As 2017 draws to a close, The Upside News hands down its verdict on the 30 best albums of the year:
1. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
Go Farther in Lightness is The Upside News’ album of 2017. It’s amazing to think that Gang of Youths are only on album number two. There are few artists who have a big debut record and then manage to push things to greater heights in the follow-up. Go Farther in Lightness is quite an achievement, surpassing that impressive first album in both the songwriting craft and the sonic textures explored. Gang of Youths walk a fine line, managing to sound edgy and honest while embracing the big, stirring chorus. They then backed it up with with a string of killer live shows and several ARIA Awards. Catch them again when they play Bird in Hand Winery this February. Read the album review here, along with a gig review from their September show at Thebby here.
2. All Our Exes Live In Texas – When We Fall
Boasting an embarrassment of songwriting talents, the debut from All Our Exes Live In Texas is a sublime effort from start to finish. Breathtaking harmonies take centre stage, backed up with gorgeous instrumentation, with each of the quartet taking turns steering the ship. The strength of When We Fall lies in the songs that genuinely make you feel, alternating between moving and very funny. Read our 2016 interview with the band here.
3. Songhoy Blues – Resistance
The second album from the exiled Malian rockers takes the exuberant desert blues groove of their debut and broadens the mix with a serve of seventies funk, more diverse instrumentation and guitar riffs right out of the Led Zeppelin playbook. Throw in collaborations with the likes of Iggy Pop, rapper Elf Kid and violinist William Harvey and Resistance is one hell of an album.
4. Jen Cloher (self titled)
Jen Cloher’s self titled LP is her best work yet, full of great songs sounding like some dream collaboration between Bob Dylan and PJ Harvey and backed by a superb band that includes partner Courtney Barnett on guitar. Meanwhile, the song ‘Analysis Paralysis’ perfectly sums up the political 2018 Australian political landscape, with the absurdity of the postal vote directly in its sights. There needs to be more songwriting like this.
5. Kingswood – After Hours, Close To Dawn
Kingswood have found a way to beat the second album blues: complete reinvention. It’s a strategy that comes with a risk of alienating fans. But it’s executed here with such flair and confidence who could complain? The driving wall of distorted guitars of Microscopic Wars have made way for a seductive seventies rock/soul aesthetic. After Hours, Close To Dawn proves that Kingswood are one of the very best things on the Australian rock scene. Read our review here.
6. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Moving to a major label, The War On Drugs maintain the creative output of their previous critically acclaimed album and satisfy high expectations with this follow-up, A Deeper Understanding. The songs are layered and expertly constructed throughout, making for the kind of beautifully satisfying listen you want to get lost in. It’s very exciting they have been lured to our shores as one of the Laneway headliners this summer. Don’t miss their set – details and tickets here.
7. Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine
One man who has never deviated from the value of fine songwriting is national treasure, Paul Kelly. His creative effort in recent years has produced some of the best output of his decorated career and Life is Fine continues in this vein. Collaborating again with longtime band mates, Vicka and Linda Bull, the album is a bright and soulful celebration of song, that feels like a natural extension of The Merri Soul Sessions from a few years ago. Read the review here.
8. Benjamin Booker – Witness
The garage blues, guitar hooks and distinctive smoky vocals of Benjamin Booker’s debut are retained for this follow-up. But as the title suggests, Witness adds a liberal dose of gospel along with a greater diversity of sound, demonstrating how Booker has developed into quite an artist, and one who promises to be one of the standouts among the packed Bluesfest lineup at Byron Bay this coming Easter weekend – details here.
9. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Soul Of A Woman
We can be thankful that, before she left this world last year, Sharon Jones recorded one final masterpiece. Her voice is as powerful as ever, while the arrangements are quite stunning, alternating between the sombre ballad and triumphant soul. Soul Of A Woman is a stunning farewell from a talent who is sorely missed.
10. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
With some of the best songwriting to be heard in 2017, Father John Misty expertly (and cynically) skewers the modern condition on Pure Comedy, while deceptively packaging it all up in seventies style ballads. There’s so much going on here lyrically and it all sounds so damn fine that you want to listen to it repeatedly, regardless of how relentless the words can be. Catch him as one of the drawcards at this summer’s Laneway Festival – details here.
11. Neil Finn – Out Of Silence
Neil Finn set himself quite a challenge for his latest album: recording over handful of sessions in front of a worldwide internet audience and releasing Out Of Silence a week later. In lesser hands, the LP might have been a fun stunt with the process overwhelming the musical output, but coming from this master song-craftsman, it is one of the most beautiful albums of the year, and one that sits proudly alongside the extensive Finn cannon. Read the full review here. Neil will also play a Bird in the Hand gig this February in collaboration with son, Liam – details and tickets here.
12. Polish Club – Alright Already
What a year 2017 has been for Polish Club: debut album, a follow up EP, a string of sold-out dates across the country and a Christmas single that could be heard (and seen) everywhere. This two piece crank out quite a sound, including one of the best soul voices in the country in David Novak. Their debut LP captures the energy of the band’s live show and is the most fun your ears could have had this year.
13. St Vincent – Masseduction
It would be difficult not to be seduced by Masseduction: intelligent songwriting, irresistible hooks and Annie Clark’s soaring voice. On top of that, the album is packaged up with some of the best production to be heard in 2017. Adeptly walking the fine line that manages to simultaneously push boundaries while remaining resolutely pop, St Vincent shows herself to be a worthy successor to Bowie.
14. Robert Plant – Carry Fire
Robert Plant has found his late career muse with band the Sensational Space-Shifters, continuing his high quality output with Carry Fire in follow up to the excellent lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar from 2014. The folk / rock / world music groove serves the material well, making for an album of great songs, managing to simultaneously forge ahead while glancing behind. If only all performers of Plant’s vintage would allow themselves to evolve like this. Catch Robert Plant when he performs in Adelaide next year or headlining the Byron Bay Bluesfest.
15. Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
Exhibiting sonic playfulness, clever lyricism and a love of full stops, Kendrick Lamar continues to push hip-hop in new directions with the genre-fluid Damn., where even a U2 collaboration doesn’t feel out of place. Managing to balance the personal with the political, within some wonderfully intricate production, this is an album that manages to outrun the expectations arising from the critical acclaim of its predecessor.
16. Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde has a celebrated instinct for songcraft; on sophomore release, Melodrama, emotions are related with economy and power, while sound, both big and small, is used to great effect. The album also presents her in fine voice as she moves from teen pop prodigy to commanding artist with a career of endless possibilities.
17. Kamasi Washington – Harmony Of Difference
Pretty close to a conventional album, Harmony Of Difference is technically an EP, but that is probably just relative to the three-hour epic that was Kamasi Washington’s debut, The Epic (which featured high up in our 2015 best album list). But the shorter form brings the work into sharp focus and generates a new appreciation for the master jazz saxophonist / bandleader. Don’t miss his WOMADelaide performance in March.
18. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
It’s rare that comeback albums are this good, but American Dream defies expectations to find LCD Soundsystem at the top of their game. James Murphy and company hit the mark perfectly with an array of sounds, irresistible grooves and a great bunch of songs. Welcome back.
19. Tori Amos – Native Invader
The tunes may sound on the softer side here but there’s an underlying anger on Native Invader that skewers the Trump era as only Tori Amos can. As a songwriter, she somehow always manages to remain relevant and vital. And then there is that signature voice, sounding as good as ever.
20. The Smith Street Band – More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me
A work of raw and real punk, it’s the arresting songwriting here that’s the standout, with canny and often very personal lyrics woven through the powerful arrangements. The album shows The Smith Street Band are indeed one of the best bands in the country.
21. Elbow – Little Fictions
Elbow continue to evolve with Little Fictions, an album of expertly constructed songs that deliver new joys with each listen. It’s hard to pick a favourite when the output is this good. Read the full review here.
22. Pond – The Weather
The Weather strikes a perfect balance between finely crafted pop sensibilities and a spirit of bold experimentation to challenge the ears of listeners. It succeeds so definitively because it intrinsically feels like an album. Sure the songs are great but, taken as a whole, they fit together so well. This is a bold and brilliant work from some very creative minds. Read the full review here and be sure to catch them as they return to the Laneway Festival.
23. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
The collaboration with producer Mark Ronson works a treat for QOTSA. Boasting terrific groove, Villains manages to push the band creatively while managing to be their most accessible work to date.
24. The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
A beautiful marriage of eighties synth-pop and nineties indie, The New Pornographers deliver again (even in the absence of key songwriter, Dan Bejar of Destroyer). Whiteout Conditions is quirky, exuberant and great fun; plus it’s another chance to hear Neko Case’s extraordinary voice.
25. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
It’s refreshing that Ryan Adams is an artist who doesn’t shy away from his influences, choosing instead to embrace and celebrate them, and in doing so, Prisoner offers up some great moments. Channelling Springsteen (and the mid-eighties in general), this album is one of his finest. Read our review here.
26. Waxahatchee – Out In The Storm
Katie Crutchfield lays bare her soul on Out In The Storm, the fourth Waxahatchee album, characterised by raw musical energy and honest introspective lyrics. This is a record with a big sound that also manages to feel intimate.
27. Dan Auerbach – Waiting On A Song
In solo mode, Dan Auerbach sets aside the riff heavy stuff in favour of song-craft. With hooks abounding, Waiting On A Song is more Brian Wilson than Jimmy Page. It’s all delightfully engaging – this is one artist who should never write about writer’s block again.
28. Cold War Kids – LA Divine
The sixth studio album from Cold War Kids, LA Divine, is a satisfying, soulful record packed with great moments, and the band’s strongest work since their debut effort. Producer Lars Stalfors (Mars Volta) has the band sounding their best, particularly Nathan Willett’s powerful vocals. Read the full review here.
29. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
It has been rewarding to watch the evolution of Mac DeMarco as a songwriter. Despite the slacker persona and legendary stage antics, DeMarco is a sensitive and astute songsmith, offering a collection of gems on This Old Dog. He promises to be one of the highlights when he returns to the Laneway Festival this summer – details here.
30. Temples – Volcano
Temples free themselves up with a more modern tweak to their sound, a welcome development from their self-assured, retro-styled debut. Volcano is sparkling psych rock repackaged for 2017. Read our review here.