After 2016 delivered a tumultuous year in music and politics, 2017 was never going to feel quite as momentous.
The process of writing and recording music can take years, so perhaps it’s no wonder that many of the bigger named artists who released music this year struggled to hit a nerve.
There’s a palpable sense that the world has taken a dramatic turn and popular music has struggled to move with it.
The biggest hits of the year belonged to the incredibly affable, but beige as hell Ed Sheeran, whose brand of busker singer-songwriter smashed records left, right and centre.
After a few years of genre smashing efforts, there were few album releases that will live long in the memory. But there are always some brilliant songs that shine through the gloom.
In alphabetical order these were:
Alt-J – 3WW
After a stratospheric rise over the past five years since their debut, Alt-J seem to have lost a little momentum. 2017’s Relaxer felt a little slight in comparison to their previous efforts, with a cover song and another based on a pre-debut riff helping to fill out the meagre eight song track list.
But while Relaxer didn’t pack the long-play punch of their prior efforts, 3WW (an acronym for “three worn words”, the lyrical crux of the song), showed they had lost none of their touch for exquisite arrangements, musical hooks or studio flourishes.
Featuring three separate lead vocalists, including a guest appearance from Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell (OK), 3WW’s true power lies in its lyrical tale.
Evoking Grecian fables, a young man setting out on an adventure across northern England is waylaid by two young sirens. It’s an understated classic tale of young adventure, lust and mystery. But it’s those three worn words that are never uttered that give the song its beguiling power. Words are often inadequate to convey ideals and the idea of young man trying to find his own language to describe love has an immutable power.
Beck – I’m So Free
After winning the coveted Album of the Year at the Grammy’s for the quiet and reflective acoustic driven Morning Phase, Beck Hansen seems to have spent the past three years trying to run as far as he can in the opposite direction.
Colors is by a considerable distance the most overtly pop and mainstream-looking he’s ever been; an interesting place for the once self-described ‘loser’ whose early hit was titled MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.
While a couple of the album’s best cuts were released over the past couple of years, I’m So Free is just one of the excellent other options to choose from. Alternating between falsetto chanting, Chili Pepper-style rapid fire stuttering and chunky power riffs, it finally does feel like Hansen has found a place where he can do whatever the hell he wants to do.
Father John Misty – Total Entertainment Forever
Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) bemoaned the whirlwind of controversy that surrounded his inclusion of virtual reality sex with Taylor Swift in the opening lines of this song which obfuscated the rest of this song’s prescient wit.
While his earlier albums under the Father John moniker mostly looked at intimate issues of love and life, Tillman expanded his attention for his album Pure Comedy; religion, politics and idiot, know-it-all music critics all felt the brunt of his ire.
Total Entertainment Forever is his most successful melding of ramshackle orchestration, pop hooks and a social critique of the age of ubiquitous media consumption.
Arcade Fire attempted to mine similar themes across the breadth of their 2017 release Everything Now, yet failed to hit anything near the same level of insight that Tillman conjured in the final devastating stanza of Total Entertainment Forever.
Kendrick Lamar – PRIDE
Sometimes an artist enters a zone where it feels like they could pump out something with their eyes closed, hands tied behind their back and head underwater and the result would still be better than anything else around.
Kendrick Lamar is in one of those moments. DAMN. is him at the peak of his powers, reeling off amazingly insightful rhymes with naggingly memorable melodies and deceptively delirious production.
PRIDE. may be slightly overshadowed on the album by the following track, the global smash hit HUMBLE., but it is a quiet and introspective counterpoint to the bravado and swagger that follows.
Teaming up with Anna Wise, who collaborated with Lamar on the Grammy-winning track These Walls, and producer Steve Lacey (who wrote the beats on an iPhone), Lamar has rarely sounded so reserved, reflective and… humble as he does here.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Few acts ever emerge completely unscathed from returning after an alleged farewell tour, but the wave of acclaim surrounding LCD Soundsystem’s re-emergence certainly helped cushion a hard landing.
While band leader James Murphy remained a little evasive answering questions over whether the hiatus was ever intended to be permanent, he has lost none of the scalpel-like insight into twentieth century malaise or ability to deliver sparkling production.
The title track for the album American Dream evokes many of the ’80s alt-rock bands Murphy once self-effacingly bragged about introducing to New York dance crowds on their early hit Losing My Edge.
The synth, drum and bass machine heavy song finds Murphy at an emotional low point, drowning in parties, drugs and one night stands and wondering if this really is the American dream.
Lorde – Perfect Places
In a relatively mediocre year for mainstream pop music, there was one star who knocked it out of the park. New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s (aka Lorde ) Melodrama well and truly cemented her reputation as one of the most interesting and inventive people in pop music.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Lorde without mentioning her age (just turned 21) in reference to the compositions she’s producing. She has a remarkable ability to capture all of the excitement, rebellion and melancholy of adolescence.
Similar to the early work of Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, Lorde has an eloquence and artistic vision that speaks of experience well beyond her years, yet tells of events that only someone young enough could experience.
Co-written and produced with Fun’s Jack Antonoff and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, Perfect Places is the culmination of Melodrama’s “teenage house party” concept.
Mount Eerie – Real Death
Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum could have been forgiven for taking time away from music after the death of his wife Genevieve last year from cancer leaving him to care for his one-year old daughter.
But the prolific songwriter funnelled his grief into work, none more so devastatingly than in Real Death.
There’s a deliberate paradox with attempting to deal with loss on this track as Elverum states “it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art”.
But the song is not so much about death itself, but what is left behind; the absence that people leave in their wake.
It’s the reminder of how real his situation is that makes this song pack such an incredible gut-punch.
Mount Kimbie – Blue Train Lines ft. King Krule
While others of their cohort like James Blake, The xx and King Krule have garnered plaudits and great commercial attention, Mount Kimbie have remained somewhat in the shadows.
While they were one of the greatest exponents of the London scene that took dubstep into the realms of mainstream prominence with the addition of conventional songwriting, they haven’t yet quite hit the same acclaim.
Their 2017 effort What Love Survives is unlikely to change that too much, but it still stands on its own as a fantastic record.
Blue Train Lines is highly indebted to the wordplay, wit and wonder of Archy Marshall (aka King Krule, whose album The OOZ was another standout of the year), yet it’s the simple slow building dread of the arrangements followed by the inevitable drop and post punk groove than makes it shine.
The National – The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness
The National are one of indie rock’s greatest success stories; a 20 year career of hard work, imperious live performances and excellent tunes that finally translated into commercial appeal.
And most impressively they’ve done it without ever diluting their sound, something which their critics claim is akin to a lack of imagination or interest in progressing musically.
After a four year break since their last album, its perhaps no surprise that The National return sounding, well, exactly like The National.
Some things have changed though. The slightly bizarre title hints at lead singer Matt Berninger’s side project EL VY, which found him delving into some extremely bizarre lyrical places.
There’s an oblique loneliness that haunts this song that even the upbeat fuzzy guitars and immensely catchy shouted chorus can’t hide.
Lead singer Matt Berninger wrote much of the lyrics for the band’s 2017 album Sleep Well Beast with his wife, describing the lyrics as a break-up album, despite the couple being still very much committed to each other.
There’s plenty of ‘love’ songs about the splendour and beauty of it; there’s many amazing ones about it all falling apart, but there’s not too many about the sheer bloody-minded hard work and effort it can take to hold it all together some times – The System does just that.
I have no idea what ‘the system’ is that Berninger is referring too, I’m not sure he does either, but I feel rest assured he could not describe it any other way.
The War on Drugs – Holding On
The War on Drugs is about as close as you can get to a classic rock band that took a wrong turn on the way to a stage and ended up in a time machine to the year 2017.
While the influence of acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits and the Grateful Dead are readily apparent, The War on Drugs still have an amazing knack to make their take feel fresh and unique.
Holding On is a blistering song; a pulsating synth line blasted along by a succession of guitar riffs with a twinkling glockenspiel nicked from Born to Run adding a little bit of gloss.
But what makes the song truly remarkable is how each section piles on one extra layer, one extra riff or one extra chord progression to kick it to a whole new level.
Honourable mentions: Calvin Harris – Slide; Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder; Electric Guest – Glorious Warrior; King Krule – Dum Surfer; Pnau – Go Bang!; Run the Jewels – Down; Grizzly Bear – Mourning Sound; Alvvays – Dream Tonite; Cut Copy – Standing in the Middle of the Field; Real Estate – Darling; Four Tet – Two Thousand and Seventeen; Kiasmos – Blurred; Kamasi Washington – Integrity; Destroyer – Tinseltown Swimming in Blood; Julien Baker – Appointments; Mac DeMarco – Watching Him Fade Away; Future Islands – Ran; HAIM – Want Your Back; Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Over Everything; Perfume Genius – Slip Away.