30. Thundercat – Drunk
Drunk is Thundercat’s overstuffed clown car of a funk maybe-masterpiece. Everything about the artist, from his virtuoso bass prowess to his proudly immature sense of humor to his deep 1980s pop affection, is amped up to eleven here. The album is a ceaseless parade of short, punchy funk pop gems, sprinkled generously with dick jokes, cats, and incredible instrumental moments. The peak might just be his collaboration with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, Show You The Way. No shit, just listen.
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29. Gas – Narkopop
Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project laid dormant for well over a decade, during which time ambient techno enjoyed a renaissance, permeating the entire Kompakt label and spreading from Berlin to Detroit and everywhere in between. His original four albums are considered cornerstones of the genre to this day. So there was a bit of hesitation when it came to a new Gas album in 2017. Would it be any good? Would it matter? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes. The cover art is incredibly appropriate, because this music sounds like getting lost in a crystalline, digitally damaged forest at night. Dreamlike aural quicksand envelops the listener, where a curious, subtle tunefulness emerges and swallows them whole.
Narkopop can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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28. Future – HNDRXX
This album is the moment Future became a bona fide pop star, teasing out the inherent tunefulness of his odd voice and pushing a new array of colors through the hazy, dark membrane of drugs, sex, and damage that have always been his purview. The incredible coherence of the production here supports a continuous-flow feel, where songs bleed into one another, continuing the same long narrative arc, flashing with occasional ecstatic outbursts like Incredible, one of the most joyous pop tunes of the year. Rap and R&B blend and blur in a trap-infused beat tapestry, the perfect environment for getting lost in.
HNDRXX is streaming on Spotify and available digitally pretty much everywhere.
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27. Laraaji – Bring on the Sun
Laraaji makes the warmest, most human ambient music on the face of the earth. Designed to actively create a meditative, soothing state of mind, his work is unrivaled for coming down after a stressful day. There’s a spiritual gravity at work here, honed through decades of mystic studies with Eastern gurus and work with his Laughter Meditation Workship – the guy truly wants to heal the world and uses his zither-centric music to further the cause. Thanks to a handful of recent reissues of his hard-to-find cassette work from the 1980s onward, he jumped back into the global music consciousness and actually released TWO albums this year. The other, Sun Gong, is equally adept at sending the listener into a trance, but feels less substantial as an album to my ears. Give them both a try.
Bring on the Sun can be purchased on vinyl, CD, or digital through Boomkat.
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26. Cocainejesus – Nervous
Ok so I played a lot of JRPGs growing up and now I can’t help but melt into a puddle when I hear music like this, soulfully blending techno, hip-hop, synth magic, and sampledelia into what sounds like the dream sequence of every Final Fantasy put together. I’m biased. But maybe you are too. This is earnest, open hearted electronic music to swoon to, cook to, draw to, or dream to.
Nervous can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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25. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
2017 was the year that short but ambitious albums challenged some of the very best full-lengths for greatness and replay value. Kamasi Washington, the saxophonist and bandleader who released a three hour, three disc set called The Epic as his debut album, somehow dropped one of these brief gems. In a turn from the more busy, sprawling arrangements on his debut, this little set spreads a handful of new melodic ideas across five very short tracks before tying them all together in the thirteen minute closer, which is almost half the album, of course. It’s relatively low stakes jazz, but still more fun, more alive than most of Washington’s peers.
Harmony of Difference can be purchased from The Young Turks.
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24. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
I had a friend push this album on me, and I have to thank his diligence for getting me to give a chance to one of the best dance music albums of the year. I’d never heard of Owens before, but she’s permanently on my radar now. The album starts unassumingly, giving scant hint that it slowly blooms over its tracklist into a progressive, intricately programmed techno epic, wrapped in pop textures and driven by classical motorik rhythms. Every time I’ve passed the album along to a friend, I warn them to just keep with it. Sure, it’s pleasant at first, but it snowballs into something more complex and rewarding as it goes, with the final track being perhaps my favorite of the whole set.
Kelly Lee Owens is available streaming, on CD, and vinyl at Bandcamp.
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23. Floating Points – Reflections-Mojave Desert
I’ve written before about the transition of Floating Points, aka English musician Sam Shepherd, from dubstep-adjacent techno to a neon-lit hybrid jazz sound. It’s one of the most fascinating evolutions in a modern artist that I’ve been privy to, one taken wholeheartedly, without any sense of genre tourism. This new persona is Floating Points, and the old one was simply something he was working through to get here. Like a handful of other great albums this year, Reflections – Mojave Desert is a densely packed sub-half hour of music that feels more like one continuous piece than a traditional album, with individual songs. This structure fits the sound even better than his debut full length, stretching the spiritual psychedelic sound of his epic Kuiper single into a more complete, satisfying arc.
Reflections – Mojave Desert is available streaming and on vinyl and CD on Bandcamp.
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22. Shackleton & Vengeance Tenfold – Sferic Ghost Transmits
Shackleton returns with one of the most startling listens of the year, shocking the listener with its earnest vision of existential dread, as clear as it is merciless. What began as an apocalyptic take on dubstep slowly bloomed into a sound equally indebted to astral explorers Coil and late twentieth century composers like Steve Reich, meshing messianic vocals, industrial crunch, and earthquake dub bass with pointillist gamelan percussion. His songs have evolved from cavernous post-Burial beat constructions to exotic, black-tinted operas, seemingly dispatched from the future back in time, to warn us about our terminal Western lifestyle. Partnered with spoken word poet Vengeance Tenfold a second time, the rapturous dark energy of his compositions flare up into visceral, emotionally draining cyberpunk narratives. To listen is to stare into an abyss, marveling at the stark beauty of destruction, entranced by its inevitability.
Sferic Ghost Transmits can be purchased on CD and vinyl at Boomkat.
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21. Arca – Arca
Arca, aka Venezuelan electronic sculptor Alejandro Ghersi, has been one of the most singular voices in modern music for a few years now, without even opening his mouth. His productions have shredded the boundaries of techno, r&b, and pop music, dropping depth-charge power into the weird, extraterrestrial corners of these sounds, emphasizing all the bits that most artists gloss over. His music carries a mutant physicality, evoking the tangible world in a freaky cyberpunk way. It’s dance music for contortionists, headphone journeys for people raised on Aphex Twin.
So when he brought his own vocals into the mix for his third full length album, I was skeptical. This is the guy who helped elevate artists such as Kanye West, FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean, and now even Björk into new, uncomfortable spaces. Hearing him take the spotlight on his own production felt off at first, like the appearance of audible words were going to make this sound feel suddenly pedestrian. I ended up listening only once and putting it away for most of the year. But now that I’ve returned with my expectations reset, I’m falling back in love with Arca. He’s obviously still got it, only now there’s another tool to sculpt with.
Arca’s self titled album can be streamed and purchased on any format through his website.
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20. Björk – Utopia
Utopia was one of the last new albums I heard before making this list. But with one listen, I knew it belonged. Björk is an artist who has always managed to stay relevant and artistically vital, but to me, lost a sense of adventure as her experimentation turned more to how her music was made (on iPads, without instruments) than what she was making with it. Vulnicura seemed to blow away fans a couple years ago, but to me it was just treading water. A classical Björk album, if you will, advancing no new ideas, but doing it well enough. If that was what she was going to do this many decades into her career, she was doing better than most artists.
But then here comes 2017 and Utopia and it feels like she finally got back that screaming energy, that experimental attitude and willingness to do something she hasn’t heard before. She’s paired up with Arca to make this album and the occasionally unnerving, ecstatic results seem to confirm my theory that Björk works best when she can bounce off a singular collaborator. It’s her best album in a decade, easily. But don’t take my word for it. Just check this uh.. video out.
Utopia can be purchased at Björk’s website and probably anywhere else.
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19. Mr. YT – Brand New Day
Admission: Brand New Day is not an album of new music, but an album-shaped compilation of three timeless late 1990s EPs of deep house, techno, and lush ambient tracks from producer Mr. YT, aka Yuji Takenouchi. Even more, it’s a retitled reissue of a 2012 Japanese release. Regardless of how it came to my ears, I’m considering it a 2017 album because there was no other way I’d end up hearing this blissed-out, balearic take on some of my favorite electronic sounds.
This atmospheric set takes warm ambient drones with deep bass grooves and euphoric synth sprays, familiar ingredients to any fan of Carl Craig or any of the Basic Channel descendants, and combines them in uniquely cozy ways. There’s a sense of bedroom charm to these ostensible dance tunes, rendering images of sun-dappled carpet and open windows and a hazy perception of time. When I’m lost in this album, I’m dreaming of endless afternoons with a Super Nintendo and zero obligations, all the bright future waiting ahead of me, ready whenever I was.
Brand New Day is streaming and for sale on Bandcamp.
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18. Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage
Reassemblage is probably the most appropriate album title of 2017. The album is composed of shards of brilliant micro-moments, shuffled and arranged like a quicksand mandala. Bits of Oneohtrix Point Never, bursts of Dream Catalogue’s digital vapor, an overall sensibility that pushes playful experimentation to the forefront, with recognizable songs and arcs left presumably on the cutting room floor. Visible Cloaks is exploding with so much potential, so quickly, that there’s no telling where they might go next. I only know that it already has my attention.
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17. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
For his sophomore release, wildly talented young rapper Vince Staples hooked into a surprising new tangent, splitting away from the subdued fireworks of double disc debut Summertime 06, one of the best albums of 2015. Big Fish Theory is as knotty, lucid, and striving as its forebear, but comes armed with a new hyphy-inspired production sense and a racing sense of vibrancy that sees him covering twice as much ground in half the time. It’s more overtly electronic, dance-inspired, and future leaning, but the core strength remains the same: Staples’ inimitable storytelling ability and parkour-like nimbleness on the microphone. He’s real in the way most rappers only pretend to be, upending assumptions left and right, whether on record or in one of the many funny interviews he’s blown up over the year. The fact that he refused to make an obvious sequel to a breakout album made when he was only 21 years old shows, even more than I knew already, a wealth of potential waiting to be unleashed over the coming years.
Big Fish Theory can be purchased right on Vince Staples’ website.
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16. Chuck Johnson – Balsams
I’ll simply share some of what I wrote about Balsams last July:
Johnson crafts his utterly time- and place-less music with steel pedal guitar, which gives the cloudlike tunes a distinctly American, pastoral vibe. It also grants the gauzy sounds a sense of physicality that other, similarly dreamlike ambient music lacks. Instead of ethereal synth pads drifting into oblivion, we’ve got the tactile pull of guitar strings, tethering us to the world from which they came.
Every element of this music casts a resonance outside its own time, drifting and blurring the space between notes, between beginnings and endings, and between anxious little thoughts and the broad feeling of existential acceptance. In this sense, it’s an instant shortcut to deeply meditative states without ever tipping into pure abstraction. This is a quality found in many of my favorite albums, ambient or not, so it immediately drew me in.
Balsams can be purchased right from Chuck Johnson’s website.
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15. Deradoorian – Eternal Recurrence
This miniature album uses all of its 29 minutes to take flight over desert nightscapes, all cloudlike spiritual jazz singing and wide-open organ drones. The feeling is expansive, blooming far beyond its edges, stretching time. The instrumental aspects hew closer to Tangerine Dream or Vangelis than Alice Coltrane, making for a coolly futuristic tone, despite the enveloping warmth of the vocal performance at its heart.
Album highlight Return-Transcend expresses Deradoorian’s notion of meditative “thoughts in sound” most purely over 8 blissed-out minutes at the heart of this set. But is clearly made to be heard all in one go – its mercifully short length means that it’s easy to devour it, then go in for a second play right away.
Eternal Recurrence can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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14. Forest Swords – Compassion
Forest Swords, aka Matthew Barnes, creates some of the most unique sounding music today. I mean this in the most literal sense: his work hardly resembles anyone else, even when he’s covering a famous r&b song, and absolutely no one has been able to ape his style in the years since he became an experimental music phenom. Fusing a swarm of digital textures, samples, beats, string swells, and distorted saxophone and guitar, his songs often feel as ancient and impenetrable as the boulder crushing down on the man on the album cover. Compassion simply exists in a separate space from most music out there, with only Barnes’ prior work as a reference point.
In an interview, Barnes was saying that he struggled with finding hope in the future that this world was forcing upon us, saying “I realized there’s some sort of power in trying to create our own instead. I’m inspired by the ways we’re communicating now, for better or worse, and thinking about new channels we can distribute ideas. The idea of looking for flexible future ways of expression and language, that bends to our needs quicker, really excites me.” Reading these words, I realized how spot on they describe the confident, questing music on the album.
The music here feels torn between paranoid decay and exuberant, cinematic rapture. Pockets of real strings, brass, human vocals bubble and pop in the swirling electronic torrent of sound. Each song rides the precipice of disintegration, resisting the very weight they collectively conjure. Compassion is heavy music, but Forest Swords puts itself in position to do all the lifting for you, providing a conceptual light at the end of its own tunnel.
Compassion can be streamed and purchased on its Bandcamp page.
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13. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time OST
I stated it well enough before I even saw the film, which incidentally is easily one of the best of 2017 itself: With this score, Oneohtrix Point Never, aka Daniel Lopatin, used some sort of planetary gravity slingshot to circle back around his earlier work and create truly new music within that framework. It feels informed by that old familiar cyberpunk throb, yet delicately teased into much more delicate, ornate shape than anything made when he was crushing on his Juno 60. I couldn’t help but draw the conclusion that this was some kind of perfected second draft of the sounds that originally got me into his work, the albums collected on the massive Rifts compilation.
The Good Time OST is streaming on Spotify and can be purchased on vinyl, CD, or digital from Bleep.
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12. Shigeto – The New Monday
Reviewed in September, these three excerpts say it all: The New Monday is an eclectic set of rhythm vehicles caught in traffic somewhere between hip-hop, spiritual jazz, and the psychedelic fringe of techno. It fully invests in several directions at once, offering a warmly disorienting maze in its ping-ponging structure. This is Shigeto returning to Detroit, trying on its signature sounds, and realizing they fit better together than anything he’s done before.
Shigeto is working in a whole new league now. The album feels closer to enigmatic Detroit superheroes like Moodymann and Theo Parrish – hot, swaggering techno fucking with soul and rap in a reckless parade of surprises. The change feels natural, seeing him flip from lush jazz into hard rhythm sequences with the same preternatural force as local beat legend Robert Hood. Each genre exploration feels as sure-footed as the last, lived in and fully invested.
The magic of The New Monday reveals itself with the third track, when the album swerves yet again, this time into deep techno space. Instead of a jarring turn, the transition happens almost imperceptibly. The first time I listened, I was nodding along daydreaming when I suddenly got confused. What was I listening to? I checked my playlist, thinking that it was one of the above mentioned Detroit techno legends. Nope, still the new Shigeto album. I sat up and leaned in with the realization that this was turning out to be something special.
The New Monday is streaming and available for purchase on Bandcamp.
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11. Ensemble Economique – In Silhouette
Ensemble Economique, aka Brian Pyle, has been dropping modern minimalism bombs for a decade now, pushing mutated composer music to new heights of weirdness, daring, and vulnerability. This time, he finally crested into a new level of emotional directness and cinematic production gloss, rippling generative synth cascades with ferocious noise energy.
Imagine Steve Reich in the 1970s, writing Music for 18 Musicians. Imagine those pristine organ tones and string shards rising up in ferocious anger, splintering and crackling the sky, tearing open an entrance to an alternate timeline. Now it’s 2017 and low clouds of arpeggiated organ tones roll over the landscape, laser-cut synth tones bristle on hilltops and bridges, howling around the corners of brutalist office towers. Most colors have drained from the landscape, but the few that remain – bright orange, deep, saturated blue, have bloomed over the surrounding spaces, oppressive and hard. Bursts of neon, fluttering vocal snippets pock the skyline, all reaching, twisting upward toward some transcendence that’s always out of reach, set amongst the stars.
In Silhouette can be purchased from Denovali on Bandcamp.