The Best Albums I Listened to This Year – 2017

63 new releases listened to this year, these are the best 19 of those. Why 19 again like last year ? Honestly, fuck knows. Not intentional, just the number that was left once I began considering, culling & listing…

#19 – Alphane Reality Generator – Music for the Robot Revolution

Music for the Robot Revolution

ARG’s 2nd album after 2008’s debut Nature of My Circuitry. A concept album (in a not too dissimilar manner to Fear Factory’s concept albums around ‘the Edgecrusher’) based around machines gradually crushing mankind out of existence in the year 2040. Electro-industrial with a cyberpunk bent, Music for the Robot Revolution is dystopian look at what may well be our not too distant future. Robotic, mechanical sounds fuse with all manner of electronics from 8-bit to symphonic synths, there’s also a definite cinematic feel to some of the tracks with some sweeping, lush soundscapes in the latter tracks & some big beats particularly on the first half of the album.
Standout track – Abdicated Responsibilities

#18 – Melvins – A Walk with Love and Death

A Walk with Love and Death

This is two releases in one – Death – which is a ‘Melvins album’ and Love – which is the soundtrack to Jesse Nieminen’s short film ‘A Walk With Love & Death’. Guests include Teri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes) & Joey Santiago (Pixies). Melvins pretty much wrote the book so far as sludge is concerned & Death (their 21st studio album) is no exception, dense treacle-like riffs abound here. Love, on the other hand, reminds me a bit of Fantômas (the avant-metal group featuring Mike Patton, King Buzzo, Trevor Dunn & Dave Lombardo). Rather than structured songs in the traditional sense we have collages of sound, voice & samples. For me, this was the more interesting listen of the two. Not that I don’t like Death, I do – it’s straight up, no-nonsense classic Melvins. But on Love they’ve done something very different. That’s a rare thing in a band that’s been around for 35 yrs & is why I’ve included this album on my best list.
Standout tracks (because two separate albums) – Cactus Party (Death), Eat Yourself Out (Love)

#17 – Swans – Deliquiescence

Deliquescence

The final recording for this incarnation of Swans, this live album was recorded in San Francisco & Berlin in October 2016. At just over 2 1/2 hours this is the longest Swans album to date (with the opening track The Knot being the longest Swans track at 45 minutes) & includes 3 previously unreleased tracks. As you would expect from Swans this is an intense, exhausting, exhilarating listen – grand, hypnotic music, and like 2015’s The Gate captures everything about Swans’ essence live as well as it can possibly be captured in a recording.
Standout track – The Man Who Refused to be Unhappy

#16 – Thinking Plague – Hoping Against Hope

Hoping Against Hope

Thinking Plague have been a force in progressive/avant music for 35 years & have proudly flown the ‘rock in opposition’ flag throughout this time, with multi-instrumentalist Mike Johnson being the only consistent member. Heavily influenced by 70’s ‘rock in opposition’ acts such as Henry Cow & Art Bears, Thinking Plague were also early adopters of the DIY ethos – bands having complete control over the production, distribution & promotion of their own music. Hoping Against Hope is the band’s 8th studio album & a wonderfully complex album it is. Layers of instrumentation & Elaine di Falco’s ‘voice as instrument’ singing style (which previous vocalists in the band such as Susanne Lewis have also utilised). This is a demanding listen in parts, in much the same way as early Mars Volta stuff was – there’s a lot going on here, a lot of tempo & ‘style’ changes during songs. However, if you love prog, this album should fit the bill nicely.
Standout track – Hoping Against Hope

#15 – Angel Olsen – Phases

Phases

Angel Olsen is a Missouri native who first came to attention with her EP Strange Cacti in 2011. Music she’s released so far has run from indie rock to folk to alt-country to lo-fi. This release is a collection of b-sides, demos & unreleased material from various recording sessions, with a couple of songs ‘first listens’. She has a voice somewhat reminiscent of Roy Orbison at times with that crooning style of singing, instrumentation is mostly sparse & guitar driven on most songs (the early demos are just her on acoustic guitar) allowing her voice to take centre stage. A good introduction to her work if you’ve not heard her music before.
Standout track – Special

#14 – Holographic Human Element – Philophobia

Philophobia

Holographic Human Element are a 3 piece outfit from Bosnia & Herzegovina. Playing prog with a post rock & ambient electronic bent (even a bit of a 70’s space rock feel thrown in), Philophobia is their debut full-length release. Beautiful production, this album sounds amazing. Piano melodies dance over rhythmic guitar lines with complex percussive beats & haunting, fleeting vocals tying everything together. These guys clearly take influence from a whole host of prog acts who came before (the opening track reminded me of King Crimson in one part, some other tracks have fleeting shades of Mogwai) them but sound like none in particular, they’ve taken all these influences & distilled something really special that’s truly their own.
Standout track – Sputnik Lost Control

#13 – Audiac – So Waltz

So Waltz

Audiac are a German duo who released their debut album ‘Thank You For Not Discussing The Outside World’ in 2003, which has been described as a marriage between Portishead & Massive Attack. On So Waltz, again produced by Hans-Joachim Irmler (founding member of krautrock juggernaut Faust), the duo have birthed an album with a real cinematic feel to it. Influences are wide & varied here, definitely the aforementioned krautrock, 70’s synth (Kraftwerk anyone ?), vocalist Alexander van Veen’s voice a bit reminiscent of Harry Nilsson in places, there’s also nods to 70’s piano rock in there as well. Lush, meticulously crafted soundscapes, this album really shines & rewards with multiple listens.
Standout track – Ambulance Music

#12 – Laibach – Also Sprach Zarathustra

Also Sprach Zarathustra

Laibach are a Slovenian art collective who have been active since Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1980. Their musical output has encompassed neo-martial, industrial, avant-garde & neo-classical for the most part. Laibach’s main ‘weapon’ so far as their music is concerned has been subversion. Take an idea, absorb it, completely warp & change its original meaning, then re-present this idea in its altered state. Laibach have ‘covered’ music by The Beatles, Rammstein, Andrew Lloyd-Webber & a fantastic interpretation of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, as well as their original material & soundtrack work. This album was originally composed as a score for a theatre production of Nietzsche’s novel & it’s an enormously theatrical listen. Huge production with a density to the music, a collision of classical & electronic sounds. Definitely stands with other soundtracks they’ve done such as Iron Sky & Krst pod Triglavom.
Standout track – Vor Sonnen-Aufgang

#11 – Eno – Reflection

Reflection

Reflection is Brian Eno’s 26th studio release & is comprised of a single 54 minute track. Like much of Eno’s solo work, this is a beautiful ambient piece. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s the musical equivalent of an impressionist painting – lots of subtlety in both sound & production, many fine details which aren’t apparent on first listen & only present themselves in subsequent listens & when you may be in a different mood to the last time you listened, it ebbs and flows. Shimmering layers of sound flit into existence, collapse into each other then disappear as quickly as they appeared, and are replaced by new layers of sound. A strikingly beautiful piece of music.

#10 – Wren – Auburn Rule

Auburn Rule

2016’s Host EP ushered in the arrival of this 4 piece London doom/post-metal outfit on the British heavy music scene (though they’d done a split with Ink & an EP in 2014 before this) in a big way & their debut long player takes that dark, brooding sound to new depths. Grinding doomy riffs, vocals set right back in the mix so they become fleeting & almost haunting at times. Dense atmospheric soundscapes that are maybe a little reminiscent of Neurosis for brief moments. Heavy, yes, but not immediately crushingly so, this is relentless, pounding, smothering. The split they released in October with Slabdragger – Mothers Of The Beef And The Magic Of Invention (Wren covered Captain Beefheart’s ‘Electricity’, Slabdragger Zappa’s ‘Muffin Man’) is also well worth checking out.
Standout track – Dwellers of the Sepulchre

#9 – Enemy on Tape – Nightmares Vol 1

Nightmares Vol 1

Who is/are Enemy on Tape ? Good question. The answer doesn’t really matter, if 3Teeth were the kick in the nuts industrial needed back in 2014, Enemy on Tape delivered industrial another well needed whack fair & square to the nads in 2017. Abrasive with huge beats, distorted guitars, big vocal hooks & lots of analog electronics & samples. This project has also only relied on word of mouth for promotion. Production-wise this sounds fantastic, listen through cans & you can hear the love & attention to detail that’s gone into making this music. If you like your industrial loud & with very sharp edges, this should make you pretty fucking happy.
Standout track – Violence

#8 – Boris – Dear

Dear

Boris are a 3 piece Japanese drone/doom/experimental metal band, having released a enormous amount of material throughout their 25 yr history. Dear is their 23rd studio album, originally slated to be their final release (the band were weary of constant touring), the recording sessions for this album produced so many songs (enough for another couple of albums) the band decided to shelve plans to call it a day. Crunching drums, distorted as all fuck riffs, melodic vocals, and even a bit shoegaze-y on some songs. Crushingly heavy but also stunningly beautiful in parts, Dear is a worthy addition to Boris’ remarkable body of work.
Standout track – Dystopia -Vanishing Point-

#7 – Thor & Friends – The Subversive Nature of Kindness

Subversive Nature of Kindness

2nd album from multi-instrumentalist & future Texas governor Thor Harris (Swans, Shearwater, Amanda Palmer, Hospital Ships & many others) & his friends. Straight off the bat, this is a beautifully produced album, it sounds amazing & is a feast for the ears. I love the use of guest vocalists on several tracks to provide voice as an extra instrument (as opposed to ‘singing’), the result is quite something. The other thing I really like about these guys is they clearly get a fucking buzz out of creating together & this really comes through in the music. I found myself hanging out for ‘what comes next’ when I first listened to this (and still do, have listened maybe 15 times so far & am still picking up things I haven’t heard before) so far as what instrument or sound or motif would be played in the next part of a given song. Beautifully melodic, minimal & with a sense of ritual about it, much light & shade, sonically rich music.
Standout track – An Escapist’s Theme

#6 – 3Teeth – <shutdown.exe>

Shutdown exe

2nd album/follow up to 2014’s self-titled debut from this 4 piece LA-based industrial/industrial metal outfit. These guys are testament to working your arse off by playing fuck knows how many shows since the first album was released (they seem to have been on tour/out playing constantly save for the period they spent recording this) & also relying on fans to spread the word via social media/etc, their hard work live paid off by first being noticed by Tool & asked to open for them on their North American tour in 2016, and then supporting Rammstein in the US in 2017. This album has a little more ‘polish’ to it than the predecessor production-wise & is heavy as all fuck for the most part with Lex Mincolla’s subversive ontological lyrics a highlight. Big riffs with lots of effects, gritty electronics & Andrew Means on that electronic drum kit which has the punchiness of an acoustic kit married with the abrasiveness of a drum machine. 3Teeth were the kick in the balls industrial music needed a few years ago, and they’ve totally nailed this album as well.
Standout track – Pit of Fire

#5 – Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun

Every Countrys Sun

Mogwai’s 9th studio album & their first without John Cummings, sees them reunite with producer Dave Fridmann who produced Come On Die Young & Rock Action for the band. Having spent the past 5 or 6 years doing a lot of soundtrack work (Les Revenants, Atomic, Before the Flood) & doing it rather well I might add, Mogwai build on the electronic foundations laid with Rave Tapes (which really had electronics front & centre) but blend these in with the guitar driven sound that had become their trademark. A consistent album with no filler. They’ve become a more concise & tight band over the last couple of releases, this clocks in at 56 minutes with no song over 7 minutes, which for a band that weren’t shy to write songs longer than 10 minutes on earlier albums is probably a hard thing to do. There’s even a bit of the ‘quiet/loud’ thing Stuart Braithwaite swore was dead & buried a while back on a couple of tracks. The result is, for me, their best album since The Hawk is Howling.
Standout track – It was going to be Crossing the Road Material (I don’t give a fuck if ‘it’s too much like How to be a Werewolf’, as some prat in the English music press moaned), but fuck it – Party in the Dark; Mogwai fans will gasp with horror at this – probably the most pop thing they’ve ever done, but it’s just fucking brilliant, the acoustic guitar buried in the mix that pops out when you listen with cans, Martin Bulloch’s drumming in the latter half of the song & that fucking bassline 😉

#4 – Godflesh – Post Self

Post Self

Rather than being the direct metal kick to the head A World Lit Only by Fire was, Post Self is an atmospheric, droning, pulsing album full of electronics, synthetic percussion, heavily processed guitar & Ben Green’s relentless basslines. The post-punk & industrial influences don’t make this album any less heavy, on the contrary, this is as heavy as anything Godflesh has done previously. Tracks swirl between a paranoiac sense of urgency, seething malevolence and others still have a euphoric self-affirmation. I’ve been considering whether this is the best thing Messrs Broadrick & Green have released & I’m still not sure, it’s pretty close though. Summing this album up; it’s the ‘essence’ of everything Godflesh has been over the past 30 yrs & 7 previous albums.
Standout track – The Cyclic End

#3 – Gazelle Twin – Kingdom Come

Kingdom Come

This album was released unexpectedly on 17 November. Composed of music from the A/V show ‘Kingdom Come For Two Vocalists’ commissioned by Future Everything Festival, the vocals on this are done by Elizabeth Bernholz, whereas in the live shows vocals are handled by Natalie Sharp and Stuart Warwick & sound by Bernholz’ husband, Jez. This is dark, dense, industrial-tinged electronica as you’d probably expect with the music/live show based on JG Ballard’s novel of the same name dealing with how consumerism & fascism become entwined. A foreboding, sinister undercurrent is created by sound and vocals as they merge into one, creating a terrifying, 1984-esque but far worse (because you can see it happening in society right now) landscape that makes you feel as if you’re inside it.
Standout track – I Consume Only

#2 – The Necks – Unfold

Unfold

Over almost 30 yrs & 15 studio albums Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks have beguiled & divided music lovers in probably equal parts. One will begin to play, and soon the other two will join in; a single cymbal strike, a few piano notes or the beginnings of a bassline will start proceedings. Swirling motifs fade in and out of existence, subtlety and nuance at the forefront. The Necks have made pushing experimental jazz to its limits their hallmark, but they’ve also delved into krautrock, post rock, prog and many other genres in between. To see them live is quite the experience, as cathartic as say, Swans. This album consists of 4 pieces, designed to be one side a piece on double vinyl. The listener is invited to ‘pick their own adventure’ by playing the pieces in whatever order they see fit. Production is lush & beautiful, this record sounds fucking amazing through open cans (and having the digital in 32 bit/48khz does wonders for acoustic music like this; so much space). I could easily write paragraphs about each track on this album, but I won’t. What I will say is, if you want a listen that challenges all your senses & mind for 74 minutes, you’ll go a long way to find an album as good as this. You’ll either love it or you won’t (and fuck you if you don’t).
Standout track – Blue Mountain

#1 – Employed to Serve – The Warmth of a Dying Sun

Warmth of a Dying Sun

Employed to Serve are a 5 piece hardcore outfit from Woking, UK. First gaining prominence with heavy music fans with 2014’s Change Nothing Regret Everything, this is their 3rd album. This album blew my fucking head off on the very first listen. Stupendously heavy to the point of making you want to get up & smash everything within arms reach, with memorable crunchy riffs (the filthy riff on I Spend My Days…) & Justine Jones absolutely slaying it with her vocals (she has a fucking enormous voice). This album fuses hardcore with gritty, grindy elements and dare I say it (the band would probably line up to punch me in the balls for suggesting it), the faintest whiff of 90’s groove metal on a couple of tracks. ETS deserve their status as probably the UK’s premier hardcore act right now. Unquestionably album of the year for me.
Standout track – I Spend My Days (Wishing Them Away)

There’s no ‘worst’ album again this year, I think I’ll probably refrain from nominating one going forward as well unless something seriously pisses me off. However, I am going to nominate a ‘Disappointment of The Year’, and that goes to…

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

When I found out Mark Ronson was producing this album as it was in the process of being recorded, alarm bells immediately began to ring for me. This was obviously subjective/bias on my part because I am no fan of any of his music to date, though plenty of people are and that’s fine with me. Apparently Josh Homme wanted to concentrate purely on making music, and leave production (which he’d done himself with more or less everything he’d released previously) to someone else & was a fan of Ronson’s work.

I listened around 20 times over 5 weeks after release & can honestly say I did my best to put my negative bias away & like the record, but I just couldn’t. There’s only one song I really like – the T-Rex inspired (that’s what it sounds like to me, at any rate) ‘Un-Reborn Again’, I could probably have another 3 tracks on as background noise and I strongly dislike the other 5 tracks.

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