Saturday, December 10, 2016

Best Of 2016: The Top 20

2016's Top Five Albums
For those of us who live for music, 2016 was quite a year. That neutral term embraces both the ecstatic highs created by the depth and breadth of incredible music we heard - and the pitch black lows induced by one loss after another, starting with David Bowie in January. There are very few people alive to whom I'm not related whose loss I would grieve as I have his. I have close friends who are the same way about Prince and I feel their pain, though I am not an acolyte. The footlights also went out for Merle Haggard, who sang the working man blues like no other country artist. We also lost Leonard Cohen just weeks ago, that grand and subtle nightwatchman of human behavior both carnal and complex. And that's just four of the artists taken from us this year!

These sorrows, alongside those of a more personal nature (I lost two old friends, an aunt, and an uncle this year, how about you?) only made music more of an imperative in my life. But when I needed it, music came through, not only the old favorites under which I huddled like a warm blanket on a frigid night, but also new sounds that delighted and astonished, and gave hope that we could go on. So I'm grateful to all the wickedly talented people - composers, songwriters, singers, players, producers - who populate this list and the genre-based ones to come. Seriously, thanks for the music. 

1. David Bowie - Blackstar The legend's commitment to adventure and artistic integrity made his final work the equal of his most canonized albums. Even as he told us "I can't give it all away," he gave us so, so much. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee M.C. Taylor's last album, Lateness Of Dancers, was my number one for 2014 and is now deeply ingrained in my soul. This meant I had to work harder not to weight my expectations for this new record. So I relaxed into it, letting the music come to me. It did, in waves of passionate songs that expanded Taylor's sonic palette as he wrestled with the road to wider success and its impact on his life, art and family. What a wonder.

3. Frank Ocean - Blonde "I ain't on your schedule," Ocean declared at the end of his fascinating and deeply felt third album, dropped after four years of increasing internet hysteria. Fine with me

4. Novelty Daughter - Semigoddess This is the nomme de guerre of Faith Harding, who programs fantasmal electronic grooves and sings over them in a chanteuse's contralto. Sometimes two ideas overlap, as her music tries to catch up to her lively mind, but it's worth the effort to let them coalesce in your cortex. Debut album of the year

5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool Lapidary is the word that comes to mind as the Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood & co. deliver 11 perfectly formed songs, including some of the most emotionally connected material of their career. Some complained about the lack of guitar heft - so 90's - but you can get that elsewhere. 

6. Benji Hughes - Songs In The Key Of Animals At first I dismissed Hughes' seemingly simplistic songcraft - then I hung on for dear life to his koan-like wit and wisdom. 

7. Michael Nicolas - Transitions The modern cello record to end all modern cello records. Nicolas also a warm and engaging live performer, upping the accessibility of some very knotty music. 

8. Warhaus - We Fucked A Flame Into Being Scabrous swagger and brilliant production made Maarten Delvoldere's new project the sneak attack my 2016 desperately needed. 

9. Mutual Benefit - Skip A Sinking Stone Simply - or maybe not so simply - the most gorgeous Americana of the year. The title is perfect: listening is like watching ripples on the water, and as peaceful. 

10. Talea Ensemble - Cheung: Dystemporal Stylish, assured and expansive, Cheung's compositions take you new places while feeling like they've always been there. This is no doubt helped by Talea's expert performance - they sound like they've been playing it all their lives. 

11. Carolina Eyck & the American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Fantasias for Theremin & String Quartet There's a real sense of drama to these works for theremin and strings, which I suspect would be felt even if you didn't know Eyck was improvising. Try to find a real stereo when you listen. 

12. Bon Iver - 22, A Million Like Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon likes to screw around with his voice, adding layers of autotune and distortion to what is a beautiful instrument. This is probably his most out-there album since Volcano Choir's Unmap. But unlike that indulgent exercise, the passion is all there on 22, A Million, which makes all the difference. I'll follow Vernon anywhere as long as the music has blood pumping in its veins. While the lyrics can be as radically cut up as the music, every so often he just nails you to the floor, like this plea from 715 - CR∑∑KS: "Turn around, now, you're my A-Team/God damn, turn around now." Vernon has really become a studio genius, too. Jon Hassell and Kanye West will be dueling at dawn for the drum sound on 10 d E A T h b R E A s T - and I hope they both win. 

13. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book The Chi-town indie-rap sensation managed to conquer the radio (and earn a Grammy nod) with No Problem while still maintaining a claim on our hearts with reflective gems like Summer Friends. No problem, indeed

14. Cian Nugent - Night Fiction There seem to be no shortage of great guitar instrumentalists around these days who want to broaden their horizons by adding vocals to their songs. At first, this might seem inadvisable for someone like Nugent whose voice can be a quirky thing. But it grows on you, his warm and relatable approach gathering steam throughout this album - and there's no arguing with his guitar. A touch of that epic quality the Velvet Underground had on 1969 Live further distinguishes Nugent's folk-rock, and when he takes his time, as on the draggy waltz Shadows, the sense of delicate suspension is sublime

15. Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial Will Toledo's car, where he recorded his early albums, is now almost as legendary an improvised recording space as Justin Vernon's Eau Claire cabin. But it took getting into a real studio for CSH to have their true breakthrough after a dozen self-released albums. This year has had a bumper crop of killer guitar records so what is it that distinguishes this from all the others? It's a combination of conviction, energy, and the way the songs and production are filled with little surprises (those horns on Vincent!) and switching between micro and macro modalities on a dime. In short, it rocks, and very dynamically, with Toledo's empathy and protean intelligence shining in every song. It feels fresh even as you recognize that they are the great guitar band of the moment in a long line of great guitar bands of the moment. Based on the smoking live set on Spotify, CSH is also something to see on stage. I hope to find out for myself soon - if I can ever get tickets!

16. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker Even before the great man died, this was turning into my favorite album of all new material from Cohen since Ten New Songs. Son Adam Cohen brought a tack-sharp sensibility to the production (with help from Patrick Leonard who began the project but had to bow out), never failing to find just the right sonic sensibility for each song. Like Bowie, Cohen knew he was at the end of his journey but was unafraid to try new things, such as the Synagogue choir that opens the album or the dubbed out verse of Traveling Light. His mastery of song form shows in the hat tips to Stephen Foster and references to 50's rhythm & blues. The voice became a brittle, papery thing but his phrasing was never better - heed the subtly inflected variations on "we kill the flame" in the title track. Now Cohen rules the tower of song from afar - but rule he does. 

17. Angel Olsen - My Woman When the first single for Olsen's third album came out, I was worried. My immediate impression was that Shut Up Kiss Me was a naked grab for Taylor Swiftian mind-share. But it was damned catchy, and with enough grit that I shook it off and waited for the album. In context, the song makes much more sense, surrounded as it is by expansive, elemental material like the nearly eight-minute Sister. But there's no doubt that Olsen has ambition and an eye on world domination. Unlike Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her last album, My Woman has a consistent sound throughout, mostly the Buddy Holly/Lou Reed formula of two guitars, bass, and drums with a little keyboard sweetening. This gives a more even canvas for her increasingly masterful singing, which moves from breathy passages to full-throated outbursts without apparent effort. The lyrics can be oblique but you always feel like Olsen is singing about real people and real situations - and her emotional engagement is plain as day. Listen to her sing "I'm not playing anymore" in album-closer Pops and you won't doubt it for a second. When those Taylor tweens grow up, Angel Olsen will be waiting. 

18. Ken Thomson - Restless No album in 2016 in any genre did more with less than Restless, featuring two huge-sounding chamber works composed by Thomson. Part of this was due to the recording, which puts you right in the room, and at ear level, with Ashley Bathgate's cello and Karl Larson's piano. This is the perfect aural perspective for this muscular and intense music.

19. Anderson .Paak - Malibu Drummer, singer, rapper, producer, .Paak might be the multi-threat of the year. Drawing on gospel, soul and R&B through the lens of a born hip hop kid, Malibu has no low points - imagine the confidence to bury Room In Here, an instant classic slow-jam, three quarters of the way through the album. He's wise enough to know that if you start with a song that's built to last, the rest is gravy. He's also a super-dynamic live performer based on the live set from SXSW on Spotify. Maybe think of him like Bruno Mars without the cheese. He's not perfect, though, as NxWorries, his collaboration with producer Knxwledge delivers on the beats but features seriously lazy lyrics. No hurry, Anderson, we know you're here for the long haul.

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo "I miss the old Kanye...the chop up some soul Kanye," West rapped, tongue in cheek, on an a cappella track on TLOP - or maybe not so tongue in cheek based on the rough end to his year. Whatever his travails, and while this is definitely his most scattered album, there's musical fascination to spare on Pablo, as even a cursory glance at the samples would attest. The collage-like approach worked very well in concert, the quick segues and left turns creating a sum greater than its parts. Also, as a calling card for his tour, which was a triumph until it sputtered out due to multiple issues, Pablo was perfect, promising an opportunity for collective transgression as 20,000 people sang along to every dirt-dishing line. Get well soon, Kanye.

Listen to a track from each album with this handy Spotify playlist and let me know what's in your Top 20. Coming soon: "best of the rest" lists featuring classical and composed, rock, hip hop and R&B, electronic and avant garde, and reissues.

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