2017 offered up a broad variety of music that saw some artists offering up a few surprises. Here’s the ten albums that Wavegirl felt represented the best of the year….
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
HANNAH PEEL – Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia
Out of all the electronic music releases in 2017, Hannah Peel’s latest opus has to rank as one of the more intriguing albums to reach the ears of music enthusiasts.
Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia is a concept album of sorts that revolves around Peel’s alter ego of ‘Mary Casio’. Peel’s back story for Mary Casio is as an elderly stargazing electronic musician. Her lifelong dream is to leave her home town of Barnsley in South Yorkshire and journey into space. The unusual aspect of the album is the combination of analogue synths and brass band arrangements which presents a captivating piece of work that unfolds over 7 movements.
The brass arrangements take a central role on the engaging ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’. There’s a quiet beauty in this composition with the chord changes and brass lending the track a certain romance. On ‘Deep Space Cluster’ there’s a repeating tuba refrain driving the composition forward while a rumbling percussion picks up the pace.
Mary Casio’s journey reaches an end of sorts on ‘Planet Of Passed Souls’, which kicks off with a hymnal quality in the organ sounds of its opening bars. Then the track opens out with big brass stabs giving it a sense of space and grandeur. The piece closes out with a recording of a choirboy singing (actually Peel’s grandfather, recorded at age 13 in Manchester Cathedral in 1927).
Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia is an album that serves as an aural journey of delights, its unusual approach to combining synths and brass managing to present something both accessible and unique. It’s also a testament to Hannah Peel’s seemingly endless abilities to craft new and intriguing ideas out of the ether. It’s a cosmic journey that delivers.
Further reading: Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia
WOLF ALICE – Visions Of A Life
While the UK music scene has unfortunately been littered with many landfill indie acts over the years, there’s been a renaissance of sorts recently. Wolf Alice are probably one of the flag-wavers for this next generation of guitar bands.
While their 2015 album My Love Is Cool made a favourable impact, the pressure to follow it up with a work of equal standard has been tough. Yet Visions Of A Life manages to take the band up a gear. Eliie Rowsell’s distinctive vocals are present and correct across a series of tracks that feature nods to shoegaze, traditional rock and punk-tinged bangers.
There’s a space rock quality to ‘Heavenward’ whose lyrics touch on the death of friends and remembrance. A shoegazey mix of guitar washes coats the song as Roswell’s vocals echo out from cosmic distances. ‘Yuk Foo’, which was the first song to appear from the album, presents a raw and energetic slice of punk.
Visions Of A Life is a solid album that seems like the logical extension of My Love Is Cool, but at the same time suggests a band willing to experiment and play around in the sandbox with nods to a variety of music genres.
Further reading: Visions Of A Life
SUSANNE SUNDFØR – Music For People In Trouble
While the success of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs managed to raise the profile of Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør, new album Music For People In Trouble took Sundfør back to her singer-songwriter roots. Although the album boasts some fine electronic flourishes, there’s also more nods to jazz and traditional instrumentation.
But the album switches gear for compositions such as ‘The Sound Of War’. Here, it’s the sound of birdsong and rivers that open up a multi-part composition while Sundfør delivers some often grim words (“Leave all that you were/‘Cause you won’t need it where you’re going tonight”). There’s a more mournful quality to ‘No One Believes In Love Anymore’ as the title certainly implies with its thoughts cast on the topic of doomed romance.
‘The Golden Age’ features stunning immersive synth arpeggios and Sundfør’s mesmerising voice (“I wake from a dream/to be in another dream”). But the album’s crowning achievement is clearly the epic ‘Mountaineers’ which starts with the basso profundo voice of John Grant. Here, Grant’s sonorous delivery echoes from the depths. When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.
Further reading: Music For People In Trouble
SLOWDIVE – Slowdive
We’ve seen a resurgence of 1990s acts making a return to the contemporary music scene, the latest of which is shoegaze pioneers Slowdive. To be fair, the members of Slowdive have been active post-Pygmalion (their last album from 1995) in the guise of Mojave 3.
Their eponymous return album sees an evolution of sound. Gone are the wall of sound epics that peppered the band’s early days. Equally, the minimalist material on Pygmalion has been left behind.
‘Star Roving’ features a stark guitar melody and muscular percussive delivery while Don’t Know Why’ demonstrates elements of classic Slowdive’s ‘wall of sound’ style.
But it’s ‘Sugar For The Pill’ that’s the standout track on the album. It’s a curious number that strikes for a mid-tempo delivery with a bass guitar rhythm, but there’s a power here through the oddly layered vocals and string effects that lends the whole affair a melancholic beauty. Its strengths also lie in the fact that it’s almost the perfect balance between the spacey guitar of Slowdive and the earnest lyrical delivery of Mojave 3.
The end result is an accomplished album – and also perhaps a time to reassess Slowdive’s impressive catalogue of songs.
Further reading: Slowdive
AUSTRA – Future Politics
Many of the releases of 2017 seemed to reflect a troubling period in contemporary culture, particularly with politics providing a turbulent backdrop. Austra were one of those outfits and the release of their album Future Politics offered up some thoughtful insight into troubled times.
The familiar bassy synth tones that Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provide the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.
Stelmanis’ operatic background really gets a workout on ‘I’m A Monster’ which opens with a minimal arrangement focusing on mesmerising vocals. An ethereal refrain is ladled out: “I don’t feel nothing anymore” as subtle electronic washes weave in and out of the song.
Casual Austra fans might be a bit glum that the baroque pop elements that the previous albums held so strong are less evident here. Electronic music enthusiasts will perhaps find Austra adding further colours to the particular musical palette that the Canadian outfit have carefully crafted since 2011’s Feel It Break.
Certainly Future Politics offers up a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings, but as an album it still offers up rewards from patient listening.
Further reading: Future Politics
PIXX – The Age Of Anxiety
The themes on The Age Of Anxiety, not surprisingly, touch on elements of anxiety – a condition that Hannah Rodgers (aka Pixx) endured from a young age. In particular, she suffered from insomnia caused by persistent nightmares. Songs such as the bassy ‘A Big Cloud To Float Upon’ refer back to her being in primary school age 9 and watching the clock slowly count down. Every ‘tick’ represented one step closer to the dreaded time when she’d have to go to sleep.
Meanwhile ‘Waterslides’ (which is one of the album’s finest moments) was inspired by a odd nightmare of being trapped in a waterpark surrounded by faceless figures. The song itself is structured around plucked melodies steering the listener to the engaging chorus: “Don’t follow me into my dreams you don’t belong here”. But the album boasts many gems, including the seductive charms of ‘Your Delight’ – an immersive dreampop world which entices the listener to be drawn in by its mesmerising melodies.
The Age Of Anxiety is an album that offers up a combination of smart pop tunes married with thoughtful lyrics, which at the same time presents an evolution of electronic music that suggests there’s still horizons to reach for.
Further reading: The Age Of Anxiety
LOWLY – Heba
Denmark’s 5-piece Lowly have a particular chemistry for textured soundscapes and emotive vocals. Debut album Heba is a fine distillation of that sound with a with a clean, vibrant quality to the songs.
‘Still Life’ evokes Felt Mountain-era Goldfrapp. There’s an ethereal vocal, care of Nanna Schannong, over tumbling percussion and melodic synth fills. ‘Deer Eyes’has a polished indie pop appeal that brings to mind the likes of Camera Obscura.
Elsewhere, the tight melodies of ‘Prepare The Lake’ serves up one of the album’s highlights. “Everything fits in a shape” offers Schannong over layered elements that include buzzy synths and shimmering guitars.
Heba is a subtle yet confident album that ticks all the right boxes for intelligent pop and compelling song composition.
Further reading: Heba
LO FIVE – When It’s Time To Let Go
Wirral-based electronic musician Neil Grant (aka Lo Five) describes debut release When It’s Time To Let Go as “deep landscape electronics” and “an album of wild spaces and intimate rooms”. It’s an apt description for an album of reflective reveries that both challenges and surprises the listener.
Peppered throughout with evocative chimes that suggest some lost ice cream van song, there’s also a plethora of natural sounds weaved into the mix. Compositions such as ’Sabre Contusion’ have a raw electronic component combined with a fractured production. There’s a more reflective element to ‘Machinations of the World’ with its rainfall effects and soothing tones. While ’Leave You Alone’ offers up haunting qualities with a dub-like approach to synth tunes.
Closing track ‘The Emergence Of Something Familiar’ has a suitable downbeat finality to it with its stark piano and nocturnal atmosphere.
Lo Five presents a sound that’s quite tough to easily categorise. When It’s Time To Let Go throws up plenty of challenging compositions, yet at the same time has the comforting allure of the familiar.
Further reading: When It’s Time To Let Go
KELLY LEE OWENS Kelly Lee Owens
Perhaps the most striking thing about the debut album from Kelly Lee Owens is its fractured nature. At heart an electronic album, the tracks contained within dart between ambient soundscapes and beat-driven compositions. It’s not a million miles away from the the sounds crafted by the likes of Japanese musician Sapphire Slows in its mesmerising electronics.
The gauzy ambience of opening track ‘S.O’ manages to drop the listener into a warm, immersive cocoon. ‘Arthur’ (a tribute to avant-garde composer Arthur Russell) opens with a soundscape of birdsong and nature sounds. Later, it weaves in subliminal beats combined with a breathy, indistinct vocal. Meanwhile, ‘Anxi.’ (featuring Norwegian artist Jenny Hval) is an intriguing dreamlike composition featuring an amalgamation of dreampop, spoken lyrics and glitchy electronica.
Kelly Lee Owens, as an album, drew critical praise from a range of commentators this year. Owens is clearly someone with a voice and with an interest in exploration. Her debut album provides an intriguing foundation, but it’s what comes next that’s going to convince us to continue exploring with her.
Further reading: Kelly Lee Owens
BRUJA – Evil Creepy
The Barnsley indie rock trio of Bruja first appeared on our radar in 2016 with the tight rhythms of ‘Sculie’. Bruja offer up fuzzy guitar dreampop that suggests everything from Slowdive to Pale Saints by way of Nirvana.
Evil Creepy offers an opportunity to see how the band flex their musical talents over 7 distinct tracks. The percussive ‘Sweet Milk’ has a muscular energy to it, contrasted with the ethereal harmonic vocals. The gritty energy of ‘Sad’ demonstrates a soaring quality to its frenetic guitars, while ‘Best Friend’ has a fractured, shoegaze appeal to it.
Evil Creepy shows that grassroots rock is alive and well and that there’s still an energy waiting to be discovered – if we decide to look for it.
Further reading: Evil Creepy
He is responsible for design outfit Arc23 as well as writing for outlets such as J-Pop Go, Electronic Sound, All The Anime, Manga Entertainment and The Electricity Club.
He has been featured in a variety of press and media features including the Metro and Japan Update Weekly.