For most of the year, I found myself thinking, “Huh, it hasn’t been a particularly great year for heavy metal.” Of course, I found myself thinking that while also getting busy listening to a whole lot of really good heavy metal, which I take as yet another sign that brains are like opinions are like assholes: they’re… fine. But maybe what I was really thinking was that I hadn’t found any sort of meta-narrative to hang all the music I was processing on. (Side note: it is probably Bad and Dumb to try to do such a thing in the first place. Again: brains, assholes, &c.) Heavy metal in 2017 didn’t seem to have a thesis statement. Contrast that, of course, with the undisputed thesis statement of the world at large in 2017: “We Thought Things Were Really Bad But They Kept Getting Worse.”
It may be that we’ve long since reached a point where the sheer volume and diversity of heavy metal makes meta-narratives impossible. With quite literally thousands of highly anticipated albums released, unleashed, dropped, spewed, spawned, shellacked, delivered, unearthed, presented, unveiled, offered, birthed, and undraped every year, you can micro-specialize your listening into whatever niche your heart desires. I’m agnostic as to whether that’s good or bad for heavy metal as a whole (in large part, I guess, because there’s almost no such thing as “heavy metal as a whole” any longer), but at least it has the comforting side-effect of making each and every one of us bystanders to a great seething river of sound that none can master. No matter how much you hear, you will not hear it all.
That reality also has the side-effect of making a stark mockery of lists. People make lists for lots of reasons. More and more, I’ve come to realize that I make lists as an aid to memory, a plea for permanence, a way of making an account of myself. A list says, “I was here.” This also explains why A) I spend way more time on making a list than is healthy, and B) I usually find myself, somewhere midway through the list-making and -writing process, wondering whether the whole thing isn’t just a pathetic diversion and a waste of time that could otherwise be spent doing productive, meaningful things. That dark mood usually passes, though, when I remind myself that this list is not a thing to capture the universe. It is not a thing that makes us greater or lesser than we were. It is not a thing that tames the world. It is a thing that says – in the middle of life, the universe, and everything – “I was here.” Don’t underestimate the quiet power of making yourself present and loving boundlessly.
Enough. How about some words about sounds?
50. Locust Leaves – A Subtler Kind of Light
49. Ingurgitating Oblivion – Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light
48. Valborg – Endstrand
47. Arduini/Balich – Dawn of Ages
46. Paradise Lost – Medusa
45. Grima – Tales of the Enchanted Woods
44. Hark – Machinations
43. Unearthly Trance – Stalking the Ghost
42. Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven
41. Unleash the Archers – Apex
40. Succumb – Succumb
39. Urarv – Aurum
38. Ride for Revenge – Thy Horrendous Yearning
37. Impetuous Ritual – Blight Upon Martyred Sentience
36. Hell – Hell
35. Execration – Return to the Void
34. Krolok – Flying Above Ancient Ruins
33. Adrift for Days – A Sleepless Grey
32. Sarcasm – Within the Sphere of Ethereal Minds
31. Seven Kingdoms – Decennium
30. Progenie Terrestre Pura – oltreLuna
29. The Great Old Ones – EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy
28. Condor – Unstoppable Power
27. Divine Element – Thaurachs of Borsu
26. Krallice – Loum
25. Squalus – The Great Fish
24. Cannibal Corpse – Red Before Black
23. Malokarpatan – Nordkarpatenland
22. Pagan Altar – Room of Shadows
21. Spectral Voice – Eroded Corridors of Unbeing
20. Impureza – La Caída de Tonatiuh
• Hi, hello, it’s death metal and flamenco. Yes, I know. It sounds silly. But it’s death metal first, and then also flamenco. Or, maybe it’s just music first, and then the rest of it comes later. You can dance to it, I bet. Might void the warranty, but I bet you can dance to it.
• Last Rites review
19. Incantation – Profane Nexus
• I try not to begrudge anyone their taste – honest. I try not to mind when someone dips their death metal in twelve kinds of wimpy bullshit, because I am truthfully a Twelve Kinds Of Wimpy Bullshit charter club member. But Incantation plays death metal in as ancient a mode as possible: gross and mean and slithery and stumbling and smart and always always always riffs-first. Profane Nexus is a blessing.
• Last Rites review
18. Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained
• It’s easy to imagine that the predominantly positive reception of Kingdoms Disdained is an overreaction – a too-enthusiastic sigh of relief that these death metal legends wouldn’t have their legacy tarnished with Illud Whatever Whocares as its final word. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to recognize that Trey Azagthoth’s signature simmering strangeness is back in full effect on this compactly destructive album. It’s not going to change the world, but it just might knock a few of the Elder Things flat on their asses.
• Last Rites review
17. Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay
• I don’t particularly care what you think of Cradle of Filth. Hell, the band themselves don’t particularly care what you think of Cradle of Filth. Exhibit A: they chose that album title, and that album cover. Exhibit B: Fuck you. Cradle of Filth has ruled for much more of their career than they have not ruled, and Cryptoriana rules superlatively.
• Last Rites review
16. Havukruunu – Kelle Surut Soi
• Lots of pagan black metal kinda honks. Havukruunu does not honk. Ergo, some pagan black metal does not honk. Bam: a pagan black metal syllogism. A Moonsorryllogism? The point is that you love Moonsorrow and so does Havukruunu and to celebrate this mutual love Havukruunu have kruuned some beautifully ferocious pagan metal hymns with fiery riffs and regal chants and all manner of forest-hailing triumphs. A truly splendid album.
15. Tomb Mold – Primordial Malignity
• Primordial Malignity does not sound like Scream Bloody Gore or Severed Survival or Seven Churches or Altars of Madness or any such thing. But it does sound like it loves those things with all of its disgusting heart. Don’t you, too? I’m not sure I heard any other death metal album this year that sounded hungrier than Primordial Malignity.
14. Immolation – Atonement
• If you suggested back in the late 80s that a bunch of the bands working frantically to spit out their first death metal demos would still be making vitally heavy music thirty years later, Immolation probably would have been first in line to step on you… before dawn. Atonement kicks so much ass, and does it so matter-of-factly, that it’s impossible not to stand back and mouth a silent prayer that the years are so kind to us all.
• Last Rites review
13. Slow – V – Oceans
• Is it slow? Yes. Is it ocean-y? Definitely. Does it succor your weary heart with aching beauty before tying you to a ten-ton leviathan bent on nothing more than dragging your soul pitilessly to the very lightless and unsounded depths from which all life claims provenance? Hell fucking yeah it does. Slow high-five!
12. The Chasm – Conscious Creation from the Isolated Domain – Phase I
•Loving The New Chasm Album: A Three-Step Process:
1. Wait a minute, this new album doesn’t have any VOKILLS?!?
2. Huh, alright, I guess this sounds pretty good.
3. Okay I’ve never heard so many brilliantly serpentine and atmospheric riffs in one place at once I’m sorry for ever doubting youuuuuuuuu [sprints to the nearest parlor to get a Chasm forehead tattoo].
• Last Rites review
11. Argus – From Fields of Fire
• One of the more pernicious aspects of the wild wealth of music that each and every listener can dive through according to her most specialized whim is that those singular moments that freeze you in your tracks seem fewer and farther between. Argus has got you, though. This beautiful album crescendos with the song of the year, “No Right To Grieve,” and honest, it’s like hearing all of music again for the very first time.
• Last Rites review
TOP TEN OF 2017 – THAT REAL GOOD SHIT
10. Walpyrgus – Walpyrgus Nights
I don’t know about you, but I like to smile. Walpyrgus gets it, too. There’s something extremely refreshing about the who-cares-let’s-do-everything-great-at-once style of Walpyrgus’s exhilarating debut album, which likely says just as much about the gloomy, po-faced habits of too much of today’s scene as it does about Walpyrgus’s righteously fun heavy metal. But no matter how you parse or analyze or second-guess Walpyrgus Nights, it only wants you to grin. Each song is a cat on a skateboard, a twenty dollar bill found in an old pair of pants, a memory of the first time you heard “Run to the Hills”: a thing that is self-evidently awesome.
9. Grafvitnir – Keys to the Mysteries Beyond
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a more or less unknown Swedish black metal band in possession of a good fortune of riffs, must be in want of an audience. Grafvitnir have not done themselves too many favors, it must be said. Keys to the Mysteries Beyond, their absurdly glorious black metal riff-fest of an album, is being released at the absolutely hungover tail-end of 2017, and Obeisance to a Witch Moon, their equally absurdly glorious black metal riff-fest of a previous album, was released at pretty much the same time in December of 2016. This means, of course, that promos for the album went out at just about the time that most writers have had to stick a pin in their year-end lists and call it a day. But please believe me, friends, that Grafvitnir has more icy riffs per capita than just about anyone you can name. These last few albums of theirs in particular have landed smack dab in the sweet spot between Old Wainds and early Watain, which means they are mean, serious, and tongue-on-a-flagpole frosty, but also melodic, smart, and just a damned lot of fun. If the opening riffstorm on “Nidhögg” doesn’t compel you to leap a hundred fjords in a single bound, then my friend, black metal is dead to you.
8. Klabautamann – Smaragd
Like so many other groups in the Zeitgeister collective, Klabautamann has always been a little slippery. Black metal? Yep. Prog? Of course. Folk? Sometimes. Melodic and atmospheric death metal? Maybe. But no matter how slippery they are to analyze, the Klabautamen make music that is almost self-effacing in its easy yet meticulously orchestrated pleasures. Smaragd is wide and wild in its breadth, but never seems to be stretching. If anything, the album seems to be traveling alongside the listener, feeling out each twist and turn with a confident curiosity that trusts in its means without necessarily knowing the ends.
7. Grift – Arvet
Grift’s captivating, rustic black metal is destined, almost by design, to not make a huge splash. That Nordvis released this solo act’s beautifully burnished second album at the start of autumn was about as perfect a design as one could hope for, as Grift’s most excitable moments sound like dead leaves caught in a gusty November wind. Despite its economical 35 minutes, Arvet covers diverse terrain, with several songs flecked with dark ambient and ritualistic folk elements. Most importantly, the songs are frequently augmented by the hoarse, reedy resonance of a single-stringed Scandinavian instrument called the psalmodikon. But the particular atmosphere captured here is important, because even in its most triumphant moments, it doesn’t summon visions of cosmic battles or summiting vast mountains. Instead, the victories are small, personal, earthbound. Climbing a familiar hill of your home; collapsing in a chair at the long day’s end; watching the sun rise over a new snow: even the grandest of narratives are built from these miniature dramas.
6. Pyrrhon – What Passes For Survival
I’ve already shot my mouth off plenty about this remarkable album, so I’ll try to keep this brief. Pyrrhon’s music sounds like dumpster diving at MIT: just because it’s smart as all get-out doesn’t mean it ain’t also crusty and rude. These carefully collapsing songs are all the more frantic, all the more affecting, all the more vital because of the flame of humanism and compassion they aim so desperately to kindle.
5. Venenum – Trance Of Death
With the extraordinary cohesive statement of Trance of Death, Germany’s Venenum joins a relatively small but incredibly potent cadre of bands like Tribulation, Morbus Chron, Execration, Diskord, Obliteration, Necrovation. Uniting these groups (at least on some of their key transitional/exploratory albums) is the fact that they all play Very Serious Death Metal that is also, if not exactly playful, then at least curious and open-minded in a way that honors Atheist, Death, Cynic, Pestilence, et al. without imitating them. Trance of Death has got it all – ghoulish vocals, extremely gigantic riffs, fluid and emotive soloing, a rich, harrowing atmosphere, and a truly unified vision. Death metal really is an everflowing stream.
4. The Ruins of Beverast – Exuvia
Let’s not bother mincing words: Blood Vaults, the last Ruins of Beverast album, was terrible. And neither did the bizarre Takitum Tootem! EP released at the very end of 2016 give any cause for optimism. Yet despite those stiff odds, Exuvia is a rich tapestry of deeply grounded warmth. It is hypnotic, liturgical, and psychedelic – frequently all at once, as on the powerfully satisfying highlight “The Pythia’s Pale Wolves.” Although the music is starkly dissimilar, Exuvia sometimes reminds me of Neurosis’s Through Silver in Blood – a kiln in which the elements themselves are fired, harnessed, and clarified. Meilenwald’s universe seems less hermetic this time around, but it’s no less engrossing for it, and Exuvia is a thing that beckons and calls you back, even when you think you’ve finished with it.
3. Enslaved – E
Although Enslaved has long since passed the point of needing to prove much of anything to anyone, given that In Times was easily the band’s weakest, dullest album, there was some pause to wonder whether it was just the leading edge of a gathering slump. Thankfully, E is an immaculately constructed album that sees modern Enslaved working at their cleanest, smoothest level, while engaging even more directly with capital ‘P’ prog. The most impressive aspect of E is that despite how deliberate it is (e.g., it’s not until almost seven minutes into album opener “Storm Son” that the song really unleashes its pent-up energy), every last minute is tactile and engrossing where In Times’s similar moves were flat and forgettable. Although “Sacred Horse” is likely the finest individual song, the album has a miraculous arc to it, and the glorious valediction of “Hiindsiight” sends the listener off into the world as though for the first time, charged with purpose and thirsty to learn.
2. Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep
You can slice it however you want. The thing that defines Satyricon’s outrageously good Deep Calleth Upon Deep is swagger. Whereas previously that swagger was grafted onto self-consciously arena-aimed jams (“Fuel for Hatred,” “Now, Diabolical,” “Repined Bastard Nation,” etc.), now the swagger seems to have been fully internalized. Deep Calleth Upon Deep is absolutely dripping with absurdly excellent riffs, each one twistier and more swaggering than the last, but each is delivered with such casual nonchalance that it’s easy to overlook Satyr’s overflowing bag of tricks. “Black Wings and Withering Gloom” is one of the standout tracks here, because it sounds rather like Satyricon instinctively revisiting the undisputed anthem “Mother North” with all the wisdom and accumulated experience of the past twenty years. But the truest statement of purpose might be the forlorn “To Your Brethren in the Dark,” because it paints the band as they are: tired but determined, marching on with whomever will walk with them.
1. Leprous – Malina
Whether by evolutionary imperative or cultural conditioning, I think most of us hew to an events-based understanding of personal history. Life is punctuated by major events, political upheavals, global cataclysms, and so on. You organize your inner life by anchoring it to Big Things. But really, most things? They creep up on you. Close your eyes, and bam! You’re old. Your children are growing no matter how desperately you want to keep them as they are. Friends come and go. People die. But things are always almost similar enough that you don’t see the hands coming in to erase what you’ve only just drawn. The reason I say this is not because Leprous’s astonishingly good Malina is an album that had to creep up on me. In fact, its manifold charms are immediate and generous. Rather, I think that something about Malina can attune our distractible and often untrainable minds to the miracle of the everyday epiphanies that live in plain sight. Most of the songs on Malina are built around big, bold, often explosive choruses, so it might seem at first listen that Leprous fits right in the mold of Big Things thinking. But the more you listen to the light touch with which their surprisingly dense instrumental tangles are formed, the more you recognize that in Leprous’s music – as in life – even the smallest thing is constantly in motion.
The band’s intricate, knotted, and profoundly moving progressive metal boasts one of heavy music’s most acrobatic and compelling vocalists in Einar Solberg, but that’s not where the story ends. Simen Børven’s bass plays a huge role in anchoring the churning and fluttering flights of keyboards and guitars, while Baard Kolstad’s drums work to wick away extraneous trains of thought (just listen to his virtuoso performance on the title track). The ground on which Solberg’s vocals stand and soar is constantly shifting, which leads to the album’s almost hallucinatory effect of always sounding a little different than the last time you listened to it. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s best song, “Mirage,” which is introduced as a sliding-note breakdown but eventual erupts into one of the most infectious and legitimately life-affirming choruses I have heard in years. Each piece of the song is constantly bounced off the next – each instrument challenging the others to follow, to respond, to engage – in a way that recontextualizes the song’s entire construction. It’s not that everything was built to get to that perfect chorus; it’s that the perfect chorus would never have been found without the exploration it took to create it.
Maybe this is a dumbass pitch to listen more deeply to the music that sustains so many of us. Maybe it’s also a dumbass pitch to live more fully and immediately in the one life that is all any of us is given. I’ve never quite embraced the idea that music changes lives; I think music supports and fortifies us in the difficult and necessary work of changing our own lives.
TOP FIVE EPS OF 2017:
5. Code – Under the Subgleam
• Yeah, I wish it were longer, but damned if Code doesn’t prove in these scant few minutes why they’re still the best in the game for progressive and experimental black metal that you can’t quite call “progressive black metal” or “experimental black metal.” Just… really great music, basically. That’s what we’re all here for.
4. Author & Punisher – Pressure Mine
• This five-song EP just might be Author & Punisher’s best work since the 2012 breakthrough Ursus Americanus. The churn and heave of machines is leavened with a relatively clean approach to industrial doom songwriting, in a way recalling the similarly restrained approach of Godflesh’s excellent Post Self.
3. Oranssi Pazuzu – Kevät / Värimyrsky
• The Oranssi Pazududes can apparently deliver the same world-spinning psychedelic bile in this abbreviated format as they usually take an entire album to unspool. More bands: please get on this level.
2. Tomb Mold – Cryptic Transmissions
• These two songs already show huge compositional progress from a young band whose debut already cracked our staff best-of list. This is death metal of the excellent sort that sounds effortlessly classic while never actually sounding like a retread. Yours truly will be eagerly awaiting LP #2, which was recently announced by 20 Buck Spin.
1. Imindain – The Enemy of Fetters and the Dweller in the Woods
• Creepy-crawly doom/death with serious funeral vibes. Basically, the kind of shit that you just can’t help but call “stately,” even as it stalks from a winter forest to pound you slowly to dust.
TOP 40 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2017
40. Kauan – Kaiho
39. Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen – Rimur
38. Kompakt – Total 17
37. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
36. Christian Scott – The Centennial Trilogy
35. Phase90 – Absonia
34. Oddisee – The Iceberg
33. Tori Amos – Native Invader
32. New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
31. Clark – Death Peak
30. Jlin – Black Origami
29. Monolog – Conveyor
28. Fever Ray – Plunge
27. Slowdive – Slowdive
26. Bicep – Bicep
25. Jay-Z – 4:44
24. cv313 – Dimensional Space (reissue)
23. Zola Jesus – Okovi
22. Nine Inch Nails – Add Violence (EP)
21. Ricardo Villalobos – Empirical House
20. The Bug vs. Earth – Concrete Desert
• In recent years, you may have come across The Bug’s dank, gritty dubstep on labels like Rephlex and Ninja Tune. But Kevin Martin (aka The Bug) was a member of Techno Animal alongside Justin Broadrick in the early 90s, which makes this album-length collaboration with Earth’s Dylan Carlson much more intelligible. Concrete Desert is an extremely well-aimed title, as these slowly shifting soundscapes pull in drone, dark ambient, Earth’s recent Western twang, and crumbling electronics in an ominous, sepia-toned vision of post-apocalyptic decrepitude.
19. Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano – Everything
• Everything is apparently a soundtrack to a video game. As a three-hour (plus) album, however, it works not so much as a continuous piece, but as a single sound that radiates outward from some brightly burning inner core. The sounds are mostly derived from ambient, modern classical, and electronic music, but the hallmark of the album is that it seems open to literally, well, everything. Here there are no closed doors or predetermined trajectories. The sound blooms where it will, and we follow.
18. Kompakt – Pop Ambient 2018
• The German electronic music label Kompakt’s annual Pop Ambient compilation is something of an audio pilgrimage. Released each year in the late fall, Pop Ambient is a consistent companion for wistful meditation on quiet winter nights and a down payment for spring’s eventual thaw. The 2018 installment strikes me as one of the best of at least the last five years, with particularly stunning contributions by Chuck Johnson, The Orb, T.Raumschmiere, and Kenneth James Gibson.
17. Royal Thunder – Wick
• Royal Thunder has settled into a comfortable spot as a Very Good Rock Band. Before you take that as an insult, though, consider how few Very Good Rock Bands are really out there at the moment. There’s still a streak of mysticism shot through their bluesy rock moves, and as always, Mlny Parsonz’s vocals are the star of the show. The long-form excursions into dark psychedelia that marked Crooked Doors and especially CVI are missed on Wick, but the stronger focus here will probably serve the band better in the long run. “We Never Fell Asleep” is a perfectly haunting coda, though, and one that proves the band’s ambitions have yet to run dry.
16. Run the Jewels – RTJ3
• Your favorite buddy cop rap duo returned this year (well, digital release December 2016/physical release January 2017, so w/e) with their most stylistically diverse album. If it’s not quite to the front-to-back stage rush of the first album, it’s significantly better than RTJ2, and finds El-P throwing nearly his entire bag of production tricks at the wall, and both he and Killer Mike in fine, feisty, fiery form. “Thursday in the Danger Room” packs an unexpectedly emotional gutpunch, and reminds us that the very best hip-hop thrives as both myth and history.
15. Anathema – The Optimist
• On The Optimist, Anathema trims back some of the more orchestral elements that made the previous three albums such stirring experiences, and instead retreats somewhat to the slightly sturdier rock gestures of A Fine Day to Exit (an album which, it should be noted, The Optimist is teased as being a sequel to). The electronic embellishments of Distant Satellites have been retained, but more than anything else, The Optimist is a testament to Anathema’s songcraft. The Lee Douglas feature “Endless Ways” is as breathtaking as nearly anything in their post-Judgement catalog, and the mysterious “Wildfires” is patient in its build and eventual burst. Very few bands can handle restorative sadness as well as Anathema.
14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World
• Yes, Elder writes songs, and they do crunchy kinda-sorta heavy metal things, and they have a singer who mostly does shouty things. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here with Elder because of the heavy, hazy, blissful, endlessly unspooling guitar jams. These lengthy songs are built on sturdy and thoughtful riffs, but really, everything in the whole picture serves as a solid bedrock from which to launch a veritable army of riffs, licks, leads, solos, vamps, stabs, and motifs. Like Serpent Throne, or Earthless, or Ancestors, Elder wants to stick a bluesy jam on repeat and riff on it until eternity. Probably you should let them.
13. DJ Python – Dulce Compañia
• I have a very good sense of rhythm but I am a terrible dancer. I’m not sure if that entirely accounts for why I’m drawn to dance music that’s difficult to dance to, but there you have it. Actually, the majority of Dulce Compania is couched in a dembow/reggaeton beat, but it’s all cast in an aquatic haze, a vivid rendering of shapes in slow but constant motion. You’d be hard pressed to find many deeper grooves this year.
12. Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory
• Colin Stetson is a saxophonist, and the entirety of this fascinating album is made of sounds from his saxophone. Not just that, though – these songs were all recorded live and without overdubs. So when it sounds like there’s an overdriven bass guitar and a singer and a drummer all at once? Nope. When it sounds like the entire Philip Glass Ensemble running through a hyperactive b-side from Glassworks? Nope. Just Stetson, alone with his many voices. Remarkable.
11. Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far From Over
• Vijay Iyer is both forceful and sensitive as a pianist, but on this sextet outing, it’s his compositions that shine. Far From Over never quite tips into avant-garde territory, but in its wide range of styles (bop to ballad to fusion and beyond) and quickly shifting moods, it is a deeply adventurous album, and further proof that Iyer’s is one of the most compelling careers in contemporary jazz.
10. Tornado Wallace – Lonely Planet
• Lonely Planet is an inviting, open-hearted album, but it’s also a curious one, in that it sounds very much like old-fashioned version of the future. A more succinct way to say that: it sounds very 80s. But even as the album moves through new age tonality and buttery Mark Knopfler guitar, it fashions a style very much its own, where buried krautrock squiggling and naturalistic found sound collages shore up a lilting album built more for trancing than dancing. The closest thing I can compare Tornado Wallace’s striking debut album to is some of Banco de Gaia’s earliest albums, but even that is more in spirit than sound. The safest thing, really, is to grab a pair of headphones and let Lonely Planet lead you to a huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the center of your innerworld.
9. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
• We’re well past the tipping point where Ulver should be referred to as “a metal band that left metal behind,” and are truly years and years into an era where Ulver should be referred to as “an experimental rock band that had a metal pre-history.” The Assassination of Julius Caesar is almost impossibly catchy, with each dark, synth-driven pop gem sounding a little bit like an alternate history of the late 80s, where synth-pop and goth-leaning new wave never gave ground to grunge and alt-rock as the primary vehicle of popular rock music. This is easily Ulver’s most compulsively listenable album since 2005’s watershed Blood Inside, and no matter how far afield from the band’s earlier tangents it runs, it is still unmistakably Ulver. Slickly captivating and undeniably fun.
8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
• If you’ve heard Godspeed before, chances are you know how you feel about Godspeed. And that’s fair. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite as hot on either of their two previous post-reunion albums as I wanted to be, but sweet tap-dancing Joshua at the battle of Jericho, Luciferian Towers does the business. Although there’s still plenty of time devoted to generally scene-setting and tension-building atmospheric stuff, the real meat of Luciferian Towers is that the whole album is more or less two gigantic folk songs played by a huge, loud, sad, and fucking angry ensemble. It’s like apocalyptic chamber post-rock as imagined by Aaron Copland, and if that notion doesn’t excite you, then friend, kindly step off the platform. This train’s bound for glory.
7. Steel Tipped Dove – to name it
• I’ve been a fan of the Brooklyn-based musician Steel Tipped Dove for a couple of years now, and the only thing more impressive than the pace of his output has been its consistently high quality. It’s a bit reductive to say that he mostly makes beat tapes, but the general style is instrumental hip-hop. On to name it, his sprawling new album, though, the range of styles that flow into and out from one another is truly wild, from a claustrophobic slow jam like “if I had a” to the faux cock rock jock jam “coke party_INST_1,” or from the piano-led IDM beats of “that’s between” to the noir trip-hop of “outside plant.” Most critically, Steel Tipped Dove doesn’t sound like he’s aiming to be the next Madlib or J Dilla. Dude got more ideas than the church got “Ooh Lord”s.
6. Bjork – Utopia
•Bjork is a goddamned international treasure. In fact, it’s difficult to think of many other musicians who have pursued a similarly singular vision as consistently over the last 25 years. The common read on Utopia is that it represents a joyous rebirth after the harrowing, personal agony of Vulnicura, and while that’s not wrong, it offers too simplistic a reading of this sprawling, confident, living, and still vulnerable album. I hear quite a bit of similarity with Vespertine, but the skittering beats and bass from Bjork’s collaborator Arca often call to mind the way that Medulla built its home from voices turned into drums. Utopia is its own, though. Bjork’s voice blends with birdsong and layers of flute on the brilliant album centerpiece “Body Memory,” but the most perfectly 2017 moment comes later in the album, on “Tabula Rasa,” where Bjork speaks to her own children and to all women:
“Clean plate: Tabula rasa for my children. /
Let’s clean up: Break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers. /
It is time for us women to rise / And not just take it lying down. /
It is time; / the world is listening.”
Utopia is a stunning work of art from an artist who is beginning to seem incapable of making anything else. Cherish it.
5. Gas – Narkopop
• Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project is rightfully the stuff of legend, and his four-album run on Mille Plateaux from 1996 through 2000 is one of the absolute pinnacles of ambient electronic music. Narkopop appeared with substantial trepidation about the resuscitation of this beloved project after a seventeen-year hiatus, but it shows Voigt still in easy command of the immersive qualities of his chosen sounds. Narkopop is both tremulous and dense, as far away as morning fog quietly burning off a mountainside and as immediate as your breath. The smallest shifts register as seismic shocks, which makes the martial drums in “Narkopop 5” a breathtaking, unsettling element no matter how many times you experience them.
4. Daniel Herskedal – The Roc
• The Norwegian tuba player Daniel Herskedal leads a nominally jazz ensemble through distinctly Middle Eastern flavored terrain on The Roc. In addition to tuba, Herskedal employs a bass trumpet to narrate this evocative, travelogue-esque album, but instead of being joined by additional horns, his frontline accompaniment is cello and viola. In his acknowledgements for the album, Herskedal thanks Jon Balke, in whose music one can certainly hear a kindred spirit (particularly Balke’s deliriously melancholy 2009 album on ECM, Siwan), but The Roc is as playful as it is meditative, and willing to embrace compositional moves closer to modern classical than jazz. However you need to get there, though, just get there.
3. Max Richter – Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works
• If Max Richter can be said to belong to a young generation of neoclassical composers that also includes Johann Johannsson, Nils Frahm, and Olafur Arnalds, Richter likely remains the most classicist of the bunch. Much of his experimentation has been with form rather than tone, but these achingly beautiful scores for three ballets based on Virginia Woolf’s fiction dial back everything extraneous but for the slightest bit of ambient/electronic enhancement. Instead, Three Worlds demonstrates precisely what it promises: Richter’s keenest skill is world-building.
2. Zeitgeber – Heteronomy
• If you like putting music into tidy, discrete boxes, Zeitgeber will bug the everliving heck out of you. That’s not to say that Zeitgeber is impatient or schizoid – in fact, it’s very much the opposite – but that the instrumentation and general style are something like an alien synthesis of musical forms constructed purely from memory. The driving force of the music is an instrument that sounds something like a cross between steel drums and a hammered dulcimer, but every nook and cranny of this beguiling album is stuffed with percussion, electronic textures, muted psychedelia, reeds, strings, and wondrously unplaceable things. It is an entirely hypnotic experience that can be confidently recommended to every lover of sound as journey.
1. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions
• Stubborn Persistent Illusions is as difficult to describe as it is purely pleasurable to listen to. Toronto’s Do Make Say Think has been making knotty, spacious, jazzy, and experimental post-rock for more than 20 years now, and they still find new ways to surprise and engage the listener. In fact, the trend with DMST over time has moved away from detached intellectual exercises towards emotive themes and overtly conversational instrumental dynamics. All of that sounds like a lot of bullshit on paper, but on an album as ebullient and mysterious as Stubborn Persistent Illusions, even the most florid of metaphors holds water. “Bound” builds beautifully into the vampy victory lap of “And Boundless,” and the early album centerpiece “Horrorpilation” moves in approximately a thousand directions as it burrows unerringly to the heart of the earth. The sound of the group is a distillation of the album’s artwork – a concert of creatures (some earthbound) in flight, perched above foam-crested waves as they chase something that may exist only in the collective mind’s eye. This album is a trove of sensory richness that begs to be encountered again and again, welcomed as a stranger and greeted as a long-loved friend.
A heartfelt thank you to each and every one of you who has stopped by our particular corner of the internet this year (and so many years before). Most of the time this gig still feels like a bunch of idiots yelling nonsense into a formless void, but knowing that you’re still out there keeps us honest and engaged in ways you may not realize. Just like you, we’re only here because we love this stuff.