In the last 12 months of trial and stress in the wider world, music has once again proven to be one of the few true solaces. 2017 has delivered a whole host of great albums in all genres, either for escapism or for confronting the modern world. Here are 9 of our favourites that haven’t spent much time out of rotation throughout the year.
Forest Swords – Compassion
Liverpudlian producer Matthew Barnes’, aka Forest Swords, takes his penchant for Eastern-inflected soundscapes and blows it up into an even more engrossing three-dimensional sound on Compassion. The beats are as deep and resonant as ever before, but combined with a sharper knack for sample use than ever before, as well as ear worm guitars, Compassion features the most anthemic Forest Swords songs to date – the kind which make people throw up their arms in utter abandon at the bliss they bring.
Four Tet – New Energy
Album number nine for Kieran Hebden as Four Tet sees him consolidating on a couple of decades of boundary pushing productions. Rather than cohere to a certain style, New Energy shows off all the different things that Four Tet is excellent at; be it low-key ambient pieces, medium-paced finely-hewed instrumental gems, or club-ready bangers, they’re all here. Overall the album is held together by Hebden’s unique aural signatures; plucked strings, marimba, pristine beats and an underlying undeniable love poured into every single second.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Following up the magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly was never going to be easy, but Kendrick Lamar once again proved why he’s the undisputed champ of the rap game this year with DAMN. Rather than trying to once again create a jazz-rap labyrinth of an album, DAMN. harks back to the old-school with 14 straight-to-the-point hip hop songs with slamming beats and Kendrick’s indomitable flow. Of course, with Kendrick being one of the most thoughtful as well as talented, there’s plenty of thematic and psychological exploration to be done into the lyrics on the album, which is why DAMN. continues to be compelling even after the 20th listen through.
Lorde – Melodrama
Ella Yelich-O’Connor is only 21 years old, but with this year’s second Lorde album she has staked a claim for Queen of the World. This is no understatement, as with Melodrama she has somehow created an album that contains both unabashed chart-baiting pop songs sitting alongside songs with plenty of unique artistic fingerprints, which appeal to the more discerning listeners. This is all carried out with her own individuality, plenty of comedic lines, gut-wrenching vocal turns and moments of pure abandon. All of this combines to make Melodrama one of the most gripping, draining and yet repayable albums of recent years.
The National – Sleep Well Beast
Consistency can be a curse, but The National are riding it out in style. With Sleep Well Beast their seventh album, and (at least) fifth consecutive great album, they are still unmistakably the same group of middle-aged men from New York making heartbreaking love songs, but they’ve found new ways to freshen up their sound. Whether it’s adding more electronic elements to the mix, paying homage to music concrète, or Matt Berninger’s lyrics co-written with his wife Carin, Sleep Well Beast manages to shoulder its way in amongst their already stacked discography and hold pride of place right next to their previous beloved classics.
Sampha – Process
It’s been a long time coming for Sampha, but after years of putting that voice on everybody else’s albums, he finally put out his own. Process turned out to be very much worth the wait, as it allowed Sampha to show off all of his sides – including ones we didn’t know he had. There is of course the swaggering soulful tracks like ‘Timmy’s Prayer’, but then there’s also the fury of a song like ‘Blood On Me’, showing that the usually passive performer can get angry too. At the heart of it is ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’, a paean to both his mother and his love of music, which cuts straight to the heart of the listener and illuminates everything that makes him such a talented writer.
SZA – CTRL
It’s been a long build to this point for Solána Imani Rowe, aka SZA, who released her debut album this year, 5 years on from her arrival on the scene with her first EP. The patience has paid off though, as CTRL is a mature and impressive artistic statement. Framed by a phone conversation with her mother about the meaning of “control”, SZA takes us through a series of sunny-sounding but moody-hearted R&B-lite jams that show off her vulnerabilities, personality and strength, all carried out with stunning aplomb.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Big Fish Theory is very much a reactionary album; much more short, sharp and to the point than his previous album, the double disc Summertime ’06, here Vince Staples shows off his unbounded energy. Teaming up with a host of house producers, from SOPHIE to Flume to Jimmy Edgar and beyond, Staples shows the dexterity and forcefulness of his flow, as he continually keeps up with the full-throttle beats laid out. He uses his imperious talents to cover many bases, be it partying, picking up women, or blasting the President, and never does he miss a step.
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
The War On Drugs conquered the world with the surprise hit album Lost In The Dream in 2014, which scored them a big move to major label Atlantic for their fourth. Not cowed by the added pressure, The War On Drugs simply went even bigger on this year’s A Deeper Understanding, revving up their musical engines and rolling out 10 songs that unfold in gloriously pristine fashion. Throughout the album the listener is carried on an aural road trip along the highways of the human psyche, as Adam Granduciel lays bear all his innermost feelings, but doesn’t allow you to get bogged down in them, as the band lift you up and keep you moving with their purring modern rock musicality.