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

October Music Series: Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe


If there’s one thing that will draw me back out of obscurity no matter how much work I’m bogged down with, it’s Horror season here on Shattered Lens. As a de facto film blog’s one author who pretty much never watches movies, I like to do my part by digging out a mix of tunes appropriate for the season.

This is always the time of year when I stop focusing on new releases and revisit a lot of my metal and folk favorites of old. From b-side Satanic cheese to authentic pagan anthems to the truly deranged, all the music I love most seems to find a home when that oppressive summer sun gives way to pleasant temperatures and dimming lights. It’s my favorite time of year, and my music collection rises to the occasion.

Opeth is pretty common fair in the textbooks of heavy metal these days, but Mikael Akerfeldt’s finest works came before the fame, in my opinion. Their 1995 debut, Orchid, ranks highest for me. While Akerfeldt’s trademark progressive rock experimentation was present from the get-go, those early albums had a sort of hollow, natural tone to them that lent the band a distinctly folk vibe. Orchid (and Morningrise) seem to drift through the crisp, foggy air surrounding a lake on the edge of a forest, the sun just beginning to rise over the horizon. I don’t wake up early when I can help it, but if a morning commute is necessary, Opeth always sees a spike in my play count. The vision that songs like “The Twilight is My Robe” paint is stunningly vivid, and surprisingly peaceful in contrast to Akerfeldt’s harsh vocals.

Neon Dream #15: Happy End – Kaze Wo Atsumete


“Kaze Wo Atsumete” by Happy End (はっぴいえんど) appears twice in Lost in Translation: once outside a karaoke room at the end of a long night, and once at the end of the credits. Since that movie was so central to how I remember the late 90s and early 2000s, I thought I might end with it too.

Here are links to the previous entries in my series. They all clearly share :???: in common. (Well, I had fun, anyway):

1. Maserati – Inventions
2. Boris – Intro
3. Tom Waits – Small Change
4. Hong Kong Express – 浪漫的夢想
5. 日本航空株式会社 ✈ Japan Airlines – Airglider
6. 식료품groceries – 슈퍼마켓Yes! We’re Open
7. 古川もとあき – One Night in Neo Kobe City (from Snatcher)
8. Aphex Twin – Flim
9. Air – Alone in Kyoto (from Lost in Translation)
10. The Album Leaf – The Outer Banks
11. Kinski – Semaphore
12. 芸能山城組 – Kaneda (from Akira)
13. 川井憲次 – Making of Cyborg (from Ghost in the Shell)
14. Blut Aus Nord – Epitome XVIII
15. Happy End – Kaze Wo Atsumete (from Lost in Translation)

Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World


I was basking in the golden glow of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall when I first laid eyes on The Decemberists. It was Summer 2004, and it was a day I still remember well. I arrived alone, but I ended up befriending two girls about my age from Sacramento. It was a pretty thing–three kids too young to buy drinks and too engaged to harbor ulterior motives, thrilled to witness a band that seemed to capture every novelty of a world we were only barely old enough to traverse independently. It wasn’t particularly crowded–we walked right up to the front of the stage–but there wasn’t a stranger in the audience. “Billy Liar” was a hall-wide sing-along. On “Red Right Ankle” you could hear a pin drop. Chris Funk dawned a fake beard and marched through the audience pounding a drum strapped to his chest for “A Cautionary Song”. “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” was a swaying dream that will resonate in me until the day I die. I wanted to marry those girls by the end of it–both of them, and I never bothered asking their names.

Austin Texas, fall 2006, I stumbled into Stubb’s BBQ in a daze. “Indie rock” had become the musical movement of the decade, and I felt like a king in the middle of it all. It was a crazy two-week stretch: The Album Leaf, The Mountain Goats, a trek out to Houston for Built to Spill, a return to my metal roots for Between the Buried and Me, and somewhere in the midst of it all I found my sleepless self in a sea of humanity as Colin belted “Culling of the Fold” outdoors to a sold-out crowd. He was exhausted but elated, grinning from ear to ear the whole set, and so was I. The irony of “I was Meant for the Stage” was not lost on either of us.

Pittsburgh, 2009, I took my seat at the Byham Theater to witness The Decemberists in a traditional performance hall. I had traded in faded proofs of attendance for garb with actual buttons, and the band was decked out in full suit and tie. The Hazards of Love was larger than life–Shara Worden striding across the stage like a spidery temptress to a majestic display of lights and an unprecedented rock opera. The Decemberists rose to their fame as only they could, and the result was in one breath a self-aware mockery of their grandiose ambitions and a brilliant realization of the same.

…I wrote of The King is Dead‘s simple folk rock sound that it seemed like The Decemberists were “coming down off their own high. I imagine it’s difficult to be as… musically intelligent as they are without some fear of becoming pretentious.” The album title might even hint at this, and the band’s subsequent three year hiatus seemed to confirm it. Now it is 2015, more than a decade since that wonderful night in San Francisco, and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is due out in just over a week. I don’t really know what I expected, but I know what I was feeling. It certainly wasn’t the grandeur of The Hazards of Love, nor epic ballads reminiscent of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “The Island”. I was waxing nostalgic on Colin at his sweetest. “Grace Cathedral Hill”, “Shiny”, “Red Right Ankle”, “Of Angels and Angles”… Because The Decemberists were no longer a novel in their own right. That beautiful rise ended with The Hazards of Love, and the hiatus laid it all to rest. Theirs was a tale to look back on fondly; the story had come to an end.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World gives me that sweetness, in a way. Tracks like “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” are absolutely beautiful. All of the songs fall somewhere between these mellow numbers, blues/folk tracks like “Carolina Low” and “Better Not Wake the Baby”, and upbeat pop like “The Wrong Year”, “Cavalry Captain”, and “Philomena”. I could live without the latter three, but suffice to say the album is generally pleasing to listen to, though Jenny Conlee’s accordion has sadly all but left us. “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” definitely steal the show for me, but I won’t soon forget the catchy choruses of “Anti-Summersong” or “Mistral”, nor the lulling blues melancholy of “Till the Water is All Long Gone”.

But this album breaks my heart. Through it all, I can’t escape the feeling that some fell force sucked away Colin’s joie de vivre, substituting mellow content to lead a normal life where once the world had been a playground. The music is still great, but I can’t feel the synergy between it and the lyrics anymore. At least “Lake Song” has been spared this fate. Here is what I can understand of “Mistral”: “So we already wrecked the rental car, and I’ve already lost my way. I feel entombed in this tourist bar, for a day anyway. So lay me out on the cobblestone, and unfurl this aching jib. The streets are built on ancient bones, and the crib of the rib. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away? So it’s me and you and the baby boy, and a ? shed away, reeking out a little joy. What a waste. Bad mistakes. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away?” I don’t know. It’s just… kind of shallow–a bit of babbling around the surface of a theme–and it’s pervasive through much of the album. “Better Not Wake the Baby” is packed with creative one-liners, all tied by a refrain of “but it better not wake the baby“. What does that mean? Plenty of Decemberists tracks have sent me to Wikipedia in the past, but I’m not going to find an answer here, and for that the song means nothing to me. “12/17/12”, my favorite track, still totally jars me out of my happy daze when Colin appears to rhyme “grieving” with “grieving” and “belly” with “belly”.

Go ahead. Crucify me. Point out the most obvious meanings; remind me that Colin still has a robust vocabulary; explain how it’s none of my business to criticize someone else’s creativity; note that it’s still better than 90% of popular music; tell me to shut my mouth and go listen to something else if I don’t like it. I don’t care, because the sad fact is I will go listen to something else. I spent more time on Castaways and Cutouts than on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World while writing all this. I don’t want that. I want to love this album and hold it dear, but I can’t. I listen to the lyrics and more often than not I just hear Colin going through the motions without any of the magic. From the 5 Songs EP all the way to The Hazards of Love it was a constant indulgence, and now it is gone.

The opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, is the reason I can still listen with a faint smile. It is not one for the album, but for the memory of all that The Decemberists have meant to me over the years. In almost a parting farewell to Colin’s old stage persona, he sings in classic form: “We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you built your lives around us. Would we change? …We had to change some. We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change… But we had to change some, you know, to belong to you.”

And they still do, and I still love them, and I still look forward to catching them on their upcoming tour, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a bittersweet experience.

Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North


Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.