Favorite album discoveries of 2017

by amy – February 7, 2018 in Music

I’ve finally gotten around to publishing my year-end list of albums for 2017. What an incredible year it was for me, musically speaking. There are just so many more albums in my life now that I can’t imagine being without. I explored a few different genres, including French trip-hop, Chicago blues, Finnish hippie rock, modern classical, and so on, so here I am putting this weird, incongruous list out there in the hopes that someone finds something good in it. I would be thrilled to get any comments and/or recommendations for music I should be listening to. Cheers and happy 2018 😎

slowdive album 2017

Slowdive – Slowdive (2017)

The shoegaze pioneers of the 90’s returned after 22 years to drop their eponymous album, wow! It’s easily, effortlessly my favorite album of last year. Here’s my full review.

Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)

This album blows me away. It’s as beautiful and gripping a journey sonically as it is intellectually. It tells a story about Rome by way of key events through the ages, such as the ancient pagan festival of Nemoralia and the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The track “Angelus Novus” is a glimpse into a possible theme and mood that courses through this album, as the title comes from a 1920 painting that was incorporated into a thesis by German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin interpreted the painting of the angelus novus (“new angel”) as the angel of history whose eyes are fixated on something to the left with a look of despair while the winds of Paradise (and progress) propel him into the future. The painting is, via this theory, a melancholic view of historical process as an unceasing cycle of despair. This album is sinister and sensuous at once; troubling in its themes but outstanding in its beauty. It’s beautiful and brooding, inquisitive and condemning. Garm’s profound and gorgeous voice is the perfect vehicle for these stories. This album’s effect on me is one of glowing inspiration, possibly due to its attempt to express an idea more momentous than itself.

Hexvessel – When We Are Death (2016)

The pagan forest bards of Finland shine splendidly on their latest offering. This is an energetic album of creative retro-style rock songs concerning the death of the planet and the human race. It’s a bright album in spite of its apocalyptic title, brimming with singable choruses, organs, mysticism and a love of nature in all forms. This album refreshed my appreciation for this band as I had stopped listening to them after their spectacular debut, Dawnbearer. These guys have a unique style that is quite addictive. The song “Cosmic Truth” is very moving and poetic, and is without a doubt my favorite on the album.

Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf (1962)

While watching a video on how to play guitar, I was introduced to Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Spoonful,” and have been hooked ever since. This was a man who moved to Chicago from the deep south in the 60’s to play blues guitar like it was meant to be played. He is best discovered through his live performances in order to appreciate his presence. He had a singular delivery that was highly spirited, amusing and heartfelt.

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (2017)

Soft-spoken Americana with substance. Singer/guitarist Adam Granofsky reinvents heartland rock in his own way, delivering beautiful lyrics via original melodies tinged with melancholy. This one and the previous album, Lost In The Dream, which I discovered at the same time, just hit all the right notes for me. Last year in a bar in Quebec I heard these guys come on the speakers just after one of the new Slowdive songs. Perfect combo!

 Steve Gunn – Time Off (2013)

I’m a happy discoverer of this fingerpicking guitarist in the American folk tradition. Steve Gunn has incredible talent that should be witnessed live to properly appreciate (so glad I caught him way down in Wellington, NZ). This man knows his way around the guitar. He writes original music that is personal and touches something deep within.

Aṣa‎– Aṣa (2007)

Aṣa‎ is a French Nigerian singer and guitarist. She makes pop music that blends rock, soul, jazz and traditional African music to wake you up gently and sometimes not so gently. This album grew on me over the course of a year. Very catchy stuff.

The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer ‎– A Real Fine Mess (2014)

While missing a bit of the raw, unbridled energy of Chequered Past (2011), this is a banger of an album from this Canadian blues-rock band. They have clearly honed a great formula of stomping rhythms, harmonica and singable (or yellable) chants that rival The Black Keys. Highlight track: “Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (2015)

Besides the drummer, a singer with real heart and soul is one element that sets a good band apart from the rest. Brittany Howards delivers, her contagious choruses bearing echoes of good old soul and disco.

Chequerboard – The Unfolding (2013)

Discogs classifies this Dublin-based musician under “Electronic, Folk, World, & Country,” which is an apt overview but doesn’t tell you what his music sounds like. (Like a lot of music coming out these days which combines digital and acoustic instruments as well as diverse world influences, it’s quite difficult to place it in one of the simple molds that we used to place music a few decades ago.) So I feel more comfortable describing the mood of it. This album is very slow, calming and meditative, and pretty from start to finish. It’s slow and organic, led primarily by acoustic guitar with the addition of cello at times, and electronic elements. With song titles like “Opening The Gates,” “The Sorrow Bird,” and “The Unfolding” you can get an idea of the feeling expressed. Though I’ve been content to play this one over and over, I look forward to exploring his previous releases.

mounika - how are you?

Mounika – How Are You? (2017)

Subdued, dreamy French triphop that weaves century-old vocal samples into modern, nostalgic vignettes. This one got a special review by me – read it here.

Hidden Orchestra – Dawn Chorus (2017)

The perfect soundtrack to play at dawn (trust me, I tested it). This one-man orchestra creates a powerfully moving soundtrack to the awakening of the senses in the natural world. This album features long pieces such as “Western Isles” that writhe with an energy that mirrors nature’s ever-evolving chaos. It’s richly layered with classical instrumentation and field recordings of birds and waves from the south England coast. Also be sure to check out his album Night Walks, which possibly rivals this one.

José James – While You Were Sleeping (2014)

José is a singer from NYC in the classic jazz tradition, citing John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye as major influences. He sings deliberately and soulfully about love, desire, and faith. With elements of pop, rock and R&B, this album is carefully, cleanly produced, and the mood is as relaxed as a posh jazz lounge. Strings, organs, brass and guitar all make appearances on this smooth-flowing set of songs.

into forever

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra – Into Forever (2015)

It was singer Josephine Oniyama who drew me into this gentle classical release, composed and arranged by Manchester trumpeter Matthew Halsall. Josephine’s voice is deeply magnetic, and the songs “Only A Woman” and “As I Walk” were the first to cast a spell on me with their soulful depth and spiritualism. Several songs seem to pull on the string of an ancient memory that is just out of reach, yet so near. With all the electronic music I listen to, it’s nice to switch to something purely acoustic and beautiful like this lovely album.

Panopticon – Roads To The North (2014)

A one-man atmospheric black metal project from Kentucky with folk and bluegrass woven in? With song titles like “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky,” “Norwegian Nights”, and a Long Road trilogy consisting of “One Last Fire”, “Capricious Miles” and “The Sigh of Summer”? I’m sold. I was pretty sure this album was gonna rock, and it did. It’s maturely composed and strikes a chord with the atmospheric black metal ethos. It’s driven by melodic leads, but with no holds barred on the onslaught of black metal blastbeats as an underlying force. It has active time changes and a forward-thrusting energy that carries more triumph than despair. Producer Colin Marston of Krallice has ensured that no spaces in the wall of sound were left unfilled. But this album breathes as well. It has a folk aesthetic by expertly working in elements like fiddle alongside tremolo guitar and great samples from the winter woods, all adding to a reverent feeling toward a place called home. I would like to dedicate a proper review to this album after some closer listens, so I’ll leave it there for now. So happy I found this one.

Gojira – Magma (2016)

Slowly becoming something like the Metallica of France for the global metal scene, Gojira have made a significant impact with their incongruous mix of crushing heaviness, smart technicality, and introspective lyrical themes. On this album they show no sign of slacking their efforts to make inventive death metal that hits hard and heavy but with precision and craft. I can actually only consume this album in short bursts.

i/ii - front cover

Dans Dans – I/II

Slow, thoughtful and refined instrumental progressive jazz rock. (Genre descriptors are getting long and unwieldy these days, but there you have it). This album features a number of brilliant reinterpretations of 20th century blues, jazz and progressive rock classics. Read my full review here.

Ours Samplus – Isteri (2014)

I debated including this ridiculously obscure French DJ, but his album popped up on my Spotify Discover list and I fell in love with it. It’s inspired by DJ Shadow’s seminal 90’s triphop album Entroducing… and features all kinds of great nostalgia-inducing samples of hip-hop from that era. This really brings me back in a good way. But good luck finding anything about this DJ or this release – he has not made much effort to market his music.

Chinese Man – Racing With The Sun (2011)

Better late than never, I came to discover this amazing French trip-hop album in somewhat a backward way through some scattered newer tracks, plus a documentary. To finally hear this album in its entirety was like striking gold. Quality has a certain shine, sparkle and ring to it, and this one’s got it. Catchy, fun, expertly produced and engineered, there is a never a dull moment on this fantastic album.

Aldous Harding – Party (2017)

Guarded as I often am when trying young indie songwriters making a claim to the artistic elite, I was particularly struck by Aldous’ vocal versatility and her ability to shapeshift in a theatrical way from song to song. My eyebrows raised and interest piqued, I went back to this album time and again, and found myself craving a few of her most original songs, “Horizon,” “Living The Classics,” and “Imagining My Man.” A formidable female songwriter blazing some trails under the flag first flung by PJ Harvey, this is a musician and performer I’m keen to keep tabs on.

GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)

This was actually a rediscovery of an album I had forgotten about since a decade ago when I discovered east coast hip hop via the Wu-Tang Clan, N.A.S. and Mobb Deep. This is fine hip-hop as it should be – smart and lyrically nimble like a ninja. Liquid Swords delivers from start to finish, bringing known heavyweights from the wu-arena like Method Man and Ghostface Killah. This album is a spiritlifter, and promises to give more on every listen. It’s a good sunny-day, windows-down kind of album. Just don’t play it around your kids.

Amon Tobin – Bricolage (1997)

Amon Tobin has been in my sphere of influence ever since my high school years when I was educated by my then counterpart on IDM and drum ‘n’ bass. But I was never able to break through on Tobin’s style of music until this year, with this album (and Supermodified). Amon Tobin is someone who is completely immersed in his craft, making it difficult to decipher his influences. His music has attitude. It’s jazzy, punchy, percussive, gymnastic, chaotic, and in your face. He creates, stretches, and manipulates sound to produce an entertaining headphone experience, one in which you often find yourself in a vast jungle of diverse musical alien beasts. There is a power dynamic achieved in many of his tracks that is fascinating. It’s as if a tension is created between reactive elements and played with, lending the music a feeling of danger and bravado.

Burial – Rival Dealer (2014)

I never suspected Burial could deliver something that won a special place in my heart like his two LPs, Untrue and Burial, so since then I have only cast half an ear at his periodic EPs (it’s already been 10 years, wow). Then I found the Street Halo EP, the title track of which is a gorgeous piece of future garage, with a restless 2-step rhythm lovingly buried under texture and vinyl crackle. Then I came across the 13-minute “Come Down To Us” on Rival Dealer. This track is new and different, and contains quite a departure from his style with the use of particularly charged sample at the end. I had big doubts about his decision on that sample, as it makes a defined statement and kills the universality that has always made Burial Burial, but after a couple more listens I couldn’t help but fall in love with this track. It’s impossibly beautiful and evocative. It has two acts that could almost be separate tracks, but somehow I’m happy he left it like it is, a journey that you can get immersed in for awhile, and they don’t disagree with each other. The first act hits me in a way that only Burial could do, and that music has never done for me before, striking a spot within and illuminating a sadness that I forgot was possible to feel. It’s somehow comforting at the same time, like going into the dark and cradling yourself in a cocoon of memories from a time long gone, perhaps a time when love was possible and hoped for. Discovering this track was like coming home. It reminds me why I love music.