Best Albums of 2017 (Part 2)

So here they are, the best of the best of 2017. Your CD racks and audio libraries would be so much better off with these incredible gems nestling among them.

20 | Daniel Hart – A Ghost Story (Original Soundtrack Album)

By far one of my favourite films of 2017, Daniel Hart’s challenge in composing a suitable score for A Ghost Story must have felt impossible. How do you accompany the sight of ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) dressed head to toe in a sheet, often simply standing in place without moving for minutes on end? Or ‘M’ (Rooney Mara) thousand-yard-staring into space silently attempting to grapple with unfathomable, insurmountable grief? Hart’s response has been, for the most part, to restrict himself to string sounds and electronics (and, occasionally, voices) to create a score that essentially functions in two ways. First, least demonstrative, by providing a soft, lyrical backdrop in chamber music-like episodes that typically align with happier memories, usually shown in flashbacks. This material then bleeds back into the present, swathing the characters and, more importantly, auralising the palimpsest-like scars that have been etched into not just M and C, but into time and history itself. Wherever, whenever or however we live our lives, the film and the music reminds us, we make a dent in existence. Second, most demonstrative, the score acts as a discrete mouthpiece – a proxy, really – for the unspoken words and unexecuted actions of the on-screen characters, transforming their immobility and impotence into something desperately heartfelt and unbearably tense. [CD/Digital]

19 | Demen – Nektyr

There have been innumerable Cocteau Twins copycats and wannabes over the years, but on her debut album Nektyr, Swedish singer-songwriter Demen has improbably managed to tap into the lifeblood, the very essence of what made their music what it was. But it’s neither a homage nor a throwback – in truth, it doesn’t sound remotely ‘retro’ in any way – but instead the authentic, honest articulation of a doleful contemporary mind. ‘Articulation’ is an important word, as Demen often doesn’t so much sing as use the vocal equivalent of body language, the specifics of her lyrics becoming lost in a gestural world – which itself instantly brings Elizabeth Fraser to mind – of sighs and moans, cries and keens that tell us everything we need to know. Even when she’s heard more directly, as in ‘Mea’, the music’s doom-laden rumble and black reverberation softens and blurs the outline of her singing such that, again, she’s partially obscured by this velvet fug. One comes away from Nektyr full of uncertainties but feeling unaccountably heartbroken; an album for which the phrase ‘exquisite pain’ could have been invented. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

18 | Benjamin Thigpen – Flux

There are just two works on this disc, both of which eschew the trademark clichés that have contributed to make acousmatic music seem a tired, if not spent, force. In the four parts of still, Thigpen explores a sound palette of friction, ranging from the momentary glances of short impacts to longer stretches of rubbing and scraping. These are formed (or, seemingly, form themselves) into the kind of gritty, squally drone explorations one associates with David Jackman’s Organum. There’s a pronounced shift halfway through the third part, the introduction of drum-like thuds becoming a catalyst that transforms things into a wonderfully complex texture that fills the final part of the piece. pulse, using sounds generated by a Buchla 200 analog modular synth, is even more engrossing. Early on Thigpen explores the shimmer and judder resulting from placing frequencies beside each other, with the slow care of a scientist in a lab. This sounds simple, but the exquisite ballet of elements that results is utterly mesmerising and beautiful. The second part evokes Ryoji Ikeda in the way it converts pitches into burbling and twanging streams of data, arranged into a central climax that’s nothing short of glorious. [CD/Digital]

17 | Milica Djordjević – Edition Zeitgenössische Musik

There’s a limit to how much you can read into the title of a composition, and in the case of Serbian composer Milica Djordjević, they’re a cross between an afterthought and a red herring. Acknowledging this only makes the experience of listening to the seven works on this disc all the more exciting, as their range of invention is staggeringly broad. Take her two-part string quartet The Death of the Star-knower – petrified echoes of an epitaph in a kicked crystal of time (a title George Crumb would have been proud of), which moves from an out-of-reach, unstable kind of tonality to huge swooping glissandi akin to a bizarre alien aviary before exploding into a network of excessively vibrating octave unisons. The whole thing is like a wild stream of consciousness. Just as impressive is Do you know how to bark?, a “non-communication” for double bass that puts the instrument through a confliction of brief melodic moments amidst violently percussive grinding and growling rispostes. But the standout piece for me is FAIL for cello and live electronics, like a series of attempts to do something that keeps crashing or collapsing into miasmic, distorted and/or crushed noise – but noise that ultimately turns out to be fertile. The end, culminating in an enormous squelchy takeover of this noise, is one of the most deliriously exciting things i’ve heard all year. [CD]

16 | Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies

“Kõrvits has turned to the poetry of Emily Brontë in order to create what he describes as “a journey into the darkest, most mysterious corners of loneliness: to where one doesn’t bare to peek twice”. […] Moorland Elegies is treated to a marvellously vivid rendition in this recording by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Risto Joost. Its continual fluctuating between comfort and disquiet is highly stimulating, undermining the music’s superficial beauty in order to project something very much more intimately personal and damaged. Highly impressive.” (reviewed in June) [CD/Digital]

15 | Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin – Im Hellen

Having been wowed by this trio at the 2016 Huddersfield Festival, i’ll admit to being somewhat sceptical that their fantastic improvisational language would work as effectively away from the concert hall. But Im Hellen has proved these doubts to be unfounded – if anything, this recording is akin to being able to walk around and up close to the trio while they’re in action. Every year there’s one disc that stands out above the rest due to the sheer clarity of its captured sounds, and in 2017 it’s this one. Not only is the innate sense of dialogue between the three musicians truly palpable – it’s like being a fly on the wall during a series of intimate, intense private conversations – but the way these dialogues unfold, passing through some of the most insane contrasts and non-sequiturs, and then unfailingly not merely hold together but prove totally convincing as miniature or large-scale compositional structures, is incredible to behold. Im Hellen demonstrates precisely the same thing as in the concert hall: an absolute masterclass in the art of improvisation. [CD/Digital]

14 | irr. app. (ext.) – Future Reveries of the Eoarchaean Biomass, Volume One

It’s twenty years since Matt Waldron’s first release as irr. app. (ext.) (the wonder that is Dust Pincher Appliances), and his latest work is as consistently impressive as ever. In its usual category-defying way, the music occupies a hinterland where elements from the worlds of acousmatic, electronic and experimental music jostle and intermingle with a rare freedom. What makes each irr. app. (ext.) release so tantalising is Waldron’s surreal/absurdist tendencies, resulting in music that’s able to plough deep, earnest furrows while always retaining the right to turn on its heel and thumb its nose at everything that went before. In this album – a single, hour-long piece, divided for reasons of practicality into two halves – Waldron is back in the realm of drone and noise, creating a sort of industrial strength ambient music that, while at times being ignorable or interesting, is not remotely quiet. Described by Waldron as “like a cross between a fictional environmental recording and a soundtrack to an uneasy dream”, the density of this music is remarkable, all the more so since precisely nothing about it feels ‘hands off’, or even the composited product of simply layered ideas. It’s more like a wizard’s cauldron, seething with ingredients that have all been carefully chosen and added at the right time and in the right way to make magic. [Digital]

13 | Wayne Siegel – Celebration

In last year’s list, it was Stefan Fraunberger who was reinventing what an organ could do. In 2017 that honour falls to Wayne Siegel, who connected up the pipe organ of Reykjavík’s stunning Hallgrímskirkja cathedral to a quartet of computer-controlled robot musicians, “all of them eager to express themselves individually but also programmed to perform together”. Nothing about that tantalising description is adequate preparation for the ecstatically unhinged hour of tomfoolery that is Celebration. Initially playful and boisterous, before a minute has passed the material has become fragmented and clunky, turning in a friendly, tussly form of squabble. Siegel programmed the robot musicians with several Icelandic hymns, and the way these coherent musical ideas emerge, collapse and are hurled around the inscrutable shifting structures and behaviours of the piece is as fascinating as it is, at times, completely hilarious. In fact, i suspect it’s impossible to listen to Celebration without wearing an enormous grin: the whole thing is pure, demented joy. [CD/Digital]

12 | Nordic Affect – Raindamage

“…two works each from three composers, one electroacoustic, one purely electronic. [… Úlfur Hansson’s] 2014 Þýð involves the string trio’s voices in addition to their instruments, together constructing a suspended atmosphere made up of pitches strung loosely, with a recurring sound akin to a rising water droplet. Hansson’s concerned with more than just creating a beautiful soundworld, though, taking it through a series of crunchy climaxes that form an interesting counterpoint to the ‘angelic’ floating consonance of the ensemble’s voices. The last of these climaxes triggers a more heavy grinding outburst that leads to the music winding down as though it were all the result of an elaborate clockwork mechanism. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a bewildering but entrancing piece that throws elements of ambient and noise together and somehow gets them to gel.” (reviewed in June) [CD/Digital]

11 | Benge – Forms 6 – Works On Paper

This latest manifestation of Ben Edwards’ ongoing exploration of the possibilities and potential of analogue synths may well be his best. Originally, Benge’s Forms albums comprised short studies, but since Forms 4 (one of my Best Albums of 2015) they’ve expanded, and Works on Paper – created utilising a 1970s Serge Modular system – are his longest so far, just two pieces each lasting around 20 minutes. ‘Envelope One’ is concerned with an engaging introspective burbling, as if the machine were absent-mindedly talking to itself, here and there becoming lost in private reveries and playful flights of fancy. ‘Envelope Two’ has a more outward-focused demeanour, projecting soft metallic strikes and then embellishing their resonance. Its latter half to an extent returns to the burble of earlier, though without a sense of turning inward again, culminating in a lovely multi-layered texture that sounds like a dream of the future that took place in the past. [Digital – free download]

10 | The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 3

“Its acute emotional depth and poignancy comes primarily from the way each musical morsel – lovingly grafted from decrepit 78rpm records – conveys an undaunted grand sweep, by turns music hall jauntiness and filmic romanticism. The contrast between this indefatigable spirit and the way the music seems practically to be vanishing before our eyes is an exquisite metaphor for the agonising insidiousness of dementia, each short piece a character struggling to maintain coherence while barely cognizant of their deterioration and imminent evaporation. […] It’s music we don’t so much see as glimpse in our peripheral vision, ghosts and phantoms that cause the past – whether real, semi-real or imagined – to continue to haunt the present.” (reviewed in October) [CD/Digital]

9 | Annette Vande Gorne – Yawar Fiesta

“…perhaps the key defining feature of Yawar Fiesta is its dramatic, fantastical interplay of both material nature and perspective, alternating between granular, cloud-like, noisy formations (often positioned in the background or periphery) and solemn declarations and intoned chanting, seemingly by a vast, intimately close chorus of voices. […] In lesser hands one would be marvelling simply at the breadth of imagination and astonishing compositional technique being demonstrated. Yet for all its unknowns and unpredictability, its wild paroxysms of austerity and elation, Yawar Fiesta cuts to the quick, and one is left gasping at the integrity and above all the intense humanity of its musical language. Everything in it is transparent and real and honest and true.” (reviewed in September) [Blu-Ray audio]

8 | Stefan Węgłowski – Contemporary Jewish Music

Despite bearing such a bald, straightforward title, Polish composer Stefan Węgłowski’s relationship with Jewish music, as manifested in the five works that comprise his Contemporary Jewish Music cycle, is a complex one. Węgłowski has drawn on textual and musical elements from traditional Jewish sources, but one would often be hard pressed to know that they were there, let alone recognise them. The composition process began with recordings of improvisations by a small instrumental ensemble, which Węgłowski then worked on electronically, creating a sound world primarily characterised by shifting textures and colours, all seemingly built upon a soft ‘ticking over’ pulse. Regardless of the ‘Jewishness’ of the music, taken on its own terms as something in between electroacoustic and acousmatic music, the dramatic and emotional range of this cycle is all too apparent. ‘Beginning’ works as an overture, effectively setting up the environment within which everything else will follow; ‘Modeh ani’ pushes this textural template to the nth degree, completely immersing one in its evolving, reshaping and reforming sound objects, becoming weirdly vertiginous, as though we were tipping over into the music. Jewish melodies are more prominent elsewhere, most poignantly in a dialogue between violin, clarinet and saxophone in closing movement ‘Appendix’, sounding at once ancient and modern, climaxing in a blazing sax solo. Despite its very peculiar mode of expression, in ways i’m still trying to get my head around this is music of rare power, speaking directly to the heart. [CD/Digital]

7 | Chiyoko Szlavnics – During a Lifetime

“Szlavnics arranges the juddering, shimmering and rippling clusters such that each undergoes the same envelope: fading in, hovering for a time in a throbbing quasi-stasis, then fading out. It later becomes more complex, particularly around halfway through, leading to gorgeously rich agglomerations of close-proximity pitch, and later still pauses feel deliberate in a sense of preparing for what’s to follow. […] The conclusion, now sounding akin to bells, is simply amazing. […] Reservoir for eight players and sine waves is a relatively early work, but easily one of her best. Small clusters become ‘fleshed out’ by the ensemble, turning into extremely complex chords […] Whereupon an entirely unexpected pause ushers in a soft, small extended coda focusing on more clear collections of pitches nestling alongside each other. Ravishingly beautiful.” (reviewed in April) [CD/Digital]

6 | Monty Adkins – Shadows and Reflections

“To call it ‘static’ is not an overstatement, and whereas Adkins’ music has often had the epithet ‘ambient’ applied to it (often, indeed, by me), it has never been more appropriate than here. […] For all its supposed lack of detail […] i’ve found myself returning to these two pieces again and again and again in recent weeks, and every single time hearing them entirely differently, finding new details, reappraising their trajectories (if that’s the right word for such crawling material). Sometimes it’s been the entire focus of my world for 40 minutes, sometimes it’s been there with me while i’m doing other things; as with the very best and truest ambient music, it works either way, fluctuating freely in its engagement with me and mine with it. That being said, it’s very hard to ignore such utterly mesmerising music.” (reviewed in November) [Cassette/Digital]

5 | John Edwards/Mark Sanders/John Wall – FGBH

“i’ve often reflected on how Wall’s aggressive, painstaking ‘cooking’ of the material seems a world away from the raw improvisations from which the material sprang. Yet i’ve come to realise how, in fact, it’s a continuation of the improvisation, Wall playing with the material further, gently massaging its plasticity into a final sculptural form. As far as FGBH is concerned, its final form is utterly dazzling. […] while the balance of elements is perfect, the actual sense of balance in the music is a precarious one, continually tilting such that it retains (or recaptures) that edge-of-the-seat white heat when the trio were actually improvising. A rare, exhilarating, unmissable treat for the ears…” (reviewed in July) [CD/Digital]

4 | Köhnen Pandí Duo – Darkness Comes In Two’s

“Conducting itself with the gravity of a symphony, its 45-minute duration is divided into three roughly equal movements, each in their own way an attempt to grapple with the implications of their ideas within an infinite, yet all-enveloping, claustrophobic soundworld. The first is a slow burning build that could be called drone-like if it wasn’t so relentless, every passing moment ratcheting up the tension and heaping more fuel onto what quickly becomes a glow(er)ing fire. […] Köhnen and Pandí allow the elements to jostle and jolt each other in a metrically amorphous way, sounding like the contents of a magician’s cauldron […] The latter movements opt for a fascinating exploration of stability, both employing harmonic oscillations and pulses to underpin and just about hold together the chaotic forces churning above. […] This is but a pale attempt to capture something of the agonised ecstasy Köhnen and Pandí express in this outstanding live performance […]. Köhnen’s unique dark-/doom-laden rendering of jazz has been away too long […], but on the strength of this amazing new album, a wait has never been worth more.” (reviewed in January) [Digital]

3 | Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim – The Slow Creep of Convenience

“It’s fascinating how some of the most theoretically dissonant passages in the work nonetheless take on a kind of immobile elation, while many of its more ostensibly straightforward sections display an incredible sense of pent-up tension, seemingly full of potential energy just waiting to be unleashed. This is another consequence of the way that The Slow Creep of Convenience ignores and then rewrites our definitions and expectations. […] It’s magical when a piece so gently but firmly insists itself in a way that, without you at first even realising, starts to pick apart both the way music supposedly ‘works’ and, concomitantly, the way we engage with it. It revivifies everything, both music itself and us as listeners.” (reviewed in November) [CD/Digital]

2 | Natasha Barrett – Puzzle Wood

Puzzle Wood is a revelation. Containing five works, four of which date from the mid-1990s, the revelatory aspects are three-fold: first, how accomplished Natasha Barrett was at this early stage in her career; second, how consistent these pieces are (aesthetically speaking) with her subsequent work; and third, how distinct and different they are from the majority of British electronic and acousmatic music being composed around that time, sounding neither remotely dated, nor in thrall to or at the mercy of the technology being used to create them. Rare indeed! And in each and every piece, Barrett’s unique, unpredictable yet organic approach to both the moment-by-moment handling of sounds as well as to their structural arrangement and distribution makes for the most vividly immersive experience. There’s something of an ambient sensibility in the way sound objects gradually acquire or deplete mass and momentum, drifting in space and meeting and melding under their own gravitational forces (particularly in 1997’s ‘Little Animals’). But equally these works exhibit a remarkable ‘demonstrative range’, from infinitesimal, quasi-static suspensions to muscular, aggressive effusions. And quite apart from any of this, they all sound completely gorgeous. Only superlatives are adequate in situations like this: this is simply some of the most jaw-droppingly fabulous electronic music i’ve ever heard. [CD]

1 | Björk – Utopia

Utopia begins with the words “just that kiss” and ends with “hold fort for love forever”, and in a way this tells you everything you need to know about the foundation of its message. Love as the subject for song is so commonplace as to be practically quintessential, though it’s rarely explored, at least not obviously, by the rarefied niches of the musical avant-garde. As a consequence, love is primarily subjected to acts of expression that tend towards the simplistic, sentimental and/or superficial: not necessarily trivial, but ephemeral and largely ineffectual. In this respect, bucking the attitudes of both avant-garde and pop sensibilities, Björk has been a consistent exception: love has always featured in her music front and centre, from the outset of her solo career relishing the extent of both its variety and its intensity: “But oh, to get involved in the exchange / Of human emotions / Is ever so, ever so satisfying” (‘Human Behaviour’), “It takes courage to enjoy it / The hardcore and the gentle” (‘Big time sensuality’). Initially, almost bashfully, she spoke with an anthropological voice, as if one step removed from the feelings and experiences she was describing, but from her first album Debut in 1993 onward, Björk’s creativity has been fired, above all else, by an utmost direct and personal exploration of love.

Not exclusively, though, and certainly not always positively. Its inevitable pitfalls and pains are etched into her music almost as much as its pleasures. This holistic engagement with the entirety of love, embracing fully both its physical and psychological aspects, from eroticism to vulnerability, the bestial wildness of attraction and sex to the immeasurable agony of loss, is what makes Björk’s music among the most mature and profound contemplations of love to have ever been uttered. And beyond love – yet in no way separate from it – her infatuation with the natural world, and its capacity for majesty and beauty, malevolence and brutality, has been a parallel thread running throughout her career, often serving as a metaphor for human emotions and interactions.

Utopia is more than just a celebration of these things, more even than a synthesis of them. Utopia, as its title boldly implies, is not so much a manifesto as the mindset, the recipe and the motivation for a happy world. Overthrowing Thomas More’s satirical implication that ‘utopia’ (from the Greek: “nowhere”) is a fiction, Björk suggests here that it is not only possible but vital. Her zeal, as ever, is all-encompassing, calling on choirs of flutes and birds-of-paradise to infuse the songs with exotic flavours and fragrances (‘Utopia’, ‘Paradisia’), forging dramatic structures that are scarred and hobbled yet which transcend these woes (‘Body Memory’, ‘Courtship’, ‘Losss’, ‘Sue Me’), turning inward to create intimate spaces for the most tender expression (‘Blissing Me’, ‘Features Creatures’, ‘Saint’). Words and music, also as ever, are seamlessly integrated, Björk’s voice cooing and trilling, careening and lurching, soaring and caressing, while each song’s specific timbral and behavioural palette moves in absolute sympathy, combining gritty beats with cloud-cushion chords to both militate against and provide comfort, falling into cycling patterns to underscore episodes of rapturous absorption, encrusting and saturating the space to capture something of the human spirit for infinite passion, improvising playfully with a small collection of sounds as if savouring the traces of saliva on one’s lips after a kiss.

This is not just the album that i or that we or that 2017 needed, but the album that music itself needed, powerfully restating and reasserting what music is, what it’s capable of, what it means, what it can be, what it can do. It reminds all of us – whether we create it, perform it, write about it, listen to it – that music is not an abstract, impotent thing. It motivates us, (re)charges us, enlightens and uplifts us, it moves us, chides and encourages us. Utopia is Björk turning to face a world that seems so horrendously fucked up as to be beyond all possibility or hope of redemption, and entirely embracing it. Nearly 20 years ago, she sang about how “all is full of love”, describing love as something that comes to us, surrounding us and filling us (she specifically alludes to this song in Utopia‘s final track, ‘Future Forever’, repeating its wonderfully messed-up but meaningful line “trust your head around”). But here, now, her emphasis – less passive, more tangible – is that love is “already waiting”, that we are “already in it”. It’s our responsibility, actively, to look for it, recognise it and accept it, and then to share it, to return and expand that embrace. It’s not a new message – though Björk’s particular way of articulating it is the most startlingly, brilliantly new thing i’ve heard all year – but it’s a necessarily urgent one. If society could finally and unequivocally receive, understand and put that message into practice, the world might just perhaps start to resemble Utopia. What an amazing way, and place, in which to live.


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