Photo credit: Bruce Wang.
Graham Duff is a screenwriter, actor, producer and show-runner. His TV series include The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, Ideal, Hebburn and Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible. He’s also published writings on left field music and contemporary art. His forthcoming book Foreground Music is a personal history of the live music scene in the United Kingdom. Here are Graham’s picks for the best albums of 2017.
20. Emmanuel - Rave Culture
An immediate yet artfully crafted album of energised machine music, courtesy of Italy’s Emmanuel (full name Emmanuel Beddewela). On the tensely pulsing “Chainreaction” Emmanuel seems to be mining the same seam as France’s Gesaffelstein. But when he adorns the otherwise sleek and gleaming rhythm with strange lopsided percussive fills, they transform the track into a thing of sublime strangeness. Beddewela’s attention to detail ensures, the whole album is as imaginative as it is thrilling. And if “Conductor” powers along like Jeff Mills at his most optimistic, elsewhere, tracks such as “Ultratribe” and “Killer Floor” operate as dark darts of full tilt 21st century techno.
19. The Dials - That Was The Future
No one could accuse The Dials of hiding their influences. Their sound is a glorious mix of late 60s pop-psych, fuzzed up guitars and funky 70s style keyboard and synth lines. Yet this is no exercise in homage. What sets The Dials apart is both the standard of their songwriting and Joe Allenby and Rich Parrish’s perfectly judged vocal melodies. Songs such as the genuinely funky “Cuckoo Stone” or the Spencer Davis Group style strut of “The Nark,” display an effortless cool. The band’s previous releases hinted at something great, but That Was The Future comes straight out and delivers it.
18. Akatombo - Short Fuse
Under his Akatombo alias, Paul T. Kirk has been releasing beautifully judged albums of stark, grainy hip hop inflected electronica since 2003’s Trace Elements. In 2015, Kirk’s life threatening health problems fed directly into his album Sometime, Never. That was a set cloaked in claustrophobic dread. But with Short Fuse, Kirk seems to have reached a position of bruised grace. He still fashions skanking rhythms of a mean and distorted aspect. But it feels like he’s able to let in a little more light than before. And the album frequently ups the pace, with tracks such as “George Kaplan” and “Solitude in Numbers” driven by a propulsive kinetic energy.
17. The Courtneys - II
Vancouver all girl trio The Courtneys are exponents of a catchy harmonic new wave pop, whilst also being home to some very gnarly guitar textures. Their sound is fat and driving, and, on “Minnesota,” Courtney Garvin’s guitar manages to sound like an overdriven keyboard. Vocalist Jen Twynn Payne is also the band’s drummer and she keeps the rhythms lean and uncluttered. The highlight is the closing “Frankie,” where Twynn Payne’s sad autumnal vocal melody is kept in motion by a precise motorik groove. There may be trace elements of Sonic Youth or Joy Zipper in their sound, but over the spread of this album, The Courtneys create their own distinct world.
16. Vukovar - Puritan
Vukovar are a band with feet in several camps. Opening track “Ubermensch” strides into view like an epic Walker Brothers ballad seen through the prism of post punk. On the other hand, S.S.S.” comes across like early Cure remixed by a space age King Tubby. Stand outs include the seesawing “Once More For The Puritan,” where Rick Clarke’s vocals are complemented by the sweet, clear tones of Elizabeth Mcnally. Elsewhere “This Moment Severed” could almost be an out take from Joy Division’s “Closer.” Puritan is an album of genuine poetry and exciting textures, beautifully underpinned by Buddy Preston’s richly detailed drum patterns.
15. Huoratron - XXVI Crimes Of Love
Foregrounding the strictest of electronic rhythms and thick burred chips of 8-bit noise, Huoratron (aka Aku Raski) is a Finnish electro house artist whose high impact dynamics connect directly with the body. A number of these tracks have already seen the light of day on earlier EPs, but they sit neatly next to newer pieces such as “Autocannibalism,” where sheets of detuned synth and twitchy glitched out rhythms collide with fragments of a drum and bass session. Much more suited to the dance floor, than domestic listening, there are nevertheless moments where headphone listening reveals astonishing feats of programming.
14. Fever Ray - Plunge
With her brother Olof, Karin Dreijer was one half of Swedish electronic duo The Knife. Whilst all The Knife’s albums are essential, Dreijer’s 2009 solo debut, released as Fever Ray, eclipsed them all. How delightful then, to see her relaunching the project. Stand out track “An Itch” twitches and scratches with monomaniac insistence, whereas “Wanna Sip” is like an electro Bond theme performed by a lost tribe. The mood here is definitely a shade perkier than Fever Ray’s debut, with “To The Moon And Back” initially suggesting she’s flirting with a Hi-NRG pop approach. But the song’s strange and erotic lyrics swiftly remind you that Dreijer is as fascinated by extremes as ever.
13. Madonnatron - Madonnatron
Madonnatron are a psychedelic garage band who know the secret of a great groove is to keep things simple. This female four piece are probably best experienced live. But their debut album still manages to catch much of their energy and verve. With their churning bass lines and driving riffs, there are shades of early 80s Fall about tracks such as “Be My Bitch” and “Mother’s Funeral.” Madonnatron’s sound is sometimes sinister yet always engaging, with their punchy riot-feminist vocals and lyrics always catching the ear. The band’s wild and witchy backing vocals only add to the feel of a coven being called to order.
12. Moiré - No Future
Tracks such as “System 100,” with its reimagining of dystopian house, recall the broad, spacious plateaux of early 90s electronica. And yet No Future somehow ends up sounding like a defiant soundtrack to the early twenty first century. Stand outs include the darkly pulsing “Lost You,” featuring a moody spoken vocal from DRS (aka Delroy Pottinger), and “Opium” which blips and bleeps like prime era LFO. Meanwhile, “Façade” matches a clattering rhythm track with soothing synth pads, as James Massiah’s vocal declares “So many subcultures, you can’t count.” This could well be Moiré’s mission statement, for his music cherry picks from a multitude of different contemporary dance musics.
11. Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology
To some Jane Weaver is an unknown entity, to others she verges on being a national treasure. Career high points include 2002’s largely acoustic Like An Aspen Leaf and 2014’s The Silver Globe which combined folk elements, disco textures and a krautrock motorik with Weaver’s unfailing ear for a special melody. Modern Kosmology takes ‘The Silver Globe’s open ended sound palette and continues the exploration. “Loops In The Secret Society” could be Broadcast in a particularly freewheeling mood. Whereas the title track is part breezy folk rock song, part analogue synth freak out and part 70’s supernatural TV show theme.
10. The Academy Of Sun - Codex Novena
Describing themselves as queer, gnostic, orchestral post-punk, The Academy of the Sun are centered around the rich vocals and nuanced songwriting of Nick Hudson. And, with Codex Novena, Hudson has created an album of sweeping ambition and startling contrasts. Opener “Our Planets” builds into a searing polytonal wall of noise which owes a debt to Tony Conrad and John Cale’s work on “Inside The Dream Syndicate.” This might seem to be preparing us for a collection of dissonant experimentation. Yet the faint hearted who stopped there would miss out on the delicate folkloric wonders to come. Hudson’s lyrics and melodies always deliver unexpected twists and the arrangements here are masterful.
9. Ulrika Spacek - Modern English Decoration
Ulrika Spacek’s sound is dominated by their three guitarists. On a song like the slowly chugging “Dead Museum,” the densely enmeshed riffs and drones of this Reading five piece recall the kind of blissful noise summoned up by The Band of Susans or mid period Sonic Youth. But there’s also something of Deerhunter about the band’s gauzy but winsome vocal melodies. The album’s highlight is probably “Victorian Acid,” with its tense central melody drowning in waves of overdriven distortion. The hilariously titled “Protestant Work Slump” closes the album in a brighter mood, with a distinct gleam of Big Star.
8. The Absolute Clock - The Absolute Clock
Finally available after 30 years! The legendary unreleased debut album by long lost UK indie-psych band The Absolute Clock. This will appeal to fans of The Teardrop Explodes, The Monochrome Set and all round quality songwriting. By the time of their excellent 1994 debut album proper: Air In a Stone, The Absolute Clock had evolved into a subtler, slightly folkier proposition. But here, they are captured in all their early psychedelic glory. Songs such as the brightly skipping “Overflow,” or the opening Decency,” with Tim Sagar’s gliding ice rink organ and his brother Olly’s heartfelt vocal, are in touching distance of sublime.
7. The Fall - New Facts Emerge
On their 32nd studio album, The Fall storm the studio bristling with attitude, bile and a desire to experiment. On “Fol de Rol,” Peter Greenway’s cruel and pruned riff immediately snares the attention. The group are muscular and brutal, frequently sounding like an autistic biker band on serious steroids. Mark E. Smith’s growling vocals have an increasingly Beefheartian nay, animalistic quality, whilst the complex arrangements are especially impressive. Both “Brillo De Facto” and “Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s” race through their multiple tightly choreographed sections, switching from surf twang to rockabilly rumble to Sabbath style riffage, and on to the truly uncategorizable.
6.Waq Waq Kingdom - Shinsekai
Waq Waq Kingdom is a new project combining the talents of DJ Scotch Egg, Andrea Belfi and Kiki Hitomi - best known as vocalist with King Midas Sound. And although the album’s centre-point is obviously Hitomi’s clear and pure vocals, there is much more to love about Shinsekai. The way it showcases an addictive blend of reggae, house, dubstep and other less definable elements. The way the shimmering subaquatic dub-scape of “Koko Says” provides the perfect setting for Hitomi’s evocative top line. The way “Oh It’s Good” turns minimal elements into pure dance floor catnip. Or the way the whole album seems to fly by in a matter of moments.
5. Alan Vega - IT
Along with Martin Rev, his companion in pioneering New York synth duo Suicide, Alan Vega was a visionary artist who saw the future, then helped create it. When he sadly passed away last year, at the age of 78, he was working on his first solo album since 2007’s neglected Station. And it transpires his last album, more political than personal, is an indisputable career highlight. “DTM” is a fiercely looping surge of electronics with Vega’s unmistakable vocals riding them with tense determination. “Motorcycle Explodes” sees Vega’s lyrics veering between the cautionary and the celebratory as a clangorous Throbbing Gristle-style electro-rhythm roils beneath. As final statements go, this is pretty special.
4. Demen - Nektyr
A debut album which is alive with confidence and well judged minimalism. There are definite moments, such as on the romantic swirl of “Niorum” or the grandiose high church atmosphere of “IIIdrop,” where you may be reminded of Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil. And yet the album places Orm’s impressive and evocative vocals amid shifting soundscapes which are equally haunted by the ghosts of trip hop, Industrial and dub. An album which is gothic in the true sense - without being Goth - Nektyr resists clichés, to present the sound of one woman’s finely honed vision.
3. LOTTO - VV
Somewhere in between the autobahn cruising of Neu and the clipped metronomic looping of Nissenmondai, are Polish trio Lotto. VV is a set of five distinct and uninhibited instrumentals which explore the hinterlands of pared down rock in a bid to create truly psychotropic trance music. Mike Majkowski’s bass lines are the backbone of these compositions, with guitarist Łukasz Rychlicki often using his instrument to forge clusters of subtly shifting tones as opposed to chords or riffs. Paweł Szpura’s drumming is never less than arresting and his sense of restraint is one of the album’s great strengths. If you dig constantly mutating repetition then this is the album for you.
2. Total Leatherette - For The Climax Of The Night
Glaswegian electro duo Total Leatherette would seem to draw equal inspiration from the lean and purposeful repetition of Underground Resistance, the distorted atmospherics of Coil and the skewed dance floor electronics of DAF. The whole album is permeated by a brooding sense of accumulating menace, with vocals which are most often used as just another corrupted texture within the music’s obsessively repeating grids. For The Climax of the Night ripples with unease and is encrypted with a markedly queer sensibility. And it’s also the year’s finest electronic album.
1. Wire - Silver/Lead
Opening with the plangent “Playing Harp For The Fishes”—where Graham Lewis’ rich baritone intones over Colin Newman and Matt Simms FX-drenched waves of guitar—this is an album as intense as it is playful. Robert Grey’s spartan but immaculately nuanced drum patterns lift the arrangements throughout. And, whilst Wire are still the go-to band for angular psychedelics (“An Alibi”) and oblique but melodic post punk (“Short Elevated Period”), Silver/Lead sees them experimenting with a more glam inflected template. “Forever & A Day” suggests the elegant swing and compressed drama of early Roxy Music, and the buzzing and glinting “Diamonds in Cups” has a flavour of T-Rex at their most groovesome. With Silver/Lead, the group prove once again that late-period Wire can easily lay claim to being best-period Wire.