There may have been a lot of things wrong with 2017 but music certainly wasn’t one of them. In an act of supreme self-indulgence, Chronicle editor Michael Green presents his Top 10 favourite albums of the year (if an editor can’t indulge himself at Christmas then what is the point of being one!). Please feel free to provide us with your musical highlights of the year by commenting at the end of this article or messaging us on Facebook or Twitter.
1. PEOPLE WE BECOME (DELUXE EDITION) - JO HARMAN
If you are not aware of the extraordinary talent that is Jo Harman, that is a situation you need to remedy straight away. Not only is the Luton-born, Devon-raised artist one of the greatest female vocalists this country has ever produced, she also happens to be an outstanding songwriter. Her second album People We Become is a masterpiece, full of emotionally intense and powerfully delivered classic blues and soul songs dominated by lyrics which are pure poetry. As wonderful as the studio album (recorded in Nashville with veteran producer Fred Mollin) might be, you cannot fully appreciate just how magnificent Jo Harman is until you have heard her live which is why the deluxe edition is the one to have as it features a Live in Camden disc that is out of this world. She played Alexander’s in Chester in autumn 2016 and absolutely rocked the rain-swept 2017 North Wales Blues and Soul Festival in Mold during the summer.
TOP TRACK: The Final Page
2. TURNING TIDES - WILDWOOD KIN
A thrilling musical discovery for 2017 was this unique trio from Exeter consisting of sisters Beth and Emillie Key and their cousin Meghann Loney. Their debut album was released during the summer and is a haunting collection of mystical, magical tracks characterised by some simply stunning harmonies and Meghann’s earth-shattering percussion. There are echoes of Clannad but this is an outfit supremely confident of its own identity. They would fit right in for the final season of Game of Thrones both musically and as cast members!
TOP TRACK: Steady My Heart
3. PEACH - LARKIN POE
Larkin Poe are two exceptionally talented sisters - Rebecca and Megan Lovell - from Atlanta, Georgia whose original country folk sound from their earlier EPs has evolved into roots rock (via their mighty debut studio album Kin which was later repackaged as Reskinned) and this year took a major swerve into blues with this incredibly varied mix of five original tracks and five covers of songs ranging from the familiar (Black Betty) to the traditional (John the Revelator). Rebecca’s powerful vocals backed by Megan’s peerless lapsteel guitar are helping them gain a huge following in their native America. Sadly they have yet to do a UK headline tour but they have a growing fanbase in this country not least from the times they played Glastonbury in 2014 and 2016 and the several occasions they have supported and accompanied Elvis Costello on tour.
TOP TRACK: Wanted Woman/AC/DC
4. WIDE OPEN - MICHAEL MCDONALD
Much has been written in 2017 about how it is once again ‘cool’ to like former Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald following years in the ‘wilderness’ for his brand of what was disparagingly referred to as ‘yacht rock’. I wouldn’t know anything about that because I have idolised this man since I first heard What A Fool Believes in the 70s. Sadly, being dismissed as unfashionable led to a period of almost 20 years during which McDonald felt reluctant to produce new material - all of which changed in September when Wide Open was released to universal acclaim and instantly became one of the best albums he has ever come up with. Find It In Your Heart, If You Wanted to Hurt Me and Blessing in Disguise (co-written with Beth Neilsen Chapman) are among the gems here but the best track is Half Truth which is a collaboration with his talented son Dylan.
TOP TRACK: Half Truth
5. FROM A ROOM VOLUMES 1 AND 2 - CHRIS STAPLETON
I’m cheating a bit with this one because volumes one and two were released six months apart but it is impossible to choose between two compelling collections of searing songs that have helped establish Kentucky-born Stapleton as one of country music’s superstars in waiting, following his memorable debut with Traveller in 2015. Both albums are dominated not just by Stapleton himself but also by his wife and muse Morgane who provides backing vocals on most tracks - together they are a match made in heaven - and masterminding the project is Dave Cobb, probably the most talented and influential producer currently working in Nashville. Don’t let the country tag put you off - there are multiple mood swings here from the heartwrenching ballad Either Way to the pure rock of Midnight Train to Memphis. The title comes from Nashville’s iconic RCA Studio A, where it was recorded.
TOP TRACK: Either Way
6. SOMETHING TO TELL YOU - HAIM
There’s no one else out there like Haim. They may occasionally invite comparisons with the likes of Fleetwood Mac but their distinctive harmonies and the trademark stop-start nature of some of their greatest songs make them a breed apart. The three Los Angeles based sisters - Este, Danielle and Alana - not only sing beautifully but are also multi-instrumentalists and burst on to the scene with the album Days Are Gone in 2013. It has been quite a wait for the follow-up and it turns out to be even more melodic, vocally and musically adventurous and lyrically persuasive. The infectious qualities to their music have, unsurprisingly, led to a number of dance artists remixing their songs to bring them to an even wider audience. And the deceptively simple one-take video for lead single Want You Back provided us with one of the coolest cultural events of 2017.
TOP TRACK: Want You Back
7. SMOKE AND MIRRORS - JESS AND THE BANDITS
Jess and the Bandits may be fronted by the singing powerhouse from Texas that is Jessica Clemmons but with a band full of Brits and a base that is firmly in the UK, they are a vital part of the new British country wave of artists that includes the likes of The Shires and Ward Thomas. Their 2015 debut album Here We Go Again was packed with feverishly catchy songs which gained them a lot of national airplay on BBC Radio 2 and they have followed it up with this more sophisticated but still seriously commercial sophomore release which combines anthemic pop songs like Kings of Summer and I’m Not Going Home with heartfelt ballads such as White Lies and the gospel-tinged highlight Sister.
TOP TRACK: Sister
8. LIFE LOVE FLESH BLOOD - IMELDA MAY
This Dublin born musical genius has always been a lot of fun with her rockabilly style and ostentatious outfits and hairstyles. But there was a dramatic change of pace in 2017 and remarkably, she somehow managed to surpass even her exceptional back catalogue and virtually reinvent herself as a torch singer. The vocal performances on tracks such as Call Me, Black Tears and Should’ve Been You are blistering, reaching emotional depths with the help of legendary American producer T Bone Burnett. The new direction was a total success - the album shot to number five in the UK and reached the top of the increasingly influential Americana chart.
TOP TRACK: Call Me
9. ON THE ROCKS - MIDLAND
Their colourful clothing and cool harmonies instantly conjure up fond memories of the Seventies and particularly the classic sound of the Eagles but three-piece band Midland - who hail from the gloriously named Dripping Springs in Texas - are set to become the next big thing in country music following the universal acclaim heaped on their flawless debut album which does not have one weak track among its lucky 13. They all met at a wedding, their lead singer (Mark Wystrach) used to be an underwear model and the bass player (Cameron Duddy) is a video director but put them together and the result is a thing of beauty. They enjoyed huge singles chart success with the wryly amusing Drinkin’ Problem and they have co-written with the likes of red hot Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Watch this band fly in 2018.
TOP TRACK: This Old Heart
10. NATIVE INVADER - TORI AMOS
It is 25 years since unique American singer-songwriter Tori Amos made such an impression with her first album Little Earthquakes but a quarter of a century on, her 15th studio album released this year is every bit as vital, fresh and exhilarating as her debut. Amos is one of those artists who inspires such devotion in her fans because once you fall under her spell, there is no going back. Part of the reason for this is her music does not provide instant gratification - you have to actually listen to what she produces to fully appreciate just how magical it can be. Hence the Native Invader opening track Rainbow King which is seven sublime minutes long but takes several plays before it weaves its way into your consciousness forever. If Wildwood Kin are Game of Thrones, then Tori Amos is pure Lord of the Rings even if she does have magnificent Melisandre hair!
TOP TRACK: Cloud Riders