is in some ways a departure from this persona. The scumbag antics recede to make way for a more mature, thoughtful Demarco, who uses the album to confront a difficult past. In terms of song-writing, the tracks are as smooth and silky as ever but punctuated now with icy, piercing synths – particularly on the track ‘On a Level’.
- Something to Tell You by HAIM
This choice on the list is not intellectually motivated; HAIM just really know how to make a good pop album. Here they prove that they are more than the Fleetwood Mac inspired niche they carved for themselves in 2013. One regret I have is that their studio version of ‘Right Now’ is inferior because of its production gimmicks in comparison with the live promotion video they put out in the run-up to the release of the record.
What better introduction to the hook-crammed riot than the endless chorus and bombastic slap bass of the lead single ‘I Want You Back’?
- Drunk by Thundercat
There is an album, and there is what an album represents. This one takes the top spot more because of the latter than the former. One can say the track listing is chaotic, that Thundercat’s vocals are rather samey or that many of the songs feel like underdeveloped skits – all of these criticisms are valid, but they must be taken in light of the project as a whole. No one sounds like Thundercat and no one has attempted what Drunk attempts.
Drunk is an introduction to the world of Thundercat. It’s at times incoherent, messy and crazy. However, because of all of these things and not in spite of them, it is absolutely authentic. It helps that he is an accomplished song-writer too of course, this knack shining through on the incredibly flavoursome yacht rock ballad ‘Show You the Way’ featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.
To understand why the album has been constantly revisited over the course of year, listen to this song ‘Friend Zone’, typical of the track listing.
So much for a year. You made it to the end. Did you discover something new, do you agree and what were your favourites?