So, you’d like to know my top albums of 2017? You’ve come to the right place.
I managed to not publish anything to this blog in 2017. That’s an odd achievement that I’m not proud of. The truth is that within the past 12 months I’ve written literally thousands upon thousands of words that I didn’t publish. There are many reasons, but primarily, I lost faith in the idea that my writing was really reaching out to anyone. Why publish something effectively no-one will read? In today’s dissolving world, what use are my words? They’re buried in noise, subsumed in an endless sea of arbitrary distractions.
Okay, so that’s not really a great way to start of a post about my favourite music from 2017. But a little context goes a long way, and on that front it’s worth mentioning that in 2017, podcasts have squeezed music out of my everyday life. And I was catching up on a lot of music from 2016 (ATCQ, RTJ, De La, etc.)
For those reasons, and others, I’ve opted to keep this list to six albums I enjoyed this year. No rankings – although Oxbow would take the top spot for sure. So join me, won’t you?
Oxbow – Thin Black Duke
Ten years after the release of The Narcotic Story, an outstanding album that has only grown in my estimation over the years, the strange beautiful beast named Oxbow stirred once more.
I should mention I’ve got about 3,500 words of an unfinished review/essay regarding this release sitting in my drafts. It’s difficult to explain exactly what Oxbow is to people outside of certain circles. The basics are easy: it’s a band; they play a kind of bluesy noise rock; they’ve been around for 30 odd years. The specifics are harder to impart, hence the thousands of words I’ve poured into failing to get to the core of just one album.
All of this is to say that it is virtually impossible for me to explain to you how important and timely this band and album is to me. This is a labour of love from all involved – the destination of a long and tiring journey, undertaken for no material reward other than the art itself. The odds that this album even exists are absurd, given the huge expense in labour, logistics, and capital involved in its production, set against relatively obscurity and inaccessibility of Oxbow’s entire career. Yet here it is, in the world.
But this isn’t the only reason its very existence is unlikely. The first Oxbow album in 1989, Fuckfest, was intended as a musical suicide note for writer/singer Eugene Robinson. He survived however, the band ploughed forward, by force of will, the burning need to reach out and say something to anyone who might listen. The record necessarily reflects the passage of time, and life. As Robinson writes in the lovingly produced Thin Black Book:
“Almost 30 years later, still not dead, but closer yet to dying still, while it’s comforting to know that I now don’t want to die, it’s appalling that sooner now I must.”
The title obviously references the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s weird mid 70s dalliance with fascism-as-fashion, something that’s inexplicably come back in vogue in puff pieces about Richard Spencer and an assortment of other faux-Nazi jackasses. It is worth noting that the words that drive this album began ten years ago, before his 2016 death, so one shouldn’t read too much into the timing.
The titular Thin Black Duke is drawn fairly broadly in psychopathic terms. He is an intimidating figure, looming over proceedings with a menace and malice and self-centred excess and nihilistic avarice that seems to have risen to influence and power.
Musically, it’s the blues, it’s noise rock, it’s strings and brass moving in and out of dissonance. The vocals are not exactly singing, more psychotic rambling that alternately follows or opposes the underlying musical arrangements. From the punky thrust of “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”, to the bittersweet finality of “The Finished Line”, there isn’t a weak moment on here.
I’m in danger of treading into some of the longer review/essay here so let me cut this short and just say that I love this album more than I love any other album that came out in 2017, and I may never be able to convince anyone else to, so I guess I’ll just have learn to be okay with that.
Ellen Arkbro – For organ and brass
Ellen Arkbro is a young Swedish composer I know almost nothing about, but if you know anything about me, it’s that I am a sucker for “minimalist” music.
The three pieces here, written in the historical meantone temperament, focus on slow-moving harmonic relationships; first between the organ and brass trio on the titular piece, and then just the brass trio for the later two tracks. Each piece has the tempo of slow breathing, derived from the natural characteristics of brass instrument playing.
There is no complex theme development or arrangement here. The interaction between these instruments is deliberate and audible, chords are dictated by the intervals of the chosen temperament, and given life by the physical passage of air and resonance of metal. Chords build tension and resolve in hypnotic cycles. As the organ drops out and the cycles shift, the album begins to feel increasingly intimate, soft, and relaxed.
Many of the chords here are like faint echos of Sigur Rós stripped down to the very foundations. This album is probably not to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy the unadorned sounds of these instruments, and the meditative qualities of slow, drone-based composition, there’s a beauty on offer here.
St. Vincent – Masseduction
Annie Clark’s St. Vincent continues to move forward with a sense of precise purpose and presentation that recalls Björk, David Bowie, David Byrne, among others. There is substance and there is style, and sometimes with St. Vincent those are the same thing.
On Masseduction (not Masseducation) Clark is confronting and laying bare the reality of her life, what lies beneath her public image. She examines what it is to be an object and a person at the same time. Under the artifice, the performative aspects of her life as a pop artist, there is a human being, but ultimately even that is a presentation. Okay so it’s all postmodernism, but there’s a feminist bent.
Imagine, for example, being an acclaimed singer songwriter with five successful solo albums to your name, and being asked the question “so what is it like to be a woman in the music industry?” Naturally you flash back in your mind to the eight-thousand times you were asked that in previous interviews. That’s what probably it’s like. This album is an answer not to that question, but maybe ruminations on the question, “what is it to be St. Vincent?”
The music here is as electronic and poppy as it’s ever been, but the jagged edges of raw-nerve dissonance are still present throughout. Those trademark angular bursts of uniquely crushed, buzzy guitar cut through many of these tracks. There are moments of fragility here, particularly on “Happy Bithday, Johnny”, but overall, it’s a very bright and colourful production, full of irony and self-awareness. It’s an evolution of her 2014 self-titled masterpiece.
In the end, Masseduction doesn’t feel as strong as previous albums with a few uneven songs, but Clark is still a phenomenally strong singer-songwriter, and the highs are still very high. “Los Ageless” has one of the catchiest and strongest choruses in a career full of amazing choruses,
The National – Sleep Well Beast
Everyone’s favourite middle-aged white indie rock band of misery-guts.
It’s still a bit of a mystery to me why I love the National, but on some fundamental level, what they do just appeals to me. While I’m not a handsome guy hanging out in fashionable bars with attractive hipsters, the themes of alienation, self-doubt, and regret do resonate with me. Mostly though it’s the depth and musicality of Aaron Dessner’s incredible arrangements, rivalling the likes of Radiohead and R.E.M.
Sleep Well Beast is a mix of old and new elements, with a lot of tastefully understated electronic elements creeping into the mix alongside the usual lushly produced indie rock sound they’ve been working with for over a decade. There are some more political moments here, like “Walk it Back” which references some bullshit Bush-era adviser and all round sack of shit Karl Rove supposedly said to a reporter.
The album does drag on a little longer than it needs to, and some of these songs feel a little like the band is treading old ground, but it’s worth it for songs like “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Guilty Party”, which marry the electronic and organic elements particularly well. The closing title-track appears to be a weird electronic re-assembly of various parts of the album, which is very different to previous album closers like “Hard to Find”, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” or “Mr. November”. It’s a bold choice that I quite enjoy. And if I’m honest, I do wish more of the album was as experimental as this.
Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions
Toronto’s Do Make Say Think have always stood out among the legions of Canadian “post rock” bands, with their dense arrangements of thundering percussion, overlapping melodic guitar lines, warmth, and infectious energy. Instead of the cold disillusionment of most of their contemporaries, DMST has always leaned towards euphoric celebration, sweet and resolute positivism. On Stubborn Persistent Illusions, even after eight long years away, very little has changed. The chaotic organic squall of keys and guitars, over the breakneck clattering of the dual drumming on opener “War on Torpor” brings you right back.
One highlight is the almost palindromic two-part centrepiece of “Bound”, “and Boundless”. Meanwhile “d=3.57√h (As Far as the Eye Can See)” carries a hazy, wistful, autumnal glow that’s much appreciated.
As always there are plenty of quieter, more reflective moments, woven intricately into the fabric of these pieces. The album is incredibly well paced, and while it’s not particularly surprising, it’s Do Make Say Think’s meandering, thumping, rumbling, embracing, rattling, clattering rock music at its fullest, and I help but love it.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
On the flip side, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are one Canadian post rock’s most dour and apocalyptic groups. Luciferian Towers took a while to wrap myself around. The third release in this second phase of their existence, it does represent a distinct departure from the previous two. It would be easy to plough the same furrow of doom and gloom, especially now. Yet, while it still wallows in the horror of urban decay and the infliction of misery by the structures of power, it seems to lean more towards strident defiance, the promise of hope, and that’s a great surprise for GY!BE.
These tracks all blend together seamlessly, their repeating pained crescendos building towards a series of surprisingly melodic and uplifting climaxes. It wasn’t until I saw the band on this tour in October that the strength of the material here became clear; this album represents something of a counterbalance to the band’s usual mode of operation, something that is again, timely and welcome.
On Luciferian Towers, where there is tension there is release. Where there is encroaching darkness, there is light to push it back. No surrender, but a renewal of hope, and united purpose.
So Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
There were a number of other records I enjoyed this year but didn’t find time to really sink my teeth into. Björk’s Utopia seems so impenetrable and weird that I’ll probably need another year to digest it. So many flutes.
Anyway, here are some of the other 2017 albums I enjoyed to varying degrees that missed the short list, with bandcamp links where appropriate.