2017 was the most tumultuous year in recent memory, and we’re still trying to make sense of it all. One thing we do know: the year produced a lot of great music, much of it related to the hopes and fears of a troubled world. These artists value diversity over similitude, creativity over stagnation, open borders over closed. The very existence of their music is a statement of forward movement. Even as everyone around them seemed to be losing their heads, these artists turned thought and emotion into music, offering reflection, inspiration and encouragement.
We’re extremely grateful for all the music we receive at A Closer Listen. Art is a powerful voice for good, and even wordless music can speak volumes. This year, seven staffers each chose a different favorite album, but when the votes were tallied, a previously unseen connection emerged. Our #1 album makes a strong case for empathy across beings and borders. Our #2 album speaks to the importance of positive socio-political action. Our #3 album is a statement of strength from a powerful new female artist. Each of these reflects a major global movement.
We’re very proud of this year’s choices, and hope that you enjoy our chart. Thank you to all of our labels, artists and readers for your love and support. And now, A Closer Listen presents The Top 20 Albums of 2017!
1) Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano ~ Everything (Erased Tapes)
Who says you can’t have it all? Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano delivered Everything, and we have voted it the winner. In 2016, 65daysofstatic scored a game of immense technical ambition, in No Man’s Sky – a bewildering synthesis of artistry and mathematics. 2017 offered something of similar scope: a game that allows players to control everything in it, from molecules to galaxies. Surpassing three hours, its soundtrack of ambient, electronic and orchestral elements is a wonderful achievement of its own. With an organic flow that belies somewhat modular composition, Boysen and Plano succeed in honouring the game’s spirit of interconnectedness. By being able to control any object they come across, players of the game unite separate entities through a singular consciousness. Likewise, the OST’s 43 tracks are connected by musical strands that acknowledge predecessors and introduce successors. Layered orchestral sections with choral embellishments become desolate digital soundscapes with disarming noises; glacial tempos crystallised by cold ivories recur, but occasional percussion imbues a scurrying urgency; warm, soothing timbres dominate, but unease creeps in throughout. Everything is a meditation on perception, and with humanity so riven by problems of our own construction, its celebration of natural unity is the perfect tonic to close out the year. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
2) Esmerine ~ Mechanics of Dominion (Constellation)
The argument about whether or not instrumental music can be political was ended many moons ago (swift recap: yes, it can) but there is a more salient point: the music must engage its audience in order to have any influence at all. Equally, though, it is possible to be subtle about the engagement. You could listen to Mechanics of Dominion without any context and still find it a remarkable, albeit melancholic, piece of work; delicately introspective piano and percussion, melodies that slowly reveal themselves giving way to the occasional explosion of guitar and drums. There’s no obvious over-arching concept drawing the whole work together, which has been a feature of some previous Esmerine albums. But then dig a little deeper below the post-rock chamber ensemble sound and it’s possible to detect the argument being made, whether it is in the use of non-Western tuning or the track titles which embrace many languages: everyone is welcome here. (Jeremy Bye)
3) Pan Daijing ~ Lack 惊蛰 (PAN)
Intended as an operatic work, Lack 惊蛰 focuses on the interpenetration between the mechanical and the human, in which the usual presence indicated by a singer’s voice is here denoting dissolution, the limit of the human as the voice is crossed and surrounded by harsh electronic effects. “I ended up doing things that made me feel that part of me and part of this object I’ve been playing every day for two weeks have joined together”, the artist said in an interview, summarizing the double penetration in which object becomes subject and vice versa, noise as vocals announcing the absence of the mechanical in the same way that vocals as noise announces the absence of the human. Thus, the disappearance of the voice articulates it simultaneously as presence, decentering humanity and its fixation with being from the process of becoming, the walls of noise, the groans and grunts signaling the ongoing destruction, the nothing that allows us to conceive of ourselves as something. This is a deep, exploratory album the like of which you’ve probably never heard before, easily making it into one of this year’s best. (David Murrieta)
4) Max Richter ~ Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (Deutsche Grammophon)
It’s some fifteen years since Max Richter debuted with Memoryhouse and over that time his style seems to have continually evolved and expanded. So, it seems, has his workload; the last two years alone have seen him compose for at least ten movies or TV shows, as well as for the ballet which provides the origin for Three Worlds, a triptych which seems to encapsulate Richter’s development as a composer and arranger. The first part (Mrs Dalloway) opens with the only known recording of Virginia Woolf and is closest to his earlier compositions for chamber ensemble. Then Orlando expands the scope considerably utilising both synths and the full power of an orchestra. It is, however, the final part – the side-long “Tuesday” (from The Waves) – that transcends what has gone before. Woolf’s words are featured again, only this time it’s her suicide note (read by Gillian Anderson) that sets the scene for a heartbreaking, devastating composition. We wondered if Richter’s defining work would be Sleep; this is evidence that he’s heading towards greater things. (Jeremy Bye)
5) Bonobo ~ Migration (Ninja Tune)
Simon Green’s sixth album as Bonobo is not a cannonball into the center of the scene as much as a voyage along the rim of the heart. If Migration appears ready-made, know that that’s its greatest strength—an electronic producer mature in craft, Green is slurping up more than mere duck soup. Uprooted by a death in the family, Migration was largely composed on the road where Green observed the blurring of selfhood and sound. Incorporating field recordings—an airport elevator, a tumble dryer, rain—with human voices—balancing samples from RnB vocalist Brandy with features from deep disco phenom Nick Murphy—the idea of home resembles a global welcome mat without borders. Kicking up dust alongside sleek beats, the instruments are equally varied: horns, piano, bongos, and bright-eyed harp all color elastic bass lines. True to its title, Migration wanders emotions freely, encompassing joy and melancholy, with a sound both large and lush, yet comfy at first listen. (Todd B. Gruel)
6) Throwing Snow ~ Embers (Houndstooth)
Everything has a place, and yet, everything is constantly changing. Embers captures this utterly commonplace but still contradictory perception of the world, in which the repetition of the cycles of nature has a parallel development with that inherent to most electronic music today. Beats are a constant affirmation of continuity, but instead of leading to grand climaxes (that bodily adjustment to the same) they flow into various electronic sounds that grow and decay with an amazingly detailed care towards form, leading to subtle, meditative abstractions (a mental adjustment to the unique). Like watching a sunset or a sunrise, this music parts from the basis of the simultaneous existence of the same and the unique in any and all things: they happen every single day and will be there even when we are no longer, and yet, they are always awe-inspiring, always somehow different. Meant to be played on a loop, Embers never fails to highlight something wonderful in something normally taken for granted when listening to the genre, and the attention to detail, to every little sound and variation, is astounding. (David Murrieta)
7) Zu ~ Jhator (House of Mythology)
Italian trio Zu have now ventured far from Western comforts and material impulses. Across two pieces each surpassing 20 minutes, they seek passage to the realm of spirits through a Tibetan funeral ceremony of sky burial, and reflect on the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Like a soul upon a mountaintop freed, the sounds of Jhator transcend conventional confines; genres evaporate as we ascend through hurdy-gurdy-led dirge, throat singing, electronic-tinged ambience, acoustic reflection, and eruptions of cacophonous synth and drums. Zu may be looking skyward, but a ceremonial solemnity drapes over much of the record – whether a trudging drumkit or solitary koto is leading the procession. Only in its sublime final minutes does its earthly weight dissipate, as ethereal female vocals offer a coda of possible salvation. Jhator charts a collision between its celestial subject and cavernous sonics, evoking a trancelike state of mindfulness and, in time, transcendence. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
8) Rafael Anton Irisarri ~ The Shameless Years (Umor Rex)
It’s said that facing death tends to focus the mind, and several recent brushes with mortality seem to have had that effect on Rafael Anton Irisarri who made The Shameless Years in a comparatively short space of time, inspired by events initially in his personal life and then – to a greater extent – the wider world. The result is a staggeringly powerful album that for its first half is drenched in drone but full of epic, searching chords, that capture soaring visions and offer understated poignancy. The remaining two tracks were made in collaboration with Iranian musician Siavash Amini, and are consciously more mournful and desolate. At a time when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling manifests itself in overt racism and hate-crimes, this partnership carries weight. Creating music to counter these divides shouldn’t be necessary in 2017 but sadly it is; even as society fractures along lines we thought had been healed, contained within The Shameless Years is a flicker of hope. (Jeremy Bye)
9) The Fun Years ~ Heroes of the Second Story Walk-up (Spring Break Tapes)
Heroes Of The Second Story Walk-Up started the year off right. The evolving textures, swirling melodies and coalescing electronics were joined by crunchy chords – even going as far as rocking out the final five minutes of the album. It was an effervescent album fizzling with a bright hope. Nothing could take this down. The rest of the year might not have gone so well, but at least Ben Recht and Isaac Sparks injected some fun, and we’re still coasting on the memories. (James Catchpole)
10) Jessica Moss ~ Pools of Light (Constellation)
It’s rare for a debut album to come from an artist with two decades of work behind her, and Jessica Moss’ back catalogue both does and does not prepare us for Pools of Light. Jessica Moss’ long history with Silver Mt. Zion (and Black Ox Orkestar, and Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista, and numerous credits with Vic Chesnutt, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Sarah Davachi, Zu and many others) means we are familiar with her style of signal-processed violin and vocals. But Pools of Light lets her singular voice as a composer reach full form. Since Silver Mt. Zion’s 2014 hiatus, Moss has made numerous critically acclaimed performances and released a cassette, but Pools of Light exceeds those expectations in the grandness and intensity of its scope, with the mixture of joy and melancholy that seems to be Montreal’s most precious natural resource. As on the cassette, Moss seems to be thinking compositionally in terms of sides. Pools of Light consists of two four-part suites. While “Entire Populations” can be challenging and dissonant, at times abrasive and utterly devastating in its implications, the deep slow drones of “Glaciers” melt into one of the most haunting compositions of the year. (Joseph Sannicandro)
11) Páll Ragnar Pálsson ~ Nostalgia (Smekkleysa)
Páll Ragnar Pálsson is one of the year’s greatest discoveries, his music both intellectual and visceral, so complex that each subsequent play reveals deeper layers. The passion stems from his Icelandic heritage, the sophistication from his Estonian experience. On his debut album, he melts opposing forces together like lava. Like Penderecki, he tames tension and dissonance, bringing them to heel. When the set is over, the listener feels worn out yet privileged, like one who has just experienced a touch of the divine. (Richard Allen)
12) Joydah ~ Jouissance (Self-Released)
Those avoiding sugar plums this winter will enjoy a quick pick-me up with Jouissance. Truth be told, we don’t know much about the mysterious entity from Newport, Wales; whoever or whatever Joydah is—vegetable, mineral, animal (male or female)—your guess is good as ours. What we do know is that Joydah produces electronic music light as snowflakes and brighter than tinsel, mesmerizing with a latticework of samples. Hi-hats skitter beside chest-thumping kick drums while vocals float with keyboards through deep space. Though the French define ‘jouissance’ as a staggering pleasure exceeding cultural norms, Jouissance moves beyond consumer-spectator paradigms, beyond Lacanian mirror theory, beyond Barthes’ postmodernism, offering a sensory overload with blissful beats as sonic ritual. Since this sugar-free wallop is now available for free download, join us in singing “joy to the world, Joydah has come.” (Todd B. Gruel)
13) JASSS ~ Weightless (iDEAL)
When the Moroccan-like percussions introduce Weightless, there’s an immediate sense of warmth that is all too soon demolished and re-purposed by harsh electronic sounds and muffled vocal samples. The serenity of organic communality gives way to the serenity of post-industrial ruins in a beat, marking the album’s overall tone as shredding, of life forms mangled and supplemented with something jagged, noisy, and yet no less enjoyable. This is what sets JASSS’ work apart from most other music this year – this is not an onslaught of modern oppressiveness, nor does it find a certain pleasure in it: this grind contains no idealized organicity at heart, but sees in it all the elements of fragmentary futurism already present and awaiting to be activated. While most industrial albums are cold and isolating, Weightless finds modernity to be no burden of metal and smoke, but to have melted into air as something present even in tradition, the heat of coming together originating not in the fire circle of the natural state but in the thick smoke of a burning tire, around which all the specters of the past now gather. (David Murrieta)
14) Félicia Atkinson ~ Hand in Hand (Shelter Press)
One is often tempted to read into a book (or record, in this case) based on its cover. We’re told not to engage in such prejudice, however when its author is also a visual artist who has designed the cover it’s hard not to find formal analogies. Hand in Hand‘s cover is minimal, the white background framing a photograph whose edges nearly fade into its surroundings. An abstract solid green shape is imposed over the image framing a body in Dolphin pose, recalling the letter A. This most clearly recalls the multiple valences of the letter A in the feminist hymn “A House A Dance A Poem,” but it is also a fitting representation of the melange of the album, as the inorganic is never far from some sort of embodied experience. Co-curator of Shelter Press—which has established itself as a force to reckoned with, quietly releasing records (and books) from Bellows, Gabriel Saloman, Tomoko Sauvage, D/P/I, and many others—Atkinson’s solo work has continued to evolve alongside the growth of her label. Hand in Hand is an intricate assemblage of parts combing rich bass, unplaceable field-recordings, and estranged synthesizers all tied together by Atkinson’s vocal technique, often building into whispered layers more disquieting than the ASMR youtube crowd is accustomed to. (In this one might recall Holly Herndon’s Platform.) Space and volume are each carefully manipulated to alter the listener’s experience, and Hand is Hand achieves the rare distinction of fusing experimentation and formal structure into a deeply satisfying whole. (Joseph Sannicandro)
15) Jilk ~ Joy in the End (Project Mooncircle)
Starting with “The End of Joy” but ending triumphantly with “Joy In The End”, Jilk return with a more fleshed-out line-up and a message of hope to soothe troubled hearts. But to reach the light we must travel through darkness, and in the nine tracks between the extremities do Jilk display songwriting palpably matured from 2016’s In Need of Tess EP. The whimsical and abrupt genre skipping during Jonathan Worsley’s solo reign is diminished by the band in favour of a more focused entwining of Jilk’s folktronic and orchestral DNA strands. The result is a singular meeting of intricate and glitchy rhythms full of positive energy with ambient horn and synth passages that paint more-sombre landscapes. The usual scattering of vocals across the set has mixed results, but the shorter and subtler refrains succeed in further massaging the heart during this surprisingly touching journey. And, when it ends, a whisper from early in the set drifts through the mind: Everything’s going to be okay. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
16) haruka nakamura PIANO ENSEMBLE ~ Hikari (Kitchen)
I’ve played this album night after night as fall has turned to winter, the shadows lengthening, the candles burning down. Suffused with a great internal light, the music provides the warmth. These compositions have been played in concert for years, yet these are the final performances from the current ensemble, moments locked in time yet glowing for all eternity. One can hear the pride of the performers to have been part of something so special, along with a feeling of great joy. These are the definitive versions of Nakamura’s greatest compositions. The CD box set feels like a gift, the cover gilded with the same gold we hear in the music. (Richard Allen)
17) James Murray ~ Heavenly Waters (Slowcraft Records)
James Murray continued to go from strength to strength in 2017. Heavenly Waters was an ambient masterclass. Its soft whispers and sweet tones brought the mysteries of deep space a little closer to home; the very starlight etched in inky textures and shining in a blackened pool of cool tones. Subtle, slow, and lovingly designed, Heavenly Waters was ambient perfection. (James Catchpole)
18) Yann Novak ~ Surroundings (LINE)
Since relaunching Dragon’s Eye Recordings a few years ago, his label has amassed a catalogue of essential releases from the likes of Geneva Skeen, Robert Curgenven, steve roden, and Pinkcourtseyphone. Novak’s own work sits easily alongside them, as he continues to impress with one impeccable release after the next. A stereo mix of a site-specific sound performance in the tower of the de Young museum (and thus a perfect fit for the LINE label), the location is therefore a crucial element of the work. The de Young is situated within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and as much as the city has changed in the last decade, the museum’s Hamon Observation Tower is still the best place to view it. (And it’s free to enter the tower even without museum admission!) So, being as the tower offers my favorite view of one of my favorite cities, surrounded by one of the greatest public parks in the world, I may have been especially primed to appreciate the charms of Surroundings. It’s not hard to hear in Surroundings the image of Herzog & de Meuron’s museum amidst the green grounds of the park, a panoramic view of the shining city between the Bay and the Pacific. But one need not have such a relationship to appreciate the gently resonating drones and quiet rumble of field-recordings that comprises Surroundings. (Joseph Sannicandro)
19) Hannu Karjalainen ~ A Handful Of Dust Is A Desert (Karaoke Kalk)
A Handful Of Dust Is A Desert was as clear as a tropical sea (something totally in the wrong direction – the warmer south instead of Finland’s Northern Hemisphere), its beauty unfolding with every sweet note. Uplifting ambient music? Check. But it also had a very real emotional edge, its dream-like and pristine textures flowing like a clear river within its so-called desert, wavering like a thin mirage. The reverb-laced notes trickled on and on, well-watered and entirely serene. It was like a long sigh after a hard slog. (James Catchpole)
20) Constantine ~ Hades (Bedouin Records)
Simultaneously captivating and repelling, the cover artwork of Hades reveals its two concerns: depth and facelessness. Inspired while on the Greek island of Lesbos, Constantine Skourlis descended into a network of caves and recorded a storm that raged over his head. Cavernous stage set, he went on to produce four drone tracks incorporating strings, piano, electronics, vocals and percussion – and of course nature at her tempestuous finest. The record is of awe-inspiring immensity, borne not so much of its sonics – which tend toward dark ambient in many places – but of the atmosphere so patiently crafted. The Greek gods of “Hades” and “Erebus” guard the entrance and exit of Hades, and as we drift down the river Styx in between, we bear witness to the realities of modern-day humanity: “Divide” and “Emptiness” – the latter providing the record’s cave-crumbling crescendo. That Lesbos became, a year after recording, the gateway into Europe for the refugees fleeing Syria adds tragic poignancy, imbuing Hades with a felicitous context both poetical and historical. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Some wonderful albums on this list- great sounds for a weird year. But how does one get hold of a copy of Páll Ragnar Pálsson ~ Nostalgia? Google doesn’t seem to acknowledge its existence….
Thanks Nigel ~ you might try contacting the artist via his website http://pallragnarpalsson.com as the label’s site has not been updated for a while. You’re right, it’s this year’s Holy Grail (although not quite as hard to procure!).
Pingback: Jouissance on ACL’s top 20 albums of 2017 | Joydah
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I just need to take out more school loans to pay for these releases.
Tell me about it!