By The Landlord
Welcome back, dear Song Bar visitors, for the second year running to the first of two roundups of a total of 50 favourite albums of 2017 as nominated by our readers. The second part will be published tomorrow.
Like 2016, it's been another challenging year, politically, economically, and what becomes ever more critical, environmentally. All of these things are linked of course, and the consequences of certain decisions made last year are beginning to take effect. But can these crises galvanise the world, and help turn things around in 2018? If one way to deal wth problems is by creating great music, then the future has some hope. So let's look back at some samples of what has made 2017, by contrast to what is happening at large, a great year for music, with old artists making stunning comebacks and many new ones.
As before, this isn’t a countdown to leading to the so-called best album, or anything as subjective or as flawed as that, but each one offers something different, and again the list, which can only ever be a cross-section, will touch on the mainstream and more obscure. The order is not significant but simply listed in alphabetical order by title, and most album tracks are chosen at random. Feel free to point out different ones. Here are the first 25 of our annual list.
As before these are readers’ suggestions emailed to the Song Bar, including by many who don’t usually comment. The list reflects not only numbers of votes, but also passion and enthusiasm. As a result, number of big names don’t make the final lists, just got ‘also enjoyed’ remarks, so they get honourable mentions, along lesser known artists below.
Think something is missing and want to suggest it? Then please add it in comments.
A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs
Adam Granduciel and his Philadelphia indie band have built layered guitars and keyboards on an album that, like the music itself gradually grew in appeal, rising to critical and buyer acclaim by the end of the year. Its themes, powered with a big dash of Springsteen are of loss and loneliness with genuine feeling and honesty that has taken them to a whole new level of maturity.
American Dream - LCD Soundsystem
A comeback album after the band was supposed to be no more, this became a grower, and is full of references to greats who passed away since the last album – Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Suicide’s Alan Vega, and especially, in musical echoes, David Bowie. Not quite as good as previous albums, but still full of emotional power and momentum, James Murphy and co couldn’t resist saying something about today’s world in turmoil, and the of course discussing the American dream itself but with their distinctive electronica dance punk style, driving rhythms and bass, it’s also a personal call for love and friendship.
Brutalism – IDLES
Headed up by singer Joe Talbot, the Bristol band deliver truly refreshing form of punk – funny, emotional, intense and raw. Think of Seaford Mods if it was a band dressed down to their underpants, with feelings and opinions and Tourettes-style private thoughts coming out spinning in all directions under an unstoppable beat and driving guitar, and classic lines such as: “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich.”
Carry Fire – Robert Plant
The old Led Zeppelin frontman pushes on, but to his credit on this 11th solo album, keeps exploring new territory in the same way he did on 2014’s Lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar, including expositions of colonialism, and in musical style, folk, rock, eastern and African, as well as blues. Highlights include, in duet with Chrissie Hynde , Ersel Hickey’s Bluebirds Over the Mountain, and the cleverly titled The May Queen. The old dog still has new tricks.
Dark Matter – Randy Newman
Among he best of a handful superbly ironic, satirical albums of the past year, Newman returned with classic cutting tenderness with his first studio album for years. Emotional orchestrations and his usual wit touched on subjects as diverse as the stolen identity of bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, a dialogue between the Kennedy brothers about Cuban music, a portrait of Vladimir Putin (if only he'd included the Donald Trump penis song on this record) and the opener, a grand treatise on religion, science, space, evolution and climate change:
Diversions Vol. 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake – The Unthanks
Exquisite work from the Northumbrian folk singers, continuing their series of reinterpretations of others’ songs, which previously included those of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. This time they open up the brilliant world of Nick Drake’s mother, clearly an extraordinary songwriter and poet herself. The album came with a second volume, Extras, and both are a great exposition of the beauty and wonder in work that was never published in Molly’s lifetime. An absolute revelation.
Drunk – Thundercat
A huge man, a huge talent, a huge load of charisma, and a huge bass guitar, Stephen Bruner brought jazz-funk-soul fusion truly to the fore this year, and his February release as endured among many as a favourite of 2017. The album also features guests including Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and an inspired collaboration with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.
Dustin of Sound - The Cravats
An older punk offering, and something of a wildcard in this list. In fact it’s the Cravats’ first album for 37 years, actually picks up where they left off with their eccentric mix of punk / jazz / rockabilly / psychedelia and the kitchen sink. The lyrics took everyday things that you barely notice – electricity power lines, emergency service sirens, noise – and cleverly point out how disturbing they are.
English Tapas - Seaford Mods
Continuing where they left off on 2015’s Key Markets, and their move to being signed to Rough Trade, the Notts duo haven’t compromised on their low-fi, brilliant beats and bass formula, and Jason is just as funny, angry and sharp as ever, even parodying his own reaction to success. English Tapas is full of barbed references to the Brexit chaos, and let’s face it, that’s not going to go away for a very long time. Enjoy this? Check out Idles too, their natural Bristol equivalents.
Every Valley – Public Service Broadcasting
PSB leave behind their space obsession to come down to earth with a more political, human piece of history sampling. The rise and fall of mining communities of South Wales, including on the struggling, striking communities of the 1980s. The record reflects a much larger, global and social malaise, using the history of coal mining to shine a light on the disenfranchised, ably assisted by the likes of James Dean Bradfield and Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell.
Gargoyle – Mark Lanegan
Dark, powerful, moody and masculine, as we said back in April, you don’t mess with the deep-voiced, grizzly Mr Lanegan. He’s collaborated with Queens of the Stone Age, PJ Harvey, Moby, Isobel Campbell and others, but this 10th solo album is one of his very best.
Holiday Destination - Nadine Shah
The third album from the velvet-voiced Tyneside singer with a Pakistani-Norwegian heritage really took her into a new level. Gritty, emotional songs tackle many pressing political issues of the day, from immigration to Brexit, and includes inspiration from the work of her brother who produced a documentary for Al Jazeera TV on a refugee camp in Gaziantep between the Turkish and Syrian border. Outstanding work that brings politics and music together in the most powerful way.
How Did We Get So Dark? – Royal Blood
The follow-up to their blistering debut of 2014 came with a triumphant appearance at Glastonbury, this divided critics as it was felt it was more a continuation of, rather than development from the debut album, but that isn’t necessarily the wrong thing. And with that, from this two-piece, an incredible drumming and guitar power and dark passion that is far better than some Muse comparison.
Melodrama - Lorde
Could the young New Zealand star live up to the enormous hype and success of her debut with the hit Royals and 2013’s Pure Heroine? Yes she could, managing to straddle commercial pop credentials with a genuine songwriting talent.
Modern Kosmology - Jane Weaver
An innovative artist ridiculously overlooked for the Mercury awards, hopefully this 9th album will have pushed the talents of the Widnes-born electronica singer-songwriter towards a wider audience.
Music For People In Trouble – Susanne Sundfør
A profoundly beautiful, poetic album and a popular choice this year from readers from the Norwegian singer who also proved more than adept at tackling Scott Walker songs at the Royal Albert Hall, this follow-up to 2015’s Ten Love Songs strips everything back to acoustic guitar, piano, light percussion and woodwind.
No Shape - Perfume Genius
Back in May we described the fourth album by Mike Hadreas as an absolute belter with a beguiling blend of church music, R&B, art pop and krautrock configured to stadium-filling proportions. And so it has proved to be. An album of wonderful intimacy, complexity and sensitivity.
Of a Nature or Degree – DUDS
The young Manchester band aren’t exactly the self-promoting type. At one gig last year they announced themselves as a nothing band as a joke. But this is pure innovation cut from the northern musical lathe. Their short, sharp songs that might remind of Fire Stations or XTC, but are altogether something new, with complex rhythms, great guitar and bass, cornet and witty shouting. Released on Oh Sees’ label Castle Face.
Peasant – Richard Dawson
Folk is once again rising force in today’s musical landscape, but there’s nothing traditional about Dawson, whose work can seem inaccessible at first, but with Peasant, and reverting to 11 songs of conventional length rather than his more experimental works, a dark portal into his otherworld has been opened up to a bigger audience. Arguably the world is returning to a new dark age, and appropriately this is a concept album set roughly around 500-700 AD, featuring knavish characters, ogres, soldiers, murderers and prostitutes, “houses cast with clay and sheep dung”; there are “pummelled gall-nuts afloat in urine”. Colourful stuff. Tread with caution, and wear boots, but there’s a strange beauty here that will get you hooked.
Pop Voodoo - Black Grape
With the flavour of Stevie Wonder horns, Motown, New York disco, 90s dance, fat bass and a dash of Dee-Lite, not to mention love of The Two Ronnies and lampooning Donald Trump, what’s not to love? Some might not have expected old mates Shaun Ryder and Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge to make a hugely successful comeback 20 years on, but drawing on sharp-witted lyrics pulled out of and honed from Shaun’s teapot, but this mixture of Manncunian wit and Youth’s production did just the trick.
Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
One of this year’s most popular choices, a triumph of perspective and dark humour, intimacy and power, a mixture of alt-country meets classic Elton John and Al Stewart, all in the third solo album by Josh Tillman, the former Fleet Foxes drummer. Brilliantly wry lyrics captures the absurdity of the human condition, at a time when the world seems crazier than ever.
Relaxer – alt-J
One of the year’s most innovative albums, the former Mercury winners have continued to push the boundaries with beautiful work, mixing their electronica with ghostly folk echoes, though not receiving the critical acclaim. Listen out also for a wonderful version of The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun, putting it in a whole new light.
Sleep Well Beast – The National
An album that grew in appeal as time went on, perhaps matching its subject matter - the toils and gradual onset of middle age, rendered with burning honesty and terrifically vivid imagery. Written by frontman Matt Berninger and his co-writer and partner Carin Besser, it deals with relationship burnout and other simmering frustrations, muttered under the breath in a very real, English way. A brave album by a band who have seen mainstream, stadium success, but refused to just keep banging out the same thing.
Trifle - Lone Taxidermist
If you attend a show headed up by Natalie Sharp, you soon know you’re not trifling with any ordinary act. Extraordinary costumes of yellow rubber gloves and duck masks, and disturbingly funny characters are at large and entering the audience, and soon enough plastic sheets and cream will be everywhere. But it’s the music that really matters. This is offbeat innovative electronica spiced with rude humour and bodily boldness like nothing else around.
Utopia - Björk
Still pushing the envelope, musically and visually, and showing the green shoots of hope after her heartbreak album of 2015 Vulnicura, it’s impossible to ignore the Icelander’s output. Classic instruments, it’s a joyous exploration of the many kinds of love in the company of her recent collaborator Arca, and her ongoing interest in the environment and technology. The upbeat pop songs are counterpointed – as you might expect – by more challenging avant-garde pieces.
Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
The Lambeth rapper’s debut has attracted praise from all quarters, not merely with this album, but with many live performances that display oodles of love for music, and also his mum, who regularly makes stage appearances. It’s not merely his maturity as a slick performer, but also musical knowledge that shines, with expert sampling of jazz licks, rock guitar, vintage pianos, and choir music.
Foxygen – Hang, Elbow – Little Fictions, Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage & Joy, Goldfrapp – Silver Eye, Future Islands – The Far Field, Kasabian – For Crying Out Loud, Mac Demarco – This Old Dog, Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution, !!! (Chk Chk Chk) – Shake The Shudder, Saint Etienne – Home Counties, Songhoy Blues – Resistance, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe, Lucy Rose - Something’s Changing, Lana Del Rey - Lust For Life, Girl Ray – Earl Grey, Ghostpoet – Dark Days & Canapés, Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins, Tori Amos – Native Invader, Alvvays – Antisocialites, Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, Marc Almond – Shadows & Reflections, Omni – Multi-Task, Wolf Alice – Visions Of Life, Tricky – Ununiform,, Liam Gallagher – As You Were, Four Tet – New Energy, The The – Radio Cinéola: Trilogy.
Missing an album your loved? Please comment and add yours, and also have a look at the second part launching tomorrow.
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This is only a selection, not a catalogue of releases. Feel free to recommend more and comment below.