It was a great year for alternative music in the Middle East and wider region, with a number of compelling new records coming out. Arab News’ pick of the best albums released by alternative artists based in, or originating from, the Arab world in 2017 features long-established names and breakthrough acts, supergroups and bedroom-recording specialists, and highlights the scene’s powerful female presence.
Yasmine Hamdan — “Al Jamilat”
The Lebanese singer and songwriter — regarded as one of the originators of the Arabic alternative scene for her work with SoapKills — dropped her sophomore solo album at the start of the year and showed that her growing international reputation is richly deserved. “Al Jamilat” (“The Beautiful Ones”) showcased Hamdan’s instantly recognizable sensual vocals but also her increasing confidence and quality. From the stripped-back simplicity of album opener “Douss,” through the layered electronica of “Choubi,” to the driving power of the title track, “Al Jamilat” was a triumph.
The Bunny Tylers — “Chance Meetings”
Two veterans of Lebanon’s alternative scene, — multi-instrumentalist/producer Fadi Tabbal and singer-songwriter Charbel Haber — dropped a world-weary, elegiac record full of engaging textures. “Eté 91” serves as a centerpiece for “Chance Meetings,” its sweeping soundscape and repeated two-line lyric — “We dream in the sun/We tan when we can” — communicating the frustration, confusion and hedonism of Beirut’s post-war generation.
Hello Psychaleppo — “Toyour”
Electro tarab and electro shaabi sounds are becoming increasingly popular in the Arabic alternative scene. Syrian artist Samer Saem Eldahr (aka Hello Psychaleppo) is one of the pioneers of that movement, and remains one of its most talented proponents. On “Toyour,” Eldahr continued to blend traditional Arabic melodies and vocals with atmospheric electronic sounds to great effect, and tracks like “Samawy” highlighted his increasing mastery of dynamics. Mixing traditional Arabic culture with influences from the West is something many regional artists in all mediums say they are doing, but few manage it so successfully, or make it seem as organic, as Hello Psychaleppo does.
Abri & The Dreamfleet — “We Fly”
UAE artist Hamdan Al Abri has long been acclaimed as one of the most talented vocalists around. “We Fly” — his partnership with musician-producers Adriano Konialidis and Mostyn Rischmueller — was a mellow, understated collection of beautifully crafted tracks with music that complemented Abri’s voice perfectly, allowing him to showcase his soulful side and show that he can deliver a powerful performance without belting every melody out at full blast. “Unborn” was a particular highlight.
Tania Saleh — “Intersection”
Saleh’s breathtaking vocals are, as usual, the standout feature of the Lebanese artist’s latest release. Her collaboration with Tunisian producer Khalil Judran made for Saleh’s most inventive work to date, setting words from acclaimed poets including Mahmoud Darwish, Younes El Ebn and Ahmad Fouad Nejm to a more expansive, modern vibe than Saleh’s customary rock and folk influences thanks to Judran’s experimental electronic sounds. It’s an approach that has been tried before, but Saleh showed how it should be done.
Nadah El Shazly — “Ahwar”
The Cairo-based producer, composer and performer’s debut solo release was a work of great ambition rewarded. El Shazly’s punk background comes through in her unshackled vocals, but the record defies easy categorization. It’s no surprise — with more than 22 musicians featured — that the album is multi-layered, but the production and composition are so masterful that it never becomes disjointed. “Ahwar” translates as “marshlands” and from the stunning opener, “Afqid Adh-Dhakira,” it’s easy to get lost in this atmospheric, evocative record.
LUMI — “The Night Was A Liar”
Yet another triumphant release from Lebanese indie veterans: Beirut duo LUMI took a long, long sabbatical after their 2008 debut album, but made a welcome return to LP releases this year with a record that embraced vocalist and musician Mayaline Hage and multi-instrumentalist Marc Codsi’s varied influences — Krautrock, grunge, lounge music, electro-pop, glam rock and many more. Hage’s distinctive unconventional vocal style is a perfect match for the duo’s often-unsettling, dreamy music.
Muhaisnah Four — “A Memoir”
Prolific UAE-based Filipino musician Cromwell Ojeda’s debut album for his solo project Muhaisnah Four, “A Memoir,” was a buoyant collection of soaring electronic dream-pop. Throughout the LP, Ojeda demonstrated his knack for empathetic collaborations with various vocalists, but the hook-laden earworms “Home” and “Summer,” both featuring New York-based artist Veblen Good, were stand-outs.
Postcards — “I'll Be Here In The Morning”
The young Lebanese four-piece built their reputation with a series of excellent English-language alt-folk EPs. But their debut album was a huge leap forward, embracing dream-pop, synths, electric guitars and noise. The first single, “Bright Lights,” was a post-punk anthem for the disconnected, built on distorted guitar lines and singer Julia Sabra’s beguiling vocals. The haunting “Wrinkles” touched on bare-bones trip-hop, while powerful slow-burner “Waves” showed the band’s evolving sense of dynamics and growing self-assuredness.
Maryam Saleh, Tamer Abu Gazaleh, Maurice Louca — “Lekhfa”
This remarkable collaboration between three of Egypt’s most respected alternative artists surpassed all expectations. Both uplifting and disconcerting, the record relies heavily on the alchemy sparked by Saleh and Abu Gazaleh’s vocal interplay on lyrics from Egyptian poet Mido Zoheir, but that chemistry is only so richly realized because of the dazzling instrumentation, which brings together a myriad of influences — psychedelia, shaabi, pop, folkloric Arabic music and more — to create a sound that is fresh, unique, and could only have come from the Middle East.