Mid-Year Verdicts: TOP TEN POP MUSIC ALBUMS IN 2017

Edit: there is an updated chart for pop / indie pop, check it out from the home page or from the pop section of the site.


 

I’m concluding the series of mid-of-the-year reviews with the last of the 5 main genres which I address in my blog, which is Pop Music (the charts for Rock, Metal, Electronic and Jazz already appeared on the blog a few days ago). Usual readers of my pages know that when I talk about “pop” I only take into account high-quality cultural works, in clear opposition to mainstream commercial productions. From my point of view, in fact, the only differences that exist between a good popular album and a valid LP of jazz or death metal lie on the instruments used by the musicians, the harmonic construct adopted for the songs, and obviously on the style of the music. Passion, authenticity, commitment to quality and desire to experiment must be the same. You won’t find here Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, or Maroon 5, just to give you a few examples.

Having clarified this important aspect, we can proceed ahead and see which are the 10 best pop music albums that were published in the first part of the year. Before starting with the actual list, however, let me remind of the new series of mixtapes that has been dedicate exclusively to pop music (CREST OF WAVES). The first volume of the series has been really appreciated by the readers of the blog, it contains the newest and best pop songs of the last few months, including some of the authors that are included in the Top Ten chart.

 

Let’s now move on with the chart!

 

#1) Silver Eye by Goldfrapp

Legendary English electronic duo Goldfrapp published this year the seventh studio album of their career, named Silver Eye. The release was anticipated by a number of tracks that the band shared on the media as early as the beginning of the year and all the positive impressions that I had at that time were definitely confirmed once the full-disc became available on last March.

Those who are familiar with the English duo are aware that the band loves to explore different styles and sub-genres of music: until now every album from the band has been different from its predecessor. This rule is somehow confirmed with Silver Eye, which sees a clear and decise turn towards synth-pop from the previous experiments with folktronica (Tales of Us) , 80’s pop (Head First), and downtempo (Seventh Tree). It should be said, however, that such perpetual re-set of their sound could be one of the reasons for which the band didn’t achieve the commercial success that they deserved. To some extent this is applicable also for their last album.

Maybe there’s just not much to laugh about these days, but the common pleasure in Goldfrapp’s many stylistic directions is escapism—to a dream, a film, a dance floor. Lately, their fantasy looks nearly as bleak as our reality. (Spin)

As one of the long-term fan of the band I’m convinced that Silver Eye collects together an impressive number of very good songs, maybe a bit “basic” with respect to modern canons, but with a level of elegance and delicacy that’s indeed a rare commodity nowadays. Whether you want just a light musical background during the working hours, or to “unplug” yourself for a moment of relaxation, this record can truly be your loyal companion and it will hardly disappoint your expectations.

 

#2) Little Fictions by Elbow

English alternative rock veterans Elbow released in 2017 the seventh studio album of their long career, named Little Fictions. In absolute continuity with their latest works, it contains a refreshing compilation of elegant and enjoyable pop & soft-songs (“tastefully simple tracks”, as someone says). Simple but not trivial, because each one of the tracks in the album shows a certain commitment of the group in enriching the melodies with focused arrangements and – where necessary – some moderate experimentation.

In their long musical career the band always showed an undeniable talent for songwriting, which is totally confirmed here in Little Fictions. Even the abrupt departure of drummer Richard Jupp (who left his bandmates after playing with them for about 25 years) didn’t affect too much the style and the sound of the band. And in fact, even in this last beautiful piece of work, Elbow keep repeating what they know best: crafting and playing gorgeous and sytlistic progressive pop melodies, those who made the band famous and succesfull over the years.

Little Fictions might be called the quietest of Elbow albums, as it’s the tamest and most ballad-heavy. It might just as easily be christened their most intimate, their most casual, and their most soulful. All of these superlatives are relative, of course; the album grows in stature and appeal with every spin, and distinguishes itself as an Elbow album not quite like any other (Slant)

 

#3) Capture by Thunder Dreamer

Thunder Dreamer is a dreamy rock band from Indiana, in the U.S. and their last album, Capture, was published on late May. The LP follows their debut album released two years ago.

The songs of Capture seem to reflect all the main elements from the Midwestern heartland from where these guys come from. Musically speaking, the sytle of the band seems to be located on the exact point where indie pop and post rock could meet. You’ll find in the disc poignant melodies and  moody arpeggios, and also some very good musical escalations typical of post-rock and shoegaze. 

But what really impresses of this work is the overall atmosphere that is created by the four guys from Indiana. Their work – considered as a whole – stands out as one of the best indie songbooks that have been released in this first part of the year.

Capture benefits from its reliance on ambience for evocation. It’s a record of young men learning to live with the implacable fear emanating from the crossroads of America, rather than running from it (Pitchfork)

 

#4) Cigarettes After Sex (S/T)

The first debut album of this mid-year chart comes from Brooklyn and is the beautiful self-titled work by the ambient pop group Cigarettes After Sex. The band is led by Greg Gonzalez, who has been supported through the years by a number of different members and collaborators.

The album contains 10 delicate and elegant tracks built on simple but beautiful melodies. All of the songs are based on very slow rhythms, dreamy electronics and reverbered guitars. Here we are on the side of pop which sometimes crosses the frontier with ambient and meditative music. This album was for me a great surprise. I’ve read on the web that a few years ago their EP became a sort of online phenomenon, but I actually missed it. Anyway, I believe that the opportunity I had to discover this album in its entirety gave me even a stronger impact.

Cigarettes After Sex becomes one of those restrained, low-boil albums where tempo, repetition, and muted composition construct an entire story within the pauses between the notes and the ideas between the lines. (Pitchfork)

 

#5) In Between by The Feelies

The Feelies is another of those groups whose musical production has been marked by a long period of silence. Formed in 1976, this band from New Jersey disbanded after sixteen years and four albums. Reunited about ten years ago, they have publised two more full-lenght studio albums, i.e. Here Before in 2011 and In Between in the early 2017.

In Between holds all the distinctive and characteristics elements of the band, and in particular the omnipresent guitars of Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, the two remaining members from the first original 1976 lineup. These guitars operate as the engine of the songs and manage to build enjoyable layers of music. There is clearly a great cohesion among the musicians of this group, something that you achieve only after many years playing together. And it’s quite surprising how they managed to keep their style and sound throughout the years, despite all the musical revolutions and the infinite new trends that have taken place since the beginning of their career.

This isn’t the sound of a band revitalized and searching for new meaning. It’s another worthy notch on the post of a group of self-reliant musicians who make great music for the hell of it all. And it sounds damn good. (Sputnik Music)

 

#6) Colliding by Design by Acceptance

It may be strange at first to see Acceptance to be included within the Pop category if one thinks that this band from Seattle started as an alternative and punk rock band. This was about twenty years ago, however, and today their music has definitely changed in style. But wheter it’s a smart move for commercial success or rather a genuine evolution of their musical tastes, at the end we don’t care since the result is damn good.

But what’s really incredible in the story of this American band is that in such a long time from their original formation, the album they have just published in 2017 is actually only the second of their discography. After their debut album in 2005 with the album Phantoms the group broke up, it was only in early 2016 that they started again to play together. Colliding by Design, their new release, arrives thus 12 years after their debut. As anticipated, the time passed between the breakup and the reunion has brought some evolution in the style of their songs, as well as some expected change in the lineup.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Acceptance faces with the release of Colliding by Design is one of expectations. When someone’s only frame of reference for your band is the music you created 12 years ago, how do you reintroduce yourself after so much has changed? Colliding by Design is not Phantoms Part 2. In fact, you may be well off to leave your presumptions about Acceptance at the door before entering. (It’s All Dead)

From a musical point of view, Colliding by Design is filled with catchy melodies, fresh and lively arrangements reminiscent of the early Coldplay. But aside from the musical details, you may perceive the weight and depth of all the different experiences that the five musicians have collected during this decade and which they wanted to share in this album.

 

#7) Relaxer by Alt-J

Alt-J, the critically-acclaimed indie rock and folktronic band from Leeds, in UK, have released this year their third LP of their relatively short but influential career. Alt-J reached in fact an incredible success with their 2012’s debut album An Awesome Wave (Mercury prized) which projected the British rockers among the musical phenomena of the decade. Their following record, This Is All Yours, was seen by many as a step back in their musical evolution and there was quite an expectation to see if the incredible inspiration they showed in the debut album was a unique case or not.

Relaxer, their most recent album, unfortunately doesn’t dissolve the clouds that somehow obscured the brilliance of the band’s debut: besides some really good songs  there are some “really bad” tracks, something that wasn’t actually even thinkable in the early years of the band’s activity. As a matter of fact the album has got some serious criticism by the specialized press:

The truth is that Alt-J have never had an identity, really, apart from Newman’s mangled lyrics and the fidgety, distracted arrangements of their songs. Relaxer shows us what remains after those quirks are dialed back: some perfectly nice, perfectly blank lads who have no idea why they are standing in front of you and even less of an idea what to say. (Pitchfork)

My position is intermediate. I can’t afford to listen to the disc in its entirety, but I still appreciate a few songs of the album, which ara actually very good ones. And this is the reason for putting them into my chart, because of the songs and not as a recognition of the overall value of their last production.

 

#8) Hot Thoughts by Spoon

Hot Thoughts is the new album by the American indie veterans Spoon. It is the ninth of their 20 years career and it arrived three years after their previous release, They Want My Soul. During all these years, the band has never shown a particular research for experiments and innovations, but they always managed to compose and play nice, catchy and enjoyable songs. This last album is no execption and it has good very good reaction from both fanbase and music critics. Beauty in normality, one could say. Listening to their works, however, it’s evident how much effort these guys spent in songwriting and also to reach perfection in the recording studio.

At this point, it’s safe to assume a new Spoon album will be a joy to listen to, even if it won’t upend your idea of what a Spoon album can be. On that front, Hot Thoughts delivers. (Spin)

From a musical point of view the group managed to balance an overall radio-friendly approach  with moderate but interesting explorations into electronic, garage rock and sometimes disco music. There is a vivid creativity underlying these songs and the feeling that you get from listening to the record is that these guys from Texas still enjoy composing and playing good songs, and that twenty years into the music arena have not exhausted their inspiration.

 

#9) Something Else by The Cranberries

There is little less to say about The Cranberries, the Irish rock and folk band which is approaching 30 years of glorious and excellent musical career. Beyond a few comprehensible ups and downs, the band managed to combine international fame with high quality of production.

Something Else, the last album the group, collects the acoustic versions of their classic hits (with three new songs), all featuring a string quartet from the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Differently from their previous Greatest Hits album (Stars, dated 2002), the new work indulges on the most poetic and delicate side of the band.

Something Else isn’t a mercenary cash grab, bloodlessly assembled to fulfill a contractual obligation. For one, it features three brand-new songs. Every old song on it was also re-recorded in 2016 acoustically and with string accompaniment. Rather, Something Else is a veteran band’s attempt to celebrate their own canon by reimagining and extending it. (Consequence of Sound)

 

#10) Goths by The Mountain Goats

As a passionate fan of the American band The Mountain Goats I was quite puzzled (and a bit disappointed) when a couple of years ago they released the album Beat the Champ, their concept album on professional wrestling (!), and I was definitely curious to listen to what they decided to put into their latest work, Goths, which was released on May 2017. In general every album by The Mountain Goats can be fully appreciated only after a while because you typically require subsequent listening to familiarize with the songs and fully enjoy both the musical dynamics and the stories told. After a few times that the disc played in my music reader, however, I was already in condition to say that Goths signs a return to a more enjoyable and interesting musical style with respect to the controversial 2015 album, although we are still far from the peaks that the band reached in the early years of 2010, in the phase where I think they released the best albums of their career.

The Mountain Goats are one of the most prolific bands of the American indie scene. Their leader, the singer-songwriter John Darnielle, has written more than 600 songs now, and with Goths the band has reached the sixteenth studio album of their 23 years long career.

The first thing that you notice in Ghots is the absence of any guitar. The group is famous for applying a precise stylistic choice to each of the disks they publish, it can be about the music or a thematic concept for the tracks. In this case it’s all about the instrumentation. The songs of Goths develop around bass lines, vocals and horns. The result is definitely interesting, although we miss the acoustic and low-fi sound that I appreciated so much in their earlier works.

Goths throws in the monkeywrench of rules; the liner notes state, “No comped vocals / No pitch correction / no guitars.” That last one will be most significant to listeners, considering the Mountain Goats’ origins as a one-man-with-his-guitar project.  The absence of guitar is surprisingly not immediately evident when listening. That’s because of how seductive and carefully put together the music in general is. (Pop Matters)

Despite this controversial choice for the instrumentation, the songs are however emotional and profound, with a couple of songs that stand out for their beauty. Personally I still prefer the more immediate and “indie” guitar-solo approach that he band embraced in the recent past, but I’m open and keen to enjoy this diversion while looking forward to see what they will invent for the next chapter.

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