10 SW. – The Album
Before I talk about why this album is so fantastic, I should address a controversy: yes, this was technically released in late 2016 in Germany on vinyl only. But nobody I know heard about it until its summer 2017 re-release on digital, streaming, and vinyl for the rest of the world. I live in the US, and I literally didn’t have access to this album in any format before this year. I didn’t even know it was eventually coming. So yeah, for all intents and purposes, this beguiling techno journey is one of the best albums of 2017.
The untitled debut, renamed The Album for its US release, joins the small pantheon of techno albums I would consider to be sentient beings. Seriously, hear me out. These albums begin and end on a continuous wavelength, heaving and bending and erupting and dropping, but never ceasing. They enjoy an endless, freefalling mood that is modulated at will but never brought to a halt. It’s a ride, a singular perspective, rushing onward. Its brethren include last year’s Omonimo by Dino Sabatini, Deepchord Presents Echospace’s seminal Liumin, and even Global Communication’s 76:14 (one of the best ambient albums ever made), all absolutely timeless, seamless, continuous flows of music that never once interrupt the listener’s trance.
This hard-to-google album can streamed and purchased on its Bandcamp page.
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9. Gaussian Curve – The Distance
This set, like its 2014 predecessor Clouds, was recorded in a few days by the improvisational trio in an Amsterdam studio. The Distance may have grown the same jam session energy, but its structure feels more defined, its ambition reaching a little higher, while fully embracing the vaporous sense of spiritual comfort their project became known for.
Gigi Masin, Jonny Nash, and Young Marco have perfected an elegant delivery system for pure out-of-body bliss. I wrote about their debut as a trio, Clouds, but in the time since, The Distance has supplanted its meditative space.. The songs here mix the best aspects of relaxing jazz trio music and cascading-synth-pad studio ambient music, resulting in a naturalistic, dreamlike flow that felt unlike anything else released in 2017.
The Distance can be heard streaming and purchased on vinyl from its Bandcamp page.
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8. Alice Coltrane – The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane
Alice has been gone for a decade. The music on this record was created over thirty years ago. Nevertheless, this set was remastered and compiled as an album this year and it is, without a doubt, one of the finest collections of music to be released in 2017. The best part is, it’s actually new material to most people, even most Alice Coltrane fans. These songs were originally recorded for cassette releases on Avatar Book Institute, a label run by the Vedantic Center, where Alice established her ashram and performed devotional ceremonies from the 1970s on through her final days. They were never widely heard. I wrote about Divine Songs a while back, from which much of Ecstatic Music was rescued, but my source was a lowly youtube rip of the original cassette, hardly the proper way to experience such transcendent music.
It’s been a revelation, hearing these wild hybrids of jazz, drone, and new age music restored to the vibrant clarity they deserve. Free from decades of tape hiss and distortion buildup, they feel more timeless than even her classic early 1970s releases with Pharoah Sanders. There’s a sense that these never belonged in the era they were recorded, much less our own time. We’re just lucky to be tuned into this frequency, and even more lucky that a label took the time and effort to bring them to so many new ears.
The Ecstatic Musice of Alice Coltrane can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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7. Deepchord – Auratones
Deepchord, aka Rod Modell, creates sound environments I want to live inside. These aural spaces pulse with an addictive rhythm, relentlessly thumping inside a holistic womb of sound. Many of his releases might seem indistinguishable to a listener unfamiliar with dub techno or minimalism, but to this veteran, there’s a distinctive well of life and energy tearing at the seams of Auratones, something that hasn’t been felt since the Deepchord presents Echospace days. This album is endlessly loopable, a syrupy atmosphere cohering a set of tracks imperceptibly shifting from tempo to texture, color to pressure. Its effect is physical, relentless with the volume set high enough.
I really feel inadequate trying to describe the sensory overload appeal of this music. Modell simply does not create songs. He crafts entire sound worlds, then populates them with crisscrossing beats, synth pads, and mountains of textural detail. Auratones feels like his most welcoming planet yet. I press play, sink into its atmosphere, and smile as I descend through its depths.
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6. Garrett – Private Life
I couldn’t state the appeal of Private Life better than I did back in August:
The arpeggio-laden opener highlights the connection between Dam-Funk’s searching, spacey funk and the cyberpunk synthscapes of Oneohtrix Point Never and his experimental ilk. The second track could be an interlude on any prior album, with its lighthearted bounce and distinctive textures. It’s a frank example of the connective glue holding Dam’s world together. Here, it serves to contrast with Slow Motion, the point at which Garrett diverges from Damon.
My favorite Dam-Funk tracks have always been the ones where he let gravity slip, lifting off the streets for a nighttime flight over the neon glow. I glance at my last.fm charts and find that my two most-played tracks are named Keep Lookin 2 The Sky and Floating On Air. The third, appropriately enough, is called Searchin’ 4 Funk’s Future. It feels almost suspicious how closely most of Private Life dovetails with those specific tunes. It feels like that future was actually found.
With this album, he’s finally soared light-years beyond those familiar heights. 12 minute centerpiece track Angel Reflections drifts with celestial ease, a narcotic warp jump to the hyperbolic edge of the funkmosphere. The songs leading up to this moment begin to stretch time and, naturally, the two tracks afterward begin to contract. It’s one giant cyberpunk breath in the cold vacuum of life in 2017.
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5. Actress – AZD
When Actress, aka Darren Cunningham, announced the end of his artistic run after 2014’s Ghettoville, I wasn’t worried. I knew he’d be back in some form or another, and that we’d hear the next evolution of his hypnotically alien sound. But when he did return, under the same name, with a compulsively listenable new album, I felt complacent for some reason. Here was one of my favorite working artists, with a new album after three years, and I was taking it for granted. Sure it’s great, of course it is.
But wow, revisiting AZD at the tail end of 2017, I realize what a perfect mixture of heady, exploratory impulses and lizard-brain hypnagagia it really is. This album distills Actress’ often vaporous appeal, wrapping a concise but dense set of songs in his deepest trappings, presented in their most approachable form yet recorded. This was an Actress album for everyone! But somehow just as weird as before, when I really thought about it. I’m probably still taking for granted how good this is.
AZD is streaming on Spotify and can be purchased on physical formats from Ninja Tune.
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4. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star / Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines
Sure, these two Quazarz albums were released on separate slabs of vinyl. Sure they’re ostensibly separate albums. But this was obviously an attempt to disguise an ambitious double album as a pair of off-the-cuff-2017-style mixtape releases. The yin-yang balance between the two sets reveals Shabazz Palaces as unrepentant conceptualists, rocketing their divine sci-fi hip-hop narrative even further from recognizable rap than their last full length, Lese Majesty, the best album of 2014.
One half, Born on a Gangster Star, feels like the murky, molten confluence of all their disparate elements, spread around like a mist in the studio. This miasmatic experience starts slow but quickly falls into weird, disorienting place, like a good mushroom trip. Taken alone, it might be underwhelming, Shabazz Palaces treading the deepest water of their career, but treading nonetheless. Thankfully Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines comes along right after to blast off into the outer reaches of Sun Ra-styled astral jazz. The production turns brighter and more efficient, fewer but bolder elements lifting the listener out of darkness. The raps stay prismatic, cosmic, kaleidoscopic as ever. It sets up a fresh perspective on that first half, sending heads looping back to the beginning to try it all over.
I’ve done the full set a dozen times now at least, but I’m still wrapping my brain around this conjoined-twin album. It’s not as immediate as debut album Black Up (a best of 2011 release) and not as overtly spacey as its predecessor. It’s a difficult experience, despite the attractive accessibility of its individual pieces. I’m constantly trying to “figure it out” but after every listen, I wonder if there’s anything to figure out. Maybe this is just beautifully weird hip-hop for daydreaming, maybe there’s no grand meaning beyond the story it tells. It’s always worth another try.
Both albums are available to purchase on the Sub Pop page.
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3. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – On The Echoing Green
I wrote about this one back in June, just before my son was born: On The Echoing Green is a profound shoegaze epic in all but name. The genre swallowed itself whole over two decades ago, but strange and fantastic outliers have been tearing out its boundaries in the meantime. In rare, deeply affecting moments scattered across the years, isolated musicians have reframed the scope of guitar music. Seeming miracles arrived with beguiling masterpieces like Endless Summer by Fennesz or swaggering rock monsters like Boris’ opus Pink. These giant steps were never comfortably labeled shoegaze by the artists or critics, for a lot of good reasons. Still, they emphasized the questing, expansive nature of the genre in a way that no slavish throwback artists could imagine. … As I listen for the fifth time today, toasting in June’s humid warmth, I have to admire his timing. On The Echoing Green is the perfect album for melting in the summer sun.
On The Echoing Green can be streamed and purchased on vinyl, CD, and digital on Bandcamp.
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2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I always have such a hard time writing about Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of my favorite artists alive, dropping culture-defining songs on a regular basis, rapping with soul and fire and incredible technical skill over the most infinitesimally detailed productions. I feel like his writing is so comprehensive, so clearly elucidating his ideas, and paired so perfectly with rich, timeless production, that there’s almost nothing left to say. There’s certainly nothing I can say that will add anything to DAMN. or any of his other albums. It is what it is, and if you haven’t already heard it, you’ve certainly heard about it.
So I won’t sit here and try to describe the appeal beyond this: Kendrick is the most charismatic, brutally skilled storyteller in music today and DAMN. continues his streak of immaculately produced, undeniably cohesive albums. It may not feel as monumental as 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but it’s still a hefty slice of narrative gold, a rap spectacular, fighting against the entropy of communication and understanding in the world today.
DAMN. and be purchased pretty much anywhere and streamed on Spotify.
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1. Call Super – Arpo
I struggled with choosing my number one album of 2017. I jumped back and forth between several albums, unable to decide exactly what moment was the pinnacle of my listening this year. What defined the year for me, besides a crushing sense of the recognizable world unraveling? What felt like something utterly timeless, an album I’d obviously return to again in the years to come? Most of all, what did I simply love the most in that gut instinct way? The more I thought about it, this problem felt emblematic of 2017. The world seemed so precarious, amazing art kept being made, and nothing in life was permanent, nothing could be taken for granted. Anything I held sacred might crumble at any moment.
But I knew what felt good. I knew what sparkled and lit my brain on fire. I knew what, on that instinctual level, made me feel a glimmer of hope for the future. All of the albums here did that, to some extent, but one just pulled me into that bright future a little more than the others. And maybe I have a need for that last aspect to be important. I became a father this year, and there’s been a distinct change running through my blood ever since. It didn’t change my tastes, but it changed, in some small way, which aspects bring the most weight.
When I first heard Arpo, I imagined a planet of warm woodwind tones, humid, echoing percussion, and laser-etched neon synth shards, settling like confetti over a rubbery techno landscape. The second Call Super album crisscrosses this alien place, restless as a pinball, fraying the edges of its territory every few minutes. The entire album constantly shapeshifts using only a handful of highly specific, evocative tool, erupting in a parade of unexpected delight with every subsequent track, ever remaining as cohesive as it is unique.
Arpo provides a guide for its labyrinthine expanse, a clarinet and oboe melody that crops up in various mutated forms throughout the sequence as a melodic helping hand. From the opening fanfare to the near-title track Arpo Sunk, on to the final fadeout with Out To Rust, these traditional, physical instruments lend a deeply tactile, kinetic energy to the largely electronic production. In those opening seconds, the album might be mistaken for a modern jazz recording, so fully invested in this tactile atmosphere. When the beats come in, rubbery, hot, buoyant and ripping at the seams, the experience flips from past to future, dragging collective memory through decades of out-there techno and fourth world jazz to this sleek, high-powered meeting point.
The effect of the woodwinds can’t be overstated, adding a sense of live-action chaos as they flip from sensual to menacing and back, throbbing and squalling on the way. By extension, the purely electronic pieces are realized as hot and alive as this obviously human element. The tension between these elements snaps in slow motion along the grand arc of the album, granting an unpredictable ride to every new listen. How serendipitous it felt, then, to realize that this binary dance is the result of a collaboration between Call super, aka Berlin-based producer Joe Seaton, and his father, an accomplished painter and musician in his own right.
As I look at my own son, almost half a year old as 2017 winds to a close, I imagine a future where, not only has the world gotten better, freer, less violent, and more open and accepting of all the marginalized people I hold near and dear. I need to imagine this world because I now have a very real, living breathing stake in it. I realize, more than ever before, I need to take tangible action to help coax this better world into existence. Passivity has gotten us to where we are, but it’s an luxury that went out the window the second I became a father. The idea that we can sit back and consume our way to a brighter future is an illusion. In some way, the idea of Seaton collaborating with his father, using the instruments he likely grew up hearing, shows me a concrete path toward this goal of mine. Legacy walking hand in hand with potential, using experience as a guide for this unmarked journey. It’s an image that’s helping me end this year on an optimistic note.
As far as the album itself, I can say no better than this: for a listener like me, predisposed to the meaty psychedelia of weird jazz and the inner-hyperspace warp of deep techno, Arpo is an absolute revelation. The album’s high wire ambition and singular tonal focus remind me of Aphex Twin‘s misunderstood epic Drukqs, where the IDM wunderkind jettisoned a decade’s worth of familiar building blocks and used a computer-controlled piano to conjure a new high speed sound world. Both albums share a comprehensive ultra-sensory approach, forcing a new plane of existence into being with a relentless focus and specificity. It’s my album of the year for many reasons, but first and foremost is the way it maps out an audible path to wonder.
Arpo can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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Thank you for reading. I hope this helps you find some great music you might have missed in 2017. I’m sure I missed many albums, too. If you think of any, let me know in the comments or on Facebook/Twitter!