Top 10 Albums of 2017 - Stephen Barrett

Top 10 Albums of 2017 - Stephen Barrett

We all love a Top 10, don’t we? Continuing our Top 10 Albums of 2017 series is Stephen Barrett, who details some of his favourite finds from the last 12 months. If you missed the first part in our series, don’t fret: Elliot Burrselections are just a click away.

 

10. Reassemblage – Visible Cloaks

 

 

Within the confines of Reassemblage, more primitive sounds meet those of the sleek and contemporary, eastern influences meet those of the west, and machine-driven synthetic tones meet the living and breathing. These ideas and sounds are as interlaced as the intricate three-dimensional pattern rendered on the album’s artwork. Despite being an electronic ambient album, it is ostensibly human; the synths which open ‘Circle’ are very much choral, ‘Wintergreen’ carries the impressions of voices lost within it, and subtle auto-tuned vocal samples surface across ‘Mask‘.

Visible Cloaks work with unfamiliar combinations of textures: ‘Screen‘ sounds like the trickling of water, where each movement sounds like the shimmering of razor thin metallic shards. On this song – and across the record – there is a heavy focus put on pure silence as an instrumental tool, and the project as a whole tends to lack conventional form, re-imagining structure and melody. Across Reassemblage’s smoothly cut angles are spatterings of machine-made clicks, alien whirrs, eastern sounding metallophones and mind-cleansing New Age ambient.

 

9. Juna Kainuuseen – Litku Klemetti

 

 

I’m still unsure as to how this little Finnish pop gem fell into my lap this year, but I’m thankful to whatever stretch of fate it was that delivered it to me. Not speaking a word of Finnish hasn’t made this record any less enjoyable; Litku Klemetti’s lively character is infectious enough without having to know what’s being said. Juna Kainuuseen is concise with its fleeting 25 minute runtime – a perfect length for this vibrant set of retro-tinged indie-pop tunes, interspersed with a dynamic mix of slower ballads and more animated cuts. ‘Jääkuningatar falls into this latter category, and is a perfect opener, gleaming with surf-rock inspired melodies and an all-round carefree attitude.

 

8. A Crow Looked At Me – Mount Eerie

 

 

This is an album about the death of Phil Elverum’s wife Geneviève, and one which he describes in his own words as “barely music”. A Crow Looked At Me consists simply of Elverum’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and the atmosphere of the weighty subject matter, and so of course is music in a literal sense, but with lyrics simply recounting experiences and thoughts so candidly it’s easy to see why he would describe it as such.

Elverum so transparently exposes his palpable grief that it can be difficult to listen to, as he matter-of-factly opens with “Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art”, it’s clear that he’s able to be more heartfelt through open sincerity, and not through needlessly embellishing his words.

The more complex sonic palates of previous records are completely stripped back in favour of naked vulnerability, with the sincere and straightforward lyrics – almost like an unrehearsed thought stream – taking utmost precedent. The lyrics place importance upon even the most mundane of objects, typically trivial features of daily lives which hold the weight of a now indispensable memory: “I finally took out the upstairs bathroom garbage / That was sitting there forgotten since you were here / Wanting just to stay with us / Just to stay living / I threw it away”.

 

7. Reaching For Indigo – Circuit des Yeux

 

 

Having had no prior experience with the deep hypnotic cadence of Haley Forh’s vocal range, this new record from her project Circuit des Yeux has been my first exciting footstep into her world. Reaching For Indigo is an album which embraces its theatrics – from the gradual sprawling descent into chaos of ‘Black Fly‘, to the dramatic piano motif found within ‘Philo, and even the abrupt transition from the flickering Terry Riley-esque synths of ‘Paper Bag‘– there’s plenty of leg room for Haley to frame and exhibit the potency in her dramatic and often eccentric refrain.

For all of its serene and beautiful moments, there’s always something unfamiliar around the corner; Reaching For Indigo can slide very quickly between inviting the listener closer, and holding one at arm’s length. This also makes the album feel very human and memorable, with unsettling moments scattered throughout; ‘Brainshift‘ opens with sombre stretches of various organs and horns, and the hum of the chorus, “you’re just a container containing space” delivered in the usual sunken register, whereas ‘Philo‘ends in hysteria with bellows, shrieks and roughly bowed violins.

In ‘Paper Bag‘ the listener is beckoned to find their own answers from the music, and in her twisted operatic howl she sings, “stick your head into a paper bag and see just what you find”. The song acts as a centrepiece for the record, and feels like a bright lighthouse of colour in an otherwise midnight-blue sea; it’s snap shift in sound is one of the most bizarrely memorable moments the album has to offer, in an album already spilling with unconventional ideas.

 

6. No Shape – Perfume Genius

 

 

Without contest, No Shape fixes up as Mike Hadreas’ most ambitious project to date. His ever-present elegance and dramatics has returned, dialled to the maximum and cooly placed into the spotlight. Hadreas vocals are contradictorily vulnerable and tender, and yet unconquerably intense, able to swallow even the most sizeably grandiose moments of the album.

Where Too Bright acted as a crossover into a more electronic focused sound, No Shape is an intense plunge into an even more sophisticated one, lush with grand strings and climactic rushes. It won’t take long into the album for the listener to anticipate what’s in store; it opens with a softly keyed piano with even softer vocals, before engulfing you in an echoed flood of glistening electronics. It’s this hair-raising contrast that makes a song such as ‘Otherside‘ so effective.

‘Die 4 You‘ leans more toward being a straightforward R&B jam with almost whispered vocals, a brooding piano, and vulnerable lyrics about to what extent a person could give themselves to someone. ‘Wreath is another highlight and details Hadreas confusion and detachment toward his own body and in terms of instrumentation is one of the most powerful emotional spikes No Shape has to offer; its urgent pace is powerful and the vocal delivery is offered boldly and with stark confidence in spite of the subject.

 

5. w/love – infinite bisous

 

 

infinite bisous is the moniker used by instrumentalist and now front-and-centre pop artist, Rory McCarthy. Having been around for a while now, his debut w/ love was a long time coming – and his endlessly sweet name “infinite kisses” more than fits the delicate sonic swells found within. It’s hard not to return countless times and fall in love with a record so inviting to the ear, who’s swirling pastel tones are saturated with romance in the most infectious way, and the woozy dreamlike atmosphere which permeates it couldn’t possibly feel more intimate. Whilst not always front and centre, McCarthy’s charming vocals – laden with varying amounts of electronic effects – float through and blend the funk-kissed lo-fi instrumentals into a semi-lucid haze.

 

4. Peasant – Richard Dawson

 

 

Peasant is like an anthology of short stories, each serving as a snapshot into the larger picture of a very realistic feeling and downtrodden society in medieval England. With track titles like ‘Soldier‘, ‘Weaver‘, or ‘Prostitute‘, each song details the lives of the inhabitants in this bustling and graphic world, and each ‘character’ you come across are scarcely a figure of hope or optimism. In fact, Peasant is a canvas for the gruesome and unpleasant, where Dawson is able to use his abilities as a storyteller to meticulously craft this self-described “panorama of a society which is at odds with itself, and has great sickness in it”. Dawson binds these stories together with lush and varied instrumentation, complementing the lyrical themes with acoustic guitars, horns, flutes and choirs, to conjure a world both captivating and tangible.

 

3. From The Heart, It’s a Start, A Work Of Art – Shinichi Atobe

 

 

The elusive Japanese dub-techno producer Shinichi Atobe had up until very recently only released a single EP in over a decade. From the Heart therefore serves as a scrapbook for Atobe’s previously unreleased material, an archive of ideas, made even more apparent as each of the uncovered pieces feel stitched together in a mish-mashed manner, following onto one another between gradual fades. Despite feeling a little thrown together, From the Heart remains so unwavering in its quality from track to track that it’s just too difficult to make a complaint, and the tracks speak for themselves.

Regret is a good example of how a track stretching to almost the 10 minute mark can be kept fresh using only the most nuanced and minimal changes – with a subtle shift in the beat or the delicate introduction of a new synth. The unfaltering ability Atobe has to remain engaging in this way is a true testament to him as a techno producer. Interspersed between the trance inducing beats are the two stripped down ‘Test of Machine tracks, totally beatless and with a formless feel in terms of their synth patterns – these do well to break up the record and act almost as a palate cleanser. But just as ‘From the Start‘ began on a perfect note, so too does it finish on one, with ‘First Plate 3‘ and its after-the-after-party vibes rounding off the record with a wistful concluding remark.

 

2. Collected Pieces – Mary Lattimore

 

 

Collected Pieces is comprised of a set of tracks recorded by classically trained harpist Mary Lattimore between 2011 and 2016. Each song puts forth its own nostalgia-drenched or sentimental mood, easily captured with Lattimore’s ability to contort her harp toward the extremities of what it is able to express. ‘Wawa by the Ocean is a good example of this, sounding like the hazy bittersweet memory of a glistening shoreline, with its intricate tapestry of rippling plucked strings. Her songs usually consist of repeated motifs, steadily built upon and continually reintroduced through the same kaleidoscopic filter. To compliment the progression in each song, she often incorporates electronics – for example, by overlaying her compositions in a progressively more blurred veil with the likes of ‘Wawa by the Ocean‘ or in ‘It Was Late and We Watched the Motel Burn‘.


We Just Found Out She Died does much of the same in reviving a fading memory, this time more sobering and reflective with slower and very deliberate string plucks. In the much longer ‘It was Late‘, Lattimore even manages to bring to life through her harp the impetuous flickering of flames, and the feeling of a glazed onlooking stare, utterly absorbing across its 13 and a half minute runtime. From beginning to end, Collected Pieces never fails to impress, and like me by no means do you have to have listened to harp music before to enjoy the beauty in it.

 

1. Greyland – Tiny Hazard

 

 

With Greyland, Tiny Hazard exercise their efforts into producing a set of tracks so overflowing with ideas that it’s frenetic changes in pace and sound can at first leave you feeling just a little caught off guard. With each song it seems like the approach has come from an altogether distant starting point, with an apparent detachment for wanting to use any single framework from which to compose from.

Greyland opens with the otherworldly embrace of ‘Sesame‘, sweeping the listener with a magical quality so enamouring, that being absorbed into its blissfully enchanting soundscape is inescapable. Once hooked, Tiny Hazard reroute their energy into the scrambled synth seizures and bizarre breathy vocal melodies on ‘Like a Child‘, the adrenaline of which helps to balance the lullaby-like qualities of other songs spread across the album such as ‘Ekon‘.

Alena Spanger adorns each song with vocals of unconventional beauty, and with a range that is somehow able to keep pace with and adapt to the ever-transforming instrumentation. On a track such as ‘Sharkwhirl‘, its very noticeable increase in energy is met head on with bizarrely garbled vocals, whereas in the song ‘Baby they are incredibly soft, with a bedroom recording feel to them – every song on Greyland has been experimented with differently in some way or another, without ever detracting in any way from its overall appeal as a complete album, making for one of the most stimulating releases this year.

 

 

Image: RVNG Intl., Luova Records, P.W. Elverum & Sun, Drag City, Matador Records, Tasty Morsels, Weird World, DDS, Ghostly International, Ba Da Bing Records.

 

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