The Best of 2016
Music and Movies
Man, this year was weird, but I enjoyed the ride. Everything besides music (and movies) absolutely SUCKED so to me, listening to albums was the ultimate escape. I personally listened in detail to over 150 albums in the genres of rock, alternative, hip hop, electronic, folk, singer songwriter etc. and have list of what I personally found to be the best ones. I found my list…..differs…..with a lot of the mainstream critics that tend to place a lot of R& B albums front and center. Kind of odd, going back 10 or twenty years in time when artists like TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire, Interpol, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Joanna Newsom….i dunno bands who made real original music used to top critics lists. Why on earth Rolling Stones lists coincide with more independent web critics like Paste or Popmatters is beyond me. To make it worse, pop music “albums” seem to have dominated most people’s lists as well, when the “albums” themselves are just collaborations between 50 different producers, songwriters, and big business people. I don’t wanna name drop, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who I am talking about J What is popular and trendy comes in waves and cycles in music, so I guess this is just the point we are at. What is innovative and ambitious is always more lasting that what is fashionable and trendy, so that’s how I make my lists.
My favorite albums of the year may not have been your personal faves, the most successful in terms of sales, or at the tops of the critics’ lists. However, I am making this list because I do think that this music is THAT GOOD and definitely worth talking about. As we are in the middle of the 2010’s, many of these names will be new, but it is good to look at this concept as an exciting thing as opposed to a detrimental thing. If you don’t see and album or artist you liked a lot and are wondering where I would personally rank it, you can check about my full list of over 100 albums from last year ranked here:
- James Blake – The Colour In Anything
While most reviews of this record mention that it is monotonous or a long to take in one listen, there is no doubting that this is Blake’s best record and most consistent. Tracks like opener “Radio Silence”, “Timeless”, and “Two Men Down” display a forward thinking merging of soul, folk, and digital/glitch sound effects, showing why Blake is often sought out by RB popstars like Beyonce and Kanye West for his producing and songwriting skills. “Put That Away and Talk to Me” and “My Willing Heart” show a singer songwriter trapped in a 21st century he is scarred of and doesn’t quite understand, but is trying to come to terms with. The guest vocal by Bon IVer is used to profound effect on their duet “I Need a Forrest Fire” sounds more like classic Bon IVer than anything on his own album from this year. Moving away from the glitch production that was too present on his debut album, James Blake goes all out here for over an hour of heartache and pain, truly finding his own voice.
Blake’s ‘voice’ goes form being shy and reserved to being a triumph of power, as he matures his arrangements get stronger still. Truly, a singer-songwriter doesn’t come more highly recommended this year.
- Case / Lang / Veirs – Case / Lang Veirs
As different as these artists are, they work together to create a unified whole like few before them. The main comparison is Crosby/Stills/Nash and Young and the tri-vocal harmonies of “I Want to Be There” and “Atomic Number” displays this passionately. Veirs dominates the record with 6 songs, while Case and Lang each have 4, but it is often blended into a unique whole, whereas 14 songs by only one of the artists may get old but together they are unstoppable. While I personally missed getting a complete Neko Case album this year (as she is my favorite female singer EVER), if these songs are any indication of how strong it would be, I am excited for the future. From the mysterious “Greens of June” (my favorite song of the year) and “Supermoon” to the torch ballad “Honey and Smoke” to upbeat/downbeat travelogues like “Best Kept Secret” and “Down I-5”, the variety is key to making the album work as a whole. The production takes from late 60’s Nick Drake and Townes Van Zant arrangements with strings that echo the best of Randy Newman.
8.Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP
Staples had always shown potential on previous outings, but this is his strongest set of songs yet, even though it is only a 21-minute EP it paints a vivid picture of what his life is like on “Loco” and his rampaging spirit hovers over the listener of tracks like “War Ready”. Listening to the record, where each song’s end contains a brief yet painful recitation about how bad his life can be, is a complete experience. All this and the beats and sound effect make all the other rap acts of the year to shame, with the screaming noise-rock of “Big Time” is an homage to Peter Gabriel’s song of the same name, while “Smile” and title track “Prima Donna” are some of the most twisted, earth shaking addictive hip hop you will ever hear. Lastly, hilarious sketches such as “Pimp Hand” give levity to the harsh tapestry that Staples puts down. His next full length is my most awaited album of 2017.
7.Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
I’ve tried to write a review avoiding the obvious, but Nick Cave suffered an awful loss during the making of this album, and it is so apparent because the album is his most grief stricken yet. That is saying A LOT of course, and fans of Cave since the late 1970’s know this man has some harrowing stuff in his impressive repertoire. Maybe a better thing to say about the man is that this is his most sympathetic album yet, the record on which the listener is pulled into his personal anguish and feels the pain of losing a child at a young age in full effect. Song such as “I Need You” and “Jesus Alone” demonstrate this brilliantly, while “Rings of Saturn” and “Skeleton Tree” connect the themes of personal and universal yearning like no other Cave album before it. The trick: the listener almost feels guilty for enjoying the haunting music.
- Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Woods are far enough into their career that they effortlessly move from genre to genre, and on this album they proved they have just about mastered them all. While on the surface, it may just seem like another super-polished indie rock release with splashes of funk or prog-rock influences scattered throughout, there is much more to it. The intricate complexity of “Sun City Creeps” and “The Other Side” often collide with magical melodies like “”Hollow Home” and “Morning Light” that stay in your head for days. “Politics of Free” and “Can’t See at All”, two of the best songs this band ever has done, mix all of this together in a cavalcade of rainbow-esque joy. Ex-Bassist Kevin Morby has his own solo record of power this year in Singing Saw, and perhaps he got more attention, but mainstays Woods did not slack off either. The band shows they have staying power and if they keep making records this solid, may become very famous with their accessible yet entertaining sound.
- Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop Rock has been honing his craft for a while and his word-driven hip hop songs reach an apex here. Not only are his rhymes and vocabulary on point, the music that accompanies this record is his best yet. Whether it is tough and menacing (“Rabies”, “Shrunk”, “Tuff”, “Defender”) or psych-rap at its best (“Rings”, “Supercell”, “Molecules”) Aesop displays a beautiful mix of brains and heart. The playfulness extends to some of the smaller brief word sketches as well as a song about his cat, “Kirby”, and the videogame intro of “Lazy Eye”. Contained in that latter song is another minor miracle that is key to the albums success, the Chuck D recording left on an answering machine that compels Bavitz to make this hip hop with a purpose.
- The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum
Oh, the awful album titles of The Besnard Lakes. I am positive that most people are not going to flock to an album called Coliseum Complex Museum, but I am here to tell you that you should. This band has been at it for a while, and in a way, they keep making the same album over an over with a mix of shoegaze, psychedelics, and never ending male/female harmonies. That being said, this is the best collection of songs they have come up with. There is not a dud in the bunch, and choosing favorite songs (“Necronomicon”, “Towers Sent to Her Sheets of Sound”, “Golden Lion”) is simply apples and oranges. Gorgeous neo-psychedelia that puts all of their contemporaries to shame.
- Troller – Graphic
An incredibly dark and forbidding album that recalls the best of gothic rock. A sublime mix of Dead Can Dance (“Graphic”), the dream pop Bel Canto and Black Tape for a Blue Girl (“Torch”) and Nine Inch Nails and Pain Teens style Texas industrial rock (the apocalyptic “Sundowner”). The masterwork of the disc is “Storm Maker”, which sounds like an angel falling from heaven, struggling to get back in. “Amber Star-Goers” ends the album beautifully with lyrics that always hit home even though they fade in and out of obscurity. The only minor flaw is the overuse of several one and a half to two minute mood pieces that are almost unnecessary or perhaps could have been combined into one track? Regardless, Troller have made one of the best mixes of operatic vocals and throbbing synthesizers I have ever heard, putting contemporaries like Cocorosie and Beach House to shame – both bands I admire a great deal – while adding a touch of pathos that is hard to find in rock music. When the album is over, you instantly want to turn it over and start it again.
2.The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free
Australia’s best band of the 21st century, The Drones, know exactly what they are doing by this point. Through albums such as I See Seaweed and Wait Long by the River, the band has proven to be deft at telling horrifying stories in multiple ways. This is like a distillation of all of their former excesses into one futuristic album. The brooding horror shows from the past continue (eight-minute opener “Private Execution”, the sparse “Tailwind”); the fast paced and terrorizing (you’ll need an Aussie thesaurus for “Tamun Shud” alone, not to be outdone by the best hard rock track they ever cut in “Boredom”); the gut-wrenching ballads are also present in “To Think that I Loved You” and “Then They Came for Me”. The album ends in a mash up of all these sounds, “Shut Down Seti”, which sums up the career of one of the worlds most oft over-looked hard rock bands. Fans of Nick Cave, seek it out.
1.Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
My favorite album of 2016 is by a band that has been at it for quite a while, and that many say are too prolific for their own good. Despite the multiple albums per year at times, the no-show live shows, the break ups and reunions, Death Grips at its core is a band that needs to be unstable to work. I mean, does it surprise anyone that a band capable of this music is a little crazy? Zach Hill and MC Riff make a beautiful team, altering sound effect upon sound effect in a way that is completely listenable. Each listen to Bottomless Pit is a build in intensity, to the point that all of it sounds great after fully absorbing. It’s not overkill like some of their past records (The Powers that B, No Love Deep Web) and not lacking for ideas either (Government Plates comes to mind), this album is Death Grips as they were meant to be heard.
Though the album as a whole is better than the sum of its collective parts, there are songs that stand on their own against the bands killer catalogue so far: the perfect timed echoes in “Spikes”, the compact cynicism of “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood”, the stroke inducing intensity of “Bubbles Buried in the Jungle”. To quote from past acts and influences, Bottomless Pit combines the wild abandon of Butthole Surfer’s Psychic Powerless and slams it into the hardcore perfection of Bad Brains I Against I. Zack Hill, Stefan Burnett and Andy Morin make up one of the greatest band ever, as the lines between hip hop music and rock n’ roll become completely blurred. The world needs a band like Death Grips to remind them that rock n roll is supposed to be dangerous, and Bottomless Pit’s final wail of “I’ll fuck you in half” should be taken completely seriously.
Honorable Mention (so many great albums this year!):
Swans – The Glowing Man
Cult of Luna – Mariner
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Mount Moriah – How to Dance
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here
Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee
Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden
Lambchop – FLOTUS
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Best Single Songs of the Year:
1.Laura Veirs – “Greens of June”
2.The Drones – “Boredom”
3.Vince Staples – “Prima Donna”
4.Troller – “Storm Maker”
5.Hiss Golden Messenger – “Biloxi”
6.James Blake w/ Bon Iver – “I Need a Forest Fire”
- Aesop Rock – “Rings”
8.Cass McCombs – “In a Chinese Alley”
9.Neko Case – “Delirium”
10.Knifeworld – “High/Aflame”
11.Crystal Castles – “Chloroform”
12.The Avalanches – “Colours”
13.Sturgil Simpson – “Brace for Impact”
14.Danny Brown – “Really Doe”
15.The Besnard Lakes – “Towers Sent Her to Sheets of Sound”
16.Death Grips – “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood”
17.Cult of Luna w/ Julie Christmas – “Chevron”
18.Laura Veirs – “Best Kept Secret”
19.Mount Moriah – “Chiron”
20.Weezer – “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori”
21.Leonard Cohen – “Leaving the Table”
22.A Tribe Called Quest – “Enough”
23.Pantha Du Prince – “In an Open Space”
24.Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop – “Every Songbird Says”
25.Jesu/Sun Kil Moon – “Father’s Day”
26.Bent Knee – “Leaky Water”
27.Eric Bachmann – “Mercy”
28.Paul Simon – The Riverbank”
29.Margo Price – “Since You Put Me Down”
30.Dalek – “Critical”
31.Lambchop – “NIVV”
32.PJ Harvey – “The Orange Monkey”
33.Anderson Paak – “The Bird”
34.Japanese Breakfast – “Everybody Wants to Love You”
35.Bob Mould – “Losing Sleep”
36.YG – “Still Brazy”
37.Kevin Morby – “I Have Been to the Mountain”
38.Lacy Ducas – “Dream State”
39.Woods – “Politics of Free”
40.Denzel Curry – “This Life”
41.Iggy Pop – “Sunday”
42.Sun Valley Gun Club – “It Came From the Moon”
43.Blood Orange – “Better Than Me”
44.The Joy Formidable – “Liana”
45.Nick Cave – “Rings of Saturn”
46.Tragically Hip – “Hot Mic”
47.Parquet Courts – “Human Performance”
48.Banks and Steelz – “Wild Season”
49.Jenny Hval – “Female Vampire”
50.Marissa Nadair – “All the Colors of the Dark”
Best Epic Songs (over around 8 Minutes and over):
1.Lambchop – “In Care of 8675309”
2.Floating Pints – “Kuiper”
3.Oranssi Pazuzu – “Vasemman Kaden Hierarkia”
4.The Field – “The Follower”
5.Swans – “The Glowing Man”
6.Nicaolas Jaar – “Three Sides of Nazareth”
7.Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band – “Thang Jai Thang Jao”
8.David Bowie – “Lazurus”
9.Car Seat Headrest – “Cosmic Hero”
10.Gnod – “The Mirror”