Thanks for tuning in again. Yesterday I counted down my #20-11 albums of 2017. Let’s finish off that countdown and see who ended up at #1.
#10 – Utopia by Björk
This may be the happiest that we have heard Björk since she released Vespertine back in 2001. Where Vulnicura was an open wound, Utopia is a beacon of love and hope. As with all albums she has got a musical theme – this time it’s woodwind, bird song and glitch. Together these help to produce the heightened sense of nature that we’ve seen shades of in Medulla and in ‘Joga’ from Homogenic.
Sure, this album is a bit on the long side and might have been a bit higher if this had been a track or two shorter – but as long as Björk is healing and happy she can have as long an album as she needs. It might also mean that she’s back to her older prolific ways as well. One can only hope as, with Utopia, it feels like she is on her way towards transcendence.
Top Tracks: Arisen My Senses, The Gate, Sue Me
#9 – Rest by Charlotte Gainsbourg
When it comes to intent, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest is the polar opposite of Utopia. With the recent death of her half-sister (and her feelings about the death of her father brought up as a result) Rest is an album that grew out of the anger that can result from grief. The lyrics are deeply personal and mostly delivered in an almost ASMR-worthy breathy French whereas and the music that goes with it is this grand atmospheric electronica.
Rest marked a first for Gainsbourg as she penned the majority of the lyrics herself; which paid off immensely as this is may go a long way to explaining why this is her best album. She’s always had one hell of a family legacy to try and follow-up and with Rest she has started forging her own path to truly become her own musician. Also, she’s a great actress – so she has that going for her as well.
Top Tracks: Deadly Valentine, Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses, Lying With You
#8 – Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister
On his own Sufjan Stevens released two amazing songs this year (‘Mystery of Love’ and ‘Tonya Harding’), but with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister he took part in one of the more ambitious albums this year – an album that take’s it’s cue from the Solar System and all the cultural baggage attached to it.
Over the course of 76 minutes you go on a folktronic trip around the cosmos with the Sufjan’s tender voice and Muhly’s arrangements for company. Despite it’s length and scope Planetarium became one of my most played albums of the year – thanks in no small part to the amazing singles ‘Mercury’ and ‘Saturn’.
Much like with Joanna Newsom’s Ys, this is an album that needs a lyric booklet with annotations in order to fully grasp all of Sufjan Steven’s references or as a sign post as to how certain musical elements became attached to certain planets. As with astrology a lot of this album is up for interpretation and that’s why I love it.
Top Tracks: Saturn, Mercury, Moon
#7 – Plunge by Fever Ray
With The Knife disbanding a few years ago and it being 8 years since the release of her debut solo album, Plunge was not an album I expected to be seeing in 2017. It’s also an album that I had no idea I needed in my life.
There really hasn’t been another act who have been able to take up the mantle of The Knife’s cold and utterly unique style of electronica. Silent Shout still stands out as one of my favourite tracks of all time with ‘Neverland’ being a track that can get me up and dancing to the point that my glasses go flying across the room.
Plunge is like Silent Shout screaming through a megaphone after taking a hit of Viagra. It’s erotically charged, highly political and expansive in it’s innovation. It’s got such confidence and (loving) aggression that demands your attention. The scary thing about this album? It still feels like Fever Ray is trying to squeeze herself into an album sized box – who knows what she’ll be able to do next.
Top Tracks: To The Moon and Back, IDK About You, This Country
#6 – I See You by The xx
This album was released on January 13th, which means that in some drafts of my favourite albums of 2017 I managed to forget that this was even eligible. It was such a strong album to start the year out on that it’s a real testament to the quality of releases in the rest of the year that this fell to 6th.
Ever since their debut album I have had a huge affection for The xx . They are able to create music that feels intimate and yet expansive. They create songs that become caverns to fill with electronics, reverb and echoed guitars – which makes them perfect for a great set of earphones.
With I See You it feels like they have opened up more as a group to let us get to know them. Songs like ‘Replica’ and ‘Performance’ are achingly personal whilst ‘I Dare You’ (an early candidate for song of the year) feels like the most they have ever reached out to their listeners. It’s a shame that they got kicked out of the Top 5 towards the end of the year, but that’s just how it goes I guess.
Top Tracks: I Dare You, Replica, On Hold
#5 – 50 Song Memoir by The Magnetic Fields
How did this work as a concept album? I know that this is an album by the same man who gave us the excellent 69 Love Songs, another concept album that should have crumbled under its own weight, but I don’t know if I had expected him to pull this off just as well as he did.
The idea behind this album is that each song represents a different year in the life of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. We start out in 1966 with a song about his birth and follow his life through key events in either his life (including his relationships, mental breakdown and an ode to his pet cat) or the world around him (including the Stonewall riots, the Vietnam War, and a creepy song about the AIDS crisis). After listening to this a number of times, I think I now this man more than a lot of people in his life.
This album is the ultimate time capsule not just because of the topics he addresses, but also because the music draws on what was contemporary to him at the time. Because of this, the latter 15 songs do feel a bit more out of time, but these are also when his own music was starting to take off, so he’s starting to make reference to himself.
I know I probably get more from this album because of the shared social history of being gay men, but there’s no denying just how well this ambitious project was pulled off.
Top Tracks: ’92: Weird Diseases, ’81: How to Play the Synthesiser, ’76: Hustle 76
#4 – The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff
The Navigator stands here at number four as the highest entry by an act who I had never even heard of before 2017. It’s an album that I am not sure I would have even come across if it wasn’t for the people on the Acclaimed Music forum, so a big thank you to them for making me aware of this album.
As an album it follows a loose concept of frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra travelling to Puerto Rico (where her family come from) and protests against what the Puerto Ricans have had to deal with. The encroaching poverty and being dumped on by the United States in general… and this was all recorded before Hurricane Maria. She also sings of how the area she was brought up in New York has since been gentrified. As with all things, there are bright spots on this album. Despite everything Puerto Rican culture has continued to flourish and spread with an ever present optimism that can be found on tracks like ‘Living In The City’.
Taken as a whole, The Navigator is a delicious blend of Americana, folk and Hispanic influences. It’s an album whose poignance has only been enhanced by events over the summer and should really be on more ‘best of’ lists.
Top Tracks: Pa’lante, Living in the City, The Navigator
#3 – Mental Illness by Aimee Mann
2017 has been a year where the spectre of my depression reared its head and stuck around for a solid 10 months. If there was one track that exemplifies where my head has been for large parts of this year, it would be ‘Simple Fix’. It’s a song about endlessly repeating the same cycle of events and not being able to find a way out of it, despite there being a simple fix available.
In this album, Aimee Mann has gotten herself into the headspace of people with depression and other related mental conditions. In keeping with this theme, it is one of the more stripped back albums I have heard of hers, although it still very much a production of light layers.
Listening to her tell stories of people going through different things has been a fantastic comfort to me over the course of the year. It has allowed me to wallow a bit when I felt the need to wallow, but has also found a way to make me feel normal again. With more albums like this we would be on our way towards mental illness being more and more de-stigmatised; something we still have a long way to go on.
Top Tracks: ‘Simple Fix’, ‘Good For Me’, ‘Patient Zero’
#2 – Melodrama by Lorde
The older I get, the fewer pop albums are finding their way into the higher places on my list. Is this just me ageing out of contemporary pop or has my opinion of rival genres eclipsed my once favourite genre? I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that I’m glad Lorde is around to showcase how mainstream pop and art pop can be a marriage made in melodramatic heaven.
It’s hard to deny the talent present here in Lorde’s songcraft and singing. There is so much confidence just excluding from her as she veers between ballads (‘Liability’) and dark electropop (The Louvre). Of course a lot of praise needs to be piled onto producer Jack Antonoff who has helped bring this album to life.
Of all the songs on here though, it is hard to deny the greatness of opening track ‘Green Light’. This has been my most played song of the year and I am still not sick of it. There is just so much joy and abandon in this song about the break-up of a relationship that it’s hard to not dance along (much like how she did when she sang it on Saturday Night Live).
As much as I loved her debut album, Pure Heroine, her second release has more than delivered on the promise of this young artist. I guess sometimes it just takes a New Zealander to show the rest of the world how pop is done.
Top Tracks: Green Light, Sober II (Melodrama), Perfect Places
#1 – MASSEDUCTION by St Vincent
I have been an ardent follower of St Vincent since she first released her debut album back in 2007. With the release of each of her albums there has been a big change in my life around about the same time. Her music has provided solace, rallying cries and everything in between as I have needed them.
With the release of MASSEDUCTION she somehow manages to continue her streak into three near faultless albums, with this one bring the third of hers to find its way to the top of my end of year list.
I don’t think there are many other artists out there who still put as much work into track order as St Vincent does. Individually the songs are excellent, but she knows exactly how to make her album flow. Motifs from one song bleed into another, themes rise and fall and at the centre of it there is her.
She’s not exactly elusive, but this is the first time in an album where it feels she is allowing us into her inner sanctum. Even though I don’t list it as a top track, ‘Smoking Section’ feels like an incredibly important song in terms of getting to know her as an artist. It’s like ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ and ‘I Prefer Your Love’ from her previous album in that she is allowing us to watch her emotions bleed out in a beautiful catharsis.
In the end, this was such a close run thing between St Vincent and Lorde for the top spot that it would be the fraction of a percentage point. Still, it’s good for St Vincent to, once again, be sitting at the top.
Top Tracks: Los Ageless, Sugarboy, New York