First Half Highlights: The Top 20

We got a little jealous when Norman Records posted its Mid-Year Review last week, so we decided to poll our our own staff.  What were their picks of the year to date?  When exactly 20 albums made the list, we knew we had to publish an article.  These are the sets that have been making an impact at ACL this year.  We have yet to see how they will stand up over time, but we suspect we’ll be seeing many again six months down the road.

Ambient
ACL started off strong in 2017, as the very first album we reviewed received a staff nomination.  The Fun YearsHeroes of the Second Story Walkup is the first vinyl release for Spring Break Tapes, and a solid return for the guitar and turntable duo.  Monolyth and Cobalt received some well-deserved accolades as The Dunen Diaries made the list.  Eilean Records was our label of the year in 2016, and this is their landmark 50th release, putting them at the halfway mark.  It’s also the final release under this moniker for label owner Mathias van Eecloo.  Site favorite Okada also received a friendly shout-out, as Floating Away from the World (n5MD) reminded us of James’ description:  “Love sounds like this.”

Drone
More than one reviewer listed And Right Lines Limit and Close All Bodies from Richard Skelton in his guise as The Inward Circles.  A bonus offered with this album was a second digital album available with pre-order; we sure hope you got one!  Constantine‘s Hades (Bedoin) turns out to be an album very much of its time, as it addresses the immigration crisis and draws parallels to Greek mythology, presenting a warning for nations and politicians.  Thanks to Lawrence English, last year’s Just Dead Stars for Dead Eyes from Swiss maestro S S S S received new mastering for a brilliant vinyl edition on Hallow Ground.  And Seldom Family were one of the first and finest acts to honor the Twin Peaks revival, as Audrey & Laura created a shared universe with enough originality to draw us in.

Electronic
Almost everyone praised Throwing Snow‘s amazing Embers (Fabric/Houndstooth), which we knew was a highlight right from the start; in his review, Richard called the continuously mixed CD “the most exciting release of the young year.”  We’re still enjoying it now. But there was still some love left over for Gidge, who revisited last year’s score for Lulin and turned it into the club-friendly mini-album LNLNN (Atomnation).

Experimental
One of the most recent albums to make our mid-year list is Félicia Atkinson‘s Hand in Hand, from Shelter Press. This trailblazer continues to contort her music in new directions, and here she literally follows suit, bending into the letter A for the cover.  Richard can’t get enough of the Acoustic Cameras project, which pairs music with live webcams and is about to reach its 100th episode.  And of all the Anthony Pateras albums to be released so far this year, the “exploratory piano album” Blood Stretched Out (Immediata) was the one to catch our attention.  Just don’t expect to hear it played as dinner music.

Field Recording & Soundscape
Kate Carr
rules this category.  Not only does she run the consistently impressive Flaming Pines label (currently midway into the multiple-release Tiny Portraits series), she’s been honored with numerous accolades on our site over the years, from EPs to albums to a site map that was our overall #2 pick of 2014.  So it’s no surprise that The Story Surrounds Us, a collage of field recording and instruments from The Helen Scarsdale Agency, is our top pick from this genre for the first half of 2017.

Modern Composition
During the first half of 2017, we reviewed more music in this genre than in any other.  But while we love modern composition, our tastes within the genre are as varied as the artists themselves.  How does one decide between the lovely piano of Sophie Hutchings, whose enchanting Yonder (1631/Hobbledehoy) was described as “a companion along a lonely road” and the “pas de deux of color and timbre” found on Christoph Berg and Henning Schmiedt‘s Bei (flau)?  Will we eventually prefer the mountainous grandeur of Iceland Symphony Orchestra‘s Recurrence (Sono Luminus) to the heartbreaking valleys of Max Richter‘s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (Deutsche Grammophon)?  Is there room for a soundtrack from site favorites A Winged Victory for the Sullen, whose music for Iris (Erased Tapes) may have received more attention than the film itself?  Fortunately, we don’t have to decide just yet … but by the end of the year, we will.

Rock and Post-Rock
Finally, some tentative staff agreement as Zu‘s astonishing Jhator (House of Mythology) received multiple nods.  The album is a complete left turn from the band’s last release, so different that it seems like the work of another entity.  Yet Zu it is indeed, sharing its theological and philosophical side while leaving the thrash aside.  But wait ~ don’t count Do Make Say Think out yet.  These veterans have been known to surprise.  Stubborn Persistent Illusions has already won over one reviewer, and may continue to gain strength as the year progresses (Constellation).

What’s next?
Thousands of new instrumental albums have yet to be released this year, and we’ll be sorting through them as we choose hundreds to review.  By the end of June, we had already received 20+ September sets!  But we do think there are a few to keep our ears on, especially Ben Lukas Boysen‘s Everything on Erased Tapes, Pan Daijing‘s electric debut Lack on PAN and the upcoming release roster of Lost Tribe Sound, including William Ryan Fritch, Alder & Ash, The Green Kingdom and From the Mouth of the Sun. Stay tuned for further updates as they come in, and a happy second half of 2017 to all!

Richard Allen

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