Best Albums of 2017

In the 70s music critics had an edge on the fans – if Richard Meltzer is to be believed, they got free records, invites to parties studded with stars, drugs and other party favours. In 2017 it is becoming increasingly common to not get sent the biggest new releases at all, never mind before they come out. (I note the dry irony in Taylor Swift’s album cover art appropriating newspaper logo fonts – several critics I know still haven’t received the promo.) In the mid 2000s I used to keep stacks of CDs in my desk, ordered by release date. When you opened the drawer, they stared back at you – imploringly, for less known artists, and reproachfully for the big names. Now digital promos from the majorspo arrive in dribs and drabs, sometimes expiring before you have a chance to hit ‘Play’ on track one. You can hear practically everything on demand via streaming, which is not new, but for me the landscape has finally flattened into a featureless horizon – your access is limited only by your time management. Everything is available, and everything is passing you by.

The effect on my listening is two-fold: I focus on genres I know I like, because there’s no force pushing me to engage with pop – it isn’t playing in the bars I go to, it doesn’t cross my twitter feed, I never hear commercial radio. (Pour one out for the major label marketers.) But I also feel perpetually behind, listening to records only once or twice because there’s an endless supply of new records being pushed by my genre outlets of choice (media content farms and ever-scrolling social feeds) and the FOMO is real, y’all.

So aside from the emergence of two new sounds, ‘weightless’ beat-deprived grime and dusty electro-ish drum machine industrial funk I’m dubbing CabVoltCore – neither of which I’ve seen trend pieces about so I’ve just guessed they exist – my listening this year roamed in a vast but fenced-in auditory landscape. And really, aside from the FOMO, it’s all good. I don’t miss what I don’t know exists (or don’t put at the top of a playlist). For what I didn’t miss, read on.

1. Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu)

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I really liked Jlin's debut, but I was a little suspicious of it being named The Wire's disc of the year - arriving amid the explosion of footwork at the time it seemed more like they wanted to celebrate the idea of experimenting with its rhythms than the actual result. Now I think they were just more perceptive than me - Black Origami is not conceptually that different from 2015's Dark Energy but it hit me like a bolt of lightning, maybe not coincidentally because the micro-bubble in radically strange footwork albums seems to have burst. With the field now largely to herself, Jlin's vision comes across as truly her own - a haunted landscape of reptilian hihats and shakers snapping menacingly over sand-blasted vocal snippets. If David Lynch remade Dune this would be the perfect soundtrack, all alien tones and martial snares conjuring a frightening yet fascinatingly unique planet ruled by huge worms. I don't know what worms sound like but they're in here somewhere, I'm sure of it.

 

The List

*Canadian
*** Not on Spotify

1. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
2. Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
3. *Sinjin Hawke – First Opus (Fractal Fantasy)
4. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert (Luaka Bop)
5. Richard H Kirk – Dasein (Intone)
6. Eric Copeland – Goofballs (DFA)
7. Peverelist – Tessellations (Livity Sound)
8. Gnod – Just Say No To The Psycho Right Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine (Rocket)
9. Fjaak – Fjaak (Monkeytown)
10. Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (Pan)

11. Pissed Jeans – Why Love Now (Sub Pop)
12. Ekoplekz – Bioprodukt (Planet Mu)
13. Blondes – Warmth (R&S)
14. Wolf Eyes – Strange Days II (Lower Floor)
15. Kingdom – Tears In The Club (Fade To Mind)
16. Claude Speeed – Infinity Ultra (Planet Mu)
17. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Artium/Blacksmith/Def Jam)
18. Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)
19. Delia Gonzalez – Horse Follows Darkness (DFA)
20. Bjorn Torske and Prins Thomas – Square One (Smalltown Supersound)

21. Yo Gotti and Mike Will Made It – Gotti Made-It (Gotti Made-It/EMPIRE)
22. Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains (Matador)
23. Mura Masa – Mura Masa (Polydor/Interscope/Downtown/Anchor Point)
24. *Drake – More Life (OVO Sound/Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money/Republic)
25. The Mole – De La Planet (Maybe Tomorrow)
26. Future – HNDRXX (Epic/A1 Recordings/Freebandz Entertainment)
27. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (DFA/Columbia)
28. ***Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Kulthan (Latency)
29. Farbror Resande Mac – Farbror Resande Mac (Horisontal Mambo)
30. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)

31. Sherwood and Pinch – Man Vs. Sofa (On-U Sound)
32. Dizzee Rascal – Raskit (Dirtee Stank/Island)
33. Joakim – Samurai (Tigersushi/Because)
34. Gas – Narkopop (Kompakt)
35. Clap! Clap! – A Thousand Skies (Black Acre)
36. *Egyptrixx – Pure, Beyond Reproach (Halocine Trance)
37. *Daphni – FabricLive 93 (Fabric)
38. Sote – Sacred Horror In Design (Opal Tapes)
39. Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
40. *Jacques Greene – Feel Infinite (Arts & Crafts)

41. Special Request – FabricLive 91 (Fabric)
42. *Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
43. ***Craig Taborn and Ikue Mori – Highsmith (Tzadik)
44. Circle – Terminal (Southern Lord)
45. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time sndtrk (Warp)
46. Ikonika – Distractions (Hyperdub)
47. ***Weightless Vol 1 (Different Circles)
48. ***Weightless Vol 2 (Different Circles)
49. The Horrors – V (Wolf Tone)
50. ***Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

a-void.ca’s best albums of 2014

Click here to listen to the Soundcloud playlist, featuring tracks from each album

WHERE IS T-SWIFT?

Ok, I admit it, I didn’t listen to it. Nor did I get through albums by Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Keyshia Cole, Calvin Harris, et al and sundry. I also didn’t hear all of Ariel Pink, Foxygen, Swans, TV on the Radio, Leonard Cohen, Julian Casablancas and too many others to count. Don’t even talk to me about jazz or country. (I wouldn’t have much of interest to say.) So WTF *did* I listen to? I’m not even sure how to describe it. Dave-core? Morris-dance? …maybe it’s better if I don’t.

This is the odd post-poptimist desert I feel like I’ve been sent to, via my escape pod hurtling from the full time music-crit grind. The barriers have all fallen – like a lot of right-thinking people, I’m perfectly happy to flip flop from Nicki Minaj to Neil Young to Young Thug in the space of an hour, but what happens when you don’t have time to devote to what might properly be called truly Catholic tastes? Does my embracing of a specialty – electronic music, not even really including the hip-hop that used to be part of my professional bag – mean I’ve re-embraced some of the biases I spent the early 2000s working to shed, like an earnest young Chinese party bureaucrat devouring Marx and Mao, and then giving it up in favour of Day Trading For Dummies?

It’s not a question of openness, I’ve realized, but a question of how you apportion your listening time. For better or for worse, I shoved the stuff that seemed like a long shot into a hard drive folder marked ‘Later’ and threw on another platter of grime, and this is the list that came out.. There was certainly no kind of shortage of amazing electronics to digest; the volume of almost-worthy discs attests to that. (Sorry Tre Mission, SBTRKT, DMX Krew, Shi Wisdom, Mark McGuire, Run The Jewels, Pop Ambient 2015, I could go on.) The LPs that did make the cut seemed not quite dancefloor friendly, except in an abstract sense. Bits and pieces of LV and Joshua Idehen, Caribou, Distal et al slipped into my mixes with scant friction. But the inventiveness I loved often didn’t fit in the space between floor-filling singles, not that I mind. Still, this is a list borne of someone who experienced dance music in 2014 mostly in a bedroom or between headphones. Simon Reynolds’ inveighing against IDM-like anti-dancefloorism aside, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The startling truth is that being kind of lazy, in terms of challenging your sense of what you like, can still be an astonishingly rich listening experience. There was enough originality and delight in my year in albums to make the absence of all that pop and hip-hop I missed feel about as painful as the knowledge that I didn’t eat nearly enough artisanal cheese in the last twelve months – not quite the sting of regret as much as the vague acknowledgement that I may have missed something good, possibly, but it’s not keeping me up at night.

If I had one thing I would ask of dance music in 2015, it would be for the most hypnotic, challenging, arresting, electrifying albums to be a little more melodic. I love the discs I chose, but as a whole I felt like my diet was a smidge on the grey side. Producers like Mumdance and Logos, Peverelist, Objekt and others put out single after single of holy-shit-guys-listen-to-this-ism, but when I put them all in a mix, I ended up taking a bunch out and replacing them with some chooons to break up the monotony. And the grab-bag of albums felt roughly the same, though I didn’t curate this list in a similar way. You can’t turn down a slamming, mesmerizing beat like the ones all over the Next Life comp or the Clap! Clap! record, melody or no. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

Albums: Teebs, SBTRKT, Ekoplekz and more

estara

Teebs
Estara
Brainfeeder

I’ve pretty much given up trying to find acts that are in the Flying Lotus vein – I thought there must be a whole untapped community of freaky beat wizards out on the coast, and as it turns out, there were maybe five. Listening to Teebs’ first album was kind of like listening to the crop of “next Amy Winehouse” candidates, in that I realized just how much I was setting myself up for disappointment comparing artists to FlyLo. Sure, the textures were pretty, but where was the boom-bap? If I wanted drippy background keyboard business with hushed vocals, I’d listen to Sigur Ros. Funnily enough, E S T A R A is basically even more Sigur Ros like than Ardour was, what with the acoustic guitars and the echoing percussion and the bells and the ethereal choirs (yawn, gag etc). But since I got myself a decent subwoofer, I realized that Teebs’ music relies to some extent on the tension between the beatific sounds in the treble and mids, versus the ruffneck business in the bass. There ain’t nuttin nice in the big fat kick drum driving “Hi Hat” or the Zepplinesque break powering “Shoouss Lullaby.” More than before, he finds ways of marrying the sublime and the sub-frequency-violence that add up to more than their parts. Recommended.

SBTRKT-Transitions-608x608

SBTRKT
Transition.
Young Turks

I don’t entirely get why people go nuts for SBTRKT. Is it the mask? It can’t just be the music, which is interesting but hardly worth going all gasp-and-drool over. Most footwork producers churn out tracks with similar textures and programming skill, only unlike this guy they pump out dozens of them every three months. “Kyoto” is admittedly a triumph of layering thin textures on top of each other until you can hardly stand it. But when he gets closer to “trap”, I lose interest. Is this another thing we can blame on Drake? (YOLO?)

phonica

Ten Years Of Phonica
Phonica

Record stores are your friends, people. The first time I hit up Phonica in London, I confessed to the guy behind the desk that I was having trouble finding fodder for this blog, and did he know any artists maybe I had missed? An armload of records later, I vowed to add the place to my must-visit list. This disc shows that I’m not alone, since presumably artists like Legowelt, I:Cube, Joe Claussell et al don’t just license their best tracks to comps by people they don’t like. The elusive Trevor Jackson (Playgroup) and Henrik Schwarz both contribute subtly simmering tracks, while Steve Moore’s remix of Iori and Juju & Jordash pitch their curve balls from way out in leftfield. But the real highlight is Raudive’s “Health” with its perfect balance of tribal and techy.

ekoplekz_unfidelity_grande

Ekoplex
Unfidelity
Planet Mu

I’m an unabashed Nick Edwards fan, and not just because his Gutterbreakz blog was a crucial and singularly illuminating part of the music blog 1.0 revolution I covered in the early part of my career. Unfidelity is an uneasy listen, even if you’re merely focusing on the early-industrial-meets-sci-fi-soundtrack textures, all dystopian metallic percussion and dry mechanical drum machine brutalism. It’s hard to make that engaging for three minutes, never mind an album, but Edwards’ collection here is like watching a 70s techno thriller eg. Alien or The Andromeda Strain – you want to switch it off even as you’re admiring its aesthetics and claustrophobic mood, but every time you reach for the remote, the realization that you’ll have missed whatever lies around the corner makes you hesitate.

analoguecops

The Analogue Cops
Heavy Hands
Restoration

I like minimal stuff – really minimal stuff. Drone? Sure. Tape loops? Where do I sign up? I also like some of Analogue Cops’ singles, at least to work into DJ sets. Things that are track-y are not necessarily dull. But this …is just dull. I appreciate the brute force of a good long drum loop and/or whooshy noise as much as the next person on epic quantities of drugs. But this… Nope. Just nope.

kassem-mosse-workshop-19-2lp-088499-9fc8b4ce

Kassem Mosse
Workshop 19
Workshop

It’s rare, in my experience, to listen to 52 minutes of music and not have strong feelings about it one way or the other, but somehow Workshop 19 manages that underwhelming state of equilibrium. Some tracks are just clashing assemblages of interesting textures; others are neatly arranged sets of poorly chosen synth patches. I seriously wanted to say something more interesting than “I wish he hadn’t used that farty horn sound on track B2”, but I wish he hadn’t used that farty horn sound on track B2. MEH.