Cover of the album Black Origami by Jlin

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.

*** Not on Spotify

  1. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
    • 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.
  2. Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
    • To Kill A Butterfly was a work of huge ambition and emotional nuance, the likes of which you rarely hear combined with mic skills. I didn’t like it much, however my politics made me want to. It just seemed so theatrical, a musical theatre approach that screamed “look at what I can do” until you cried uncle. DAMN. made me think of Pac and his own range of talents – dancing and acting along with being a wizard on the mic, but all deployed in service of the message (sacred or profane) when he was rapping. Here Kendrick sharpens his focus to laser-like precision, tackling plenty in terms of mood without losing the thread of what makes for a compelling, raw, passionate set of total speaker-rippers.
  3. *Sinjin Hawke – First Opus (Fractal Fantasy)
    • The expansive vision of 80s grandiosity that acts like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie seemed to run out of steam just like the Low End Theory crew did a few years earlier, making me think my getting really really excited about something jinxes it beyond redemption. Montrealer Sinjin Hawke has made the first truly great record in the subgenre since Glass Swords in 2011 and if it doesn’t inspire imitators, I don’t know what would. Hawke combines crisp FM synths with disco horns and classical elements (countertenor vocals, acoustic pianos) that feel like little nods to Montreal’s musical history. It’s too brutal to be called reverential though – he seems to be applying stadium-house levels of compression even to gritty tracks like the mind-boggling ‘Nailgun’. I hope I’m wrong about the scene; maybe the use of TNGHT in soccer commercials means it’s breaking out. In that case, Sinjin Hawke is its newest, jaw-droppingly talented star.
  4. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert (Luaka Bop)
    • Don’t let the wobbly synth ambience of this disc’s first minutes fool you. I skipped over it a few times before I landed in the muddy drum fills and early Pink Floyd organ textures that permeate cuts like ‘Silurian Blue’, and found myself going back to the well for weeks afterwards. Actually I think this is more like Tame Impala – similarly retro textures, but trading in the pop side of 60s nostalgia for loping, let-the-tape-roll experimental jams designed for dorm room navel-gazing. Makes me wish I had a bubble chair.
  5. Richard H Kirk – Dasein (Intone)
    • This, the Eric Copeland, Wolf Eyes and, to some extent, the Ekoplex album are what I meant by CabVoltCore. It’s not surprising that the main man behind Cabaret Voltaire is doing it, but then much of what they evolved into was closer to the relatively slick Wax Trax dance-industrial sound than the crusty early work of “Do The Mussolini” et al, raw white noise wafting across drum machines that sound like muffled jackboots and slammed doors punctuated by distant and mysterious chanting, set to an irresistible motorik backbone. With fascism on the march, is there something sinister in how people seem to be channeling England’s darkest hour? It does add a frisson of danger, but really I’d gamble it’s as much to do with a revolt against overprocessed drums exploding all over the pop-dance airwaves – and maybe a little with the apparent decline of DIY synthpop that’s barely a step above using a Casio bossa nova preset. Kirk has learned plenty since the early days, not least how to laugh at himself – try not to giggle at the faux James Brown exclamations of ‘Do It Right Now’ – but this is just as urgent and the textures just as gloriously gritty as they were in days of yore.
  6. Eric Copeland – Goofballs (DFA)
    • Speaking of CabVoltCore, there’s more 80s house in Eric Copeland’s conception than in Kirk’s, and what Copeland lacks in gloom he makes up for in sheer fun. Goofballs sounds like it was recorded to a cassette four-track, but these quirky miniatures are propulsive and buoyant. There’s no DIY indie moping in this lo-fi marvel, just jolly little perpetual-rhythm-machines that are brimming with the energy of a late-night pirate radio DJ set heard via Sony Walkman the following morning.
  7. Peverelist – Tessellations (Livity Sound)
    • Hands down the best conventional dance album of the year. ‘Best Conventional Album’ might be a backhanded compliment in other genres but in techno, the true sign of genius these days lies in reimagining the template. No matter how minimal, you can’t fail to notice Peverelist’s mastery of melody (the two-chord shuffle of ‘Under Clearing Skies’ proves beyond doubt that you can make a memorable hook with next to nothing) and drum machine prowess (if there’s a better pure drum workout than ‘Sheer Chance Matters’ this decade I’ll eat my 909 clone). One of those records where you find yourself humming the hooks to yourself while in elevators, only the hook goes ‘beep beep beep BEEP BEEP’ and people look at you funny.
  8. Gnod – Just Say No To The Psycho Right Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine (Rocket)
    • As a business journalist I like to think I catalogue the worst excesses of the Psycho Right Wing etc rather than contribute to them. Gnod would probably feel differently, but hey, if GY!BE haven’t thrown me out of their shows yet, maybe Gnod will let me listen too as they scream “bodies for moneyyyy… money for bodies” like roided-out Johnny Rottens over throwback 80s-indie sludge. It’s all quite cathartic, even if its amped-up rage also works smashingly as part of a gym playlist. Capital is voracious, isn’t it.
  9. Fjaak – Fjaak (Monkeytown)
    • I was tempted to downplay this in my year-end accounting because it came out early in the calendar and there were so many recent discs clamouring for attention, but every time I put it on, Fjaak’s insistent drums sucked me back in. It veers into straight up techno a bit, which would also normally put me off, but classy old school touches like the skittering snares of ‘Das Programm’ add a bit of soul to even the most relentless throb. Besides, breakbeat driven tunes like ‘Sixteen Levels’ and ‘Against The Clock’ are my kryptonite.
  10. Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (Pan)
    • Just when you think you’ve heard every possible ‘homage’/pilfering of Caribbean sounds, along comes Errorsmith with a fusion that’s not just rhythmically seductive but original to boot. The drums on, say, ‘Internet of Screws’ start out with a bit of a dancehall vibe but once the synth starts homing in on the coordinates of a melody, the pitch goes bananas, the rack toms are off to the races and it all goes delightfully sideways. It’s not all weirdness – ‘I’m Interesting, Cheerful and Sociable’ could arguably be the basis of a riddim, until it couldn’t, because the synth wobbles so hard you feel slightly seasick. It’s truly a fresh sound, unlike the shameless theft (or as you may know it, Pulling A Sheeran) going on in the pop world.
  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)





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