This list is not a "top ten" per se, but rather a discussion of my favorite albums this year, grouped for their sonic affinities.
Zola Jesus's Conatus made my favorite album list back in 2011, the first year I compiled such a list. 2017's Okovi is an existential cry, a declaration of life determined to live, and sometimes determined to die. It's completely visceral. Nicole Hummel's voice speeds though your veins and resonates in your fascia and marrow. Completely intense, and definitely not an everyday listen. When you go there, be prepared to go there.
Ifriqiyya Electrique describe themselves as "post-industrial ritual" in which the ritual songs of the Banga community of southern Tunisia meet European electronics and amps. Rûwâhîne records Banga musicians performing songs from the annual Sidi Marzûq festival, adding on guitars, bass, and electronics. The music, "adorcist" rather than exorcist in nature, induces possession and trance in its practitioners, and having felt it's influence on my own body, I suspect it could do the same for listeners of the album. One reviewer wrote, "To be honest I can’t work out if this is sacrilege or genius." I completely agree. In any case, it's compelling music, unlike anything I've ever heard before.
I played Boris' Dear in its entirety for a butoh workshop I gave at Alfred University this fall. At the end of the workshop, a couple of students asked in wonder, "what was that?" That, my friends, was the sludgy sounds of the amazing Boris. Like swimming through sound, dancing through distortion, listening to Boris is a full-bodied experience. That they are still producing such urgent and relevant - and revelatory - sounds 25 years in is something to be celebrated.
EMA's Exile in the Outer Ring is her third album, and her third album to make my end of year music lists. Each album she records (and each song on each album) builds a world - both futurist and firmly in the now, fantastic and based in experience - that feels both real and otherworldly. The world she builds on Exile is one of middle American discontent and alienation ("the Outer Ring") singer Erika M. Anderson knows all too well from growing up in South Dakota. It's a frightening dystopia, but one that EMA doesn't just portray; rather she actively engages it, though quite frankly her prognosis is not good. Really just read this excellent review on Pitchfork by Judy Berman; I can't say it any better than her.
Jesca Hoop's Memories are Now grabbed me the first time I heard it and hasn't let go. Her sound has been described as experimental folk, and Tom Waites was an early mentor (she was his kids' nanny!). She employs delicious and surprising layers of her own voice, guitar, and percussive sounds to produce songs both languid and restless. Deceptively simple, sometime strange, and definitely singular.
Rhiannon Giddens' excellent Freedom Highway, an album of mostly originals that follows up her previous largely covers record, Tomorrow is My Turn (also a year end favorite of mine), takes the listener on a journey of the struggle for black civil rights in the United States. The stakes of the album are starkly illustrated in the liner notes with a reproduction of a slavery sale notice offering a "negro wench" who has a 9 month old child, available "at the purchaser's option." The opening track takes its title from that notice, and ends with the chilling line, "My fingers bleed to make you rich." The album closes with the Pops Staples classic from which the album takes its' name. When Rhiannon Giddens sings - with that voice! - the closing lines to "Freedom Highway," it seems that the 1965 lyrics were written just this year: "The whole wide world is wonderin’/What’s wrong with the United States/Yes, we want peace/If it can be found/We’re marching the freedom highway/And we’re not gonna turn around."
Valerie June's voice, in a completely different way than Rhiannon Giddens, is what first attracted me to her. I loved "Someone to Love" off of her previous album, Pushing a Stone (2013), but I hadn't listened to a full album of hers until this year's The Order of Time, which has a timeless yet unique feel. It's lush, a bit fuzzed out on the edges, "ethereal" according to a number of music critics. A gorgeous and transformative listen.
Miss Eaves' Feminasty is fearlessly feminist, sex positive, body positive, even food positive. She's sharp and witty as she handily takes down internet trolls and street harassers, dancing the whole time. Most of all she's a woman who's fully in control: of her music, her image, her body, her orgasms (and there's a lot on this album!). Audre Lorde would be proud. Who says feminism isn't fun?
I discovered Priests last year via their 2014 EP Bodies and Control and Money and Power. I loved their combination of Selene Vigil-esque vocals over complex DC punk melodies. I eagerly awaited Nothing Feels Natural, and was not disappointed. Though it's their first proper album, Nothing Feels Natural is not just a response to the (Trump) times. Rather, it's a reflection of what the band has been singing about since its' founding in 2012. The times just mean that people are more willing to hear what they have to say.
I admit it. I first hear Downtown Boys' Cost of Living on an episode of Intercepted. I'd heard a track or two from their 2015 release Full Communism, but they weren't fully on my radar until I heard singer Victoria Ruiz talk about how her lyrics on this new album were influenced by Assata Shakur and Nina Simone (via Hair). The album is a bilingual Chicana punk manual for how to survive white supremacy, neo-imperialism, and toxic masculinity. Oh, and it fucking rocks. What more do you need?
Of course lists like this are completely subjective and partial. My perennial favorites Laura Marling (Semper Femina) and Colin Stetson (All This I Did for Glory) didn't make the list, but easily could have. I also loved the following albums this year, but apparently not quite enough to make the cut off: Hurray for the Riff Raff's ambitious The Navigator ("Palante" is a must listen if you haven't heard it yet), St. Vincent's more electronic yet more vulnerable Masseduction, Margo Price's sophomore success All American Made, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's The Nashville Sound, Robert Plant's Carry Fire, Systema Solar's very fun (and environmentally conscious) Rumbo a Tierra, and The Black Angels' Death Song. And what about that Sleater-Kinney live album?! And then there's Juana Molina's Halo and Perfume Genius' No Shape, neither of which I gave a proper chance. Ultimately, I guess that's a good thing, to a have a year in which there was no end to good music.