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

VGM Entry 65: Follin in the 90s


VGM Entry 65: Follin on the SNES
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The average quality of Tim Follin’s compositions seemed to progressively decline with every new improvement to technology. A sort of daredevil musician accustomed to breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, I think the relative freedom of SNES composition forced him to find new forms of inspiration. Sometimes the muses moved him, and quite often they did not. When it did click for him, he showcased the same level of creative aptitude he’d been stirring up the gaming music world with since 1985.

Plok (developed by Software Creations, first published by Tradewest, 1993) was an instance in which Follin most certainly did rise to the challenge. For a goofy little game, here was a simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful score.

Tim and Geoff collaborated on this one, as they had often times before (I may well have falsely credited Tim with Geoff’s work on occasion), and it all came together exceptionally well in this instance. The track beginning at 1:48, “Venge Thicket”, especially exhibits precisely the sort of upbeat prog rock for which Tim excels, with a definite Ghouls’n Ghosts vibe. The track at 5:00, “Cotton Island”, does a delightful job of busting out in trademark over-the-top Follin style while remaining entirely within the corny and fun setting of the game it represents. “Akrillic“, not featured in the above compilation, is more of a smooth, relaxing jazz-prog ride that far exceeds the game for which it was written.

Plok was not the first great Super Nintendo soundtrack by the Follin brothers. Tim and Geoff also collaborated for Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge, another Software Creations development, published by LJN in 1992. It was, as it turns out, the only Follin game I actually owned as a kid, and its music was the leading cause in my purchasing it after playing a rental. Tim has supposedly cited Guns N’ Roses as a musical influence, but it’s only on the Arcade’s Revenge title theme that you can clearly hear it.

The whole rock and roll approach to composition was not a one-time go for the Follin brothers, though it was fairly foreign to their pre-SNES games. They would employ a much heavier rock influence throughout most of their SNES catalogue, most obviously on Rock n’ Roll Racing (Interplay, 1993). But it didn’t always work. Arcade’s Revenge was more the exception than the rule. In any case, it was not strictly rock, and the music of the Gambit stages in particular exhibit a wide variety of electronic beats intermixed with rock and prog.

The music to the Spider-Man stages was perhaps the most memorable of the game for me, and not merely because they were the only ones I could consistantly beat. It’s definitely the most diverse song in the game, intermingling prog and classical with some funk and jazz in a subdued sort of way that matched the cool vibe of the opening level, where you infiltrate a high security facility with a smoggy night sky as your backdrop. It made an otherwise tedious game well worth playing. . . . With a Game Genie.

The Follin brothers were mostly committed to the SNES throughout the 1990s, but at least one incursion was made into the world of the Genesis/Mega Drive. To the best of my knowledge Tim is responsible for the title screen music to Time Trax, and he probably wrote it in 1993 or 1994. Its extension from the Arcade’s Revenge sound should be fairly apparent. Unfortunately neither the game itself nor any other songs from it are available. Malibu Games released a SNES version with an entirely different score in 1994, but the Mega Drive version was dropped prior to publishing.

VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy


VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The end of the NES era did not mark the end of the NES. Games would continue to appear on the system all the way up to February 1994, with Wario’s Woods (Nintendo) constituting the final licensed game for the system. Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems. The underdog hero of my video game music series, Tim Follin, rode the third generation of gaming out to its end as well.

What’s more, the late transition of C64 chiptune artists to the NES brought out all kinds of amazing features on the system that were never realized during the system’s heyday. I did Tim Follin a terrible disservice by skipping over Silver Surfer (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Nintendo and Magic Johnson’s Basketball (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Commodore 64, having not really discovered either until it was too late to include them, but it’s not too late to touch on his 1991 masterpieces.

Treasure Master (American Softworks, December 1991) initially picks up right where Pictionary left off, and in this game you can really experience the climax of Follin’s NES pursuit, wherein groovy jam tracks took the place of progressive rock as a focal point. Just as Follin’s Commodore 64 works made a clean break from his original ZX Spectrum style, his NES compositions matured into a sound all of their own.

It’s not that prog elements were a thing of the past; Follin’s quintessential sound persists across every platform, and Treasure Master has its fair share. But on no two systems did he ever sound quite the same. He was ever and always a musician to place the system at the heart of the composition. It’s something I was criticizing other musicians for failing to do long before he was ever on my radar, and soundtracks like Treasure Master are vibrant proof of just how significant this sort of compositional mindset could be. This is the antithesis of Nobuo Uematsu’s eternally reinterpritable works; it is inconceivable in any other medium.

I don’t recall whether I actually made the observation before or simply thought it to myself, but I am inclined to believe that a lot of chiptune musicians struggled and faded away in the fourth generation because the lack of severe restrictions forced them to completely redefine their vision of what video game music should be. They were fundamentally musicians first and composers second, and the SNES, with its bountiful possibilities, simply could not function as an instrument. It was a means to an end, not an end itself, and that requires a whole different assortment of talents. Tim Follin struggled on the SNES, perhaps for the first time in his career. It’s no small triumph that he (and his brother Geoff, who likely contributed far more to the ‘Follin sound’ than I give him credit for) did ultimately overcome the challenge with Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge and Plok, which I will get to soon enough.

The majority of Tim Follin’s SNES works leave something to be desired however, and with the extraordinary exception of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (Sega, 2000) for the Dreamcast, he would never really thrive as a video game composer again after the mid-90s. Suffice to say Tim Follin’s real glory days ended in 1991.

At least he went out with a bang. Gauntlet III (US Gold, 1991) was to be his final Commodore 64 title. Composed in collaboration with Geoff, it carried on in the spirit of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

A history of the development of Follin’s sound would make for an interesting mini-series all of its own. There’s certainly no linear progression to it, and I couldn’t pretend to establish one without ignoring quite a few games which defy conformity. (Even the suggestion that his NES soundtracks were inseparable from the system he wrote them for was a minor stretch if we consider similarities between Pictionary and Magic Johnson’s Basketball.) But the title theme to Gauntlet III most certainly follows from “Level 5” in Ghouls’n Ghosts, and trace signs of this thematic approach can, I think, be heard in the in-game theme from Black Lamp (Firebird, 1988) and the title theme from ChesterField: Challenge to Dark Gor (Vic Tokai, 1988). I make the observation to establish that this sound was emerging prior to Follin’s direct interaction with the original Ghouls’n Ghosts score by Tamayo Kawamoto. His outstanding cover of Level 2 aside, the C64 port shares little in common with the arcade music.

At any rate, that was only the title screen. Gauntlet III was one of those rare exceptions to the Commodore 64 rule of putting your best effort on the loader. To that credit goes the character select screen.

Was Tim Follin’s final C64 composition also his best? It’s definitely a contender. Gauntlet III lacked the quantity delivered in Ghouls’n Ghosts–I gather the actual gameplay was silent, though I’ve not been able to confirm this–but the quality is impeccable.

Tim Follin spent 1989 through 1991 breaking every mold and defying every standard ever set for what may well be considered the finest system in the history of video game music, and in so doing made his name inseparable from the final pages of the Commodore 64 legacy. Having simultaneously done the same thing for the Nintendo, and having single-handedly defined the ZX Spectrum as a system capable of a unique sound independent from both powerhouse competitors, he may well be rightly regarded as the most accomplished musician of the third generation era.

It’s a shame his time with the Amiga 500 was so brief. Underwhelming in comparison to the Ghouls’n Ghosts port, Tim and Geoff’s Amiga Gauntlet III music suffers merely from a lack of sound quality. I have been unable to find any copy of this song that delivers with the depth and clarity of Ghouls’n Ghosts, but I suspect this is more a consequence of a low bit rate in its modern conversion than a flaw in its original form. The bagpipes do seem to clash with the rest of the song from 1:40 on, but I’d rather not pass judgement until I’ve heard a higher quality recording. In any case, Follin was showing no signs of relenting on the Commodore Amiga, and it was surely decisions beyond his control at Software Creations that ultimately tied him into a Super Nintendo track from 1992 on.