This year has been absolutely fabulous for albums. The single has become an odd artefact — often an online download or video, without a B-side or physical release. But the album endures. It’s been really hard to pick a top 10 — so, like Spinal Tap, I’ve had to turn the dial up to 11.
Albums in this top 11 are mainly by artists that I’ve enjoyed at gigs. That cuts out performers who are more international or more “successful” so only play mega-shows that I wouldn’t be able to get tickets for, and I’ve left out performers who I felt let themselves down live. Some miss out because of band clash — I just couldn’t see them live this year because of other gigs on the same day, so I’m not putting their albums in my chart.
Honourable mentions that didn’t make it into the 11: Lester Square ‘Carcass’; Lucy Rose ‘Something’s Changing’; The Fall ‘New Facts Emerge’; Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’; Lorde ‘Melodrama’; Stormzy ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’; LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’; Liars ‘TFCF’; Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’; Laura Marling ‘Semper Femina’; Vince Staples ‘Big Fish Theory’; Lana del Rey ‘Lust For Life’; Kendrick Lamar ‘DAMN.’; Cigarettes After Sex ‘Cigarettes After Sex’; Sparks ‘Hippopotaus’; Sleaford Mods ‘English Tapas’; Moon Duo ‘Occult Architecture Volume 1’.
The top 10 (err, 11):
11 Gary Numan ‘Savage (Songs From A Broken World)’
I couldn’t leave this out of my top albums of 2017, even though it can’t quite make it into the top 10. Its strength in having such a strong conceptual basis is also its only weakness — the concept keeps taking Numan back to similar musical and lyrical tropes, making the album feel repetitive. But it’s one of the best releases of his 22-record career, a futuristic and dystopian look at global warming that fits our troubled times only too well. The concept allows Numan to explore suffering, death, loss, waiting, God, pain and prayer — with heavy electronic music to match. See my review here.
10 Gorillaz ‘Humanz’
Great shows in Brixton and Margate brought ‘Humanz’ and the Gorillaz back catalogue to life. There’s no doubting Damon Albarn’s genius for collaboration and for spotting talent in the worlds of rap, grime and edgy R&B. The ambition and scope of ‘Humanz’ and its mix of knowing worldiness and youthful enthusiasm mean it edges in to the top 10. With 20 tracks, the double vinyl LP clocks in at almost 50 minutes, but it flies past as the guests each add their own freshness — Vince Staples, Peven Everett, Popcaan, De La Soul, Kelela, Danny Brown, the legendary and iconic Grace Jones, Kali Uchis, DRAM, Anthony Hamilton, Mavis Staples, Pusha T, Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, Benjamin Clementine and (a personal favourite) Jenny Beth from Savages.
9 Kite Base ‘Latent Whispers’
Nothing else is like Kite Base — two bass players, one singing, plus synths and drum programs. They create a heavy machine music, with incredibly melodic bass and understated vocals giving it a human touch. Patterns repeat and flow, and atmospheric electronics add breadth to the depth of the bass guitars. Some of it is quite danceable and catchy, despite the darkness and heaviness. The repetition and reiterations never tire in this brief, unique and promising contribution to the post-punk canon. See my review here.
8 St Vincent ‘MASSEDUCTION’
Expectations had been high ever since Annie Clark released her alter ego St Vincent’s eponymous fourth album in 2014. That was a breakthrough record, winning her far more fans than she’d reached before, as it perfected a highly personal interpretation of post-indie guitar and synth music, with jagged guitar breaks in the mould of Robert Fripp disrupting soaring melodies. She was propelled into the world of gossip columnists and it’s the fallout from that experience that is channeled in ‘MASSEDUCTION’. She tells sad-funny stories of prescription drug addiction, plastic surgery, loneliness and heartache, personal chaos and love. Her guitar playing is still spellbinding, veering from shredding to picking, absorbing influences from jazz to rock, riffing or engaging in mathematical patterns. She strips some tracks back, emphasising her voice and the melody, while covering others in a big fat electronic wash of synths. It’s hard to pigeonhole her jagged post-pop vision, but its singularity and the relationship between Clark and her alter ego combine to summon comparisons with the unique musical legacy and image reinventions of Prince and David Bowie.
7 Peter Perrett ‘How The West Was Won’
It’s just an amazing fact that Peter Perrett is alive and well; strong enough to write song after song that all demand to be put down on tape and listened to. This is more than a “come-back album”. It’s a debut solo album from a man who, at the age of 65, is writing lyrics that are as witty and beguiling as ever. His band The Only Ones were always outsiders during the post-punk years after 1978, older than the young DIY musicians who revitalised rock, but not wiser. For most of the past few decades, fans wondered what had happened to Perrett, often fearing that he was near death, or worse, because of drugs. Now, backed by this sons and their partners, he is a man reborn, resuscitated and rejuvenated. ‘How The West Was Won’ grows more satisfying with each listen.
6 I, Ludicrous ‘Songs From The Sides of Lorries’
This is the cheekiest album of the year, with the biggest dose of satire and irony recorded by any artist living or dead in 2017, and yet full of touching and musically diverse moments. A singularly intelligent and maverick album telling wry stories of the lives of everyday people who inhabit an absurdist proletarian universe that is tragically true to reality. It has inspired lyrics, sophisticated tunes and arrangements, and laugh-out-loud moments. Each of the album’s 10 tracks has a distinctive sound — from arty post punk, to gentle strumming, to DIY garage power pop. I’d say it’s full of preposterous tales, but that’s too easy. See my review here.
5 Hannah Peel ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’
The ‘Reader Rating’ on this instrumental album on its review page here averages 94% and it’s a piece that has touched and moved a hugely diverse range of people, spanning the spectrum from 6 Music to Radio Three. Hannah Peel’s third album is a space odyssey based on an imagined elderly astronomer and electronic music pioneer from Barnsley called Mary Casio who sets out for the distant constellation of Cassiopeia. Peel combines a full brass band and her analogue synths, along with found sounds, her voice but hardly any words, and a recording of her grandfather’s solo treble performance in Manchester Cathedral in 1928. It all adds up to a big and beautiful emotional journey. Play it loudly, with the bass on max.
4 Wire Silver / Lead
Not as prolific as The Fall, but arguably more consistent, Wire quietly released a fine 15th studio album that cements their role as thoughtful pioneers of art-punk. This record bristles with creativity and energy, even though most of the tracks are dark and sombre. It came out exactly 40 years after Wire first played live, and they’ve never been swayed from their own special conceptual punk aesthetic that scorns the screaming and shouting into which some other punks descended. This album is full of wise repetition, economic musicianship, questioning lyrics and a measured heaviness. See my review here.
3 The Moonlandingz ‘Interplanetary Class Classics’
Johnny Rocket is the planet’s most charismatic lead singer, a magnetising presence in The Moonlandingz. But he doesn’t exist. A fiction originally created by Eccentronic Research Council eventually led to a real album with collaboration from such luminaries as Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Lias Saoudi doing Johnny as a Sheffield-based sabbatical from fronting south London’s Fat White Family. The 11 tracks here are pumping, stomping, psychedelic, scary and frenzied glam rock from the swamps of outer space. The Moonlandingz are the best fictional band since The Spiders From Mars. Their version of the future is a deviant 1970s mind-trick that warps time and space, tripping through graveyards, soiled beds, politics and B-movies in a motorik charge of big synth riffs and transgressive lyrics.
2 The Big Moon ‘Love In The 4th Dimension’
This debut album is fresh and fun, a non-stop pleasure to listen to that was a surprise nomination for the Mercury Prize. The Big Moon deliver one excellently written post-indie-pop song after another. The four members of the group mesh and harmonise, acting like a gang of mates but never losing sight of the audience’s listening experience. Every song is punctuated like a properly written story, article or essay; each has a beginning, middle, and ending, with signposts, stops, starts, pauses and motifs along the way. This makes the audience feel smart for picking up on the song’s syntax, however complex. The resulting clarity builds a feel-good solidarity, binding the group and their fans together. The punctuation guides the listener through humorous, witty, perceptive and sincere lyrics that are sung to sparkling arrangements of noodling and shredding guitars, sumptuous bass, snappy percussion and playful keyboards. See my review here
1 Wolf Alice ‘Visions Of A Life’
This album turns strangers into friends and changes lives. It is a huge, varied and multilayered piece of work, cementing a unique sound and underlining great songwriting talent. There’s no holding back and no wasted effort on these 12 tracks — every word, note, beat and effect counts. ‘Visions Of A Life’ takes in friendship, loss, excitement, anger, panic, family. All life is here, in this vision. It takes guitar music and pushes it into new spaces, unafraid to play with synths, but anchored in decades of guitar-bass-drums rock ’n’ roll. Production on the drumming alone is in a class of its own, keeping the whole album honest. Throw in powerful vocals that soar angelically, howl, scream, talk, whisper and swear demonically and you have my album of the year. It’s almost perfect. It’s a very big achievement. And it gets better with each listen. See my review here.