Matthew’s Albums of the Year 2017

Julie ByrneAs the noise continues to ring out all around us, silence has become something of a luxury. There were records released in 2017 that, by chance or design, caught the zeitgeist; Ibeyi's sublime "Deathless" still feels like an anthem for the crush barriers, a sequel to "Alright" that arrives pre-wrapped in chanted defiance. Howls of rejection are being heard from all quarters. But I strongly suspect that most artistic reactions to Trump's presidency, the #metoo movement, and their abhorrent overlap will see the light of day next year. There will soon be more names added to that long list.

Art is not an instantaneous process. For all that we mourned the death of optimism last year, it sounded like a whale of a time - my own stereo bore a heavy rotation of cartoonishly playful hip-hop (Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West), or else records that strutted around with the high-key suave of a Hennessey-loosened bow tie (Childish Gambino, Glass Animals). Antony Hegarty made an album about global warming, for Christ's sake, and even that was saturated with bangers.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it - as writers, it is our job to stretch cogent narratives across increasingly cracked and disparate landscapes - but my top ten feels subdued this year. For the most part, these are albums defined by their restorative properties, where global anxieties are conveyed through sighs and whispers rather than shouts. It won't stay that way for long.


10// Nite Jewel - Real High

“Going in with the intention of making your music political has a tendency to stymie certain aspects of it. I think that on the basis of who I am, my music is very political – just on the basis of being mixed-race, from a low-income household, being a woman and communicating my message; not to mention running my own label. All these things are intensely political already.” Crucially, she identifies the need to fight the concept that dominant discourses equate to neutrality - that whiteness, masculinity, or heterosexuality are somehow apolitical tropes. “I don’t think it’s possible for music to be non-political. Even a Taylor Swift record is political, in the sense that she’s this very privileged white person, and that’s normative.” And for Nite Jewel? “I think my voice is always going to be someone outside of the norm, no matter what.”

(Read my interview with Nite Jewel here.)


9// EMA - Exile in the Outer Ring

"33, Nihilistic and Female" seems destined to go down as one of her greatest counterpoints between the clattering and the crystalline, while "Breathalyzer" sounds like it could have been an off-cut from her horror movie excursions, complete with noir-ish storytelling: "Out in the dark parking lot of apartments, did what he want..." While she's keen to stress the value of [Jake] Portrait's contributions, there's no doubt that EMA's singular voice shines through stronger than ever this time out.

(Read my interview with EMA here.)


8// Perfume Genius - No Shape

No Shape offers a real sense that Hadreas has found a degree of peace. The album closes with "Alan", a redemptive hymn to the life he's charted out with his partner. "Did you notice we sleep through the night?" he begins. "Did you notice, babe, everything's alright?" For all the horror that has been documented across four Perfume Genius albums - the incest, assault, suicide, rape, homophobia - there's a quiver in his voice delivering that last line that suggests stability might be his most terrifying confrontation yet. Perhaps at last, wide-eyed and clean, Perfume Genius has made a record that finds him ready to live, not just survive.

(Read my full review here.)


7// Lowly - Heba

It's not supposed to be a quick hit of pleasure; if the term 'pop' is applied as a genre suffix at all, it's only to signpost a band who craft immensely enjoyable, melodic songs that rarely stray much beyond the four minute mark. But everything else is up in the air. This is a long player, a record designed to be played to death, one that rewards those curious enough to examine its nooks and crannies over days, weeks, years, a lifetime. In that respect, Heba represents something of a milestone: an album to be considered well beyond the confines of 2017, and perhaps as one of the finest indie debuts of the decade.

(Read my full review here.)


6// Fred Thomas - Changer

I heard this album for the first time right back in January, and I remember drunkenly messaging a few people saying that it was still going to be my album of the year come December. While a few other spectacular records have somehow knocked this one down a few rungs, I still spent 2017 increasingly baffled that no one was talking about Fred Thomas; Pitchfork essentially gave it shrug-emoji out of 10, and then it more or less vanished from public discussion.

All of which is a crying shame, because it's the most intelligent, funny, emotional, human rock record I've heard in years. Like Lee Ranaldo's rapid-fire poetry sprayed across The Cribs' "Be Safe", the record's best moments are when - as on "Mallwalkers" - it almost feels like Thomas can't get the ideas out of his head fast enough, even if they're just elegant expressions of doubt rather than solutions to modern life.


5// Mozart's Sister - Field of Love

Where other records might utilise natural sounds (the rolling of waves, the chirping of crickets) to convey an artificial sense of the organic, Caila Thompson-Hannant built a whole song around Skype sound effects. The result is a glorious reversal: the sounds of our shared media are the sounds of this generation's shared experience, gifting the songs an oddly comforting effect. Almost everything on the new Mozart's Sister album feels giddyingly fun, in fact, and that playful spirit renders its darker moments bittersweet.

"Angel" is perhaps the highlight of the album's fleeting 32 minutes (when Thompson-Hannant's voice soars for "memories made before the age of twenty-nine," every hair on the back of my neck dutifully responds), but it was the gloriously choreographed pleasure of this "Moment 2 Moment" video that first made my heart swell, so I offer you the same path to this divine record.


4// Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me

"Death is real," Phil Elverum sings on the album's opening line, as a bright, warm major chord rings out alongside it. "Someone's there and then they're not. And it's not for singing about. It's not for turning into art." Of course, that is precisely what Elverum's accomplished on A Crow Looked at Me, the latest addition to the Mount Eerie canon and, even by his own bracing standards, a gut-punch of sadness following the death of his wife Geneviève in 2016. At times painfully open in its attempt to grapple with loss on a literal realm ("Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?"), the album also points to signifiers in the natural world, adopted as a metaphor or heartbroken memory.

Occasionally it seems unclear even to himself which is which, and therein lies the bruised heart of the piece: a rejection of comfy symbolism, of wrapping a life up in words and melody so neatly that it might somehow sublimate all the pain into poetry. One line captures it at the end of that first song, and it is shattering to hear: "I don't want to learn anything from this." (Then simply: "I love you.") A brilliant, talented, 35-year-old woman is gone; no amount of earnest proselytizing about the healing power of music will ever make sense of that fact, and nature's indifference to our grief - to Elverum's grief, above all - continues apace.


3// Slowdive - Slowdive

Some records take their own sweet time. In 2012, Beach House's Bloom wasn't even in my top 20 albums of the year, despite having listened to it a few times. It was a couple of years later that I finally returned to it, and even then a slow process followed before I realised that it was completely, divinely, painfully wonderful.

If anthing's going to repeat that trick this year, it's shoegaze lifers Slowdive, whose self-titled comeback has crept up on me months after I originally heard it. Like Bloom, I knew the first track was stunning - "Slomo" feels more devastating with each return - but the rest of the record revealed its treasure over time. LCD Soundsystem perhaps dominated in the comeback stakes this year, but Slowdive is a perfect example of how to make the present appear as vital as your memories of the past.


2// Japanese Breakfast - Soft Sounds From Another Planet

I can't quite believe that Soft Sounds... isn't my album of the year, because it's a wild amalgamation of all my musical kinks: the elegance of dream pop, the scuzzy charm of distorted guitars, infectious melodies, belting choruses, the odd spoken word part (in the sci-fi disco of "Machinist"), moments of genuine humour ("I can't get you off my mind. I can't get you off in general...") and genuine sadness ("Did you ever even love her? Or was it rooted in companionship and timing?").

I'd only just discovered Japanese Breakfast's more lo-fi, starry-eyed debut Psychopomp when this album fell into my lap, and as much as I was still enamoured with the last outing from Michelle Zauner (and before that, her work with Little Big League), it was immediately obvious that this was a step up. As soon as the record ends, I want to feel everything again - to feel warmer, engaged in something real and honest and joyous. That's pretty much my definition of a classic. But then...


1// Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness

Not Even Happiness is a perfect album. There, I said it. Every utterance, every word, every breath, every captured squeak as Byrne's hands audibly traverse the fretboard of her guitar. I was fortunate enough to speak to her about the record in person this summer, to hear her describe the emotional journey that transcends contentment, and then watch her perform live in a candlelit church. That's always going to help.

But in the days before and since that weekend, I've been utterly enamoured with it regardless. There's a vibrant and organic quality to the landscapes forged in these songs that feels uncontrived; as an album, it presents the artist wide awake, no longer the titular "Sleepwalker", no longer pursuing travel as a means of escape but as an endless, dumbstriking epiphany: I am alive, I am alive, I am alive today and that is more than enough.

"It was the first warm afternoon of the year. I walked alongside the Atlantic as the Earth came alive for the sun. There was a palpable sense of emergence to everything. I felt it in myself too, and remember thinking I would trade that feeling for nothing… not even happiness."

This was Julie Byrne’s explanation of her second album’s title, Not Even Happiness, the follow-up to 2014’s mostly overlooked Rooms With Walls and Windows. Much of the Brooklyn singer’s charm is laid bare in these few words: a simple lyricism propelled by an exquisite command of vocabulary and syntax; themes married foremost to the natural world; a propensity to convey the inner mind and outer surroundings with a single brushstroke. But most of all, it captures her engagement to the restless world. “I love everything that flows,” Henry Miller said, “everything that has time in it and becoming… all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent.” Byrne’s work shares that spirit: she loves everything that is emergent.

(Read my full review here.)


Check back soon for DrunkenWerewolf's Writers' Poll, and Editor Tiffany Daniels' Top 10 Albums of 2017


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