Here are my favourites of the year. I think it was a fairly strong one for music, although from my perspective there were no instant classics to match the likes of Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. My number one choice is a little too uneven for my liking, and try as I might I couldn’t find much jazz, metal or electronica to tickle my fancy, all of which I find disappointing. Still, I had a busy year, and I still managed to discover these 40-odd albums of good-to-great quality, without much difficulty. Which goes to show that the industry is still going strong for us poptimists. As usual, I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed – please feel free to share your favourites. I’m always on the lookout for more great music. Just please don’t mention Father John Misty…
1) Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
It can feel pretty lonely as a British country music fan – there are sadly too few people to share my passion with. So two years ago I attended one of Angaleena’s gigs in Bristol, and along with the 100 or so other people gathered there I was transported to another realm that was as exhilarating as any live experience I’d ever had. Angaleena embodies all that I love about the best country music: its plain-spoken everyday wisdom, its addiction to “three chords and the truth”, its striving for beauty over innovation. Wrangled is far from perfect. But Angaleena’s seeking out of her own brand of perfection within genre limitations, driven by a poignantly unrealised desire for commercial success, inspired me like nothing else in music this year. Plus “Bless My Heart” is the funniest country song since “Gravity’s a Bitch”.
2) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
This has the best Love/Lust duo of the year (sorry, Kendrick), and for once Lana’s ethereal voice sounds tethered to a grounded optimism. It’s long, but then who sets a stopwatch on amazing music?
3) Music From the American Epic Sessions
I loved everything about the American Epic project – the 3-part documentary series exploring the lives of some of the founders of American music, the 1-disc soundtrack, the 5-disc collection – but most of all I loved this, a 2-disc celebration of the series’ music with contemporary artists recording old and new songs using the very first recording equipment. The primitive technology means that they have to record live in the studio: one take, no multitracking, no overdubs. The results are revelatory and enormous fun. Highlights include several Jack White numbers, Nas demonstrating through his cover of “On the Road Again” that gangsta rap is as old as time, Ashley Monroe sweetly duetting with a sonorous cello on “Jubilee”, and Beck sounding like he’s discovered gospel for the first time on “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods”. But there’s so much more.
4) Randy Newman – Dark Matter
This cynical old bastard just keeps on getting funnier – and as he gets funnier, remarkably, he also gets sweeter. Dark Matter summarises the state of the world in 2017 pretty well, one in which Putin naturally gets centre stage, much to any thinking person’s dismay. Yet it finds redemption in curious places. Not least in the pathos of “She Chose Me”, which could easily have appeared on the Toy Story 2 soundtrack.
5) Fever Ray – Plunge
Take the plunge into this sometimes harsh, dissonant electropop and come out drenched in erotica and right-on political creeds to quote at your enemies. Go on, I dare you.
6) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I resisted for a while, because I missed the deeper funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn hard to resist the pull of the greatest rapper alive. There’s simply no doubt that this is the most lyrically engrossing album of the year: profound, interconnected, mysterious, and of course challenging, like all of the best art. I still find it a tad musically inconsistent. But it’s the earworms of “DNA.”, “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and several others that keep me coming back again and again to explore the words.
7) The xx – I See You
So gentle it’s easy to miss. Indeed, it’s been passed over in many EOY lists. Yet its calmness bespeaks a confidence: the band use samples without worrying about dullards in the indie circle who bark on about “real music”, and their songcraft this time around has a hopeful romanticism about it. Their sound is forming an ever-clearer vocabulary of its own, that is nevertheless always evolving. And I’m all on board.
8) Sampha – Process
Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. He’s the most promising Mercury Prize winner since The xx. He sketches soundscapes with vivid imagination, shading them with snatches of melody that are usually affecting. Many want him to come through and change the R&B world, but I merely want him to be himself, because the self that comes through is so scintillating.
9) The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir
50 songs covering 50 years of Stephin Merritt’s life rarely get tiresome, even as the music flits from style to style, e.g. from solo ukulele to disco to new wave pop. Though it’s not a straightforward A to B autobiography, covering musings on various other topics, its autobiographical details when they come are always lovingly and humorously sketched, maximising emotional involvement.
10) Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling
In which Rhett Miller thanks God for Irish Whiskey and Pretty Girls, and God (a woman) tells him to behave himself. Yea verily, the time has come in this band’s life to contemplate their own mortality, just like countless others before them. Luckily they’re no hacks and their sturdy country-rock, the best by far this side of the Drive-By Truckers, is up to the task.
11) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
12) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
13) Conor Oberst – Salutations
14) Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris
15) Paramore – After Laughter
16) Tinariwen – Elwan
17) The National – Sleep Well Beast
18) The Bob’s Burgers Music Album
19) Sunny Sweeney – Trophy
20) Young Thug – BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS
21) Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
22) Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng
23) Jlin – Black Origami
24) Jay-Z – 4:44
25) Chuck Berry – Chuck
26) Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box
27) Syd – Fin
28) Saint Etienne – Home Counties
29) Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee
30) BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II
31) Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers THREE
32) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
33) Margo Price – Weakness EP
34) Swet Shop Boys – Sufi La
35) Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan
36) Alvvays – Antisocialites
37) Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage
38) Dawn Oberg – Nothing Rhymes With Orange
39) Charli XCX – Pop 2
40) Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses I
41) Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite
42) Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love