The absolute highlight of my musical year came with a visit to Italy's Terraforma Festival. Sets from personal faves such as GAS, Objekt, Andrew Weatherall (more from him later) and Donato Dozzy were sure to get my juices flowing. Add in a blissful set from Laraaji and I was almost in heaven. Laraaji gave us a preview of his wonderful Bring on the Sun album, which was probably my most-played set of the year.
It was a good year for ambient and electronic music with Call Super's 'Arpo' the pick of the bunch for me. Call Super takes the best bits of Artificial Intelligence-era Warp stuff and brings it right up to date with some intricate techno programming. He creates a beautiful tropical paradise vibe with added clarinet - I kid you not. I think this will stand the test of time like the best bits of Aphex Twin, Burial and Boards of Canada. It's that good.
Of course, the master returned to ambient music in 2017. I haven't indulged in Brian Eno's never-ending self-generating Reflection app, which must represent some kind of pinnacle of distilled Enoness, the ultimate expression of a lifetime's work in ambient music. The thought of it is simultaneously very attractive and a bit daunting. However, the music contained on the regular album works just fine; morphing subtly between sounds, gently caressing the eardrum with each movement. This is truly a master at work.
While many artists burn out or lose inspiration, others refine their skills. I first had this thought a couple of years back, when listening to The Black Dog's excellent Tranklements LP in 2014. Twelve albums and 24 years into their music-making lives, Tranklements is so skillfully put together, you can tell that these guys have devoted a huge chunk of their lives to honing their craft. Ditto Eno.
The former Roxy man also found time to fit in a collaboration with another master of his craft, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. I've been waiting for Shields to do something like this for about 20 years. Here's hoping there's more to follow.
Also falling into the master craftsman category is Brighton's Simon Pyke. Formerly operating as Freeform, Pyke has been crafting electronic sounds since the mid-1990s. I don't know where he has been hiding but his music has been a criminally underrated secret to such an extent that even an ambient techno geek like me had never heard of him...until now. In 2017 Pyke released three sublime ambient records in the shape of his Slow Glow One, Two and Three.
Justin Adams took ambient music in a completely different direction. Adams is probably best known for producing Tinariwen but on his solo album Ribbons, he took the music of North Africa as a starting point for a dreamlike reverie, which was compared in some quarters to the Cocteau Twins. To these ears, it is much lighter than the 4AD trio and somehow more rooted but the comparisons are understandable. It really was one of the most innovative yet simple releases of the year.
For more proof that this was the Year of Ambient, check the delights on offer in this Massive Survey of Ambient Music by Joe Muggs.
At the dancier end of my spectrum, Four Tet returned (was he ever really away? er, no) with perhaps his best album yet in New Energy. The previews of these slick (too slick?) and warm grooves did not do justice to the album, which did not reveal its beauties until listened to in one sitting. My only reservation is that it sounds a little too perfect.
There was nothing particularly slick about James Holden & The Animal Spirits. Although I am slightly torn between thinking The Animal Spirits is a staggering work of trance genius or all a bit prog.
Best newcomer award must go to Kelly Lee Owens, who released a beautiful album that touched on trance, shoegaze, ambient, house and a whole lot more. Hers was a similar vibe to Kiasmos and Bicep, who both released lovely music in 2017, but - dare I say it - possibly better?
Elsewhere, cosmic disco godhead Lindstrom went all pop with It’s Alright Between Us As It Is. Damn fine it was too but I think I liked him better doing 20-minute space jams. Floating Points continued to release 20-minute jams on his outstanding Ratio single and then got sandblasted with his Reflections/Mojave Desert LP.
Another hybrid delight arrived in the shape of Les Amazones d'Afrique's 'Republique Amazone' album, which brought together Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné. And a splendid noise they made together too.
Not a supergroup but another super femina, which is what I thought her album was called until realising it was Semper Femina, is Laura Marling. She can certainly sing.
Oh, a roundup from me would not be complete without a lickle bit o' reggae. Not a whole lot here. I really wanted Inna de Yard to be my favourite record of the year. Kiddus I is one of my favourite singers of all time but the album just lacked grit for me. Ditto Damian Marley's album Stony Hill, which had a bit of grit but also some real fluff.
The best reggae I found came from the mighty Zion I Kings production team. (You have to write 'mighty' in front of good reggae production teams. It's the law.) Their Dub in Zion (Zion I Kings Dub Vo.2) is modern dub reggae at its very best.
And they also sneaked out a lovely little collaboration between Akae Beka and Jahdan Blakkamoore just as I was writing this article.
And finally on the new stuff, a beautiful curveball arrived in the shape of a violinist on Madlib's Stones Throw label. Seemed a bit of an odd combination but Sudan Archives sings like an angel. One senses great things will follow.
Perhaps the strangest music I heard came in the shape of two of the year's best reissues.
Alice Coltrane's mindblowing cosmic hippy chants mesmerised. This was without a doubt the compilation of the year.
Japanese culture has been making inroads into the Western psyche since Lost in Translation. It permeated further this year with a widely admired new release from Ryuichi Sakamoto among many others but it was the strange sounds of Midori Takada & Masahiko Satoh and their Lunar Cruise album, which really caught my ear.
Meanwhile, a special mention for the outstanding output of Andrew Weatherall, who seems to be maturing gracefully into a kind of John Peel for our times. This year, he sold off huge portions of his record collection but used the clearout as a catalyst to release 10 of the compilations of the year in the shape of his RGC Archive Hours on Mixcloud. His NTS Radio show Music's Not For Everyone was a monthly delight. His irregular Love from Outer Space club night with Sean Johnston has become a cherished institution and the Convenanza Festival, which sprung from it is heading the same way. He found time to release a new album Qualia full of grinding DJ tools. I had the pleasure of witnessing a three-hour set in Italy, which was so much goddamn fun, it had the whole field grinning and boogying like loons. You can listen to it below.
And while we're on the subject, NTS Radio is really rather good. David Holmes ploughs a similar furrow to Weatherall to similar effect. Similarly cool crate digging came from the reliably excellent Dr Rob, whose https://banbantonton.com was my blog of the year.
ACCORDING TO THE PROFESSIONAL CRITICS...
There is always a bit of a consensus among the Uncuts, Mojos, Guardians and Pitchforks of the world. The following seem worthy of further investigation if you're that way inclined:
LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
Oumou Sangare - Mogoya
Kelela - Take me apart
SZA - Ctrl
Omar Souleyman - To Syria With Love
Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Richard Dawson - Peasant
Kendrick Lamarr - DAMN
Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology
Resident Advisor always has some albums I missed in its annual selection of albums.
The Vinyl Factory does a nice list of Albums of the Year too. You can thank them for this beauty: