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This was a weird year. In the world, we experienced the first year of a Trump presidency and Britain's first attempts at trying to leave the European Union. On my side, I left my first job in the first half of this year and spent the second one dicking around, eventually starting Kimonote (pleasetrythebetaitsreallygood) as well as trying to trade on Betfair, settling on writing blog posts about it instead (those who can, do etc).
The genre of this year for me was post-punk. Let's say punk is this angry teenager that feels like there's something wrong with the world but can't exactly express it, so they instead spend most of their time screaming in angst. Post-punk is what happens when the teenager grows up in a certain way, not letting go of their hatred for those who subjugated them but instead subduing it, making it more sophisticated, knowing exactly when to strike and what to say.
If Richard Branson on a boat together with Sex Pistols in 1977 blasting out "God Save The Queen" opposite the Houses of Parliament is punk, then Richard Branson in 2017 suing the NHS is post-punk.
Here is what I think are the 24 best albums I listened to for the first time this year. They don't really map to months nicely (and in fact a majority of them come from the first half of the year), but 24 was a good balance between "I can't write anything about this album, why is it here?" and "How come this one doesn't make the list?"
Let's begin, shall we.
Shoegaze, Dream Pop, Neo-Psychedelia
She knew she was able to fly,
Because when she came down,
She had dust on her hands from the sky,
She felt so high, the dust made her cry.
It's shoegazey. Given that I didn't like Loveless that much (I know, blasphemy, but seriously, it always makes me feel like something's gone wrong with my earphones and one channel is louder than the other one) and Slowdive's Souvlaki has already made a best-albums-of list, this is another one of those.
Let's stay here for a while,
Eyes so round and bright we gently smile.
Live for the moment, not the past,
Why do we always fall so fast
Notable track: Polar Bear
Love and Rockets (1986)
Alternative Rock, Neo-Psychedelia, Post-Punk
All expenses paid, courtesy of NASA
Thank you, Mr. President for my holiday, Sir
I couldn't really say that I wish you were here
But thank you all the same, Sir
Not even sure how it made it here. The album is worth listening to only for the psychedelic undertones in "Kundalini Express" that reminded me of Rush's "Passage to Bangkok", a song about travelling the world and smoking everything you can lay your hands on. Oh, actually, the sheer melancholy of the "All In My Mind" at the end (but the acoustic version, since it's in a minor scale) makes it one of my favourite songs of this year. Hmm, the intro to "Holiday On The Moon" could be suited to a slo-mo scene in some action movie where they're, like, driving in a car to a meetup knowing that they won't make it out alive. Oh, and I think "It Could Be Sunshine" is catchy.
I guess I now know how.
You want to rip all the jewels off all the idiots' backs so badly
You scream, "Give me what I've always missed, give me a good time!"
But if you look into your mirror, you'll see that nobody
Has ever ripped you off, it's all in your mind
Notable track: Holiday on the Moon
Wall of Voodoo (1982)
New Wave, Post-Punk
Driving out of Vegas in their automobile
She was in the backseat while he was at the wheel
With the windows wide open
All the money from the store they'd gambled away
Of course I got to this album by accidentally leaving Youtube autoplay for too long and getting to listen to "Mexican Radio", which was their one-hit wonder? No, they were a one-hit wonder and "Mexican Radio" was their one hit?
Anyway, I was listening to this song and thought it was kind of cool, a mixture of twangy Tex-Mex guitars and synthesisers, something that could potentially fit as a soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop or Firefly.
And then I heard the singer's voice, which I could recognize anywhere. Turns out, before Stan Ridgway had a solo career and produced things like "Camouflage" and "The Big Heat", he had a career with a band and released a couple of albums. "Call of the West" is one of them, and it's not all synthpop and rainbows. From "Tomorrow" (a song about procrastination) to "Lost Weekend" (about a couple that gambles all their savings away every weekend), it's about the flip side of the American Dream, a set of stories about trying to find a better life and not managing to.
Now I've brought the same piece of chicken in a bag to work everyday
For the last twenty years or so
And I really don't mind, work assembly line
Got an intercom blasting the news and the latest on the baseball scores
Come around every Friday, well I get a paycheck
Take the same road home that I come to work on, heck, it's a living
Notable track: Lost Weekend
Nick Drake (1972)
Contemporary Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Folk Baroque
I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all
Like many artists, Nick Drake had made a career-limiting move of getting a Third from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, which led to his work not being discovered until he started being quoted as an influence by R.E.M. and until one track was featured in a Volkswagen advert in 1999, at which point it was too late since he had died in 1974.
The album? The album is very peaceful. There's only Nick and his guitar and, for 10 seconds, a piano, but the songs are still quite varied. It's very summery, somehow. It reminds me of a road trip in the Midwest that I never went on.
Lifting the mask from a local clown, feeling down like him
Seeing the light in a station bar, and travelling far in sin
Sailing downstairs to the Northern Line, watching the shine of the shoes
Hearing the trials of the people there, who's to care if they lose?
Notable track: Pink Moon
Martin Dupont (1985)
Minimal Synth, Coldwave, New Wave
I met the beast from the end of century
With its Fu Manchu mustache
Barbie dolls whispering in the lagoon
Physically sick every time they kiss
This is exactly what I imagined French Kraftwerk would sound like. Still cold, still with sometimes overly experimental rhythmic patterns, still with few (and not making much sense) words, but much, much more energetic and with more female vocals.
It also reminds me of Simple Minds' Empires and Dance (which also had made a best-of list at some point). In fact, it was released in the same year. And the vocals are similar too. And Marseille is close to Glasgow. I mean, compare the first 30 seconds of Martin Dupont's Hunted and Simple Minds' I Travel. It makes me wonder why I never saw Alain Seghir and Jim Kerr in the same room.
The only issue is that the album is way too short. But don't worry, there will be more Martin Dupont later on.
Not waiting for tomorrow...
Notable track: I Met The Beast
Aphex Twin (1992)
Ambient Techno, IDM, Ambient
pew pew pew boom pew-pew pew pew pew boom
What can I say? It's ambient techno. It's really good ambient techno. If you're having trouble doing any sort of vaguely menial work (like collating this list), put it on and watch time fly. I don't actually know or remember or care when individual tracks begin and end on this album. Apparently, there's even a track called "i" on there. How cool is that?
beep boop-boop (pow) beep-beep boom-beep (pow)
Notable track: Heliosphan
Downtempo, Ambient Pop
Où sont tes héros
Au corps d'athlète?
Où sont tes idoles
Mal rasés, bien habillés?
If I ever own an elevator, "La Femme D'Argent" will be playing there on repeat. In addition, as per its music video that collates some behind-the-scenes stories about making of the album:
"For a video of ['All I Need'], Mike Mills decided to shoot the story of a real couple in Ventura, California. Unfortunately, they broke up since..."
Uuh, where was I. Oh yes. It's a quite good electronic ambient thing. Probably not all of it is suitable for playing in elevators, especially not Sexy Boy. Although the reason I know of this album is because I heard Sexy Boy in Tommi's Burger Joint on Thayer Street in Marylebone. It's really good! I especially recommend their Offer of the Century, which is basically a meal deal with beer. The burger is amazing and you get a pick of like twenty different sauces, pickles and peppers. Well worth the money.
The reason this is not higher is because I never managed to get into the second half of the album.
Kelly, watch the stars
Kelly, watch the stars
Kelly, watch the stars
Kelly, watch the stars
Notable track: Sexy Boy
The Replacements (1987)
Alternative Rock, Power Pop
Priest kneels silent, all is still
Policeman reaches from the sill
Watch him try to try his best
There'll be no medal pinned to his chest
I found this one like I did quite a lot albums: from a TV series. In particular, "The Ledge" was featured in Billions (which is weird: the song is about a suicide. I guess the showrunners really liked the lyrics "I'm the boy they can't ignore"). And the rest of the album has some fairly cool songs in it too.
Runnin' 'round the house, Mickey Mouse and the Tarot cards.
Falling asleep with a flop pop video on.
If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool, babe.
Notable track: Alex Chilton
Pop Rock, Rock
Heading out this morning into the sun
Riding on the diamond waves, little darlin' one
Warm wind caress her, her lover it seems
Oh, Annie, dreamboat Annie, little ship of dreams
Yes, it's kind of too lighthearted for this list. But Ann Wilson's vocals! And Nancy Wilson's acoustic guitar! And the harmonics! And the seventies! And silk shirts! And a guitarist that looks like Luke Skywalker!
I still don't get why there are several versions of "Dreamboat Annie" on this, but I'm not complaining. They're all good. All three of them.
I was a willow last night in my dream
I bent down over a clear running stream
Sang you the song that I heard up above
And you kept me alive with your sweet flowing love
Notable track: Crazy On You
The KLF (1990)
Ambient, Field Recordings, Plunderphonics, Ambient House
For the next thirty minutes I'm going to give you a special phone number where you can call me so that I can send you a special gift this week. Get your paper and pen ready. Now, here's the service already in progress...
This album reminds me of Primal Scream's Screamadelica (which was later parodied/covered/adapted by Alabama 3, the first song from which, Woke Up This Morning, was used in the opening of Sopranos, which is a great TV series. None of these facts are relevant here.): it's essentially a concept album about a long night out.
Well, in this case, it's a concept album that follows the protagonist on a night-time drive from Texas to Louisiana. And it fully reflects the atmosphere of being alone on the road in the night, with only random news broadcasts, late-night infomercials and echoes of club music in your mind to accompany you, overlayed on top of dreamy Pink Floyd-like guitars and, in one track, an Elvis Presley song.
Seventeen-year-old Jack Acksadapo was driving home to Belmore last night after finishing work at his father's Lindencrest diner in Lindenhurst. According to Nassau homicide sergeant John Nolan, witnesses saw Acksadapo drag racing with another car along Merrick Road in Wantagh. Nolan says the young man lost control and slid into a row of stores. His body was pulled from the car by a passing motorist after which the car, in flames...
Notable track: Madrugada Eterna
Manuel Göttsching (1984)
beep beep boop-boop beep
Unlike Aphex Twin's album, this one is basically a single track (well, there is a tracklist and the whole recording depicts a chess game, but they blur into one glorious piece) that starts with a simple synthesizer pattern which evolves to be more and more complex, with more and more instruments and effects layered on top of it. Think Brian Eno's "Music for Airports", but much, much more lively and not for airports and with the second half introducing some fairly neat guitar solos.
beep beep whoom whoom
Notable track: Queen A Pawn
Solid Space (1982)
Minimal Synth, Minimal Wave
See them getting desperate, see their logic fade
See them panic and whisper, see their edges fray
And now their planet burns up into thin air
We knew we'd kill them anyway, we didn't really care
I have this thing where I strongly associate some albums with certain periods of my life. Mazzy Star's "So Tonight That I Might See", for example, is associated with me waking up one Sunday and taking a Metropolitan Line train from Baker Street to Finchley Road in order to go to Homebase near there and buy some Rentokill.
This one is associated with me trying to defrost my freezer, which basically had filled itself with a massive block of ice. At first, I thought I would just turn the temperature down a bit, but sadly the temperature control had ice over it as well. So one day, when there wasn't much food in the fridge, I unplugged it completely, covered the surroundings with some towels and pans and the next morning woke up to a loosened block of ice.
During the next half an hour while this album was playing, I managed to dislodge it, get it out and melt it down. The only thing I found in there were the ice trays.
Oh yes, the album. It's a collection of fairly short, melancholic and diverse songs with minimalist tasteful lo-fi synthesisers and speech samples from space-themed films and cartoons. This is pretty much what people in the 1980s imagined life in 2017 would be.
We thought that you'd all disappeared
We wondered what the Italians feared
You slept for eons in your tomb
And shaped it as a second womb
Notable track: Destination Moon
Martin Dupont (1987)
Coldwave, Minimal Synth, Synthpop, New Wave
The time of the month is right
To feel full moons and mouths
She's pulling, she's pulling
The force of her paleness is drowning me
Welcome back to Martin Dupont. Everything from the previous album still applies.
There's something Bryan Ferry-esque as well about Alain Seghir's vocals, especially audible on the bonus tracks (like "Love On My Side". In fact, all the bonus tracks are really good), but that's where the similarity with Roxy Music ends. The lyrics are still supremely weird and the fact that in some songs they are repeated several times doesn't really help. In a way, this reminds me of Cocteau Twins, where Liz Fraser's words are mostly made up on the spot and the voice is just another instrument, not the means to tell a story.
Oh yes, here's a quote from Alain that I wanted to share:
“Just a little story about the “duponettes”: I was Catherine [Loy, vocal/synth, left the band by the time Hot Paradox was released]’s boyfriend when I started MD but when I met Brigitte [Balian, vocal/bass/guitar] I was so impressed by her voice and attitude that I became shortly her lover but Catherine was so sweet and so happy with the band that I went back with her, then she met a funny english girl that she wanted absolutely to introduce me, so I felt in love with this lovely sparkling stuff, so Catherine didn’t want to stay in the band and I married Beverley [Jane Crew, vocal/clarinet/sax] 2 months later.”
I should start a band.
I feel as if the world is falling down between my legs
I feel as if I could jump over the Berlin Wall.
Notable track: Inside Out
Art Pop, Chamber Pop
All I do now is dick around
When the sun goes up and the moon goes down
When the leaves are green and the leaves are brown,
All I do now is dick around.
This might be one of the weirdest albums I've heard this year. Starting from a CEO who was dumped, decided to resign and is now spending his time on his "hobbies" ("Dick Around") to an organ player in Paris who picked up that job just to pick up young women ("As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral"), from a startlingly long list of female names and perfume brands (that don't repeat!) in "Perfume" ("Geneviève wears Dior, Margaret wears Trésor, Mary Jo wears Lauren, But you don't wear no perfume, Deborah wears Clinique, Marianne wears Mystique, Judith wears Shalimar, But you don't wear no perfume") to an ode to metaphors because "chicks dig metaphors", it's full of stories about... love?. Well, an over-the-top, bombastic and cheesy interpretation of love, complete with a deadpan delivery and random sprinkles of vocal harmonisations and parts of a symphonic orchestra the Mael brothers probably kidnapped from somewhere.
This all makes you doubt what they meant, when and whether. Are half of the song names just innuendos? ("Dick Around"? "Baby, Can I Invade Your Country"? "Rock, Rock, Rock"? "Here, Kitty"? "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ..."?) I guess there are rabbits on the album cover. I should have known.
She points up to the high-wire, there a tiger stands
"Oh help me, help me, bring my tiger down, dear man"
"If you will save him, I will be yours every night"
I climb the pole and look the tiger in the eye
Notable track: Dick Around
By the time that I'm through singing
The bells from the schools of walls will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
It's about... everything? Everything at the end of the sixties, the hippie lifestyle, the Vietnam War, the omnipresent psychedelia, the cautious optimism. There is some flamenco, trumpets, trombones and an occasional overdriven guitar that sneaks up on you. I'm not even sure how to describe this album without playing it back.
I don't know if the third's the fourth or if the
The fifth's to fix
Sometimes I deal with numbers
And if you wanna count me
Count me out
Notable track: A House Is Not A Motel
The Chameleons (1986)
We have no future, we have no past
We're just drifting ghosts of glass
Brown sugar, ice in our veins
No pressure, no pain
Welcome to The Chameleons. There will be more of them in this list. This one, sadly, didn't make it too far and I almost wanted to exclude it. The reason? There are 10 tracks on this album and I kind of only loved 3 or 4 of them and liked 4-5. Fine, I was okay with most of them, but not all and there wasn't really a big overarching theme there, unlike... You know what? I won't spoil it for you. It's still an amazing album. Just keep reading.
But most of you are much too ill
Oh, way beyond a surgeon's skill
In bondage to a dollar bill
What more can you buy, buy, buy
Notable track: Swamp Thing or Soul In Isolation
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1988)
Post-Punk, Gothic Rock
It began when they come took me from my home
And put me in Death Row
Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know
And I'll say it again:
I am not afraid to die
This album is great if only because of The Mercy Seat. Actually, a much better move would be putting The Mercy Seat at the end of the album so that people would have to listen to everything else before getting a reward. It's not that the rest of the album is bad, it's just that The Mercy Seat is so good.
What about the rest of the album? It takes you on a tour through all the best in human depravity. There's sex, murder, armed robbery and drug use. And to contrast, it tops everything off with a cheeky upbeat song.
Sugar sugar sugar
Honey, you're so sweet
But beside you, baby,
A bad man sleeps
Notable track: The Mercy Seat
Modern English (1982)
Post-Punk, New Wave
I'll stop the world and melt with you
You've seen the difference and it's getting better all the time
There's nothing you and I won't do
I'll stop the world and melt with you
A post-punk record that accidentally made it into big time by having a genuine song about loving someone ("I Melt With You"). So cute, right? It's like they love each other so much that they become one person and it's just...
"According to vocalist Robbie Grey, the song is about a couple having sex as nuclear bombs fall"
Every good 1980s album has to be about the nuclear winter. It starts with "Someone's Calling" ("Turning 'round as if in flight / I sense your breath cut like a knife / A thousand shadows all in pain / What they fear must be the same") and continues with "Life in the Gladhouse" which could be argued to be about spending time in a nuclear shelter.
But despite the theme, it's kind of halfway between joyful and melancholic, with occasional interesting vocal and rhythmic experiments like here.
I stood and watched the dark sky rise
With glaring sunlight in my eyes
I thought of all the times gone by
And laughed aloud at the crimson sky
After the snow
Notable track: Someone's Calling
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (2016)
And now she's jumping up with her leaping brain
Stepping over heaps of sleeping children
Disappearing and further up and spinning out again
Up and further up she goes, up and out of the bed
Up and out of the bed and down the hall where she stops for moment and turns and says
"Are you still here?"
And then reaches high and dangles herself like a child's dream from the rings of Saturn
This is different from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' previous records. Hauntingly beautiful, more ambient and synthetic, its lyrics were amended by Cave shortly after his son's death in 2016. Skeleton Tree will probably remain my favourite album of the 21st century (at least until I can muster enough courage to listen to Blackstar or You Want It Darker).
And most of it is not really... songs? Not in the normal sense of the word. It's mostly Nick's stream of consciousness, half-rapping, half-singing about loss, grief, pain and death, but instead of youthful bravado like in the band's earlier albums (like, again, Tender Prey), in this case it's the voice of a man who has experienced all these things. Or at least that's what I think. I am full of youthful bravado too. Maybe that's what all old people sound like.
They told us our gods would outlive us
They told us our dreams would outlive us
They told us our gods would outlive us
But they lied...
Notable track: Rings Of Saturn
The Sound (1981)
Post-Punk, Gothic Rock
I was gonna drown
Then I started swimming
I was going down
Then I started winning, winning
What can I say about this? It's gothy, existential, dark. But there are almost no distorted guitars here. Just a synthesiser with some juicy bass guitars and occasional thundering percussion. Most of the songs are slow, creeping, enveloping you into a gloomy fog from which you occasionally emerge into a more or less energetic track just to realise that Adrian Borland's lyrics and vocal delivery are still there and not going away just because the song is a bit faster.
Did I say I like those drums? I want to get ones that sound throughout the beginning of "New Dark Age" so that I can bang on them all day.
Some make a quiet life
To keep this scared old world at bay
The dogs are howling on the street outside
So they close the curtains, hope they go away
Notable track: Judgement
Sad Lovers & Giants (1983)
Post-Punk, Dream Pop, Gothic Rock
She'll swear some weak excuse to gain more time
Changing sides like friends to satisfy her quicksand ego
When life falls short again, she'll crawl away
What is going on on the album cover? I'm torn between it being a view of some mountains, a beach or a puddle with some trees reflecting in it.
It doesn't matter. This is post-punk too, but unlike The Sound's take on post-punk, this one is much more surreal. The guitars are way way more present here and so are the ethereal sound effects, and so is the occasional dissonance. And the lyrics aren't about how sad and terribly depressing everything is (despite their name), but are just about... stuff. One's about cowboys, one's about going to sleep, one's about a man of straw. There is a love song and this time it's not about dying in a nuclear apocalypse together.
Hearing a distant bell repeatedly ring
It calls for attention to your daily life routine
"I'm asking no favours, just five minutes more"
Ringing, the bell replies, "Your plea has been ignored."
Notable track: On Another Day
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (1994)
Post-Punk, Alternative Rock
In my bed she cast the blizzard out
A mock sun blazed upon her head
So completely filled with light she was
Her shadow fanged and hairy and mad
The opening track of this album was pretty much one of the first songs I listened to in 2017. And what a glorious beginning to a year it was. It starts with just a bassline that, after a few bars, gives way to a mixture of organs, guitars, a piano and Nick's voice.
This album is sick. I guess it's the antithesis to that Sparks album a few rungs below. It's about love, but instead of a bombastic parody of love, it's about a different kind of love, creepy, aggressive, obsessive, compulsive, stalker-y. Visceral. It's about falling in love, getting addicted and then having your heart broken so hard you still keep finding pieces of it all over your flat.
Despair and Deception, Love’s ugly little twins
Came a-knocking on my door, I let them in
Darling, you’re the punishment for all my former sins
I let love in
Notable track: Do You Love Me?
The Chameleons (1985)
Post-Punk, Dream Pop, Gothic Rock
With fading powers we dream of hours
That will never come again
Old defenders are themselves defenceless
When the mad attack the sane
Look at the album cover. Look at it. What does it make you think of? It's like a weird face floating in the sky. Light blue, airy. Are those horns or tape reels? Why is there a bird on one side?
This is exactly what this album sounds like. Like a light blue airy benevolent face in the sky made of tape reels and lines with a bird on one side. Mark Burgess', the vocalist and the songwriter, rough and desperate voice is overlaid on top of an interplay of two guitars, one doing familiar power chord progressions, and the other going completely mad with sound effects, delays, echoes, reverberation and panning. If you ever wondered what the clouds around that face sound like, that's what.
And if you're not into floating on a cloud of sound, you can always listen to the lyrics, and they are almost always non-spiritual. From "Intrigue in Tangiers" (about Mark's visits to a lonely former seaman in a retirement home) to "Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In)" (about "those people, at the time that included [Mark's] father, that would go on and on about how great The Conservative Party was, while their lives and the country in general were disintegrating around them." (hey, which modern phenomenon does that remind you of?)), from "Perfume Garden" (about the British school system) to "One Flesh" (about the subjugation of women), almost all of them are grounded in reality.
Endless emptiness, endless ringing bells
I couldn't show you but I'd hoped to one day
A pretty promise to teach the tender child
To welcome madness every Monday
Notable track: Perfume Garden
The Chameleons (1983)
Post-Punk, Gothic Rock, Dream Pop
"In his autumn, before the winter, comes man's last mad surge of youth."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
I said to a coworker once that The Chameleons are "as if Cocteau Twins and Joy Division had a baby". It actually applies to "What Does Anything Mean? Basically" more than here, with ethereal tunes supporting dark lyrics. "Script of the Bridge", their first album, is more subdued while at the same time more energetic and aggressive. To be honest, I had a very hard time determining which one to put up first and looking at Last.fm didn't help either, as they both always stay within a few listens away from each other.
But this one is more coherent, I think, and more listenable to as a whole piece. It's about losing youth and innocence, and the trip starts with that quote above (sampled from the film "Two Sisters from Boston") in "Don't Fall", continues with the most powerful riff in the world and then segues into "Here Today" that is believed to be about John Lennon's shooting ("Don't know what happened but somebody lost their mind tonight / Not sure what happened but I don't think I got home tonight / There's blood on my shirt").
And so on. There's a song about nuclear disarmament (Up the Down Escalator, "Now they can erase us at the flick of a switch"), a song that reminds me of Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar" ("High as you can go, Lennon to Munroe / Clawed their way to the stars / I think they knew / And I don't care who you are, just sign the line and away you fly") and a song about immortality and near-death experiences.
Each track is wonderfully diverse and at the same time enveloped in the same dreamy fog made of chorused guitars and delay pedals. And finally, the experience ends with my favourite song in the whole album.
Just wait until your time comes round again,
Notable track: View From A Hill