In July this year, George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio, declared ‘Make no mistake: with very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.’
In terms of raw data, Ergatoudis is right – album sales have been declining steadily for over a decade. Musicians, however, don’t seem to have gotten the memo, because complex and thoughtful albums continued to be released throughout 2017.
People will always turn to art when things in the real world seem to only get worse – and 2017 was seemingly burgeoning with political letdown, inaction, and tragedy. But in spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, 2017 has graced us with some truly beautiful works.
The albums on this list range from neo-soul to jazz-psychedelia to rap. All are original, introspective, and immersive. They invite both empathy and self-examination. Above all, they are a credit to their medium: proof that, even in our era of streamable playlists and insta-fame, the album continues to occupy a central place in the music world.
SZA // CTRL
It would be difficult to write a ‘Best of 2017’ album review that makes no mention of CTRL. SZA’s soulful sophomore release is masterful in its minimalism. Isolated trap beats are reimagined alongside synthesisers and looped harmonies to create a rich, dreamy soundscape, which is anchored by SZA’s soaring vocals. On this labour of love, nothing has been left to chance: on every song, it feels as though SZA is speaking directly to the listener, offering her insights on sexuality, femininity and love with disarming candour.
The best thing about CTRL, though, is that it brims with personality. SZA is at times feisty and playful, while at others she is frustrated, confused, and lonely. She allows herself to be explicit – for example, ‘Doves in the Wind’ opens with ‘Real n*ggers do not deserve pussy’ before launching into a song celebrating femaleness. On ‘Broken Clocks’, she’s lovesick; on ‘Normal Girl’ she’s deeply insecure. ‘Love Galore’ is a cry of sexual empowerment, confident and unashamed. And yet, in the following track, ‘Drew Barrymore’, SZA muses despondently on an ex-lover who has moved on without her.
CTRL is both a deeply introspective work and infinitely relatable in its directness. Above all, it is an ode to the complexities of human emotion that is beautifully conveyed and masterfully produced.
Savage // Thawing Dawn
You’d be forgiven for thinking Thawing Dawn was made by hipsters, for hipsters. On the record sleeve, A. Savage – Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts – lounges on a bed, wielding an acoustic guitar, looking pensive. Beside him is an overflowing ashtray and a copy of Modern Moral Philosophy, a dense work on virtue ethics originally published in 1958. Savage is so far up the ivory tower, he’s practically in outer space.
And yet, the album itself is a revelation. Part tender love ballad and part rumination on the vacuity of modern life, Savage’s exceptional songwriting shines. Musically, he explores his Southern origins – bluesy guitars offer a rustic backdrop on songs like ‘Phantom Limbo’ and ‘Buffalo Calf Road’. But there’s an undercurrent of angst, too. ‘What Do I Do’ is a frantic, eight-minute post-punk wailing that reveals a deep malaise with materialism and modernity: Savage muses, ‘If I have no god, I’ll worship everything and/Everything will then become an icon of devotion’.
With Thawing Dawn, A. Savage has created something that is poignant but frenetic, melodic yet punk. Technically and lyrically brilliant, it seems to strike an ideal blend of country-esque nostalgia and urban anguish. Trust me: it goes.
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard with Mild High Club // Sketches Of Brunswick East
If there’s one adjective to describe King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, it’s ‘prolific’: the Triple J favourites have released five albums this year alone. Though renowned for their bizarre, multi-media live shows, the real genius of King Gizzard lies in their outstanding musical ability, their distinctive arrangements and their seemingly limitless creative energy.
Sketches of Brunswick East is something of a departure from the frenzied, quasi-Satanic jams ‘Gamma Knife’ and ‘Rattlesnake’. It borrows from jazz, psychedelic rock and world music to create a surreal meandering – it’s a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland of a record that constantly surprises. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, so that what’s created is an impression of changing moods, rather than a piece-by-piece musical arrangement.
The narrative feel of Sketches of Brunswick East, in spite of its mostly instrumental tracks, is quite extraordinary. Everything is contained in the soaring flute solos, the syncopated drumbeats, the jazzy bass lines – none of which stay the same long enough for the listener to get comfortable.
Like all of the albums in King Gizzard’s portfolio, Sketches of Brunswick East is atypical. It reiterates King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard as a pioneer in musical genre-bending and original songwriting. With this album, King Gizzard have created something akin to a dream sequence: strange, magical and otherworldly.
King Krule // The OOZ
The OOZ is Archy Marshall’s second release under the alias King Krule, and it comes four years after he garnered critical attention for 6 Feet Below the Moon. But The OOZ is darker and more fearsome than King Krule’s breakout album. Thumping drumbeats are overlayed with discordant guitars and saxophones that build to symphonic climaxes. There are eerie trumpet solos and loops of ambient, industrial white noise. It’s an arresting combination of jazz and electronica that screams rawness and alienation.
As in King Krule’s debut, Marshall’s voice is at the centre of all of this. He spits out lyrics that appear to have been chosen for their onomatopoeic quality moreso than for their literal meaning: ‘He’s mashed, I’m mashed, we’re mashed/That cat got slashed in half like that’.
The OOZ is undoubtedly a spooky record, but it’s not exclusively a gloomy one – at nineteen tracks, there’s plenty of room for musical experimentation. The result eludes classification: listen for yourself.
Tyler, the Creator // Flower Boy
Prior to the release of Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator seemed determined not to be liked. His first three studio albums (rightly) incurred disgust at their misogynist and homophobic lyrics. These are words that cannot be separated from the artist: so much of Tyler, the Creator’s following has come from his deliberate seeking out of the controversial and his decision to embrace his ‘troublemaker’ image.
Flower Boy demonstrates a level of maturity absent from these earlier works. Rather than hide behind distasteful, exclusionary braggadocio, Tyler allows himself a painful self-examination.
Tyler’s gravelly vocals are particularly emphasised on Flower Boy and are backed up by lush musical arrangements that include strings, keyboards and gorgeous harmonies. One of the standout tracks, ‘Garden Shed’ feat. Estelle, demonstrates Tyler’s talent as a producer as well as a lyricist. The song builds for three minutes before Tyler launches into his rap, a slow build of electric guitars and synthesisers that, musically, never fully resolves. The rap itself is a heart-wrenchingly honest coming-out song: ‘Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase’.
Flower Boy is full of tracks like these. Their forthrightness invites even the most unwilling Tyler, the Creator fan to empathise with someone attempting to navigate the difficulties of fame, identity, and youth. Tyler isn’t asking for forgiveness or attempting to excuse his past behaviour; he merely reminds his listeners that he’s a human being, too.
As 2017 draws to a close and we enter into the new year, it’s a lesson in empathy we could all do with remembering.