Albums of the Year 2017

Thanks to streaming, I listened to more new music this year than ever before. And so even though this list is twice as long as last year’s, these 20 albums feel like only the bare essentials, the absolute best of the best. Somehow I haven’t found room for albums as excellent as those by Kelly Lee Owens, Slowdive, Destroyer, Feist, Big Thief, Jay Som. Any one of those would have probably broken into my top ten last year. But hey. Too much good music: that’s not a terrible problem to have.

It’s fashionable to bash them, but I love year end lists. Re-listening to each of these records, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would choose over another if I had to: this is what being a music nerd is all about. Loving and obsessing over music. And I love reading other people’s lists, too, the more personal and different to mine the better. So while I made this list mostly for my own enjoyment, I also hope you’ll find something new to listen to because of it. Read the descriptions, find something you don’t know that sounds appealing, and give it a try.

As an addendum, I’ve also made a short list of overlooked/underrated albums that didn’t make the list proper. These wouldn’t necessarily be numbers 21-30 (though a few would, along with the albums mentioned above) but are simply albums I haven’t seen on other lists, or that I feel deserved some extra attention. Check that out here. And check out the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, with a choice cut from each of these 20 albums. OK, enough preamble, here we go…

20. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology

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First up are three albums inspired by interplanetary space travel. The first is this psychedelic gem from Jane Weaver, which builds infectious pop songs out of motorik rhythms and komische synths, in a way that will appeal to fans of similarly cosmic-minded groups like Broadcast, Stereolab and Belbury Poly. (That is, people like me). There are touches of krautrock, library music, vintage-sounding electronic experimentation. Can’s Malcolm Mooney even shows up on ‘Ravenspoint’ to deliver a strange monologue about how we’re all “on our way to… dust”. But these are easy songs to like, melodic and breezy, delicate even, and never overstuffed with sounds or effects. They’re kept light and aerodynamic, so that they might take off into the stratosphere.

19. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz

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Quazarz is a set of twin albums exploring (in a fairly loose sense) the concept of an intergalactic alien being who arrives on earth and is baffled by our addiction to technology. So far, so out there. But in fact, this is maybe Shabazz Palace’s easiest album to get into, in that it unfurls at a fairly relaxed pace, and is far too languorous and sprawling to demand anything other than casual, exploratory listening. It splits the difference between the most ambitious musical statement an act can make, the double album (with its 1970s associations of intricacy, pomposity and grandeur), and the most slapdash and raw and immediate, the rap mixtape. Quazarz isn’t quite either, but finds a strange middle ground between the two, and the result is Shabazz’s least essential but also most fun and lively body of work; indeed, on highlights like ’30 Clip Extension’, ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘Welcome to Quazarz’, they’re as dazzling as they’ve ever been.

18. Hannah Peel – Mary Casio

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This beautiful, singular record describes (sonically) the journey of an old woman from the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley who decides to travel into space to try and see Cassiopeia. It combines analogue synthesisers with a full 29-piece traditional colliery brass band, producing a unique combination of textures, one that reminds me a little of Dan Deacon’s more classically-minded work, as on the back half of America. The music is, in all senses of the word, dreamy: it has this incredible sense of will, of the title character resolutely following her ridiculous dream. A spectacular journey is described here, but it’s never clear if it’s a journey though space or through the mind; whether the constellations are of stars or of neurons.

17. PC Worship – Buried Wish

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I am obsessed with junk art and visionary environments, and Buried Wish sounds like a punk record scraped together from loose detritus, assembled from scratch, from scrap metal. Saxophones wail at dawn, rain falls on an empty moon. Rivers run sideways through trash and dead flowers. All the guitars are a little detuned, a little off. ‘Back of My $$$’ absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel, thick with scuzz and dirt; the tape sounds completely destroyed. ‘Help’ has these demented, descending wails that remind me of Liars, crying through a backdrop of atonal string scrawl and prickly bits of out-of-tune guitar.  But there is just enough song at any one point to keep you rummaging through – all the junk shaped into melodies without losing its essential quality as junk.

16. The National – Sleep Well Beast

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With Sleep Well Beast, The National quietly evolved to make their best album since Boxer, expanding, rather than tearing up, their basic approach. All the hallmarks of classic National are there: the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitar lines, the almost imperceptible mesh of rock instrumentation with strings and horns (seriously, this is their secret ingredient: no one else does it better), Brian Devendorf’s kinetic drumming (their other secret ingredient), Matt Berninger’s lyrics (their other other secret, or not-so-secret, ingredient). But new innovations lick around the edges of the songs: electronics flicker like dying lightbulbs, echo chambers bounce slithers of melody into hypnotic new shapes. Most importantly, though, the songs are all great: twin highlights ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, especially, but also the lovely ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ and the raucous ‘Turtleneck’. And ‘Empire Line’, too. Oh, and ‘Born to Beg’. OK, well, all of them.

15. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

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Throw almost every touchstone of 20th century art rock into a blender, lace with anxiety, depression, cocaine and bravado, and hey presto, American Dream. This is all about the execution: every tiny, fine detail sounds laboured and obsessed over, perfected. Nowhere is this more apparent than highlight ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which spends 3 minutes and 38 seconds building tension with little more than some rumbling, distant drums, Murphy calling out into the void, before that big, dumb synth line comes in and pounds three notes like a headache for a whole minute, its insistent force begging for something more complex to counter it, until finally, at the 4.45 mark, the melody’s exploded and bent into all these wonderfully kinetic fragments, pulled about all over the place, with a sense of intense satisfaction and playfulness. The whole thing is so engrossing that – even on a fourth or fifth listen – I forget there hasn’t really been a beat yet, and it catches me by surprise when the drums-proper come in at 5.14, and the vocal hook almost exactly a minute later, to produce a late-blooming slice of disco perfection, cowbell and synth-strings all.

14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

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DAMN. is at once both tighter and punchier than jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly, yet messier and more flawed as well. It is simultaneously a spiritual album, and a gritty, corporeal one. The album is structured around these contradictory impulses, moving dialectically between unresolved oppositions: heaven and earth, ‘Love’ and ‘Lust’, a proud-sounding tune called ‘Humble’ against a humble-sounding tune called ‘Pride’. Then there is the whole playing-it-forwards-or-backwards thing, which would be gimmicky if it didn’t work so well at formally encapsulating the themes of time, choice and chance that Lamar explores on opener/closer ‘Blood’ and closer/opener ‘Duckworth’. But the real thrill, as always, is hearing Kendrick rap, which reminds me more than anything else of Coltrane playing the sax – he just takes flight.

13. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

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Everything about Painted Ruins is dense and knotty. It is sequenced almost breathlessly, crescendoing, yes, but never bubbling down to anything less than a rolling boil. Every song is stuffed full of ideas and intricate moving parts. Whether it would be better if it opened up and breathed a bit more is up for debate, but there is a great deal of beauty and craft here, and, taken individually, perhaps the best batch of songs they’ve ever written. ‘Three Rings’ is my second favourite song of the year, twisting and thrashing its way towards a glorious pay-off; it contains everything I love about this band. ‘Systole’ is a late highlight, too, with the unexpected surprise of Chris Taylor on vocals, and the revelation that there are at least three great singers in this band of four unfairly talented musicians. You can hear the individual personalities of each of them (Bear’s expressive drumming, Droste’s choirboy harmonies) but they work together in perfect harmony. That’s the rare mark of a great band.

12. Juana Molina – Halo

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Halo, as its freaky cover art suggests, is skeletal — a bone yard — its bass-lines spines. In fact, everything here has the quality of backbeat, of bass and drums, of lithe rhythm. The synths have these hollow, marimba-like tones, like a bone being finger-drummed. There are frequent noises that sound like wind howling through hollow bones (which is presumably how flutes were first made?) and a noise in ‘Cosoco’ that sounds like a howling wind imitating an owl. The album’s title is a reference to the Argentine folk legend of the will-o’-the-wisp, known as the “luz mala” (Spanish for “evil light”), which floats above the ground where bones are buried. The hollow, natural, skeletal sound Molina has developed here proves versatile, moving from tracks that sound lightly funky and buoyant (‘Sin Dones’) to spooky and somnambulant (‘Lentismo Halo’). ‘A00 B01’ is the most delightfully strange song here: hollow woodblock percussion and little spindly threads of guitar over a synth loop that sounds like knuckles rolling rhythmically over the squishy buttons of an old mobile phone (and is later joined by a chorus of dying dial tones). Freaky magnificence.

11. Colleen – A flame, my love, a frequency

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Cécile Schott continues to restlessly redefine her sound with every album. Her music is fantastic, and deserves far more fans. Whereas early albums collaged acoustic sounds into new sonic landscapes, and her last couple revolved around the engrossing sound of the Renaissance-era treble viola de gamba (filtered, on the brilliant Captain of None, through a range of dub effects), A flame, my love features a slight, minimal palette of Critter & Guitari synthesisers run through a few Moog pedals. That’s it. And yet, there has always been a crystalline feel to what she makes, and this new sound emphasises that beautifully. It is transportive, transfixing music. Though her least organic-sounding record, it feels even more in tune with nature, full of lyrical images of bats swooping through the night as they hunt, of winter dawns and stars outshining us. There is a sadness, too, shot through the whole thing (“the world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue, and I came home with a fistful of fear”) one that becomes more present when one learns of the album’s back-story: Schott’s close brush with death in Paris on the night 2015 terrorist attacks. Death and life entwine in this music – one is never present without the other, and that is a source of both sadness and comfort.

10. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

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This is a very minimal album, naked as Sumney’s back, weightless as his floating body. Much of the music on this list – see numbers 9, 3 and 1 especially – is concerned with the connections we make with other people, the networks of relations that sustain us: with love, with friendship, with community. Aromanticism is, as its title suggests, an inverse of that – an album that feels alone without necessarily feeling lonely. It is about the pleasure of one’s own company. The brilliant contradiction is that it is also an album steeped in the language of R&B, a genre obsessed with love and sex and coupling – and it sounds, throughout, sumptuous, bodily, erotic, gorgeous. The tension between the overt romanticism of the music and the lonely aromanticism of the lyrics is the heart of this album. It’s also full of unexpected melodic and harmonic touches – the flute at the end of ‘Make Out in My Car’, that harmony on the last word of “I’m made of liquid trust” (‘Don’t Bother Calling’). The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Doomed’, one of the best songs of the year: Sumney’s vocal performance – a quiet, battered falsetto – is completely enrapturing, lifted up as the track progresses by deep, mournful synths that slowly crash in like waves. Breathtaking.

9. Laurel Halo – Dust

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‘Dust’ here is a term here with lots of implications and associations: of warmth and the analogue (in contrast to the cold, futuristic sound of Quarantine, or the dry, brittle Chance of Rain); of cosmic, interstellar dust clouds (picked up in the spacey titles like ‘Syzygy’, ‘Sun to Solar’, ‘Moontalk’); of dusty sounds found and collected (much of this record has a quality of being overheard); of dust motes swirling in a beam of light through a window. That last image captures how unstable this music feels, every sonic element constantly in motion, its relation to every other element in flux. And relations or networks are a key theme here. Much of this record seems concerned with what, or who, we surround ourselves with, something picked up in Halo’s bringing in multiple vocal collaborators for the first time. On ‘Jelly’, negative voices lick the edges of the track’s consciousness – “you don’t meet my ideal standards for a friend, and you are a thief, and you drink too much”. We can surround ourselves with such negative feedback, or we can surround ourselves with things that encourage us: the soft, enveloping vocal melodies on ‘Like an L’, or the bizarre encouragements (“then she licked my leg and gave me some sisterly advice”) of ‘Syzygy’. Just as things start to become a bit of a blur, the album is brought back into focus by late highlight ‘Do U Ever Happen?’, which is wonderfully surreal: a clumsy, slumbering beat, with Halo and a backing choir in two intertwining melodic spirals. This album is that rare thing: a genuinely avant-garde record that remains compulsively, repeatedly listenable.

8. Perfume Genius – No Shape

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I wrote a whole review of this already, so I will just fill this space up with a repeated claim: Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius.

7. Jlin – Black Origami

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What impressed me most about Black Origami was the revelation that Jlin composed the tracks chronologically, in ‘real time’ if you like, starting at the beginning and working forwards, without going back and making edits. It’s like a very slow kind of improvisation. That such intricate, complicated tracks could be made in such a way is just insane to contemplate. The other thing I love about this album – and this is going to sound strange – is how meditative it is, almost in spite of itself. Of course, this is an overwhelmingly noisy record, an absolute barrage of rhythm, but it’s also full of tiny pockets of space. Rhythm, after all, relies on gaps, on tiny bits of silence and quiet. And the rhythms are so unrelenting that you can almost hear through them to the quiet; the concentrating, zen-like mind of the dancer as their limbs flail at inconceivable speed. Then there is the idea of origami, itself a practice of meditation, and that cover art, in which sheet metal (industrial rhythm) has been folded and folded (almost crumpled in places) to become something new: the perfect metaphor for this insanely brilliant, forward-thinking artist’s approach to sound.

6. The Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

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I am going to make a bold comparison here, and it is to Loveless. It is not that the two records sound similar, necessarily. But Loveless is a masterpiece, I think, because it strikes an exact balance: between masculine and feminine, between soft and loud, between melody and noise. And Pleasure Suck, too, captivates because of its exact blend of honey and vinegar, of sickly melted sugar and battery acid. From the first moments – what sounds like a violin playing in a blustery street; then a strum and a buzz; then a crash as a song starts seemingly in media res – it is clear that this is going to be a special record. And it doesn’t let up the whole way through, moving through what feel like fine slices of song cut into each other, or like slits in a spinning zoetrope. It is just the perfect blend of dissonant noise/ambience and catchy songs. If you have any interest in either of those things, please, listen to this.

5. Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

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Is Mirror of Wind a fantasy album? Look at the miniature world of that still life: a bee, a magic crystal, an offering of red flowers, a mirror that reflects only mist, a candle in a cave, the tilt of its flame suggesting wind. Then listen to ‘Primeval Currents’, and hear how the sonic elements interact: strange instruments, producing sounds that feel recognisable (plucking, bubbling, chiming, buzzing) but which come from not-quite-identifiable sources (a mallet? a clarinet? a field recording of birds, or insects?). Or ‘Veils of Crocus’, in which instruments strum and drum, whoosh and whirl, swirl and conjure, punctured by flurries of voices incongruously chanting “cha cha cha”, as though we were on a beach somewhere. Or ‘Hex Prism Palace’, in which notes are bent out of shape in a temple on a distant hill. It is the music of places that don’t exist, that could never exist, except that they can exist through this technicolour world of sound – the music of imaginary worlds.

4. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

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Crack-Up is the album I listened to in the early hours of the morning on my wedding day. It’s the album we had playing in our rented car, driving on our honeymoon through the spectacular, mountainous countryside of Perthshire, Scotland. ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ – undoubtedly the best song of the year – was playing in my head the whole two weeks. That opening melody with its gorgeous, unexpected harmonies (“light ended the night, but the song remained”), and the cadence of Pecknold’s voice as he replies in solo (“and I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, in the lashing rain”) puts a lump in my throat every time. It throws open the curtains to a nine minute journey through mountains, rivers, harmonies, drums, craggy valleys, guitars like dappled sunlight, pianos like water flowing over rocks. “To be held within oneself is deathlike, oh I know,” he sings, with almost unbearable emotion. If Crack-Up suffers from anything, it’s that ‘Third of May’ is too good, and that the rest can feel merely like a build up to, and release from, that towering centrepiece. But no, that’s ridiculous. ‘On Another Ocean’, ‘Fool’s Errand’, ‘I Am All That I Need’: these are the best songs Fleet Foxes have ever made, expanding their sound to the point that it literally cracks open, cracks up, and spills out all the light inside.

3. Bjork – Utopia

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Bjork is making the best music she’s ever made. A tall claim, certainly, but it’s true. Vulnicura was a masterpiece, the strong contrast between its mournful strings and its stuttering, broken beats the perfect evocation of heartbreak and divorce. Utopia is its necessary inverse, its mirror image, the yin to its yang. The strings are replaced by flutes, and the flute arrangements, throughout, are almost unnecessarily gorgeous. Indeed, if there is one impression this album makes above all, it is of overwhelming, sumptuous, rapturous, relentless beauty. It is, by design, too beautiful. (The only reference point I can think of are the later films of Terence Malick.) It is too much. It is too long. There are too many interludes. There are too many flutes. Her voice is too expressive, too broken, too open, over-emoting, leaking all over the music. Because it is only in that excess that she seems able to heal the gaping chest wound opened up on Vulnicura, here “transformed into a gate where I receive love from, where I give love from”. The length of the album seems designed to incubate a kind of patience; this album will never work unless you give yourself up to it, listen to it the whole way through, with open ears and open mind. Because healing takes time. Because love takes time, and is work. Because it takes time to “imagine a future, and be in it”.

 2. Arca – Arca

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Part (though it really must be stressed it is only part) of Bjork’s recent success is her creative partnership with the young Venezeulan producer Alejandro Ghersi, a.k.a. Arca, who helped produce Vulnicura and provided some of the beats for Utopia. Bjork has described their partnership as the “best musical relationship she’s had” and as a “synergy when two people lose their ego”. And it goes both ways, because it was Bjork who encouraged Arca, on his latest, self-titled album, to open up his mouth and sing. His voice is a revelation. It is almost exactly what you would expect from his production work: brittle, bruised, aching. But it is also extremely versatile, and Arca covers a great deal of emotional ground, making sometimes violent swings in its mood, as from the alternately mournful/wailing and delicate/resigned ‘Coraje’, into to the aggressive ‘Whip’, and out into the chilled, almost danceable ‘Desafio’. The synergy of the voice and the beats is fantastic throughout, to the point that his body (for it is above all a bodily, or embodied voice) seems to melt into his machines, the distinction between them becoming liquid. One almost doesn’t notice that the voice has disappeared entirely by closer ‘Child’, a negative of opener ‘Piel’, in which an initially a capella melody is hummed almost under the breath, slowly opening out into a full-throated cry as it is joined by both high, whining and deep, foreboding lines of synth. The album is perfectly sequenced, and is utterly absorbing from start to finish. It gets so close to you, so bodily and intimate, that it feels almost dangerous, like licking or touching bare wire with wet fingers. There is never quite a cathartic moment – it’s all danger, desire, electricity, tension, eroticism, caress, fingers slowly closing round your neck but never quite squeezing.

1. Richard Dawson – Peasant

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What do you want from an album? Do you want to learn, in quite some detail, how to authentically wash and dye wool as if you were in the Middle Ages? Do you want to hear a man sing the words “he gives me a potato” in a Newcastle accent? Do you want to listen to an acoustic guitar being fingerpicked with so much vigour it sounds as though it might bleed? Do you want melodies that terrify you, or sooth you, or bring you to tears, or turn themselves upside down when you least expect it? Do you want to be surprised? Do you want to learn about the Pin of Quib, and the Bog of Names, and the Fortress of Long Wings? Do you want stories, or characters? A masseuse “tired of kneading the knots from the bulbous backs and necks” of men? A soldier with a “heart full of dread” and the “memories of kisses spilled upon his chin”? That is, do you want to be taken to another place? Another time? Into another body, or eleven? Can an album really do that? Peasant is the best album of the year partially because it does all those things. But also because it is an album about community. I moved into a new house this year, and it is the first time since I was a child in my parents’ house that I know both my next-door-neighbours’ names, and the names of the people in the houses next to them, and in the houses opposite. Our road is a small community, and people look out for each other. I am a naturally shy, introverted person who likes to spend a lot of time by myself – but even I can’t survive without a community of people around me. Not just people who I love and who love me, but also casual acquaintances, neighbours, workers, people who make stuff I need, who do jobs I can’t do, maybe even some people who might read the things I write. And yet, communities all around us are dissolving or splintering or splitting apart. The news brings daily doses of terror, new superstitions and lies, new failures of empathy. Lots of things might be to blame for this: consumerism, ‘social’ media, the loss of traditional social centres like libraries, churches, or clubs. But whatever the cause, it’s something we need to fight against. Dawson finds an analogy for all this in a world that disappeared over a millennium ago, but that feels startlingly familiar. Though the specifics are alien, the concerns of the characters he creates “in the kingdom of Bryneich” are our concerns. That is why this album is so deeply moving, so devastating. It is the year reflected in a muddy, medieval puddle; an unexpected, unlikely, baffling snapshot of 2017.

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Overlooked Albums 2017

As an addendum to my Albums of the Year list (check that out here), here are ten more albums I enjoyed this year that feel overlooked or under-appreciated, that I haven’t seen on other end-of-year lists, or that I just wanted to point to and say “hey, this was good too”. This isn’t necessarily numbers 21-30 on my list; rather, it’s a chance to focus on things you may not have encountered elsewhere, or may have forgotten about. (For more, see my two Quarterfaves posts from earlier in the year). Spotify playlist at the end, with a whole bunch more stuff on it, most of it pretty experimental.

Julia Lucille – Chthonic

cthnoicIt has been a year of excellent ‘dream music’, from the return of shoegaze pioneers Slowdive to the ethereal threads of Julie Byrne. Overlooked and underrated is this gem from Dripping Springs based Julia Lucille, the same Texas town where Cross Record recorded the brilliant Wabi Sabi last year, which has a similar vibe – it’s clearly a town that seeps into the music. This is dream folk from the underworld (‘chthonic’ is a term describing spirits or deities from under the earth), its ethereal, diffuse atmospherics tempered by Lucille’s baritone guitar, which gives the songs this dirty, dusty, low-end quality, and offsets her very breathy voice. There is a contrast, too, between the gorgeous layers of harmonies and the little touches of dissonance. An album to let wash over you.

Sephine Llo – I, Your Moon

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Sephine Llo has the voice and the musical chops of someone with degree-level classical training, and a CV full of impressive jobs and achievements: stints at Westminster Abbey and Abbey Road, awards for composition and recording. And yet I, Your Moon feels charmingly homemade and instinctive. It’s the sound of someone who’s learned and absorbed all the rules and is now doing whatever the hell she wants. The instrumental background feels cobbled together from whatever found tools and sounds might best capture the emotion she’s driving at: the title track alone features a SH101 synth, a hulusi (Chinese gourd flute), strings, baritone guitar, a typewriter, the birds outside her window, guitar feedback, skin sounds… But it’s never kooky or eccentric for the sake of it. The album’s recording was interrupted by the death of her husband, and it is marked by an indelible sadness; but also, a slow climb back towards hope.

Avey Tare – Eucalyptus

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Dave Portner’s new album as Avey Tare was so deeply personal and unbeholden to expectations that one imagines he might not have released it at all. Indeed, this sounds like some lost new age classic uncovered in a basement somewhere, the kind of thing that would have made it onto Light in the Attic’s compilation I Am the Center. It is a strange, languid, meandering trip. This unhurried, relaxed sound was explored further on Animal Collective’s brilliant, also overlooked EP from earlier this year, Meeting of the Waters, which Portner recorded with fellow member Brian Weitz live in the Amazon Rainforest: if you like Animal Collective and haven’t checked this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Nick Hakim – Green Twins

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First off: album cover of the year. But the psychedelic soul concoction housed inside is great, too, and feels both retro and thoroughly modern. Much of the production is pretty lo fi, with sounds fraying at the edges, dissolving; that complements the sensual, vulnerable vocal performance from Hakim. But the best moments are the unexpected production touches, like the weird crying baby sounds at the end of ‘Needy Bees’, or the way ‘Cuffed’ seems to melt towards its end, or the mishmash of backing vocals behind ‘Slowly’.

Art Feynman – Blast Off Through the Wicker

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I first discovered Luke Temple through his Here We Go Magic project, an occasionally brilliant band who were always a little uneven. The name change with this new album seems to mark a renewed, refreshed energy, and these are funky, detailed, expressive songs that please the Talking Heads lover in me. Apparently there are no loops or drum machines on the whole thing, though it sounds constructed entirely from such materials; that might explain its baggy, lively charm.

Sam Amidon – The Following Mountain

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Amidon’s first album to consist only of his own songs (he’s known for recording mostly covers, an approach steeped in the idea that songs that don’t belong to any one person; ‘folk music’ in its oldest, truest sense), The Following Mountain is in every other way vintage Amidon: genuinely odd, jazz-infused folk songs, sung in a gravelly, distinctive voice. It becomes better as it progresses (though the lovely ‘Juma Mountain’ is an early standout), finishing with a twelve minute folk-jazz-improv freakout which was apparently the initial source of the other eight songs.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

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This album exists for the dead of night – I’ve only listened to it around midnight, or in the early hours of the morning, when I’ve been unable to sleep. It is haunted music. Most tracks consist of only a couple of elements, delicately balanced – not quite in sync, as the title suggests. Sakamoto is obviously a prolific and highly regarded artist, though he was new to me this year (I came to him through his influence on the also excellent Visible Cloaks album, Reassemblage). This album – full of gentle surprises – has been a great introduction. 

Various Artists – Mono No Aware

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Mono No Aware, a compilation of artists on the Berlin-based PAN label, manages to sound like a distinct, complete work without erasing the identity of the individual artists. That’s a difficult balance to achieve with any compilation, but even more so with ambient and experimental noise music, where sounds can easily bleed into one another. But each track here feels like a new voice temporarily becoming audible, like a face glimpsed through the fog. The title is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (literally “the pathos of things) and it is the perfect title for this haunting collection.

Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

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Pillows and clouds of soft noise, breaking on a distant horizon. It’s like a perfect meeting of William Basinski’s disintegration and Richard Skelton’s natural earthiness. English is a very erudite, thoughtful composer from Brisbane, Australia; his attention to detail in creating what is essential very amorphous music is what lifts it above other ambient sounds of this ilk. If you liked GAS’s Narkopop from earlier this year, definitely check this out.

The Green Kingdom – The North Wind and the Sun

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Somewhere between ambient and pastoral, instrumental folk, with occasional twinkling, celestial elements like the xylophone on ‘Rusted Relic I’. Reminds me a little of Rameses III’s album I Could Not Love You More. Very gentle, very peaceful. Out on Lost Tribe Sound, which is a fantastic label, home of the absurdly prolific William Ryan Fritch (who also used to release stuff as Vieo Abiungo). Everything on that label is worth a listen.

Surprise! Surprise!

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I listen to music all the time and all I ever really want is to be surprised.

This week I’ve been listening to lots of Arthur Russell. To discover Russell’s haunted avant-disco in the present day is to hear it through the mouths of ghosts, tainted and stained by all the artists who have been influenced by him. It is impossible to get rid of this context — of his death, of his legacy. The echoes of his echoes. It is not just Russell singing, but everyone who has paused at Russell’s singing in the past, who has his smudgy thumbprint on their ear. And everyone who has written on him, read or not. (And so it is, now, my voice too).

And yet it is still surprising. It still sounds totally and utterly new. Not just because of the unusual combination of sounds — the tortured, drenched sound of his cello colliding with his disco beats — but because of the spirit inside it, his unique voice. A colour or emotion, a hue that is unusual and distinctly his.

 

This is the case with all great music. It is like Ezra Pound’s idea of literature – “news that stays news”. Whatever order you hear them in, the classics stay new. They leap the narrative forward again. They build on what came after them. They develop their influences.

Because you might know the story but you haven’t read it until you’ve actually read it, and in the reading the story is reimagined, determined by the order of each fragment. No one listens in order. No one is born listening to the earliest recorded alien warble, only to grow up with the forties aged four and the sixties aged six, crawling forward through the years, slowing as the amount of recorded music exponentially increases. That would be silly. No one swallows the narrative of music whole. It only exists, insofar as it does even exist, as various, overlapping, contradictory and above all piecemeal versions, assembled out-of-order.

To hear Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day today is to hear the ideas of Devendra Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk Eyed Mender clarified, purified — a reverse expansion.

To hear Can’s Ege Bamyasi today is to hear every ‘Vitamin C’ breakbeat lifted from it reimagined again as live drums. Like when I saw the entire DJ Shadow album Endtroducing… (widely credited as the first album to consist entirely of samples of other records) played by a live band, complete with two voices reading out all the sampled snippets of speech. (A magical live show — the absolute passion for that album by everyone on stage could be palpably felt.)

And more embarrassing examples abound — the surprise that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack did not, in fact, “pump it louder”. The no-surprise of the fourth, the fifth, by the time I actually got back through the thicket of covers to the real ‘Hallelujah’.

(Ironically, every time I listen to OK Computer, it’s ‘No Surprises’ that catches me out, sequencing-wise. I always forget it’s coming.)

Yet this ahistorical listening is of course supplemented with historical learning. It’s not like I take in Bunyan or Can without context. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as historical listening because we can’t un-hear the things that come chronologically later. One could draw a line and only listen going forward, to things on their release date — but you’d actually end up hearing less really new things, because most of the really new things are actually old things. History tends to repeat itself. To go forwards you have to (mostly) go backwards.

So it is that the two newest albums I’ve heard this year were released in 1972 and 1983: Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass. Why? Because they sound like nothing I’ve heard before, couple with the simple fact(s) that I’d never heard them (or of them) before. Both were reissued this year to wide re-acclaim, re-reviewing (re-re-viewing). Their physical rerelease not only pleased collectors but gave them a chance to be re-released— the dove exploding from the cage — and heard as though new again, by new ears.

It is easy to equate newness with technology, synthetic sound, fragmentation, formal experimentation. In fact, the newest-sounding, actually historically new album of 2017 is, to these ears, Richard Dawson’s Peasant. This glorious, ambitious, compassionate, moving, bloody, terrifying, uplifting album is about as far away from ‘now’ as one could hope to get — it is ‘set’ (so to speak) in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bryneich, in pre-medieval northern England, about a thousand years before recorded music began. Listening to it, you are transported back into that time, as Dawson tells the imagined stories of different members of that community (‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Scientist’, ‘Soldier’). The instrumentation, too, manages to conjure something of the muddy, rural, and above all (and in all its senses) dark age in which these songs are set. That is, it actually sounds old. So why does it also sound so new? Because it says things about community and society that need to be said and heard in 2017? Partially. But also because it just sounds, once again, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A new way of sounding, a new way of feeling, a new way of thinking.

Surprise. Equal parts emotional flip-in-the-tummy and intellectual startling. Both jolt awake, increasing attention and focus. How does this square, though, with the kind of somnambulant music that seeks not to jolt but to lull us? Is there not good music which acts as lullaby, as balm, or even as wallpaper? Forms which are antithetical to surprise? Where is the surprise then? I propose it is in the dreams induced. You don’t have to pop a balloon and make a bang to surprise someone. You might tie a thousand balloons to their chair and let them drift off, see new shapes in the clouds. There is such a thing as a soft surprise. A new tint of light. That is what it means for music to be truly psychedelic — the slow surprise of consciousness expanding.

The Shape of No Shape

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No Shape is the fourth album from Perfume Genius, a.k.a. Mike Hadreas, and it continues an astonishing upward trajectory for the artist. Each Perfume Genius album has been somehow even better than the last (and he started strong). Hadreas is, to my mind, one of the best songwriters currently working, so efficient and exact as to make everyone else feel sloppy by comparison. He is particularly brilliant at using small sonic details and textures to enhance the different emotional colours in his songs; he has a great, intuitive understanding of how to best present each song, in terms of  things like instrumentation and mixing. One imagines all these songs being sketched out at the piano first, then later dressed up in different sonic ‘outfits’ until he finds the right one.

I want here to simply track through the ‘shape’ of the new album (which is masterfully sequenced) and unpack some of its themes.

We open with ‘Otherside’, which introduces, both sonically and lyrically, the idea of transcendence. Gentle piano is crashed through by a huge sheet of noise and choirs of voices. It is so dazzling – like a great burst of sonic sunlight – that it is almost impossible to hear. It is an experience of shapelessness – one can’t pick out shapes within it, but is presented with it as a single totality, a single blast of sound. The studio was apparently set up like a makeshift church during its recording, with all the backing vocalists sat in pew-like rows. I love the gorgeous, pregnant pause after the first “to the otherside” is sung, before the crash comes in. It is a moment of silence, which is itself a kind of shapelessness. Shapelessness is equated here with transcendence – an idea that rings throughout the album.

The songs that follow continually complicate any simple reading of this transcendence. These songs are not shapeless at all, but distinctly and powerfully shaped. And they are weird and wonderful shapes, with an emphasis on that ‘weird’. They are awkward shapes, queer shapes. They explore, sonically, Hadreas’s experiences as a gay man, his not fitting into the normative ‘shapes’ of society.

The next three songs, from ‘Slip Away’ to ‘Go Ahead’, all project a sense of confidence in one’s shape, whatever it may be. These are songs that celebrate that which doesn’t fit, the not-fitting. ‘Slip Away’, in particular, sounds triumphant, like someone knocking down every wall that’s thrown up to try and box them in, something captured in its glorious video. “Don’t let them break the shape we take”, Hadreas sings, however uncomfortable it may make the anonymous ‘them’. These are songs about transcending others’ limited or warped ideas of who you are. Confronting those who dismiss your ‘shape’ as invalid: “baby, hold on and stare them down” (‘Just Like Love’).  Enforcing this feeling of confidence are the prominent sounds of drums, both literally (the wobbly, warped drums of ‘Go Ahead’; the galloping drums of ‘Slip Away’) and lyrically: “every jump, every single beat, they were born from your body, and I’m carried by the sound.”

‘Valley’ is a tonal shift. The bridge is particularly powerful: “I hear the sound of a million drums with no beat, violins with no melody. I am sick with it: quiet.” The delivery of these lines is incredibly moving; reading them on a page can’t quite capture it. The “beat” from earlier cannot be heard; it is here a “no beat”. And the singer is tempted to try and throw off his body, his ‘shape’, for the ‘no shape’ of suicide. (“I don’t blame you for wanting out, I’m kind of close myself”). The reference to violins recalls the song ’17’ from Put Your Back N 2 It, in which the singer’s body is rejected, stuffed inside a violin, covered in semen (“I am done, I am done with it”), an idea also found in ‘No Good’ from Too Bright (“the body’s no good”). This oscillation between celebration of the queer body and rejection of it is complex to read, but feels very true to lived experience. It is one of the defining qualities of Hadreas’s songwriting, and one of the sources of its emotional resonance and power.

Album centrepiece and highlight ‘Wreath’ sees both of these contrary desires being explored simultaneously. It is an extraordinary piece of music. The singer longs to break out of the shape of his body into shapelessness: to “burn off every trace”, to “hover with no shape”. The music itself seems to be trying to break out of its own shape; it exists just on the edge of transcendence without ever quite breaking through. It is almost exhausting to listen to, a four minute song which seems to exist entirely within a pregnant, tension-filled pause, like the one in ‘Otherside’. The repeated image of “a wreath upon the grave” suggests again that death may act as one kind of transcendence; and yet, the singer also wants to stay alive, “to feel the days go by”. He wants both simultaneously. To “feel the sun go down”, to “feel the sun come up”.

The next few songs continue to seek transcendence in other places. ’Every Night’ and ‘Choir’ take place in another almost-shapelessness, this time that of the night, the cloak of darkness. But the songs depict an insomniac: “quiet, I brace for the drift… still I’m up” (‘Every Night’); “I can’t dream, something keeps me locked and bodied” (‘Choir’). Sleep here is another obliteration, another otherside, but it’s one he again can’t quite break through into. ‘Die 4 You’ instead seeks this transcendence through sex, specifically asphyxiation fantasies. The possibility of losing one’s shape in the shape of another, an other, a lover. “Limit every second left till I’m off balance”.

But then this is immediately followed by ‘Sides’, which both musically (it’s a duet with Weyes Blood) and lyrically, depicts the separation of two lovers as two separate beings, unable to fully merge or melt into each other. (That is, remaining as ‘sides’). “Sometimes you forget to just let me in a bit”, Hadreas sings; “lately baby I’ve been hiding away”, Mering echoes. The title ‘Sides’ again suggests a fixed shape, its physical boundaries.

The remaining songs (‘Braids’, ‘Run Me Through’) continue to dwell on and attempt to resolve this dilemma: that is, the possibility of owning one’s own shape while also wanting to transcend it, to become ‘no shape’; the desire to lose oneself in the other, or sleep, or sex, or death, but the impossibility of fully doing so.

The resolution comes, finally, in the last song. It is love. A real, imperfect relationship. Sometimes you splinter apart and become sides; sometimes you manage to become one shape, or even (briefly) no shape at all. That is, sometimes you manage to achieve a brief transcendence: “did you notice we slept through the night?”. The song is an existential cry: “I’m here, how weird.” To name it specifically after ‘Alan’, Hadreas’s partner, gives it a particular poignancy; so many of Hadreas’s songs are about queerness, or explore gay relationships and sex in a more poetic or general sense, but here we get close to meeting the actual man in his life, the man all this beauty is for.

A Steel Sea Lapping

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Latent in the language of pop is the language of fishing: ‘catchy’, ‘ear worm’, ‘hook’. Generally these descriptors are used in a positive sense, but there is a kind of violence in them too. After all, the listener is the fish in the analogy. Unaware of the trap. Or aware of it, but happy to go along anyway, to submit to the violence of the trick. Like believing in an illusion.

I am talking about a certain kind of melody here. It is obtrusive; it sticks in your mind and is irremovable. You know the kind. “I want something just like the shape of you under my umbrella.” These kinds of melodies, laced throughout the thin waters of mainstream (main-stream) radio, dangling like so many baited hooks, are designed to ‘catch’ our attention. To catch our mind’s ear and stay caught there. Sweet at first, offering an immediate gratification (a juicy worm) that makes us want to listen; then later, replaying over and over in the mind, whether we want to hear them or not. Thus making us want to hear them again. To jump back again and again into the same stream, even though we know of the barbs hiding under the surface.

For a few months earlier this year I was working in a sweet shop, and was subjected to the trickle of lukewarm sewage that is Kiss FM for hours on end. I don’t know what any of the vile bilge in the top 40 is called, but I now seem to recognise every ugly burble of melody that doppler-blasts by me in cars. And every time I do, these songs get stuck in my head again.

This might not be such a problem if the lyrics weren’t so troubling. Nearly all these songs are about sex, coached in oh-so-subtle metaphors like “I want to see your peacock” or “I just want to be part of your symphony”. Or, increasingly, no metaphors at all, as in the utterly cringeworthy: “I’d like to get to know you better, I’d like to get under your sexy body”. (One longs for the quaint days of “I wanna hold your hand”.) But the kind of sex this music depicts is hollowed out and empty. It takes something sacred and mysterious and makes it cheap. This music teaches us as much about real sexual experience as pornography does: which is to say, nothing at all. Sometimes – as on the deeply troubling ‘Blurred Lines’, a song that suggests it’s OK for sexual consent to be ambiguous – the things it does try to teach us are incredibly damaging.

This combination of bluntly effective melodic hooks and sordid bastardisations of love and sex are what I dislike so much about mainstream pop. It has become somewhat fashionable in indie circles to profess one’s love for pop music. I don’t understand why. It is not that I am am anti-melody, or even anti-catchy-melody, but that modern pop music seems to me so manipulative in its use of it. Its simple melodies and thick, electronic textures have the same appeal as junk food: they taste (kind of) good but make you feel sick afterward. Most of these songs give me a headache. Their lurid, insistent colours and overt sexual content place these manufactured products in the same circle of hell as TV adverts, which use the same cheap tricks. One can’t not listen; one can’t not look.

But enough ranting. I am finished swimming in these streams. Shower like a horse, I’m done.

Let me seek an antidote.

Ambient music is the opposite of pop music. If pop music positions the listener as the fish, then ambient music positions them as the fisher. That is, afloat on a sea of sound, fishing for meaning within it. This music will only exist in the moment it is played; it is impossible to recall afterward. It also, in its tendency to drift into the background, requires effort to actually listen to it, the opposite of the pop music that forces you to hear it whether you want to or not.

Chuck Johnson’s Balsams, from earlier this year, and Daniel Lanois’s Goodbye to Language, from September last year, are ambient records made almost entirely from the sounds of the pedal steel guitar. This is a strange proposition, for the pedal steel is usually used to add accents and resonances to other instruments, particularly within country music. But in these strange, singular works, it unassumingly takes centre stage.

Balsams is the purer of the two. The only accompaniment to the pedal steel here are some deep bass tones, occasionally throbbing softly from somewhere deep down in the ocean. (I think of sonar pulses from a whale). The steel, though, is the sparkling, sunlit surface, upon which the listener drifts. Melodies slowly, imperfectly repeat, like gentle waves. Many have an aching sadness to them. The way a pedal steel can slide one note into another, blurring the boundaries between them. ‘Balsam’ is ‘balm’ is ‘calm’.

Goodbye to Language is a stranger, more discomforting beast. Lanois on pedal steel is joined by Rocco DeLuca on lap steel, so immediately we have a sense of things colliding and coexisting: ‘overlapping’ rather than ‘lapping’. The compositions themselves are also much shorter and more unsteady than Johnson’s, more likely to alter or stop without warning. The waters are murkier and choppier, the waves shredded and disturbed by changing winds. The two steel guitars are augmented throughout by subtle digital manipulations, bits of detritus floating in on the surface.

Both albums require you to make your own meanings as a listener. Both also invite you to lose yourself in them. Johnson’s music projects such a huge sense of stillness and calm that one feels one could drift there forever. Lanois’s, meanwhile, closes quickly round you, and won’t stop shifting and changing, so that one can’t swim away. Both, though, are in their own way meditative. Neither will hook you, or catch you. They are complex, and mysterious, and require you to make time for them. They are fundamentally quiet, in a world full of too much loudness.