18: Terminal — Circle
(krautrock, heavy metal)
The energy of Circle’s riotously camp live shows is tough to represent on a studio album — though it hasn’t stopped them trying. Their latest offering succeeds largely on the strength of the two long, searing tracks with which it opens. The first combines a krautrock groove with some harsh metal vocals. The second is structured around what feels like the platonic ideal of the hard rock riff, the ur-riff. Both — and indeed the remainder of the album — trade unabashedly in heavy metal cliché, but with enough manic energy that it just works.
17: Mountain Moves
(noise pop, art rock)
A lot of what’s on this list is ‘heavy’, usually in more than one sense of the word. But on Mountain Moves, Deerhoof feel light as air. Which isn’t to say bland or samey; the album is full of variety and reaches out in a hundred different experimental directions at once. But it’s tentative. With a new guest musician on almost half the album’s tracks, and three different genre-bending cover songs, Deerhoof flirt noncommittally with countless different musical genres. The appeal of the album resides largely in the inordinate amount of fun they sound like they’re having flitting back and forth.
16: Vision Wallows in Symphonies of Light
— Ingurgitating Oblivion
(technical death metal, jazz)
The last few years have been good for properly weird, unpredictable, borderline-atonal technical death metal. Gorguts, Krallice, and Ulcerate have all released chaotic albums that pushed the genre forward. Now Ingurgitating Oblivion have done the same. The album, from its ‘are they serious?’ track titles to the dense, nauseous sound of its heaviest passages, sounds truly unhinged. Thanks in part to the fantastically tight, rhythmic, jazzy drumming of Lille Gruber, though, the music never feels like mere chaos. On the album’s huge, mind-bending centrepiece, the highlight is not the explosion of metal in the middle but rather the haunted, unsettling build and disintegration before and after the fact.
15: The Barn — Idylls
(hardcore, noise rock)
Idylls appear to own a saxophone now. This is a positive development. The Barn feels like punk taken to its logical extreme, a mess of guitars, drums, sax, and vocals whose unrestrained ranting and screaming reminds me of Girl Band in their wildest moments. Most songs on the album are pretty short, but it ends with an adventurous epic that’s more free jazz than anything, alternating back and forth between an ultra-low, ultra-slow riff, and blasts of overwhelming cosmic noise. Gloriously unhinged.
14: Ex Eye — Ex Eye
It’s a couple of minutes into the second track that I realise Ex Eye represent what I’d always hoped Krallice would end up sounding like. That band’s music never quite lived up to its manic, technical potential for me (I’m probably being unfair to them), but thankfully Colin Stetson’s Ex Eye has filled the void. When you hear ‘jazz metal’, you expect to hear, perhaps, something like King Crimson, and there are certainly shades of that here. But more than anything the album feels fuelled by the driving, relentless rhythm of black metal, and it’s this that makes it so irresistible.
13: Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light
— The Body & Full of Hell (grindcore, sludge metal, noise)
The third album in a row on this list to feature a squealing saxophone is a second collaborative album from extreme metal aficionados The Body and Full of Hell. The thing is difficult to classify; rather than being divided evenly between sludgy doom and frantic grindcore, it throws curveballs at the listener. Bursts of pure noise; industrial tracks that sound almost dance-y until the vocals come in; free improvisation that wouldn’t sound out of place on a jazz record. An immensely entertaining noise odyssey, and proof that this collaboration is more than just a novelty.
12: Thin Black Duke — Oxbow
(noise/art rock, chamber pop)
The sound of this album, a sort of blend of noisy, experimental rock and orchestral flourishes, can’t really be described. You just have to hear it. Vocalist Eugene Robinson’s tortured, off-kilter vocal performance is carried along by music that can flip from tranquillity to chaos in a second, and does so several times on every track. The album doesn’t simply sound like symphonic rock, either. The strings and brass are doing as much to shape the album’s dissonant sound as the guitars. Feels like walking through a field of flowers and occasionally falling into a ravine.
11: DAMN. — Kendrick Lamar
For the most part, DAMN. doesn’t come from the same jazz-infused, experimental place as TPAB. The album feels more like Kendrick’s attempt to prove he can make catchy pop-rap than anything. And, well, he really can. Tracks like the brash ‘HUMBLE.’ and the tender ‘LOVE.’ prove it. But the album also has its trickier, less accessible side. The dark, hypnotic flow and production on ‘LUST.’, the old-school hardcore intensity of the middle section in ‘XXX.’, and the seven-minute odyssey of ‘FEAR.’ are all unmissable. If DAMN. doesn’t match the all-out avant-gardism of Kendrick’s last effort, it certainly proves he’s versatile.
10: Reflections of a Floating World — Elder
(prog/psych rock, doom)
Doom metal doesn’t usually evoke a very vivid colour palette. If they aren’t careful, bands risk feeling monochrome. This isn’t a problem faced by Elder, whose music on Reflections pretty much lives up to its gorgeous album art. This is probably because Elder’s aesthetic owes more to their prog- and psych-rock forebears than to their extreme metal contemporaries. While consistently delivering huge, heavy riffs across songs that almost all cross the ten-minute mark, these guys aren’t afraid to embrace the fun and vibrancy of their genre. The result is one of the most dynamic and joyful listens of the year.
9: World Eater
— Blanck Mass
(noise, EDM, industrial)
The music of Blanck Mass can be hard to define. It’s essentially dance music, but with a predisposition towards noise, intensity, and sheer force. And yet it doesn’t sound messy or chaotic either. In fact the production is downright sparkling. It’s immaculately composed music designed to hypnotise and overwhelm. The tantalising intro track transports you somewhere magical, and then World Eater hits you with wave after wave. Once it has you in its jaws, it’s hard to escape. The only time the album really diverts course is on its penultimate track, the murky but warm ambience of which turns out to be the best moment on the whole thing.
8: TFCF — Liars
(electronica, art rock)
TFCF, composed solely by Angus Andrew after both his bandmates left Liars in the time since their previous effort, is understandably an odd, melancholy affair. It’s undeniably uneven — in fact, for the first three tracks, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it at all. But as the album goes on, it starts to make sense. The gently psychedelic lament of ‘No Help Pamphlet’; the off-kilter pop of ‘No Tree No Branch’ and ‘Cred Woes’ (the latter of which interpolates, for a couple of seconds, what sounds like the riff from ‘My Sharona’, and is accompanied by a really gorgeous music video); the haunting noise dirge of the album’s two closing tracks. It’s not that things become any less bizarre and stilted as TFCF goes on — but something falls into place, and you’re happy to be in Andrew’s strange world again. Hopefully it’s not the last time.
7: Big Fish Theory
— Vince Staples
(hip hop, EDM)
Big Fish Theory finds Vince Staples leaning into playful, energetic EDM-style production quite different from the organic sound of Summertime ’06, but you’d be wrong to assume his restlessly creative songwriting has left with the beats. The variety of styles drawn on here is consistently electronic, but eclectic all the same, ranging from Detroit techno to UK garage to contemporary sounds. It all sounds immaculate, and the unpredictable variety of vocal performances that characterised the last album has survived intact too, giving the whole thing an almost polyphonic feel and making Vince’s verses feel like just one component of a bigger picture.
6: Flower Boy
— Tyler, the Creator
(hip hop, soul)
Tyler has always seemed torn between two impulses: one towards enjoyable but juvenile provocation, and one towards sincerity and emotional openness. It’s reflected, here as elsewhere, in the music, which ricochets between chilled-out acid jazz and gleefully brash hardcore hip-hop. But on Flower Boy, the two sides of the equation feel more in balance than ever before.
Songs like ‘Who Dat Boy’ and ‘I Ain’t Got Time!’ have sharp teeth, while much of the album surrounding them is saturated with the energy of old-school jazz, soul, funk, and R&B. The lyrics on many of these tracks talk very openly about loneliness and social alienation, but the mood of the album is one of dreamy introspection rather than despair. Letting it wash over you feels transformative.
— Moses Sumney
The songs on Aromanticism feel like soul music for a uniquely lonely world. The songs, full of plaintive yearning, are more about wanting to fall in love than actually doing so. The album’s sound reflects this, alternating bare-bones minimalism with rich, jazzy instrumentation in what sometimes sounds like a soulful answer to late-period Radiohead. Every song on Aromanticism offers something new and, aside from a couple of misjudged spoken-word tracks, it’s all pretty achingly beautiful. Sometimes understated, sometimes bombastic, but consistently passionate.
(hip hop, R&B)
Somewhat like Death Grips and Odd Future before them, Brockhampton are one of those hip-hop projects defined by their independence, by the sheer volume of their output (three albums since June!), and by the hyperactive communities that spring up in their wake. Thankfully, it’s not just hot air. The first and best of Brockhampton’s SATURATION trilogy is a treasure trove.
On opener ‘HEAT’, the group rivals Death Grips in the ferocious energy of their various vocal performances and the horror-movie noise assault of the production (and check out that music video). On immediate followups ‘GOLD’ and ‘STAR’, they show their propensity for crafting powerfully catchy and charming hooks. Album closer ‘WASTE’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Frank Ocean album. There’s a lot of performers on this thing, which makes it astonishing that they all sound so comfortably in sync with one another. The best hip-hop album of the year.
3: Mirror Reaper — Bell Witch
Unlike their peers in Sunn O))), Bell Witch keep their brand of incredibly slow, drawn-out doom metal anchored by writing songs, not just soundscapes. Their latest and boldest statement, an album consisting of a single, 80-minute track, is a magnum opus. Unmistakably marked by grief at the untimely death of bandmate Adrian Guerra, the band plumbs the depths of this fraught emotional territory and comes up with something truly astonishing.
The first half of the album leans heavily on relentless, crushingly heavy doomscapes, including a passage containing a powerful posthumous vocal performance from Guerra, using audio recorded before his death. After this emotional setpiece, around 50 minutes in, Mirror Reaper opens up for its incredible second half, an incredibly spacious, slow ballad that forms the record’s emotional core. For me it’s here, in the gorgeous, emotionally devastating landscape created by the guitar, keyboard and vocal melodies, that what’s truly special about Bell Witch can be found.
Highlights: ‘Mirror Reaper’
2: The Dusk in Us — Converge (hardcore, metalcore)
The unbroken chain of great albums Converge have been releasing ever since breakthrough Jane Doe has to end one of these years. 2017 was not that year. The Dusk in Us is not only another incredibly solid record, it might even be their best album to date. It’s also a strikingly varied one. There are scorching metalcore bruisers like ‘I Can Tell You About Pain’ and ‘Broken By Light’, alongside slow-burners like the title track. The latter is no less emotionally intense than the former, building across over seven minutes to a powerful metallic climax.
A couple of wild cards come towards the end. The sinister (and unbelievably catchy) groove of ‘Trigger’ sounds like the band channelling The Jesus Lizard. ‘Thousands of Miles Between Us’ feels akin to the title track, but its conclusion is a different kind of heavy. From here the album transitions into its fantastic closing track, ‘Reptilian’. Opening with a grandiose two minute intro, the song bursts into sludgy, noisy life at the halfway point and crushes it from there until its crushing conclusion. Like the album it concludes, it’s a perfect distillation of everthing they do best.
1: Relatives in Descent
(post-punk, noise/art rock)
Relatives in Descent feels like it captures the mood of modern life better than any other album. It’s an album about living in a corporate world (‘Old billionaire dead, buried in his hair shirt/New face loves surveillance, comic sans’). It’s about the next generation (‘Good luck with the mess I left/You innovators’). It’s about ‘war, and rumours of war’; it’s about obscure visions (‘Looking for meaning in a cloud mass/Sees the face of Joseph Stalin/And is disheartened’); it’s about trying to wring some emotional intimacy out of a call centre employee (‘He tried to sell me on a credit card/I asked about the weather/And whether his life was hard’); it’s about the distant, barely audible truth (‘She is trying to reach you’).
The album’s sound feels perfectly in tune with its lyrics. Frontman Joe Casey is Detroit’s answer to Mark E. Smith, alternating between manic spoken word and outrageously catchy chanted choruses. He’s backed by music rooted heavily in post-punk and noise rock, oddly danceable, adventurous, liable to ricochet from one unpredictable sound to the next, sometimes backed by strings, sometimes bare and harsh and hollow. It’s the perfect backdrop for an album as moody, obscure, yet ultimately affirmative as this one. The album I’ve held closest to my heart this year.