Image: Paul Kelly and band in Nottingham, 2017.
As 2017 comes to a close, it’s time for the obligatory ‘Albums of the Year’ lists and, to make it a little more interesting, we asked a bunch of writerly friends to contribute some comments on their favourite albums of this year. A common theme across the albums below is that of a sense of place. From Toby Martin’s heartfelt ode to the local Bankstown community, to Julie Byrne’s lush acoustics as influenced by her time as a park ranger in New York City, all of the albums are linked to the idea of place, marking 2017 as a time of reflection on spaces of all kinds, from where we are now, to where we would rather be.
Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine
Paul Kelly’s songs come alive through their detail and intricacy of observation, often telling a distinct narrative through sight, sound and smell. From the very first track on his 15th studio album, Life Is Fine, we’re right beside him, following a marching melody on a vivid and life-changing journey up a mountainside – and the next minute, the earthy scent of rain-drenched soil evokes a story of love lost but not forgotten. Theatrical and thoughtful, the album moves through these seemingly disparate elements with ease, playing with words, rhythms and emotions to make an album that is a joy to listen to. Optimistic and fanciful, Life Is Fine is an affirmation for life in all of its guises: playful, cheeky, and generously laced with melancholy.
– Melody Menu
The Tall Grass – Down The Unmarked Road
Stark acoustic rumblings and tales of yesteryear are brought to the forefront on Down The Unmarked Road, a joint collaboration between Peter Fenton (CROW) and Jamie Hutchings (Bluebottle Kiss/Infinity Broke) that feels like it has more in common with 70’s Dylan and Van Morrison than their individual projects. It is an album that conjures up Sydney’s Inner West and by extension, the rural outskirts of New South Wales. Fenton and Hutchings spin yarns about solitary travels at dusk, nights out gallivanting on King Street, and abrupt endings that lead to hazy beginnings, which feel like they’re only still just occurring; all the while pointing out the nostalgia and the regret of it all. The album doesn’t just feel brooding however, songs like ‘Moller’ and ‘The Buyer Beware’ give the record momentous lifts with their presence. You can’t help but be drawn to the almost effortless approach that each song takes with the album feeling like it began with two friends sitting down with acoustic guitars to see what would transpire.
– Bradley Cork
Toby Martin – Songs From Northam Avenue
Songs From Northam Avenue transpired from an artist residency Toby Martin did in Bankstown. My mother was quite shocked to find out that an artist did a residency in the street that holds all of her childhood memories. Northam Avenue is not quite the secluded, forest cabin setting that you imagine most artist residencies to be. It would be belittling to say that Toby Martin was influenced by his setting, because the album is its setting. You can smell the garlic dip and olive trees woven through the melodies.
Toby calls in the Bankstown locals, and the album is layered with instruments such as the qanun, sitār, Đàn bầu, and Đàn tranh. With an immeasurable amount of strings and a sense of gentleness, Toby has tapped into the experience of multicultural Australia. It is joyful, radiant, and uplifting.
– Chris Panagiotaros
Underground Lovers – Staring At You Staring At Me
Staring At You Staring At Me embraces what Underground Lovers are best known for – placing melancholic guitar against danceable rhythms with the occasional electronic flourish. Originally, Staring At You Staring At Me was titled ‘Melbournism’; elements of this remain lyrically and in mood, most obviously appearing in the sombre footy anthem ‘St. Kilda Regret’ – the album’s focus widening towards the exploration of daily connections and disconnections between people. Each track truly shines on its own – the striking immediacy of ‘The ReRun’ and ‘The Conde Nast Trap’ highlights crunchy guitars and bounding rhythms juxtaposed against the slower atmospheric slow burners ‘Unbearable’ and ‘Glamnesia’. Though they differ, they all share a mournful yet optimistic twist of emotions – accentuating Underground Lovers’ artful indie pop sensibilities throughout.
– Sean Lees
Big Thief – Capacity
Intense yet generous, Capacity makes you wonder what the big deal is with second albums. That just 14 months separated the release of Masterpiece and Capacity ensured the band wouldn’t overthink their next move, but there’s more to it than prolificness. Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics and the music they inhabit rarely subvert each other via the more familiar way of placing words and melody at opposite emotional poles. Equally fluent in metaphor and memoir, Lenker blurs the two in a way that resists strict autobiography, while still inviting you into her worlds.
There’s sadness in how nearly all characters are sung about in the past tense, which on top of some heavy themes could make for an overwhelming listen, but it’s ultimately a reassuring one. ‘So much coming in / I do not know where to begin’, begins the closer, ‘Black Diamonds’. True to life, the anticipated final major chord never arrives. We take things on and let them pass and seldom get a neat resolution. Capacity absorbs and gives and absorbs until it almost bursts, and leaves you convinced that that’s as good a way to live as any other.
– Paul Macadam
Mere Women – Big Skies
Big Skies commands a strong presence. Following their post-punk roots, Mere Women build up to a four-piece incorporating thumping bass into the already strong ensemble; precise pulsating rhythms that are never predictable, hallowing synths and spiralling guitar echoing off the ceiling. Thematically, Amy Wilson draws from dated ideas of gender roles. During the title track, Wilson repeats in quick succession ‘You’d better get a dog, girl’ linking to her first-hand experiences as a woman living regionally, receiving word that getting a dog and locking all doors will offer protection. Mere Women have presented a true statement piece in Big Skies; encapsulating the beauty, isolation and gendered perspective of the countryside – presented with pure urgency and hopefulness veiled beneath unsettling tones.
– Sean Lees
Noire – Some Kind Of Blue
Born out of a makeshift studio in rural Queensland and matured and distilled in Sydney, the group’s debut album could not sound more distant from its geography. Borrowing from a number of French singers and synth-auteurs, Jessica Mincher’s measured crooning and ribbons of shimmering synthesizer would be at home permeating through night clubs across Europe. But entwined with Billy James’ distinctly Western guitar tones that just as easily conjure up chilling night-time desert scenes, they create something incredibly complex. As a result, Some Kind Of Blue is stylized yet effortless; warm yet crystalline. Their lyrics too are atmospheric and evocative; Lynchian and dripping with narrative. Does she love him? Will she be true? With their beautiful-nightmare appeal, it’s no surprise that Noire have played David Lynch’s Parisian Silencio bar. Next time, see them at the Roadhouse.
– Melody Menu
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
Not Even Happiness is lyrical nourishment for the soul. Throughout the album, Byrne’s deep, resounding voice melts into orchestral arrangements like waves lapping on a shore, as the aptly named, ‘The Sea As It Glides’ suggests. Meanwhile, the gentle pluck of guitar strings brings an earthy twang to Byrne’s solemn ode to dual existence. There is both vulnerability and quiet strength in Byrne’s observations of the natural world and her place within it. The listener is immersed in the sprawling landscapes of America’s mid-west: its vast prairies and ‘That long-forgotten feeling of silence’ that overwhelms mind, body, and soul. Byrne sings of love and heartbreak, but the album is ultimately a journey of self-discovery and self-preservation, with traces of a spiritual awakening and renewed faith in God: ‘I’ve been sitting in the garden / Singing to the wind / I’ve been searching for an anchor / I’ve been seeking God within.’
– Sarah McKenzie
What were your favourite albums of 2017?