2017 has been a significant year for me on a musical level. I’ve been lucky enough to have either stumbled across or have had sent to me some fantastic music – so much, in fact, that I have without a shadow-of-a-doubt listened to more new music this year than in any other. With this in mind, attempting to narrow-down 365 days worth of excellent, vital sound into a succinct Top 10 list is to fight something of a losing-battle and there are an array of albums that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (and in some cases even made an emotional connection to) that didn’t quite make the final cut.
As it is, then, these are the ten albums that I’ve found myself coming back to most frequently throughout the year – I’ve chosen longevity as the benchmark for this list simply because it seems the best way to highlight the cream of a undeniably rich crop.
10 Aldous Harding ‘Party’
When I first heard Aldous Harding, it was through ‘Party’s lead single, ‘Imagining My Man’. What I was most immediately struck by was the sheer individuality on show. Although only her second album, ‘Party’ is a work crafted with a defiantly singular voice – both literally and metaphorically. I was immediately intrigued and, upon hearing the album in full, immediately sold. ‘Party’ is a mature, measured collection written with an ambiguity and beguiling charm that puts it in the league of albums typically penned by far more experienced authors. It’s sonically arresting too – John Parish’s production quietly enriches an often subdued set of songs, the nuanced overdubs and varied instrumentation always finding a way of presenting Harding’s songs exactly how you wouldn’t expect them to be – and therein lies ‘Party’s hook. It is a genuinely individual album crafted by an artist with a clear vision and, for that alone, it’s worthy of praise. More importantly, however, it’s a vision that remains engaging in the long-term; some eight months after I first heard the album I still find myself drawn back to it regularly and, with so many other comparable (yet somehow less impactful) albums being released this year, that really is no mean feat.
Parquet Courts have long been a huge personal favourite of mine, so the news that frontman Andrew Savage was to go solo for the first time in his career filled me with excitement and just a touch of trepidation – was Savage planning to pursue a solo career at the cost of the band he had helped lead for the best part of a decade? Well, that seems unlikely given that Parquet Courts released a collaborative album with Daniele Luppi only a week after Savage’s own ‘Thawing Dawn’ dropped; but even with that fear abated, the question of just what form Savage’s solo debut would take remained in the air. Those well versed in his work will recognise his trademarks straight away; his erudite, articulate lyricism and dryly confident delivery are as sharp and effective here as they’ve ever been. ‘Thawing Dawn’ sees Savage continue to experiment in a career colourised a sonically adventurous attitude. Although one or two moments may remind the more fastidious listeners of past excursions, by and large Savage covers brave new territory here, presenting a set of rich, complex songs as considered as his always nuanced songwriting. ‘Wild, Wild, Wild Horses’ finds its clarity and impact through its spare instrumentation, Savage allowing the strength of his lyricism to speak for itself. Indeed, there’s a measured maturity throughout the album; aside from the all-guns-blazing noise onslaught of ‘What Will I Do?’, Savage presents perhaps the most understated and quietly inflective song cycle of his career so far – and ‘Thawing Dawn’ is all the better for it.
When I reviewed ‘Negative Boogie’ I said “there are really only two words to describe the opening track to David Nance’s sophomore album: ‘fucking’ and ‘awesome'”. That’s a level of enthusiasm about any album that’s hard to maintain past those initial few listens but yet, despite having had the best part of half a year to return to ‘Negative Boogie’, I still find myself fired-up by it in the same way I was upon initial listens. Put simply, the album is a deeply vital set of songs and one that finds David Nance honing the dissonance of his previous work into a far more focused, direct set of songs than he’s ever penned before. The album’s impact comes through the breathless delivery and white-knuckle energy of much of the record, whilst its longevity comes from the sheer eclecticism found throughout. Between the weirdo-blues of ‘DLATUMF Blues’, the belligerent proto-punk of the title track and the sinister groove of ‘River With No Color’, there’s no shortage of variety on show during the album’s 54 minutes.
If I had to nominate a single favourite song of 2017, the title track of Kevin Morby’s fourth solo outing may well be it. 6:46 minutes of what can really only be described as pure musical joy, ‘City Music’ is a show-stealing standout on a consistently excellent album. Although the playful lead guitar and sweetly lilting chords of the title track are worth the price of admission alone, the softly-spoken melancholia of ‘Come To Me Now’ and the proto-indie stomp of ‘Crybaby’ only bolster a practically air-tight collection of songs that marks the best work yet of a short but fruitful solo career. Morby may wear his influences on his sleeve – imagine Bob Dylan fronting The Velvet Underground and you’re halfway there – but this doesn’t negate the album’s artistry or the individuality of his vision and, indeed, the whole record is executed with a style and verve held by few. Morby also has a rare ear for melody; ‘City Music’ is flavoured by the frequently joyous melodic hooks and tunes found throughout – between the triumphant ‘Aboard My Train’ and the eager push of ‘Tin Can’, the album certainly doesn’t lack instantaneous, grin-inducing hooks.
I’ve long considered a perfectly pitched alt-pop song to be something of an art form. It takes far more of an artisan’s ear to create a flawless hook than many realise – and that’s part of the reason why I was so taken with Girl Ray’s debut album, ‘Earl Grey’. It’s a collection of smartly conceived, well executed power pop songs that are perhaps best measured in HPM (hooks per minute). Give it a couple of listens and any number of the album’s twelve songs could be found rattling around your head. However, while that’s all well and good it’s the group’s sense of adventure that elevates this from being a collection of smart indie-pop songs to something with more gravitas. There’s a subtle complexity to the arrangements found throughout the album that lends ‘Earl Grey’ an acute longevity. It’s an ingenious combination: the immediate, joyous melodies give the album an instantaneous, addictive quality whilst the deceptively deep execution allows the album to withstand heavy-duty listening.
When I first heard ‘The Weather Station’, the first thing that struck me was what a marked evolution the album was from its predecessors. I’d been a fan of Tamara Lindeman’s musical alias since the release of 2015’s ‘Loyalty’ and whilst that album was very good, her latest effort is downright superb. An improvement upon her previous works in every way, if I had to nominate one album as the best follow-up record of 2017, it would be ‘The Weather Station’. It’s a beautifully written, deeply engaging set of songs which pairs intricately woven narratives with intuitive, lushly arranged music. While great lyricism has always been Lindeman’s calling card, with The Weather Station’s eponymous fourth outing, the music is every bit as rich and outstanding. It’s a heady combination and one that leads to a confidently crafted album surging with emotion. Layers of sensitively arranged strings lend these songs a degree of articulation left unexplored on Lindeman’s previous albums, and even the already excellent lyricism is taken up a notch here – just take a look at ‘Thirty’ or ‘Complicit’ for illustration of that. A deftly executed, self-assured album and one that fully earns the respect that it engenders.
I first became familiar with the name Jake Xerxes Fussell when I found he was touring the UK and Europe with Daniel Bachman, one of my favourite guitarists. I immediately went to check out Fussell’s second album, ‘What In The Natural World’. What I found when I got to listen to the album was a warm, inviting collection of traditional folk and blues songs re-imagined and re-tooled to take vibrant new form. ‘What In The Natural World’ sees the rough edges of much of the source material traded in for a wonderfully crafted, highly atmospheric sound which effortlessly conjures a raft of vivid mental imagery. The album loses none of the soul and raw emotion of the originals but, more often than not, Fussell’s vocals and string work walk with a more relaxed gait than the sharp urgency of the original renditions. There’s a keen sense of time and place on ‘What In The Natural World’ – perhaps down to the vintage of the songs that Fussell has reworked here. It’s a quality that lends the album an inviting warmth and engaging sense of narrative which ensures that the album is one to be revisited at length. Also of note is the natural, fluent ease with which the songs are both arranged and played; although Fussell works with traditional material throughout much of the album, the voice with which he articulates the songs is a timeless one. The songs themselves are inextricably linked to a broad era of the past but Fussell’s interpretations are unique, imaginative and not linked to any one time. It’s a fascinating duality and one that works wonders for the album; ‘What In The Natural World’ is an inviting, rewarding record and has been one which I’ve come back to more than almost any other this year.
One of the often overlooked qualities that have been so vital in making Queens Of The Stone Age the single best rock band of the last twenty years is their refusal to write the same album twice. Although fairly prolific, frontman Josh Homme’s output has remained consistently excellent throughout (almost) all of his projects – but particularly so with his main band, QOTSA. 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’ was as much of an evolution as any of the group’s preceding five efforts and, although it’s considered by many to be one of Homme’s finest achievements, vital to the success of ‘Villains’ is the fact that it sits in stark contrast to its predecessor. Where ‘…Like Clockwork’ was emotionally loaded to the point of showing Homme in an almost uncharacteristically vulnerable light, ‘Villains’ is a joyous salvo that sees the band move into far sprightlier territory, to the point where it almost feels like a return to their distant past – in mood if not in execution. The album often feels like a conscious nod to the more frivolous elements of vintage rock – be it the T. Rex-on-coke strut of ‘Un-Reborn Again’ or the fuzz-rock-Elvis of ‘The Way You Used To Do’ – and from that comes the album’s colour. ‘Villains’ is not without more straight-faced emotional expulsions – particularly the beautiful ‘Fortress’ – or moments of heavy-rock bombast (see the superb ‘The Evil Has Landed’ for an idea of what ‘Songs For The Deaf’ may have sounded like had it been recorded now instead of 15 years ago) but by and large ‘Villains’ sees Queens Of The Stone Age relishing in the joy and vibrancy of life.
Chicago guitarists Bill MacKay and Ryley Walker first collaborated two years ago, on the excellent but criminally under-heard ‘Land Of Plenty’. Whilst that album unfortunately disappeared from shelves before most had a chance to find it, the duo’s Drag City-released follow-up has already made a bigger splash and for good reason. Although the two may be best known for their respective solo work, it’s in collaboration that they have produced some of their best work and ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is undoubtedly up there with the strongest material that either has created. Iridescently singsong in the fluency of its guitar playing, the record is, for my money, the single best instrumental fingerstyle guitar album of the decade so far – a weighty claim given the strong competition in the scene at the moment. MacKay and Walker complement and accentuate the best parts of the other’s guitar style; both are distinct, unique players and this collaboration keeps their individuality fully intact – despite the fact that the two have a seemingly kinetic link when it comes to the nuances and inflections of collaborative guitar playing. The record is more focused than the beautiful but meandering ‘Land Of Plenty’. Whereas their previous outing was mostly improvised, ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is more pre-planned – and it shows. There’s a finessed clarity to the melodies and rhythms found on the album, one that gives it an acute sense of focus and drive. At only half an hour, it’s a bite-sized listen that encourages revisits and, trust me, this is one album you will want to revisit.
Prior to hearing ‘Halo’, I had known of Juana Molina but never heard her work. While it sounds hyperbolic to say this, I honestly knew ‘Halo’ was going to be one of my favourite records of the year within hearing only a couple of songs on my first listen. I’ve long loved complex, experimental soundscapes (especially synth-led ones) and Molina is one of the absolute best at crafting wholly unique musical worlds which play by her rules and no one else’s. Upon hearing ‘Halo’, I instantly delved into her previous work and found one of the most engrossing (and frankly amazing) discographies I’ve heard in a very long time. Despite being a fairly new convert, I now count Molina amongst my favourite artists and I have ‘Halo’ to thank for that. It’s a superb, delightfully abstract album that balances the avant-garde and the populist effortlessly and with such depth that, countless listens later, I’m still finding previously unheard nuances in the album. Despite being the seventh entry into a reliably fascinating discography, ‘Halo’ definitely counts amongst the strongest of Molina’s work; it’s also one of her more accessible efforts and those as-of-yet unfamiliar with her work would do well to start here. ‘Halo’ is a truly brilliant album and definitely my favourite record of 2017.