So it’s that time of year again. If you’re anything like me (you poor fools) then before the bonfire night embers have even grown cool your basic conversation starters take a handbrake turn away from the usual ‘nice weather we’re having’ and ‘that’s a nice hat you’ve got there’. As the end of the year approaches, all your conversations morph into three: best film of the year, best party of the year (what up), and best album of the year.
2017 has followed 2016 in being a darn fine year, with a wide array of albums to pick from all corners of the spectrum. But, after consulting with the audio druids and the wisdom of the good Goddess Melody, I’ve finally wrestled it down into a (not at all biased) top ten list. Shout outs have to go to Imelda May’s ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’, Jesca Hoop’s ‘Memories Are Now’ Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Every Valley’ and Trombone Shorty’s ‘Parking Lot Symphony’ for just getting skimmed off the top. But here it is. My not-at-all-binding top ten albums of 2017.
Also, I’ll not be using the word I any longer. Because writing in first-person makes Matt George Lovett self-conscious.
10 Courtney Marie Andrews ‘Honest Life’
2017 has been a strong year for country music. Chris Stapleton, Sam Outlaw, Andrew Combs and Marty Stuart have all turned out damn fine records from right across the range. But ‘Honest Life’ from way back in January rides high above the rest. Courtney Marie Andrews’ sixth release, and the one that thrust her into the spotlight, ‘Honest Life’ is like diving headfirst into a sepia photograph from the summer of love. Split between firm-but-fragile ballads like ‘Rookie Dreaming’ or ‘Not the End’ and rousing anthems like the organ-drenched ‘Irene’, it’s a love letter to folksy 60’s songwriting with some of the best lyrics of the year. Barefaced confessionals from every truck-stop and diner in America, delivered with a conviction like Joni Mitchell at her most tender. ‘Honest Life’ is an album for anyone who’s ever put a brave face on things, and has a desperate hunger for happiness bursting from every line.
9 The Courtneys ‘The Courtneys II’
2017 has been a strong year for Courtney’s in general really (Courtney Barnett just missed off the list). Amid all the political turmoil and cultural chaos of the last twelve months, ‘The Courtneys II’ stands as an out-of-place, oddly reassuring gem. For their second effort the Vancouver trio have ditched the more abrasive elements of their debut in favour of fuzz-lathered hooks and stoned-out cheerleader vocals. Sun-burnt brat-pop from a pre-twitter era, tracks like ‘Silver Velvet’ and ‘Mars Attacks’ make you want to bomb down the interstate in your daddy’s open-top and mail a cassette to your high school crush (be they vampire, werewolf, or alien). Whilst ‘Lost Boys’ confirms their not-at-all-surprising love for 80s pulpy cinema, and makes Keifer Sutherland’s cheekbones seem like the most important things in the world. Tying in nicely with the rose-tinted nostalgia of Stranger Things or IT, ‘The Courtneys II’ is slacker rock at its best, and it listens like a decades old classic fished out from behind the sofa. If Buffy was still kicking undead ass down in Sunnydale, she’d be doing it with ‘The Courtneys II’ blasting out of her Walkman.
8 Tashaki Miyaki ‘The Dream’
Few albums this year have sounded as massive as ‘The Dream’. The long-awaited full-length debut of these reclusive dreampoppers, it features a mix of new tracks and re-recordings of those features on the last six years’ worth of EPs. Only now with the benefit of some class-A production and orchestral wizardry from drummer-frontwoman Paige Stark, the album sounds more like a glacier cruising through downtown Los Angeles, glistening as it slowly melts. ‘City’ and ‘Somethin’ is Better Than Nothin’’ positively surge with guitar tone, hazy like the fumes off a hot tarmac freeway, whilst others like ‘Keep Me In Mind’ are a bittersweet strings-led pause for breath. Combined with Stark’s dreamy, Galadriel-like vocals and her lyrical obsession with the silver screen, you’ve got an album that’ll go a long way toward sweeping you off your feet. It’s the long-lost alternate soundtrack to some golden age Hollywood romance, and it was well worth the half-a-decade wait.
7 Nadine Shah ‘Holiday Destination’
Right at the other end of the spectrum, Nadine Shah’s ‘Holiday Destination’ is one of those albums that, in years to come, could be held up as an example of what 2017 felt like. On the one hand it’s deeply political, getting to grips with such topics as Brexit, austerity and the refugee crisis. On the other, it’s an eclectic oddball of The Talking Heads, David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux and PJ Harvey all stitched together in a distinctly 2010s style. On top of that, it also happens to be jam-packed full of bangers, thanks to Shah’s magpie approach to influences and her flair for throbbing, tide-like songwriting. The prominent basslines on ‘Place Like This’ and ‘Ordinary’ give the Tyneside heroine’s razor-sharp observations an accessible, danceable bounce, whilst the fist-in-the-air protest track ‘Out The Way’ and the sweepingly nefarious ‘Yes Men’ are fit to bursting with fervour thanks to Shah’s brooding vocal delivery. Utterly of the times, ‘Holiday Destination’ is a slice of social history, but one that’ll age with grace. It’ll be the keystone of a V&A exhibition in half a century’s time.
6 Hannah Peel ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’
Instrumental concept albums are tricky beasts. In the right hands they can be sublime, whilst in the wrong they’re little more than self-indulgent. With Hannah Peel’s ‘Journey to Cassiopeia’ however, it’s most definitely the former. Taking on the persona of ailing Yorkshire-born astronaut Mary Casio and her lifelong voyage across interstellar space, Peel combines 80s-inflected analogue synthesizers and a 33-piece colliery brass band for a breath-taking audio portrait of the majesty of space. From the edge-of-seat opener ‘Goodbye Earth’ through the perils of ‘Deep Space Cluster’ and ‘Archid Orange Dwarf’ to the Holstian finale of ‘Planet of Passed Souls’ the melodies are consistently entrancing. It pulls the enviable (and darn unique) trick of looking at nebulas, pulsars and supernovas through the lens of those sombre North England brass bands that play on frosty streets in December. But somehow it works. In fact, it shines. In Mary Casio and her 86-year-voyage, Peel tells a more gripping tale without words than most films or lyrical albums dare even dream of.
5 Phoebe Bridgers ‘Stranger in the Alps’
‘Stranger in the Alps’ hits you in two waves. First you get hypnotised by the bittersweet indie-folk melodies and Bridgers’ airy, pillow-talk falsetto. It’s enough to lull you into a doze, and make a sunset car journey seem cinematic. Then, slowly, you start to zone in to what Bridgers is actually singing, and you get bowled right off your feet. For her full-length debut, the zephyr-voiced LA songwriter has brought the sharpest lyrics of 2017 to the table. Raw, uncompromising and bitter, Bridgers has a talent for making the individual seems relatable, and portraits of depression oddly uplifting. From the tragic observations of ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoke Signals’, through the honest awkwardness of ‘Demi Moore’, every track on the album deserves a prominent spot in some award-winning indie drama, whilst the heartland-tinged crown jewel ‘Motion Sickness’ has no doubt been the catharsis to many a messy break-up this year. Raw, stripped-back, and lonely, it’s like a painful browse through old Facebook photos.
4 William the Conqueror ‘Proud Disturber of the Peace’
Folk veteran Ruarri Joseph’s attempt to break free from the folk-singer confines, William the Conqueror emerged from nowhere this summer to take the Americana world by storm. ‘Proud Disturber of the Peace’ listens like a passionate manifesto, or perhaps the declaration of an invasion. Part open-throttle rust-caked blues, part surging Springsteenian nostalgia, it has to be the slickest album 2017 has to offer. The boogilicious truck-baiters like ‘Did You Wrong’ or ‘Mind Keeps Changing’ cherry pick the best elements of roadhouse jukeboxes and big-city swagger, with ZZ Top and The Black Keys getting equal winks. The sweeping anthems like ‘Tend to the Thorns’ or ‘Manawatu’ conjure vast fields of corn and sunsets on the lake. The distortion is a warm tsunami, the backing vocals are the west wind, and Joseph’s lyrics are as Whitman-cryptic as ever. You’ve got to have guts to call yourself William the Conqueror, but this debut sure delivers.
3 Fantastic Negrito ‘The Last Days of Oakland’
If Jimmy Page and James Brown had a child, that child would be Fantastic Negrito. A backstory fit for a bestseller has led the 48-year-old to finally record his true debut, ‘The Last Days in Oakland’, and it sure is a cracker. A blistering blend of blues, roots and old school funk by one of the most dazzling live performers on the circuit. Lathered in Hammond organs, honky-tonk pianos, and a lead guitar stolen straight from Led Zep’s padlocked cabinet, it’s not so much hip-shaking as positively pelvis-shattering. Fantastic Negrito packs every line with the angst of the downtrodden masses, from the rustic ‘Working Poor’ to the rifftastic ‘Hump Thru the Winter’, and may have single-handedly roundhouse kicked funk-blues into the 21st century. A well-placed, firecracker cover of Leadbelly’s ‘In The Pines’ doesn’t go amiss either. Raised on electric blues, slow-cooked in civil rights, and with just a dash of Prince, it’s a record for protesting in the streets and grooving to keep out the cold.
2 Jarrod Dickenson ‘Ready the Horses’
From the opening organ flutters of ‘Faint of Heart’, you know Texas stalwart Jarrod Dickenson has tried something a little different for his third full album. Formerly a straight-ahead country singer satisfied with his travelling acoustic, somewhere between 2012’s Lonesome Traveller and now Dickenson has fallen head over heels for sweltering southern soul, and it’s a darn good thing he did. Packed with golden horn sections, gospel choirs, and rousing touch-the-sky songwriting all mixed to absolute perfection, ‘Ready the Horses’ is a pleasure to listen to. There’s the bombastic New Orleans wedding stylings of ‘Take It From Me’, the dizzying heights of ‘California’, the late-night jitterbug ‘Way Past Midnight’ and the vicious clanking beast that’s ‘Gold Rush’. Dickenson has never sounded better, and never sounded bigger. Signed to Decca Records off the back of ‘Ready the Horses’, it’s safe to say that the man once dubbed ‘Tom Waits before the cigarettes’ has arrived in his prime.
1 Hurray for the Riff Raff ‘The Navigator’
There aren’t many bands that could produce a multi-generational epic in the style of an Off-Broadway musical and make it work. But as it turns out, Hurray for the Riff Raff are one of them. The seventh record by the New Orleans-based folksters, it sees them branch out from their usual rustic Americana to dabble in doo-wop, psychedelia and Latin salsa. For frontwoman Alynda Segarra, it’s a reconnection with her Puerto Rican heritage and her youth in The Bronx. And for the rest of us, it’s an earworm-heavy masterclass that toes the line perfectly between wacky and weighty. Flowing like the beats of classic theatre from the finger-snapping overture ‘Living in the City’ through the inner-city shifter ‘Hungry Ghost’ or the blubbing flashback ‘Fourteen Floors’, it moves as easily as a slickly-drilled stage team. Strongest when its Latin influences rise to the top, on the groovy ‘Rican Beach’ or the roof-raising finale ‘Pa’lante’, it’s packed with theatrical drive from curtain to curtain. It’s an important album for the blossoming Americana movement too, with a high-profile band expanding the meaning of the word beyond the usual US heartland mantra and opening the door to a whole host of other influences. But at its core it’s a rallying cry. An immigrant tale set against the looming backdrop of Trump’s America, an updated of the great American novel for the modern age and the first great protest album of the era. It’s an album that ought to be remembered.