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Austen's Mid-Year Faves 2018

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Hey NeedleDrops, it's ya boy Literally Who back with another (albeit paltry) list. At this time last year, I went all-out with a mid-year top 10, prematurely blowing my load on some of the albums that would end up making and even topping my 2017 list. This time I'm basically keeping it to shout-outs... and I didn't even muster a top 10, so I'm especially half-assing it. Though, in my defense, I'm still in the refractory period following my Koz review. Without further ado, here's my current 'loved list' for 2018:

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I will say that although I only came up with a top 8, I REALLY love the above releases. So, it's certainly been a half-year of quality if not quantity. For now I'm splitting a spot between DAYTONA and ye for obvious contextual reasons, but I'm also enjoying both about equally so far. I'm more fascinated by the latter, though, which may give it the edge. I feel as if all the other names on the list should be familiar as well, particularly if you've been following my yearly articles. That is with the exception of Haru Nemuri, whose music I discovered just recently. Really, if there's one takeaway from this sorry excuse for a list it's to check out her shit 'cause it's sick! Her sound on Haru to Shura is a marriage of J-pop, rap, noise rock, and just a bit of electronic experimentation that goes off without a hitch. I'll link to one of the songs I'm addicted to below.

Happy listening, and thanks as always for reading.

Forever, Austen

Austen's Mid-Year Faves 2017

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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

1. Oxbow - Thin Black Duke [Hydra Head]

1. Oxbow - Thin Black Duke [Hydra Head]

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.


2A. Sun Kil Moon - Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood [Caldo Verde]

2A. Sun Kil Moon - Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood [Caldo Verde]

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.

2B. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon - 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth [Caldo Verde]

2B. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon - 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth [Caldo Verde]

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.


3. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

3. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

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.


4. Graham Lambkin / Taku Unami - The Whistler [Erstwhile]

4. Graham Lambkin / Taku Unami - The Whistler [Erstwhile]

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.


5. Tomutonttu - Kevätjuhla [A L T E R]

5. Tomutonttu - Kevätjuhla [A L T E R]

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.


6. Arca - Arca [XL]

6. Arca - Arca [XL]

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 her voice really helped her 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, Arca is technically a much better singer than James, with operatic moments like "Sin Rumbo" being my favorites, though she also holds her 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.


7. Babyfather - 419 [Self-Released, 2016]

7. Babyfather - 419 [Self-Released, 2016]

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...


8. Xiu Xiu - FORGET [Polyvinyl]

8. Xiu Xiu - FORGET [Polyvinyl]

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.


9. Father John Misty - Pure Comedy [Sub Pop]

9. Father John Misty - Pure Comedy [Sub Pop]

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.


10. Toby Driver - Madonnawhore [The Flenser]

10. Toby Driver - Madonnawhore [The Flenser]

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.


Honorable Mention

Keith Rowe - The Room Extended [Erstwhile, 2016]

Keith Rowe - The Room Extended [Erstwhile, 2016]

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 classical music weeping in the distance, transmitted via 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.

FOREVER

Austen's Fav Albums of 2016

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Your boy Austen is back with another obscenely early year-end list. For those who don't know, I'm Anthony's right-hand man - I help him run social media, manage this site, and (as of this year) edit a good portion of his videos. Last year I made a couple of lists about my favorite music of 2015 and was flattered by the reception. A lot of you guys seemed to enjoy getting an alternate point of view to Anthony's and I certainly enjoyed commending the artists whose work he either didn't care for as much or didn't get a chance to cover. Especially with my role on TND expanding, I didn't see a reason not to come up with another list for this year. So without further ado, here's the music I loved from 2016.


The Top 10

1. Swans - The Glowing Man [Young God]

1. Swans - The Glowing Man [Young God]

The changes Swans made between To Be Kind and The Glowing Man may not have been substantial enough for some listeners, but they made a world of difference for me. Although TGM has a shorter runtime than its two predecessors, it contains a greater number of "epic" tracks, which thankfully show more refinement and unfold more naturally than those on the band's earlier records. This one is also more overtly spiritual and meditative than past efforts, inspired by Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and the writings of Aldous Huxley. But the most noticeable stylistic adjustment (granted it's still pretty subtle) is the integration of orchestral and choral arrangements, which gives the album a cinematic scope and displays Michael Gira's Ligeti influence more than ever - particularly during the cosmic intro of "Frankie M," which sounds as if it came straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of these things add up to what I believe is not just the best album of Swans' reformation, but arguably the best of any Swans incarnation.


2. David Bowie - Blackstar [ISO]

2. David Bowie - Blackstar [ISO]

2016 has been the cruelest year in recent memory when it's come to the loss of musical legends; Blackstar essentially forecasted that. Upon first listen, it immediately became my favorite Bowie album and it suggested such great potential for his late career. I was far from the only one whose hopes were dashed just a few days later. Truly a bittersweet masterpiece.


3. Babyfather - "BBF" Hosted by DJ Escrow [Hyperdub]

3. Babyfather - "BBF" Hosted by DJ Escrow [Hyperdub]

Conceptually, there is a lot going on with BBF - it uses the hosted mixtape format to satirize English nationalism and grime culture, and on top of that, it's a tragic character study of the titular DJ Escrow, who portrays a pirate radio host aspiring to be a rapper. The music here might fall short for some, considering the notorious opening mantra, the brevity of most tracks, the somewhat kitschy production, and Dean Blunt's underwritten raps (if you've heard any of his freestyles you know to expect a pastiche of gangsta clichés). But personally, I think these things work in Babyfather's favor and give this album a really fulfilling arc.


4. Tanya Tagaq - Retribution [Six Shooter]

4. Tanya Tagaq - Retribution [Six Shooter]

I'll admit that even though her previous album Animism took home the Polaris Prize in 2014, I was really only familiar with Tanya Tagaq through her contributions to Björk's a cappella album Medúlla. But a few years ago I got into throat singing and vocal acrobatics when I discovered Koichi Makigami's material on Tzadik, and that drew me to Tanya's latest release, Retribution. There are tribal soundscapes here that actually call to mind Koichi's last release, but on the whole Tanya's music is more visceral and cathartic. A few tracks here build to rocking crescendos and there's even a rap cut that goes over surprisingly well. Most importantly, Tanya's voice is strong as hell throughout and her environmental and social commentary, while not particularly nuanced, is respectable.


5. Reinier van Houdt / Michael Pisaro - The Earth and the Sky [Erstwhile]

5. Reinier van Houdt / Michael Pisaro - The Earth and the Sky [Erstwhile]

The Earth and the Sky finds current Current 93 pianist Reinier van Houdt performing 11 compositions written by Michael Pisaro over the past few decades. These pieces span three discs and total almost four hours, which in the abstract may seem like a whole lot of time to spend listening to van Houdt's minimalist piano playing with only occasional accompaniment and embellishments by Pisaro's electronics and field recordings. However, these sparse and sprawling soundscapes are consistently transportive (to that wide open, rolling field on the cover) and make for perfect late-night ambient listening.


6. Graham Lambkin - Community [Kye]

6. Graham Lambkin - Community [Kye]

Community is Graham Lambkin's first solo album since 2011's Amateur Doubles, which is probably my favorite ambient recording of this decade. This new LP has more in common with the sound collage approach of Salmon Run and, as usual, anyone who's into sound design should take note - Graham's collages are pretty much in a league all their own. However, there are notable changes this time around, including the introduction of spoken word and more original instrumentation to the mix. This almost gives Community the vibe of a singer-songwriter album... albeit a very unorthodox one.


7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree [Bad Seed]

7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree [Bad Seed]

Echoing the sentiments of everybody who's heard this album, my heart goes out to Nick Cave. I'm not familiar with a set of songs that explore the anguish of grief to the extent that Skeleton Tree does. Nick's voice is just so vulnerable throughout, and the band complements him perfectly with drones and arrangements that range from murky to ethereal. "Girl in Amber," in particular, always gives me chills.


8. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon - Self-Titled [Caldo Verde]

8. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon - Self-Titled [Caldo Verde]

Well, this didn't end up being Lulu 2. Not sure why people thought it would be, seeing as Mark Kozelek's early work with the Red House Painters was foundational to the melancholic type of post-rock Jesu specializes in. Also, Lulu's an awesome album anyway, but I'm getting off track. Of all the Koz's collaborations, I'm glad this is the one that's getting a follow-up. Mark does well to match the energy of Justin's instrumentals and I consider the track "America's Most Wanted" to be the high-water mark of his diaristic songwriting process. My only gripe is that the electronic numbers slightly pale in comparison to the ones that rock, but judging from the new singles, it does sound as though the beats will have a bit more character on the sequel. I enjoy those tracks' off-color subject matters as well, so my hopes for the Koz's 2017 output couldn't be higher.


9. Kayo Dot - Plastic House on Base of Sky [The Flenser]

9. Kayo Dot - Plastic House on Base of Sky [The Flenser]

Going into Plastic House on Base of Sky, I was close to becoming one of those sad "go back to metal" Kayo Dot fans. Coffins on Io was a little all over the place and probably my least favorite Toby Driver-related project to date. Thankfully, PHOBOS's aesthetic is way more consistent, and while the synthetic direction is a major change of pace for the band, the progressive and dense compositions still scream Toby Driver. I actually hope he keeps listening to those anime soundtracks; wouldn't mind more like this.


10. Jute Gyte - Perdurance [Jeshimoth]

10. Jute Gyte - Perdurance [Jeshimoth]

On Perdurance, Jute Gyte develops a breed of microtonal, polytempic, and electronically-tinged black metal that, if you share Anthony's sensibilities, will probably give you a headache. But this unrelenting limits-pushing is sort of what's missing from so much metal at this point. Jute Gyte's chord progressions are seriously twisted, bordering on Brancian at times; and there are ambient interludes spattered throughout that offer some beauty, as well as some much needed breathing space. The climax of the closing track was the greatest musical payoff I heard all year - "overwhelming" doesn't even begin to describe it.


Honorable Mentions

Księżyc - Rabbit Eclipse [Penultimate Press, 2015]

Księżyc - Rabbit Eclipse [Penultimate Press, 2015]

This album dropped at the end of 2015, but I didn't get to hear it until earlier this year. Księżyc is kind of a cult avant-folk outfit from Poland who had been almost completely silent since the release of their self-titled debut back in 1996. Rabbit Eclipse broke this silence and it's totally worth checking out if the sound of "droning Slavic folk music" piques your curiosity.


Xiu Xiu - Plays the Music of Twin Peaks [Polyvinyl]

Xiu Xiu - Plays the Music of Twin Peaks [Polyvinyl]

Yes, Xiu Xiu had some very strong source material to work with for this Twin Peaks tribute, but that doesn't change the fact that they knocked it out of the park. The band's selection and sequencing is brilliant, and they put their own spin on Badalamenti's music while still preserving all of its charm and horror. With a series as extraordinary and evocative as Twin Peaks, that's no small task.


Tomutonttu - Trarat [Leaving]

Tomutonttu - Trarat [Leaving]

Tomutonttu is the solo moniker of Jan Anderzén, frontman of the Finnish free folk group Kemialliset Ystävät. KY's previous album Alas rattoisaa virtaa is pretty much the most blissed-out thing I've heard in my life and is an all-time fave. Trarat here, while not quite as colorful, has enough of the qualities that made that album so magical.


Tim Hecker - Love Streams [4AD]

Tim Hecker - Love Streams [4AD]

I much prefer the warmth of Love Streams to the bleakness I've come to associate with Tim Hecker's previous efforts. I don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory way - those albums are by no means all doom and gloom and there's an apocalyptic beauty to Ravedeath and Virgins, for instance. On the whole, though, I just find Love Streams to be more alluring.


James Ferraro - Human Story 3 [Self-Released]

James Ferraro - Human Story 3 [Self-Released]

I was skeptical going into Human Story 3; it was James Ferraro's most memeable project since Far Side Virtual and it seemed to be sort of a thematic retread, as well. But I ended up loving a lot about it - James takes a whimsical approach to post-minimalism that, for me, has a similar charm to the works of Scott Johnson and even some of Zappa's classical work, and his commentary on commerce and technology comes across as oddly poignant at times. James really proved his chops as a composer this year (s/o to Burning Prius ® too).


Kel Valhaal - New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala [YLYLCYN]

Kel Valhaal - New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala [YLYLCYN]

Not gonna lie, this thing's a bit of a mess, especially once it reaches the closing track "Bezel II." There are a few spots where Hunter comes up with compositions that sound either half-baked or cluttered, but for the most part, this is some of the most inventive and densely-detailed electronic music I've ever heard. The centerpiece "Ontological Love" alone makes New Introductory Lectures worthwhile. Fuck, I even think Hunter gets a good flow going toward the backend of that one.


And that has been my 2016 list. I appreciate you for reading the whole way through and hope you got something out of it. If you did, be sure to hit up Anthony on Twitter to tell him how much more patrician I am than him - those were his favorite messages to get last year. But seriously, I don't know when or how you guys will hear from me again so I wanna wish you all a happy holiday season and whatever else until I write another feature. Forever!