2017 Recap

Here is my annual recap: a yearbook, rounding up tracks off 25 of my favorite albums from the last year. If you would like to keep up on future episodes, subscribe to sndlgc podcasts in iTunes or copy this link to subscribe manually.

2017 didn't turn out quite how I expected. It was a surprising year of listening. Many albums I hotly anticipated—St. Vincent, LCD Soundsystem, Deerhoof—struck a tad underwhelming. Their albums were good enough, but each had to contend with a mountain of expectation. Just delivering the goods doesn't rank for this lot anymore, they must scale impossible heights. 

There were a few records that outpaced their expectations. Sacred Paws' Strike a Match, was everything I'd hoped for, after their stunner of a 2015 EP. Alvvays' avoided the sophomore slump by improving the writing, execution and production—all without forsaking their central premise. Shackleton continued his hermetic forays into realms previously inhabited only by the likes of Coil.

Mostly though, my head was turned by artists I'd never heard before. Some of these were new artists—Mourning [a] Blkstar, Zen Mother—and others, like Kink Gong and Sarah Davachi, were new-to-me. Those sent me on feverish quests to catch up on what I'd been missing.

At any given point in the last month a number of these records were in contention as my pick as my favorite record of the year. It ultimately came down to a one that is, given my collective history, blatantly obvious—yet at the same time wholly surprising: Mary Halvorson's foray into John Zorn's world, with Paimon.

I've had a decades-long obsession with John Zorn. His multi-faceted Masada project is not just his most popular, but the one that cracked the code of his music, for me. Mary Halvorson is a much newer obsession. Collecting her work and following her career still feels genuinely exciting. Her groups have appeared in my year-end recaps almost every year since I discovered her music in 2012.

Even still, I found Paimon far more engrossing than imagined. John Zorn has released such a cavalcade of music in the last 20 years (since starting the Tzadik label) it's often overwhelming. Halvorson's entry for the Masada, Book of Angels is the 32nd album in that series—and it's only one of Zorn's many ongoing projects. Yet Paimon transcends it's status as just one more John Zorn record.

Mary Halvorson's touch is different from the players Zorn often taps. She's less bombastic and ecstatic. She's noted for creating a nearly impossible amalgam of diametrically-opposed styles, much like Zorn is, but hers is a more integrated, less juxtaposed sound. Halvorson comes from a different tradition—less associated with Ornette Coleman and European Free Improv and more with Anthony Braxton and the AACM. Paimon feels new by virtue of being a happy meeting of these two sound worlds. The writing is pure Masada, but the feel entirely Halvorson.

2017 has been surprising in ways both good and ill. It was definitely a year that a lot of us took refuge in our respective preoccupations. I certainly did, and here are the fruits of my retreat: 25 songs, charting the vagaries of my listening, organized and edited down for you to share. 

 

Cummi Flu / Raz Ohara: Akasak
Acid Pauli: Ayam
Shackleton & Vengeance Tenfold: Spheric Ghost / Fear the Crown
Kaitlyn Aurelia-Smith: I Will Make Room for You
Soundwalk Collective: Xiao Youmei Corridor
Juana Molina: A00 B01
Kink Gong: Saisir l’Aiguille au Fond de la Mer
The Fall: Second House Now
Thurston Moore: Turn On
Mary Halvorson Quartet: Ruhiel
Nate Wooley: Knknighgh 6
Zen Mother: Strange Mother
The Telescopes: Down on Me
Sarah Davachi: For Organ
Phew: Antenna
NHK yx Koyxen: Intention
RE-TROS: At Mosp Here
Mourning [a] Blkstar: Take Two
Arto Lindsay: Uncrossed
Oto Hiax: Eses Mitre
Alvvays: Hey
Sacred Paws: Empty Body
Kristos Rodzevski: Ladybug
United Waters: Shaped like the Sea
Dans les Arbres: Flourescent

BLD

Acid Pauli, 2017

Electronic music's very nature sounds constructed. It's an assemblage. Real effort must be exerted to make it feel spontaneous. What if one embraces the style's inherent qualities and spends that effort instead on making it's construction more exquisite? On BLD, every sound seems to have a cushion of physical space around it, demarcating it from every other simultaneous event in the mix. You are able to examine every key or snap of percussion in isolation or in context, at will. Instead of attempting to create an illusion of the natural, Acid Pauli has opted instead for hyperreal. He constructs a fully three dimensionsal sonic space, sans a blurry depth of field to imitate the real world.

Light Sleep

Phew, 2017

I've been collecting Phew's discography for years now. Given how long her career has been, there are relatively few records, all of which are difficult to find and harder to afford. (A fact I find shocking in this era of reissue-mania.) Her discography starts in the late-70s with the archetypical post-punk band, Aunt Sally, then quickly veers off to a wide-ranging solo career—crossing paths with members of Can, Einstürzende Nuebauten, and Boredoms while joining forces with Bill Laswell and Otomo Yoshihide. Luckily, Light Sleep is a new release, by a US label, making it far easier for me to attain. (If only I could have been in NYC to catch her rare live appearance commemorating the occasion…)

On Light Sleep, she's completely solo, singing against her own abrasive, minimal electronics. I've not heard an album so thoroughly channel—or so fully appropriate—Suicide's early cage-rattling. The drum machines sound cheap but pulse with such martial relentlessness it never comes off as campy. Atonal blasts of compressed electricity worthy of Pan Sonic puncture the mix, while Phew's vocals are spoken with anxious urgency. The listening isn't easy but still essential.

S/T

Oto Hiax, 2017

Hearing Seefeel's Quique in 1993 was a life-altering experience for me. By the end of of Climactic Phase no.3, my taste in music had changed irrevocably. I've followed Mark Clifford's career closely since then, through various projects, with a clutch of gap years. Of late, not only has Seefeel swung back into action, but Clifford has a new project as well, with Scott Gordon of Loops Haunt, called Oto Hiax (how exactly is that pronounced, again?). Clifford's work of late emphasizes an unmoored textural exploration. Every sound in the mix has a profound depth of detail and an unstable nature. Things dip, wobble or skip without notice. Gordon seems to provide both a rhythmic undertow in the manner of throbbing pulsations and a buried sense of field recordings, giving all these sonic abstractions some structure and a little human heft.

2016 Recap

In which I gather in and present tracks from the 25 best albums I've heard all year—a sort of personal yearbook of listening. If you would like to subscribe to future episodes of sndlgc, copy this link.

Powell featuring Jonny: Jonny
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down: Slash / Burn
Field Music: Don't You Want to Know What's Wrong?
Radian: Blue Noise, Black Lake
Memotone: All Collapsed
Andy Stott: Forgotten
NHK yx Koyxen: 1048
Factory Floor: Dial Me in
Ash Koosha: Fool Moon
Tomutonttu: Studioon Astuu Haavoittunut Ystävä
Grumbling Fur: Perfect Reader
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Arthropoda
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Magneto
Autechre: Spaces How V
Anarchist Republic of Bzzz: Dark Mirrors
Guy Andrews: Spirit Ritual
Tangents: N-Mission
David Bowie: Dollar Days
Fire! Orchestra: Ritual
DKV / The Thing: Cards
Deerhoof: Life Is Suffering
Oren Ambarchi: Hubris
Supersilent: 13.3
Lambchop: JFK
Sarah Louise: Silent in Snow

I'm not going to lie: in many respects, 2016 was an utter shit year. You could look at the uncommonly high death toll of legendary figures or the global rise right-wing nationalism, if you needed proof. Luckily, I found more than enough new music to take some solace (if not retreat) in.

I've compiled here, my own, highly personal mix of favorites. Therein you will find old standbys—artists who have made regular appearances here—as well as some I've only recently discovered.

Normally, I find it hard to pick a single album as my favorite. It's so many apples and oranges. My pick might not necessarily be the record I've listened to the most times, but one that surprised me or changed my perspective. 2016 turned out to be no contest: I was completely obsessed with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's EARS.

That's not to say there weren't other strong contenders: Lambchop turned in an startlingly original album in FLOTUS. The sophomore Anarchist Republic of Bzzz was as angry and confusing as this whole last year was. Oren Ambarchi delivered a masterwork that seemed to square the circle on his wide-ranging career. Factory Floor's 25 was utterly relentless. Fuck, David Bowie's carefully considered farewell was not only deeply moving, but the best, most daring record he'd made in decaades

…and yet, nothing compared to EARS. I knew Aurelia Smith's record would at least make this list before I finished my first listen. I was slack-jawed—not that I'm all too easily impressed. Analog synthesis has been all abuzz in the underground for years now and a wide swath of it is half-hearted, boring bandwagoning. Aurelia Smith's record was lush, vibrant and mysteriously alive.

I was so taken with her record, I saw Aurelia Smith twice this year (which I rarely do). I ceaselessly promoted it to friends. EARS was clearly a defining and landmark moment in drift pop's rise to underground prominence.

This is also the tenth of my yearly Recap mixes. They're always challengingly fun to assemble. They force me to try and make some sort of general sense out of my haphazard aesthetic and ranging interests. So many artists turned in such divergent records, I made nearly seamless connections that seemed unlikely: Nick Cave leading into Autechre? Lambchop chasing Supersilent? C'est impossible!

I hope you'll enjoy my Recap of 2016, maybe more than you did the year itself. Here's to a better year, by hook or by crook.

playing favorites

Since my podcast just crossed the 10-year mark and has stacked up 100 episodes, I thought I would publish a primer, of sorts—bringing together some of the best episodes, so far.

Admittedly, all my picks are latter day missives. My tools and methods evolved as the sndlgc series went on, so the earlier episodes feel more exploratory to me. There's still plenty of nuggets back there, though, if you care to dig. To get at the older episodes—as well as keep up with the continuing adventures—use this feed link to subscribe to the series in the player of your choosing.

no.1, Punks in the Post: End of Service Area
Hands down, this is the best mix I have ever made, in any format. I am well and truly obsessed with the post-punk era, and this is (in my humble opinion) one of the best collections of that music I've ever heard. It's deep, dense and thorough. I set up so so many rules as to how this would come together, but I navigated them all. It felt like ages, fiddling with the edits and levels. It digs deep into songs and bands you may not know yet, but when it turns to the familiar touchstones, it serves up obscure gems that still dazzle. Quite literally, I almost shuttered this podcast after I finished this mix.
(further listening: If I Had Only Known)

no.2, 2013 Recap
My year-end round-ups are fun as hell to make. Since the only theme is what's flipped my lid in the last 12 months, they span the breadth of my interests. I try to instill some semblance of a cohesive narrative from that smorgasbord of sound. This particular year, it flowed like all hell. There are leaps in audio-logic that shouldn't work, but fabulously do (Mary Halvorson into Melt-Banana?). I also just think 2013 ended up being a goddamn banner year for new music—all these songs still thrill me.
(further listening: 2011 Recap)

no.3, Pation Stations 4
This series, since it's inception, has been near and dear to my heart. Released as an annual Memorial Day BBQ mix, it's the soundtrack to the opening salvo of summer. My ideal here is a sort of gentle rocker: good time music that is not slamming or insistent, but never too melancholy or lethargic. This mix always displays a strong vein of 90s indie-rock that belies my age a little. I think of this as the music I put on to hang out with old friends—our shared nostalgia. Plus, there's just something about a track that nails that sweet spot of mellow cool that makes me think music is just supposed to sound like that.
(further listening: Patio Stations 8)

no.4, Oblique Portraits: Andrew Weatherall
This is a veritable techno and electro-pop thesaurus. My original idea was to feature legendary producer, Andrew Weatherall's career solely through his remix work for other artists, The resulting mix is eclectic and wide-ranging—yet entirely cohesive. This includes a slew of rare tracks, with a focus on the master transmorgifying rock bands into mutant-dance hybrids. Along the way, it ends up charting a chronological map through the first 20 years of what we now call electronica.
(further listening: Biscuits for… Dog Days)

no.5, Freeform Freakout
This one is not for the faint-of-heart. It's hard to find a place in the average podcast for my love of full-bore free jazz, so instead, I made an episode of only that. I selected songs that were (at least, at the time) rare or hard-to-find. Additionally, each of the seven tracks is presented in a readers-digest version (the originals ranged from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours). I tried to capture small portions from across the entirety of each song yet still retain a sense you were listening to a a complete work. This meant making more edits for 7 songs than I've done for mixes with 30 tracks or more. The end result is utterly insane.
(further listening: a forthcoming episode, Oblique Portraits: William Parker)

Stateless

Tangents, 2016

Electronics have come a long way since their debut in jazz and rock in the 60s. Every member of Tangents is billed under 'electronics and effects' as well as attributed to more traditional instruments. The first time I heard them, I had no idea it was a band at all, let alone an improvising group. Learning that fact made both more and less sense at the same time. More, because it gave answer to the amorphous and meandering nature of their music. Less, since it seemed so expertly dissected and manipulated, it seemed ridiculous someone did that in real time.

I aka I

Ash Koosha, 2016

As much I love various manifestations of minimalist music, there's something to be said for maximalism as well. On I aka I, Ash Koosha compresses so much sheer sound into every nook and cranny, it feels like you need to tag each passing moment, to come back to it later, unpack and dissect it. A feeling compounded by just how quickly everything flies by you. Most of the songs on aka clock in under 3 minutes, and those seconds are swollen, trying to contain all they're pressed to. Despite how dense it all is, Ash Koosha's music has an aura of whimsy, like the soundtrack to gremlins throwing day-glo colored paint against the walls.  

Chime Hours

Memotone, 2016

Tracking developing subgenres is a thankless task nowadays. By the time anyone like me catches wind of something, it's likely been steeping in its internet micro-community for years already. Even still, it feels like there are (again, finally) pockets of music that even more informed experts are having a hard time pigeonholing (yet).

I've often wondered if we're reaping the eventual payoff of the everything-all-the-time-ness of our streaming and reissue culture. Some have argued there's too much past cluttering up our present. For a while, it seemed like they were right, as artists blithely repurposed their latest discoveries as if we didn't have the same subscriptions they did. Much like the the British Invasion started off as wan English white boys ripping off black, American r-n-b before it became something more, perhaps we needed some time to assimilate all that was being thrown at us—room to adjust to the pace, volume and content. We're starting to see signs of music that confounds our collective, preconceived notions and boundaries.

Memotone might not be blowing things entirely apart, but placing it squarely in any one camp is fool's errand. It takes in multiple electronic trends, from industrial grit to micro-house precision, along the way roping synth-pop, indie rock, found sound and musique concrète. It's most direct inheritance is, perhaps, the post-rock genre of the 90s, but the sum total of that scenes' complex diversity more than any individual artist.

VSDQ Solo Acoustic, vol.12

Sarah Louise, 2016

Dabbling in folk traditions is a risky business. It's hard to add anything to such an established form without breaking it entirely. But, let's say you make an instrumental recording of folk guitar—odds are you'll be compared to John Fahey (and this, 15 years after his death). On her entry to the esteemed VSDQ Solo Acoustic series, Sarah Louise puts much of the cannon she inherited to great use, and (surprisingly) manages attain a unique voice within it. Fittingly, given this is the twelfth volume in the series, she exclusively uses a 12-string guitar. With custom tunings, her playing is at once objectively beautiful… but with slight shadows of dissonance giving it a more melancholy edge. Her phrasing is fluid, lending passages a feeling a lopsided weight and letting repeated bits each breathe with their own life.

Breaker

Closed Circuits, 2016

It's would be hyperbole to compare Breaker by Closed Circuits to Scott Walker, but I think there's little doubt the avant crooner was influential on this affecting album. A modest scope sets it apart from Walker, though. When recording with electronics, sparse accompaniment is an artistic choice. Within it's spare setting, Closed Circuits still draw out arch drama—arguably a formidable feat. Sure, if you remove all filigree, the smallest changes, the slightest gestures gain greater importance, but it all also must bear a greater burden of scrutiny. It takes skill and vision to keep songs (and the album as a whole) from turning monotonous. Each vignette on Breaker is a deftly executed scene, with a distinct voice and setting that succeed in their own settings, but add up to a applause-worthy whole.

Our Spaces

Guy Andrews, 2016

Visceral. Tactile. Coiled. Compressed. Thees are the words that came to mind when I first heard Guy Andrews' Our Spaces. At heart, it's an electronica album—the middle section especially belies this fact—but there are precious few albums I can compare it to. Names you would not expect come up when I try, like Death Blues or Swans. Something brutally beautiful, intricate and yet unfettered.

There's a chemical reaction I'll sometimes have when stumbling on to something that sounds like nothing I've heard before, something that challenges my preconceptions. That peculiar form of endorphin flooded my brain when I heard Our Spaces, from the very first seconds of it.