The best albums of 2017 (so far)

In Album Reviews, Slider Posts by Declan Roberts

We have just passed the midway point of 2017 and such a time calls for us to reminisce on some of the fantastic releases we have fallen in love with this year. Here are our top picks for now (expect an even more comprehensive list at the end of the year).

The Big Moon – Love in the 4th Dimension by Paige Tracey

Mature and intriguing from all angles, its hard to believe that Love in the 4th Dimension is the Big Moon’s first album release. The indie-rock four piece have been on the collective music critic radar since releasing a series of singles in 2016. With the release of the defiant “Sucker” just a few week’s before the album’s release, the tone had been set for an album that would be an assured collection of catchy yet astute indie-rock numbers.

One of the nicest surprises to unwrap from Love in the 4th Dimension was the previously unreleased track “Pull The Other One”. Juliette Jackson’s brooding mezzo-soprano is perfectly offset against the building layers of guitar, percussion and melodic backing vocals. Showcasing the band at their best,  “Pull The Other One” is the anthem of the modern woman, torn apart over maintaining a volatile relationship with an unpredictable man who ‘buys roses while banging on the door’.

The band have also not cowered away from a shake up, testing the waters with new sounds and styles. An interesting feat considering that the album was recorded in just 12 days, to capture the music at its most instinctive. A creative gamble which, on all accounts seems to have paid off. The release has allowed Jackson to showcase her excellent and eclectic songwriting ability, and proves that she has chosen the most talented collection of female musicians to bring her creations to life.

With the release of this record, as well as a European tour and feature on Marika Hackman’s I’m Not Your Man, 2017 is the year that has catapulted the Big Moon into the spotlight. Whether they now build on their earned success remains to be seen. With a debut album of such high quality, I’d tell you to “pull the other one” if you suggested this would be the last we’d hear of them.

Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me by Conrad Duncan

After the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria famously used Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a source of solace; had she been around in 2017, she might have used A Crow Looked at Me instead. Over the course of 11 sparsely arranged and uncomfortably intimate songs, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum has written an album that confronts death more openly than any record I’ve ever heard. It’s an album that cannot be removed from its context, written and recorded soon after the death of his wife Geneviève Castrée, and one that refuses to ignore the reality of its subject. A reality that is acknowledged in the album’s first lines –

Death is real/ Someone’s there and then they’re not/ And it’s not for singing about/ It’s not for making into art – and a reality that can be heard in the sound of fingers scraping across frets and awkward cracks in Elverum’s vocals.

However, for all of the despair on A Crow Looked at Me, there is also a disquieting beauty to its honesty. It is an album that no-one will be happy to listen to but it is one that has a clear purpose as well. Albums like Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree have spoken prominently about death in recent years but I can’t think of a record that captures the crushing emptiness of it as clearly as this one. Elverum has translated his experience so vividly that it may be understood by anyone and if this is how we are to judge art, you could argue that it is one of the greatest records ever made. I understand that it is unlikely that many people will take to A Crow Looked at Me or find much replay value in it. It’s a consciously difficult album about a difficult subject, Elverum even refers to it as being ‘barely music’, but it is also a staggeringly powerful one. In the traditional sense, it is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite album of the year, yet there are many days when I struggle to think of any albums that are better.

Ed Sheeran – Divide by Ellie Koepke

By now, you’ve made up your mind on Ed Sheeran, and probably his new album too. You’re in one of two categories when ‘Shape of You’ comes on – you’re either running out of the club covering your ears, or dragging your nearest available (and preferably fit) mate to the dance floor. But ÷’s dirty banger of a lead single doesn’t define the entire third album from our favourite scruffy ginger. The many expected love songs like ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ and ‘How Would You Feel’ showcase Sheeran’s knack for classic songwriting, and ‘Dive’ featuring Jessie Ware is the first time we heard him belt on record, and it’s goddamn good.

The album does have it’s weak points – the rap on ‘Eraser’ isn’t my favourite thing to listen to, and the lyrics of ‘What Do I Know’ are uncomfortably self-deprecating coming from a multi-millionaire. However, Sheeran’s all-round skills – voice, guitar, writing and rapping – have all come up a notch this time around. Plus (ha), each song has its own style and influences, so listening to it through doesn’t get old. I secretly love ‘New Man’, an ode to 2017’s fuckboy who wears “sunglasses indoors, in winter, at nighttime”, as much as the belt-along single ‘Castle on the Hill’.

It might seem absurd to have a tropical hit like ‘Shape of You’ on the same album as a piano ballad like ‘Supermarket Flowers’, but the cheek of decisions like that is what separates Ed Sheeran from the next singer-songwriter. Whether you love or hate the album so far, it’s probably all you’re going to be hearing for the next few years, so you might as well try and enjoy it until Adele reappears in 2035.

SZA – CTRL by Rachel Chandler

As the mid way point of 2017 hits (I know, YIKES) now is as good a time as ever to look back over the music that’s been the soundtrack to the political shit show we’ve endured. Whilst this decision was easier than last year, it only became so literally a matter of weeks ago. Debating between Camille’s OUï and Sandy (Alex G)’s Rocket had consumed me, but then SZA came along with CTRL and blew them both out of the water. Mesmerising voice, check, slightly grungey and dark garage beats mixed with a signature Hip Hop attitude, check check and check a-fucking-gain. I will admit, I’m hugely biased as I already sort of KNEW I was going to love this album based solely on the sheer brilliance of lead single ‘Drew Barrymore’, a single that would’ve easily made me swoon over the album in its entirety, but she done me proud.

There’s a low-key chill vibe to the album, an off kilter and askew, but controlled and self assured execution to the album. It’s professional, effortless but also raw and real. Dichotomous I know, but therein lies the fascination for me. The Kendrick track ‘Doves in the Wind’ is HUGE, their voices together are absolutely astonishingly complimentary and ‘Drew Barrymore’… I can’t even articulate the perfection of this track, it’s being in the swimming pool of some jock douche living in Beverly Hills, a house party you’re not even sure how you got invited to, floating on a lilo in said jock douches’ swimming pool fully clothed at 3:46am. The stars are bright and the night is still. Don’t ask me why it brings this to mind, but it just has that hypnotic and repetitive riff that has a palpable magic and fluidity, a mystery that the stillness of night and water has, especially when tipsy.

‘Go Gina’ has the intricacy that the great Frank Ocean would be proud of. In fact, the entire album sounds Ocean influenced, but with a more biting sound and sharper edges, a heavier guitar influenced sound that somehow works with the hip hop elements. Album opener ‘Supermodel’ just sets you up in an all-consuming way, it burns and smoulders slowly, with the singular stripped back distorted guitar for the first minute, the interspersed bass building from then onwards, going out in a blaze of glory with the last-minute rolling through with the help of shimmering drums. ’20 Something’ gives the album perfect completion, that same singular guitar that started the album, here finishes with the somber but heavenly song, a real showcase of SZA’s honey smooth voice. An album truly of all killer no filler, CTRL has set my summer (or winter, for us in the Southern Hemisphere right now) alight and got me raring for the next 6 months of great music.

Alt-J – Relaxer by Anna Barnard-Wright

In typical alt-J style, Relaxer has a sound completely unique to any other, incomparable to the band’s own back catalogue. Their trademark random mix of odd sounding vocals, chaotic instrumentals and mysteriously whispered lyrics return to create a dynamic track list which, true to the album’s title, make for a more relaxed release than preceding albums. While the band consists of only 3 members now, they manage to produce an incredibly wide range of vocals that at some points sound like they have a full choir behind their erratic electronic interludes. Featuring a chilling cover of House of the Rising Sun and an appearance from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, Relaxer mixes tradition with contemporary and demands a few listens – to untangle what the heck is going on.

Lead single, ‘In Cold Blood’ is easily one of the band’s best songs to date, ranking alongside older hits ‘Tessellate’ and ‘Left Hand Free’ with its intense beats and exhilarating choruses. Also released as a single, 3WW offers an eclectic mix of clashing rhythms, heavy choruses and breathy verses which perfectly introduce the tone of the album. The rogue sounding ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ brings something very different, with lyrics spanning drugs, religion and BDSM but set to a kind of eerie wailing reminiscent of Mario Kart’s ‘Ghost Valley’ race course music. On first listen this is bewildering and creepy, but after a few repeats this reckless commotion becomes fascinating, through that magical skill alt-J have of throwing literally any noises together and producing a masterpiece.

Although Relaxer takes a risky leap away from alt-J’s previous vibe, it just works. This brilliant trio could drop new releases annually and still be in the running for every Album of the Year.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy by Declan Roberts

It is unequivocally known that Josh Tillman is one of the best songwriters around, ever. His moniker as Father John Misty has vastly improved his credentials as he delves into the midst of social injustice, propaganda and globalisation. With these subjects comes enlightenment as Tillman brings a refreshing gaze on his third record, into what could be mere table talk mementos. Gone are the love songs which took up most of the space on Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. What is replacing those songs are decadent stories of struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – particularly ‘Pure Comedy’ and ‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’ sum this up rather well.

FJM’s epic moments feature mostly on 14-minute ballad ‘Leaving LA’ as his cathartic swoon illustrates the world in words unfounded by most of us. His depiction of 2017 is haunting as the acoustic riff provides a platform for pondering modern day issues. There is a short return to love on ‘Smoochie’ and some old age dwelling on ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’ which are respectively poignant and perfect. His tongue in cheek reference of Taylor Swift on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ is Tillman all over, as he criticises the burdening digital age.

Father John Misty is a reflective character which is notable on album closer ‘In Twenty Years or So’ in which he recalls the piano playing from ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ as he enjoys dinner with his wife Emma. As a songwriter Tillman is second to none, as a character FJM is the whole package. Pure Comedy is a record that will stand the test of time and will be remembered as an album which speaks a lot of truth about a dark period of time with not only America but the world also.

Laura Marling – Semper Femina by Phil Jones

I seem to have spent the entirety of 2017 telling people how great Semper Femina is. The record has had such an all-encompassing effect on me that I constantly feel the need to share this wonderful piece of work with everyone I meet in the hopes that it might have a similar effect upon them. Ever since the release of the magnificent sophomore single ‘Wild Fire’ early in the year, to being fortunate enough to hear a few acoustic versions of soon-to-be album highlights, to hearing the record practically in full at a Marling headline show, Semper Femina’s intricate melodies and harmonies have provided utter wonderment to my ears.

Opening with the sparse, trip-hop soundings of ‘Soothing’, Marling provides a masterclass in arrangement through standouts such as ‘The Valley’, ‘Wild Once’ and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. The crowning jewel at the heart of the record is of course the world-beating vocals of Laura Marling, who takes career-best turns on the soon-to-be folk standard ‘Nouel’ and the powerful closing statement ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’. Semper Femina takes all the elements that Marling has built up over her decade-long career and synthesises them into her masterpiece; the lush guitar of Once I Was an Eagle, the laid-back Americanisms of Short Movie, the masterful storytelling of I Speak Because I Can. Laura Marling has crafted what will undoubtedly be 2017’s greatest folk record, and unquestionably one of the decade’s best as a whole.

Lorde – Melodrama by Kirstie Sutherland

It is hard to believe that New Zealand pop songstress Lorde is only 20 years old, having released her critically acclaimed debut Pure Heroine four years ago – who doesn’t remember hearing ‘Royals’ on repeat everywhere for a good year? Following a three-year hiatus after doing what most 16-year-olds only dream of doing, she came storming back last month with the best and perhaps most highly anticipated pop album of the year so far in the form of Melodrama.

Lorde’s sophomore record can probably be best defined as a loose concept album. With most of the material being inspired by a break-up with her long term boyfriend and truly experiencing heartbreak for the first time, Melodrama delves into several parts of the affair, with two core focuses; drunk love and lust in ‘Sober’ and ‘Homemade Dynamite’, with a clear emphasis on just wanting to dance. But also relationships doomed to fail, such as in ‘The Louvre’, with perhaps one of the best, and most tongue-in-cheek lyrics in recent times: “They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back, but who cares? / Still the Louvre.” Her break-up inspiration is evident on tracks like ‘Green Light’ and ‘Hard Feelings’, with the lyrics seeming too sharp and real to be fabricated in a studio. Even more so, she seems to take inspiration from Kate Bush on ‘Writer in the Dark’, with her voice rising several octaves to truly give the song a raw emotion which is often missing from modern pop ballads.

That’s the thing with Lorde. She may have named her record Melodrama after Greek tragedy to give it an over-the-top dramatic edge, but her sophomore record truly is full of emotion, having (literally) poured her broken heart and soul into it. This is clear on ‘Liability’, perhaps the stand-out track on the album. Its stripped bare nature contains self-aware lyrics, reflecting the feelings of someone who seems to have given up following failed relationship after relationship: “I understand, I’m a liability / Get you wild, make you leave / I’m a little much for everyone”. It is stark and no doubt touches everyone who has ever felt they’re not good enough and the reason for a relationship ending, a knack that Lorde just seems to have when it comes to her song-writing prowess.

While Melodrama as a whole is stylistically different to her debut with a much more cohesive alt-pop style, and while she may still be very young, Lorde has proven a second-time around that she is older than her years and can make wise choices when it comes to her follow-up: I give it the green light.

Slowdive – Slowdive by Daisy Edwards

In a constant sea of bands reforming and taking one of two routes – playing the hits until they fade back into insignificance or eventually releasing a new subpar album and again fading back into insignificance – Slowdive are thankfully one of the select minority that have managed to strike onto the third path – releasing a new album that is as good, if not better than everything they did 20 years prior, and easily a contender for one of the best albums of the year so far. Taking their classic shoegaze sound of guitar and reverb fuelled dreamscapes – suggested by the self-titling of the record – and pairing it with more modern ideas and influences from the 2 decades they have been apart, the band’s comeback stands strong against the backdrop of their 90’s trio and is finally getting the acclaim they missed out on at the time. With tracks spanning from the archetypal Slowdive sound (‘No Longer Making Time’) to more burstingly energetic types (‘Star Roving’) and breakdowns of sombre beauty (‘Falling Ashes’), the quintet cover all bases of brilliance, and Slowdive is a record likely to make everyone glad to have them back.

 

 

…Until December.