It’s probably fair to say that a lot has happened in the last year. We’ve seen dramatic shifts in politics and society, Ed Sheeran was briefly bigger than Beyoncé, and Open Ear celebrated our 10th anniversary.
Our favourite albums of 2017 have reflected the turbulent times into which they were born. Looking at our long list of the best albums we were confronted by strong voices creating meaningful music with a determined sense of purpose. Notably, the albums that made it to the final list you see below are marked by a powerful and emotive sense of soul almost in spite of their diverse perspectives and genres.
Among our highlights of the year are a trio of albums by Ibeyi, Juana Molina, and Kelela, important female voices that point to a bright musical future in 2018 and beyond. As we look ahead to next we we note that tumultuous times are often a boon to enthusiastic Pop. With new albums coming from bands like Chvrches and Franz Ferdinand we’re likely to see that trend play out in 2018. Elsewhere, we’ll be keeping our eye on Yxng Bane who recently appeared in the BBC Sound of 2018 long list and is poised for a breakout year in a resurgent London Hip Hop scene.
Our Favourite Electronica album of the year:
Bonobo – Migration
Following up The North Borders could well have been a challenge for Simon Green, now known globally as Bonobo. The response to its bass driven Electronica resulted in new found International critical and public praise making it a hard act to follow. Yet here we are with another slow burning gem of Electronica that takes in diverse and, perhaps more importantly, subtle influences from a broad stroke of world music. Migration is warmer than its predecessor, with a pace and tone most similar to Black Sands. On ‘Kerala’ we find a chiming upbeat tempo while on ‘Second Sun’ , our highlight, the downtempo orchestral sway is as buoyant as anything Bonobo has released. Sit back and take a moment with it here.
Our Favourite Indie album of the year:
Juana Molina – Halo
As long time fans of Juana Molina, particularly previous release ‘Wed 21’, we’re heartened to hear a new album that’s as inventive as anything Molina has released this far. Drawing together electronic and acoustic instrumentation into a slower package than ‘Wed 21’, ‘Halo’ is a dramatic album that focuses on texture and dynamic. On each track Molina’s vocals flit throughout the mix lending a melody here and a sonic background there, even going as far as dropping into nonsensical wordless sounds on ‘A00 B01’ and ‘In the Lassa’. The latter features rhythmic vocal utterances that accentuate a bright, intermittent melodic line that wound its way into being our standout highlight on a wholly captivating album. Listen to the entire album here.
Our Favourite Reissue album of the year:
Keb Darge & Cut Chemist present The Dark Side – 30 Sixties Garage Punk and Psyche Monsters
This selection of Nuggets-esque adventures in Hammond-organ, fuzz guitar, and beating the living daylights out of a four piece drum kit is a powerful trip into some deep crate digging. Don’t expect to find the same cuts by The Sonics, ? and the Mysterians, and The Count Five featured in every other oldies compilation. Instead, this is filled with genuine rarities hand-picked by true collectors with an ear for music of the highest quality, no matter the style. Many of those rarities, like ‘Suzy Creamcheese’ by Teddy & The Patches, may have been long forgotten by most, but in its time it warranted a homage by the more familiar, yet just as oddball, Frank Zappa. Don’t miss a single three-minute blast of loose fuzzy rock by checking out an album sampler here.
Our Favourite Afro-Funk album of the year:
Songhoy Blues – Resistance
After capturing international attention with their debut album, Music in Exile, Songhoy Blues return with a broadening palette of Funk, Rock, and Desert Blues. While ‘Bamako’, named for the Malian capital city, has a grand Funk, ‘Sahara’ dives into Desert Blues complete with a creeping Iggy Pop vocal. Elsewhere, the sprightly guitar and horn breaks of ‘Mali Nord’ are eclipsed by the lightning fast verse left to the Grime MC Elf Kid which is over almost as soon as it begins; a tantalising glimpse of the far out ranges of the Songhoy Blues sound yet to be fully explored. Catch it here then check out the rest of this brilliantly diverse album.
Our Favourite Hip Hop album of the year:
J Hus – Common Sense
With last summer being marked by a series of massive Grime hits, it’s notable that the Hip Hop sound of this summer comes with a broader series of influences. Taking in Afrobeat, Dancehall, and the familiar sound of US Hip Hop, ‘Common Sense’ is a bold record caught between a great many influences. Flitting between hard-nosed rhymes driven by Hus’ impressive flow and beat-driven radio hits, it’s not an album to be pinned down or pigeon-holed. Stand outs include the slow jam of ‘Plottin’, the Dancehall vibes of ‘Good Time’ and the bold title track. Tune in right here.
Our Favourite Pop album of the year:
London Grammar – Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
There are certain words that shouldn’t be used when writing about music. These words have become hackneyed, clichéd, or have simply been wrongly applied so many times as to have become meaningless. Yet here we are utterly failing to describe ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’ as anything other than cinematic. We could describe the mastery of space between the grand strings, piano and the multi-tracked vocals. We could describe the way each track has weight and substance. Or we could simply say that Hannah Reid’s vocals reveal an Annie Lennox-like quality throughout this cinematic album and that makes it well worth checking out. Start with the Jon Hopkins produced ‘Big Picture’ here.
Our Favourite House album of the year:
Bicep – Bicep
Plundering the history of House, the debut of Bicep is a delicate exercise in brevity that beat after beat and break after break says what needs to be said before getting on out and on to the next. Whether it’s wearing a Garage, Dubstep, Jungle, or Trance influence each track warps the well worn into a fresh contemporary sound. Starting with the 90s House of ‘Orca’ before spinning off into the Garage beats of ‘Glue’, the album winds and twists until the tingling synths and solid 4/4 beat of closer ‘Aura’ cap off one of the most balanced debuts of the year so far. Catch the whole album here.
Our Favourite Dance album of the year:
LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
After making quite a big deal about the retirement of the LCD Soundsystem name, it was a big story when early last year James Murphy announced that the band was returning with a new record. Reasoning that he had written songs as good and better than those that had made his name, Murphy set this album up with some anticipation. What we get is an album that is tamer than what came before; less knowing irony, no standout festival hits, but with a greater sense of self than showmanship. ‘I Used To’ is glassy Synth-Pop, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ is filled with the kind of disquieting darkness that LCD Soundsystem have always hinted at but never dared to venture, and ‘Emotional Haircut’ is full out, Gang of Four styled Post-Punk complete with deep bass rumble and heavily delayed electric guitar stabs. Boldly confident, ‘American Dream’ is an album worthy of such a dramatic comeback. Catch the full album here.
Our Favourite R&B album of the year:
Kelela - Take Me Apart
It may feel like this one has been long in the making such is the anticipation that has built while Kelela released an EP, a mixtape, and guested on numerous gorgeous tracks by Daedelus, Kindness, and Gorillaz. On ‘Take Me Apart’, as on her previous outings, Kelela’s future looking R&B sounds one step ahead of the rest of her contemporaries. From opening track “Frontline” chilling electronics mix with bass beats while Kelela’s soulful vocals stand up to the best of the genre. More soulful than fellow Warp Records artist Jessy Lanza, less forceful than FKA twigs, Kelela moves R&B forward in one great leap. Don’t miss this one. Check it out here.
Our Favourite Vocal album of the year:
Ibeyi – Ash
Deep, resonant, and considered, the second album from Ibeyi is a masterful study in mindfulness that deserves repeat listens. Mixing spoken word samples with a pared back musicality that enhances the vocals, ‘Ash’ is an album where every word feels laden in meaning. Beats in the form of bass textures and stripped percussion like the organic handclaps of “Valé” provide strong structure and momentum while tending towards minimalism. It’s a deft balancing act that doesn’t really conform to genre. Melancholic without ever being overtly sad, ‘Ash’ is a powerfully emotional album worth your contemplation. Listen to the full album here.
Our Favourite Jazz album of the year:
Zara McFarlane – Arise
Making her name in 2012 with a Jazz cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”, it’s a great pleasure to see Zara McFarlane dig deeper into roots reggae on her third album, ‘Arise’. Taking inspiration from McFarlane’s Caribbean roots, ‘Arise’ wears its Reggae influences on its sleeve while retaining the Jazz patterns, range, and ethos she is best known for. Heavy, lingering horns and double bass roam through “Silhouette”, the best Jazz piece here, and perfectly set up our highlight; a jaw-droppingly mournful take on The Congos’ roots reggae classic “Fisherman”. It’s as good a cover as you’ll hear all year. Check out the album here.
Our Favourite Soul album of the year:
Curtis Harding - Face Your Fear
As a singer with Cee-Lo Green’s band, a collaborator with the Black Lips’ Cole Alexander, and multi-genre performer in his own right, Curtis Harding has experience under his belt. To discover, then, that ‘Face Your Fear’ is only his second album comes as a surprise as it may be one of the most complete works of the year. With Danger Mouse on production duties, this album of modern-but-vintage Soul has the depth and nuance of a classic Phil Sector recording, but the robust flow we’ve come to expect with more contemporary takes. Every single track is a highlight. Catch it here.