Alex’s top 20 albums of 2017

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By Alex

So, another year happened. As usual, there wasn’t much good news, but there was a lot of good music. Interestingly, many of this year’s best albums were heavily influenced by the bad news of last year, including an increasingly volatile political climate and the rather inconvenient rise of the far-right. Being honest, it hasn’t been a great year for our fragile blue and green marble, but at least it has enjoyed some good records. So let’s have a look at some before the bomb drops, shall we?

20. The Architect – Paloma Faith
Paloma Faith has long been outspoken in her political views, but The Architect is the first time she’s embedded them so firmly in her music. Alongside Faith, The Architect includes spoken word interludes from the likes of Owen Jones and Samuel L Jackson, who urge the listener to fight for real political change. These interludes serve as punctuation on an album that tackles toxic masculinity (‘Crybaby’), post-Brexit remorse (‘Guilty’) and constructing a better future for our children (‘The Architect’). If that sounds a bit heavy, The Architect is also packed with huge tunes, from the polished pop of ‘Kings and Queens’ to the disco vibes of ”Til I’m Done’. On her debut album, Faith asked the question Do you want the truth or something beautiful? On her fourth studio effort, Faith manages to make something that’s both.

19. A Fever Dream – Everything Everything
In an age of uncertainty and widespread fear, how can an album truly reflect the turbulent times in which it was conceived? Everything Everything grapple with this question on their fourth studio album, the dystopian A Fever Dream, a record rich in sinister undertones and political context. From the foreboding ‘Night Of The Long Knives’ to the subtle Trump references of ‘Big Game’, A Fever Dream is both a product and reflection of today’s toxic political climate, an album shaped by fake news, social exclusion and hopelessness. But amidst all the despair, Everything Everything retain their knack for cobbling together big pop anthems, like the full-bellied bellow of ‘Desire’, one of the band’s catchiest tracks to date. On A Fever Dream, Everything Everything tackle some heavy issues, cowering and cringing at the current state of affairs, wishing all of this really were a fever dream after all.

18. Common Sense – J Hus
In a year when UK grime and hip hop has made a serious impact on the mainstream charts, we’ve been spoilt for choice for new, talented acts. But of all the rising stars on the British scene, there’s no one who’s released a debut album as confident, diverse and accomplished as J Hus. Common Sense is an album that infuses a wealth of genres, Hus’ influences broad and worn proudly on his sleeve. Hus (short for ‘hustle’), takes aspects of African music and injects them into the grime sound of his native London. The result is diverse, from the afrobeat lilt of ‘Bouff Daddy’ to the urgent, spitting grime of ‘Clartin’. Hus’ ability to pen consistently addictive beats is miles ahead of many of his peers, the album’s title track standing out as Hus’ crowning glory, a tongue-in-cheek dancehall anthem that has the listener reaching for the replay button over and over. But even when his arrangements are more lowkey, Hus still packs a punch, such as on empowerment track ‘Spirit’ that sees him championing underdogs everywhere, urging them to hang on to their drive in the face of hardship. In 2017, few albums have been as riveting, vibrant and vivid as the explosive debut from J Hus, East London’s star on the ascendant.

17. Yesterday’s Gone – Loyle Carner
On his warm and intimate debut album, Loyle Carner invites the listener into his world of flirty text messages, old CDs and potent marijuana. Yesterday’s Gone is a confident debut, Carner a compelling rapper and an even better lyricist, laying down confessional rhymes over laid-back hip hop beats. Opening track ‘The Isle of Arran’, built around an arresting sample of S.C.I Youth Choir’s ‘Lord Will Make A Way’, sees Carner confronting his absent dad while praising the step-father who shaped much of his childhood. It’s a fitting introduction, as Yesterday’s Gone is a family affair from start to finish, with Carner fawning over his unborn sister on ‘Florence’ and professing his love for his mother at every opportunity (but most adorably on ‘Swear’, a snippet of a conversation between the two). References to family dominate the album, Carner proving that while he’s often distracted by fruitless romantic endeavours (‘+44’), unlike his dad, it’s his family that will always come first.

16. Double Roses – Karen Elson
On the cover of her second album, we see Karen Elson half-submerged, only her head visible above the choppy ocean water, her smudged mascara eyes staring determinedly at the viewer. She is not afraid of the water, but seemingly at home in it. The ocean makes a fitting home for Elson who, throughout Double Roses, sounds like a siren, a mythical being luring the listener with beautifully crafted folk-pop hymns. Water is a recurring theme on the album too, from the sinister undertones of ‘Hell and High Water’ to soothing acoustic closer ‘Distant Shore’, Elson fascinated by its symbolic connotations. On Double Roses, Elson remains in a wistful mood, sighing over carefully plucked strings and gentle lullaby drums. It’s rare for her composure to crack, though when it does, it makes for spectacular results. “I don’t call your name anymore,” Elson cries on the exceptional ‘Call Your Name’, while on ‘Wolf’, Elson makes room for an extended sax solo, a startling change of direction just as the album nears its end. Double Roses is a stunning album from start to finish, Elson’s whimsical folk songs both sweetly melancholic and utterly spellbinding.

15. Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa
This year has belonged to Dua Lipa, the homegrown pop superstar who, thanks to an arsenal of ace pop songs and our collective desire to make it happen, became the breakout star of 2017. Her mainstream success came, unusually, from her debut album’s sixth single, the hypnotic ‘New Rules’ that propelled Lipa from underground pop hit to household name. Its off-kilter Asiatic chorus coupled with a modern take on girl power hit the number 1 spot in the UK after five week, going on to make waves around the world. But there’s more to Dua Lipa than ‘New Rules’. Standout track ‘Be The One’ boasts one of the best choruses of the decade, while ‘IDGAF’ sees Lipa transforming churlish defiance into a stomping empowerment anthem. Lipa is a deft hand at weaving addictive R&B-infused pop choruses and it takes little more than a cursory listen to fall head over heels for both the record and its creator, Dua Lipa like a selection box where every chocolate is one of your faves. It’s an album rammed from beginning to end with catchy, sophisticated pop tunes, Lipa scoring a bullseye on almost every track of her diverse and confident debut.

14. Pleasure – Feist
A starkly intimate record, Feist builds a personal fortress on her fifth album, wrapping herself in the familiar fuzz of strummed electric guitar and fragile folk melodies. Pleasure crackles with a sense of solitude, Feist’s sparse arrangements suggesting a longing for company, such as on the haunting ‘I Wish I Didn’t Miss You’, a ghostly wisp of plucked guitar accompanied by Feist’s frayed vocal echoes. On Pleasure, though she often directs her lyrics to an unnamed ‘you’, there’s the distinct feeling she’s singing only to herself. As listeners, we feel invasive hearing her raw confessionals, yet unable to turn away, Feist luring us closer with her warm, seductive folk songs. But for all its introverted shyness, Pleasure breaks out of its lonerist shell on several occasions, such as on ‘Any Party’ that sees her joined by a chorus of revellers. Yet when she sings “You know I’d leave any party for you,” you get the feeling it’s not her partner, but Feist herself who’d rather be at home, indulging in an infinitely more appealing “party of two”. Elsewhere, ‘A Man Is Not His Song’ shatters into a brief eleventh-hour rock explosion while the album reaches its crescendo with ‘Century’, a stomping guitar track that descends into something resembling a Medieval chant. But despite these transgressions, Feist always returns to the soothing, insular comfort of hushed acoustic melodies, cloaking herself in the familiar while reminding the listener she is guided by her volatile moods, prone to spontaneous bursts of energy and whimsical tangents – so they better be paying attention.

13. No Shape – Perfume Genius
The music of Mika Hadreas, the artist behind Perfume Genius, has never been an easy listen. Naked song structures adorned only by alienating beats and raw vocal groans characterised much of his earlier work, Hadreas singing of homophobia, abuse and living with debilitating Crohn’s disease. His work has always been intelligent and compelling, but often bleak, harrowing and extremely hard-going too. But on his latest album, the flowery No Shape, there is a seismic shift in Hadreas’ outlook and, by extension, his music. Whereas Hadreas has often sounded like an outcast, someone looking in from the outside, on No Shape, he is very much through the door. The injured fractures of his voice are replaced by smooth, content purrs, the focus of his songwriting no longer fixed on life’s injustices, but on his own, personal happiness. Hadreas swoons his way through floaty, weightless tracks, such as the breathless ‘Just Like Love’, his melodies free from the heavy sense of dread that coursed through much of his earlier output. Even when being pushed to the brink of death during a kinky experimentation with erotic asphyxiation (‘Die 4 You’), Hadreas keeps his cool, fawning his way through what is possibly his first album dedicated almost solely to love. So what’s the source of this newfound joy? Closing track ‘Alan’ attributes Hadreas’ happiness to his long-term partner with whom he appears to have found a certain domestic bliss. “I’m here / How weird,” he marvels, perplexed at the unusual stability of his circumstances. Having found his peace, the words ‘Perfume Genius’ are no longer loaded with connotations of grief, but finally, with contentment.

12. V – The Horrors
A dark, shape-shifting album that sees The Horrors on top experimental form, V is a disorienting maze of morphing prog-rock and volatile indie-pop. The tracks here are often deceiving, beginning with traditional pop structures before transforming into unpredictable, ever-changing arrangements, the band subverting expectations at every turn. Tracks like ‘Ghost’ descend into drawn-out, sparkly outros, The Horrors switching gear at the eleventh hour, allowing their tracks to take on a life of their own, evolving before our eyes. But the most unexpected turn of all comes at the album’s end, with the glam-pop closer ‘Something To Remember Me By’. A melancholy dance track, it’s perhaps The Horrors most straightforward pop song to date and, quite possibly, the best song of their career too. V proves that even when they’re not testing the boundaries of noirish gloom-rock, The Horrors are still capable pop craftsmen, able to embed a certain gothic sadness into even the most infectious pop tunes.

11. Melodrama – Lorde
When Lorde came down with a sore throat before her scheduled performance at the VMAs, she could have backed out. Instead, she performed an interpretive dance to her track ‘Homemade Dynamite’, twisting herself into weird shapes and bounding across the stage in a flagrant display of uninhibited joy. It was a fitting performance to promote an album that deals in unexpected flourishes of emotion, Lorde handing herself over to bouts of explosive lovesickness one minute (‘Green Light’) before imaging herself strewn across the road after a car crash the next (‘Homemade Dynamite’). But as well as dealing in unfiltered emotion, Melodrama is also a thoughtful, considered album, Lorde dragging the listener through the euphoria of a wild night out but also the sobering comedown the next day. It’s an album that focuses on moments of reckless, spontaneous abandon, but also their consequences, Lorde keeping a cautious eye on the future as she asks “What will we do when we’re sober?” (‘Sober’). Perhaps it’s a sign she’s growing up, because as we find on bittersweet album closer ‘Perfect Places’, the novelty of spending every night getting off her face is wearing thin pretty fast, the tug of adulthood growing stronger by the day.

10. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
It’s long been established that Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper in the world. It’s a title he’s earned through timely, intelligent lyrics delivered with fervent precision and unrivalled passion. On DAMN., his fourth studio album, Lamar shows he has no intention of surrendering his crown. If Lamar’s masterpiece, 2016’s To Pimp A Butterfly, was at times challenging due to the sheer scope and speed of its genre-hopping, DAMN. feels like a far more succinct listen. It even strays into pop territory on the Rihanna-featuring ‘Loyalty’, a rare foray into a more mainstream sound. But though DAMN. is a decidedly more radio-friendly listen than its intellectual predecessor, it’s filled with much of the same righteous ire that makes Lamar such a vital and peerless artist. His lyrics are complex and contradictory, such as on ‘DNA.’ in which Lamar examines his heritage through a lens that both celebrates and critiques his culture. It features a snippet of a Fox News segment in which an anchor criticises Lamar’s lyrics before summarising that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism”. It’s statements like these that fuel Lamar’s indignation and often lead to his greatest tracks. On ‘DNA.’, he takes the news anchor at his word, ending the song with the words “Sex, money, murder — our DNA,” reflecting the media’s ignorance back at them and embellishing white America’s preconceptions of black music and, by extension, black people. On DAMN., there’s no doubt that Kendrick Lamar is, and will continue to be, the greatest rapper on this godforsaken earth.

9. MASSEDUCTION – St. Vincent
Vibrant and hyperactive, St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION is a panic attack of a record. From the narcotic jingle of ‘Pills’ to the juddering throb of ‘Sugarboy’, Annie Clarke keeps the listener on edge, never comfortable amidst the disorienting glare of shuddering synth choruses and twisting song structures. The record is Clarke’s first album since being launched into the media spotlight on the arm of a very famous supermodel and, in many ways, MASSEDUCTION is a reaction to the hectic, uncontrollable period that followed. On ‘Los Ageless’, Clarke sings of a place where “mothers milk their young,” a jab at the vacuous LA scene of which she was briefly a staple, while on ‘Slow Disco’, she loses both her lover and herself in the aftermath of a decadent party. If her message wasn’t clear enough, the album art depicts a woman bending over, presenting the viewer with her arse. It’s a perfect summation of MASSEDUCTION, a vivid and garish album, a slap in the face of good taste and a rallying cry against mediocrity in all its forms.

8. Ctrl – SZA
SZA’s propulsion to the music mainstream began last year when she appeared on ‘Consideration’, the standout track of Rihanna’s Anti album. It was a song SZA had written for herself but begrudgingly handed over to the Bajan superstar at her personal request. Looking back, it’s a decision SZA has spoken of with some regret, though there’s no denying the collaboration shone a spotlight on the underground R&B artist, offering a level of fame and recognition she’d never experienced before. Building on the back of her newfound star power, SZA released Ctrl, an album that proved beyond all doubt that this was an artist who needed no leg-ups to get what she wanted. An album of gorgeous R&B jams, Ctrl is a deeply personal record that sees SZA lay her insecurities bare. On ‘Supermodel’, she analyses her fear of rejection, longing to be happy in her own company without the validation of unfaithful men, while on ‘Drew Barrymore’, she apologises for what she perceives as her long list of fatal flaws. SZA longs to be different, anything but herself, yearning to be “the type of girl you take over to your mama”, but feeling stuck in her own skin. Her low self-esteem leads her to make questionable decisions, such as dating men who are already involved with a string of other women (‘The Weekend’), but, as SZA concludes on closing track ’20 Something’, perhaps poor decision making is all part of being young. It’s not the triumphant ending we might have hoped for, but for anyone going through their 20s, it’s certainly a relatable one.

7. Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice
Like the soundtrack of an indie teen movie, Visions Of A Life is an undeniably cool album centred on a throwback grunge sound with a modern kick. From dreamy opening track ‘Heavenward’ to the gritty punk bite of ‘Yuk Foo’, Wolf Alice deal with the euphoric highs and crashing lows of adolescent lovesickness, from dizzying bouts of emotional excess (‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’) to cruel reality-check comedowns (‘Formidable Cool’). Ellie Rowsell switches between wide-eyed Rapunzel to rabid one-woman army at barely a moment’s notice, pummelling her way through a spectrum of emotions like someone on a mission to feel everything there is to feel, be it good or bad. Even when the band are at their most melancholic and thoughtful, (‘Planet Hunter’), there’s an underlying tension, as though the momentary calm could shatter at any moment. And often it does. Wolf Alice’s raucous brand of Brit-rock makes for a wild live show, their songs of all-encompassing love coupled with tales of rejection, hatred and bitterness hitting home with deadly precision. An intelligent punch of scuzzy drums and guitar, on Visions Of A Life, Wolf Alice single-handedly make the case for indie-rock’s future.

6. Ash – Ibeyi
On the cover of Ibeyi’s exceptional second album, we see a shattered face, the cracks filled with gold. It’s a reference to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, whereby broken objects are put back together using lacquer dusted with gold or silver, the idea being that the breakage becomes part of the object’s history rather than something to be obscured. It’s a fitting metaphor for Ash, an album built on historic hardship and stacked odds, the French-Cuban Diaz sisters addressing the injustices faced by women of colour every day. On ‘Deathless’, a sixteen-year-old girl is accosted by a police officer who judges her to be an ‘unclean’ drug-dealer based on the colour of her skin. “Whatever happens, whatever happened, we are deathless,” the sisters sing, declaring solidarity and suggesting resistance to an establishment still built on racism. ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms’, arguably the album’s best track, is structured around a sample of a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in which she states “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” Ibeyi provide backing vocals, chanting the track’s title on a song that demands change and empowers the listener to deliver it. Ash is a beautiful album from the Diaz sisters, a rallying cry for real change and a powerful statement of solidarity to the disempowered and downtrodden.

5. Lust For Life – Lana Del Rey
On what is probably her most Lana Del Rey album to date, the all-American star delivers an album rich in cultural iconography wrapped up in a neat American-dream sheen. Del Rey has always been fascinated by Hollywood aesthetics and Golden-era imagery, but on Lust For Life, she goes the extra mile, clambering atop the Hollywood sign and surveying the decadent glamour from on high. On Lust For Life, Del Rey sighs with brooding intensity, her voice rising from the lush arrangements like wisps of steam. Tracks blend seamlessly into each other, Del Rey’s lustful longing always present, the melancholy poetry of her lyrics casting a long shadow over the plush strings and soft piano, such as on standout track ’13 Beaches’, a song inspired by an afternoon hopping from beach to beach in an attempt to escape the paparazzi. Some have labelled Lust For Life Del Rey’s ‘happy album’, based in part by the cover art that depicts her wearing a wide smile, a departure from the more austere artwork of her previous albums. But while Lust For Life bubbles with the promise of joy, this is often undercut by paranoia and pessimism, (see the ‘dripping peaches’ of ‘Cherry’ become ruined by the first chorus). However this is no bad thing. Del Rey has long excelled at exploring the thin line between euphoria and despair, floating over it like a sinister angel, desperate to find her joy, but equally happy to hand herself over to the dark glamour of despair.

4. What Do You Think About The Car? – Declan McKenna
Written in his teenage years, it’s little wonder Declan McKenna’s What Do You Think About The Car? Is full of vibrant, youthful idealism, McKenna’s view of the world shaped by his experiences as a disillusioned young person, a member of the demographic so gleefully ignored by anyone in power. On opening track ‘Humongous’, McKenna calls out the hypocritical Westminster bigwigs who seek to exploit his generation for votes, making wild promises before scrapping them at the earliest opportunity. Elsewhere, McKenna despairs at the corruption of FIFA on his breakout single ‘Brazil’, a critical look at the dodgy dealings that led to the country hosting the 2014 World Cup, while on ‘Paracetomol’, a track inspired by the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn in 2014, McKenna explores the plight of young trans people who continue to be driven to suicide. On his ambitious debut album, McKenna not only gives a voice to his generation, but speaks to the generations that came before, pointing to the mess they’ve dumped at the feet of society’s youngest and demanding they do a whole lot better.

3. Utopia – Björk
If Björk’s last album, the weighty Vulnicura, examined the lowest points of human emotion, her latest effort is the opposite, a triumphant celebration of new love, blossoming relationships and making meaningful connections in the technological age. Utopia is an album full of wonder, Björk marvelling at every aspect of her self-constructed paradise with childlike glee, basking in the glow of the fresh, untainted love unfurling in glowing synth ribbons and airy flute flickers. But as we pointed out here, Björk’s Utopia is not without its earthly flaws. Themes of patriarchy and male ego dominate the album’s second half, with Björk pleading to the father of her child (who sued her last year for custody of their daughter), to spare their child the narcissistic demands of a patriarchal society and allow her to grow up free from “the fuckups of the fathers.” Utopia is an emphatically female album, Björk’s Eden a refuge from the male-dominated society of the real world, a place where empathy and understanding reign supreme. Though Björk’s utopia is currently only a place of make-believe, on her ninth studio album, she suggests we’re the only ones preventing its realisation.

2. A Crow Looked At Me – Mount Eerie
A chronicle of the devastating aftermath of his wife’s death, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum zooms in on the domestic impact of grief, detailing the numbing weeks that saw him try to juggle his own mourning with caring for his one-year-old daughter. A Crow Looked At Me is a silent explosion, Elverum’s tracks quiet and still, yet delivering a tremendous emotional punch. “I can’t get the image out of my head / Of when I held you right there / And watched you die,” he sings on ‘Swims’, his voice fragile over a lightly strummed guitar. His lyrics are rooted more in reality than metaphor, Elverum narrating micro-events almost in real time. In the wake of his wife’s death, normally unremarkable activities like taking out the rubbish are suddenly imbued with new meaning, Elverum’s life now transformed by the shadow of grief. The minutiae of his lived personal experience become magnified and once innocuous things like backpacks and Canada geese are made symbolic and important, Elverum searching for significance but ultimately concluding that there is no meaning in death, nothing to be learned or gained, only an all-consuming pain. Tracks bleed into one another like Elverum’s long sleepless days, the steady thrum of the acoustic guitar barely changing. Time stands still on A Crow Looked At Me, an album that is both a beautiful tribute and a fascinating, devastating study of personal grief.

1. Arca – Arca
Where to start with the weird, experimental masterpiece that is Arca’s eponymous album? It’s a record that was shaped by a casual car-ride conversation with friend and collaborator Björk who, after hearing Arca sing, suggested he do so on record. Before then, his music had been almost entirely instrumental, the Venezuelan musician born Alejandro Ghersi obscured behind his intricate beats. On Arca, however, Ghersi comes to the forefront. His voice creates an almost religious atmosphere, the solemn rhythm of his vocals sounding like something from an ancient ritual. Singing in his native Spanish (the language through which he processes emotion), Ghersi’s lyrics are evocative and affecting. He sings of longing to remove his own skin on opening track ‘Piel’, and describes an intense, nocturnal yearning on ‘Anoche’. His lyrics often evoke the feelings of shame Ghersi felt as he struggled to accept his sexuality growing up, something he suggests on the dizzying fervour of ‘Castration’ and embellishes on ‘Whip’, an interlude of cartoonish sound effects. And though Arca is a more vocal-centric album than his previous work, Ghersi’s arrangements remain the focal point, his daunting, echoey structures forming the backbone of an album drenched in a near-suffocating atmosphere. His songs feel like they were made in the belly of a great cathedral, Ghersi disturbing the peace with his harrowing hymnals, filling the empty space with ricocheting beats and labyrinthine rhythms. Amidst these intricate patterns we find Ghersi himself, pouring his passion into a record that is awesome in its scope and flooring in its delivery. An experimental tour de force, Arca is the best album of 2017.

See Alex’s top tracks of 2017 right here
…and his top 20 albums of last year right here.
And click here for the best albums of 2017 according to Jack.

@alexsnorris

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