Higher Plain Music’s Top 30 Albums of 2017

30 albums you need to listen to (with samples)

Here we are at the end of another year of wonderful music. For me personally, this was a year where many of my go-to regulars played it quite safe musically, and so I found that I was discovering a wider variety of music that I’ve struggled to rank. This is why we are 30 albums strong this year for the list, and the vast majority of them are strong 8/10’s, with very few exceptional 10/10 albums. I also found I discovered most of my favourite albums right towards the end of the year, so I do wonder how this list will stack up a few years down the line.

For rules – I’ve excluded EP’s which means Lupa J, Lone Kodiak and Gloomcatcher will be missing from the list with their EP’s. Check them out for completion of my favourite music. One last request – share this list out with your musical friends so we can all discover something amazing and new. Ok… onwards!

30 – Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics Vol.1 Turiyasangitananda

Salvaged from various cassette releases over decades before, this collection of music is part 2001 Space Odyssey, part Asian meditative reflection and part gospel brilliance. The mash-up of cultures and sounds is so far ahead of its time, completely unique, and it’s hedonistic approach to music makes for many of the songs to be an attack on the senses.

29 – Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

The echoing screams of Wolfe’s voice over the dense treacle of heavy guitar riffs make for some of the best doom metal in the business. She’s melodic, yet each chord is full of dread and anguish. Wolfe has a specific sound and keeps to it, but with Hiss Spun, her 5th album, she’s pushing out the branches and its where she incorporates more industrial or folk tinges to things where the album shines best. Sadly I caught this album right at the end of the year, so with time, it would probably be higher.

28 – Benjamin Clementine – I Tell A Fly

With such a distinctive voice, Benjamin Clementine just needed to roll out something standard to continue his success, but I Tell A Fly is crammed full of anti-songs, weird audio structures, art rock and some of the barmiest lyrics to surface in 2017. That’s why I love it. Clementine clearly wants to do his own thing and whilst it’s as much challenging and it is artsy and clever, there’s plenty of heart and soul here too. Best harpsichord motifs in an album in 2017.

27 – Makthaverskan – III

Another album I discovered in December, but the rubbery guitar rock that reminds me of the best late 80’s and early 90’s bands took me over straight away. There is more than a hint of the Sugarcubes here, as their riotous lead singer knows how to command a raging rock track to pained perfection. In a year where many rock albums didn’t click for me, this is a gem.

26 – David Garcia Diaz – Rime Official Soundtrack

Rime was, without doubt, one of my favourite games of 2017 and a large part of that was the rich and mysterious orchestral soundtrack David Garcia Diaz created. It’s symphonic strings and lush pianos allowed for an ebb and flow that encapsulated a world of wonder but also a dense history of mythology with its motifs and flourishes. If you loved Austin Wintory’s Journey or Abzu soundtracks, you’ll love this too.

25 – Ibeyi – Ash

I was initially quite disappointed with Ash on first listen because the Cuban rhythms and synths often felt too thin and I was expecting something that would smash the percussion like skeleton bones on rocks. The lyrics and subject matters were dark, angry, defiant and signalling an uprising, but the music initially didn’t sell the concept. However, upon repeated listens I have grown to enjoy the album so much more and discover plenty to love. The sisters’ talent is undeniable – but filling out the sound will make their next album world class.

24 – Dijf Sanders – JAVA

After months sampling music, wildlife, plants and natural sounds from Indonesia, Dijf Sanders returned home to mix the samples together with his own production beats and synths. The result is a genre-bending electronica album that feels like a live performance in a rural village or temple festival. Again, released in December, this grows upon every listen and has all the vibes of a sleeper hit for summer 2018 if you pick it up now.

23 – Mammal Hands – Shadow Work

British instrumental trio Mammal Hands’ latest album is a jazzy work of art. Similar to GoGo Penguin but swapping out a double bass for a saxophone, the trio work so much emotion into their melodic tracks. Readers will know the saxophone and jazz are things I generally have little love for by Mammal Hands have proven to be the complete exception. This album is a beautiful journey of self-discovery of internal struggles and is so much more than the sum of its parts.

22 – Charly Bliss – Guppy

Everything about Guppy from Charly Bliss harks back to my 90’s childhood of bubblegum rock. The album’s crammed with quick-fire riffs, cute singing that wouldn’t fit out of place in an anime opening video, and each track is perfectly formed around the three and half minute mark max. This is memory lane for the original MTV audience.

21 – Jessica Curry – Let Us Melt

The soundtrack to a VR Daydream game from her company The Chinese Room, Jessica Curry’s Let Us Melt pushes the choral, synth and orchestral highlights of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture a step further. This soundtrack moves away from the religious undertones to something more sci-fi based but the whole soundtrack is imbued with a warm cuddle. A warm cuddle that you want to sink into but leaves you with that pinprick in the back of your mind that asks if that’s really ok. Stirring.

20 – Charlotte Martin – Rapture

Piano-based singer/songwriter Charlotte Martin’s latest album was a little too ballad heavy and when it did decide to rock, it felt programmed in a way that was a little rigid. However, there’s no denying the sheer power of emotion in Charlotte’s voice, her piano skill and her musical prowess in the songwriting. Rapture will be an album where I’ll enjoy songs individually more than having them play as an album – and this is very rare for me.

19 – Elsaine – Death of an Artist

Easily one of the most unique and underappreciated voices in music, Elsaine’s mix of tribal percussion, dark synths and otherworldly vocals make a sound that requires the listener to actually listen and feel. Each track on this album has a building structure and has a cinematic quality to it. They tell stories that feel fresh and well worn at the same time. If dark chill out was a thing – Elsaine would be the genre leader.

18 – Gracie and Rachel – Gracie and Rachel

I discovered this album two weeks ago. The fact its this high up the rankings says a great deal. Gracie and Rachel’s cinematic chamber pop has all the hallmarks of a dark indie film soundtrack. Dramatic chords, bellowing vocals, big pianos and estranged strings make up the sound that I found missing from so many albums in 2017 – a sense of urgency and tension. This album has it in spades.

17 – Raoul Vignal – The Silver Veil

This quiet and reflective album showcases Raoul’s hushed warm vocals and his fingerpicking acoustic guitar to perfection. The tracks are light, melodic, sparse but utterly compelling. I often found myself listening to it on repeat. With so many cookie-cutter folk albums out this year that want to harbour every single syllable, the flowing rhythm and understated nature of Vignal was refreshingly brilliant.

16 – Hundred Waters – Communicating

An album that tries to cover the dance floor as well as the post-electronica misery crowd, Hundred Waters manages to cater for both by creating ethereal anthems for underdogs. Communicating covers many angles, all of them excellently but its that voice from heaven that holds everything all together. I could listen to her sing the phone book into my ear to a beat and I’d probably buy it. This is thankfully way, way better though!

15 – Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi – Nier Automata Original Soundtrack

Nearly six hours of music comprises of Nier Automata and series composer Keiichi Okabe has a penchant for taking dramatic rock, techno, orchestral and classical music, throwing it in a blender and then mixing an ancient chant through the middle of it. Working with his studio band Monaca, this was the pinnacle of game music for me in 2017 – a rich tapestry of sounds, genres and emotions – much like the game itself.

14 – Bjork – Utopia

Like a lost civilisation coming back to life, Utopia signalled a happy explosion of love for life from Bjork. Massive production, layers upon layers of sound and plenty of random declarative lyrics push some of Bjork’s best tracks in the last decade forward. However, the beats and sometimes the actual melodies are often so atonal and lost in the process, you might be in wonder at the time, but I often struggled to remember half the album straight after listening. I’ve since got to grips with its hugeness and am now absolutely loving it, but it’s been something of a journey.

13 – Johanna Glaza – Wind Sculptures

Channelling Joanna Newsom with a kooky voice and some interesting intonations, Glaza’s first full-length album has been a long time coming. It was absolutely worth the wait with cute laments of lost love and souls. There’s a playful innocence all the way through the album like Johanna has only just been let loose to create, but the result is something that wears its heart unabashedly on its sleeve for every note she will squeeze out.

12 – Manu Delago – Metromonk

Hang drum and tuned percussion performer Manu Delago outdone himself with the exceptional Metromonk early in 2017. Each of his compositions, often with sterling guest vocalists, showed the tuneful drums in a completely different light for each piece. Mysterious, arty, relaxed, tribal, empathetic, warm and at all times melodic – this is one of the best examples of someone taking percussion to the masses and showcasing exactly what a king of a craft can really do without ever being self indulgently experimental.

11 – Fever Ray – Plunge

Easily the sexiest album to come out in 2017, this see’s Fever Ray’s electronica bursting at the seams with sexual tension – and its release. It’s dark and seductive in a way that Soft Cell’s Marc Almond would be proud of, and whilst there’s an element of sleaze, there is more of a splash of endearing love and political lobbying pushing the audio cup of love to the brim. It also contains my favourite outro of the year from “This Country”.

10 – Out Lines – Conflats

Kathryn Joseph partnered up with Marcus Mackay and James Graham (The Twilight Sad) to create a Scottish powerhouse of misery – and I loved it. The mix of piano, drum and stressed out organs, duetting voices of pain and reason acting like an internal/external monologue and the stark realities of the lyrics are mesmerising. The sole reason it’s not higher is that the album is only seven tracks long and clocks in at bang on half hour. Small, but perfectly formed.

09 – This Is The Kit – Moonshine Freeze

I seem to fall for each album from This Is The Kit quicker and heavier. Moonshine Freeze is the most electric and rocky of the band’s to date, whilst still keeping folk at the banjo front and centre for a large chunk of it. However, everything else has been given that extra polish and sheen that we’ve seen in PJ Harvey’s more recent output. This Is The Kit is folk rock at the top of its game.

08 – Tom Rosenthal – Fenn

Easily the happiest unhappy album I’ve had the pleasure to sing along to in recent years, Fenn is a quirky acoustic pop album chock full of would be radio hits on BBC Radio 6. There are so many anthems for the everyday man and so many clever lyrics and song titles, I was blown away by how honest, simple and sincere the album was. Fenn is the first Tom Rosenthal album I’d come across and I’ll be eagerly eating up his back catalogue during 2018.

07 – Seeming – Sol

This his second album, Seeming takes his angry industrial piano pop and smashes it around with more visceral angst and drama than last time. Themes of standing up for who you are and not being part of the sheep community go well with the dirty production of thick beats, metallic synths and guitars and occasional screams of the wild. Sol is the definition of alt-pop and he does it so very, very well. Talk About Bones should be the anthem of the year.

06 – Rebekka Karijord – Mother Tongue

If I wanted an album to encompass motherhood and nurturing then Mother Tongue would have it covered. The prepared piano often sounds like drops of water, and the album speaks of Rebekka’s journey to motherhood, but also about being part of a chain passing female knowledge between generations. It’s wonderfully Nordic, warm, intimate and full of layers of love.

05 – Tori Amos – Native Invader

An album of mediation in a political and personal context, Native Invader is fascinating because, for a woman whom normally grabs a subject by the balls and teaches it a lesson, Tori is remarkably optimistic and open to discussion. Some of her very best are here (Reindeer King) but the album misses her usual drummer Matt Chamberlin to add some fluidity in places as this album is mid-tempo heavy. That lack of tempo change initially had me struggle to engage with the album fully but over the last few months, it’s really clicked and gelled with me and I get it now.

04 – Juana Molina – Halo

Argentina’s lady of electronic rock Juana Molina continues to reinvent her brand of strange with Halo. Many of the songs of the album take snippets of her voice and make sample montages out of them all, so if you don’t understand her words anyway, you won’t need to as its often gibberish anyway. Yet, the way she uses guitars and synths to create a creepy but catchy soundtrack for her vocal gymnastics is actually what makes her shine – combining the two makes her a genius.

03 – Sarah Walk – Little Black Book

With so many of my piano weilding singer/songwriters taking the softer route, Sarah Walk burst out onto the music scene with hard-hitting, chord smashing piano pop rock that pricked my ears instantly. Her strong voice, easy piano playing and catchy tracks spoke to me on so many layers. She is my most exciting new talent I discovered in 2017 and I cannot wait to see where the future takes her after this superb debut.

02 – Camille – Oui

French vocal extraordinaire returned with her fifth album recorded in a monastery. The often vocal only approach to music Camille uses is perfectly fused with bass filled drums and a mix of the odd synth or bass. The short album has one very minor complaint from me – the mix is too quiet! I always turn the volume up for it so I can sing along to weird and wonderful vocal creations of festive jigs about Twix chocolate bars, yearning ballads about language and alt-pop songs about sexual liquids. Camille was also my favourite live performance I saw in 2017, and possibly the best I’d seen in the last decade.

01 – Clock Opera – Venn

Upon discovering indie pop-rock band Clock Opera early in 2017, I fell in love with Venn on first listen. The meticulously crafted melodies, the dramatic and emotional vocal delivery and the ability to want to mosh, dance and cry all at the same time makes Venn my album of the year. Every track is an anthem waiting because each track has a hook that gets under your skin and I guarantee you’ll have Venn on repeat.

Thanks to everyone who created music in 2017 – you are all stars.

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