Coming up with a top ten list can be a pretty difficult task, but one thing I’ve ended up realising while compiling my list is just how great a year it’s been for music. Whether conscious or comedy, hip hop or harsh noise, the quality has been plentiful. There’s no overall theme or subject that connects my picks, my favourites of the year range from sanguine to sorrowful, reflective to whimsical, the only notable trait they have in common is that, well…they’re all pretty damn good!
10 SZA – Ctrl
“I’m sorry I’m not more attractive, I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike, I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night”. SZA’s heavily-freestyled debut sees the anxiety-reeling singer refuse to bury her head in the sand, instead launching her sui generis alternative R&B into the paths of those willing to prick up their ears. Songs like ‘Drew Barrymore’ and ‘Supermodel’ make this an album of growth, an unrepentant, sometimes elegantly low-key tirade, but most of all, the diary of a woman. Most of 2017’s best releases come from artists with honest, deliberate stories to tell, and so as far as cunningly human lyricism goes, ‘Ctrl’ is key.
9 The Mountain Goats – Goths
John Darnielle has always managed to capture the attention of general listeners by writing songs about relationships and childhood, but some of his most intimate work has been that which chooses to take a slightly different route. 2015’s ‘Beat the Champ’ took a professional wrestling-based narrative, and belly-to-belly suplexed its way into a collection of death ballads. ‘Goths’ is similar, but trade wrestling for…well…goths. Goth culture, goth bands, goth poetry, it’s all here, from references to Gene Loves Jezebel to the notion of wearing black, even when it’s light outside. ‘Rain in Soho’ is one of the most powerful opening numbers of the year, and Darnielle’s vocal whimpers in ‘The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement’ get sadder with each listen.
8 Roger Waters – Is This the Life We Really Want?
“Is this the life we really want?” isn’t the only question Roger Waters asks, on this, the former Pink Floyd bassist/songwriter’s first studio album since 1992’s ‘Amused to Death’. Continuously speaking out against the sheer corruption and madness that has gained a strange amount of consistency in modern politics, Waters borrows a number of classic Pink Floyd traits and lyrical jabs, with songs like ‘Broken Bones’ and ‘Déjà vu’ sounding as though they’d fit right in on ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Final Cut’. Waters’ sentimentality remains after all these years, yearning for change, keeping his teary-eyes focussed on conflict in the Middle East, and the emotion lodged into his performances is oil-rich.
7 Brockhampton – Saturation II
Alternative hip hop/R&B boyband Brockhampton are seemingly out to conquer. Already having released ‘Saturation’ much earlier this year, its sequel takes the conscious, LGBT rhymes that made the original so compelling, and slides them over thicker, most varied beats. With Dre-esque west coast synths, and pounding rhythms, the collective has become the best thing about whatever genre they want to call themselves. I still get goosebumps the first time the song ‘Tokyo’ glides into its horn-fuelled chorus section, I still get blown away whenever Kevin Abstract or Merlyn Wood or Ameer Vann or whomever else show every other emcee in the game how it’s done. I’d hate for the group to tire themselves out trying to balance touring and recording, but Brockhampton’s insistence on releasing material so regularly can only be a good thing at this point.
6 Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
I’ve never heard anything quite like Mount Eerie’s ‘A Crow Looked at Me’. Phil Elverum’s wife Genevieve Castree unfortunately passed away July last year, and every song from this album serves as an ode to her. The saddest moments occur when Elverum puts himself back where he was when his wife was ill, with my regrettably favourite line on the album being “conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about, back before I knew my way around these hospitals” from the song ‘Emptiness pt. 2’. My review for the album is perhaps the hardest I’ve ever written, as this isn’t really an album, it’s a journal of loss.
5 Algiers – The Underside of Power
Algiers’ second effort sees the band’s violence meter rise to a near-apocalyptic boiling point. Their eponymous debut of last year gave listeners helpings of their soulfulness, their gospel influence and their hard-as-nails execution, but in a way that seems modest in comparison to ‘The Underside of Power’. They’ve managed to do something startling here, an incredible cross-breed of gospel and industrial, and even if we’ve heard things before that could be considered similar, we’ve never heard any likeminded projects hit quite as hard as this. A collection of doomsday rhapsodies, with ‘Cleveland’ and the industrial Sinnerman ‘The Cycle/The Spiral’ being the greatest highlights, the most appropriate carriers of frustration and deontology.
4 Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
I’ve always seen a lot of potential in Tyler, the Creator, mostly thanks to his refined, intimidating-yet-aloof rapping style, but also his detailed lyrical content, even if it’s controversial, even at its tamest. I never felt he’d channelled his assets into a worthwhile project until ‘Flower Boy’ was released, and the success of the album isn’t just due to the fundamentals we already knew Tyler had, but he managed to take his insecurities, his unfortunate experiences and his crippling loneliness to make the most mature, sincere album we ever could’ve expected from a guy who used to rap about having threesomes with dinosaurs. Tender-yet-frustrated jams like ‘See You Again’ and ‘911/Mr. Lonely’ give ‘Flower Boy’ its necessary outline, and harder cuts like ‘I Ain’t Got Time!’ and ‘Who Dat Boy’ give off enough menace to prove that this is still classic Tyler, but without any regression.
3 Neil Cicierega – Mouth Moods
Neil Cicierega continues to climb the rungs of the meme ladder with ‘Mouth Moods’, following up 2014’s two releases, ‘Mouth Sounds’, heavily sampling Smash Mouth’s ‘All-Star’ and ‘Mouth Silence’, which featured a lot less Smash Mouth. Cicierega’s unique brand of comedy music is the best it’s ever been here, with the mashups getting more and more weird. Seriously, hardly any of the songs on ‘Mouth Moods’ make sense on paper, with AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ being merged with Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ on ‘AC/VC’, Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ with Drowning Pool’s ‘Bodies’ on ‘Floor Corn’, and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ on ‘Busta’. The song ‘Bustin’ has managed to gain notoriety, as the heavily-edited version of Ray Parker Jr’s ‘Ghostbusters’ is just so beautifully silly, and “beautifully silly” pretty much sums up ‘Mouth Moods’
2 Show Me the Body – Corpus I
2016’s ‘Body War’ gave us a few glimpses of how dexterously noisy Show Me the Body can be, but ‘Corpus I’ takes the band’s numerous knacks and flaunts them, violently. I’d love to relentlessly recommend this album, but I realise it isn’t going to be to everyone’s liking, not just because of the sheer noisiness of some tracks, such as the screechiness of ‘You Thought What You Saw Was It’, but also because Show Me the Body essentially set out to confuse with ‘Corpus I’, so if you don’t like being confused, you might be turned off. But part of said confusion lies in the fact that the band manages to merge so many different aggressive styles of music, and it isn’t like it comes to a “try to please everyone, you’ll please no one” conclusion, but everything actually fits. Industrial, hip hop, punk, noise, electronic, it’s all here, it’s all spectacular.
1 Brockhampton – Saturation
2017 is the year of Brockhampton. Forget everything you know about hip hop, because the manual has been re-written twice this year, starting with ‘Saturation’. A hard-hitting collection of fiery, honest rap songs is the mere basis of this album, impeccably rooting through themes of racism, identity, and also sexuality in a way that hasn’t really been achieved that often in hip hop, at least not to this standard of excellence. The masculine expectations of rap music are constantly ignored, as positive messages are placed side-by-side with harsh realities, executed amazingly by the likes of Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, Dom McLennon, and the many other members of the collective. The simple fundamentals are even greater, as ‘Saturation’ gifts us some of the best hip hop hooks of the year, the “keep a gold chain on my neck” chorus of ‘Gold’, the “hella boys say” of ‘Boys’, and the “I gotta get better at being me” of ‘Milk’. The beats are bold and attention-grabbing, the rhymes are creative, ‘Saturation’ is the complete package, and Brockhampton are untouchable.