Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 4

1. stampeter - too many boys
(2017 Self-Released)

too many boys is twenty ounces of sentimentality, left in the freezer so long that it pressurizes the air inside its bottle. The plastic warps, the cap pops, and you're left with a sticky mess that smells like sucrose and growing pains. 

Spanning seven tracks in just 19 minutes, Connecticut's stampeter approach their fifth EP with an anthemic conviction that'd make their back catalogue of folksy twee pop tunes tremble in fear. Roomy and raw, the record's an introspective take on the retro college-rock sound of 90's acts like Blake Babies or The Lemonheads that ditches pretension for melodic WOOs that you can scream along to, station wagon windows rolled down. 

"waters", sandwiched right in the center of too many boys, is the album's standout moment. It's a love song about leeches and big city dreams that steadily shifts from its nervously strummed verse to a power-chord-driven chorus, unfurling infinitely in all directions, revealing the cataclysmic power held within. Stampeter stay true to their sloppy, slacker-rock aesthetic here, but unintentionally tap into a confidence that draws genre-transcending brilliance from just two chords. The way Luca Bartlomiejczyk's sustained vowel sounds melt into Judge Russell's slogging bassline: it sneaks up on you and warms your cynical soul. A Casio's glassy hum mimes the melody, taking up residence in your psyche's now-cozy confines. 

From the slow heaves of "pullout couch" to the twangy vocal harmonies that close the woozy "paws", this record is a flurry of knockout punches that perfects any genre it touches. too many boys is emo, grunge, folk, and ambient all at once, blurring the lines between each distinction: it's the product of its own reality.


Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 3

4. Bjork - Utopia
(2017 One Little Indian)

In some ways, Utopia plays out like an endearing parody of Bjork's past decade of output, piling on the pan flutes, stretching its 10-minute compositions in to frayed bubblegum strands, and wallowing in its own futurist-but-also-naturalist aesthetic: she samples animal sounds in lieu of snare drums on "Body Memory", for God's sake. 

The new effort is wildly pretentious and impenetrably academic, two usually undesirable traits that I'm weirdly always hoping for a Bjork album to embody. Like Kanye West, who's also collaborated with Utopia's co-producer Arca in recent endeavors, the Icelandic art-pop mainstay has the grandiose presence and creative drive to back up her musical hyperbole. And from the new record's explosive blossoms of melody to its diary-entry lyrics that bridge the mundane and divine, it's evident that Bjork has cultivated what might be her most hyperbolic material to date.

Though blooming as slowly as "Stonemilker", the string-swathed opener to Bjork's 2015 effort Vulnicura, Utopia's intro track "Arisen My Senses" produces a flower that's exponentially more fragrant/gaudy/harmonically layered/abstract-expressionist than its predecessor. When Bjork's not belting gale-force cries into the exosphere, she's filling in the space below with the whispered germination of love. "Weaving a mixtape, with every crossfade," she sneaks beneath her own synthesized chorus: the affection here is as seemingly world-changing (and unwieldy) as a teenage crush, carefully curated playlists sent as gifts and all.  

The title track is the album's most solid cut. Beginning with a lengthy instrumental section, its woodwinds and sampled insect sounds are spooky and humid as the alien landscape record's visual accompaniments depict. Digital percussion clicks and shuffles to the speedy rhythm of Chicago's footwork scene. Woozy orchestral arrangements approximate a trap melody, the twittering of "unseen birds never seen or heard before".

Listening, you really feel as if you're walking through a conservatory or an aquarium only to discover that you're what's behind the glass.

3. Neatpop - The Ongoing Tragedies of Spectra and Little Lucille
(2017 Vore Music)

It sounds chewed-up and spit-up. Not quite recycled in the way that hip-hop chops and screws its samples: The Ongoing Tragedies is almost fully digested, tinged with acid burns and vaguely speckled with the folksy bedroom pop it must have been in some earlier state. Detuned keyboards crumble against creaking drum loops, tapping out skeletal beats. Neatpop fills these haunted spaces with the sad-sack spirits they've summoned, which giggle and screech in their own, nightcore-d language. The music's sickly, but oozes a sweetness I almost feel bad for enjoying: The Ongoing Tragedies feels gloomy without trying to, like taking a bite out of a microwaved burrito that's still too cold, or stepping in a lawn you didn't realize was sopping wet from yesterday's storm. 

(2017 Xamba Xuice)

If you consider the thinking man to be the type of guy who has illegally streamed every episode of Yu Yu Hakusho, flips retro Tommy Hilfiger sweaters on Depop, and is quick to drop a tweet about your mcm's aesthetic shortcomings, then Xamba Xuice is the thinking man's Brockhampton. The Soundcloud collective debuted in July with their self-titled tape, its 12 members exploring their streaming platform's sonic breadth: opening track "YESS" melts jazzy chords across crunchy kicks and snares while SWIMCOACH and Yungbabyman trade laid-back bars between the repetitions of a dancehall chorus on the ultra-hummable "SWITCHIN 180". The gang gets quasi-political atop the the new-agey synthscape of "GEORGE W. BUSH" to hilarious effect and rattle off Nintendo-themed punchlines on "GAMECUBE"'s nimble production. The collective hops from genre to genre with grace, eschewing uniformity in their production for cleverness. Whether Cloudie's comparing himself to Republican presidents or Nicx Alexander is waxing ultraviolent and poetic at the same time, Xamba Xuice oozes originality while still staying at the forefront of Soundcloud's subcultural zeitgeist. 

XAMBA XUICE is a humble tape, clocking in at just below 30 minutes, but it's so loaded with memorable flows and dorky charm that it feels much longer. It's the cool cousin you're only able to see around the holidays--the one who's always down to race you in Double Dash and toss a nerf around in the backyard if it's not too cold. What's sometimes lacking in depth here is always made up for in in dry wit, raw sauce, and a diverse range of timbres and styles. 


Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 2

7. By the End of Summer - Laughing
(2017 Sango Records)

It's easy to forget that emo's emotional breadth can extend beyond sadness: you're only reminded of what the genre can do when you hear it pushed to its fullest potential. Cap'n Jazz could do it back in the day, layering sheets of ruddy-cheeked chords and lyrics about "kitty-cats" over punk-rock blast beats. Empire! Empire! did it too, centering around their honest and nostalgic storytelling. Kyoto's By The End of Summer's Laughing EP is one of the more recent installments in the "emotionally diverse emo" canon, bridging the gap between TTNG's wonky math-rock riffage and the teenage adventure of early Blink-182.

The four-song EP is addictively immediate. BTEOS arrangements roar to life without introduction, hurling riff after riff at the listener while frontman Miyazaki's voice cracks in surges of bittersweet catharsis. "Even Now", which takes its instrumental cues from late-80s skate rock, is the standout cut of the bunch, featuring enough hooks and swooping chord changes to fill an entire album in just two minutes.

BTEOS isn't flashy: like Cloud Nothings before them, the quartet pounds out raw, quick tracks that hit right in the sweet spot. The feelings are real and the lyrics are grounded.

"regret and remembrance / it's completely changed around here / the old vending machine / the running children / they were gone"

6. Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti
(2017 Interscope)

If Young Thug's the Cocteau Twins of mumble rap (at least according to this semi-popular Tumblr post) then Playboi Carti may well be the sub-genre's answer to Galaxie 500. Like the now-defunct Cambridge trio, he has a penchant for two-chord instrumentals and staccato melodies, haunting these dronescapes with dreamy phrases that roll off the tongue like December sighs: in a cloud of vapor.

Maybe it'd be even more accurate to compare Carti to The Velvet Underground. From the playful experimentation of his self-titled tape's interchangeable cover art to his penchant for lyrics that are iconic and intentionally shallow, he's a Warholian figure: a fourth-wall-breaking protagonist who's as fascinated by stardom in the conceptual sense. "I'm a rockstar," he asserts in the intro to lead single "wokeuplikethis*". Somehow it makes perfect sense. It's intrinsic. 

He's William Carlos Williams, too, neatly filing syllables into their perfect instrumental slots while offering just enough information to convey the outline of an image. The aesthetic's executed best on opnener "Location", in which Carti drops a fragmented series of interjections and descriptions that avoid do their best to dodge verbs: ("tats on my neck on my arms" ad nauseam). It's ideogrammatic, exchewing the third-person perspective images that the written word conjures in our minds for the swirl of sensory stimulus that passes through the cortex on the daily. Also, the Harry Fraud beat that carries the track is incredible, especially at 1:31 when its (dare I say) vaporwavey guitar sample screeches to the forefront of the mix. 

Carti is everyone that shaped rock 'n' roll and he's all the ideas that let it fall to trap music. Effortlessly, he became the zeitgeist. At least for the 50-minute duration of his mixtape, that is.

5. Girls Rituals - EMERGENCY!
(2017 Visual Disturbances)

Speaking of Warhol, Girls Rituals' EMERGENCY! does 21st century Pop-Art better than any Dean Blunt/Vektroid/Ferraro project I've heard in recent memory, and she does so by just being herself. Like its creator, the record's a product of low-brow mid-00s internet ephemera: Soulja Boy's early MySpace material, DeviantArt's amateurish digital paintings, the neurotic/hyberbolic humor of imageboard sub-cultures, and pretty much anything tangentially related to Newgrounds. 

Unlike many of the other "post-internet" artists that populate Bandcamp and Soundcloud, Girls Rituals isn't adopting this aesthetic ironically. The musical and aesthetic ideas she appropriates are borrowed out of sincere appreciation. On "xXx DNA xXx", the west-coast hip-hop synths are squelchy and out of tune because they want to be, in a way that's legitimately pretty. Girls Rituals' murmured vocals tame the bombast: she's a languid calm in a dissonant storm, just barely missing her notes. It's hypnotic. Strangely soothing.

According to nearly everyone who's reviewed EMERGENCY on Bandcamp, "Black Crow" is the cream of this 17-track crop. I'm inclined to agree. Painfully dysphoric lyrics, delivered dryly as usual, are paired with a carnivalesque arrangement of 16-bit riffs that moan and squeak like the Earthbound soundtrack. How do you feel listening to this? How can you feel? "Dig and dig and dig," she sings. "I smash and curse this skin." Breezy chords prop up a melting melody. "I'll be a black crow in my next life flying over an office park."


Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 1

10. Mormon Toasterhead - monocarpic
(2017 Self-Released)

adjective [BOTANY]
(of a plant) flowering only once and then dying.

...and what it leaves behind is prickly, sturdy, and puzzling. Aligning itself with the pineapples and durians of the botanical world, Mormon Toasterhead's first of two 2017 LPs houses acid-sweet flesh inside its tough shell, which admittedly took a few attempts for me to peel. 

Toasterhead frontman Ben Klawans isn't the most hospitable host on monocarpic: the Chicagoan songwriter loads the first 15 minutes of the record with its most challenging, incoherent content. Opener "drooling, delirious, red," for example, is constructed around a rapidly looping sample that sounds like throttled windchimes, throwing back to the glitchy atonality of Animal Collective's 2002 live album Hollinndagain: Klawans mumbles a spoken word poem, his vocal fry acting as a coagulant that holds the spooky soundscape together long enough to phase into "more than monotony" and "hollow rain," two cuts that nod to Alex G's cherubic college-rock delivery while dipping into Sonic Youth's tertiary palette of free-jazz asides and ambient cooldowns.

Clocking in at six and eight minutes respectively, the pair of tracks give the listener ample time to get used to their too-trebly mastering and almost non-existent structures, filled out by full-band arrangements that defy Mormon Toasterhead's cozy, lo-fi back catalogue. As if writing a sentence that travels for pages, full of parenthetical phrases and em-dashes, Klawans jerks the reader by the wrist from dissonant riff to keyboard drone, and it's all worth it because these weird little asides are just as fascinating as the free-associative lyrics that bridge the gaps. 

Finally making your way to closer "Bright Green" is worth the price of admission. Materializing in a pretty cloud of feedback and harmonics, Klawans and Co. trudge their way through a cocktail of narcotic alt-country haze and rubber-band guitar twang that recalls Doug Martsch's work with Built to Spill. 

"remember how teeth and dandruff used to show up bright green? 
under UV disco lights, 
at your favorite bowling alley"

Metal fences rise from the gutters to catch you as you glide down the waxed lane, into the reversed guitar samples that cap the album off like the faded edge of a watercolor stroke. 

9. Aria Rostami - Reform
(2017 Zoom Lens)

Among the ZOOM LENS label's discography of washed-out blues and cyberpunk gloom, Aria Rostami's Reform is a fragrant explosion of olives and pinks, huffing warm synth-pop melodies against IDM drums that rattle and hiss. It's wordless, but mouthed by samples and patches that could be mistaken for human voices: a chorus of hushed tones and yawns. For nearly an hour, Rostami sustains the feeling of stretching out in bed after a hard day's work, dozing off as the soreness circulates from your shins to your chest, leaving the body as a sigh of relief. If "Flim" is your favorite Aphex Twin song, this record is right in your wheelhouse.

8. youthcomics - Shower of 411 sec.
(2017 Miles Apart Records)

Kyoto quartet youthcomics stretch toward the future while still keeping a back foot planted in the pastry-flake crackle of 90's twee-punk. Their first and only release to date is this lone cassingle, but there's enough power-pop fizzed bottled up into its seven minutes of tape to overshadow many full albums released within the genre this year. 

A-side "Youth in Our Backyards" defies language barriers to supply an impossibly-catchy chorus, bookended by echoing vocals, kaleidoscopic chord changes, and crisp guitar solos that feel as hypnotic as anything DIIV pressed on their 2011 debut, Oshin. Narutoshi Ohino's vocals phase and flange beneath the cramped instrumentation, and they sound almost autotuned in a beautiful way--through vaguely folky, the record is bursting with mechatronic energy, powered by air-tight drumbreaks that'll win over any fans of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. 

B-side "Falling" feels a bit more delicate, peeling back the distortion to let Ohino extend syllables against gummy basslines and bluesy licks. If you've ever jammed to The Field Mice, Joanna Gruesome, or early Yuck, you won't be able to resist Shower of 311 sec.