Top Albums of 2017 — Ian Cory
Comedian John Mulaney ends his debut album The Top Part with an extended story about subjecting Chicago's Salt And Pepper Diner to a nearly endless loop of Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?" (If you haven't heard the bit, I'd recommend listening now because nothing is less funny than a synopsis of a stand-up routine). As the diner's patrons descend into madness, Mulaney imagines a schizophrenic (his choice of words, not mine) standing up and announcing: "Now you know, now you know what it's like to live in my brain."
I probably don't have to tell you that for the purposes of this intro essay, I've felt trapped in my own personal version of The Salt and Pepper Diner for most of 2017. Malcontents have taken over the jukebox, subjecting us to an constant stream of cruel banality. The waitstaff is either uninterested or unable to restore order, and the tables around me are boiling over with rage. In this flimsy extended metaphor, the "schizophrenic" is heavy metal. When the brain-rotting oppression of Tom Jones is bearing down on my mind, the music that resonated with me this year didn't offer an escape from the world (with one notable exception); rather, it showed the world as it is -- all the good mixed in with all the bad -- and told me that I was not alone.
What's new? Very little, in fact. The powerful abuse the powerless. The rich get richer. The temperature rises and the sea level with it. All the while, people summon the courage to carry on, taking to the streets to raise their voice, arguing passionately about their values, and letting distorted guitars ring out into oblivion. Their may be monsters among us, hate may keep passing on, death may stalk us at all times, but whether or not there's anyone praying for us, the fight continues. Here are the records which shone through the bullshit in 2017, proverbial Tom Jones be damned.
20. Falls Of Rauros – Vigilance Perennial (Nordvis, USA)
19. Wiki – No Mountains In Manhattan (XL Recordings, USA)
18. Amenra – Mass VI (Neurot, Belgium)
17. Woe – Hope Attrition (Vendetta, USA)
16. Sampha – Process (Young Turks, UK)
15. Sannhet – So Numb (Profound Lore, USA)
14. Moses Sumney – Aromaticism (Jagjaguwar, USA)
13. John Frum – A Stirring In The Noosphere (Relapse, USA)
12. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam, USA)
11. Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day (InsideOut, Sweden)
(Profound Lore, USA)
Last year, I wrote that it would be hard to think of 2016 without thinking about loss. It only makes sense that 2017 would be checkered with albums reckoning with death. As Jon Rosenthal wrote in his own list, Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me will likely be remembered as the most clear-eyed expression of grief. Where Elverum detailed his experience with diary-like intimacy, Bell Witch's depicts death in the abstract. The passing of drummer Adrian Guerra, whose voice adorns the record, hangs over every note of Mirror Reaper, but the album's greatness shouldn't be defined by the tragedy surrounding it. This piece is a towering achievement, a balance of empty space and endless sound. Bell Witch function more as sculptors than songwriters here. Though Mirror Reaper is undeniably melodic, the experience of listening to it is less defined by the arc of a melody than by the tension hanging off each note. It's an old cliche that the space between notes is just as important as the ones musicians play. Here, Bell Witch leave space wide enough for the dead to be heard.
At a glance, it would appear that the music and lyrics on Elder's Reflections From a Floating World are working at cross purposes. The album is a love letter to the electric guitar, an gushing river of riffs and melodies. Solos intertwine and break free of each other, and the band leaps from one idea to the next like kids exploring nature on a breezy summer day. In short, it is full of life. On the other hand, singer Nick DiSalvo seems preoccupied with life's fragility. As DiSalvo tells it, we are born into a crumbling, meaningless world where you're hemmed in at all sides by forces seeking to devour or control you. How can such bleak themes be married to such joyous music without seeming at odds with each other? Nuance, baby. Elder's vision of a temporary and doomed world is only made more stirring by how artfully and vividly they depict it. Even in the ruins there will be breezy summer days, and hopefully kids to explore them.
I wouldn't bother trying to suss out how this album happens. Playing the "is that a guitar, saxophone, or synthesizer?" game is a great way to tie yourself in knots, but by the time you find a satisfying answer, this instrumental supergroup will have moved onto a new sound equally as perplexing. Instead, it's best to just let Ex Eye unfold naturally. It is a rare treat to have this many musicians in one room that aren't just freaks of nature technically, but wildly imaginative too. Instead of gathering for a music nerd circle-jerk, Ex Eye have joined together for something like a summoning ritual, breaking down the walls of reality with ecstatic repetition and unhinged virtuosity.
Mark this one down as a vote of confidence. Asira's debut release isn't perfect; you can still hear the components of their influences jostling with each other, and they resort to some odd jumps from section to section instead of smooth transitions. However, the composite result of these influences and ideas is so thrilling that it's easy to give these Reading, UK rookies a pass for their introduction to their world. The sounds of atmospheric black metal and Opethian progressive metal won't be too novel to many of our readers, but Asira's blend shows signs of a band with a voice and ambitions to match. Efference is expertly paced -- note the parallel structure between the album's two sides -- and relentlessly beautiful. Keep your eyes and ears open for these folks.
It's not surprising that following the release of Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. that some fans thought there was another record on the way from the Compton rapper. Compared to his previous sprawling full lengths, good kid m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. felt more like a novella than a fleshed-out epic. These types of rumors crop up from time to time, usually around albums like Tool's 10,000 Days or Radiohead's King of Limbs, and Lamar has enough of a reputation for high-concept writing that such a bold move isn't out of the question. More than anything though, I think people were anxious for a level of resolution that Lamar had no interest in providing on this album. There is no easy moral take-away from DAMN., only fear and self-doubt. While the album's calling cards are its blockbuster singles "DNA" and "Humble," the prevailing mood on DAMN. is introspective and deeply anxious. Lamar is in fight-or-flight mode from the jump, lashing out against critics and ruminating on his own death over beats that veer away from the 1970s influenced tones of his previous record and into the grimy sounds of modernity. In this anxious setting, the record's refrain "what happens on Earth stays on Earth" is almost hopeful, a plea that whatever demons are torturing Lamar now won't follow him into the afterlife.
(Gilead Media, USA)
There's a spot on New York's train system that Gothamist (RIP) might have erroneously called "particularly deadass." Right as the Q/N/R dips into Brooklyn after crossing the scenic Manhattan bridge, the train passes through a deadzone between stations where there is no light and no wifi. Because there are so many trains that pass through this intersection, there is also often no movement for an agonizing stretch of time. During rush hour, you are crammed ass-to-ass with an army of strangers, everyone sweating and muttering swears, unable to move beyond jostling elbows or shuffling feet. Hot breath oozes in from all sides, and it's a guarantee that someone nearby has forgotten to shower.
In this metropolitan sardine tin, each stressor of New York life is magnified. You can feel your rent rising in real time. Three more roaches have been added to your kitchen sink community. The raccoon that eats your trash now has your job and is sending "wyd" texts to your significant other. The next five Mets prospects blow out their arms simultaneously. Everything itches. Everything aches. Your fucking soul hurts. You want to scream loud enough to blow out the windows of the train. "WHY DID I MOVE BACK TO THIS GIANT GARBAGE ISLAND? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? NO ONE SHOULD LIVE LIKE THIS."
When this happens, I like to throw Contempt on my headphones and crank it. That usually gets me a few extra centimeters of space.
(Southern Lord, USA)
Best metal dance album of the year, synthwave be damned. Power Trip have cleaned up their production, tightened up their songwriting, and taken the leap to the top of the modern thrash pack. What matters most here is that the songs are killer, each little slices of thrash perfection. The band's shifts in tempo and velocity are perfectly calibrated, and not a moment that could be used to push the song forward is wasted on anything else. If you take umbrage with the idea that Nightmare Logic is a dance record, listen to the the transition into the title track from "Firing Squad" and tell me that you aren't compelled to move.
That doesn't come from force alone. Power Trip clearly spent time planning the album's twists and turns. Their approach to lyrics is just as deliberate. Nightmare Logic first threatens your life with an axe to the neck and a bullet to the head. With the stakes established, the second half pushes the other way, urging the listener to stand up and fight for their life. Power Trip didn't just release the best heavy dance album of 2017, they released the best posi-hardcore record too.
How has nobody thought to do this before? How did I not know that I needed this before? The Underside of Power is a combination of post-punk and soul that, like a black power katamari, picks up techniques from hip-hop and industrial on its warpath through the status quo. Although they sound nothing like Rage Against the Machine, Algiers share that band's knack for revolutionary politics and a cross-cultural music coalition. RATM made anti-capitalist sentiment fun enough to blast at the BBQ whereas Algiers makes music strictly for the bunker. Like a katamari, or any good revolution for that matter, The Underside of Power gains steam as it goes, burrowing further into the darkness and violence of Algiers' sound until it ends in smoldering flames.
In the comments section of my piece breaking down how and why Converge got so damn good in the 2000s, a reader pointed out that I neglected to highlight any of Nate Newton's individual contributions to the band. Since I've already made my own feelings on The Dusk In Us known, and because Newton's bass playing is so essential to so many of that record's best moments, I want to use this space to formally apologize. Nate Newton, I am sorry. You don't deserve to be overlooked this way. Your roaring backup vocals, contagious energy on stage, and massively underrated bass playing are as essential to Converge's identity as your flashier bandmates. You provide the heft and body of Converge's sound when guitarist Kurt Ballou takes to the higher register, and your skill as a songwriter and guitarist shines through in your ability to weave counter-melodies into dense arrangements (e.g. that little turnaround you threw into the last chorus of "A Single Tear," fucking choice). You are worthy of love, you are not to be forgotten. Run on Nate, run on.
(The Sign, Sweden)
Remember that one notable exception I mentioned back in my introduction essay when it came to listening to music for escapism? Welcome, my friends, to the PROG ZONE. Hällas' Excerpts From a Future Past was my own private dorky paradise for the second half of 2017. Given how much of "geek/fandom" culture has been sucked up into mind-numbingly shitty blockbusters (I'm on a strict no superhero movie diet, and after that last season of Game of Thrones, I might be done with Westeros for a while), the pleasure of having something fantastical that felt small enough to hold in my hands is hard to to quantify. Not to imply that Hällas are keeping people at arm's length. There's no snooty gatekeeper bullshit here. Hällas want you to love their jaunty odes to golden cities and space masters because they love that shit. Their earnestness is infectious and their old school (but never old hat) sound was the source of the most pure joy I had all 2017.