the best of 2017
The votes are in, the numbers have been crunched and the records have been obsessed over. Below is our comprehensive list of the best albums of 2017, as voted for by staff in all of our nine stores.
You can read about our favourite albums and films in more depth in this month’s Best of 2017 special edition of The Fopp List – available for FREE in all of our stores, right up until the end of January.
1. LCD Soundsystem American Dream
OK, David Bowie had Blackstar and Bob Dylan had Time Out Of Mind, but it’s rare for songwriters to unveil some of their best works after they reach their mid-forties. With American Dream, however, James Murphy (now 47) this year released what stands as his finest record so far.
Often dismissed as a snarky, sarcastic hipster making music about making music, Murphy’s 10 songs here demonstrate that the musician has grown up by just the perfect amount: on Black Screen he’s using drum machines and synths to back an examination of loss and grief, one that seems to start with the death of his friend David Bowie and ends with a look at the whole cosmos; on the waltzing title track his past excesses and ageing have led to depression and emptiness; on Tonite he amusingly riffs on the lyrical preoccupations of modern pop, before admitting that he’s “a hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition…”
Musically, American Dream is a mature, stunning effort too, with the tracks expanding (seven minutes on average) and building on the work of some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians to create something that feels vital and enthralling. So Oh Baby mixes Suicide with Soft Cell, Change Yr Mind peppers Talking Heads groove with molten Robert Fripp guitar, Tonite laces ESG funk with Kraftwerk monotony, and How Do You Sleep? evolves from Public Image-like tribal doom to a Chicago house pulse, and then a final, ecstatic two minutes that could really only be LCD Soundsystem.
That Murphy managed to create such a masterpiece of sound, rhythm and emotion mostly on his own is an incredible feat; that he did it seven years after he split LCD after a triumphant Madison Square Garden gig is even more amazing. Frankly, American Dream shouldn’t have been this good, but it’s lucky for us all that it is.
2. The xx I See You
I See You is the follow up to The xx’s two incredible previous albums – xx and Coexist – which have sold over 3 million copies between them, winning a host of accolades along the way. I See You marked a new era for the London trio of Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith (Jamie xx), both sonically and in terms of process.
For while xx and Coexist were both made in relative isolation in London, I See You was recorded between March 2014 and August 2016 in New York, Marfa TX, Reykjavik, Los Angeles and London, and is characterised by a more outward-looking, open and expansive approach. Produced by Jamie Smith and Rodaidh McDonald, I See You is The xx at their boldest yet, performing with more clarity and ambition than ever before.
3. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile Lotta See Lice
Considering they’re both saddled with the ‘slacker’ tag, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile have proven themselves to be seriously hardworkers, writing songs with considerable depth and intelligence, not to mention some ragged and glorious guitar chops. Their first album as a duo is a dream for their fans with the interplay here revealing something new.
Lotta Sea Lice allows them to relax, and that feeling is passed onto the listener, making this a perfect 45 minutes to drift away to. Barnett and Vile mix new songs with covers, and they try out versions of their favourites by each other too: their take on Jen Cloher’s Fear Is Like A Forest is a swampy, Neil Young-esque delight and their cover of Belly’s Untogether is a woozy, country-rock gem.
The Vilesung Outta The Woodwork and the Australian’s solo version of Peepin’ Tom, are both well worth hearing, too, but the best things here are the original songs.
4. Father John Misty Pure Comedy
On his second album, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman paired grand productions with microscopically intimate portraits of a new relationship. Now, however, FJM’s third album reverses the focus, investigating humanity, civilization and history over surprisingly sedate piano ballads. Of course, this being Tillman, these are 13 piano ballads totalling a mammoth 75 minutes.
On the opening title track alone, the subjects covered include evolutionary gender roles and anemia, while by the second song, Total Entertainment Forever, Tillman is singing of “bedding Taylor Swift inside the Oculus Rift”. The 13-minute Leaving LA takes a diaristic look at Tillmans’ move to New Orleans in 2015, but manages to weave in references to a future apocalypse.
Pure Comedy is heady stuff: intelligent, kaleidoscopic songs dressed in sophisticated, subtle finery with gorgeous flashes of inspiration that make you forgive his occasional excesses.
5. Richard Dawson Peasant
No listener to Dawson’s earlier music has ever discerned a lack of artistic ambition. Whether they got on at the last stop – the 4 track Tyneside-Trout-Mask-through a-Vic and Bob-filter of Nothing Important – or earlier in the journey, with The Glass Trunk’s visceral song cycle or The Magic Bridge’s sombre revels, devotees of his earlier recordings will be at once intrigued by and slightly fearful of the prospect of a record that could make those three landmark releases look like formative work. Peasant is that album.
From its first beguilingly muted fanfare to its spectacular climax exploring a Dark Ages masseuse’s dangerous fascination with a mysterious artefact called the Pin of Quib, it will grab newcomers to Dawson’s work by the scruff of the neck and refuse to let them go until they have signed a pledge of life-long allegiance.
6. Fleet Foxes Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut album has proved hugely influential – so influential, in fact, that a few years ago its lush harmonies and ornate, rustic folk sound could be heard anywhere from your local pub’s open-mic to the upper reaches of the charts. Even their old drummer had reinvented himself to great success as Father John Misty, so Robin Pecknold and his group knew they’d have to pull out something special after their six-year hiatus.
Luckily for Fleet Foxes, their third album Crack-Up, released back in June, is just that. Retaining their gift for gorgeous melodies, elegiac lyrics and organic instrumentation, it adds a more experimental, fragmented feel that’s sometimes reminiscent of the Elephant Six collective’s more outré moments. Mearcstapa, for instance, mixes Pet Sounds bluster with jazzy horns and the guitar arpeggios of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes (Arpeggi). There are also atmospheric, wonderfully jarring sounds throughout, with the opening I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar even featuring a sample of a high-school band covering the group’s own White Winter Hymnal.
It’s hard to see lesser musicians easily taking inspiration from the songs here, especially the complex epics such as Third Of May/Odaigahara, which splices a lush pop epic with tumbling, West African-influenced arpeggios. Pecknold’s recent studies at New York’s Columbia University have also added to the band’s arsenal of imagery: “When the world insists/That the false is so/With a philippic as Cicero…” the singer declaims on the closing title track, while “I Am All That I Need…” in particular is packed with deep, poetic lines such as, “And now I see that it’s all corroding/Soonest seething, soonest folding…”
Ultimately, Crack-Up isn’t an easy album to get to know, but when it unveils its full glories after several listens, it’s more than worth the effort. Six months on from its release, it feels like this brave, serious and complicated record still has some secrets left to reveal.
7. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
– The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell, the Grammy Awardwinning singer-songwriter and former member of the Drive-By Truckers released his latest record, The Nashville Sound back in June. Recorded at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A and produced by fellow Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb, who produced Something More Than Free and Isbell’s celebrated 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern.
The Nashville Sound features 10 new songs that address a range of subjects that include, politics and cultural privilege (White Man’s World) longing nostalgia (The Last Of My Kind), love and mortality (If We Were Vampires), the toxic effect of today’s pressures (Anxiety), the remnants of a break up (Chaos and Clothes) and finding hope (Something To Love). Songs such as Cumberland Gap and Hope The Highroad find Jason and his bandmates going back to their rock roots full force.
8. Tinariwen Elwan
While many Western musicians are just coming to terms with the need to create protest music, Tuareg veterans Tinariwen have spent almost 40 years railing against assorted regimes and insurgents in the sub-Saharan region. After participating in various Tuareg rebellions, in 2012 the group were forced to abandon their homes when Islamic militants took over part of north Mali.
Their seven albums so far have always taken a look at political matters, then, and the brand new Elwan is no exception. “What is our goal?” they sing in Tamashek on Ittus. “It is the unity of our nation/ And to carry our standard high”. Although other Saharan groups have appeared in recent years, with Tamikrest, Imarhan and Bombino particularly impressive, few can match the hypnotic beauty and soul that Tinariwen, displaced people, master musicians and political agitators, still weave seven albums and 38 years into their career.
9. The National Sleep Well Beast
It seems that the Dessners, the Devendorfs and Matt Berninger can do no wrong: their audience expands as their music gets stranger and more mature. So it is with their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, which continues the pattern they’ve set, that each of their albums charts higher than the one before it in the US, the UK and much of Europe.
Sleep Well Beast, then, must be one of the bravest and most complicated albums to ever have hit No 2 in America and No 1 in Britain. Now split across the world – Matt Berninger resides in California, the Devendorfs are in Cincinnati and Long Island, and the Dessners spread across Europe – the group reconvened at their new Long Pond studio in upstate New York, and marshaled their disconnection into an hour of quietly experimental, subtly anthemic music.
At times, they barely sound like a band, and appear to have taken inspiration from the Dessners’ peripatetic side projects – Nobody Else Will Be There is driven (in first gear, perhaps) by hushed piano and drum machine like an echo of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, while Walk It Back mixes pulsing synths with jazz-influenced drums like a glossier Portishead. I’ll Still Destroy You, meanwhile, evokes Radiohead’s more electronic moments with a buzzing drum machine and curdled synths, and sudden bursts of xylophone that hark back to Steve Reich’s cluttered peaks.
As with all The National’s music, however, it’s the vocals that tie the whole mélange together. Matt Berninger’s hangdog lyrics and delivery are wry, melancholy and masterful as he sings (with echoes of Yo La Tengo’s classic And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out) of the trials of a long-term relationship, and of “how to get us back to the place where we were when we first went out”.
10. Grizzly Bear Painted Ruins
It’s been eight long years since Grizzly Bear’s third album broke the group through to the big league of US indie-rock. Veckatimest found the four-piece layering strata of instruments and vocals on top of each other to create a lush, shimmering whole. 2012’s Shields found them embracing a louder, more robust sound, their new album, Painted Ruins, is another step on, sonically.
There are still layers of sound, but here they’re more textural, with loops and clouds of reverb and delay. Never exactly a funky band, they seem to have concentrated on their lower end, with powerful bass and dynamic, skittering drums manhandling the delicate vocals.
With two lead singers and four resolutely democratic members now split between LA and New York, making this album is a wrangle that most bands would not necessarily be cut out for; yet the results are clearly worth it. Let’s hope it’s not another five years until the next chapter.
11. Arcade Fire – Everything Now
12. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
13. The Horrors – V
14. Ride – Weather Diaries
15. Kendrick Lamar – Damn
16. Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life
17. Slowdive – Slowdive
18. St. Vincent- Masseduction
19. Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley
20. Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun
21. Idles – Brutalism
22. Oh Sees – Orc
23. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
24. Broken Social Scene – Hug Of Thunder
25. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
26. Alt-J – Relaxer
27. Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination
28. Thundercat – Drunk
29. London Grammar – Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
30. Depeche Mode – Spirit
31. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
32. Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
33. Bicep – Bicep
34. Bonobo – Migration
35. Various Artists – Late Night Tales – Badbadnotgood
36. Blanck Mass – World Eater
37. Sampha – Process
38. Gorillaz – Humanz
39. Ghostpoet – Dark Days + Canapes
40. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
41. Roger Waters – Is This The Life We Really Want?
42. Ray Davies – Americana
43. Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution
44. Neil Young – Hitchhiker
45. The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage & Joy
46. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology
47. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
48. Steven Wilson – To The Bone
49. Omd – The Punishment Of Luxury
50. Lorde – Melodrama
51. The Weather Station – The Weather Station
52. Margo Price – All American Made
53. James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
54. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
55. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
56. Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage
57. Grandaddy – Last Place
58. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
59. Sleaford Mods – English Tapas
60. Future Islands – The Far Field
61. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
62. Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics 1…
63. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
64. Perfume Genius – No Shape
65. Aldous Harding – Party
66. Songhoy Blues – Resistance
67. Alvvays – Antisocialites
68. John Carpenter – Anthology
69. Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle
70. British Sea Power – Let The Dancers Inherit the Party
71. The Shins – Heartworms
72. Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales – Room 29
73. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
74. Beck – Colors
75. Max Richter – Behind the Counter with Max Richter
76. Afghan Whigs – In Spades
77. David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack
78. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
79. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator
80. Tyler The Creator – Scum Fuck Flower Boy
81. Lucinda Williams – This Sweet Old World
82. Sparks – Hippopotamus
83. Randy Newman – Dark Matter
84. Temples – Volcano
85. Angus & Julia Stone – Snow
86. Black Angels – Death Song
87. Kelela – Take Me Apart
88. Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan
89. Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
90. Thurston Moore – Rock N Roll Consciousness
91. Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down
92. Four Tet – New Energy
93. HAIM – Something to Tell You
94. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
95. The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
96. Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
97. UNKLE – The Road: Part 1
98. The Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics
99. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
100. Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory