Best Albums of 2017 (Part 1)

i started last year’s Best Albums of the Year list  concerned about whether or not such lists were a good, viable or indeed practical idea. This year finds me with no such reservations: lists are fun, lists are informative and inspirational, lists are just cool, dammit, and above all this particular list – in spite of its unavoidably provisional nature – is a great way to celebrate the most implausibly wonderful sounds that have entered my ears during the last 12 months.

In compiling this list, standard 5:4 rules (which i don’t think i’ve ever shared) apply: a composer or artist can only appear once, and reissues or re-recordings aren’t allowed, so the 35th Anniversary expanded edition of John Williams’ score for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Kraftwerk’s 3-D The Catalogue and Jasun Martz’s Solo Exhibition: The Pillory, all of which would otherwise have appeared in my top 40, have been excluded. Also – and this was an eleventh hour decision – i haven’t included Brian Eno’s Sisters; whereas it’s a truly outstanding example of modern ambient that lives up entirely to Eno’s original ethos while making it sound fresh and new (or, more accurately, demonstrating how it never stopped having the potential to be fresh), it wasn’t a widely available release, given away to a select number of people who had bought Eno’s Reflection app, and only for a limited time. One hopes Sisters might see a proper release at some point, as it really is stunning. So bearing in mind these personal peccadilloes, here’s the first part of my round up of the year’s 40 best albums.

40 | Cristobal Tapia De Veer – The Girl With All The Gifts (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

“One of last year’s best movies – and one of the most intelligent films to explore, admittedly obliquely (and with a twist), the otherwise tired zombie apocalypse trope – gets an equally admirable soundtrack courtesy of Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer. Gentle yet eerie, tender but menacing, it has refreshingly little to do with conventional movie scores, opting instead to surround and nourish the film’s narrative with a score that evokes, alludes and hints, often from a distance, rather than trying to spoon-feed or manipulate at point-blank range.” (reviewed in January) [Vinyl/Digital]

39 | Allie X – CollXtion II

Distinctive, imaginative, infectious pop has always been the exception rather than the rule, and in this respect 2017 has for the most part been a stultified disappointment. One of the more striking exceptions is Allie X’s second CollXtion volume, which doesn’t simply build on its 2015 predecessor, it effectively reappraises and rebuilds its outlook and approach from the ground up. Overt allusions to ’90s synthpop are part of a larger affectionate engagement with the (personal/musical) past that pervades CollXtion II, encapsulated in the opening lines to ‘Lifted’: “We’re the lifted boys and girls, and we are on our own / Listening to everything from grunge to rock ‘n’ roll” and alluded to in song titles like ‘Vintage’ and ‘Old Habits Die Hard’. While in less mature hands this would (and usually does) manifest itself in a sequence of homages, mash-ups or unabashed rip-offs, Allie X doesn’t merely borrow or channel stylistic tropes, she gets them, and as a consequence assimilates them into a new vocabulary that’s at once familiar but invigoratingly unpredictable. But beyond this, the emotional highs captured in these ten songs are excitingly immediate, whether in the dancefloor-infused lament to being “fucked over” that is ‘Casanova’ (bringing to mind Robyn’s more bittersweet songs) or the conflicting complexity of romance conveyed in ‘That’s So Us’: “What I like about you baby / Is how you annoy me daily / But you still fucking amaze me / That’s so us!”. Pop at its purest and best.  [Digital (CD is currently sold out)]

38 | Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

While Goldfrapp’s output has always tended to crackle with electricity, this has usually been tempered with languid modes of momentum that at times makes the duo’s music tend towards the opulent. In the case of Silver Eye, this is made more complex by both a return to the grit and grime that characterised 2003’s Black Cherry as well as a recurring impression of underlying elation. The result of this is that, regardless whether expressed via beat-driven pulses (‘Systemagic’, ‘Everything Is Never Enough’, ‘Become The One’) or at a more nebulous pace (‘Tigerman’, ‘Faux Suede Drifter’, ‘Zodiac Black’), Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy vocals are constantly just a hair’s breadth away from full-blown rapture. None of the songs ever truly release that pent-up underlying emotion, but far from making the album a frustrating experience it creates a sense of anticipatory excitement that doesn’t let up from start to end. [CD/Digital]

37 | Trio Aristos – Nordsending

“Though they founded in 2005, Nordsending is the trio’s only recording to date, exploring music from Norway, Finland and Denmark. […] Most striking of all, though, is the music of another Dane, Bent Sørensen, whose 2010 work Gondole begins the disc. The impression it’s going to make is not immediately obvious, preoccupied at first with harsh accents and material that slip-slides around. But the four movements that follow are simply dazzling. Tentative, muted lines that both work together and stray over each other, eventually forming something like a chorale (the second movement); a soloistic pizzicato cello becoming the basis for hoarse imitations from violin and viola, culminating in a lovely cantabile melody (the third); swooping sul pont. glissandi and harmonics that again find their clarity in a wondrous, united melody (the fourth); and a litany of restrained little surges, as though the trio were inching forward, clustered and tremulous, still clinging together through more assertive gestural swoops until they practically dissolve away in an episode of ghostly lyricism (the fifth). Nordsending is a fabulous disc, but it would be worth having for Sørensen’s Gondole alone; what an absolute chamber masterpiece.” (reviewed in June) [CD/Digital]

36 | Michael Begg – TITAN: A Crane Is A Bridge

The music on this album was originally heard as part of a site-specific installation in Clydebank, vertiginously situated in the wheelhouse at the top of the enormous Titan Crane. Begg’s response both to the crane itself and to the very specific listening context for the music is a masterclass in contemporary ambient. Carefully-judged, calm and patient, gentle and warm, it must have been a fascinating experience to be in such a dramatic (and, depending on your opinion about heights, unsettling) environment while being surrounded by sounds arranged to speak from the opposite pole of anxiety. That’s not to suggest there’s no drama; in ‘Aeolian Harps II’ the slight harshness of the timbres and the music’s rumbling firmament suggest, if not volatility then at least instability and uncertainty, expanded upon in the larger canvas of one of the album highlights, ‘Chamber’. But, as only the best ambient can, Begg allows the music to drift in and out of focus and of our consciousness, occasionally drawing on hints of industrial sounds that instantly yet subtly connect it, and us, back to the environment that inspired and originally hosted it. [CD/Digital]

35 | Chaya Czernowin – HIDDEN

The challenge in Chaya Czernowin’s music is not simply to accept its unique approach to both structure and sound, not even to embrace it, but by necessity to dive deeply and fully into it. That sounds reasonable enough, but the nature of the challenge in Czernowin’s case is exacerbated through her disinterest in and disinclination to present almost anything that seems familiar, identifiable or even coherent. In the case of the three “Etudes in fragility” for voice and amplified breath, Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, we’re presented with tiny vocalised sounds, sometimes with pitch content, more often aerated and elusive, while in HIDDEN, for string quartet and electronics, we encounter a similarly vague network of low-key, somewhat homogenised ideas. In both works, the musical landscape sounds elusive, nascent, inchoate — indeed, one might almost describe it as a kind of ‘pre-music’, the stuff from which it will ultimately be made. And in both works, music is made, but of a kind completely unlike what we either expect or recognise. The third part of Adiantum Capillus-Veneris arrives at a synchronisation of rising pitches, anti-melodic but mesmerisingly demonstrative in the wake of what went so tentatively before. HIDDEN lives up to its title, avoiding anything as climactic as this in favour of shifting textural shapes that remain stubbornly unpredictable and, as such, lend the piece a heightened atmosphere that becomes all-enveloping. It’s unusual for music simultaneously to be so disorienting yet so beautiful. [CD]

34 | Markus Reuter – Falling For Ascension

“Set within the context of a rock-infused aesthetic, each of the seven parts displays a steady state in which beat patterns and cycling riffs and motifs predominate. Not just instrumentally but materially, the music is established within relatively narrow confines, demonstrating another aspect of steady statism, behavioural stasis. […] i’d single out ‘Condition V’, where elements from the preceding tracks – again, all middlegrounded – feel like they’re being reused, rejuxtaposed and rethought, emphasised by a foreground guitar solo later on that immediately brings to mind the sense of perspective displayed in ‘Condition I’. It’s perhaps the most engrossing music on the entire album, and when it breaks down at the end (many of the sections break down at their conclusion, as though a plug were being pulled on their inner processes), the eerie overlapping electronic strands that remain, suddenly exposed, are really lovely. Taken as a whole, Falling for Ascension is as strange as it is captivating; it’s an album i keep going back to, in order to revel and get confused in its hypnotic machinations.” (reviewed in October) [CD/Digital]

33 | various artists – New Estonian Choral Music

“…a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre […]. It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years. […] Not only does this disc testify to the imagination of the composers, but also to the singing quality of the eight different choirs involved, all of which display levels of accuracy and subtlety that go way beyond being merely impressive. As i’ve stated previously, choral music is arguably the idiom for which Estonia should be most loudly lauded, and this disc makes it abundantly clear why that’s the case.” (reviewed in June) [CD]

32 | Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Turning away from the poignant melancholy that has infused much of her earlier work, Lana Del Rey has here opted for a brighter, more insistently uplifted ethos, perfectly summarised in the album’s title (plus that remarkable smiling cover photo). The 16 songs here are dreamy and heady, some of them practically drenched in sweat, the result of either the balmy climes they inhabit and/or the intense sensuality running through so many of them. Even when they take a turn for the negative (as in her gorgeous duet with Sean Ono Lennon, ‘Tomorrow Never Came’), the music holds back from cinematic lament in favour of restrained, implied demurring in order to ensure the album’s abundant strains of happiness can continue to bob and float.

31 | Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

With each new release, the depth and intensity of Chelsea Wolfe’s music has grown, and Hiss Spun – following on from last year’s amazing EP Hypnos / Flame – feels like a significant step forward. Where once the music was loaded with so much weight it had difficulty raising itself off the floor, throughout this album there are currents of air and shafts of diffuse light within its dense, leaden textures and dark, shadowy spaces. Whether driven on by razor-sharp guitar riffs and lines (’16 Psyche’, ‘Twin Fawn’) or by relentless, alternately churning and propelling inner momentum (‘Vex’, ‘Particle Flux’), Chelsea Wolfe manages to emerge from and rise above the doom-laden sludge sounding radiant. Genuinely portentous, ravishingly lovely music. [CD/Digital]

30 | Onutė Narbutaitė – no yesterday, no tomorrow

It wasn’t until some time after i’d listened to this album that i realised a) its music was still going round and round my mind, and b) i was at the same time thinking about Smetana’s Vltava. Lithuanian composer Onutė Narbutaitė’s music is characterised by a curious but effective balance of somewhat (but only somewhat) filmic elements and cutting violence, the latter at times downright ferocious. It’s tempting to hear in the three large-scale pieces on this disc a kind of post-romantic atmosphere, and while they do regularly exhibit a distinct lushness – especially in the title work, adapted from her 2014 opera Cornet – this is achieved without ever resorting to conventional approaches or clichés. As for Smetana, i think he comes to mind due to the sense of flow running through both of the other two works (La barca and Narbutaitė’s fourth symphony krantas upė simfonija). Just like Vltava, these pieces have a river-like inevitability to their forward motion, taking in diverse but congruent sights along the way. As such, due to their sense of progression they also bring to mind Takemitsu: unstructured but inevitable, the product of freely exploring a defined space. [CD/Digital]

29 | Ming Tsao – Plus Minus

The first of the two works on this disc is Ming Tsao’s half-hour intricate realisation of Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus. While the programme notes in the booklet, explaining the process, are almost impenetrable, the musical result is immediate and powerfully convincing. Performed by the German group Ensemble Ascolta, the work displays an impressive flexing of energy, by turns charging forward and pulling right back, at times almost suspended. The moment-by-moment events are often very beautiful, and in a way it’s the mixture of the ephemerality (one idea quickly replaced by another) but consistency of this beauty that combines to pull one into the work so quickly and deeply. If anything, the extensive accompanying notes for the other work on the disc, Mirandas Atemwende (the second act of Tsao’s The Tempest-inspired opera Die Geisterinsel), are even more impervious to understanding, but again, the music is entirely otherwise. Although, from a listening perspective, it involves a fair bit of hanging on for dear life, the shifting tangibility of the words, a multitude of fantastic individual orchestrational details and above all the genuinely dazzling range of invention displayed – no, flaunted – in this piece make it all a magnetic experience. Definitely music that needs repeated listenings, but first contact is pretty damn astonishing. [CD/Digital]

28 | Ensemble Musikfabrik – Edition Musikfabrik 12: Stille

“The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. […] For me, the most impressive work on the disc is Janu Christou‘s 1968 Anaparastasis III „The Pianist“, a work described as being for “actor, conductor, ensemble and continuum”. One might almost call it an ‘anti-piano concerto’, due to the actor’s apparent inability – whether through mere reluctance or full-on pathological horror – to touch, let alone play, the instrument. […] As a recording it proves the extent to which Musikfabrik can prevent a work from suffering due to lacking its visual component. To see this piece would surely be utterly remarkable, yet as a purely aural experience i can’t help feeling it’s even more troubling. In the literal sense of the word, Anaparastasis III „The Pianist“ is quite incredible, and and it’s easily one of the most completely gripping compositions that i’ve heard all year.” (reviewed in December) [CD]

27 | Allar Kaasik – Timeless Light: Estonian cello works

This recent disc by Estonian cellist Allar Kaasik explores six major works by the more well-known composers from his homeland. The most familiar – in terms of both the composer and the piece – is Arvo Pärt’s 1966 cello concerto Pro et Contra, though at over 50 years of age this work seems more violently astringent than ever before. Anyone unfamiliar with Pärt’s earlier work will find its gruff, heavily dissonant dialogic bursts eye-opening and -watering. As for the rest, of the two works by Galina Grigorjeva, her solo Recitativo accompagnato is pure brilliance, a mournful, increasingly turbulent melodic outpouring that becomes hugely intense and intensive, as though once started it simply can’t stop; the final movement, settling over plangent repeating pizzicato notes, the instrument now dazed and tired, is amazing. But Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Spectrum IV for cello and organ is even more impressive, the two players initially sizing each other up before embarking on a lovely interaction whereby the organ sets up bands of clashing clusters over and through which the cello pulls shapes and cartwheels. The treatment of the organ, in particular, is remarkable, especially a weird juddering descent towards the work’s close, traversing the entire range of the instrument before unleashing an enormous final eruption, propelling the cello up into the stratosphere. [CD/Digital]

26 | Andrea Belfi – Ore

Every year there’s another new demonstration of just how seamlessly acoustic and electronic sounds can be made to function together, and this 40-minute, five movement workout for drums and electronics is an outstanding example of this. There are times when Belfi is content to set up episodes underpinned by itchy regular beats, allowing the electronics to trace cloud-like melodies in the air. Although superficially they appear to be treading water, there’s actually an important evolution going on, a structure being gradually moved through. Elsewhere, Belfi plays at length with semi-abstract drum solos inflected and embellished with subtle electronic fringes. There’s momentum everywhere – of numerous different types and flavours – but nowhere more pressingly than in standout track ‘Ton’, driven at relentless speed while electronic textures dance around and glance against its sharp edges. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

25 | Peter Raeburn – Woodshock (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of 2017’s most unusual but visually stunning movies, Woodshock is a film where the relative quietness and straightforwardness of the drama is militated against by shocking narrative twists and psychological/drug-induced episodes (it’s also, after Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s finest hour). A name probably unknown to many, Peter Raeburn has worked on several of director Jonathan Glazer’s films, most recently supervising and assisting Mica Levi with the string arrangements for her score for Under the Skin. In scoring Woodshock, Raeburn has tapped into the film’s pervading fug of disquiet, creating a tapestry largely comprised of strings and harp, overlaid with whistled melodies and surrounded by gently rippling electronic pitches. The result is stunningly sensitive, the aural equivalent of a heightened sense of touch, its soft, measured sounds like the tiny impacts of falling snowflakes or motes of dust alighting on skin (final track ‘Nature Symphony’ needs to be heard to be believed). With an underlying sense of both detachment and disquiet, it mirrors perfectly the kind of relaxed buzz generated by the cannabis in the story, while at the same time hinting at the profound bereavement of Dunst’s protagonist, Theresa. Above all, though, heard on its own terms it is staggeringly beautiful, one of the most unusual and exquisite film scores of recent years. [CD/Digital]

24 | John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The latter half of 2017 has been pretty special for John Williams, with the one and only La-La Land Records issuing sumptuous expanded and remastered anniversary editions of the soundtracks for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as the release a few days ago of his score for the forthcoming Spielberg film The Post. Of course, it’s his new Star Wars score that most people will be paying closest attention to, and there’s a couple of necessary caveats. First, it’s not really possible to appraise the score purely on its own terms, as it’s the continuation of an ongoing story that now spans eight movies (the comparisons to Wagner, usually made too quickly and too often, are definitely relevant here). Second, while The Last Jedi has approached the Star Wars universe boldly, radically unafraid of taking the narrative in directions some would prefer it didn’t go (with triumphant results), Williams’ score acts primarily as an extended reprise of The Force Awakens (something of an irony, considering how derivative that film was). All the same, the epic qualities of The Last Jedi – it may be the most epic film thus far in the franchise – have imprinted themselves here, and the way Williams weaves the new manifestations of an age-old conflict into his score – particularly with regard to the character of Rey – is as exhilarating, unnerving and touching as ever. One hopes an expanded score might appear at some point to provide the extra hour of missing music from this release, but even in this truncated version it’s a marvellous addition to the Star Wars musical canon. [CD/Digital]

23 | Giulio Aldinucci & Francis M. Gri – Segmenti

“…the emphasis here is on pitched rather than noise-based materials. Partly for this reason Segmenti approaches […] the world of ambient music, Aldinucci and Gri creating beautiful large-form swatches of gossamer. […] In their own way, each of these five pieces undergoes a unique form of slow-burn, and this is especially clear in the opening two pieces. ‘Remnants’, like ‘Anchor’, is initially vague and distant, though over time clarifies to form an exquisitely pretty sound object seemingly slowly turning in space. Around two-thirds of the way through, Gri and Aldinucci push it forward, revealing a number of texturally differentiated strata. ‘Faglie’ is arguably the album’s high point, a 14-minute shape-shifter that moves at an almost glacial pace, initially placing the gentlest of emphases on small harmonic shifts (including an ostensible, deeply buried perfect cadence). It sounds as though a melody is going to materialise, but instead, having bobbed around in the middleground for a time, the piece opens out into a warm ambient field with glimpses of a female voice singing somewhere deep within. […] Considering this is Aldinucci and Gri’s first collaboration, Segmenti is a magnificent achievement.” (reviewed in August) [CD/Digital]

22 | Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound

“An impressive aspect of the cycle is the knack Kayn has for harnessing exceptionally powerful, hard-edged Japanoisy materials that, despite being so abrasive and caustic are nonetheless kept accessible and fascinating. Nowhere is this more cogently demonstrated than in penultimate piece Icursim, easily the most astringent in the entire cycle, leaving one’s ears practically red-raw and bleeding, yet its extremes are an exquisite filigree of razor-sharp points that sound as though they might have been fashioned by Clive Barker’s cenobites. By contrast, perhaps mercifully, Kayn ends the cycle with Arasa, by far the most gentle piece, like a gas giant surrounded by a complicated, evolving atmosphere of varying surface tension. Its ending, bringing the entire 14-hour cycle to a close, is electrifying: increasingly blank, gentle noise with pitched material caught within it, suspended, as if the music were simultaneously warm but frozen. […] This is a historic release of a singular, momentous composition by a uniquely ingenious composer whom, one can only hope, might finally start to receive the recognition he has long deserved. In so many ways, essential listening.” (reviewed in October) [CD box set]

21 | Sleep Party People – Lingering

Also taking a prize for one of the most striking and attractive album covers of the year, Lingering is a triumph of fidgety avant-pop. Channelling sufficiently fragrant clouds of dream as to evoke Sigur Rós – Brian Batz’s voice at times (especially in fourth track ‘Salix And His Soil’) almost a dead ringer for Jónsi – the songs are prevented from turning entirely vaporous through a combination of unstoppable tempos and weighty, multi-layered arrangements. ‘Limitations’ is one of the most striking results of this tension, shimmering and fizzing electronics over shuffling beats while Batz’s vocals struggle to maintain their integrity in the midst of such close-knit layers of inter-meshing material. ‘We Are There Together’ successfully risks a venture through territory initially so laid-back it evokes the world of Lounge music, but the essence of Lingering is a cheerful tripping along at speed as the wind rushes past. [CD/Digital]

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