Review: Best albums of 2017

Written by: Paul Horsman

Throughout 2017, we filtered the best albums of each month so you didn’t have to. And in the spirit of commitment, we’ve whittled them down to our top ten of the year.

It hasn’t been easy. Opinions have changed. Fights have broken out. There have been surprises along the way. But we got there. We think.

So, in no particular order…

Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone

2017’s breakout star was unquestionably Stormzy. If nothing else, his crossover appeal reinforced the idea that grime is Britain’s answer to hip hop without copying the Americans. Yet there was another rapper this year who also preserved a British style, only without beefing up on electronic beats. Loyle Carner rejoiced in musicality instead, painting his confessional storytelling over funky basslines, gospel choirs and jazz-infused backdrops.

Not one to shy away from tough topics, his words still had bite. But rather than bragging or dissing rivals, he offered an honest portrayal of what it’s like to navigate life when you’re young, skint and regularly getting waved. Deeply personal references about fatherhood (The Isle of Arran), making nan’s pancakes for an absent sister (Florence), and comforting a companion coping with cancer (Mrs C), became relatable due to their emphasis on needing the people who make us what we are. As if to highlight the point, his mum pops up on Sun of Jean with some touching words of her own. “The world is his, that scribble of a boy” she concludes. Mothers always know best.

Confident rather than cocky, this young rapper’s understanding of music is clearly just as important as his love of rhyme. Stormzy may currently have the mainstream gripped, but the future of British hip hop lays in the hands of Loyle Carner.

Try also: Thundercat – Drunk

Lorde – Melodrama

Occasionally, an artist carrying the burden of mainstream success not only delivers an album that lives up to expectation, but elevates them to another level. Having caused waves in 2013 with her refreshingly minimalist debut, rumours surfaced that Lorde was developing a more contemporary sound on her anticipated follow up. If alarm bells were ringing, they were soon silenced when its first taste came in the form of this year’s best song.

Green Light is four meandering minutes of pop perfection; unconventional, hedonistic, complex and catchy. Yet it isn’t her only track to bang. Sober, Supercut and Perfect Places soak up the sounds of now without being generic radio fodder. And the thing that really sets Lorde apart from her peers is her knack at stirring empathy without adding schmaltz. The Louvre is as sharp, modern and moving as any song about falling in love, while Liability and Writer in the Dark have more in common with David Bowie and Kate Bush than the category of poppets she’s often lazily lumped with.

Only 21 years old, Lorde recognises she’s a relatively new artist still establishing her mark in music. Yet she’s confident enough to admit that she’s aiming for the status of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. It may seem like an ambitious target at this stage in her career, but smart money would bet on her hitting it.

Try also: Pixx – The Age of Anxiety

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

From old timers dabbling in new sounds, to ex-boyband members dabbling in maturity… the ghost of David Bowie has been channelled by pretty much everyone this year. Perhaps most noticeably is LCD Soundsystem. Having been put to bed in 2011, frontman James Murphy was encouraged by his hero (during sessions for Blackstar) to reawaken the music. It was advice worth taking. Murphy’s best set of songs to date feel like a continuation of that journey cut short.

Although Bowie’s Berlin era lingers throughout American Dream, you can’t mistake the punk-infused disco on Other Voices, Tonight and Emotional Haircut for anyone else. But there’s far more here than just churning out killer tunes. Surprises can be found from start to finish, and time simply flies when listening. Take the album’s dark centrepiece, How Do You Sleep? Over nine intense minutes of publicly shaming an old friend to the point where it feels invasive, it never stops moving forward thanks to its build-up of pulsating electronica.

A six-year gap seems to have enhanced Murphy’s mojo for observation. Anyone with age anxieties will relate to: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead you can’t delete, and you got life-affirming moments in your past you can’t repeat.” Fortunately, Murphy’s wit saves him from being an old crank. “I’m a hobbled veteran of the disc-shop inquisition sent to parry the cocksure mem-stick filth with my own late-era middle aged ramblings” he deadpans over a thumping beat designed for the young artists he’s addressing. They’d do well to listen. American Dream is possibly this year’s “most 2017” album.

Try also: Beck – Colours

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

Once upon a time, rock music ruled. Whatever its guise over the decades – rockabilly, progressive, punk, metal, grunge – its masculine muscle always flexed hardest. But does that carry any weight in today’s metrosexual society? However hard you roll those eyes, much has been made about rock n roll’s outdated outfit compared to pop n soul’s shifting style.

But who’s to say the two can’t share a catwalk? This year one of the most reliable guitar bands around (whose frontman Josh Homme has earned a rock royalty ranking) teamed up with the man responsible for the biggest selling pop hit of recent times (Mark Ronson, obvs). It may sound like an unfitting match, but together they delivered this year’s most swaggering album.

That’s not to say Villains is a radical shift in direction. Sure, there’s a noticeable groove running through its nine songs (which you suspect is Ronson’s influence), as well as a newfound maturity in Homme’s song writing (particularly Fortress and Villains of Circumstance). But Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, The Way You Used to Do and Un-Reborn Again remind us that rock music can (and should) make you want to shake everything you’ve got, while the final 80 seconds of The Evil Has Landed confirms that Queens of the Stone Age are still Kings of the modern era.

Try also: Afghan Whigs – In Spades

Gorillaz – Humanz

Every year ought to have a party album. 2017 had several. Masa Mura gave us a club record full of today’s sounds. Mr Jukes cooked up a more soulful affair, its key ingredient being a large spoonful of nostalgic funk. But the album with the hippest guest list in town – as well as a political point to make – was Humanz.

Seven years after their last output, Damon Albarn re-joined forces with Jamie Hewlett to resurrect his most successful project (yes, that includes Blur). The result is a soundtrack for the end of the world. Sounds bleak, but it was intentional. According to Albarn, everyone involved was given the exact same brief… to imagine a night where everything they once believed in was turned on its head. Cue an exhaustive list of artists including Vince Staples, Kelela, De La Soul, Grace Jones, Mavis Staples and old rival Noel Gallagher giving it everything they’ve got as if it was their last chance. “The sky is falling baby, drop that ass ‘fore it crashes” it begins. “We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens” it concludes.

Opting to go big, Gorillaz accompanied the album with their own headlining festival, several live streams, augmented reality apps and plans for a ten-episode TV show. Not bad for an animated band. We can’t imagine The Archies achieving all of that.

Try also: Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Perfume Genius – No Shape

To mark the 50-year anniversary of its legalisation, 2017 gave us a whole heap of documentaries exploring the changing attitudes towards homosexuality, as well as pop music’s role in bringing gay culture straight into the living room.

Five decades on, it feels pleasingly ordinary listening to an intricate artist like Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) using male pronouns in his complex songs about love, abuse and other forms of addiction. Although significant to the writing, sexuality is by far the least interesting thing about his fourth (and best) album. More intriguing is the ability to channel his demons into dark sinister songs that sound like they’re also bursting with colour. “I wanted to make this big album with these big songs… only, my version of that” he offered as an explanation.

It’s a trick pulled off from the outset. Otherside, Slip Away and Just Like Love hook us with their flamboyant drama. Wreath and Sides dress gloomy topics with uplifting melodies. Go Ahead and Die 4 U wrap twitchy beats in layers of silk. Every Night and Run Me Through invoke Thom Yorke-esque vocals. And Choir could quite possibly chill your skin off. But don’t let any of this give you the impression that stamina is required to enjoy it all. No Shape is an album that doesn’t heavily intrude, it simply enchants you with spells that seduce.

Try also: Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors

St Vincent – Masseduction

When we reviewed Masseduction in October, we suggested Annie Clark – aka St Vincent – had asserted herself as our new Queen of Pop. However, many argued she’d already claimed that status on her previous self-titled album, complete with cover art of her confidently sitting on a throne-like chair. If that’s the case, its follow-up proves she intends to hold onto the crown, complete with cover art that sends a message to any lagging challengers.

Of course, Clark probably couldn’t give a hoot about any of this. She’s more interested in creating multi-layered music full of addictive hooks. Listening is like being slapped in the face with a hit after hit after hit. But what you admire more is Clark’s conviction to be herself. Whether it’s marrying dark themes with nursery-style rhymes, or dropping Mariah-style falsettos in a year where understated vocals were the trend, we’re reminded that she didn’t become a fully-fledged icon by simply following the crowd.

Having designed a signature range of guitars to better accommodate the female body, she can add Entrepreneur to her CV too. And it’s no surprise her instruments look like something Ziggy Stardust would have played. St Vincent is glam pop at its very, very best.

Try also: Jane Weaver – Kosmology

Sampha – Process

One thing you can rely on during these turbulent times is the continuing reign of R&B. Gone are the days of insufferable crooning about wanting to lick you up and down. It’s now the genre to turn to for something bold and challenging. In the world of music, it’s become our strong and stable.

Inevitably, 2017 exploded with new stars trying to put a fresh spin on the sound. But with patience comes great rewards. Having arrived on the scene six years ago, Sampha finally felt ready to release his long-awaited debut. And it was worth taking his time. More than just a soulful vessel, Process offered an inimitable listening experience. Plastic 100°C builds its layers until you’re melting with each sonic drop. Blood on Me hunts you down with its cripplingly intensity. Reverse Faults pushes and pulls you to that point of conflict. Under has you drowning in its waves of crashing synths. And Incomplete Kisses sweetens the mood just when you need it to. Yet, for all the innovation, its most affective song is the simplest. No-One Knows Me Like the Piano is dedicated to (and performed on) the instrument that helped shape Sampha’s musical identity before, during and after his mother’s losing battle to cancer.

Beautiful, raw and unlike anything else this year, Process proved what talent can achieve when given the luxury to develop a craft. As the title suggests, it’s still only the beginning.

Try also: Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

Elbow – Little Fictions

Whether championing diverse music each Sunday afternoon, performing majestic sets around the festival circuit, or lending vocals to heart-warming Christmas ads, this was the year that Guy Garvey became a national treasure. In fact, his campaign for Prime Minister may as well start now.

Despite all this, you probably thought the last thing you needed in your life was another set of slow burning songs from his band Elbow. This being their seventh studio album, you’d be forgiven for thinking it offered more of what they do best; penning a decent tune or ten and singing them in a cosy northern accent. Little Fictions is far more rewarding than that, full of subtle musical payoffs with enough space to breath over the hypnotic factory line production.

As you would expect, each song drips with romanticism. It’s impossible not to be swept away with the soaring arrangements on Magnificent (She Says), or get lost in the multi-layered dreaminess of K2, or feel goosebumps when the climatic backward strings explode in the title track. Collectively, it’s like experiencing a blast of fresh air… you don’t think you fancy it at first, but it’ll soon clear the mind and leave you invigorated.

Try also: Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

The Horrors – V

When The Horrors first arrived with their organ hammering rock and pantomime gothic image, many felt they were a bit of a novelty act. A lot has changed since then. Having worked with Portishead’s Geoff Barrows on 2009’s Primary Colours, the band continued to expand on its gritty-yet-dreamlike soundscape by taking the producer’s chair on their following albums.

Despite critical praise, they chose to work with Paul Epworth on this fifth. So, what could the producer best known for his work with Florence and the Machine and Adele bring to the table? A commercial hit without sacrificing the band’s artistic integrity? On this evidence, quite probably.

V is a huge album. Opening track Hologram sounds like it’s being beamed down from an invading spacecraft, while Machine and World Below match muscularity with tunes. In fact, the songs are strong throughout. Press Enter to Exit is begging to be used underneath some TV montage, while Gathering and It’s a Good Life suggest frontman Faris Badwan grew up studying the tender moments of Suede and Blur. None of this, however, prepares you for the joy of closing track Something to Remember Me By. We can’t imagine it was intentional, but The Horrors have made a stadium sized anthem look like a doddle. Ten years in the game, they’re now waving the flag for British bands with the best album of their career.

Try also: Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life

Follow our Best of 2017 playlist on Spotify…

Read more reviews and listen to all the highlights from our best albums of 2017…

The Void Playlist – November 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – October 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – September 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – August 2017 Highlights

The Void Playlist – July 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – June 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – May 2017 Highlights

The Void Playlist – April 2017 Highlights

The Void Playlist – March 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – February 2017 Highlights
The Void Playlist – January 2017 Highlights

Author: Paul Horsman

Paul likes writing. And music. It’s unclear whether he likes sharing his suggestions with others or simply likes unleashing an ugly critic within… but we allow him to write about music on The Void.

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