Let's get the introduction out of the way: I'm Austen, the managing editor of TND's website and channels, creator of the It Came from Bandcamp segment (which we swear isn't dead), and most recently, Anthony's collaborator on the Stinkpiece series. You guys generally don't hear from me until the end of the year when I drop my year-end lists, but I've decided to get in on the mid-year action this time.
At the halfway point of last year, there just weren't enough releases I dug to come up with a top ten. Thankfully, 2017 has been a lot more front-heavy, and if I'm honest, I think the batch of albums here might already stronger than the one on my 2016 list. Just for the record, only studio albums made the cut. Considered putting Swans' new live album Deliquescence on here, but most of that material was pulled from The Glowing Man, and I've sung that album's praises enough. With that shoutout out of the way, let's get into the actual list:
The Top 10
I've had Oxbow's Thin Black Duke in near-constant rotation since its release and I still haven't found the words to express my love for this album. I believe it's the greatest orchestral rock album since Lou Reed's Berlin; maybe that says enough. But recently I came across an interview the band did with TeamRock, wherein vocalist Eugene S. Robinson pointed out a reference to the Joseph Losey film The Servant in the song "A Gentleman's Gentleman," and that made everything click. My introductory film theory class a few years ago had the (mis)fortune of watching that film four times over a short span of time, and I had to have been the only student who came away from that experience not hating the movie, let alone loving it. Losey's twisted baroque vision is very much alive in Thin Black Duke, so I'm pretty much conditioned to love it too. Picking up on the album's cinematic reference points certainly adds to the enjoyment factor, but even in the vacuum of music, this is a must-listen for anyone interested in the artful side of rock music.
My streak of Koz stanning continues! Common as Light... marks Mark Kozelek's 50th year on Earth and is miraculously his most ambitious and experimental release since his early days as an unwitting slowcore and post-rock pioneer. For the longest time, Mark has been seen in the shadows of songwriting/guitar titans like Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Andrés Segovia. That's fair - those influences were certainly on his sleeve, but now there's not much of a precedent at all to what he's doing. The swagger and crude compositions (due to him mostly working with unfamiliar instruments) are sort of evocative of Lou Reed, but that's about it. In a way, I see Common as Light as the antithesis to Scott Walker's Bish Bosch, an album that pushed the concept of the singer-songwriter to a point of radical abstraction. Mark, instead, has produced something radically concrete, and I can see how that poses a challenge to some listeners. But through all the minutiae, there's love, sadness, anger, fear, and comedy to be found. Frankly, I can't think of another album that so perfectly reflects the human spirit/condition.
30 Seconds... is essentially an addendum to Common as Light, covering the remainder of the Koz's 2016. As far as the instrumentation goes, it's a step up from the previous Jesu collab. I'm loving the icy electronic soundscapes Justin brings to the table this time, especially on the track "Wheat Bread." That track is practically a folksier version of one of Robert Ashley's spoken-word electronic operas. The album is also bookended by two of Mark's most moving tracks; the opener in particular, which I'm not too proud to admit gets me teary. But at other points, it does seem he's spreading himself thin - case in point "Hello Chicago." It's a very heartfelt tribute to John Hughes and Leonard Cohen, but is underwritten even by modern Koz standards. Also, I've never shared the cynical music writer notion that Mark has begun reading fan letters in his music for ego-stroking purposes, but the one that closes this track does kind of border on being a testimonial. Still, the disc is a worthy follow-up to Common as Light; let's see if the Koz can go 3/3 with Yellow Kitchen later this month.
The phrase from A Crow Looked at Me's press release that stuck out to everyone was "barely music." It's true, the album manifests such a brutal reality that listening to it feels like experiencing real life (or rather death), not a conventionally enjoyable singer-songwriter project. Phil has gone on record as saying that this is his least atmospheric effort, but I have to respectfully disagree; A Crow Looked at Me is more evocative of a mental and physical place than any field recording ever could be. The album sounds like living in an empty house - you can hear the room tone and some incidental floorboard creaking throughout the record, the sound of a door shutting at one point, and to me even the gentle percussion more resembles a dripping faucet than an actual musical component. This truly is the soundtrack of "unimaginable domestic obliteration," the most potent quote from that press release. My condolensces, Phil, and thank you for the achingly beautiful (non-)music.
One of the most exciting pieces of music-related news I saw last year was that Graham Lambkin and Taku Unami were working together on an Erstwhile release. My excitement diminished a bit when I learned they'd be editing their discs independent of one another, but at least the sounds had been recorded together. So, when I put on the first disc I was pretty taken aback and thought, "Wow, Graham actually did take his style down a few notches to complement Taku." It turns out I was listening to the latter's piece after all and that the credits on the album are reversed. Yes, as one might expect, the onkyo artist's side is quieter and sparser, and the sound collagist's is more densely layered and "eventful," although I'm not used to hearing quite so much silence from Graham. According to some notes he scribbled on a napkin, neither he nor Taku came into this project with many materials and he described the album as being recorded "on the edge of nothing." That said, I do think The Whistler is an enjoyable listen and that the two artists ended up complementing each other well. The album might seem "empty" compared to, say, Salmon Run and Community, so I guess this is more for people who hear untapped mystery and sonic potential in a quiet day at the park.
The latest release from Kemialliset Ystävät ringleader Jan Anderzén is apparently the soundtrack to one of his recent sculptural installations. But it functions perfectly well as a standalone aural experience, refining Jan's unique blend of psychedelia, instrumental hip hop, free folk, and exotic electronica. And as a continuation of last year's Trarat, which was commissioned by a classical music festival, Jan in his own way seems to be thinking more like a composer. That's the sense I get from the closing "Kuteen valoon" suite, anyway.
Not sure why Anthony hated on this one. I haven't been a huge fan of Arca's previous work either, but the addition of his voice really helped his aesthetic click with me for the length of an entire album this time. Right from "Piel," I was taken back to my first time hearing James Ferraro's NYC, Hell 3:00 AM; Arca is right up there in terms of captivatingly vulnerable vocal performances. Granted, he's technically a much better singer than James, with operatic moments like "Sin Rumbo" being my favorites, although he also holds his own on the poppier tracks like "Desafío." It helps that the album has a much tighter tracklist than its predecessor, Mutant, too. I dig Arca's alien production style a lot, but over an hour of just that is a bit much for me.
This dropped shortly after I posted my 2016 list, but I didn't pay it much mind until the start of the New Year because Dean Blunt is more miss than hit when it comes to mixtapes. 419, however; is easily his most substantial tape since The Narcissist II. The stretch from "FOR SHAKILUS" to "penelope freestyle" is what really keeps me coming back. The sampling is next level, from the triumphant guitar soloing of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" on "SKYWALKER," to Dean at one point singing along with the Marine Girls on "Snakeman freestyle," to Kelis getting the vaporwave treatment on the nostalgic "penelope freestyle." I wish I had as many nice things to say about the more recent Cypher...
Xiu Xiu's previous (original) album Angel Guts: Red Classroom found the outfit breaking a string of pop-oriented albums with a set of dark, Suicide-inspired synthpunk vignettes. I love the album and think it's their best work since A Promise, but I wasn't disappointed to hear they'd already be heading back to a poppier sound as soon as I heard FORGET's lead single "Wondering." The song forecasted Xiu Xiu's best pop album yet, and that's what we got. "Wondering," "Jenny GoGo," and the underrated "At Last, At Last" rank among the band's stickiest earworms, and the droning "Faith, Torn Apart" has to be their most powerful closer yet. Never thought I'd say this, but Vaginal Davis' ending monologue really made the album. Gives me chills every time.
I get it - this is a bunch of samey piano ballads that give off "Don McLean on r/atheism" vibes. To be honest, I think Josh's targets are a bit safe nowadays too, especially when it comes to religion. But I understand his upbringing was a lot more oppressive than my own, and as in the case of the new Sun Kil Moon albums, I don't mind hearing perspectives I disagree with or think are "out of touch." Also as a Mark Kozelek fan, I have a hard time not being moved by tracks like "Leaving LA," "Smoochie," and "So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain," which find Josh getting more personal and sentimental. Fuck it, I think every track on this album is great. FJM pulls off the cynical piano man thing. Don't @ me.
Madonnawhore is maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot frontman Toby Driver's first solo album since 2005's In the L..L..Library Loft. That wasn't even a "solo" effort per se, relying heavily on other members of Kayo Dot, but I bring it up because it's such an incredible testament to Toby's abilities as a contemporary composer. Library Loft found him crafting four uniformly horrifying and mysterious pieces while adhering to strange compositional and performative limitations/gimmicks. Madonnawhore is essentially the polar opposite, a willful move towards traditional songwriting. He has dabbled in the type of atmospheric balladry on this album before, namely the bookending tracks of Gamma Knife, so if you want to hear a cohesive project done in that style, do not let this one go under your radar.
I gave a spot on my 2016 year-end list to The Earth and Sky, a triple-CD set from composer Michael Pisaro and pianist Reinier van Houdt, but was unable until more recently to listen through last year's other monolithic Erstwhile release. That would be The Room Extended, a late-career masterpiece from experimental guitarist Keith Rowe. Keith is one of my greatest inspirations as a musician; he was pushing the electric guitar into unfathomable sonic frontiers before just about anyone. In fact, this album coincided with the 50th anniversary of AMMMusic, a landmark recording for improvised music released by his original group AMM. Those days of freewheeling cacophony have long since passed, so what we get on The Room Extended is a beautiful and funereal amalgamation of the sounds that Keith has worked with for decades. The abstract, staticky drones formed by his prepared guitar and electronics are often backed by passages of Western classical music weeping in the distance, played through a radio. I could imagine a fan of GY!BE being moved by these moments. Unfortunately Keith was diagnosed with Parkinson's around the time of this album's production, hence the album's preoccupation with mortality, but I hope he's got many more years of music in him. This month he released a double album called 13 Thirteen with Michael Pisaro, which I'll also recommend.
And that has been my 2017 mid-year list. Here's hoping the year ends as strongly as it began! As always, thanks for reading; hopefully you got something out of it.
But I also want to say thank you for helping us get to one million subscribers on YouTube. I started working for TND in 2013 when the channel was around 170k subs, so since then I've watched that sixth digit roll over all but one time. Reaching that 1M milestone meant a lot to me too, so thanks. Anyway, see you again in November/December.