This has been another year of change for me. I’m finding more and more difficult to see how others stagnate as they age. Maybe others see me some kind of way, but one place that tendency is evident is in the music we listen to: I am constantly finding new and exciting sounds. Whether it’s seeing Street Sects open for my dudes dälek at Beat Kitchen in Chicago, or EMA, Sleaford Mods, Moor Mother, and Sturgill Simpson making me rethink the very concept of genre, there’s always someone pushing things one way or another.
One thing about this list you might notice: There’s a lot less metal this year. Though I did see Nails at the Bottom Lounge in April, my several-years-long metal kick somehow finally lost momentum early in the year. My in-between phases are kind of all over the place, but maybe you’ll find something in here you like. At the very least, this year’s list is more diverse than it has been in a while.
The clear label winner for 2017 is The Flenser. We were definitely riding the same waves this year.
As always, I’ve included links to Bandcamp where available. I’m not in cahoots with them, I’m just a fan of their platform. Without further fuckery, here are my top however-many records from 2017 and some leftovers from last year.
Shabazz Palaces Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines (Sub Pop): With little-to-no warning, Shabazz Palaces dropped a double smartbomb on the summer of 2017. I mean, I interviewed Ish Butler in January, and he didn’t even mention the imminent releases. To attempt to describe this double release is to participate in folly. It will be a long time before anyone is able to place this greatness.
EMA Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang): Erika M. Anderson claims not to be making science fiction records, but each time she says it, her voice grows fainter due to her distance from Earth. Exile in the Outer Ring‘s sounds are more spacey, its textures more other-worldly. This is EMA from the farthest out yet.
Planning for Burial Below the House (The Flenser): Over the past few years, Planning for Burial has slowly become one of my absolute favorite bands, and stunning records like Below the House are the reason. I’ve listened to its opener, “Whiskey and Wine,” more times than any other song this year.
dälek Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac): On their second record after a lengthy hiatus, dälek has already outpaced the momentum that made them the pioneers of this sound. Every song is a weapon against complacency, a bomb in your brain. The result is fucking devastating.
Kendrick Lamar DAMN. (TDE): He’s not hailed as the best doing it for nothing. If untitled unmastered proved how good he is when left to himself, DAMN. only adds to that power. The polish is in the right places, and the rest is left jagged, rugged, and raw.
Joey Bada$$ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ (Pro Era/Cinematic): The ongoing debates regarding who’s the best right now seem to always be between Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake. Why Joey Bada$$ is excluded is baffling. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is easily one of the best records of 2017 — in any genre, much less hip-hop. And if I hear one more person say that the “industry changed him,” whatever the fuck that means, I will duct-tape headphones to their head and make them listen to Enta Da Stage until further notice. Bada$$ is a badass.
Wand Plum (Drag City): Despite the cloud on the cover, Plum is not quite as thick and hazy as Wand’s previous outings. From the contagious psych-groove of “White Cat” to the dreamy jam-out of “Blue Cloud,” Wand has the soundtrack to your synesthesia right here.
Playboi Carti s/t (AWGE/Interscope): Before Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut came out, I read an interview with him in which he talked about not being in a hurry to get it finished. He was taking his time. His diligence and patience paid off. A couple of weeks after I’d last listened to this record, I heard “wokeuplikethis*” blaring out of a boutique on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago. I still have it stuck in my head. Infectious A.F.
Street Sects Rat Jacket (The Flenser): Street Sects is back with all their previous industrial rage plus guitars! These four songs pack more power than most bands’ full-length records. See them live for the full effect.
Godflesh Post Self (Avalanche Recordings): Also regaining their momentum after a lengthy hiatus, Godflesh is back with a monster slab of riffs and beats. Post Self sounds more like a confident continuation than a comeback, and more than 2014’s A World Lit Only by Fire, it picks up where 2001’s Hymns left off. Brutal grooves.
Open City Open City (self-released): Boasting ex-members of Lifetime, Ceremony, Kid Dynamite, Armalite, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, among several others, it’s difficult to imagine Open City being anything other than awesome. They deliver on the promises of their collective past with a core that’s rock hard and a sophistication that only comes with years of honing it.
White Suns Psychic Drift (The Flenser): Since abandoning their guitars, White Suns have only gotten louder, harsher, and more interesting. Psychic Drift is as abrasive as it is subversive, as textured as it is layered, and as hot as it is bright.
Vince Staples Big Fish Theory (ARTium/Blacksmith/Def Jam): It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Vince Staples is doing on Big Fish Theory, but it’s good, and dude is definitely growing. From the laid-back bass-fuzz of “Yeah Right” (with Kendrick) to the rumbling flow of “BagBak,” Staples is up there with the best of his contemporaries.
Aesop Rock Bushwick Soundtrack (Lakeshore): It’s not just tracks without the raps, though there are a few on here that are begging for the man’s multisyllables. Aes’s Bushwick score has been some of my favorite work music this year. Put it on, bob the head, and tear into the task. Energetic, eerie, and emotive.
Metz Strange Peace (Sub Pop): In the mid-1990s, there emerged a genre-less sound somewhere between punk and metal, but totally different from what their merging conjures. Think Barkmarket, Jesus Lizard, or Jawbox. Metz brings that sound bludgeoning back with a brutal update. It’s never been clearer than on their third, Strange Peace. Play loud or not at all.
Heinali and Matt Finney How We Lived (The Flenser): A pairing made somewhere south of heaven, Heinali and Matt Finney are back with another dark, droney collection of beautiful bedtime stories. There’s absolutely nothing like it anywhere else.
Ride Weather Diaries (Wichita): I once went on a year-long kick during which all I listened to was Ride. There’s something about their harmonies beset by droning feedback rhythms that just hooks me. Weather Diaries is a welcome return to that lovely, lulling sound.
Wolves in the Throne Room Thrice Woven (Artemisia): As much as I was off metal for most of the year, I had to check the new Wolves in the Throne Room. Thrice Woven is a return to their Cascadian transcendental black metal roots, real roots you can feel like fingers deep in the dirt.
Sean Price Imperius Rex (Duck Down): He’s still my favorite, so of course I love this posthumous release. Imperius Rex would be better if he were still around. Sean is a monster emcee, growling from the grave. r.i.P!
Exit Order Seed of Hysteria (Deathwish, Inc.): With all the indecisive genre bending going on these days, it’s refreshing to hear a band hit one right down the middle. Exit Order is good ol’ punk rock: fast, ferocious, and ready for anything. Frontwoman Anna Cataldo surfs their bundle of angry energy like a pro.
Words Hurt Soul Music for the Soulless (self-released): With Hangar 18 alumnus Alaska on the mic and his dude Lang Vo on the beats, Words Hurt is on the rampage on their second full-length. Alaska’s been busy all year dropping a track a month with his Atoms Fam homie Cryptic One (as IT), so the lyrical skills are as sharp as ever.
Kicking Giant This Being the Ballad of Kicking Giant, Halo: NYC/Olympia 1989 – 1993 (Drawing Room): Kicking Giant has always been about juxtaposition, the angles at which the worlds of Rachel Carns and Tae Won Yu meet. As Tae writes, “On one hand, there was the derangement of living in urban squalor and on the other, a predilection for simple harmonies and unpretentious purity.” This collection is a welcome return to that place in between. It’s also quite a beautiful package.
Drab Majesty The Demonstration (Dais): Where some just rehash and revive, Drab Majesty is one of the few bands to transcend their sound’s lineage. What could’ve been just throwback Gothic pop is instead a dark celebration of now as much as then. The Demonstration is as original as it is honorary, as catchy as it is cathartic.
Arca s/t (XL): Don’t let the cover scare you, Arca’s third record is the stuff of dreams. It’s his first with vocals, and you’ll wonder why as his voice carries most of these songs. It’s all great, but hang in there: The slower, later tracks “Desafío” and “Miel” are the best.
Jlin Black Origami (Planet Mu): Perhaps more frenetic than her last outing, Black Origami shows Jlin sharpening her set and sound. If 2015’s Dark Energy (also on Mike Paradinas’ Planet Mu label) is a knife, this is its very edge. Footwork from the future.
Eluvium Shuffle Drones (Temporary Residence): As the song list reads, “Simply put, the suggested manner of listening to this work is to isolate the collection and to randomize the play pattern on infinite repeat — thus creating a shuffling drone orchestration — the intent is to create a body of work specifically designed for and in disruption of modern listening habits and to suggest something peaceful, complex, unique, and ever-changing. Thank you.” It’s all of that and more.
Cloakroom Time Well (Relapse): There’s something so cozy about the landlocked, fly-over doom-pop of Cloakroom. They’re like an earthbound Hum, a rock-stanced Jesu, or Swervedriver on the wrong speed.
Uniform Wake in Fright (Sacred Bones): The nastiest of the now, Uniform noise it up not-so-nicely. There’s something really satisfying about the precision of parts of this and the sloppiness of others. It’s like being sliced up with a scalpel and bludgeoned over the head at the same time.
Steven Wilson To the Bone (Caroline): I’ve been a fan of Steven Wilson’s work since Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, but I had lost interest in his solo work since his work with Mikael Åkerfeldt and his own Grace for Drowning (2011). I checked in again with this one, and everything I liked is here: the grand arrangements, the soaring choruses, the catchy quirkiness. Like early Eno, Wilson works with and around the conventions of progressive pop to great effect.
Björk Utopia (One Little Indian): No matter the era, Björk has always been one of the most compelling artists in the world. The last time she sounded this overtly in-love was perhaps on “Hit,” from her last record with The Sugarcubes nearly 30 years ago.
Sleaford Mods English Tapas (Rough Trade): Staggering between the stilted pop of The Fall to the electronic claustrophobia of Suicide to the whitey alt-hip-hop of Soul Coughing, these blokes have stumbled upon something awesome. With Andrew Fearn helming the laptop and Jason Williamson ranting along, English Tapas is so weirdly catchy, you’ll want to listen to it all the time.
Dizzee Rascal Raskit (Island): Staying out ahead of everyone else for over a decade, Dizzee Rascal has been building a body of work average emcees can only aspire to. Raskit is no exception. This is dude’s sixth record! Please stop sleeping on the Brexit brethren.
Last Year’s Leftovers:
Sometimes it takes a minute. Here are the one’s that either missed last year’s list or just deserve continued attention regardless.
Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool (XL): While it missed my list last year, it’s one of the best of 2016. It took a long time for this record to unfold for me, but now I can’t stop listening to it. “Decks Dark” alone is one of my all-time favorite Radiohead tracks.
Moor Mother Fetish Bones (Black Quantum Futurism/Afrofuturist Affair): The best thing I heard all year came out last year. Though I’d read quite a bit by Moor Mother, I had yet to hear her music — a mistake I hope you won’t repeat. If you like your hip-hop noisy, your noise groovy, and both angry as fuck, then you’ll love the righteous rage of Moor Mother Goddess.
M. Sayyid Error Tape 1 (self-released): There’s simply no one like M. Sayyid. Antipop Consortium’s resident storyteller is back on his solo game. The best thing out of that camp for a minute, Error Tape 1 is M. Sayyid at his best yet.
Sturgill Simpson A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic): Written as letters from a seaward father to his young son, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is easily Simpson’s most personal record, an area he hasn’t necessarily avoided in the past. A Sailor’s Guide… places him somewhere between the cowpunk country of Dwight Yoakam and the haunting twang of Chris Isaak. It leans toward the latter.
Youth Code Commitment to Complications (Dais): As soon as someone declares a style dead, it comes raging back with a fury unforeseen. Youth Code is one of several recent outfits resurrecting danceable but deadly industrial music.
Danny Brown Atrocity Exhibition (Warp): Damn… Worthy of both its nominal forebears, Atrocity Exhibition is rap at its artistic peak. Really doe.
Minor Victories s/t (Fat Possum): What happens when Stuart from Mogwai and Rachel from Slowdive are in the same band? A victory more than minor.
Tim Hecker Love Streams (4AD): Love Streams is an odd mix of old and new, organic and synthetic. According to the 4AD site, “Hecker admits to thinking about ideas like ‘liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus‘ and the ‘transcendental voice in the age of auto-tune’ during its creation.” Hear it in there.
Jenny Hval Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones): Comparing Jenny Hval to Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson are easy, but if Julie Cruise were slightly pissed, a little more aggro, she might sound like Jenny Hval. Blood Bitch is beautifully unsettling, simmering with a rage barely contained.
Clipping. Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop): According to clipping., “Splendor & Misery is an Afrofuturist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him. Thinking he is alone and lost in space, the character discovers music in the ship’s shuddering hull and chirping instrument panels.” I mean, it was nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form — and deservedly so. It’s dope.
Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers): It must be added that The Kid’s last record soundtracked a lot of my 2017, as it did my 2016.