2017, the year in music
A run through of all the best bits of 2017
Every shape and flavour of what I love at The Letter has been delivered in some form throughout 2017, be that vast landscapes of detailed texture, flourishes of soothing melody, rib-rattling monochromatic thumping or deeply disturbing experiences. There's been long and challenging EPs, short and snappy albums and everything in between. And while some of my fav artists and producers have continued to tread their established paths, it was, unsurprisingly, those that scratched and scrawled all over the standard blueprints that demanded the most attention. Here’s an overview of the music I enjoyed in 2017.
The year started well with Architectural's monumental Metropolitan Opera, an album brimming with filmic references and dark matter, a type of widescreen Techno. Likewise, Claudio PRC brought a certain cinematic vision to his Ambient and Techno compositions with Volumi Dinamici, a darkly atmospheric album for Semantica. I realise it’s not a new idea, this crossover of murky Ambient and subtle Techno, but a few artists did it really well this year, in particular: Earthen Sea with An Act of Love (on Kranky), Rafael Anton Irisarri with the truly majestic The Shameless Years (on Umor Rex) and Blazej Malinowski and his Dark Awakenings live recording (on TGP).
Call Super kick-started the fabric series again after the London nightclub's recovery from near closure. His fabric 92 mix ended up being one of the strongest of the year, along with Steffi's and Special Request's. While all three of these artists also released strong solo albums in 2017, it was Call Super’s Arpo that tested the restraints of what Electronic music is and can be, merrily defacing the aforementioned blueprints (that he, ironically, had a hand in drafting out with Suzi Ecto back in 2014). Between Actress (with his assured fifth album AZD on Ninja Tune) and Ziúr (with her challenging debut U Feel Anything? on Planet Mu) they collectively battered and honed Electronic music into all sorts of unrecognisable but thoroughly pleasing shapes, reaching spaces far beyond the dance floor in the process.
Probably the biggest draw for me this year was the lucrative grey area where Ambient and Classical music converged; an area of activity so rich in practitioners I don’t doubt for a second that I’ve overlooked the vast majority of worthy productions, however, I’ll list a few that stood out from the crowd.
My first highlight is Cinderland (on Kranky) from new duo High Plains (Scott Morgan of Loscil and cellist Mark Bridges) who brought Classical tropes to the Techno troops with their moody take on things. I declare: we need more cello in Electronic music! And piano.
Piano has become a pivotal instrument in this crossover genre and while Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto used it sparingly on async (on label Milan) he did so powerfully to the point that sombre opening track andata cast a sorrowful and melancholic shadow over the whole album. The power of the opening track!
Anton Kubikov (one half of SCSI-9) also used piano in his debut solo album Whatness (out via Kompakt), along with guitar and other Electronic instrumentation, to convey and challenge our emotions. Likewise, Heinali tinkled the ivories to subtle but profound effect on his LP Anthem, out on Injazero Records.
Away from piano, more highlights that fell into this “Modern Classical” melting pot did so through forms of fake synthesis and orchestra impersonation. Swedish producer Acronym’s fourth album Malm (Field Records) is a fine example, like the proverbial film soundtrack, a beguiling reflection of the cold Scandinavian environment. This sense of monumental orchestration was also prevalent on Narkopop (the first GAS album in 17 years) albeit frazzled with white noise.
Techno, Not Techno? New Techno™!
There’s been a handful of really successful Techno releases this year, mainly due to the inherent investigative and experimental aspirations of the artists responsible. Sigha produced his masterpiece Metabolism (via Token Records), turning every Techno trait on its head along the way, while Rødhåd gave us Anxious (on Dystopian) which sounded like Techno only occasionally – at other times it was more like New Techno. Gore-Tex City by Varg (along with his other Nordic Flora releases) is the epitome of New Techno.
Techno is dead, long live New Techno!
Dutch producer Nadia Struiwigh debuted with Lenticular (on Central Processing Unit), an album that still has me going back four months later. And UMFANG surprised and delighted with her stripped-back LP Symbolic Use Of Light (on Technicolour Records) proving her keen ear for a good beat and melody.
British producer Luke Standing pursued his Blue Hour project with an eighth EP The Midnight Sun, followed by a top-notch remix EP that featured a sterling Mark Broom effort. The highlight from Standing though was his new collaborative project Tracing Xircles (with ghostly cohort A-JX) and their EP of dreamy House: Gaia's Requiem.
Known for his floor-ready Techno, Mike Dehnert delivered one of the year’s best albums via his own Fachwerk Records imprint with Providing Home – hooks and vocals galore. Porter Ricks and Terrence Dixon both gave us their first new work in several years; the German duo with Anguilla Electrica, seven tracks of subtle yet complex sound design, while the Detroit Techno mastermind presented a workbook of transcendental sketches in the form of 12,000 Miles Of Twilight.
As part of Chapter IX from his ongoing “Journal” of releases, Time Traveler added Heavy Metal guitars to his Techno to form a hybrid that simply rocked. Similarly, pushing the boundaries of their oeuvre, we had Blanck Mass and The Bug vs Earth, each using heavy rock tropes combined with Electronics on their albums World Eater and Concrete Desert, albeit from radically different angles.
Pop and beyond
Every Techno head needs some light relief now and then. Luckily we had the eponymous debut LP from Kelly Lee Owens, which proved to be Electronic Pop at its best — as was Between The Funk and The Fear from Hologram Teen. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Electo-Pop of Junea by May Roosevelt. More notable releases (along the acoustic, Pop and downtempo lines) included New Season by Chikiss, and A Handful Of Dust Is A Desert by Hannu Karjalainen.
Mixing it up
Over the years we've come to rely on celebrated institutions like DJ Kicks and fabric to deliver quality artist mixes (and, as reliable as ever, they did) but I'm happy to report that there were other compilers doing great things in 2017. Multi-disciplinary label Pan released their first ever selection called Mono No Aware and it was jam-packed with lovely surprises.
Marcel Dettmann relived his youth with a superb collection of EBM and eighties synth Pop tracks for the third slot in the excellent Selectors series.
JD Twitch (of Optimo) and Fergus Clark curated a super smart selection called Miracle Steps (Music From The Fourth World 1983 - 2017). It presented Electronic music, old and new, from a fresh perspective.
And the thrilling Spheres compilation signalled the first in a series of "documents" by new label Research.
No change there then
Pushing the boundaries isn’t always necessary as a few of my fav artists and producers proved. The Caretaker released the second and third parts of his fascinating series of albums on the debilitating effects of dementia.
The resolute Kangding Ray unleashed an "electrifying" sixth album Hyper Opal Mantis (via Stroboscopic Artefacts).
Other noteworthy releases were Nost by Ellen Allien (which satisfied my compulsion for head nodding), Cellular Automata by Dopplereffekt (familiar but reassuringly pleasant) and – ten years after the first installment – Chinoiseries, Pt.3 by Onra (all hip-hop beats and eastern melodies).
Because I wasn’t able to cleverly tie in my remaining highlights into some idiosyncratic format, you’ll need to make do with them being tacked on at the end :-)
A quick run through: Compassion from Forest Swords is just beautiful, the sadly departed Rhys Celeste aka Microlith produced a wonderful EP of Electro in Subtle Variance. Up there with my albums of the year is It Never Ends by nthng. Mysterious UK producer Hanetration literally gave us Ancients, a superb GAS-inspired EP. Ozel AB delivered two outstanding releases, Workshop 24 and Hogtown. And last but not least, producing some of the best music in 2017, Serena Butler with two EPs: From The Cloud To Our Bodies and KONSTRUKT 007.
There’s more to come... look out for my Fav Albums of 2017, Fav Mixes of 2017 and Fav Tracks of 2017.