Argh I’m stuck in deadline hell writing about the music of 2018, but as everyone else is sharing theirs now, here’s some words on my favourite albums of 2017.
10/ Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life
This Nashville singer/songwriter finely walks the line between classic country swoon and more modern, blackly comedic lyrics. When she played live earlier this year she debuted a song inspired by the election and the right wing’s assaults on women’s reproductive rights that was so good it’d be a crime if it doesn’t make her next one.
9/ Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star/Quazarz Vs The Jealous Machines
If you thought 2014’s Lese Majesty was as far out as Ish and Baba could take the Shabazz Palaces concept, brace yourselves for this sci-fi fable, stretched across two separate albums, which concocts a kind of Day The Earth Stood Still-meets-Infesticons’ Gun Hill Road narrative, from which Ish spins some fine metaphysical observations on culture, race and identity in Modern America. Sonically, the albums shift in and out of focus, from ambient hum to brawny, on-the-nose boom music, cutting a path that’ll entrance adventurous ears.
8/ Girlpool – Powerplant
On their blissful first full-length, Before The World Was Big, they sounded like Simon & Garfunkel if they’d been raised on K Records, picking apart the cradle of childhood and finding much poignancy and profundity within. For their second, they got distortion pedals, and a drummer, and trained their eyes on how the world around them is changing. The result is the kind of album you’d make if you went to college and realised a lot of people are shitty, but you’re still golden. And in their more realised studio incarnation, those brittle and wonderful harmonies shine only brighter.
7/ Chastity Belt – I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone
Their debut, No Regerts, was pretty much a comedy record (cf Giant (Vagina), Pussy Weed Beer); their second, Time To Go Home, was a lovely thing of understated ennui and fuck-you-mansplainer triumphs. Album #3, however, sees Seattle’s finest dulcet drone-poppers get dark with a set awash with disquiet and dissatisfaction, which is a bummer for them but a treat for us, as the style suits them. Side Two is where it gets heavy, a suite of Oh-Hell-No sharpness, fuelled by understandable Millennial disappointment, which peaks on Something Else, a wonderfully foggy notion of dreamy guitar and Julia Shapiro’s unfuckwithable deadpan vocals, painting vignettes like “We’re all talking about nothing / I want to do something cool / And I want to get paid / And wake up feeling great every day / Is that too much to ask? Well maybe I’m an idiot”, before a chorus and chord-change blast in like sunshine through the clouds. There might be cooler bands, but they’d have to try quite hard, and for Chastity Belt, this kind of magic seems to come easy.
6/ Feral Ohms – Feral Ohms
Comets On Fire/Howlin Rain mainman Ethan Miller debuts his new outfit, a balls-to-the-wall power trio who play heavy biker noise with a numbskull punk-rock glee, applying the same OTT approach Comets used on psychedelia, so this nine-song banger sounds like somebody doused all your MC5 and Motorhead records in whiskey and then dropped a match on them, and, well, I don’t know the scientific explanation but fire made it good. Pick of the bunch is Super Ape – a neanderthal thrash spiked with echo-holler howls, car-crash riffs and enough ear-wrecking whammy-hammered solos to sprain any air-guitarists in the vicinity – but the whole record is a napalm-gargling blast, the work of a band with the swagger to name a song Teenage God Born To Die, and the genius to deliver a song that doesn’t just live up to that title, but makes it sounds kind of low-key in comparison to the wall-smashing din it describes.
5/ At The Drive-In – in*ter a*li*a
It was a year of reunions with a lot to prove – see also A Tribe Called Quest, below – but the vim with which these balletic hardcore dynamos grabbed the baton they’d dumped a decade and change before was impressive. in*ter a*li*a was like that scene in Dallas where Pam wakes up to find Bobby in the shower and everything that happened in the ninth season was a dream: the classic line-up of At The Drive-In reconvening (minus holdout Jim Ward, whose absence, with all due respect, seems to have made no impact on proceedings) as if their hiatus had never happened. Not that I’d want to live in a world without the music they made while apart – the mercurial brilliance of Mars Volta, the stadium-emo of Sparta, Cedric and Omar’s criminally overlooked make-up project Antemasque – but the extent to which in*ter a*li*a sounds *exactly how the album that followed Relationship Of Command should’ve is uncanny, all prime panic-driven modernist hardcore, with a gift for offbeat, bullseye-nailing anthemic muscle.
4/ A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here
The big story of the reunited Tribe’s final album isn’t that it’s good – it’s that it’s *so good, fit to stand alongside anything in their discography, the sound of a group from the past that’s re-awoken in perfect sync with the present, for all its woahs and woes. It’s a solid set that’s full of surprises, but its finest qualities are bittersweet: #1, that the late Phife Dawg – who passed away midway through the album’s production – sounds so sharp, so alive and so joyous that his loss hits like a sledgehammer with every spin (Lost Somebody, Tip’s tribute to Phiphe, is a heartbreaker; the album closes with some prime-Phife, swapping lines with Busta on The Donald). And, #2, that the album’s darkly brilliant anthem, We The People, seems so prescient in the light of the first year of the Trump era.
3/ Thundercat – Drunk
Neo-soul’s wild bass genius (who has occasionally moonlit with Suicidal Tendencies) delivers his magnum opus, a confessional set of nerd-synthphonies, electronic chamber-pop threnodies and brain-mangling-jazz-funk reflecting the hustle and scramble of life as Neo-soul’s wild bass genius, as he mourns on-the-road loneliness, bad life decisions and the allure of the demon liquor. Two caveats: one, there’s no single track here that quite matches Apocalypse’s Tron Song (Inferno gets close, but maybe Thundercat’s set an impossible standard for himself), though as a coherent statement obeying several interlocking thematic concepts, Drunk is a triumph. Two, as great as the album is, it can’t quite match the multidimensional, wormhole-opening, 1267th-dimension-chess thrills of the Thundercat live experience. His drummer, as the young people have it, is “sick AF”.
=1/ Oh Sees – Orc
It opens with a full-on freakbeat thrash with trebly Huskers-esque stun-guitar attacks and the group’s double-drummer engine firing on infinite cylinders. It closes with a headfucking instrumental that sounds, at different moments, like it could’ve fit on the first Headz compilation or the third volume of Luaka Bop’s World Psychedelic Classics. In between these bookends lay synapse-frying psychedelic-rock, righteous Floydian interludes and more, splitting the Can atom and perfecting an experimental rock that delivers the thrills of both the EXPERIMENT and the ROCK. It is, by my calculations, John Dwyer’s 19th album under some semblance of the Oh Sees moniker – and he’s even released another one since – and it would, in any other year, be a shoo-in for my album of the year. But it’s 2017, and here be dragons, and thusly it must share the honour with…
=1/ Once & Future Band – Once & Future Band
…labelmates Once & Future Band, a group of Californian musos taking a break from various day-jobs (Howlin’ Rain, Drunk Horse) to evoke some fantasy era that never quite existed, where yacht-rock lushness gels with wildly arpeggiating, tempo-juggling prog-rock weirdness to deliver some hybrid of SteelyDan/Queen/10CC/Hall&Oates that is never slavishly derivative of its influences, and absolutely throbbing with unexpected harmonies and dervish invention. The lyrics are a treat, too, from I’ll Be Fine’s winningly embittered take on an unhealthy relationship, to Ronaldo, the goofily affecting tale of a fantasy aficionado with a penchant for getting high off model airplane glue (which can’t fail to remind me of the conclusion of the second Adrian Mole novel), to the swoonsome Tell Me Those Are Tears Of Joy, where the trepidatious path from friendship to romance is portrayed as a heroic, risky, high-stakes journey akin to something out of Tolkein. There’s no record this year that’s given me as much simple pleasure, no record I’ve played so often, no record I can recommend as highly. Make stars of them.