All of that said, 2017 has been a bumper year for new music, and albums in particular, despite continual assertions from naysayers that the album format itself is a dying art-form. The following list refers to my “most played” albums of the year, which, by extension might be interpreted as “the best” albums of the year, but I’ve doubtlessly missed many others that perhaps should have made the cut. The only prerequisite for the list is that I own a copy (in any format other than Spotify, which remains a mystery to me):
10. Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won
Without question, How The West Was Won is the blog’s comeback album of the year. It couldn’t really be any other way. I suspect even Perrett himself could scarcely have anticipated the hugely positive response his solo debut has attracted. It’s a heartfelt, intimate body of work, which marks Perrett’s card as one of rock’s ultimate survivors. My review can be found here.
9. Aldous Harding – Party
Speaking of barely anticipated success stories, Aldous Harding will forever recall 2017 as the year she went global. The year she went stratospheric, even. And rightly so. Party is just nine songs in length but they’re all immaculately crafted dark hypnotic gems. Challenging, unsettling, and ultimately very rewarding. The real test for Aldous Harding will be to better it next time out. My review is here.
8. Bonobo – Migration
Every year, there’s always one album that reveals itself a lot more slowly than the rest, and this year, Bonobo’s Migration wins the highly coveted EGG gong for “creeper” of the year. As uncomplimentary as that label may seem, Migration is an album that just keeps on giving, with each and every listen revealing something new and previously unheard – be it a small or otherwise undecipherable bleep, a nagging loop, a flurry of keys, or perhaps something more obvious like an additional layer of bass. Because this album has a lot of bass. Whatever the case, it’s not an album to be absorbed entirely over the course of one listen. It requires patience and a keen ear, and since it was released as long ago as January, I’ve given this one a fair amount of ear time during 2017. Despite not actually getting around to giving it a full review on the blog. Just a quick summary then: aside from compilations, collaborations, and remix efforts, Migration is album number six for LA-based Englishman Simon Green as Bonobo, all of which are released on Ninja Tune, and it brings together a multitude of influences and instrumentation, from strong North African flavours, to jazzy hip hop vibes, to glitchy electronica, and all manner of bass-driven world music textures. Beautifully produced, and just over an hour in length, the two best tracks on the album involve elements of collaboration – ‘Break Apart’, featuring Rhye, and ‘No Reason’, featuring the vocals of Nick Murphy (aka Chet Faker). The way things are going, the way this one is continually rising in my estimation, by this time next year, Migration could well be this year’s number one. Or something like that.
7. Coldcut & On-U Sound – Outside The Echo Chamber
Regular blog readers and friends (which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same person) will have picked this one. They’ll know of my obsession with all things On-U Sound. The label could release an album of (producer) Adrian Sherwood passing wind and I’d probably still include it on my year-end list. Providing he applied some echo and other marvellous FX, of course. This one is different though, because it’s not actually an On-U label release, and it includes stalwart Ninja Tune duo Coldcut, plus a host of other rather terrific collaborators. My review is here.
6. Lord Echo – Harmonies
I’m not sure why this album doesn’t feature more prominently on other local year-end lists. I can’t help but wonder whether it would have gained more traction had it been made by a more high profile R’nB or funk producer … an overseas-based artist, say? Which is madness. My review can be found here.
5. Slowdive – Slowdive
This is another album that didn’t get a full review on the blog. And another one that arrived as far back as January. It’s also the runner-up in the comeback of the year poll (I polled myself, okay?). It could all have been so different. It could all have gone so horribly wrong. A quarter of a century ago, Slowdive were at the very heart of this thing, or genre, we call “shoegaze”. A band for its time, very much of its time. Yet, after years of inactivity the band returned in 2017 with this self-titled pearler of an album. And how. In fact, if you compiled a playlist of the ten most essential Slowdive tunes since the band first started releasing music back in 1990, then at least four of them could be lifted from the eight tracks found on this, the fourth album of four, and the Reading band’s first for 22 years. Main protagonists, vocalists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, are key to its success, their chemistry being front and centre on the tracks with lyrics or those that include vocals. Not that those vocals are particularly orthodox, and if I have a slight criticism, it’s that too often their voices are a little muddy or buried too deeply within the mix. There’s obligatory walls of driving guitar, multiple layers of purposeful noise, and during lighter moments, ethereal keys and ambient interludes to die for. Production comes courtesy of Halstead himself. Ultimately it’s a wonderful concoction of dreamy pop, and an album full of lovely surprises. Check out: ‘Star Roving’, ‘Sugar for the Pill’, and ‘Falling Ashes’.
4. Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
In my original review (go here), I beat myself up just a little for loving the music of Cigarettes After Sex. What, with the album being so unrepentantly emo and pubescent ‘n all. I figure I really should know better, or at least, I really should be over all of that angst and nonsense by now, at my advanced age. Etc. Well, it turns out I’m not, and just between us … (*whispers, looks around anxiously*) … I’m really looking forward to the band’s Auckland gig next month.
3. Fazerdaze – Morningside
With all of the fuss being made over Lorde, Aldous Harding, and Nadia Reid during 2017, Amelia Murray (aka Fazerdaze) may feel a touch hard-done-by in the local-girl-done-good stakes. But she shouldn’t, she has talent to burn, and Morningside is its own reward. It’s the best thing to emerge from these shores all year. My review can be found here.
2. Robert Plant – Carry Fire
Where to start with the phenomenon that is Robert Plant? In truth, I probably don’t need to add anything, his career speaks for itself. More specifically, the five albums he’s released over the past dozen years or so - starting with Mighty Rearranger in 2005 - have made a mockery of any ill-conceived (yet common) notion that he’s just another crusty old rocker going through the motions. Carry Fire is the eleventh Robert Plant “solo” album, a second successive outing with the Sensational Space Shifters, and what once worked for him way back at the dawn of time, still works for him today. More or less. Only now, there’s quite a lot more variation on that much loved formula. Plant is essentially the consummate roots artist, only for him, roots means everything from country, folk, and blues, to orthodox pop, Celtic rock, and African rhythms. Carry Fire presents a veritable potpourri of all of the above. His customary Rock God howl is no longer as prominent as it once was, but with that change comes a seasoned voice full of subtlety and nuance. A voice that remains a weapon, an instrument in itself, even, but one that’s evolved into a weapon of a very different nature. These days it’s seduction by one thousand soft kisses, as opposed to the full on “wham bam” approach of his rather enviable youth. There’s some great stuff on Carry Fire; the past-referencing opener ‘The May Queen’. The intoxicating duet with Chrissie Hynde, ‘Bluebirds over the Mountain’. The closer, ‘Heaven Sent’. And the title track itself. See? … all of that, without once mentioning Led Zeppelin. Oh, darn.
1. The National – Sleep Well Beast
A lot of people love to hate this band, but you’ll know I’m a big fan of The National. And if an ordinary effort like 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me could make that year’s year-end ten for the blog, then you’ll sure as hell know that this year’s monstrous Sleep Well Beast is going to cane it. My typically fawning review can be found here.
Five honourable mentions and other everythingsgonegreen year-end gongs (“the EGGs”):
The Horrors – V … I used to think the Horrors was a try-hard goth-wannabe novelty cartoon band. A pale imitation of that, even. Without ever really listening to the music. This year’s release helped me see the error of my ways and the folly of my ill-informed prejudice. V was a good mix of psychedelia, nostalgia, and synthpop: see the Numan-esque album opener, ‘Hologram’ (“are we Hologram, are we vision?”), for evidence of the latter.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding … following on from the huge promise of Lost in the Dream (2014), this one felt a tad disappointing at first. Which only goes to show how high the bar had been raised, and it’s probably unfair, because A Deeper Understanding is a thoroughly decent album in its own right.
Ryan Adams – The Prisoner … a sixteenth studio album from the prolific American singer/songwriter. This one was all about not ever really being able to escape from that pesky broken relationship. Hence the title, I suppose. By the way, is there ever any other type of relationship? It’s all about degrees of “broken”, I guess.
Alt-J – Relaxer … or technically, alt-J, but that makes me cringe a little. My teenage kids have mentioned this band in passing, separately, more than once. Which must mean they’re hugely popular. I had no idea just how weird and whacky Relaxer would turn out to be when I picked it up on the strength of early single, ‘3WW’, which features Wolf Alice chanteuse Ellie Rowsell. This week's Wellington show is a sell out.
The Trainspotting 2 soundtrack wins the EGG for compilation album of the year. Thanks mainly to the fact that I enjoyed the movie so much. And because I didn’t really hold onto many of the other compilation albums I picked up during the year. Reviewed here.
Five more … close but no cigar: Depeche Mode – Spirit, LCD Soundsystem – American Dream, Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman, Zola Jesus – Okovi. Each of these albums had an extended run of pod time during the year.
Speaking of movies, the local festival “hit”, Swagger of Thieves, Julian Boshier’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the trials and tribulations of Wellington rockers Head Like A Hole just shades Lion as EGG’s film of the year. Yes, there’s a huge amount of local bias and personal connection in that selection. Reviewed here.
The short album or EP of the year bauble goes to Wellington masters of the dark arts, Dreams Are Like Water, with A Sea-Spell, a striking debut, featuring a handful of tunes packed full of texture and depth. My love for this was instant. My review is here.
2017 was a big year for re-releases, deluxe versions, and anniversary reissues, with the EGG going to Radiohead’s 20th birthday celebration of OK Computer, OKNOTOK, which included not only the band’s original masterpiece, but the added value of an entire new album of unreleased, previously discarded material from the same period. The “throwaway” material was superb, and proof, if it was needed, that Radiohead remain one of rock’s most important bands of the past 25 years. I had a real soft spot for Bob Marley’s ridiculously good Exodus reissue (40th anniversary), and thought R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People (25th anniversary deluxe) had a nice mix of live material and early demos to supplement the original. So good, you can trace the album’s evolution from start to finish when listening to those demos.
My gig of the year was Lord Echo's funk-fest at Wellington’s San Fran in early November, on the occasion of his Harmonies album release tour. With so many co-conspirators involved in the making of the album, I was curious as to how it might translate in a live environment, but he pulled it off with some aplomb. Ensuring that vocalists Lisa Tomlins and Mara TK were a big part of the show was key, obviously, but props to the entire band, which was sensational all night. As was support act Julien Dyne, who offered a virtuoso live drumming performance. That Saturday night gig just shaded the two Wellington Fazerdaze gigs I caught during 2017, the first at Caroline (reviewed here), right at the start of the year, and then much later on, in September, at Meow, which turned out to be even better. At each gig, Amelia Murray fronted an entirely different band. No mean feat in itself.
Which just about covers it. Obligatory year-end wrap completed. All in less than 2,500 words (yawn). Well done for making it this far. I nearly didn’t. If you don’t catch me here again before the silly season, dear reader, have a great festive period.