Hidden gems of 2017: great albums you may have missed

From hypnotic hip-hop to Japanese psych-rock, our critics pick some albums of 2017 that deserve a wider audience

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: The French Press

(Sub Pop)

They say “EP’, we say “mini-album”. The six percolating tracks of this Melbourne band’s extraordinary March outing share literate space with a peer such as Courtney Barnett even as they hark further back, to the wry, loose takedowns of 80s masters the Go-Betweens. You never know exactly what this band’s three singing guitarists, Fran Keaney, Tom Russo and Joe White, are getting at on these obliquely crafted songs. But lust, rancour and misunderstandings figure prominently, as do bejewelled guitar lines and a rhythm section that doubles as a perpetual motion machine. Kitty Empire

Mhysa: Fantasii

(Halcyon Veil)

This debut from queer black diva Mhysa, aka multimedia artist E Jane, is an experimental masterwork of industrial electro meets R&B. Largely self-produced, it has a sculptural, echoey sound, evoking the abrasive beauty of smashed mirror glass, plus glitchy, nonchalantly confident bangers such as Strobe. The Philadelphia performer uses her lithe, light vocals to investigate sensuality, vulnerability, loneliness and, most of all, black femininity. With gloriously jarring nods to Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and Prince, and striking spoken word interludes, this is a superb left-field album. Tara Joshi

Anna of the North: Lovers

(Different Recordings)

Anna Lotterud, aka Anna of the North.
Anna Lotterud, aka Anna of the North. Photograph: Jonathan Vivaas

Lovers, the debut of Norwegian singer-songwriter Anna Lotterud and New Zealand-born producer Brady Daniell-Smith, cloaks a devastating breakup in soft-focus electro-pop. The gently pulsating title track dissects emotional numbness over supple drum beats; Someone is drivetime 80s MOR via M83; while All I Want (“is your love and affection”) closes things on a suitably bittersweet note, Lotterud’s multitracked, unvarnished vocal adding a blank sadness. In fact, Lovers is so unfussy that on first listen it can wash over you, but there’s real beauty to be found on repeated listens. Michael Cragg

Aimee Mann: Mental Illness

(Superego Records)

Aimee Mann.
Conviction and grace… Aimee Mann. Photograph: Sheryl Nields

Despite four decades as a songwriter on a par with Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann rarely gets her dues. And Mental Illness, her ninth album, is a low-key yet major work. She picked the title to mock critics who ignore the diversity of her catalogue to label her a sad sack, but inhabits depressive stoicism with total conviction and characteristic grace. The acoustic arrangements are light, her melodies indelible – the counterpoint to 11 beautifully melancholic songs about addiction to extreme emotional states. Laura Snapes

Protomartyr: Relatives in Descent


‘Always compelling’: Protomartyr. Photograph: Daniel Topete

The fourth album from Detroit post-punks Protomartyr is their most ambitious yet: lyrically tangential and musically dense, rich with ideas, drawing equally from the National and Les Savy Fav. The palpable sense of unease conjured up by singer Joe Casey, by turns angry and vulnerable but always compelling, is perfectly complemented by the arrangements. Hooks are deployed sparingly, yet are all the more thrilling when they crash in. With the exception of Don’t Go to Anacita, there’s little here that’s immediate, but persevere and an exceptional album slowly comes into focus. Phil Mongredien

Kevin Morby: City Music

(Dead Oceans)

Wistful and pithy, Kevin Morby’s fourth album is a sepia-tinted tribute to New York. There are echoes of Lou Reed, Television and, on the homespun 1234, Ramones, but the singer-songwriter is never derivative. Mostly he sounds sleepy, lost in his own thoughts, excited by the bright lights of the big city but fearful of facing life alone. “Ain’t got no friends in a world so big,” he drawls on the brooding Come to Me Now, while the liquid title track revels in the energy of the sidewalk. Paul Mardles

Future: Hndrxx


Future: raps like he’s about to pass out.
Future: raps like he’s about to pass out. Photograph: Dustin Aksland

Dedicated to one of his many alter egos, dubbed Future Hendrix, Hndrxx’s ascetic self-examination and croaky, metallic flow perhaps isn’t the ideal introduction if you’re unfamiliar with Future’s weirdly hypnotic weep-hop aesthetic. However, it’s the most coherent of the Auto-Tune king’s six albums, despite being somewhat overshadowed by the million-selling Future, released just a week before. It remains unclear if doing shedloads of downers and rapping like you’re about to pass out makes you the spiritual child of rock’s most exciting guitarist. Still, there’s just about enough evidence of generation-severing genius to call for a DNA test. Damien Morris

Priests: Nothing Feels Natural

(Sister Polygon)

Most punk bands would die for the synchronicity that Priests achieved when their debut album landed the week after Trump’s inauguration. But although the DC four-piece had delivered funny, searing polemics (even aimed at Obama’s unfulfilled promises) on earlier EPs, Nothing Feels Natural abandons sloganeering for a more introspective interrogation of how capitalism and chaos can corrupt anyone’s sense of self. Happily, it’s nothing like as worthy as that sounds. Instead, it’s a raunchy rampage through surf rock, hardcore and sprightly punk-funk, led by firebrand Katie Alice Greer. LS

Kikagaku Moyo: Stone Garden

(Guruguru Brain)

Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyo: ‘an experimental fusion of global beats, jazz and rock’
Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyo: ‘an experimental fusion of global beats, jazz and rock’. Photograph: PR Company Handout

For fans of Kikagaku Moyo, a psychedelic rock band from Tokyo, this fourth album is a surprising break from the past. Stone Garden eschews the furious guitar thrashing that has earned the band cult-like status in Japan in favour of an experimental fusion of global beats, jazz and rock. It still explodes in places as guitars scream away from the jazz-inspired bass lines, but there are also moments of tranquillity, heralded by the trill of the sitar and a haunting vocal score. Leander Hobbs

Battle of Santiago: La Migra

(Made With Pencil Crayons)

There is no shortage of brass-heavy world fusion bands, but on their third album this Toronto collective conjure up a distinctive hybrid of Afrobeat, salsa and funk. The Santería-style chants of Aguanileo and Barasu-Ayo attest to Toronto’s large Cuban community, while elsewhere the band explore dub on the clattering Cimarron, show off skilful hard bop sax and African balafon, and squeeze in electronica and stratospheric guitar on Rumba Libre. The album title refers to the feared border cops whom the band clearly hope to vanquish if they play hard enough. Neil Spencer

Echoes of Swing: Bix: A Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke


Behind a rather boring title lurks a fascinating set of modern reworkings of jazz classics from the 1920s. Sometimes a simple change of tempo or rhythm style makes the trick of jumping 90 years sound simple; in other cases it’s a whole new tune, hauntingly reminiscent of a melody remembered but just out of reach. The playing is pitch perfect throughout. The second disc of this double set contains 10 original tracks, beautifully remastered, proving that distant generations can still talk the same jazz language. Dave Gelly

Es war einmal… Once Upon a Time… Fairy Tales by Robert Schumann & Jörg Widmann

Clarinettist-composer Jörg Widmann.
Clarinettist-composer Jörg Widmann. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Dénes Várjon (piano)
(Myrios Classics)

Once upon a time, a trio of top soloists pulled together an irresistible collection of music depicting fairy stories. Robert Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, Op 132 for trio, his Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano and his Märchenbilder for viola and piano capture both the lyricism and the dark side of German romanticism, the Grimm brothers’ 1812 collection of tales ever hovering in the background. Clarinettist-composer Jörg Widmann’s spiky, delicate, musical ghost tales, in this world premiere recording, make a mysterious, unsettling contrast. Ideal fireside listening, beautifully packaged. Fiona Maddocks

A Telemann Companion

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Jacobs
(Harmonia Mundi)

Much anniversary attention was given to Monteverdi this year, but Georg Philipp Telemann (died 1767), who eclipsed Bach in fame and fortune during his 86-year life, fared less well. This varied set demonstrates “the three lucky cards dealt him by nature: precocity, facility, longevity”. There’s a complete opera, Orpheus, the popular Brockes Passion, and several quirky instrumental suites, including the famous Hamburger Ebb und Fluth. An absurd slip is that the box set is described as celebrating the 350th anniversary of Telemann’s death: early planning for 2117? Nicholas Kenyon

Sterndale Bennett; Schumann: Sonata Op 13; Symphonic Etudes

Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano)

Exhilarating playing here from pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, who champions the work of the 19th-century English virtuoso William Sterndale Bennett, and now tackles his demandingly muscular Sonata in F minor, Op. 13. The 20-year-old composer gave the piece to Mendelssohn as a wedding gift when he befriended him in Leipzig, where he also became firm friends with Schumann, who dedicated his masterly Symphonic Etudes to Bennett. It’s also played with great panache on this recording. Stephen Pritchard

What have we missed? Let us know about your favourite unsung albums from 2017 in the comments section below, email us at review@observer.co.uk, or tweet @ObsNewReview by 4pm on Tuesday 19 December


Michael Cragg, Kitty Empire, Leander Hobbs, Tara Joshi, Nicholas Kenyon, Fiona Maddocks, Paul Mardles, Phil Mongredien, Damien Morris, Stephen Pritchard, Laura Snapes, Neil Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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