Anthony talks about 10 more albums he’s come to like or dislike more since initially reviewing them.
Anthony shows off some recent additions to his record collection, giving his thoughts on their packaging and sound along the way.
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.
My top-50 albums of 2016 is finally here! LIST WEEK IS COMPLETE!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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!
Anthony shows off some recent additions to his record collection and delves into how he feels about them.