Monday 26 August 2019

From U2 to St Vincent - the top 10 albums of 2017


Imelda May's album is her best by a mile
Imelda May's album is her best by a mile

Barry Egan names his top 10 albums of 2017

1 U2: Songs of Experience. "They became so bored playing U2's greatest hits that one night they went out and played the whole set backward," Bill Flanagan wrote in his 1995 biography, U2 at the End of the World. "It didn't seem to make any difference." Something, however, made a difference to U2 when they started writing Songs of Experience in 2014.

When Mr Trump changed the world and got elected, nothing seemed quite the same for U2 ever again. The album took a somewhat different course.

Whatever you think of Bono, the sermonising Antichrist of Killiney Hill, you would be pretty blinkered not to admit that Songs of Experience is U2 back to something approaching their best, a late-career masterpiece by four ageing and overly self-aware rock stars even.

The slumbering giant awoke with this, their 14th album. These songs show that U2 can still do it when they're arsed, when their life (or their band) depends on it.

This, Bono's ultra-personal psalm to the power of love, the follow-up to 2014's Songs of Innocence album, inarguably reasserts U2's relevance in a world of much younger acts playing by different rules to Bono.

Get Out of Your Own Way is as good, in a different way, as Beautiful Day. Lights of Home is better still. Once you can get the Paradise Papers out of your head, there are some beautiful Bono moments on this album. Chief among them is the messianic prophet of existential rage giving us a glimpse inside his soul on The Showman: "Making a spectacle of falling apart," he reveals, "is just the start of the show." What's not to love?

2 The Coronas: Trust the Wire. Danny O'Reilly is not far behind Bono. When he sings lyrics like "Is there a wrong time to be alive?" and "When will I know how that feels?" on The Coronas' fifth studio album, Trust the Wire, you get the sense that the 30-something Dub is channelling the same emotions as the U2 singer or, indeed, someone like Van Morrison. We Couldn't Fake It and A Bit Withdrawn are two of the most compelling and introspective tracks - think Thom Yorke or Ian Curtis on Prozac - that you would want to hear.

Of We Couldn't Fake It, which opens Trust the Wire, Danny told me earlier this year: "Sonically it's a great representation of the sound of the album and the theme of regaining focus; and doing what you love for the right reasons come up a few times throughout." And as for the classic A Bit Withdrawn, Danny added: "Probably my favourite song on the album. I like its understated vibe sonically but also vocally, with its laid-back delivery."

3 St Vincent: Masseduction. "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings on Masseduction. Some critics are calling this her metamorphos=is from an indie-pop guitar queen to the female alt-Bowie, "a genre-transcending auteur." Whatever way you want to describe Annie Clarke, Masseduction is, as she says herself, an album about "all about sex and drugs and sadness". She has also said that it has "themes of power and sex, imperilled relationships and death". "Every record I make has an archetype," she said of the album. "Strange Mercy was Housewives on Pills. St Vincent was Near-Future Cult Leader. Masseduction is different, it's pretty first-person."

4 Imelda May: Life Love Flesh Blood. The 43-year-old belle of the Liberties made her best record by a mile. This, her sonic collaboration with American musician T Bone Burnett, is an emotionally harrowing but ultimately beautiful listen: not least because it details the end of her 13-year marriage to Darrel Higham.

5 Bjork: Utopia. The Icelandic alt-goddess's most remarkable album in some time - and over 70 minutes of profound majesty with Bjork asking, "Did I just fall in love?"

6 The National: Sleep Well Beast.

The National

Great album, great band. As Pitchfork's contributing editor Jayson Greene put it of the stately drama of Sleep Well Beast: "It is full of abandon and quiet contemplation as Matt Berninger sings not about how to enjoy life, but how to simply endure it."

And then some.

"Why are we still out here holding our coats? We look like children. Goodbyes always take us half an hour. Can't we just go home?" sings Mr Berninger on Nobody Else Will Be There from one of the best albums of 2017. Or any year.

7 Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon?

His detractors really had the knives out for him this time around, on what was NGHFB's third album - but Who Built the Moon? was a brave, even radical sonic shape-shift from the former Oasis man.

It was such a musical departure in parts - for Holy Mountain think not Ricky Martin's She Bangs but glammed-up heyday David Bowie, for It's a Beautiful World think Spiritualized, for Wednesday Part 1 think Quentin Tarantino, for She Taught Me How to Fly think something decidedly un-Noel. In total, you had to take your hat, or your parka, off to him.

This was inspiring stuff, courtesy of collaborator David Holmes, and with help from his friends. (Paul Weller and Johnny Marr - or Uri Geller and Har Mar Superstar, as Liam dubs them - both make appearances on Who Built the Moon?).

"I'm at a peak," Noel told me last summer in London. "Some kind of peak. And peaks are only relevant to the troughs, right? So you're down here one minute and up here the next. So I'm at some f***ing kind of peak. How high that peak is, I don't know, but it is the first time in my life that I feel that I have come to that conclusion.

"And how I react to it from here on in," Noel added, intriguingly, "is going to be fascinating."

8 Robert Plant: Carry Fire.

Robert Plant

Carry Fire, with his band the Sensational Space Shifters - and his first release since 2014's Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar - sees the Wolverhampton Wanderer draw inspiration from the roots music of Mississippi, Appalachia, Gambia, Bristol and the foothills of Wolverhampton and beyond along the way.

His 11th solo album has everything from Chrissie Hynde duetting on a psychedelic cover of Ersel Hickey's 1958 classic Bluebirds Over the Mountain to Carving Up the World Again … a Wall and Not a Fence, the master singing about "emperors and sultans, kings and presidents/ Dictators and ambassadors engaged in our defence".

He once declared that his desire to sing as he does came from a moment in his youth.

"When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice -part pain, part otherworldly - I went, 'I want that voice'." And "singing like a girl never seemed so masculine", as Rolling Stone magazine put it.

Not least on the title track where the old lemon squeezer himself sings: "I carry fire for you/ Here in my naked hands/ I bare my heart to you."

9 Drake: More Life.


Twenty-two tracks and 82 minutes; not an album... a mixtape, begorra. The George Clinton/P-Funk of his generation propels into outer-space with a galaxy of diverse, even kaleidoscopic grooves: everything from Giggs (the UK grime artist was outstanding at Electric Picnic last year) to Skepta to Kanye West and back again.

On Lose You, Drake sings "Winning is problematic/ People like it more when you workin' toward somethin'/ Not when you have it." And then: "I'll probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do." All this, and his dad on the cover too.

10 The Waterboys: Out of All This Blue.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys

Up there with 1984's A Pagan Place or 1988's Fisherman's Blues. Mystic Mike. Magic Mike. The Live Mike.

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