Last week we shared our favourite EPs of the year, and this week we slip into the longer and even more intriguing format that is the album. 2017 has been a year where seemingly no particular style has dominated the airways, this is evident looking at these twenty records; the range of styles and voices on show has arguably never been more varied. Take today’s first ten offerings, it’s hard to imagine two more different records than Hand Habits’ Wildly Idle and Kamikaze Girls’ Seafoam, but in their own way they were both fitting testaments to where music was in 2017.
We don’t set out to declare anything the best album of the year, we simply set out to tell you which ones are our favourites, all these wonderful artists are winners in our ears. We’ve attempted to shed some light on the records rather than just give you a long list to wade through, so hopefully you’ll be reminded of an old favourite and inspired to discover a new one.
20. Girl Ray – Earl Gray [Moshi Moshi]
It was only two years ago that Girl Ray, aged just sixteen at the time, formed, and those two years probably couldn’t have gone much better for the band. Following a series of well received singles, the band signed to the ever intriguing Moshi Moshi imprint, and to massed critical acclaim released the spoonerifically titled album, Earl Grey. The title is perhaps a rather neat summary of the band’s outlook, a winning blend of youthful exuberance and being actually quite clever with it.
Earl Grey is a record that perfectly surmised the transient nature of the looming end of adolescence, it’s a period in everyone’s life where the world seems to constantly ask you questions to which there’s a hundred possible answers, and you haven’t got a clue which one is right for you. Whether it is love, friendship or just discovering your place in the world, Earl Grey is a record that is intelligent enough to admit that it doesn’t have all the answers and does its best to simply enjoy the ride. If its lyrics are full of uncertainty, the sound of Earl Grey was anything but indecisive, often the record was brave enough to just let the harmonies do the work; the perfectly lackadaisical vocals that weave around one another sound utterly effortless but are in reality hugely complex. The choice of accompaniments is equally good; whether it is the breezy Euros Child-like piano lines of Stupid Things, the easy-rhythmic guitars of Just Like That or the warm buzzing synths of Where Am I Now, Girl Ray seem to always pick the perfect way to make the most of their stunning songwriting. If most of the record sounds like perfect three minute pop, perhaps the most intriguing moment was the thirteen minute title track, Earl Grey (Stuck In A Groove): from easy acoustic beginnings, it slowly swells via the years finest use of tambourine, into an almost cabaret like section, before drifting off into a sort of exploratory orchestral-funk outro, that Meilyr Jones or Kiran Leonard might think is just a bit too weird. It is a track that instantly throws a spanner in the works, a track that blows your expectations out of the water and cements Girl Ray’s place as one of the most intriguing bands we’ve heard from in many years. Earl Grey feels like the beginning of a hugely exciting future.
19. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) [Woodsist]
Not all talented musician’s covet the limelight; take Meg Duffy, up until now she is a musician who has comfortably existed in the background, as a talented multi-instrumentalist she has toured and recorded with the likes of Kevin Morby and Mega Bog. Perhaps it was this time spent honing her musical craft that has given her the confidence to record her own music, and, under her solo guise, Hand Habits, present the world with an introduction to this most intriguing of songwriters. Recorded by Meg, initially in her home state of New York, and then completed in her current abode of Los Angeles, Hand Habits’ debut album, Wildly Idle, is an understatedly beautiful composition, a series of intense, half-whispered portraits, as if Meg has invited each listener into her bedroom to tell us all an individual secret.
Wildly Idle is a masterclass in quiet textural songwriting; gentle meandering electric-guitar lines, accompanied by subtle percussion and warm electronic pulses. It is also a hugely versatile record subtly shifting from the moody, Warpaint like In Between,to the lush-swooning pop of Demand It and the ambitious psych-folk of Book On How To Change. As introductions go, Hand Habits’ debut is about as intriguing as they come, and with a series of high-profile tour dates coming in the year, Wildly Idle is set to become a poorly kept secret that more and more people are in on.
18. Torres – Three Futures [4AD]
Three Future, the third full-length album by Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres, wasn’t perhaps the commercial break-through we had expected it to be. For whatever reason it seemed to slide a little under-the-radar: an injustice we hope is suitably corrected in the months ahead. Three Futures is a brilliantly ambitious record, a study into the power of the human body, it is an unapologetic embrace of ecstasy, desire, indulgence, all delivered without a hint of self-doubt or self-denial. In a year where a high-profile dictionary declared feminism the word of the year, few artists embraced the topic with as much enthusiasm and honesty as Torres.
Recorded in the unlikely setting of Dorset with producer Rob Ellis, Three Futures is an immersive record, a sprawling mass of abrasive synths, industrial-influenced percussion and Mackenzie’s volatile, dramatic vocal style. Few singers carry such power and emotion in their voice; whether a coquettish whisper or a visceral yell, Mackenzie’s vocal is always spell-binding. This is a record that, more than any Torres album to date, offered little respite, like Perfume Genius or The Twilight Sad, this is an intense and dense record. Even the lighter moments, the title track or the fluttering synth-pop of Bad Baby Pie for instance, bristle with a bruising menace. Perhaps it is the eight minute plus closing track, To Be Given A Body, that best surmises the record, simultaneously beautiful and harrowing, it is a world of dense layers of electronics that drift beautifully around arresting beats, before slowly fading to nothing. Three Futures is a bold and ambitious record from a songwriter at the top of their game, marking Torres out as a musician who increasingly demands to be heard.
17. Bearcats – No Friends [Lost State Records]
Few records on this list arrived with quite so little fanfare as Bearcats’ debut album, No Friends. Unceremoniously dumped onto Bandcamp with little press coverage and perhaps a slight decline in their normally prolific live calendar, it was a record that, even as huge fans of the band, we could quite easily have missed entirely – thanks heavens we didn’t! Building on the success of their previous EP releases, No Friends is a stunning rallying call, a violent yell for gender equality, for justice in the face of abuse and for the world to be a better place.
Musically, it is a record that entirely upped the Californian-duo’s ambitions, their trademark sound, part-60’s girl group sweetness, part lo-fi Riot Grrrl anger, remains, yet everything about it is upped in intensity. Take the brilliant single, Gutter Pussy, where over pulsating bass and steady drum-ticks, they initially coo, “I belong in the gutter, I’m nastier than all the others”, before the track descends into guttural howls before slipping back into sweet-pop perfection. Elsewhere, Not Special is a brilliantly energetic kiss-off to a waster of an ex-boyfriend, Knives is a masterclass in fuzzy pop while Sunday Boyfriend is an anthem for ditching your boring boyfriend to hang out with the girls, that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Grease soundtrack. Honest, challenging, raw, No Friends is an unflinching record, it pulls no punches and sugar-coats nothing except for the harmonies. Few bands are capable of channelling their anger into anything quite as compelling as Bearcats.
16. The National – Sleep Well Beast [4AD]
Since the release of Boxer, every album The National put out was almost destined to be slightly disappointing. When you’ve created a master-piece, a record that was a genuinely life-changing affair, the bar is inevitably set so high that you’ll always struggle to reach it. At times as listeners, we have to be more realistic in our expectations; Sleep Well Beast was by any other band’s standards a stunning record, by The National’s, well, it was just very, very good.
Like so many of The National’s records, Sleep Well Beast is an album very much in the image of its creators. The youthful, energetic anger of Alligator has long since faded, replaced by something more contemplative, more in keeping with the age of its authors. It’s a record essentially about middle age: goodbye dramatic heartbreak at late night parties, hello quiet disagreements over the breakfast table. Lyrically it is as sublime as ever; subtle, thoughtful, achingly honest – would even the most daring of therapists suggest co-writing an album with your wife about the state of your own strained marriage? Like many records this year, it always felt uneasy about the state of the planet, casting glances into the future and struggling to find much to be optimistic about. If lyrically it is a more muted and thoughtful affair, perhaps that applies musically too, at times it lacks some of the energy of earlier recordings, but it makes up for in sheer craftsmanship; whether it is the bruised, deeply human electronic hum, the agonisingly perfect drum sounds, or the rich, layered guitar lines, it rarely sounds less than perfectly, painstakingly, put together. Sleep Well Beast is the sound of a band gently pushing their lyrical and musical boundaries, it is no giant revolution, it just quietly blows us all away once again.
15. Kane Strang – Two Hearts And No Brain [Dead Oceans]
After slowly building up a sparkling reputation through a series of fairly minimal bedroom recorded, lo-fi gems, Kane Strang’s next step was always going to be intriguing. Following his signature to Dead Oceans, this stick or twist moment resulted in the New Zealander’s latest album, Two Hearts And No Brain. The album is the first time Kane has worked in the studio with his live band, and the resultant record pushed his musical vision into a series of new directions. Crucially though, Two Heats and No Brain, doesn’t lose the fascinating songwriter that has always been Kane Strang.
What is so impressive about Two Hearts and No Brain is just how streamlined it feels; it is a record where nothing feels wasted, it holds nothing back and rushes straight to the point. This musical vision was equally obvious in the lyrics; Kane took on classic topics; heartbreak, loneliness, growing up, and sliced away all the fat leaving only the sometimes brutally honest heart of the matter. Take the breathtakingly angsty stand-out moment, My Smile Is Extinct, over a muted guitar strum, Kane recalls a devastating heartbreak that left him at his lowest ebb, “I used to ask life to kill me slowly, but now I beg you just get on with it”. This downbeat vision is present throughout, but the music flutters through numerous styles, Oh So You Are Off I See sounds the like the middle ground of Elliot Smith and Interpol, the title track is a self-deprecating, slacker-rock masterclass, while closing track Good Guy fuses almost country-licks into his 90’s alt-rock pallet. Two Hearts and No Brain is the sound of Kane Strang easily slipping into the limelight, he might not seem to like himself all that much, but seemingly everyone else does.
14. Soccer Mommy – Collection [Fat Possum]
Soccer Mommy is 19-year-old Sophie Allison, the prolific Nashville-born, New York-based songwriting star in the making. Sophie has been releasing music under the Soccer Mommy moniker for a number of years on her Bandcamp, and this year stepped up to something more fully realised with the release of her debut album, Collection. The record featured re-workings of a number of track’s Soccer Mommy has shared previously alongside some new material, all recorded by Sophie in the truest diy-fashion.
Collection is eight snap-shots of teenage living, detailing toxic relationships and painful infatuations, all delivered here as perfect pop gems. Recalling acts like Hazel English or Mistki, Soccer Mommy’s sound is one of sweet, ringing electric guitars, simple driving drum beats, and Sophie’s breezy, nonchalant vocal delivery. As the mainstream media continue to look in the wrong place for the future of guitar-led indie music, Soccer Mommy just set about making this sublime record, maybe they’ll pay attention soon.
13. Lilah Larson – Pentimento [Self-Released]
Pentimento, the debut album from Lilah Larson, was one of the first records we heard this year, and it’s a testament to its enduring quality that it remains one of our favourites. The album title was in many ways a perfect summary of the record: Pentimento is a term lifted from visual art, “a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas”. This idea was present too in Lilah’s record, an album that looked at the person presented before us know, and acknowledged we all a result of the life we have led. Pentimento was at times bruised, a little broken maybe, weighed down by its past but battling through it and emerging on the otherside.
Perhaps the very fact Pentimento exists is a quiet triumph. The album is the sound of Lilah, previously known as a member of Sons of an Illustrious Father, emerging from the shadows and for the first time taking the limelight. A true solo album, Lilah performed every instrument; the guitars that go from soft acoustics to bombastic Neil Young-like leads, the hushed but driving drums, even the 19th century pump organ, all come from Lilah’s own impressive hand. The record shines musically for its warm, perfect production, but it was in the lyricism that the human qualities of the record really impress, few records so beautifully articulated themes of self-doubt, distant heartbreak and identity as Pentimento. There is the exquisite tbh, where Lilah revels in not opening herself up to any more pain, singing, “I could never love you, that’s what I like about you”, there’s Someone Else, where she confronts her inability to commit, “I want to be the wrong person for you, I want to be second in line, I want you to wish that I was someone else that they were where I am right by your side”. Not that it is all personal and introverted, there is room for the political anthem, On Inertia, described by Lilah as, “a call to arms and a statement that inaction is not an option”, it is the closest anyone got to an old-fashioned Woody Guthrie torch song all year. In a year where the alt-folk scene often struggled to make much of an impact, Pentimento was a stunning exception, a record that reminded you just how powerful the genre still can be.
12. Blush – Blush [Arrowhawk Records]
As with Lilah Larson and Hand Habits, Blush was the sound of a songwriter stepping out of the shadows and into the foreground. Maura Lynch first caught the world’s attention as a member of the critically acclaimed Darlings; the band calling it a day back in 2015, after eight years and three albums. A stint spent touring with Beverly followed, and Maura realised how much she missed writing and sharing her own music with the world. On her computer she found a file of song snippets, half-finished demos that played out like diary entries of life in her late 20s, all filed under the moniker Blush.
The songs written under the Blush name thankfully fell into a cohesive whole, an array of tracks that showcased the beauty of straightforward pop songs; all simple guitar phrases and layered, stunning vocals. Maura entered the studio with members of Pill and Pop .1280 and turned those demos into fully fledged songs. The result is an album of lush sparkling pop songs; all bright guitar meandering, warm buzzing synths and at the forefront of everything Maura’s soft, multi-layered vocal. The production brings to life the intimate, personal tales, breathes life into tales of mundane office jobs, falling in love with the wrong people, falling in love with the right people, and finding a way to carefully step your way into something resembling adulthood. Blush is an honest and beautiful record, understated but none-the-less compelling, the return of Maura Lynch was one of the year’s great comebacks.
11. Kamikaze Girls – Seafoam [Big Scary Monster]
This year was full of brilliantly angry records, but few felt quite as raw as Seafoam, the debut album from Leeds-based duo Kamikaze Girls. Frontwoman, and guitar hero in the making, Lucinda Livingstone’s vocal swooped from quiet sadness to visceral yell, as she recalled brutally honest tales of her own personal demons. Her recollections of battling with anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD, were always delivered with a striking and hugely brave honesty.
Opening track, One Young Man, set the scene, it details an incident where Lucinda was robbed at gun-point, the resultant bout of PTSD resulted in Lucinda having to relocate to Brighton, “so I didn’t have to walk near the same place anymore”. It’s fitting that this incident serves as the album’s opening gambit, as ultimately Seafoam is a record not about Lucinda’s struggles but about coming out the other side of them. It’s a record inspired by life on the road, and in particular those weird down points between touring when the reality of living out of the back of a van can come crushing down on so many struggling musicians. Musically, Seafoam is also a record that expands Kamikaze Girls’ horizons, the anger and passion of Riot Grrrl remains key, and the influences step into shoegaze, heavy-rock and fuzzy-pop without ever straying too far from their original musical ethos. This confident, bold and very angry record is perhaps best surmised by the feminist anthem, KG Goes To The Pub; to a backing of gritty guitar riffing and Connor Dawson’s ever-meaty drum pounding, it rallies against street harassment with an admirable rage and the unforgettable lyric, “cat-call me again, one more time and I’ll knock your fucking lights out”. Seafoam is a hugely impressive record, a hand in the darkness for the disposed and down-hearted, a record that says it’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry and it’s okay to struggle – because life can get better.
Click HERE for albums number 10-6