Favorite Albums of 2017 – Part 4 includes 10 albums that are among the most inventive, refreshing, and exhilarating of the year. Not surprisingly, today’s list is also our most geographically diverse, with six countries represented.
Noga Erez (ISL) – Off the Radar
(via City Slang)
Every once in a while, an artist arrives who makes you re-evaluate your musical choices, including genres you tend to avoid. Israeli artist Noga Erez is one of them. She is not the typical producer/singer-songwriter who is trying to create a dance music hit à la The Chainsmokers, nor is she imitating the moody electro-pop of London Grammar. Instead, she’s blazing her own trail with an ambitious style that is dark and edgy yet tantalizingly hypnotic. She’s M.I.A., Phantogram, BANKS, and The Weeknd mixed into a single creative force. All this is revealed on her remarkable debut album, Off The Radar.
From the propulsive drive of “Dance While You Shoot” to the dark, hypnotic aesthetics of “Balkada” to the percussion-driven “Noisy“, Erez displays her many deep, complex layers. While as a composer she’s an innovator, lyrically she is a genius. Her words are heavy and, for the most part, politically- and socially-driven. On the industrial “Toy”, Erez takes on the role of a tyrant’s son whose sole desire is to feed on the oppressed. She also addresses themes such as the powerlessness of women (“Pity”), apathy (on the creepy “Worth None”), and self-worth (the funk-infused “Off the Radar).
Off The Radar is a triumphant album that would be the talk of the music world had Frank Ocean or FKA Twigs released it. And to think, this is Erez’s first full-length, which offers just a hint of what she could possibly achieve in the future. Hopefully by then, people around the world will recognize her immense talents. ~~~ Ben
Perfume Genius (USA) – No Shape
(via Matador Records)
On his remarkable 2014 album, No Bright, Mike Hadreas unveiled a different side to Perfume Genius. He was vulnerable, assertive, commanding, and proud, and the record was the pinnacle of his canon. It was simultaneously a sermon and an enlightening for all willing to hear his message. Three years later, Hadreas returned with a new record that still requires an audience but its arena is the theater. His fourth album, No Shape, is a celebration of one’s existence disguised as an esoteric-pop opera.
Throughout this concept album, Hadreas takes us on a journey that peers through the eyes of the protagonist (often Hadreas himself), of his lover, and that of God. In most cases, what we witness is something exhilarating and monumental. From the slow-building jubilation of opener “Otherwise”, the technicolor cinema of “Slip Away”, to the Prince-esque funk of “Go Ahead”, and the sultry “Die 4 You”, Hadreas has us sitting on the edges of our seats and applauding after every act. A standing ovation occurs after the soaring euphoria of “Wreath”. As the curtain falls following the beautiful love ballad “Alan”, the show ends. For now that is because No Shape is like the great classics – one that should be revisited often. It is bold, ambitious, and beautiful. It is the grandest of all of 2017’s spectacles. ~~~ Ben
Phenomenal Creature (FIN) – Vettenvalvoja
Hailing from Helsinki, Phenomenal Creature brought us possibly the most eclectic bunch of tracks on a single album this year. Vettenvalvoja is categorized as contemporary folk but includes a touch of rock, a snippet of classical music, a moment of punk, and even a sprinkling of electronic, delivered through strings of all sizes. Held together with Rosita Manninen’s shockingly good vocals, this was definitely one for any serious music lover’s collection, if only for the Finnish-language track “Vettenvalvoja” (translated as “The Watcher Of Waters”), which brings a 21st-century twist to its sea-shanty heritage.
And the theme of water and the sea is the focus of this immensely creative record. Like the open water, Phenomenal Creature have crafted a diverse set of songs that is at times rocky (“Vultures”), beautiful to behold (“Sky Blue Sky”), and desperate yet comforting (“Intentions”). The weave is sufficiently gentle that each song shines in its own space and time. The album remains uncontrived, showcasing songwriting talent, musicianship, and vocals that embody the spirit of the enchanting waters. ~~~ Flo
Phoebe Bridgers (USA) – Stranger In The Alps
(via Dead Oceans)
Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger In The Alps is one of the strongest debut records in recent memory. Her music is smart and relatable as it moves between melancholic and sad to entertaining and amusing. Throughout her songs, Bridgers describes relationships, specific moments, and other emotional events. The gorgeous “Smoke Signals” kicks off the album, using the deaths of rock stars like Bowie and Lemmy to mark the passage of time. There’s a bonafide hit in “Motion Sickness” where Bridgers looks introspectively at her own well-being and how others perceive her. Bridgers also looks outwardly on the devastating “Funeral” and the beautiful chaos of “Scott Street.” Conor Oberst makes a cameo on “Would You Rather”, which provides evidence of Bridgers’ potential and star-in-the-making quality.
Stardom should have been predicted even before the LP’s release because its title is taken from a strange censoring of a line from The Big Lebowski. But instead of a older Dude stealing the spotlight, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter with the lyrical chops of Cohen, Dylan, and Apple is the one everyone will be talking about for years to come. ~~~ Rich
Priests (USA) – Nothing Feels Natural
(via Sister Polygon)
Released just a week after Inauguration Day, Priests’ Nothing Feels Natural felt incredibly timely. If there ever was a time for politically- and socially-charged, punk-inspired rock music, January was the time. Months later, the record still rings as loud and remains as relevant as it did 11 months ago.
The album kicks off with the chaotically drummed “Appropriate.” Lead singer and lyricist Katie Alice Greer repeats, “It feels good to buy something you can’t afford.” Greer’s voice is knock-out powerful on “Jj.” The drumming Daniele Daniele supplies is top notch, and when her vocals on “No Big Bang” create one of the record’s best moments. “Puff” starts out about naming a band after Burger King then dives into a statement, “Accept the triumph of the machine.” The dynamic is great, and it’s incredibly smart. On “Suck,” Priests get funky, proving they have shed their punk tendencies musically but keeping that same spirit throughout the record. Nothing Feels Natural is an urgent record. It’s smart, angry, and loud. It’s also the album we need to give us the strength to enact change. ~~~ Rich
PUMAROSA (ENG) – The Witch
(via Harvest Records/Fiction Records)
For more than two years, PUMAROSA have thrilled music listeners with their spectacular brand of cinematic, indie electro-rock. With each single released, it became apparent their music is equally made to buzz through the most secluded, underground night clubs and the cavernous confines of the world’s top theatres. This observation was validated when their debut album, The Witch, released in May.
The Witch is more than just an impressive first effort. It is a hurtling train that only has one objective – to pulverize everything in its path. The Witch is, in short, sensational. The album features the best bookends of any LP released this year. The deliriously frightening and spellbinding “Dragonfly” opens the record, and it feels like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth. Closer “Snake” is similarly mind-altering with its voodoo psychedelic vibe. Between these two songs lie jewels such as the edgy “Honey” and the mesmerizing “Red” that are Blondie-esque in their approach and sound.
The shiniest of the gems, though, are “Priestess“ and “Lion’s Den.” The former’s Krautrock foundations are haunting and engrossing, leaving you in a daze. If the music is fantasy, the songwriting is right out of the mind of Guillermo del Toro. The latter, meanwhile, is the band’s most ambitious track. Commencing with a stark, PJ Harvey-esque approach, the song builds into a wall of sonic fury. This fury cannot be stopped, just like the London band’s rising popularity. Get on the PUMAROSA train now because it is rapidly gaining speed and will fill to capacity very soon. ~~~ Ben
Real Estate (USA) – In Mind
(via Domino Recording Co.)
Real Estate are like an old friend. They consistently deliver what every fan expects from them – warm, hazy indie rock that you can easily spin from start to finish and feel completely satisfied. Last year the band parted ways with their longtime guitarist, throwing that consistency into question. However, on their fourth record, In Mind, they’ve created a record that is both true to their sound and expands it immensely. Like catching up with an old friend, there are some surprises, such as the synth-driven opener “Darling.” “Two Arrows” has an ending comparable to The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, complete with the abrupt ending. There’s also the politically charged “Diamond Eyes.”
However, the jangle rock we’ve come to love about Real Estate remains in focus, as do their introspective stories, such as on “Stained Glass” and the old-school “Same Sun.” While In Mind isn’t a groundbreaker like Days, it’s damn good. When you need to relax and put on an album to set your vibe to an even keel with blissful harmonies, this was the one we frequently spun. ~~~ Wendy
Ryan Adams (USA) – Prisoner
Love is Hell. The sentiment that Ryan Adams put forth over a decade ago seems downright prophetic now. His newest LP, Prisoner, finds the Heartbreaker assessing the damages of his battered heart following his divorce last year. The album’s title is obviously self-evident – a man still in love with his ex-wife and entrapped by the deep emotions of their time together. Yet instead of lashing out or mourning what was, the record is a revelation into the mind and heart of one of this generation’s finest singer-songwriters. It is simultaneously a diary of Adams’ feelings, an apology for the end of the relationship, and an acknowledgement that all things must end.
On the penultimate track, “Tightrope”, Ryan Adams sings, “All I ever wanted is to see you make me smile.” This one lyric defines everything that is Prisoner – introspective, raw, emotional, and a waning thread of hope. This is just one of the album’s highlights. The opening track, “Do You Still Love Me,” is euphoric yet reflective. “Doomsday” echoes the unrestrained Adams during his Love Is Hell days. On “Haunted House,” Adams’s songwriting shines through, as his home has become his prison. With “Anything I Say To You Now,” an air of The War On Drugs can be heard, subtly showcasing how Adams continues to grow as a musician. But one constant remains, and it is what we have come to learn throughout his career: when Adams channels his pain into his music, the songs are incredibly memorable. ~~~ Ben
Sleep Party People (DK) – Lingering
(via Joyful Noise Recordings)
Over a decade ago, Brian Batz fiddled with an old, out-of-tune piano. This innocent event would change his life forever, charting him on a course that eventually would lead to the birth of Sleep Party People. Following three critically-acclaimed albums and comparisons to Radiohead, Boards of Canada, Caribou, and The Antlers, Batz changes direction on his fourth album, Lingering, which is an immaculate display of unearthly dream-pop, dreamgaze, electronica, and chamber pop. From the opening seconds to the very last chord, Sleep Party People creates varied soundscapes that are radiant in their approach and stunning in their execution. The opener, “Figures,” is beautifully dramatic and cinematic while the closer, “Vivid Dreams,” is an ambient, interstellar escape filled with solemn tones.
Batz’s genius is fully realized on the hypnotic and exhilarating “The Missing Steps”, which is Thom York-like in its quality. The spectacular, cross-genre experiment of “Fainting Spell” and the cosmic romance heard on “Lingering Eyes” are just samplings of the power and allure of Sleep Party People’s music. It is enchanting and dazzling. However, Lingering is more than a record; it is a voyage into the cosmos and deep into one’s mind. It is also a journey into the brilliance of one man. And to think, it all started with an old piano. ~~~ Ben
SLØTFACE (NOR) – Try Not To Freak Out
(via Propeller Records)
Tipped as one to watch this year, Sløtface’s debut album, Try Not To Freak Out, met all expectations. Check that; it exceeded them. Despite being only 32 minutes long, this was a prime example of length not being as important as how you use it. Try Not To Freak Out was packed out with memorable tunes from start to end. Songs like “Nancy Drew” and “Slumber” are the type that stand out at music festivals and later trigger wonderful flashbacks to when you heard it in the middle of a muddy field. Meanwhile, tracks “Backyard” and “Slumber” will have you reminiscing about your youth and the unbridled energy that came with innocence and ignorance.
Once you’ve listened through the album once, you’ll be a bit addicted to the Norwegian pop-punk band, so try not to freak out. Actually, do freak out and let yourself give into this understated gem of a record. It’s an LP that brings together the ’80s to the 2010s and reminds us that there is still a place for fun, witty, and memorable stories. ~~~ Paul
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