Here Come Dat List. O Shit Waddup - My Favorite Records of 2016
I haven’t been able to select a list of ten albums at the end of the year since 2013. I don’t know what that says more about—me, or music. Or maybe both. This year it was kind of easy to come up with this list, and make compelling arguments for each of them.
Lists like this are a pure reflection of the time. It’s really tough to say if I’ll feel the same way about many of these albums a year from now. But for the time being, as this wretched year ends, these are the albums I found myself returning to.
First and foremost, I should say that I have some minor misgivings about including this album on this list, but I feel like I may be ostracized as an ‘internet music critic’ or whatever if I didn’t include it because of what happened at the beginning of the year.
I near-blindly pre-ordered Blackstar on December 30th; within 48 hours, a shitty vinyl rip of it had leaked and on New Year’s Day, I found myself huddled over my laptop, listening to it, not understanding what it was I was hearing. I spent the week trying to make sense of it, putting together what I now deem a possibly erroneously written review where I may or may not have panned the album.
Released on his 69th birthday, Blackstar arrived two days before Bowie passed away from cancer—a disease people outside his inner circle were unaware of. The album then, as it rightfully should, I suppose, immediately took on new meaning. Just below the surface there are all the clues you needed; Blackstar becomes a seven song cycle of a man attempting to come to terms with his own mortality and the evitable end.
Blackstar is not an easy listen. There are no “pop” songs on it. It’s dark, claustrophobic, moody, unnerving, and dissonant. It’s angry, aggressive, and weird. Musically it harkens back at times to his work twenty years prior on Outside or Earthling; it also boasts a heavy jazz influence throughout.
It’s tough to “like” Blackstar. It keeps you at an arm’s length with how arty it leans, but long-time collaborator Tony Visconti’s production work is admirable—the instrumentation sounds huge.
It’s tough to “like” Blackstar, because it is tough to tell, after nearly a year, if people really enjoy it, or if it’s being placed on a pedestal for the compelling story that comes along with it. And I’ll be the first to admit that I may be part of that problem. Like it, or don’t, it, almost immediately, became an important record—and that was something I didn’t understand the first time around. Blackstar is something greater than itself, and that is why as 2016 concludes, there are moments from it that will always haunt.
Sometimes you release three albums within a relatively respectable amount of time during the early stages of your career; then, you become enigmatic. You cut back your trademark hair, and you wait eight years between albums, delivering the first of what is going to be a trilogy.
Then, you wait another seven years.
blackSUMMERS’night, the second in the trilogy, was worth the wait, and it finds Maxwell remaining in his role as a R&B auteur.
Yes, sure, it kind of loses its pacing following the halfway point, but it’s forgivable because of the unfuckwithable run of “Lake by The Ocean,” “Fingers Crossed,” and “Hostage,” as well as the slinky opening track, “All the Ways Love Can Feel,” and the psychedelic, spaced-out vibes of “1990x.”
Thanks to the invention of Auto-Tune software, among other problems in the genre, R&B is not as interesting as it was to listen to the glory days of MTV Jams in the 1990s and early 2000s. The return of Maxwell (much like the return of D’Angelo in 2014) and the promise of a third album in the “Black Summers’ Night” series shows there are still artists out there who—while working at their own pace—still care and are attempting to kick start life within the art form.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of We Got it From Here during my initial listens. One of many albums released in 2016 with a now tragic backstory, the album serves as both a reunion for one of hip-hops most loved acts, as well as a farewell. After reconciling their differences, Tribe got back together after years of on and off estrangement, and a whopping 18 years between studio albums. Sadly, Q-Tip’s foil, Phife Dawg, passed away unexpectedly from complications to diabetes during the sessions for the record.
What is left in his wake is a lengthy mediation on friendship and loss. Long gone are the freewheeling days of Tribe’s earliest and most fun and lighthearted material—We Got it From Here is a deadly serious record with few moments of reprieve. It’s cacophonic and bombastic—exploring new sonic territory that was a shock to my system at the time.
But I stuck with it. And I knew it was one of this year’s best when I continued to have bits and pieces of it stuck in my head. This allowed the album to slowly reveal itself, and for me to unpack the dense layers in order to finally make sense of it.
Yes it’s long, and yes some of it doesn’t work—the execution of parts can be confusion and possibly sloppy. But tell me that the group isn’t having a blast on “Dis Generation,” and tell me you weren’t incredibly moved by the “Saturday Night Live” performance of “The Space Program” where Q-Tip walked directly toward the camera, pointing into the living rooms of America, trying to rally this stupid fucking country in the wake of the Presidential election results.
The group’s future is uncertain at this point, and many people may want to remember the Tribe of the 1990s rather than something so modern. But this is how, at least for now, the group wants to go out—turning tragedy into triumph, and making something urgent that is a reflection of the times.
Inspired by a trip to Japan with a photographer friend, Gold Panda’s Good Luck conjures up immediate comparisons to early Four Tet in the way it skitters nervously and shimmers beautifully.
Drawing the listener in almost immediately with the glitchy and hypnotic “Metal Bird,” Gold Panda (no formal name given) explores Dilla-esq hip hoppery on “In My Car,” pensive electronica on “Pink and Green,” and brings it all home with an impressive, soaring conclusion on “Your Good Times Are Just Beginning.”
Concise and focused, fun, somber, and captivating, Good Luck is a transcendental journey through a kaleidoscopic lens.
In a different time, back when I was a different person and listened to a lot more experimental and ambient music, I selected the Tape Loop Orchestra’s masterful In A Lonely Place as one of my top three albums of 2013.
An effort like The Invisibles—two amazing 40-minute pieces of ambient bliss—is why you wait until the very end of the year to assemble your “best of” list until the year is actually over. Arriving in late November, the album finds TLO mastermind Andrew Hargreaves collaborating with vocalist Beth Roberts, as well as working with a clearer endgame in mind when compared to the mid-year effort Go Straight Toward The Light of All That You Love.
Throughout the sprawling, transformative pieces, The Invisibles only works to cement Hargreaves as a master of this very specific genre, showing how much emotional content you can pack into wordless music.
At the beginning of this year, if you had told me I would be including an “adult emo” album on my year end list, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I also never would have believed that 2016 would claim the lives of so many influential people, and that Donald Trump could be elected President.
Arriving over 15 years after the band’s raw, auspicious, and nearly accidental debut album, which has earned a rabid cult following and near mythological status in the interim, American Football, as a band and idea, has aged marginally well. The members, now in their late 30s or pushing 40, are still writing about “emotional” topics, but they are doing it in a brutally honest way that is both off-putting and refreshing.
LP2 can be mean spirited at times (“Leave me or don’t—I don’t care. Just let me know when you finally drag your body out of bed,” frontman Mike Kinsella sings at the end of the album’s opening track, then later, “I can only imagine where that dirty mouth is when it’s not on me.”) as well as self-effacing (“Oh, how I wish that I were me: the man that you first met and married.”
Then of course, there’s the album’s centerpiece—“I’ve Been So Lost for So Long.”
It’s a dark, heartbreaking album, meticulously arranged and produced. It sounds like a million bucks, and the band—now a four-piece—craft very deliberate songs that unfold over sudden time signature changes and dramatic, sweeping grandeur.
Sometimes I wish people wouldn’t ask me what kind of music I listen to, because it is so difficult to describe my varying tastes and interests. “Indie rock” doesn’t really cover it anymore, and hasn’t for awhile; so, usually, if I am feeling good humored, I say I mostly listen to ambient droning and early 1990s gangsta rap.
So for someone who claims those things, putting an album by Mary Chapin Carpenter on a list of his favorite albums of the year seems a bit out of character. Most people may remember Carpenter as a “country singer” of sorts who rose to prominence in the very early 90s with songs like “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Passionate Kisses” (lots of songs about kissing, I guess), and the divorce anthem “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.”
Wrongly pigeonholed into the genre, Carpenter is probably best described as a folk singer, or at least “Americana,” and both of those sounds are very present on her 2016 effort, The Things That We Are Made Of. With 30 years in the game, and pushing 60, Things is a road-weary, introspective album that finds Carpenter turning the lyrics inward, painting incredibly evocative and personal portraits set against the backdrop of lush instrumentation and arrangements.
From the moment I first put on Care, about a week before its official release date, I knew it was going to be a different kind of How to Dress Well album—and I was right. I also was worried (rightly so) that people (i.e. critics) were not going to get it.
Getting what Wikipedia calls “favorable reviews,” Care was panned by Pitchfork—the site that helped break Tom Krell’s once bedroom to blog project into something much larger. But now, for some ears, perhaps Krell has gotten too big.
Care is a huge pop record. Much, much larger than its predecessor, “What is This Heart?”. Working with outside collaborators like Jack Antonoff from fun. and Bleachers, and Dre Skull, Krell expanded his musical palate. Long gone are the day of Krell hiding his voice behind layers of reverb and claustrophobic instrumentation. If albums like Love Remains and Total Loss were in black and white, Care is in full-blown color. It’s bold and bright, and at times, like “What’s Up,” it’s surprisingly fun.
Self-aware, good natured, and most important of all—thoughtful and reflective, there are some misfires after the halfway point. However, from start to finish, Care is a fearless and admirable album made by an artist who is still growing as both a performer and songwriter, continuing to incorporate his influences (both contemporary and of the past) while pushing “adult pop music” forward to interesting places.
A way of dealing with incredible loss and grief, Skeleton Tree was mostly written in the wake of the accidental death of Cave’s teenage son. Fragile and emotional in ways he’s never been before with The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree finds Cave dropping the near proselytizing he has done on previous, more raucous efforts. Here, he, along with the rest of the band, are incredibly reserved and restrained, exploring a quiet, pensive territory that they briefly touched on with their last effort, Push The Sky Away, with Cave himself never sounding more human, identifiable, and wounded than he does here.
Juxtaposing both incredibly personal statements with his trademark imagery and mystique, Cave takes us deep within his turmoil—mirrored by the album’s companion documentary, One More Time With Feeling. Raw and visceral without being angry or aggressive, dark without being oppressive, Skeleton Tree isn’t a perfect album; there are two songs in the second half that slow the pacing down. But an album like this isn’t about perfection. It’s about a dealing with a heartbreak that won’t go away and the slow burning urgency that these songs—these words—needed to be said, and that hopefully, as the titular track fades out, the healing process may begin.
What kind of Radiohead fan would I be if I didn’t select the band’s ninth album as my favorite record of the year?
Arriving five years after the much maligned and unfocused King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band working with renewed energy and focus—eight months after its initial release, I still stand by my statement that it’s the band’s most forward thinking effort since Kid A, and it is certainly their most human sounding since In Rainbows.
So late in their career, it’s an album that proves the band is still full of innovation and surprises: the songs are stacked in alphabetical order, which amazingly works, and I can only imagine how difficult it was to select a series of songs that would work structurally in that way.
It finds the band dabbling more and more with orchestral arrangements—thanks in part to Jonny Greenwood’s work outside the band as a composer of film scores. This adds a very lush, warm sounding layer to A Moon Shaped Pool.
It also finds the band finally committing “True Love Waits” to tape. A longtime fan favorite, originally debuted in 1995, the song gained more attention when Thom Yorke played it as an encore during the band’s 2001 Amnesiac tour. They always claim they’ve never known what to do with it, but now, they finally figured it out.
Slowing it down to a fragile, broken lullaby that closes the album, it’s the story that surrounds the inclusion of “True Love Waits” that makes it all the more devastating. A Moon Shaped Pool can be considered Radiohead’s “divorce record.” Yorke separated from his partner of over 20 years prior to the recording of the album, and while he still writes in ambiguous fragments, there are moments where it is very clear he was pouring his sorrow into this effort.
It becomes even more heartbreaking in retrospect because Yorke’s former partner, Rachel Owen, passed away from cancer in late December.
There was never any worry about Radiohead not being one of the most important bands of our modern popular music landscape, but A Moon Shaped Pool reestablishes that fact. It’s the sound of five musicians, plus one producer and one visual artist, working together to create something bigger than themselves. It’s where guitars, analog vintage synthesizers, and modern sounding beeps and boops collide—in the hands of some, it would turn into a hot mess. But this far into their careers, Radiohead knows what they are doing. Operating with an immediacy and urgency that the band hasn’t shown in a decade, A Moon Shaped Pool is a haunted, beautiful, and personal record.