Hello and welcome to Not From Concentrate Music’s list season! Join me as we look back on a great year of exciting and innovative music, and read all about some of our favourites.
The album list below was extremely difficult. It seems to be a maddening cycle, and even now I ask myself how I managed to pick only 50 albums out of all the excellent pieces of music I heard over the year. Well, I did it and I realised how good 2017 was musically.
For transparency, I have marked each release that I have affiliation to due to my employment at Caroline International with an asterisk (*). I’ve always thought that it wasn’t worth ignoring releases I have worked on releasing despite the potential for bias, as I listen to tonnes of great music through work that ends up staying with me.
Anyways, let’s get into the list…
50. Snapped Ankles – Come Play The Trees
49. Here Lies Man – Here Lies Man
48. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
47. John Maus – Screen Memories
46. Beach Fossils – Somersault
45. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
44. Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
43. Algiers – The Underside Of Power
42. Liars – TCFC
41. Princess Nokia – 1992 Deluxe
40. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
39. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – Feed The Rats
38. A. Savage – Thawing Dawn
37. Charly Bliss – Guppy
36. Irma Vep – No Handshake Blues
35. Sylvan Esso – What Now (*)
34. Hey Colossus – The Guillotine
33. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom
32. The Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics
31. BIG|BRAVE – Ardor
30. H. Hawkline – I Romanticize
29. Wiki – No Mountains In Manhattan
28. Guerilla Toss – GT Ultra
27. Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts – Milano
26. Alan Vega – IT (*)
25. The World – First World Record
Oakland outfit The World’s debut album, fittingly titled First World Record, is a barrage of saxophones, off-kilter bass lines and razor-sharp guitars that is as fun on discovery as it is on multiple listens.
Teetering into no wave territory thanks to the soaring sax, First World Record is as appropriate a dancefloor album as it is for the mosh pit. Stick it on and get lost in the feverishly bizarre funk.
24. Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
“This is the last call for those real MCs / Your voice is needed” bellows Milo on the ‘Call + Form (Picture)’, a line which acts both as a callout and an answer.
Over the years, Milo has cemented his place as the primary flagbearer of the art-rap scene. After releasing over the carnage rose a voice prophetic under the Scallops Hotel moniker earlier this year, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is the album of a rapper getting more confident in their own ability to experiment. Pairing Milo’s typically complex flows and wordplay – as he states himself, “The point is my vocabulary pays my rent” – with a newfound love of voice modulations, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is the Milwaukeean’s best release to date.
23. St. Vincent – Masseduction (*)
Ditching the frantic guitar-shredding of previous years for a more streamlined electro-pop direction in part thanks to producer Jack Antonoff, St. Vincent is as deft at song-writing as ever.
In actual fact, this direction that Annie Clark has taken was being signposted on 2015’s self-titled album, but on Masseduction, Clark goes all in. Holding up a mirror to celebrity culture through her own experiences of being pushed into the limelight from the fringes (due in part to a past relationship with Cara Delevingne), Clark’s take on pop music is one of the year’s most interesting.
22. Bedouine – Bedouine (*)
Bedouine, the moniker taken by Azniv Korkejian and name of her debut album, is the feminine version of ‘Bedouin’, a nomadic people of northern Africa. Fittingly, Korkejian has seemingly mastered emulating the homely folk of the sixties and the trotting country of the seventies. This combination allows Bedouine to possess both the qualities of the cosiness one feels in their own domain and the warm wanderlust of the open road.
Taking on all the qualities of many a folk masterpiece thanks to the analog recording process of Gus Seyffert, at the heart of each track is the feeling that Korkejian could be sitting right opposite plucking away at her guitar and gently meandering through her berceuses. Each are lovingly licked by the arrangements of Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, submerging Korkejian’s songs into a golden hue of retro pop.
21. Run The Jewels – RTJ3
The third Run The Jewels album technically was released on Christmas Day in 2016, but the official release date came at the start of the year: so I’ll count it in here.
The collaboration between resounded producer El-P and Killer Mike has been a perfect match, which each of the Run The Jewels trilogy illustrating the talents of each. Run The Jewels 1 was a exploration into the lyrical prowess of the pair – mainly Killer Mike but El-P holds his own – while Run The Jewels 2 was a masterclass in hard-hitting bangers from El-P. RTJ3 is a nice median between the two, and probably the most balanced of the three.
20. Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory
Recently whilst listening to ‘Spindrift’ off of multi-woodwind extraordinaire Colin Stetson’s newest album All This I Do For Glory, a friend asked me, “When does he start to playing the saxophone?” To his complete surprise, I answered, “He is right now”.
Not an exhilarating story, but one that serves as a point: Colin Stetson doesn’t play the saxophone like anyone on this planet. The technique behind Stetson’s newest solo venture is simply mind-blowing. On first impressions there seems to be looping and overdubbing where there is none thanks to the unusual method of Stetson’s breathless extended playing. In turn, Stetson’s work comes off as an expansive, almost tribal IDM that has ambitions stretching further than ever.
19. Madonnatron – Madonnatron
I’ve always enjoyed when bands give their style of music a previously unheard and clever genre name. One of my favourites that I’ve heard this year is “psychedelic witch prog”, which I am quoting from Liam May, the producer of South East London band Madonnatron’s debut self-titled album.
It’s a bonkers self-identifier – and it doesn’t tell the whole story of Madonnatron – but it seems apt. Their sound is a melting pot of the off-kiltered post-punk of The Raincoats, the dirty psychobilly of the Cramps and the soaring highs of more contemporary Scandinavian punk bands like Tófa and Makthaverskan. Put it all together and you end up with a dreamy yet eerie take on the South London punk scene.
18. Circuit Des Yeux – Reaching For Indigo
There are certain times in life where clarity can unexpectedly arise. For Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux, this happened after she found herself “convulsing and vomiting and crying” back in early 2016.
This one moment sounds tramatic at first, but for Fohr this event became a source of inspiration. And this is where Reaching For Indigo comes in, an album that takes the retro avant-folk of Circuit Des Yeux and side project Jackie Lynn and expands on it to stunning proportion. Fohr goes to deeply personal, dark places on this record, tet the times that she really shines is where she sounds like she’s almost transcended this pain and has a hopeful eye on the future.
17. Billy Woods – Known Unknowns
Billy Woods has also been a bit of an outsider. Woods also seems like an outsider of the outsider welcoming clique of the art-rap community. Known Unknowns may Woods attempt at cautiously dipping his toes into the more accessible (if you could call it “accessible”) side of this scene.
Teaming up once again with producer Blockhead, who has manned the beats on many a Aesop Rock release, Known Unknowns is the sound of a man trying his best to make a clear picture of the struggles of the inner city. While Woods’ lyrics don’t help his case of clarity that much, this is the clearest that he has been in a while.
16. Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
When looking at his past work, there’s always been a nagging thought in the back of my mind that Tyler, The Creator is a very good producer, but not a good artist in regards to his lyricism. So, I was surprised to find that on Flower Boy, Tyler has matured significantly from his days of leading the horror-core aspect of the Odd Future collective.
Flower Boy is like a continuation of Wolf, his 2013 concept album surrounding a summer camp, an album tinged with smooth jazz and zingy synths. This is clearly an area of music that Tyler adores, and Flower Boy sounds like a labour of love for late 90s and early noughties R&B, especially N.E.R.D. and other Pharrell Williams projects.
15. Farm Hand – International Dreams
Farm Hand is the solo project of Mark Daman Thomas, member of Islet and Shape Records. Without context and going on music alone, the idea that International Dreams is a solo effort would surely perplex.
That’s because there’s something eerily monastic about the release, as if a sect of monks were performing a ritual below a full moon in the depths of the woods. Daman Thomas is able to be all of them at once, projecting a ghostly vocal mist in the background while chanting various choruses such as “Feed my hopes / feed my hopes” on the title track. Each instrumental feels like a territorial battle between the forces of dark and light, with shifting shadows and a tendency for eccentric synth noises to break through the fog. International Dreams doesn’t punch you in the gut with a killer hook straight away, but each listen unravels the mysteries below, unveiling a piece of psychedelic art that is hypnotising and rewarding.
14. Lorde – Melodrama
Melodrama in some respects does what it says on the tin. For Lorde’s second album, she looked into the susceptible nature of the typical late teenage/early adulthood relationship. The typical break-up story, the emotions exacerbated by alcohol at a party and the overarching loneliness that this period of life can bring. All ‘melodrama’, in the grand scale of things.
Lorde, however, takes these minute moments in life that many a person can relate to, and blows them up to stunning proportion. Not only is Lorde an astounding writer in her eye for clear detail but her right-hand man on the project, co-producer and sometime co-writer Jack Antonoff, executes a pop powerhouse of an album that isn’t like anything in the mainstream right now. Lorde first cut her own lane out in the pop maelstrom on previous album Pure Heroine, and Melodrama is further proof of her ability to think outside the box without isolating the pop audience.
13. Kirin J. Callinan – Bravado (*)
A line from a recent Fader interview (http://www.thefader.com/2017/06/06/kirin-j-callinan-bravado-interview-living-each-day-musicivideo) with Kirin J Callinan that really stuck out to me was that making Bravado, Callinan claims that “With every decision I made, I picked the least-tasteful option”.
Whether that’s from the front cover (Callinan urinating in his own mouth), or the lyrics on tracks like ‘Living Each Day’ that depicts the events after a man decides to takes the “Live each day like it’s your last” idiom too literally, Bravado is one of the darkest and most honest pop albums of the year. In one sense, Bravado comes off as merely a parody. But dig a little deeper and the execution of each track – from an array of genres like the wholesome EDM on “Big Enough” to the electrifying No Wave of “Down 2 Hang” – is exceptional.
12. Xiu Xiu – Forget
Xiu Xiu are coming off one of their most prolific streaks: one which feels more of an outpouring of creative energy from their founder and vocalist Jamie Stewart. As the band have released projects like The Magic Flute (an opera) or Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks (a cover album of the Twin Peaks soundtrack) recently, a more conventional release was always on the cards.
Of course, Xiu Xiu are never going to be conventional in the conventional sense. Stewart is a savant at excavating the darkest depths of avant-garde rock, and his vocals on Forget plunge to meet these unsettling pits. While Forget is a cold album filled with outbursts and anger, there are also times packed with exuberation. Standout tracks ‘Wondering’ and ‘Get Up’ are outstanding pop ballads, and take the band as close to accessible as they’ve ever become. Not a bad thing in any sense, Forget only extends the rightful narrative of Xiu Xiu as one of the best experimental bands around at the moment.
11. Brockhampton – Saturation III
Arguably, no other hip-hop act has had as good a year as the Brockhampton gang. It’s an accomplishment for anyone to release one fantastic album, never mind three. And that’s exactly what this collective – or “boyband” as they like to call themselves – have done.
Out of the Saturation trilogy, the third entry is the one that stands out in showcasing the scale of the group’s talents, and where the “boyband” comparisons seem spot on. Less immediately a ‘hip-hop banger’ album like the first record, Saturation III sees the collective build upon the foundation they’d already built there with some Rap Caviar-ready bops and start to dip their toes into slower, more experimental sub-genres of rap and R&B that started to show itself on Saturation II. Out of the three, III is the crowning jewel of Brockhampton’s dominant 2017.
10. Idles – Brutalism
Sitting somewhere between the olden bruising punk and the more refined post-punk that came after, Brutalism is a punkhead’s wet dream. Despite lyrical content about class warfare, celebrity culture, inner city elites and all other manner of Tory delights, vocalist Joe Talbot shines through with endless bounds of charisma and hilarity which ends up coming off as some sort of twisted delight at all the chaos.
Brutalism plainly lays out all the Tory governmental shit and then manically laughs at it while riding into the apocalypse. Just the album that 2017 deserves.
9. Avec Le Soleil Sortant De Sa Bouche – Pas Pire Pop, I Love You So Much
Montreal’s Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche touch upon so many genres in their second album that it can be overwhelming at first. Their Bandcamp page namedrops the following; ‘psychedelic rock, krautrock, desert rock, punk rock, noise rock, afrobeat, experimental pop, post-rock, electronic’. Despite all of the reference points, Pas pire pop, I love you so much is intoxicating on the first listen, seducing the listener in with the psych crossover genres with an underlying afrobeat bedrock before unfolding beautifully.
You can look at this album like an origami paper finger game, which on the surface is already a fairly complex structure, but the aim of the game is to warp this structure to see the colours and substance below the surface with each movement. Listening through this records’ three main structures is a game of unfolding the influences under the surface, and it’s a joy to discover what will be arriving in each part.
8. Ariel Pink – Dedicated To Bobby Jameson
Hypnogogic pop pioneer Ariel Pink has always been a provocateur, and newest album Dedicated To Bobby Jameson is no exception. For example, take the first track where Pink’s ghostly vocals pronounce “Time to face the grace of God / Allahu akbar!” over punchy synths.
The two sides of Ariel Pink clash and swirl together here. The inflammatory side that harbours the side of Pink that wants to release off-kilter pop tracks that flirt with the idea of being post-punk, and the beautiful and harmonious side that wants to play lovey-dovey pop ballads like ‘Another Weekend’ and ‘Feels Like Heaven’. Dedicated To Bobby Jameson sort of acts as a summary of Pink in the more ‘hi-fi’ (hi-fi in quotes as Pink has never really gone ‘hi-fi’) in the best possible way.
7. Björk – Utopia (*)
Where Björk’s 2015 album Vulnicura saw the Icelandic singer take herself to a very dark place due to a break-up, Utopia is the opportunity for Björk to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Touted as her ‘Tinder’ album, it’s easy to see why.
Even without help from the video for the title track, co-producer Arca has constructed a place that is strange, yet comforting and exciting. It’s hard to not smile along with Björk while she sheds light on minor gestures of a budding love, such as “sending each other mp3s” on ‘Blissing Me’ or the simple call of “Care for me / And then I’ll care for you” on ‘The Gate’. Utopia is a stunning take on the healing process and the promise of new love.
Utopia lacks a lot of the traditional structures and melodies of a pop album, making it a somewhat difficult listen. However, the sheer scale of production here is astonishing enough to completely blow out any expectations of pop conventions and submerge the listener in a world filled with birdsongs, a 12-piece flute section and mesmerising vocals.
6. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
After dissecting his own character on the excellent first two albums under the Father John Misty name, Josh Tillman decided to switch his gaze onto wider society for Pure Comedy, an apocalyptic work that continues to incorporate the dry, witty humour and analytical eye that has helped Tillman make a name for himself up until this point.
On previous attempts (such as the I Love You, Honeybear track ‘Holy Shit’), Father John Misty proved he had a knack for grand sonic gestures of self-awareness. Pure Comedy takes these gestures, and simultaneously expands them while also making more intimate music. The many comparisons to Elton John are fairly accurate, but Tillman’s eye leads him more to a mocking state of mind than one that requires a fix to all the problems he’s pointing out. Pure Comedy is a cynical piece of work at times, which makes it one of the most necessary albums of the year.
5. Sun Kil Moon – Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood
While Common As Light… is certainly classed as a (double) album and very much worthy of the title of one of the best of the year, Mark Kozelek’s music can be seen more as a diary or a book than anything else. And it’s in Common As Light… that Kozelek has taken the unique style he crafted over the past few years, with highlights such as 2014’s Benji, and pushes it further than before.
For over two hours, Kozelek rambles about almost anything and everything: a Manny Pacquiao fight, visiting Portugal, and then heavier topics such as the current US political climate, transgender rights and a biography of sorts for a friend who recently passed away. While this could all be a bit of a slog for newcomers, the instrumentals in Common As Light… help the journey along by being, well, brilliant. Each track’s instrumental is a tight corridor, placing the drums and bass as the vocal point. There are often times where these instrumental stray into the boom-bap realm.
Give it a bit of time and you’ll find an extensive, engrossing and challenging epic here.
4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
“I don’t it for the ‘gram / I do it for Compton”, Lamar exclaims halfway ‘ELEMENT’. It’s a mission statement from Lamar that his priorities haven’t changed. Dedicating his previous two masterpieces, good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, to talking about his home and the social problems in the area and the USA as a whole, DAMN is another masterful storytelling exercise.
On DAMN, Kendrick sounds his most fierce – ‘DNA’ especially – and also his most somber. Lyrically, Kendrick hasn’t moved that far away from TPAB, but his sound has taken a change. Less avant-garde than previously, Lamar revels in the trap beats that have dominated the rap game for the past few years. Purposely, instead of distancing himself from others through genre warping, Lamar beats everyone at their own game. “Sit down, be humble”: the best rapper in the game is here.
3. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
Despite being one of my favourite albums of the year, A Crow Looked At Me is an album that I never really “enjoyed” or look forward to listening to again.
A Crow Looked At Me revolves around the death of Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, and everything that comes with and after that loss. Instead of beefing up his emotions, Elverum takes a simpler, colder route in detailing his feelings. Opener “Real Death” sums this up beautifully, “When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb”. Elverum alludes to a perspective that is not often showcased in art: that death isn’t some grand event, but more about the holes that it leaves in life.
2. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
Near the end of her self-titled debut album, Kelly Lee Owens throws the listener a summary (or even a quick review) of her own work. ‘CBM’ is contains all the hallmarks of an Owens standout, and its upfront in what it wants the audience to see in its illustration. “The colours, the beauty, and the motion”, Owens repeats.
This track, written about the ‘Overview’ effect told by many astronauts when looking at the Earth from outer space, encapsulates the North Walian’s debut perfectly. Owens is already masterful at world-building, and on this album she is able to create a space that is ethereal and unravelling at a pace that is tantalising and wondrous. Tracks like ‘Anxi.’, featuring the talented Jenny Hval, showcase the grasp that Owens has on hazy art-pop, which act as bubbles of mist in-between pounding cuts of fluid techno like on the commanding ‘Evolution’.
“The colours, the beauty and the motion.”
1. Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent
“All calls are answered / It’s no bother, I just wanted to talk”, says vocalist Joe Casey on ‘The Chuckler’ with a wry smirk. That’s exactly what Casey wanted to do going into Relatives Into Descent, a post-punk masterpiece that will go down as one of the best in the genre: contemporary or otherwise.
Sometimes, it sounds like Casey is slowly, drunkenly unravelling over his bands expertly dark rhythms. Maybe Casey has had a bit too much in a dive bar in his native town of Detroit, an area of the country that he’s been ranting about for all of the band’s discography. While certain tracks are ‘fast’, like ‘Here’s The Thing’, there’s always the threat of a volcanic explosion below the surface. And then it finally explodes on ‘Up The Tower’, a thinly veiled fantasy of chucking a patriarchal troll out a tower where Casey finally snaps into the thunderous repetition of “Throw him out!”
That’s where Protomartyr shines: when they gloss their eyes over the societal injustices that lie below the surface. This is no more evident that their crowning jewel, the resounding ‘My Children’, a call-to-arms against the generational miscommunication. “To create, create, pass on, pass on”.