Thanks to streaming, I listened to more new music this year than ever before. And so even though this list is twice as long as last year’s, these 20 albums feel like only the bare essentials, the absolute best of the best. Somehow I haven’t found room for albums as excellent as those by Kelly Lee Owens, Slowdive, Destroyer, Feist, Big Thief, Jay Som. Any one of those would have probably broken into my top ten last year. But hey. Too much good music: that’s not a terrible problem to have.
It’s fashionable to bash them, but I love year end lists. Re-listening to each of these records, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would choose over another if I had to: this is what being a music nerd is all about. Loving and obsessing over music. And I love reading other people’s lists, too, the more personal and different to mine the better. So while I made this list mostly for my own enjoyment, I also hope you’ll find something new to listen to because of it. Read the descriptions, find something you don’t know that sounds appealing, and give it a try.
As an addendum, I’ve also made a short list of overlooked/underrated albums that didn’t make the list proper. These wouldn’t necessarily be numbers 21-30 (though a few would, along with the albums mentioned above) but are simply albums I haven’t seen on other lists, or that I feel deserved some extra attention. Check that out here. And check out the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, with a choice cut from each of these 20 albums. OK, enough preamble, here we go…
20. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology
First up are three albums inspired by interplanetary space travel. The first is this psychedelic gem from Jane Weaver, which builds infectious pop songs out of motorik rhythms and komische synths, in a way that will appeal to fans of similarly cosmic-minded groups like Broadcast, Stereolab and Belbury Poly. (That is, people like me). There are touches of krautrock, library music, vintage-sounding electronic experimentation. Can’s Malcolm Mooney even shows up on ‘Ravenspoint’ to deliver a strange monologue about how we’re all “on our way to… dust”. But these are easy songs to like, melodic and breezy, delicate even, and never overstuffed with sounds or effects. They’re kept light and aerodynamic, so that they might take off into the stratosphere.
19. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz
Quazarz is a set of twin albums exploring (in a fairly loose sense) the concept of an intergalactic alien being who arrives on earth and is baffled by our addiction to technology. So far, so out there. But in fact, this is maybe Shabazz Palace’s easiest album to get into, in that it unfurls at a fairly relaxed pace, and is far too languorous and sprawling to demand anything other than casual, exploratory listening. It splits the difference between the most ambitious musical statement an act can make, the double album (with its 1970s associations of intricacy, pomposity and grandeur), and the most slapdash and raw and immediate, the rap mixtape. Quazarz isn’t quite either, but finds a strange middle ground between the two, and the result is Shabazz’s least essential but also most fun and lively body of work; indeed, on highlights like ’30 Clip Extension’, ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘Welcome to Quazarz’, they’re as dazzling as they’ve ever been.
18. Hannah Peel – Mary Casio
This beautiful, singular record describes (sonically) the journey of an old woman from the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley who decides to travel into space to try and see Cassiopeia. It combines analogue synthesisers with a full 29-piece traditional colliery brass band, producing a unique combination of textures, one that reminds me a little of Dan Deacon’s more classically-minded work, as on the back half of America. The music is, in all senses of the word, dreamy: it has this incredible sense of will, of the title character resolutely following her ridiculous dream. A spectacular journey is described here, but it’s never clear if it’s a journey though space or through the mind; whether the constellations are of stars or of neurons.
17. PC Worship – Buried Wish
I am obsessed with junk art and visionary environments, and Buried Wish sounds like a punk record scraped together from loose detritus, assembled from scratch, from scrap metal. Saxophones wail at dawn, rain falls on an empty moon. Rivers run sideways through trash and dead flowers. All the guitars are a little detuned, a little off. ‘Back of My $$$’ absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel, thick with scuzz and dirt; the tape sounds completely destroyed. ‘Help’ has these demented, descending wails that remind me of Liars, crying through a backdrop of atonal string scrawl and prickly bits of out-of-tune guitar. But there is just enough song at any one point to keep you rummaging through – all the junk shaped into melodies without losing its essential quality as junk.
16. The National – Sleep Well Beast
With Sleep Well Beast, The National quietly evolved to make their best album since Boxer, expanding, rather than tearing up, their basic approach. All the hallmarks of classic National are there: the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitar lines, the almost imperceptible mesh of rock instrumentation with strings and horns (seriously, this is their secret ingredient: no one else does it better), Brian Devendorf’s kinetic drumming (their other secret ingredient), Matt Berninger’s lyrics (their other other secret, or not-so-secret, ingredient). But new innovations lick around the edges of the songs: electronics flicker like dying lightbulbs, echo chambers bounce slithers of melody into hypnotic new shapes. Most importantly, though, the songs are all great: twin highlights ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, especially, but also the lovely ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ and the raucous ‘Turtleneck’. And ‘Empire Line’, too. Oh, and ‘Born to Beg’. OK, well, all of them.
15. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Throw almost every touchstone of 20th century art rock into a blender, lace with anxiety, depression, cocaine and bravado, and hey presto, American Dream. This is all about the execution: every tiny, fine detail sounds laboured and obsessed over, perfected. Nowhere is this more apparent than highlight ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which spends 3 minutes and 38 seconds building tension with little more than some rumbling, distant drums, Murphy calling out into the void, before that big, dumb synth line comes in and pounds three notes like a headache for a whole minute, its insistent force begging for something more complex to counter it, until finally, at the 4.45 mark, the melody’s exploded and bent into all these wonderfully kinetic fragments, pulled about all over the place, with a sense of intense satisfaction and playfulness. The whole thing is so engrossing that – even on a fourth or fifth listen – I forget there hasn’t really been a beat yet, and it catches me by surprise when the drums-proper come in at 5.14, and the vocal hook almost exactly a minute later, to produce a late-blooming slice of disco perfection, cowbell and synth-strings all.
14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
DAMN. is at once both tighter and punchier than jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly, yet messier and more flawed as well. It is simultaneously a spiritual album, and a gritty, corporeal one. The album is structured around these contradictory impulses, moving dialectically between unresolved oppositions: heaven and earth, ‘Love’ and ‘Lust’, a proud-sounding tune called ‘Humble’ against a humble-sounding tune called ‘Pride’. Then there is the whole playing-it-forwards-or-backwards thing, which would be gimmicky if it didn’t work so well at formally encapsulating the themes of time, choice and chance that Lamar explores on opener/closer ‘Blood’ and closer/opener ‘Duckworth’. But the real thrill, as always, is hearing Kendrick rap, which reminds me more than anything else of Coltrane playing the sax – he just takes flight.
13. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
Everything about Painted Ruins is dense and knotty. It is sequenced almost breathlessly, crescendoing, yes, but never bubbling down to anything less than a rolling boil. Every song is stuffed full of ideas and intricate moving parts. Whether it would be better if it opened up and breathed a bit more is up for debate, but there is a great deal of beauty and craft here, and, taken individually, perhaps the best batch of songs they’ve ever written. ‘Three Rings’ is my second favourite song of the year, twisting and thrashing its way towards a glorious pay-off; it contains everything I love about this band. ‘Systole’ is a late highlight, too, with the unexpected surprise of Chris Taylor on vocals, and the revelation that there are at least three great singers in this band of four unfairly talented musicians. You can hear the individual personalities of each of them (Bear’s expressive drumming, Droste’s choirboy harmonies) but they work together in perfect harmony. That’s the rare mark of a great band.
12. Juana Molina – Halo
Halo, as its freaky cover art suggests, is skeletal — a bone yard — its bass-lines spines. In fact, everything here has the quality of backbeat, of bass and drums, of lithe rhythm. The synths have these hollow, marimba-like tones, like a bone being finger-drummed. There are frequent noises that sound like wind howling through hollow bones (which is presumably how flutes were first made?) and a noise in ‘Cosoco’ that sounds like a howling wind imitating an owl. The album’s title is a reference to the Argentine folk legend of the will-o’-the-wisp, known as the “luz mala” (Spanish for “evil light”), which floats above the ground where bones are buried. The hollow, natural, skeletal sound Molina has developed here proves versatile, moving from tracks that sound lightly funky and buoyant (‘Sin Dones’) to spooky and somnambulant (‘Lentismo Halo’). ‘A00 B01’ is the most delightfully strange song here: hollow woodblock percussion and little spindly threads of guitar over a synth loop that sounds like knuckles rolling rhythmically over the squishy buttons of an old mobile phone (and is later joined by a chorus of dying dial tones). Freaky magnificence.
11. Colleen – A flame, my love, a frequency
Cécile Schott continues to restlessly redefine her sound with every album. Her music is fantastic, and deserves far more fans. Whereas early albums collaged acoustic sounds into new sonic landscapes, and her last couple revolved around the engrossing sound of the Renaissance-era treble viola de gamba (filtered, on the brilliant Captain of None, through a range of dub effects), A flame, my love features a slight, minimal palette of Critter & Guitari synthesisers run through a few Moog pedals. That’s it. And yet, there has always been a crystalline feel to what she makes, and this new sound emphasises that beautifully. It is transportive, transfixing music. Though her least organic-sounding record, it feels even more in tune with nature, full of lyrical images of bats swooping through the night as they hunt, of winter dawns and stars outshining us. There is a sadness, too, shot through the whole thing (“the world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue, and I came home with a fistful of fear”) one that becomes more present when one learns of the album’s back-story: Schott’s close brush with death in Paris on the night 2015 terrorist attacks. Death and life entwine in this music – one is never present without the other, and that is a source of both sadness and comfort.
10. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
This is a very minimal album, naked as Sumney’s back, weightless as his floating body. Much of the music on this list – see numbers 9, 3 and 1 especially – is concerned with the connections we make with other people, the networks of relations that sustain us: with love, with friendship, with community. Aromanticism is, as its title suggests, an inverse of that – an album that feels alone without necessarily feeling lonely. It is about the pleasure of one’s own company. The brilliant contradiction is that it is also an album steeped in the language of R&B, a genre obsessed with love and sex and coupling – and it sounds, throughout, sumptuous, bodily, erotic, gorgeous. The tension between the overt romanticism of the music and the lonely aromanticism of the lyrics is the heart of this album. It’s also full of unexpected melodic and harmonic touches – the flute at the end of ‘Make Out in My Car’, that harmony on the last word of “I’m made of liquid trust” (‘Don’t Bother Calling’). The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Doomed’, one of the best songs of the year: Sumney’s vocal performance – a quiet, battered falsetto – is completely enrapturing, lifted up as the track progresses by deep, mournful synths that slowly crash in like waves. Breathtaking.
9. Laurel Halo – Dust
‘Dust’ here is a term here with lots of implications and associations: of warmth and the analogue (in contrast to the cold, futuristic sound of Quarantine, or the dry, brittle Chance of Rain); of cosmic, interstellar dust clouds (picked up in the spacey titles like ‘Syzygy’, ‘Sun to Solar’, ‘Moontalk’); of dusty sounds found and collected (much of this record has a quality of being overheard); of dust motes swirling in a beam of light through a window. That last image captures how unstable this music feels, every sonic element constantly in motion, its relation to every other element in flux. And relations or networks are a key theme here. Much of this record seems concerned with what, or who, we surround ourselves with, something picked up in Halo’s bringing in multiple vocal collaborators for the first time. On ‘Jelly’, negative voices lick the edges of the track’s consciousness – “you don’t meet my ideal standards for a friend, and you are a thief, and you drink too much”. We can surround ourselves with such negative feedback, or we can surround ourselves with things that encourage us: the soft, enveloping vocal melodies on ‘Like an L’, or the bizarre encouragements (“then she licked my leg and gave me some sisterly advice”) of ‘Syzygy’. Just as things start to become a bit of a blur, the album is brought back into focus by late highlight ‘Do U Ever Happen?’, which is wonderfully surreal: a clumsy, slumbering beat, with Halo and a backing choir in two intertwining melodic spirals. This album is that rare thing: a genuinely avant-garde record that remains compulsively, repeatedly listenable.
8. Perfume Genius – No Shape
I wrote a whole review of this already, so I will just fill this space up with a repeated claim: Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius.
7. Jlin – Black Origami
What impressed me most about Black Origami was the revelation that Jlin composed the tracks chronologically, in ‘real time’ if you like, starting at the beginning and working forwards, without going back and making edits. It’s like a very slow kind of improvisation. That such intricate, complicated tracks could be made in such a way is just insane to contemplate. The other thing I love about this album – and this is going to sound strange – is how meditative it is, almost in spite of itself. Of course, this is an overwhelmingly noisy record, an absolute barrage of rhythm, but it’s also full of tiny pockets of space. Rhythm, after all, relies on gaps, on tiny bits of silence and quiet. And the rhythms are so unrelenting that you can almost hear through them to the quiet; the concentrating, zen-like mind of the dancer as their limbs flail at inconceivable speed. Then there is the idea of origami, itself a practice of meditation, and that cover art, in which sheet metal (industrial rhythm) has been folded and folded (almost crumpled in places) to become something new: the perfect metaphor for this insanely brilliant, forward-thinking artist’s approach to sound.
6. The Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck
I am going to make a bold comparison here, and it is to Loveless. It is not that the two records sound similar, necessarily. But Loveless is a masterpiece, I think, because it strikes an exact balance: between masculine and feminine, between soft and loud, between melody and noise. And Pleasure Suck, too, captivates because of its exact blend of honey and vinegar, of sickly melted sugar and battery acid. From the first moments – what sounds like a violin playing in a blustery street; then a strum and a buzz; then a crash as a song starts seemingly in media res – it is clear that this is going to be a special record. And it doesn’t let up the whole way through, moving through what feel like fine slices of song cut into each other, or like slits in a spinning zoetrope. It is just the perfect blend of dissonant noise/ambience and catchy songs. If you have any interest in either of those things, please, listen to this.
5. Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind
Is Mirror of Wind a fantasy album? Look at the miniature world of that still life: a bee, a magic crystal, an offering of red flowers, a mirror that reflects only mist, a candle in a cave, the tilt of its flame suggesting wind. Then listen to ‘Primeval Currents’, and hear how the sonic elements interact: strange instruments, producing sounds that feel recognisable (plucking, bubbling, chiming, buzzing) but which come from not-quite-identifiable sources (a mallet? a clarinet? a field recording of birds, or insects?). Or ‘Veils of Crocus’, in which instruments strum and drum, whoosh and whirl, swirl and conjure, punctured by flurries of voices incongruously chanting “cha cha cha”, as though we were on a beach somewhere. Or ‘Hex Prism Palace’, in which notes are bent out of shape in a temple on a distant hill. It is the music of places that don’t exist, that could never exist, except that they can exist through this technicolour world of sound – the music of imaginary worlds.
4. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Crack-Up is the album I listened to in the early hours of the morning on my wedding day. It’s the album we had playing in our rented car, driving on our honeymoon through the spectacular, mountainous countryside of Perthshire, Scotland. ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ – undoubtedly the best song of the year – was playing in my head the whole two weeks. That opening melody with its gorgeous, unexpected harmonies (“light ended the night, but the song remained”), and the cadence of Pecknold’s voice as he replies in solo (“and I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, in the lashing rain”) puts a lump in my throat every time. It throws open the curtains to a nine minute journey through mountains, rivers, harmonies, drums, craggy valleys, guitars like dappled sunlight, pianos like water flowing over rocks. “To be held within oneself is deathlike, oh I know,” he sings, with almost unbearable emotion. If Crack-Up suffers from anything, it’s that ‘Third of May’ is too good, and that the rest can feel merely like a build up to, and release from, that towering centrepiece. But no, that’s ridiculous. ‘On Another Ocean’, ‘Fool’s Errand’, ‘I Am All That I Need’: these are the best songs Fleet Foxes have ever made, expanding their sound to the point that it literally cracks open, cracks up, and spills out all the light inside.
3. Bjork – Utopia
Bjork is making the best music she’s ever made. A tall claim, certainly, but it’s true. Vulnicura was a masterpiece, the strong contrast between its mournful strings and its stuttering, broken beats the perfect evocation of heartbreak and divorce. Utopia is its necessary inverse, its mirror image, the yin to its yang. The strings are replaced by flutes, and the flute arrangements, throughout, are almost unnecessarily gorgeous. Indeed, if there is one impression this album makes above all, it is of overwhelming, sumptuous, rapturous, relentless beauty. It is, by design, too beautiful. (The only reference point I can think of are the later films of Terence Malick.) It is too much. It is too long. There are too many interludes. There are too many flutes. Her voice is too expressive, too broken, too open, over-emoting, leaking all over the music. Because it is only in that excess that she seems able to heal the gaping chest wound opened up on Vulnicura, here “transformed into a gate where I receive love from, where I give love from”. The length of the album seems designed to incubate a kind of patience; this album will never work unless you give yourself up to it, listen to it the whole way through, with open ears and open mind. Because healing takes time. Because love takes time, and is work. Because it takes time to “imagine a future, and be in it”.
2. Arca – Arca
Part (though it really must be stressed it is only part) of Bjork’s recent success is her creative partnership with the young Venezeulan producer Alejandro Ghersi, a.k.a. Arca, who helped produce Vulnicura and provided some of the beats for Utopia. Bjork has described their partnership as the “best musical relationship she’s had” and as a “synergy when two people lose their ego”. And it goes both ways, because it was Bjork who encouraged Arca, on his latest, self-titled album, to open up his mouth and sing. His voice is a revelation. It is almost exactly what you would expect from his production work: brittle, bruised, aching. But it is also extremely versatile, and Arca covers a great deal of emotional ground, making sometimes violent swings in its mood, as from the alternately mournful/wailing and delicate/resigned ‘Coraje’, into to the aggressive ‘Whip’, and out into the chilled, almost danceable ‘Desafio’. The synergy of the voice and the beats is fantastic throughout, to the point that his body (for it is above all a bodily, or embodied voice) seems to melt into his machines, the distinction between them becoming liquid. One almost doesn’t notice that the voice has disappeared entirely by closer ‘Child’, a negative of opener ‘Piel’, in which an initially a capella melody is hummed almost under the breath, slowly opening out into a full-throated cry as it is joined by both high, whining and deep, foreboding lines of synth. The album is perfectly sequenced, and is utterly absorbing from start to finish. It gets so close to you, so bodily and intimate, that it feels almost dangerous, like licking or touching bare wire with wet fingers. There is never quite a cathartic moment – it’s all danger, desire, electricity, tension, eroticism, caress, fingers slowly closing round your neck but never quite squeezing.
1. Richard Dawson – Peasant
What do you want from an album? Do you want to learn, in quite some detail, how to authentically wash and dye wool as if you were in the Middle Ages? Do you want to hear a man sing the words “he gives me a potato” in a Newcastle accent? Do you want to listen to an acoustic guitar being fingerpicked with so much vigour it sounds as though it might bleed? Do you want melodies that terrify you, or sooth you, or bring you to tears, or turn themselves upside down when you least expect it? Do you want to be surprised? Do you want to learn about the Pin of Quib, and the Bog of Names, and the Fortress of Long Wings? Do you want stories, or characters? A masseuse “tired of kneading the knots from the bulbous backs and necks” of men? A soldier with a “heart full of dread” and the “memories of kisses spilled upon his chin”? That is, do you want to be taken to another place? Another time? Into another body, or eleven? Can an album really do that? Peasant is the best album of the year partially because it does all those things. But also because it is an album about community. I moved into a new house this year, and it is the first time since I was a child in my parents’ house that I know both my next-door-neighbours’ names, and the names of the people in the houses next to them, and in the houses opposite. Our road is a small community, and people look out for each other. I am a naturally shy, introverted person who likes to spend a lot of time by myself – but even I can’t survive without a community of people around me. Not just people who I love and who love me, but also casual acquaintances, neighbours, workers, people who make stuff I need, who do jobs I can’t do, maybe even some people who might read the things I write. And yet, communities all around us are dissolving or splintering or splitting apart. The news brings daily doses of terror, new superstitions and lies, new failures of empathy. Lots of things might be to blame for this: consumerism, ‘social’ media, the loss of traditional social centres like libraries, churches, or clubs. But whatever the cause, it’s something we need to fight against. Dawson finds an analogy for all this in a world that disappeared over a millennium ago, but that feels startlingly familiar. Though the specifics are alien, the concerns of the characters he creates “in the kingdom of Bryneich” are our concerns. That is why this album is so deeply moving, so devastating. It is the year reflected in a muddy, medieval puddle; an unexpected, unlikely, baffling snapshot of 2017.