Nathan Fake - ‘Degreelessness’
In the years that followed 2012’s Steam Days, Nathan Fake found himself in a rut. “I wasn’t making any new music I was happy with,” Fake told FACT earlier this year, revealing that a gruelling tour schedule and depression had taken their toll on his confidence. It wasn’t until Fake bought a 1995 Korg Prophecy synth that his creative juices started to flow again, resulting in the best album of his career. A blend of the Prophecy’s ultra-clean, digital signal and a layer of nostalgic cassette tape fuzz, Providence coats the plaintive melody of his earliest work with a much-needed layer of grit. It makes for a more world-weary sound than the wide-eyed optimism of 2006’s Drowning In A Sea Of Love, but its palette of fractal textures and drifting chords is no less wondrous to get lost in. SW
After taking six years off to finish his doctorate in political philosophy, John Maus crept back into our lives this year with a new album of schlocky synth-pop and goofy DIY missives. It was definitely worth the wait. Switching from terror to euphoria in one sharp breath, Screen Memories bears the gothic master’s deep emotional colors like a mood ring, while swirling baroque organ crashes through the gloom and reverb with apocalyptic fury. Who else could make a song about combine harvesters sound so dramatic? We may be doomed, but at least John Maus is here to soundtrack the end of days. ACW
Nothing Feels Natural
Priests are the DC post-punks who proved with Nothing Feels Natural that their howling ferocity is just as potent when sung instead of screamed. The album is piercingly political, but also plays personal, tackling anxiety in its many forms, like on tracks ‘Nicki’ (“I don't make friends easily or naturally / You can blame chemicals or you can blame patriarchy”) and ‘No Big Bang’ (“Those times when your mind is a rocket propelling you through space so fast but it can flip all at once / Suddenly I realize the rocket is just a prison”). CL
Back from the dead, really more like a minor coma, LCD Soundsystem returned with a new album as we all knew they eventually would in 2017, having reformed for Coachella last April just five years after breaking up. american dream was, in this sense, expected. What we weren’t braced for was a comeback album of this energy and adrenaline. Even their most die-hard fans would be forgiven for having questioned whether James Murphy’s crew would still have their magic of old.
But from the moment american dream chugs into life on analog synth prom song ‘oh baby’, the New Yorkers’ chemistry feels more electric than ever. Singles ‘call the police’ and ‘tonite’ – on which Murphy explores his growing sense of disconnect from the zeitgeist, a classic LCD song subject – instantly became all-time LCD favorites, while the slow drift of the title track is totally transportative. One of the best albums by one of the best bands of their generation, then. Just a shame the artwork sucks. AH
The Gag File
With The Gag File, tape loop exorcist Aaron Dilloway distills a half-decade of creaking atmosphere and mangled noise into a shot of pure terror. The years-in-the-making follow-up to his 2012 noise masterpiece Modern Jester is less than half the length, but more than twice as potent. A big part of that force comes from Dilloway’s own voice, which brings distorted zombie mumbling to ‘Karaoke With Cal’ and boils up to a violent, nervous breakdown on ‘Inhuman Form Reflected’. It makes The Gag File not just a disturbing experience, but Dilloway’s most diaristic album yet; it’s a true testament to his labyrinthine vision. MB
G Perico - ‘All Blue’
All Blue isn’t the only great album South Central rapper G Perico released in 2017. The G-funk revivalist dropped the color-coded full-length back in April and has managed to throw down two more projects since: a collaboration with Jay Worthy and Cardo entitled G-Worthy and another proper album, December’s 2 Tha Left. All of these records are praiseworthy, but there’s something to be said for All Blue’s economy and focus.
Featuring only two guest spots, All Blue is an album that defines G Perico’s vivid LA backdrop and cements his particular sound. Straddling vintage G-funk and the Mustard-flavored contemporary West Coast snap, Perico crafts a love-letter not only to his perennially misunderstood neighborhood, but to West Coast rap music in general. “I see the world in all blue,” he recounts on the album’s title track. Thanks to G Perico, the rest of us can at least don a pair of periwinkle-tinted glasses and take a look. JT
Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Japanese Breakfast – ‘Machinist’
Michelle Zauner shoots for the stars on her latest album as gauzy indie sophisticate Japanese Breakfast, adding a spacey sheen to the grunge guitars and fuzzy romance of her 2016 release Psychopomp. The result is a record of shimmery excellence that isn’t afraid to boldly go somewhere different: ‘Till Death’ contemplates grief and 2016’s wave of celebrity deaths to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, while ‘The Body is a Blade’ touches on PTSD. Out of this world. AH
Gulu City Anthems
(Nyege Nyege Tapes)
Otim Alpha - ‘Gang Ber Ki Dako’
For anyone exhausted by this year’s wedding season and the parade of bad DJs that come with it, consider Gulu City Anthems a gift. The high point of Uganda-based label Nyege Nyege Tapes’ incredible year, Otim Alpha’s electronic reinterpretations of Acholi wedding songs put every reception to shame, not to mention most club nights. Recordings on the album date back as far as 2001, but these euphoric, polyrhythmic overloads sound out of time and would tear up any club regardless. Nyege Nyege is just getting started and Gulu City Anthems stands as the label’s joyous, lively welcome. MB
Lee Gamble - ‘Istian’
Lee Gamble’s music has always been obsessed with the ghosts of the past and Mnestic Pressure is no different. As with 2012’s Diversions (1994-1996) and 2014’s KOCH, half-formed recollections of jungle and rave are hardwired into the latest incarnation of Gamble’s sound. ‘Istian’ for example borrows from dub, while the chopped breaks of ‘East Sedducke’ stretch a single jungle moment into infinity. However, Gamble’s Hyperdub debut also unshackles itself from some of this collective cultural weight and takes a step into uncharted territory.
Mnestic Pressure often sounds like an album created by a machine learning techniques, trying to imitate existing music and creating something completely new by accident, like on the ray-traced melodies of ‘Quadripoints’ and ‘A tergo Real’. 2017 has been a year marked by yearning for the past and anxiety about the future; nothing conflated those two things quite as successfully as Mnestic Pressure. SW
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
“What happens on earth, stays on earth,” a voice repeats through Kendrick Lamar’s extraordinary fourth studio album. What exactly the Compton rapper knows about this earthly plane anymore, I don’t know. Since 2013’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick has operated in a galaxy of his own and DAMN. continues his hot streak of inventive, chart-busting albums that both define modern hip-hop and fearlessly expand its borders. Freed of the narrative burden of good kid and conceptual confines of 2015 jazz odyssey To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. is looser than its predecessors, and moderately more fun, even if the subject matter remains mostly charcoal black.
On ‘ELEMENT.’, he finds “nobody praying for me.” On U2 collab ‘XXX.’, Kendrick mourns the presidency of Barack Obama and laments the monster who’s replaced him. You might have expected, for his first post-Trump album, a little more visceral rage at the failings of his nation: no track erupts as viscerally as TPAB’s towering inferno of anger, ‘The Blacker The Berry’, for example. But DAMN. isn’t about America. It’s about within. And it’s propelled Kendrick further into that solar system all of his own making. AH
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
(One Little Indian)
Björk referred to Utopia as her “Tinder record”, a quote that became the hopeful summation of what to expect from the first full-length after 2015’s devastating Vulnicura. But the album is far more intimate than what was inferred from her dating app reference - this is less about the search for what's out there and more about the blissful surprise and intoxicating optimism of falling in love again. A bit like Vespertine, but even more experimental, Utopia is an album of comfort and hope from a woman in control. CL
Lil B fans waited seven years to hear Black Ken and it’s as warped and weird as you’d expect. A sprawling, 27-track collection of vintage Californian electro-funk, it’s a rap album packed full of hypnagogic grooves and off-kilter rhymes. On LP standout ‘Wasup Jojo’; trance synths segue into a Sugarhill Gang-flavored rap, while ‘Hip Hop’ squelches with G-Funk goodness; ‘Berkeley’ - a hat-tip to Lil B’s birthplace - platforms some vintage scratching and ’80s drum patterns.
Whether Black Ken is homage or a satire, we’ll never know for sure, but it’s a career-defining moment for Lil B who produced the whole thing from start to finish. Even with nearly 60 releases to his name, Lil B aka The BasedGod aka Brandon Christopher McCartney, remains a mystery wrapped up in an enigma. We don’t get any closer to understanding the meme-friendly rapper who once launched his own vegan emoji app, but regardless, Black Ken is odd, messy and deeply authentic. ACW
Experiencing the Deposit of Faith
Dropped online for free with no fanfare, Experiencing the Deposit of Faith follows last year’s acclaimed Serpent Music, funneling Yves Tumor’s noisy tonics into progressively odder vessels. There’s no shortage of albums this year that hover around the ambient spectrum and Tumor dislocates himself from the masses with a mixture of grit, sexual energy and attitude.
It’s not that tracks like ‘E. Eternal’ and ‘Prosperity Awareness’ aren’t beautiful - far from it in fact - but they don’t manipulate the listener. The album is expertly balanced and full of poignant, memorable moments that haunt, surprise and disgust in equal measure. At times it feels almost illicit, like reading someone’s secret diary and marveling at its elegance while looking over your shoulder to check who’s watching. JT
Symbolic Use of Light
UMFANG's Technicolour debut Symbolic Use of Light is absolute in its scrappiness. The Discwoman co-founder recorded the whole thing live, with barely a post-composition edit, and you can hear that humanity in the tracks’ lived-in architecture. Come for its honest warmth, stay for standouts for like ‘Where Is She’ and ‘Wingless Victory’. CL
Dedicated To Bobby Jameson
Ariel Pink - ‘Another Weekend’
Ariel Pink was on the verge of complete self-destruction after 2014’s unhinged pom pom, but Dedicated To Bobby Jameson finds him picking up the pieces by looking to the past. Harnessing the murky sonics that make his early lo-fi work the stuff of legend, he pays tribute to the title’s tragic cult figure. The result is an album bursting at the seams with ear worms (‘Just Like Heaven’), novelty songs (‘Santa’s In The Closet’), bubblegum-punk freak-outs (‘Time To Live’) and moments of arresting, sincere sadness (‘Another Weekend’). For an artist hellbent on burning out, he sounds even better fading away. MB
Patterns of Consciousness
Caterina Barbieri - ‘This Causes Consciousness To Fracture’
Minimalism looms large over Italian composer Caterina Barbieri’s exceptional Patterns of Consciousness. On opening epic ‘This Causes Consciousness To Fracture’, a simple synth melody is transformed almost imperceptibly by layers of delay into a dense universe of sound. Like Oneohtrix Point Never, Barbieri offsets mathematical precision with a haze of effects to summon a liminal zone where time stands still. You might expect an album like this to be impenetrable, but Barbieri makes deep listening sound effortless. SW
(Loma Vista Recordings)
In the lead-up to MASSEDUCTION, Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, put the music media on time out. Just after the publishing of a personal and compassionate profile in The New Yorker (where it was revealed she and Jenny Lewis sometimes swap their respective NYC and LA homes with each other!), Clark and Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame, put together a series of video “interviews” mocking the journalists and interviewers who don't ask interesting or informed questions. The results were scathing and, embarrassingly, spot-on.
This wasn't the only kind of critique Clark offered in 2017. She took beauty industries to task in her video for ‘Los Ageless’ and her Fear the Future tour, which she kicked off in Los Angeles at the Paramount Studios New York backlot, pulls apart the idea of pop music spectacle. The album does that, too, building on her signature frenetic tones and casting them in pop sheen. It is heartbreaking (‘New York’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’) and slick (‘Savior’, ‘Pills’) and sounds like the album Madonna has been trying to make since Ray of Light. CL
Here are some just a few of the reasons why Los Angeles singer-songwriter Moses Sumney's debut album Aromanticism is so remarkable: it challenges the definition of melody, inserting slanted structures into otherwise languid compositions; it is one of the most sumptuous and romantic-sounding albums of the year, all while digging through the interior of being a person who literally cannot fall in love; it pushes the idea of what indie rock sounds like in 2017. From tracks like opener ‘Man on the Moon (Reprise)’ and the standout ‘Lonely Place’, Aromanticism has a complex atmosphere that you want to live inside. Being alone has never sounded so whole. CL
Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement
Ambient Black Magic
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of his influential Hospital Productions imprint, Dominick Fernow gave us plenty to chew on this year. Surprisingly for the power electronics veteran, his best offering is one of the most gorgeous ambient albums in recent memory. Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement’s dub epic Ambient Black Magic is a definitive statement that places this oft-overlooked Fernow project on equal footing with Vatican Shadow and the immortal Prurient. On 34-minute opening sprawl ‘Jungle Is A Shapeshifter’, Fernow builds a massive new world filled with birdsong, rushing streams, misty synths, distant thunder, wandering basslines and the occasional rain shower. It’s serpentine and disorienting, but unlike Fernow’s past hellscapes, this garden of eden welcomes us with open arms. MB
Gang Signs & Prayer
To cross over into the mainstream as fully as Stormzy has in 2017, grime artists have traditionally been forced to compromise; and even then, they’ve seldom hit the Croydon MC’s heights. In the last year, the rapper born Michael Omari has gone from grime prince to king of British primetime, appearing on X Factor, Jonathan Ross and even Sunday Brunch. Gang Signs & Prayer is the reason why: a strident infusion of gospel into grime with enough soul and melody to appeal to your mum, and enough hard-hitting 140 BPM explosions to show his day-one fans he remains loyal to the cause. That he would even attempt such a balancing act says plenty about Stormzy’s untouchable confidence. That he would actually succeed suggests a once-in-a-generation talent. AH
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Actress - ‘Falling Rizlas’
On 2014’s Ghettoville, Darren Cunningham sounded like he was ready to throw in the towel. With the exception of a few tracks, the album was a sluggish, slog devoid of the playful spirit that inhabited his early material. From the perspective of Cunningham’s fifth album AZD, Ghettoville was perhaps a necessary exorcism to find a new angle on the Actress sound. Most of its tracks are caked in a similarly muddy layer of THC-soaked fuzz, but there’s a spark of hope underneath: ‘X22RME’ and ‘Runner’, for example, are two of the most upfront club tracks Cunningham has made, while the shrill blips and sludgy strings of closer ‘Visa’ end the album on an uncharacteristically optimistic note. Even on the moody, John Carpenter-esque ‘Falling Rizlas’, Cunningham sounds as content as he’s ever been. The best part of AZD, however, is how Cunningham weaves all the facets of his career into one record. For diehard Actress fans and inquisitive newcomers, it’s a dream. SW
Weighing of the Heart
Nabihah Iqbal, fka Throwing Shade, has wowed us in the past with crystalline productions like last year’s House of Silk. There were hints of vocals on tracks like the enveloping ‘Underneath My Eyelids’, but with her debut full-length Weighing of the Heart, she lets her voice be heard. The album pulls from dream-pop, darkwave and new wave in way that sounds refreshing instead of rehashed. Iqbal has always been a polyglot - she's just as well-versed in found sound as she is in dropping Spice Girls tracks in her DJ sets - and this is just another musical mode she's excelling in. CL
Somewhere in a parallel universe, there’s a version of Sampha’s long-awaited debut album in which a parade of A-listers return the favors owed to the South London songwriter: a Solange duet here, a Drake verse there; a Kanye hook on one track, an uncredited Frank vocal on another. But Process isn’t that record. Instead it spends its runtime erasing any suspicion that Sampha’s cameos for those artists and others might have elevated him to a new life of sunshine and glamor. On ‘Blood On Me’, he’s chased through misty darkness by faceless figures in “grey hoodies” while the heartbreaking ‘No One Knows Me (Like The Piano)’ finds him in his mother’s home following her death during the making of this record. An album that could have been a starry confirmation of Sampha’s rise to the R&B elite instead stays close to home, recalling the faces and places of his journey so far. AH
Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida
Nídia’s Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida is a sonic treatise on rhythm and its hypnotic complexities. Formally known as Nídia Minaj (in homage to her musical idol Nicki), the Bordeaux-born producer has evolved from Príncipe’s prodigy to its matriarchal powerhouse. On Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida she distills everything she has learned so far into a mind-melting percussive attack that just doesn’t fuck about. It’s an LP that plainly states its intent - opener ‘Mulher Profissional’ translates as ‘Professional Woman’, while the album title translates loosely as “Nídia is bad, Nídia is dope”; the press release nods to Simone de Beauvoir. Throughout the record, Nídia pushes her love of kuduro and its contemporary strains like tarraxinha and tarraxo into unrecognizable new places, twisting it into balearic-flavored post-club shapes (‘I Miss My Ghetto’) and even gabber (‘Toma’). It’s been another incredible year for Príncipe, and Nídia has been an integral part of that success. ACW
Take Me Apart
When Cut 4 Me dropped in 2013, it was a revelation. Kelela was a house diva for the new millennium, laying SWV-like vocals over beats by producers like Nguzunguzu and Jam City. She fine-tuned this synthesis between R&B and club music with 2015's Hallucinogen, a collection that said to artists turning Aaliyah and Cassie samples into apparitions that mining vintage R&B was unnecessary and the future of R&B-dance hybrids belonged to the vocalists.
Take Me Apart, Kelela's long-awaited debut album, continues down this path, casting a grand statement on what the future sounds like through collaborations with producers like Arca, Kingdom, Bok Bok and Dubbel Dutch, as well as Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time and has worked with HAIM, Beyoncé and Carly Rae Jepsen. The album's magic gets muddled in places - it is filled with ideas, sometimes too many - but songs like ‘Frontline’ and ‘LMK’ are some of the best of the year. CL
Playboi Carti - ‘Magnolia’
Few albums highlight 2017’s rap trends as confidently as Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut. His wavy mix of yelped ad-libs and melancholy synths isn’t particularly new - Lil B’s been doing it for almost a decade - but it adeptly taps into a widespread youthful malaise and the genre-fluid playlist culture that has come to dominate rap’s mainstream.
Hit single ‘Magnolia’ is the obvious high point, but the whole album is remarkably coherent - something that’s all too rare in an era dogged by endless SoundCloud loosies. Sad and restless but also party-ready, Playboi Carti doesn’t need political rambling or conscious posturing to get its message across. It’s a turn-up album that feels nauseous, restless and dysphoric; if that doesn’t sound contemporary, then you might wanna remove your head from the sand. JT
MHYSA - ‘Bb’
Multimedia artist E. Jane describes MHYSA as a “queer Black diva and underground pop star for the cyber resistance” and fantasii, Jane’s debut under the moniker, challenges our idea of pop and experimentation in the digital age. Influences hum throughout the record like echoes: the haunted rhythms and half-sung vocals of ‘spectrum’; the robotic post-R&B beauty of album standout ‘Bb’; the Grouper-esque, cavernous bliss of ‘Siren Song’. This is music that doesn’t just challenge aesthetically, it’s expertly sequenced to read like an epic poem, exploring black art, femininity and sexuality. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s not supposed to be. JT
(300 / Atlantic)
Migos – ‘Bad And Boujee’ (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
Make no mistake, Migos owned 2017 with Culture. The Atlanta trio’s second proper album clears the impossibly high bar set by last year’s ‘Bad & Boujee’ with a backflip. The global hit now fits alongside ‘T-Shirt’ and ‘Kelly Price’, following a year that saw them infiltrate all parts of the mainstream; they even got a shoutout from Donald Glover at the Golden Globes. With Culture 2 on the horizon and Offset and Cardi B’s recent engagement, Migos seem primed to top themselves again in 2018. We don’t know how they’ll follow a classic like Culture, but we’re ready to find out. MB
Differ-Ent (DJ Bone)
It's Good to be Differ-Ent
(Don’t Be Afraid)
DJ Bone - ‘Marvel Less’
Even though he’s been producing music since the late ’90s and is one of the scene’s greatest DJs - sometimes running three decks in his sets - DJ Bone largely remains a Detroit techno underdog. Eric Dulan’s preference for flying under the radar and doing things his own way has guaranteed his underground heft, while his ardent fan base confirms his cult stardom.
Released in February under the name Differ-Ent, It's Good to Be Differ-Ent celebrates Dulan’s so-called anti-hero status via an alias he has previously described as “the other side of Bone’s Gemini being.” There are Underground Resistance flavors written in the hefty album’s uncompromising drum work and spacey synths, while ‘I.M. Differ-ent’ offers a trip back in time to an electro world of robo-funk. ‘Marvel Less’ and ‘Met Allergic Flew Antsy’ are bona fide body-slamming bangers, with the latter using haunted house synths for a creepy coda that will send shivers down your spine. Making a triple techno album sound urgent is a challenge, but DJ Bone makes it sound easy. ACW
For the past five years, artists across genres having claimed the influence of ’90s R&B while possessing none of the qualities that elevated classics like Brandy's ‘I Wanna Be Down’ or Xscape's ‘Just Kickin’ It’. Kehlani's debut SweetSexySavage doesn't claim to be anything but the natural expression of its Bay Area creator, but sounds so distinctly plucked from a lost 1996 LaFace recording session it’s hard not to bring up this tired and often incorrect comparison and truly mean it.
On songs like ‘Distraction’ and ‘CRZY’ she takes decades-old blueprints and transforms the classic sound into something more modern with trap drums and confessional lyrics. Meanwhile on ‘Used to It’, Kehlani is intensely personal, maintaining the intimacy of mixtapes like Cloud 19 and You Should Be Here. With this effortless fusion of the past and the present, it's no wonder Diddy called her the future of R&B. CL
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - ‘An Intention’
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith aims to chart the stages of a human life on The Kid, but she doesn’t stop there. The sounds she coaxes from her modular synths just as easily evoke wide-open galaxies or writhing cells on a microscope slide. One of the most vibrant synth albums of the year, it recalls Smith’s early days as a singer-songwriter with intimate lyrics and her best vocals to date. The modular set-up has become increasingly attractive to producers due in part to its unruly, unpredictable nature, but The Kid proves Smith to be a true modern master capable of making her orchestra-in-a-box sound like no one but her. MB
(Don’t Be Afraid)
Karen Gwyer is one of techno’s best live DJs, but Rembo is her magnum opus as a producer. The Michigan-born, London-based hardware enthusiast built her latest LP from a scaffolding of kicks, drones and claps that are as utilitarian as they are freeing. Gwyer has always worked in the outer reaches of EBM, noise, techno and live improvisation and from the cosmic drone-sprinkled ‘Why is There a Long Line In Front of the Factory’ to the bright synths and robo-funk of ‘The Workers Are On Strike’ - tracks which hint at Gwyer’s politics - Rembo wears these touchstones with pride. While last year’s Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase EP dosed its jams with acid, Rembo clings harder to the Detroit techno of Gwyer’s roots. Rembo is a taut, high-velocity album primed as much for dancing as it is for listening and one that secures Gwyer’s place at the more interesting, leftfield end of the modern techno spectrum. ACW
4:44 is Jay-Z’s 13th studio album - his first since the infamous elevator scuffle that informed Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat At The Table - and finds the rap icon at his most brutally honest and vulnerable. ‘Moonlight’ begins with Jay warning producer No ID he’s “got a lil cold, so bear with me,” which is this album in a microcosm: where once Brooklyn’s finest wore an aura of invincibility, here he’s human after all, as he grapples with the possibility that musically, he’s past it, and personally, has made an irreversible mess of his friends and family. “Look, I apologize, often womanize / took for my child to be born / to see through a woman's eyes,” he laments on the title track. A lesson learned, that led to one of Hov’s finest albums. AH
M.E.S.H. - ‘Search. Reveal.’
James Whipple is one the few artists in contemporary club music able to reinvent himself as quickly as trends in the scene become passé. From 2014’s Scythians EP onwards he’s weaved an unpredictable path, often making music that’s entirely beatless or just plain undanceable – something that’s frustrated as much as it has enthralled. However, Hesaitix feels like the convergence of all Whipple’s influences and past experiments. It’s got two of his most storming club tracks in ‘Mimic’ and ‘Search. Reveal.’, stop-start cybernetic drum teases like ‘2 Loop Trip’ and ‘Privileged Lord’ as well moments of sour ambient music such as ‘Blurred Cicada 2’. The result isn’t just the fullest and most enjoyable M.E.S.H. record Whipple has made, it’s an album that pushes modern club music forward in meaningful ways while retaining the inquisitive spirit that makes him one of its most exciting artists. SW
In October, we got Fever Ray fever. Back after nine years in the wilderness, The Knife’s Karin Dreijer’s solo return was announced with a stunning single, ‘To The Moon and Back’, followed by Plunge a week later. Aided by Peder Mannerfelt, the record was more than worth the wait and full of chaotic rage for a chaotic, rage-filled time in western civilization. "This country makes it hard to fuck!" she roars on ‘This Country’, before further interrogations of modern sex and queerness. The production is immense, its us-against-the-world spirit even better. AH
Equiknoxx - ‘Enter A Raffle... Win A Falafel’
As Caribbean dance flavors continued to dominate the mainstream in 2017, Jamaican production unit Equiknoxx took everything we knew about dancehall and threw it into the sea, emerging from the depths with an album that shifted a slew of familiar sounds and rhythms. While last year’s Bird Sound Power - FACT’s number two album of 2016 - was an anthology, Colón Man is Equiknoxx’s proper debut album, highlighting the effortlessly progressive production methods of core duo Gavin Blair (Gavsborg) and Jordan Chung (Time Cow).
The album even has a concept at its heart: in the early 1900s, Jamaican workers named “Colón men” after the Panamanian city, helped dig the Panama Canal and were given a taste of the wider world for the first time, all while being exposed to the radical Pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey. Blair described these men to FACT as “the first woke Jamaicans” and the duo use this story as the album’s spiritual backbone, exploring cross-cultural experimentation in a variety of forms.
There’s the rattling low-end rumble of ‘Plantain Porridge’, the disorienting Radiophonic weirdness of ‘Your Ears Are Not Very Small’ and the roots-influenced shuffle of ‘Sent For Ducklings Got Ducks’. Everything is elevated by Blair and Chung’s incendiary production smarts: field recordings and unusual found sound bounce off thick walls of bass and fractured rhythms falter and fall like a drum machine being kicked off a cliff. Colón Man is that rarest of albums, where concept, aesthetic and dancefloor magic are united in perfect harmony. JT
A Crow Looked At Me
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Mount Eerie – ‘Real Death’
It’s hard to comprehend the courage it must have taken to make A Crow Looked At Me, Washington musician Phil Elverum’s eighth album. In early 2015, his wife Geneviève was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease that kills 80% of patients within a year. Geneviève died three months after her 35th birthday, 18 months after giving birth to the pair’s first child. A Crow doesn’t flinch from the intense trauma of such a series of events, across songs that bravely trawl through the emotional rubble of two unthinkably painful years for the former Microphones man. But it also finds hope: a means to keep living. It’s heartbreaking and the sort of album you may only listen to twice in your lifetime – it’s too distressing to revisit too often, at least for this writer – but one that’ll stay close to you. AH
Sudan Archives is one of the most remarkable new artists of 2017. Her self-titled EP features a wide range of influences, from Féla-style Afrobeat and Sudanese fiddling to R&B and funk. Sudan is self-taught on both the violin and production software and her Stones Throw debut is an adventure through ambient-adjacent, inventive string compositions. “I always wanted to be wanted to be ‘different’,” she told FACT earlier this year. “I thought that if I showed that [musical] ability, then people would realize I was cool.” Mission accomplished. CL
Visible Cloaks - ‘Terrazzo’
Visible Cloaks’ Reassemblage fuses ancient instruments and cutting-edge production technology to re-configure New Age music with a glitchy, hyperreal sheen. Global inspirations both recent (OPN, vaporwave) and vintage (YMO, Fourth World) float seamlessly in the Portland duo’s zero-g atmosphere. But ultimately, Reassemblage is about Earth - it’s an explicit celebration of immigration and the benefits of bridging cultures. Through heartfelt synth melodies, ASMR-inducing textures and awe-inspiring sound design, Visible Cloaks render their positive vision of the future so passionately you can almost reach out and touch it. MB
“Black Origami for me comes from letting go creatively, creating with no boundaries,” Jlin said of her new album, a rhythmic assault course that barely stops for air. The second LP from the former steel worker deals in knife-edge tension and the kind of percussive flurries that threaten to spin off their axis. Never has the symbiotic relationship between footwork and dancing felt more pertinent, while the inclusion of collaborators William Basinki and Holly Herndon adds an artful touch, complementing the LP’s varied arsenal of gongs, panpipes, bells and drums.
The hammering vocal loop on ‘Enigma’ may send you over the edge but there’s something beautifully intricate to Black Origami, an album built with painstaking precision. “The simple definition of origami is the art of folding and constructing paper into a beautiful, yet complex design,” Jlin said of the title. It’s hard to tell where the footwork visionary will go next, but it’s guaranteed to be thrilling. ACW
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
tqd - ‘Vibsing Ting’
DJ Q, Flava D and Royal T’s collaborative debut doesn’t offer anything particularly fresh or insightful, but it doesn’t have to. Within seconds it’s quite clear that ukg is a labor of love, offering a tight, expertly-engineered snapshot of a sound that was never given its proper dues. Blending bassline and 2-step flavors, the trio rock through the Northern-Midlands canon with a cheeky grin and gunfingers raised; tracks like ‘Vibsing Ting’ and ‘Touch’ remind fondly of simpler, boozier times. It’s an unashamed nostalgia trip - one best served with a glass of top shelf bubbly, yer best Moschino slacks and a pair of Gucci loafers. JT
Errorsmith - ‘Centroid’
Erik Wiegand, aka Errorsmith, is no newcomer. He’s been releasing records since the mid 1990s, examining club rhythms with the steely resolve of a stamp collector and the manic grin of a mad scientist. Superlative Fatigue, his first album in over a decade, was pieced together over six long years, in between work developing Native Instruments cult software synthesizer Razor.
If you’re familiar with Razor, then the album takes on a life of its own, playing like a particularly unruly demonstration of the software’s capabilities. Wiegand constructed the entire record using the synth and his command over it is breathtaking. The rhythms might be familiar - the chiseled club shuffle of ‘Centroid’; the dancehall weirdness of ‘Retired Low-level Internal Server’; the horn-blowing reggaeton-influenced shake of ‘I’m Interesting, Cheerful & Sociable’ - but Wiegand contorts them awkwardly, landing in bizarre and unexpected places.
It’s difficult to innovate in dance music, even more so when you’ve been releasing club 12”s for over 20 years, but Wiegand succeeds by targeting a specific idea and obsessively taking it to its logical conclusion. It’s his party and there’s no door policy. JT
Before I Wake
Kamaiyah - ‘Slide (Bet)’
Last year, Oakland rapper Kamaiyah dropped A Good Night In The Ghetto, a self-released mixtape that dominated the Bay Area with its blend of confident, touching raps and nostalgic, trunk-bumping beats. But after signing with major label Interscope and promising a proper debut, Don’t Ever Get It Twisted, Kamaiyah became frustrated when things seemed to slow down. “Fuck my label,” she told GQ earlier this year, referencing a sample holdup that still has the album in stasis.
So she took matters into her own hands and released Before I Wake, a completely new selection of songs that follows its predecessor like a movie sequel. The familiar throwback hallmarks like booming 808s, wobbly G-funk synths and cheerful horns are all intact, but our newly scarred protagonist is now delivering world-weary wisdom.
“Yeah I fucked up this summer / I didn't put out one damn song,” Kamaiyah laments on ‘Slide (Bet)’. Sure, she didn’t achieve the sunny breakout she deserves, but Before I Wake’s low-key funk is almost better. She sounds remarkably unbroken by the industry’s unrelenting bullshit and rebellious in the face of a depressingly familiar struggle. That she’s able to document it so vividly is almost superhuman, it’s hardly surprising when she raps that she thinks she needs therapy. JT
How many artists' debut hometown shows feature flames, lasers, bubble machines, a 10-foot replica of the bucket hat on their album cover and four Mercedes Benzes onstage? J Hus isn’t just any artist though, as he proved at last month’s Brixton Academy celebration of his astounding Common Sense LP.
Unable to perform live in the capital till now thanks to the much-criticized, now-abolished Form 696 restrictions on grime and Afrobeats artists, J Hus’s elaborate production was a physical articulation of the extravagance and ambition that made Common Sense so captivating: a suave blend of Afrobeats, grime and bashment with a brave and uniquely British diasporic sound.
Songs like ‘Plottin’ and ‘Like Your Style’ have the carefree confidence of a man who sounds medically unable to feel stress, while ‘Did You See’ gave summer 2017 its definitive anthem. His stay at the party might have been short on that song, boasting how he “came in a black Benz, left in a white one,” but Common Sense showed an artist who’s sure to be around for a long while. AH
Laurel Halo enlisted a number of collaborators for her third album, Dust, including FACT Rated alum Klein, Shit and Shine’s Craig Clouse and experimental pop wonder Julia Holter. “I was excited to occupy the role of a pop songwriter or producer, rather than being the person onstage myself,” Halo told the the New York Times. With this in mind, Dust, which also features percussion from experimental drummer Eli Keszler, is as much about embracing the connecting power of an orchestra as it is about furthering Halo’s role as an idiosyncratic artist working on the weird fringes of electronic music.
It’s her first attempt at making a conventional pop album, albeit an off-kilter one that zones in on a jazz perspective and reminds us that the voice is the most malleable of all instruments. On ‘Sun to Solar’, Halo’s singing offers an organic contrast to the song’s electronic bleeps and drones, while her voice breathes life into ‘Jelly’, a song built around insulting snippets like “and u are a thief / and u drink too much.” On ‘Moontalk’ meanwhile, Halo sounds warm and inviting. There’s a lightness to Dust which is conveyed through touches of humor like ‘Arschkriecher’ (which translates as “ass-kisser”) and Halo’s underlying playful sensibility. Experimental albums can often appear daunting to some, but with Dust, Halo makes the avant-garde accessible and, more importantly, fun. ACW
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
(A1 / Freebandz / Epic)
“You wanna come to paradise? Matter of fact, you wanna come to Pluto?” Future promises plenty in HNDRXX’s opening moments, but quickly sounds as if he’s crashed to the ocean floor after a years-long detour through hell. We find rap’s pill-popping, hedonistic hero at his absolute rock bottom here, discovering a world of redemption and rediscovery as alien as the former ninth planet. HNDRXX charts Future’s journey from emotional hypothermia back to reality with an instant-classic run of hits that are inspired, tragic, vulnerable, occasional ugly and always honest.
Though it begins with exhausted jabs at Ciara on ‘My Collection’, the album moves on swiftly and soon Future is exploring new love, not lust for once, on joyous highlights like ‘Incredible’ and ‘Use Me’. It makes HNDRXX feel like the climactic final chapter to a story Future’s been writing since Monster - a saga of self-destruction that ends here with hope, catharsis and a final goodbye simply titled ‘Sorry’. “I need fresh air / I need to get out on my own / it’s been too long,” he admits on ‘Fresh Air’. It makes his tentative first steps on HNDRXX nothing short of a miracle. MB
DJ Python - ’Yo Ran(Do)’
Every year is guaranteed to throw up at least one ridiculously named micro-genre. In 2017 it was “deep reggaeton”, the self-styled signature sound of Brooklyn producer Brian Piñeyro’s DJ Python alias. This hyper self-aware term might sound like an underground club music in-joke that’s been stretched too far, but Piñeyro takes the concept and creates a whole universe with it.
On opening track ‘Las Palmas’, a dembow rhythm meets with glassy vibraphone chimes to create something more akin to Japanese ambient music than reggaeton, while ‘Cuàl’, one of the album’s more club-ready tracks, transports you to a humid rainforest setting. One of the most striking cuts, ’Todo Era Azul (Siempre Dub)’, experiments with filtered breakbeats to create an illusory take on club music. Existing halfway between club and ambient music, Piñeyro’s rich, sonic landscape has strong parallels with Rhythm & Sound’s take on dub and Dulce Compañia deserves to have just as long a shelf life. SW
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
Sometimes, the first step towards not feeling completely helpless in life, swept up in chaotic tides you have no power over, is admitting how helpless you are. “In a weird way, my acceptance of a lack of control gave me the gift of control,” SZA said last week of the journey towards her astonishing debut album, released in June to critical acclaim after a period of uncertainty for the Missouri-born star.
For a long time, fans – and indeed SZA herself – had wondered if this album would ever arrive: at the start of January, three years after it was first announced, there was still no sight of it. In October, she’d tweeted that she was “kinda over” the music business and hinted at giving up after publically hitting out at her label. Things appeared to be unravelling for the artist, real name Solána Imani Rowe, but a breakthrough was near.
Embracing her lack of control over both her career and the people in her life – documented with brute honesty on songs like ‘The Weekend’ – liberated her, and what emerged is an undeniable contemporary R&B classic. It’s hard to pick favorites but equally impossible not to single out the bassy groove of ‘Love Galore’, the dreamy video game soundtrack romance of ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’ and the stripped-down fuck-you to an adulterous ex on ‘Supermodel’. CTRL’s intimacy is intense, and its creator an artist whose vocal talent, telling tales of fragile relationships and emotional insecurity, has had no equal in 2017. AH
A flame my love, a frequency
Music, especially live music, was a major symbol of the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed at popular venue the Bataclan where Eagles of Death Metal were performing. Although this event gave the optimism of live music a horrific underside - similar to the bomb explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and the catastrophic mass shooting at country festival in Las Vegas that both happened this year - musicians of all stripes have used their work to express unity with their audiences or as means to cope, themselves, after such inconceivable, heartbreaking tragedy.
Cecile Schott, aka Colleen, was in Paris that November day and much of A flame my love, a frequency was written as a means to deal with the literal terror she had witnessed. There is a sense of healing in the warm textures of the music, but also in Schott's decision to go back to her electronic roots. She is still using her voice to express what for some would be inexpressible, holding tight to her contemporary modes of manipulation usually reserved for a viola da gamba, and fusing it with the type of compositions that endeared us to her from the beginning. On track 'Winter dawn' she sings, "The world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue / And I came home with a fistful of fear," but her fist is mighty and that fear became one of the most beautiful albums of the year. CL
In 1986, shortly before he died, acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky published Sculpting In Time, a book that went head-first into his theories on cinema, his life and his seven feature films. “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame,” he wrote, explaining his core philosophy.
Three years ago, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s time appeared to be slipping away. Diagnosed with throat cancer, the pioneering Japanese composer took a year-long hiatus from music, returning in 2015 with a brittle resolve. “Right now I'm good,” he told Rolling Stone. “But you never know. The cancer might come back in three years, five years, maybe 10 years.” And only a month after this interview, Sakamoto’s friend and collaborator David Bowie died after his own struggle with liver cancer.
Death’s shadow haunts every corner of async, Sakamoto’s first solo album in eight years. His concept was to create a soundtrack for an imaginary Andrei Tarkovsky movie and somehow, he succeeds. It helps that Sakamoto shares more than a few key philosophies with the Russian auteur: Tarkovsky’s core themes of reality, existence and emotion all make up async’s bedrock.
Opener ‘andata’ is a knowing nod to the past. Sakamoto is still best known for his memorable piano themes, and solo piano ushers us into the album like an old friend offering a warm bed for the night. But as a subtle hiss creeps into the frame and organ tones take over, the track takes a funereal turn, slowly replacing familiarity with unease. The piano returns on ‘disintegration’, this time discordant and unsettling, re-contextualizing Sakamoto’s relationship with the instrument.
Sakamoto builds an autobiographical narrative but avoids linear storytelling, almost like Tarkovsky’s oft-misunderstood Mirror, a film that wisps and winds through time, flipping between color, sepia and black-and-white footage to represent the haze and deception of memory. In turn, Sakamoto flips between his own stylistic traits, moving from harmony and melody into abstraction, rhythm into drone and plaintive ambience into searing noise.
Simply put, async is a masterpiece: a deeply moving work that tentatively approaches life’s big questions. Not questions of society, but questions of humanity that transcend global borders and illusory party lines. Sakamoto’s deep understanding of Tarkovsky’s art finds him transforming the Russian director’s famed long takes into subtly paced tone poems that relish every second of their existence. What is death, when you can leave behind art that is so rich with life. JT
Written by Miles Bowe, Al Horner, Claire Lobenfeld, John Twells, April Clare Welsh and Scott Wilson.