Words by Dom O’Connor
In 2017, it feels like the life cycle of a record is shorter than ever. While streaming offers fans unlimited troves of music past and present, it’s also arguably shortened the listener’s attention span, meaning more and more great records are falling through the cracks and being ignored in a uniquely modernistic way. With no genre-specific thread, the albums profiled here were some of the most unique, interesting and challenging of 2017, and ones we thought deserved more attention than they received.
Hoops’ debut record Routines is a breezy, halcyon daze of a listen, with this band from Bloomington, Indiana, coming off like Real Estate’s snarkier, post-collegiate younger brothers. On album highlight ‘On Letting Go’, a dusty breakbeat is washed over by layers of synths, a beautifully twangy guitar line and a droning, casual vocal that’s sure to soundtrack a million first break-ups. Hoops continue to remain enigmatic throughout the entire record, maintaining a cool ambivalence that feels neither posturing nor laid-back.
There’s an assured feel to Sam Gellaitry’s Escapism III EP that belies his barely-legal age. ‘Jungle Waters’ begins like an idyllic dream, with swelling strings carrying the track until booming, Hud Mo-esque drums enter the fray. Sam seems unconcerned with the tropes of trap music on Escapism III, and it’s invigorating to hear such a young producer experiment with nimble, jazzy bass lines over such pristine production. It’s also hard to see Sam stopping here. A further refinement of his craft seems inevitable in his extremely bright future, so you should probably jump on board now.
When Marika Hackman first appeared, she was an acoustic-guitar strumming folkie in the Laura Marling mould, so her pivot to heavier textures on ‘I’m Not Your Man’ was both unexpected for the listener and clearly rejuvenating for her as a songwriter. ‘My Lover Cindy’ glides over elegiac backing from fellow Brits The Big Moon, but Marika’s vocal control and darkly clever lyricism (“I’ll suck you dry, I will,” she intones over the chorus) is the clear star here. A bold re-invention of a record that’s full of left-turns and subtly intelligent songwriting.
Forest Swords’ Compassion often seems like the ultimate exercise in slow burning intensity: starkly cinematic, full of depth and executed with precision. ‘The Highest Flood’ takes clarion-call chanting and marries it with ominous drones; the austere production hypnotising the listener into a trance. The song continues to ebb and flow, and there’s an impeccable sense of timing within the increasingly-complex composition. An album to spend a dark night of the soul with, and find new layers on each listen.
Here’s an album made to be blasted out of Camaro speakers, ten songs that could fit snugly on the soundtrack to Dazed and Confused. The record’s title track crackles with an arrogant strut, contorting ’80s arena-rock to fit their own aesthetic and shredding up a storm in the process. The band’s restless energy and bedroom power chords are more than a pastiche or ironic posturing though. It’s clear that White Reaper truly believe they are the titular ‘World’s Best American Band’, and they’re going to prove it with all of the piano runs and guitar histrionics they can muster.
If you picked that 2017 would be the year the preternaturally talented Young Thug would “go country”, you’re a liar. But between the Bright Eyes samples and the glorious “yee haw!” he throws out on ‘Family Don’t Matter’, it’s almost bizarre how comfortable Thugger sounds over pensive acoustic guitar with barely a beat in sight. It shouldn’t be that shocking. Thug has proven over the last few years he can pretty much rap over anything, and his uniquely expressive vocal tics add an affecting sense of emotion across an album that’s more than just an extended punchline.
Erstwhile The Internet guitarist Steve Lacy made the year’s best EP on little more than an iPhone and GarageBand. Instead of fixating on this, let’s focus on his precocious skill as an arranger, making a meticulous arrangement of jazzy chords and coo-ing backing vocals offset the menacing edge of Steve’s vocals. The 18-year-old sounds mature beyond his years throughout the whole EP, and ‘Dark Red’ is a perfect distillation of that youthful essence crossed with a singularly impressive knack for songwriting.
As a rapper, Wiki has always been interested in one thing: celebrating the doyens of old New York with a buoyant thrill in his sharp, static voice. His solo debut No Mountains in Manhattan turns his city into a character, with a lived-in authenticity to every rhyme (no rapper enjoys his bodega quite like Wiki does). ‘Mayor’ positively bristles with joy, utilising his uniquely-expressive voice to ride the exuberantly sampled horns like the man himself on the subway. There’s also no promise of empty nostalgia from Wiki on ‘Mayor’. It’s simply a gleeful celebration of his city’s manic energy, delights and flaws.
On ‘Witness’, Benjamin Booker (with an ace assist from Mavis Staples, who could harmonise the phone book and make it sound good) looks inward and doesn’t like what he sees. The titular question of both the album and the emotional centrepiece of a title track is never truly answered, but Benjamin’s willingness to question his own complicity is highlighted by beautiful, gospel infused call-and-response vocals and a rollicking backdrop. There are no easy solutions posed here. Only a defiant, wounded sense of heart and humanity that permeates every aspect of the song’s being.