No matter which way I tried to approach this introduction, I couldn’t keep from sounding like some sort of elitist music snob. So let’s keep things simple here.
These are the twenty albums I’ve heard this year that made the biggest impression on me. I think they’re really fucking awesome. I’m not going to lecture you about my choices like they’re somehow superior to yours. I just hope you get as much enjoyment out of them as I have. I listen to a variety of genres, so there’s a good deal of variety here. Not everything is going to be for everyone. If you happen to enjoy each and every release listed here, you and I need to get a DNA test. We might be clones. If you happen to like many, a few or even one of these albums on this list, let’s go have a beer and be fanboys. Enjoy!
20. Dead Cross – Dead Cross
This album is way too much, and that’s why it belongs here. Calling it a hardcore punk record written by a super-group of rock musicians leaves out a lot of what makes this thing something special. The riffs and the general attack draw from the hardcore aesthetic, but Dead Cross take things into a mentally unstable, politically incorrect and care-free whirlwind of extremity. Obviously you have Mike Patton’s trademark loony-bin screams, bellows and barks. But the band knows how to add fury to Patton’s afflictions. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and at such a short runtime it doesn’t overstay its welcome. To sum up, this record is a paranoid schizophrenic on speed, rambling about his hilarious opinions on modern society. Enjoy!
19. Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun
This is a great example of how to make an album that flows perfectly. If you’re familiar with Mogwai, there’s nothing here that’s strikingly unique in their discography. This is very much an instrumental post rock album, with crescendos and hot/cold dynamics intact. But the musical architecture here is immaculate. These instrumentals ride along an emotional swell, building in complexity and depth as the album progresses. Things start relatively simple and content with “Coolverine,” clouding up with moodiness near the middle of the album. The band finishes with a trio of heavy songs that exemplify a dark, almost ominous ending. All the while, the album never loses its hazy spaciousness or melodic ease.
18. Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy
I’ve heard it said that this is Tyler’s coming out album. I’m not too familiar with the mystery that surrounds his sexuality and the history of his so-called inflammatory comments about homosexuality. If this album is his answer to the controversy, he couldn’t have made it any more blatantly self-confident. This is a man that has nothing to hide in an album rife with parody and smugness. The almost infantile keyboards and quirky cuteness of the production is like the childish giggle after an off-color joke. Tyler doesn’t give a shit about much, and he makes that apathy sound like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory composing for a Nickelodeon cartoon soundtrack. The mocking, almost lazy drawl in his voice is the mold running down the sides of the circus tent.
17. Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained
My love for this album and the general unimpressed consensus within the rest of the metal community makes me think I’m approaching the death metal genre all wrong. I certainly don’t give a fuck either. Morbid Angel represents everything I look for in this genre; ugliness and brutality. Thank god they’ve returned to form with Kingdoms Disdained. It’s nothing new for the band, but their formula works. These riffs feel like rubbing your face on a jagged rock. Guttural vocals spew from a hateful cave dweller in the quaking earth. And the grooves sound like the band is pushing and pulling the world violently around me. It’s not an album of variety or experimentation. It’s an album that splits you open and shoves bricks in your guts. Because fuck you.
16. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland
King Gizzard promised five new studio albums this year. Even though I generally enjoyed everything they’ve released this year, it wasn’t all top tier stuff. It wasn’t until Polygondwanaland dropped in November that their inclusion on my list was solidified. Phew, that was a close one. This is terrific proggy psychedelic rock. It’s full of zaniness, melodic brightness, moody keyboards and a strange, magical concept packed with more than a few hallucinogenic references. Its biggest attribute is in its flow. Tracks change seamlessly, gliding perpetually through a narrow crystalline plain between musical freak out and musical space out. The enjoyment factor here for even unseasoned psychedelic listeners is pretty high. It’s a pretty smooth airplane ride. The oxygen tastes like fruit spray.
15. Bjork – Utopia
Atmosphere. Atmosphere. Atmosphere. Bjork has long abandoned the pop music of her successful 90s/00s era for music that actually breaths, blows and shines like the natural light and current of dream worlds. She knows how to craft a transporting production, erecting sound from the alien scape of a Roger Dean painting. With 2015’s break-up album Vulnicura the world was black oil water and jagged, jaundiced rocks. But with the optimism of Utopia, the world is babyish colored forests and flowered mountains. Woodwinds, harps and electronic percussion flutter, splash and whirl about in a manic stupor. Bjork’s voice is the strange caws of a bird of paradise basking in the dumb joy of new love. If one approaches this album with the intention of experiencing a 2017 fairy tale, there’s nothing better. If you want to dance and sing, move along.
14. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Finisterre
Black metal goes out of its way to be unwelcoming in most cases. There’s nothing in Finisterre that tempers the nihilism and the anger. But Der Weg einer Freiheit really want you to listen and understand just how wrenching and desperate their music is. The whole thing sounds like a group of musicians that are right on the cusp of inflicting pain in very rash and dramatic ways. The riffs here are absolutely explosive, hyperactive and emotional. Every moment is an extreme case of multiple negative feelings. I hear betrayal in the piercing screams. I hear hopelessness in the riffs. I hear blind rage in the percussion. It would sound like some kind of reprehensible anxiety attack if the music wasn’t so accessibly melodic and rich with hellish power. It’s a tour-de-force of a metal album and one that no black metal fan should miss.
13. Sinjin Hawke – First Opus
This album is a celebration. And the greatest thing about this kind of celebration is the fact that I really don’t know what Sinjin Hawke is so excited about. First Opus is an instrumental symphony of electro-funk, IDM, dance and ambient house. I listen to this and feel like I just won the grand prize on a gameshow. Then I’m whisked away high into the starry night for a chill down, followed by a burst of rocket speed back down into the midst of an out of control high school party. Every now and then the music becomes something really strange and broken, like drinking a little too much spiked punch. But not to worry, another epic blast of majestic and monarchic horns snaps you right back into the crowd of a grand inauguration. You never do find out who the new king is, but you’re having fun, so who cares?
12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
I’d listen to this guy read me my medical insurance plan. But besides my love for the honey and silkiness of his voice, he’s also a very clever lyricist, satirist and songwriter. I can understand all the criticism towards this album. Sparse instrumentation, exceeding track lengths and an almost ridiculous amount of self-awareness make this the Tales From Topographic Oceans of indie rock. But I really can’t help but appreciate the wittiness and the humor in John Misty’s diatribes about modern society. He dishes out his world-weariness with such a sense of wholesomeness. The music alone is sweet, smooth, mellow and cool. It’s an album that’s like a bit of whiskey in an extra-large green tea. That tiny bit of bite warms the stomach and delights the entirety of what would otherwise be a bland albeit relaxing experience.
11. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood
Mark Kozelek has thrown everything he possibly can at the listener in this monolithic double album. He’s been pursuing a very personal touch to his songwriting for a few years now, but this time he’s practically reading through a full diary of his insecurities, blessings, loves, hates and various thoughts on the social and political climate of the world around him. It would sound bloated and overly busy if it wasn’t so damn endearing and relatable. The instrumentation is bare, consisting mostly of drum kit, bass and acoustic guitar. The songs move along in a linear fashion, flirting with folk, funk and even hip hop in places. The somewhat minimalistic musical approach allows Mark to sing and speak his stories in an obsessive fashion. The results are stunning.
10. Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
It’s strange how cohesive an album like this can be. Milo’s rapping style seems so off-the-cuff and improvised. It’s like he’s flipping through channels, reciting every commercial, action scene and news report he comes across with a street poetry spin. He jumps from phrase to phrase like Facebook statuses from a philosopher stricken with ADD. But it’s all pieced together so meticulously imperfect. It’s a child rearranging his toy soldiers in an obsessively haphazard fashion. And the beats are so cool, so mellow and unassuming. You can’t help strolling down the street in syncopation with its swaggering flow. And everything is so wrong in Milo’s world of words. But everything feels so right in Milo’s soundscape. Don’t feel guilty for smiling.
9. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World
Elder knows just how much of each little thing makes for a fantastic musical adventure. They take from the swamp sound of stoner metal, but shy away from too much fuzz. They take from the lofty summits of progressive rock, but don’t get lost in concepts. They embrace the deep caves of doom metal, but don’t meander about boringly. Reflections of a Floating World is quite plainly, a triumph. The riffs by themselves are multifaceted, melodic and inspired. But it’s the way the band rolls these riffs over one another, building a damn mountain range of drama and exploration that makes them so amazing. And never forget those crystalline, heavenly acoustic bits that splash and spill into the rocks, cultivating the valiant power of Elder’s mountains with lush greenery.
8. Portico Quartet – Art In The Age Of Automation
Portico Quartet’s music is like an abstract painting in a modern art museum. You stand there in this quiet, large and somewhat sterilized environment gazing at something that looks like a meaningless array of color and shape. There’s something in that painting that keeps you from walking away. In that contorted graphic is a picture of your emotional world. The inexpressible heartbreak of being alone in the city. The unfiltered happiness you feel when the streetlights hit the rain on the windshield just right. This isn’t just a mash of smooth jazz, ambience and electronic music. It’s the sip of liquor and pull of marijuana smoke that hit you just right. The high might make you smile and might make you cry. But you’re feeling very important things. You’re nobody in this world of aching horns and somber percussion, but fuck yes you’re alive.
7. Motorpsycho – The Tower
This group is proof that 28 years into your musical career isn’t a creative purgatory. It might help that Motorpsycho are relatively unknown outside of the psych/prog community and can do pretty much anything they want. But The Tower is still an outstanding mammoth of an album for a band that should be running out of ideas. It’s an encyclopedic how-to on art rock in all its forms – prog, psych, post, and blues. In many instances, songs take wild detours into epic jams. The title track starts like a grunge rock Beatles before taking off into a progressive rocket ride. “Intrepid Explorer” is an indie art ballad for a couple minutes, then dives into an intense nautical psych jam. Nostalgic acoustic songs fill the cracks between larger, heavier numbers. It’s the most varied and epic rock album of the year.
6. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
Never before have I listened to something as gut-wrenching as this. The concept of this album is so personal, real and uncompromisingly depressing that I’ve only been able to listen to it a couple times through. It’s a lonely, stark and quiet record of acoustic guitar songs that takes you through all of the pain of Phil Elverum’s grief over the recent passing of his wife Genevieve. It’s an album about death, and about just how crippling and emotionally devastating of an event it really is. It’s a masterful and cohesive piece of depressive art, and it’s something that anyone who is dealing with death should experience. All the pain you’re going through is not a sign of weakness or frailty. It’s a very natural response to life’s biggest “fuck you”.
5. Kelela – Take Me Apart
It’s amazing how a bitter and feisty record like this can make me feel so good. The production here is so wet, icy and glassy. Kelela is an accomplished R&B singer, with equal amounts of bite, sex and sad contemplation in her voice. The music takes many turns through storms of cool IDM blasts, smooth slow dances of gibbering keys, wide worlds of gorgeous ambient leather. The percussion boils, glitches and rides soft depending on the emotional weight of Kelela’s lyrics. Her feelings pertaining to personal relationships dictate the album’s flow. She’s at the center of a jet-black soap bubble made of her feelings. The bubble ripples and stretches in unison with her objections and passions over love. But the bubble is always afloat. I’m floating right along with her.
4. Enslaved – E
Here Enslaved go again with remarkable consistency. E pulls toward progressive rock flare and post rock expanse. This is no Opeth, however. Instead of fully abandoning their roots, they’ve taken the core traits of their black metal viciousness and Viking lore and brush-stroked them thinly across a wide canvas of flat winter grass and billowing storm clouds. Whether pummeling the listener with cacophonous fervor or tugging our fuzzy heads along in warm acoustic prayer, the music remains vast and spacious. Each riff takes its time to develop, winding down all its energy until a fresh riff breaks it apart and continues on. It’s like each musical section is a separate Viking god. Each deity takes its turn for introductions and power displays before moving aside. It’s all very grand and patiently crafted.
3. William Basinski – A Shadow In Time
This isn’t just minimalism and ambience. A Shadow In Time has real emotional movement to it; a purpose that isn’t clearly defined but personally felt for me as a potent ache of nostalgia. When I listen to these two 20 minute musical pieces, I’m transported back to Augusts of my childhood summers. I can recall the soupy humidity; the orange starburst light of sun in my eyes; the ethereal wash of voices from barbecues, amusement parks and my father’s softball games. This album’s wooziness, haze, subtlety and melancholic looping melodies fill me with a lot of comfort. It might just be background sound for many, but if you really take the time to let yourself get carried away, albums like this are the perfect escape.
2. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Not since Tool have I known a band that’s shown such natural growth over the course of three albums. Fleet Foxes were a nostalgic folk rock band on their debut. Their second album was a deeper, emotional epic filled with inner turmoil. And now on Crack-Up, they’ve transcended their troubles and found a spiritual peace. The instrumentation is sparse, open and grand. Songs move linearly, sweeping across the listening space like pine needles caught in a gale and in the rolling waves of the rocky Pacific Northwest coastline. The cover art really says it all. This is a landscape of beautiful, progressive folk music. It’s an album to get lost in. When that cascade of strummed acoustic guitars floods in on “I Am All That I Need”, it’s like the cut sun rays through a line of trees on the first morning of a camping trip. Fuck it, it’s 9am and we’re breaking into the wine.
1. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Ulver have embraced yet another foreign genre and transformed it into another facet of their enormous, experimental palette. This synth pop album is another staple of unpredictability and perhaps the biggest curve ball the band has presented since their retreat from black metal. “Rolling Stone” thrusts us into a nightclub party in the Norwegian wilderness, and then drops us off abruptly into a tumultuous crescendo of electronic anxiety. “Transverberation” brings us into a purplish stained glass church in the 1980s, awash in dusty sunlight and pulp spirituality. “Coming Home” creeps forward with epic and foreboding dystopian atmospherics, sharp and regretful lyricism and haunting jazz saxophone. It’s a dark, romantic, passionate album that’s as intelligent and thought-provoking as it is accessible and energetic. It stands tall as my album of the year and an absolutely essential listen.