The Best Albums Of 2016
Posted 02/06/2017 by cal
This was gonna be a much more optimistic intro until about January 20th, at which point it became difficult to concentrate on happy thoughts. We’ll cycle back around before long, though. For now, let’s posit that apathy is in this day and age a strangely optimistic attitude, and let that color your understanding of the following.
Does it mean anything to say 2016 was a great year for music? Aren’t they all great? Last year I divided the list up into genres. There’s a thing called google analytics that I think would tell me whether or not that generated more traffic than the single list, but I really don’t remember how it works. I lost interest in writing this thing for a few weeks, not because I was sick of any of these albums or sick of writing. I don’t have much of a reason. In order to finish this up, I revisited most of the albums and rearranged them and added things and now I guess it’s ready, although it will change probably within hours of my posting it and numbers mean nothing and blah blah blah. Please read these words and listen to the musicks that they are about, if you feel like it.
20. The Stone Is Not Hit By The Sun, Nor Carved With A Knife | Nadja
I lost track of Nadja for a few years. This band is prolific as hell and I think with their 2009 covers album When I See The Sun Always Shines On TV, I got subconsciously burnt out (even though I like that album a lot). This year I went back and listened to the interim albums and got very excited about where they’ve taken their dark mist-drone dirges, and about the then-forthcoming album, SV. Well, that turned out to be a single 41-minute track, and while I don’t hate it, it wasn’t the opus I was hoping for. Whoops, then they put out another album, The Stone Is Not Hit By The Sun, which is that opus. Aidan Baker’s buried, hazy vocals are a big part of what I love about this band, and they were almost absent from SV. Just as importantly, the crushing riffs that make up most of “The Stone” and “The Sun”, quintessence of Nadja, and really nobody else, are some mighty strong ones. This is as much a review of Nadja itself as the album eh. The guitar tones, the moods, Baker’s indelible sonic sculpting techniques, I love them, I want to marry them. These songs have healing powers in these times of worldwide horror. They can be meditative in a literal sense. Harrowing as well, don’t get me wrong. A person needs harrowing meditation as well as peaceful, if one is to get anywhere on the search for the soul. I’ll admit that I sometimes skip the 22-minute bonus track (which isn’t on the vinyl), “Untitled IV”, depending on whether I’m capable at that moment of focusing in for a monochromatic deep dive, but never the glorious 35-minute “The Knife”. That’s one you have to see through to the end. I may have a Nadja binge on the horizon if I can ever break free from the black metal binge I’m currently mired in.
19. Bottomless Pit | Death Grips
Thinking about Death Grips can make me feel a little dizzy. It’s funny to think that they used to write catchy songs with hooks and stuff. And that was only like three years ago. They’ve broken up at least once since then; that lasted, what, four months? Nine albums since forming in 2011, that’s…insane. They’ve crammed a decades-long career arc into five years, and I have loved almost everything they’ve put out. Bottomless Pit sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, like the full potency of 2015’s The Powers That B condensed into each individual track, absolute madness. You get an occasional breather like the hilarious “Eh”—hey, you might even say this one has a hook! And I guess “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” has catchy motifs to latch onto, even though the overall effect of the music is like having your head detached and put into a centrifuge. “Trash” is the other mellow-ish interlude, and probably my favorite track on the album; you can look at it as a distillation of their ostensible nihilism, but in the grand scheme of Death Grips’ tangled lyrics, I think it might be a plea for unity, almost a celebration. Whether we’re lifted up or brought to rock bottom, we’re all on the same level, right?
18. Golden Sings That Have Been Sung | Ryley Walker
Oh shit, it’s the Singer/Songwriter genre! It was supposed to be Ryley Walker’s guitar playing that drew me in, and he’s a maestro no doubt, but as it turned out I caught him first with a full rockband-type-band at the Chicago version of Levitation Fest last year, before this record had come out, and that was ideal. I can tell you that the album versions don’t quite stack up to my first impressions, but that’s simply a compliment to the band. I don’t even particularly care much for side A, up until “Sullen Mind”, which is an incredible song, especially live; I daresay it’s Zeppelinesque. And then side B is wonderful throughout, basically the best thing going in fingerstyle folk-rock at the moment, but not really centered on virtuosity. It’s not as though Walker is a genius lyricist, either, but it does seem like he’s settling into what could turn out to be a distinctive lyrical style, and although his psychological tidbits aren’t generally profound, they’ve gotten better over time, they hint at future wisdom. There’s sarcasm, there’s sweetness, there’s humor and depression, but the music is really the focus here, which is just fine. Walker’s only 27 and this album is a real leap forward from 2015’s Primrose Green. If his songwriting catches up with his presence as a performer, the world could be his for the taking.
17. Asphalt For Eden | dälek
I figured dälek was pretty much done after producer Oktopus jumped ship in 2010. His dystopian industrial beats made the group what it was, a sonic force unlike anything else in the hip-hop realm—although I’m sure there are plenty of copycats by now, right? I’m not going to say that new producer Mike Manteca is a copycat; he had evidently worked with dälek in the past as part of the experimental entity known as Destructo Swarmbots, and the whole Neurot/Hydra Head/Ipecac remix scene is well past its peak of influence, so nobody can really lay claim to the sound itself any more. But also, listening to the instrumental track “6db”, it’s difficult to even relate it to anything that dälek has done before; it’s thickly hypnotic even though it takes a couple minutes to even nail down the meter, still sinister but one of the most beautiful tracks the group has ever put together. It’s “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left)” that makes the album, though, wherein MC dälek himself drops artifice entirely and simply captures the anger and despair of the past couple years of life in the U.S.A. with unmasked desperation: “Don’t my breath deserve respect?/With all this poison we ingest/Y’all keep saying it’s a test/What’s to win when nothing’s left?” It sounds hopeless, but just having dälek back in action is a source of optimism.
16. Freetown Sound | Blood Orange
Ashlee Haze’s poem in the first track of Freetown Sound will hopefully grab you immediately like it did me. But wait, that wasn’t the reason I bought the album—it was “Best To You”. Proof that there can still be pop songs on the radio that result in LP purchases. Of course that was pre-trump so who knows. And yes, lots of Spotifying, signifying nothing. In terms of the songs themselves, though, for the first two or three times I listened to this album, nothing touched “Best To You”. Over the course of months, though, a whole lot of these songs wormed their way into my consciousness, and the spoken bits…I have to say 2016 was an incredible year for the spoken word in pop music. Remember when every rap album was full of “hilarious” skits in between songs that totally didn’t make you want to fast-forward the CD? Now we get poetry, activism, philosophy, and not just on rap albums but on pure pop albums like Freetown Sound. Subversive, ain’t it? Because maybe we common folk are trapped in social media echo chambers full of broken records, but there are closed-minded automatons who could get hooked by “Best To You” and suddenly find themselves thinking about things they never thought of before. Dev Hynes may not be a protest singer, but he’s doing what he can to change the world, and cloaking those efforts in beautiful tunes.
15. Dead Man’s View | Lorde Fredd33
There are dozens of odd little things on this album that make it peculiarly endearing and impressive, details that a tiny percentage of humans will ever notice or appreciate, but it’s more fun if you actually listen to it intently and maybe pick up on ‘em than if I point ‘em out. I’ve already written one review of Dead Man’s View (here it is), and anybody who follows me on social media or lives in Milwaukee is surely well aware of this album already. It’s one that has never left my consciousness since appearing in April and makes me really anxious for his next one (rather, his next three, which are supposedly all coming out this year). It got so deeply into my head that I started noticing myself absent-mindedly doing those patented Lorde Fredd33 chuckles that you’ll hear peppered throughout the album. That’s not normal. What I would like to stress, though, is that you need to get out and see this man perform live (and that Local Coverage set doesn’t count, FYI) if you want to understand what he’s about. Half of the shit he raps about, I have no clue what he’s even talking about, but it makes sense when you get within range of his actual energy. That’s when it turns into dark soul music. This is the ongoing challenge facing New Age Narcissism: Will the collective ever put out an album that captures their live energy? Not so far, not quite, but this one comes closest.
14. Teens Of Denial | Car Seat Headrest
Hey, a rock album! The sound is fresh (even though the crux of the song “Vincent” is a complete ripoff of Radiohead’s “Blowout”), but I have to say my love of this album is mostly rooted in nostalgia. Will Toledo writes the kind of brilliant lyrics I wished I could come up with to describe my attitudes twenty or so years ago. It’s nice to be reminded of youth, and that the triumphs and struggles associated therewith persist even in modern times. Old people like to think of millennials as existing lost within a digital cloud, barely human. That’s the impression they get from being mindlessly glued to this new thing called Facebook that they claim to hardly ever look at. They don’t remember how quickly every trend becomes obsolete when you’re young. They’ve forgotten how wrong their parents were when referring to their generation as a uniformly lifeless sludge. They will hear in Toledo’s voice the still-real possibility of tearing down the bullshit and taking over the world, the generational imperative at which they so utterly failed. And they won’t want to believe that maybe millennials are so over digital life. Maybe they absorbed so much information in a short time span when their brains were sponges that they now have an exponentially greater knowledge base through which to evolve now that they’re contemplating it all. The protagonist of Teens Of Denial knows everything, just like you did, only this time it might be true.
13. Blonde | Frank Ocean
This was just about the ballsiest move Frank Ocean could’ve made, according to conventional wisdom. Nobody listens to albums any more, say all the disillusioned gen-xers. Even Kendrick at least stuffs his albums with bangers and hooks. Blonde has almost none. Having it on in the background, singling out tracks, these are pointless endeavors. It demands immersive listening for any of its parts to make any sense. Once you give it its due, though, a pretty incredible work of art emerges. The growth since Channel Orange is dramatic; that first album seems positively adolescent in contrast, especially in lyrical terms. Despite the usual bowl-of-Skittles pool of producer credits, the vision is so cohesive it feels like Ocean is playing all the guitars and manually tapping out every beat. The main carryover from Channel Orange is the intimacy factor; you feel like you’re almost uncomfortably deep inside Frank’s heart and brain at all times. That said, Blonde is all over the map stylistically and you will never stop catching onto new elements the deeper your familiarity becomes. The emotions run from juvenilia to old-soul wry resignation. He’ll pull you in one way or another with a surprise reference whether obscure or blunt, and from there, it’s a rabbit-hole. In a year when the definition of R&B stretches almost to the horizon, Blonde pushes it further than most albums.
12. Skeleton Tree | Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
In terms of lyrics, I wouldn’t call Skeleton Tree one of Nick Cave’s greatest. That’s the curse of being a great and prolific lyricist. This album’s just average-great on the Cave scale. His genius spills out even when it seems like he’s rambling listlessly, which he does quite a bit on this record, particularly on the opening track of each side, each of which is a meditative drone that serves to immediately suck half of your brain out into the netherworld of Cave’s imagination. The particulars of the instrumentation of “Jesus Alone” and “Anthrocene” aren’t what you’d think of as distinctive Bad Seeds, but somehow they still make your brain go ‘oh, right, this world’. And Cave proceeds to make you feel ill, whether out of the palpable anguish in his voice or some relatable imagery to your own experience or the simple grotesqueness of his language, like Beefheart without the silver lining of humane intent. “With my voice I am calling you,” he sings in “Jesus Alone”, but a more apt verb would’ve been ‘haunting’. We’re none of these things he accuses us of being, yet he makes us wish we were. Ever since this album came out I’ve been telling myself I liked Push The Sky Away more, but here at the end of all things, I may have changed my mind. This one is just much less accessible. You can’t in any sense call it a rock album. Cave’s singing at times is purposefully cracked and un-melodic and waaaay high in the mix like he’s inches from your face, and every word is a bitter accusation, exposing your own regrets and failures; how did he know? No matter his successes, this is a man who has suffered in his lifetime more deeply than I can fathom, and his songs are often a painful reminder of the suffering that comes to pass in every life that reaches old age. I don’t know how you come out of songs like “Girl In Amber” or “Magneto” with any kind of a good feelings. The cumulative effect of these eight songs is that you start to wonder how something can be so beautiful and so ugly at the same time, and then you remember that it only takes familiarity to transform ugliness into beauty. And that’s when you really get scared about your future.
11. We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest
This record contains a couple of exhausting repetitive samples and a handful of shameless appeals to pop-culture sentimentality that would’ve seemed a little cloying, maybe, if circumstances were different. Taking into consideration Tribe’s 18-year studio hiatus, not to mention Q-Tip’s relatively glitzy, un-conscious solo output, there could’ve justifiably been way more cheese. The miracle is that it doesn’t even sound like a throwback; these cats still had it, 100%, when they made this. Hard to say whether We Got It From Here will stand as timeless, but it is a relevant and resonant product of its time, which is more than we had any business expecting from Tribe in 2016. Now why the fuck weren’t they making records all those years while Phife was still alive? No, I can’t focus on such thoughts. I just don’t like thinking where society/I personally might be if it weren’t for Tribe. Worse off, that’s where. So thankful they at least got one more out, and beyond impressed that it’s this good.
10. The Fall Of Hearts | Katatonia
Opeth and Katatonia will forever be intertwined in my soul. My extreme metal crash course (courtesy of Professor Swatty) went something like this: Emperor/Today Is The Day/Amon Amarth—hmmm, maybe that was a little too intense of a start, let’s come back to those later, how ‘bout some lighter death and/or doom with prog elements…and that was what hooked me, Still Life and Tonight’s Decision, and then Amon Amarth, TITD, and, well, I kinda skipped over Emperor in favor of Ulver and Blut Aus Nord, but ANYWAY. While Opeth basically progressed along a fairly linear path until a dramatic shift away from death metal into retro prog around 2010, Katatonia has upended itself multiple times, arriving at a fairly polished, Tool-influenced doom-rock thing for 2006’s The Great Cold Distance. They hadn’t deviated far from that style until The Fall Of Hearts, which isn’t a radical departure but it’s far more progressive and esoteric than we’d gotten used to. Most of the commercial leanings are parsed out into snippets within more ambitious creations, resulting in a much more engrossing overall listen. To be fair, Opeth 2.0 has finally put out a somewhat inventive, comfortable-sounding album this year as well in Sorceress, but Katatonia has managed to incorporate classic prog tropes into a thoroughly modern and morose sound all its own. Singer Jonas Renkse has rarely expressed loss and regret with such confidence, even if he doesn’t want to hear that. The album hasn’t exactly caught fire, faring worse in most markets than 2012’s more accessible (but still excellent) Dead End Kings, so I’m not going to offer any guesses as to what direction the band will go in next, but these songs have grown on me and stuck with me as infectiously as anything they’ve made in the past fifteen years, and that’s really saying something.
9. Tongues | Jon Mueller
Y’all probably get sick of me raving about this guy, if you’ve subjected yourself to my year-end lists before. He’s not someone whose music I think should be blasted during political campaigns or anything, but if Jon Mueller’s music somehow reached billions of people, all I can say is it would be indicative of a much more thoughtful and peaceful world. But it takes all kinds, as they say. A lot of folks will find Tongues grating, or incomprehensible, and that doesn’t make them bad people. I chose this as the first record to be played in the house my wife and I bought last spring, because if anything’s going to capture the dynamic spiritual energy I want permeating my household in the form of music, it’s as likely to be a Jon Mueller project as anything else. I spent a good couple of weeks listening to this album every morning as soon as I got to work, as a way to calm myself and put myself in a positive state of mind for the day. I don’t know why I ever stopped doing that, actually. I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite non-Death Blues album Jon has made yet.
8. Atrocity Exhibition | Danny Brown
Paul White has to be the MVP of 2016. Atrocity Exhibition sounds almost nothing like Hella Personal Film Festival, which he also produced, but it is nearly as riveting on its own terms and perfectly suited to the delirious ranting of Danny Brown. His growth as an artist is readily apparent, too, if you compare this album with his work on Brown’s 2013 album, Old, on which White more or less stayed out of Brown’s way. And you sort of wonder if the two of them have gotten concurrently schizophrenic over the course of the three years. Brown’s rhymes aren’t what you’d call ‘conscious’, but there’s more soul-searching on this album than there was on Old, as well as a heightened sense of urgency. You can feel society careening out of control in these manic diatribes, and no trace of solace in his words nor in the beats. I mean there’s plenty of humor, but even then it’s like a desperate, clawing need for levity rather than an actual tension reliever. It can still nudge you towards catharsis, but Brown gets that Atrocity Exhibition is what the U.S.A. currently is, and this album is a stark reflection of it. This. Is. Not. Normal. I have to say there’s not a single song on this album that’s as good as “Kush Coma”, but “Really Doe” and “Ain’t It Funny” and “When It Rain” come pretty damn close. And how can you not like the B-Real collaboration “Get Hi”? Come on.
7. Lay For June | Old Earth
All I want to do is put Old Earth songs on mixtapes, and Todd Umhoefer is like ‘nope, here’s a half-hour-long single track, deal with it.’ There are a bunch of songs contained in that track, but Umhoefer’s intention is for you to take the full journey in one sitting. It’s the least you can do; he recorded the whole thing in a single take, after all, and the urgency of that undertaking will not be lost on even the casual listener. What’s just as striking is the crispness of the playing, not to mention the natural clarity of Umhoefer’s voice, which seems to get more expressive with every release. As always, his concise lyrics resonate deeply, but for maybe the first time, they don’t completely steal the show, because the music itself is so dynamic and evocative that the instrumental portions tell tales and paint pictures all their own. There are plenty of distinctive Old-Earth sonic devices strewn throughout the album, but this time, always in the service of minimalism; there are layers, but no walls of sound, and often the stripped-down thrum of a single string carries an incredible weight in its solitude. You might get the impression from time to time that you can’t believe someone hasn’t come up with this riff or that melody before. The brilliance of the songs is one thing; the powerful narrative sweep of the album as a whole is another. All in all, it might be the best Old Earth album. But I’ll need a few more years of listening before I can really say. And I still put it on mixtapes, because it’s too good not to share with the world.
6. Blood Bitch | Jenny Hval
This is Jenny Hval’s sixth album. It’s an unfortunate symptom of modern music availability overload that it probably won’t prompt me to go back and listen ravenously to the previous five, even though it should. According to Wikipedia, Blood Bitch is “a concept album influenced by vampires, menstruation and 1970s horror films”, which sounds awesome. I mean, she does actually say “It’s about vampires” at the beginning of “The Great Undressing”, but, um...I’m not sure I quite follow the arc. I just like the music. What I’m drawn to is the overall creepy mood (frequently enhanced by nonmusical elements such as moaning, feverish scribbling, psychological dialogue, etc.), the swoon-inducing harmonic arrangements, and the beats, and also sometimes the lyrics, like the aforementioned “Undressing”. The chorus of the song is brilliant, but I tell ya, the line “But I need to keep writing because everything else is death” is the one that really gets me, very Sylvia Plath and very eternally relatable. The conflict between horror and desire that pervades this album speaks to anyone who is fully alive in this current age, though. Maybe I’m projecting my own obsession with the lack of human connection in the digital age and the link between unattainability and fascination in the post-truth era, but I’d say whatever you want all this blood to be a metaphor for, the passionate feminist commentary is way out in front of it. Also vampires are cool.
5. A Seat At The Table | Solange
For a while I woke up with “Rise” in my head every morning. Sometimes it would take a few minutes after the blaring alarm clock, but it would drift in. Is it even fair for me to use this as a personal anthem? It shorted out automatic dread pretty consistently for like a week and a half. I could start the day in true gratitude and sustain it for quite a bit; does it matter if it was suspension of disbelief? There are a bunch of tunes on this album that have become anthems for me, even if half of them only apply to past selves, or imaginary selves, and I think a part of me struggled to find those connections on Solange’s sister’s album. I can fully admit that, particularly having missed out on the video release simulparty, I didn’t get as much out of Beyoncé’s Lemonade (which, of course, you can't listen to unless you buy it or subscribe to Tidal) as I could’ve. In light of its circumstances, what’s really the point of a strict musical assessment of that album? Or even an attempt to chisel one’s way into the psychology of that cultural moment? For me, “Formation” was that moment, and it dwarfed Lemonade, and felt like a tacked-on jam after a deflating culmination of the actual album concept. Anyway, it’s not even valid for a white male to comment on the empowerment factor, right? So all I’m left with is the songs, and I love about half of the songs on Lemonade, and almost every one on A Seat At The Table. Can I be the first reviewer of the album not to even mention David Longstreth? Cool. There are some late-90s-Dre-ish tracks (“Where Do We Go” especially) and plenty of modern post-Kanye lurkers, and, yes, indie-quirk touches not entirely unlike Dirty Projectors snippets. The sugary pop for now people of 2012’s True is completely gone; the hooks themselves are not. Solange’s voice is all you really need to focus on. Anything else, you have to force yourself to notice. The melodies, the harmonies, the lyrics. Her badass-ness is more understated than her sister’s, but no less potent. Plus, A Seat At The Table has that Blood-Orange skit factor, which isn’t necessarily going to make me go back and refamiliarize myself with the No Limit catalog but it all fits and it’s all real and sadly all needs to be said again and again. Look, I know Solange didn’t make this album for me. “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along,” she sings in “F.U.B.U.”, “Just be glad you got the whole wide world”. Positively Dylanesque, even within my limitations of appreciation of it. Ha. I don’t think she’d mind that I like it, though.
4. Värähtelijä | Oranssi Pazuzu
This album is an undertaking. Almost every individual song is. You don’t want to dive into it unless you’re committed. The combination of krauty grooves, psych atmosphere and dynamic, and occasionally brutal metal is going to distract you if you try to have it as background music. You’re better off getting lost in it on purpose. Over and over it blows me away. For months on end I’d be at work and tell myself ‘One more listen and I’m taking Värähtelijä off my iPod (full disclosure: I don’t actually think the word ‘Värähtelijä’ because my brain has no clue how to pronounce that) to make room for something else’ (I’m a Neanderthal who still uses an 8G mini because whatever, it still works) but I could never bring myself to do it. Every time a track comes up on shuffle I get a thrill of excitement; goodbye world for ten minutes or so. Even the five-minute songs seem like ten minutes, in a good way. I have to say this is really pushing the limits of what can be considered black metal, but admittedly, I don’t make these rules; I’ll leave that to the Finns since they’ve been right there since the earliest days. I will say that you won’t need to be into black metal to dig this album. It could be…wait for it…the gateway metal album of the year, but you do have to at least be into prog or general weirdness I think. There’s an absolutely jaw-dropping seventeen-minute song called “Vasemman Käden Hierarkia” in it for you if you care to risk it. DO IT. GO FOR IT. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO LOSE.
3. Blackstar | David Bowie
Your options are to acknowledge the greatness of Blackstar or roll your eyes, smug in your certainty that its greatness has been preposterously inflated by Bowie’s death. If you’re in the latter camp, I’m not sure what your criteria for greatness are, but there’s no accounting for taste, eh. Personally, I wasn’t altogether onboard with the praise for his previous album, The Next Day, which had an ingenious cover and a handful of great songs but also a few that sounded like an old dude reaching out for connection with the modern world after a ten-year hiatus from music and not quite hitting the target. Whoops, presumptuous much?? I mean the cover itself is the obvious hint that Bowie was reaching into his past to synthesize old elements, I get that, and I respect the self-awareness and enjoyed the quasi-nostalgia for what it was. On Blackstar, though, every song sounds like an old dude who invented this shit. And not much like anything Bowie had previously done, and nothing like anybody but Bowie. Lyrically, it’s very much a return to mysticism and futurism, which hits me forcefully as a diehard Station To Station worshipper. I’ll even ignore the death-baggage and assorted synchronicities surrounding its release. The songs “Blackstar”, “Lazarus” and “Sue”, at the very least, simply rank among the best songs Bowie ever wrote, musically speaking. And then you get into the lyrics of “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” and to a lesser extent “Girl Loves Me,” which are in my experience an unprecedented exercise in conflicting hyper-stylisms, and I marvel at a man who’s almost 70 having the balls to even attempt something like this, let alone nail it. I’ll admit that “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the one throwback to his pre-hiatus days; it’s a yearning, dreamy pop song that would’ve fit pretty snugly on Hours… or Heathen. That doesn’t amount to a criticism from my perspective; I’m down with Bowie getting sentimental at the very end of his last album. He keeps it philosophical and real, which is all you can hope for. Meanwhile we’ll all be puzzling out the wisdom on this album, on (almost) all of his albums, for the rest of our lives.
2. Let Them Eat Chaos | Kate Tempest
Scorned musicians (or as I like to think of them, music critic critics) like to say music critics are all failed musicians, but you can’t fail if you don’t try, right? I may be, however, a failed poet—at the very least, when compared to Kate Tempest. If I could write poetry like hers you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be wasting my time on album lists. I’d be out changing the world. I say this with full confidence that this album will reach more people and those people’s worlds will be changed. Starting with you, I hope. The setting is London, though it could be any city, and the stories are those of seven strangers who all happen to be awake at 4:18 a.m. Tempest doesn’t paint pretty pictures, but if you’re not living some of these lives now, I hope you can remember some of them from your past. If you don’t recognize any parts of yourself in these narratives, I would highly recommend getting out of your comfort zone as soon as possible so you don’t wake up one day and realize you haven’t even tried to live. The music is nothing groundbreaking, but it makes you want to dance or strut or ponder the universe, as necessary. It’s simple, moody electronica, underneath THESE WORDS, truth after truth, ugly, beautiful, spoken, rapped, occasionally sung, artfully, forcefully, brilliantly. I look at Pitchfork’s top ten and I see almost no legitimately great lyrics. How the hell are critics not fawning over this album? Because Tempest is known more as a poet than a musician? So fucking what? Wouldn’t you think a writer would be into, y’know, words? Wait, what does that make me...
1. Hella Personal Film Festival | Open Mike Eagle & Paul White
These are difficult times we live in. We’re all simultaneously crying out for and terrified of connections with our fellow humans. Like Let Them Eat Chaos, Hella Personal Film Festival captures the essence of 2016 with almost every word, only Open Mike Eagle was both more prescient and more specific with his characterizations and pleas for understanding. Nobody except for maybe Kendrick Lamar has as insightful and poetic a grasp of the spirit of the United States in this current fucked-up age we’re living in. When I tell you we need these messages, I’m not talking solely about Eagle’s social commentary. I’m talking about his deadly humor, his empathy for humanity, his criticism of the cultural divide couched in his astute deprecation of his own mindset at times. He’s never about looking down, never about placing blame (except on our suffocating institutions), and listening to this album is like hearing him work towards solutions in real time, and hopefully we’re along for the ride. He’s never been more articulate, and he’s never made a more simultaneously incisive and funny and heartfelt and conceptually satisfying album. I think this one has eclipsed even 4nml Hsptl for me, and that one stole actual thoughts out of my head. Part of it is the brilliant synergy between him and Paul White, the almost indisputable producer of the year; I don’t want to get into the game of figuring out who came up with what exactly on some of the bits of dialogue in between songs, but this thing plays like a single-minded work of art. I know it probably happened long-distance, ones and zeroes traveling in an inconceivable mode between their brains. Maybe that’s part of the genius of Eagle, that he can facilitate or even fabricate a closeness without ever looking at you, because that’s how much he cares and wants the human race to succeed and reach a higher space of enlightenment. I’m telling you we’re gonna get there faster if more of us listen to his music and words. Unless the world gets clobbered by a comet or something first.
These are sort of in an order, but the algorithm is far too complicated to be worth describing. Besides I already said the numbers don’t matter so who cares?
Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks | Xiu Xiu
Not gonna lie. When I finally tracked down a copy of this record after months of seeking, and listened to it all the way through, I thought, this is my favorite album of 2016. I started sobbing multiple times. That’s a pretty good indicator. But tribute albums don’t count. (And truly, the Open Mike Eagle album is way better, duh.) These songs are all decades old. They tap into something unknowable within me; it wouldn’t matter if it was fucking Kings Of Leon playing them. I’d be crying for a different combination of reasons, but still. The fact that I think Jamie Stewart is a god of music certainly helps, and that he’s clearly a Twin Peaks fan and the ideal musician to take on this absurd project and crush it, and the inclusion of his unhinged (like, even less hinged than Leland’s) rendition of “Mairzy Doats” really brings it all home, but it is so good in every respect, beginning to end, oh my God. It’s probably the greatest tribute album since...what, maybe Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book? Easily my favorite album of 1957 but, sadly, not eligible for album-of-the-year honors in You-Phoria reckoning, luckily for Thelonious Monk.
House In The Tall Grass | Kikagaku Moyo
One of the many benefits of tuning in to The 5 & Dime Show on WMSE (Thursday mornings, 9-noon) is hearing music like this. There’s nowhere else on the dial you’ll find it, but I could say that about most of what they play on this show. Let’s call it Japanese psych; it’s got kraut-y moments that are more meditative than intense, and folk elements featuring sitar and exotic percussion, but it is basically guitar/drum/vocal-based stuff, occasionally venturing into some heavy stoner-rock stylings ("Silver Owl" in particular) but mostly serene and beautiful. I don’t have much of a background in the Tokyo scene so maybe there are a bunch of great bands like this out there. All I know is this album grabs me.
Serpent Music | Yves Tumor
Does anyone want to volunteer to recommend electronic music to me from time to time? At this point I’m basically relegated to waiting until the Screendoor list appears in December or so, usually too late to really consider new additions to this list. Naturally, half of the albums on Justin's list aren’t available anywhere to stream, so I’ll wind up letting most of them slip through the cracks, but lucky for me, Yves Tumor is on Spotify, and this album is incredible, probably way up there on my list if I’d discovered it sooner. I suppose I say that every year about something. You won’t catch me hazarding a subgenre tag; this album is all over the map in the best possible way, such a spread of stylistic samples and noises and grooves. The only problem with it is that there’s only one track, “Seed”, that breaks seven minutes, and six tracks that don’t even break three, and I’d prefer every one of ‘em to be at least ten minutes. You’re just about to get completely lost in a song, and it ends. I suppose it’s too much to hope for that she’d ever come to these parts to perform…sigh.
ANTI | Rihanna
Not sure what I ever bought or what mailing list I joined, but somehow I found a link to a free download of this album in my inbox in January. As far as I know I’d never heard a Rihanna song before in my life, but fuck it, free mp3s! And an album that’s about to be a Tidal exclusive to boot! Now why couldn’t they have sent me the damn Yasiin Bey album? (I hear it’s getting horrible reviews; sad!) Anyway, ANTI did what pop music is supposed to do—sucked me in, had me obsessed for a while, spat me out—except half of the songs on here never did let me go. I can’t imagine getting sick of “Kiss It Better” or “Love On The Brain” or “Higher”, and the Tame Impala loaner, “Same ‘Ol Mistakes”, holy shit, Kevin Parker wrote it for her, even if he doesn’t know it. Somebody let me know if I should go back and listen to any of her other...SEVEN ALBUMS?? Huh.
untitled unmastered. | Kendrick Lamar
This is exactly what you’d expect from the leftovers of one of the greatest albums of music ever made: a bunch of good tunes, a glimpse inside the creative process of a genius, probably inherently better than a lot of the other albums on this page but not really deserving of consideration because Kendrick’s not even trying and it’s not productive use of list-making to point out that what Kendrick leaves on the cutting room floor is better than what most musicians pour every ounce of their being into.
Malibu | Anderson .Paak
Yes Lawd! | NxWorries
These are both really enjoyable albums that nevertheless faded quickly from my rotation, and revisiting them for the list process hasn’t exactly reignited my enthusiasm for them. Admittedly, there wasn’t much of a gap between the initial exposure to Yes Lawd (Paak’s collaboration with producer Knxwledge and the more frivolous effort of the two) and the revisit, but I guess there have just been too many better things that have come out since Malibu. It seems like a lifetime ago that that came out. It’s hard to get back the feeling of not being stunned and horrified on a daily basis, which I fear is kind of necessary to listen to Paak. He’s got politics but he’s more of a lover than a crusader. Maybe four years down the road I can revisit these for the fun of it, or maybe there’ll be a point before then when these will provide the right kind of levity to get past something or other, I don’t know. I want to get back to that world that birthed these albums, but how do we do that, is the question.
Havoc Run | The Demix
This failed to make the cut for the Milwaukee Record list I contributed to due to its lack of a fifth song, but I assure you, Havoc Run is one of the best local albums of 2016. It doesn’t matter if you’re into electronic music or metal or what; it only matters if you like to dance to loud music. Far be it from me to categorize this; let’s just say your mom would not be able to handle it. I get a charge out of playing The Demix’s stuff on the radio because it has that Mr. Bungle-esque capacity to jolt someone so hard out of whatever sense of serenity they’d been lulled into that they fall off their chair. I mean I hope I haven’t caused any car crashes that way, but hey, that’s the chance you take, listening to the kind of radio shows I put together on the rare occasions that I get to do so. I can’t deny that I tend to gravitate towards music that can really only be played on one radio station, kids, and that’s the kind that The Demix makes.
Strangers | Marissa Nadler
I’m warning you, there’s a pop hit on this album. Not actually, but there’s a song that will get so stuck in your head you’ll start to think you’ve been hearing it on the radio: the choicest goth-pop anthem I’ve heard in ages, “Janie In Love”, and I could’ve used some more of this type of electric darkness, honestly. It’s a far cry from the sparse folk of Marissa Nadler’s last album, the superb July, but a natural progression, and there’s still plenty of that folk stuff on Strangers. There’s certainly more turned-on guitar than usual, as well as a bit more orchestration than we’re used to, but overall it’s no major departure. We’re still waiting ‘patiently’ for the former Xasthur collaborator to make the heavy album she must have brewing inside her somewhere. Meanwhile, I’m prepared to simply acknowledge that her voice is one of my favorites in the modern world and I’ll probably love whatever she sings.
A Moon Shaped Pool | Radiohead
Schmilco | Wilco
Here are two bands that have impacted my life more than all but a few others. They both hit their stride in the ‘90s and really never looked back. They both put out really good albums this year, and I can’t think of any other ‘90s bands of their stature that can still claim to be more or less at the top of their games. Over the course of their two decades or so, they’ve proven themselves to be two of the best live bands that have ever come through the rock era and beyond; as far as I know, they both still are. The biggest difference I see between them is this: The members of Wilco seem to really like being a band, while a band seems like the last thing the members of Radiohead have any interest in being. Superstars, masterminds of a multimedia empire, activists, marketing strategists, purveyors of unique record packagings, artists—yes, but a band? If they HAVE to, every once in a while, OKAY. These bands are both well past their days of forging New Directions In Music. Wilco seems to be comfortable with this, having made an album of good, concise, Wilco-esque tunes (and possibly the album cover of the year). I’m connecting with Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics like I almost always do, and I’m excited to see these songs live and to see the band continue to dig deep into its back catalog for these upcoming shows later this month. I think Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s most interesting work since Hail To The Thief, honestly, even though I’ve dug every album. But it’s no use anticipating what these songs might become in the live setting, because Radiohead can’t be bothered to give its fans that opportunity. The band will play a few European dates and headline a handful of festivals (OR HEY KANSAS CITY ON A WEDNESDAY, ANYONE SCORE TICKETS? ANYONE?) and I won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of seeing them play new stuff and the same token oldies they’ve been playing since the In Rainbows era (BUT WHAT ABOUT “LET DOWN” OH MY GOD). Because Thom Yorke knows most of his fans will worship him no matter what and stampede whenever given the chance to see him perform. He has taken us all for granted, and as much as I try to keep these sorts of personal feelings from interfering with my appreciation for the music, I must be failing in this instance, because I’m not connecting with AMSP the way I should be. Or, maybe it’s simpler than that. After all, for years now, new Radiohead and Wilco albums haven’t been phenomena to analyze and be immersed in. They’re just the means to familiarize ourselves with the songs in preparation for the shows, where they live and breathe. God I wanna dance my brains out to “Ful Stop” with a few thousand other people who are there just to see this one band. I want that so, so badly. If I can’t look forward to that, then why invest myself in the song?
Oh shit, is my misplaced sense of entitlement showing? Is my jilted fanboy act undermining my credibility? I never claimed this was gonna be a critical assessment. I’m just telling you how I feel. Full disclosure: I still feel like crying every time I hear “True Love Waits”. But I’ve had a relationship with that song for almost twenty years! Hearing that song now kinda feels like running into someone who broke my heart years ago. Still beautiful, but changed, and I’ve moved on. Or at least I’m trying to.
For Good | Fog
Being a huge fan of Fog’s 2007 album Ditherer, I had my hopes up way too high for this one, even realizing how long it had been since a proper Fog album and knowing that Andrew Broder switches genres with practically every release. And then seeing him perform most of For Good live at Eaux Claires was riveting, which often makes me love an album all the more, but not necessarily in this case. I love Broder’s lyrics; they’re a quirky mixture of the mundane and the metaphysical that is truly unique. The music is a belligerently inaccessible experiment in mainly piano and electronic mayhem, and I have listened to it a ton and it gets me...it just doesn’t resonate as deeply as I want it to. I don’t know why, because it’s objectively brilliant, and it keeps me coming back, whether out of dogged Broder fandom or what, I’m not sure. If you like unusual music I highly recommend you check it out and see if it hits you.
Sentimentale | Klimt 1918
Gorgeous metal-tinged shoegaze out of Rome. This group started out in metal and has shifted over the years through various shades of goth and atmospheric rock stylings, some of which I’ve loved (2003’s Undressed Momento) and some not so much (2005’s Dopoguerra). I’m happy that frontman Marco Soellner has toned down his Edge worship a bit (though not entirely, as evidenced by “Once We Were”); what’s left is a lush shoegaze/synthpop mixture with some of those old metal tones still seeping in from time to time. The cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” does…just that. This album would be destined for a higher slot on my list, except the second half only came out a couple weeks ago; evidently the full album is called Sentimentale Jugend and I haven’t heard the Jugend part enough times yet (but so far, I’m not quite as enthused about it as I am the first half). Who releases half of a double album one year and half the following year? (note: For some reason, at the time I'm posting this, you can't stream this full album on their Bandcamp page nor on Spotify. I've linked to Spotify just in case they eventually, like, want people to hear it.)
The Irrepassable Gate | Ash Borer
Oh man, I have so much to say about black metal right meow, I might have to publish a separate piece. Okay, maybe I’ve even already written it but feel like it would be better to get this damn thing done first and then post the black metal thing, because this one is more pressing. Oh gosh, if only I didn’t hate everything I’ve written more than a week ago! YOU’RE ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT AREN'T YOU. Ash Borer makes no bones, if you came here looking for black metal, you’ve found it. If you keep at it for long enough, the way Ash Borer plays will become a spiritual salve after losing your way in a confused orgy of subgenres and perversions. Black metal kids don’t worship Satan, they worship De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, as well they should, because we don’t want to lose sight of where we all came from. You can’t accuse The Irrepassable Gate of being a Xerox, though, unless you cast that net reeeeally wide. The thesis is that Mayhem created a template, but what was actually created was a spirit, and Ash Borer carries the torch in both respects, just without the suicide and murder and all that. This album is brutal and bleak, and its triumphs are clearly grim, but as a journey it’s immaculate, cosmic even, without ever losing its edge or its musicality.
ZI | Negură Bunget
With every successive album, Negură Bunget sounds less like the band that swept me off my feet with ‘N Crugu Bradului in 2002, and I need to shake off the idea that I miss that. It’s not a valid criticism to say the band has changed! I’m trying really hard not to hold the departure of founder Hupogrammos Disciple against the band for all eternity, but it clearly can’t ever be the same without him. Also, I did at first feel like ZI was an attempt to recreate the magic of OM, and there’s no going back to that. Ultimately I think it is sort of a worthy successor, a decade later, though. It’s not as much of a circus, and it’s not as visceral or heavy, but it’s got more muscle than 2015’s Tău, and the more I explore its various serpentine paths, the more I appreciate how much they’re still pushing boundaries. I now find the more delicate portions of the album to be the most impressive; there are some serious Moody Blues-isms in here! I mean that in a good way! As well as lots of words that end in –lui; at least some things never change.
Guidance | Russian Circles
The AC/DC of instrumental metal soldier on with another potent, invigorating slab of post/sludge/what-have-you awesomeness. It breaks no ground but like all of their albums, it’s my new favorite while I’m listening to it, and who on Earth is still coming up with riffs as catchy and crushing as these?? Beastly.
The Rarity Of Experience | Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band
Even though the bastard hasn’t returned to Milwaukee since the amazing Cactus Club show in February of 2014, I’m still buying his albums, and not so much because they’re that good, but because it’s sometimes more rewarding to rock out to this type of shit when you have some familiarity with the basic structures of the tunes. However, this album is that good. Not every track, but man, I’m going bonkers not getting to experience “The Rarity of Experience pt. 1” or “High Castle Rock” live. The former in particular is, as far as I know, a first-ish stab at legitimate post-punk songsmanship in lieu of Forsyth’s usual folky nuggets and jam springboards. And it’s amazing. I mean that Television influence has always been evident but never before in terms of the quality of the songs. And “High Castle Rock” is one of those very rare occasions where you have ten minutes of studio improv that actually keeps you interested. The album is a worthwhile listen all the way through, but not one I could obsess over, and maybe that’s just my subconscious desires putting up a barricade. I only really want to get a sense of these so I can see how they blossom. One of these days…
Overseas | Milemarker
“Milemarker (band) formed in 1997 in Chapel Hill, NC, later moving to Chicago, then Germany” (the band’s Bandcamp bio). I had never heard of them until a few months ago and have no idea what any of their other albums sound like, but I like this robotic dance punk stuff an awful lot. Musically, it sounds quite European; I’m reminded at times (most especially on the track “Carrboro”) of music I heard in clubs in Ireland in 1997. It does have elements of familiar Midwestern noise rock, though, particularly on the vocal side. I wish they had their lyrics up on Bandcamp, ‘cause they’re generally hard to quite make out, but occasionally you get a sense of some sardonic witticism or other. Mostly you just groove to these tracks Hmm, will I dig into their back catalog…?
Nonagon Infinity | King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
The gimmicky nature of this band (not to mention its name) has kept me from fully appreciating the music of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard right up until this album, which is itself the gimmickiest one yet: nine songs that segue seamlessly into each other, including the final song into the first song, resulting in an endless loop if you put the thing on repeat. In many cases, you have to be looking at the timer if you want to even be sure you know when one song ends and another begins, which works out to a breathless full-album experience given the relentless pace of most of these songs. The best part is that the songs are really frikkin good psych-rock tunes, mostly driving and very danceable, but a highlight is the janky, punny hook of “Mr. Beat”, the kind of thing that would be a smash radio single in a tolerable society. There’s nothing particularly deep in the lyrics; maybe there’s an underlying social pessimism within the cosmic ramblings, but it’s the music that’s impressive and moving. I do plan on revisiting some of this band’s previous stuff (I swear!); I’m pretty sure I actually liked that Quarters album from 2015 (four songs, each ten minutes and ten seconds long, sheesh), but I lost track of it at some point.
Rubicon | Space Raft
It hurts thinking back to a time when Space Raft played live at a couple of Bernie Sanders rallies, before we all realized what a shit state of affairs our country was truly in. This album was the summery soundtrack to being foolishly confident that the approaching referendum on human decency was already in the bag, even after it became clear that the Democrats were not going to allow Bernie to run away with the thing. Not like this is a lackadaisical record; its best song, “Red Arrow”, is a blistering condemnation of the murder of Dontre Hamilton and the plight of humanity reflected therein. What a vocal performance by Jordan Davis on this track. It makes it all the more painful now that our righteous outrage has been deadened by a more insidious and far-ranging dread that’s been justified daily for weeks on end. I can always go back to the cosmic hopefulness of Space Raft’s debut album, I guess. I do still have faith that we’ll pull out of this, that Anything Is Possible (and that We Are Not Alone), but just as we thought we were rising up we really got our asses handed to us. Thus concludes my review of Rubicon. Thank you.
CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATORY LAST.FM STATISTICAL MOST-LISTENED-TO-DIGITALLY ALBUMS OF 2016
1. The Fall Of Hearts | Katatonia
2. A Moon Shaped Pool | Radiohead
3. A Seat At The Table | Solange
4. Freetown Sound | Blood Orange
5. Let Them Eat Chaos | Kate Tempest
6. Hella Personal Film Festival | Open Mike Eagle
7. Lodger | David Bowie
8. Blonde | Frank Ocean
9. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars | David Bowie
10. Diamond Dogs | David Bowie
11. Aladdin Sane | David Bowie
12. Atrocity Exhibition | Danny Brown
13. Young Americans | David Bowie
14. Sign O' The Times | Prince
15. ANTI | Rihanna
16. Schmilco | Wilco
17. To Pimp A Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar
18. We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest
19. Low | David Bowie
20. Station To Station | David Bowie