February was a big month for music in 2017. First out of the gates with an instant classic was Mali’s Tuareg desert rockers Tinariwen, with their seventh album, Elwan. It’s a 47-minute tour de force of gritty blues riffs, hypnotic percussion and haunting vocals. As Tinariwen has come to greater Western attention over the past few years, their albums have begun to feature regular collaborations. Elwan is no exception: it features American indie-rockers Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney and Mark Lanegan. Nànnuflày, which features Vile on guitar and Lanegan on vocals, is a ghostly blues, one of the album’s highlights.
Sinkane: Life & Livin’ It
Released on the same day as Tinariwen’s new album, Sinkane’s sixth album, Life & Livin’, It was another early highlight this year.
The Sudanese-American, who, before going solo, used to sit behind the drum kit for Caribou, Of Montreal and Eleanor Friedberger, has been on an incredible run since 2012’s Mars. Life & Livin’ It shows that he is not done yet. Hints of influence from disco, soul, Seventies’ jazz-fusion, Afrobeat, Ethiopian jazz and Somalian funk are evident, but Sinkane is making his own funk stew, one that sounds unlike anyone else’s music.
Spoko & Aguayo: Dirty Dancing
After a 2016 night spent in a smoke-filled studio in Johannesburg, Atteridgeville’s DJ Spoko and Berlin-based Chilean Matias Aguayo emerged at dawn with six new productions. In late February this year they dropped the resulting Dirty Dancing EP, in which DJ Spoko’s “Bacardi house” and Aguayo’s minimalist techno collide to create something truly inspired.
The pick of the litter was the title track, Dirty Dancing, a dance-floor killer that features some menacing synth work from Spoko and a great little shuffling percussive beat from Aguayo. Just a few listens and you’ll be walking down the street repeating the phrase, “What? What? What? Watch what you doing?”
Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse
The Bahrain-raised, London-based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed has worked with everyone from Lee “Scratch” Perry to Radiohead. On her new album, La Saboteuse, released in May, she offers up 13 compositions, which fuse the maqam melodic modes used in Arabic music with a fusion-jazz sound that owes a debt to Miles Davis’s classic 1970 album Bitches Brew. La Saboteuse features the rising British jazz star Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet, who stars on Jamil Jamal aided by some magnificent musicianship from Naadia Sheriff on a Fender Rhodes piano. With sonic explorers like these, the future of jazz is in very safe hands.
Nidia: Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida
Nidia, who used to go by the moniker Nidia Minaj, is a 20-year-old Portuguese producer who first entered the music industry as a teen. She is part of an emerging crop of young African-immigrant producers out of Lisbon, who are using Angolan music genres kuduro, kizomba and tarraxo to create a vital new form of dance music, which they have dubbed “batida”. Her latest offering, Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida, dropped in June this year and features some pulverising hip-swingers such as hypnotic dubby-house number House Musik Dedo and Sinistro, which sounds like an army of robots marching to their doomsday.
Sudan Archives: Sudan Archives
Sudan Archives’ Come Meh Way was one of the most infectious songs released this year. The booming bassline, the scattered percussion, the violin that sounds like the Ethiopian one-stringed masenqo and the gorgeous vocals added up to musical perfection.
Come Meh Way was released on the Sudan Archives EP on the Stones Throw label in July this year, a collection of six songs in which the young American violinist draws on Sudanese fiddlers, experimental electronic music and R&B.
It’s what’s Sudan Archives does with these influences that is so damn captivating, making this the most exciting debut of the year.
Bombshelter Beast: Dance of the Chicken
For those South Africans who haven’t experienced the sheer unadulterated fun that is a Bombshelter Beast gig, you are in luck — 2017 saw the band release its debut album. South African trumpeter Marcus Wyatt is the leader of this gypsy family of maverick musicians hell-bent on celebrating big-band dancing tunes. The band was born out of compositions Wyatt had written for a film soundtrack.
On Dance of the Chicken the band lays down what it calls its “Afrobalkan skadubhall” sound, essentially a weird brew of old-school kwaito, hip-hop, house and ska, fused with a Balkan tinge and a big-band jazz feel. It sounds bizarre, but it truly works.
Benjamin Clementine: I Tell a Fly
In 2015 At Least for Now was a debut album that immediately identified Benjamin Clementine as a major talent. His follow-up I Tell a Fly, released in late September, cements that reputation. Clementine, born to Ghanaian parents in the United Kingdom, has produced 45 minutes of the most gorgeous avant-garde music you will ever hear.
Drawing on the rich heritage of classical, cabaret, jazz and soul music, as well as spoken word, Clementine has woven an album of delicate beauty.
One Awkward Fish is a little funk number that owes a slight debt to drum ’n bass, Jupiter presents Clementine in his soul singer guise, and in Ode from Joyce Clementine croons over a laid-back hip-hop groove. It’s essential listening.
St Vincent: Masseducation
If you are looking for pop music with innovation, experimentation and grit, then St Vincent aka Annie Clark should be top of your list.
Her self-titled 2014 album was a career high point and her new offering, Masseducation, released in October, is yet another addictive listen.
“Pills to wake, pills to sleep/ Pills, pills, pills every day of the week/ Pills to walk, pills to think/ Pills, pills, pills for the family,” she sings sinisterly over a bouncy hip-hop beat from Kendrick Lamar collaborator Soundwave, ably assisted by Kamasi Washington on saxophone and some shredding guitar riffs from Clark herself.
Other highlights include the angular groove of Savior, the electro-disco of Los Ageless and the unrequited-love-drenched ballad New York.
Curtis Harding: Face Your Fear
Curtis Harding is a former backing singer for CeeLo Green and a former member of Georgia rap group Proseed and on Face Your Fear he offers up some of the most beautiful psychedelic soul music ever laid down.
Co-produced with Danger Mouse, Face Your Fear, released in October, is a journey into the history of soul music that doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming reductionist. Rather, it points to a prosperous future for soul music that is fresh and vital. Fans of Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, early Lenny Kravitz and Danger Mouse’s production work with The Black Keys are in for a treat.