I had countless people telling me during 2015 and 2016 that Dua Lipa was the verge of breaking through as the biggest new popstar in the UK. I kept asking for the reasons why, I hadn’t quite ‘got’ what the deal was, Be The One was a perfectly nice pop record but wouldn’t be a huge hit; I was wrong. Hotter Than Hell was just a one off; Blow Your Mind (Mwah) and IDGAF proved me wrong soon after. She would never fully break through to the mainstream; New Rules was not only one of the biggest and best songs of the year, it helped Dua herself be the UK’s most streamed woman of 2017. I was wrong and when the album itself finally arrived I was so glad to be wrong. Every one of these 12 songs is a killer track, from the soaring Miguel duet Lost In Your Light, to the surprisingly touching Chris Martin assisted Homesick. No Goodbyes is full of energy, while opener Genesis showcases her distinctive deep voice effortlessly. Dua Lipa is a knock out debut album from the one of the UK’s most exciting new stars.
I’m a broken record when it comes to Laura Marling, an artist who manages to surprise her biggest fans as much as she does meet their often high expectations. Semper Femina isn’t so much a concept album as it is Laura removing the need for, or just questioning the male gaze in her music. It’s a curious idea from someone who has written so many songs about relationships, but it makes for one of her most intriguing works yet. Recalling just about every other album Laura Marling has recorded, Semper Femina is less the next step in her career and outside of the electric guitar led moments on tracks like Don’t Pass Me By and Nothing, Not Nearly, could easily sit as a side project beside any other work she has done. It’s the timeless quality of the songwriting, in conjunction with how immediately relevant the content is that’s the striking thing for me. Soothing and The Valley depict the female experience as a sensual and a beautiful one respectively, while Wild Fire sees Marling capture her own personality better than any other song she’s recorded. Semper Femina may not spark the career highs of I Speak Because I Can or Once I Was An Eagle, but it stands alone among the discography of my favourite songwriter in the best kind of way.
Sometimes you just have to look at the numbers. As of writing this article The Breaker is my most listened album of 2017. Not one of those albums with 20 tracks to skew the results, just a brilliant country album that sees one of my favourite bands reach new heights once more. Kimberley, Phillip, Karen and Jimi all have their shining moment here; the heartfelt Beat Up Bible, the gorgeous closing title track, the 2016 hit single Better Man and the arena ready rocker Night On Our Side respectively. Even more so than any of their previous albums, The Breaker is so distinctively Little Big Town, stacked full of harmonies and effortless vocals. Everyone here has their own voice, like Fleetwood Mac in their prime, so that when it all comes together it’s magic.
MUNA were not on my radar at all. It was one of those situations where someone keeps telling you to listen to a song, then an EP and then a full album and eventually you finally give in and see what all the fuss is about. Thank god I did. About U is a tremendous debut record, full of exuberant electronic pop music and of course lyrics like ‘A candle in the bedroom/where I once performed a holy rite/and I did stop to hang my head/just for a moment in the light’ on the glorious Around U. Their lyrics have this wonderful phrasing to them, not a moment is wasted. The double hit of energy with Loudspeaker and I Know A Place is impossible to deny. Two absolute banging pop tunes on an album that grabs your attention enough to then find your way to a slower burning but equally as affecting song like Crying On The Bathroom Floor. It’s a shame that the rest of pop music in 2017 didn’t sound like About U, but it’s place alone is what makes it such a thrilling ride to join.
By far the biggest surprise of the year, Unapologetically is so good that I feel like personally apologising to Kelsea Ballerini for underestimating her. I enjoyed her debut The First Time, in fact 4th single Yeah Boy was in my top 10 most played songs of 2015 long before it hit country radio, but I always thought it was fun and not much more than that. One listen to a song like Roses, with it’s soft ease into a chorus that manages to hit you hard without a massive production, I was sold. The easy subtlety of a track like that hooks you instantly and just about every song on Unapologetically does the same. Get Over Yourself is a talk sung masterclass in a pop hook, while Miss Me More and I Hate Love Songs take two wildly different routes to showcasing Kelsea’s playful, but assertive personality. What puts Kelsea just ahead of some of the other heavily pop leaning country stars though is her ownership of the album as a listening experience. The journey she goes on from a break up, to moving on, to finding a new love and going all in on closing anthem Legends is as enjoyable as the first time I listened from start to finish. Unapologetically is a country record in iTunes genre placement alone and for Kelsea Ballerini this was the best decision she could have made.
A Fever Dream is a difficult album to pin down. In parts a rock opera, in others an unpredictable electronica record, elsewhere out and out pop hooks; it’s one of the year’s most thrilling rides. It’s a wholly different experience to any of their previous albums, the sound of a band using experimentation in their music to deal with such tumultuous times. The references to Brexit, Trump and the general mood of the population on tracks like Big Game and Run The Numbers aren’t exactly subtle ‘Someone’s going to burst your big blubber head/even little children see through you’ for instance. And subtlety isn’t the name of the day on A Fever Dream. In fact it can feel like the title itself at times, with clattering guitars emerging from nowhere and screeching high notes permeating every few lyrics. There’s the odd moment of calmness such as the opening of the eventual dance boom of the title track, but these come and go as quickly as new hooks can arrive. The tremendously ridiculous Can’t Do is the pinnacle of this, the chant of ‘It’s up to me’ giving the album an instant kick by track 2. A Fever Dream is undoubtedly Everything Everything’s best work yet and is certainly unlike anything else I heard in 2017.
If you had told me last year that Beyonce would release the album of her career by revealing the most intimate view on her life we have ever seen, and that just over a year later Jay-Z would release his best album in the same number of years by revealing the most intimate view of his life we have ever seen I wouldn’t have believed you. There’s always a line or two that stick out on a recent Jay-Z song. That killer line that makes the rest of the middling album track verse worth it. 4:44 is the opposite, every single line is one I could pull out as one of my favourites on the album, the joy of a song like Smile next to lyrics that detail how Jay ‘cried tears of joy when you fell in love/don’t matter if it’s a him or her’ when his Mother came out. This is the best Jay-Z album in 2 decades not because it reclaims the glory of albums like The Black Album or Reasonable Doubt, it’s because it’s the Jay-Z of 2017 we are hearing from. Moonlight and The Story Of OJ take different approaches to explaining racial issues in 2017 America, ‘We stuck in La La Land, even when we win we gon’ lose’, but are joined together with the rest of 4:44 by some of No I.D.s best production in decades too. Vocal samples from other songs as well as newly recorded vocals from the likes of Frank Ocean and Beyonce on the classic Jay-Z flow of Family Feud are chopped and pieced back together into something new. 4:44 is brutally honest in a way that we’ve never seen from arguably the biggest rapper in my lifetime and as an album it manages to be one of his strongest to date.
I won’t be surprised that if in 2 years time I’m sat here again trying to sum up another landmark Kendrick Lamar album in a few hundred words. His track record for hugely impactful industry defining albums is unparalleled and DAMN. might just be my favourite album yet. Instantly his most accessible, the free Jazz of To Pimp A Butterfly is replaced by screeching guitars, electronic thuds and driving danceable beats in equal measure. The stirring symbolism is replaced by a more singular narrative, and there are hooks. Hooks that don’t get much bigger than on HUMBLE. while GOD. and LOVE. are about as RnB as we have heard a Kendrick song being. Every song is so intricately pieced together, the opening narration transitioning into the Fox News analysis of Kendrick’s BET performance from the year before making what follows feel that bit more poignant, especially when the song that follows is the electrifying DNA. Listen to that song and tell me that Kendrick was trying to make a commercial record. DAMN. may not end up being the defining cultural ‘moment’ that To Pimp A Butterfly was, but for me it’s the album I feel will stand the test of time the most. Kung Fu Kenny did it again.
I spent much of 2017 listening too closely to what other people were saying about the third album from The xx. ‘I See You isn’t the sound of music in 2017′, ‘Why do The xx just sound like a dance group’, ‘It’s not as interesting now that there’s samples’. I’ve finally given up caring what everyone else thought of this album and admitted to myself that it was one that has made my year. 2 years ago Jamie xx’s In Colour sat at #3 on this list and for me I See You just edges it thanks to the gorgeously emotive performances from Romy and Oliver. The xx are at their best when Romy is playing piercing guitar riffs, Oliver is giving us that enchantingly deep voice and Jamie is slowly building in layer after layer of beats before the crowd in front of them goes a bit mad. I See You does this and so much more, On Hold and Lips are electric sample based unexpected bangers, while Say Something Loving and I Dare You ditch the coolness of being alternative for a massive sing along chorus. These moments of utter joy make the heartbreaking performances on the likes of Performance, Replica and Brave For You that much more affecting. I See You sounds so much like The xx, not hard to do when you look at how many bands have managed to borrow their style, but also like a completely different band all together. Jamie xx’s new found confidence has made for the best album of the group’s career and very nearly my favourite album of 2017.
‘With a debut album this good, it’s hard not to be incredibly excited for what Lorde does next’ is what I wrote 4 years ago when I ranked Pure Heroine as the 17th best of album of 2013. I am so happy that even I way underestimated Lorde’s potential with that statement. Melodrama is a monumental album, a theatrical piece of work that makes the smallest moments feel massive. Not a second is wasted on an album that manages to sound both personable and otherworldly, as Lorde takes on her place at the centre of the watercolour masterpiece on the cover. She’s someone you know, but she’s hanging in the Louvre. She bets ‘you’ll rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark’ especially since you know the sort of masterpieces that have preceded it. There’s true guilt and sorrow on the Piano ballad Liability, but then you have the exuberant joy of and huge sound of Green Light. Lorde worries that she may be ‘a little much for everyone’ but part of the journey the album take Lorde on is her acceptance of this part of her own personality, by the time Liability (Reprise) comes around. ‘I care for myself the way I used to care about you’, Hard Feelings/Loveless sums up much of the album’s journey to finding yourself once again. I listen to Melodrama and don’t know whether to laugh, cry or just dance; it’s obvious to see the latter reaction the first time you hear the ridiculously massive Supercut. The production is spectacular, the final section of Sober is one of my moments of 2017, which is entirely down to Lorde herself, you can hear her creative influence in every single beat, note and vocal on the album. Melodrama is over the top, it’s ridiculous and full of moment after moment of genius music. After spending 3 minutes telling us to go to them, Lorde asks as the closing lyric of the album ‘What the fuck are perfect places anyway?’. I don’t know the answer but every time I listen to Melodrama I feel like I’m in a perfect place. Undoubtedly the best album of 2017.