The 20 Best Albums of 2017by James Belfield
Listener music critic James Belfield picks his best releases of the year.
Melodrama was more than simply a smartly conceived, beautifully curated album that danced around any potential sophomore-effort pitfalls – it also proved Lorde is a driven young woman who’s become a force internationally. Her end-of-year NZ tour, six NZ Music Awards acceptance speeches and how comfortably she appeared to share a stage with the Prime Minister gave the impression she was seriously enjoying a victory lap that continues into 2018, with Lorde the only female artist up for Album of the Year at next year’s Grammy Awards.
SLEEP WELL BEAST
The National have made an 18-year career out of stirring, melancholic rock, but their seventh full-lengther introduced moments of anxious electronica to the driving, chiming guitars and Matt Berninger’s brooding, antsy vocals. Like a hoppy craft ale, the National can be a little heavy for some, but Sleep Well Beast was definitely the work of master brewers.
Last year’s Singing Saw put Kevin Morby on America’s country-folk map, so it was a bit of a surprise when he drove straight off Highway 61 into the more urban surroundings of City Music, with its harsher, more Velvet Underground-inspired songs of skyscrapers and grime. Thankfully, Morby’s storytelling style survived its trip to the concrete jungle and proved he’s more than a one-trick pony.
Intense, quirky and sold with a captivating, edgy theatricality, Aldous Harding’s second album, Party, had the ability to unnerve its audience with its gothic folk stories of childish purity and twisted innocence. The Lyttelton artist also had the prescience to get PJ Harvey’s go-to man John Parish on board as producer; his handling of grinding sax and pounding pianos provided an urgent soundscape for Harding’s achingly beautiful vocals.
Despite opening with a sprinkling of his Led Zep past on The May Queen, Robert Plant’s decision to drop LA for the more bucolic surroundings of the Welsh borders inspired an inventive 11th solo outing, which swirled around Middle Eastern instruments, driving, visceral blues grooves, North African rhythms and the odd foray into brooding electronica. Oh, and a great psych-rockabilly duet of Bluebirds Over the Mountain with Chrissie Hynde.
OUT OF SILENCE
The live-streamed Roundhead Studio sessions created the buzz, but Out of Silence proved to be a masterful mix of poised, haunted orchestration and some of Neil Finn’s most poignant songwriting, epitomised by the tension between intimate observation and grand themes of war, terrorism and ageing on Widow’s Peak, Terrorise Me and Chameleon Days.
It took 22 years for UK indie blisspop darlings Slowdive to re-form but only a few chords of opener Slomo for fans to recognise again those angelic drones, chiming reverb, swirling, unintelligible vocals and soaring, ethereal guitars. Shoegaze has its new generation with bands such as Auckland’s Fazerdaze, but Slowdive was a glorious, grown-up and emotional return for its original pioneers.
While we were waiting for Björk’s new album, Utopia, her Venezuelan-born, London-based producer-in-arms Alejandro Ghersi brought out his third album of ground-breaking electronica under his Arca nom de plume. Björk also prompted him to add his own ad-libbed vocals to the insectoid whips, beats and scratches, and the Spanish quasi-religious tones took his music in an even more challenging direction.
A flash of reinvention from Canadian indie-rock giants Arcade Fire saw them ask Pulp’s Steve Mackey and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter to help take their fifth album back to the dance floor – and the result was a wry musical lightness that grooved and glitched its way around their themes.
SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW
Steve Earle & the Dukes
Justin Townes Earle visited our shores this year to tour his hard-life album Kids in the Street, but his outlaw dad Steve proved he’s still the grittier, rockier of the two. So You Wannabe an Outlaw told tales of jail time and lost loves, and ground them through Earle’s asphalt vocal cords.
Father John Misty
Josh Tillman used to be a drummer; he’s co-written with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga; and he’s not too coy to mix influences from musical theatre, soft rock, church hymns and 70s LA schmaltz. But the genius of Pure Comedy was in Tillman allowing his Father John Misty persona to dress as a Shakespearean fool and use painful self-mockery as a way to address the clichéd horror-show of post-Trump capitalism and the Hollywood entertainment industry.
Naming an album that panders relentlessly to geeky nostalgia American Dream said a great deal about why James Murphy ended LCD Soundsystem’s six-year retirement. Among the familiar disco beats and dance-floor bangers, Murphy slid in references to Lou Reed, David Bowie, New York punk and Brat Pack movie synthesisers – and still managed to produce 70 minutes of pulsating club music.
When Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s third album mixed his incredible jazz bass with spaceman-soul and RnB vocals, it created a seriously performance-based virtuoso vibe – but when he then invited current-day superstars such as Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell and ageing where-are-they-nows Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins along for the ride, it showed he’s all about the music.
UK vocalist Sampha built a career through cameos on Frank Ocean, Kanye, SBTRKT, Drake and Solange albums, but his honest and deeply personal debut album used his outstanding RnB voice to deal directly with family loss and bereavement. His Powerstation show in winter also proved the likelihood that he’s ready to step up to stadiums and serious stardom.
Nadia Reid’s follow-up to 2014’s Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs was a more musically adventurous outing for the Port Chalmers singer-songwriter. Preservation retained Reid’s characteristically honest, gently raw lyrics but introduced bolder, more colourful, more creative pop production that has springboarded her to greater levels of international recognition.
Wellington three-piece the Nudge delved deep into the waves, layers and grooves of pure psychedelic rock for their first outing in five years. Adding to what has been a year of stunning live work, Ryan Prebble, Iraia Whakamoe and James Coyle have now proven they’re just as masterful in the studio, thanks to this epic, progressive album that mixes primitive, tribal rhythms with funk grooves and warped, classically psyched-out tunes. Utterly danceable.
I SEE YOU
Although the xx are undisputed millennial indie darlings, much of the beauty of their long-awaited third album, I See You, came from the poppier production and Romy Madley Croft’s uncannily similar vocals to Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn. Add in the production smarts that Jamie Smith learnt from his outstanding 2015 solo offering In Colour, and the xx hit smooth new heights.
Having pushed progressive hip-hop towards jazz and groove on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar unleashed his inner demons on the furious rap-ranting DAMN. Storytelling his way out of Compton has seen Lamar become the undisputed heavyweight hip-hop artist of his generation, but DAMN. (he even owns all-caps and odd punctuation better than his president) takes his streetwise philosophy to a fresh new level.
Queens of the Stone Age
Loving a hard-rocking album that’s been produced by a disco wizard such as Mark Ronson may seem like a guilty pleasure, but QOTSA’s swagger has always lent itself to the dance floor. Ronson wasn’t in full Uptown Funk mode on Villains, and Josh Homme enjoyed mixing in a little smirking devil worship to ensure QOTSA retained their bad-boy credentials – but there’s no denying this seventh full-lengther is a blast.
SOUL OF A WOMAN
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
After a run of rock-and-roll deaths in which the dearly departed used their final work as a kind of auto-obituary (think David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker), Soul of a Woman carried added poignancy for sticking to what Sharon Jones always did best – God’s-honest, vintage soul. Recorded over the two years before her death from pancreatic cancer in November last year, this is a joyful, celebratory album that revels in horns, gospel and good times.
This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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