With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time for my 2017 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 26th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition at this (ever-more-advanced) stage of my life.
To set the stage and provide some perspective on this year’s list, I share the following complete reckoning of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2016. With 20/20 hindsight, I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some of the years, but I own my picks as historic facts, stated publicly, for better or for worse.
- 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
- 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
- 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
- 1995: Björk, Post
- 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
- 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
- 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
- 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
- 2001: Björk, Vespertine
- 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
- 2003: Wire, Send
- 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
- 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
- 2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
- 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
- 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
- 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
- 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
- 2011: Planningtorock, W
- 2012: Goat, World Music
- 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
- 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
- 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
- 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
My belief in the value of emergent music keeps me hungry as I search out new sounds throughout the year, rather than just wallowing in nostalgia mode, and I have found 2017 to be ripe with delightful music, with old favorites and newcomers alike offering challenging and/or engaging new offerings. I generally only consider full-length albums, preferring studio ones to live ones, and I also generally eschew compilations, unless there’s a quirky or compelling reason for counting them. (Meaning there’s a live album and a compilation in the honorable mention list below, because we need our exceptions to define our rules).
Among short-form releases this year, my EP of the year is the glorious No Plan by David Bowie, which provided a perfect posthumous coda to last year’s Album of the Year, Blackstar. Also highly noteworthy is the Great Aspirations EP by TC&I, a.k.a. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, the mighty rhythm section of XTC’s earliest, most glorious years; both players had long indicated intentions to step away from music for good, so it was unexpected and thrilling to hear them working together again on a strong quartet of Moulding songs. My single of the year is The Hanslick Rebellion’s “Who’ll Apologize for this Disaster of a Life?”, which perfectly captures the dire mood of our times with brilliant lyrics, a hook to die for for and a delicious video to boot. Get ’em all, even if they’re short.
Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: my list is obviously built from the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t get around to sampling. So as much as I love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write a knee-jerk note telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite East Timorese grime-core nose-flute and bassoon collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it, so please share that link when you do, and we can talk. Thank you.
I open the list-making part of this exercise with the following Honorable Mentions for 2017. I liked these albums a lot and recommend them all for your collection, but after revisiting everything I acquired over the past twelve months, these didn’t quite make it into my Top 20 Albums for the year, but they were all close contenders:
- The Black Angels, Death Song
- Can, The Singles
- Electric Six, How Dare You?
- Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock
- Irontom, Partners
- King Crimson, Live in Chicago
- King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Flying Microtonal Banana
- Meat Wave, The Incessant
- Awa Poulo, Poulo Warali
- Samael, Hegemony
- Songhoy Blues, Resistance
And here are my Top 20 Records of 2017, in reverse order, working toward my Album of the Year, at the bottom of the page:
#20. Moonspell, 1755: I didn’t consider 2017 to be a particularly brutal year on the metal front, but the few representatives of the extreme arts that appear on my list this year are quite fine and varied. First up, this epic concept album from Portugal’s venerable Moonspell, who have been practicing the metallic arts under singer Fernando Ribeiro’s guiding hand since the mid-’90s. This year’s album is among their best, with huge walls of riffs being uplifted and fortified with orchestrations and choral washes, all in service of a story about the year when Europe’s strongest recorded earthquake essentially destroyed Portugal as a global power. For the first time, Ribeiro’s lyrics are all delivered in his native Portuguese language, and the passion he feels for his country’s history is evident throughout in his emotional and emotive delivery. (Even if you don’t speak his language, it’s not hard to get the gist of what’s happening in songs with titles like “Desastre” or “Ruínas” or “In Tremor Dei,” so don’t be put off by the lack of English.) The overall auditory effect and experience of 1755 is massive and thrilling and exultant, even in its darkest themes and moments, and this is one of those great anthemic metal albums that you brutalitarians out there might even be able to sneak past your more sensitive family members onto the family stereo. (I’m gonna give it a try, anyway. I’ll let you know what happens).
#19. King Krule, The OOZ: Archy Marshall is a precocious musical freak, with an impressively wiggly and weird catalog of recordings and concerts under his belt well before he’s even aged out of his first quarter century. Marshall’s second album under the “King Krule” moniker is a fascinating, rambling foray into a wooky and woozy and wobbly world where heavily accented hip-hop cadences collide softly with spacious lounge bleats and blaats, all bouncing around reverberently in the cavernous vacancies of your skull, and the expressways thereto. Imagine The Streets working with Esquivel under the direction of Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch, all at the end of a six-day mushroom bender, and you’ll get the general flavor and feel of the thing. Wild, man, and excellent in its excess and full on flagrant commitment to its conceits and concepts, with the best bits being the ones that bop along on stronger beats, pushing the creepy freak fest into a realm which might almost be called propulsive, if you could see your way forward through the smoke and haze and ooze clearly enough to want to move from your safe and stable corner booth, the one with the stuffing pushing out through the tear in the red-brown blown pleather seat, and the yellow glass ashtray in the armrest. I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever heard anything quite like this one before, and I doubt you have either. But if you have, then let me know, because I might need a little taste of that, when the shakes come, namsain?
#18. Godflesh, Post Self: Justin Broadrick makes the first of two appearances in my 2017 Best Albums list with this concussive gem from Godflesh, his long-standing off/on collaboration with bassist G.C. Green. Post Self picks up pretty much where 2014’s A World Lit Only By Fire (my #2 release of that year) dropped off, with a trio of songs built atop the juddering, hammering, calamitous riffs for which Godflesh are rightfully and influentially famous. But then the sledge riffs abate a bit for the remainder of the album, and sulfurous hissings and keening blade spins and phlegmy furnace croaks drop from high places to fill the pregnant pauses, and it’s just as powerful as it ever is, but is also somehow more horrible, in the good sense of that word. I guess only Broadrick himself knows the process by which he decides whether a new piece best fits Godflesh or one of his other numerous creative outlets (Jesu, Council Estate Electronics, Final, Pale Sketcher, etc. etc.), and far be it for me to quibble with his assignations, even if this project seems to me to pivot from (typical/expected) Godflesh to (typical/expected) Jesu fare midstream. It’s all good, whatever it’s called, and it’s always a treat to hear G.C. Green anchoring the bottom, and more on Jesu later (below), so hold these thoughts . . .
#17. Replacire, Do Not Deviate: As noted above, 2017 wasn’t a year in which I found myself head-banging and flinging my (imagined) hair about as often as I do some years, but that doesn’t mean that the metallic arts aren’t fairly represented in the year-end mix. Replacire are a ridiculously technical death metal band from Boston, who write gloriously complex and knotted pieces, play them with surgeons’ precision, and yet still somehow manage to blow the roof off of your brain housing group with battering barrages of riffery and shoutery and stompery and general oh-hells-yeah punch. That said, they recognize the power of sonic dynamics, too, so piano interludes and clean vocals occasionally jerk you back into a safe spot for breath-catching, before you’re shoved back into the meat grinder, with spectacles propped on your dribbling nose, so you can see how sharp the blades are before they chew you into perfectly consistently sized ribbons of meat and gristle. While album cover art is a dying craft, I do give Replacire credit for a perfect image to capture the sounds of Do Not Deviate: it’s red and black, and there’s stuff falling apart, and things are more complicated than they need to be, and there’s a monster, and it’s smiling, and did I mention it’s all very complicated, and the falling apart bit, too? Yeah. That picture is what this music sounds like. Bravo on both fronts.
#16. Xiu Xiu, FORGET: Xiu Xiu’s last album of primarily original material, 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was described by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart as an exploration of the “mean, tight-hearted blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico” and, amazingly enough, it actually lived up (or down, depending on your worldview) to that evocative description of really dark, really powerful music. Of course, that makes it one of my favorite albums by the assaultive experimental ensemble. Surrounding it, though, were gentler records exploring the music of Nina Simone, the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, and Caribbean folk songs and American hymns, so Stewart and Company clearly hadn’t completely succumbed to the allures of the null and the void. This year’s Xiu Xiu offering is something of a happy medium merger of the aforementioned forays, with (relatively) accessible song structures, melodies and arrangements, spiced with Stewart’s typically frank declamations on all manner of deeply felt things, sacred and profane, wordly and other, sexy and ugly, almost all in equal measure. Core members Stewart, Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman are joined this time out by nearly a dozen guests — including genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, Kristof Hahn (Swans, Pere Ubu), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) — and the record has a richer, less skeletal feel than some of their blunter early work. It’s not easy listening, not by a long shot, but it’s a little step closer in that direction from anything that’s come before it, and if that exposes Xiu Xiu’s brilliance to even a few more fans, then that’s a good thing.
#15. The Residents, The Ghost of Hope: This album marks a significant turning point for The Residents, as Cryptic Corporation manager/agent/spokesperson Hardy Fox (a.k.a. Charles Bobuck) retired earlier this year and shockingly “de-cloaked” after 40+ years as the always anonymous group’s primary composer. Fox noted in an interview (as Bobuck) that he wrote for the The Ghost of Hope before his departure, so with typical perversion and bait-switching, the new album is being announced as a “classic Residents” project, restoring the live group’s quartet lineup, with long-time collaborators Nolan Cook, Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio along for the ride. Well, at least in the studio, anyway. Who knows what happens on stage? Ghost provides an outstanding and historically grounded exploration of famous 19th and 20th Century train wrecks, and the record rocks harder than anything they’ve done in the past decade, with Louisiana-inflected crooner Mr Red Eye/Mr Skull/Randy Rose (these days dressed as a cow, while his band mates don plague masks) in very fine voice, and the accompaniments and texts being direct, disturbing, and delicious in equal measure. What’s next? Who knows. And that’s more than half of the fun, as always, when it comes to the always prolific, always surprising, and always amazing Rez. Long may they Snorp! Whoopy! (Note: The Residents also offered one of the best compilation packages of 2017 with 80 Aching Orphans; newcomers and veterans alike are encouraged to nab that too, as it puts The Ghost of Hope in great career context).
#14. The I.L.Y’s, Bodyguard: I first raved about Death Grips when I ranked their debut mix tape as my #2 album of 2011, and I’ve written and ranked a lot by them since then. The California trio have masterfully manipulated record companies, audiences, critics and consumers with aplomb over the years, sometimes withholding expected releases, other times dropping surprise musical bombs, regularly cancelling shows (or whole tours), wrapping their intended major label release in a heinously graphic sexual cover, announcing their dissolution more than once, usually just before announcing a new tour or album. Their aggressive perversity has been tolerable, though, because the music they make is stellar and harrowing and challenging. So what does all of this have to do with The I.L.Y’s? Well, they are the instrumental two-thirds of Death Grips, and they released their first two digital albums on Grips’ Third World label, without really making it clear who they were. Bodyguard finds the pair (drummer Zach Hill and producer Andy Morin) tacking “normal” rock instrumentation (vocals, guitar, bass) onto their usual slamming beds, releasing a physical album on a traditional record label, and generally going about the music business the way that the music business wants itself gone about. The results are surprising and sublime and (gasp!) shockingly accessible, sometimes even to the point of inspiring singalong moments. Hill and Morin are undeniably talented, and if they ever decide they want to relax the whole “fight the power” thing, even just a little, this album proves they’ve got it in ’em to be a tight and commercially viable combo. Which would be cool, as long as they also continue to stick it to the man with MC Ride in Death Grips. I don’t want to have to choose.
#13. Protomartyr, Relatives in Descent: Protomartyr are a Detroit-bred quartet, featuring the most standard rock lineup imaginable: vocals, guitar, bass, drums. They write fairly standard rock songs about a lot of dark topics (with excellent lyrics, objectively speaking), and front-man Joe Casey sings them in a fairly standard rock baritone voice, somewhere between Ian Curtis and Iggy Pop. They have issued four albums, each one a bit better than the one before it. And I love them dearly, most especially this latest record . . . though I struggle each time they appear in one of my year-end reviews to explain exactly why that is, since there’s never an easy hook, or gimmick, or angle that make it easy to explain why they’re special, when they’re doing things that gazillions of bands before them have done, generally in the way that most bands do. I guess what separates them from the pack is that they do what they do as well as it can be done, and that consistent whiff of excellence elevates their straight-up four-piece rock into realms that most garage bands can only dream of with the assistance of good drugs and expensive strobe lights and maybe some supermodel girlfriends or something. I dunno. Words fail me when it comes to Protomartyr . . . they’re just great because they’re great, and this album is wonderful because it’s wonderful. So shut up. And stop staring at me. There’s something weirder coming up next.
#12. UUUU, UUUU: Wire’s Graham Lewis is another multiple-entry performer in this year’s Top 20 Albums of the Year report, in this first case with a new quartet that adopts his always interesting approach to naming groups; UUUU follows in the footsteps of such Lewis projects as P’o, Ocsid, Dome, Hox, MZUI, and He Said Omala, among others. Lewis is joined here by his Wire bandmate Matthew Simms (more on them below), ex-COIL/Spiritualized synth-man Thighpaulsandra, and drummer Valentina Magaletti of Tomaga and Vanishing Twin. I have literally scores of albums by Wire and COIL, so am well versed with and deeply fond of the works of 75% of UUUU, while Magaletti and her work are completely new to me. Interestingly enough, she emerges in many ways as the superest-star in this super-star project, as her drum and percussion work is just dynamite throughout, indicating deep skill in everything from the most motorik of Jaki-beats all the way through to the free-form clatter and clank of a cold-stone (Chris) Cutler acolyte. The eight songs on UUUU are gloriously titled (“The Latent Black Path of Summons Served” or “The Princess Anne Love Cassette,” anyone?), mostly instrumental (though Lewis adds some of his always delicious baritone here and there), and range in scope from the four-minute almost pop of “Boots With Wings” up to the 16-minute meltdown of “Five Gates,” which is so compelling that the time passes far more quickly and frighteningly than it should. I don’t know what, if anything, the future holds for a side project like UUUU, but this is a great offering from a quartet of experimental creative geniuses, and I do certainly hope that they might have a VVVV or a ZEGK or a cUUUUpol or something similar out there planned for us in the future.
#11. Juana Molina, Halo: So if you’re not at all, or are just a little, familiar with Juana Molina, then we need to pause this list for a moment while you go read her bio on Wikipedia, because it is awesome crazy wonderful, and gives some deep, deep context to this record. Go on. I’ll wait here for you. Wait wait wait. Okay, you’re back? Great! How was that story in terms of a cool career in the arts? Neat, right? Well, I sure was impressed . . . and surprised, I have to admit, because much of the coverage I’ve read about Halo over the past year has ignored that back story, and sort of presented the Argentine star as an emergent young artist, probably because her impressive prior accomplishments didn’t happen here in the States, and our marketing engines don’t know how to digest and process such geographically remote success, even as the globe gets smaller and smaller, day by day. All that being noted, how about the music? Well, I’d say it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before, as it is original, and engaging, and incorporates both global and regional (Argentine) musical influences, and processes them through a very unique and delightfully skewed creative vision, using both organic and electronic instrumentation, in ways that you don’t expect them to be used. Molina’s singing voice is delicious, too; I have to admit a fondness for Argentine pronunciation of the Spanish language where “ll” sounds are pronounced with a slurry “shh” sibilance, giving the whole thing a woozy, exotic flavor that reverberates warmly with the most luscious bits of both classic Iberian languages. A great album by a great talent with a lifetime of achievement behind her . . . and (hopefully) a lot more yet to come. Pay attention, America!
#10. Idles, Brutalism: Idles are a British five-piece who emerged from Bristol’s Batcave club half a decade ago, issuing half-a-dozen EPs and singles before their debut elpee, Brutalism, early this year. Singer Joe Talbot’s mother died young after a difficult illness during the recording of the album and, well, he’s pissed off about that (as one is), and his anger about that and a variety of other things comes through loud and clear throughout this brash and aggressive record’s run. Talbot’s got a sneering, shouting, snotty, heavily-accented voice that reminds me of a young Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) at times, and Protomartyr’s Joe Casey (see above) at other times, and Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson at still other times, and he writes punchy, memorable lyrics that often repeat over a song’s course, embedding them deeply and quickly into your ear holes after just a few spins, making you feel like you’ve know about these songs far longer than you possibly could have. Unless you’re from Bristol, anyway. With The Fall perhaps winding down (see below), and Sleaford Mods being a bit of a limited act with their voice and loops approach to live and studio work, I can readily imagine Idles emerging as the great angry voice band of modern Britain, letting those of us who don’t live there know what the folks there are pissed off about, and helping those who are pissed off there to find a lucid outlet for the ills (social, political, cultural and personal) that ail them. A potent young band, well worth rooting for in the years ahead.
#9. The Fall, New Facts Emerge: In Fall Record Release Time, it’s been a dog’s age since they issued a new album, and this particular hiatus has been notably defined by the departure of keyboardist Eleni Poulou, who has been the creative and personal partner of stalwart Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith for the past 15 years. Further potential red flags in front of New Facts Emerge involved cancelled gigs, record release date slippages, a more-ill-looking-than-usual Smith struggling onstage during their occasional shows, and drummer Keiron Melling suffering a savage and cowardly beating on a British train earlier this year. But never mind all that, I guess: New Facts Emerge is a potent and high-octane record , with a unique and defiantly odd blend of power riffage, strange song structures, creative studio trickery, weird production techniques, sounds bleating from disparate corners unexpectedly, tunes descending into chaos only to rebuild themselves as different tunes elsewhere, and a completely nutso sequencing that attaches weird little fragments to some songs, while other elements linger long beyond the point where studio sanity would seemingly dictate “cut.” The Fall have embraced weirdness and repetition and angularity and just being not quite right in pleasing ways over the years, and these new cuts are a part and piece of that tradition, as not a one of them is a straight-up, straight-through rocker with a clean arrangement; they’re all askew and unsettled in one way or another. Mark E. Smith remains Mark E. Smith, of course, and if you haven’t liked his voice over the years, well, then this album isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind on that front, but he’s a venerable legend, nonetheless, and worthy of your attention, still. (Note: Sadly, as I was typing this blurb, I got word from fellow fans of a last-minute cancelled Fall gig in Brixton, with Smith reported as being exceedingly ill. Wishing you better, Mark. Take it slow and get yourself fitter. We’ll all be here when you’re ready).
#8. Alan Vega, IT: Alan Vega told this mortal coil to fuck right off last year, punching it in the nose on his way out at the age of 78, aggressive to the very end, despite a stroke some years back that would have felled a weaker, less ornery man. IT provides us with one last collection of rants and horrors from the former Suicide singer, and I think it’s easily his finest work since the original 1977 Suicide album and related era ROIR 1/2 Alive tape. Nobody has ever sounded quite like Suicide, with Vega’s shouted story-telling perfectly balanced (or unbalanced, actually, most of the time) atop Martin Rev’s lo-tech/lo-fi organ and drum synth attack. They were looping and sampling before looping and sampling technology existed, and (as with Queen’s famous Deacy Amp), it’s been virtually impossible since to use high-tech equipment to reproduce Rev’s incredible low-tech accidents, created by necessity and frugality and need, not by wisdom or experience or technical facility. But I’ve got to hand it to Vega’s long-time creative and personal partner, Liz Lamere, because she gets as close to Rev’s original dirty sound as I think you possibly can in the 21st Century, and IT‘s instrumental beds are just absolutely perfect for some of the clearest, cleanest, cleverest, and angriest rants and stories of Vega’s long and storied career. He was a punk before anybody else was a punk, even if he was likely to punch you for calling him that, because he was old enough to know what the word actually meant. Rest in pugilism, Alan. You were one of the greats.
#7. Judy Dyble and Andy Lewis, Summer Dancing: What a delightfully unexpected gem this album was for me this year. Judy Dyble was the first female lead singer of Fairport Convention, was a member of the transitional band between Giles, Giles and Fripp and King Crimson, sang on the Incredible String Band’s most famous cut, “The Minotaur’s Song,” and was just generally in all the places where the cool and happening folks wanted and needed to be for a few seminal years in British music history. And then she disappeared from the public eye, to work, and have a family, and generally get on with her life. As Fairport’s and Crimson’s stature have grown and grown over the years, a lot of early or short-termed members have emerged from the wood-work to trade on their one-time band connections, and I’ve got to say that I find most of the results to be nostalgically nice, but not necessarily musically significant, and my expectations for Dyble’s latest return to recording were low going in because of that general trend. But, wow, I could not have been more wrong, as Summer Dancing is an utterly wonderful album, filled with well-written songs given exceptional arrangements by producer Andy Lewis, perfectly merging the folk traditions in which Dyble’s history is rooted with an eclectic, modern electronic attack that’s timely and timeless. Dyble’s voice remains a warm treat, and her lyrics are thoughtful and whimsical and fun and perceptive. A winning proposition, all around, and I most sincerely hope that it serves to introduce a legendary figure in the evolution of electric folk music to a new generation of listeners, because the sounds of Summer Dancing are just perfectly attuned to appeal to discerning listeners of all ages and interests.
#6. Sun Kil Moon and Jesu, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth: The first Sun Kil Moon/Jesu collaboration blew my freakin’ mind when I first heard it in a record store in Florence, Italy, last year, completely mesmerized by the unexpected clash of sounds and styles that Justin Broadrick (Jesu, and also Godflesh, see above) and Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) offered over that long, glorious album. I knew of and appreciated both artists before then, but hearing them together made me completely reassess their collective bodies of work, and also to marvel at the fact that they found each other, and decided it was a good idea to work together, since on paper, that seemed to be a non-starter clash of styles, and then some. Thankfully, they have decided to extend their collaboration, and we’ve got another fantastic album this year to swoon and marvel over, along with other releases from both artists on their own and with other collaborators. I noted above that Godflesh’s new album seemed to move in a more ambient, reflective, Jesu-like direction than its predecessor, and I’d say that this Jesu/Sun Kil Moon record reflects a similar shift, eschewing some of the grinding, bottom-heavy elements that defined the prior release, and generally emerging with a gentler, more electronic and/or acoustic sound this time around. Kozelek’s personal, observational lyrics remain riveting, as does his vocal delivery. One of this collection’s gems, “You Are Me And I Am You,” literally moved me to tears while I was walking up Michigan Avenue listening on headphones one day, and the aching, heart-felt soul of that track is echoed over and over again throughout this album’s thrilling run. While I’m no longer shocked to hear these geniuses working together, I am still deeply pleased by their collaboration, and hope that it continues in years ahead. They’re doing great work in a variety of outlets, sure, but they seem to be doing their best work together, hitting epic heights that move me to the depths of my soul, no kidding.
#5. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie: I neither understand nor approve of the legal and music industry conventions that allow Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to record and tour together as “Fleetwood Mac,” while Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood playing with Christine McVie may not do so . . . but be that as it may, and whatever this record is called, this is the best music anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac have issued since Rumours to Tusk days, no kidding. Buckingham and McVie write and sing gloriously together, and the arrangements and production are as sparkling and meticulous as you’d expect with Lindsey in the producer’s chair. The venerable J. McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section helps out with their customary skill (you don’t necessarily pay active attention to them, but they make everything atop their base sound better, always), and Mitchell Froom is along for the ride to provide supplementary keyboard and occasional production flourish. Buckingham remains one of the greatest guitarists of his era, and his finger-picking leads and swirls are just magical, as is the opportunity to hear him and Christine singing together, his piercing tenor and her dusky alto just as sublime together as they’ve always been. For all of the attention focused on Buckingham and Nicks over the decades, it’s worth noting that Christine McVie actually wrote more Mac hits than the two of them combined, and her melodic sense and skill is in ample force throughout this year. Just a lovely record, all around, from the real Fleetwood Mac, whether they can say so or not.
#4. Pere Ubu, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo: Cleveland’s venerable “avant garage” pioneers remain powerfully relevant and deeply creative on their latest missive from the shores of Lake Erie, which is sadly destined to be the final one engineered by the late Paul Hamman, who has filled that crucial sonic role since 1980, and passed away this fall. But there’s still continuity amidst the changes: the core group of David Thomas, Michele Temple, Robert Wheeler and Steve Mehlman have been playing together for nearly 25 years, and they are joined on this album by Cleveland guitarist Gary Siperko, ex-Swan Kristoff Hahn, long-time Thomas/Ubu collaborator Keith Moline, Graham Dowdell (aka Gagarin) of Nico/Cale band demi-fame, and clarinet player Darryl Boon. A big band, at bottom line, and on fire creatively: this collection of songs is as tight and urgent as anything they’ve done, and the sonic variety possible in such an expanded line-up gives richness and variety to the proceedings in evocative and innovative ways. Ubu Projex (their art and business affairs directory) has been issue vague warnings that this year’s tour (which I saw, and which was great) might mark the last chance to see them live, but by the evidence offered on Missile Silo, Pere Ubu’s innovative approaches to songwriting, arranging, and recording their deeply-rewarding music remain strong, and here’s hoping that the flexibility built in to the growing “Ubu Orchestra” allows us to receive further dispatches from the dense jungle of sonic possibilities that they have hacked with machetes and guitars and analog synths for so long, so well. (Note: Right after I posted this piece, Ubu Projex announced that the schedule West Coast tour dates were cancelled due to Mr Thomas’ health, so I wish him well as I admire his work completed, and anticipate his work yet to come).
#3. Krankschaft, III Mysteries: The world would be a better place if there were more records like this one in it. Krankschaft’s III Mysteries offers punchy British post-glam rock and roll songs, generously sprinkled throughout with all sorts of sparkling sonic filigree, provided to the punter in a beautiful, generous package, filled to the brim (and beyond) with all sorts of brilliantly-designed books and stickers and what-have-yous. The Krankies’ new album also offers deeply engaging story-telling in both its lyrics and its packaging, building on the narrative laid down in their last disc (2014’s Three), wherein three musical youth of the ’70s are transported through time to a grotesquely and absurdly dystopian future, namely right now, this minute, right here. And imagine, if you will, a world where such intrepid time travelers attempt to unravel the mysteries behind their confusing circumstances using the tools available to them, right here, this minute, right now. Say, Facebook. Or Twitter. Or some other platform rife with inaccuracies and fantasias and gossip and lies and every other form of crazy known to man, woman, God, and Dog. What might they produce? How about eight instant classic cuts covering the spectrum of conspiracies from “Hollow Earth” to “Chem Trails,” from “The Hum” to “The World Is Flat,” and from “Binary Star” to “Interstellar Highway,” which would be Nazca, of course. Given the preponderance of the the third positive cardinal number in their iconography, I presume that it is not a thematic coincidence that there are three musical Krankies in the real world: Steve Pond, Alex Tsentides, and Kevin Walker, supplemented by the very enigmatic Dr Foxon, who makes the art and manages the machines. If they’re stuck in our time for good, then here’s hoping that they keep making brilliant art and music like III Mysteries. And if they do manage to find their way back to the ’70s, then there’s gonna be a great alternative timeline in some multiverse where the likes of Bowie and Bolan, and Heep and Hawkwind, and Roxy and Wizzard and Slade and all the other yoofs gaze admiringly (and enviously) upon The Mighty Krankschaft, who brought the rock and roll back from tomorrow, and made every possible today everywhere better because of it. (Note: This was the final album I received and reviewed this year. I think if I’d had more time with it, it would score even higher in this list. I’ll just jump forward to 2037 to confirm . . . back soon . . . watch this multi-verse for edits . . . )
#2. Wire, Silver/Lead: Released on the 40th anniversary of their first show as a quartet, Silver/Lead has a smoother, cooler, swingier vibe about it than some of their more frantic and metronomic dugga dugga dugga fare. If I had to liken it to any other albums in their high quality, eclectic canon, I’d probably compare it to 1988’s A Bell Is A Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. Both albums are melodic, mid-tempo and accessible on first listen, but rich with weirdness when you dig into them a little deeper. Colin Newman has dominated the vocals on recent Wire albums, so it’s good to hear Graham Lewis more represented in the mix this time; the variety of their voices is appealing when you listen straight through. Lewis’ lyrics are odd and wonderful, as always, though the album has a bit more directness and perhaps even poignancy in some places, with the emotions showing through more than they usually do in Wire’s often detached and icy worldview. I would judge this to be the best offering of the Wire’s current era with Matthew Simms on guitar, and while the inner workings of the band are inscrutable to outsiders, as a longtime (nearly lifetime) listener, I feel like I’m hearing Simms really blossoming here as a strong creative force within the band. I was glad to have the chance to hear and see Wire tour this album this year, too. They are as potent on stage as they are on disc, and that’s something to celebrate this deep into their careers. Long may they dugga, and swing!
#1. Dälek, Endangered Philosophies: So here we are at the end of my 26th Annual Album of the Year report, and I’m pleased to doff my cap to Dälek, who top my list with the second album of their renaissance era, Endangered Philosophies. When Will Brooks brought Dälek back to action in 2016 with a retooled lineup (featuring DJ Rek and Mike Manteca), I rated the group’s Asphalt for Eden as my #4 album of the year, noting that it was:
“. . . a thrilling addition to their fine body of work, with the usual exceptional (and topical) lyrics delivered atop their signature sonic soundscapes, combining big beats with industrial sounds, chiming and clanging guitar lines, and truly fantastic turntable and sample work. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2016 has been a tough year, and as we look to its end and to what’s coming ahead of us, we really need voices and sounds like those that Dälek are offering us to keep us sharp and sane. There are very few artists whose music challenges me to think as much as Dälek’s does, and I am grateful for that. This is the sound of resistance, and of empowerment, and of strength. Embrace it through the guaranteed struggle ahead.”
You know what? You can change the number “2016” in that review to “2017,” and every single word I wrote then still stands now, while the quality of the message and music that Dälek offer on Endangered Philosophies is even more thrilling and bracing than that appearing on its predecessor disc. There’s a lot of protest and resistance music out and about this year (as there needs to be), but nobody else is offering such smart and topical lyrics, anchored in a deep understanding of the history of constructive social struggle, with such a strikingly unique sound and approach to music-making as what Dälek offer here. Or offer here again, rather, as they’ve been doing what they do for a couple of decades now, fully and faithfully excellent. Dälek don’t sound like anybody else, ever, with Brooks’ stentorian declamations mounted atop fractured and tortured industrial electronic beds that are somehow knit into stately beats, while drones and chimes and harmonics fill the gaps, and ghostly samples enhance the messages, and the whole monolithic thing drags you down and lifts you up at the same time, creating a visceral, vital tension that’s thrilling to behold and experience. Endangered Philosophies is a meaningful masterpiece, at bottom line, and I’m proud to uplift it to you as the very best album I experienced in 2017. Bravo to Brooks and Rek and Manteca. This music matters. You make a difference. Thanks for that.
And with that . . . . we’re done with this ongoing project for another year! Here’s hoping that 2018 brings an equal bounty of goodness. I suspect it will. Most years do, if you’re willing to put in the work to find what’s out there. As always, I’m interested in what you think I might have missed and need to hear. Hit me up in the comments . . . I don’t stop listening to 2017 when the ball drops on the year, and I’m always game for a choice pointer or ten . . .