(In what has become an annual tradition, former NCS writer, ex-Invisible Oranges editor, and current contributor to Decibel and Noisey, Joseph Schafer (whose NCS moniker was BadWolf) brings us a year-end list of favorite Not-Metal albums.)
As in previous years, this is my favorite article to write. There remains something delicious and transgressive about extolling the virtues of mainstream pop music to metal fans on a metal-centric platform. The reason why is no mystery: metal is intended itself to be delicious and transgressive, but too often becomes a stale and staunch conservative vomitorium. Eat the same diet of blast beats, high-gain distortion, and Lucifer sigils, vomit them back up, ingest a new round of the same, repeat.
I like a Roman feast as much as the next guy, but I also know to take myself out to sushi every so often, remaining Fukushima background radiation be damned. And yes I know that’s not what a vomitorum was actually used for but you all gleaned my meaning regardless, and if not what’s wrong with you?
Besides, as any social media window left open too long will tell you: even staunch metal fans love plenty of extra-metallic material. Tom G. Warrior loves David Slyvian. This is no great act of rebellion, this is the simple acknowledgement that metal is pop music, as in art meant for popular consumption. That is no damning admonishment. It describes Mozart, too.
To anyone who has followed this annual tradition, my choices should not offer many surprises. Sorry, all five of you. My omissions, however, may offer more thrills. Some obvious choices just didn’t keep a chokehold on me until the end. Some pleasant surprises just didn’t make the cut. The always-excellent Paramore (shut up it’s true) reinvented themselves as a synth-driven Blondie for the 21st century and in so doing released their best record in a good while, just not good enough. Some just dropped a little too late. Glassjaw’s long awaited Material Control put a big smile on my face but I haven’t even been digesting it for a month, and it seems to have more to unlock within it.
Other excellent options absolutely deserve to be on this list but displeased my conscience. I think Brand New’s swansong Science Fiction is an absolute knockout, but following sexual impropriety accusations levelled against that band’s singer Jesse Lacey, I just couldn’t write anything more about it besides “approach with caution”. Hell, Grave Pleasures should probably be here and not on my metal list — there’s one record here that’s got as much metal cred as Motherblood does, but doesn’t have a guitar on it… at least I don’t think so?
What I’m saying is: this thing is soft. It’s touchy-feely. It’s all emotions no brains. Approach the whole thing with caution. But do approach it.
The Afghan Whigs – In Spades
I wasn’t alone in my adoration for Greg Dulli’s triumphant return as the main songwriting force behind The Afghan Whigs. When the band returned in 2014 with their first album in over a decade, Do to the Beast, their slightly less toxic but no less effective mastery of soul-inflected rock music put most mainstream guitar-based music that arrived in their absence into question. OK, let’s be honest, it was all already in question — there’s a reason we’re all metalheads, here.
Even so, Dulli’s follow-up, In Spades, has not garnered the same reaction and it’s easy to see why. Hazy, atmospheric, and relaxed, it’s hardly the cocksure thump that the Whigs are known for. In fact, if Dulli had released it as his more piano-driven side project The Twilight Singers, it might have made more of a splash. But we’re already deep underground here so who cares what anyone else thinks: Dulli still has the juice. It took a minute for this record to sink in, but the run of songs from “Copernicus” to “Light as a Feather” is as emotional and affecting as anything he’s ever done.
Run the Jewels – RTJ3
I wrote about this pick last year, as it technically dropped on Christmas day 2016, but I didn’t receive my physical copy until this year. Since this record was released I’ve seen El-P and Killer Mike drop bombs live twice, and each time the lion’s share of their live show was culled from the first half of this album. Rightly so.
For a half hour RTJ3 is one constant stream of catchy, moshy, witty hip-hop. Predictably, the 2016 presidential election has left a chip on the dynamic duo’s shoulders — all the more incredible since by all accounts the record was in the can before Trump won. Its predecessor seemed more like an album summoned by a Killer Mike-shaped bat symbol with El-P delivering Robin-level second tier verses; El-P stepped up his game in a serious way on RTJ3.
That said, where RTJ2 was, to me, a flawless instant classic, its immediate follow-up stumbles a little on the back end. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” brings the record to a screeching halt and even a Kamasi Washington feature can’t get it back up to speed. El and Mike don’t downshift again until “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” closes things out with another slice of Zach De La Rocha’s vocal violence.
Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Pop music, like politics, now belongs to the villains. Kanye West. Jay-Z. Now Taylor Swift. These are scoundrels who release music glorying in their own nastiness (even when Hova tries to spin himself into a noble-but-flawed husband) That is why I enjoy these artists, to an extent. This is a metal blog: This is where, even in spite of ourselves, we celebrate evil.
So what does a villain’s further heel-turn look like? Tyler, The Creator shows the way on Flower Boy. An endlessly creative young man with an ear for jazz and a deep, unmistakable voice, Tyler has a wealth of talents that have all up until now been overshadowed by his status as hip hop’s perpetual enfant terrible. “I’ll rape a pregnant bitch and say I had a threesome”, he once spat. On Flower Boy, though, Tyler comes out of the closet and does so with an explosion of innovative sound.
Here’s the R&B adoration he hinted at on the second half of Wolf now fully realized and far elss saccharine. Here’s also the paranoid violence of “Who Dat Boy”? The innovative basement-dwelling teenager who was once a committed and transparent edgelord troll of Bastard now looks like a larvae, and the disappointing Cherry Bomb was a cocoon. Tyler’s metamorphosis into a mature artist, to me, justifies all the cringes his past generated. He’s still going to make a whole lot of people upset, but now he’s an authentic expressionist, not a disturbed paranoiac.
St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
“I can’t turn off what turns me on”, Annie Clark sings on the title track to her latest album as St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION. I can relate, Annie. I think we all can. The counterintuitive and sometimes torturous side of sexual desire isn’t new territory for guitar-driven pop music, but Clark’s sudden transformation from idiosyncratic guitar wunderkind to bed frame knocking howler is jarring, And welcome.
Because the truth is, as good as her older records were they also kept me as a listener at arm’s length. MASSEDUCTION is intimate. Clark’s other songs never begged to be revisited. Songs like “Pills” are built for infinite repeat, probably thanks to the guidance of pop heavy-hitter Jack Antonoff, who will appear later on this list. Even the more conventional ballads on the disc relay Clark’s sentiments with new clarity, especially “Happy Birthday, Johnny”.
Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Steven Wilson’s celebrated prog rock outfit Porcupine Tree and his producer credits on much of Opeth’s best work are indelible pieces of my childhood. The products of Wilson’s mind are now integral parts of mine. That said, his solo career up until now pretty much leaves me cold. I can hear The Raven That Refused to Sing and Hand.Cannot.Erase and appreciate that they are great records that continue Porcupine Tree’s conceptual legacy, but they don’t tickle my fancies. To the Bone, though, immediately charmed me.
Wilson has subsumed much of his capital-A artistic tendencies in favor of a suite of pleasant pop-oriented songs as pressaged by his cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times”. The title track and songs like “Permanating” serve as potent reminders of Wilson’s vocal composition skills, and “Detonation” feels closer to Deadwing than anything since. I may be in select company with those reactions, however. A bunch of his fans can’t stand this one. Me, I’m happy to have my old mentor back.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
At this point in time Kendrick Lamar has to be the most successful “conscious” rapper of all time. I saw Kendrick at the TacomaDome in Washington this year and at the show’s climax he sang the first bar only of his mega-hit “Humble” — the audience rapped the entire remainder of the song for him a-cappella. I love Common, but he’s never made a song that ten thousand people can memorize and spit in unison.
The cost of a song like “Humble”, though, is a little originality. After two conceptual and progressive records Kendrick pares back his sound on DAMN. It’s by a margin his most radio-friendly album. And while there’s still a concept (you can play it forward and backward and it makes sense!) there’s no more extended song suites. As much as I love DAMN. it’s probably his weakest record overall. Even so, “DNA” and “Humble” are the kind of songs most emcees spend their whole careers trying and failing to make.
Lorde – Melodrama
So next to Kendrick, Lorde probably has the most-acclaimed record of the year in mainstream publications. While those accolades are 100% deserved, they come as a surprise. Even with Jack Antonoff (see above) behind the boards, Melodrama failed to produce a hit single. I have no idea why, since “Homemade Dynamite” is probably the single song I listened to most this year. Guess Jack was putting all of his effort into trying to buff up that new Taylor Swift record (full disclosure, I’m throwing shade without having heard the whole thing yet).
But who cares about singles? Taken as a whole, Melodrama is a loveable pean to adolescent love and heartbreak. It throbs, it moves, it avoids cliche. Lorde and Grimes are both competing for the throne that Kate Bush left behind, and while the latter may have the conceptual oddness that the former lacks, Lorde has a sense of humor and self-awareness that adds a third (fourth?) axis to appreciate. I can get lost in this record, even though at times the lyrics go over-the-top in a way that Lorde’s voice does not. I forgive both of those light faults. Not everyone needs a piercing upper register. And after all, she tells us in the title and the title track: this is Melodrama in every sense.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples’ 2015 double album Summertime ‘06 ought to have been listed as my top album of that year, but I only heard it in 2016. Monochrome, minimal, and stacked end-to-end with bleak observations, Staples established himself as a prodigy with that record. His second full-length is… different. Bright, complex arrangements inspired by Detroit techno nearly drown out Staples, who delivers fewer verses-per-minute than before. The only through-line is his sober and bleak worldview, masterfully communicated.
“How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” he spits on “Party People”, summing up all of 2017 in one line. That song acts like a rosetta stone for the rest of the LP. Staples’ appreciation for dance electronica is authentic but so is his disdain for the culture of excess that accompanies it and reflects the racist economic war machine that is America as a whole. Big Fish Theory is the best hip hop album of the year.
Algiers – The Underside of Power
I haven’t heard another band like Algiers. On an NPR interview in support of the record this year, vocalist.guitarist Franklin James Fisher said the band “Believes Nina Simone was the first punk rocker.” Well said. Fisher’s gospel-ish vocal style plays off the remainder of the band’s often synthetic, even industrial soundscapes. Their sound was interesting but unfocused on their debut LP. This year, though, they found their sweet spot.
The first side of the record boils all their strengths into a series of driving, dynamic songs that each carry a powerful anti-fascist sentiment. This is music to rally around. In true radical fashion, the second half of the album twists the narrative with a series of synth-driven soundscapes flowing into one another in a manner that reminds me of Tears for Fears’ progressive pop masterpiece Songs From the Big Chair.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
I’m not sure anyone saw this coming. Norwegian experimental outfit Ulver should be no strangers to NCS readers; the outfit’s first three records helped create the folk black metal template that bands like Myrkur and Panopticon still draw from today. That said, one can’t credibly call Ulver a metal band any longer. Much of their recent output, to be frank, more qualifies as interesting than great. Their previous decade of soundtrack-inspired dark ambient prog produced great moments, but no knockout hits, I think.
And then they released a synthpop record in the vein of Depeche Mode during the same year that storied outfit released a new record — and beat them at their own game. I can’t imagine anyone saw the sheer quality of this record coming. Every song on The Assassination of Julius Caesar is distinct and memorable. Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg makes the most of his distinct-but-limited voice, while the remainder of the band lash their love of longform textured experimentation into verse-chorus-verse song structure. Those limitations bring out the best in the group. Rygg’s eclectic lyrics meditate on the occult and classical philosophical coincidences that weave through pop culture, and specifically the death of icons — Julius Caesar is our religious leaders, our celebrities, our darlings, maybe even this record is their final murder of their younger defiant black metal selves.
Lead single “Nemoralia” slyly discusses the posthumous worship of Princess Diana. “Transverberation” makes a sacrament out of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. “1969” is the band’s love letter to Sharon Tate. all that may sound a bit academic, and if so don’t worry: the beat drop in “So Falls the World” will wash away your sin and doubt. And when the listener is clean, there is the compilation Sic Transit Gloria Mundi EP and its shocking Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover to dirty us up once again.
It’s doubtful that the restless innovative spirit that is the core of Ulver will allow there to be a second coming of The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Treasure this (their best?) album now, and for always.