10 Best records of 2017
Life & Livin' It
If you find yourself grumpily counting down the days till spring and longing for some warmth and sunshine, Sudanese/American musician Sinkane’s new record is just the thing to pull you through. Life and Livin’ It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a life-affirming collection of funky tunes that will make you want to sing, hop and stomp—you won’t be able to sit down even if you try.
An electrifying blend of Africa-inspired melodies, soulful vocals, steamy horns and Cuban beats, it takes you on a journey of music tropes ranging from Fela Kuti to Michael Jackson. And the best bit? Those flavoursome, multi-layered arrangements that make the most out of every beat—and will leave you begging for more!
by Rachael Yamagata
Inspired by high-wire man Philippe Petit, singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata’s new album ponders why we do things in life. It’s a warm, homey, Sunday-morning kind of record defined by her one-of-a-kind vocals: a smoky, chocolaty alto, ranging from velvety crooning to gutsy, Joplin-like howls—both of which she makes the most of on this album. Similarly, she doesn’t shy away from experimenting with genre: there’s the bossa nova-inspired “Tightrope Walker”; the edgier blues-rock riffs of “Nobody” and even some string arrangements in “I’m Going Back”—all of which the singer pulls off with effortless ease.
And then there’s “Let Me Be Your Girl”: a soulful, hearty ballad with 1960s girl band-style backup vocals, horns and mellow guitar filling every nook and cranny—pure bliss. Yamagata’s consistent warmth and disarming simplicity will make this record a solid comfort staple in your music library.
by Kendrick Lamar
If anyone still had any doubts about Kendrick Lamar’s status as the most exciting hip-hop artist around, DAMN should have blown those doubts out of the water. Be it structure, lyrics or music, the album emits pure passion and imagination of a man at his creative peak. DAMN is a self-contained, cyclical story (you can listen to it backwards), filled with incisive parables, internal exploration as well as musings on racism, death, pride, and so much more.
There are no fancy frills or grace notes—Lamar lets the reverberating beats and his uncompromising rapping do all the talking. From the ferocious, earth-shattering “DNA” through the sensual and melodic “LOYALTY” accompanied by Rihanna, to the undiluted, in-your-face “HUMBLE”, it’s one of the most exciting and inspired releases of 2017.
Turn Up the Quiet
by Diana Krall
The latest record from “the queen of jazz” Diana Krall is a nifty collection of jazz standards, offering a nostalgic throwback to the snazzy old sounds of the 40s and 50s. Krall’s delivery is comfortingly traditional: joyful and in-the-moment, yet assured and expertly controlled. Her characteristically husky vocals—though sensual and sultry—maintain a laid-back coolness channelling Sinatra-style swagger.
Turn Up the Quiet is a title that sets the tone perfectly for this album: the instrumentation here is low-key and sparing: every double bass note and every snare brush has its own special purpose, aiming to accentuate and play off Krall’s bewitching performance. Her take on the Cumbia classic “Sway” is an absolute showstopper: slow, dramatic and sexy, it allows every sound—from a quiver of a lip to a click of the tongue—to take the spotlight. An absolute must for any fan of swanky pre-bop and smoky shoebox jazz clubs.
English indie-rock trio alt-J return with their third studio album Relaxer, proving once again that they’re one of the most innovative bands around. While serving generous portions of frontman Joe Newman’s signature distorted, yearning vocals, Relaxer also digs deep into vastly diverse musical influences, from the rockabilly oomph of “Hit Me Like That Snare” to the neo-folky splendour of “Pleader”—all of them neatly folded into one dynamic, elaborate whole.
Every now and then, the boys shift gears with the occasional dirge, tiptoeing on the verge of Ennio Morricone’s Western scores. One such example is the knock-you-off-your-feet cover of “House of the Rising Sun”. Popularised by The Animals’ searing, bluesy rendition, alt-J’s version is everything you wouldn’t expect this traditional folk song to be—unsettling, slow-moving and grandiose, it belongs on lonesome journeys home and art-house film soundtracks.
by Fleet Foxes
It’s been six years since the last Fleet Foxes record and—overshadowed as they were in the interim by their former-drummer-turned-folk-superstar Father John Misty—there’s immense pressure for this third album to deliver. With a sigh of almost audible relief, it does. Singer Robin Pecknold’s voice rasps in a deeper register than he’s explored before, and his writing has taken on a bleaker tone too with lyrics as frustrating as they are impressive in their complexity.
The intellectual obsessions that permeated Helplessness Blues come to a head with references to the US civil war, ancient Egypt, F Scott Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali and… um… Katie Price. Dense in the best sense, Crack-Up brings a new texture to the definitive Fleet Foxes sound. Several tracks are interrupted by sounds of nature: chirping birds, splashing water, singing school children and wooden doors creaking to a close, like flowers growing up through cracks in the pavement. For all its density, and over-embellishment, it’s impossible not to be swept away in Crack-Up’s currents.
by Queens of the Stone Age
More danceable than ever but still packing that heavy-duty QOTSA punch, Villains is the musical equivalent of an old Western saloon brawl, with bottles and fists flying, piano playing and everyone having a good, rowdy time. The album’s much funkier and playful than anything the band has ever done before as it delightfully flirts with rockabilly and funk influences.
The highlights include the bouncy, bass-driven "Feet Don’t Fail Me Now", the love-crazed, macho "The Way You Used to Do" and the delicious "Domesticated Animals" featuring a killer build-up layered with clap-rhythms and aggressive guitar riffs. Cool, frisky and hedonistic, Villians will make you feel 16 again, so dig out that leather jacket and your old dancing shoes!
by Tori Amos
To know Tori Amos is to fall under the spell of her inimitable voice. Sultry and dynamic, it’s at the heart of everything she does. While the warm rasp seduces you with its alluring femininity, the histrionic pitch-shifts make your stomach drop like a roller coaster ride. On her 15th studio album, Native Invader, Amos uses the magic of these vocals to channel Mother Nature and her ability to heal and renew through the cycles of death and rebirth.
Sonically, the record mimics this subject matter beautifully: the soundscapes are mossy, echoic and buzzing with electronic loops, recalling crinkly forest floors and foggy mountain roads. But it wouldn’t be Tori Amos without the piano taking the spotlight; rich in hard-hitting, moody chords, it elevates the vocals to ecstatic heights. Together, they form a loving tryst, which makes the basis for such wistful ballads as “Breakaway” and “Bang”. The stuff of dreams, no less.
I Tell A Fly
by Benjamin Clementine
With his unusual sense of style, mesmerising stage presence and an incredible story of success (from homeless busker to Mercury Prize-winning musician) Benjamin Clementine is one intriguing individual. And then there’s the music. Listening to his genre-bending sophomore album, you can’t help but wonder if this man’s been genuinely touched by some kind of higher force. The visceral tenor seems to come out of him like some unbridled, primal urge he has no power to control.
Put on “God Save the Jungle” for a taste of his grandiose approach to melody and limitless musical ambition, or give “Phantom of Aleppoville” a spin to witness how a feverish harpsichord-driven night terror blossoms into a tender, mournful ballad. I Tell a Fly is his magnum opus so far—half rock opera, half religious experience, it may well be one of the best albums of 2017.
by Robert Finley
Blues fans, you’re in for a treat. Goin’ Platinum! is a godsend for ears thirsty for some timeless, unadulterated vocals wrapped in tight, plucky rock ‘n’ roll jangles. The former is provided by Robert Finley—a phenomenal singer who, forced to retire from carpentry when he lost most of his eyesight, re-emerged on the music scene at 63. His current sound is courtesy of one of the hottest names in contemporary blues-rock—The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced and co-wrote this record. Together, they form an explosive duo that’ll make your bones tingle.
Finley’s exquisite, soulful vocals lead a whole host of incredible musicians making Motown-inspired magic on sleek guitars and crisp horns. From the red-blooded “Medicine Woman” echoing the frenzied spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, to the instrumental insanity of “Complications”, Goin’ Platinum! is a blues feast with all the trimmings.