This blog, as many of you will have noticed, is largely about reissues and box sets. However that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty of great NEW music being released each year, sometimes from ‘classic’ artists (who like U2 might even be reissuing old material at the same time) or sometimes from new acts who may not be on everyone’s radar. Anyway, because it’s the end of the year and just for the fun of it, SDE presents our list of the best new albums issued in 2017, as selected by Editor Paul Sinclair. In terms of managing expectations, this is a personal choice from the new albums that have entered SDE’s orbit (in other words Paul hasn’t listened to 500 new albums and is picking the best). With that proviso, have a read. These are in no particular order – although one is labelled as ‘album of the year’ – and of course, feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments…
Pål Waaktaar Savoy – guitarist and writer of most of a-ha‘s big hits, seems to be one of those songwriters who needs to keep writing and finding outlets for his songs. Frustrated, perhaps, with the politics and the slow, long-distance writing/recording practises of a-ha, he turned to young New York singer Zoe Gnecco (her dad Jimmy is in the rock band Ours) to record some songs. Talking to SDE earlier this year, Waaktaar described the album as a “happy accident” and revealed that the recordings overlapped a little bit with a-ha’s 2015 album Cast In Steel and that Open Face from this Waaktaar & Zoe record nearly made it as an a-ha song. In fact, Zoe recorded versions of a-ha’s Under The Makeup and Cast In Steel before Morten got to grips with them. Pål has written and produced all the songs on this album (not really possible these days on the more ‘democratic’ a-ha records) and it’s a superb collection. There’s quite a lot of styles on offer; Beautiful Burnout has a fine ’60s vibe, Tearful Girl is driving regret-pop (“here we are hamsters in a wheel“) and there’s nothing about Laundromat, I don’t like – great title, great beat, great melody. With break-up song They To Me And I To You Pal finally finds a home for a very old composition and The Sequoia Has Fallen brings closes the album in fine style. Waaktaar & Zoe is the very definition of grown-up pop music (or pop music for grown-ups) and – a couple of notable highs aside, such as the title track and Under The Makeup – it is better than a-ha’s own Cast In Steel. I hope this album proves to be more than a one-off collaboration.
I’ve been a fan since I bought the CD single of Me and A Gun in 1992, but frankly, getting into a new Tori Amos album can be quite hard work. The relatively simple arrangements and easy-to-digest melodies of the early era are largely gone and Tori’s songs these days can be dense, epic and spin off in randomly in all sorts of directions. Also, because of the way she records and delivers her vocals, it’s not always clear what’s she’s going on about. What does come through strongly is the emotion, and if there’s one thing you want in songs – and music in general – it is an emotional commitment. Tori always means what she’s singing, even if it takes a while to work it all out. Native Invader‘s opener Reindeer King is a good example. It runs for seven minutes, and is something of an evocative mystery… but very beautiful. There’s quite a variety in soundscapes and production too. Cloud Riders has a echoey guitar intro leading to organ-heavy verses. It’s a wonderful song, with more a traditional vocal melody; almost Beatlesque in places.
All the songs are full of little vocal hooks and memorable musical motifs, but you look at the track listing (not an easy task thanks to stupid packaging) and struggle to remember which great ‘bits’ are in which songs! Chocolate Song is a good example of this – it’s crazy and goes all over the place and has not the slightest interest in formal pop song structures – verse, verse, chorus etc. Bang is similar – just when you think Tori can’t squeeze any more melodies and ideas into one track, four and a half minutes into the six minute running time, she comes up with a brilliant outro section (“All I wanna be, is the very best machine I can be..”). The album is over an hour long in standard form and if you buy the deluxe you get two more songs (Upside Down 2 and Russia) which bring it close to 70 minutes. In summary, Native Invader is highly challenging in many ways, but also utterly addictive. It’s like some kind of puzzle; lyrical and musical clues dropped into your brain that rattle around and require more listening to (try to) solve and untangle. If you’re new to Tori, Native Invader probably isn’t where you come in, but she’s a truly unique talent and this album is highly rewarding and one I’ve found myself constantly returning to this year.
Not the 1979 Kenny Loggins ‘yacht rock’ record of the same name…. rather the fourth album from Canadian singer-songwriter Gabrielle Papillon. Less than two months ago I knew nothing about her, but thanks to a chance invitation to a party in Shoreditch hosted by her label State51, I saw her and her band perform live (along with a few other acts) early in November. I almost always enjoy live music, no matter how good/bad/indifferent acts are but given the situation – there weren’t that many people there and it was fairly much an ‘industry’ event – my expectations from this band I’d never heard of weren’t exactly high. I guess it shows the age old power of great songs, beautifully sung and thoughtfully arranged, that I became rather transfixed watching the show. It wasn’t an easy crowd; they were basically playing at a party and there was a lot of noise and a lot of chatting while bands played, so it wasn’t like everyone was totally focussed on what was happening on stage. But I was. “I’m loving this” I kept telling my friend, Mike, who was with me that night. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t more into it.
I sought out Gabrielle after the show had a quick chat and bought a CD of Keep The Fire (officially released in October), which she signed for me. I played it after a few days, wondering if my mind had been playing tricks on me – it surely isn’t as good as I remembered? Wrong! It’s fantastic. It’s a deeply moving, intimate record but Papillon doesn’t forget her craft by neglecting melody, structure and choruses. These are accessible pop songs but there’s always appears to be an undertow of heartbreak, accentuated by the superb string arrangements. This collection of songs will surely connect to anyone who is struggling or has loved and lost, or has dealt with bereavement, although thankfully not required for enjoyment! The band is brilliant, and the arrangements are always empathetic to the songwriting – Jordi Comstock’s drumming in particular stands out (one of the things that struck me when seeing them live). Papillon is a great lyricist and there’s some brilliant turns of phrases in virtually every song. There really isn’t a weak song on the 11-track album (opener Overture For The Fire Keeper is an instrumental). The piano-led Hold On, I Will I – which is surely destined to soundtrack a tragic/emotional scene in a major film – spends nearly three minutes building up to very satisfying resolution. I love reissues and box sets but this was a visceral reminder of how powerful and affecting great new music can be. Trust me. Buy this record. You won’t be disappointed.
When I was much younger, listening to Pink Floyd as a teenager, I could never understand why they ‘let’ Roger Waters sing some of their songs, when David Gilmour was clearly a much better singer. Of course, once Roger started taking over and dominating the songwriting, that pretty much dictated itself, but I guess such subtleties must have been lost on me! I’ve come to enjoy his performances over the years and most of his solo albums have at least one or two things on them worth the price of entry, and 1992’s Amused to Death, significantly more so. One of the highlights of Is This The Life We Really Want, the follow-up (25 years later) to that album, is the the way producer Nigel Godrich has recorded and produced Waters’ vocals. He sounds great. Really great. I don’t know whether it’s the keys the songs are written in, or whether Godrich (famously confrontational, when required – ask Paul McCartney) made Roger ‘reign it in’ a bit, but the tone is spot on, moving from semi-spoken and intimate on Deja Vu and The Last Refugee to angry and passionate on the sweary Picture That and somewhere in between, on album highlight Smell The Roses. It works really well and when Roger does occasionally let rip, and goes for what I call the ‘strangled cat’ – for example on the line “…to find someone home” on Deja Vu – it’s all the more powerful. This record is really about the quality of the songwriting, so while it does include Waters’ signature sound effects (ticking clocks, radio broadcasts, the speaking clock, seagulls… and yes, the odd explosion) in the past you’ve sometimes felt that these whizz-bang sound effects became the star of the show, whereas here they definitely play more of a supporting role. Previously, on a Waters’ solo album, you tended to excuse the dearth of great songs because it was an interesting concept, or it sounded great in Q Sound, or whatever… but not with this. I really do think this is his best work since his Pink Floyd heyday, for me just shading Amused to Death, an album that’s probably more ‘cinematic’, but as the title suggests Is This The Life We Really Want? has an appealing world-weary endearing quality to it. The album has a wonderfully warm ‘analogue’ production, noticeable especially on the vinyl pressing, and that’s such a pleasure. I don’t know if art mirrors reality, but on this album Roger comes across like one of those relatives who you can’t stand (who perhaps like the sound of their own voice, a bit too much), but you warm to over time and actually quite like in the end!
Sheryl Crow herself wasn’t hiding her inspiration for Be Myself, shortly before it came out – put simply, she wanted to recapture the aural heart and soul of her second and third albums; “I wanted to revisit that sound and that feeling. It was a complete blast and the most effortless thing I’ve ever done,” she said. In this respect, Be Myself was a complete triumph – it really does sound just like those records. It’s probably not as easy as we think, recapturing the sound of a previous era, but she had the right team on board; it’s co-written with Crow’s longtime writing partner Jeff Trott and she welcomed Tchad Blake back into the fold to mix the record (he worked on both 1996’s Sheryl Crow and 1998’s The Globe Sessions). So a big tick for ‘sound’, but are the songs any good? In short, yes. They don’t benefit from the constant radio play her singles in the mid-nineties would have enjoyed and there’s no out and out classic like If It Makes You Happy, but for me Crow writes really great pop songs, her lyrics are never banal and on this album they often pithily reference modern concerns, in particular the attention-sucking presence of social media and mobile phones. Roller Stake is a witty and catchy tune about a ‘buzzkill’ boyfriend who won’t put his phone away denying Sheryl a little ‘face-to-face’, while Grow Up and Woo Woo are both great fun and end the album in some style. Despite this, the standout track might be the thoughtful Strangers Again, which eloquently examines the roles of ex-lovers. I saw Crow live in 2017 and the tracks from this album more than held there own. Be Myself is a total blast.
When I interviewed Steven Wilson earlier this year about To The Bone he perceptively noted that “the album where you fell in love with that artist for the first time…will always be closest to your heart” and that “the artist in some ways is doomed never to be able to satisfy that kind of need, to repeat that experience of discovery”. To The Bone suffers in this respect for me, because I first properly discovered Steven’s work with 2014’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. and I’m still semi-obsessed with that record, especially in deluxe form. So while I don’t think that To The Bone is ‘better’ than its predecessor, it’s still one of my favourite releases of 2017, packed with intelligent rock/pop songs like the title track (co-written by XTC‘s Andy Partridge), Pariah and The Same Asylum As Before. The tone of the plaintive Blank Tapes is actually similar to some of Hand.Cannot.Erase. and the feeling of deja vu is further strengthened because the fantastic Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb duets on that track (she sang on a couple of tracks on the 2014 album, notably Routine). Permanating was supposedly controversial amongst Wilson diehards, apparently because it was so commercially appealing, but I just thought it was great pop song. Bonus points scored for a brilliant deluxe package (the notes are very, very interesting), underscoring the fact that Steven Wilson inherently understands the fan-artist relationship and the value of physical music sets. SDE doesn’t have such an award, but if you factor in this new album and his contributions to reissues from the likes of Jethro Tull, XTC and others, Steven Wilson would be our man of the year for 2017. Already looking forward to next year’s live shows.
Effectively a Fleetwood Mac album minus Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie‘s 2017 long-player is a delightful return to the form and effortlessness of Tango in the Night. No, it’s not as good as the 1987 album, but tracks like Feel About You, In My World and Red Sun are catchy as hell and have a production that doesn’t consider ‘pop’ to be a dirty word. Buckingham’s creative force has been long acknowledged, but McVie’s contribution here is enormous and arguably her two solo compositions Game of Pretend and in particular Carnival Begin are album highlights. A lifetime of writing and performing hasn’t been wasted and this is pure songwriting craft at its very best. The album also clocks in at an old-school 40 minutes – no bonus tracks, no deluxe edition just great music. The packaging is rubbish, and they could have given it a proper name… but this comes highly recommended.
Natalie Rose Findlay’s band Findlay have been releasing EPs and gigging around the UK and Europe for three years or so, but only launched their debut album Forgotten Pleasures in February this year (with a free gig at Hackney’s Moth Club). London-based Natalie (originally from Stockport) is a brilliant singer and live performer (cleverly using two microphones with different EQ and effects on each) and I suppose you’d describe the music broadly as indie-pop although Natalie clearly has a great record collection and is influenced by classic ’70a artists like David Bowie and T.Rex. Indeed, early song Your Sister (which didn’t make the album) is a clear tip-of-the-hat to Jean Genie. Back to the album though, Waste My Time is brilliant, with a cool EDM-style intro and a very strong hooky chorus, while Greasy Love has a wild, passionate distorted vocal and is a stompy tour-force. Monomania (which like Waste My Time was a single) is a piano-driven track and has a very soulful chorus line (of “Nobody Loves You Like I Do“) and Sunday Morning In The Afternoon is a suitably spaced out comedown track. Choosing to be in a small but tight band – guitar/bass/drums and occasional keyboard – and not a solo artist is a harder gig these days and while Findlay are constantly touring around Europe, it’s a shame that this fine record doesn’t appear to have connected with a wider audience. To quote Stuck In Your Shadow, I want to get to you – I don’t know how.
I don’t really have time for the Bono-bashers and the U2 haters. When you think that the band was formed in 1976 and here we are almost 42 years later and all four members are all still with us and in my opinion still producing great music – it’s an incredible feat. They have undoubtedly released some landmark albums (The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby come to mind) and while those records are always going to be hard, if not impossible, to match, it doesn’t mean that new ones should be dismissed as second rate. Fair enough, stunts like the giving away previous album Songs Of Innocence via iTunes, didn’t really do them any favours (and somewhat distracted from the fact that it was a very good album) but some of the reactions felt way out of proportion. Similarly, Bono’s politics and all the suggestions of hypocrisy can be debated, but let’s focus on the music here. Songs of Experience is full of superb, often exhilarating pop. Lights of Home (“shouldn’t be here ‘cos I should be dead”) refers to Bono’s still mysterious near-death experience, and features some great backing vocals, ending with a singalong-style outro section. The very beginning of Get Out Of Your Own Way cheekily references Where The Streets Have No Name and that poppy track segues into American Soul via a Kendrick Lamar spoken piece (“Blessed are the bullies, for one day they will have to stand up to themselves…“). American Soul is a good old pumping rocker and benefits from a great turn behind the kit from Larry Mullen Jr. Listen to this track on headphones, walking down the street and you’ll soon have a swagger in your step and will be glancing into shop windows and will be starring in your own imaginary pop video (or do only I do that?). Summer Of Love has an irresistible looping guitar figure and The Showman‘s ‘Little More Better’ chorus is surely more addictive than crack. The whole album continues like this and is rather moving when the final track, 13, in true ‘reprise’ style links this album to its predecessor by way of the melody and lyrics of Song For Someone. Both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are, by any yardstick, good albums, but I think the new record is the better of the two. But together, they are a formidable achievement, so late into a band’s career. The deluxe of Experience is recommended, since it includes the Mandela tribute Ordinary Love. The downside is you have to put up with the “U2 Vs Kygo” mix of Your The Best Thing About Me.