Despite eagerly awaiting releases from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, none of them make my top ten of the year. When I look back on the music of 2017 it was the bands that caught me off guard that really stick out in the memory. The unexpected gems and new names that have provided the soundtrack to my year. This is not to say that ‘DAMN’ and ‘Crack Up’ didn’t live up to expectation; both were stellar releases from artists at the top of their game. However these ten albums managed to break the mould, push their genres forward, and prove what an exceptional year 2017 was for music.
10 Courtney and Kurt – Whole Lotta Sea Lice
Whole Lotta Sea Lice is the unexpected coming together of two musical soulmates. Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett are two of the most laid-back characters in music. Kurt’s American psychedelia and Courtney’s Ozzy guitar twang combine effortlessly, as if the two artists had spent a lifetime together. In reality the album was recorded on the odd days that their international touring schedules matched up, a fact which is acknowledged on the song “Continental Breakfast.” Whole Lotta Sea Lice is a selection of conversational tracks that are as easy-going as the artists themselves.
9 Nai Palm – Needle Paw
Naomi Saalfiel is best known for her hits with the Australian neo-soul outfit Hiatus Kaiyote, but for ‘Needle Paw’ she took to the recording studio alone. Nai Palm engages in vocal acrobatics over a jazzy guitar for the duration of the entire album. Although it may sound self indulgent it allows her silky smooth voice to be shown off, to full effect. Standout track “Crossfire/So Into You” is a heartfelt ode to falling in love and the majority of the tracks have a similarly warm sentiment. ‘Needle Paw’ sees one of the most gifted soul singers of this generation being given the space to truly let her voice shine.
8 James Holden and The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
On ‘The Animal Spirits’, James Holden attempts to transfer his talents as an electronic producer to a full band. Holden’s previous productions and mixes have focused on the rigid structures of Trance and Techno but for The Animal Spirits he wanted to create an album that reflected his expanding music taste. The tracks still retain an electronic core but also have a more human spirit and vibrancy. For ‘The Animal Spirits’ James brought together a ragtag ensemble of freeform jazz artists and invited them all to a recording session to play over his synth-work. The result is an ever evolving and often chaotic album as saxophones, trumpets and recorders take turns to improvise over Holden’s rattling synths. The result has been described by James as “folk-trance” and you’re unlikely to hear another electronic album like it.
7 Brockhampton – Saturation
Brockhampton, the self styled boyband from Texas, owned 2017 with not one, but two stellar mix-tapes. Saturation one and two (and now three) were all released this year. Their rapacious appetite for releasing music, and the enviable quality of it, has seen Kevin Abstract and his crew propelled into the spotlight, and deservedly so. Each of their Saturation albums veers wildly between rap, pop and R&B to create some of the most varied and entertaining LPs of the year. The 15 members each bring a unique energy to every song which has led to comparisons with Odd Future, and rap posse cuts. Their chemistry, creativity, and ability to make the best hooks of any rap album this year, make the Saturation trilogy three albums not to be missed.
6 Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Julien Baker can claim the title of most emotionally charged album of 2017. ‘Turn Out The Lights’ is an intimate exploration of the thoughts that are swimming around in her mind during depression. It’s a cathartic album that refuses to wallow in it’s sadness, instead trying to answer why. The instrumentation rarely stretches beyond her softly plucked guitar and piano chords, leaving space for Julien Baker’s deceptively powerful voice to steal the show. Julien has the uncanny ability to make the listener feel every word and she uses this skill to full effect, to present some of the rawest, and heart-felt lyrics of any album this year.
5 Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
On the release of ‘Flower Boy’ one lyric in particular received all the attention. This may have been the album that Tyler revealed he’s had a thing for white boys since 2004, but it deserves recognition for so much more. It is the album that Tyler the Creator reaches maturity. Gone are the cheap jokes and sexist slurs; in their place are surprisingly reflective and introverted lyrics, about his place in the world and who he wants to share it with. The production is similarly impressive with jazzy motifs, shuffling drum patterns and smooth vocals mixed in with the bass heavy hits of ‘Who Dat Boy’ and ‘Ain’t Got Time’. It all comes together to make Tyler’s best collection of songs to date.
4 Fever Ray – Plunge
Karen Dreijer’s claims her inspiration for her latest album was BDSM, fetishism and sexual liberation. After separating from her partner, Dreijer has claimed she has begun re-exploring her sexuality and on Plunge the listener is dragged down the rabbit hole on her hedonistic journey. Originally called Fun, Plunge is a much more energetic album than her previous work with The Knife and as Fever Ray. Gurgling synths and bouncing bass lines propel each track forward. Her lyrics still contain many of the political attacks that were found on her debut but it is Fever Ray’s ability to combine pleasure and politics that make Plunge one of this year’s best.
3 Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Few artists manage to carve out a unique voice on their debut album, however Moses Sumney effortlessly does so on ‘Aromanticism’. It is a dreamy, and almost otherworldly album that imagines a place where love need not exist. By choosing to question whether relationships should be our ultimate goal, Moses Sumney places himself in stark contrast to other R&B artists. The beautiful instrumentation of harps, saxophone and Thundercat’s softly plucked bass, act merely as a canvas for Sumney’s fragile falsetto. It is a philosophical and therapeutic album that teaches listeners not to fear heartbreak in this lonely world.
2 Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
In his own humble words Vince Staples claims, “My album is better than everything I’m seeing right now,” and it’s hard to argue against him. ‘Big Fish Theory’ uses forward thinking and heavy hitting production, inspired by the Detroit techno scene to create a rap album unlike any other released this year. With ‘Big Fish Theory’ Vince Staples has once again pushed the boundaries for what constitutes a great hip hop album. In half the run time and with half the number of words he manages to out-rap the likes of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar.
1 Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
Julie Byrne channels the likes of Joni Mitchel on Not Even Happiness. Like many of the best lyricists she blurs the line between songwriter and poet, precisely picking words to paint her pictures. The album was written whilst Julie was on a gruelling tour of 70 shows across America and her lyrics explore the solitude and weariness she felt: “I traveled only in service of my dreams, I stood before them all, I was a sleepwalker.” The combination of guitar and voice is one of the simplest in music. However, Julie Byrne’s tender lyrics and hypnotic playing create a transcendental experience, that takes you on her journey across America.