Technically I didn’t do a first quarter rundown, but between my Heavy Rock Rundown and Jangle Pop piece, I covered most of my favorites for the first three months of the year, with the exceptions of Ty Segall and Nicole Sabouné. I gotta say, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more out of step with what’s fashionable in music. Looking at other Best of 2017 So Far lists, I’ve listened to and can acknowledge the quality of the Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Future, even if they’re not what I ever feel like listening to. I think the Fleet Foxes, Japandroids, Mac DeMarco, Syd, Thundercat and Mount Eerie are overrated but not terrible. But Harry Styles, Drake, Ed Sheeran and Father John Misty? Yuck. But thank freaking god that’s not all there is. There is still music that transports you, that’s worth getting excited about. Why is Algiers being ignored? At least Stereogum recognized Slowdive, Pallbearer and Elder, I’ve got ya covered for the rest.
Algiers – The Underside Of Power (Matador)
Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World (Armagedden)
Sitting atop the pile of this years albums like imperious monster-lizards, eyes half-closed, unconcerned with the mortals and their fleeting trends, are by far the two best albums of the year so far. I go back and forth as to which is my favorite, something I’ll have figured out by December. For now, I appreciate the vast differences between these bands, and the very different reasons I admire them. Algiers can be angry and jarring, yet still transcendent and beautiful. Elder can sound massive to the point of claustrophobia, yet startlingly nimble. See full reviews: Algiers | Elder
Male Gaze – Miss Taken (Castle Face)
Male Gaze hasn’t really clicked yet with the large-ish indie/psych audience that have been drawn to Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees, and it’s probably all their fault, having never done a proper tour, and insisting on cringe-inducing puns (last year’s album was King Leer). The cognitive dissonance between their intensity and stupid sense of humor might be off-putting or confusing to some, but damn, their garage psych and post-punk hybrid is like crack candy to me. While they experimented with some power and jangle pop, ballads and cleaner production on their second album, their third is a consolidation of their strengths, moody post-punk overdrive with some really catchy hooks. They have also returned to a roughed up garage rock production which suits them. Those who have enjoyed Wand’s albums might appreciate this approach, even if they restrain themselves from more overt guitar freakouts and keep to relatively traditional song structures. The payoff is some consistently sticky songwriting that holds up under repeated plays. There’s still plenty of variety in guitar sounds and tones, such as the opener “Keep Yr Kools” which kicks off with an atonal lick that could have come from Polvo. Every track has it’s strengths, but they really get going when they return to some jangle on the passionate “Didn’t,” and really slay with “Tell Me How It Is.” Yes, it’s 2017, I’m getting old and battle scarred, but there’s songs can still make me feel things! “If U Were My Girl” brings to mind the terse pop of later work by Queens Of The Stone Age, while “African Payoff” is anchored by a repetitive stoner riff that could have come straight from 1998, but somehow manages to make sense on the album. The closing title track is another highlight, a languorous cosmic country psych ballad. At 35:41, it’s the band’s longest album, but left me craving more. Their entire discography including a single clocks in at just over an hour and a half, meaning they have more than enough material for a killer live show. The band seems to have recognized this, and will be touring later this summer. I can’t wait!
Amplifier – Trippin’ With Dr. Faustus (Rockosmos)
Amplifier are a Manchester psych prog band formed in 2002 who flew under my radar until over a decade into their career, after their fourth album, Echo Street (2013). I went back to the sprawling double The Octopus (2011), and then had to get everything, including the underrated The Astronaut Dismantles HAL EP (2015). They revisit that kind of ambition on their sixth album, which loosely adheres to a story that updates Faust for the 21st century. The Devil makes an appearance as “Big Daddy” as does the Egyptian god of the dead, “Anubis.” True to the tradition started by The Who, the narrative is a bit of a mess (rainbow machines! supernovas!), but makes for some damn fun rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Amplifier are a little hard to pin down, because their influences are all over the place, ranging from classic stuff like The Who, Pink Floyd, Sabbath, some 90s grunge, Porcupine Tree, Muse, and Crack The Sky era Mastodon. While this might negatively affect the band’s marketability, it makes for each listening session like a treasure hunt, with numerous opportunities to unearth gold. An early standout for me is “Horse,” on which Sel Balamir layers his voice into a Yes-like harmony over a cascading guitar riff, accented by a floor-shaking bass lick. The sounds and textures are as diverse as ever, including guest vocalist Beth Zeppelin on “Big Daddy,” acoustic guitars on “Anubis,” and banjo on “Old Blue Eyes,” which escalates into a massive wall of squalling feedback. The album is overall the band’s heaviest since their debut, which they waste no time announcing on the slamming opener “Rainbow Machine.” Whacky concepts, space freakouts, big fat riffs and thunderous low-end bass tones, what more can one want? On second thought, shouldn’t Amplifier be ruling the earth, occasionally plopping down on stadiums and festivals to snack on the adoration of millions?
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos (Nuclear Blast)
When Leif Edling (Candlemass) formed this supergroup with members of Soen, Evergrey, Tiamat and Jupiter Society, they could be grouped with occult psych noir bands inspired by The Devil’s Blood, but with a foot still anchored in doom. Since then their roots of dug deeper into seventies prog and hard rock. On their third full-length, only one song, “A Kiss (From The End Of The World)” really deals with much doom. The first two numbers are hook-laden rockers featuring Jennie-Ann Smith’s soaring vocals. “Into the Fire / Into the Storm” has a Deep Purple/Rainbow vibe thanks to the Hammond organ. The opening guitar riff on “The Starless Sleep” sounds remarkably like an inverted version of Troubled Horse’s “One Step Closer To My Grave,” complete with guitar tone. It quickly morphs into a psychedelic stadium rocker with a catchy chorus. “Road To Jerusalem” mixes acoustic guitars with Middle Eastern melodies. While this is not an uncommon theme ever since Led Zeppelin III, the band is successful at fleshing it out into one of the more interesting songs with some epic storytelling and progressive textures. The sprawling “Medusa Child” gets a little creepy with the use of children’s voices in early choruses and a ghostly bridge in the middle. The second half is all instrumental, moving perhaps a bit too languidly, but close listening can gain more appreciation for the intricate guitar jams. “The Sky At The Bottom Of The Sea” is a standout, with frenetic keyboards that mix a prog pop arrangement with a couple nastier, distorted garage psych guitar solos. The smoky blues noir torch ballad “When Breath Turns To Air” showcases Smith’s vocal abilities in full bloom. The album closes with the experimental instrumental soundscapes of the title track. It feels like it should be a segue in the middle of a longer album, but this is all we get. Not that we didn’t get plenty. At just under 45 minutes, it’s not super short, just enough to leave one wanting more rather than exhausted. | Buy
Ty Segall – Ty Segall (Drag City)
Since 2007, Ty Segall has released at over 14 albums of garage psych, and that’s not even including his projects with bands like Fuzz, GØGGS and Epsilons. He’s become a sort of ambassador for all things American indie psych, understandably so. Newcomers would find it a daunting task to dip into his large discography. One would think the Singles 2007-2010 collection to be the first place to start, but that would be wrong. Segall has made it easy this year by putting together his strongest collection of songs that feels like a greatest hits album that summarizes his highlights from the past few years, but is all new material. Twins (2012) served a similar function, but his second self-titled album after his debut is even better. We hear his obsessions with T. Rex (2015’s Ty Rex is all covers) on “Orange Color Queen” and the gentle country folk of “Talkin’,” the Kinks on the hooky “Papers,” the Who via Guided By Voices on the majestic “Take Care (To Comb Your Hair,” and John Lennon on “Freedom.” Not to say he’s mimicking any of these artists, as each song clearly has a lot going on that all manage to cohere in Ty Segall’s own style. The album’s sprawling centerpiece is the 10:21 long “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)” which takes a journey from psych folk to fuzzed out punk, to a smoother, extended jam with jazzy guitar picking. While I was mostly a fan of his proto-metal project Fuzz, this album has me reconsidering his range of talents and digging back into his catalog. It can be a pretty messy, chaotic slog, but one that’s continually rewarding.
Circle – Terminal (Southern Lord)
Formed in 1991, this band from Pori, Finland can be hard to figure out. From a cursory glimpse at their massive (52 albums and counting) catalog, they seem to be pretty serious avant rock experimentalists. And while they do have an adventurous, diverse palate that ranges from trance-inducing but speedy Kosmische and psychedelic rock and prog, they also wear ridiculous spandex outfits on stage with antics that result in simulated severed limbs. They have also toyed with 80s era heavy metal and moonlight as AOR rockers Falcon. and NWOBHM in Pharaoh Overlord and Aktor with Chris “Professor” Black (Dawnbringer, High Spirits) on vocals. But despite their humor, their music is no joke. Terminal is a particularly heavy trip, kicked off by the longest track, thirteen minute “Rakkauta Al Dente” which features vocalist/keyboardist Mika Rättö at his most feral and unfettered before settling into a scintillating psych prog instrumental groove that gets nearly ethereal with acoustic strumming and bells. Near the end the vocals and distortion return to close it out. The title track is a driving space rocker that outdoes Hawkwind at their own specialty. “Saxo” also features a fairly simple, repetitive riff, augmented with an eerie wordless vocal chorus, as if some mad monks were calling upon the apocalypse. “Imperiumi” and “Kill City” (Judas Priest meet Stooges) are both loud, intense rockers, and the album ends with another highlight, the driving “Sick Child,” a menacing slice of psych rock. It’s really, really hard to say which is Circle’s best album, but you could do far worse than starting with Terminal.
Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won (Domino)
While some may only know Peter Perrett as a one hit wonder, the writer of The Only One’s most well known track, “Another Girl, Another Planet,” he’s far more interesting than that. In 1973 he released an album of promising garage glam rock with England’s Glory, which included future Squeeze member Harry Kakoulli. He formed his next band The Only Ones in 1976, who were loosely attached to the punk scene, and mixed elements of Television, power pop and new wave. They released three albums between 1978 and 1980 full of some of the most timeless, poetic songs of the era. Due probably to Perrett’s issues with drug addiction, the band broke up, and he was mainly MIA, except for a pretty solid solo album in 1996, Woke Up Sticky, featuring a catchy successor to “Another Girl” called “Falling.” Another 21 years goes by, and it’s finally time for another album. This time, Perrett has been drug free for six years, and while there’s nothing catchy along the lines of “Falling,” it’s probably his best overall work since Even Serpents Shine (1979), thanks to his witty, literate lyrics with some fabulously trippy imagery that would make Robyn Hitchcock envious, and some really nice Television/Robert Quine inspired guitar playing from his son Jamie. A vivid highlight is “Something In My Brain,” a winking but powerfully redemptive song about surviving weakness and addiction. Elsewhere he slavers over Kim Kardashian’s bum like your embarrassing dirty grandpa. But overall the album is uplifted by more wry, less cringe-inducing humor, and even on “An Epic Story,” sweeping romanticism.
Nicole Sabouné – Miman (Century Media)
Nicole Sabouné was first heard on the Swedish version of the TV show “The Voice.” I can’t imagine any contestants on the American version going on to become powerful goth/darkwave sirens, but hey, this is Sweden. Tapping into Siouxsie Sioux for sure with a touch of Sinéad O’Connor, but also elementally powerful divas like Ute Lemper and Diamanda Galas, Sabouné’s 2014 debut Must Exist was already accomplished enough to establish her as a worthy peer along the likes of Zola Jesus, Marissa Nadler and Chelsea Wolfe. The followup was actually finished just a year later, but it only 500 copies were pressed, until Century Media signed her and gave it the proper release it deserves.
Zebra Hunt – In Phrases (Tenorio Cotobade)
Part of a strong wave of resurgent jangle pop from the past couple years, Seattle’s Zebra Hunt continues on their second album to pay homage to bands from New Zealand’s Flying Nun label like The Go-Betweens and The Clean. Additionally they give nods to The Feelies, Paisley Undergrounders The Dream Syndicate and Game Theory. Produced by Jack Endino, the stands apart from most of the Seattle bands with a fairly laid back garage pop sound. Careful it can be addictive.
Galley Beggar – Heathen Hymns (Rise Above)
When Lee Dorian signed this fairly traditional folk band to his label, he must have heard something special brewing. They already had an album, Reformation House (2010) that established they were following in the footsteps of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle, but live shows may have indicated a tendency to explore their progressive psych tendencies more along the lines of Trees. Their third albums sees this vision in fruition, with plenty of haunting, dark vibes that start to drift into the psych noir territory of labelmates Blood Ceremony. For example, “Four Birds” features some foreboding, throbbing bass and some menacingly trippy psych guitar lines.
INVSN – The Beautiful Stories (Dine Alone)
When these Swedish post-punkers debuted in 2013 with fire in their bellies and gothic dread in their souls, it would have not been surprising if they were a young band. But in fact Dennis Lyxzén has been around, having been involved in The Refused and The (International) Noise Conspiracy. He’s joined by some equally accomplished musicians from both the hardcore and pop scenes. Both projects have had their share of acclaim, but INVSN is by far my favorite, merging the apocalyptic fury of Killing Joke with a rich, creative art pop streak. “The Distance” is justification enough for reviving an actual video channel on TV just so they can play the shit out this. “I Dreamt Music” is like a long lost track from when New Order were emerging from their post-Joy Division chrysalis. The fact that this band had to run a Pledge Music campaign to finance their second album is further proof in the pudding that the world is fucking broken.
Beastmaker – Inside The Skull (Rise Above)
On my flight last year to Roadburn Festival, I listened to tracks from a bunch of bands playing at the festival I wasn’t familiar with. To be honest, Beastmaker were fairly low on my list, as the recently released Lusus Naturae (2016) hit the Sabbath and Uncle Acid buttons, but did not wow me with standout songs. I’m glad I caught their set, however, as they certainly have talent, bringing to mind the loose, garagey doom of the defunct Green & Wood, and rising stars Magic Circle. The promise was fulfilled just over a year later with their second album, which is much more satisfying. The sound is still ragged, but they manage to graduate from just riffs and occult atmospherics to some real tunes. It keeps growing on me, like flesh-eating bacteria.
Elkhorn – The Black River (Debacle)
While instrumental guitar music isn’t exactly trendy, the unique partnership between Jesse Shepard’s acoustic picking and Drew Gardner’s electric is both timeless (referencing folk music that goes back centuries, and droning undertones that go back even further, to more modern innovations by John Fahey and Glenn Jones) to psychedelic explorations that are distinctly of this time. While it can work as fairly mellow background music, more focused listening can be extra rewarding. Take for example “Spiritual.” John Coltrane’s track from his 1961 Live At The Village Vanguard album foreshadowed his transcendent peak on A Love Supreme (1965). Elkhorn hints at such potential with a beautifully subtle arrangement that reminds me of the passionate work of John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana’s Love Devotion Surrender (1972). While the Latin jazz fusion performance is much different than Elkhorn’s psychedelic folk, both pay tribute to Coltrane’s yearning spiritual quest. The title track was originally recorded in 2012, and a comparison illustrates how much more commanding the musicianship is on the new version, the interweaving tones of acoustic and electric achieving a perfect balance. It’s appropriate that this is their first vinyl release, as it’s their most definitive album so far.
While I’m out of time to write more, keep in mind that there is very little separating the previous albums from the following. The next few are still currently in my top 30, after all. No small feat when the year is half over and there’s already probably over a thousand albums worth hearing. My listening habits aren’t strictly linear either. For example, when not listening to new music, I’ve been digging into long-forgotten side projects of prog pop artists like John Wetton (RIP), Phil Manzanera, Steve Hackett, U.K., Jon Anderson & Vangelis. This somehow lead me to recent AOR offerings from Finland’s Brother Firetribe and Sweden’s The Night Flight Orchestra, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having a blast with them. But they’re lingering just at the edge of my top 100.
For more heavy stoner/doom/psych, see the Doom Charts.
- Dope Smoker – Legalize It (Dope Smoker, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Rips – Rips (Faux Discx, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Sea Pinks – Watercourse (CF, 2017) | Bandcamp
- WALL – Untitled (Wharf Cat, 2017) | Bandcamp
- The Fallen Leaves – What We’ve All Been Waiting For (Parliament, 2017) | Buy
- The Janitors – Horn Ur Marken (Sky Lantern/Cardinal Fuzz, 2017) | Bandcamp
- 10 000 Russos – Distress Distress (Fuzz Club, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Gaytheist – Let’s Jam Again Soon (Good To Die, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Slowdive – Slowdive (Dead Oceans, 2017)
- The Regrettes – Feel Your Feelings, Fool! (WB, 2017)
- Oxbow – The Thin Black Duke (Hydra Head, 2017) | Bandcamp
- UV-TV – Glass (Deranged, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Moon Duo – Occult Architecture Vol. 1 (Sacred Bones, 2017) | Bandcamp
- All Them Witches – Sleeping Through The War (New West, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Krokofant – Krokofant II (Rune Grammofon, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Siena Root – A Dream Of Lasting Peace (Made In Germany, 2017)
- Kill West – Gush (Stolen Body, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Doublestone – Devil’s Own/Djaevlens Egn (Doublestone, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Medusa1975 – Rising From The Ashes (Medusa1975, 2017) | Bandcamp
- The Wicked Ones – The Wicked Ones (Wicked Ones, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Devil’s Witches – Velvet Magic (Devil’s Witches, 2017) | Bandcamp
- The Gluts – Estasi (Fuzz Club, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Samsara Blues Experiment – One With The Universe (Electric Magic/World In Sound, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Nuvem Leopardo – Quintesséncia (Nuvem Leopardo, 2017) | Bandcamp
The Best Of 2017 So Far
- Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World (Armagedden, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Algiers – The Underside Of Power (Matador, 2017)
- Troubled Horse – Revolution On Repeat (Rise Above, 2017)
- Teen Judge – Teen Judge (Berthed Futurist, 2017) | Buy
- The Feelies – In Between (Bar/None, 2017) | Buy
- Male Gaze – Miss Taken (Castle Face, 2017) | Buy
- Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Amplifier – Trippin’ With Dr. Faustus (Rockosmos, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Royal Thunder – Wick (Spinefarm, 2017) | Buy
- Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos (Nuclear Blast, 2017) | Buy
- Horisont – About Time (Century Media, 2017) | Buy
- The Obsessed – Sacred (Relapse, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Spidergawd – IV (Crispin Glover/Stickman, 2017) | Buy
- The Devil And The Almighty Blues – II (Blues For The Red Sun, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Colour Haze – In Her Garden (Elektrohasch, 2017)
- Telekinetic Yeti – Abominable (Sump Pump, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Ty Segall – Ty Segall (Drag City, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Circle – Terminal (Southern Lord, 2017) | Bandcamp
- The Black Watch – The Gospel According To John (Pop Culture Press, 2017) | Bandcamp
- Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won (Domino, 2017)
See the full list here.