IN THIS PHOTO: Kehlani
The Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)
WE are past the one-third mark of this year….
IN THIS PHOTO: Julie Byrne
Because of that, it is a great time to look at the albums that have kicked 2017 off in style. I am excited to hear new material from London Grammar, Gorillaz; Royal Blood and Queens of the Stone Age – a lot of terrific music is coming up! The first few months of this year have hardly been uneventful. I have collected the ten albums (I think) have defined the year (so far).
Laura Marling – Semper Femina (10th March)
I predicted, last year, in fact, Laura Marling’s upcoming album would be one of 2017’s best. Not to brag but that clairvoyance has come to fruition. Actually, it was not so much mystical as it was obvious: her previous albums have not exactly been lacklustre. Semper Femina, meaning ‘always woman/women’ in Latin is, as title nods, about womanhood and feminine strength. Songs like Soothing – that electric, hypnotic double bass pervading – show a new side and direction. Marling ponders throughout – Always This Way sees her ask if she ponders too insistently – and is at her most astonishing and accomplished throughout. If she was unhappy with the self-produced efforts of 2015’s Short Movie; bringing Blake Mills in to produce gives her latest album new impetus and energies. Soothing is one of those rare songs that hits you and never leaves the head. Elsewhere, The Valley focuses on a singer of inscrutable nature: Marling tries to figure her out: “We love beauty because it needs us to”. Next Time pays tribute to Mother Earth whilst Always This Way (also) addresses friendship and a bond cut short. An extraordinary album from a songwriter still in her 20s. It is scary sending how far Laura Marling can go.
Elbow – Little Fictions (3rd February)
In the (same way) I was excited Laura Marling would be releasing an incredible album: Elbow have, perhaps, unveiled their most cohesive and entrancing record since the Mercury-winning, The Seldom Seen Kid. Anyone expecting the bombast and triumphant spirit of Grounds for Divorce or the uplifting hymn One Day Like This will discover something more grown-up and contemplative. Little Fictions is a more mature and romantic work: Richard Jupp departed the band which sent some uncertainty through the ranks. The Hallé Orchestra provide the spine-tingling rush and immense beauty that perfectly complements leader Guy Garvey’s tremulous, powerful voice. Magnificent (She Says) and Gentle Storm are two of the most beautiful and tender songs in the Elbow cannon. Not as immediate and bracing as, say, an album like The Seldom Seen Kid – it is a more nuanced and revealing album. Songs keep secrets hidden at first but reveal new shades the more you play them. It is a testament to the fact Elbow are one of the most evolving and solid bands in the world. Little Fictions is sure to remain in the hearts and minds of critics when they decide their favourite 2017 albums (later this year).
The xx – I See You (13th January)
I am not a huge fan of the xx but had been wondering where they’d got to. Released by Young Turks; I See You is a welcomed return from the acclaimed trio. Not quite as insular and closed as on previous album: some of the most rousing, revealing and emotive music of the xx’s careers. Coexist was the last album (2012) and, in the ensuing five years, a lot has changed in that time. The xx, on I See You, are more expansive and colourful than previous records – perhaps influenced by member Jamie’s L.P., In Colour. Not as shy and mournful as their first two albums; this is the xx at their evolving best; taking what they created before and adding new dimensions and layers. Brave for You is one of the most breathless and tender tracks they have created; On Hold that empathic lead single. Fans of their early work might take some adjustment getting used to the xx 2.0 – it is a welcomed shift from a unit that was in danger of being lost in a sea of like-minded copycats. By changing their game – whilst remaining, pleasingly, the same – they have shown there is plenty more gas in the tank. Whether they will be releasing another album shortly or not; do not bet against the trio creating another huge smash. An album already lauded and affirmed by critics: future single releases (from I See You) will get the album into new hands and to fresh ears.
Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayers (24th February)
It is not surprising Stormzy’s masterful album, Gang Signs & Prayers has been raved about by critics. It is a bold and confident debut from a young man reflecting the vibes of the street. Grime and British Hip-Hop is undergoing a resurgence at the moment. Peers such as Skepta and Kano are doing great work for the genres: debatably, Stormzy is their godfather at the moment. His songs rush from the gates and showcase an incredible gift for wordplay and urban-poetry. Whether highlighting social poverty or the cruelty of the manor: it is never predictable or unoriginal. In fact. Stevie Wonder-like tracks Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 1 could, in lesser hands, sound pretentious and foolish. It is a moving, heart-breaking song that shows the London rapper is confident when turning the volume down and speaking from the heart. That battle between the mind, heart and body are conflicting, often contrasting figures that go into some of the most variegated and exciting music of the past few years. In no short supply of bravado, assurance and direction – expect to see many more albums from a prodigious talent.
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (13th January)
Julie Byrne is one of the most itinerant artists around right now. Not only has she moved around the U.S. – Buffalo to Pittsburgh; Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans in there – but that all leads to some wonderful, varied music. Someone so keen to see new places and different environments writes beautifully about the natural world – as one might imagine. Double rainbows are featured in the gorgeous Follow My Voice; Natural Blue – a radio staple here – is about the waking dawn and new day. Scattershot themes run right through – it is one of the most adventurous records you’ll hear from a thematic perspective – but is all bonded and fantastic because of Byrne’s exceptional, luscious voice. If you are looking for a singer that can buckle the knees and take you somewhere special then there are few as qualified as Julia Byrne. Synths, dreamy melodies and finger-picked songs might not sound like the ingredients to pull in the hardened Rock elite. The great thing about Not Even Happiness is how wide-ranging and universal it is.
Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon (17th February)
Dutch Uncles, on their fifth album, reflected the harrow and entrapment of austerity in Britain. Songs are complex, big and bold: the title track is one of the most infectious they have created yet still deals with anti-depressants and the need to get a bit high. Their previous album, 2015’s O Shudder was, as the title implies, about sex and its awkwardness. Big Balloon is a tougher and tauter album that addresses modern Britain through a variety of intriguing sonic explorations and lyrical studies. Whilst a lot of the material provides rush and colourful explosion: tracks like Same Plane Dream – benefit cuts and their brutality – has tense instrumentation and a desperate urgency. On the other side of the coin is something like Streetlight – where the Manchester boys take the mood down and provide something elegant and romantic. It is a wonderful album that boasts some of the band’s best material yet – surely an album that will top the end-of-year lists come December?!
Ryan Adams – Prisoner (17th February)
Many of this year’s best albums are from artists who have been in the game for a little while now – that seemed to be the pattern with (most of) last year’s biggest and brightest. Prisoner, as with many of Ryan Adams’ most popular albums, looks at heartbreak and fall-out. From Bob Dylan to Fleetwood Mac: the opera of divorce, indiscretion and rejection has been covered widely over the decades. Adams brings his songwriting talent and endless inspiration to another exceptional album – one that speaks of heartbreak, confusion and reassessment. Although Prisoner is an impressive album it is a little bloated – a sign Adams was keen to put as much into the pot as he could. Following his reinterpretations of Taylor Swift’s album, 1989 – where he received some flack he was descending into the mire of Pop – he is determined to confirm himself as one of the world’s finest songwriters. Do You Still Love Me? is a spirited and crunching opener; To Be Without You sees the Canadian wonder whether anything matters anymore – it doesn’t, as it seems, but never delivered with mordant sulk or a depressive croon. Prisoner has plenty of spunk and energy but finds the hero haunted by memories and affected by broken love and growing old – a fantastic offering from a songwriter who seems unable to pause for breath or let his standards drop.
Kehlani – SweetSexySavage (27th January)
Despite some slightly limited production values; Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage lives up to its title: a triumvirate of heart, lust and teeth. There is cohesiveness and solidity in every number; a strong and defiant voice that makes songs, that could otherwise sound ordinary, into essential anthems. In terms of being personal with the listener; there is no fear of holding back with Kehlani. She lets them in and reveals everything you can possibly want – an album that is as honest and revealing as any this year. Rather than hide behind layers of production and trite words, like so many, the American rebels against haters and kicks against the regular. It is brash and colourful; delightfully saucy and measured elsewhere – an album that has so many different threads and wonderful moments. Highlights like Piece of Mind augment the rawer emotions and vulnerability of SweetSexySavage. Whilst a lot of her peers are keen to ramp up the volume and produce something easy and accessible; here, there is a brave young woman pouring her heart out through the music.
Sleaford Mods – English Tapas (3rd March)
Given the issues around Brexit, economic distress and social divisions; one requires a soundtrack that puts all this into the mix and is provided a lashing of wit, anger and wisdom. Step up Sleaford Mods who are in rude, brilliant health. Many of their slash-and-spit colleagues – Slaves and Fat White Family – are starting to weaken and discovering their stock is diminishing. What keeps Sleaford Mods in the forefront is the songwriting intelligence and range. They have put down their foundations but, rather than repeat themselves, choose to modify and evolve. English Tapas suggests Brutishness and the suppression of anything foreign. The haunting ambience of Time Sounds has backwards tapes and a lasting aftertaste. Frontman Jason Williamson is backed by a cavalcade of emotions and effects; so much to work with. As such, his performances and singing have come on leaps and bounds. More prominent and ‘singy’ than before – his voice goes in new directions and is at its most nuanced – whilst Sleaford Mods have, seemingly, penned the soundtrack for modern Britain. If their base of slapping bass, sharp-spoken lines and meaty beats have not altered too much; the themes addressed on English Tapas venture into new areas. The boys barely rested between 2015’s Key Markets and 2014’s Divide and Exit: they have not taken long to produce a new album; highlighting how prolific and inspired they are. English Tapas does look at Brexit but, by and large, investigates the band’s rise to prominence and the pressure that comes with that. Perhaps their finest, most surprising and complete album to date: the intrepid duo continue to dazzle, confound and inspire.
Sampha – Process (3rd February)
It is debatable whether 2017 will uncover an album as devastating, emotional and accomplished as Process. Sampha sings about the death of his mother (to cancer) and how he has been uprooted because of success. His stunning, soulful voice makes every song sound beautifully cinematic and direct. Process is a gorgeously-crafted album that takes subjects of inner-turmoil and loss but never depressed or pushes the listener away. Kora Sings has chattering percussion and field samples of children and rain. Reverse Faults pulls its samples into a swampy, pulsating effect whilst (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano takes us into his mother’s heart and home; one of the most emotional and heartbreaking songs of this year. Elsewhere, Timmy’s Prayer brings in Kanye West as a co-writer; Plastic 100°C has panic-and-calm in the mix – one of the most urgent and complex on the record. Process is befitting of the title: a way of dealing with painful emotions and getting it all out. Because of that, you hear a lot of sadness and regret; some hopefulness and an abiding, cathartic spirit. It will be hard for any artist to top Sampha’s debut masterpiece. A phenomenal introduction to a talent that will continue to shine and compel for many years to come.