2017: Favorite 50 Music Releases This year’s shitshow can’t be completely undone, but we are not beyond repair.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


30

Lawrence English

Cruel Optimism

[Room40]

[LISTEN · READ]

You don’t hear the sounds so much as you feel them, like a distant mudslide slowly moving your way, when everything stalls and a moment seems to last forever. Sharing its title with Lauren Berlant’s 2011 monograph, Cruel Optimism addressed the same affect theory concern of an individual’s optimistic attachment in an increasingly compromised society. Across Cruel Optimism, English was able to push his own boundaries, combining freeform ideas with captivating instrumental sequences, conceived, at times, by ”happy accidents.” With repeated listens, Cruel Optimism became unshakable, its scope and imagination conveying a divine, indeterminate place and time. Picking out moments to describe the whole feels Sisyphean, as the whole was simply an intense masterclass in sound sustention. Cruel Optimism embraced Berlant’s theory of “crisis ordinariness,” but sought to experiment, to try new forms of living in a deteriorating world. In doing so, this release saw this extraordinarily talented composer deliver his most beautiful, pathos-laden, and, above all, human masterpiece yet.


29

CupcakKe

Queen Elizabitch

[Self-Released]

[WATCH · READ]

By turns lurid and lucid, CupcakKe had the stamina to out-pace, out-rap, and out-fuck just about everyone this past year, and Queen Elizabitch was her glistening testament to the fact. Whether she was raiding your shit (“Quick Thought”), preaching body positivity (“Biggie Smalls”), or fucking in the back of an Uber (“Cumshot”), there was little room for the sacred in her urgency and diligence. Put simply, this was 100% profane to its very core, jettisoning any notion of radio-friendliness or crossover appeal in her perverse outlook; if I could point to any one rhyme as a suitable M.O., this might be it: “Name anything freaky and you know I’m ‘bout the shit / Only time I’m not on the dick is when I’m ‘bout to shit” (“CPR”). And, consistent with her meticulous impulse toward what’s real, Queen Elizabitch was bookended by two of the most thoughtful cuts anybody could muster in 2017, introducing and capping off a tale of personal triumph amidst societal anguish. Long live the Queen — true to her word, the 33rd of the month never came.


28

Léo Hoffsaes & Loto Retina

Early Contact

[PERMALNK]

[LISTEN · READ]

The nuclear family of Early Contact includes father, mother, son, and soon-to-be second child, who, in this perfect narrative, would be a daughter. The first time we heard the pregnant mother, our narrator, speak, her voice inspired a surge of strings to burst forth from her swelling heart and belly and announced two of the album’s three scores: the mother’s internal monologue, written by Bastien Vairet and performed in the distinctly superficial style of true-blue American artifice; and the orchestral arrangements that soundtrack her thoughts with extreme, almost Disney-like pathos. But a third, subtler score was also present, though in suspension, and sounded its poignant piece through muddy, atmospheric synths and electro-acoustic compositions that seemed to come from far off or, more likely, from deep within. It seeped like a vapor through the album’s amniotic fluid — unformed sometimes, as in in the beginning of “11 am”; and eternal other times, as in “2 pm.” The tension created by the three tracks spoke to the whole absurd theater of this life-in-the-day-of, and even though we were listening to the scripted thoughts of an archetype, I couldn’t help but wonder how our own thoughts do so churn.


27

Big Thief

Capacity

[Saddle Creek]

[LISTEN]

SNOWFALL,
a word like an other, a root transformed by circumstances. Words are containers for wonders, imagined expressions of the world we see. In words like in snows, the world is temporarily transfigured, a familiar thing under bright fabric. Sound and snow transfix; “you won’t recognize your house.

MYTHOLOGICAL,
almost, legends of our every days, we walk in the feel of falling skies. The dog pulls, happy haywire in the shifted smells of these streets. In snows like in songs, silhouettes of the world resound from under a momentary veneer, a changed air. Somewhere, tree’s leaves. Somewhere, a dead deer under these new white mounds. “Will you recognize the iris of the body?” Half-familiar home, a streetlight of us stepping, “forgetting the word “dog” and looking at that naked animal and getting much closer to it and how it is different to you.”

CAPACITY
bridges could-know and have-known, fabrics worlds and traumas in folk and rumbles. Capacity contains all our breaking engagements, all our dog-walk joys, the paths that fade from the steps that can’t be taken back. Worlds break but songs make, myths for forward. “You’re all caught up inside/ But you know the way.” Hearth and hurt, coma and home, Capacity takes and holds, getting us much closer to us than we can without it.


26

Various Artists

Club Chai Vol.1

[Club Chai]

[LISTEN · READ]

How do you build something communal in the face of absolute fragmentation? Is there a way out of the hell of singular ready-made identities, something that allows one to carry solidarity further than individual interests? Club Chai Vol. 1 sought answers to these questions while bridging the gap between the local and the global to find a common tongue, regardless of the variety of struggle. The comp managed to locate a solidarity that progressed beyond common interests of a single identity group, a solidarity of simply caring for others who are different. Rather than artificially creating common ground by imposing an overarching theme or artistic direction, the record embraced the differences of its co-creators, their varied backgrounds, their unique musical styles. This created a sonic world wherein FOOZOOL’s tense “AZAT Ազատ” felt right at home next to the gently sung “BLACK WAX” by SPELLING. Every contribution to the compilation was irrevocably different, and yet it never felt incoherent or arbitrary. In its disregard of borders, be they political or artistic, Club Chai Vol.1 brought to the fore voices routinely excluded by the West and the faux-liberalism of middle-class uniformity. It succeeded by forging out of them a harmony that felt complete and unafraid, destructive toward the existing rulesets and intent on creating new spaces of possibility.


25

Slowdive

Slowdive

[Dead Oceans]

[WATCH · READ]

The news is grimmer every year. We find ourselves at the crossroads in modern society: party over country, corporations over people, division over unity. We fall neatly into categories and find ourselves embracing or rejecting what is reported about our adopted identities. So, here we are, staring at our shoes, deciding where next to stride. I chose the light, where it seems Slowdive have been hiding for two decades with open arms, hoping society came to them naturally. We didn’t, so they’ve reemerged and are urging us toward the inner peace of doing the right thing. Slowdive has broken my shackles, and I’m no longer tethered to characters typed out on a screen that may or may not speak to my demeanor, message, and identity. I’m transcending it all, leaving the orange psychic shadow behind. We have better things to do with our time and energy, and it begins with a deep dive into the return of Slowdive and our roots of making the change we want.


24

Chino Amobi

PARADISO

[UNO NYC/NON WORLDWIDE]

[LISTEN · READ]

An understated appeal of the circus or carnival lies in the elevation of “characters” that we otherwise neglect to acknowledge in our daily lives, but whom we know exist in the shadows. PARADISO offered a similar promotion, although in lieu of so-called “freaks” with biological conditions, the musical sideshow centered around a plethora of artists affiliated with Amobi’s NON WORLDWIDE label, which arrived on the scene a few years ago figuratively offering the mic to a variety of underrepresented. Elysia Crampton recited Poe with variations on a couple of tracks, and the title track had a veritable litany of artist features, which began with the defiant and possible mission statement: “I’m not an animal.” Cages were for sure lifted accordingly on an overall musical level, and the whole of the release showcased the chaotic stew that possibly represents our current societal state better than vanilla and holidays sales ever did. Some of us still need a blatant welcome, despite a distant organ.


23

Various Artists

Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series / Limited Event Series Soundtrack)

[Rhino]

[WATCH · WATCH · WATCH]

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, for most of us at TMT, the most important event of the year (particular stages in the ongoing degeneration of the globe notwithstanding) was not primarily musical, but televisual. But, of course, in the new Twin Peaks series, as with anything involving David Lynch, the musical side could never have been less than crucial, whether as a conduit of signification and significance, as punctuation, or as a peculiar kind of marginalia to the show. The original series left innumerable traces on the wider world, detectable ever since in television, in film, in our favorite music — in our very perception of things. Even detached from the accompanying pictures and story, the soundtrack has always possessed an almost uniquely powerful ability to evoke a polyvalent kind of nostalgia. Now, disoriented by novelties, the old is given strange new salience and sent down an entirely renewed confusion of interpretative possibilities. Twin Peaks has grown, expanded to fill voids it had left behind, and engendered new ones. In the years since its first incarnation, it found points of entry into our own world; this year, ours found a way into its. Could “Laura Palmer’s Theme” ever mean the same thing again?


22

Jlin

Black Origami

[Planet Mu]

[WATCH · READ]

Watch it fold. A few things, maximized, then steady. Singularity: each sound an organelle, tiniest units of tissue, collectively defining the tissue, gradually forming the organ, one formal unit, one after the other, track by track, slowly shifting. It doubles back, flips the script, keels over. Origami. “The fold serves as an apt metaphor,” says Prathna Lor on Renee Gladman’s “Calamities.” “The fold is at once additive as it is subtractive. Folds, as they increase in number, generate more and more possibilities, and completely reimagine the space within which they are reconfigured. Space is reconfigured, (re)constructed, diminished, and translated along new and different planes.” It sounds good. “[It] feels knotted; like being in a mouth.” It speaks from another, from within another (mouth), it moves the body. “What becomes necessary is not the untangling of its density but the tracing out of its textures, surfaces, and shapes. […] It is therefore not in the name of teleology but of experience that we must seek a phenomenology, an erotics, a contouring of writing.” Working with steel, working the body, working toward elegance. Refining, tempering, deliberate, shifting.


21

Björk

Utopia

[One Little Indian]

[WATCH · READ]

Recovery’s tricky. You know it’s been rough, don’t worry, it’s fine now, etc., but shit can and will dive down again. The cycle repeats, and Utopia was an abstract pop frolic through it. Having endured the breakup that inspired 2015’s Vulnicura, Björk, again partnered with producer Arca, pondered the confounding trials of emotion. Against frustrating soundscapes that allowed industrial thuds and ethereal flutes to coexist, Björk cooed and wailed over the sensory/biological overload of first kisses, brokenness, and the responsibility of guardianship. Mysterious noises scattered, never to be heard again. Flames and birds crackled, and the question of their authenticity added to the experience; we have our fantasies of love and pain, but what is the reality? By the end, having addressed tactile, spiritual, and digital communication, she reached beyond herself, bore the world’s angst, and protected its lantern, even though it has prompted her to shift shapes. Guardedly optimistic, Björk faced an increasingly indifferent world, so maybe her hope will falter, but that was Utopia’s point. It was a gorgeous mess, a contradictory album by/for contradictory minds, and its enigmas will persist.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


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