The List 2017
At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.
- Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 3
As I write this Kendrick Lamar’s Damn is topping year-end lists left and right and I’m wondering what I missed on an album I just didn’t connect with. Of the hip-hop that passed through my headphones this year I had a good time with Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory, really liked Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (but spent too little time with it), and bounced off most of the big hitters to one degree or another: as well as Damn, Jay-Z’s lukewarm 4:44 and Drake’s More Life did little for me, and I’ve never clicked with the Migos thing.
That leaves room for only one rap record on this year’s list, but it’s a doozy. RTJ remain a complete enigma to me: I don’t know how they came together, I don’t know why they give every record away instead of selling them, and I don’t know why their combo of braggadocio, political engagement, and downright silliness works (this is a mix that only seems to work in hip-hop, with Beastie Boys as perhaps the flag-bearers) — I’m just grateful for it all.
Highlight: ‘Legend Has It’ is one of my most quoted songs of the year (for better or worse). It’s just the right mix of all the magic elements that make RTJ special. The moment when El P’s girlfriend interrupts to stop him completing one particularly crude line makes me smile, if not laugh, every time.
- Portico Quartet — Art in the Age of Automation
There were three records this year that I returned to time and again for a dose of calm, reflective ambience: one didn’t quite make the list (Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River), one is further up this list, and the latest from Portico Quartet is the third. Once again a four-piece following the departure of founding member Nick Mulvey and one record as a trio (renamed, simply Portico), AitAoA finds the band taking another progressive step with their sound. When they took 8th spot on my list in 2012 (with their eponymous LP), I ended my write-up by saying I was excited to see what was next. Actually, 2015’s Living Fields didn’t quite chime for me — essentially an electronica album, with some guest vocals I could live without, it felt like a band deliberately trying to make a clean break with the past, and ignoring their strengths to do so. This year’s record (following the addition to the roster of Kier Vine) feels like a very deliberate further sonic evolution, which brings back the more organic instrumentation and cuts the vocals. It’s precisely what I wanted from the follow up to Portico Quartet, and perhaps their strongest album to date.
Highlight: ‘Current History’ takes as its base an effervescent, Amnesiac-style percussion pattern and layers tones and loops on top.
- Death From Above — Outrage! Is Now
Here’s something I wrote when DFA’s The Physical World took top spot in my list for 2014:
It’s been a long decade since that incredible debut, and the mere existence of this second record is something like a miracle; that it lives up to the standard of the first record is a second-order miracle; and that it also finds ways to evolve the band’s unmistakable sound without sacrificing its authenticity or its power is a kind of compound triptych miracle.
Who knows what kind of albums this band could have made in the decade-long interval between their studio debut and its follow-up? Perhaps it took that time, and the up & down intra-bandmate relationship, to make that second record. Whatever the case, I’m glad we didn’t have to wait so long for a third LP.
Sebastien Grainger is a great drummer and Jesse F. Keeler is a great bassist; both have a great ear for infectious hooks, and they share a willingness to push their compositions as far as they’ll go: harder, faster, heavier, groovier. Perhaps the least talked about weapon in the band’s arsenal is Grainger’s voice; it’s a passionate, vaulting, wonderfully tuneful thing that serves as a solid third pillar in their song-craft.
Outrage! Is Now sounds like DFA. It sounds like someone lent them a couple of synths, but it’s unmistakably the same racket they made on the previous records. And man does it still get me!?
Highlight: ‘Nvr 4Evr’ is classic DFA; the kind of track that bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club wish they’d written.
- Beck — Colors
Do you remember that part in Superman Returns where Lex Luther explains to Kitty Kowalski that crystals take on the properties of the elements that surround them? I feel that Beck operates in a similar fashion: whatever given sound or vibe he turns his attention to, he’s able to produce music that feels authentic. Sometimes it’s meditative (eg. Sea Change (2002)), sometimes a little sombre (eg. Morning Phase (2014)), and sometimes poppy and easygoing (eg. Odelay (1996) & Guero (2005)). And no matter which category he’s playing in, Beck’s consistently doing something interesting with it. Whether it’s Brazilian influences on Guero, or the hip-hop touches to The Information (2006), Beck is a restlessly inventive artist in the same mould as Madonna or Björk (perhaps it’s something to do with the mononyms?). Colors is Beck in full-on pop assault mode. And he’s happy to pull from anywhere and everywhere to make it happen. Shamelessly detuned guitars and anthemic choruses; jaunty Beatles-esque piano; ’No Distraction’ sounds like Sting collaborating with The Killers. In sum it’s the same trick that Daniel Johns et al managed to pull off with Young Modern (2007): the making of a pop album on one’s own artistic terms. It’s not quite as strange (or as sublime) as that Silverchair record, but both are unmistakably the work of diversely-talented musicians making a direct assault on whatever part of the brain responds to catchy pop music.
Highlight: The panpipe melody that runs through title track ‘Colors’ — anything that can make me love the sound of an instrument I previously hated has to be doing something right.
- The xx — I See You
To my ears the third album from The xx sounds like a natural progression of a sound that started off very simple and somewhat reserved, and has blossomed into a form somewhat brighter, self-assured, and colourful. It’s only natural, in fact, that the band’s third album as a trio takes notes from In Colour, Jamie xx’s vibrant, dance-floor friendly solo album of 2015 (#8 on that year’s List). The blaring horns that start the record were called out by several reviewers as a shock departure for The xx’s sound; but the shock was far less if you’d allowed Jamie’s solo LP to work its magic on you a couple of years previously.
All of which is not to say that I See You sounds entirely different from its predecessors. The heart of the record is still the haunted, sleek blend of trip-hop and the lighter side of the EDM spectrum. And the songwriting is still coming from somewhere intensely personal. It’s not necessary to know about the friction between bandmates that sits behind tracks like ‘Say Something Loving’, and ‘Test Me’ in order to feel that these are songs crafted by people who felt them intensely.
Highlight: ‘On Hold’ seemed a bit divisive when it was released ahead of the album, as it calls out the departures that The xx’s sound was taking on the record. Some reacted with shock or disappointment, but I was onboard immediately.
- Submerse — Are You Anywhere
For my money Are You Anywhere represents as strong a set of tracks as Submerse has released since I’ve been listening to him, starting with Slow Waves — which was my number 5 album of 2014. (Stay Home just missed out on a spot in 2015, and in 2016 he grabbed 13th for Awake.) Both the mix of organic & electronic elements, and the dazed-sounding production, are familiar from previous albums, and the spell that’s cast here is just as effective on me as ever.
In four albums and a couple of EPs over the last four years Submerse hasn’t really made much of a departure from his core sound. However, it’s a sound that I can’t get enough of, and my only complaint here is that 31 minutes is too short a time to spend in this sonic space.
Highlight: ‘Too Many Sidequests’ makes use of Submerse’s knack for incorporating video game sound effects into alien soundscapes.
- INHEAVEN — INHEAVEN
What happened to The Subways? Wikipedia says they’re still extant, but nothing’s been released in 5 years, and I don’t remember hearing anything in nearly a decade. Anyway: INHEAVEN have made a pretty great record in the same mould, with perhaps a bit more Pixies influence (hence the name, I guess), and a bit more lightness in its step. It’s loud, it’s brash, and it’s unashamedly fun more-or-less from start to finish.
Songs like ‘Treats’ & ‘Vulture’ are designed for chanting along to, and I can’t listen to them without imagining what they would do to the front half of Brixton Academy. But this is a band that does have at least one gear above ‘simple crowd-pleasing stomper’ and it’s telling that several of the tracks here very quickly feel as though you’ve known them for a long time.
Highlight: ‘Stupid Things’ is half sickly-sweet pop song and half tender-hearted confession.
- Toro y Moi — Boo Boo
Chaz Bear took fourth spot in 2015 with What For?, and it’s largely the same formula of dreamy tones, soft beats, and lightly-treated vocals that has him back on the list this time. ‘Mirage’ kicks off the album as it means to go on, and when it pauses three minutes in for Chaz to intone “Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there”, I 100% believe that this music is just the soundtrack to his life, and we’re just showing up to peep in for another 50 minute dose.
The sound palate that Boo Boo shares with What For? is pretty singular — it’s identifiable within a couple of bars as TyM — and, as such, it’s likely to be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Personally I find the relaxed, pastel-infused vibes on these records to be borderline medicinal.
Highlight: ‘Girl Like You’ sounds like an 80s chart pop song (which I absolutely do not intend as a pejorative) fed through Chaz’s particular filter, and it comes out sounding no less sweet but perhaps a bit more interesting.
- Charly Bliss — Guppy
Remember that dog. (mandatory lower case and full stop) — 90s grunge-influenced, optimismcore / original recipe emo LA outfit who released at least one and maybe two masterpieces on Geffen? There’s still a part of me that identifies strongly with late 90s cartoon misanthrope Daria, and in that guise I love both that dog. and, now, Charly Bliss. They’re from the other coast, and they’re 20 years late, but there’s no doubting they’re playing from the heart, and maybe that’s all you need to rekindle an old sound. It certainly worked on me instantly; there are guitar sounds on this record I haven’t heard since Pinkerton and, turns out, I’ve been missing them dearly.
Infectious; exuberant; wilfully, naively upbeat… I need more of this sound in my life. There’s not much depth to what’s on offer here, but there doesn’t have to be. At least for a couple of records let’s just close our eyes and pretend it’s a couple of decades ago.
Highlight: ‘Ruby’ just might be my favourite song of the year. Pixies bass, vintage Weezer guitar, and one of the album’s best lilting, acrobatic vocals. If you’ll forgive the pun, it’s kind of blissful.
- Shigeto — The New Monday
When I grow up I want to be Jason Heyward, five-time Gold Glove winner and flawless right-fielder for the Chicago Cubs. One of the many problems with that is that Heyward is eight years younger than me. So my second choice is Zachary Shigeto Saginaw. (I’m pretty sure Shigeto is also younger than me, but I don’t know that for a fact!)
My first Shigeto record was No Better Time Than Now, 17th spot on this list for 2013, and I’ve been captivated ever since by his particular blend of electronica, hip-hop, and jazz. He’s endlessly inventive, effortlessly cool, and seemingly always able to capture a new sound or put a new spin on an old one. He’s also a ridiculous drummer. (I highly recommend watching some videos of his live performances.)
The New Monday is right up there with No Better Time… for me. I’m still listening to the earlier record, and I have no trouble believing I’ll still be playing this in five years.
Highlight: Opener ‘Detroit Pt II’ is an evolution of one of No Better Time Than Now’s strongest tracks: ‘Detroit Pt I’.
(Side note: Shigeto isn’t flawless. He put out another record this year as a duo with vocalist ZelooperZ, as ZGTO. I did not get on with that album at all! Still, even Jason Heyward drops a ball now and then.)
- Paramore — After Laughter
On 2013’s list I excused Paramore’s inclusion at number 12 by joking that I am, in fact, a 15-year old girl. Quite why one tends to feel some form of guilt or shame for liking certain things, I don’t know. So in that spirit, though I might like to make another joke, I have to hold my hand up now and say that this band makes really good pop-rock albums, and I love them without reservation.
There is likely nothing here to win over new fans. But, that said, there are some new departures in terms of sound. Overall the instrumentation feels more heavily weighted to electronic drums and synths where it would have been more uniformly guitars previously. Several of the tracks have a synthy, 80s vibe to them, telegraphed upfront by the Kraftwerk outro to opener ‘Hard Times’. Hayley Williams’s voice remains the group’s distinguishing factor, and is in fine form throughout here: by turns angry, soothing, empowered & empowering, and never less than note-perfect.
More of this please. Thanks.
Highlight: ‘Fake Happy’ begins as an acoustic sketch and blossoms into a Cyndi Lauper-esque stomper straight from the heart.
- Arcade Fire — Everything Now
I don’t know how they do it, but every time a new Arcade Fire album comes out I go through a period of disappointment, which lasts a few listens, before ultimately it wins me over completely and captures top spot on my year-end list. Well, everything except the final part of that process happened this time around also.
I think there’s something about AF’s music that has this polarising effect on listeners. Spin called Everything Now “deeply cynical” and “joyless”; Pitchfork termed it “pale” and “joyless”, and yet I honestly don’t know what they’re hearing that I’m not, or what I’m hearing that they’re not. There are at least three tracks here that rank among the most musically euphoric the band have ever recorded. Which is maybe why just as many reviewers gave opinions similar to that of Slant, who thought Everything Now “by far Arcade Fire’s most upbeat… album to date”.
It’s one thing to disagree on the quality of an album, but in my experience this level of disparity on something like a record’s tone is very unusual. Maybe this is a band that makes emotionally confusing music, that takes the listener a while to catch up to. In short, this is still a band without a bad song in their catalogue. ‘Everything Now’, ‘Creature Comfort’, and ‘Put Your Money on Me’ are some of the best songs they’ve recorded, and yet this is their weakest album as a whole. After White Blood Cells and Elephant sometimes there’s an Icky Thump; after OK Computer and Kid A you’re allowed to make The King of Limbs. In both cases, as here, those are very strong records outshone by all their siblings.
Highlight: The slow build of the ABBA-indebted ‘Put Your Money on Me’ is masterly. How something can sound simultaneously sad and like an 80s disco classic is… confusing.
- Lusine — Sensorimotor
Back in March I was taking an early morning flight to the UK. It was due to depart Iceland at just after 06:00, which meant arriving at the airport sometime around 04:00; and to get to the airport there’s a ~45 minute coach ride from Reykjavik. That’s too early to pay attention to a podcast, or to concentrate on a book under some tiny, ineffective reading light. So I pressed play on a record I’d added to my library simply because I add everything that Ghostly International release to my library. It seems probable to me that Sensorimotor will always remind me of that drive out to the airport in the early morning dark. That’s just what the album sounds like to me now. The backbone of the record is a collection of bass beats and superior electronic sweeps. Out of which are composed a series of haunted sonic landscapes that feel monochromatic and restless, like a brain roused too early from sleep it would prefer to return to.
Highlight: ‘Slow Motion’ is a bundle of nervous energy laid over a kick that sounds like a skipping heartbeat.
- Four Tet — New Energy
I’ve been listening to Four Tet now for a little less than 15 years. In that time there have been some notable shifts in focus for the music that Kieran Hebden is creating. Rounds (2003) was the record that kicked off my interest, and is still held as the epitome of a certain (now possibly extinct?) sub-sub-genre somewhat awkwardly termed ‘folktronica’. Everything Ecstatic (2005) was vibrant and urgent, and in some ways presaged the shift that followed it. There is Love in You (2010) & Pink (2012) felt more like collections of tracks designed for the dance-floor. Not that they weren’t enjoyable coming through headphones or home speakers, just that the records themselves felt a little less cohesive even if they still retained the power to excite and move. This period was capped off with Beautiful Rewind (2013), which felt like the culmination of that particular sound for Hebden. The bifurcated nature of the EP Morning / Evening (2015) was a leading sign of the next shift that Four Tet’s music would take.
To me, even on first listen, New Energy feels like that latest sound’s full arrival. Unmistakably there are call-backs to what has come before — in fact the sound might best be thought of as a seamless amalgamation of everything Four Tet has released to this point. And that’s some feat. This is a complex, multi-layered work that bears repeated listening, but which engages the listener on a very human level. Warm, open, and never less than a joy to listen to.
Highlight: Tough to pick one, but right now the steady, hypnotic ebb of ‘Daughter’ is my favourite. That will change tomorrow.
- St. Vincent — MASSEDUCTION
Annie Clark nabbed second spot in 2014 with her previous, eponymous album; I’ve been waiting impatiently ever since to find out what would come next. The answer, it seems, is another very fine collection of postmodern agit-pop that contains more ideas in each song than many bands have on a record.
For me, there’s no ‘Digital Witness’ here, and perhaps not quite a ‘Birth in Reverse’, but this is one of those cases where comparison purely to the artist’s own catalogue gives a misleading picture. Simply put: not many musicians are making music like Annie Clark. Maybe it feels particularly acute in the post-Bowie / post-Prince world, but I find myself at pains to find and applaud this kind of brave, soul-searching, uncomfortable artistry. St. Vincent is an artist working in rarified air, way up there on the art-rock mountain. I will gladly continue to receive any and every transmission she sends down to us.
Highlight: ’Pills’ is the off-kilter, whirligig result of Clark processing the modern condition, both her own and society’s. It’s wild-eyed and sarcastic, but also compassionate. (I recommend Clark’s appearance on The New Yorker Radio Hour, where she talks about the record and this song in particular.)
- Sampha — Process
I knew Sampha’s voice from no fewer than three 5-star tracks on SBTRKT’s 2014 record Wonder Where We’ll Land (#3 on my list that year), and a feature on Kanye’s ‘Saint Pablo’. Additionally, though the exact vector escapes me now, somehow I heard Sampha’s track ‘Blood on Me’ toward the end of last year, and knew I had to look out for the album. That song has lost none of its power for me, and is surrounded here by immaculate pieces of songwriting that balance strength and tenderness both sonically and lyrically. Warm beats matched with soft tones play host to Sampha’s voice, which is perhaps the album’s most singular instrument as it floats above the music and dips down into it to play amongst the melodies. Throughout it’s a spectacularly accomplished and self-assured debut, clearly the product of a phenomenally talented musician bringing forth precisely the sound that’s in his head.
Highlight: ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is one of those tracks where a musician strips everything back to voice and one instrument and leaves you in awe. As emotionally raw as it is stark in its composition; it’s a striking moment at the centre of the album.
- Fazerdaze — Morningside
There are some albums that you want to live inside. Imbued with warmth and brightness throughout, and a sense of weightless flow, Morningside joins my shortlist. There are elements of shoegaze to the sound, particularly in the way the vocals are treated, but the relative sparseness of the instrumentation and lightness of the production leaves the record feeling open and inviting. It’s notable that several of the tracks get their pace from prominent bass lines that are very effective despite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity. There’s not a great variety to the sound, but the record is only just over the half-hour mark and at ~3 minutes per song it can feel as though each track is a variation on a theme. The result is an understated gem of an indie pop record that I expect to be playing for some time to come.
Highlight: ‘Lucky Girl’ is perhaps the most distilled form of the record’s sound, and eminently danceable.
- Bing & Ruth — No Home of the Mind
I know very little about the artist(s) behind this record, and I realise that I’ve unconsciously been safeguarding that ignorance so as not to spoil the mystique. This is ambient, post-classic music of precisely the kind I feel most in tune with. By turns haunting, uplifting, and meditative, these are pieces of tremendously adroit, understated composition. The piano is at each track’s centre, but is often found drifting in a sea of warm, shifting tones. The more I listened to it I started to feel as though this album sits somewhere halfway between the Radiohead of ‘Videotape’ & ‘Give Up the Ghost’, and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. It’s a more abstracted version of the former, which retains more of its formal integrity than that latter. And, similar to Basinski’s pieces, I’d be quite happy to play this for hours.
Highlight: ‘The How of it Sped’ sounds as though it is accompanying some moment of heartbreak from an unseen film.
- Joywave — Content
I don’t know what to do with this record. It snuck up on me. Joywave have one previous album to their name, which remains unknown to me because I have enough on my plate trying to digest this one.
Comprising an eclectic sound palate (including, but not limited to: math rock, electronica, dance, soul…) Content is mercurial in the extreme. The post-nu-metal riff that closes the otherwise danceable paean to lost innocence ‘Rumors’ doesn’t belong on the same album as the quiet, solo-piano lament of ‘Confidence’. But they’re actually sequenced right next to each other. And the latter is 48 seconds long. And it works! There are obvious allusions to Radiohead circa OK Computer (1997) here, but Joywave occupy a dancier, groovier space than the Oxford set. Lyrically though, they’re dealing with similar themes — technology and its effect on humanity, feelings of self-doubt and loss of self-worth — and, being something like 25 years younger, coming at them from a different point of view.
I find this record fascinating, and this band very exciting if they’re going to keep making music this inventive and urgent.
Highlight: ‘Going to a Place’ sounds like Keane got trapped in another dimension and sent a cry for help… and then it completely switches up half-way through and becomes something transportive.
- Jay Som — Everybody Works
Not infrequently it still amazes me what can come out of one person’s bedroom. Speaking personally for a moment, as someone who has spent the past year coming to terms with their own artistic limitations, it’s nothing short of astounding to me that one person, skilled in the use of the tools of a craft, can bring something as beautiful as Everybody Works forth from nothing.
I could list some presumed influences on this record (shoegaze & post-rock for example) but there’s at least a half-dozen distinct genres in the blend here. The result is an album that feels truly singular and of a piece to me: a 36 minute work of artistic expression, filled with human warmth, colour, and feeling.
Highlight: ‘One More Time, Please’ is a perfect microcosm of the record in some respects. A disarming vocal, shining keys, and subtle low-key percussion, which all builds to a crescendoing guitar solo. Every note of every instrument performed by a 22 year old in her bedroom, sending something remarkable out into the world.
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