The best that 2017 had to offer, with apologies to all the records I didn’t get around to or 2016 behemoths from A Tribe Called Quest or Frank Ocean that consumed a lot of listening hours.
10. Kendrick – DAMN.
I felt like I missed a trick in 2017 with regards to this album. It is the top of many end-of-year lists, taking out the Pazz & Jop poll (which collates them all) as well. And deservedly so, to be honest: it’s a hyper-focused record with a clear thematic narrative packed to the hilt with all that makes Kendrick so great: bangers, fierce rapping, hard-hitting, socially conscious lyricism and a completely unsurpassed gift for storytelling (how the fuck do you build an entire career and not drop the story that your label boss nearly killed your father before you were born until your fourth album?!). Unfortunately for me, for whatever reason, I just never connected with it on the level that others did. To Pimp a Butterfly remains an all-timer – MBDTF is the only hip-hop record of the last decade that can stand toe-to-toe with it – and the highs of untitled. unmastered., good kid, m.A.A.d city and Section.80 are never far from the mind. I’ve never been able to put my finger quite on why DAMN. just doesn’t click for me. Maybe because it’s not made for white indie rock lovers. I don’t know.
All this said though, it’s a testament to Kendrick’s talents – there can be no doubt whatsoever that he’s the best artist going around at the moment and has been for a few years – that it still comfortably lands in my top 10. It’s Kendrick’s ‘poppiest’ record, for lack of a much better word – it’s head-scratching that tracks like “LOYALTY.” and “GOD.” And “LOVE.” weren’t more omnipotent last year – but it also feels like perhaps his most effortless, genuine record (and Kendrick said something to that effect, arguing that it was the culmination of all the music he’d put out before it).
There have been countless people who have written far better than I could about the album’s story, so I’ll just talk about what is fucking great about it: “YAH.” has a hypnotic, heady beat to complement Kendrick’s laidback, considered rapping, while “FEEL.”, also produced by Sounwave, doubles down on the heady beat but has a more panicked Kendrick railing against the claustrophobia of an unjust world. Slow jam “PRIDE.” recalls André 3000 at his most experimental on The Love Below. “GOD.” is another slow jam, more wistful. I must also make mention of U2, who feature on “XXX.” Not surprisingly, it’s infinitely better than the two rubbish U2 songs that Kendrick inexplicably jumped from last year, but, surprisingly, it’s also the best song on DAMN. for mine, moving between several different moods, from reflective to savage and back again, all over the course of a four-and-a-bit minutes. The U2 feature, a small snippet of Bono singing over a gorgeous, beach-at-sunset beat, is as good as they have sounded in years. It just took another all-time great to bring it out in them.
9. Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage
It can be hard to write about instrumental albums; particularly when you’re not a musician who has very little knowledge of what it actually takes to construct it. Unfortunately, listening to music is about my only hobby and writing is definitely my only talent. What I try to do in lieu of being able to write expertly about music is get across a sense of the emotion that comes with it. Visible Cloaks were an artist I was not familiar with prior to discovering their music through Pitchfork. Reassemblage – not to mention their terrific late-year EP Lex – had garnered plenty of praise, and being someone who has always loved ambient (thanks to a long love affair with Brian Eno) I gave it a spin.
It became probably my second or third most-played record of 2017 (behind the top few on this list) and yet, aside from “Terrazzo”, I couldn’t name any of the tracks. Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile have carved out an utterly gorgeous landscape, one that’s perfect for background music whilst working, music to centre you in the midst of a panic attack or even music to be directly engaged with: there’s such a deep world of sounds here that close listens reward deeply as well. In the chaotic world we’ve created for ourselves there’s always room for music that reminds us of the beauty of just listening once in a while.
8. St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
Few artists demand attention quite as much as St Vincent. From one album cycle to the next, she is always changing, refusing to sit still or fit in an easily-labelled box. Fewer artists still manage to back up it all up with knock-out music. Annie Clark consistently does. MASSEDUCTION, her fifth album, is another shift in style, embracing a pop music aesthetic more so than ever before. Of course, this being St Vincent, it’s done with a fervent individuality, so if you come into MASSEDUCTION expecting this to be the record that makes her the equal of the Taylor Swifts of the world – or alternatively, like me, you’re hoping for a return to some of the sounds found on her masterpiece Strange Mercy or one-off singles like “Teenage Talk” – you’ll be disappointed. But once you accept those facts, you’re left with an extremely impressive album that proves Clark can bloody well do as she pleases and still pulls it off every damn time.
MASSEDUCTION largely has a poppy, electronic-led sound to it, a new turn, but, a little like another electronic-heavy album by an indie rock star, there’s still plenty going on beneath the sheen. There’s the guitar savagery Clark has become known for, on “Los Ageless”, a scathing take-down of the city of Angels, there’s knotty outro freak-outs (“Masseduction”, Fear the Future”). But most of all there’s plenty of beauty, tied up though it is in heartbreaking ballads (“New York”, “Happy Birthday Johnny”, “Slow Disco”) or hidden underneath new sounds (“Pills”, “Hang On Me”). Maybe this isn’t the exact album *I* wanted from St Vincent at this point in time, but ultimately it delivers another handful of stellar songs that ensures her discography can match that of any of her peers.
7. Tyler – Scum Fuck Flower Boy
On “Rusty”, from his bloated, inconsistent third album Wolf, Tyler the Creator rapped “the Analog fans are getting sick of the rape / and the Tron Cat fans are getting sick of the lakes”, referencing two stylistically divergent tracks from his breakthrough Goblin. The former is a warm, upbeat track about young love while the latter is a repugnant ‘banger’ full of Tyler’s most caustic lyrics. For a long while Tyler seemed to be hedging his bets, and we were never sure where he’d end up, hence a few spotty albums. But to his eternal credit, it looks like he’s chosen the Analog path. Scum Fuck Flower Boy is by a long way Tyler’s best record, his most fully-formed, most interesting and most engaging. Much has been made of the Scum Fuck’s frank admissions of homosexuality – from which it can be surmised that his previous homophobia was an internalised, tough-man front – but to minimise the album to just those moments does it a great disservice.
This is a record packed wall-to-wall with gorgeous beats and instrumentation, and one that also makes great use of space – often times Tyler’s nowhere to be seen, allowing the beats to roll out at their own pace or giving time to the guests like Frank Ocean, Kali Uchis, Estelle, Steve Lacy. An inward-looking record, the best tracks find Tyler exploring existential crises over beautiful beats (see “911 / Mr Lonely”, “Pothole”, “See You Again”, “Where This Flower Blooms”) and even the harder-edged bangers (“Who Dat Boy”, “I Ain’t Got Time!”) are welcome, providing the album – which is impeccably sequenced, by the way – with a nice burst of energy, never overpowering or offensive. Exciting times lay ahead.
6. Kardajala Kirridarra – Kardajala Kirridarra
Hands-down the best and most exciting debut of 2017, Kardajala Kirridarra is the self-titled first offering from four Indigenous women: singer-songwriter Eleanor ‘Nalyirri’ Dixon, Eleanor’s aunt (and translator, story-teller and poet) Janey ‘Namija’ Dixon, MC Kayla Jackson and Melbourne-based producer Beatrice ‘Nalyirri’ Lewis. It translates to ‘Sandhill Women’, reflecting the Marlinja and Kulumindini communities the Dixons and Jackson are from. Their story has been told in greater detail and with more context than I can provide, so be sure to read for an insight into the ethos behind the group. Though clocking in at only 31 minutes, Kardajala Kirridarra is an immersive experience, borne from the women’s desires to tell their story through song – “I had a friend who moved to Alice and gave the women sewing workshops while the men were doing music workshops”. Split between English and the Mudburra language, as well as both traditional and modern music, the record is an exciting glimpse of the diversity in Australian music that one hopes will become ever more mainstream.
Opening track “Abala Barlawa (Everything Was at Peace)” sets the tone perfectly with its haunting background vocals and slow, steady beat. The electronica of “Two Worlds Collide” perhaps best describes the group’s raison d’être – “ancient time / in a new paradigm” while tracks like “Ngurra (Rain Song)” show off the women’s innate talents for mixing traditional Indigenous sounds with hip-hop, electronica and ambient music. Their voices drift effortlessly over the top, creating layer upon on layer of beauty – whilst acknowledging past pains – that transport you to a better world. As Eleanor Dixon says, “We need to acknowledge the fact that we all come from somewhere and that we all have a beautiful country that we can share. It’s time to move forward in a way that we all feel good about.” In the context of long-overdue debates about Australia Day, the Uluru Statement, recognition and more, voices like those of Kardajala Kirridarra become all the more important.
5. Ali Barter – A Suitable Girl
I first became aware of Ali Barter when she opened for Waxahatchee at the Toff in Town back in 2015. Whilst Waxahatchee’s set was great it was Barter’s whose left a mark on my memory. A few months later she released the excellent AB EP, and then in 2016 released two tracks from the forthcoming A Suitable Girl – “Girlie Bits” and “Far Away”. The former set the world alight, an upbeat rock-pop track with its tongue firmly in cheek: an excoriating middle finger to hypocritical, sexist men. “Give us a smile, baby / act like a real lady,” Barter sings in the sickly sweet, condescending tones of a man who knows better. The track is also a takedown of the sort of shit female artists face: “give us a smile, princess / it’s better for business”. Barter wrote a brilliant oped for Junkee on how female artists have been consistently undervalued for decades. Let’s hope that we’re finally starting to see that change.
In the meantime, Barter’s debut album is a revelation, and one of the best offerings of the year. Aside from “Girlie Bits” there’s plenty more catchy, upbeat rock songs that get stuck in your head for days, like opener “Cigarette” or “Light Them on Fire”. Barter’s guitar playing is reminiscent of many bastions of 90s indie rock, and she’s every bit the equal of other concurrent badasses like Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, Annie Clark and many others – check out her soloing on tracks like the give-and-take closer “Walk/Talk”. And though the album is shot through with a sunny pop sensibility, there’s also darker moments that further show off her versatility: album highlight “The Captain” is all jangled nerves and sneering cynicism while the slower, stunning “Tokyo” finds two people not able to honest with each other. I’m seeing Ali Barter in a few weeks and can’t wait to see how these tracks take shape live, and then what she does next.
4. Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes
It’s weird to describe Los Campesinos! as experiencing a resurgence, given they never really went anywhere, but there was a time about five years ago when the band had hit something of a flat spot. In 2012 they released the turgid Hello Sadness, a record even the band themselves consider their nadir, and by the end of the year founding member Ellen Campesinos! announced she was leaving the band. It triggered a bit of panic into the hearts of fans, sending a whole generation of faux-romantics into a meltdown. Ellen was a crucial part of the LC! aesthetic, being the softer counterpoint to lead singer Gareth’s more acerbic existential crises. So, we all wondered, how would Los Campesinos! respond without one of their chief creative inputs, coming off the back of good-but-not-great fourth album? As it turns out, by writing some of the most vital music of their career. In 2013 came the excellent No Blues, and last year they released Sick Scenes. Both albums are decidedly less twee than the band’s first three albums, but that was a sound unlikely to have been sustainable over a whole career.
Sick Scenes finds LC! back at the peak of their poppy indie punk rock powers. Sweetly rocking opener “Renata Dell’Ara 2008” is classic LC!, replete with an obscure soccer metaphor and biting humour – our would-be Marxist protagonist denying his affluent parents’ pool is a conflict of interest: “that doesn’t make me rich, no way! It’s only outdoor and isn’t heated!” The effortless energy is kept at pace for the record’s first three tracks, though the bittersweet tones of the opener and “Sad Suppers” head south on lead single “I Broke Up in Amarante”. It’s familiar territory for LC!, all urgent, panicked vocals, call-and-response chorus, driving rhythm section and affecting guitar. “The Fall of Home”, a stunning, wistful acoustic take on economic malaise, is less familiar but no less imbued with emotion, while “5 Flucloxacillin” is further proof of Gareth’s incredible ability to write lines that hit like a ton of bricks even while wrapped up in verbose concepts. “Another blister pack pops,” he sighs, “31 and depression is a young man’s game”. All this is not to mention dark belters like “For Whom the Belly Tolls” or moody, atmospheric offerings like “Got Stendhal’s”. I could go on, but just listen to it, if you remotely enjoy indie rock you’ll love it.
3. The National – Sleep Well Beast
I kind of hated this album for a while. Trouble Will Find Me – an album I would firmly put in my top 25 or so of all-time – was a tough act to follow. Loved the lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, thought the other pre-release tracks were not bad. But when the album came out I came away from it decidedly unconnected to it. This is partly due to significant changes that have happened in my life between the last two National records. Where TWFM was like a warm hug in the midst of chronic anxiety and unrequited crushes, by the time Sleep Well Beast rolled around I’d been in a loving two-year relationship. I was a mess when TWFM came out; stable when Sleep Well Beast dropped. Because of some of self-destructive tendencies, I’d always used music like The National’s as a shoulder to cry on; but now, happier, I found myself getting anxious because my increased levels of stability had taken away some of my need to continuously connect to depressing music. Ridiculous.
The funny thing about Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh record, though, is that it’s one that speaks to where I’m at now. Unlike some of its predecessors, it’s less immediate, and takes its time to unfold on you. It’s a deeply personal record about adulthood; more than one track finds frontman Matt Berninger meeting his partner in the hallway for a drink and a moan. The stunning, hushed piano of “Nobody Else Will Be There” sets the tone for the record brilliantly, never rising out of first gear. Matt is singer in a lower register than usual, and after a couple of albums of him clearing his voice it’s a thrill to hear him retreat a little. Also refreshing is the band’s embrace of electronic sounds, which adds another layer to the band’s onion-like musical landscape. You’ll find these glitchy bleeps and bloops at the beginning of “I’ll Still Destroy You”, the album’s emotional centrepiece – and originally my most hated track – a completely gorgeous ode to embracing our vices in the face of a cantankerous brain. The despondent verses – “nothing I do / makes me feel different” – are offset by the rousing choruses, and suddenly a scene appears – a group of dear friends, drunk and/or high, dancing their cares away at 5am. Is it good advice? No, but there’s something beautiful in hedonism as a coping mechanism every now and then.
The album winds down from that moment, lulling its way through solemn regret (“Guilty Party”), hazy piano waltzing (“Carin at the Liquor Store”, “Dark Side of the Gym”), before coming to a close as if we’re falling asleep after a long and illustrious bender with “Sleep Well Beast”. Berninger parses his vocals down again, this time amidst feather-light synths, horns and piano. Eventually, his eyelids begin to close. I’ll still destroy you someday, he hums, though it’s not really clear now what he’s actually talking about. Sleep well beast.
2. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Saying goodbye to LCD Soundsystem was emotional. I always held out hope that they’d come back, but never in a million years did I think they’d come back better than ever. It was a long wait, from first announcement until first new song, and longer still until we finally got our hands on American Dream. I am probably in the minority in thinking this, but I firmly believe it is the best record LCD Soundsystem have ever put out, and would have comfortably been #1 on my list most other years. Their three previous albums, though all stellar in different ways, had faults. Songs that outstayed their welcome, experiments that didn’t quite pay off, filler here and there. Not so on American Dream: every single song is, at some point, utterly compelling, both musically and lyrically, and that hasn’t been seen on a single LCD record before.
Take “Other Voices”, which begins all slow and wormy bass synths, nothing that hasn’t been done before. But the paranoia in both music and Murphy’s lyrics slowly grow, culminating in a brilliant comedown verse from Nancy Whang. “Other Voices” kicks off an absolutely insane five-track run (covering some 34 minutes) in which the unrelenting vibe kicks your arse, from the looping synths of “I Used To” to “Change Yr Mind’s” Bowie-in-Berlin squalling, to the utter mania of “How Do You Sleep” and then the punishing beat of “Tonite”. Lead single “Call the Police” finally provides a bit of relief as LCD add U2 to their list of impressions, a torch song for young socialists in a crushing capitalist society. It, along with bittersweet opener “Oh Baby”, are the only beacons from Murphy on American Dream, however. The prevailing moods are anxiety, paranoia, regret, ageing, anger. On “How Do You Sleep” and “Tonite” Murphy is as caustic as he has ever been, savaging the music industry, while on “Change Yr Mind”, “Emotional Haircut” and “I Used To” he turns it inwards.
The other mood, found on the album’s two biggest emotional punchers, is one of exhaustion. The title track is breathtaking. Amidst heart-wrenching, despondent synths, Murphy, now in his mid-40s, wakes up after a night on acid, having dropped all pretence of his songs being universal. “In the morning everything’s clearer / when the sunlight exposes your age…” The spectre of dead rock stars – Suicide’s Alan Vega, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Bowie – hang over the song, “more will go with age, you know / so get up and stop you’re complaining”, as they do much of the album. But nowhere is it more obvious than the downbeat ambient closer, the 12-minute “Black Screen” a soft and heartbreaking ode to Murphy’s greatest hero. Murphy, anxious about reuniting his band, sought advice from Bowie, who told him it was a good thing that he felt uncomfortable, for that would lead to the best art. Some might view “Black Screen”, or indeed, the entire reunion, self-indulgent; I’m simply eternally thankful for the beauty it has given us. Welcome back, James, Nancy, Al, Gavin, Tyler, Pat, et al. We love you.
1. Gang of Youths – Go Farther in Lightness
First and foremost, I need to give credit to my partner Emily. She was into Gang of Youths long before I was, so pretty much all the credit for my love for the band needs to go to her, and the six-CD stacker in her car that oscillated between Gang of Youths’ debut The Positions and five National records.
What I didn’t know was how hard I would fall. Go Farther in Lightness came out 18 August. By that point, I was enjoying them: “Magnolia” is an all-timer, and there were plenty of good tracks I was digging from their debut. A few weeks later, Em and I saw Gang of Youths at Festival Hall and, well, it was not far short of life-changing.
But I’m really here to talk about my #1 album of 2017, which is indisputably Go Farther in Lightness. Along with their live show, it feels like a fucking moment. We don’t know what the future holds, but this might be the dawning of that incredibly rare beast, the triple threat: commercially successful, beloved by fans and critic darlings.
I will admit from that Go Farther has flaws. At an hour and 17 minutes, it’s longer than some double albums, and several of the tracks could take a haircut and not much would be lost. Lyrically, too, it can be slightly on-the-nose at times, and the unrelenting positivity rubs some the wrong way. And yet, amazingly, all of these things are part of what makes the album so remarkable: maybe it shouldn’t work, but it does. And not just work, but fucking smash it out of the park. And even when you think you might get sick of listening to it, another one of its many huge single-worthy tracks – FOURTEEN of its songs were shortlisted on the Hottest 100 – gets stuck in your head and you’re listening to it all over again.
It’s kind of tough to talk about individual tracks here, because it flows so incredibly well as whole. One song ends and when the next begins it’s as if this is from a band that has been playing together for decades, not a little over five years. The instrumental French-entitled interludes play their part to perfection, breaking up the aspiring reach of the tracks in between. But even the interludes can’t take a back seat; “Le Symbolique”, the best of the lot, is affecting as hell with its heartrending strings. Incredible.
I had to pick a favourite song from this album for the other list but it was such hard work. It honestly could have been any one of “Fear and Trembling”, the terrific “Thunder Road”-style opener, or “Atlas Drowned”, on which Gang of Youths do The National better than The National do it themselves, or “Say Yes to Life”, the impeccable, blood-pumping finale, or “The Deepest Shadows, The Frankest Sighs”, probably the record’s biggest festival-ready single, or the gorgeous, bittersweet ballad “Keep Me in the Open”, or “Le Symbolique” or “The Heart is a Muscle” or “Let Me Down Easy” or “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane”.
All this is to say that I am eternally grateful for this band, and to be living in a time where I’m gonna be able to grow up with them. And we’re bloody lucky for that, lead singer Dave La’aupepe’s back story is incredibly sad, and yet he’s pulling his heart out and putting it down on wax. This album is already an all-time favourite, and I’m smiling a huge fucking smile just thinking about a future soundtracked by Gang of Youths. Their music is what it sounds like to live, and to enjoy life without guilt having been through some shit. That the best way to live our lives is to just fucking enjoy it. It makes me feel so good, instantly improves my mood whenever I hit play, and lets you know that it’s okay to let loose and search for purpose in good times. Now, let me finish writing and get back to it. “Break me off a piece of that, and mix it in with a little wine…”