This article was first published to The National Student on 30th November 2017
Unintentionally, not a single artist on my list is from Britain. And only one is from outside of North America.
It’s a reflection perhaps, of how consumed my anxieties and anger has been by the age of President Trump, that I’ve also simply chosen to briefly forget (where I can) that the UK is simultaneously hurtling towards a cliff edge in so many ways. Maybe because the U.S. feels more distant, yet its music never does – whether in circles of critics or artists, converations find a way to turn towards America. And whilst few of these albums are directly about politics, they and so many other great offerings from this year foudn themselves on repeat because they represented more than escape from our darkest timeline. These artists’ and their frankly stunning music have this year brought sincerity, vulnerability, optimism, the deliriously mad, the surprisingly nuanced, and an entire Dulux warehouse’s explosion worth of colour, in an effort to both reflect the changed world, and improve our understanding of it. So, without further ado:
Smidley – Smidley
Named after a beloved but since departed pet Labrador, Smidley’s eponymous debut record sees Conor Murphy (the frontman of emo-rock band Foxing) lighten up. Relatively at least – the stories still have a devastating punch to them, not least the power pop of ‘Dead Retrievers’. Yet there’s so much playfulness on display, from the title-repeating chorus of ‘Fuck This’, to the bright instrumentation and succinct structuring. It’s an album that both romanticises Murphy’s past bad trips and extensive drug consumption in ‘Hell’, and acknowledges that those pleasures are certainly not to his benefit, with ‘Milkshakes’ softly delivered refrain “I love every moment that I’m fucked up”. Yet Murphy’s frankness with struggles of addiction arrives often in metaphorical terms, so whatever catharsis you can get from the opener’s wistful trumpet-backed chorus “If this was Hell, let me sink into it” gets to be your own.
Valerie June – The Order Of Time
Through loosely told stories of love and intergenerational familial strife, the Tennessee singer Valerie June maps a history of music in America. Her effortlessly overwhelming melodies and arrangements on her sophomore album span folk, blues, gospel, country, and soul – that last one in large part thanks to her incredible voice. Practically no other album by a country artist this year has more ambition in their music, and none pull it off with such ease. And yes, her songs are lyrically loose, with an all-encompassing breadth stemming from a lack of specificity. Normally that might be a downside, yet ‘If And’ ‘s beautifully structured musings on family and love are innately dependent on it, and it’s one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs of the year.
Rostam – Half-Light
Making his solo debut after years of behind-the-scenes and band work, most notably with the New York indie rock group Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij’s debut is one of the wildest, most irrepressibly colourful albums of 2017. The clattering drums of ‘Bike Dream’, along with the fizzy fuzz of synths matches how Rostam delivers the lines – propelled as if out of a cannon, he ponders “Where could I go? What could I do/Put in the state, my lips and eyes give me away/And now there’s nothing, I can say no”. The album hurtles back and forth between serene ballads (‘Half-Light’), grooving pop songs (‘Rudy’), and the impossibly chaotic (‘Don’t Let It Get To You’). Nothing is done by half measures. Rostam pulled the whole rainbow down and crammed it into this album, and it refuses to do anything but bounce you off the walls.
Jay Som – Everybody Works
Recorded and produced entirely within her bedroom, Melina Duterte’s second album shows what that specific house-bound breed of Pop music that’s become so popular on the indie scene can do. It’s another genre-spanning record, yes, but it’s shocking how well she bridges different elements of Pop and Rock sub-genres, as well as stranger atmospheric stylings of tracks like ‘(Bedhead)’ and ‘For Light’, all from within her own home. There’s a spaced-out drive to ‘Baybee’, with it’s collision of synths and sparkly guitars, while the darker power chords that opened the track continue in the background, like a flaw in the system – coincidentally mirroring the gradual rot of the relationship she’s singing about: “If I leave you alone/When you don’t feel right/I know we’ll sink for sure”. And stand out track ‘The Bus Song’ is almost certainly the year’s most yearning song that also concerns public transport.
Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Perhaps it’s a sign of the “swings and roundabouts” of any creative industry or pursuit, but the fact that Ryan Adams’ 2017 follow-up to his 2015 cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is one of the most painful, and paradoxically replayable break-up albums is fairly remarkable.
It’s easy to miss, since opening ‘Do You Still Love Me’ is as bold and commanding a Pop/Rock song as has been released all year. What follows are eleven more songs of equally extraordinary productions and arrangements, with each tackling a unique, possibly chronological stage of Adams’ divorce from actress Mandy Moore. There’s the denial, with its undercurrent of awareness in the disarmingly sunny sounds of ‘Prisoner; the crushing loneliness of detachment in ‘Shiver and Shake’; and the melancholic realisation that this, like all things, had to end with ‘Broken Anyway’. It’s rare to see such sincerity and vulnerability from any male artist, especially in the country genre; but it’s across an entire album on Prisoner, with Adams’ showing all the pain and melancholy, with refreshingly little bitterness.
St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
In her fifth album, and what feels like it’s her artistic high point (which everyone said upon the release of her fourth album), Annie Clark writes one of the most complex, self-deconstructing choruses of possibly all Pop music. ‘Los Ageless’ is hardly the only great track here, but it has the best chorus: “How could anybody have you?/How could anybody have you and lose you?/How could anybody have you and lose you/And not lose their minds too?”Each question asks and reveals a different thing, and as the original extends it reflects back on itself, before we arrive at the end – and the question of whether St. Vincent hasn’t herself gone slightly mad feels like it’s already been answered. Perhaps you’d need to be mad to do as much fierce guitar shredding on the itchy and epic ‘Pills’, yet to let the overall instrumental colours of the album be painted by its synths and trumpets. It was certainly madness to have her aunt and uncle feature on the ever-so kinky ‘Savior’; for that matter, to slow down the whole album for the sweet ballad ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’ isn’t the act of a normal person. Yet it’s nothing that you’d want to see change, since it’s exactly brazen and vulnerable choices like that which make the album so staggering: like she sings on ‘Masseduction’, you can’t turn off what turns you on.
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
The earliest sign of 2017’s musical greatness came in the shape of a small, unassuming, and quiet set of singer-songwriter musings at the tail end of January. Julie Byrne characterises herself as “A wanderer…” on her own Bandcamp page – whilst she’s from Buffalo, New York, her songs reflect this trait. On ‘Follow My Voice’ she sings of passing clouds, double rainbows, and to a partner, how “To me, this city’s hell/But I know you call it home”. Her voice and the gently strummed acoustic guitar dominate the whole album, so much that it’s easy to forget what other instruments (bass, violin, synths on ‘Interlude’) surround them. It’s an album that’s deliciously easy to fall into, and almost impossible to shake from your head once you’ve heard its treasures. I know I haven’t, and I’ve been trying for eleven months.
Wild Pink – Wild Pink
Resurgent Rock genres in North America are none more evident in emo and indie scenes, yet harder to find are the softcore, ponderous sounds that early 00s, late 90s bands like Death Cab For Cutie and American Analog Set. Enter Brooklyn trio Wild Pink, whose remarkable debut album swings between brief and quiet musings on the city surrounding them on opening track ‘How Do You Know If God Takes You Back’ and explosively catchy anthems concerning the very same environment on ‘Great Apes’. On ‘Battle of Bedford Falls’, the two collide: the party begins small, climaxes early, and the hangover from it spreads slowly to the finish, creating a song equally triumphant and mournful. It also has one of the all-timers for strange opening lines: “A physicist and priest were cutting up in a tomb/When a ghost walked in and sucked the air out of the room”. John Ross’s vocals land somewhere just above a murmur in the volume range, but his lyrics land hard with an eerie specificity of stories and perspectives that’s all too rare.
Lorde – Melodrama
Pop music has changed dramatically this decade, with strains of both R&B and Dance music coming to dominate what we and the Official Charts might consider a “Pop” song. Which means every year we get another album that feels like a game-changer, because of how it reshapes these disparate genre elements into a bold, yet familiarly emotional shape. Lorde’s sophomore record is now the second time she’s done such a thing. At just 20, Ella Yelich-O’Connor is scarily good at this game.Melodrama is about heartbreak and hedonism, yet from song-to-song there’ll be a shift where Lorde turns her gaze inwards, or asks what happens after the party and pain finish. The cool groove of ‘Sober’ makes this the central thesis, where the highs of a toxic relationship are so great, that concern is relegated to the backing vocals: “We’re King and Queen of the weekend/Ain’t a pill that could touch our rush/(But what will we do when we’re sober?)”. And at the midpoint of the album, on the double track ‘Hard Feelings/Loveless’, the pressing anxieties and the reckoning with her own heartbreak become so great that, for a moment, we hurtle backwards to re-examine the same song on ‘Sober II (Melodrama)’, along with the very compulsions that might drive Ella’s words with ‘Writer in the Dark’ and ‘Supercut’. As if it wasn’t enough for her to open with a track to start any party, she manages to craft her critiques of the party into compulsively danceable and earnestly felt anthems.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
No-one uses the concepts of narrative and timeframes on a concept album quite like Kendrick Lamar. On good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he tours the listener along a very literal journey – that of one night of adolescent pleasure and paranoia. To Pimp A Butterfly expanded his sound further into jazz and funk, stretched across the emotional maturation of year (and change), where every track lands as an emotional beat, whilst he deftly explored race and celebrity in the United States. Perhaps knowing he couldn’t top the sprawling ambition of his sophomore record, DAMN. goes smaller. Starting an ending in sudden violence against our narrator, this might as well be his account of watching his life flash before his eyes. This album shows a rapper who knows he’s at the peak of his powers, going back to (relative) musical basics, whilst stepping up to his reputation as Rap’s best lyricist. The album dives into the multitudes of the man, and his relationships: to God, to his peers, his loves, his community, his church, his celebrity, his family, his sins, and his insecurities – this in particular stands out on the standout track ‘FEEL.’, where K-Dot goes over 40 lines without a break. There are millions of reads on the album, with all its left-turns (including the surprisingly poignant guest appearance by Bono, of all people, on ‘XXX.’), dense lyrics, and precise production. But what sticks in the memory is the implied question at the close of ‘DUCKWORTH.’, where one last story of a selfless act of kindness indirectly resulted in the rise of the very man telling it: would you do it all again?