Tape Loop Orchestra, Held Against The Light (Tape Loop Orchestra)
This stunning, long flowing piece is nearly as good as last year's "The Invisibles", which placed at #3 on my list last year. So why did it barely miss the list this year? Like Tim Hecker, TLO has hit on a formula that is so magical, it almost can't not be good. And yet somehow this felt like more of a continuation of "The Invisibles" rather than a new stand-alone album. But of course it is a stand-alone album, and so are the other six or so albums and EP's released by Andrew Hargreaves in 2017. Basically there are no fixed rules here. Other artists needed their turn this year.
Godspeed You Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
Another long flowing piece, and you almost have to wonder why it took them so long to dedicate an entire album to the concept. It might be the most grandiose statement they've ever committed to record, especially since the magnificent "Motherfucker=redeemer" seems to be have written out of GYBE history at least as far as live shows go (although it's certainly possible that they don't have the time or patience to play it anymore). But I couldn't get around the idea of this album as a retread of past glories, of GYBE churning through the hits out of habit, as if they're making music these days born out of some obligation to stay relevant politically, rather than due to inspiration or passion for being in the music business. I find myself thinking these things while listening to the album, even as I marvel at how outstanding it is. It doesn't make sense. Especially since the top ten is full of artists doing other forms of retreads of their past work.
10. Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Diaries and Documents 2006-2010 (Adversary Electronics)
Compilations of recordings from a band's early days often turn out to be curiosities for superfans only. But this one is different. A sense of calming strangeness seeps through each phase of these minimalist experiments, it's soothing and unnerving in equal parts.
9. Radio Slave, Feel The Same (REKIDS)
Radio Slave's music is best enjoyed in the 12" single format, where he's been hypnotizing listeners with ten minute techno epics and remixes for well over a decade. In the album format (Radio Slave's first in nine years) he can branch out a bit and experiment with ambient bits and quirky electronica that's not necessarily material made for the dance floor. Some listeners may prefer the "classic" sound of "Trans" and "Axis" but I personally enjoyed the odd, exotic feel of "101" and "Gaikokujin" more.
8. Conforce, Autonomous (Delsin)
Conforce consistently finds a way to delicately straddle the boundaries of retro and modern sounds, borrowing liberally from early 90's AI-era Warp Records electronica and 21st century watery dub techno.
7. New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works)
Has any band ever done so much with so little? So many great indie pop songs, so little variation? Adding a dose of Stereolab's motorik swagger is what passes for innovation on this album, but make no mistake, it's classic New Pornographers through and through and there's been nothing wrong with that going on seventeen years.
6. Daniel Menche, Sleeper (SIGE)
The title suggests an album of gently pulsating drones for drifting off to sleep. That description more accurately describes the follow-up (companion?) album "Slumber". But "Sleeper" is twelve tracks of grinding drones cycling through different degrees of savagery over a mammoth three hour run time. Although not as caustic as some of Menche's other works, it's an effective medicine for those who insist on total sound immersion for relaxation.
5. The National, Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
When I was 15, The Rolling Stones and The Who had reunited with a lot of fanfare and hit the road for wildly successful tours. They're the first bands that come to mind when I think about "old" classic rock bands maintaining their relevance for a new audience from an altogether different generation. The scary thing is that the members of the National (technically just frontman Matt Berninger but the other members aren't too far behind) are about the same age as the Who and Stones were then. Doesn't that make you feel damn old?
But The Who and the Stones never really got old, musically speaking. Their successes, especially as license-to-print-money touring outfits, was based on the ability to get away with playing the same songs they played when they were younger. The National are a different sort that I think is more specific to bands grew up in the last century but have remained active throughout the current century. They're old, and they make it cool to be old. They're not like the Bob Dylans and Nick Caves who are extraordinary figures turned elder statesmen, who earned their status in their early days and continued to add to their legacy for a long time afterward. The National are ordinary people who make songs about ordinary things that only fortysomething married people care about. But they sound cool doing it. There are plenty of precursors to this -- I compare The National to Tindersticks all the time, and Yo La Tengo circa "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out" is another good example (those bands were much younger than The National are right now, but always sounded much older than they were). For The National, the more they try to not fit in, the more popular they get.
4. Carl Craig, Versus (Infine, Planet E)
No techno + orchestral music hybrid has ever lived up to its billing (with the exception of a track from this EP). Until now. Carl Craig spent years meticulously mixing and editing this album, not settling for anything less than a complete reimagination of many of his most famous tracks. Every earlier effort (even by greats like Jeff Mills) seems like techno with cheap strings patches clumsily laid on top.
3. Clark, Death Peak (Warp)
Clark is a Warp act through and through -- there's no better example of an artist who grew up listening to the "Artificial Intelligence" compilations and went on to make his own music inspired by the label. For me he'll always be "mid-90's Autechre with prettier melodies", which is a formula that slays when it works, and is as hopelessly derivative as it sounds when it doesn't. If you insist on your favourite music carrying some contemporary significance, this was the only album of 2017 that captured the "chaos and uncertainty of the times" for me.
2. Slowdive, Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
Slowdive's self-titled effort stands apart as the best the all the comeback albums by first wave shoegaze acts. Some may vote for 2011's "mbv", and there's a strong point to be made there, but even it's biggest boosters won't claim it as an equal to MBV's best work. "Slowdive" comes closest to reaching their peak while still sounding modern and somehow not completely ignoring the twenty years of alt-country music they've been making since their original breakup. One could quibble about details but this is essentially the best case scenario for a Slowdive reunion album.
1. The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time - Stage 2 (History Always Favours the Winners)
The Caretaker's terrifying six part journey into the chaotic hell of dementia started fully taking hold on this, the second album in the series. The third album (also released in 2017) made a brief left turn, cycling through lost memories at double the frequency, alternating between perfect clarity and sluggish confusion. The second album was even better, with a gloomy outlook throughout and a constant sense of something being terribly wrong and you're never entirely sure what it is. The memories are all there, but only 80% intact, and they don't always piece themselves together fluidly. It's one of the most challenging albums to I've ever had the pleasure to listen to, the uneasy sonic foretelling of a future too difficult to contemplate.