Writing this top 10 feels like the end of something and the beginning of a different approach to albums. Due to a growing disillusionment with the current state of the music industry and too many good-but-rarely great releases, I’ve decided for 2018 I’ll take a hiatus from new music, preferring to spend time catching up with the classics from stronger eras. There is one exception, I am looking forward to Jack White’s upcoming solo album Boarding House Reach, mainly because of my fondness for 2014’s Lazaretto. Other than that, I will enjoy not having to keep up with everything. You’ve only got one life, and I want to be smart about my choices.
2017 was a year I struggled to compile ten great albums, and it was only thanks to a few wonderful late discoveries (Foxygen, Curtis Harding, Alex Cameron, and Aimee Mann), that this post actually grew into a top 10. Honestly, without that December push, it would have been a top 5. I can safely say that all ten albums listed are worth your time. The honorable mentions are pretty good too.
A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
Album of the year, and will take something special to knock it off the top spot. To be honest, not a great leap forward in terms of their sound, similar heartland rock as their previous. But they do it so well. Shouldn’t have doubted the band could equal 2014’s Lost in a Dream. Nothing to Find is the best of the non-singles. Probably could have ended after Thinking of a Place, but nice to have the rest as bonus material.
The Ooz by King Krule
Album of the year contender. Archy Marshall is only three albums into his career (including his non-King Krule LP). For me, he is lyricist of the year and The Ooz could well be his magnum opus.
2013’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (which I recently revisited) is beautifully written anxiety-filled poetry about faltering relationships and girl trouble, yet if you had to point to its weaknesses, the storytelling is unvaried, and lacks memorable songs.
The Ooz feels like a step up, more ambitious in its scope, going for a richness in the lyrical content, while taking his sound to new, interesting places.
The opening line “I seem to sink lower” is an indication of what to expect. His music isn’t for everyone and evades typical genre classification. Melancholy, introspective art rock/jazz/spoken word is what you could label it as. His vocal style is definitely one-of-a-kind. A gloomy album to put on when you’re in the right mood. As opposed to fast paced hip hop, Marshall’s deliberately slow, sad vocal delivery allows the listener time to reflect, and there’s a timelessness to the lyrics and emotions. Thematically dealing with topics such as loneliness, insomnia, drugs, childhood trauma, heartbreak, depression.
Weaknesses, there are minor tracks here such as (A Slide In) New Drugs, and 66 minutes and 19 tracks in one sitting is a bit excessive for this type of dark music. Requires an investment for the music to be moving and impactful.
Hang by Foxygen
A retro 70s sound, big, lush and orchestral. I really couldn’t tell it’s contemporary. Looking at the credit list, a lot of musicians brought this ambitious project to life, and at only 32 minutes, the result is one of the most replayable and focused albums of 2017. Tracks 1-4 and the inspiring closer Rise Up are especially well done.
Face Your Fear by Curtis Harding
Retro soul. I’m not a soul aficionado by any means, I found Curtis Harding’s sophomore effort to be well-crafted and easy to enjoy. Lots of solid tunes so you wonder why he isn’t a bigger name. I’ve read the modern retro-soul scene is a crowded place, so maybe that’s why he hasn’t got the attention. An album that I only discovered by chance thanks to a Twitter recommendation. Most of the titles speak for themselves, though Wednesday Morning Atonement is about neglecting your children. Best: On and On, Till the End, Welcome to My World, As I Am
Forced Witness by Alex Cameron
Synthpop from new-to-me Australian artist Alex Cameron. Forced Witness is his second album. Has become a cliché for today’s performers to try and recapture the 80s, but he does it very well, with catchy pop hooks and a little bit of Springsteen and The Killers. Tracks 1-4 are especially memorable. There’s a dip in quality on the second half. The depiction of women as objects of pleasure (The Chihuahua) can be off-putting, but apparently his lyrics are supposed to be taken ironically. Arguably the best pop album of 2017. Good escapist entertainment, easy to listen to.
Mental Illness by Aimee Mann
Follows the template of her popular soundtrack to Magnolia. A heartbreaking acoustic album, and while can appear a little samey musically from track-to-track, there are plenty of ideas and tangents she explores.
About homesickness(Goose Snow Cone), regret(Stuck In the Past), abandonment(You Never Loved Me ), wanting to find escape (Rollercoasters), a bipolar friend who is pathological liar and presumably an explanation of the album name(Lies of Summer), the pitfalls of working in the entertainment industry(Patient Zero), alcoholism(Philly Sinks), walking away as a solution (Simple Fix), a relationship driven by poor judgement(Poor Judge)
Life Will See You Now by Jens Lekman
Lekman’s lyrics generally are playful and the humor is subtle, he’s quoted as saying humor is “a good way of telling a story, a good way of communication”. The dance pop production is a departure from the sound on his previous albums. For example he samples the beats off Ralph MacDonald’s The Path.
He boldly disses 90s recording artists on the opener To Know Your Mission. Evening Prayer is a strangely upbeat song about a tumor. How We Met the Long Version a tongue-in-cheek exploration of how our relationships can be traced backward. Postcard #17 about fears. How Can I Tell Him is about a bromance. Wedding in Finistère taps into the worry you might have about the future. Less original are songs such as What’s That Perfume You Wear? and Our First Fight, which contain some generic writing.
Overall though, the album won me over.
A few lyrics made me chuckle: “If you’re gonna write a song about this then please don’t make it a sad song”
Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series Soundtrack
The soundtrack for season 3 of Twin Peaks. The set includes 3-4 tracks from the early 90s. Badalamenti’s new score is juxtapositioned with various artists from past and present.
I do like some of the new instrumentals, especially Windswept by Johnny Jewel, Heartbreaking, The Chair, The Fireman, and Saturday (Instrumental) by Chromatics. Nice to have Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima on here too, used during the atomic bomb sequence from Episode 8. The new stuff isn’t as distinctive as Badalamenti’s best work, but it feels like Twin Peaks music, is competently made, atmospheric, and sometimes quite moving.
If you have to choose between buying Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series Soundtrack or the instrumental album Windswept by Johnny Jewel, I’d pick the former.
Science Fiction by Brand New
A critically acclaimed and commercially successful return by a band who had not released a studio album since 2009’s Daisy. The Nirvana-esque 137 is very good, and Same Logic/Teeth stayed with me. There’s some quite beautiful guitar work on tracks such as In The Water, Desert, and 451. The melancholy closing ballad Batter Up is the album’s most emotionally affecting moment.
This album is closer to rock than what I understand as Emo. Perhaps you need to be a fan of the band to fully appreciate what they are saying here on their allegedly final LP. I don’t have context or nostalgia for the group’s discography. Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey apologizing for sexual misconduct in November soured my respect for the singer, but I still hold it as one of the best releases of 2017.
Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
Inspired by the mystery and history of the Chateau Marmont, Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp fame in the 90s) has a way with words that conjures images in your mind.
Tracks like Room 29, Salomé, The Other Side, and A Trick of the Light address television and what it does to us. The latter is the album’s longest and my personal favorite. There are also a number of references to the Golden Age of Hollywood, which I found interesting as a film buff.
The Quietus wrote: “The hotel is the thematic link that runs throughout the record, with pithy perspectives of events that took place there”.
Probably the most memorable of these lounge/piano tunes is Tearjearker, which hints at a soullessness and un-lived-in-ness of hotels: ”These surfaces are shiny. Anything wipes off them. These surfaces are hard. Nothing seems to mark them”. Yet you could also imagine the surfaces he speaks of are about the human condition, how hard our exterior is to outside influences.
Some listeners may feel the album at times is bordering on boring and non-music, with its spoken-word and sparse arrangements. I look at it as a welcome change of direction, Jarvis’ vocal suits this low-key collaboration well. An album that will still be relevant in 20 years and with piano instrumentals that won’t age. Wickerman is among my favorite Pulp songs, so Jarvis’ spoken word singing was just the ticket for me.
Plunge by Fever Ray
Everything Now by Arcade Fire
Utopia by Björk
The Far Field by Future Islands
Slowdive by Slowdive
Have you heard any of the albums mentioned here and what did you think? Have I encouraged you to listen to any? Which are your favorite albums of 2017? As always, comments are welcome.