The artist who took the top spot on this list with her previous album Tough Love, Jessie Ware instead fights off quite a large list of albums that could have just made this list with Glasshouse. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Glasshouse – in fact this album features some of the highest points of Ware’s career, most notably the standout vocal performance on opener Midnight, but there’s something missing here. The move into a more MOR balladeer style, thanks in part to the runaway success of the obviously brilliant Say You’ll Love Me a few years ago, is something I was worried about here. The Ed Sheeran assisted track here, Sam manages to be one of the most honest moments on any Jessie Ware record, but overall it’s a slightly disappointing change in direction. That said, killer songs like Thinking About You, Last of The True Believers and standout First Time keep this from being the end of Jessie’s run of great albums.
When Coldplay started over 20 years ago, they made their name with a series of tiny, but well crafted EPs. Throughout their career since we’ve seen pre and post album EP’s pop up and every time I’m impressed by how exciting the band sounds when restricted to just a few tracks. Kaleidoscope recalls Clocks on the transcendent opener All I Can Think About Is You, Hypnotised take us back to the Ghost Stories electronica, while A L I E N S is just about the only track here that could have appeared on the band’s last album, A Head Full Of Dreams. Add on two of my favourite singles of the year and there’s little to dislike here. The experimentation on display here is what makes Kaleidoscope an equal to fully fledged Coldplay records.
Alt-J fill a space within British music with nobody else and with each album they push their boundaries further and further. On Deadcrush, Joe Newman’s piercing and whiney vocal punches through shuffles and drums, a distinctive sound for sure, but then there’s nothing else like it here. Lyrics that are just binary codes being recited out loud make In Cold Blood‘s electronic sound feel wholly natural, while opener 3WW is such a journey, from small guitar led instrumental into choral vocals, then onto a seemingly unaccompanied vocal from Newman, before Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell joins in for a climactic finale. It sets the tone for a record you really can’t predict, and I’m done trying to predict what Alt-J will deliver next.
A lot of people were disappointed with HAIM’s follow up to their outstanding debut Days Are Gone. I’ve seen people ask where the choruses are, while other have questioned if the band were any good to begin with. I was certainly not expecting Something to Tell You to be so predictable. It’s the antithesis to the Alt-J record above in fact. But like the greatest Fleetwood Mac albums it’s solid set of catchy records. That band’s 80s comeback with Tango in the Night is what the Haim sisters have taken direct influence from here on songs like Nothing’s Wrong and You Never Knew, which recall Little Lies and Seven Wonders respectively. Their shamelessness in going all in with the Fleetwood Mac style may have left some fans wondering just what HAIM are supposed to sound like, but when the musicianship on display here is as good as it is I found it easy to enjoy. It helps that songs like Want You Back and the outstanding climax of Right Now are exactly my sort of song.
Who Built The Moon? is the sound of an artist so used to looking to his own past career for inspiration deciding to look elsewhere instead. Where his previous two solo records recaptured the magic of early Oasis albums, there’s pretty much nothing you could imagine his brother singing here. Holy Mountain contains the most irritatingly catchy instrumental hook of his career, but it kind of works. Fort Knox is an instrumental psychedelic number that sets the tone for an album so full of colour it’s hard to even start to call it Indie anymore. Black and White Sunshine is glorious, ending up sounding like Noel Gallagher on a holiday in LA with its blasts of strings and triumphant chorus. The tone of the album is pitched just perfectly. Noel has always written great songs, but Who Built The Moon? comes together as one like the best of his albums do.
Before Calvin Harris became a ‘singles artist’ who focused his attention on having about 700 top 10 singles in the same year and collating them onto Now That’s What I Call Calvin Harris Vol 1 and 2, he made a pair of great standalone albums. It’s no shock that he knows his way around a full length given how proficient he is with 3 minutes of dance music, but even I was a little surprised by this set of Funk Wav Bounces. Feels, Heatstroke, Rollin’ and Slide are all absolutely massive sounding hits, but so is Snoop Dogg’s amazing turn on Holiday, or the intimacy of Jessie Reyez’s vocal on the Prince-esque closer Hard to Love. On an album where Nicki Minaj takes us to dancehall heaven, Pharrell delivers his happiest moments since that certain song and Frank Ocean manages to perform a dance record, it’s Calvin Harris who shines as the brightest star. You can hear his expertly crafted songwriting on every moment here and the result is an album that well and truly bounces.
War & Leisure caught me off guard, Miguel has always been on my radar, but something just clicked for me in 2017 that hadn’t before. Maybe it’s the direct references to ‘The Purple One’ on a track like Pineapple Skies that hit harder now that he is gone. The parallels between Miguel and Prince are part of what makes War & Leisure such a thrilling album. Steamy and as sexually fueled as anything else in his discography, it’s the way this melds in political commentary on a track like Told You So, or literally explodes into a massively produced finale on standout Now. It’s a guitar led record too, with Miguel’s voice creating the perfect counterbalance to the hip thrusting riffs that make every moment as exciting as the last. War & Leisure is the newest album on the list, but the impact it’s had on me is pretty big.
Emo Pop has never sounded so joyous. It’s funny to even consider that the band behind the likes of Told You So, Rose Coloured Boy and the outstanding opener Hard Times emerged as a Rock/Emo/Alternative band and that I was the only person I knew that wasn’t obsessed. It’s also funny to think that those same fans probably abandoned ship long ago to allow someone like me to jump on to enjoy this set of bubbly pop tunes laid on top of cutting lyrics. ‘And if I go out tonight, dress up my fears, you think I’ll look alright with these mascara tears?’ is the sort of lyric on standout Fake Happy that appears across After Laughter; an album that only improves with every listen.
Sampha was a unique talent when he emerged seemingly decades ago alongside Jessie Ware. She’s on her 3rd album and in 2017 Sampha finally released his long awaited debut. Process sounds like exactly that. You can hear the years of work in the clattering of the production on Blood On Me, while you hear it in the flirtation with soul music on Incomplete Kisses. It’s the centerpiece of the beautiful vocal on (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano that allows the rest of the album to develop as a tribute to Sampha’s late mother. You can hear the emotion and pain in making this music across the whole of Process, an album that was well worth the wait.
There’s a run of tracks from the smooth vibes of Passionfruit, through to the full dance hall sound of Blem that is possibly my favourite run of music on any Drake album. Every song blends into the next, Jorja Smith’s incredible vocal performance on Get It Together the almighty peak of the album. Of course More Life is no album though and while many have debated the idea of calling this a playlist or not, I feel that since the release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late Drake has definitely been making playlists. More Life may as well be called More Views. That’s no bad thing though as for every current trend chasing track like Portland, you have the likes of Teenage Fever with its Jennifer Lopez sample and Thank Me Later era Drake performance. I continue to be amazed that Drake is managing to release an set of songs of this quality once if not twice a year. Long may it continue.
By most standards releasing an album 3 years after your last wouldn’t be that big of a break, but for Lady Antebellum, who are on their 6th record in less than a decade this gap was the biggest yet. Heart Break is an attempt to capture the magic of their first few albums and for the most part this comes off just as it should. The Stars and Big Love In A Small Town are perfect Charles and Hillary duet ballads, while Teenage Heart and This City are arena ready foot stampers that made up nearly every one of the bands early singles. All of that aside though, it’s how this break has moved them away from the past that’s the most exciting. You Look Good is brassy brilliance, while the title track and Somebody Else’s Heart are out and out pop hits. It may not be their best album, but the fact my favourite band are still delivering records I love is amazing.
Kelly Clarkson could sing anything. Country, Pop, Rock, Big Band, throw it at Kelly and she can sing the hell out of it. Meaning of Life does something different to her previous albums though and it’s what Kelly actually wants to sing, not just what she can. The result is definitely my favourite album of her career with moments like the booming brass of Whole Lotta Woman and lead single Love So Soft sitting perfectly alongside the storming vocals of Don’t You Pretend and the title track. Everything is steeped in soul though, so that when Clarkson recalls her own rock-chick past on Medicine that powerful voice is controlled rather than frantic. It’s notable that Kelly only co-wrote 4 of the songs here, she’s singing music that’s been written specifically for her voice and the results are outstanding.
Stormzy didn’t just arrive with his debut album in 2017, he became the face of youth culture. It’s no understatement to see a specific moment in the phone call from ‘godfather of grime’ Crazy Titch near the end of Gang Signs & Prayer that sums everything up ‘We don’t really know what Grime is, but we know who Stormzy is’. I’ve had conversations with people who would’t know their Boy Better Know from their Boy In Da Corner, but thanks to songs like Shut Up, Big For Your Boots and most interestingly Blinded By Your Grace (Pt 2) they’d be able to name more than one song here. The blend of RnB on Cigarettes & Cush or the chilled vibe of Velvet is a notable departure from the pure Grime of Cold. ‘Man thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing’ leading into a radio interlude from Heart DJ Jenny Francis; absolutely genius. The skrrt of opener First Things First sets Stormzy’s sights on the world, not just the UK, while the aforementioned gospel moment, where MNEK delivers a career best vocal, doesn’t just fit alongside the hip hop it elevates Gang Signs & Prayer into being a landmark debut record. Stormzy isn’t trying to fit into any genre or career path here, he’s doing his own thing and it’s incredible to witness.
A set of recorded versions of old Chris Stapleton songs that were written long before he started his debut solo album isn’t exactly what you’d expect to see on a ‘Best Albums’ list, but From a Room Vol 1 manages to better even that Grammy winning debut album. Without Your Love sees Chris and wife Morgane harmonise like never before, while Second One To Know and I Was Wrong up the Bluesy stakes not only with outstanding vocals, but storming guitar riffs; the second verse of the latter culminating with one of the greatest vocal performances of 2017. Either Way is a stark ballad recalling Whiskey and You from Traveller, there’s certainly nothing here that’s too unexpected. The whole album captures the immediacy of a live performance, it feels more like a hit filled live set than a brand new album.
The return of Kesha is the year’s biggest success and seeing her earn her very first Grammy nomination and scoring another US #1 with an album as cohesive as Rainbow makes me extremely happy. From opener Bastards, Kesha says exactly what she’s feeling ‘I’ve been underestimated my entire life/I know people gonna talk shit, and darling, that’s just fine’ is as cutting as it is inspirational once she proves herself on every single track here. Her southern roots firmly in mind on the likes of Hunt You Down, the stomping Boots or the poignant title track, it’s the duet with Dolly Parton on the song Kesha’s own mother wrote for the legendary country star that seems to be a love letter to the town that made her. Elsewhere Hymn and Learn To Let Go see the electronic sounds we have been used to clashing with a newly found soaring vocal, while Praying is not only my favourite single of 2017 it’s a landmark achievement from one of the decade’s best pop stars. Rainbow is a brilliant album and one that reclaims Kesha’s place as exactly that.