Best of 2017 so far...
As we pass the halfway point of 2017, now seems a pretty good time to round up the strongest releases of the year so far. From Lorde's triumphant second LP Melodrama to Stormzy's exceptional debut - via Slowdive's hugely-anticipated comeback record - these are the albums we’ve still got stuck on repeat.
The Top 10
- There aren’t many 16-year-olds capable of keeping it together whilst being scrutinised by the entire world, but then there aren’t many teenagers that David Bowie once deigned to describe as “the future of music” either. Ella Yelich-O’Connor remains a unique proposition on this, her superb second album. Co-produced by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, Melodrama finds Lorde documenting an adolescence under the spotlight with striking maturity and candour, from wild nights (‘Perfect Places’), lust (‘Louvre’), heartbreak (‘Green Light’) and revenge (‘Writer In The Dark’), to self-acceptance, as expressed beautifully on ‘Liability’. Unquestionably one of the finest pop albums of 2017 so far.
- From Pitchfork and Pigeons and Planes, to Rolling Stone and Billboard, there was barely a ‘Best of the Year’ list that To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t top in 2015. If Kendrick Lamar was concerned about following what FACT Magazine have termed his “magnum opus”, he deliberately chose not to dwell on it, first releasing the acclaimed demos collection Untitled Unmastered in 2016, and now a fourth LP in which he switches gears entirely. Gone are the abrasive jazz influences that underscored the protest songs of TPAB, and in their place is a succession of loose and playful, predominantly sample-led grooves, rooted in 70s soul and psych. Damn might be more musically accessible, but it’s no less rewarding, and lyrically Compton’s finest sounds more unapologetically self-assured than ever. Indeed, as he explains on ‘Pride’, “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause yo’ ass is insecure.”
- As trailblazers of the early 90s shoegaze scene – alongside Chapterhouse, Ride and Swervedriver – Slowdive remain as revered by their legions of loyal fans today as they were reviled at the time by certain corners of the British music press. And with those same print magazines now either dead or dying an undignified death, the Reading-formed five-piece return with their first studio album in 22 years. Against all the odds, the results actually prove more than worth the wait. Combining the ambient textures of last LP Pygmalion and the dreamy pop hooks of their 1993 classic Souvlaki with a newfound energy, this self-titled effort is another career high, and one of the finest rock records of 2017 so far.
- Though tipped by the BBC, NME and Billboard back in 2014, Sampha Sisay has been in no hurry to capitalise on the hype, opting to embellish the work of stars like Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean and Solange rather than seize the spotlight. Now, almost four years on from his last EP, the South London soul man finally steps out of the shadows to unveil his first full-length release. Process is all the stronger for its protracted gestation period, providing a perfect match of intimate songwriting and sensitive production, and showcasing the spellbinding power of Sampha’s emotive tones. Surely a strong contender for this year’s Mercury Prize.
- From the sparse fragility of his debut, to the pulsing, industrial-pop on 2014’s Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’ arrangements have become progressively bolder with each release. Even so, No Shape feels like the Seattle-based singer-songwriter’s least inhibited effort yet, ricocheting between the rococo trills of ‘Slip Away’ and the swooning, Eastern-influenced strings of ‘Just Like Love’, or from the funk-inspired strut of ‘Go Ahead’ to heart-wrenching piano balladry on ‘Alan’. And where previously Hadreas’ lyrics have largely lingered on past difficulties with depression, addiction and body dysmorphia, No Shape picks up the defiant tone of breakthrough single ‘Queen’ to celebrate contentment, with genuinely moving results. A real tour de force.
- More than two years since the BBC tipped him as the future of British music – and almost two-and-a-half years since his first MOBO win – Michael “Stormzy” Omari finally unveils his full-length debut. Thrillingly, the South London MC uses Gang Signs & Prayer to showcase his impressive range, which extends way beyond grime to take in everything from soulful balladry (‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt.1’) and breezy R&B duets (‘Cigarettes and Cush’ featuring Kehlani) to epic, Purple Rain-inspired gospel (‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2). Of course, it’s the quick-witted aggression of ‘Big For Your Boots’, ‘Mr Skeng’ and ‘Return Of The Rucksack’ that long-time fans will flock to first, but Gang Signs & Prayers is proof that Omari is unafraid to publically explore his emotional depths.
- This is a concept album set in medieval north Britain - no, stay with us! For his eighth album, Newcastle singer-songwriter Richard Dawson has taken a fascinating delve into the days of yore, exploring the lives of the various inhabitants of former North England kingdom Bryneich, track by track: ‘Soldier’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Beggar’, etc. Full of the gorgeous kind of instrumentation you’d be unlikely to hear outside of a Renaissance Fair, commanding vocals, and occasional forceful flourishes of choir, the whole record feels as evocative of a bygone era as it does visceral and present. Proggy, avant-garde folk, this is a warts and all exploration of the cyclical nature of the human condition that’s as impressive as it is strange.
- Katy Perry might have only recently coined the term “purposeful pop”, but MUNA have been practicing it ever since their inception, back in 2013. From LGBT safe space anthem ‘I Know A Place’ and slut-shaming critique ‘So Special’, to their decision to keep all pronouns gender-neutral, the LA-based trio preach tolerance and empathy, fusing socially conscious messaging with irresistible synth-flecked melodies. Both in terms of unfiltered self-expression and water-tight pop songwriting, About U is a standout in the genre, and unquestionably one of the most engaging records of 2017 so far.
- Listening to Loyle Carner’s world-weary tones dart over these sun-dappled, often jazz-influenced melodies, it’s difficult to believe the South Londoner is still only 21. Purposely rejecting the braggadocio that often characterises the work of his contemporaries, Carner comes across as an old soul, using his masterful flow and poetic lyricism to pioneer a soulful strain of hip hop centred on domestic narratives. Distinctly British and unapologetically intimate, Yesterday’s Gone is an impactful and thought-provoking debut from a unique emerging talent.
- Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens has made an enticing, ethereal brand of electronic music on her self-titled debut album. Though her background is in the indie rock scene (she was previously in a band called The History of Apple Pie), nothing about the sound here feels like it doesn't come naturally: indeed, there’s a fascinating ease and lightness to tracks like ‘Lucid’, and Jenny Hval-featuring ‘Anxi’. There are certainly elements of dreamy indie-pop in the production, but, overall, this is an album of wispy, echo-tinged techno. With delicate but mesmerising vocals and a lush undercurrent of beats and groove, Owens has created an accomplished debut that seems a perfect fit for the wee hours.