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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Music in review: our best albums of 2017

Our team of writers pick their best albums from a year of introspective lyrics, bold genre-jumping and comebacks

This year provided a bumper crop of eclectic and vibrant albums. When it comes to records that captured the zeitgeist, it will be hard to go past rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest opus Damn and Ed Sheeran’s new stadium-­conquering collection. However, the year will also be remembered for its comebacks. Lebanon’s iconic songstress Fairuz returned with a controversial covers album; Liam Gallagher proved he can make it on his own with his spirited solo debut, As You Were; garage rockers At The Drive-In also showed us the fire is still burning, with their first album in 17 years; and Damian Marley returned after a 12-year break with the soulful reggae of Stony Hill. Presented alphabetically, we break down the 17 best albums of the year.

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As You Were

Liam Gallagher

One of autumn’s most fascinating musical scuffles – battle would be too strong a word for what was always a carefully crafted war of words – pitted the Gallagher brothers against each other, as the siblings released new material this year within days of each other. It was a fascinating contest: Liam has the voice that defined the Britpop years, while Noel wrote the songs that became the soundtrack of that era. Few expected Liam to come out on top this time around, but As You Were emerges as a release of surprising depth, most notably in the form of the mournful and beautiful Paper Crown.

Nick March

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Bebalee

Fairuz

Fairuz’s first album in nearly a decade remains a subject of debate by regional music lovers. A covers collection of international songs that inspired Fairuz throughout her career, Bebalee is an eclectic offering, indicating the 81-year-old veteran has a more expansive ear than perhaps many thought. Among the highlights, Lameen is her take on French chanson Pour Qui Veille L’Étoile by Pierre Delanoë, and the jazz and tango groove that is Ana Weyak is based on Bésame Mucho by Mexican singer and pianist Consuelo Velázquez. Sure, those who were hoping for another batch of stirring nationalist operettas would have been severely disappointed with Bebalee. Approach it without reservations, though, and you’ll find a minor gem of a record by a legend who is clearly enjoying herself.

Saeed Saeed

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Damn

Kendrick Lamar

The Compton rapper may have just re-released this American chart-topper with the track-listing reversed, but whichever way you spin it, Damn was another laser-guided assault on the state of his home nation. Hit single Humble led the way with his trademark ire spread thick across rhymes that veered from abstract to the pointedly obvious, while DNA ratcheted up the anger levels with a scintillating take on braggadocio rap. Even Bono and his U2 cronies couldn’t spoil the party with their guest slot: XXX continued Lamar’s penchant for being the 21st century’s torch-carrier for lucidly vivid depictions of street stories. He disappointed UAE fans by cancelling his Formula 1 concert in November, but on-record, there were no such grumbles. Damn, indeed.

Adam Workman

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Divide

Ed Sheeran

It was only last month that Ed Sheeran played a sell-out, standout concert at the Autism Rocks Arena in Dubai, marking a triumphant return to the emirate to promote ÷ (Divide), his third album, which he dropped on the world at the very start of the year. Sheeran’s 2017 has since been a whirlwind of promoting and touring the album, a juggernaut of a release that has collected billions of streams and millions of physical sales since its January release. The numbers tend to obscure what is at heart a great, eclectic and fulfilling release from an artist operating at the top of his game.

Nick March

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English Tapas

Sleaford Mods

As the consequences of the disastrous Brexit vote continued to sully the politics and streets of the United Kingdom, one dissenting musical voice continued to bleat forth from the darkness. Unconventional duo Sleaford Mods – essentially a ranting chap with the occasional tic and a producer who hits play on his laptop then mooches around in the background – shouldn’t work. They continued to do so, however, on their latest grim stumble through British culture’s idiosyncrasies. The fact that said ranting chap, frontman Jason Williamson, is in his late-40s and making some of the most essential music in his home country gives hope to all of us who wonder if our best years are already behind us.

Adam Workman

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Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1

Calvin Harris

In paying tribute to the funk sounds that influenced him, Scottish DJ and producer Calvin Harris went on to create a near-perfect summer album. What immediately stands out here is how organic it all sounds. Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1 brims with live instrumentation – the drums are warm and supple, there are bobbing basslines, swirling synth grooves, Nile Rodgers-esque guitars and no auto-tuned vocals. While the concise 10-song collection (clocking in at about 35 minutes) features hip-hop artists, the album is unabashedly pop at heart. Now, if only Harris could bring some of that swagger and

colour to his live shows.

Saeed Saeed

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Elwan

Tinariwen

Having dazzled us with their guitar pyro techniques in their last few releases, the grizzled Malian bluesmen turn inward for their eighth international release. With their homeland in West Africa still a hotbed of terrorist attacks, the five-piece band recorded most of their new songs in the Moroccan oasis town of M’hamed El Ghizlane, near the Algerian border. Themes of home and dislocation pervade the deeply affecting collection. “Many have died battling for twisted ends,” Ibrahim Ag Alhabib croaks over the haunting Ténéré Tàqqàl. “And joy has abandoned us, exhausted by all this duplicity.”

Saeed Saeed

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In•ter a•li•a

At the Drive-In

There aren’t many rock bands who can return 17 years on from their previous album with most of their crackling energy intact, but Texan post-hardcore hurricanes At the Drive-In sure managed it on this comeback record. After vocalist Cedric Bixler-­Zavala and lead guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López spent most of the interim making mind-­expanding prog-rock in The Mars Volta, it wouldn’t have been a complete shock if ATD-I’s punk spirit had subsided somewhat. Yet they managed to kick away the dust and more, most notably on Incurably Innocent, a precursor to the theme of 2017 that tackled the aftermath of sexual abuse with raw-throated bravery.

Adam Workman

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Letter to the UN Security Council

Ramy Essam

This major-label debut by the Egyptian political rocker is a fiery and polished dozen-song set focusing on regional hot-button topics – from the structural barriers facing the Egyptian underclass (El Horreya Lel Geda’an) to the empowerment of Arab women (Segn Bel Alwan). Most of the lyrics, written by Egyptian poets Amjad Al Kahwaji and Jalal Al Bahairy, are delivered in a crisp, clipped, conversational style. Essam, who is responsible for all the arrangements, marries the powerful words with a classic rock and punk aesthetic that recalls that of the spirit of The Rolling Stones and The Clash. Indeed, with the new album, Essam shows how natural the Arabic language can sound on top of rock arrangements.

Saeed Saeed

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Lust for Life

Lana Del Ray

Lust for Life fits comfortably into Lana Del Rey’s dark canon, albeit this is infused with elements of hip-hop and folk. It’s moody, restless and atmospheric. Despite Del Rey’s well-documented fixation with the more uncomfortable parts of Americana, the album evokes the smoky halls of 1990s Bristol trip-hop, in particular Portishead. But mostly it is all Del Rey, swinging punches and speaking truth to power. While Lust for Life’s cover art, replete with a hippie-chick image of the singer, may suggest that Del Rey’s work is moving into sunnier climes, the songs reveal otherwise. We should all be glad that she hasn’t deserted the dark side just yet.

Nick March

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The Queen of Hearts

Offa Rex

In what is essentially a set of covers of traditional English folk standards, Offa Rex – a collaboration between indie-­rock group The Decemberists and British singer Olivia Chaney – strike a fine balance between paying respect to the originals, while giving them a deft modern makeover. The star of the show is those absolutely gorgeous vocals of Chaney, which can illicit goosebumps and tears in equal measure. Her take on The Old Churchyard is spectral. In Chaney’s hands, a sombre meditation on death becomes something hopeful and soothing. Brilliant and revelatory, The Queen of Hearts is the folk album you never knew you needed.

Saeed Saeed

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Raskit

Dizzee Rascal

What do millionaire musicians do when they get bored of partying? In the case of London grime originator Dizzee Rascal, you quit making cheesy chart tunes with Calvin Harris and go back to your roots for your finest album in a decade. The minimalist claustrophobia of his classic debut Boy in Da Corner returned in the aggro-tastic Wot U Gonna Do?, but his flow was updated for the year 2017 on moments such as Everything Must Go, in which he laments his home city’s rapid gentrification. On the latter song, he derided “bottle poppers and socialites”, while admitting that his party days were “fun while it lasted”, but now he was “wide awake, I can’t fake no more”. If this is reality, sign us up.

Adam Workman

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Reputation

Taylor Swift

In Reputation, Swift examines the various aspects of growing up in public, from the albatross of being viewed as a wholesome role model, to seeking mental and emotional balance among a whirlwind of paparazzi and social­-media attention. To accommodate some of Swift’s most introspective sets of lyrics yet, her team of producers – including Swedish pop-meisters Max Martin and Shellback – provide her with a sonic landscape that is often dark, broody and claustrophobic. While the album boasts sure-fire hits such as the hip-hop influenced Ready for It? and End Game, the affair gets really interesting when Swift addresses her own role in her ensuing dramas such as in the lurching electro-pop I Did Smething Bad and the tropical house stylings of Delicate. All that genre-hopping doesn’t detract from what is overall another bar-raising release by Swift.

Saeed Saeed

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Stony Hill

Damian Marley

With Stony Hill, you get two Marleys for the price of one. The album is Damian’s fourth and his first solo release in 12 years, and on board as producer and guest vocalist is his older brother Stephen. With 17 songs running over a relatively epic running time of just more than 70 minutes, you’d expect to hear a few misfires. Instead, Marley uses the large canvas to showcase the various styles he has dabbled with throughout his career, from dance hall to hip-hop and soul. A highlight is the orchestral Autumn Leaves, a stirring display of Marley’s bruised voice that is laced with urgency and wisdom. Stony Hill is easily the best reggae album of this year.

Saeed Saeed

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The Dusk in Us

Converge

Massachusetts metal veterans Converge continued to prove that heavy music and dunderheaded behaviour can exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the ninth album of their cult career. Happiness still isn’t an emotion widely associated with the quartet, however, as demonstrated by standout single I Can Tell You About Pain, a barrelling two minutes of unrestrained anguish set to some of the most uncompromising yet unrepentantly original guitar riffs out there. “The Dusk in Us is a pretty straightforward exploration into the concept of an infinite psychological darkness that I think everybody somehow fights through on a daily basis – including myself,” frontman Jacob Bannon told The National. Heavy stuff, in every sense of the word.

Adam Workman

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Themes for Dying Earth

Teen Daze

The term ethereal has now become a fancy word for pleasant background music. But when in the hands of Teen Daze, it is something truly goosebump-­inducing. The eighth album from the one-man band that is Vancouver’s Jamison Isaak, the melodies seep in rather than take hold, while the little vocals are hushed and hover like mist. The tracks all swirl with analogue keyboards and digital drums. And that steady whooshing sound you hear hovering in the background? That’s a field recording taken of a flowing river in Fraser Valley in British Columbia.

Saeed Saeed

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Woodland Echoes

Nick Heyward

Of all the albums you might expect on a year-end list, a low-key release by a 1980s pop star who hasn’t released any solo material for 10 years probably isn’t one of them, but Nick Heyward’s Woodland Echoes is an enduring and wonderful curio that trails a mature, lush sound. Heyward is a songwriter par excellence, a point he underscores time and again on here. His enthusiasm for music and his obvious pleasure at being back in the game is writ large all over this work. Seek this album out and prepare to be surprised by its ambition and quality.

Nick March

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Read more:

Fela Kuti: unwrapping genius in a box

Habibi Funk: rare tunes from Arabia

The poetic licence of Arab indie scene leader Tania Saleh

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