Ah, we’re at that time of year again: trawling through whatever we’ve listened to over the past 12 months and putting them in some sort of order of merit when, really, we just want you to listen to them all. But we’re masochists over here so today we kick off our Best of 2017 with the Top 50 Hidden Gems of the year.
What is a ‘hidden gem’, you ask? Well, in our eyes it’s something that’s on the fringes of mainstream access: someone upcoming, a rising star, an independent, a newcomer, basically anything that may have evaded commercial exposure for whatever reason. We often prefer this list to the others in all honesty; you’ll see why in our handy summary below, as well as the Spotify playlist at the very end.
We might as well start on these shores with the lovely and ever so handsome Matt Woods, whose Stop may not have been a Spice Girls cover but provided a stirring, sincere performance that knocked us flat. Then it’s over to a trinity of wonderful ladies: LA’s Taylor Grey brought the frothiest pop on Miami, while Chelsea Jade kept it minimal and mournful on the ironically-titled Life Of The Party, and Cardiknox celebrated a cold love of fuckbois with sunny charm on Bad Boys. Rounding up this first batch are the surprise package called Kingslynn, who soared with restrained grace on the string-driven Love, You Found Me which, to be honest, makes even our cold dead hearts ready for a little bit of true love.
Mikaela Davis came to us just recently but won us over with her resplendent indie-folk song Little Bird; there’s more to come from her in the new year. Meanwhile Scandi-pop gained a powerful champion in Amanda Mair and her Empty Blockings, and our old favourite Kylie Odetta cut through the “surface-level loving” with a warm piano arrangement on the infinitely charming Stress. Mysterious duo Satori Blue came out of the, well, blue to deliver a fragile, violin-driven thing of beauty, while conversely Jae Stephens made herself known with a couple of boss tracks like Someone Else. Definitely one to watch in 2018.
One name that’s already been on a lot of lips is Lauv – unsurprising given how much of a solid year he’s had, notably in the playful-as-fuck Easy Love. Similar-sounding but entirely different are our old pals LEVV, who channelled a bit of Saint Etienne for the thumping genre-straddler Collateral Damage. Back to more familiar names, both Brockhampton and Billie Eilish changed up the rap and pop games respectively; the former nailed it on Gold, while the latter’s Bellyache proved why she’s a BBC Sound of 2018 hot-tip. But one of the dreamiest moment of the year came from Vallis Alps, whose Fading won over blogs and hearts alike with its effortless, affable walk in the proverbial clouds.
He’d been gone for a long time, but SSION came back with (er) Comeback and made us sit up in a tired old Q4; his brand of baroque-pop has us excited for a new album next year. On the flip side two London R&B gals had us wrapped around their fingers with solid throwback tracks, those being Asha on Say My Name and Desta French with Needing U. Crystal Bats made a glorious charge with sun-soaked synth pop (with the help of Whinnie Williams), delivering a poolside jam to soundtrack all your holidays to come, while Morgan Saint properly blew some competition out of the water with her agile little bop You.
Ooh wee, pop bangers by newcomers are rare to come by but fuck us if Loop didn’t smash it with As If. She heads up quite a peppy quintet here, as Saya let sex drip from every pore of On Ice and London duo Hugh got the green light with Go, a song that should put AlunaGeorge to shame given their current output. Meanwhile Glassio gave us happiness in a gorgeous capsule of electronic soul, capturing a sense of sunshine in the Nakaya-featuring Daydream. Finally for this lot it’s our favourite sibling duo Ardyn who tapped into some dormant sincerity of ours with their most upbeat song to date, reassuring us to high heaven on their lovely Life Happens.
Is there anyone like The Aces at the moment? We don’t think so, and Physical showed the level of both vitality and maturity in such a young act; they’re also the nicest girls too, so we genuinely hope they get far. A bit further under the radar were Violet Sands, but there was something incredibly innocent about their declaration of love on Unusual, the same something that made it refreshing too. And to keep up the mix of genre in this set: super-producer Kan Wakan moved us to bits on his cinematic Tuesday, while psych-rock had a few bright new flag-bearers such as Tempesst on Feel Better. Finally, MS MR’s Max teamed with Alex Winston as Post Precious for a huge pop bop that recalled Robyn; their Timebomb is a sure indication that they could be set to explode in 2018.
We’re getting into the big leagues now for some of our favourites. Kacey Johansing proved herself a singer-songwriter with flair on her endearing Do You Want Me, while Oxford set Be Good nailed some aching soul on their regret-anthem It’s Cool But It Ain’t You. Both Joe Hertz and Jones had a stellar year on their own, but it certainly reached a height on their pulsing dance-soul collaboration Simple. And we can’t praise homegrown talent El. Train highly enough, as his song Feels Like was a low-key R&B jam that could rival international heavyweights. Finally, one of our favourite bands of the year had to be Lake Jons, a Finnish act who perfected their sound with a proper earworm in the form of Colors. Even if it is spelt the wrong way.
Turns out that adding Mononoke to their line-up was a masterstroke for Ritual, as Wouldn’t Be Love turned out a dark and savoury bit of electronic-pop that we couldn’t get enough of. Norway’s ARY broke through with a soaring chorus on Already There, while homegrown talent Kara Marni nailed the R&B game with Golden. And a special mention for two acts who fell just outside our top 10: How To Exist, who we still know next to nothing about, completely burying themselves in our hearts on Will I Ever, and the exceptional contemporary soul of Sipprell felt like nothing else when she serenaded us with her acoustic and very special Trust Issues.
Ah, the top 10. Well done if you’ve made it this far, both in terms of ranking and, well, reading. Seems like we loved a bit of female R&B(-pop) more than ever this year, as it’s a solid five-way of newbies: NYC’s Raveena is an brand new gem of the genre whose recent EP puts her at the top of the game, but it was Sweet Time that cemented our love for her. Elsewhere, Nefera glided over the softest melody right into our hearts, weaving sensuality with atmospheric darkness on I Dare You. Norway’s Samsaya knocked our socks off in a very special way, compromising nothing of her Asian heritage as she smashes out a underrated crossover hit in Naina Don’t Lie; in the Netherlands Naaz embraced her Kurdish heritage and upbringing too while bringing euphoric pop joy on Up To Something. Finally, Leeds collective Gotts Street Park came out of nowhere and dazzled us with their nocturnal and meditative Love In Bad Company, a song that was executed with such finesse that it almost made it into our top five.
5. Brooke Bentham – Have To Be Around You
When we saw Brooke Bentham play live, we were blown away by a force we didn’t expect. Star power, a voice that could level whole cities, and songs that stuck with us even though we’d never heard them before. And it’s a joy to see that translate on Have To Be Around You, a song that navigated the vagaries of early romance with an untold brilliance: it starts as a simple singer-songwriter jam with an aching melody, before exploding into a kaleidoscopic synth conclusion. Through it all, Bentham stands tall as a pop-rock powerhouse, and it’s why she sits pretty in the higher rung of this list.
4. Yaeji – raingurl
We’ve had Indian and Kurdish influence in our top 10, and South Korea is certainly not far behind. There’s a reason Yaeji‘s name is on everybody’s lips, and a song like raingurl (lower case and everything) fully demonstrates why that is. It’s a low-key house jam with a percolating bassline that straddles language the way Yaeji herself straddles continents. More importantly, it gives no fucks whether you think that’s a problem or not and delivers spiky little missives wrapped around an undeniable banger. Give her Sound of 2018 if you have any sense.
3. Rex Orange County – Loving Is Easy (feat. Benny Sings)
Unusually for us, for the first time our top 3 are all blokes. Starting with this one for anyone thinking how you channel something classic while keeping things remarkably fresh. Rex Orange County potentially could have put aside all his own cool points for a Bacharach-like piano-driven love song that could embarrass in any other hands… except it just made this kid cooler. There’s an innocence that pours out of it as well as a hipster knowing, but it lands with such warmth and sincerity that it’s honestly harder to find another song that put a smile on our 2017 the way this did.
2. Maximillian – Heard
It is one hell of a bold move making your debut with a mash-up of Frank Ocean and London Grammar. But that’s exactly what Danish teen Maximillian did, and since then we’ve been hooked. It’s no surprise that he’s been signed to a major already – that deep voice is rich in a texture that can neither be nought nor taught, and it anchors every heartfelt (and heartbroken) song he puts out there. This one in particular is so straightforward and simple and yet all the more powerful for it; stick around for that vocal run in the middle and tell us this kid isn’t going to be huge.
1. Thunder Jackson – Guilty Party
2017, it seems, was the year of the fuckboi. If people like Dua Lipa weren’t calling them out, then actual fuckbois were taking ownership of their misdeeds. And bloody hell, wasn’t it enjoyable to listen to at times. None more so than the duo known as Thunder Jackson, who pretty much thundered into our lives with their tremendous funk-pop confessional Guilty Party. It’s a song that’s not only delicious for the relatable one-liners when you know you’ve absolutely fucked up in a break-up, but there is something irrefutable about those hooks, that chorus, the post-chorus, hell all of it and its ability to get us shuffling wherever we are. “What is exactly is a Thunder Jackson?” a voice asks at the start. The act responsible for one of the year’s best songs, that’s what.