This year hasn’t yet offered much of a relapse from, to put it neutrally, the cataclysms of 2016. But as much as January has been a continuation of previous decisions, political or otherwise, the musical landscape of 2017 has gone from strength to artistic strength.
The big hitters went big (or should I say bigly) last year, with titles like ‘ANTI’, ‘The Life of Pablo’, ‘Lemonade’, ‘VIEWS’ and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ springing to mind, and there’s a case to be made that 2016 was the year of the surprise album drop. Pretty much all of those albums were released with very little publicising, simply because they rode off a wave of expectation and hype. A lot of that hype was well rewarded. The revival of Radiohead has put out one of the best albums in their entire canon. And ‘The Life of Pablo’, as messy as it is, was brilliant.
2017 has started off demurely as far as the very biggest names are concerned. But these are exciting times for up-and-coming artists and bands like ‘Sundara Karma‘ and ‘Aquilo‘, who have introduced themselves in the LP format. The veterans, such as riot grrrl band ‘Sleater-Kinney‘, have already come back, with a raging, on-the-nose, live album. This year has had an experimental edge so far, with alternative rock and hip-hop dominating the releases board. And numerous singles, from across genres, have been released, many incredibly promising. But here’s Roar‘s pick of the month’s five best album releases:
5. Brian Eno – Reflection (1 January 2017 — Warp Records)
It’s fitting that Brian Eno, the silent bastion of innovation in music for virtually the last four decades, has opened up the year. ‘Reflection’ is a single-track, meditative journey. All of the function of the album lies in its title, and the rises and bends of the 54-minute track allow us no distraction, only intrigue. Even the cover of the album, a grainy, off-colour photograph of Eno, has a sense of loss and inscrutability to it. Ambient music has always been accused of being too slow, or just impenetrable, but the scale of Eno’s 54-minute track allows us to mark out short-lived changes in frequency or tone carefully. The album ends just as softly as it begins, receding for three minutes into silence, and it’s perhaps the kind of slow-down we need to mark out the beginning of the year.
Stand-out Tracks: Reflection.
4. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (13 January 2017 — Ba Da Bing!)
Julie Byrne’s indie folk caresses come through excellently in her impressive sophomore release. Unlike Eno, this may not be the album we need right now, but it’s certainly the album we want. It’s a sublime, 9-track shelter that takes you, with a tender hand, through gentle melancholia. Byrne submerges you in the delicate hold of her voice, which its echoes of Joni Mitchell and Sibylle Baier, and never quite loses its grip, even after the orchestral outro of the final song.
Stand-out Tracks: Natural Blue / Sea as it Glides.
3. Matt Martians – The Drum Chord Theory (January 26, 2017 — Three Quarter)
The solo debut of record producer Matt Martians has been a long time coming. The Atlantan has spent much of his career working with the jazz hip-hop band The Internet and members of the Odd Future collective, but the album removes itself from Martians’ collaborative work. It has an individual edge while exhibiting the layers of influence he’s had on his collaborators, as well as his own influences; the album title’s tongue-in-cheek reference to A Tribe Called Quest’s golden age hip-hop classic ‘The Low End Theory’ isn’t to be missed. His falsetto dazzles and carries the album effortlessly, particularly on tracks like ‘What Love Is’ and ‘Alotta Women/Useless’. The latter song is a prime example of how Martians uses his guests on the album well; Kari Faux helps build the medley to a stand-out track on the album. Odd Future’s Syd also helps out with ‘Dent Jusay’, a catchy-as-hell R&B track. As much as it has a playful, experimental, trippy core, it’s just as much a gorgeous, soulful hip-hop album, with a surprising amount of lyrical depth.
Stand-out tracks: What Love Is / Alotta Women/Useless.
2. Sacred Paws – Strike a Match (January 27, 2017 — Rock Action Records)
Glasgow-London two piece Sacred Paws have emerged, almost perfectly formed, from London’s DIY scene with this album. Guitarist Rachel Aggs has been in a multitude of projects (one still going, Shopping, is one of the grooviest art-punk bands in town) and Sacred Paws draws on the collective musical experience of the band. Its dual-city origin creates a sense of multiple influences that emerge throughout the record; it has an immersive, metropolitan feel. Aggs masterfully layers her Soweto-pop guitar across the album and is finely chiseled by the equally frenetic, Afrobeat drumming of her counterpart Eilidh Rodgers. It’s equal parts Graceland and Parallel Lines, but its characteristically Sacred Paws and it’s all fantastic. The album sometimes suffers from a lack of variety, but it doesn’t matter much when the foundations are this good.
Stand-out tracks: Everyday/ Strike a Match.
1. The xx – I See You (January 13, 2017 — Young Turks)
The xx‘s third album rose to immediate critical acclaim upon its release, so its placing on our January best albums list would not come as a surprise to many. We think it deserves the praise though; The xx have never particularly convinced this writer of their status but ‘I See You’ is the kind of retrospective album that allows you to re-investigate their previous work. It retains enough of that depressing indie pop sound The xx are known for: the sound is sparse, the production is expansive and the lyrics confessional and measured. Its vulnerability is complex, particularly in tracks like ‘Performance’, with its curlicues of guitar – reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s Corpus Christi Carol – over Madley Croft’s “Since you stopped believing/I’ve had to put on my own show.” The title, the three featureless band members on its album cover, and the marketing (the poster has a comprehensive, mirror-like sheen) all draw the listener in, they’re confided to. It’s the best record of The xx’s career and the best album of 2017 thus far.
Stand-out tracks: Say Something Loving / Performance / On Hold.