Being now halfway through 2017, this is the point in the year wherein most music publications, whether they be Pitchfork or your nearest indie music blogger, release a mid-year list of the best albums to have been released in the past six months. This was certainly a consideration for me, but, given that I already commit myself to a periodic round-up of my favourite albums from each month of the year, I decided that I would hold off until the very end of 2017 before finalising a ranked list and setting anything in stone. As such, June’s instalment for Albums I Love is going ahead as usual, and it just so happens that quite a few of my favourite records of the year thus far were released over the course of the past four weeks or so, as were some of the biggest musical surprises of 2017, ranging from what is perhaps the most unique record of JAY-Z’s career to a surprisingly solid project from an anime YouTuber. So, as always, here is a brief description of all the albums from June 2017 that tickled my fancy, with the link to my full review should my succinct summary interest you enough.
‘Muen’ by Merzbow
Firstly, an album that actually came out in April. I’m always late to reviewing new material from Merzbow, but anyone who has any idea of how prolific this guy is will understand, I’m sure. Taking inspiration from an especially esoteric perception of freedom from the time of Medieval Japan, Muen sees Merzbow continue the trend that has appeared on quite a number of his solo projects recently, in which the musician harks back to his classic, pre-laptop era sound and intermixes it with the more modern aspects of his artistry. In the case of this album, the end product is a constant, 36-minute-long piece that is often as dynamic as it is abrasive, with the walls of metallic noise and instrumental pulsations in constant competition. At times, one side of the fight will prevail, whereas other instances see both contenders come together to craft a rich, but no less confrontational, tangle of tones and frequencies.
‘Reflections of a Floating World’ by Elder
Having already potently established their ear for a classic stoner rock sound, with their apparent influences of Black Sabbath, Electric Wizard and Sleep differing little from that of any band of their ilk, Elder branch out into territory that is more their own on their latest album, Reflections of a Floating World. With the cues taken from acid, psychedelic and progressive rock often being just as pervasive as their reverence for stoner rock and doom metal, the Boston-based four-piece lace these six new pieces with slick riff-craft and serpentine song structures, matched with a versatile and vivid production value that makes for an album as vibrant and colourful as its cover artwork. There are only a few instances of stagnation across Reflections of a Floating World, with Elder successfully executing many of their ambitious, elongated, linear compositions with the intricate attention to detail that retains the listener’s attention with utter ease. For stoner rock fans, Reflections of a Floating World could most definitely be a contender for their album of the year, as Elder don’t merely do the style justice, rather they push past its fundamental tropes in a way that only the genre’s best contemporary acts have done with such dexterity.
‘RELAXER’ by alt-J
Ever the eccentrics, alt-J once again recontextualise their eclectic and esoteric stylings on their latest album, RELAXER. Like the indietronica outfit’s previous two records, their newest endeavour appropriates principles from rock, pop, indie, electronic and folk music into a selection of surreal songs that follow unconventional structures, but within a notably more dishevelled structure. Indeed, RELAXER is by no means a straightforward listen, in that it’s prone to twists and turns that can be almost disorientating at times, but amidst alt-J’s usual sense of organised chaos, there is a bevy of powerful and potent ideas to be found. The sheer sonic scope of RELAXER, as well as the creative capacity it encompasses, make it a fantastically fascinating listen, regardless of the fact that it runs rings around the listener as to become rather dizzying at times.
‘Known Unknowns’ by billy woods
Already firmly established as a powerhouse of New York’s underground hip hop scene through his work in Armand Hammer and with albums like History Will Absolve Me and Dour Candy, the latest record from the ever-elusive billy woods, Known Unknowns, sees the MC return to his classic, East Coast, boom bap style, with the help of producer and frequent collaborator Blockhead. Whilst the rapper’s previous endeavour, Today, I Wrote Nothing from 2015, was his most experimental yet, as woods provided very brief snapshots into esoteric events atop some fractured and dishevelled instrumentals, Known Unknowns is much more conventional, whilst still retaining the niche appeal of albums like History Will Absolve Me. The hefty verses from woods, as well as the handful of guest artists brought into the fold, are both witty and contemplative, much in his usual style, whilst Blockhead’s work behind the desk sees the integration of some fantastic beats that will occasionally take a slightly left-field approach, as to complement woods’ artistry perfectly. Although a step down from the experimental ambition of its predecessor, Known Unknowns shows woods continuing to hone in on the style that made his voice heard in the first place.
‘Les Irreals Visions’ by Foscor
Having once been one of the biggest names in Catalan black metal, Foscor delve further into the progressive metal rabbit hole on their latest record, Les Irreals Visions, incorporating elements not solely from their black metal roots, but from shoegazing and doom metal as well. The resultant sound carries the depressive weight of many fellow European progressive and post-metal powerhouses, with the likes of Katatonia and Sólstafir coming to mind as likely stylistic touchstones. This being said, Foscor’s palpable reverence for their homeland pervades every aspect of Les Irreals Visions, on both a musical and lyrical basis, whilst the group manages to maintain the cold, nocturnal and monochrome moods of their earlier work, making for a surprisingly rich and dynamic album, despite how dark it may seem on the surface. As such, Foscor’s Les Irreals Visions is one of the most arrestingly poetic and melancholic progressive metal albums of the year thus far.
‘Crack-Up’ by Fleet Foxes
Crack-Up is a fitting title for Fleet Foxes’ latest record in more ways than one. Not only does it evoke the same sense of feeling alone and adrift in a world that is cracking and crumbling around you, as was the primary concept of the indie folk outfit’s previous effort, Helplessness Blues, it also alludes to finding comedy amidst the debris, in a similarly sardonic way as to that of Fleet Foxes’ former drummer, Josh Tillman, on his new record under his Father John Misty moniker, Pure Comedy. Most strikingly, however, is the fact that this title also seemingly references the structure of the album, with Crack-Up being uncharacteristically fragmented and dishevelled for a Fleet Foxes record, although Robin Pecknold and pals manage to use this to their advantage. With the frontman’s lyrics, once again, tackling topics pertaining to issues of modern life’s monotonies and anxieties, the fractured framing of the album allows Pecknold to convey his thoughts in an entirely new medium. With the instrumental arrangements and performances across the record living up to the high bar set on the group’s previous two albums, Crack-Up is a beautifully blemished album whose charm lies in its very human way of translating equally human emotions and apprehensions.
‘Résistance’ by Songhoy Blues
In the face of displacement and the interdiction of music by Islamist extremists, Songhoy Blues put the ‘punk’ in desert punk. The Malian quartet’s first record, 2015’s Music in Exile, saw the band set out to preserve the legacy of the music of Northern Mali, which is now locked into civil war between various insurgent groups. Despite the bleak nature of the state of things in their homeland, Songhoy Blues’ disposition remained as sunny as their music, and, lyrically speaking, Music in Exile was more focussed on paying homage to Mali than putting anyone on blast. The group’s newest record, Résistance, continues the trend of Songhoy Blues protesting conflict and division with joy, celebration and unity, whilst their sonic stylings across the tracklisting, however, are greatly changed. Music in Exile saw a seamless fusion of the band’s inspirations from their motherland and the influences brought in from the US and the UK, through classic rock acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, whereas Résistance brings countless more styles into the equation. Whether it be hip hop, electronic music, funk or Americana, Songhoy Blues handle each new endeavour with incredible dexterity and focus, whilst the diverse soundscapes of Mali and West Africa at large still provide the life force for all of these compositions, making for an album that is as rich as the cultures it seeks to celebrate.
‘Diaspora’ by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
In commemoration of the first ever jazz recordings from 100 years ago, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has committed himself to releasing three albums over the course of 2017, dubbed The Centennial Trilogy. Diaspora is the second chapter in this series, and sees the trumpeter delve deeper into the atmospheric, trap-infused jazz stylings he pursued earlier this year on Ruler Rebel, the first instalment. However, a more focussed disposition translates into a significantly more well-rounded release that strikes a much more cogent balance between ambiance and action, with the ethereal tone that Adjuah pursues across many of these pieces being subtly propelled forward by the trumpeter’s triumphant melodies and luscious, intertwining performances with various guest instrumentalists. Having felt that Ruler Rebel fell short of the mark in this regard, Diaspora is an exceptionally more successful album in how well its alluring aesthetic is met with some of Adjuah’s more impressive songwriting chops.
‘Ex Eye’ by Ex Eye
Colin Stetson, one of today’s biggest powerhouses of boundary-pushing jazz experimentation, teams up with a selection of fellow musicians well-versed with the avant-garde to try his hand at metal as part of Ex Eye. Although far from the first ever foray into the world of jazz metal, Ex Eye’s take on this fusion comes from an exceptionally enthralling angle, given that Stetson’s esoteric style of complex and hefty saxophone playing is similarly maximalist and physical to much metal music. On Ex Eye’s self-titled debut, not solely is the band able to effectively exploit the common ground between Stetson’s experimental saxophone stylings and their brand of blackened post-metal, but there are countless instances in which even abstruse jazz tropes are cogently and potently brought into the fold. With Stetson’s keen ear for the place of tension and release within progressive compositional structures, and with each member of the outfit bringing their own unique playing styles to the table, Ex Eye is one of metal music’s most finely-crafted and well-rounded experimental endeavours to come out in quite some time.
‘Murder Of The Universe’ by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s apparent bid to walk every avenue of modern music, and even pave some new ones for themselves, has led the band to explore a narrative-driven approach on their second record of 2017, Murder Of The Universe. Divided into three separate chapters, the Aussie psych-rockers’ latest album is structured almost like a musical omnibus, with its recurring musical themes being self-contained within each act. With Murder Of The Universe being, by far, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s most narrative-based endeavour thus far in their career, with only their sophomore LP, Eyes Like The Sky, even coming close to its storytelling scope, the group does a fantastic job of accommodating for this tone shift within their usual brand of eclectic, progressive, psychedelic garage rock. With the flow of each individual chapter being structured similarly to their infinitely looping record, Nonagon Infinity, the band strikes an impressive semblance of cohesion and fluency across the course of the album, whilst the spoken-word passages are rather seamlessly incorporated into their usual, off-kilter compositional style, which remains as dynamic and explosive as ever. If King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard can keep up the success of Flying Microtonal Banana and Murder Of The Universe across their remaining three records to be released in the next six months, then 2017 could very much be the year of the Gizz.
‘The Underside of Power’ by Algiers
Having uncovered through-lines between post-punk and gospel music on their self-titled debut, Algiers continue to expand their eclectic sonic and stylistic palette on their sophomore LP, The Underside of Power. Recent political developments in the US have provided ample ammunition for frontman Franklin James Fisher to delve deeper into his diatribes on racial tensions, with the utilisation of noisier and more industrial instrumentals potently paralleling this heightened causticity. Fusing some of rock music’s most vicious genres with gospel music may sound strange on paper, but Algiers execute it so smoothly and naturally on The Underside of Power that the listener is more likely to be left wondering why this hasn’t been attempted before.
‘Wrong One To Fuck With’ by Dying Fetus
Tech-death darlings Dying Fetus have had a rocky existence, with the band’s only constant member, John Gallagher, routinely having to adjust to personnel changes, and it’s likely no coincidence that some of group’s weakest material has come following significant line-up reshuffles. Dying Fetus’ newest release, Wrong One To Fuck With, however, comes as the third full-length studio album to feature the technical death metal outfit’s current members and, rather fittingly, stands as one of their most consistent and well-rounded records in quite some time. There is no alteration to the Dying Fetus formula on this new project, however, rather the band’s usual brand of hook-heavy, groove-driven tech-death is bolstered by some particularly powerful performances, airtight technical dexterity and coercive compositional chops. Although familiar to fans of the group, Wrong One To Fuck With is undoubtedly one of Dying Fetus’ most frenetic, ferocious and forceful releases in recent memory.
‘Gay and Dead’ by Trial of the Golden Witch
The Internet’s most infamous anime analyst and self-described “otaku gonzo journalist” Digibro once again proves that he is worthy of the title of the “human content machine”, releasing his second full-length rap album under his Trial of the Golden Witch pseudonym, Gay and Dead. Preceded by Bedroom Bedrock, Gay and Dead is more ambitious in scope in just about every aspect, being 15 minutes longer, making use of several producers, covering a wider array of styles within hip hop, and even with Digibro himself bringing a much broader palette of flows and deliveries to the table. With the rapper’s morbid bars often being self-deprecating and self-aggrandising in equal measure, Digi delves into his lifestyle as a nocturnal workaholic and borderline hikikomori with truthful and honest lyrics that are often as hilarious as they are depressing. Amidst the massive minefield of Internet rap music, Gay and Dead stands as one of the most successful and self-aware projects of the year.
‘Wintres Woma’ by James Elkington
Following in the footsteps of the legendary British folksters of the late 60s and early 70s, James Elkington, having worked as a session musician and band member for countless singer-songwriters, steps out from the sidelines and into the spotlight for his debut solo album, Wintres Woma. With the guitar latticework of Bert Jansch, the timelessly English lilt of Nick Drake, and a few ideas picked up from American folk music, Elkington’s first foray into solo material is as rich in timbre as it is in folk tradition. Interesting instrumental choices, passionate performances and a keen eye for enthralling imagery elevates Wintres Woma beyond simply an homage to English folk classics, with Elkington establishing himself as one of the most cultured, polished and masterful singer-songwriters to have come out of the woodwork in the past few years.
‘4:44’ by JAY-Z
Unlike any album of his previously, JAY-Z’s latest endeavour, 4:44, sees the artist strip back the glitz and glamour, the bravado and braggadocio, the expense and extravagance of his previous material in favour of a surprisingly intimate and skeletal release. With this record being his first since the release of his wife’s Lemonade, in which the pop priestess employed a similarly personal approach and explored her husband’s adulterous actions, the rapper’s attitude across his newest record is undeniably humble by his standards, as he weighs up the consequences of his past behaviour and seeks forgiveness, which is reflected in the sparse, soulful beats provided by No I.D., the album’s sole producer. Given how uncharacteristic just about every aspect of 4:44 is for JAY-Z, the fact that it nonetheless stands as one of the most well-rounded, cohesive and arresting releases of his since at least American Gangster from 10 years ago is even more impressive. It may have been released under the name JAY-Z, but 4:44 feels like the first album from Shawn Carter.