It seems we’ve come to the end of another year. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a rough one. Between mass shootings, political insanity, and a cavernous divide that seems to just keep widening between people that at one time would never allow ideological differences get between them personally, I’m feeling psychically, mentally, and physically beat down. Fortunately for me(and maybe you, too), it’s been a really great year for music in my world. There have been some great records dropped from the ether to help me get through these complicated times. They’ve allowed me moments of solace and escape. At times they’ve recharged my brain and spirit and have even given me glimpses of hope that despite the topsy-turvy, Bizarro world we’re currently in that we all may find a place of peace to get back to and maybe find some middle ground.
At the very least, we can throw on a record, grab a couple beers, and hash this shit out.
I don’t know how you fared this year musically, but for me it’s been a pretty amazing year. So amazing that putting this list together has been a hard one. There are a couple truly standout records to my ears, but as a whole I’ve loved so many albums with equal vigor. So as my mom used to say, “Well shit or get off the pot.” I’m gettin’, ma. I’m gettin’!
25. Delia Gonzalez : Horse Follows Darkness
DFA artist Delia Gonzalez makes warm, bubbly synth music while honing artistic, dance floor leanings. According to Gonzalez, the record is ” a modern electronic soundtrack for the Revisionist Western film genre.” It’s sort of like Suzanne Ciani making the score to McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A unique take on modern electronic music.
24. Blanck Mass : World Eater
How can you not like a band called Fuck Buttons? I mean, the guys that decided to go with that name have to be alright dudes. Benjamin John Power is one half of Fuck Buttons, and when he’s not making grating noise in that outfit he’s making grating noise as Blanck Mass. World Eater is his most accessible record to date, mixing techno, noise, and even hints of electro pop. Dig into this.
23. Primus : The Desaturating Seven
Primus continues to do that Primus thing on The Desaturating Seven, which is to mix up King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and R. Crumb into a musical stew that may smell kind of weird but once you get a taste you’ll keep coming back for more.
22. LCD Soundsystem : American Dream
If you’re going to retire your band and even go so far as to have a goodbye show at Madison Square Garden and then decide a couple years later that you want to get the band back together you better make damn sure that your welcome back album is damn good. James Murphy knew he’d get some slack for pulling a stunt like that, but American Dream isn’t just okay. It’s primo LCD Soundsystem. Welcome back, indeed.
21. Spoon : Hot Thoughts
Spoon, more than any band that came up in the early aughts in that coveted and revered time in indie rock, have continued to evolve and hone their sound. They still have that pop edge to them, but seem to be taking their songs in a more dance-infused territory. Hot Thoughts is an all-out pop record that feels like it could be their breakthrough mainstream album. Whether that will be the case or not only time will tell, but one thing is for sure which is this Texas band can write one hell of a groove.
20. John Carpenter : Movie Themes: 1974-1998
I love seeing John Carpenter find a new artistic outlet. Not that making music is new to him, but for so long he seemed to be the jaded, non-working auteur that would pretty much sell any rights off to whomever as long as he got his share. Ever since he started making records with his son and God son that creative fire seems to be stoked in him once again. Movie Themes: 1974-1998 sees Carpenter revisiting some of his most famous and even not-so famous film scores and reimagining with new ears and instruments. The results are pretty amazing.
19. Astral TV : Chrystal Shores
There’s an overwhelming warmth and vastness that emanates from Astral TV’s Chrystal Shores. Their name alone evokes space and time, and their sound only lives up to those lofty images. It’s new age music for the modern psychedelic age. Synths and crystalline guitars weave and mesh together beautifully to create a soundtrack for existential pondering.
18. Beach Fossils : Somersault
Beach Fossils started out creating dusty, 4AD-leaning pop songs that felt perfect for long car rides and romantic navel-gazing while looking out on some nondescript sunset. They could’ve continued to make lo-fi records like that and kept a core group of reminiscing guys and gals happy. Instead, they took some time and retooled their sound and expanded their songs sonically and made a great indie pop record. Long car rides and romantic navel-gazing are still welcomed, but not required.
17. Billow Observatory : II: Plains/Patterns
Billow Observatory work not only in these new age sounds, but they also work in vast open spaces that allow those sounds to expand and retract with each successive listen. Their first album was this monolithic expanse of distant synths and guitar that allowed you to get lost inside for however long you allowed yourself. On their new album II: Plains/Patterns, those cavernous spaces still exist but feel warmer and there seems to be more light allowed in. It’s like a shoegaze band was sucked into a black hole and what emerges on the other side is something wholly new and exquisite.
16. Moon Duo : Occult Architecture Vol. 2
Moon Duo have always dabbled in the darkness, creating a space-out, psychedelic boogie that is equal parts ZZ Top and Suicide. On their part 2 of the Occult Architecture series they’ve decided to let some light in. It’s an eye and ear-opening listen, with the band looking on the lighter side to stunning effect.
15. Carlton Melton : Hidden Lights
Hidden Lights is an appetizer for what’s to come from Carlton Melton in 2018. As far as appetizers go, it’s an absolute delight. Mind-expanding psych and heady drones that keep you pondering and reaching for answers to the bigger questions.
14. Com Truise : Iteration
By far the best Com Truise to date. Seth Haley has whittled down the hard techno vibes of earlier Com Truise records and made a tight, melody-driven album. Iteration is the perfect late night drive soundtrack.
13. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile : Lotta Sea Lice
The low key vibes of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile coming together on a collaborative record seems like something that would be mentioned to a friend in a beer-soaked evening as a great idea, but an idea that would probably never happen. Well that idea turned to reality and let me tell you it’s one hell of a record. Hooky pop slung by two of the great songwriters working today. This record is a joy to spin.
12. Protomartyr : Relatives In Descent
Protomartyr is like this street-level, back alley version of The National. There’s something darkly gallant about their poetic and often melodic post-punk songs. Each record has gotten both clearer and obtuse. Relatives In Descent doesn’t quite perfect or one-up their last record The Agent Intellect more than it keeps that angst in motion. That’s not a bad thing in my book.
11. Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk : Passage
Another beauty of a record from Azure Vista, this time masters of ambient textures and hazy vibes Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk. Passage is near perfect electronic and ambient music. It’s an exquisite mix of both artists’ solo work, reaching back into Munk’s work in Manual. If you’re looking for good vibes look no further than Passage.
10. Tangerine Dream : Quantum Gate
I think Tangerine Dream’s Quantum Gate has been one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Not that I didn’t think it would be good, but I had no idea it would be this good. When Edgar Froese passed away at the beginning of 2015 I couldn’t imagine the band continuing on at all, but Ulrich Schnauss, Thorsten Quaeschning, and Hoshiko Yamane are keeping the Komische master’s memory and spirit alive and well on the first post-Froese Tangerine Dream record of original material. This is primo TD, but with a more modern take.
9. METZ : Strange Peace
Over the course of three albums the Canadian trio METZ have lashed our ears and brains with jagged, distortion-fueled songs that sound battered together more than constructed. Sawtooth tracks bolted together like razor-sharp sheet metal and held together with psychic trauma. After 2015s II it felt like they guys hit a turning point: do they go in more of a pop direction or continue digging a hole to Hell with their instruments. The answer is the excellent Strange Peace, a record that somehow gets louder and more abrasive while also shoving pop hooks in our ears at the same time. The guys had been making music that sounded like it was produced by Steve Albini, so METZ decided this time around to head to Chicago and let the man work his magic in person. As far as rock and roll records go these days, this is one of my favorites.
8. Videodrones : Nattens Haevn
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the El Paraiso record label. It’s weird to be a fan of a label, as opposed to bands. But listen, when a label touches on all your musical loves(psych rock, ambient, jazz fusion, acoustic new age, monster guitar riffage, synth/drum freakouts, heavy synth, and generally soundtracks to blow your mind to) becoming a fan of a label is pretty easy. Especially when the label is run by the guys that are making a big portion of all the psyche-melting music.
Videodrones is a two-piece synth freak noise outfit that consists of Causa Sui drummer and main graphic design guy Jakob Skott and synth master/horror hound and Laserblast member Kristoffer Ovesen. 2016s Mondo Ferox was a hazy mix of bubbly synth sound cues, like something you’d hear on an old b-horror movie you’d find on an mildew-y VHS tape in the basement. On this year’s Natten Haeven the guys expanded the sonic palate to more song-constructed music. Less music cues and more arty, expressionistic sound excursions. They still retain that nauseous horror vibe, but it feels more like improvisational freakouts and less like a lost film score. It’s a record I listened to for weeks at a time. Brilliant stuff.
7. Pentagram Home Video : The Satanic Path
One of the best musical excursions into the occult you’ll find this year is Pentagram Home Video’s The Satanic Path. On his 2016 Death Waltz release Who’s Out There, this dark musical entity made minimalistic, quaalude-affected satanic techno. It was a slowed-down dance music that was equal parts horror cues and trashy late night dance club come-ons. The Satanic Path goes less for minimal techno and heads right for the jugular. It’s at times a low profile beat accompanied by a pulsating synth and at other times its like Skinny Puppy or Throbbing Gristle soundtracking Rosemary’s Baby. There really is nothing else like Pentagram Home Video out there now. Hail PHV.
6. The War On Drugs : A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel has become this sort of hero for the musical outcasts. From Slave Ambient to his newest record as The War On Drugs called A Deeper Understanding, the Philadelphia-by-way-of-Massachusetts singer/songwriter has gone from prodigious auteur shut-in to playing Sunday morning talk shows. Musically it’s not a surprise at all, as Granduciel takes ambient, hazy art rock leanings and mixes them with 80s pop radio sounds to make a very likeable and hummable creation. Despite leaving his indie label for Atlantic Records, Granduciel still seems to be the quirky, uncomfortable rock and roll musician he was 6 years ago. He still suffers panic attacks and heaping amounts of insecurity, but he makes up for it in the sun-bleached songs he makes. A Deeper Understanding is his most accessible, upbeat record to date. He may have left some of those sonic oddities at the studio door that made Lost In The Dream one of my favorite albums in recent years, but A Deeper Understanding still soars above most of what passes for music.
5. Causa Sui : Vibraciones Doradas
Causa Sui dropped this mini-album just a couple weeks ago, right under the 2017 wire. It may be a mini-album, but it sounds like a behemoth. Huge riffs, mammoth drumming, slinky bass lines, and ethereal keys all swirl together like a psychedelic confection. Vibraciones Doradas are summer riffs scattered in vast, autumn walks that lead to winter’s desolation. Five tracks of meaty guitar riffs that lead into hazy moments of sonic reflection, only to veer right back into the eye of the storm. The band have also found this sonic sweet spot to where the ferocity of their live performance translates to their studio work now. These songs have a “live wire” feel to them; buzzing and airy like a downed electrical line in the street whipping and flailing about. You can feel those riffs and rhythm section as they pour their way thru the speakers. The Danes do it once again.
4. Quaeschning & Schnauss : Synthwaves
Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss have had a pretty good year. Not only are they two-thirds of Tangerine Dream and released the excellent Quantum Gate, but they collaborated on their own and released the exquisite Synthwaves. In-between TD work, these two would retire to another music studio and work on songs that would end up on this excellent LP. Their TD mentor Edgar Froese does live within the synth lines on a few of these tracks, but Quaeschning & Schnauss make this Azure Vista debut very much their own. Anyone a fan of heavy synth music, Komische, Krautrock, and the Berlin School of Music are doing themselves a disservice by not owning this record. It’s a lush, transcendent musical masterpiece.
3. Timothy Fife : Black Carbon
Black Carbon is one of those records that I find it hard to quit listening to. It puts me in such a very specific headspace. There’s a darkness Fife paints on these three tracks that tends to just envelope you and take you along for the ride. Timothy Fife’s work in Victims, as well as his various film scores stretches nicely over the heavy synth landscape from early 70s Komische to more industrial, harsher sound of the 80s and 90s. You need only sit thru the excellent album opener “Sydney At Night” to realize you’re listening to a master of his craft. I was excited for this release from the moment I knew it was coming and I wasn’t disappointed. My expectations were pretty much met and then annihilated.
2. Oneohtrix Point Never : Good Time S/T
Daniel Lopatin makes music in a language all his own. It’s this alien dialect that locks in somewhere between ancient drones and kinetic, galactic techno. His music teeters between ambient calm and complete chaos nearly every second, which is why I love his work so much. There is absolutely nothing predictable about it. Oneohtrix Point Never’s musical world seems like a perfect fit for the cinematic world, and within the confines of the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time Lopatin has scored it to reflect the harsh city landscapes of New York while still retaining this very real and emotional center.
This soundtrack feels just as much like the next OPN studio album is it does a score, which is why it’s on my favorite albums list as opposed to my favorite soundtrack list. Lopatin pulled out all the stops on 2015s Garden of Delete, and Good Time feels like this pared-down, street-level version of that record. It wavers in the air at times, it grooves other times, all the while painting a picture of kinetic movement. It would be a gross misjudgement to leave this record as just a film score. It’s much more than that.
And number one,
Maine : V
Michel Dupay, aka Maine, works in the analog world in order to make the delicate and Gothic music he creates. V brings to mind visions of cobblestoned streets, vast ocean views, and an air of doomed romanticism in its subtle beats, warm analog synths, and melancholy melodies. It’s a record that possessed me to keep playing it and with each spin I’d find more to love about it. I think if Leonard Cohen had found himself obsessed with pre-1982 synths his compositions would sound a lot like Dupay’s work here. The songs on V evoke in me the same feelings I got the first time I heard tracks like “If It Be Your Will” and “Everybody Knows”. Maine goes for more of a human, ground-level approach to his electronic compositions as opposed to free-floating in space and looking existential dread right in the eye. V is more concerned with long walks in the winter, contemplating love and loss in a quiet seaside pub, and finding a place to fit in right here. This record deals with the micro, not necessarily the macro. I think Dupay’s subte approach is what keeps me coming back to this one. The darkness here is not a supernatural one, and it’s a darkness that promises some light just around the corner.
Honorable Mentions(I really dug these records, too. Honest I did.)
White Hills : Stop Mute Defeat
Real Estate : In Mind
Bell Witch : Mirror Reaper
Beaches : Second of Spring
Auburn Lull : Hypha
Godspeed You! Black Emperor : Luciferian Towers
Grizzly Bear : Painted Ruins
Papir : V
Mogwai : Every Country’s Sun
Mythic Sunship : Land Between Rivers
Big Brave : Ardor
Moon Duo : Occult Architecture Vol.1
Jay Som : Everybody Works
Wojciech Golczewski : The Signal
Alvvays : Antisocialites
Slowdive : Slowdive
Run The Jewels : RTJ3
Queens of the Stone Age : Villains
St. Vincent : Masseduction
Kendrick Lamar : DAMN
Cloud Nothings : Life Without Sound
Antoni Maiovvi : Cuckoo
Black Cube Marriage : Astral Cube
Pentagram Home Video : Library Studies
Jeff Tweedy : Together At Last
There you go, my top 50 albums of the year(well, 25 listed in order with another 25 sort of randomly displayed for you to go “Jesus, do you do anything else?” The answer is no.) It was a great year for music. Thanks for the distraction everyone. It was greatly appreciated. Thank you for your service to mankind.
Up next, my favorite film scores that I picked up in 2017. There are some doozies, guys and gals.