To curate my top 10 best albums, I combed through a sizable list of records from an almost obsessive compulsion to listen to something from every musical genre this year. Apart from some obvious leanings towards certain genres like alternative rock and synth pop, this list might surprise you with its inclusion of some of alt-country and retro sounds that has grabbed my attention this year.
I also hope to surprise you with some of amazing new and underrated artists that deserve credit, who are often ignored by mainstream audience obsessed with the Taylor Shifts and Ed Sheerans of this world. Interestingly, it may also surprise you that this list is predominately made up of female artists, something that I believe is a reflection of impact of the groundwork being made by female artists speaking up and lobbying for change, and quite frankly because they are making some of the most acclaimed and relevant music around. Interestingly, my #1 album is by someone that most of my readers might not expect to find on top of their ‘best of’ album list. I sincerely hope you might find the time to listen to her infectious album.
10. Molly Burch – Please Be Mine (Captured Tracks).
The talented Austin-based Molly Burch is one of this year’s break out artists. Her debut album Please Be Mine is what I believe to be a conscious attempt by Murch at telling her story as a cycle of love and loss and it’s tumultuous effect on her. From it comes one of my favourite songs of the year Please Be Mine, which never fails to send a shudder down my spine and is reminiscent of my teenage years of longing for someone I cared deeply about. “I told you once, I’ll tell you again/ You really are my very best friend” Burch sings with that amazing inflection in her vocal styling. Her lyrics here may seem rather ambiguous allowing for interpretation, but nonetheless I feel lost in nostalgia, especially listening to that folky/bluesy twang of guitar, before we both it seems spin out in romantic burnout. But if I was to say one more thing about what I really like about this album as a whole, it is the delicate and atmospheric reverb effect of Burch’s jazz trained voice and the retro sounds of collaborator Dailey Toliver’s guitar.
9. Sarah Belkner – But You Are, But It Has (Free Energy Device Records).
Originally from New Zealand, the best thing about Sarah Belkner is that there is nothing at all pretentious about her. There are no Liam Gallagher tantrums or even a semblance of arrogance. She is happy most it seems when she is creating music or playing in bands as a session keyboard player for other local artists she truly admires. After having played besides the likes of Sarah Blasko, Ngaiire and Melbourne based Olympia, for the past year or so, this year marks the stunning return of Belkner with her debut album But You Are, But It Has (2017), which has captured the fascinated attention of loyal fans and industry insiders.
That said, she isn’t your typical artist that belts out catchy mainstream pop-rock. Her trademark of weird synth sounds and orchestral arrangements has inevitably seen her compared to Kate Miller-Heidke and Kate Bush. Personally, I hear a little bit of Fiona Apple’s influence. Like Apple, Belkner is haunting and moody, yet still quite original in creating her own sound. That, of course, comes from years of experience and collaborating with the right people. Her biggest fan is arguably her husband Richie Belkner, who co-produced all her music. Interestingly, both Sarah and Richie, use the studio as an instrument, to help refine the sound they are looking for.
I dare say, much of Belkner’s ’80s inspired BUT You Are, But It Has comes from musicians she truly admires such as, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel, in particular, with his experimental pop and art rock with elements of world music is something that Belkner finds absolutely fascinating. Of course, Belkner isn’t out to imitate Gabriel, she has her own ideas. But with a carefully trained eye on the past, she certainly knows the value of the synthesizer (keyboards). That said, Time is one of the standout track from But You Are, But It Has that I most identify with, as sort of a tribute to, what was great about ’80s electronic pop. The rest of the album elbs and flows with Sarah’s signature style with emotive lyrics that leave you breathless. Standouts include the hypnotic synth beats of Chance, Cellophane and Trauma.
No.8 Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Matador).
Villians is an album I didn’t expect to hear from rock veteran Queens of the Stone Age. It is a collaboration with celebrated producer Mark Ronson and it will turn heads, maybe even upset some of the faithful. Josh Homme it seems is always looking to shake things up and mess with people’s heads, so to hear the opening track Feet Don’t Fail Me kick off proceedings, with its ridiculously infectious main guitar riff and undercurrents of synth sounds, makes it one of their most unexpected niftiest songs ever. Layered in synth textures cleverly disguised by Ronson, with those punishing screeching guitars, we have come to expect from QOTSA, Villains is the equivalent of a modern rock album trapped between two universes. One that wants to be faithful to everything great about alternative rock and the other embracing pop-friendly sounds, a sort of disobedient spirit of music a younger audience wants to hear. That is why this album works so well. From the Way You Used To Do to The Evil Has Landed, I honestly can’t find one thing I don’t like about it. Okay, maybe one thing, it only has nine tracks and could have been one or two tracks longer.
No.7 Ruby Force – Evolutionary War (Ruby Force Records).
I was fortunate enough to interview Erin McLaughlin aka Ruby Force, in between shows, to talk about her debut album, music and inspirations back in November of this year. One of the questions I asked her was in relations to what were her inspirations during the making of Evolutionary War. Her answer to me: “This record is a collection of songs I was playing and writing over a large span of time so inspiration came from disparate experiences. Obviously all of the songs theme lyrically around love, in some form or another. Love makes me write. For better or for worse, my journals reflect the same. My short stories and poetry revolve around love. It’s an ache and a comfort and a light; the strongest motivation in my life. It’s cool to write about inanimate objects and other less obvious sensations too. As I mature as a writer perspective changes, stories develop in varying contexts etc etc. and some of that will roll into future recordings. The truth remains however; l gotta lotta love in me yet.”
That said, it would be easy to label Ruby Force as simply just a country music star, but there is more to it than that. Her brilliant debut album Evolutionary Wars takes us on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery through elements pertaining to rock, Americana, soul and folk. Its infused sounds, might feel like a lot to digest, but believe me when I say that this album will engage, thrill and maybe make you tear up a little. The arousing sounds of acoustic and electric guitar, especially on Damn Your Love, Dancing As I Go and Tender are tracks that showcase just how left-of-center she really is as an artist. And that’s a good thing, because by album’s end on Why Do You Leave, she truly transcends all that is what is traditionally country, with a powerful ballad worthy of being heard in any genre of music.
No. 6 Ed Sheeran – Divide (Asylum Records)
It’s difficult not to escape the infectious sound and personable lyrics of Ed Sheeran, especially given that at one point during the release of Divide, he set the record of most concurrent songs on Billboard and other charts around the world. That said, I have to admit I am unashamedly an Ed Sheeran fan, not a huge one, but a fan nonetheless. While, his song Perfect at present has grabbed our attention, it was Shape Of You that made me buy my first Ed Sheeran album. This particular song also stands as one of my favourite tracks of 2017. Why? Because, unlike Perfect, which is heartwarming and thoughtful, Shape Of You is arguably far from what we would come to expect from Ed Sheeran. In fact, his entire album is an attempt to cross over as many musical genres as possible. Well, at least, I think so. But his strengths will always lie in his innovative nature with songs like Castle On The Hill through to his acoustic arrangements like What Do I know.
No. 5 Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life (Interscope Records).
A day or so before its official release, someone illegally leaked Lana Del Rey’s album Lust For Life online to her disgust. Lana Del Rey reacted on Twitter in true Del Rey style targeting the offender. (The illegal upload was quickly removed without too much damage.) Del Rey had every reason to be protective of this body of work because Lust For Life might actually be her best release to date. With a slight shift away from the melancholy of her previous releases, Del Rey offers us what many critics are calling ‘purposeful pop’, peppered with social commentary, and an affirmation of basic human values which includes love.
I have to put up my hand here by saying I am a full-fledged supporter of Del Rey going back to her rocky start when it seemed every critic loved to hate her, especially after her purported disastrous Saturday Night Live performance of Video Games in 2012. That said, Lust for Life is worthwhile for any new listener to buy into Del Rey’s world of escapism. Staying true to herself, each songs still contain the breathy vocal style I have come to love about her. Furthermore she stays true to the stylistic consistency and atmospheric approach to her previous releases. With enough standout material here on an album 16 tracks long, I am still mesmerized by Love, but I have embraced Lust For Life, In My Feelings and Get Free as my favourite tracks.
No.4 Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life (Liberator Music/Dirty Hit).
Wolf Alice is the incarnation of almost everything that is great about 90’s alternative/punk/indie rock. They indulge in its excesses but make it their own, but at the same time are quite self-assured to jump from one genre to the next as it suits them. I think a lot of that comes from Ellie Rowsell, Wolf Alice’s frontwoman, who has often felt like the odd girl out, in a male-dominated alternative rock scene, whose distinctive and gutsy approach to songwriting, has cemented Wolf Alice as one of the most important alternative acts of the last five years or so.
She has certainly embraced her ‘women in rock’ status more so in recent years with her outlandish social anthems. I read once Ellie comment about her songwriting that, “I think I like writing more from a pissed off perspective.” And this is evident with one of my favourite tracks of the year Yuk Foo, a blistering punk song, only two minutes in length, with a daring angry Ellie Rowsell screaming her lungs out with such hate and contempt. It was not the lead single I expected to hear ahead of their album launch for Vision of a Life, but it certainly helped set the tone for what I love about these Londoners. But there is also so much more to like about their sophomore album from the synth sounds of Don’t Delete the Kisses to the epic unapologetic guitar-driven vehemence of Space & Time.
No. 3 Lorde – Melodrama (Universal Music).
According to Lorde, Melodrama was inspired by her first real breakup. In short, Melodrama is Lorde’s take on her transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s also moody and atmospheric and draws on new sounds like her emotionally charged piano driven tracks Liability and Writer In The Dark, which I have recently been told some critics are likening to the amazing Kate Bush-esque ballads of yesteryear. Everything about Melodrama, from Green Light to Perfect Places is almost flawless, coming to form one of the best conceptual albums of the year. Interestingly, Melodrama features highly on many prominent music publication lists as record of the year! Not bad for someone as young and innovative as Lorde, who originally took the world by storm with her breakout hit Royals (2013). Honourable mention to Homemade Dynamite as my favourite track from Melodrama.
No. 2 St. Vincent – Masseduction (Loma Vista Recordings).
Annie Clark aka St. Vincent is often been touted as “this decade’s most plausible Bowie”, a monumental compliment for the Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist and singer songwriter. But compliments alone don’t make St. Vincent who she is. But she is without doubt shrewd, controversial and in some sense also a great manipulator of the media. (For instance, her visually striking music videos are as aesthetically pleasing, as they are artistically contentious.) Interestingly, through her manipulative powers of the press, she said recently in a press release, “Every record I make has an archetype, ‘Strange Mercy’ was Housewives on Pills. ‘St. Vincent’ was Near-Future Cult Leader. ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is different, it’s pretty first person. You can’t fact-check it, but if you want to know about my life, listen to this record.”
And so, maybe almost predictably, we all beelined to grab our copy, or fix of the aptly titled Masseducation, her fifth album in ten years, that many critics are already calling her greatest triumph.
The indie-friendly Masseduction is intimate and raw and cuts straight to the point about much of her state of mind lately. Like any good saga or personal crusade, Clark bares her soul on this album, especially on New York where she languishes for “the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me.” Her directness or vulnerability here is refreshing, as is also her take on themes of sex, drugs and power.
Annie Clark’s robust guitar work doesn’t go unnoticed here on Masseduction. It is arguably what attracts me most to her music, ever since I first discovered Strange Mercy (2011). But while her fuzzy distorted guitar is her trademark, this album is ultimately more synth pop than ever. It is daring and sweeping in scope, from the mini opus that is Pills, to the electronic drums and synth-based sounds of Los Ageless.
No. 1 Album of 2017: Ali Barter – A Suitable Girl (inertia).
Ali Barter released an incredible debut album this year called A Suitable Girl. It bares all the hallmark retro sounds of blistering guitars that I love from the 90’s and an array of songs with lyrics that captured real-life ups and downs, especially her thought provoking Girly Bits, a song that was initially released as a single last year, but that would become one of the most important tracks on the album, which Rolling Stones referred to as “withering gender politics”.
In an interview, I conducted with Ali earlier this year, I told her how, despite it being a song about the idea of ‘femininity’, I was still able to relate to it as a guy. She went on to say that, “When I wrote Girlie Bits, it came from my perspective so, I’m a woman and I was frustrated at the shackles which confine me in the perception of society. However, men face shackles of their own. The idea of ‘being a man’ is a complicated one and I believe that feminism needs to include men to make any significant change. We can’t do it without men. Everyone wants to be understood and Girlie Bits is more about being understood than accusing one sex for hold back another.”
With Girly Bits exemplifying the spirit of the age, Barter is also happy calling out the assholes of the world on tracks like Cigarette and Light Them On Fire, where lyrics like “Take your promises and light them on fire/ Empty words, they will burn from a pyre”, certainly flame (no pun intended) the intensity of her resolve, yet at the same time challenge us to sit up straight and take note of what she has to say. The album is, as Barter looks back on, “an exorcism of the negative feelings I was having in my late 20s. Feelings towards other people, society and about myself. It’s about self acceptance.”
Standout tracks include Toyko, a song about a doomed relationship; The Captain, which is incidentally one of my favourite tracks, a song about someone very close to Ali Barter, whom had lost his way becoming someone she didn’t recognise anymore; and Far Away, a song literally about spending too much money on coffee and cigarettes.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator (ATO)
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Basin Rock)
Ty Segall – Ty Segall (Drag City)
LA Witch – LA Witch (Suicide Squeeze Records)
Ryan Adams – Prisoner (PaxAmericana Recordings).
Photo Credit: The album cover artworks used for this review are all courtesy of their respective record labels, or the graphic artist(s). I make use of them under the rationale of fair use because no free equivalent seems to exist and they serve as the primary means of visual identification at the top of my article dedicated to the reviews in question. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded here.