2017 has been an incubator for innovative music breaking into commercial success. From Loyle Carner to Wolf Alice, to Nick Hakim to SZA, this year saw some groundbreaking new albums. Here are the best of the best…
DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
To talk about the great music of 2017 and to leave Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. out of the discussion would be nothing short of a crime. Perhaps the most anticipated album of the year, DAMN. had an almost unparalleled weight of expectation to bear- an expectation it effortlessly fulfilled.
Kendrick’s experiments with such a varied and vibrant array of hip-hop and recording techniques meant you genuinely could not predict what DAMN. would offer next, or even recall it on repeat listens for that matter. For every below-the-belt-hitting 808 of ‘DNA.’ there is the measured yet sporadic feel of ‘LUST.’; for every “syrup sandwiches” of ‘HUMBLE.’ there is the soulful funk of ‘DUCKWORTH.’.
Furthermore, the music videos that accompanied DAMN.’s lead singles were consistently beautiful, offering a visual insight into the pressures of African American masculinity and the violent complexities of daily life… just in case Kendrick didn’t make it abundantly clear in his mosaic-painting lyrics.
An album that heightens your every sense while temporarily obliterating your motor neurones – an album that achieves the impossible and makes even post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2 sound good.
Stand Out Track: ‘FEEL.’ Although not one of the album’s lead singles, ‘FEEL.’ sums up DAMN.’s overall aesthetic in one smooth, fell swoop. Almost drastically withheld, yet undeniably restrained, the song is chilled, consuming, and furious all at once.
Love in the 4th Dimension – The Big Moon
With their seamless chemistry, celestial charm and undeniable virtuosity, The Big Moon are the band every girl wants to be part of. Live, they bounce about the stage together in unimpeded bliss, their wavy garms rippling under the reverb of genius riffs while their smiles stretch from ear to ear. This exhilarating energy and uninhibited delight is encapsulated perfectly within their debut album, Love in the 4th Dimension.
You catch yourself smiling as The Big Moon’s signature soundscape crashes through your headphones, each song gorgeously composed and refreshingly original. With landfill indie plaguing the scene and unimaginative rip-off artists somehow snaking their way to the top, The Big Moon are a bright, formidable light.
The album is pure quality from start to finish, and oozes with character. It’s a cheeky wink down the barrel of a gun, a food fight at a sophisticated dinner party and, most importantly, an album that deserves to be blasted through speakers for countless years to come.
Stand Out Track: ‘Bonfire’ injects you with an exhilarating thrill that makes you want to go fuck up your local supermarket, but ‘Love in the 4th Dimension’ is something special. Perfectly articulating that unexplainable feeling of falling for someone, this title track is the perfect portrait of love.
Yesterday’s Gone – Loyle Carner
With his debut album Yesterday’s Gone, Carner offers an irresistible invitation into his deepest thoughts, evoking endless introspection and reflection with charming lyricism and candid vulnerability.With its synthesis of laid-back hip-hop, jazz chords, gospel samples and subtle grime influences, Yesterday’s Gone transcends style and genre and plays testimony to Carner’s originality and authenticity. Plus his flow is unreal.
Light and shade work smoothly together throughout the whole album. Breezy track ‘Damselfly’ saunters by with carefree guitar hooks from Tom Misch, peppered with Carner’s sincere vulnerability, sharp wit and raw honesty, establishing the tone of the album perfectly.
‘Florence’ is an understated yet stand-out track. It’s an exquisitely charming tribute to the little sister Carner’s always wanted, imagining “she could be my freckle-faced fidgeter, me but miniature.” It’s family that binds the album together. A wonderfully touching feature on ‘Sun of Jean’ is Carner’s mum reciting a poem she wrote, expressing her unconditional love and admiration for her “scribble of a boy”. She’s immensely proud, and so she bloody should be.
Deeply personal and authentic, this refreshing debut delivers beautifully raw honesty that is hard to find anywhere else.
Stand Out Track: ‘Mrs C’ even though it makes me cry everytime.
Green Twins – Nick Hakim
Nick Hakim has one of the most unique and definition-evading brands of music in the industry today. His debut album, Green Twins, was an undeniable testament to this, gaining overwhelmingly positive reviews and a new entourage of dedicated fans.
Admittedly, it takes a few listens to fully immerse yourself in Hakim’s mind-melting song writing, but once you’ve allowed the climactic atmosphere to wash over you in an unrestricted flood, you’ll find each vocal echo, tinny guitar strike and excessive moment of reverb following you like a haunting, evocative and persistent shadow.
Although the album blends into an awesome soundscape of eerie noise, each song possesses a distinct identity. The lyrics are introspective riddles sung at an ungraspable frequency; the unconventional sound effects jar until they make perfect sense; the whole product moves as fast or as slow as you want it to. But you are never in control.
In short, Green Twins is truly an experience that you should at least spend one hour of your remaining 2017 discovering.
Stand Out Track: ‘Bet She Looks Like You’. The vocal line in the chorus and the improvised guitar solo of the outro are enough to keep you playing this song over and over again.
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ – Joey Bada$$
While Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. dominated 2017’s hip-hop scene, there was one album that competed with and arguably matched its K-Dot’s masterpiece.
In ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey Bada$$ wastes less than a single word; his explicit critiques of contemporary society fall fast with rhythm, nuance, and passion. It’s remarkably concise, delving into the intricacies of 2017’s toxic political climate with a surgical precision that only makes its stark relevance even more poignant.
I’m still not sure I’ve managed to grasp even a tenth of what the album has to offer, such is the speed of Joey’s breath-taking flow. Not only that, the extent of the rapper’s social commentary spans and unravels centuries of racial oppression. It takes a deeply emotive conscience to proclaim “And the land of the free is for the free loaders […] Still got the last names of our slave owners […] Three Ks two As in AMERIKKKA”, and it takes some serious nerve to shout “Fuck Donald Trump”- which Joey so readily does.
With rumours that Kendrick delayed DAMN. in order to give ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ the platform it deserved, ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ threw enough punches to take down the White House.
Stand Out Track: ‘AMERIKKKAN IDOL’. Seriously, just listen to it.
Eulogy for Evolution (10th Anniversary Reissue) – Ólafur Arnalds
2017 saw the 10th anniversary reissue of Ólafur Arnalds’s debut album Eulogy for Evolution. This edition, remastered by Nils Frahm, gives a richer and much more mature sound than was afforded to Arnalds’s teenage self, allowing the work greater space to breathe.
The overriding theme throughout the album deals with the endless cycle of life; as one experiences loss through death, birth brings new life. Carefully-crafted motifs pass through subtle piano keys into luscious string swells, moulding fragile points of poignancy into flourishes of triumph.
Arnalds pushes genre to new heights in moments of true defiance: ‘3055’ shifts from the delicacy of piano and solo violin into an inspiriting and thrusting drum groove, whilst ‘3704 / 3837’ provides the album’s fiercest means of expression in the throbs of thrash metal. As a result, Eulogy for Evolution plunges and protrudes its way into new horizons of stylistic expression.
Stand Out Track: 3055
Ctrl – SZA
Despite a number of previous EP releases, 2017 has been a break out year for Alternative-R&B artist SZA and her debut album Ctrl. Her confessional Lauryn Hill-esque sound paired with a Rihanna attitude has been the soundtrack to many a girls night and brought out an attitude I frankly did not know I had.
Stand out singles like ‘Love Galore’ featuring Travis Scott and ‘Doves In The Wind’ with Kendrick Lamar prove that she is a staple in the Rap and R&B scene, but it is the more vulnerable songs like ‘Drew Barrymore’ and ‘Normal Girl’ that the modern female audience can truly relate to.
This album has been a staple of my year, a rare treasure of an album that I can listen to in its entirety without skipping a track. With an impressive 5 Grammy nominations, it seems that SZA should be more than proud of her debut album.
Visions of a Life – Wolf Alice
Wolf Alice’s debut My Love is Cool asserted their status as the new kids on the indie block, giving their second album a lot to live up to. Visions of a Life certainly didn’t disappoint, demonstrating their genre-defining brand of indie which fluctuates between grunge rock and ethereal pop. Their debut evidenced some of this, but Visions of a Life takes it to another level. From the softly-whispered ‘Sky Musings’ to the sleaze-fuelled ‘Formidable Cool’ and the screaming ‘Yuk Foo’, Wolf Alice show us that they won’t be confined to the restrictions of the traditional indie band trope.
Stand-out track: ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ was always going to be the most commercially successful of Wolf Alice’s offerings. Whilst it verges on being almost too romantic, its self-awareness and emotional vulnerability connects with the listener and opens up a softer side to Rowsell’s otherwise fierce and gnarled lyrics. With its glittering and shimmering melodies, its euphoric glory will induce tummy butterflies amongst even the most cynical of audiences.
Humanz – Gorillaz
After the release of their last full-length album, Plastic Beach, back in 2010, there was a very long period of time before we heard any more at all from the group – with Damon Albarn admitting he didn’t even know if he was going to produce any more music with his iconic virtual band, let alone play live again. But finally, after a 7-year interlude, Gorillaz graced our airwaves again – dropping new album Humanz in March this year.
With almost every track featuring a collaboration, it was clear even before listening that this was going to be very different to previous Gorillaz albums. Humanz is saturated with guest appearances: from Vince Staples and Danny Brown, to Grace Jones and Savages’ Jehnny Beth, Kali Uchis and Peven Everett, Little Simz and of course the legendary De La Soul. The variety of genres Albarn ventures to explore through these collaborations is truly incredible: and although it might not be quite what you expect, the ominous, yet infectious, distinctive sound of Gorillaz has by no means been lost. And by working with some of the most exciting artists in the industry at the moment, their music has been opened up to a whole new generation of listeners. For a band that have been around nearly 20 years, the fact that Gorillaz are still sitting right at the heart of music prove just how exquisite a band they really are: and why Humanz is one of the top albums 2017 has offered us.
Stand-out track: ‘Andromeda’, for classic Gorillaz sounds, or ‘Out of Body’ for something completely different.
Semper Femina – Laura Marling
Semper Femina, the sixth studio album by Mercury award-winning Laura Marling, was released in March 2017. And yet, despite the number of great albums that have been released throughout the year, it remained solidly at number one. Suitably released on the week of International Woman’s Day, the album, and the title itself, (a reworked line from the Aeneid roughly translating to mean ‘always a woman’) explores and celebrates the complexity of female relationships. Semper Femina moves effortlessly from the jazzy and soulful beginning of ‘Soothing’, right through to the rocky and exquisitely raw ending of ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’. As well as providing her usual Mitchell-esque vocals and sweet guitar accompaniment, Marling also challenges her listeners perception of both themselves and the outside world through her ever provocative lyrics: ‘Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen / Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?’ Marling, in my eyes, is the kind of artist who can’t do wrong; sassy, unforgiving and beautifully melancholic, Semper Femina, as graceful as its creator, claims its rightful place as one of the top albums of 2017.
Eternity, In Your Arms – Creeper
If you’re not into Creeper by now, do yourself a favour and catch up, because they’re the perfect example of a band poised to launch themselves into the mainstream. Their EPs caused a stir among critics and built them a cult following to boot, but this album is the culmination of everything they’ve worked at perfecting for so long, and the time they’ve taken to build their really shows.
Ricocheting balance between romantic ballads, horror punk theatrics and good old, honest-to-god rock songs, Eternity, In Your Arms set out to prove that glamour is still alive in the alternative scene, and it certainly shows. ‘Hiding With Boys’ might have the Robert Smith-tinged goth vibes you’d expect, but Eternity In Your Arms is more Meatloaf than morose by far, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘Darling’ is so upbeat that you’ll probably forget the most repeated lyric is “darling we all die alone”, and both ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Winona Forever’ both cloak their unexpectedly harrowing lyrics in a package that is downright danceable. The result is a record that sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place at a sweaty basement show, but feels like it should be playing in the background of a James Dean movie.
Standout Track: ‘Misery’. It’s maybe the mushiest song they’ve ever come up with, but it’s a fan-favourite for a reason, and it’s been through so many iterations that it’s awesome to finally hear its final form.