2017: Music in Review

We did it. Barring some kind of last-minute catastrophe before the clock strikes midnight, we scraped through 2017 and will live to see another year. As is standard, I often like to proselytize about the real world and tie it into my thoughts on music, but this year hardly needs any more hot air blown into its desiccated corpse. The Interglut has subsumed us all, and it all goes at hyper-speed.

As a fan of new music, it is especially hard to keep up with the music cycle. With so many albums released on so many different platforms throughout the year, it is unrealistic to expect a single album to hold your attention beyond a single day, let alone dominate the discourse for weeks or months at a time like "the days of old". It is also a mixed blessing that so many of the albums were so good - I have harped about the death of the album, but it is clear that it remains the format of choice for musicians looking to make a statement, and is the primary form of communication to their fans.

Careful listening, savoring music, is next to impossible if you hope to stay current. Megablockbusters like Thriller, which turned 35 this year, or Rumors, which turned 40, are impossible in the wide sense. Albums are not built for the long run; they're built to sell like skyscrapers, a massive amount very quickly, before the next hyped album comes along. You have strike quick while the hype is hot, or you will be lost in the din. Taylor Swift can dominate for two weeks at the end of November, sell a quick two or three million, and be largely forgotten by New Year’s. 25 sold 8 million copies in 6 weeks at the end of 2015, but do we still talk about it? Whereas Shania's long-term smash Come On Over was spawning new singles almost three years after its release.

Therefore, it serves music better to listen to less. Yes, chasing all the latest albums will be a great pastime, but as real life intrudes and I find less time for the chase, it becomes more rewarding and nostalgic to spend more time with less albums. Yes, my initial draft list of the top albums numbered 137 and it was a real temptation to just do a list of 100, but as I started to write, it became apparent that I had only truly given the consideration and time of day to a smaller handful of them. I listened to so many, but really absorbed only a few. Perhaps it was the trauma of 2016, the savage cull of so many of my favorite artists from the mortal realm, many of whom still had so much to give, that underlines the need to get back to basics.

It’s probably just a coincidence that this strategy should start being implemented on the 20th anniversary of the best year of new music in my lifetime. All the great albums are released or discovered when you’re 13, and for me to have been 13 in 1997 meant mainlining Life After Death, OK Computer, Dig Your Own Hole, Homogenic, Urban Hymns, Fat of the Land, Ladies and Gentlemen…, No Way Out, Wu-Tang Forever, Pop, and Supa Dupa Fly in real-time. A surprising number of those artists are still active (some even released new music this year). That is a formidable list of albums to be exposed to at such a critical age and in a way it was the first time that I was appreciative of the Year as a singular chunk of time whose releases can be neatly filed away as a product of that time. Of course, every new release since then has had to contend with that momentous year. 2017 did pretty well for itself.

In sadder personal news, this might be the last year I will be doing my year-end review, or at least quite likely to be the last year on Angelfire, as I have nearly maxed out my allotted disk space. I don't foresee myself spending any money on getting more space - thanks for the memories Angelfire! Read on.

Albums of the Year

50. Drake, More Life

Drake has always had a curatorial ear when selecting his beats and collaborators, and with the disastrous Views in the rear-view, he applies his commercial heft to a "playlist" - because in this age, who really listens to albums anymore, and why not release 22 tracks for streaming supremacy? Commercial expectations dampened (but still exceeded), this collection is a perfect summer jam, packed with artists like Young Thug, Kanye, Quavo, Skepta and Sampha (some of them on their own solo tracks), while Drake himself floats on top like a relaxed, genial host, guiding the party along from one high to the next.

49. Lana Del Ray, Lust For Life

A widescreen epic of dusty Americana and self-loathing Hollywood romance, filtered through 21st-century orchestral trap and laissez-faire vocals as only Lana could do it. Her inauspicious beginnings are behind her and every subsequent album has been an improvement on the last: the sky is the limit.


48. Pallbearer, Heartless

There were cries of "sellout" when Arkansas metal band Pallbearer introduced more accessible elements to their Sabbathy soup of doom metal: cleaner melodies and brighter tones, a more progressive songwriting approach and balanced dynamics. Let them cry; this is a fantastic metal effort that will take its place in the conversation with fellow "third album breakthrough masterpieces" Master of Puppets, Reign In Blood, Among the Living, The Number of the Beast, and Blood Mountain. Believe it.

I Saw the End

47. Equiknoxx, Colón Man

A surreal slab of digital dancehall, this Jamaican-based group has production credits going back to the last decade, but this marks their official debut - an instrumental collection of loosely syncopated, freeze-dried beats and atmospheric bleeps and boops. It is startlingly dynamic, and the spaces between found sounds allows for a totally immersive experience you can attempt to figure out alone or destroy a party with.

Waterfalls in Ocho Rios

46. Motorpsycho, The Tower

Perhaps the most generous band in recent times, Motorpsycho blesses us with their sixth double album (out of their aggregate 18, plus countless singles and collaborations), and no surprise, it rocks as hard and epically as anything they've done. They gleefully tackle any genre that they please, and the result is another engrossing workout full of ass-kicking melodic prog-rock.

The Cuckoo

45. Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer

Fulfilling the promise of his early EPs and impressive freestyles, Stormzy acted his name and barreled into the mainstream with this fully formed grime gem, capitalizing on the successes of his predecessors (Skepta's Mercury Prize win last year) and making his own legend at the same time. In a genre that has surprisingly few strong full-lengths, Stormzy starts out with an excellent one of his own.

Big For Your Boots

44. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains

Mark Ronson's production style suits the long-running band's credo particularly well. It is a curious trade-off for Josh Homme's own production on Arctic Monkeys' AM: an unlikely collaborator bringing some fresh blood and resulting in a dancefloor-friendly rock blast. Queens have been steadily working for nearly two decades, and this is their most enjoyable and consistent record since 2002's Songs For the Deaf, all swaggering riffs and ice-cold vocals, a slight tweak of their usual "robot-rock" sound for an undeniably cool edge.

The Way You Used to Do

43. DJ Sports, Modern Species

An unassuming earworm of an album, eight tracks of immaculately produced dance music that run the gamut from chilled-out ambient to 'ardcore drum n' bass, a grab-bag of genres done expertly and invitingly. A collection that was easy to keep on loop throughout the day.

World A

42. Kerry Chandler, DJ-Kicks

Taking a stroll through his native New York and New Jersey - on the interludes literally a stroll, gathering field recordings of street-level interactions - Chandler crafts a loving and balanced homage to the endlessly mutating area that has birthed so many of the finest dance tracks of the past four decades. Some of the recordings are familiar ("Sweet Power of Your Embrace" is ubiquitous at this point), some are obscure gems, most are from the 70's and 80's golden era, and all are played with "love, respect and admiration" in an unfussy selector style. Not the flashiest mix, but certainly a fabulous one.

41. Jessie Ware, Glasshouse

Quietly staking her claim as one of the most underrated and consistent singers currently working, Ware again brings in a stable of producers and writers in search of the breakout hit that has thus eluded her and her incredible voice. She doesn't find it, but her third album is more consistent than 2014's Tough Love, and occasionally comes close to the heights of her debut - she is at her best on tracks like "Thinking About You" (to her toddler child) and "Sam" (the tale of her marriage to her long-time boyfriend), where the topics are specific to her but general enough to be relatable to the wider audience.


40. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

You either love him or hate him - there is no middle with Josh Tillman, just as he doesn't have a middle ground in his music and lyrics. Another self-reflexive collection of Nilsson-esque lush instrumentation and jagged stories of irony and disconnect in our modern era, ballooned to maximum capacity for maximum effect: "Leaving LA" is the rare 13-minute song that feels too short and keeps your rapt for the entire time, just as the album overall does. The crazier the world gets, the more we need iconoclasts like Father John.

Leaving LA

39. Algiers, The Underside of Power

Another year, another criminally underrated Algiers album. The fieriest take on the new era this year, they double down on their debut's potent mix of post-punk, industrial, blues and gospel hollering, and dial up the tension to 11.

Walk Like a Panther

38. The National, Sleep Well Beast

The National were at great risk to be relegated to wallflower status, the rock band who could do no wrong but raise no pulses, coasting along with their own sound that is guaranteed to be acclaimed but doesn’t move bodies. They change that in a hurry with Sleep Well Beast, their most upbeat album in over a decade, a collection of propulsive tracks and typically National-esque lyrical flourishes from Matt Berninger (including an actual song about a turtleneck), and one of the surprisingly few albums that attempted to tackle the new political landscape in America. Yet another masterpiece in a career littered with them.

Day I Die

37. Shabazz Palaces, Quazarz

Released in tandem at the height of summer, Shabazz Palaces continue their streak of leftfield Afrofuturism, crafting a two-part concept album with Ishmael Butler playing the part of the protagonist Quazarz, a "sent sentient from some elsewhere" who explores "Amurderca" on the "Gangster Star" — dystopian parallel versions of the country and the planet. As hifalutin concepts go, this one is a doozy and is shakily executed, but once you're inside the free-jazz hip-hop universe they build, it hardly matters.

Shine a Light

36. Goldfrapp, Silver Eye

The most Goldfrappy of Goldfrapp’s great albums, a distillation of all their strengths into a triumphant collection that plays like a greatest hits. The towering choruses, the smoky ambiance, the pastoral chill, the inimitable song titles: it is all here for you. Except the iconic font.


35. Mount Kimbie, Love What Survives

Roaring back to life after an underwhelming 2013 sophomore album, the Mount Kimbie project is miles away from the cold post-dubstep of their origins. Heavily inspired by Krautrock - their noble attempt to have the same beat through the entire album did not quite work out - and enlisting previous collaborators James Blake, King Krule and Micachu for a shimmering tapestry of percussive treats, their third album is a gloomy treat.

You Look Certain (I'm Not So Sure)

34. Bicep, Bicep

Progressive tech-house has fallen out of favor since the heyday of Tiesto, but Irish duo Bicep sure remembers the joy of Big Moments on the dancefloor - they spend their debut album crafting these big moments without the genre trappings, a tidal wave of euphoria on bedrocks of jungle breaks, electro hip-hop beats and disco rhythms. It functions best as a collection of killer tracks rather than an expansive statement, but what a collection!


33. The xx, I See You

Having painted themselves into a bit of a corner on their same-same sophomore album, the highly influential London band grabbed hold of producer Jamie xx's technicolor coattails and rode them into a whole new dimension of pop success. Their third album finds the sweet spot between Jamie's In Colour dance heat and their usual hushed atmosphere, and is stacked with songs equally as great as "Loud Places". Crisis averted.

On Hold

32. Ufomammut, 8

A perfect tonic for a toxic year, this doom metal band certainly keeps bringing the doom, along with a good heap of psychedelic hope. There is no discernible concept like previous single-song-suite efforts Eve and Oro, but this collection is as dynamic and furious as any of their previous work. They've had an exceptional decade since 2010's Eve and there's no reason to think they can't continue their hot streak.


31. Slowdive, Slowdive

The year has been full of comebacks, but few were as welcome and pleasant as the return of Slowdive after over two decades of dormancy. It makes sense for the return, as their sound has been imitated to no end in recent years; what is surprising is just how naturally the album flows, as if they had recorded this immediately after Pygmalion and just forgot to release it for 22 years. Let the originators return and show the acolytes how to do it right – an endlessly repeatable collection of texture, dreamy vocals and soft beats.

Sugar for the Pill

30. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World

A 64-minute journey through knotty progressive rhythms, clean melodies and eternal guitar fuzz, Elder's fourth album saw the Boston band blossom into a major power player in the metal scene, touring extensively and winning fans all over. These six extensive songs went to all the right places and kept the fire burning for the ghost of Sabbath, a riff-o-rama tribute to the best genre.


29. Spoon, Hot Thoughts

Nine albums in, and it is obvious that Spoon has their formula down to a science. Another sterling collection of tightly-wound pop-rock, with plenty of curveballs (the slowly percolating time bomb of "Pink Up", the return to Matador!). Having seen their live show in support of this album, I was amazed at how well all the new songs fit into their setlist of SO MANY incredible songs. Take them for granted at your own peril.

Can I Sit Next To You

28. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

After sitting the past six years out while completing educational obligations, Robin Pecknold gets the band back together and lets his freak flag fly, an inscrutable listen that takes a dozen spins to get to the bottom of, as much prog as it is folk. It is a long ways away from their beloved 2008 debut's shiny melodies and straightforward arrangements: these multi-part epics wander into the eight-minute territory and rarely sit still long enough to catch. A rewarding listen.

Fool's Errand

27. Converge, The Dusk In Us

Since Converge don't need to add anything new to their story, it is important to listen up when they do decide to. After a lengthy five-year break where they pursued their various individual interests, the band reform and issue yet another explosive missive, rocking harder than kids half their age. The rhythm section is still a supercharged beast, Kurt Ballou's guitar sears, and Jacob Bannon relies on a clear voice a bit more often, so the passages of screaming land with maximum power.

A Single Tear

26. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman

Cruelly taken too early in the prime of her long-delayed career, Sharon Jones is a music story worth celebrating, and her backing band the Dap-Kings do just that with this carefully crafted farewell to their fiery singer. Recorded in the throes of her suffering, Jones does not sound any weaker on these R&B stompers, imbuing the songs with a lifetime’s worth of experience and warmth. The joy of performance is palpable throughout the record, and by the time it closes out with the somber "Call On God", you are left with a lump in your throat, thankful for the wonderful soul music left behind.

Matter of Time

25. Brian Eno, Reflection

There is simply no reason for Brian Eno to continue releasing music other than his personal desire. He has nothing left to prove, but that doesn’t mean he can’t craft an ideal lullaby if he wants to – it is easily the album I’ve listened to the most this year, usually subconsciously. "Reflection" is a single 54-minute track of gentle piano tones and squalls, an album released on the first day of the year and listened to nearly every single night since, a healing gauze to drift off to.

Reflection Excerpt

24. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION

Willing herself into superstardom through sheer charisma, Annie Clark unleashes her most strategic effort at pop hegemony to date, a blindingly bright collection of pop hooks, subversive poetry and razor-sharp guitars.

Los Ageless

23. Call Super, Arpo /
fabric 92

JR Seaton crafts an exceptional follow-up to his critically lauded debut album, introducing a host of woodwind instruments to give Arpo a decidedly organic feel: the enticing sketches of the album's first half expand into blissful trance-out tracks and finish the album strong. For good measure, he also crafted an outstanding mix for London's Fabric label, an idiosyncratic collection of utterly disparate genres mixed flawlessly into a dizzying "late-hours" whole. An excellent year all around.

I Look Like I Look In a Tinfoil Mirror

22. Actress, AZD

Described by Darren Cunningham himself as a "sound vitamin that's cleared my palette of Ghettoville" (Actress' notoriously impenetrable "final" album from 2014), this unexpected effort bristles with a vitality and lightness that is completely new to Actress, twitchy synth lines atop his standard lo-fi thumps. As comebacks go, this wasn't an expected or particularly long-awaited one, but it does open up new avenues for a singular talent to explore, and I'm excited to see what comes next.


21. Gas, Narkopop

When you have perfected a particular strain of ambient music and have been dormant for years(discounting the occasional re-release), you could rest easy on your laurels and explore other avenues. Which is what Wolfgang Voight had been doing since the ancient days of 2000. Then out of nowhere, a new Gas album materialized, and like the best of its kind, vaporized in your life. A darker work closer to earlier albums like Zauberberg, there are hints of man-made structures within the forest landscape, industrial ruins that throw an unsettling asymmetry in the haze. Something you didn’t realize you wanted until you had it.


20. Kelly Lee Owens, Kelly Lee Owens

Although it is labeled an electronic album (and she was first brought to our attention by her three appearances on Daniel Avery's excellent 2013 techno album Drone Logic), Welsh artist Kelly Lee Owens’ debut would sit more comfortably alongside rock luminaries like Saint Etienne or Cocteau Twins, a mélange of cooing vocal samples and random snatches of lyrics atop impeccable pop melodies. If it comes across as too pretty, don’t worry about it: sometimes life needs a bit of musical joy to enjoy.

Throwing Lines

19. Laurel Halo, Dust

After the woozy pitch-shifting vocals of Quarantine and the punishingly monochromatic thuds of Chance of Rain, Hyperdub's reigning champ goes the populist route with this leftfield pop triumph, full of bright melodies and warmly humming synths that provided some semblance of normalcy in a wild year. Of course this being Halo, there are plenty of ambiguities and off-kilter elements to keep this from hitting the charts, but this is top-notch stuff. She said get up, she said time for love.


18. Bjork, Utopia

The thing that made Vulnicura such a difficult listen was realizing that Bjork, the most impish and out-there of our international treasures, could bleed and suffer as much as the rest of us mere mortals, and use her inimitable talents to really make us feel every hurt. Therefore it was such a relief to hear her joke about this being her "Tinder record", in a very Bjorkian way: the promised land of deliverance and newly recovered joy. It doesn’t quite reach that destination (she still has considerable baggage to unpack), but it does showcase the journey. The flipside of the previous album’s pains, the spaces here are gentle rather than oppressive, a forest of Venezuelan birdsong and armies of flutes, assisted by her new muse Alejandro Ghersi. At 71 minutes, there’s no doubt that a more assiduous editor could have made this one of her all-time best albums, but all Bjork is a treasure.


17. Arca, Arca

Arca's status as a subversive avant-garde artist is firmly secured; we are all aware of his immense skills crafting inspiration for Kanye, fka Twigs, and Bjork, not to mention his own two solo albums of slippery experimentation. It came as a huge surprise when, for his new album, he decided to bare his soul and put his voice above all, in the language that is "[t]he ultimate theater of emotion", his native Spanish. At times hushed, always achingly vulnerable, floating atop some of his most vivid compositions to date, his self-titled album is a true work of art, and makes you wonder what other tricks he has up his sleeve. With his work on Kelela and Bjork's albums, topped by this effort, Arca takes the crown as artist of the year.


16. Lee Gamble, Mnestic Pressure

Another Hyperdub classic, and a "terrestrial" manifestation of his previously astral sounds - Gamble's follow-up to 2014's stunner KOCH was written as a response to our turbulent times, with his belief that our contemporary memory is pressured individually and also collectively. Whatever that means, this album is a wallop to the head, with body-shaking beats and whiplash movement underlying some of his best melodies and synth tones. An artist-and-label match made in heaven.

Mnestic Pressure Short Film

15. Thundercat, Drunk

A charmingly scatterbrained collection from madcap genius bassist Stephen Bruner, a head-first dive into the manic recesses of his mind, led along by his rapid-fire six strings of fury and spirit guides like Kendrick, Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. Although it looks like an indigestible 23-track explosion, it is hardly an hour long - it lurches about, drunk on its own genius.

Show You The Way

14. SW., The Album

After a limited late-2016 run on its Berlin-based SUED label, SW.’s album Album was re-released on R&S’s Apollo sublabel, to the joy of techno heads around the world (or so I’m assuming). The ultra-bland and anonymous packaging, untitled songs, and could-be-anything artist name – it all belies one of the richest and exciting techno records of the year, an all-peak journey of unfussy, gimmick-free dance tracks that you can listen to without preconceptions.

Untitled C1

13. LCD Soundsystem, american dream

We are too tired and numb to fight. There were so many things that could (should?) have gone wrong with LCD Soundsystem’s much ballyhooed retirement and subsequent comeback that it’s inevitable it all went so right: then again, we are quick to forgive artists we love, and James Murphy’s continued soapbox to address being an aging hipster speaks to so many of us. Why get mad? The terrible album cover offers a commentary on the emptiness of said title dream. The music settles down into wistful nostalgia at a time when our aging bodies find it harder to get up and move; we would prefer to sashay along to "Tonite" rather than freak out to "Give It Up". Nothing will stop us getting older, and as righteously mad as we could be at their about-face, it is a comfort to have LCD back to serenade us into obsolescence.

Call the Police

12. Kelela, Take Me Apart

What her long-awaited debut lacked in immediate hooks, it more than made up for with an overwhelming atmosphere. Kelela has been a long time coming - Cut 4 Me made huge splashes in 2013 - and she makes you wait a little longer, to earn the love, working with an army of cutting-edge producers to create a statement of intent that demands multiple listens.


11. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid

One of the year's most bewitching journeys through the worlds of wires and loss, an album-length suite to a departed friend shot through with stardust courtesy of Smith's Buchla synth, a contraption she has been experimenting with in recent years to increasing success. Call it electronic, or new age, read the song titles in sequence and call it poetry; it is simply heavenly.

An Intention

10. King Krule, The OOZ

Archy Marshall performing as King Krule has long been an artist easier to write about than enjoy listening to – until The OOZ finally clicked and submerged me in its warped world vision. It is equal parts R&B, hip-hop, punk, and jazz, and comes together in a way that is none of these genres. His harsh accent on top was the icing; a love-it-or-hate-it instrument tying it all together.

Dum Surfer

9. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

In the year that saw Tom Petty leave the mortal realm, thank goodness for the War on Drugs for continuing his legacy of widescreen Americana. Adam Granduciel’s band is still one of the best bets for the epic hipster sound that values hardscrabble feelings and soaring guitar work over a bedrock of tasteful synths and motorik drums, where the only goal is to drive until you reach the horizon. With a big-label budget, they have exploded and perfected their sound and created a definitive statement that will establish them as one of the great rock bands of their era.

Holding On

8. Four Tet, New Energy

One of the most consistently challenging and restless producers of recent years has been one of the most consistently great, and although you could say it with each new album, THIS is the quintessential Four Tet album, the moment where all of his disparate experiments and thought patterns comes together in a cohesive whole, from his gentle hip-hop beats underlying wistful melodies, to his use of Indian vocal samples, and his reliance on folky ambiance. The most Four Tet album, until the next one.

Two Thousand and Seventeen

7. Sampha, Process

Sampha’s list of previous collaborators, who could reasonably have been expected to contribute to his debut album, would have made for one of the most star-packed offerings of the decade. It would also have compromised his unique vision, so instead, the artist mononymously known by his first name stayed true to himself and unpacked years of hurt and confusion in one of the best R&B albums in recent memory, a hushed and haunting collection of gorgeous arrangements and his instantly recognizable voice.

(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano

6. Jlin, Black Origami

Aggressive. Relentless. Overpowering. A few of the buzz words you come up with when confronted with Jlin's sophomore album, which takes an already great debut and makes it look childish. Rarely has percussion been so abrasive - imagine a thousand marching band drummers in a circle around you, pounding out polyrhythms; haunted vocal specters floating above you, beckoning you into the void. The only legitimate way to dance to this is to become folded into a piece of origami.

Carbon 7 (161)

5. Lorde, Melodrama

Her inauspicious start as a hyper-aware pop star skeptical of pop music and the trappings of fame belies the facts: Lorde is a ruthless pop savant wise beyond her years, capable of crafting meticulous statements of purpose that stand out all the more in a year when so many of her contemporaries crashed and burned. Although she is still ridiculously young, there is no doubt that she will be a fixture of the pop firmament for decades to come – her charisma is so palpable that she could perform a song at an award show, while battling the flu, without singing a word. Taken in parts, these are some of the strongest pop songs of the decade so far, building to widescreen choruses ("Green Light", "Homemade Dynamite") or coasting on a vocal melody so simple it’s sublime ("Writer in the Dark"). Viewed as a whole, this is a song cycle for the romantically hopeless as good as any paean to teenage sadness from days past.

Green Light

4. SZA, Ctrl

How much darker and less enjoyable life this year would have been had SZA not had the strength and support to overcome the myriad hurtles of the music business in getting her statement of vision released. How a songwriter with her credentials could be at loggerheads with her label is baffling, but seeing this album is better late than never - it was worth the wait. Brave, bold, funny, sad, visionary, contemporary, timeless, a hugely promising talent blossoming in front of our eyes - an essential document of 2017, and an artist to watch.


3. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

By this point, it is clear that Staples is a master of economy. In a ruthlessly efficient 36 minutes, he expounds his subversive political views and tales of gang life, and dresses them in a futuristic electro-skeleton forged in the juncture of Detroit and Chicago techno. He hits you with a clarity of vision and the tried-and-true trope of calling back to his own rhymes within the dense thickets of storytelling prowess, and leaves you gasping for more. One of the best in the game.

Big Fish

2. Fever Ray, Plunge

There is a great narrative in Fever Ray’s glorious, unexpected return from the wilderness, her weapons-grade assault on gender roles and queer politics sorely needed in a year where the patriarchy took such massive blows. The album’s relentless focus never takes a backseat to the music, which is some of the catchiest, most chilling and insidious of her career.

This Country

1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

It might just be a frightening level of groupthink, but I think it's objectively true: we are living in a rare time, with the privilege of watching one of the best rappers ever ascending to new levels of mythological greatness. After the monolith of Butterfly and the throat-clearing of untitled, Kung Fu Kenny continues his myth-building with this streamlined collection of pure hip-hop, hard-hitting and deep as oceans, with further asides and new theories to mull over ("what happens on Earth stays on Earth", the original title), a deeply spiritual work grappling with big questions of race and identity and what if Pops weren’t so friendly while working at KFC. So heavy in the game that he can bring along all of U2 and outshine them, get Rihanna inspired enough to rap, then reveal that the album could be played in reverse and flow even better, and all without superfluous genre flourishes. Sit down.


Compilations / Reissues

Various Artists, Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music From Brazil, 1978-1992
The Music From Memory label is in the business of rescuing obscure tracks and artists, and carefully preserving their legacies with meticulous vinyl releases. This compilation of hidden gems from that most mined-over country (Brazil), recorded during its bumpy transition from dictatorship to democracy, is a truly exceptional purview of artists who declined to settle into the country's well-known genres like tropicalia and bossa nova, and instead created tracks that bended trappings and found uniqueness in the spaces between them. This is hardly new music, but it was one of the albums I listened to the most this year, and it fit into just about any context. A further essay on this compilation can be found here.

Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
The recordings Alice Coltrane made during her time in an ashram in Los Angeles during the 80's and 90's have never been released until now, and it makes for a joyous cosmic journey that is far removed from the earthly realm of jazz. This is uplifting, trance-inducing music that will take you away from your daily worries, an album-length at a time.

Young Marco, Selectors 002 / Marcel Dettmann, Selectors 003 / Joy Orbison, Selectors 004
Let’s be honest: there will always be some kind of a market for the mix CD. Dutch label Dekmantel is counting on it: their new series has boldly allowed itself up to three digits in sequence. After the utter joys of the first four mixes, I say keep them coming indefinitely. The Selectors series has a simple enough premise: born out of a weekend party in Croatia where DJs play, the CDs are simple, unmixed collections of ultra-rare tracks, personal favorites, and obscure tracks that time forgot. Its spirit is freewheeling and rambunctious, the choices inspired.

Young Marco goes for a scene approach, starting with his Dutch roots and their attempts at electronic music, and expands to the rest of the globe, weaving a retro-futuristic tale. Marcel Dettmann, well-known Berghain titan, goes for a “pre-techno” stroll through his childhood, a dark and glittering collection of menacing EBM and industrial - tracks you would not at all expect from Dettmann, but aren't the least surprised by the young East German boy loving. Joy Orbison, meanwhile, goes strictly regional and mines his British island for a collection of electronic and garage tracks from the 80s to today.

A selector is defined as "someone who digs for rare records and mixes them impeccably" and seems to imply a different level of DJ, a curator of the finest goods. This new series presents a humble and communal experience of dedicated crate diggers finding treasure and sharing it with the rest of the world. Long may it continue.

Various Artists, Mono No Aware
Charting a new discourse in ambient music, Berlin's Pan label enlists their roster of experimental luminaries and welcome outsiders to reimagine a sound, and crafted this expansive collection of modern ambient that soothes and unsettles in equal measure, perfect on a rainy day or in a summer park. A critical benchmark for future producers.

Prince, Purple Rain Deluxe
The remastered sound of the classic album is a 21st century disaster of compression and loudness, a pretty big disappointment if you're an audiophile who has waited impatiently for these types of reissues - it's a shame that Prince himself signed off on it with such little thought (though not surprising for such an unsentimental forward-looking artist). Nevertheless, the bonus discs of B-sides are a worthy, incomplete treat, and the pro-shot concert footage from 1985 is a real gem.

George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. I
The first and last word on bubblegum stars going Serious, this follow-up to 1987's blockbuster Faith was the antithesis of what people (and the record label) wanted: largely acoustic, a scouring and self-searching collection of ballads, with only "Freedom 90" as a hint of what the aborted Vol. II might have sounded like. We get three more of those dance tracks here, along with a hushed MTV Unplugged full of deep cuts and older hits, the ideal showcase for Michael's golden voice and keen songwriting skills.

Patrick Cowley, Afternooners
The third and final entry in the trilogy of Patrick Cowley releases from Dark Entries Records (following 2013's School Daze and 2015's Muscle Up) is another typically fantastic collection of proto-disco and ambient tracks that were used to soundtrack gay porn. You can ignore that fact or embrace it, but there is no doubting the aural quality of these tracks, and the huge service Dark Entries has done in bringing the departed Cowley's genius works to a wider audience.

Pauline Anna Strom, Trans-Millenia Music
A Bay Area-synth fiddler, Strom's recordings from the 80's were gloriously remastered and reissued on vinyl by the Rvng label, allowing fans of Tangerine Dream and kosmische to revel in the ambient space she creates. A wonderful 80 minutes of soothing, unsettling tones.

Radiohead, OKNOTOK: 1997 - 2017
Oxford's finest have never struck anyone as sentimental, but even they must have realized the import of their finest achievement's anniversary, as they expanded the seminal album with B-sides, and carefully reissued it on heavyweight blue vinyl for an immersive experience. That, or the record label finally managed to do things their way. An essential document nonetheless.

Husker Du, Savage Young Du
The passing of drummer/songwriter Grant Hart this past summer was a cruel blow, but this timely reissue from Numero Group of early demos and live performances showcases the Minneapolis band at their scrappy finest, and one can only hope that a full reissue campaign will be launched for their essential masterpieces soon.

Midori Takada, Through the Looking Glass
A long-awaited reissue of this 1983 ambient masterpiece - a pastoral pastiche of percussion and bird-sounds, four extended pieces that envelop you in a magical garden landscape.

Past Discoveries

Truly, Fast Stories...From Kid Coma (1995)
A Seattle also-ran comprised of founding members of Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, this psychedelic rock opus was released in the wake of grunge, at the moment when alternative rock was ruling the airwaves, yet inexplicably failed to register. A huge shame, as this album is the antidote to the Seven Mary Three's and Bush's that were the popular choice - a smart, expansive, and coherent album full of amazing songs that should have been hits. I've found it impossible to track a physical copy down, but it is well worth it (a YouTube link to the album can be found here).

Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980/2016)
The imagery of this band has intrigued me for years (without ever having heard the music, despite its wide availability in this age) and when HMV Canada folded and blew out merchandise, I picked up this reissue - and was properly blown away. "Burundi-beat" New Romanticism or New Wave funk-pop or whatever you want to call it, this album is stacked top to bottom with one earworm after another, and seems to be inexplicably underrated, rarely popping up on many 80's Best Of or Best New Wave Albums lists. The B-sides hit hard (Nine Inch Nails' cover of "Physical (You're So)" hardly changes the original), and the live show from 1981 is fierce and clear. Certainly a huge surprise.

Honorable Mentions

Elbow, Little Fictions
Slightly tweaking their formula of stately and elegant rock, the seventh album from the ever-dependable Mancunians - and their first without longtime drummer Richard Jupp - is coincidentally their most up-tempo offering in years.

Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins
The Brooklyn band's first album in five years explores the real-life personal developments since then with a more pronounced emphasis on rhythm.

Special Request, Belief System
Yet another double album from Paul Woolford, this time balancing some of his greatest up-tempo tracks with a more than necessary amount of ambient floating. It could have been a classic rather than merely great and unbalanced.

Errorsmith, Superlative Fatigue
Erik Wiegand created a digital synth called Razor: "With additive synthesis, I can determine the spectrum in an exact, mathematic way by adding up sine waves with a certain frequency and amplitude." Result: a hands-in-the-air party record guaranteed to make you smile.

Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time OST
Is there a chance we'll see the beloved electronic producer cross over into Reznor territory with this unsettling and emotive soundtrack for the Safdie brothers' movie? He's already surprised with a Cannes award, who knows!

Jay Z, 4:44
When your wife beats your ass down in public as thoroughly as Beyoncé did over the first half of Lemonade, you probably have to do some soul searching. Result: the most concise, focused and lyrically purposeful Jay album in nearly two decades, an extended apology and meditation on the larger picture.

Boris, Dear
The last Boris album? Say it isn't so! There is a certain poeticism to the album's release cycle celebrating a quarter century of Boris and the hint of finality, and this super-heavy doom workout would certainly be a strong note to end on. Long live Boris!

Future, HNDRXX
The middle child of his trilogy of releases this year (becoming the first artist to release #1 albums in consecutive weeks) is his strongest album in years, a trap king's pop crossover that actually has staying power, the monster turning into loverman with ease.

J Hus, Common Sense
An East London grime breakthrough, this debut album has hooks for days, a savage wit and fantastic production which took it all the way to the Mercury ceremony and UK fame.

DB1, Zwischenwelt

Beck, Colors
And so we get yacht-rock-Beck, a not altogether unwelcome new style. Merely decent Beck can be better than a lot of his contemporaries.


James Holden and the Animal Spirits, The Animal Spirits
When your most recent album was The Inheritors (my #2 album of 2013), and you decide to continue in the same vein of sound, you must be prepared to take it to the next level. Despite assembling a full band, with the same "one-take" policy of improvisation, Holden's new effort falls short of his previous work. This is probably as much because of the high expectations than anything in the music, which aims for the cosmos but only reaches the stratosphere - tracks like these require a Coltrane or Coleman on sax, and they certainly don't get it.

U2, Songs of Experience
Is it wrong to be disappointed by expecting more? Being that in 2017 they chose to celebrate 30 years of The Joshua Tree rather than 20 years of Pop, you know where U2's head is, and what you can expect from their long-in-the-works follow-up to Songs of Innocence - a little bombast, a lot of preaching, a lot of the same since 2000. Their attempts at relevance are starting to look more desperate than sincere (collaborations with Haim and Kendrick - they choose well, but should not get outshined by both), and the album, while latter-day-U2-strong, is not 90's-U2-strong. I will always hold a torch for them, but their 90's zenith is looking oh so far away with every passing year.

Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
Mastodon had an unimpeachable run of masterpieces in the Aughts, with three killer albums in a row (Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Crack the Skye) that really expanded the mainstream expectation of metal bands and set them up for a Metallica-esque level of success (such as it is in our times). Since then though, they have decelerated into a poppy territory that, while still technically impressive, has yielded lesser results. After reintroducing their signature font (used on the three above-mentioned albums) and unveiling the storyline, there was hope that the new album would be a return to old form while pushing in a new direction. Alas, the band does it halfway; the concept is largely a success, their playing is still a technical marvel, but they again focus on their weakest link: the vocals. They throw their lot in with vocal hooks for pop accessibility, and this leads to a more dense and monotone mix that suffocates the album, making it seem far longer than 51 minutes. A decent metal album that needed to be great.


R.I.P. HMV Canada
Boy, this was a blow a long time coming. The retail giant had been struggling and hemorrhaging money in recent years (the focus went from physical media to a huge video game section to just a mess of mish-mash), so the decision to close all locations lead to widespread panic among old-timers early in the year. The sale went into the 90% range (though for some reason the city's huge selection of Criterion movies were gone around the 20-30% off mark).
A majority of its old locations have been reconverted to Sunrise Records (a smaller chain from Ontario), and my unsubstantiated fears that it would flounder under such a huge expansion have so far been for naught: it appears to be a healthy store, with a greater emphasis on vinyl, though with worse price points, a criminal lack of Criterion movies, and (so far) no points reward system. It appears that there is still a market for physical media, and I am optimistic it will continue.

It feels wrong, in this year of toxic negativity, to unleash a tirade against "the worst" of music when I could be building up positivity and being a good role model. HOWEVER...

Katy Perry, Arcade Fire, Chainsmokers, Post Malone, and Ed Sheeran all take the cake for releasing terrible music that devalued our cultural currency this year, and I won't muster up the effort to bring more attention to them. As sad as it is to say, you can stick a fork in Eminem being a viable artist, as his third comeback album since 2010 was yet another interminable turd. The wilder his rapping skills, the less he has to say with it.

2016 was a veritable slaughterhouse, and with the passage of time, it will continue. 2017 seemed a bit more merciful in its quantity of artists spared, but some of the ones taken were especially hard to accept.

William Onyeabor (January 16) - The Nigerian funk musician had recently been reintroduced via a reverential Luaka Bop compilation.

Jaki Liebezeit (January 22) - Can's human metronome and an enormous influence on generations of aspiring Krautrockers.

Clyde Stubblefield (February 18) - James Brown's bedrock, arguably the most important element of the entire hip-hop genre.

Chuck Berry (March 18) - Inestimable.

Chris Cornell (May 17) - A leading voice of grunge committed suicide at the age of 52. His incredible range and power was a radio fixture for nearly three decades, and will linger on.

Prodigy (June 20) - Mobb Deep's ice-cold rapper enjoyed a brief renaissance in 2007, but will forever be remembered for their 1995 masterpiece The Infamous.

Chester Bennington (July 20) - Seen as a copycat suicide (Bennington died on what would have been Cornell's birthday, after a very public grieving process), the Linkin Park singer was successful, admired, and deeply troubled. A huge loss at only 41.

Walter Becker (September 3) - the Steely Dan guitarist succumbed to cancer.

Holger Czukay (September 6) - Can's mercurial bassist and another huge loss for Krautrockers.

Grant Hart (September 13) - The drummer and second songwriter for Husker Du, he didn't live to see his band's great new reissue released, and will kibosh any reunion dreams fans may have.

Charles Bradley (September 23) - The Screaming Eagle was a soul mainstay.

Tom Petty (October 2) - The day of his death, with a premature report of his passing, was a confusing one (with the country reeling from a catastrophic mass shooting in Las Vegas), but his many radio hits will prevail.

Gord Downie (October 17) - Canadian hearts were broken when the singer from the Tragically Hip succumbed to the brain cancer that prompted their cathartic farewell tour in 2016. A national mourning period was imposed.

Lil Peep (November 15) - I am probably too old to truly understand the impact he had on the younger generation, but it felt like he had stumbled unto something musically unique that could have become special before his publically-celebrated lifestyle took a turn for the worse. From "Next Big Thing" to "beautiful corpse" in very 2017-esque speed.

See you all next year, I hope!