It can be argued that 2016 was one of the better years of music we’ve had in the past decade, but the following 12 months sure gave it a run for its money. Picking a list of only 20 records has been tough. I’d liken it to that fateful decision by Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice – only this has been far more traumatising.
It’s worth noting that this year was again topped by an Aussie act, who took a giant leap forward in their sound. Holy Holy’s Paint is a wondrous listen and bodes very well for record number three. Its finale, ‘Send My Regards’, is the year’s best song, followed very closely by Big Thief’s ‘Mythological Beauty’.
There’s some gems that just missed out on this list, but such was the strength of the music released in 2017. Here’s the top 20.
20. METHYL ETHEL
Everything is Forgotten
Perth trio Methyl Ethel, the evolution of a bedroom project by vocalist Jake Webb, seem to exist in their own weird corner of the universe – a dwarf star of shimmering disco and pop. Everything is Forgotten is the sound of an alien that has had the principles of pop music explained to them in great detail, but has never actually heard it. The resulting sound is both arresting and otherworldly, delivered in an eerie fashion that continually subverts the catchiness of the songwriting. ‘Ubu’ is an obvious hit, with its danceable groove and earworm hook, but is in stark contrast to slinking slow-burners like ‘Act of Contrition’ and ‘Groundswell’. Webb’s preternatural falsetto, the voice of some cosmic entity, elevates Everything is Forgotten above the never-ending indie-pop onslaught of their contemporaries.
19. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG
Actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg bestowed her fifth studio record upon us in November – her first in six years – and again brought together an impressive team of collaborators. Sought-after French electronic producer SebastiAn crafts a sleek, sexy, night-time ambience for Gainsbourg’s whispers (in both English and French) to inhabit, imbuing the mood with distinct creeping melancholy. Even in its more pop-heavy flourishes, the melodies only serve to subvert the pain of Gainsbourg’s lyrics. The singer cuts to the bone, ruminating on the death of father Serge and the more recent passing of half-sister Kate Barry. Other artists to lend their creative expertise are Sir Paul McCartney on the upbeat ‘Songbird in a Cage’, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton on ‘Lying With You’, Connan Mockasin on ‘Dan Vos Airs’ and ‘Les Crocadiles’, and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo on the title track. ‘Syliva Says’ (which pays homage to Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’) and ‘Deadly Valentine’ are two of the stand-out anthems, those brief moments when light bounces from the mirror ball.
It’s nice that the best band in the world (you read correctly) are dropping records with increased frequency. Danish prog-rock band Mew made us wait six years for +-, the follow-up to their 2009 masterpiece No More Stories…. Now we have another record, Visuals, two years later. As a collection of tracks this latest offering might not have the consistently dark splendour of 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites, or the spellbinding pop mastery of No More Stories…, but as a showcase of their mind-bending, innovative talents, it places them head and shoulders above their peers. Opener ‘Nothingness and No Regrets’ hints at the glacial pop prettiness of their early Frengers material, but there’s a level of complexity – and a broader sonic colour palette – that demonstrates Mew are true musical seekers, ever searching and reaching for kinetic new terrain. With thundering drums, Jonas Bjerre’s otherworldly falsetto and unexpected sideways turns, Visuals is sumptuous listening – and it keeps you guessing.
17. KIM CHURCHILL
After the breakthrough success of his 2014 record Silence/Win, Kim Churchill went on an arduous journey to take the next creative step in his career. After scrapping an entire record of songs and starting afresh, the Hunter Valley resident travelled the world, meeting and working with other songwriters. This only served to enhance the sense of wanderlust that permeates his music. Weight_Falls sounds like Paul Simon’s sweeter folk sojourns have been dismantled, rebuilt and reimagined by the brain of a modern musical perfectionist. Brimming with radio-ready hooks, the record displays immense attention to detail and is never conventional, despite the pop catchiness throughout. Much radio airtime has been given to second single ‘Secondhand Car’, which will surely claim Churchill his second entry in the Triple J Hottest 100, but ‘Breakneck Speed’ is superior – and so infectious that it might be the year’s sonic equivalent of the ebola virus. Outside of those pop joyrides, Churchill is reflective and immersed in his gentle and deft guitar work – look no further than the dreamy malaise of the gorgeous title track. Having mastered the immediacy of pop writing, it will be interesting to see where the talented musician ventures next.
16. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Rusted-on Queens of the Stone Age fans could have been forgiven for experiencing a heady pang of trepidation at the news that Mark Ronson – the pop recycler of modern music – would be producing the band’s new record. But even Ronson’s penchant for hyper sheen couldn’t overshadow or erode the full-blooded, shoot-from-the-hip grooves of QOTSA singer and songwriter Josh Homme (who recently became a villain in the media). It’s not their grittiest or darkest record, a direction perhaps impossible with Ronson at the helm, but from funky opening stomper ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ it’s evident that Villains is the formidable rock band at both their most virile and palatable. ‘The Way You Used To Do’ is another QOTSA single that’ll make you want to get undressed. The epic highlight, ‘The Evil Has Landed’, harks back to a Led Zeppelin brand of arena-sized blues rock. Tasty.
15. THE WAR ON DRUGS
A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel’s musical project may be named after a wholly futile pursuit, but there’s nothing pointless about his transcendental rock band. Expansive and ethereal, like Bob Dylan on an MDMA carpet ride, A Deeper Understanding draws its listeners into a sprawling, shimmering dreamspace to float amongst languid echoed arrangements and anthemic instrumentation. This radiant record is sustenance for the soul, designed to enrapture and uplift. It does both.
14. REAL ESTATE
Singer-songwriter Martin Courtney has successfully opened a new chapter for his New Jersey dream-pop band, following the departure of founding member and guitarist Matt Mondanile. New guitarist and permanent member Julian Lynch proves a sterling addition to this, their fourth record – it’s perhaps their best. They owe much to the Byrd’s warm jangle and Teenage Fanclub’s soft, painfully gorgeous fare (especially the Man-Made era). From the psychedelic repetitive trip of ‘Two Arrows’, to the echoed, trickling gentleness of ‘After the Moon’, and the cavity inducing sweetness of single ‘Darling’, this melancholy record is truly a thing of wistful beauty.
13. IRON & WINE
After his recent, occasionally mind-bending excursions, singer-songwriter Sam Beam aka Iron & Wine, returns to his roots on Beast Epic. As the title doesn’t suggest, the songwriter recaptures the majestic simplicity of his more dazzling folk-inspired work. It might not be as flawless as 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, but 10 years later it’s evident that Beam’s knack for timeless songwriting has not diminished. Age is only bringing further grace to his music. Beam’s always been an old musical soul, with a strong sense of classic romanticism, and there’s a weathered sweetness to gems like ‘Last Night’ that makes his music something to which you want to return, time and time again.
12. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE
Hug of Thunder
Broken Social Scene have long been the nucleus of Canadian indie-pop, splintering off in various directions before reconvening to combine their exceptional talents. After seven years away, the core members, including vocalists Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, decided to get the band back together. They sent out a message to the usual suspects and the response was overwhelming – there’s 18 musicians credited on Hug of Thunder. As the title suggests, BSS’s return is a warm, tightly wound embrace – an old friend giving you a big ol’ squeeze. The album is a dynamic and diverse indie rock excursion buoyed by gorgeous harmonies, grooves and up-tempo arrangements. Drew’s dreamy road song ‘Skyline’ is a highlight on an album of gems, as is the Leslie Feist-sung title track. The record twists and turns and keeps you on your toes without ever jarring. A most welcome return.
11. RYAN ADAMS
It’s fair to assume that Ryan Adams could sing the phone book and make it sound like a sublime country rock classic. On 16th studio record Prisoner, the revered songwriter continues the big Springsteen-esque rock of his previous self-titled outing. But this time he’s wrestling with a lot of personal shit following his divorce from Mandy Moore. As the cliche states, a broken heart makes for the best songwriting and Prisoner does nothing to diminish that assertion. Opening with the bombast and unmistakable sentiment of ‘Do You Still Love Me?’, Adams has crafted another collection that unfolds with repeated listens. He’s never been so personal. He’s never been so direct.
10. PSYCHEDELIC PORN CRUMPETS
High Visceral, Pt. 2
Surely on the brink of nationwide stardom, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets delivered the second part of 2016’s High Visceral, Pt. 1 and one of the year’s purest rock records. A pot-smoked hybrid of ’70s prog-rock and fuzzy psych, the Crumpets might not be reinventing the wheel but 60 seconds into opener ‘Nek’ and you know this is a record you won’t be turning off any time soon. The Perth four-piece has heavy grooves and blistering riffage pumping through their veins. Fans of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, … And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead and The Sword should be all over this like a rash.
Rest in Piss
From the unhinged opening instrumental ‘Black Paint’, with its merry beat and stabs of guitar, Rest in Piss maintains a demented atmosphere. Falling under the “sludge punk” tag (though there’s plenty of garage influences), the Melbourne three-piece use a simple formula – primal rhythms and the axe dialled to 11. But amongst the aural chaos there’s plenty of dynamics and sonic variation. Take the blistering ‘Paralyzed’ versus the chaotic gear-changes of ‘Rui’s Lament’, the latter a tune that would fit somewhere amongst The Drones or The Peep Tempel’s catalogues. But while Batpiss have all the energy of those two contemporaries, and sound every bit as Australian, there’s a masterful use of noise to shape a consistent, textured and unsettling milieu for the songs’ array of characters to inhabit.
08. BOO SEEKA
Never Too Soon
After an impressive five singles, each of them garnering deserved love on Triple J, there was little left for Boo Seeka to do but release a debut record. In 2017 they delivered on that promise and dropped one of the year’s most sensuous outings. Dreamy and beguilding, Never Too Soon is a collection of custom-made pop hits that’s too irresistibly melodic to ignore. Ben Gumbleton (or “Boo”), following on from his impressive yet largely overlooked work with Benjalu, has found a perfect foil in Sammy Seeka, whose rhythmic textures serve the singer’s earthy and distinctive tones. They’re a formidable duo.
07. BEN SALTER
Given his prolific and impressive output, it’s safe to say that Ben Salter backs himself. And thank god he does. Back Yourself is the now 40-year-old singer-songwriter’s finest work, effortlessly changing gears whilst seamlessly hanging together. There’s maybe some Pink Floyd hovering in spacey ‘The First Sign of Madness’ or some Jeff Lynne pop fuzz in the rallying title track, but there’s really no one that sounds like Salter (also a member of The Gin Club and Wilson Pickers). Tracks take left turns, always compelling, always rewarding. Vocally diverse, Salter employs his rich timbre on the acoustic opener ‘Where Corals Lie’ and completely stops you in your tracks on the noir-ish, saxophone laced ‘I Need You’. With a raconteur’s tongue and a philosopher’s eye, Salter’s command of his craft reaps compelling rewards.
06. LAWRENCE GREENWOOD
P.S. I’m Haunted
One of Australia’s most enigmatic and talented songwriters returned in 2017 with his fourth record, the first under his birth name and not the moniker “Whitley”. Ten years on from the debut record that made him a Triple J darling, Lawrence Greenwood continues to shun past commercial glories. Instead he doggedly pursues his craft in its purest form. P.S. I’m Haunted is very much as its title suggests: the slow-burning and deeply personal musings of a sensitive and deep-thinking soul, both outwardly observant of the world around him and agonisingly self-aware. The half-awake arrangements echo of psychedelic drug-influenced predecessor Even the Stars Are a Mess, but here are drawn out into restless piano-led processions that are at once mournful, starkly devastating and cathartic. The record’s centrepiece, ‘Lonesome George’, is Greenwood’s greatest musical triumph, a 9-plus-minute wrenching journey in which the songwriter wrestles with regret and loss. The title references the famous Pinta Island turtle of the same name, which was the very last of its species: a creature symbolic of loneliness who, remarkably, was found murdered in its Galápagos National Park enclosure in 2012. It’s the kind of sombre, existential reference that continues to give nuance to Greenwood’s work.
05. FLEET FOXES
It was a six-year wait for Fleet Foxes’ third studio record, but the Seattle five-piece paid our patience in kind. Crack-Up is darker and more complex than their earlier work, innovative within the context of their own oeuvre, yet unmistakably them. Singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold has deconstructed their sound and shaped it into something new – a rebirth. The resemblance – the DNA – is there, but all is draped in sombre shadow. In brief moments Pecknold’s voice drops to a deep, almost spoken murmur, before a sunbeam of those trademark harmonies cuts through the grey skies overhead. Few folk bands in modern music are as evocative as Fleet Foxes (especially since Midlake journeyed into psych-rock) and Crack-Up certainly takes their sound into breathtaking territories.
04. KENDRICK LAMAR
On ‘FEAR.’, the 13th track of Kendrick Lamar’s most recent opus, the rapid-fire wordsmith muses: “Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax, wonderin’ if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.” It’s an eloquent summation of the creative tension at the centre of Lamar’s work – how wealth and fame will alter him. But his concerns aren’t as simplistic as keeping a level head in the face of superstardom. His razor-sharp poetry is drenched in the history of black America and attuned to its current plight. As literary and perceptive as all this might sound, Lamar’s more at ease on Damn. and drifts into dreamy romanticism on ‘LOVE.’. But elsewhere, Lamar is still looking inward – and there’s plenty of fire in the belly.
03. BIG THIEF
Unbearably intimate, soulful, haunting, life-affirming: once Big Thief’s second record casts its spell over you, such superlatives fall short of the mark. With the fragile, whispered vocals of Adrianne Lenker as its central thread, the sophomore release by the Brooklyn quartet unfolds and seduces with each listen. Lenker’s poetry is direct, deeply personal and visceral but, in stark contrast, the sweetness of her stinging vocals subverts the weight of them. Her fragile voice gives the words uplift, sending them weightless and spiralling through the air, as evidenced in the record’s centrepiece ‘Mythological Beauty’. Her exploration of family history is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, and Lenker indeed lays her life bare – former lovers, her mother, brother, accounts of assault are all brought into vivid colour. Opener, ‘Pretty Things’, might echo of Leonard Cohen, but Lenker is otherwise a distinctly original voice. Served by minimal, considered lo-fi folk instrumentation, the album’s use of aural space gives the stories a palpable dramatic clarity. Fascinating, too, is the image on Capacity‘s cover, a picture of Lenker as a baby, nursed by her uncle who bares an uncanny resemblance to the singer – as if she’s nursing herself. Perhaps an eerie metaphor.
02. MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA
A Black Mile to the Surface
Since their 2009 breakout record Mean Everything to Nothing, Manchester Orchestra have slipped into the background here in Australia. They’ve continued to release anthemic and emotionally wrought rock music, led by their singer and principle songwriter Andy Hull, and have continued to evolve their sound. And it feels like previous work and past glories have been building to this. A Black Mile to the Surface is their crowning achievement. The album runs the full gamut of human emotion. ‘The Gold’ is the story of a miner, providing for his family but slowly dying from his chosen occupation. Other stories, set in small towns, document the procession of time, the cycle of life and death – all influenced by how first-time fatherhood has shaped Hull. The lyricist’s imagery is as vivid as ever, an exercise in self-examination and character studies. Whether exploding with thundering arrangements, or falling into the intimacy of ‘The Alien’ or ‘The Sunshine’, Manchester Orchestra take the listener on a joyous rollercoaster. Each song flows into the next without a breath taken, adding to the impact of this immersive experience.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
01. HOLY HOLY
The creative pairing of Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson yielded an impressive debut record in 2015, but it lacked cohesion – an array of influences all fighting to be heard. But one thing was clear – the pair liked big arrangements and classic melodies. The best track from When the Storms Cloud Would Come was ‘You Cannot Call For Love Like a Dog’ – a scintillating piece of rock music. That track was an road sign of what was to come. Holy Holy’s follow-up, Paint, is a different beast compared to the previous outing – an inventive, colourful, irresistible songbook that’s head and shoulders above every other record released in the past 12 months. It’s heavier on synths and void of skippable tracks – a real masterclass in pop songwriting. Carroll pushes himself vocally and Dawson, perhaps one of Australia’s most tasteful rock guitarists, takes a big step into the spotlight – his stunning riffs, lead breaks and harmonised parts all loom large in Paint‘s deft brushstrokes.
By Nick Milligan