Today through Friday, I’m counting down my 40 favorite albums of 2017. The usual caveat applies: I love all this music, but you should take my rankings with a grain of salt. And please bear in mind that I’m not trying to be definitive.
As big a pain as it is to compile this list—and as skeptical as I am of the practice of ranking albums—I do love this time of year. By reading other peoples’ lists over the past couple weeks, I’ve already discovered a slew of records. Of course, that only underlines how arbitrary this practice is—a month from now, after reading a few more, my own list would probably be different.
40. Negro Leo, Action Lekking (QTV/Circus)
The Rio de Janeiro underground continues to thrive, and one of its leading figures released two new albums this year. Leonardo Campelo Gonçalves, aka Negro Leo, pursues the principles of autonomous Brazilian cultural production laid out by poet Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 essay Manifesto Antropófago, interpreting them through a post-tropicalia lens—he rarely differentiates between his ardor for experimental noise and his love of native forms such as samba and bossa nova. On Coisado he expresses his avant-garde leanings in uncut form, but I prefer his other 2017 album, Action Lekking, where his pop instincts run smack into his drive toward chaos. He mucks up the melodic generosity of his songs with dissonance, and his arrangements always seem on the verge of disintegration.
Curator, writer, and musician David Toop organized the sessions for this bruising concept album, an offshoot of a project by artist Maxime Rossi. Its fusion of free improvisation and space rock features some of the greatest British musicians of the past five decades: vocalist Phil Minton, saxophonist Evan Parker, keyboardist Steve Beresford, and drummer Mark Sanders (Toop adds bass, guitar, and electronics). The expansive music, often driven by pummeling rock grooves, takes as points of departure the spaced-out 60s psychedelia of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine and the cosmic free jazz of Sun Ra, but these players are far too singular to sound like anybody else. Minton in particular is mind-bending, summoning an encyclopedia of personas and styles: satanic growling, horrifying shrieking, sleazy crooning, and hysterical ranting, among many others. He and his cohorts have mapped out a harrowing sound world that curdles the utopian ideals that inspired it.
I’m a big fan of Bay Area guitarist Chuck Johnson—I’ve enjoyed his expansive acoustic fingerstyle music as well as his plugged-in blues-oriented explorations—and on his latest effort, he pulls back the curtain on yet another aesthetic. Balsams is a gorgeously woozy, borderline ambient album that overflows with the enveloping, liquid tones of a pedal steel guitar. Johnson played the instrument here and there on his wonderful 2016 album Velvet Arc (Trouble in Mind), albeit in a more conventional fashion, but here his insinuating melodies ooze and crawl, filling in spaces like mercury poured across a pockmarked slab. (He adds adds textural synths with admirable subtlety.) To my ears, records that focus on atmosphere often grow tiresome, but I’m still engaged by the mesmerizing sound world of Balsams.
37. This Is the Kit, Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade)
This Is the Kit, aka Paris-based Englishwoman Kate Stables and her rotating cast of supporting musicians (from the UK, France, and elsewhere), knocked me out with their fourth and latest album. Stables sings with measured grace, combining sophisticated pop phrasing with a crystalline tone straight out of the British folk tradition. Moonshine Freeze was masterfully produced by longtime PJ Harvey cohort John Parish, who foregrounds the tension between her controlled voice and the twitchy arrangements. “Hotter Colder” suggests a modern iteration of Joni Mitchell’s folk-jazz hybrid, and “Two Pence Piece” glows with warmth, sandwiching subtle but effective ooh-ooh vocal harmonies between graceful horn lines to cast a gorgeous spell behind Stables.
36. Stephan Meidell, Metrics (Hubro)
Norwegian guitarist Stephan Meidell began writing Metrics while living in a small Berlin apartment, and in part because he didn’t want to upset his neighbors, he ended up making music of ravishing fragility and beauty—he plugged everything into his computer and listened only on headphones. The album is Meidell’s take on Baroque music, refracted through a modern aesthetic rooted in improvisation; supporting musicians Magda Mayas (prepared piano), Hans Knut Sveen (harpsichord), Stefan Lindvall (baroque violin), Erlend Apneseth (Hardanger fiddle), and Morten Barrikmo (clarinet) add beautiful filigrees to the arrangements. I doubt most listeners would be able to identify what inspired Meidell, but the album’s detailed sound field, gossamer-fine textures, and sensitive interplay add up to a refreshing reflection on the legacy of the Baroque era.
On the remarkable Party (4AD), New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding further strips down an already minimal sound while dramatically extending her range. A few songs on the album—which was magnificently and resourcefully produced by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish—retain the diaphanous, eerie folk of her striking self-titled debut, but on most of it she uses her voice to create a dazzling variety of personas, achieving a richness and depth I didn’t expect even given how much I loved its predecessor. She might push her voice into pixie range (a la Joanna Newsom) over sparse beats, gentle arpeggiated acoustic guitar, and a few electronic squiggles. Or she might summon a fuller, deeper sound, like she does to the accompaniment of a simple piano-and-drum pattern on “Imagining My Man”—as she confronts her reluctance to let herself be loved, she sings at first with gossamer restraint and then gloriously opens up.
34. Arto Lindsay, Cuidado Madame (Northern Spy)
Arto Lindsay has spent decades making art-pop that fuses koanlike poetry with the sophisticated Latin pop he grew up hearing while living in Brazil with his missionary parents. His first studio album in 13 years is filled with sensual polyrhythms that ripple and throb, and Lindsay’s singing voice continues to approach the rounded softness of jazz vocalist Bob Dorough. On the opener, “Grain by Grain,” erotically tinged wordplay falls playfully from his lips: “I love my handwriting,” he croons. “I love my hand writing your name / On your belly.” Most of the songs create a lovely tension by battering the hushed intimacy of the melodies and vocals with elegant, shimmying low-end grooves. Lindsay vividly digs into his masterful but primitive guitar technique on “Arto vs. Arto,” a bruising dialogue of weird vocal tics and brittle six-string dissonance, and on the ballad “Pele de Perto” he delivers unalloyed beauty.
Polish guitarist Raphael Roginski has a ravenous appetite for thoughtfully remaking unexpected repertoires in his idiosyncratic and fascinating style. He developed his unusual approach to the guitar not just through long practice but also via serendipitous misunderstanding: he started playing on an Uzbek kemencheh his Tatar grandmother had given him, and treated the spike fiddle like a guitar. His gripping improvisational style, bathed in melancholy, flows in fits and starts—its hiccups, noise bursts, and knotted tangles distinguish him from just about everyone else I’ve ever heard. In the past he’s brilliantly adapted klezmer, John Coltrane, surf guitar, Hasidic nigunim, J.S. Bach, and more. Now he sets his sights on the refined Baroque songs of British composer Henry Purcell, preserving their stately elegance but adding a scarred imperfection, as though he’s restoring blemishes that were sanded off the versions we know. On some songs Olga Myslowska delivers Purcell’s words with beautiful directness, and on others Sebastian Witkowski adds some unnecessary synth beds, but the best pieces feature Roginski’s resonant guitar all alone.
32. Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society, Simultonality (Eremite)
On this Chicago band’s fourth and best album, Simultonality, Joshua Abrams and company pull back from North and East African traditional music to further refine their sound by adding elements of Krautrock and classical minimalism. As usual, most of the pieces ride on Abrams’s thrumming, twangy guimbri: he plays the same sort of cycling, propulsive licks that provide the motor at the heart of Morrocan Gnawa music, centering the listeners’ concentration and allowing them to bathe in the ensemble’s shifting timbres and rhythms. On “Ophiuchus,” Ben Boye’s psychedelic, chromatic electro-harp strumming creates a pulsating feel that Abrams and the group’s two drummers, Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery, reshape with a polyrhythmic groove; meanwhile harmonium player Lisa Alvarado and electric guitarist Emmett Kelly daub the song’s sprawling canvas with wandering figures. The gurgling arpeggios of “St. Cloud” push into a more meditative space, while “Sideways Fall” borrows as its driving force Jaki Liebezeit’s break from Can’s “Vitamin C,” splitting the pattern between Rosaly and Avery.
When I encountered Austrian singer Agnes Hvizdalek—now based in Norway—this past summer at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, I knew nothing about her. In the cramped attic of a small art gallery, she entranced a stunned audience with some of the most remarkable vocal sounds I’d ever encountered. Hvizdalek eschewed electronic enhancement, and I still marvel at some of the things she could do without it. For me this solo album provides a very similar experience: its 47-minute exploration of extreme extended techniques flows from one specific exercise into the next, and with each one I find myself more and more awestruck. The album doesn’t have much of a compositional arc (it’s more like a catalog of Hvizdalek’s skills), but the sounds are so compelling I’ve yet to care. I can barely believe a human can do all this.