Hey, it's Austen again, coming at you with another HOT year-end list! For those unaware, I'm the managing editor of The Needle Drop, or in other words, Anthony's right-hand man. It's my third year making these lists for the site, and let me just say up front that this is the best one yet. 2017 has been my favorite year in music this decade, so you're in for a whole lot of gushing and superlatives. Moreover, I'm listing more albums than usual so as to not leave anyone out; you'll see when we get to the honorable mentions section. Many of the albums also happen to be very long, with a few in the Top 10 exceeding three hours. I'm not sure what to make of that – probably just a coincidence. Or perhaps Anthony's conspiracy theory about albums getting longer and longer is proving true.
With that digression aside, here's the list...
The Top 10
Thin Black Duke topped my mid-year list and, as you can see, not much has changed since then. Unfortunately that includes my inadequacy as a writer to do this album justice. I'm forced to recycle the line about this being the greatest orchestral rock album since Lou Reed's Berlin, which I can now at least clarify is my favorite album of all time. It's also a shame that I didn't keep the anecdote about Joseph Losey / The Servant in my pocket. The one thing the album had yet to prove at the time of my previous list was its staying power, and it has certainly done that. Every track on this album hits me as hard as it did on first listen, if not harder. It was just last month that I had the album on one night and got choked up by its centerpiece, "Letter of Note." Not only because it's a pretty tragic song, but because it's just formally perfect. It occurred to me in that moment that I'll probably never create something even half as beautiful – that's a paradoxically inspirational feeling. If you can listen to the track, or the rest of the album for that matter, and not have that response, then you and I are very different people. So, to reiterate: if you're in the market for a rock album that's artful, impeccably arranged, and emotionally overwhelming, you're not going to find much else on the level of Thin Black Duke. Except The Narcotic Story. Listen to that one, too.
In 2017, Mark Kozelek released four albums that total nearly six hours of music. This volume of output comes as a surprise even by his prolific standards. 50 years into his life, half of those spent releasing music, Mark doesn't even seem to think this is a big deal and is really taking the principle of not resting on one's laurels to the next level. I've already written a lot about Common as Light and the Jesu collab on my mid-year list, so I'm just going to use the rest of this space to touch on the Yeaton and Boye/White projects. Yellow Kitchen, the disc with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton, ended up being my favorite of the "tetralogy" and pretty much validated my previous Scott Walker comparison – this is essentially Mark's The Drift. I was expecting some typical garage rock, but it turns out that Sean is quite the composer and producer. He mostly contributes dark ambient soundscapes that perfectly suit Mark's anxious, sometimes downright paranoid musings about his health, daily life, and memories.
Yellow Kitchen has a schizophrenic charm in its brevity and disjointedness, whereas the self-titled collab with keyboardist Ben Boye and drummer Jim White goes for a consistently nocturnal fusion of jazz and slowcore. This sound is a bit more in the Koz's wheelhouse, but the project stands out in his catalog for the trio's exceptional chemistry as improvisers, culminating in the epic "Topo Gigio." I'm also taken by Mark's terse writing in the CD insert detailing the events that inspired the album; it closes with "I sang about my days, my nights and my dreams." The man's blurring the line between prose and poetry, and as TMI as it sometimes gets, I think it's beautiful. As long as he remains ambitious with his instrumental and compositional palettes, I look forward to hearing where this uncharted songwriting direction takes him.
Bill Orcutt has spent much of the decade channeling the no wave energy left over from his band Harry Pussy into his (poor, poor) acoustic guitar, violently deconstructing a myriad of American standards along the way. Albums like How the Thing Sings and A History of Every One punked the fuck out of American Primitivism and effectively reinvented the instrument – well, they gave me some new ideas, anyway. However, Bill's gone electric on his latest release, and the results are more modest than one might expect. This is after all a self-titled album by the man who spent the last several years producing some of the most brutal acoustic guitar recordings of all time, and now that he has a decidedly more powerful weapon in his hands we're getting something low-key? Well, it was a wise move, as this is the best solo guitar album I've heard all decade. The only things I miss that were lost in the jump to amplification are the involuntary vocalizations Bill would make while going off on his detuned and destrung six-string. Those really added to the rawness. Bill takes things a bit easier on this album, though there is no shortage of explosive, high-attack moments, especially the closing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." For the most part, his covers are easier to recognize this time around, the highlight being his take on "Ol' Man River." There's still a ton of bite and soul to Bill's playing; he just seems more willing than in the past to preserve some of these songs' inherent beauty. I respect that restraint.
Earlier this year, Jute Gyte (Adam Kalmbach) completed an epic triptych with Oviri, which like its predecessors Ship of Theseus and Perdurance (one of my 2016 faves), proffers a microtonal, polytempic, and electronically-tinged breed of black metal that is guaranteed to give those uninitiated in the worlds of extreme music and atonal composition a severe migraine. One could also be forgiven for looking at the track titles, the lyrics, and the Bandcamp write-ups and thinking they'd need dual degrees in ancient Greek philosophy and existentialism to vibe to this music. But I think it's precisely Adam's deviation from musical convention, his unrelenting limits-pushing, that makes his work so metal. The chord progressions on Oviri are as twisted as ever, though there are more spots here that might be considered melodic than there were on Perdurance. The dense compositions still evoke the totalism of Glenn Branca, and come to think of it, there's even common ground with some of Captain Beefheart's most abrasive work. The liner notes suggest that the atonality and simultaneous tempi aren't guided by (intentional) ineptitude in Adam's case, but nevertheless, the music in this trilogy of albums subverted my musical expectations in the same way I imagine Trout Mask Replica did for its contemporary audience. However, it's just as important to consider Adam's work as an extension of the black metal tradition – a much needed step toward (post-)modernity. Sure, the pagan mumbo jumbo has been eschewed in favor of enlightened mumbo jumbo, but I find Oviri to be every bit as emotionally potent and frightening as an album like Filosofem. Which isn't to say it's better – I actually think Adam owes a debt to Varg's work on that album, especially given Oviri's extended ambient passages. It's just exciting to hear the genre pushing the envelope to this extent again. I only hope Adam is able to continue doing this now that it seems this phase is finished.
Almost two decades after its completion, Jürg Frey's magnum opus, l’âme est sans retenue I, has finally seen the light of day thanks to Erstwhile Records. The label has been on a roll with these massive, multi-disc sets. Last year's the earth and the sky is one of my favorite collections of piano pieces, and if I had heard Keith Rowe's The Room Extended sooner, it likely would've topped my 2016 list. Clearly I think the streak continues here with retenue I, though I don't have a whole lot to say beyond what cover designer Yuko Zama wrote in her comprehensive breakdown of the composition. Due to its daunting six-hour runtime, much of that devoted to silence, one might see this as, like, the final boss of lowercase music. In a sense, it is, but listening to retenue I is better described as an experience than a challenge. I don't get the sense I'm experiencing "more than an album" very often, but that's certainly the case here. Granted, for some listeners it's bound to sound like quite a bit less than the average album; again, we're talking about a long-form piece that's virtually silent half the time. But as far as I'm concerned, Jürg's use of silence here is the most effective I've ever heard (perhaps "felt" is a better word), and I can see myself making retenue I a regular sonic pilgrimage.
It's worth mentioning that Erstwhile is now making its catalog available on Bandcamp. This Jürg release isn't there yet, but I recommend looking around anyway. The Lambkin/Lescalleet trilogy is a good starting point. Update: It's there now.
You may remember that in one of the first episodes of "It Came from Bandcamp," Anthony and I featured an insane and monolithic plunderphonics album from an Italian producer called Impossible Nothing. Since then, he received the Scaruffi bump (that's apparently a thing) and has gone on to release four more 260-minute-long albums this year – for all I know, the absolute madman may drop another before the year is out. My favorite is the third one, Taxemenomicon, though sometimes I find myself in the mood for Tonemenomicon, which is easy-going by comparison. Honestly, I thought his album last year was cool and all, but saw it as a bit of a novelty that didn't really live up to the cosmic proportions that the artist intended. Taxeme, on the other hand, does. It's the most incredible plunderphonics / instrumental hip hop album I've heard since J Dilla's Donuts. Except Dilla would've had to infuse Donuts with a shitload of stardust and all the excess of the Internet for these two works to even be comparable. He was also short a Seinfeld reference, but I'll let that slide. Essentially, I think what Impossible Nothing's doing here is the perfect representation of what makes our Bandcamp series worthwhile. On that note, shout-out to The Pablo Collective and all the other Bandcamp-based sound collagists out there. Love ya.
(Heads-up: the track below comes on pretty loud and sudden.)
I've been a fan of Tyler's since Goblin. For as excessive and E D G Y as that album is, I consider it some kind of exorcismic hip hop masterpiece and think Tyler proved himself to be a visionary producer with its consistently uncanny, synth-centric aesthetic. Rarely does a debut studio album following a hyped mixtape make such a statement. I've enjoyed Tyler's work since then, even Cherry Bomb if only because the title track was ingeniously a ready-made YouTube bass boost meme. Actually, if I have one gripe with Flower Boy here, it's that I miss some of the darkness and abrasiveness of those salad days. Other than that, I can appreciate that this is a surprisingly mature album from Tyler. His production is beautiful and he has blossomed into both a versatile rapper and a thoughtful lyricist. Of all the indie blog darlings who had blown up near the end of the Aughts, I'm glad it's been Tyler who has managed to maintain relevance and progress to such a degree as an artist.
Pure Comedy is among the most polarizing singer-songwriter albums to have come out this decade, and it's not exactly hard to understand why. It's a collection of post-ironic piano ballads written by a man who's totally unwilling to tone down his cynical and absurdist sense of humor. However, I'm not sure what it is about Josh Tillman that makes him harder to bear for some than similarly abrasive figures like Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. Hell, I could describe a lot of the album's social commentary as "Zappa-esque," though Josh seems more willing than Frank to wear his heart on his sleeve. The music has also been superficially compared to Randy Newman, Elton John, and [insert '70s piano man]; but the fact of the matter is this album couldn't have been made any time but now or by anyone but Josh. Ideological bullshit aside, I simply dig his passionate vocal performances and balladry, as well as the modern production that renders some of these pieces atmospheric and helps the whole thing sound like a product of 2017. Suffice it to say I'm looking forward to next year's Father John Misty album. But it's supposedly about heartache – sounds pretentious.
I’ve been down on Brockhampton since the release of their first two albums this past summer. Part of that’s to do with me being a big fan of Odd Future, who I think represent the greatest watershed moment in millennial hip hop. They paved the way for a similarly boisterous collective (or boy band) like Brockhampton to let their freak flag fly. Saturation had some incredible bangers – hard to top those first three tracks – and some of the low-key spots like closer “WASTE” were nice, too. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been excited about this all before, and the less said of Saturation II the better. I’ll give kudos for “JUNKY,” though, because after all I’m here to be nice to Brockhampton. That brings us to Saturation III, which is solid from start to finish. There’s not exactly a night and day difference between it and the previous two discs, but just enough has been tweaked for it to feel that way to me. Especially the presence of more beat switch-ups, as the group seems to be getting more ambitious with their song structures. Sure, the Odd Future worship is still present (especially in “STAINS,” which is actually a highlight for me), but I can appreciate that Brockhampton’s subversion of rap music is more nuanced than OF’s and that the groups reach very different conclusions. Kevin Abstract and company aren’t nearly as interested in taking the piss out of the genre, and yeah, the difference in technical ability is undeniable. At any rate, I’m past the Brockhampton skepticism and am ready to make the utterly bold claim that Saturation III is the greatest boy band album, full stop.
For my money, Profound Lore is the best extreme music label out there, and I had trouble choosing between the two multi-disc albums it released this year. The first was Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper, a powerful piece of funeral doom that should be experienced at least once. But the album I'll have in heavier rotation is Rainbow Mirror, which commemorates 20 years of Prurient by way of three hours' worth of noisy drones. I've had the first two discs for a couple of weeks and once I got past the initial disappointment of Dominick's growls and screams being entirely absent here, I got absorbed by the cold, staticky soundscapes. I'm really in awe (and envy) of the album's textures, as well as the trio's ability to keep the tension escalating across all of these lengthy tracks. While it's an entirely different animal from Frozen Niagara Falls and is far from Prurient's harshest project, Rainbow Mirror is at once the most mesmerizing and thrilling ambient work I've heard in a long time. Gotta give Profound Lore props for being a metal label that's willing to put out a 4-CD set of dark ambience.
I'm doing something a little different with this year's honorable mentions section, devoting it to miscellaneous releases. Basically I'm listing albums that're live, limited, compiled, archival, or reissued – reasons why I feel they wouldn't really fit with the ones above. Also A Crow Looked at Me because I wouldn't consider it a personal favorite in Phil's catalog, but still think its concept and aesthetic deserve recognition. In other words, "I wouldn't feel right ranking it" meme. Anyway, the sorting is alphabetical and the lineup is arguably just as good as the actual Top 10.
Thanks so much for reading. If you enjoyed this, you can find lists of pretty much all of my favorite albums since the '60s by clicking the button below. Other than that, happy holidays and New Year.
12/7 Update: four honorable mentions added.
12/16 Update: Oczy Mlody replaced by Saturation III.