This time last year we were begging for 2016 to hurry up and finish, oblivious to the cesspit round the corner. Luckily we have all these album lists to remind us of the year’s artistic high points, right?
Well kind of, even though 2017 in music will end up being remembered for Despacito, no matter how many mags and sites have DAMN. at No1. I could bang on about the album still being the ultimate artistic mission statement that transcends the rise of streaming, but 99% of these top album lists are compiled by people thumbing through their phones, me included.
This year was fuelled by a steady diet of techno/bleeps, ambient drones, hip-hop, noise and metal, probably in that order…
25. MULTIPLE MAN – New Metal
Multiple Man is two Aussie identical twins whose mechanised EBM sounds like it’s been transported from the 80s on DAT tape, with no contamination from the intervening years. New Metal is in no way a grower – if you’re into jackboot electronic body music from Front 242, Nitzer Ebb or Twitch-era Ministry you’ll get this in two seconds. Ruthlessly efficient robot ructions.
24. ALESSANDRO CORTINI – Avanti
By night, Alessandro Cortni plays live synths for Nine Inch Nails, but when he’s not taking orders from Trent Reznor he makes droney ambient music. His sixth album is called Avanti (Italian for forward), but its emotional heart is in the past.
It’s a fuzzy childhood time capsule inspired by finding a collection of old family Super 8 reels in his grandfather’s house after his funeral. To complement the limitations of the films, Cortini composed the whole album on one portable modular synthesiser – the EMS Synthi AKS, used on 70s albums by Jean-Michel Jarre, Pink Floyd and Klaus Schulze.
The result is an intimate portrait, with voices snatched from dinners and church services, amid melancholy synth swirls that degrade into a tape-like hiss, evoking William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.
23. THE BELBURY CIRCLE – Outward Journeys
While many classic independent labels strive for sonic consistency and auteurism in design, Ghost Box goes one further by creating a parallel world for its artists. This dimension is like a benign version of Scarfolk’s 1970s dystopia – Ghost Box exists in a permanent loop of Tomorrow’s World, analogue TV idents, brutalist council estates and a design aesthetic that’s part Open University, part Ladybird library.
The Belbury Circle is Ghost Box founder Jim Jupp (Belbury Poly) and veteran Ghost Boxer Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle), along with analogue synth pioneer John Foxx on occasional vocals. Outward Journeys is a retrofuturist plunder through soft-focus prog and proto-trance, with Tangerine Dream and the Alan Parsons Project being obvious reference points. And as with all Ghost Box records, the artwork is stunning.
22. DEAD CROSS – Dead Cross
You get zero surprises on Dead Cross’s debut album — a hardcore supergroup of sorts featuring Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas etc), Dave Lombardo (Fantômas, Slayer), Justin Pearson (The Locust, Retox) and Mike Crain (Retox).
Dead Cross has everything in its right place — derailing hardcore and thrash riffs, Lombardo knocking you into next week and Patton’s deranged howl, touching on scathing political commentary and scatalogical revelry. If only it was a bit weirder, given the members’ disregard for convention, but it still constantly hits the bullseye, and all in a half-hour headbutt.
Seizure and Desist
21. Ho99o9 – United States of Horror
Like hearing Death Grips’ first few albums, Ho99o9 is the one band that gave me the most teenage FOMO this year — wishing I was 16 again, getting my head battered in a moshpit.
But while Death Grips have avant-garde performance art pretensions amid the sonic nihilism, MC duo theOGM and Eaddy form a direct assault, from their cut-out zine-style LP sleeve with an infant on a dagger-crucifix, to their frazzled jolt of hip-hop, punk and digital hardcore, all overdriven with everything in the red.
United States of Horror
20. UNIFORM – Wake In Fright
Wake In Fright sounds like Uniform crammed a load of 80s & 90s noise rock and industrial bands into a bottle and smashed it against a wall. Near the end of the album, there’s a sample of a woman saying, “It’s all so horrible, isn’t it?,” as if she’s been locked in a room listening to it all day.
It nods to Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Ministry without the machine-tooled precision, and everything sounds like it’s caked in 20 years worth of oil and rust.
The Killing of America
19. UUUU – S/T
The four U’s are Edvard Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms of Wire, Thighpaulsandra of Coil and Valentina Magaletti of Tomaga, The Oscillation and Raime. Considering their combined CVs of post-punk, psych-rock, dark ambient and avant-garde industrial, S/T goes even further to hammer through rock’s outer limits.
Magaletti’s jazzy off-centre drumming often takes the lead, while around her the others concoct disorienting electronics, abstract lyrics, industrial guitar slabs and epic synth highways. It veers between the volcanic intensity of Swans and sleek krautrock serenity, with some avant-pop detours. Here’s hoping it’s not just a one-off.
18. BRIAN ENO – Reflection
At the start of 2017, Brian Eno came up with his most game-changing Oblique Strategy yet – an ambient album that plays forever. Well, in theory – there’s an app-based companion piece that plays an ever-evolving piece of generative music using the album’s raw materials.
But even the 54-minute single track album sounds like it’s mapping out infinity, as each delicate chime pulses outwards seeking a horizon, as on Eno’s generative apps Bloom and Trope. It’s another essential work from one of modern music’s great conceptualists.
17. FREDDIE GIBBS – You Only Live 2wice
Even for a gangsta rapper whose hood credentials seem legit, Freddie Gibbs has had a fucked up couple of years. He was arrested in 2016 for an alleged rape and spent months in custody in Austria, where he faced a 10-year sentence. The charge was eventually dropped over a lack of evidence, but the ordeal has added a depth and introspection to his fourth LP.
He wrote the whole thing in custody, and he addresses his time inside on the record, with other themes of repentance and rising above his situation – explicitly so on the Renaissance art cover.
While it mightn’t have Madlib’s auteur production that elevated his 2014 album Piñata, it’s another brilliantly curated selection of dense fuggy beats with snatches of psychedelia snaking around Gibbs’ OG hustle flow. At eight tracks it’s short, but it’s one of the finest half hours of hip-hop out there.
16. PHARMAKON – Contact
New York noise artist Margaret Chardiet makes a sort of electronic body horror music that’s oppressive and invasive, but utterly compelling. Her third album is a ruptured collage of contorted shrieks, howls and power electronics, with themes of debasement and catharsis — a human-machine interface that retches all over Kraftwerk’s utilitarian idealism. She says Contact is about “moments when our mind can come outside of and transcend our bodies”, but more succinctly, it just scares the shit out of you.
15. M.E.S.H. – Hesaitix
If there’s a Blade Runner 2079, this album could be the soundtrack. Berlin-based producer M.E.S.H. concocts futurist electronica with an Autechre level of nano-scale precision, each metallic smithereen pinging around in an infinite matrix.
Beatless tracks recall Vladislav Delay’s amniotic ambience, but Hesaitix shares a palette with the shattered grime productions of Elysia Crampton, Logos and Visionist, creating a dystopian score for sci-fi that hasn’t been created yet.
14. PHASE FATALE – Redeemer
This record just sounds like the inside of the Terminator’s head. Phase Fatale, aka New York producer Hayden Payne, makes new wave EBM and industrial, ferric techno that pounds and fizzles with extreme menace.
Fun fact: Dominick Fernow (Vatican Shadow, Prurient) signed Payne for his Hospital Productions after they met for the first time in the McDonald’s at Warsaw Airport, but that probably won’t be much good to you in a pub quiz.
13. PESSIMIST – Pessimist
Producer Kristian Jabs seems to work from the same raw materials as his Blackest Ever Black labelmates Raime – cavernous aural brutalism that evokes a paranoid walk through an abandoned cement factory.
But where Raime carve out nervy, dark ambience, Pessimist crafts a minimalist drum & bass and techno hybrid, heavy on atmospherics and dub dread. The sampled ping pong balls on Spirals may give you a table tennis phobia, by the way.
12. SLEAFORD MODS – English Tapas
The most unlikely feelgood film of the year was the Sleaford Mods doc Bunch of Kunst, which followed the aggro-punk duo from the sticky pub carpets of Midlands England to their triumphant home gig at Nottingham Rock City, Glastonbury and a deal with Rough Trade.
It’s all built on a live show that on the face of it has Jason Williamson ranting like a souped-up Lydon/Cooper Clarke hybrid while Andrew Fearn presses spacebar on a laptop, playing rudimentary post-punk bass/drum loops and drinking from a bag of cans.
Most of the hype around the Mods focuses on their furious bullseye takedowns of a festering Brexit Britain, but Williamson has a true comedic turn of phrase as he rants against lad culture, begrudgery and crushed aspirations: “I had an organic chicken, it was shit.”
11. DAVE CLARKE – The Desecration of Desire
Techno kingpin Dave Clarke has always been a punk at heart – he fashions the ‘A’ in his name into an anarchy symbol, and he rocks the hardcore label SST’s ‘Don’t suck corporate cock’ t-shirt on his Boiler Room mix. His first album in 14 years still kicks like a size 12 army boot, but with low-slung post-punk basslines, goth touches and in the case of Dot Forty One (Mute), a thrilling film noir/hip-hop hybrid.
He’s roped in guest vocalists including Anika, Gazelle Twin, Mt Sims and Louisahhh, whose detachment adds to the coldwave and New Beat vibe. The vocal highlight is grunge OG Mark Lanegan coming on like Tom Waits full of whiskey on Charcoal Eyes (Glass Tears), and in case you think Clarke’s retreating from the dancefloor, Plasmatic bangs with as much techno abandon as The Compass.
10. NOT WAVING – Good Luck
Italian producer Alessio Natalizia hits techno and electro with the same two-fingered punk abandon as his Diagonal label boss Powell. “I really hate dance music and the way it’s made,” he told Exclaim magazine in a recent interview.
The former Walls man makes off-grid bangers that nod to EBM, new beat, glitch and industrial, and Where Are We featuring Marie Davidson is one of the electronic tracks of the year, coming on like an Iron Curtain coldwave manifesto chant.
Walk of Shame
9. GAZELLE TWIN – Kingdom Come
While not as immediately visceral or violent as 2014’s Unflesh, Gazelle Twin’s third album Kingdom Come is another psychologically jarring mission statement.
An extension of her installation for two vocalists performing on treadmills, Kingdom Come is a rusty escalator down to base level electronics. It’s a paranoid mesh of assembly line drones and drilled EBM, with her pitched-down detached vocals gnawing at your nerve endings.
I Consume Only
8. DÄLEK – Endangered Philosophies
New Jersey trio Dälek’s eighth album is another warning flare from hip-hop’s outer limits. Endangered Philosophies follows 2016’s Asphalt For Eden, a further exploration of rap through an avant-garde industrial noise prism.
It’s a disorienting swirl of gravelly sound collages, tightly stacked samples, shoegaze guitar textures and MC Dälek’s worldview, somewhere between fist-up protest and gutted resignation.
7. SPARKS – Hippopotamus
After nearly 50 years, Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael are still prancing all over convention, and gave us one of the most inventive and straight-up joyous records of the year.
While previous albums have been genre exercises, taking in glam, art-rock, synthpop, new wave and minimal composition, their 24th LP Hippopotamus is all of the above, all their best bits crammed into another avant-garde pop triumph.
From absurdist notions (Hippopotamus) to melancholy commentary on ageing (Probably Nothing) and giddy surrealism (Life With the Macbeths), Sparks prove they’ve still got a well full of eccentricity to plunder.
What the Hell is it This Time?
6. GAS – Narkopop
For years I thought Aphex Twin had the most beautifully delicate kick drum sound on Selected Ambient Works 85-92, until I heard the 2000 Gas album Pop and it became my go-to ambient comfort blanket for drifting off, plane trips, reading and general brain enrichment.
Producer Wolfgang Voigt has said the whole Gas project is inspired by his own memory of childhood trips to the Königsforst , near Cologne, and Narkopop evokes the same muscle memory tingle as Pop.
There are some darker shadows between the trees here, with disorienting swells and off-key piano amid the smudgy orchestral drones and hangar levels of reverb. But overall Narkopop feels like a belated and worthy sequel to a real ambient masterpiece.
5. SHABAZZ PALACES: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star / Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines
Shabazz Palaces have always been hip-hop outliers, but this is the year they went full Sun Ra, with a twin concept album about an alien visitor, “a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary”. Using their 2014 masterpiece Lese Majesty as a launching pad, it’s another quest that revels in jazzy abstraction.
Fine Ass Hairdresser
4. GODFLESH – Post Self
20 seconds into Like Rats on their debut album Streetcleaner, Godflesh unleashed the heaviest chord in all of metal, and they’ve been drilling around at that depth since 1989. Post Self is another mechanised industrial horror show that feels like a speed comedown in an iron foundry.
There’s some minor respite as Justin Broaderick actually ‘sings’ on Mirror of Finite Light and the shoegaze dirge of The Cyclic End, but the track Pre Self will panel-beat the fuck out of your insides with pure blunt force trauma.
3. VINCE STAPLES – Big Fish Theory
An instrumental version of Big Fish Theory would still be one of the albums of 2017 — but it just happens to have one of the scene’s most on-point rappers steering things.
Vince calls on club-ready techno and electronica from SOPHIE, Justin Vernon and Jimmy Edgar and skewed future UK garage from relative newcomer Zack Sekoff, for one of the freshest-sounding electronic hip-hop records since Antipop Consortium and Cannibal Ox flipped things up at the turn of the millennium.
It’s missing the self-portrait reportage of his debut Summertime 06, but it’s no less eagle-eyed and vicious, with an giddy array of visual imagery and shrugged takedowns of a rapidly festering USA.
2. FEVER RAY – Plunge
How do you follow up one of the most revered electronic albums of the millennium, after an eight-year wait? Karin Dreijer Andersson avoided all the pressure by announcing Fever Ray’s second LP one afternoon in October, and it was online that night.
Even though it’s not fair to compare, Plunge doesn’t quite have the singular gravitas of her debut, but it’s still an icy electronic master-stroke. If anything, it’s more like her other work as The Knife, with its rotary synths, brittle percussion and Karin’s just-about human howl.
“Hey, remember me? I’ve been busy working like crazy,” she sings on To the Moon and Back. Let’s hope she stays busy.
1. DOPPLEREFFEKT: Cellular Automata
Drexciya and all its offshoots is the most and fetishised underground Detroit electro project of all time, so there’s always a danger you’ll lose all objectivity when a new album arrives. The late James Stinson’s Other People Place LP Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe was maybe the most cherished vinyl reissue of the year on Warp, with its hype overshadowing this new album by his Drexciya co-pilot Gerald Donald.
Dopplereffekt is the most famous alias of the intensely evasive Donald, who has also recorded as Japanese Telecom, Der Zyklus, Arpanet and Heinrich Mueller among others – abstract analogue electro futurism that seems detached from any carbon-based lifeform.
Cellular Automata — another collaboration with longtime Dopplereffekt partner To Nhan Le Thi — transcends the hype and expectation with a visionary work that’s as much about profound world-building as sonic exploration.
Dopplereffekt’s first records — filed on the essential Gigolo Records compilation Gesamkunstwerk — hit analogue electro-pop at oblique angles, playfully fetishising science tropes and taboo topics like eugenics, fascism, porn and mannequin-fucking. The project splintered into austere electronic abstractions on 2003’s Linear Accelerator and 2007’s Calabi Yau Space, highly conceptual works exploring particle physics, string theory, nuclear research and mapping the dimensions of the universe.
The first Dopplereffekt album in a decade once again touches on PhD-level academia, named after discrete models that “approach mathematical growth and decay as an iterative process…” But while its two predecessors often seem as dense as top shelf physics texts, Cellular Automata is immediately gripping, with its synth wisps and melancholy chord progressions evoking tense sci-fi melodrama, like a future A.I. iteration of Vangelis.
It’s largely beatless, while the synth attacks on Von Neumann Probe and Mandelbrot Set have the nervy percussiveness of early Arpanet releases. The whole thing feels like sci-fi without any human intervention, evoking infinite expanse rather than atomic level interactions, and the track Isotropy is as epic as any piece of music in the extended Drexciya universe.
And I know you’re not supposed to read the comments, but one disciple on Discogs sums up Dopplereffekt better than me: “This is science, not techno.” With Dopplereffekt, you never want to solve the equation.