MY 2017 AOTY LIST IS FINALLY HERE! LIST WEEK IS COMPLETE!
Anthony shows off some recent additions to his record collection, giving his thoughts on their packaging and sound along the way.
The list week pregaming begins with this list of 2017's most underrated albums...in Anthony's opinion.
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, for the record, is an all-time fave of mine). 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 the most pleasant surprise 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.
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 partial to Odd Future, who 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 that was even more the case for Saturation II. I’ll give kudos for the ridiculously catchy “QUEER,” and "GAMBA," though, because after all I’m here to be nice to Brockhampton. That brings us to Saturation III, which is fantastic 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. Namely 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 here (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. Listening to "BOOGIE" and "HOTTIE," I'm convinced BH has found a way to convert candy and crack into song form. Your move, 1D.
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 dissonance 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.
(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.
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.
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 don’t feel right ranking it. 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, below you can find the list I wrote last year. Other than that, happy holidays and New Year.
A round-up of the greatest albums Anthony reviewed this past month!
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 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.