John Meagher: The top 20 albums that defined 2017
From Father John Misty to Taylor Swift, our music critic looks back over the most outstanding sounds of the year
1 THE WAR ON DRUGS - A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
It felt like it was impossible to escape commentary about the decline of rock this year and while it’s true that solo artists such as Lamar, Swift, Perry, Lorde and — heaven help us — Sheeran have been having quite a moment, nobody told Adam Granduciel. This is a rock album with a capital ‘R’ and unashamedly so, and the Philadelphian’s band certainly knows how to channel the spirits of Springsteen and Petty. The influence of both is present and correct in anthemic heartland tunes that lay bare the singer’s own struggles. He takes a sophisticated approach in the studio and these layered, mysterious and utterly captivating songs will reward those who eschew the Spotify approach and favour immersing themselves in this album in the old-fashioned way. There’s no filler among the 10 tracks and as a follow-up to the brilliant Lost in the Dream and Slave Ambient albums, from 2014 and 2011 respectively, it constitutes part three of an outstanding trilogy. The War on Drugs headline Dublin’s Forbidden Fruit festival next summer — start counting the days.
2 THE XX - I SEE YOU
The English trio have not only survived the expectations of delivering that outstanding, self-titled debut album eight years ago, but they've thrived and morphed into one of the truly great acts of their generation. This third album is their best offering to date and one that has much to say about love, loneliness and the challenges of modern life. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim's vocals are exquisite and there are some cleverly chosen samples, too, including a choice cut from (of all people) Hall & Oates.
3 BEDOUINE - BEDOUINE
Just try not to be seduced by this gorgeous album of sparse instrumentation, simple arrangements and the loveliest of vocals. If you've a functioning heart, you'll fall for the US-based Syrian expat's quietly magnificent debut. She picks her words with as much care as she plucks the strings of her guitar - her mastery can take the breath away. Bedouine was charming and brilliant in concert in Dublin last month, too.
4 THE NATIONAL - SLEEP WELL BEAST
The seventh album from the US quintet sees a subtle shift in influence, as electronica elements find room among the more conventional rock. It sounds like a break-up album, as Matt Berninger meditates on matters close to home and to the bone. Remarkably, the brutally honest songs about marital strife are co-written with his wife Carin Besser - subject of one of the most compellingly sad songs, 'Carin at the Liquor Store'. The album's unflinching honesty is difficult to resist.
5 KENDRICK LAMAR - DAMN
The LA rapper seemed to be everywhere in 2017, including an appearance on U2's impressive Songs of Experience album. Bono returns the compliment here and while there are no shortage of guests - as is the norm for hip-hop royalty - Lamar is front and centre of everything. Few musicians capture the turmoil and anxieties of present-day America quite like him and his poetic words make a mockery of most of his peers. One of the decade's truly indispensable artists.
6 LORDE - MELODRAMA
It's hard to believe that the New Zealander is 21, given the impression she's made in the pop world over the past five years and the excellence that characterises this, her second album. Its title makes perfect sense and the music is rich with ideas and arrangements. Lorde, unlike many of her peers, is queen of all she surveys and while the usual coterie of big writer-producers is on hand, the album is singular and unforgettable.
7 MOUNT EERIE - A CROW LOOKED AT ME
Some artists talk about how personal their work is but this album is so true to its creator's life that you feel like a voyeur just listening to these emotively charged songs. Phil Elverum's wife, the cartoonist Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just after their child was born and she died a short time later. This remarkable album chronicles the end of her life and her husband's attempts to pick up the pieces for himself and his daughter.
8 FATHER JOHN MISTY - PURE COMEDY
Fleet Foxes failed to hit previous highs with their new album Crack Up this year but former member Joshua Tillman has been going from strength to strength and this latest album manages to scale the highs of its excellent predecessor I Love You, Honeybear. He may take a different approach to his subjects, but few contemporary songwriters fashion music that's so in tune with the times. And there's plenty of dark humour, too.
9 SZA CTRL
An outstanding debut from New Jersey native Solana Rowe, this album is packed with raw, spare R & B. There are several outstanding songs - including 'Drew Barrymore' and 'Love Galore' - and it feels as though every track is a potential single after Rowe took to the studio with 200 of her own compositions. There was disappointment when illness forced the cancellation of a recent Dublin show.
10 ST VINCENT - MASSEDUCTION
Annie Clark emerged from the indie margins with an intriguing and clever album of modern pop with a little help from songwriter-du-jour Jack Antonoff. The songs ruminate on life, love and longing and while they're more commercially minded than on previous albums, she retains the outsider status that previous collaborators such as Talking Heads' David Byrne have found so appealing.
11 Sampha - Process
The Londoner's Mercury-winning debut album fuses soul and electronica in a bewitching package.
12 Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest
A gorgeously understated fourth album from a Gaul better known for her acting, it features Daft Punk and Paul McCartney.
13 Fever Ray - Plunge
An album from another dimension, the enigmatic Swede's latest is a riposte to those who lament how 'safe' pop is.
14 Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
Some collaborations just work perfectly - and this shambling, lo-fi delight gets the best out of a pair of fine tunesmiths.
15 LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
The 'comeback' album from James Murphy and friends is indebted to Bowie and backed with superior electronica.
16 Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Inventive, avant-garde hip-hop that thrills in a brisk 34 minutes, it's further proof that the Californian is one of rap's greats.
17 Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights
A stunning second album from the Tennessee native, she writes memorable songs that tug hard on the heartstrings.
18 Lankum - Between the Earth and Sky
The most arresting homegrown album of 2017, this is a real grower - whether you're a trad aficionado or not.
19 Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder
The Canadian collective made a welcome return with a genre-hopping album featuring the talents of Feist, Stars & more.
20 Taylor Swift - Reputation
It may not be in the same league as her brilliant 1989 album, but this is still a superb statement of pop intent.