Our annual review of the best albums of the year – from ambient drones to angular guitars, here are the records we kept coming back to in 2017.
15. Hidden Orchestra – Dawn Chorus
Kicking off with the field recording album of the year. Dawn Chorus, as you might guess from the title, integrates field recordings of birdsong so tightly and impressively into the rest of the music that they are genuinely like another instrument in the mix. Beautifully executed and full of life.
14. Throwing Snow – Embers
I almost missed that this was a 2017 release, since it sneaked out into the world in the middle of January, but here it is – this year’s defining moment of Jon Hopkins-style rich, dense electronica, loping grooves and off-kilter arpeggios.
13. Saltland – A Common Truth
Cello loops, a musical treatise on the evils of climate change and a bonus appearance by Warren Ellis? What’s not to love? Constellation have had an incredible year, with two records on this list as well as excellent offerings from Godspeed! and Esmerine to boot. This particular gem sounds like mourning the slow death of a splitting glacier, only in a good way.
12. Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049
There was only one thing more impressive than how Blade Runner 2049 looked, and that was how incredible it sounded. The synths were utterly enveloping, both recalling the retro-futurism of the original Vangelis soundtrack, but absolutely cutting-edge at the same time. To listen to the soundtrack is to immerse yourself in the world of that movie anew.
11. Forest Swords – Compassion
I didn’t see this album getting enough praise this year, but it’s a cracking follow-up by Forest Swords, who’s really developed a distinctive voice, blending in cut-up voices, unusual instrumentation and idiosyncratic composition to create something akin to the Gang Gang Dance of electronica. Sounds like it should be soundtracking something by Guillermo del Toro.
10. Gas – Narkopop
The title says it all – the ultimate distillation of Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project, burying contemplative techno under a thick fog of filters and reverb to create a 70-minute hypnotic swoon of an album. It’s the kind of music that’s ostensibly very simple, but reveals new layers and details every time you listen to it – masterful stuff.
9. Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse
I came back to this over and over again throughout the year for its enlivening blend of organ- and trumpet-led jazz with Arabian/north African vibes and structures. It’s excellent from start to finish, and with a nod to Yazz’s work recording with Radiohead, even includes a great take on “Bloom”.
8. Snow Palms – Origin and Echo
An album of mallet- and percussion-based music you say? What fun. Snow Palms have extended their palette to include beds of analogue synths and a fuller backing all round, but the core of what they do is based on mesmerising Reichian mallet polyrhythms. It’s a real leap forward from Intervals, and as a bonus I’ve absolutely hammered it at work as it raises your productivity levels by 300% to whack this on over headphones. The secret of concentration is in here somewhere.
7. Grails – Chalice Hymnal
Grails came back, and they almost topped Deep Politics! This album seems to recognise Deep Politics as their finest work and looks to it for inspiration, even naming two tracks “Deeper Politics” and “Deep Snow II”, obvious companion pieces to that record. Wonderful stuff as ever, blending Western soundtracks, post-rock, 80s synths and even a bit of what is awkwardly referred to these days as modern composition. Still sounding like no one else.
6. Peter Silberman – Impermanence
In which Antlers frontman deals with a severe hearing condition that precludes him from doing anything further with that band (at least for now) by producing a wonderful, understated solo record. A welcome return for subtlety and delicacy, and these gossamer frameworks suit his tender songwriting down to the ground. “New York”, dealing with what it’s like to hear the city anew under such circumstances, is a beautiful highlight.
5. Bing and Ruth – No Home of the Mind
This would be higher up the list if it hadn’t been out-lovelied by Hammock’s amazing album, but No Home of the Mind is still outstanding. More contemplative and stripped-back than City Lake, it’s swooningly lovely, all hazy pianos and pulsing undercurrents of ambience. And thanks to having a member of the band entirely dedicated to tape reverb, they also win the Best Use of Reverb 2017 award (which was more tightly contested than you might think).
4. James Holden and the Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
Shamanic electronica from James Holden and the Animal Spirits, which somehow manages to combine improvisation, meditation and free-form exploration without descending into a load of old rubbish. Instead, it’s an incredibly coherent but at the same time exploratory combination of electronics, psychedelia, kosmische and jazz. A sort of halfway house between electronic-jazz hybrids of The Comet Is Coming or blended with the freeform electronics of Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid. Sun Ra meets Four Tet? Cosmic stuff.
3. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions
More bands should do this – disappear for eight years and then return with an absolutely defining statement. DMST always had a richer palette at their disposal than most other post-rock bands, but what they’ve created here is incredible in that it manages to take instrumental guitar music somewhere new, at the same time as sounding familiar from the first note – in the best way possible, as if this album has somehow always been in your head, and you were just waiting for it to be released. A quietly extraordinary record that I’ve found myself coming back to time and again this year. Just listen to the siren synth stabs, double drumming and guitar interplay of “And Boundless” and you’re hearing a band absolutely at the top of their game.
2. Hammock – Mysterium
Hammock have been threatening to deliver something of exquisite beauty for years, but never quite got there – they’ve had some brilliant moments, sure, but too often interspersed with some less remarkable drone and ambient over the course of an album. But with Mysterium, they’ve finally completed some kind of Faustian pact, delivering an album that strides unfalteringly across the lines of ambient electronica and modern composition, bringing in strings and choirs without bombast or ostentation. This is really, really beautiful.
1. Schnellertollermeier – Rights
This is just an unbelievable album – minimalism meets complexity, no-wave abrasiveness meets jerky Battles-style grooves. It’s a gun loaded with four super-sharp, super-precise bullets of kinetic energy, with not a note going to waste. If you’ve enjoyed Dawn of MIDI, Glenn Branca, Guapo, Battles or the more technical moments of Shellac (with whom Schnellertollermeier share a kinship of sparsity), this is the record for you. Album of the year.