Early 2017 Favorites

Year-end lists of our favorite media have become a regular occurrence for essentially any and all media publications. They allow us to reflect on what made the year great (or less than) while summarily offering a mental wrap-up of the goings-on in the closing year. In effect, we remember fondly and move forward, keeping the ideas of what we loved firmly intact with expectations of the next year to top it. What is less common, however, is to remind ourselves that great media is released all the time, and lists needn’t be just a reflection of the entirety of year; many things slip through the cracks, and because human memory is faulty, reflecting throughout the year can be a good way to not let too many things fall into our subconscious. As such, here are five of my favorite albums to be released in early 2017.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Arca; Arca – The Venezuelan producer has stayed busy over the past couple of years, releasing full releases and mixes of his work to keep his waiting fans satiated. On his self-titled album, he reestablishes what has made him great, while introducing a convention heretofore unseen in his work as Arca: his voice. The falsetto-laden, haunting vocal stylings Alejandro Ghersi utilizes over the course of Arca fold in an entirely new layer to his eerie, forward-thinking beats, evoking lovers lost (“Sin Rumbo”) and an alternate version of our reality where Ghersi could possibly even be a pop star. “Desafío,” for example, is a slo-mo pop masterpiece with simple yet effective harmonies that rival some (Björk, FKA Twigs, Kelela) of the artists he’s produced for. What keeps me coming back to Arca is how I never quite fully grasp the entirety of what he’s doing on the album; it is, so far, endlessly replayable because there is always something new to discover.

Goldfrapp; Silver Eye – Goldfrapp tend to switch between two main modes: glammy, icy synthpop numbers and a wistful, mysterious take on folktronica. On Silver Eye, they mostly continue this pattern after the character-driven Tales Of Us, replacing that album’s simple guitar strums and name-oriented approach with some of the most cavernous, dark and sterling synth touches they’ve released to date. It stands high in their discography, falling just shy of my other favorites (wonky-pop debut Felt Mountain and high-NRG rager Head First). Songs like “Tigerman” and “Zodiac Black” allow for previously unseen clarity in Alison Goldfrapp’s lyrics, while “Faux Suede Drifter” fits in with the beauty of slower, ephemeral tracks like Supernature’s “Let It Take You.” Ultimately, Silver Eye continues a winning pattern for Goldfrapp, and makes me excited to continually explore this album for years to come.

Migos; Culture – The best thing about Migos’ most recent album is that they didn’t change anything; rather, they doubled down on everything that makes their Atlanta-based trap rap work with somehow more personality than they already had. Each of the rappers has become more idiosyncratic and identifiably different (Takeoff stuffs every bar with dazzling fervor and as many words as possible, Quavo is consistently the most quotable and Offset keeping himself and the others grounded on a song’s given topic), and the music is never anything less than fun. The only thing that occasionally stunts this album, much like their work in the past, is their unfortunate choice in race relations (often, Latino and Asian people in their songs are reduced to drug dealer clichés). Despite this qualm, you’d be hard pressed to run across music this colorful, this sonically rich and this immediately identifiable with a specific artist in the realm of rap or any other genre. Any album that can stuff this much good across an hour-long album and still be concise, perfectly arranged and ordered and never boring is a winner in my eyes.

Mount Eerie; A Crow Looked At Me – Death is immeasurably sad; if you don’t get anything else from this album then that, Phil Elverum has done his job here. Released after the loss of his wife Geneviève to pancreatic cancer, it applies the melancholy of most of his work as Mount Eerie and The Microphones to concrete, nearly inescapable sadness. Elverum paints pictures of memories of his wife, ranging from the scattered, disorganized remnants of her artwork to scenes of him and his daughter camping, sans mom. Never content to dwell entirely on sadness, A Crow Looked At Me paints a portrait of directionless hope in the dreams of his daughter in final song “Crow.” It took an entire album of grieving and lyrics like “conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about / back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” and while the sadness will likely perpetually linger throughout Elverum’s life, this album is a snapshot of a moment in time where hope is ever-present yet wholly intangible. It does so much more than just linger on death; from the right angles, it can help any listener overcome grief and continue life without the physical presence of a loved one.

Visible Cloaks; Reassemblage – There is a distinct, vaporwave meets minimalism approach to the music Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile make as Visible Cloaks. They bridge the gap between the nostalgia from a culture outside of their own (here, it is primarily the thin, wet synth tones of Japanese electronic pop from previous decades) and the globalization of sounds that tends to happen in the ever-growing world of electronic music. The music is never loud, with spare moving parts throughout that are content to float through the ether while still leaving an impression on the listener. Highlights include “Valve,” which features Miyako Koda in perfect synchronicity with a wind-blown synth tone and plinking notes, as well as “Neume,” whose title references a medieval form of song notation that forms the basis of how music is read today. On Reassemblage, Visible Cloaks do a great job of reinforcing the idea of ambient music as a pleasant, yet powerful force, one that is equally worthy of attention as it is to soundtrack the minutiae of our everyday lives.


The Active Ambiance of Breath of the Wild

File Apr 09, 8 24 24 PM
Breath of the Wild by Tre Simmons

Breath of the Wild is the latest iteration of the successful The Legend of Zelda franchise, and it has succeeded on so many accounts (even becoming the 2nd best reviewed entry in the series) by combining the disparate parts of its predecessors into a fully functioning whole. It contains the cel-shaded beauty of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword; the constant movement and scheduling of non-playable characters in a similar way to Majora’s Mask; and it retains the open world and “choose your own order” feature of A Link Between Worlds. Much like all of the other games in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild also boasts a beautiful set of sounds and music that fully ensnares players into its fantasy world. Nearly all of the other games in the series include creative takes on 8-bit soundtracks, as well as heavy orchestration and occasional other instrumentation to flavor key areas or games in order to stand apart from other entries. Breath of the Wild does something similar; while still containing past themes and motifs in the many places the protagonist Link can visit, BotW is the most ambient, utilitarian and (in my opinion) beautiful music in the entirety of the Zelda oeuvre, in part because of its sparseness.

Ambient, as put by the musician Brian Eno, is music designed to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This is to say, ambient music should be able to blend into the background and become one with the rest of the world as it should be captivating and intriguing in its own right. Breath of the Wild succeeds on both fronts; when traversing through the massive region of Hyrule, players can easily become lost in the many quests and enemies there are to triumph over. When facing down a troop of Bokoblins, for example, you can become so wrapped up in defeating said enemies and having weapons left over that the music can become entirely unnoticeable. However, in giving equal or a majority of attention to the soundtrack found within BotW, a Bokoblin fight can become that much more catchartic and triumphant.

Where Breath of the Wild differs from most Zelda games is its heavier use of piano in contrast to prior entries. When riding a horse, for example, a broken, ecstatic melody plays; in the interim during both the day and night, individual notes play in a protracted manner that, when put together, spell out major musical themes of previous Zelda iterations. In effect, it combines a little bit of both old and new music to the Zelda franchise that becomes its own idiosyncratic musical language. Older themes can also be heard when visiting the various horse stables found throughout the game, which hearkens back to Epona, the silent hero’s trusty horse companion. Various piano and accordion melodies can be heard everywhere throughout Hyrule that lend each sub-region its own distinct identity.

The spare melodies of the soundtrack also continuously change as you face certain trials in the game. Battles against one of the most fearsome enemies, the Guardians, begin with a dissonant piano before leading into a driving, tense 6/8 melody. Said music ends in a literal explosion only once a Guardian has been defeated or trails off into the more serene day or nighttime themes if Link is able to move far enough away from the range of the enemies’ laser attacks. Many other sounds spark interest and keep players on their toes in all areas of Hyrule. One can be taken aback by the sine wave sound leading into the common day and night variations, sparked into action by a puff of smoke which introduces a certain enemy, or simply bask in the field recordings of various real life creatures thoughtfully placed into the background of beach, field and jungle regions.

Simply put, Breath of the Wild takes a lot of care to fully envelop you in its world through stunning visuals, carefully wrought gameplay and its minimalist choices in sound. It has become one of my favorite games to play because of how placid and rich its sonic territory is. The density of the sounds hear never rises beyond three or four elements at any given moment, yet there is a world of depth and attention to detail that busier works can never even fathom. In this way, it reminds me of some of my favorite minimalist works of music; The xx’s debut album, Visible Cloaks Reassemblage and ANOHNI’s version of Oneohtrix Point Never’s song “Returnal” come to mind. Breath of the Wild took core elements of the Zelda world and filtered them in a way where an entirely new idea of the series has been created, and they have amply breathed new life into an already amazing series.