My Best Albums of 2017 – James Thornhill
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2017 has been a hard and confusing year on all fronts! Not least when it comes to attempting to pick ten records that have represented the best of the year.
Ten? There’s easily been 100 worthy albums and there are more materialising each day.
What the below list represents is not just what I have enjoyed the most but the albums that have either forged a new path or have resonated the most. In 2017 all genres benefitted from incredible works of art, most of which we I am still uncovering such is the sheer depth of musical brilliance this year.
Anyway, in no particular order these are the albums that have made a mark with me in 2017:
Algiers – The Underside of Power
Two years ago Algiers' debut album emerged as a powerful statement of intent with its intense blend of soul, gospel, art rock and post punk, so it was quite the surprise when this year’s The Underside of Power was even better and expanded the aural template further.
The album flits through styles effortlessly with the only constant being the powerful, soulful vocals from Franklin James Fisher.
With ex Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong and Portishead’s Adrian Utley on production duties, this duo’s input has obviously added more urgency to the sound and brought the politics to the fore, with blinding results.
It is an album of contradictions being dark yet danceable, political yet accessible. This is an album that embodies ‘radical’ both in its messages and its sound collage.
A listen of The Underside of Power becomes a ‘guess the influence’ game – you’ll identify the dark industrial sounds on Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, the art rock of Talking Heads, the hardcore punk of Bad Brains, the hip hop revolution of Public Enemy, trap beats and at times the piano compositions of Phillip Glass – but this album never settles long enough to pinpoint them exactly.
The Underside of Power sets Algiers out as one of the most underrated and vital bands currently active.
Bicep – Bicep
After years acting as dance music archivists with their Feel My Bicep blog, years as hot prospects as DJs and with a number of incredible 12 inch releases, Belfast born duo Bicep fully realised their promise on their self-titled, debut, full length, album.
Bicep wrings out the best bits of 90s dance culture from acid house and progressive trance to garage and breakbeat all with the effortless genre fusion that the duo has spent years perfecting.
It’s easy to confine Bicep to the house music label but few of the tracks on this album are comfortable with in those confines. Whilst a nostalgic familiarity flows through the release the duo also take cues from the modern likes of Burial, Four Tet and Daphni to complete their hypnotic mix of sounds.
Bicep is packed with gems as good for basking in sunsets as the dancefloor. Take the 90s breakbeat of ‘Glue’ (possibly the dance anthem of 2017) with its hypnotic melody and distant wails, the Global Underground referencing ‘Orca’ or epic closer ‘Aura’ with its sweeping synths and foreboding bass, as three examples of why this album is a must.
Bicep is a perfectly constructed ode to the best of dance music with one foot firmly in the future.
Idles – Brutalism
Idles burst forth into our post-truth, anti-intellectual age of despair with the rock album that we needed in 2017. Combining the vital power of punk with no wave guitar noise, Brutalism delivers its poignant messages with humour, direct but never preachy.
To the uninformed this music appears, on the surface, little more than snotty punk but Idles play with the tropes of the genre with walls of white noise, playful time signatures and even moments of beauty. It’s a complex mix presented as something simple.
But what really sets this album apart is the direct but poetic lyrics delivered with passion and snarling confrontation by front-man Joe Talbot. Ripping into everything from sexual violence to Tory elitism and societal expectations the wordplay is always vital, constantly amusing and, at times, sheer genius.
Not only are Idles arguably 2017’s best live rock band but in Brutalism they released a statement of intent that will make you want to fight, think and ultimately change the world for the better.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples' place in the rap-ecosystem has always been a conundrum. He constantly treads new ground and is always outspoken. At his best, in the same way Kendrick Lemar is, his music feels like the future.
With producers like SOPHIE, Jimmy Edgar, GTA and Flume in tow Big Fish Theory is a banger-filled, rave-rap extravaganza.
At its core this is a fun record about ugly truths with Staples weaving missives on entitlement and class into the fabric of the club bangers.
Big Fish Theory once again proves that Staples can be constantly innovative in sound and complex is lyrical content. Along with Kendrick he is at the top of the conscious hip hop game.
Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
Punk as a genre revels in the notion of ‘authenticity’ but this is often an ideal located in amateurism and avoiding the complex. It is exactly this fact that makes ‘punk’ releases like Nothing Feels Natural so vital.
The debut, full-length, album from Washington D.C. band Priests is an tense and taut listen that leapfrogs from surf-rock to post punk and into the realms of hardcore and psychobilly effortlessly.
Rage flows through the album as Priests blast holes in the American dream and the political state of the world with intelligence and absolute conviction.
But this rage is not always instantly apparent in the music which is challenging, often soulful and at times even beautiful.
Nothing Feels Natural is the work of a band who have found their style but continue to challenge it at every turn and it is what punk should be in 2017.
Hannah Peel – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia
There’s some scepticism of grand ideas in modern music, so a lot of people might be turned off by Hannah Peel’s mission to create ‘a seven-movement odyssey’.
But forgoing that scepticism will reward you with one of the most mesmerising, mysterious and awe-inspiring electronic albums of the year.
The album recounts the story of an unknown, pioneering, electronic musician who wishes to leave her terraced house in Barnsley, South Yorkshire and visit the Cassiopeia constellation.
What makes this album special is how Peel has told this story using analogue synths and a traditional 29-piece colliery brass band which evokes the start and end of the journey with Earthly and other-worldly sound dancing effortlessly together.
Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia is a journey to immerse yourself in.
Princess Nokia – 1992 Deluxe
So much more than a simple expansion on her blinding 2016 mixtape 1992, this album completely reimagined it and put Princess Nokia at the top of the list of ‘most vital new voices in hip hop’.
She jumps through styles, all of which she nails without ever losing the vital energy and boundless charisma that makes this album stand out. With smooth flow, Nokia shines with complete individuality telling her New York life on her terms.
‘Tomboy’ stands as an aggressively to-the-point feminist missive for modern hip hop.
What makes 1992 Deluxe special is that it is clearly only the beginning for Princess Nokia and in years to come should be seen as the gateway in which she stepped through into greatness.
Lower Slaughter – What Big Eyes
This shitshow of a year was begging for some catharsis through youthful noise, and Brighton/Glasgow punk partiers Lower Slaughter more than delivered.
What Big Eyes is a full-throttle, orgy of big riffs, punk energy and snarled anger. With muscular riffs from the dawn of grunge (think the Melvins), riot grrl attitude and classic rock hooks occasionally punctuated with post-punk rhythms Lower Slaughter have created a pummelling noise that is enjoyable to be pummelled by.
This is DIY noise that demands you lose your shit to it.
Girl Ray – Earl Grey
There’s something wonderfully innocent flowing through the debut album from teen indie-pop trio Girl Ray.
While it is lo-fi, full of raw jagged edges, it is also ambitious and confident in its delivery. It delivers eleven quirky, complex tracks that capture the essence of teen romance and angst in the sweetest manner.
Leap-frogging from C86 indie, via Britpop into 60s psych-pop and 70s singer songwriter grandeur, Earl Grey is an astoundingly assured debut with a vocal style that you can immediately identify as Girl Ray.
This album is great, but indicates that it is not the best they can deliver in future – which is more than exciting.
Thundercat – Drunk
A major player in the modern Afrofuturism movement, having contributed as a musician and producer on several key releases including Kendrick Lemar’s To Pimp A ButterFly and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead, virtuoso bassist Thundercat continued to increase his stock value with Drunk.
Drunk is a journey along the roads of familiarity to a new destination. It takes a special artist to achieve this so effortlessly.
With support from Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lemar and Kenny Loggins there is some serious weight behind the collaborations as well.
Across 23 songs in 51 minutes the journey takes in space-age jazz, 70s R&B and brain-melting electronica all with catchy melodies and a pop sensibility. It’s a wonderful easy listening record that is not immediately easy to get into – Thundercat makes you work for prize with complex compositions and virtuoso musicianship.
His strange sense of humour makes this an even more bizarre and challenging listen but one that is ultimately one of the most rewarding this year.