My Top 15 Albums of 2017


Hi! Still existing and loving my family, hope the same goes for all of you. I may be retired from all else in the music world, but the year end list is eternal.

Sample size: I have 83 albums released in 2017 at the time of writing this. Can’t promise I actually listened to all of them.

Surgeon General’s Warning: Ranking music is silly and I generally discourage it.  (But I do it once a year anyway…….)

15. Chinese Man – Shikantaza

trip hop/hip hop

Sample track: Liar

fun French hip hop/trip hop album that seems to have gotten overlooked a lot. I listened to it a ton earlier this year. It’s not something I’ll remember years down the road, but it certainly earned a spot for as much as I played it.


14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

stoner prog

Sample track: Sanctuary

For me personally, this is probably the most unorthodox pick on my list, because it is heavily rock-centric in all the ways that typically turn me off. God but something about rock and roll has always felt absolutely soulless to me in a way that few genres can match at their worst. But Elder just do what they do so damn well that it’s impossible to hate this opus. An endless onslaught of prog ingenuity with a nice stoner rock crunch that keeps it driving from start to finish. It’s 64 straight minutes of ear candy without a dull note in the mix, and I have a world of respect for how flawlessly these guys accomplished what they set out to do.


13. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

post-black metal

Sample track: This Forest For Which We Have Killed

Krallice are responsible for a lot of the best music to come out this decade, and in 2017 they pumped out two new ones (both painfully late into the year for a band that requires a lot of repetition to fully appreciate). While I haven’t actually read anything about either of these yet, the distinctly different styles between them have me pretty convinced that Mick Barr wrote the bulk of this one and Colin Marston took charge on the other. Go Be Forgotten gets off to a glorious start with its opening track, but the remainder has so far failed to really captivate me to the extent that most of their previous works did. It doesn’t raise the bar (or if it does, it hasn’t sunk in yet), but it’s still a fascinating exploration of highly complex soundscapes that few other artists have the technical precision to delve. And god that opening riff is sick. Krallice will be a perpetual year end contender as long they keep doing what they do.


12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

folk rock

Sample track: When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay

I have mixed feelings about this album, and my inclination is to point out the negative; suffice to say, it’s not lacking in universal praise. It wouldn’t be on my list if I didn’t love it. The reason it’s not higher is that, as I see it, Tillman too often defaults to rather throw-away lines. That’s not inherently problematic (see: my #1 pick), but I think it clashes with the more refined, theatrical vibe of the sound around them. Simple case in point: Total Entertainment Forever kicks off with an absolutely delicious line–Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift–and follows it up with something so generic that I feel it only exists to achieve a rhyme–after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes. Sometimes gentle flaws make a work all the more endearing, but Pure Comedy goes too big and refined to get away with it for me. I feel like he aimed extraordinarily high and almost got there.


11. Tchornobog – Tchornobog

blackened death metal

Sample track: II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)

A landscape album as only blackened death metal can paint one. Tchornobog takes you on a 64 minute journey across an entirely unpleasant and stomach-turning waste of all purpose ugliness that really reflected how I’ve felt about the world this year any time I let my attention range beyond my immediate household. We’re talking death metal aesthetics here so yes, that can be a compliment. And while the visions are certainly exotic, there’s not much surrealism of the lofty, artistic sort you find on say, a Blut Aus Nord album. It’s just leaves you feeling kind of dirty. It hit a note I could appreciate while maintaining enough melody and progression to avoid succumbing to redundancy.


10. Hell – Hell

doom sludge

Sample track: Machitikos

Ridiculously heavy slow-rolled sludge that shouldn’t require any genre appreciation to crush your skull. At its peek on “Machitikos”, the quality of this album is unreal. Unfortunately I was pretty late to the ballgame, and their more ambient moments are going to take more than a sporadic month to leave a lasting impression or definitively fail to. Nowhere to move but further up the charts for this one.


9. Nokturnal Mortum – Істина

pagan metal

Sample track: Дика Вира

We’ve certainly come a long way from Knjaz Varggoth screaming hateful nonsense to crackling cassette recordings of Dollar General synth, and as endearing as Nokturnal Mortum’s early works may be, you can’t deny that he has matured (both musically and intellectually) substantially over the years. This album thoroughly lacks the trademark Eastern European folk metal execution that Knjaz inspired more than perhaps anyone else: brutally hammered folk jingles lashing out violently from beneath a wall of modern noise. Істина is a lot more even keel, to such an extent that its metal elements almost feel unnecessary at times. It fully embraces the more cerebral, orchestral sound we began to hear on Weltanschauung and leaves most else behind, achieving a new height in terms of orchestration. I do miss Knjaz’s more passionate explosions, but I don’t consider that a flaw. The real down side to the album for me stems from the studio. For all of its grand instrumental diversity, the complete package is a bit washed out. Everything feels like it’s playing in the background as a supporting element to a non-existent centerpiece. It’s something I’m certainly used to–Nokturnal Mortum have always struggled a bit on the finer finishing touches of sound production–but it’s still a fault that’s hard to ignore. An incredibly solid album that could have been even better.


8. Riivaus – Lyoden Taudein Ja Kirouksin

black metal

Sample track: Vihan Temppeli

This is probably the most unknown album on my list. It’s just straight-up black metal. No frills. No novelties. Really it’s the sort of thing I rarely listen to these days, because most great bm artists have moved on to more experimental fronts. But this is tight as fuck. The riffs are great and it’s got a nice punchy pace and a crisp tone that suits the mood perfectly. Outstanding debut from an unheard of artist. Hoping he sticks around for many years to come.


7. Thundercat – Drunk

funk/jazz

Sample track: Bus in These Streets

A tongue-in-cheek dreamfunk fantasy. Artists who can let a cheesy sound be cheesy often accidentally stumble into brilliance. This guy makes some of the goofiest sounds that funk and jazz have ever imagined somehow feel endearing. I’m also pretty impressed by how distinct his sound is. I mean, considering how radically uninformed on this sort of style I am, it kind of blew my mind that I could instantly go “this guy must have wrote the bass lines to Wesley’s Theory“. I think Drunk is an incredibly well-craft work masked behind a delicious veil of comedy. And it’s given us such eloquent 21st century mottos as “thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”


6. Krallice – Loüm

post-black metal

Sample track: Etemenanki

If Go Be Forgotten offered Krallice’s most deranged opening melody to date, Loüm might take the prize for their heaviest boot in the ass. Etemenanki hammers down all the brutality of a headbanger’s wet dream from the first note without budging an inch on Krallice’s classic eclectic tremolo noodling. I don’t think I’ve wanted to just open my mouth and shout “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” to a Krallice song this bad since Inhume. As with Go Be Forgotten, there’s a serious question of whether the album as a whole is really that great or if the opening song just carries it, and that’s not to knock the rest so much as to say that by Krallice’s ridiculously high standards I think it might have some mediocrity. You can never really tell with most Krallice songs until you’ve heard them four dozen times. It’s complicated, intricate shit that your brain doesn’t instinctively unravel. My gut tells me that Loüm will keep on growing on me in a way that Go Be Forgotten may struggle to, and I was right about that with Prelapsarian’s incredibly late release last year. (Yes, it is amazing.) The only lasting down point about Loüm for me is, surprisingly, the addition of Dave Edwardson (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) on vocals. He does a killer job, but I am shamelessly in love with Nick McMaster’s vox and can’t help but miss them.


5. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

folk

Sample track: Crow

Phil Elverum’s wife died last year, and he wrote this album. It’s artistically significant for reasons that are pointless to explain, because I think you will either already get it or it will fundamentally conflict with whatever life coping mechanism you personally subscribe to, and both are fine. It matters to me more than other albums about death because we appear to share roughly the same world view. It isn’t my favorite album of the year because it can’t be.


4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

post-rock

Sample track: Bosses Hang

I somehow managed to ignore the rebirth of GY!BE in spite of being entirely aware of it, and this is the first album I’ve listened to by them since Yanqui U.X.O. fifteen years ago. In the meantime, I’ve become an avid consumer of Silver Mt Zion, and after that long of a break it’s easy to forget just how different the two projects were. I’m at a loss for words to properly describe how I feel about Luciferian Towers because I have nothing remotely current and similar to compare it to. “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem For No State” are both absolutely mind blowing, and I usually skip the first and third tracks and don’t even care. This is the greatest band in post-rock being exactly that.


3. Kendrick Lamar – Damn

hip hop

Sample track: DNA

Every time I saw this album top another year-end list, I wanted to move it further down mine. It doesn’t move me on an emotional level like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not Kendrick’s greatest work. Can it really be the best of 2017? But every time I revised my year-end list, it just kept moving up instead. Everything he touches has a subtle finesse to it. I love the sound of his voice. I love the way he weaves it into the instrumentation flawlessly. I love how every aspect of each song seems painstakingly tailored to suit the intended vibe. I can just really get into this from start to finish time after time with zero effort. It was my 2017 fallback the grand bulk of the times I wasn’t in the mood for something dark or heavy. This album makes me feel empowered every time I put it on with no cheap sense of escapism attached, and god did I need something like that.


2. Boris – Dear

drone/doom/psych/post-rock

Sample track: Dystopia (Vanishing Point)

Wow. This is 16th year that I’ve compiled a year-end list. For the grand majority of that time, I would have named Boris in my top 5 favorite bands if you asked me. During that time, they’ve put out 53 releases just that I have managed to acquire. And not one has earned my #1 slot. Smile came so close. So close. And now I’m saying it again. I almost feel guilty leaving Dear at #2. It was never dropping any lower. But if you’re at all familiar with it, this might sound generous. Dear is nowhere near their most well-received album. It is absolutely nowhere near their most accessible. Doom and drone at its core, it’s a slow drip grind that will leave all but the most steadfast fans bored out of their minds on first encounter. Yet I somehow managed to listen to it close to 50 freaking times. It wasn’t that I liked it at first. I kind of didn’t. But the mood was right. It hit that sweet spot between ambience and melody that made it never quite dull enough to bore inherently but never quite memorable enough to bore through familiarity. It was dark but it wasn’t morbid. It was just the right sort of fuzz to make me feel more alert without distracting me. And it was through that extremely passive but relentless pattern of listening that its finest moments slowly revealed themselves to me, raising the bar higher and higher, until now it blows my mind that a track like Dystopia (Vanishing Point) could have failed to sweep me off my feet on first encounter. It certainly manages to every time now, on take number one hundred and god knows what. This isn’t my favorite Boris album, but I suspect it’s much higher up there for me than for most fans, and after a very great deal of consideration it only failed to take the title by a fraction of a hair. Oh, I also got to watch them play it live in its entirety. 😀


1. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood

Americana

Sample track: Lone Star

The grand prize goes to Sun Kil Moon. I think this might be for me what Pure Comedy has been for a lot of other people this year. It just speaks to so much I’ve been feeling in 2017 in a way I can completely relate to. Mark Kozelek takes half of the stuff I’ve been making enemies spouting all year and sets it to solid American folk music. He has a blue collar political perspective that offers no compromise for our “total fucking asshole” President but takes far more cutting hits at liberal America’s zero-attention-span reaction-click-and-move-on culture for allowing the country to fall into this state. The album is a two hours and ten minutes meandering disjointed travel through personal stories and monologues that reach all over the place, but underneath it all is a consistent love and appreciation for the bonds we share in our meager little lives, and an intense compassion for those who have permanently lost them. If he comes across as cranky, he’s just pissed at how many Americans have lost sight of this.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

Neon Dream #2: Boris – Intro


Japan’s three-piece prodigy Boris have played every style of music in the books over the years, and they do it all well. “Intro” appears fairly early in their discography, on the 2005 reissue of Akuma No Uta. (The original 2003 release features a much shorter intro track.) If you had any question about the sort of diversity Boris brought to the table even this early on, you could look at Akuma No Uta‘s multiple album covers. One was a play on the cover art of Bryter Layter by Nick Drake. Another, Welcome to Hell by Venom.

This track also made my mix after I used it in a game. The task I set for myself when I purchased a copy of RPGMaker was to take an incongruous cyberpunk story written by a bunch of kids in the 90s and make it work. It was in pretty bad shape. Apparently being chaotic evil made you a great candidate for leadership; the CEO calling the shots was supposedly some genius who had carefully crafted his rise to power, but then he’d turn and do crafty things like scream “bwahahaha” and murder his advisers. It was the sort of nonsense only a bunch of children or Joseph McCarthy could dream up. I wanted to retain the basic progression of events–I was doing this for fun and nostalgia, after all–but the opening sequence, where the leader shoots a passenger airline out of the sky in order to sense the euphoric death rattle of hundreds of innocents burning in unison, was uh…. yeeeeah….

When I listened to “Intro” by Boris, the scene rewrote itself. The plane was suddenly slowly drifting over a scene of urban anarchy, where police stations and hospitals barely hung on behind walls of garbage and broken glass. Casinos and brothels lit up the night sky. The pilot commits a minor breach in security protocol while requesting permission to land, and a culture of paranoia spirals the situation out of control. Ultimately, a general authorizes force with a hint of satisfaction, and the plane explodes. Wata’s high pitched, siren-like guitar seems to simulate ambulances rushing to the scene. Boris set the tone for how I would rewrite the entire script. The foreboding, dystopian vibe of this instrumental song was powerful enough alone to create a setting I couldn’t handle with graphics and dialogue at my disposal.

Review: Pyramids – A Northern Meadow


Pyramids are four seemingly random Joes from Denton, Texas, who have managed to attract some huge names in the world of music, possibly through their completely ridiculous album covers. Well, maybe not that, but the genre-defying oddity known as Pyramids and their associated acts have shown an uncanny knack for recruiting stars to their projects. Originally signed to Aaron Turner’s (Isis, Old Man Gloom) acclaimed Hydra Head Records, they managed a transition to metal’s newest cutting edge label, Profound Lore, as soon as the former went defunct. Their self-titled debut in 2008 scored Colin Marston (Krallice), Vindsval (Blut Aus Nord), and Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu), among others, to contribute to a remix album, while band leader R. Loren’s White Moth and Sailors with Wax Wings projects have featured David Tibet (Current 93), Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), John Gossard (Weakling), Simon Scott (Slowdive), Hildur Guðnadóttir (múm), and Aaron Stainthorpe (My Dying Bride), to name… a few? The 2009 follow-up, a collaborative album with Nadja, featured Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins), and there’s an Ulver remix of it floating around out there. They also lead some cassette tape project with 49 bands I’ve never heard of and This Will Destroy You.

In spite of the absolutely ridiculous, confounding string of names I just threw out, this band remains pretty damn obscure. A Northern Meadow, their first full-length since 2009, may well change all that, with positive reviews on sites like Pitchfork Media ensuring them a moment in the spotlight. Moreover, Colin Marston and Vindsval are active guest musicians this time, with pretty encompassing roles.

track: “In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow

The opening track, “In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow”, kicks off with Marston’s quintessential tremolo and Vindsval’s equally iconic drum programming, while R. Loren’s vocals quickly cue us into the fact that this isn’t going to be a straight metal album. Instead, we face a prolonged melancholy that finds its essence in the vocals and never really resolves into anything. This brooding approach carries throughout the album, but as the minutes tick by you can notice a slight sort of development–little hints at a more complex animal below the surface. “The Earth Melts Into Red Gashes Like The Mouths Of Whales” rises out of the plod for thirty seconds of really catchy guitar before dissolving back into bleak noise. “The Substance Of Grief Is Not Imaginary” feels like a Blut Aus Nord song in slow motion, offering all of their accustomed madness with none of the speed or volume, while Loren briefly confounds the mood with a really beautiful but short lived vocal melody. “Indigo Birds” extends the vocal presence, with Loren singing longer with more effects and range. As the song dissolves out into distorted droning and ultimately three minutes of dissonant synth, the album approaches a modest transition in character. The interlude resets the mood, allowing the remainder of the album to take, I think, a slightly more abrasive or confrontational approach.

Track: “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye

The second half of the album is more distinct, with more drive in the guitar and a faster rate of transition. “I Have Four Sons, All Named For Men We Lost To War” starts off with the most crushing tones on the album, enhanced in their finality by the still slow pace set by Vindsval’s drums. “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye” has a really memorable industrial groove, with some synth tones that invoke for the first time in me a real vision of something… perhaps ancient, a sort of primordial ruin made all the older by Loren’s forlorn, beautiful vocals. Like “Indigo Birds”, the song dissolves out into low-tuned guitar and synth droning, but the feeling is more complete. The substance of the song gives you more to reflect on in the haze of noise that follows.

On “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye” and growing throughout the remainder of the album, Loren’s vocals start to sound subtly reminiscent of Chino Moreno to me–high-pitch meanderings that feel slightly unstable yet always harmonious. It’s an effect he pulls off well, and it makes the album feel rather back-loaded to me. “Consilience” wraps things up with a turn back to the darker side. More chaotic, and with a new touch of pessimism to the vocals, it concludes an already morbid album on a particularly bleak note. Oppressive synth creeps its way in a bit earlier, and a hard stop takes us to fading noise and silence.

A Northern Meadow leaves me with pretty mixed feelings. R. Loren has a clear aural agenda that he sticks to throughout, yet I can’t escape the feeling that the album’s highest points were those most distant from the overarching theme. The beat-down opening of “I Have Four Sons…”, the synth early in “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye”, Marston’s driving 30-second sweep in “The Earth Melts…”, the short-lived vocal burst at the start of “My Father, Tall as Goliath”… I find myself anticipating these finer moments through a lot of the moody grind, rather than just enjoying the ride and taking the highs as they hit me. That grind has a lot of character at times, especially the further into the album I get, but not enough to match the talent Loren was working with here.

I guess I would say that A Northern Meadow is a very unique album, and I love Loren’s dedication to uniting awesome musicians, but I don’t feel very compelled to keep listening to it as the novelty begins to wear off. If its slightly chaotic morbidity strikes a chord with you, you might love it, but if you can’t connect to that feeling it will inevitably grow tedious at times. Marston’s noodling isn’t extensive enough to keep me constantly engaged the way a Krallice album can–a tall order, considering how equally brilliant that band’s other three members are–nor do I think Vindsval’s drum tones hold up in this sort of mono-tempo drag. It doesn’t help that both musicians inevitably play themselves. Like say, Humphrey Bogart or Morgan Freeman, they are so distinctly themselves that you feel like you’re hearing the actors, not the characters they are meant to portray. There is nothing of the instrumental synergy both produce in their main bands. I don’t hear the chemistry of two great musicians working together here. I just hear two great musicians, like some mash-up with Loren mixing vocals and synth into the pot. There may be some truth to that: if I understood Loren’s recent interview with Decibel Magazine correctly, I’m pretty sure Vindsval and Marston had no direct communication while crafting this.

I’m not saying A Northern Meadow is bad. Not at all. But it does leave me wanting something more. I can’t help but wonder what could come out of Loren, Marston, and Vindsval sitting down in a recording studio together, and I suspect it would be something more substantive than this, with a lot more motion and a lot less gloom. But that meeting might be pretty difficult to arrange, and who knows whether they would see eye to eye if Loren had allowed them less freedom to do their own things. I might yet get into this, if I can get over what it isn’t sufficiently to appreciate what it is.