2017 has been a baffling year. With just a few days of it left, I feel I’m still getting over January. As much as anything else, this list is a way for me to start getting my head around it. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s some of my highlights of 2017. [Scroll to the bottom for an even more extensive playlist Max made! – Caspar]
Best All-Rounder: Willie J Healey
It’s hard to express how good Willie J Healey is at everything he does, so I won’t waste too many words trying to describe his appeal. Instead, anyone wanting to become a fan should just spend some time following anything he makes or does. His LP, People and Their Dogs, is gorgeously crafted and varied. His live shows are giddy but precise, him and his band playing songs four or five at a time, without breaks, to an adoring audience. Even things like the zine he released or his Instagram posts tend not to miss the mark.
Best case for mainstream music being damn good this year: DAMN.
Kendrick is killing it – he has been for some time. After his jazzy experimentation on To Pimp a Butterfly, he returned to more conventional rap on DAMN., though with his diverse range of influences still clear. It’s a stunning album – stylistically hard-hitting, though lyrically sophisticated, full of dualities and powerful political statements and earnest confessions. It’s a promising sign that an artist as good as him is topping the charts. It seems especially lucky, too, that hip-hop is now in a coveted position amongst genres as far as streams and sales go, as rap leads its listeners to examine its lyrical content. Unlike other best-selling musical acts who have tried to deliver messages in their music, it seems Kendrick is managing to get his to sink in. We have yet to see if DAMN. has any songs that will become widespread political chants as “Alright” did for the Black Lives Matter movement, but regardless it has already made a powerful statement, and it’s bloody great we’ll continue hearing it on radio stations and bluetooth speakers for years to come.
Runner up: How Did We Get So Dark by Royal Blood – it feels like rock this aggressive hasn’t been played this much on Radio 1 at any other point in my lifetime.
Best Merch: Get Inuit/Indoor Pets
The newly renamed Get Inuit – now known as Indoor Pets – know how to appeal. Their songs somehow both feel excitingly homespun and have a instant catchy sing-along quality to them. Their T-shirts are much the same, unpretentious but instantly appealing, with big letters spelling out some of their most motto-worthy lyrics. My personal favourite says “I’m wasting my life”, though “We’re all going to hell” is a close second in my book.
Runner up: Pumarosa, with their printed-all-over tee.
Best Song Covers: Show Me How You Want It To Be
Slothrust are effortlessly excellent at what they do: punchy, stripped-down alternative which ranges from acoustic confessions of aquatic self-alienation to distorted heavy metal riffs. The brilliantly named Show Me How You Want It To Be sees the trio, lead by Leah Wellbaum, take on well-known classics and artists’ deeper cuts alike. Their version of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” teases out its lyrical beauty, whereas “What a Wonderful World” blunts Louis Armstrong’s soulful glee in what feels like a more everyday transformative appreciation of mundanity. Most exciting, though, is the rendition of The Turtles’ 1967 “Happy Together”, a straightforward enough ballad which soon tumbles into a harsh, overdriven wall of vamps and piercing screams.
If you have a spare half-hour, go listen right now. You’ll no doubt be surprised.
Runner up: Swiss Jazz trio VEIN, whose album of Ravel songs is a respectful but inventive update of the source material.
Best use of a drum machine: “Is This What You Wanted?”
HMLTD’s dense songs and legendarily weird concerts have already made them a band to watch in the coming year. It’s “Is This What You Wanted?” that has me most excited, though, as it masterfully shifts from moody, tiptoeing laments to vicious rock outbursts. When the drum track, the supposed backbone of any song, starts speeding up frantically, it is exhilarating without feeling stilted. Like a cooler Death Grips, HMLTD rattles you in the best way possible, both innovating and bringing post-punk pinnacles like the gothic stylings of Bauhaus to mind.
Runner up: Clairo’s “Pretty Girl”, of which the lack of effort to dress its drum track up – or to slather on makeup for the video – gives it a cool authority.
Best Collaboration: Sketches of Brunswick East
Sorry Kurt and Courtney, but my favourite collaborative album this year was the result of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard joining forces with Mild High Club to make a gorgeously entrancing LP – one of four King Gizzard records that have come out this year, at the time of writing. After Murder of the Universe, a narrative of worldly destruction delivered to heavy metal riffs that was awesome and funny but not particularly long-lived, Sketches was a welcome release. A cool but complex psychedelic swirl, it is both very easy to listen to and very hard to just listen to. On several occasions, putting it on has brought the room I’m in to a focused silence, people tapping their fingers along to the syncopated beats.
Fans of KG&TLW have a lot to thank Mild High Club for, as it seems that this particular collaboration allowed the more unnecessary idiosyncratic characteristics of King Gizz to be reined in and their creativity to be refocused, with great results.
Runner up: Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – the video for “Over Everything” is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
Best anthemic rock: The Witch
Pumarosa have an intuited, stadium-worthy energy right out of the gate, and the long-teased The Witch proved it. Its title – the name of one of their songs, too – is a perfect descriptor for singer and guitarist Isabel Munoz-Newsome. During the concert of theirs I saw, she stood at the centre of the stage, channeling the songs’ rhythms and lyrics as if from an occult source, and magnetising the band and the audience into a trancelike state hanging on her every symbolic movement. Every drum hit, bass lick and keyboard flourish, every breathed word, guitar note and saxophone moan seems simply to fit in as a further point of connection with the hidden source of their music.
To listen to them, whether a record or live, is to tap into this musical mysticism and for it to find expression in your mind and body. This is the sort of music people could go on pilgrimages to arenas for. Watch their live performance of “Priestess” to get a sense of their incredible music and performances.
Runner up: “I Saw You Close Your Eyes” by Local Natives, with its soaring violins.
Best self-aware pop: Everything Now
Ever since their Grammy-winning 2010 album The Suburbs, Arcade Fire have had more than their fair share of bitter fans angry at them for allowing their music to morph into something more acceptable for Top 40’s radio to play. They’ve also had one of the best reactions to this, though. Most bands uncomfortably ignore the complaints of people still worshipping their early demos as their magnum opera, but Arcade Fire took after their hero and greatest advocate, David Bowie. Everything Now furthered their tongue-in-cheek embracement of polished, synth-heavy pop as Bowie’s Let’s Dance did, and though they don’t have his same lyrical subtlety, they have lots to say about ever-increasing consumerism and marketing. Watch the annotated “Official Official Video” for “Creature Comfort”, both very funny but plausible enough to border on being tragic.
Runner up: Lorde’s Melodrama. “Perfect Places” is, well, a perfect soundtrack to the hedonism we knowingly pretend to enjoy.
Amber Mark’s 3:33am, LCD Soundsystem’s american dream, The Horrors’ V, The Big Moon’s Love in the 4th Dimension, and anything from my Spotify playlist below.
-- Max Bastow, December 22, 2017