The Best Albums Of 2017

Tue Jan 02 2018

I may not have any clout or credibility, but calling something “the album of the year” still means something to me. All the noncommittal “no particular order” lists are adorable and kind; I have trouble believing, though, that deep down, you don’t feel that one of those really is the best. What is the point of keeping that opinion to yourself? Why even make a list if there’s no bottom or top? Even if it’s a consensus list, there’s a consensus number one, or at least a pair of incomparable top contenders, whether you arrive at the conclusion by mathematics or verbal combat. Have the decency to honor the best as the best. Otherwise, the terrorists have already won.

There’s no question in my mind that number one on this list is better than number 25. Obviously, one might be your thing and the other might not; that’s why I write about them, to try and connect with your particular sensibilities and lure you into listening to each one of these, or revisiting ones you’ve dismissed. I’m positive you haven’t heard them all, and I suspect you’ve underrated some. I know you’re busy, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need music to keep you going through these difficult times. Drawing the line on what to include has been painful this year; 2017 yielded so much more great music than what I've included here, but I'd have to quit my job to find time to write about it all, and then this piece would be even longer and no one would read it. On that note, I'll end this paragraph before it gets out of hand. 

 

25. Saille | Gnosis °2017   

Was 2017 as tragic as 2018 in terms of musician deaths? What a stupid, stupid question to ask. For black metal fans, though, the loss of legendary drummer Negru hit hard, effectively ending (dear God let’s hope anyway) Negură Bunget, one of the genre’s all-time great bands. Still, the group hadn’t really been the same since the departure of founding guitarist Hupogrammos Disciple, who seems to have vanished into obscurity since releasing a lone post-Bunget album with Dordeduh in 2012. Fans of Hupogrammos’s distinctive guitar tone need not necessarily despair, however; yes, it took me that long to get around to actually talking about the album I’m talking about. If you’re still with me, I encourage you to revel in Saille’s Gnosis °2017. It’s not pure Bunget worship; it begins with some very melodic sounds, elements which vie for dominance with the more vicious bludgeonings within a fairly progressive black metal stew. There’s none of Bunget’s folk elements, either, but the sonic palette ranges from primal to mildly symphonic, and virtually every song is a soaring anthem on its own, even though a couple of them (especially “Prometheus”) are downright chaotic at times. At this point I feel pretty confident in calling Gnosis °2017 my favorite Belgian black metal album ever. (I know, I know, I need to check out more Enthroned...)

24. Gnod | JUST SAY NO TO THE PSYCHO RIGHT-WING CAPITALIST FASCIST INDUSTRIAL DEATH MACHINE

Self-explanatory? #krautrock

23. Rapsody | Laila’s Wisdom

Like many people, my first exposure to Rapsody was listening to the last verse of the To Pimp A Butterfly track “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and going “who is this??” She turned my head more than any of the well-known guests on TPAB, so I really wanted to like her mixtape from last year, The Crown, but I didn’t; the tracks all felt so dry and unimaginative compared to her thoughtful, forceful verse on the Kendrick album. Laila’s Wisdom erases all fears that that verse was a fluke; it was actually a great primer for her style but only hinted at her multi-dimensional talent. The album feels like a loose day-in-the-life conceptual journey without any of the nonmusical clutter you might expect. You can feel the tension between street tragedy and omnicultural love of life in almost every track, and high-profile guests like BJ The Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak barely register beyond the background; Rapsody’s delivery is so sharp and serpentine that sometimes your brain spends beats catching up because it needs to relish each word. Kendrick and Busta Rhymes get premium airtime but the feeling is that Rapsody’s being charitable letting them appear; no complaints, but Busta in particular kinda wastes time when you’d rather be getting back to the main event. After his spot, the record gets deceptively chill and sensual, leaving you unprepared for the stunning finale; “Jesus Coming” might leave you feeling desolate but it is beautiful and it doesn’t undermine the determination and hope that pervades most of the album. I hate the fact that its being nominated for a grammy makes me feel like it’s being “positioned” rather than earning its cred, that its brilliance could be looked upon as a token. So I’ll remind myself that a grammy nom doesn’t necessarily undermine greatness—that grammys are meaningless, not detrimental.

22. Timber Timbre | Sincerely, Future Pollution

They went and pulled a Yeasayer/Animal Collective! Folk-based band suddenly morphs into synthpop! But actually, Timber Timbre’s rebranding on Sincerely, Future Pollution comes off more like Tame Impala’s—not super dancey, way dreamy. But the songs still sound seedy and creepy and straight-outta-David-Lynchy—unmistakably Timbery Timbrey. And also...funky? I mean I think that’s clavinet in “Grifting”, heavily processed and murky but it makes you wanna strut. And there are dark rockers, too; the title track is some dirty, menacing guitar-based stuff, and then “Bleu Nuit” shifts from Liars-esque electronica into a bass-led groove with almost impenetrably vocoded singing that keeps building and building but never quite surrenders to a legitimate climax. Timber Timbre is all over the place on this record and I can’t imagine any fan of the band’s past work not digging this. Just please don’t let any of Paul McCartney’s lawyers hear the last track.

21. Thundercat | Drunk

Let me just say that as a married 40something white guy, there’s a lot of subject matter on Drunk that I can’t relate to. I don’t ever comb my beard. I have no desire to be a cat. I haven’t been to a nightclub in a really long time. I’ve never been to Tokyo and have very little interest in animé or gaming. I have no aversion to being in the friend zone. Thundercat must’ve foreseen these disconnects. Why else would he have brought on Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald to sing on the song “Show You The Way”? Also, the album is called “Drunk”, something I have totally been, many times. Even though I don’t generally dig the stylings of Wiz Khalifa, the song “Drink Dat” is otherwise great and I can grok it. There’s also a song called “Drunk”, and one called “DUI”, but this last tune does not in any sense convey the abject misery and self-hatred that accompanies an actual DUI, let me tell you. It’s an oddly blissful finale to a hazy, dreamy, and yes, mostly tongue-in-cheek album that could be escapism for you or it could be something to simply dance and laugh to.

20. Gas | Narkopop

I’ll gladly consider myself a bandwagon jumper or whatever, having never heard of Gas until this year. You’d think that I would’ve come across his music at some point in the ‘90s, but then again, this album is several degrees less accessible than most of the ambient/electronic stuff I was into in those days. I’m sure some DJ at some rave played some Gas at some point but there was no Shazam back then. At first, Narkopop struck me as somewhat uniformly bleary, as if the rhythms were deep truths buried beneath a ridiculously dense haze of synth tones that do not always jive harmonically. If you’re familiar with the music of Apollo Vermouth, you understand the tension that comes from clashing bliss and dissonance, and how simultaneously sublime and haunting such an atmosphere can be. After you get more familiar with the album, it’s easier to marvel at the various individual sounds going on, especially at the beginnings and ends of songs. There are these weirdly organic passages that suggest perhaps ripples of real life framing the digital dreamworld that pervades. Philosophically, we should probably take note of that implication.

19. Turtle | Human

Some days—lately, all of the days—a person needs to take some time in the morning for mental health: walking the dog, peaceful self-reflection, bike ride, yoga, meditation, whatever calms your mind. You can’t get through these times of unprecedented information bombardment if you let that be how your day begins. This debut album by Turtle, an artist I still know almost nothing about, became my go-to morning zen album. Even though it would be equally appropriate at the peak of some nighttime celebration, it’s such joyful music that it evokes serenity even though it’s really dance music. Listening to it frequently reminds me of that video for that song “Sunchyme” that’s based on a sample from The Dream Academy’s “Life In A Northern Town” with all those people painted up as desert animals and they’re dancing in the waterfall—that feeling. Like maybe there’s hope for the human race. Hey, it’s only music.

18. Mount Eerie | A Crow Looked At Me

Sure! Of course I bought it. I listened to it once. I don’t know whether to envy or pity anyone who can stomach it more than once. You’re either made of stone or you’re going through something that it’s helping you through. For me to absorb this album is to invite the most suffocating panic I know of. I’ve blocked most of it out of my memory completely but the images and words that still sit in my brain take my breath away when they come to me. I’m pretty impressed with myself for sitting here typing this. I’m certainly not listening to A Crow Looked At Me right now. Phil Elverum has made so much incredible music that I assume this album should have a better number assigned to it. It’s possible, though, that it shouldn’t even be on this list. I don’t want to remember whether or not it’s any good.

17. Chelsea Wolfe | Hiss Spun

Ever wonder what might’ve happened if instead of succumbing to icy cyber-panic, Radiohead had ventured down more of a metal road following The Bends? If Jonny Greenwood, instead of transitioning to gadgetry, had focused on honing his guitar tone until it was jagged and rich and menacing, virtually burying Thom Yorke in the process? It’s not that you can’t hear Chelsea Wolfe singing on Hiss Spun, nor that you wouldn’t want to; it’s just that the riffs dominate center stage in a way they hadn’t previously. At the same time, the songs are constructed with such care, you could almost claim that she was going for some sort of crossover, except Wolfe has been bridging gaps between folk and metal and electronic styles for so long that forays into pretty much any genre should be fair game. Go ahead, say “pop”. For instance, her guitar tone in “Twin Fawn” is pretty much Satan, yet the arrangement itself is so catchy it’s almost impossible not to imagine a dystopian realm in which this is dominating airwaves or selling like hotcakes or whatever measure popularity is determined by. Hiss Spun is her second consecutive album pushing a primarily heavy goth-rock sound, so all I can say is that while this is actually the album I’ve been craving from Wolfe ever since I first heard her, I’m hoping for another change with the next one. It’s possible she could make another better album like this, but right now this feels like the pinnacle of a style that has now run its course. I say that, then think about seeing her live a couple years ago, which was essentially this style applied to all of her past albums, and I think, why would I want there to ever be a reason for her to stop playing like this?

16. WHY? | Moh Lhean

This is one of those albums that you’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel when it’s over. Its lyrics are steeped in nostalgia, wistful snapshots from a real or imagined youth; hazy, yet concrete enough to evoke a personal wistfulness. They’re not overtly sad—well, except maybe “The Water” (“Me and my little brother/We don’t say shit for hours/Maybe even longer” is overtly sad, right?). Otherwise, the songs are awash in nebulous stem-emotions that you can define only as they relate to your own experience. These fleeting memories float behind an underlying philosophical/spiritual quest at the heart of the album, one that winds up as unresolved as a critic’s attempt to tag this group with a genre. “I know/I gotta submit to whatever it is in control” sings Yoni Wolf, and it sounds like resignation, but it could just as easily be whimsical optimism, really. I’ve been listening regularly for like nine months and I still don’t know, or need to.

15. Four Tet | New Energy

The first thing that comes across on New Energy is the crispness of every aspect of the beat. The best word for these arrangements and this production is masterful. It shouldn’t take much time, though, for the emotion of the pieces to obscure their masterfulness. Four Tet evokes an old-soul wistfulness as well as the peacefulness that can only come from a place of human compassion. It’s not all bunnies and rainbows, and it’s not necessarily even forging any new ground. It feels like a culmination album, everything previously learned and perfected collectively pouring out in a stream of soulful meditations. Dancing can be a meditation, y’know. (note: There are two #15s; whoops. I'd reorganize but...a deadline is a deadline?)

15. Shilpa Ray | Door Girl

I’ve never been to New York City, and I’ll admit that this fact kind of invalidates me as a United States citizen, which I couldn’t give a shit about. Nevertheless, I regret having never been there and I envy anyone who took the advice of Baz Luhrmann in that one cheesy high school graduation self-help anthem and lived in the big apple for at least a little while ‘cause obviously that ship sailed long ago for me. My understanding of life in NYC consists entirely of impressions evoked by literature, film, and music; the question is whether the world needed yet another album-length ambiguous love letter to the city. Maybe it’s been done to death, but never quite like Shilpa Ray has done it on Door Girl. It’s the first of her albums that fully grabbed me; prior to this year, I’d gotten attached to a track here and there from her catalog, but this record is an adventure, and now listening back to her previous albums has been a hell of a lot more rewarding. Door Girl isn’t a strict narrative but it’s propelled by a dynamic melodramatic arc that drags you right along. It gives me that feeling I got when I discovered Quardophenia or Bat Out Of Hell or Born To Run; I can’t connect to it through anything from my past but I feel like I’ve just been through an actual experience. There’s obviously a heavy Patti Smith influence; it’s mostly dirty rock and roll, a bit monochromatic compared to her previous releases, but Ray dabbles in all kinds of pop fringes throughout; the opening track, “New York Minute Prayer”, preemptively frames the record as musical theater, and it’s not exactly a ruse, but strip away any thoughts of pretension or contrivance. Ray is a brilliant back-alley lyricist and vocalist; she’s more punk than Broadway, pure fierceness. And if it weren’t for The Tom Wanderer Radio Experience (Thursdays, 6-9 p.m., the best three hours of radio in the city), I probably still wouldn’t ever have heard of her. Travesty.

14. DJ Quik & Problem | Rosecrans

It seems like half a lifetime since the Rosecrans EP dropped (it was April ‘16), and now that it’s blossomed into a full album, I must say it has aged remarkably well. The secret is DJ Quik’s perennial ability to make retro sound timeless, even futuristic. On the epic “A New Nite / Rosecrans Groove” he rolls through an 8-bit odyssey that hits Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros themes and eventually you might think to yourself ‘DUDE IS SERIOUSLY PLAYING PONG RIGHT NOW’. It’s goofy but at some point you have to wonder who besides Quik would have the balls to run with it like this. I mean he had a little bit to live down after his 2014 album The Midnight Life (“Whatchu think the game need to like just blow up again?” “Nigga, I think hip-hop need a banjo up in it.” No, Quik. Please no.), so it was only fitting that he put his energy into another collaborative album; he seems to focus better when he’s not left solely to his own devices. Rosecrans the full-length plays more like a series of features than a real duo like Blaqkout, but Problem jives smoothly with Quik’s production, and really it’s beats that define this record—nothing forced, nothing cheesy, no attempt to rope into current trends, just a long series of grooves, within the loose Compton conceptual framework that feels like something Quik was destined to put together at this elder-statesman stage of his career.

13. Sylvan Esso | What Now

Nothing against What Now as a title, but I would’ve called this album Songs About Music. It may not be a concept album but it’s stuffed with musical metaphors, dancing as the essence of life and love, deconstructions of rock and roll paradigms, the glory of music and the perils of the industry. The lyrics, and Amelia Meath’s expressive voice, are about equally bitter and sweet, but whereas they seemed like additives to Nick Sanborn’s beats on Sylvan Esso’s self-titled first record, here the parts all feel perfectly integrated and interdependent. Listening to What Now, I can’t think of a more perfect modern pop sound (except maybe St. Vincent’s). It’s subtly eclectic, highly danceable, insightful and self-aware, not overly sugary but not trying to masquerade as anything other than pop music. Amongst the many wonderful lyrics on this album (no, I’m still not remotely sick of hearing “Radio”, it is a perfect song), the award for Chorus Most Likely To Make Other Songwriters And Poets Think ‘Damn I Wish I’d Thought Of That’ goes to: “Die Young” (“I was gonna die young/Now I gotta wait for you, honey”). Put yourself inside those words—you either know what that’s like or you wish you did.

12. Blut Aus Nord | Deus Salutis Meæ

Nooooobody dooooooes it betterrrrrr (it=black metal). As with most great Blut Aus Nord records, the first listen is a task of reorienting oneself to Vindsval’s newest m.o. more than an actual listen. Once your brain chemistry has reformulated to the new reality, Deus Salutis Meæ isn’t as dense and forbidding as it seemed at first. A cavernous industrial tone presides, with Vindsval’s heinous growls and shrieks impenetrable as usual; possibly even moreso. I wouldn’t really consider this a “return to form” as I’ve seen it described elsewhere; it’s more a culmination of Blut Aus Nord’s various dabblings over the past several years, with excess nonsense trimmed off (no disco influences, for instance). My inclination is to say something vague like “it forges ahead while retaining the band’s distinctive sonic character” which is true but probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone who might be reading this. The nature of Blut Aus Nord is a sonic torture chamber; whether you find this to be beyond twisted or impenetrable or remarkably accessible depends on your exposure to black metal in general and BAN in particular, but as I’ve probably said before, there’s no better catalog to venture into if you want to familiarize yourself with the power of this genre of music, and this is yet another superb entry.

11. The National | Sleep Well Beast

A brief history of Cal’s The National fandom: I’ve pretty much dug everything they’ve put out since 2007’s Boxer. Everything prior to that bores me to tears, and even when I saw the band live on the Boxer and ensuing tour cycles, I really wasn’t sold. Matt Berninger had one trick up his sleeve: a pained, tuneless screech he’d whip out two or three times per show to accentuate how “painfully shy” he felt onstage, and coincidentally, all the ladies would scream sympathetically. I don’t think Berninger hit his lyrical stride until 2010’s High Violet, and between that and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, the band was coasting from strength to strength, but you could sense the formula starting to wear thin. I felt that with their next album either they were gonna have to get weird or I was gonna lose interest. Lo and behold, they got weird. Berninger never really screeched on record; his low-key baritone could come off as overly serious if not downright listless at times. Sleep Well Beast is the first instance of him trying out new vocal textures, nothing overtly bizarre but in the context of his prior output, downright wacky. I have to give him the benefit of the doubt and call his petulance self-aware on tracks like “Nobody Else Will Be There” and “Born To Beg” and “Turtleneck”; either way, they’re a refreshing turn away from abstraction into a more grounded, relatable pessimism. To be fair, drummer Bryan Devendorf is still a one-trick pony; other than the occasional jazzy waltz, the only variable in his playing is how many beats to accentuate on an endless stream of passive-aggressive snare hits. I’m always surprised to see more than just a single snare onstage at National shows; does he even use the rest of the kit? But there are some electronic beats on this album, too, which add considerable contour and contrasting moods. Ultimately, though, the band still lives and dies by Berninger, and in both lyrical and vocal terms, he’s come up with his most dynamic, unusual album yet.

10. Julien Baker | Turn Out The Lights

On first listen, I thought I simply couldn’t relate. It’s beautiful but too depressing, I said. On second listen I realized I was hiding from a part of myself. A part of myself that will probably never be completely dead. A part of me that I don’t want to die, because it’s necessary for empathy. It was the second track, “Appointments”, that shook me. I started thinking, ‘what if I was in that turbulent early stage of a relationship that once you get past it you could be golden but when you’re in it, it could all fall apart over nothing?’ This song could break it apart all by itself, because once you understand the meaning of the words—and I’m not even going to put them here—you might be unable to shake the truth in them. See, I’d forgotten what it was like, but once this song sank in, I remembered. And after that, all of the words on this album started pulling up very old feelings that I’ve been telling myself for years that I can’t recall. It’s healthy to tell yourself such things. As far as I know it might be the only path to mental health—fooling yourself until the lie is the truth. Where I’m at in life now makes me want to reach out to Julien Baker and say ‘it is all gonna turn out all right!!’ but reality tells me it very well might not ever. Her songs do to me what the most heartbreaking Ani songs used to do. They awaken that secret desire for the most profoundly tragic life possible, because that’s where the words come from. Is it human connection through misery or is it the selfishness of thinking she’s the only one who might understand you? Because whoever else might be touched by Turn Out The Lights, only you perceive what she really means.

9. american | Violate And Control

There is officially too much black metal in the world to keep up. We like to think that the cream of the crop in any given genre will rise and become evident, at least to those who claim to be paying attention. With a genre so violently noncommercial and underground, though, much of the best stuff will scarcely even be heard beyond its regional fanbase. This isn’t a tragic thing, though, and for my part, I’m grateful to have stumbled upon american, a Virginia-based band whose black metal is some of the most expansive and progressive I’ve heard, but not progressive in the genre sense. There aren’t keyboards or acoustic guitars or clean singing. The disparate elements come from churning sludge and industrial soundscapes and pure noise, and the sheer force of the vocals gives you a clear sense of desperation even though, well, I at least can’t make out many of the lyrics. While this is certainly oppressively heavy music, the compositions are deceptively sophisticated; the dynamic swings of tracks like “Visions Of Great Faith” and “Amorous And Subdued” and “Defecting Ways” have all the shocking power of Mogwai or free-form improvisational jazz, and amidst the chaos, a handful of riffs on this record are straight-up glorious gut punches. I’m sure there were lots of equally great black metal releases this year, and I urge any curious seekers to explore this list for a bunch more bands you’ve never heard of, as I will be doing over the coming weeks, now that the effort of “keeping up” can be abandoned for the process of pure enjoyment.

8. Om Unit | Self

As a music obsessive in this age of social media and Spotify, etc., I’m bombarded with recommendations and no excuses to ignore them. Believe it or not, I listen to nearly every new album recommendation I see on twitter, especially if it’s from a musician whose music I love or someone whose tastes I’ve found to be compatible with mine. Sometimes I get to a point where I say ‘you’re insane, you’re polluting your mind, you’re diluting the pool of good music with all these mediocre things that you’d hear about elsewhere if they were really worth your time!’ but then I discover an album like this and I feel my insanity is justified once again. There’s an element of nostalgia in my love of Self (ha); parts of it sound like what you might’ve heard in the chill-out room at a reeeeally good mid-’90s party, and when I heard guest vocalist Rider Shafique on “Nothing” I couldn’t help being reminded of fellow Bristolian Tricky. But Om Unit’s approach spans electronic subgenres (the particulars of which I am admittedly no expert on) without regard to purism, making Self a much more eclectic journey than any of the other electronic albums I heard this year. “Eclectic” in this case does not mean “cluttered”; each song is a self-contained, focused meditation, lush but never cheesy, and even though most are wordless, they are vivid evocations of various stages of personal evolution, as indicated by the album’s liner notes and the occasional appearances of guest vocalists. I highly suggest at least bookmarking this album for future delving; you might find it very useful some day.

7. Ulver | The Assassination of Julius Caesar

If you were to ask me what I think of Garm’s ongoing endeavor to make an album in every possible genre (note: my insinuation, not his declared intention), I’d tell you I wish he’d go back to making weird Ulver music. (Or, what the hell, black metal.) The Assassination of Julius Caesar isn’t very weird. It’s straight up fucking synthpop. And it rules. In fact it’s the best thing he’s done since Shadows Of The Sun at least. Well not counting The Norwegian National Opera. Look, sometimes it’s difficult for me to write about Ulver because to me they are so self-evidently brilliant in every facet that their relative obscurity is probably the single most confounding fact of music. Watch their live video. The experience with your TV will blow away most concerts you’ve been to in person. Also it was their first show ever. But I digress. This particular album sounds as if Garm invented the dark synthpop genre like he invented the genres of most of his other albums. He’s never come up with hooks like this before in his life, and the amazing part is how much he sounds like he was born to be a synthpop singer. Also, I shouldn’t have said it’s not very weird. I lied. I wanted to suck you in. It’s infectious and melodic and propulsive but it does occasionally get weird; it is a concept album after all, and it is Ulver. You don’t have to squint too hard to come up with some metaphorical directions that a 2017 album about the fall of Rome could go in, right? So what you’ve got is this driving, pulsing, sometimes blazing dance record with this dark undercurrent that’s less tragic than sinister or maybe just cynical, daring you to give in to this sinful party at the end of the world. I mean you might take it as a terrifying prophecy I guess, but personally I am dying to see Colossus fall.

6. Benjamin Clementine | I Tell A Fly

I wonder if in ten years or twenty or maybe after his next album, people will be saluting Benjamin Clementine as a prescient musical genius. Winning the Mercury Prize (for his debut, 2015’s At Least For Now) is a positive step, I suppose, but music this weird takes time to settle into the world’s consciousness. The only precedent for his music that I can come up with is maybe Sparks—it’s definitely sophisticated, and at times hilarious, but it’s much less pop than Sparks, even if their sensibilities are largely ironic. There are a couple of earworms on I Tell A Fly, but it takes some thought and imagination to glean what the hell most of these songs are about. There are snatches of narratives and political touchstones that pop out, in sharp contrast with the humor and joy evinced by his singing. The album plays like an epic absurdist historical poem set to music. Clementine has an extraordinarily expressive and versatile voice that I can’t think of anyone to compare it to. At first I was drawn in by the comedy of it all, and then kind of like with Beefheart I started to appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of the music. I still laugh every time I listen to it; Clementine has this way of singing in a gravely over-serious mode when his tongue is in his cheek, making you feel like it’s inappropriate to laugh. ‘Can he be for real?’ asks your brain, and the answer is ‘Yes, absolutely; but...’ I can’t get enough of this album. I hope there’s more music out there like this, or that there will be, but I haven’t heard any so far. Despite its often heavy undertones, it’s by far the most delightful album I heard all year.

5. Godflesh | Post Self

Over the years, the various musical personae of Justin K. Broadrick have usually developed naturally in succession; Godflesh, Jesu, Pale Sketcher, JK Flesh and others have all shot off from what came before, signaling new pathways for Broadrick’s muse. So it was with a touch of dismay that I learned he was rebooting Godflesh back in 2010. It’s not as though he hadn’t retaken old names in the past; Final had recently returned from a 20-year hiatus, after all, but what could Godflesh legitimately be in 2010 but a rehashed relic? I was foolish to be suspicious, though, because Broadrick’s music is ever-evolving regardless of moniker, and the eventual new album (2014’s A World Lit Only By Fire) did not disappoint, and then I got to see Godflesh in the flesh...pant, sweat, drool. Still, none of that quite prepared me for how incredible Post Self was going to be. World Lit kind of was a retread by comparison; Post Self is almost a whole new world opening up for Godflesh. It might be the most sonically eclectic album Broadrick has ever made, yet it’s not some hodgepodge of his other projects—it is unmistakably Godflesh through and through. Maybe “The Cyclic End” borrows elements from Jesu, sure, and I guess you can claim that some of the hazy atmospheric elements are Final-ish, but overall it’s everything I could ever hope for from a modern industrial record: raw, droning, scathing, given to occasional noise barrages, most notably the harrowing multi-layered assault of “Be God”. How does a guy this prolific who’s been in this business 35 years keep making music this fresh and powerful? It boggles the mind.

4. Open Mike Eagle | Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

Most people reading this can probably predict my reaction to the critical adulation regarding Brick Body Kids Still Daydream: ABOUT FUCKING TIME. Now, I can acknowledge, grudgingly, that 2012’s 4NML HSPTL sounds a little less profound in light of what Open Mike Eagle has released since then. I guess maybe he and I have both evolved a little. But come on, the song “4nml” (among others) is still amazing and true and impressive on all counts, especially compared to what was out back then. Rap itself has evolved since then, and Eagle is still at the forefront of his particular sub-movement and to me, simply as a singer/rapper, almost peerless. Plus, you don’t need to overlook any hangups to like his shit; his intuition and empathy are always on point. In fact, Eagle has always made a point of breaking down barriers, indirectly proclaiming “no matter who you are, you should like whatever you wanna like without fear of judgment”. So now he’s put out his most overtly activist collection, and people are taking notice. But I’m here to tell you that his albums are all political and they’re all concept albums; you might have to spend a little more time with ‘em to catch on to the narrative, but it’s always there. It doesn’t matter if they’re more humorous or more song-y or whatever; if you have a brain, it will be provoked into thinking if you pay attention to Mike. And I’m sorry to use his first name like that, but I feel overly connected to the guy on account of he says the stuff I think about in ways I wish I had the creativity to say ‘em, and having seen him perform for like ten people at the Borg Ward years ago, and having talked to him on a couple occasions, I feel a swell of personal joy that he’s getting recognition. He’s making art that should be heard by everyone. I agree that this is one of the best albums he’s ever made, but what I really hope is that you go back and listen to last year’s Hella Personal Film Festival and get blown away, and check out or revisit Dark Comedy, and let your mind expand with each listen, because there’s something every one of you can learn from every one of Mike’s albums. But shit, I already told you that. And here we are. Basically until capitalism falls I just hope the guy can live comfortably off rap, ‘cause he does it better than most, bitches.

3. BardSpec | Hydrogen

This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like ‘holy shit, metal guys creating beautiful ambient’ and herein lies a hypocrisy of pop culture: Metalheads don’t only like metal. It should come as no surprise that Ivar Bjørnson (Enslaved) would link up with Steve Austin (Today Is The Day) and concoct this masterpiece of dynamic, atmospheric soundscapes. As a whole, it makes me less sad about the breakup of Darkside; that duo’s lone album, 2013’s Psychic, is what Hydrogen sounds the most like to me, which is high praise. There are no words, but this album has taken me on so many grand journeys inward that over time the songs have formed landscapes and narratives in my mind. For me this is very spiritual music; the exploration of the self uncovers extremes of darkness and light, and this music can take you from the depths of unease and fear (“Bone”, “Fire Tongue”) to the heights of warmth and elation (“Gamma”). You just have to draw the story out of yourself rather than have it told to you. Such is life. 

2. Circuit Des Yeux | Reaching For Indigo

My goal here is supposed to be to convince you to listen to this music, right? I don’t know exactly how to do that with Circuit Des Yeux. Haley Fohr’s voice, I’ve learned to my surprise, is polarizing; there are humans who don’t care for it. This is inconceivable but then I remember that some people love Van Morrison’s voice and away we go. Fohr’s singing is arresting; you won’t mistake her for anyone else. There’s no way I can convince you to like it, though. Her music is also unusual; it’s got its infectious moments, and it’s made with the usual instruments you would find in a rock band, but I can’t give you a genre for it. Her lyrics can be abstract, especially if you’re the type of person who doesn’t acknowledge a spiritual side or a higher power than your own individual human brain. I can’t tell you what experiences to have in order to be able to relate to her words. It’s possible that the album itself could be a catalyst for a, shall we say, brain shift. Have you ever experienced a metamorphosis of thought or belief, but then said to yourself, ‘I liked myself better before’? I would hope not. To me this album is about welcoming any and all change, letting go of things you hold so tenaciously you should realize that they’re only valid because your ego needs them to be. You don’t need them to be; if you let them go, you’ll like yourself better. You don’t have to scoff at the old you; you can look at that person with compassion and be grateful that you had that stepping stone to get you to the new you. Anyway Haley Fohr is a genius and this album is every bit as good as #1 below; I guess you could say greatness, in the case of this list, has a tiny bit to do with the audacity of perfection on a bigger stage. A part of me wants Circuit Des Yeux to reach millions, and a part of me knows that the endeavor of reaching millions would most likely compromise her brilliance, but what do I know.

1. St. Vincent | MASSEDUCTION

A couple months ago, I read this feature on St. Vincent in which Annie Clark gave this self-assessment: “‘Everything I’ve ever done, every person I’ve ever met, every experience I’ve ever had, is because I got good enough at moving my fingers at micro-movements across a piece of wood and steel. That’s bonkers.’” The writer, Alexandra Pollard, obviously had the best of intentions when she countered by saying that there was much more to Clark’s success than playing guitar, but all I could think was ‘here’s Annie Clark giving a rare frank statement about herself, and here’s a journalist immediately countering by saying “actually um, you’re wrong about yourself, let me define you”’. What if Clark actually wasn’t trying to be self-deprecating? I don’t read many music reviews these days; are critics actually giving her her due as one of the greatest guitarists alive? Because historically, critics aren’t in the habit of acknowledging women in this realm. I always think of Ani DiFranco, one of the most talented, distinctive, influential guitar players of our time, and occasionally you’ll hear some famous player of the acoustic give her props, but to the patriarchal listmaking society I reckon she’s basically an “activist”. So what is Annie Clark? She has invented a guitar sound that’s like the best elements of Brian May, Robert Fripp and The Edge all combined into a distinctive style that, to me, defines St. Vincent as much as anything. MASSEDUCTION may be St. Vincent’s least guitar-centric album yet, but the sound is still there in almost every track; Clark just doles it our sparingly, turning every lick into a dizzying sugar rush. Admittedly, not enough to define the album. Like most of my favorite artists, Clark has made defiance of definition a major part of her identity. Is she mainstream? Must one be in order to be ‘pop’? These questions may only be pertinent because I’ve listened to MASSEDUCTION back-to-back with Lorde’s Melodrama multiple times over the past few months, and I can’t fathom what it could be about Melodrama—not a bad album by any means, but still—that anyone would find more compelling. Maybe it’s simply technological gimmickry trumping singing and writing songs. On the other hand, I’ve gleaned quite a bit of hipster disdain directed at Clark on social media, the flavor that used to be reserved for pop stars until pop stars recently became hip; I’m just not into researching What’s Making Musicians Unhip This Year. Doing my best to judge the music based on the music, I find MASSEDUCTION to be Clark’s most colorful, heated vocal performance yet; who else could pull off the rainbow of techniques and emotions across “Pills”, “Los Ageless”, “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and “Smoking Section” with such conviction and grace? (I guess that goes for the craftswomanship of the songs as well as the singing.) I think of maybe Bowie, as I often do when I listen to St. Vincent and think about what she’s accomplishing with this incredible streak of albums she’s on. And then I keep reading—beginning with the article linked above—about how divisive her recent tour has been because she didn’t bring a band—like what do you people want? Are these fans griping, or critics? Who cares if anyone else is up there playing with her? After all, she’s still got the guitar! #?*!%@!?! Deciding not to give anyone else the opportunity to muck up her vision was bold, and I’m left puzzled as to how that vision isn’t translating to a much wider audience. The tracks listed above, in a perfect world, would already be codified as standards in the American pop songbook, whatever that means, and I’d throw in the title track and “New York” as well as a handful from her back catalog, but I don’t know what it takes any more to reach that status. I don’t lament the supposed monoculture that canonized The Beatles or Abba or Madonna or whatever; these days it’s probably up to the individual what’s a classic and what’s a throwaway. MASSEDUCTION has everything I look for in a classic.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

 

Kendrick Lamar | Damn.

I had a great conversation about Kendrick the other night, stacking his last three albums up against each other (curiously, good kid, m.a.a.d. city didn’t even come up), and a pretty convincing case was made for untitled. unmastered. being the best of the three, which you think is some lame contrarian argument but if I could reproduce the conversation for you here you would realize its merit and verity. I personally won’t go that far, but I do like it better than Damn., and I think I’ve figured out why. It’s not that I don’t like Damn.; I love it! I still think Kendrick is probably the most vital artist in the music industry and can rap circles around almost anybody. It’s just that it was a major letdown after the life-changing To Pimp A Butterfly (and given that untitled. was an acknowledged afterthought, at least to a degree). I’m the type of person who finds more value in art that takes time to penetrate. I like a puzzle, whether it’s an album or a concert or a film. I like to be surprised. There are no surprises on Damn., unless you count luring out perhaps the last relevant artistic utterance that will ever escape Bono’s lips. It’s a face-value record; its meaning and impact have not changed a bit over the course of a year of listening to it. The ostensible lesson that arrives at the end is to me an undermining of everything that came out of TPAB—aw shucks, life’s all just random chance. So what the hell would be the point of praying for ya, Kendrick? This is after an album full of great songs and lots of brilliant turns of phrase, but it’s all stuff K-Dot can toss off five minutes after he wakes up. He’s got guest verses this year that are as killer as anything on Damn. I don’t begrudge him a bit of a rest or a taking-stock album, but it didn’t take much ambition to put this thing together, and as for all the “nobody prayin’ for me” nonsense, who are you, Drake? I used up all my sympathy for superstar millionaires on Take Care; sorry. The worst part is realizing that a lot of what I read into TPAB was only my own perspective; it was borne up by Kendrick’s gift with words but he must not have even realized the implications of what he was saying a lot of the time, or else his intentional meaning failed to reach me after all. Then again, channeling the spirits of dead homies is bound to conjure up some shit you won’t be able to process for a long time, right? Therein lies the puzzle. And I feel like there’s stuff I’m still piecing together on unmastered., but I can’t sense anything in Damn. beyond what I already know, no matter how many times I go back to it. It’s a super fun listen for such a depressing, spiritually desolate outlook, and I respect that and enjoy it for what it is. I just look forward to the next deep dive.

Anathema | The Optimist

You-Phoria’s official position on Anathema is that with The Optimist, the band has revealed itself to be not only the Celine Dion of alternative rock but also a shameless imitator of other bands to a level heretofore unheard: Besides the fact that most of the album is a retread of a style these guys perfected two albums ago, “Endless Ways” and “San Francisco” sound exactly like any number of post-millennial U2 songs, and “Can’t Let Go” is a nearly unforgivable ripoff of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”. Yet I forgive them. For some reason I need this sort of sappy melodrama in my life as a reminder of what it was once like to feel that matters of the heart were all that was consequential, blissfully unaware that society was crumbling around me, and Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas sing this shit so passionately that my idiot soul suspends disbelief for a while. I hope they crank out another album just like this in two years.

Twin Peaks: Music From The Limited Event Series

When I heard that David Lynch was reviving Twin Peaks, I groaned. His last major work of film, Inland Empire, was complete drudgery, and that was over ten years ago. I thought he was basically finished and that it was probably for the best. When I then read the looong list of cameos slated for this 18-episode run, I shook my head with dread. Great, Eddie Vedder is in the new Twin Peaks; clearly this is gonna be some kind of Portlandia-esque sendup of all the most farcical aspects of my all-time favorite TV show TWENTY-SEVENTEEN IS MY OWN PERSONAL NIGHTMARE. Little did I realize that most of those cameos would come in the form of live musical performances at the Roadhouse to close out each episode—and even that sounds like a terrible, unLynchian gimmick, but wow, it wasn’t. That David Lynch has good taste in music eh. He got Trent Reznor to once again channel his inner Adam Ant, he got Vedder to come up with his best song in at least a decade, he got a bunch of awesome modern artists you wouldn’t think he’d even be aware of, he got his son, who formed a band (Trouble) with Alex Zhang Hungtai (Dirty Beaches) for a kick-ass one-off single, he got Julee Cruise to come back to do one of her classic tunes, he snuck in a handful of choice vintage soul/R&B cuts as he often does, and he got Angelo Badalamenti to compose some incredible new material in addition to a few of the iconic themes from the original run of the show. Okay, I could’ve done without “Sharp Dressed Man”, yes. Otherwise I have no trouble listening to this beginning to end, over and over. Well I do skip “Green Onions” sometimes. How many times in your life do you need to hear that. But still.

Carpenter Brut | CARPENTERBRUTLIVE

Live albums aren’t generally eligible for this list, but since Carpenter Brut hasn’t released a studio album yet and since CARPENTERBRUTLIVE is such a brilliant, cohesive piece of work, I gotta mention it. It is a relentless party, a push and pull between darkness and ecstasy for sure, so driving and pulsing that it’s liable to tucker you out just sitting at your desk. As surely as any great live album you can name, it makes you want to be THERE, under the sway of whatever you choose, sweating and grinding. As the marathon wraps up with a cover of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac”, feel free to lose your mind.

Flesh World | Into The Shroud

It was a rough year on the promo front. Either PR people have figured out that I don’t really write record reviews any more (except these ones, if these count), or the good bands don’t wanna give their albums away to lowly freelancers such as myself any more. Haha! Aside from Into The Shroud, there wasn’t a single album sent to me in the emails that I am likely to listen to for years to come. (Oh wait, there are some songs on that White Reaper album that will stick with me. That was it, though.) This is classic/don’t-call-it-retro shoegaze dreampop bliss, and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Flesh World is (surely?) a Twin Peaks reference.

Andrew Broder | Cousin Mask

The man has put out so much damn music under various names and with various groups, it is hard to keep up. I can’t claim to have heard everything, but I would bet most, and this little EP really stands out as one of the weirdest but catchiest offerings from his purely electronic/DJ output. I don’t expect he’ll ever top his preposterously underrated 2007 album with Fog, Ditherer, in my book, but following up Fog’s excellent For Good album from last year, Cousin Mask is another unique highlight of Broder’s formidable discography. (Yes, this is sort of just to lure you into paying more attention to Broder in general. Also go see him live. He has that thing where his presence elevates everything.)

Dead Rider | Crew Licks

Give me a half hour and a turntable and I swear I could turn just about anyone into a Dead Rider fan. Unless you don't care for electric guitar. Seriously, prove me wrong, go listen to this album and tell me it's no good. Oh wait, you can't, because it's on Drag City so it's not available for streaming and vinyl doesn't include a digital download. Oh well. 

Ex Eye | Ex Eye

How this year has gone: When this record came out I was sure it would be a top-tenner. It’s everything I was hoping it would be, having experienced one of the group’s first performances at Eaux Claires in 2016: Colin Stetson, definitively making the bari sax a metal instrument, accompanied by Shahzad Ismaily, one of Earth’s greatest bassists (except in this instance, keyboardist), drummer Greg Fox (who is awesome despite the fact that I despise Liturgy), and guitarist Toby Summerfield (I have no idea who he is), crafting quasi-Zornish movements of pummeling black/doom/post-metal noise. I put a premium on originality, which should’ve put this album in the top ten. Yet here it is. Go figure. #math

Forest Swords | Compassion

I don’t like this one quite as much as 2013’s Engravings, but that’s not saying much since it was my pick for album of the year. In keeping with the album title, Compassion is a bit warmer and more accessible (especially “Arms Out”—so gorgeous!), though it is still rather introverted and desolate, to the degree that you might be tempted to think that the title is ironic, but I don’t. The track “Panic”, with its refrain of “I feel something’s wrong”, gets to the heart of the message, which for me is that the suffering of anyone is the suffering of everyone, and we’d do best as a society to recognize this. This mostly wordless music evokes compassion in a Radiohead sort of way; the illusion of isolation has become our sad reality, and so many of the voices we hear are undecipherable to the empathetic person, yet that doesn’t stifle the need to create and connect. Getting to know this record is work, and there’s no big payoff except whatever therapeutic benefits you may reap. Beats and instruments cry out in stabs through the cavernous nothingness; the silence behind the music is just as strong a presence as the sound, yet there are infectious hooks and rhythms. We must cling to these; they are the commonalities that bind us all, and their scarcity makes them all the more precious.

Grails | Chalice Hymnal

Another one from early in the year that I’m shocked not to have placed in THE NUMBERS. I have to admit it’s almost new-agey; is there a genre of dark new-age music? Or does Grails’ post-rock past lend that sort of status to this music? I guess it’s still post-rock, what the hell. It has its share of grooves but it’s much more based on atmosphere, and it’s still pretty edgy at times, hinting at the metallic tinges of past records but not blazing to life with loud guitars and such. Despite its lowly placement as one of the best thirty or so albums out of the eight billion I heard this year, it’s one album I’d recommend to virtually anyone. You might not fall head-over-heels, but even if it’s only relegated to background music, I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.

 

TOP FIVE KING GIZZARD & THE LIZARD WIZARD ALBUMS OF 2017

Okay, ya got me: They only released five albums this year. I’d probably rank the best one in the lower teens on ye olde numerical liste, but I thought this would be more fun. Hats off to 2017's band of the year; I don't normally give out that distinction but after trying my best to dislike at least one of these albums, I just couldn't manage it. No other band has ever spun novelty into art so prolifically and so consistently.

5. Sketches Of Brunswick East

This has to be KG&TLW’s most laid-back work ever. A collaborative album with Mild High Club, it floats somewhere between smooth jazz and soft rock, possessed of a warm, beachy mood that almost reminds me of Jimmy Buffett, if such a connotation can be construed as good. I suppose one could argue that, in keeping with the title’s inspiration, there’s a touch of Mediterranean flavor in these breezy tunes; that region’s music is not in my realm of expertise, though, so whatever. This record is kinda just cocktail party background music but very enjoyable at that.

4. Flying Microtonal Banana

This first 2017 issue is the most generic one, but generic King Gizzard is still pretty great. It picks up where last year’s excellent Nonagon Infinity left off, carrying on with the next-level gimmickry via quarter-tone tuning of all the instruments. This doesn’t have quite the sensory impact of previous gimmicks; basically, the space between notes is generally smaller than the brain expects, making for a vaguely exotic feel while also deadening the overall dynamic range of the music a bit. It’s a cool intellectual premise nonetheless and doesn’t significantly detract from an otherwise solid, propulsive psych-rock album. “Rattlesnake” and “Anoxia” and “Nuclear Fusion” are keepers for sure. 

3. Gumboot Soup

You could call the final album of the year a cop-out for lacking an overriding concept or gimmick, or maybe releasing just a collection of songs was the most audacious thing Gizzard could’ve done. It’s got some of the best songs they recorded all year, heavy grooves like “Greenhouse Heat Death”, sprightly nuggets like “Barefoot Desert” and “Muddy Water”, deep head trips like “Superposition” and “The Great Chain Of Being”, the driving, infectious “All Is Known”, and the sweet little cool-off “I’m Sleepin’ In”. I think you’ve earned it, King G.

2. Polygondwanaland

This fourth release of the year was a semi-return to the mathy, kraut-y “core” Gizzard sound, but it’s also the folkiest of the bunch, with way more acoustic guitar than we’ve been accustomed to from the band, and some exotic flourishes particularly in the opening epic “Crumbling Castle” that hint at both tropicalia and Eastern European sounds. There’s quite a bit of throwback prog on here, too, including some prominent mellotron and even some woodwinds. Honestly, this is probably the most well-rounded and satisfying full album of the five, all music and lyrics considered. But...

1. Murder Of The Universe

Album number two for the year was my first time being genuinely blown away by this band. It’s basically three mini-suites, each rife with the gnarliest riffs the Lizard Wizard has yet spewed forth. I’ll admit that the middle “Balrog” section leaves a little to be desired, thematically; I’m an unabashed Tolkien nerd but unless I’m totally missing the point, I feel like they could’ve made the whole album more conceptually satisfying with some other idea here. Fortunately it still rocks, hard, and the satisfaction arrives in full force with the titular final section, which is the ultimate dystopian gross-out as told by a robot whose only earthly wishes are to die and to vomit. It’s the rare disturbing narrative that retains much of its punch even after multiple listens; it still gives me a sickening feeling when I listen to the whole dizzying monologue spiral outward beyond all tangible human reckoning into the demise of everything. I think a lot of people probably dismiss it as a silly novelty, but come on people, has digital life truly zapped your imagination into nothing? Close your eyes and attempt to give yourself over to this horrific vision. It is a powerful journey if you let it be.

 

‘90s INDIE GODDESSES STILL RULE

They kind of have been ruling this whole time. A slight misstep here and there, but not eagerly anticipating everything they put out is inconceivable. I got familiar with each of these ladies’ music at different points in my life, but they’ve all been making worthwhile music pretty much ceaselessly since at least the ‘90s. Ani DiFranco has been on the upswing since 2012’s feisty ¿Which Side Are You On? album, and although her latest, Binary, tends to be a bit blunt in the lyrical department relative to the rest of her catalog, there’s really only one song on it that I don’t like—”Sasquatch”—and it happens to be the first song she’s ever written that’s so catchy it kinda got stuck in my head the first time I heard it. That’s not what annoys me about it; I just don’t dig the lyrics or the way she sings it, like she’s too sly for her target to notice she’s aiming at him. Otherwise, it’s a solid effort but not one of my favorites of her extensive catalog, a slight return to jazzy/funky stuff, less folky than her last couple of records unless you would argue that the politics define it as folk, and what can I say, I don’t disagree with Ani’s politics. Nor Tori Amos’s, as a rule. But whereas Binary’s rhetoric is fairly general, bread-and-butter Ani, Tori’s new album, Native Invader, comes off much more like a product of now. While some may pine for more stark piano melodrama, this album sounds like it could’ve come out at any time in the past 20 years; only its political topics give it away as specifically 2017ish. Tori doles out some remarkable hooks as well, and the least resistible of ‘em, “Up The Creek”, does not bug me. It’s essentially Americana, which gives rise to the question of whether Tori has been erroneously left out of the Americana conversation all this time by virtue of her idiosyncratic virtuosity looming over the male-dominated so-called genre. All I know is that Native Invader is my favorite Amos album since probably Scarlet’s Walk and belongs somewhere up above with a NUMERICAL VALUE but that would wreck this neat lil’ paragraph and hopefully you can forgive the strategy. Then there’s Björk. Like her buddy Thom Yorke, she has evidently “decided” to quit writing the sort of memorable hooks that characterized her ‘90s work, but unlike Yorke, she’s been keeping things weird and interesting. Utopia, her fifth consecutive album title to end with an a, describes a lush and emotionally dynamic space, certainly not all smiles and rainbows and fig leaves. Musically, there are a lot of invasive, digitally bestial sounds that augment the eclectic beats, as well as primal human chanting that sometimes recalls her 2004 album Medúlla. While it’s not as striking as her excellent 2007 effort Volta, Utopia tops the two albums in between in terms of interesting lyrics as well as music, even if she doesn’t make it easy to sing along. I hope that down the road it won’t primarily stand out as ‘that one where she rolls her r’s a lot for some reason’... Then again, one might construe such pronounced inflections and instances of deliberately broken English as a stance of solidarity with immigrants and refugees—any hypothetical utopia, after all, would be multicultural (if you disagree then fuck you), and although this is Björk’s most emotive collection of songs in quite a while, there are themes of cultural conflict that pop up throughout, sometimes through a smokescreen of personal confession. It becomes more of a political album the more you listen to it, actually, and I have to marvel at Björk, now having been making music for well over three decades, continuing to evolve and provoke and stand up for all stripes of righteousness without ever resorting to cliché. There’ll never be another artist like her.

Meanwhile, Liz Phair, my one true ‘90s rock crush, is writing a memoir. No word on that double album of hers that Ryan Adams is supposed to be producing, but, ah, I admit I never had high hopes; she, ahem, has not been cranking out great music since the ‘90s. Her first three albums 4evar though.

 

TOP TEN MKE ALBUMS THAT MISSED THE MILWAUKEE RECORD CUT

Flashback to last year around this time: Well, the world is going to shit and 2017 is going to suck balls, but on the bright side, a whole bunch of my favorite local musicians are about due to release an album, right? Siren, Zed Kenzo, Dogs In Ecstasy, Lex Allen, Taj Raiden, Gauss, Klassik, Scrimshaw, YEAH NOT ONE OF ‘EM PUT OUT AN ALBUM IN 2017. (note: those aren’t by any means all of my favorite local artists but I’m trying to do a thing here) Anyway, my point is that it was a terrific year in local music despite all those slackers I mentioned. Over at Milwaukee Record, we covered a good deal of it here (with some additional EPs here), but here are ten more I insist you check out.

Architects Of The Aftermath | Keep Them Dead

Admittedly, no simple tools have been reinvented by Architects Of The Aftermath. This is old-school deathy thrash metal with ‘80s hardcore overtones that might make you wish we’d never made it out of the ‘80s. There’s not much more to say about Keep Them Dead except it kicks all kinds of ass. I love Dave Koehnlein’s surgical but straightforward drumming and I love Justin Tilley’s Billy Milano-esque vocals and guttural bass tone and I love banging my head to these riffs, especially at work, because my coworkers don’t already think I’m insane or anything.

brando? | Braveries

It’s standard Ruby Yacht procedure to create under multiple personalities, but Randal Bravery takes it to the next level. He keeps releasing these awesome understated instrumental hip-hop EPs under different pseudonyms, but they’re all on the same Bandcamp page so it’s not like he makes it hard to keep straight, and I hope eventually folks start to take notice. This is my favorite of the five he released this year (I go back and forth between this and Tengu Sessions, released as bravewun), a chill, focused journey that you could arguably put into trip-hop or ambient or whatever genre you want—just don’t call it “background music” ‘cause that means the problem is you, not being able to clear away your own distractions and concentrate on the tunes.

Dead Is Dead | Constraints Of Time

I can confidently say Constraints Of Time is the first release I’ve purchased on beer-colored vinyl, a defiantly traditional post-metal record in the Isis vein, and although it doesn’t break any ground, Milwaukee has been lacking on this front, now that bands like Altos, Canyons Of Static, Wereworm, etc., aren’t making music any more. It’s a very well-crafted and confident debut, booming and ponderous and full of grade-A riffage. Vocalist Eric Madl doesn’t sound like every other post-metal vocalist, which gives Dead Is Dead a head start over most bands of this ilk. Sometimes I wish this ilk would go away, but this album manages to feel fresh even though the style's been done to death. I can't explain it. 

D O L O R | A R A

I have a feeling that over time, D O L O R’s more recent album, 5 9. 0, will surpass this one, but I’ve spent more time with A R A, and it’s top-notch spooky electronica that gets under your skin without much effort. Saying that it’s at times reminiscent of Burial points more to the widespread influence of Burial than anything; D O L O R’s sound is more glitchy and not quite so cold, and the beats are overtly kinetic without sacrificing the feelings of isolation and crossed wires. It’s head-trip dance music for a bewildering time in our history.

Fibonacci Sequence | Cinema Finis

Prog doesn’t exist for most music critics. If Rolling Stone has one enduring legacy, it’s the editorial policy of projecting intention onto perceived lame artists. RS proclaimed progressive rock to be “pretentious” way back when it first appeared, sparking critics’ presumptuous pursuit of “authenticity” that persists to this day. Screw all that, I say. Back in 2010 I discovered and loved Fibonacci Sequence’s debut album, Numerology; since then, I’d begun to lose hope that they’d ever release a follow-up, but it finally arrived, and it’s even better than their first album. It’s a big grand proggy statement carried by its subtler moments, more organic than orchestrated. This should tide me over for another seven years or so. 

Heavy Hand | Prerapture Era

This band has never quite captured on record what makes it such a riveting live act, which is not to downplay the awesomeness of their songs, much less their song titles. Prerapture Era has some of my favorites on both counts—”You Can’t Get Pregnant In A Tent”, “Big Hot Sex Cop”, the deceptively catchy “Disappointed Punk Face”, and the self-aware grunge tribute closer, “Super Fucked Big Muff”. Plus, a song like “I’ve Got A Pit Bull And No Toilet Paper” isn’t necessarily quite going to translate well live, reason enough to continue to support Heavy Hand’s recording career.

Max Devereaux & Suko Pyramid | Different Love

Max Devereaux can be easy to dismiss due to his prolificacy, but he’s only released two albums so far this year, this collaboration with comparably prolific Madridian Suko Pyramid being the more engaging one. One wonders if Devereaux might be able to write somewhat more artful lyrics if he tried, or if that’s antithetical to the vulgar/romantic hybrid he generally goes for; his songs aren’t so much stream-of-consciousness as just-saying-stuff. But even if it’s hard to take him seriously, his albums are always impressive for their instrumental range (especially given what must be a gruelling recording schedule) and entertaining from start to finish. Different Love is what you might call kitchen-sink chamber pop; it’s lush, at times sarcastically quaint, yet eclectic and exuberantly restless. It stacks up pretty damn well with Wasteland and Commitment, two other Devereaux albums you should explore if you find yourself drawn to this one.

Ravi/Lola | Shape Up Shoulders

Has there ever been another band like Ravi/Lola in Milwaukee? Surely not since, like, the ‘70s? Does the tag “neo-toytown” mean anything to you? Let’s just say it probably involves a harpsichord and/or glockenspiel and sounds British, but since I’m trying to convince you to listen to it, I’ll throw in the term “psychedelic” to entice you. It’s trippy, baby. It couldn’t get any more retro. It’s a marvel of modern technology that something can be made to sound so exquisitely at-least-fifty-years-old without presumably costing an arm and a leg. I doubt many of you have listened to music like this before; even during its original time period it was pretty unhip, so if you’re concerned with hipness, probably don’t bother. Otherwise, you might be awestruck. You’ll probably know pretty quickly one way or the other.

Shoot Down The Moon | Forever Sedated

Yep, I cohost a radio show devoted entirely to local music, and STILL stuff slips through the cracks, like the latest from Shoot Down The Moon, a band who’s been on my show, whose past work I’ve enjoyed, and Forever Sedated came out in freaking January and I’m just now getting into it. I was probably in decompress mode, recovering from list season, listening to nothing but Dylan and dead people, but really there’s no excuse. The sweet spot between folk-rock and grunge rarely gets nailed like this, and I want you to all go listen to this because it doesn’t matter what year it is.

Shroud Of Despondency | Wild Dog

Two years ago, Shroud Of Despondency put out an album called The Beast’s Desire To Sacrifice after having supposedly called it quits, and I foolishly abandoned the band because this album was not my thing and I guess I figured the project had run its course (and especially since anything that staves off stagnation is an inherently good move, I urge you all to check out that album and decide for yourself because it could be well be your thing). Well, thankfully, it had not; I recently discovered I had a bunch of releases to catch up on, and judging by this two-song blast, SoD is still the premier black metal act in Milwaukee. I hereby un-abandon them. There are some seriously piercing lead guitars on here that set this EP apart from the pack. Don’t skip their split with Hollowhecatomb from earlier this year, either.

 

CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATORY LAST.FM STATISTICAL MOST-LISTENED-TO-DIGITALLY ALBUMS OF 2017

1. Bob Dylan | Blonde on Blonde

2. WebsterX | Daymares

3. Bob Dylan | The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

4. Bob Dylan | Bringing It All Back Home

5. Kendrick Lamar | DAMN.

6. Grails | Chalice Hymnal

7. Thundercat | Drunk

8. St. Vincent | MASSEDUCTION

9. Open Mike Eagle | Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

10. milo | who told you to think??!!?!?!?!

11. Bob Dylan | Blood on the Tracks

12. Chelsea Wolfe | Hiss Spun

13. Sylvan Esso | What Now

14. Bob Dylan | The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3

15. Kate Tempest | Let Them Eat Chaos

16. Forest Swords | Compassion

17. Bob Dylan | Love and Theft

18. Bob Dylan | Highway 61 Revisited

19. Soror Dolorosa | Apollo

20. Circuit des Yeux | Reaching For Indigo

21. Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly

22. The Heliocentrics | A World of Masks

23. Anathema | The Optimist

24. Tori Amos | Native Invader

25. Turtle | Human

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Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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