Every time I’ve attempted a top 50 records for a calendar year I’ve settled on an ordered 50-6 and then an unranked top 5, which each of those five nearly interchangeable. It’s a format I like, especially for music, where a selected favorite on any given day is usually at the behest of an emotional temperament or desired mood. This year, for a litany of reasons, I decided to set out to explore streaming services and artist friendly commerce sites more (like bandcamp and soundcloud) in an attempt to better track the artist expression of our many resistances and scattered undergrounds that the fallout from 2016 birthed like an army of determined ants set to ‘spur’n. With these avenues tackled weekly throughout 2017 alongside my usual, more mainstream, dives, I saw my number of favorites triple. So instead with this years list you’ll notice a three tiered system, each producing masterpieces by the bushel, but with an attempt by my oversaturated mind to attempt something akin to organization. The first post will be the third tier, roughly albums 50-31 unordered, then the second post will have tier two (30-16; also unordered) and the last post the unordered top 15 in place of the normal top 5. Scouring amounted in helping me hear three times the masterworks and personal favorites I usually do. That, or our artistic resistance is indeed healthy. Assuredly both I’d think.
(With this being said, my list still overwhelming bares my main rock n’ roll predispositions and obsessions, the raison d’être for the entire form in my eyes: the interplay between a loud guitar [or 2], a loud bass [or 2], and a cracking drummer)
Laibach – Also Sprach Zarathustra
If I had to pick what I’d call the straight ahead ‘artiest’ choice on my list this year, Laibach’s orchestral retelling of Nietzsche’s masterpiece on the creative sensibility would probably win out. It’s orchestral in an industrial, experimental way, pop music as serious art. Laibach, once the German crown princes of dark wave, have aged magnificently, composed the work for a theatrical adaptation and the match couldn’t be more appropriate. Their grinding milieu laid with Nietzsche prompted a chillier and more operatic sound, so fans of their more Rammstein sounding works might be put off, but nevertheless here is a genuine masterwork. Equal parts hair raising and scary, while also starkly beautiful, Laibach remains refreshingly original.
(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
In 2016, I wasn’t prepared for indy darling Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest release Teens of Denial. Their previous works were varied, but nothing could prepare me for its genre bending, tremendously assured quality. It went in a million directions at once, and somehow landed on steady footing each time. In 2017, multi-instrumentalist Alexander Giannascoli, known as (Sandy) Alex G, would replicate the feat with Rocket. It’s an assured record of pop tracks from a genuinely creative tunesmith, with rickety creases and pasted on pieces somehow working like a conceptual song cycle. Perhaps the concept is just ‘a record made by a guy alone in his bedroom’, but we’ve had pompous concept records celebrated for decades that don’t even have that much.
Meatbodies – Alice
Usually Ty Segall releases an lp, and I place that lp on my year end list. Sure, I’m an admitted fan, but he’s also a remarkably consistent artist across his many projects (Ty Segall Band, solo, Fuzz, etc). He released another solo lp this year, the decent Ty Segall, which I liked in spots, but thought it the first in his career not wholly probing new terrain (it’s not hard to see why, he was fresh off the heels of the mammoth Manipulator double record that’s in the running for best release of 2014 and Fuzz II from 2015) so I’ve instead opted to highlight a record from his frequent co-collaborator Chad Ubovich’s band, Meatbodies. Alice is their second release, and a monumental leap forward, with fuzz crammed into every hook laden blast, Ubovich holds the enterprise together with a sense of unexpected urgency. You don’t know where he’s going next, so you don’t dare turn it off.
Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman
My two favorite Soul releases of the year; both very much in line with where Soul was in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when it straddled the line of early funk and psychedelic leanings in the wake of Norman Whitfield’s pioneering works for Motown. The difference being the individual artist’s personal, individual touches; Sharon Jones’ deep, mournful delivery belies the more outwardly joyful sensations funk implies. It was recorded during the last months of her life, so many have been apt to read into it as a eulogy, but it’s actually a wonderful articulation of life. ‘These Tears (Are No Longer For You)’, for example, is moody and aching sad, but we swell out of the hooks with Jones leading the way; she’s determined and resilient. Being delivered between bouts of chemo, you read her delivery as sad and ecstatic in equal parts. Curtis Harding meanwhile, often sticks thankfully to a Soul stomper vibe, always an appropriate template to evoke joy within an otherwise melancholy lyric. ‘Need Your Love’ and ‘Need My Baby’ are good examples, yearning tales juxtaposed with truly rocking vibes.
Perhaps these two lps could be something of a counterpoint to much of my list. Turbulent years often have distinct, but hidden silver linings, and with enough probing, you’ll find them. Soul, as usual, provides them in 2017.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – Feed the Rats
An album title and band name often go a long way in describing a work, and fittingly, Feed the Rats is pure doom metal. With only three tracks making up the full length, it’s nonetheless a pulsing, varied work that will rattle your innards like few this past calendar year. This is most clearly shown on the last track, ‘Icon’ which opens to plaintive, cleanly picked bass, before ascending to an all out riff assault, which several moments of varied tempos. It’s one of the metal signposts of 2017.
Melvins – A Walk with Love & Death
Melvins records at this point tend to be one of two things, either they’re full fledged canonized works in their discography, or they’re interesting experiments, usually collaborations with other artists. 2016 saw two such works of the later, Basses Loaded and Three Men and a Baby, and both have incredible charms, often approaching classic Melvins thud for long passages (especially Basses Loaded where each track swapped out a different celebrity bassist), but when it was announced that 2017 would see a proper Melvins release, and a double lp no less, fans must have sensed all the playing would pay huge dividends. It did, with one disc carrying the ‘Love’ moniker and the other ‘Death’, it’d be a real laugh once you realized that the ‘Love’ one actually comprised the more aggressive, experimental side to the band. Yes, for those that love the heavier arts, our affections are masked with heavy, thick sludge—Love is, in fact, a scary, brooding beast.
The Fall – New Facts Emerge
Mekons – Existentialism
Pere Ubu – 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo
Here they are, three bands with nearly 70 albums between them (the official tally is 67; the Fall with 31, Mekons with 20 and Pere Ubu with 16). You wouldn’t think there would be a hell of a lot to say then by this point, but each of these albums offer interesting avenues for each band to explore and contemplate; The Fall sounds something akin to polished, riff rock, while Pere Ubu attempts clean anthemic rock, and the Mekons have a go at live improvisation, recording their record before a concert audience on the fly. Each of the records won’t place amongst the bands masterworks (which isn’t a negative, those are some of the greatest records ever made), but that’s not the point. Rather, radical, continued experimentation is. In a form where dinosaurs often settle into a groove and release the same lp year after year and are rewarded for it (no, this list, unlike Rolling Stones’ and a host of others, will not feature the new Buckingham/Nicks or Robert Plant lps) here are genuine tweaks to the formulas of madmen. You don’t expect anything less from such a trio of wild innovators, but in a year where these three were all deemed only for cultish fans of each band, they all deserve an extra nod.
Kite Base – Latent Whispers
Arca – Arca
For those looking for more atmospheric pieces, I’d point them in the direction of these two dense works. Kite Base, a duo featuring genius Savages bassist Ayşe Hassan, teased several tonal mood pieces before releasing their debut full length in March. It’s wise to not attempt rock when Savages is your known gig (could you top that?), but it still picks its moments to offer moving, arresting music. The track ‘Grids’ is the place to start, and from there the ethereal delights prove plenty. Similarly, Arca’s self-titled release from 2017 isn’t your usual wallpaper, ambient electronic music. It’s throbs and pulses with genuine thrills, at times proving scary (‘Sin Rumbo’ and ‘Castration’), beautiful (‘Fugaces’), or a combination therein (‘Desafio’).
Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution
Morrissey – Low in High School
A common theme for this year was just how many records were released by artists in their mature years and sought to alarm the masses that the strange and dangerous events happening at a global level can’t become our new normal. Morrissey and Depeche Mode (later in the list) are perhaps the most overtly political (but for different reasons), and coincidentally it’s some of the best work of their great careers. They’ve largely split fans who are unwilling to drop their preconceptions, while Weller on the other hand, remains as steady and assured as ever. Weller never allowed his fans to develop a cocoon to inclose him in, so he’s aged into one of the greatest pop crafters the form has ever had, freely able to experiment as he chooses from record to record. Meanwhile, Morrissey’s Low in High School finds new sonic terrain within his discography, and at times exhibits frightening dark or frank lyrics. There’s always his humor underneath, even if the most critics didn’t find it particularly funny. But alas, I’m hardly one to be objective; I’m in the bag for all of them. In my reality, Depeche Mode, Morrissey and Weller, are out there walking on water.
Sleaford Mods – English Tapas
The first Sleaford Mods lp I heard was 2014’s Divide and Exit, their second, which propelled them as the next big thing in British rock. It was weird at the time, they were brash working class yobs who picked public spats with the Gallagher brothers, but their minimalist sound wasn’t commercial for this era of ringtone music. I’d almost have thought it was a natural ascension with a big breakthrough to come, but each record came after it and stuck to their template—witty rants, barely sung, over hooky bass and drum backing. Surprisingly they’ve never softened or added ‘the rest of the band’ (i.e. guitars) that you’d assume some dickhead suit has pressured them to. English Tapas is another of the same, but this time the bass is deeper, and the grooves approach dub. The lyrics are as darkly clever and brash as ever, the legacy of Ian Dury remains in great hands.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Echo of Pleasure
I count The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s 2011 Belong as one of my favorite albums of the decade, so it’s not surprising that which every subsequent release I quickly listen and feel slightly let down. Of course, I always eventually return and realize the error of my ways and have now found each of their records to have a distinct feel, sound, and charm. The Echo of Pleasure was no different, two relistens this month to prepare this list had it continually rise each time; it’s poppier than Belong, but that’s not a bad thing, as here that amounts to dreamier, and virtually no one does their version of dream pop better nowadays.
METZ – Strange Peace
METZ, at this point, almost seem a shoe-in for my list, each building release improving slightly over it’s predecessor. For their third one, Strange Peace, it’s not obvious that they’ve topped 2015’s II, like it had improved the debut. But then again I loved that record. II was a loud slab of feedback, almost as much a producers marvel as it was a glorious piece of rock ensemble playing. Strange Peace then finds more quiet places within the structures (a fact no doubt partially due to Steve Albini producing), or opts for more mediative tracks entirely (‘Caterpillar’). But elsewhere they prove to be no less savage; ‘Dig a Hole’ broaches hardcore, while perhaps my favorite track, ‘Cellophane’, wraps its womb in a wall of warm, thick noise. This might just be their most assured collection of tunes from start to finish.
$hit and $hine – Total Shit!
There is a subsection of pop fans, which I happening count myself a member of, that when in a particularly prickly mood will cite the KLF and Negativland as the greatest and most influential pop artists of the last 35 years. It’s not terribly incorrect—their aesthetic has shown the way for abstraction and play within an every increasing digital collage world where sounds are sampled and remixed as much as they’re plucked or hit in a recording studio. The sounds are everywhere, even if many of their most brilliant followers haven’t seen a ton of mainstream pop success (for example, as great as the Books are, does anyone but audiophiles listen to their records?). $hit and $hine’s newest, Total Shit!, emboldens itself right from the jump: a chrome looking poop emoji on the cover shows that this record is a collection of sound turds they’ve polished to pop perfection, or at least pop total chaos (their previous, 2016’s Teardrops was more a hooky riff filled noise blast). It’s not for everyone, or really anyone but those with adventurous tastes, but I can’t recommend it enough, and the side of pop’s family tree that it comes from.
Black Kirin – NanKing Massacre
Krokofant – Krokofant 3
Another tradition for these lists that I try to maintain is kicking it off with two more obscure, or esoteric picks. Since I think most mainstream lists skirt heavy metal largely, I often will have spot 50 and 49 reserved for records that show how wide and diverse the tent of heavy metal now is. This year, it’s Chinese black metal titans Black Kirin, with their politically charged dark epic, NanKing Massacre. Coming off the heels of 2015’s masterful National Trauma, this is another brutal and beautifully made work that recounts the dark, historical atrocities that happened to Chinese dissidents and combatants from Imperial Japanese soldiers before the second World War. It’s diverse and eclectic—they often call themselves a folk band—and offer harrowing music, shaking you to your core. Krokofant 3, on the other hand, is pure jazz metal, Led Zeppelin meets Chet Baker. Their first and second (named 1 and 2 respectively) also made year end lists for me, and this is another consistent and tremendously groovy work.