2016 Music Review: Top 10 Albums, 20-song Playlist

I haven’t usually gotten these things out before the springtime, and for a number of reasons 2016 is more delayed than ever. But since ‘better late than never’ is usually well-applied — especially when this kind of analysis will serve future me with a (near-)real-time document of the day — and since 2016 was no 2015 but was also no slouch as far as new music goes, here again is my personal take on the best of the best of the last calendar year: general notes, the top ten albums, and a 20-track playlist of highlights. At least I beat the Summer Solstice on this one!

General Notes

First off, note that embedded here is my 20-track playlist so you can easily listen while you read! Half the tracks come from the top ten album list, half do not, and no artist is repeated. To keep things lively I’ve organized some thoughts into topical bullet lists. Following that I present that personal top ten along with a short review for each and some track highlights too. Enjoy!

Disappointments

Some things didn’t strike me as I had hoped and are particularly worth noting. Here’s a breakdown of those by category.

  • “sophomore slumps” or lousy followups to breakouts
    • Mutual Benefit – Skip a Sinking Stone – The relatively charmless and derivative followup from this band’s gorgeous debut is only ten minutes longer but has nearly twice the tracks. A more focused approach might have been more rewarding.
    • Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial – The sprawling long player, and the first not to be primarily re-recordings of demos recorded in Seattle youngster’s Will Toledo’s dad’s car, is an interesting and at times clever but gratuitously overlong song arc about a fictional teenager.
    • Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made – Actually I now question whether his breakout was any good either. Both albums seem to have gained prominence from one or two popular and/or controversial tracks but are otherwise unremarkable.
    • Frank Ocean – Blonde – A much more introspective and stripped-down collection of songs lacking any of the hooks and all the joy of his breakout, also coloured by controversy over a record deal gone sour. Not terrible, but the best song sounds like Radiohead’s best new song.
  • the actively terrible from people I once thought were my friends
  • otherwise unqualified yawns still worth noting
    • James Blake – The Colour In Anything – a sadly boring exercise in compact-disc-filling overproduction from a great voice who had been a leader in electronic indie pop.
    • of Montreal – Innocence Reaches – Kevin Barnes has always been all over the place, so the fact that this record is uninteresting isn’t surprising, but it does feature one of the best tunes he’s lately written (it’s in the playlist!)
    • Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool – Actually there are a few decent patches on this record, but they’re so few and far between — and the hype so toxically nostalgic — that it will fade with time except for the most fanatic.
    • M. Ward – More Rain – Except for one pretty cool single (“Girl from Conejo Valley”, not in the playlist), this bland claptrap is more evidence that Zooey Deschanel ruined M. Ward.

Worth Taking Note

  • oldie surprises
    • Kate Bush – Before the Dawn – A three-disc live album documents her first show in 35 years! Meticulously organized but a chore to listen to, there are nevertheless a few standouts and the throughline probably reward fans.
    • Rolling Stones – Blues and Lonesome – Hands down the best Stones album in decades, this collection of covers is the output of just three spontaneous and accidental days in the studio and features Eric Clapton on two cuts.
    • A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – The sixth and final ATCQ album is also the first in nearly 20 years and features some contributions from Phife Dawg, who died in early 2016, as well as more than half a dozen best-of-the-best guest appearances. It stands up surprisingly well and rewards multiple spins.
    • Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway – The best Peppers album in close to 15 years is not without flaws, but its more muscular approach is probably down to greater involvement from Flea which was helped by his collaboration with Thom Yorke in Atoms for Peace.
    • Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger – I’m no Paul Simon fan per se, but this is the best thing I’ve heard from him since I discovered 1986’s Graceland.
  • standout collaborations
    • Banks & Steelz – Anything But Words – Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (alias Bobby Steels) and Interpol frontman Paul Banks join forces to make moody indie rap. Slickly produced, it’s mostly what you’d expect, but with a few surprises including the standout “Conceal” and Florence Welch on “Wild Season.”
    • Moonface and Sinaii – My Best Human Face – Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade fame teamed up under his alias Moonface with a Finnish krautrock band called Sinaii. The result is highly listenable indie rock, and the title is found as a lyric in the standout “Ugly Flower Pretty Vase.”
    • Anderson Paak – Aside from his own breakthrough second LP Malibu, Anderson Paak teamed up with Knxwledge to create the irreverent Yes Lawd! Most amusing is perhaps the sarcastic critique  “H.A.N.” — short for Ho Ass N***s. Anderson Paak also contirbuted to “Glowed Up,” a highlight from long-time producer Kaytranada’s stunning debut 99.9% (also noted below).
    • Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression – This collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme basically sounds like a Queens album with Iggy Pop on lead. Inspired in part by Pop’s work with David Bowie, this reflective album became an unwitting posthumous tribute when Bowie suddenly died in January.

Highlights

  • honourable mentions
    • Thee Oh Sees – This prolific San Francisco psychedelic noise rock band released a pair of enjoyable albums: A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances. The latter is more like a collection of demos or B-sides from sessions for the first, but both have some compelling hooky tunes as well as the noise barrage for which Thee Oh Sees are known.
    • Wild Nothing – Life of Pause – Lush and hooky, Jack Tatum’s third record as Wild Nothing was recorded in three different studios with the drummer from Peter Bjorn and John and the guitarist from Medicine.
    • Field Music – Commontime – Possibly Field Music’s best album yet, it is certainly their grooviest and most nuanced. The new addition of a female backup vocalist softens and rounds out their complex, mathematical sound.
    • Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros – In many ways this album seems like a rewrite of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Brooding and hazy, this psychedelic concept album was co-produced by Jim James.
  • standout debuts and slump dodgers
    • St Paul and the Broken Bones – Sea of Noise – Approaching more thematic cohesion and complete with interlude tracks, the second album from this southern soul band tightens up and improves upon the formula of the first. Impassioned lead vocalist Paul Janeway continues to deliver, but the band shines through on tracks like the highlight “Midnight on the Earth.”
    • SURVIVE – RR7349 – Having also composed the soundtrack for the gripping Netflix series Stranger Things, SURVIVE unleash a pulsing instrumental electronic palette with their second proper album. Heavy with synthesizers, these mini-epics could themselves soundtrack any number of suspenseful short films.
    • King – We Are King – Discovered and supported by Erykah Badu and Questlove of the Roots, this trio deliver their long-anticipated debut. Groovy and lush, these electro-soul tunes evoke Dam-Funk but also sound unlike much else around today.
    • Kaytranada – 99.9% – This Montreal-based hip hop producer rose in fame in the early 2010s, but Kaytranada broke through with a Disclosure remix in 2014 and signed with XL to produce various singles. His first proper album on the label features numerous collaborations, including Little Dragon and the aforementioned Anderson Paak.
  • best to date
    • Jim James – Eternally Even – Jim James’s second solo outing is certainly darker and more political than his first. But with better instrumentation (including slide guitar) and supporting guest vocals, this bluesier collection slightly edges out 2013’s Regions of Light and Sound of God, which made this blog’s top 10 that year.
    • Woods – City Sun Eater In The River Of Light – Woods introduces afrobeat and krautrock styles to their customarily warm if heretofore unadventurous indie rock to create something more unique. Some tracks drive home while others rock out, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
    • Sonny and the Sunsets – Moods Baby Moods – I’d followed this fairly bizarre indie rock ‘n roll band for years out of some combination of wishful thinking and morbid curiosity, but they’ve finally delivered. With Merril Garbus of tUnE-yArDs producing, this Tom Tom Club influenced record combines the unique charm of Sonny Smith with some quality basslines to create a surprisingly political album.
    • Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution – This highly political concept album follows Emily (Spalding’s middle name) as she journeys from childhood to adulthood as a black woman. Along the way are angular, jazzy, often freaky rock songs played by a band hand-picked by Spalding for this record. She’s always been quirky and eccentric, and she remains so, but this is her most accessible and rewarding album to date.

Top 10 Albums

With some worthwhile notes established, here are the ten albums I loved the best. They were chosen through a proprietary algorithm combining my personal enjoyment, a sense of thematic or or technical consistency, and some measure of absolute artistic merit; then ranked, which was the tricky bit. Enjoy!

10. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
Bruno Mars is among the only artists in recent memory to have completely stopped me in my tracks upon hearing a new single. It happened with “Treasure” from 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, and it happened again with the title track of last year’s 24K Magic. But what disappointed me about his earlier albums is that the singles were obvious standouts. Not so this time around: 24K Magic is still just as slickly produced and as ever, and at 33-and-one-half minutes it’s just as tight as his previous albums, but this time it’s fun the whole time. Lyrically it’s laser-focused on lady killing, which is a thankful relief from the odd mix of a few too many oversweet ballads along with borderline misogynistic rants, and no doubt his work with Mark Ronson on 2015’s “Uptown Funk” aids in the general execution. Highlights: “24K Magic”, “Perm”, “Calling All My Lovelies”, “Finesse”.

9. Angel Olsen – Woman
I’d never heard of Angel Olsen until her third full length, My Woman, was getting a lot of buzz near year-end, so I resolved to check it out. It’s apparently her best yet, but given its quality I’ve written a note to myself to visit her earlier work too. On My Woman, Olsen explores relationship and identity themes from a perspective of heartache and frustration with distinctive and plaintive vocal expression. Musically it’s a novel mix of 50s girl group rock, 70s Television-style alt-punk, and 90s Nivarna-style grunge. An obvious nod to that last influence comes in the form of a standout anti-ballad entitled “Heart Shaped Face” which confidently redeclares “there is nothing new under the sun”. An album that could easily soundtrack a Wes Anderson film, My Woman rewards multiple spins. Highlights: “Shut Up Kiss Me”, “Not Gonna Kill You”, “Heart Shaped Face”, “Sister”.

8. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
I’ve been following the prolific Parquet Courts for some time, which is to say about two years. In that time, these Brooklyn-based Texas expats who meld folk and punk have released three full length albums — one under the playful variant Parkay Quarts — and the first two showed real promise despite being mixed so I kept hope alive. But with their third full length since I’ve been paying attention they seem to have come into their own. This Dylan-as-punk record is their first that I’ve found consistently enjoyable, and better: I love it! The songs are dense but quick and feature a tag-team of two lead singers each with his own style. The difference this time I think is better musical refinement and depth. This band is like a much better version of the bizarrely popular Courtney Barnett, also a transplant to New York, but with more of the senseless abrasiveness refined into artistic expression and with ultimately more interesting things to say. Highlights: “Outside”, “Captive of the Sun”, “One Man No City”, “Berlin Got Blurry”.

7. El Perro Del Mar – KoKoro
If I’ve been following Parquet Courts for a while, I’ve been following El Perro Del Mar forever. This Swede, Sarah Assbring, first joined the scene with her melancholy eponymous debut in 2005 which was both personal and profound. Her next output that I noticed was 2012’s Pale Fire which surprised me for its focus on electronic sounds and more confident songwriting. But all this laid the stage for KoKoro, a multi-ethnic blend of styles and sounds inspired by a visit to a musical instrument museum in Stockholm. This record is at once her smartest and most diverse, incorporating influences from virtually every continent, particularly Asia. All melancholy has been abandoned in favour of an earnest dedication to do right by her lovers and her fellows. It’s also her most joyful, which after following her for this long is its own joy. Highlights: “Breadandbutter”, “Clean Your Window”, “Kouign-Amman”, “Hard Soft Hard”.

6. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Childish Gambino is the alias of Donald Glover — no relation to the actor Danny Glover — which had been given to him by an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. Also famous for acting in the television comedy Community, Glover has been making music for some time: though it’s the first I’ve listened to, Awaken, My Love! is Glover’s third record. But while I’ve read that his earlier work was off-kilter rap, this newest album is funky soul in the style of Sly and the Family Stone or Funkadelic. There’s definitely some quirkiness in here — one of the songs is about financial zombies “eating you for profit” — but there’s also some seriously well-done psychedelic funk and soul. While it clearly owes much to its 60s and 70s influences, it’s also very topically present, with themes about modern love, fatherhood, and community. But more than anything, this album is just plain fun in addition to being thoughtful and nuanced. Highlights: “Have Some Love”, “Boogieman”, “Redbone”, “Baby Boy.”

5. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s younger sister, offers with her first album in eight years a deeply reflective and insightful song cycle. Thematically consistent, it’s all about her highs and lows as a black woman living today. Featuring interludes of parts of interviews with her parents too, this sonically diverse R&B album is a real stunner. For the most part, A Seat at the Table is a slow burner, but one delivered with such engrossing skill and passion that it really does feel on fire. Excellently co-produced by Raphael Saadiq and with easily a dozen high-profile guest appearances from Lil’ Wayne to James Blake, this team effort still focuses on Solange’s lived experience while providing general insight into the racial hotbed of 21st century America. Also, its sparing but adventurous instrumentation is surprisingly complex. A Seat at the Table is both a challenge and a joy. Highlights: “Cranes in the Sky”, “Mad”, “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)”, “Junie”.

4. Deep Sea Diver – Secrets
Deep Sea Diver is a Seattle band fronted by Jessica Dobson, who was briefly a member of the Shins and has also played with Beck, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Spoon. Knowing all of that by itself would have certainly made me interested in learning more about this band, but I actually found it all out once I had already fallen in love with Deep Sea Diver after hearing a single on KEXP. Secrets, their first major label long player, sounds just like you might expect it to given Dobson’s pedigree. It’s indie rock that’s energetic and exciting, with a pulsing emotional heart. Dobson’s soaring voice is the perfect delivery for direct and incisive lyrics about love and determination, and while the rockers are the highlights, the gorgeous production works just as well on the ballads. Highlights: “Wide Awake”, “Creatures of Comfort”, “Secrets”, “See These Eyes”.

3. STRFKR – Being No One, Going Nowhere
STRFKR is a Portland-based electro-pop group that started life as Starfucker. Much like the reminiscent but now completely defunct Seattle electronic group Say Hi, which began life as Say Hi To Your Mom in New York, STRFKR ditched just enough of their name to prevent automatic alienation of some would-be fans; though in STRFKR’s case it’s still pretty clear what they’re on about. I’d been nominally aware of both incarnations of STRFKR for several years, and even caught several of their shows, but while I liked what I heard nothing quite grabbed me enough to check out an album. That changed with last year’s Being No One, Going Nowhere thanks largely to being wowed by their single “Never Ever” on KEXP. After that I managed to see them twice more, once before and once after the album release, wherein the entire stage was filled both times with dancing astronauts. There isn’t much more I can add about this album’s infectious dance pop that evokes Islands and MGMT except to say that it was all written by bandleader Joshua Hodges during a retreat to Joshua Tree National Park and that it’s consistently awesome. Highlights: “Satellite”, “Never Ever”, “In The End”, “When I’m With You”.

2. David Bowie – Blackstar
I think David Bowie really poured everything he had left into Blackstar. After his sudden passing in January 2016 we learned that he’d been privately managing a no-win liver cancer prognosis since 2014. I felt lucky to have picked up his new album the week before his death and gave it a first spin the day before he passed, mainly because it afforded me the opportunity to hear it just one time before it became the object of intense scrutiny as not only his last album but his deliberate swan song. Much has been written about messages he left in his last songs and I won’t address any of that. What I love is the energy in Bowie’s jazziest album in years — or maybe ever — and a return to the progressive storytelling of his earliest work. I find it fitting that Blackstar reminds me of the nearly half-century-old The Man Who Sold the World but still sounds fresh today. Truly David Bowie was an unparalleled genius until the very day he died. Highlights: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “Dollar Days”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.

1. Beyonce – Lemonade
2016 was one hell of a year. Many musicians made excellent albums. Many musicians died. A few did both. But this blog finds it worth noting that despite all that churn, the best album was in fact made by a yet-living artist whose sister also had an album in the same top 10, and that both arists were black women. In fact, the plight of black people was the theme of the first and major single of Beyonce’s latest, entitled “Formation”, controversial mainly due to the imagery of its video and her performance of the song during the Super Bowl halftime show. But the forthcoming album Lemonade, complete with videos for every song thematically stitched together thence billed as a “visual album”, was another animal again. This song cycle was a shockingly public and chronological document of Beyonce’s discovery that her longtime husband, Jay-Z, was cheating on her; her process of coming to terms with what that implied to her and everyone; and her path to redeeming him as her soulmate and father of her children. Lemonade is perhaps the most well-received concept album since Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and is so-named from a short clip from Beyonce’s grandmother about making lemonade when served lemons included near the end of the album. Stylistically adventurous with everything from rock to country, from uptempo to slowburning to acoustic, it stands together very well. Frankly the album is a beautifully coherent thematic arc that is oddly distracted from by the inclusion of the single “Formation” at the end, and if it were anyone but Beyonce we might be able to blame record label interference; but instead it must be more complicated. Find out for yourself! Highlights: “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “6 Inch”, “Daddy Lessons”, “All Night”.

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