SPECIAL REVIEW PROJECT: 2017 IN REVIEW – Best and Worst Albums of 2017

2017 IN REVIEW
By Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

francey's top nine

So, here I am again with a list of 141 musical releases from the year 2017, to listen to, sieve and discover gems and potential favourites. These releases form a very motley selection, for they were picked through a variety of means. Many Anglophone and Brazilian ones came from a methodical cataloguing of best-of-the-year lists, to see which ones got to higher positions more often. Some were chosen due to the recommendation of friends or acquaintances, or simply because something in it piqued my attention. I ended up with 25 African albums, 41 Anglophone ones, 6 from Asian artists, 47 from Brazil, 13 from Europe and 10 from the rest of Latin America.

I’d like to start with the continent from which we all came, and whose music is so sadly ignored by most people. From northern Africa, the Tuareg genre of tishoumaren continues to produce many strong releases. Some were more peaceful, like Mdou Moctar’s Sousoume Tamachek, and some were bluesier, like the hypnotic Kiral, from Tamikrest, containing my favourite guitars of 2017. Award-winning icons Tinariwen also released a typically good album in Elwan. As tishoumaren is overall a stylistically uniform genre, I must say I am disappointed with the attempt to mix it with post-punk, by Saharawi band Group Doueh with the French Cheveu. This fusion, in my opinion, has the potential to be much better realised than it was in their Dakhla Sahara Session.

African jazz also had a good crop last year. Legendary drummer Tony Allen’s The Source had some great funky tracks, Orchestra Baobab threw out their warm Afro-Cuban Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, but my favourite of the bunch was Mistakes on Purpose, the 30th volume of the Éthiopiques series. It continues the trend set with last year’s Awo by Ukandanz, in which Ethiopian veterans join French ethio-jazz bands, in this case Girma Bèyènè with Akalé Wubé respectively. The result was a very solid album, even if did not reach Awo’s fierce intensity.

The final trend from Africa that I’ll mention is that of female-fronted Mandé music. Of those, two I’d like to mention later, among my favourites, but while Awa Poulo’s Poulo warali wasn’t quite as good, it still had an excellent first four tracks. Sadly, the disk got too repetitive by the end.

Onto Brazil, now, on the more rootsy side of things. Mateus Aleluia’s Fogueira doce did an afoxé-tinged MPB that was peaceful and warm with a tinge of sadness. Fabiano do Nascimento’s Tempo dos mestres was reportedly jazz, but drawn from Northern and Northeastern Brazilian traditions. He failed to absorb any of the energy of those sources, and the result was folksy-jazzy shit that goes nowhere, just annoys and tires the mind. To add insult to injury, he also found time to ruin the classic O canto de Xangô by Baden Powell & Vinícius de Moraes. Far more faithful was Yangos’ Chamamé, which did accordion-based Gaúcho music with ease, even if without any significant innovation.

In Brazilian hip hop, I can say that we have seen the complete transition of styles. In the early 10s, artists like Criolo, Ogi and Karol Conká would mix in influences from a whole gamut of Brazilian genres like samba, MPB or repente, to make a dazzling, melodic hip hop. These days, their objectives seem unfinished, for while there is still a lot of untapped potential, even their luminaries have moved away from it. Criolo has gone full samba, and Ogi’s Pé no chão is good, but far from the brilliance of 2015’s R A !. The new generation, however, seems far more interested in a new, raw, trap-inspired production, with screamy or just annoying voices, overall very unpleasant to my ears. I think it is partially due to shifts in American hip hop, but just as much to blame is the coup that put Temer into our presidency, and darkened much of our population’s perspectives towards the future, especially the poor. The worst ones were Djonga’s Heresia and Baco Exu dos Blues’ Esú, but nill’s Regina, Flora Matos’ Eletrocardiograma, Don L’s Roteiro pra Aïnouz, Vol. 3 were also very weak. Some of the new generation have made some alright albums, like Ricón Sapiência’s Galanga livre and the aptly named all-women group Rimas & Melodias’ self-titled debut. American trap has been far better than Brazilian though, with many strong, lush releases like Migos’ fun Culture and especially Future’s melodic and surprisingly melancholic HNDRXX.

Two queer artists with sexualised urban music also achieved notoriety in Brazil. Pabllo Vittar, popstar and drag queen, achieved larger success among the public, but his Vai passar mal was overall weak. The hit single K.O. is very catchy, though. Trans woman Linn da Quebrada’s vulgar funk carioca from Pajubá made a stronger impression on me. Far better than the both of those, Tyler, the Creator’s coming-out statement Flower Boy has some great soulsy production made with so much care that it reminded me of the early Kanye albums. It might be my favourite hip hop release of the year, along with Brockhampton’s Saturation III. The whole Saturation trilogy is pretty good, making use of the voices of their many different members to make a sort of kaleidoscopic effect. It is also very interesting to see how much they evolved, both in production as in hook making, in a single year.

Now to get this out of the way: DAMN was very good but I don’t see it as being excellent, and I still consider Kendrick’s masterpiece to be good kid, m.A.A.d city. Finishing my hip hop list, I liked Jay-Z’s 4:44, catchy and cool with great samples, and Damso’s Ipséité, rapped in French with fine flow, but was underwhelmed by Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, although I must say I loved Kilo Kish’s participation in Love Can Be… and will try to find more stuff from her.

Among Latin American musicians, the trend was to mix traditional genres with modern lush productions, making stuff that felt fresh and with a lot of potential, even though this year’s batch didn’t quite make an excellent album. The best for me was Puerto Rican group ÌFÉ’s IIII+IIII, which takes Afro-American (Santería) religious music as a base and spices it with all sorts of Caribbean genres, and takes it through an electronic sheen to make something dazzlingly polyphonic when it’s fast, and pretty and mellow when it’s slow. The other three albums I’d like to mention are all rooted in beautiful female vocals. Sister duo Ibeyi’s Ash couldn’t make the most of their voices due to inconsistent songwriting. Irka Mateo’s Vamo a gozá travels through various local genres, while Las Áñez’s Al aire was more alien and atmospheric pop, both were equally good.

Still on Latin America, it was sad that Colombian bullerengue legend Magín Díaz died so soon after his El orisha de la rosa was released. Having written many classics of the Colombian canon since the 1930s, he was nonetheless ignored for most of his life, up until 2012. His last release, full of guest stars, felt like the recognition he always deserved. Another dead icon, Moroccan gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia, had his final studio recordings released last year, on the posthumous album Colours of the Night. While very poignant, it didn’t match the energy of his earlier records to me.

Of course, among all those albums, I made sure to listen to the new releases of many of my favourite artists. Chico Buarque is one of what I consider the Holy Trinity of Brazilian music, an all-time great. His Caravanas, however, brings the worst aspects of his songwriting, a collection of self-indulgent poetic bossa nova ditties that bores the shit out of me. Still, he definitely has earned the right to indulge himself, and at this point in time, doesn’t need anyone’s approval for anything. Love you, Chico. Another self-indulgent release from a favourite was Nação Zumbi’s Radiola NZ, vol. 1, in which they perform songs that influenced them, with very mixed success. Their renditions of Refazenda and Não há dinheiro no mundo que pague are great, but O balanço and Sexual Healing are embarrassments. Tribalistas’ new self-titled album is a good effort in mixing pop-rock with MPB, every song having its own dosage of the mix. Those very elements were also the foundation of Otto’s solid Ottomatopeia. Metá Metá released a very interesting and rhythmic avant-garde soundtrack for the dance spectacle Gira. The group’s members also released other records: vocalist Juçara Marçal joined Rodrigo Campos and Gui Amabis to assemble the inspired, poetic and uneasy Sambas do absurdo, inspired in the philosophy of Albert Camus, while guitarist Kiko Dinucci’s solo Cortes Curtos’ short post-punk tunes underwhelmed me. Even worse was Curumin’s Boca, in which he tries to become “artsier” while losing his catchiness.

Fleet Foxes’ first new release since Helplessness Blues in 2011, Crack-Up, offered a denser, but less immediately melodic take on their intricate folk pop. It was good, but their two previous efforts are masterpieces to me. I knew that this new disk had to be different, however, and I hope they can regain their brilliance while following this path. A clear improvement from the preceding album was Lorde’s latest. Pure Heroine had its moments, but Melodrama has so much subtle touches, with her perfect intonation elevating the emotional level. My greatest criticism is that it could have used more cathartic refrains like in Homemade Dynamite or Writer in the Dark.

Perfume Genius’ dream-poppy No Shape was nice, especially given how much I disliked his previous Too Bright. Now Jay Som’s Everybody Works on the other hand, was the type of music that I thought was over. This sort of slow electronic-y indie pop was never good back then, and now it’s both bad and passé. Sheer Mag’s Need to Feel Your Love baffled me: they travelled through the whole diversity of early 70s pop and rock, from hard rock to glam to disco, and it could have been very catchy, but they tied it all with screeching, effects-laden vocals. Maybe just a little bit less screech would have turned this 180º to me, but as it is, it’s very hard to listen to. Far more pleasant was The OOZ by King Krule. It draws from Tom Waits, hip and trip hop, resulting in a smooth, talky rock.

A big notable trend in Anglophone music was this new wave of soul / R&B. Slow, glossy, and far more attuned to pathos rather than the simple emotions of joy and sadness. The quality varies. Sampha’s Process and Kelela’s Take Me Apart have pretty production but little else to entertain me. SZA’s Ctrl fares much better, but it still doesn’t match the critical acclaim it received in my opinion. The Kendrick track is great, but the one with Travis Scott, oh boy… awful! The real standout of this set was Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism. It’s very unique, almost as influenced by Kid A as What’s Going On. I’ll even wager it’ll start a new trend, one whose development I will be curious to track. Brazil also had a soul release that got recognition, Xenia’s self-titled debut. It consists on versions of MPB songs done in her style, but still maintaining the original diversity. The slower tracks drag a bit, but the faster ones are good, especially Chico Cézar’s Respeitem meus cabelos, brancos.

Brazilian pop-rock had its best release in Maglore’s Todas as Bandeiras. It doesn’t do anything that different, it’s just strong hooks and melodies with pleasing textures, but that’s all that I need, really. Those are lacking in Lá vem a morte, by the extremely overrated Goianan band Boogarins, themselves an inferior version of the already overrated Tame Impala. On the other hand, Scalene’s Magnetite had many people turn up their noses due to its banal lyrics about society’s problems, but musically, it is adequate. Vanguart’s Beijo estranho is also solid, while Giovani Cidreira’s Japanese Food has that awful thing where the lyrics don’t fit in the melodies, like Legião Urbana or Cidadão Instigado, making it a very uncomfortable listen.

Going on to Europe, Andrea Laszlo De Simone paid homage to his native Italian lush pop from the 60s and 70s in his Uomo donna. While I really dug its sound, I felt that he was too willing to sacrifice the flow of the album to make bigger statements. Many songs are 2-3 minutes longer than they should have been, and Gli uomini hanno fame has an awful 4-minute-long intro with random political recordings. Despite its flaws, it was still a very interesting listen, as was Japanese band ゲスの極み乙女 (Gesu no Kiwami Otome)’s 達磨林檎. Rich, melodic, jazzy and proggy, though sometimes too lightweight to be fully engaging.

Europe and Asia also had some noteworthy releases on the folkier side of things. From West Java, Indonesia, the duo Tarawangsawelas’ Wanci attempted to modernise the local sacred music, called tarawangsa, which consists mainly of repetitive acoustic drones done in just two string instruments. Despite that, they were much better in the sole longer, more conservative, track, Sekalipun, than in the shorter, supposedly more palatable, ones. Bridging the two continents, Meïkhâneh’s La Silencieuse draws from everywhere between southern France to Persia to Mongolia, providing innovative combinations for those familiar with the musical vocabularies of those regions. Oj borom, borom is Ukrainian folk done by a Polish duo, Maniucha Bikont & Ksawery Wójciński, vocalist and contrabassist respectively. Focused on textures, it can be great when you’re receptive, but it might be too repetitive when you’re not. There were also two albums based on a capella Iberian traditions. Galician Xosé Lois Romero & Aliboria’s self-titled debut, while not bad by far, lacked the vibrancy of the other one, which figures on my favourites list.

Of everything to which I’ve listened, two albums stood out as the worst. Nina Becker’s Acrílico consists of poetry written with no ear for meter or rhythm, and lacking melody, set to tacky bossa-nova-ish instrumentation. That would be bad enough by itself, but the lyrics are embarrassingly bad as well. Somehow even worse is Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. It also has embarrassingly bad lyrics. And nothing else. The fucker gave up on any sort of musicality whatsoever, just to record words like: “oh, their religions are the best / they worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed / with risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits”. I actually stopped, disgusted, at around 3 minutes in the first track, and I am an atheist Marxist! And honestly, after finding out this album is fucking 75-minutes-long, I’m so offended, that I refuse to spend a single second more listening to shit utter garbage.

Conversely, I have nine albums I would call my favourite releases of 2017. Of those, my top two, in their particular order, are well cemented in my mind. For the others, I tried ranking them as I wrote this essay, but those positions are very fluid in my mind, and they are all of similar quality to me.

The album I placed as the ninth best release of 2017 was Luyando, by Zimbabwean group Mokoomba. It’s afro-pop-rock of the catchiest sort, while keeping a reasonable diversity in style. Songs like Kulindiswe and Kumukanda will stick to your mind if you listen to them, and you won’t want them out! On the eight spot, the instrumental post-rock in Kalouv’s Elã. Refreshing and enticing, it built novel soundscapes of varying colours without resorting to the tired “crescendocore” formula. The seventh place, Ladilikan, was an unusual collaboration between Malian griot Trio da Kali and Seattle-based chamber music Kronos Quartet. The music is overall in the Mandé tradition, carried principally by female vocalist Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté’s expressive vocals, with added depth by the incredibly fitting and well-oiled mix of European strings with the balafon and ngoni. There’s an odd American gospel song in the middle that robs the album of some momentum, but it is easily regained. St. Vincent’s Masseduction takes the sixth spot. While I generally hate the prefix “art” when used on genres, I have to accept that the best way to describe this is “art-pop”. Sexy all over, sometimes manic, sometimes melancholic, always alluring.

We shall return to the aforementioned a capella Iberian music for our fifth position. Ao longe já se ouvia, by Portuguese all-female group Sopa de Pedra, has harmony and playfulness by the bushel, making a very entertaining, unique listen. Oumou Sangaré, Malian songstress from the Wassoulou region, takes the fourth spot with her Worotan. Carrying forward the style for her region, her sound might resemble blues to the western listener (actually blues probably originated from Wassoulou music), but with a hooky, poppy sheen. Her voice is just entrancing! On the third place, Criolo’s love letter to old-school samba, Espiral de ilusão. While it didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, it travels through all the varieties and strains of the genre. The transparent admiration for the masters only makes it more endearing. The second-best album of 2017 to me was Msafiri Zawose’s Uhamiaji. If you read about it on the internet, you might think it is traditional Gogo music from Tanzania, but Mr. Zawose has actually done what I believe most electronic music I’ve heard fails to achieve. The use of acoustic percussion gives a strong oomph to the mesmerizing rhythms, which are innately pleasing.

Finally, my favourite 2017 release was Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell Live. While there was undeniable beauty in the original studio version of Carrie & Lowell, I always felt it lacked something, particularly by abandoning the maximalist arrangements of his previous releases. The live version more than fixes that, maintaining all the beauty while adding huge doses of power, both from the return of the maximalism, and from the rawer vocals, with natural cracks and imperfections, greatly raising their emotional impact. The sum of all those parts is touching and radiant, and not even the weird Drake cover at the encore can detract from such a wonderful experience. For all the other marvellous stuff I’ve seen from last year, this is still the apex in terms of music and emotion!

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“The Hellbound Fun” – A Hellraiser review

“To William, who doesn’t want a taco”

by Dina Levina

For reasons rooted deeply, we are taught from an early age the notion that pleasure is wicked. Candy is not dandy, it rots your teeth and innards. Masturbation makes you blind. Dirty words make Jesus weep. Say your prayers, have more boiled carrots. Suffer. Perpetually intertwined by the simple logic of our nerve endings, pain and pleasure bind up in a complicated knot with a little help from our family, friends and neighbors. Still, the more illicit things get, the more desirable they tend to become. Such was the case when a mystery man presented a shabby self-recorded cassette to my parents who could never hide bad things well.

The tight tangle of joy and suffering is apparent in horror stories which combine the two openly, so we are pleased by being scared. Such a tale the forbidden tape contained. Even better – two tales at once. I was about seven when a wall had cracked and, along with the intrusion of Western fizzes and sweetmeats, an illegal movie rental manifested itself in my post-Soviet hometown, bringing to its dwellers photocopied lists of movies with titles and genres only. One had to pick carefully, else risking a memorable viewing of something like Jack Frost (1997), where a wayward Snowman violates a girl with his conveniently displaced carrot. Yet some of the faceless rectangular boxes contained wonders, as the one with “Hellraiser I. Hellraiser II” printed crookedly on its soiled sticker soon attested.

It was the perfect time to watch them. My mind was wide open. Not scared but rather fascinated by what was unfolding on the compact TV screen, I absorbed every second of it with my very guts. The puzzle of what was happening to the characters consumed me, the unexplainable was gladly accepted. Two decades later I understand why it worked and still works so well – the story was made with love, a love that is contagious, incurable, permanent. The kind of love an Engineer passes onto its creation to install fear and awe for ages to go.

The story looks simple but works wonders for there’s an intricate universe behind it. Clive Barker translated his written work to the restricted language of movies well, creating a self-sufficing piece, the atmosphere perfectly intact. Like with every translation, some things are lost, some things are gained. While Frank falls wanking to the floor (a Bowie allusion?) in chapter one, his face is being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the same floor in the movie, because time and ratings allow the second and not the first. The one essential component from The Hellbound Heart that I miss is the smell, and if cinemas can be equipped to convey all written odors, the audiences will be in for a queer treat – who knew that cenobites smelled of vanilla?

                The setting is a classic worthy of the Grimm Brothers – a clueless dad, an evil stepmother and a relatively innocent daughter arrive at an old house where Evil awaits. Unbeknownst to them, Dad’s rotten brother had a peculiar encounter with a quartet of jaded but well-dressed demonic priests of pain not long ago, and when some blood is spilled on the floorboards of the room where he died, the fairy-tale begins.

 For the most part the story is driven by the stepmother, Julia, who has a relatable quest. When the movie title had to be picked, one of the female crew members suggested “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck”, and was completely on point. To regain her briefly enjoyable (and somewhat censored by the producers) sex life with Frank, Julia kills a bunch of random men and fatally betrays her boring husband, but is herself deceived by her reincarnated lover. Julia happens to be the only truly well-written character in the movie – the fact that doesn’t take anything away from it. The rest work perfectly in their two dimensions. Julia has a ghost, an aim that is taboo, and a load of most bizarre obstacles.

All the tribal horrors can be found here: a no-sex marriage, adultery, inbreeding (uncle Frank with his phallic pocket knife is incest personified) and dead parents of all kinds, stepparents gone wrong and the inevitable destruction of the whole family by its lousy member. Each scene is well-written, each conflict grips you by the balls. Combine it with all the details that broaden the context (the grasshopper-eating hobo, whom I love, is an immediate reference to the Bible, and there are more fun things to find), the special effects that are truly special, considering the low budget, the creepy sound and the beautiful score by Christopher Young, and you get a perfect movie. Julia’s 80-style makeup and hairdos add subtly to the horror. The cenobite scenes are visceral (perhaps that’s how square, middle-aged people envision S&M parties) and they get etched into your memory so you can hear the teeth chatter long after the TV has been safely turned off.

Part II is far from its predecessor’s perfection, with no solid theme or plot in sight. The Lemarchand’s box remains the only three-dimensional character, the Snow White is mentioned openly, and though probably intended as a nod to the original, several scenes look second-hand (Julia chasing Kirsty between two walls in the naughty dimension mirrors the endearing Engineer  scene from the first movie; the final skin twist is silly). Where in the first part there’s a heartfelt tale of people who want to have a fun sex life but fail weirdly, the second only has its ashes for a carcass, and everything falls apart with no spine to get attached to. Doctors are creepy. Hospital security is a mess. Mute girls are mysterious. Cenobites think they’ve been here forever but they are wrong. The Evil is mighty, no one really knows shit, and everything is a fucking puzzle.

The only thing that keeps me really happy during these ninety seven minutes is the hilarity of the freshly made doctor-cenobite – talking in cliché doctor phrases, dragging the perfect first line of dialogue out of the previously mute Tiffany. “And how are we feeling today?” screeches the good doctor before drilling into someone’s skull with a specially equipped tentacle, and I thank him for that. But there’s still no good story, and for me part two is forever a curious afterbirth.

When I first watched them twenty years ago, the conjoined twins on a single greasy VHS, I mistook the teaser at the end of part two for the beginning of a third movie (with no more free space to record onto, Hellraiser II had ended abruptly before the final titles). This was a happy delusion, for as the countless sequels show, the real story had ended here. There is, of course, a faceless number three, the obligatory part about cenobites in space, a movie that was just a random script with Pinhead unnaturally stuffed into it, and many, many more I dared not explore because some doors had better stay shut.

Each fairy-tale has its moral, and some of Charles Perrault’s even have two, at which I pondered while reading the book that should’ve been forbidden for kids but wasn’t. So pick your moral. Sweet things can kill you, sometimes faster than you may have suspected. Sex is bad. Grasshoppers are nutritious. Bad guys come back and good ones don’t. Suffering can be a pleasure. As for the second part, the moral is quite simple: one should always dispose of an old mattress in a safe, responsible way.