The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 5: 20-01

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#20:  Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo

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Back before I realized I didn’t have the time for lengthy individual reviews on albums every week, I put down 2000+ words in an aborted attempt to capture The Life Of Pablo.  To sum them up:  Kanye’s 2016 album is a signpost along the road to the post-album era.  It’s worth remembering that the “album”, as a unit of musical coherence, is something that’s only been with us since the early 1950s, and as a concrete artist package it’s only been a thing since 1967.  An album is a solid collection of songs by an artist that can be discussed after release with relative safety because it’s as set in stone as anything is in the modern age.  The Life Of Pablo deconstructed this idea, and played out each part of that deconstruction in public.  Kanye started sessions with Paul McCartney, released some of the results, and then scrapped that album.  Songs would come out, mostly in demo form, and the internet would dissect them and cry out for CDQ versions (especially of “Wolves”).  Kanye publicly went through album titles and covers, each one leaked out to the public for further discussion.  Even when the album came out, bearing a last-minute title change and a bizarre cover that walked a line between the profound and the absurd, that wasn’t the end of it.  The Life Of Pablo has undergone a number of transitions from it’s original “release” and it begs the question:  in the digital era, is the artist’s work ever done?  Kanye added verses, changed lines, redid entire songs (“Wolves”, again), and, weeks after release, added “Saint Pablo” which seemed to sum up the entire problem of Kanye in 2016 – unable to say no, welded to social media, worried about his family and his spending habits.  Is this the way of the future?  Will artists release and then continue to update albums like they were software, keeping things fresh and clean until they move on to something else?  As usual, Kanye proves himself ahead of the game.

#19:  M83 – Junk

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A lot of people slept on Junk and I have trouble understanding why.  After all, the sounds of the Eighties have never been more popular.  Chillwave brought an interest in synth pop to the edge of mainstream awareness, and then artists like CHVRCHES and Grimes pushed that over the edge.  Blood Orange and a number of other indie R&B acts have brought back a hipster interest in Prince, saxophones seem to be everywhere, there is a reliable subset of “the kids” who go balls-out over hair metal, and “retro nights” have been a popular place to hear Men Without Hats, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Culture Club for as long as I can remember.  When M83 conjures up the fundamental sound of the Eighties, though – the sound as it was for every regular schlub, not just the cool cats at the club – people get uncomfortable.  Good.  Run with that.  Junk is the Eighties for people who didn’t have to live through it.  It’s the sound of cheap radio ballads, training video soundtracks, love songs from TV movies of the week, and the backgrounds of weather channels.  There are crystal clear electric piano tones, keyboard presets, deliberately generic female vocals (Susanne Sundfor in an amazing performance), VHS warping, shred guitar solos bursting out of synth songs, smooth songwriting, and a willingness to get deliberately absurd.

#18:  Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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2016 found every indie kid’s favourite band building upon (relative) failure.  2011’s King Of Limbs was a short, underwhelming album that was followed by the band publicly musing that they might never make conventional albums again.  Five years later A Moon Shaped Pool features the same sort of brittle, claustrophobic songwriting – those thin, cerebral drums, those tight, modular motifs, the occasional burst into something more room-filling with strings and synths – but it puts them together in ways that seem much more coherent when played, both individually and collectively.  It makes for a greying, haunted sound, albeit one with judiciously chosen moments of focused energy – the opening “Burn The Witch”, the end of “Identikit”, the wiry riff of “Ful Stop”.  Also, while personal favourite B-side “The Daily Mail” didn’t get the full album treatment, long-time live favourite “True Love Waits” (something that dates back to The Bends) managed to sneak in at the very end, to great delight.

#17:  Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

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Shortly after the release of his fourteenth album, Leonard Cohen gave an interview with The New Yorker where he intimated – hell, straight up said – that he was going to die, probably very soon.  He seemed accepting of the fact, maybe even welcoming if you read between the lines.  After some interested press coverage of it, he tried to walk it back, saying he intended to live forever, but of course he died very shortly thereafter.  In that respect, it’s hard not to read You Want It Darker as a tidy summation of his feelings on impending doom.  It’s full of references to God and mortality, with the wry, sacrilegious humour that’s informed his work since time out of mind – it could be a eulogy of sorts, but it also bears a strong resemblance to, you know, Leonard Cohen.

The integral part of the album, however, is the production that Cohen’s son Adam uses.  A lot of Cohen’s mid-period work – Various Positions through to The Future – is hard to listen to due to the cheesy, ultra-Eighties production used.  Adam Cohen produces You Want It Darker in such a way that it seems like a modern sequel to an album like Songs From A Room or New Skin For The Old Ceremony.  The instruments take on a reverential tone, taking up as much space as needed to support Cohen’s creaking-leather voice and timeless poetry.  There are no cutesy studio tricks or cutting-edge new production styles, just a man and spare arrangements, like it was always supposed to be.

#16:  Bon Iver – 22, A Million

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Bon Iver could have released lush folk albums from now until eternity and no one would really have faulted him too much.  He’s really good at it, for one thing, and people respond well to them, for another.  His path has taken him in a different direction, though: his interest in AOR and autotune first showed up at the end of Bon Iver and the beginning of the Blood Bank EP, respectively, and his use as a hook-man on several post-2010 Kanye West tracks has solidified the use of autotune and experimentation in his music.  22, A Million, his first album in five years, finds him ramping up those experimental tendencies to full-speed-ahead.  These are fractured arrangements played by glitched-out instruments – bit-crushed drums, filtered synthesizers, autotuned vocals – but here and there moments of clean-synth AOR music comes shining through, as though Junk were trying to butt in and say something.  He’s no stranger to the form – “Beth, Rest” was a radio ballad straight out of 1985 – but it’s more interesting to hear it assimilated into an overarching style, with limited and more impactful usage. I compared it unfavourably to U2 the first time I heard it, but each successive listen to 22, A Million reveals new secrets, each more delightful than before.

#15:  BADBADNOTGOOD – IV

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Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD originally met as members of Humber College’s jazz program, and their success is a testament to the power of not always listening to your teachers.  From the beginning they skewed more towards a love of hip hop more so than the traditional jazz arrangements of their classes; Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” was their first collaborative interpretation, and they actually had the cojones to do a selection of Odd Future music in jazz form as an exam for their instructors.  According to the stuffy jazz purists at Humber, jazz interpretations of hip hop have no musical value.  This is yet further proof that the Ontario College system has serious problems.

Three successful albums and a stellar collaboration with Ghostface Killah have proven that the trio has musical value.  IV ups the ante by adding in elements of prog rock and vocals, something previous BBNG albums largely did without.  Sam Herring of Future Islands shows up on “Time Moves Slow”; Kaytranada slays “Lavender”; and rapper Mick Jenkins closes the circle on “Hyssop Of Love”.  This is jazz music for people who love music first and foremost, regardless of tradition, purity, or the American Songbook.

#14:  The Avalanches – Wildflower

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Sixteen years after their first album, Since I Left You, the idea of a followup album from the Australian plunderphonics duo The Avalanches was something that was along the same lines as Dre’s Detox or (at one time) Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy.  That is to say, it was vaporware.  Since I Left You had used somewhere in the vicinity of 3,500 separate samples, and stitching all of that together and then obtaining permission to use them was likely extremely draining, and the silence from the group as the 21st Century got underway was perhaps not surprising.  When rumours come, though, they come quickly, and it went from vaporware to a definite thing in a matter of weeks.  The result was something akin to My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 followup to 1991’s Loveless:  an album that could never stand toe-to-toe with it’s legendary predecessor, but a great album in it’s own right.  Wildflower skews more hip hop than Since I Left You did; there are actual guest spots from Danny Brown and M.F. Doom on “Frankie Sinatra”.  At the same time, it also samples extensively from the Sixties psychedelic era and as such it strongly resembles a stoned party carousel album, something the Chemical Brothers would have recorded in their prime in a paisley-toned alternate universe.  It satisfies an itch, and after sixteen years and countless delays, it satisfies that itch pretty damn well.

#13:  Solange – A Seat At The Table

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Solange, always the also-ran to her ultra-famous sister, has spent her own music career being known mainly for two things:  first, a couple of sunny, funny light R&B albums; second, beating the living shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared into the middle distance.  The second thing is likely the impetus for Lemonade; the first was okay, but largely mid-tier, nothing special.  A Seat At The Table is not like those first two albums.  Instead, it’s a soulful, guest-studded examination of Black identity in America, and the pitfalls of being black in a country where you are reduced to a set of stereotypes and assumptions by a population whose majority is obsessed with its own whiteness to the exclusion of anything else.  It’s a highly political album first and foremost – check out “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” for examples – and it’s one that emphasizes successful black people (her parents, and No Limits guru Master P) and the necessity of Black Pride in modern America.  Beyonce may have been getting more political in recent times, but her sister has taken the D’Angelo route and gone full-on BLM – something that should happen everywhere, I might note.

Besides the politics, there’s also something exceedingly rare on this album:  an honestly great Lil’ Wayne verse, on “Mad”.  Where has this Wayne been all this time?  Tha Carter III was a while ago – it’s been shit piled on top of itself since then.

#12:  Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

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In a dark year of tragedy, disappointment, political upheaval, and the unwelcome reemergence of the spectre of nuclear war, there is something to be said for the triumph of something as unpretentious and deeply caring as Pyschopomp.  It’s a shoegaze album, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.  Meanwhile, it’s a great shoegaze album, maybe the best in a decade, and it hits every note in just the right way.  Michelle Zauner’s usual stuff is a lot more straightforward; her band Little Big League trades in big ideas and big riffs.  Japanese Breakfast, by contrast, quivers with innocence and anticipation, soars in the upper atmosphere and makes indie rock sound downright gorgeous again.  Psychopomp is a little bit Asobi Seksu and a little bit early Smashing Pumpkins, wrapped in a tough exterior that keeps everything from getting too soft and maudlin.

#11:  Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3

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This.  This right here is why I wait until the last minute to finalize these lists.  Three years running someone has dropped an album in mid-to-late December that has earned a high spot – Beyonce and Black Messiah and on and on.  This year, right on Christmas Day, it was Run The Jewels 3.  It was, as they might call it, a Christmas Fucking Miracle.

Hip hop can be quite intense – anyone who’s listened to Ready To Die can attest to this fact.  Killer Mike and EL-P bring a whole new level of intensity, though, one that is usually reserved for punk rock, or metal.  Run The Jewels 2 was the epitome of this, an unrelenting force of nature that pounded into the listener like a studded fist.  Run The Jewels 3 captures this but also adds in textured moments, dynamics, and crafts more well-rounded tracks out of it.  This is not to say that RTJ3 is any less powerful; as Killer Mike chants on the final track, “I remain hostile.”  In a year with a lot to get angry about, Mike (a big supporter of Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail) remains angry, probably permanently given the state of the world.  Snide remarks about Trump, racists, and killing your masters abound, brought to a logical conclusion by another Zach De La Rocha verse in the dying moments of the album.  It’s music to march in the streets to, which is as timely as it ever could have been.

#10:  Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger

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After going full-on classic rock on his last album, Manipulator, garage rock guru Ty Segall reset his sound for this year’s Emotional Mugger.  Rather than the clean(er) guitar tones of both Sleeper and ManipulatorEmotional Mugger layers on the fuzz until everything comes wrapped in a thick layer of sludge.  It’s an album heavily influenced by the Seventies – Black Sabbath, primarily, but also lesser known hard rock touchstones and a bit of the funk here and there.  It’s the same sort of stuff that he put forth on his “breakthrough” album Melted and the comparisons between that album and this one are quite apt.  Both albums hit hard, both seem drenched in LSD, and both have these massive hooks that won’t let you go.  As usual, it’s not for the faint of heart; Emotional Mugger has a solid core of weirdness running through it that might cause any casual music fan to go running for the hills early on.  Those who stick with it, however, will find enough rewards to declare themselves a second Christmas.

#09:  Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

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Chicago’s Chance The Rapper claims the guest spot on the intro of The Life Of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam”; on it, he says “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.”  Coloring Book – Chance 3 – is exactly that.  A free album that outpaces nearly any other commercially available album released this year – “I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom” he says on “Blessings”.  There may be a billion guests on it – everyone from Lil’ Wayne to Anderson .Paak to Justin Beiber and Future show up – but the star of the show is the exuberant, overwhelmingly thankful man himself.  Kayne may have tried to describe The Life Of Pablo pre-release as a “gospel hip hop album” but it was nothing of the sort.  Coloring Book is the real deal, full of swelling choruses and the celebration of Chance, his religion, and his friends.  The Grammys need to get with the times – this is a contender if there ever was one.

#08:  Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered

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It is a mark of Kendrick’s artistry and music that his b-sides and outtakes are better than other rapper’s whole careers.  These castaways from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions show an even jazzier side than was originally shown on the main album, with the funk just as present.  Despite the “unmastered” part of the title, these tracks are produced fairly slickly; the hooks bump and the jazz squalls come through clear as day.  Maybe he meant “unmastered” as in “he has no master”, which is also true.

#07:  Drive-By Truckers – American Band

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Drive-By Truckers are a country rock band, something that used to be called Southern Rock back in the septic old days of the 1970s.  Of late they’ve been lumped together in with acts like Sturgill Simpson in a quest to label a genre that I once read quite accurately described as “country for Democrats”.  What it really is is American music – music that fits the unsettled tone of America in 2016 perfectly.  The album kicks off with a story of how the founder of the NRA shot and killed a Mexican teenager and got away with it; the correlation to the anti-Mexican campaign waged by now-President-Elect Donald Trump is obvious in retrospect.  Elsewhere throughout a war veteran hunkers down to survive a school shooter, gender roles are questioned, the reality of the brave new American wars are revealed, and Dixie refuses to get over the Civil War.  The highlight, though, is the heartwrenching “What It Means”, where they try to make sense of the growing second civil war between the police and the black community while shaking their heads that racism is still a powerful force even nearly two decades into the 21st Century.

#06:  Frank Ocean – Blond

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For a while it was possible that Frank Ocean’s followup to his classic Channel Orange was going to be vaporware, joining a long tradition of eagerly awaited albums that never appeared.  Then it did:  first a “visual album” called Endless, and then an actual proper album, Blond.  Unlike Channel Orange, which was immediately and viscerally rewarding, Blond took a bit of time to tease out it’s charms.  Once they appear, though, the album becomes addictive and life-affirming.  Blond is a pool that seems shallow on the surface – a pretty R&B album, with less beatcraft, perhaps – but there’s miles and miles of emotions under that surface that get more complicated and wrenching the further one goes into them.  There’s nothing as straightforward as “Pyramids” on here, but one could also make the argument that the entire album is one big “Pyramids”.

#05:  Parquet Courts – Human Performance

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Parquet Courts put out two of the best indie punk albums of the decade and then started skewing toward jittery, willfully noisy post-punk experiments, culminating in the deliberately unlistenable Monastic Living EP.  Human Performance, then, represents a sort of coming-through to the other side:  it’s at once more mature and internally musing than either Light Up Gold or Sunbathing Animal, but it also keeps much of the speedy charm and dynamic liveliness that characterized those two albums.  The difference lies in the approach, however:  where their previous albums went from wink-and-a-nod to anger in the blink of an eye, there’s more introspection, weariness, and romance on Human Performance, especially on the title track, the lead single and song of the year contender “Berlin Got Blurry,” and the gentle, wave-tossed “Steady On My Mind.”  Based out of Brooklyn, the band still gets compared to the icons of New York punk rock – the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and the Ramones – and while there is some direct comparisons to be made (“One Man No City” is clearly influenced by the VU), it’s clear that Parquet Courts is quickly making a name for themselves as one of those icons, and not simply another worshiper at their altar.

#04:  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Skeleton Tree is the sound that Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds explored on their previous album, Push The Sky Away, but stripped down to it’s bare essentials – mournful drones courtesy of long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis and dark poetry that yearns for release, understanding, and answers courtesy of Nick Cave.  It is as raw and intense as grief itself, and it was of course born out of such.  Between Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree Nick Cave’s fifteen year old son died in an accident and the honesty of this album is the sound of its creator working his way through his grief, balancing love and loss and musing flat-out, on “I Need You”, if “nothing really matters anymore.”  Faith ends up being a mixed bag:  “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this now,” he intones on “Jesus Alone”, while on  “Girl In Amber” he sings that “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the earth / In a slumber ’til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / well I don’t think that anymore.”  It’s an album that can fill in for the soundtrack of grief of anyone’s loss; if you’ve ever lost someone you loved, Skeleton Tree knows exactly how you feel.

#03:  Beyonce – Lemonade

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The first time I ever heard Beyonce Knowles was in Destiny’s Child, and the song was “Bills Bills Bills”.  Even though I was a confirmed teenage metalhead with a disdain for all things hip hop and pop, there was something oddly catchy about the song, something I couldn’t put my finger on; the same went for the other single off that album, “Jumpin’ Jumpin'”.  Since then, of course, Queen Bey has made one hell of a name for herself as a solo artist, although before 2013 she was your regular standard-issue International Superstar.  Since Beyonce, though, there has been a sense of a sort of ascension – becoming something more than a legendary Diva, an Artist in her own right.  She has, at the very least, eclipsed her husband’s career and then some; while Jay-Z’s latter-day albums have come out to less and less acclaim, Beyonce’s have only grown in stature.  Lemonade is, thus far, the peak of that growth.

The release of Lemonade was an event in the way that Kanye had wanted The Life Of Pablo to be.  When it came out everyone was listening to it, at first because the initial listeners reported that there was something juicy going on.  The lyrics on the album seemed to confirm the context of an event that had happened months prior – that time that Solange Knowles beat the shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared on into the middle distance?  Was there cheating going on? people asked.  Lemonade seemed to confirm that, in fact, there was.  Certainly Bey was up in arms about something:  “You can taste the dishonesty,” she whisper-sings on the opener “Pray You Catch Me”, “It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier.”  Elsewhere, she tells her philandering man to call up “Becky with the good hair” (rumoured to be Rachel Roy), declares that “I don’t wanna lose my pride but I’m-a fuck me up a bitch,” and at one point screams triumphantly to “Just give my fat ass a big kiss boy / tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy.”

Beyond theme and lyrics, though, the album explodes in a way that marks new territory for her.  Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend teams up with Father John Misty to interpolate the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s anguished “Maps” for “Hold Up”.  Kendrick Lamar brings apocalyptic flames to the already-militant “Freedom”.  Jack White turns “Don’t Hurt Yourself” into a barnburner – Beyonce as rock ‘n’ roll queen.  The Weeknd’s usual coke-gaze sleaze turns into righteous empowerment in “6 Inch”.  “Daddy Lessons” ventures with swagger into big-horn Texas country.  It’s a tour de force of musical exploration that treats her thematic subject holistically – that is, philandering and heartbreak are the sum of all genres, and there’s a chance for redemption and righteousness in all of them.  With Lemonade, Beyonce embraces them, and brings her own authentic voice to the forefront.

#02:  Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial

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Rock ‘n’ roll dies a lot.  Like, all the time.  Every other month it seems like some publication or another is waxing poetic on the supposed death of the genre, clucking their tongues and blaming the younger generation for killing off Boomer youth rebellion or some such nonsense.  The truth of it is pretty straightforward.  Somebody – I think it was Billie Joe Armstrong, but don’t quote me or him on that – once said that “the real reason that rock ‘n’ roll will never die is that there is always another generation of kids willing to go out and dig up the corpse.”  There it is, plain and simple.  There is something primal and appealing in the basic guitar-bass-drum setup, partly because there is apparently a ridiculously huge amount of variation you can dredge out of it, and partly because there is something utterly amazing about standing in front of a Marshall stack with a guitar cranked out to 10 and hitting a power chord.  If you’ve never done it, do it.  It’ll change your life.

That brings us to Will Toledo.  Will is exactly one of those “kids” referred to above (in that he was born after the fall of the Soviet Union) and he has found inspiration and salvation in that rush of distorted guitar and heavy drumming.  Between 2010 and 2015 he released 12 (!) DIY albums on Bandcamp, impressing everyone and netting himself a hardcore group of online fans.  When Matador inevitably came calling, the result was Teens Of Denial, which is without hyperbole the best pure rock album in years.

Here’s the thing:  Will Toledo was born right in the middle of the initial phase of the Alternative Revolution, when Nevermind was destroying the old hair metal guard.  The world he grew up in was one completely informed by alt-rock, and Teens Of Denial is a sort of grand summation of those world-straddling ethos.  It is swathed in distorted guitar, right from the beginning:  the riffs on this album are born out of the early 1990s, but transcend it in ways that suggest that alt-rock has mutated significantly over time.  The opening riff to “Fill In The Blank” may be pure 90s pop-punk, but the stetched-out squiggles and supporting chords on “Vincent” suggest a bridge between alt-rock and prog.  The world of Car Seat Headrest is one where Marshall stacks sit comfortably with keening synth choir pads, where the Foo Fighters’ affable radio grunge is turned on it’s ear, shot through with a heaping of Ric Ocasek’s neon-glitter New Wave, and made to walk the street for credibility.

It also has that certain self-deprecating, slightly beat-down and hungover sort of worldview that replaced the cocksure (emphasis on the cock) steel-groin ethos of the mainstream 1980s.  It was a staple of the Nineties but has fallen into disfavour since. The bands of the last decade and a half have maintained an almost painful earnestness (Arcade Fire, The Killers, faux-folk like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons) balanced with a careless, effortless sort of hedonism (Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, a lot of Tame Impala) that’s sort of like Eighties hedonism only for people that just can’t be bothered to go that ninth yard.  Will Toledo is neither, embracing irony as much as straight-faced reality and being a little nerd-boy awkward in his relationships.  The very first line on the album is “I’m so sick of (fill in the blank)”, and he proceeds to tell us what dwells in that blank throughout the rest.  As it turns out, that’s a lot:  having to be high and depressed in a summer town; doing too many drugs and realizing that the only thing that killed your childhood was you; living in pursuit of meaning through porn (gotta make your shame count for something); the cliche of graveyards; the truth that, in order to really know yourself, you can’t know anyone else at all.  It connects to the human experience on a far deeper level than, say, Two Door Cinema Club, and it’s little wonder why the album seems to be a consensus pick for breakthrough album of 2016.  Sensitive awkwardness, after all, never goes out of style.

#01:  David Bowie – Blackstar

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If we go by American Gods rules, then David Bowie was the British version of Loki:  The Shapeshifter, The Trickster, although much less malicious than the Norse original.  His career was one of constant subversion of expectation:  Oh I’m a glam star?  Now I really like American soul.  Disco seems cool.  Ambient electronic sounds?  Seems fun.  Oh, now I’m a multi-million selling pop star.  New Jack Swing has some pop to it, but wait, industrial seems where it’s at.  The fun of Bowie was always that you never knew what sound he was going to reinvent himself with next, just that it would be great.  While his recordings from the 21st Century struck an uncharacteristically even course, The Next Day found him using old forms to reinvent himself once again.  Blackstar, when it was first released, was another leap forward in terms of sound, reintroducing especially Bowie’s saxophone work.

Then, he died.

In retrospect, it became incredibly obvious that the album had been written largely from the perspective of someone who knew they were dying.  As it turns out, Bowie had in fact known that he was suffering from inoperable liver cancer for a year before he died.  It is rare enough in history that an artist of Bowie’s caliber is able to write their own eulogy and share it with the masses.  2016 gave us two:  Blackstar and You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s final, death-haunted yet stoic album.  Whereas You Want It Darker was largely a summary of Cohen’s strengths and highlights as an artist, an homage to the artist by the artist, Blackstar was a final example of Bowie’s unwillingness to settle for the status quo.  It pushes on further into that dark strange universe that he inhabited, refusing to succumb to despair.  The title track is one of the most disturbing songs he’d ever recorded, beginning with an eerie melody that is echoed in the strange, seizure-like dancing depicted in the accompanying video; it was unsurprising when some Christian groups labeled it as “Satanic” – fitting given his flirtations with Satanism during his bizarre coked-up year in Los Angeles near the end of the Seventies.  “Lazarus” is more on the nose, being explicitly about mortality; it also addresses the character Bowie played in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, again during that long odd year.  “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” reprise a single and B-side from 2014 and touch back on on Bowie’s theatrical origins, being a rework of an old 17th Century English play.  “Dollar Days” addresses regret stretched out over a lifetime, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” begins with a callback to a song on 1977’s Low – “New Career In A New Town”, a song about moving on.  Throughout the album, Bowie’s sax playing – something once likened to impressionistic painting – takes an interesting forefront, something that stitches every phase of his career together.

There’s a joke floating around the internet – a half-joke, maybe – that Bowie was the glue holding the universe together, and the rest of 2016 is evidence of that.  I’m willing to give that one a pass, if only because of the chaos and confusion of the year that followed, and because it seems only too fitting that Blackstar would be the sound of structure shimmering out of existence as the seams come apart and the Age of Aquarius finally rears its ugly head.  Still, stripped of it’s meaning, it’s context, it’s weighty place in the canon of Bowie albums, it’s a stellar collection of songs that revel in texture, phrasing, and tone, three things Bowie has always excelled at through his career.  We will never see another Bowie album again, but Blackstar was a hell of a way to go out.

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The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 4: 40-21

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#40:  A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

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Comebacks are a sketchy sort of thing in popular music.  When an artist or group puts out a new work after years – decades – of being silent, it’s easy to get cynical.  Do they need money?  Is this just a nostalgia trip cash-in?  Is the new album basically a tour souvenir?  Have they phoned it in?  Are all of the old members even present, or is this just an excuse for a couple of old members to resurrect the name to get eyeballs and sales?  There are any number of great old acts that have fallen victim to this sort of crass capitalism:  Black Flag, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Zombies, The Who, The Pixies, etc. and so on into infinity.

Then there are the acts that come back and it’s like they never left.  They remain as vital and as timely as  they ever were.  Sleater-Kinney comes to mind here.  Now, so does A Tribe Called Quest.  We last heard from the legendary hip hop group in the 1990s, when they were the jazzy, fluid alternative to screwface gangsta rap.  They dealt with some hard subjects, to be sure, but they also knew to back off and celebrate the little things in life as well.  Thank You 4 Your Service is exactly in the same vein as those old Tribe records – it could be the vanishing point between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. The beats are as in-the-pocket as they were back in the day, and the flows are as consistently great as they ever were.  The record is shot through with the ghost of Phife Dawg (who died during the recording process from complications from diabetes) but it never falls into the trap of being a maudlin tombstone for him.  Instead, Tribe do what they always did – tackle sociopolitical issues, shoot the shit about life’s tribulations, and make fun of wack MCs.

#39:  Ian William Craig – Centres

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In the wrong hands, ambient music is scattered, banal, and boring.  Ian William Craig is not the wrong hands.  Centres is a haunting, emotional album crafted out of tape noise, synthesizers, and Craig’s own heavily processed voice.  He comes through in jagged moments, heralded by bursts of ghostly static, and it is as beautiful as it is blurred.  There’s a veritable shoegaze quality to much of the album, as though Tim Hecker and My Bloody Valentine merged into something gorgeous, fragile, and only partially visible.

#38:  Nice As Fuck – Nice As Fuck

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A purely articulated vision that is as minimalist and straightforward as its album cover.  Jenny Lewis and her indie friends from Au Revoir Simone and the Likes craft a kind of post-punk album that used to only dwell in the early 1980s.  It’s as though Young Marble Giants crossbred with ESG and got stoned to some early Spoon records.

#37:  Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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You take some jazz, some funk, some soul, a little bit of noisy rock ‘n’ roll…you sing in a fashion that’s midway between Joni Mitchell and Janelle Monae…you get longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti on the bill…throw a potato in there, baby you got yourself a stew going.

#36:  LUH – Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sing

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Indie rock that’s been blown out, left ragged, and smeared across some odd grade of canvas.  Ecstasy as seen from the perspective of a fever dream, left out to bake in a nuclear-blinded sunscape.

#35: Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

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Jenny Hval creates on Blood Bitch a cleared space for women in the tangled sacred space of phallocentric rock ‘n’ roll, a direct continuation of the milieu of “soft dick rock” she discussed in regards to her previous album, Apocalypse, Girl.  It’s an album of secrets spilled forth into the light and presented in a hard-edged light that takes some spiritual cues from the grind-and-destroy mayhem of black metal.  Nothing is left behind here: blood and vampirism, urine, pregnancy, menstruation, pap smears, and witchery colour the tracks and create a spattered, intimately fluid feeling in the transition of pieces.  Is selling art tatamount to selling the key pieces of oneself, and if so, how far can you bleed that self before it blanches out for good?

#34:  School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB

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A triumph born directly out of a tragedy, SVIIB is likely the last School Of Seven Bells album.  During the process of recording, band co-founder Benjamin Curtis died of sudden-onset lymphoma, leaving singer/synth-player/song-writer/lover Alejandra Deheza to finish the process of this final document on her own.  This album – which Deheza called in a P4K interview “the whole arc…[of] our relationship over 10 years” – is a soaring, anthemic tribute to him, one final blowout of synth-pop bliss that the duo had been making a claim on for quite some time.  Knowing the circumstances behind the songs, it’s hard to hear those swelling pads and those pounding synths without getting all teary-eyed.  Onions.  Why is the world so full of onions all the time?

#33:  Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits

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You know what I like about John Dwyer?  No matter what weird deviations he’ll take you on, no matter what sort of strange psychedelic noises he’ll use to keep you awake and paranoid, he always delivers on his main promise, which is to melt your face off in the course of an album.  A Weird Exits does this in a primal way that few bands, then or now, have been able to accomplish.

#32:  NAILS – You Will Never Be One Of Us

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Twenty-one minutes of pure destruction.

#31:  Jambinai – A Hermitage

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Post-math, to be sure, but post-math that takes it a step beyond by integrating a number of Korean instruments into the usual guitar-bass-drum Western rock lineup.  Ever wanted to hear a geomungo or a haegum alongside a guitar?  Look no further.

#30:  The Liminanas – Malamore

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A French garage band so true to form that you’ll swear you’re sitting on a ratty brown couch watching them play battered instruments through mismatched amplifiers.  Also, it’s filtered through a sunrise-coloured love of spaghetti western tones, so it doubles as a great soundtrack for the leadup to your next fight.

#29:  Tim Hecker – Love Streams

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Veteran ambient composer Tim Hecker turns his attention to a somewhat calmer set of inspirations than his previous works on Virgins or Ravedeath 1972.  Love Streams was recorded in part with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and sounds like the Northern Lights were captured and turned into music.  If Marcel Theroux’s Far North were ever turned into a movie, Love Streams would be it’s soundtrack.

#28:  Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion

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A lysergic mixture of Low-style slowcore songcraft and searing psychedelic guitar noise that sits as the vanishing point between J. Mascis and Neil Young.  Come for the gloomy atmosphere, stay because the guitar lines have sliced off your limbs and you can no longer even crawl away from the carnage.

#27:  Santigold – 99 Cents

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A cross-genre trip across the psyche of one of the most entertaining performers to survive the transition from the 2000s to the 2010s.  Pop, R&B, hip hop, dancehall, and alt-rock styles dance in clockwork with each other, creating an album that has a little tasty morsel for anyone who happens upon it.

#26:  Bat For Lashes – The Bride

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A lush concept album about the spiritual journey of a woman whose fiance dies in a car accident on their way to the wedding.  Natasha Khan brings all of the fire and pop sensibilities that informed her previous albums and ramps them up to another level here.  She treads a fine line between impassioned and histrionic and comes across the gorge free and full of new life.

#25:  Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

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The Detroit rapper has been tracing a path toward a Universal Theory of Pure Fire for a while now but Atrocity Exhibition accelerates that path like Zizek blowing up the dialectic on a Tuesday.  Borrowing a title and an aesthetic from Joy Division, VHS glitch, and the decay of his own home city, he and a scant lineup of guests (which still manages to include Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt on the same song) create something edgy, sharp, and stabby.  Did I mention he’s on Warp Records now?  Bizarre soundscapes, interesting samples, and his own hectoring B-Real-esque voice (another guest, by the way) are now the order of the day.

#24:  Angel Olsen – My Woman

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After 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness I would not have been shocked if Angel Olsen’s subsequent album(s) would have been total flops – how do you even follow up such a delightful mixture of rustic folk, Leonard Cohen, and amped-up rock ‘n’ roll?  As it turns out, the answer to that question is My Woman.  Her voice is on point as always, but the arrangements have been cleaned up in such a way that they manage to crossover several different genres while simultaneously displaying a seemingly newfound love of pop hooks.  “Shut Up Kiss Me” is one of the most impassioned songs you’re likely to hear this decade.

#23:  Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

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Sturgill Simpson has made a name for himself as the gigantic thorn in the side of the stuck-in-traffic-boring Nashville country music establishment.  Not content with merely reproducing pop tropes with a light twang for the profit of corporate stooges, Simpson wants to keep the spirit that informed the best of country music alive:  Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, a little bit of Waylon Jennings from time to time.  None of them would make it in modern Nashville; all of them are responsible for its powerhouse success.  A Sailor’s Guide To Earth shows that there’s a way forward from shlock bullshit like Keith Urban and Florida-Georgia Line:  tough, wiry arrangements that utilize as much blues as they do country ideas; a horn section that sounds like heaven taking off; a serious approach to theme and lyrics; and a willingness to mix it up with balladry that isn’t just whitewashed R&B – check out the soulfulness of “All Around You” to get a good feel for that.  He’s also been a vocal opponent of the Nashville establishment, which makes his success all the more satisfying.

#22:  Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

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The last two or three years have seen American black musicians go in one of two directions.  Artists like Young Thug and Future are pushing U.S hip hop further into the future, melding genres and pursuing ever-more-cutting production.  An equally as interesting group have chosen to go back to forms of black music from back in the 20th Century.  Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus have been going back to jazz for inspiration in their neo-freakouts; Childish Gambino abandoned his clownish rapping for a dead-on funk homage; Dre’s last album had Kendrick’s fingerprints of old-school funk and soul all over it; D’Angelo chose to stake his comeback (and win) on gritty old soul music in the vein of Sly Stone; Beyonce even managed to pull out big, brassy Texas country on her album, and her sister used those old soul vibes to nearly become the Top Knowles Sister of 2016.  Michael Kiwanuka goes more psychedelic, crafting a series of songs whose hearts rest in a certain type of music the Sixties turned out that can be best summer up by a compilation album called Forge Your Own Chains: Ballads and Dirges.  These are songs drawing inspiration directly from road-trip Americana, lysergic long-form psychedelic exercises, and a heavy sense of sorrow and uncertainty.  Where the bands on Forge Your Own Chains drew out their sorrow in organ drones, Kiwanuka uses piano, guitar, and horns to create a busy sense of the struggle to get on.  “The struggle” is right, too: Love & Hate also taps into that new (depressingly old) sense of political outrage, the one that knows that even fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, being black in white America is difficult at best.

#21:  Deerhoof – The Magic

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For a band that’s been going for something in the ballpark of a decade now, Deerhoof manage, on their latest album, to top their previous work and put together an even better collection of quirky, fractured, ultra-busy pop that doubles as a kick-ass guitar rock album.  I say this every time Deerhoof put out a new album, and every time I genuinely mean it.

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The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 3: 60-41

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#60:  Anderson .Paak – Malibu

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The breakout star of Dre’s Compton album last year came into his own in a big way in 2016.  Malibu is a rich gumbo of funk, soul, and jazz-inflected hip hop; in other words, it’s got Kendrick Lamar’s fingerprints all over it and we should start thinking of a name for this movement, or something.

#59:  Swans – The Glowing Man

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Less crushingly oppressive than previous Swans efforts, Michael Gira and Co. still manage to make two hours of music sound like the far end of forever.  Unlike older Swans albums, The Glowing Man is more filled-with-air, esoteric, and ambient, which makes for an interesting contrast.

#58:  Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

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Dev Hynes makes modern R&B that’s trapped in a hole-in-the-wall dance club in the Eighties, like if Prince were actually Frank Ocean in disguise but from Brooklyn instead of L.A.  His voice is thoroughly modern but his instrument choices harken back to the days when world rhythms and funky, squelchy synth sounds were de rigueur for hit songs.  As much of a solid, exuberant pop album as it is, it’s also a volley fired into the increasingly uncertain night; Hynes describes it as “for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated. It’s a clap back.”

#57:  Moon Hooch – Red Sky

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Two saxophones and a drummer, baby that’s all you need.  With the airless pretentiousness of the way people treat jazz in modern times – as though it were stately classical music to be played in the company of august rich white people – it’s easy to forget that it has it’s origins in dance music.  Brooklyn’s Moon Hooch have not forgotten that – Red Sky is a collection of funked-out grooves that pop right out of speakers with a strut rarely heard in modern jazz.  If prog rock was the sound of dressing rock ‘n’ roll up in a tux, and fusion was the sound of jazz trying to catch up with it, Moon Hooch is the sound of that tux being ripped off and cast aside in favour of some club wear, or at least a comfortable pair of shoes.

#56:  PUP – The Dream Is Over

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Two or three times a year, a band comes along and reminds us why punk rock continues to be a vital and life-changing force in rock ‘n’ roll.  Typically these bands are from Toronto.  PUP is no exception.

#55:  Yak – Alas Salvation

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Speaking of life-affirming punk rock, here’s some from across the pond.  Crunchy, heavy, and off-the-wall, Salvation  is an album to get drunk and fall apart to.

#54:  Kacy & Clayton – Strange Country

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A gorgeous collection of backwoods folk, country, and pop influences, Strange Country at times lives up to its name exactly.  It’s a little bit June + Johnny and a little bit Grateful Dead all at once, a breeze with a hint of a storm coming.

#53:  A$AP Ferg – Always Strive And Prosper

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As his first album’s name implied – and as he affirms on the first track here – A$AP Ferg is a bona fide Trap Lord.  On his second album he manages to outdo everyone else in A$AP Mob except maybe Rocky, who still holds the chiefdom by the skin of his teeth.  Unrepentant hedonistic trap music for the Drake era.

#52:  Dalek – Asphalt For Eden

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The New Jersey alt-hip hop group hadn’t released an album since 2009, and were in fact on “permanent hiatus” from 2011 to 2015.  A move off of Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records to Profound Lore (a Canadian, mostly metal label) prompted a return to the studio however, and the result is exactly right.  Asphalt For Eden is unmistakably a Dalek album: lo-fi, ambient-industrial production, subversive wordplay, and blatantly uncommercial lengths.  The perfect companion for a slow, suffocating apocalypse.

#51:  Deakin – Sleep Cycle

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Deakin – whom we all blame for Centipede Hz – used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of this album.  When he sort of fell off the radar after making his funding goal, people were up in arms about being cheated, defrauded, etc.  What really happened was the story of a guy who’s caught at the worst possible conjunction for an artist – a horribly anxious perfectionist, aka “Kanye West”.  The album that finally came out, though, is pure spun gold, an affirmation that, stripped of all their acid-drenched childlike wonder and gonzo borderline-annoying studio sounds, the best Animal Collective songs are actually Deakin songs.  Who knew?

#50:  Lucy Dacus – No Burden

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Part indie-rock also-ran to Courtney Barnett (or, at times, Florence Welch), part world-weary country-folk album meant to burn a candle to.  The entire album functions as a slow-burn epic crafted out of individual slow-burn epics.

#49:  Matmos – Ultimate Care II

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The sole instrument on this album is the group’s Ultimate Care II washing machine – poked, prodded, drummed on, and recorded while running normally.  If that doesn’t intrigue you then I don’t know what would.

#48:  Autolux – Pussy’s Dead

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A spare, mysterious sort of record, with drumlines that bring to mind Radiohead – early Bends-era Radiohead.  This also goes for the vocal melodies, which at times seem lifted whole and breathing from the darker parts of that seminal album.  Think of the spirit of The Bends filtered through a more Hail To The Thief sound and you’ll be halfway there.

#47:  Africaine 808 – Basar

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A German take on world music, filtered through a lens of psychedelic electronic production that revels .  Call in global acid, if you have to call it something.

#46:  Brood Ma – Daze

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Aggressively experimental IDM that crosses over into industrial territory fairly often.  Most of the tracks on Daze are less than two minutes, and it comes across like the breezy spirit of Robert Pollard fronting Skinny Puppy for kicks.

#45:  Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning

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A re-recording of older material, No More Lamps In The Morning feels at first blush like another entry in the Joni Mitchell-Joanna Newsom continuum, but it taps into something older than that.  It’s music that might have felt at home at the end of the Second World War, proving that above all good music knows no age.

#44:  Cross Record – Wabi Sabi

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Wabi Sabi is an album that rolls over you in slow waves, rocking you gently in the same way that a ship stranded at sea in calm, windless waters will walk you gently.  In the back of your head, you know there’s something dark swelling in the background – never making it home again, for instance – but you’re too relaxed to do anything about it.

#43:  Kevin Gates – Islah

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Kevin Gates is simultaneously two things: a hard-edged street dude with a tattoo of a gun on his hand and a penchant for teaching you a lesson with “bullet after bullet after bullet”.  The other is an emotional ladies man, who talks about his complicated relationships and his bedroom moves in explicit detail.  Thus, “2 Phones” is his signature, an anthem so specifically true to himself that it seems obvious:  two phones, one for the plug and one for the load.

#42:  Savages – Adore Life

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The London band’s sophomore album is denser, tenser, and thicker than their searing debut.  “Evil” fights like “Husbands” did, and “T.I.W.Y.G.” is their most punk rock song yet.  The title track is the centerpiece though: is it human to adore life?  Because I adore life.

#41:  Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Everything Sacred

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Three supremely talented players craft a fusion of Western folk, jazz, and Indian music that mesmerizes and energizes as much as it soothes the soul.  Much of it was improvised, if you ever want to feel bad about your own creative talents.

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The 100 Best Albums of 2016, Part 2: 80-61

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#80:  Thee Oh Sees – An Odd Entrances

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The companion album to A Weird Exits is also a fascinating album in it’s own right.  It’s lighter, arier, and except for “Unwrap The Fiend, Part 1,” devoid of the hard-hitting bounce that later Thee Oh Sees albums have come to be structured with.  Another look into John Dwyer’s increasingly kaleidoscopic head.

#79:  Mykki Blanco – Mykki

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Michael Quattlebaum, Jr. is the queer community’s foot-in-the-door to the mainstream hip hop world.  His Mykki Blanco character began life as a teen-girl YouTube channel before taking on a life of its own as a fully-formed activist/performance-art piece.  Mykki Blanco’s debut LP, simply titled Mykki, is a hard-hitting collection of modern hip-hop themes filtered through Mykki’s influences:  Lil’ Kim, Rihanna, GG Allin, Bruce LaBruce, and the riot grrrl movement.

#78:  Case/Lang/Veirs – case/lang/veirs

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A supergroup born in Portland, case/lang/veirs came about after Canada’s k.d. lang moved to the city and met Neko Case and Laura Veirs.  For American indie heads, Case is the draw, with her solo and New Pornographers pedigree, but Lang and Veirs end up contributing the best parts after all.  Part dusky Americana and part bittersweet indie, the album sounds like old books smell.

#77:  Tim Heidecker – In Glendale

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Tim Heidecker – of Tim & Eric fame – sets out to skewer 1970s singer-songwriter tropes and the woes of suburban mediocrity and ends up crafting something honestly emotionally affecting.  Maybe it’s the seeming earnestness with which he approaches his absurdly banal subject matter or the ease with which he seems to take the concept of killing people and turns it into a slick metaphor for having an emptiness in your life where someone used to belong.  Maybe it’s his usual uneasy humour – either way, it works because it knows it shouldn’t and does so anyway.

#76:  Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

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I’ve said this before, but:  Death Grips are less a musical act and more of a piece of performance art satirizing the modern music industry, or, more accurately, a trio of post-modern noise terrorists.  After the hyped-out hoopla surrounding Jenny Death, the last half of their last album, they claimed that they were done and they’d never record again.  Of course this wasn’t true and of course they would continue putting out music that is as much experimental art-punk noise as it is edgy hip hop. That’s where the satirical part comes in – everyone knew it was a wink-and-nod job from the get-go, and everyone played along because that’s what you do.  Who said irony was dead?  Bottomless Pit is not the group’s “best” album (if you can ascribe a ranking to any of their albums) but it is definitely the logical next Death Grips album, and “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” is definitely in the top five best Death Grips tracks.

#75:  Mitski – Puberty 2

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There’s something almost off-putting about Mitski Miawaki’s voice as it seems to deadpan across an intoxicating blend of electronic and indie rock influences.  When she ramps up to soaring, however, there are very few that can match her in the indie world.  She comes across much like St. Vincent, if Annie Clark dropped the guitar wizardry in favour of reveling in lush textures.

#74:  White Lung – Paradise

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Who said riot grrl was dead?  Oh, no one?  No one said that?  Anyway, White Lung is a strong entry into the canon of righteous women who breathe fire and live punk rock.  More straightforward (and therefore less hardcore) than 2014’s Deep Fantasy – “Hungry” could be a radio track ferchrissakes – it nonetheless functions as one hell of a punch in the nose to the capitalist patriarchy we all find ourselves mired in.

#73:  Vince Staples – Prima Donna

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There is officially no stopping Vince Staples.  Even in a format as short as this twenty-minute EP he dominates rappers with albums four times as long.  He’s an artist who knows exactly what his sound is, and how to get it – and it’s utterly riveting listening to him get it, again and again.

#72:  PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

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PJ Harvey – perhaps the greatest living holdover of the 1990s – spent her last album examining the weighty idea that perhaps England’s greatest days were finally behind her.  Five years later she crossed the Atlantic and swapped macro-examinations for micro; The Hope Six Demolition Project is a collection of songs about the HOPE VI American government project that looks to refurbish run-down urban housing projects, if by “refurbish” you mean “gentrify and kick out anyone that can no longer afford to stay.”  You can tell how on-the-mark she was with the single “The Community of Hope”, inspired by a trip to the south side Washington D.C., when several prominent city politicians complained that it put them in a bad light.  In her review of the album, Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes asked “By pointing out the problems in these three communities, but proposing no solutions, is she (Harvey) just as responsible for their desertion as the global powers that came before her?” No, Laura, and furthermore that’s the sort of inane question that shows why people have trouble taking P4K seriously anymore.  Is pointing out problems exactly like domestic economic imperialism?  I guess, if you’re a faux-progressive searching for something “important” to say.

#71:  Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

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In which the former Community star and current Atlanta mastermind thankfully ditches straight rapping (which he’s not particularly good at) for a horny love letter to Seventies psychedelic funk which is, as it turns out, something he is good at.  While it seems at it’s heart to be a straight tribute to his parent’s record collection, it’s such a good tribute that it’s hard not to grin ear-to-ear when you listen to it.

#70:  YG – Still Brazy

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In a hip-hop world consumed with Kanye, Drake, J. Cole, Young Thug, Frank Ocean, Future, and every other singer-first-rapper-second out there, it’s a weird breath of fresh hear to hear some honest, no-foolin’ L.A. gangsta rap.  YG is hard af and “Who Shot Me” is a menacing track the likes of which haven’t been heard since Snoop was 18.  Also, it has to be said, YEAH YEAH FUCK DONALD TRUMP.

#69:  Plague Vendor – Bloodsweat

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Visceral, go-for-the-throat garage rock with a singer who isn’t afraid to go absurd in his search for rock ‘n’ roll hedonism.  The guitarist has figured out how to turn his instrument into a switchblade as well, so he’s no slouch either.

#68:  Damien Jurado – Visions Of Us On The Land

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Desert folk best played at night, all reverb and stars and surreal imagery.  A little bit Neil Young and a little bit Bill Callahan, it’s a road trip through the mind as filtered through the lens of that old, weird America.

#67:  Future – EVOL

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Future keeps pushing trap forward, even when he revels in the kind of absurdity that he trades in on “In Her Mouth” or “Xanax Family”.  Part of it is solid, consistent flow, and the other part is the production of Metro Boomin and Southside, who keep things menacing, edgy, and focused on the bass.

#66:  Rihanna – Anti

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Rihanna has spent her considerably successful career putting out singles, and then albums that collect those singles and pad the remainder with forgettable filler.  Anti is the first honest-to-god cohesive album she’s ever done, and it’s exceedingly compelling to listen to her sidestep crass commercial concerns to do something artistic.  Is it perfect?  Hell no.  It’s fascinating to listen to, though, and the song quality is there – even the ballads are a little messy and raw.

#65:  NZCA/Lines – Infinite Summer

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A chill bit of lite-IDM/post-disco that is also a concept album.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dance concept album before – heady conceptual stuff is usually in the realm of overwrought rock pretentiousness, after all – but the theme works hand-in-glove with the album.  In the future, the sun has expanded to the point where there are no more seasons, only the infinite summer of the title.  Half the world is in ruins, while in the other half life still holds on.  Everyone is going to die a horrible death eventually, but for now the only thing that can be left to do is party hearty (because it’s a disco album, come on).  Party they do – in cool, smooth fashion, without fever or hysteria.

#64:  Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Written and recorded through improvisations on a tour designed specifically for the purpose, ATGCLVLSSCAP stretches and distorts the boundaries between what we conceive of as “live album” and “studio album”.  Ulver creates something here that is one and the same, and at the same time neither.  The result is an album that is moody, atmospheric, foreboding, and primal.  I said this in my review of the album earlier this year, but it bears repeating:  Forget Explosions In The Sky – this is post-rock.

#63:  Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years

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Cymbals Eat Guitars have been the also-ran of indie rock for their past three (excellent) albums, consistently being great but never achieving the name of, say, an Arcade Fire or a Titus Andronicus.  Pretty Years is their best effort yet, so look for it to be largely ignored once again, despite the adoption of some Springsteen motifs and a keen eye for appreciating the dreary parts of life.

#62:  SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages

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A textured, layered, and utterly crushing doom metal album centered on one of the best novels ever written, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  The dynamics on this record alone are worth the price of admission.

#61:  The Drones – Feelin’ Kinda Free

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A remarkably ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll album, heavy on the bass frequencies and possessed of a weird, stoned anger that belies the slacker ethos of its songwriting.  Oddly mainstream-sounding, it’s as though Cage The Elephant took research chemicals, shorted out their guitarist’s patch cord, and stopped being so goddamn complacent.

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The 100 Best Albums of 2016, Part 1: 100-81

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 Now that 2016 is well and truly over, it’s time to take stock of the best albums of that endless slog of a year.

#100: Greys – Outer Heaven

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A gloriously blown out pile of noise, akin to …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead before they lost the wordiness and the busted speakers.

#99:  Classixx – Faraway Reach

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Chrome-plated funk like it was meant to be played, all groove and white decor, clothing and furniture picked to match the drugs.

#98:  Amber Arcades – Fading Lines

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Sometimes I think that “hazy” is an overused adjective but in the case of Annelotte de Graaf it is absolutely warranted.  These are the faded Polaroids of old summer memories, set to music.  Did I ever mention she has a law degree and once worked as an assistant with the UN war crimes tribunal?  She’s so cool.

#97:  Minor Victories – Minor Victories

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Rumbling goth-inspired rock that straddles a line between clean suburban days and squalid urban nights.  Minor Victories sounds much of the time as though it comes from an alternate dimension where the Batcave gave birth to modern chillwave.

#96:  Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger

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2016 proved, at the very least, that the Boomers still had some creative force left in them.  That Paul Simon’s best album since Graceland was merely one of them shows the strength of this.  He still has that particular bouncing groove, the one that lends a sense of urgency to his marquee-light poetry.

#95: Sonny & The Sunsets – Moods Baby Moods

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Contemporary New Wave with a seriously demented bent.  Is “Dead Meat On The Beach” the weirdest track?  “Well But Strangely Hung Man”?  Either way, it’s a fractured fever dream set in the 1980s and populated with the bizarre.

#94:  Dam-Funk – DJ Kicks

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Electronic funk so party-ready you’ll find a drink in your hand two songs in.  If it reminds you of listening to a party set over the radio, there’s a reason for that.

#93:  Marissa Nadler – Strangers

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Ghostly folk by a living siren, with better production values than before and a better sense of the space that Ms. Nadler’s voice can occupy.  Also contains one of the (!) best Black Sabbath covers of the year.

#92:  Twin Peaks – Down In Heaven

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A swampy mix of T. Rex, CCR, and the Stones, an album out of time and yet completely in step with the contemporary garage scene.  Perfect for the curmudgeonly skeptic of modern music on your list.

#91:  Skepta – Konnichiwa

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Once upon a time (2002?  2003?) they were holding grime parties in Kensington Market as a sort of cutting-edge hip hop night and Dizzee Rascal was winning the Mercury Prize with jacked Playstation beats.  Now Skepta is winning the Mercury Prize with professionally thick production and having Pharrell and A$AP Nast guesting alongside old grime luminaries like Wiley and Novelist.  2016, everyone.

#90:  Kyle Craft – Dolls Of Highland

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Glam was always an English phenomenon at it’s heart, but in the year of Bowie’s death it’s heartwarming to see people taking up the torch (or the eyeliner, as it were) and transplanting it to their own personal experiences.  Kyle Craft takes it to the American South and uses it to channel the heartbreak of the dissolution of an eight-year relationship, and it’s every bit as sneering and emotionally impactful as anything Bowie, Bolan, or the boys of Mott The Hoople ever came up with in the early 1970s.

#89:  Susanna – Triangle

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22 songs in just over an hour shows both an ability to be prolific and a wisdom that leans toward brevity.  Also of note: soaring songcraft, highly textured production, and a voice like a more experimental Joni Mitchell.

#88:  Moderat – III

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German electro-pop that grew out of minimalist traditions and brought along a skeleton crew of jungle, glitch, and throbbing bass music.  Ambient, to be sure, but also fully-formed and ready to chart an interior soundtrack.

#87:  Teen Suicide – It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot

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A sprawling collection of lo-fi garage pop – 26 songs of ambient, stoned ramblings, like as though Robert Pollard broke out of the British Invasion or Pavement lost the literary pretensions and recorded in a storage room.

#86:  White Denim – Stiff

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The album with a clear lead for “worst album cover of 2016” is also a soulful, groovy little rock ‘n’ roll album from a band that has forged an identity around delivering exactly that kind of good time.

#85:  The Body + Full Of Hell – One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache

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The best summation of this collaboration between The Body and Full Of Hell is that it’s a bunch of P U R E F U C K I N G N O I S E.

#84:  Young Thug – I’m Up

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Thugger is most of what curmudgeonly old heads and rockists hate about modern hip hop – the sing-song flows, the off-the-wall style, the break away from menacing beats that nod your head for you.  There’s something simultaneously bone-headed and intellectually esoteric about the music present on I’m Up, a hard-to-nail-down quality that marks Young Thug out as an artist, rather than just another rapper.

#83:  Underworld – Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future

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A surprise, in that twenty years after Second Toughest In The Infants and “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” there is still pounding electronic music that still drives you like you’re in a sketchy dimly lit warehouse chasing glowing lights and little pills and friendly people with neon hair.

#82:  Junior Boys – Big Black Coat

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The Hamilton, Ontario electronic duo’s big black coat is, like so many n’er-do-well Canadian kids have found over the years, perfect for jacking things and smuggling them out.  This particular Big Black Coat contains a wide array of pilfered items: 70’s-era disco-soul, early German electronica, the ghost of Detroit Techno, microhouse, and late-80’s machine-funk.  The real secret behind the duo’s strength is that it’s all blended in the smoothest fashion possible, giving you the funkiest milkshake you’ve ever had.

#81:  Shearwater – Jet Plane And Oxbow

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Eclectic, bombastic, and possessed of a fully modern vitality, Shearwater claims the best parts of pop music from the last three decades to make something akin to U2, but without all the pretentiousness.

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M83 – Junk

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M83 – Junk

Released April 8th, 2016 on Mute Records

My wife and I keep Sirius XMU, the “indie” satellite channel, on in the car pretty much all the time.  One consequence of this is that, when the blogger guest DJs come on, things can get pretty random.  One day, during what might have been Brooklyn Vegan’s set but was probably Gorilla Vs Bear’s, the subject of vaporwave was brought up.  Sort of.  Whomever it was referred to what they were playing as “weather-channel-core”, as in “the sort of music that you’d hear played over the weather channel as it flips through various local and regional forecasts.”  This is pretty similar to the concept of vaporwave – where the dulcet sounds of late 80s/early 90s training video music (along with every other uncool musical movement of the era) are reconstructed into something bizarrely post-modern.  Either way, it’s taking the sound of music that was never really meant to be listened to actively and ensuring that the listener has to do so.

The genre has had some limited success, mainly online.  Macintosh Plus (or Vektroid, as she normally goes by) had a lot of people on /mu/ convinced with Floral Shoppe that vaporwave was their life.  Saint Pepsi has bubbled around alt-indie radio and Oneohtrix Point Never celebrated his signing to venerable Warp Records with R Plus Seven, a heavily vaporwave-influenced album.  Still, in a year where everything sounds like Drake (because everything on the charts has Drake on it, natch), it’s hard to imagine people grooving to adult contemporary saxophones, smooth jazz sounds, factory-preset synth voices, and those hollow, echo-laden drums that scream “cheap Eighties power ballad”.  And yet, here is Junk.

Of course, if anyone was going to “go vaporwave”, it was going to be Anthony Gonzalez.  His M83 project may have kicked off with a couple of hard-synth albums that appropriated the bombast of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness for an uncertain new age, but his sound came into its own on Saturdays=Youth, the soundtrack to the dream John Hughes movie that only ever existed in your head.  It was unabashedly influenced by the Eighties, to the point where the person inside you that desperately wants to be cool feels uncomfortable listening to it at times.  Hurry Up We’re Dreaming followed this up with a sprawling double album of synth-rock heroics, dream pop bliss, and more of that Breakfast Club soundtrack vibe.  Junk is not like that.  Junk takes Gonzalez’s love of 1987 and dives in full-force.  This is the smooth jazz-AOR-proto-diva-power-ballad-hybrid album that has been lurking inside of his head since forever.  “Go!” has one of those searing guitar solos that used to anchor pop songs (like Eddie Van Halen’s wailing on “Beat It”); “Walkway Blues” has some texture-treated sax (or synth-sax, possibly); “Moon Crystal” is pure VHS nostalgia – an advertisement for a spa, or some other feature you’d watch on an internal hotel channel.  “For The Kids” is the sappiest family movie ballad that was never released in a glut of bad straight-to-video movies, although “Atlantique Sud” comes close.  “The Wizard” adds in the thin-tape of cheap commercial grade VHS sounds, like a training video that’s been watched too many times over thirty years.  “Sunday Night 1987” closes out the album with exactly what the title promises, a smooth, nearly edgeless bit of calmed-down soulful balladry with those Casio-preset piano noises and reedy late-period Billy Joel saxophones.

Junk has all of the trappings of vaporwave except perhaps for its politics.  The artists that originally started piecing together the disparate parts that make up the genre intended to offer a satire or critique of modern consumer culture and the disturbing habit of throwing away everything that is even the slightest bit old.  It’s meant to reveal the cracks in the golden facade of capitalism by ironically remixing music that was only intended to be a backdrop to sales tools, or to cynically fill in places in art that was only ever intended to make someone along the chain some money.  Does Junk fulfill this?  Not particularly.  It seems to function instead as an homage to Gonzalez’s youth, much as his previous two albums functioned.  It uses nostalgia to make nostalgic art, rather than critique the past and future.  It’s done in such a deft and seamless way, however, that I can’t really count that apolitical status as a fault.  Instead, it’s a tribute to a time and a sound that most people would rather gloss over or ignore.  You can see that reflected in the reaction to the album; most people don’t seem to know what to make of it, thinking that there must be some hidden ironic agenda going on that they’re not in on.  The cheese is sincere, however, and celebratory.

AND THE REST…

Deakin

Sleep Cycles

04/08/2016 on My Animal Home Records

That Kickstarter Josh Dibb did initially to crowdfund this album?  He donated most of that to charity.  Kickstarter is problematic.  Sleep Cycles is a good album though, one that approximates the bare essentials of his Animal Collective day job without getting into the high-flying lysergic excesses.

Peter Wolf

A Cure For Loneliness

04/08/2016 on Concord Records

The former singer for the J. Geils Band tries to pretend that thirty years of history hasn’t happened and that he can still get away with lite-rock AOR music.  It’s always fun when you can guess exactly where each song is going to go from the minute it starts.  Did I say fun?  I mean sleep-inducing.

Ben Watt

Fever Dream

04/08/2016 on Universal Music

Like an actual fever dream, it goes in many strange directions and there’s very little to grasp onto once you wake up.

Future Of The Left

The Peace and Truce Of The Future Of The Left

04/08/2016 on Prescriptions Records

I just want an album that’s as rich, over-the-top, and powerful as Travels With Myself And Another.  Admittedly, this comes pretty close.

Teleman

Brilliant Sanity

04/08/2016 on Moshi Moshi Records

One of those indie albums that sounds an awful lot like all the other indie albums.  Except for “Dusseldorf” and “Glory Hallelujah”, though:  both of those are stellar tracks.

 

 

Parquet Courts – Human Perfomance

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Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Released April 8th, 2016 on Rough Trade Records

Parquet Courts are a lot of different things.  A little bit Modern Lovers, a little bit Guided By Voices, the odd bit of Pavement, some old-world post-punk, the poppier moments of Swell Maps – it all rides a certain smoky nonsense, something borne out of the septic days of the Velvet Underground.  I asked them recently on Reddit if they were kidnapped, locked in a room, and asked at gunpoint to choose between Pere Ubu and Swell Maps who their choice would be.  Frontman Andrew Savage responded that first, this was an odd outlet for aggression, and second that he would have to be a patriot and choose Pere Ubu.

Parquet Courts are a post-punk band, but they’re an updated iteration of that exploration of what punk rock means.  What does Wire and Swell Maps fronted by a deadpan, jittery Stephen Malkmus sound like?  It sounds like Human Performance.  The opening track, “Dust”, extends a Pink Flag era type riff while capturing a narrative out of the anonymous textures of everyday life.  The title track lives on the edge of its own churning emotions, for sure, but it kicks off with one of the most succinct descriptions of love:  “I know exactly where I was when I first saw you the way I see you now, with these eyes.”  From there Andrew Savage tries to figure out exactly where it all went wrong, with regards to his relationship with both girl and city.  Tracks like “Outside”, “Steady On My Mind”, song-of-the-year candidate “Berlin Got Blurry”, and “Keep It Even” tackle the former subject.  More interesting are the songs that wrestle with Savage’s hot-and-cold relationship with NYC:  “I Was Just Here” wonders fiercely where that Chinese restaurant got off to so quickly; “Captive Of The Sun”‘s Dylan-esque word vomit models the bustle and restlessness of the street; “One Man No City” examines the loneliness of the uncaring hordes; “Two Dead Cops” uses a real double-homicide of police officers in Bed-Stuy in 2014 to talk about the seemingly random and impersonal violence that crops up constantly in urban situations.  The loneliness of a failing relationship is thus juxtaposed against the loneliness of the impersonal big city and a constant back-and-forth connection can be established between the two.

Parquet Courts have been on an upward trajectory of, if not maturity, increased awareness of their position as “artists” and of the art that they are creating.  Light Up Gold was a mile-a-minute cross between pop punk, post-punk, and early Nineties indie rock a la Pavement and Guided By Voices.  Sunbathing Animal followed suit, but on Content Nausea they got jittery, angular, and all of those other words we used to describe post-punk inspired indie rock with in the early Oughts.  Monastic Living doubled down on that path, giving us a solid minute and a half of melody before spewing noise for the remainder of the EP.  Human Performance brings it back around to the beginning, but with a heavy dose of that dreaded word I disavowed above:  “maturity”.  The noise terrorism is kept to a judicious minimum and the tempos have lost some velocity, and in this is the structure of a brilliant album.

AND THE REST…

Frightened Rabbit

Painting Of A Panic Attack

04/08/2016 on Atlantic Records

“Get Out” is a great track and having National pedigree on production is promising, so why does this album fall so goddamn flat?

Deftones

Gore

04/08/2016 on Reprise Records

So you can’t go home again, as it turns out.  Gore kind of sounds like the past glories of Deftones, if you take out things like edge and excitement.

PJ Harvey

The Hope Six Demolition Project

04/15/2016 on Vagrant Records

While not being as wall-to-wall brilliant as 2011’s Let England Shake, the veteran’s newest album manages to bring her politics local again, while getting off a few good shots.  “The Wheel” happens to be a particular classic, and “The Ministry Of Defence” brings it all back around to Rid Of Me.

Mike & The Melvins

Three Men And A Baby

04/01/2016 on Sub Pop Records

The gods of Sabbath riffery were supposed to do this album with underground Mike Kunka 16 years ago, and it shows.  Like most Melvins collab albums, it’s only as essential as your sense of completion requires it to be.

Tacocat

Lost Time

04/01/2016 on Hardly Art Records

Breezy, fun pop-punk from the Seattle heirs of the riot grrrl movement.  Doesn’t differ all that much from their debut, but then again it probably doesn’t need to.

Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

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Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Released April 1st, 2016 on Yellow K Records

The dream of the Nineties is alive in more places than just Portland these days.  With every second kid out there wearing a flannel overshirt and a fitted cap, and every second band trading in post-Dinosaur Jr. guitar crunch, one can be forgiven for thinking that they were reliving their memories of 1992.  Unlike their fuzz-pedal worshipping contemporaries – Bully, Speedy Ortiz, Joanna Gruesome, the Crutchfield sisters – Japanese Breakfast takes their cues from a  more esoteric place.  Psychopomp is a little bit Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine, with the airy charm of vintage Asobi Seksu and a bit of the more out-there moments of Guided By Voices.  “In Heaven” is a shoegaze paradise; “Everybody Wants To Love You” is a chug-along lo-fi anthem.  “Jane Cum” and “Triple 7” are the highlights, soaring numbers that focus their attention on the impassioned vocals of Michelle Zauner.

Zauner is the real show here.  The songs on Psychopomp are reworks of some lo-fi stuff she worked on when her old band, Little Big Leagues, was still active.  She and collaborator Ned Eisenberg rebuilt them into something both strongly reminiscent of the shoegaze/dream-pop days of the late Eighties and early Nineties while retaining a vibrant mysteriousness that sets the music apart from the merely derivative.  The fact that it breezes by in a scant 25 minutes only adds to it; unlike a lot of her contemporaries, Zauner knows when to call it a day.  The quick runtime means that each of the songs on Pyschopomp stands out on its own as a strong contender, and lets the strengths of each song shine through, something that might have been lost in a much longer work.  It’s wistful and heavy, pure indie pop at its finest.

And The Rest…

RJD2

Dame Fortune

03/25/2016 on R.J.’s Electrical Connections Records

Self-produced hip hop albums can get quite self-indulgent, and Dame Fortune is no exception.  The producer’s long-standing talent is there, but only in fits and doses.

The Thermals

We Disappear

03/25/2016 on Saddle Creek Records

The Portland supergroup’s strongest album in quite some time.  It’s not The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but then again what is?  Solid, fist-in-the-air power-pop that often edges into punk.

The Range

Potential

03/25/2016 on Domino Records

A deeply human record, all the more so for its electronic starting point.  Brooklyn producer James Hinton used samples gleaned from YouTube for the vocals on this record, which is something I do that I didn’t realize was actually legitimate.  Off to the DAW I go.

Open Mike Eagle

Hella Personal Film Festival

03/25/2016 on Mello Music Group Records

Like his fellow Milo on the (now-defunct) Hellfyre Club label, Open Mike Eagle twists words, scratches out lyrics, courts controversy, and lives in the interstitial zone of the black middle class in America.  Like Milo, he lets his desire for alt-hip hop vibes and out-there production overshadow the songs at times.

Bob Mould

Patch The Sky

03/25/2016 on Merge Records

Another record from a man who seemingly just can’t stop recording them, former Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould may not be Robert Pollard but he’s close.  Patch The Sky is one of the best albums he’s ever released, a stripped-down collection of power-guitar songs that bring to mind what his legendary punk band might have sounded like had they allowed it to age gracefully.

White Denim

Stiff

03/25/2016 on Downtown Records

Solid white-boy funk and soul, Stiff is a breezy, poppy album that sounds like it’s the 1970s that have come around again, and not the 1990s.  It’s the sort of album that invites you to have a great ol’ time, and then helps you get there.

Plague Vendor

Bloodsweat

03/25/2016 on Epitaph Records

An abrasive, jittery album that is secretly formed of big hooks and a lot of punk rock swagger.  Like a serrated switchblade, it’ll stab right into your gut and then stay there.

Winter Roundup 2016

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Well, after being sick for most of the last two months I find myself behind on a lot of listening.  So here we’ll wrap up all of the albums I’ve listened to in the last two weeks and hopefully we can move on from there.  There may be a second part, there’s still a long list to go after this.

Shearwater – Jet Plane And Oxbow

(01/22/2016 on Sub Pop Records)

Krautrock rhythms and big guitars let the band’s ninth album transcend where they’ve been and point to big promises as to where they’re going.

Rihanna – Anti

(01/28/2016 on Roc Nation)

It’s always fun to watch an established pop artist push herself forwards, even if it’s just in increments.  Plus, making Drake put in work is always a good idea.

Black Tusk – Pillars Of Ash

(01/29/2016 on Relapse Records)

THERE’S NOTHING HERE THAT HASN’T BEEN DONE!  IT’S JUST HARDCORE WITH SOME SLUDGE AND DEATH FLOURISHES!  PLUS THE VOCALIST KEEPS SHOUTING! SHOUTING! SHOUTING! I SWEAR BIOHAZARD WAS MORE ENTERTAINING! SHOUTING!

Kevin Gates – Islah

(01/29/2016 on Atlantic Records)

Bizarrely good, like a steak sandwich prepared in the back of a grimy diner whose walls are dripping with sludge.  Kevin Gates is a weird guy, a fan-kicker, has lame gun tats on his hands, and doesn’t believe in vaccinations.  Still, Islah overflows with hypnotic flow and oddly great hooks – “Hard For” being the most out-there of them all.

Milk Teeth – Vile Child

(01/29/2016 on Hopeless Records)

Derivative as hell, it still works when the female vocalist comes on and the band approximates the sort of 90s hard rock that Speedy Ortiz has been repackaging.  Then when the guy comes on and tries his hand at Husker Du it all falls apart.

Dream Theater –  The Astonishing

(01/29/2016 on Roadrunner Records)

There are days that I swear the word “pretentious” was invented to describe Dream Theater.

Cross Record – Wabi Sabi

(01/29/2016 on Ba Da Bing Records)

Art rock that walks a fine line between gorgeously dreamy and blackly despairing, Wabi Sabi is a record that soaks up dream pop and New Wave influences in equal measure.

Bloc Party – Hymns

(01/29/2016 on BMG Records)

So many of the most hyped-up bands from the early 00s became the poster children for the concept of diminishing returns.  Interpol, The Killers, The Strokes, and of course Bloc Party.  Hymns is the nadir of Bloc Party’s career, an utterly boring collection of electro-washed power balladry that requires serious endurance to make it through.

Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning

(02/05/2016 on Fire Records)

A live re-recording of older songs, No More Lamps In The Morning brings out the sheer power in Foster’s songs.  The first comparison will always be Joni Mitchell, but like Joanna Newsom there’s something deeper and older at work here, something that crackles with early radio signals and speaks of cleaner air and bygone days.

Junior Boys – Big Black Coat

(02/05/2016 on City Slang Records)

Sleek electronic songs that are more subdued than some of their contemporaries but are also more subtle, and more affecting.

Nonkeen – The Gamble

(02/05/2016 on R & S Records)

Complicated and wild, bouncing from solemn, rainy-day contemplation to the sort of drum-led freakouts that made Starless And Bible Black such a treat.  Call it electro-prog if you have to call it something.

Pinegrove – Cardinal

(02/12/2016 on Run For Cover Records)

New Jersey has grown its own peculiar brand of punk rock over the past decade, one where howling black-hearted hardcore stands shoulder to shoulder with reedy folk-country Americana.  Pinegrove is a key example of this sound, combining youthful energy and a folk-punk yelp with a more studied and mature rootsy depth.

Radiation City – Synesthetica

(02/12/2016 on Polyvinyl Records)

Reverb-laden dream pop with Eighties influences that doesn’t manage to do, well, much of anything.

Ra Ra Riot – Need Your Light

(02/19/2016 on Barsuk Records)

After a regrettable detour into electronic music, Ra Ra Riot has returned with the sort of brightly coloured, anthemic pop rock they were best known for.  It all goes downhill from the first song but “Water” is such a great song that you’d hardly notice.

Brood Ma – Daze

(02/19/2016 on Tri Angle Records)

An electronic record that is rooted more in disquieting industrial-tinged dread-making than it is in creating dancefloor bliss.  An amalgamation of dark vision and darker sounds.

Wolfmother – Victorious

(02/19/2016 on Universal Records)

When they stick to the rote Sabbath worship my fist can at least pump into the air.  When they delve into messy balladry that smells of cheese and bad Uriah Heep, however, I’m left feeling limp.

Matmos – Ultimate Care II

(02/19/2016 on Thrill Jockey Records)

If you’ve ever wanted to hear a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine used as the main instrument on an album, look no further.

Savages – Adore Life

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Savages – Adore Life

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Matador Records

London’s Savages came roaring out of the underground in 2013 with Silence Yourself, a stunning debut rife with jagged edges and bearing the tattered, smoke-stained marks of a life of listening to Siouxsie & The Banshees, Joy Division, and Public Image Ltd.  On the strength of singles like “Husbands” and “She Will”, the band staked their claim to being the most exciting post-punk band in years.  Their follow-up sophomore album smooths out some of the jagged early-Eighties spikes but turns up the volume even louder, bringing us closer to the days of Seattle grunge more than the brutal recession of England during Thatcher’s first term.  The guitar riffs are brought to the forefront, cutting through the noise on tracks like “The Answer”, “Evil”, and the late cavalry charge of “T.I.W.Y.G.”.  Jenny Beth’s songwriting takes a different tactic as well.  Silence Yourself was a duality, a balance between pain and love; often it was difficult to decide whether the basis for her churning lyrics were domestic abuse or rough consensual sex.  Adore Life delves into her thoughts on love itself.  The answer of “The Answer” is love; she knows that if she and her unnamed object of affection were to sleep together they would remain friends, but she has to confess her love for him regardless.  “Sad Person” is her descriptor for herself, describing herself as “never satisfied” and wondering why she hesitates to give in and just love (while simultaneously describing love as “a disease” and comparing it to the rush and subsequent addiction of cocaine).  “Adore” brings about the central conceit of the record:  Is it human to adore life?  Just in case she dies tomorrow, she has to say that she does, but is it normal?  Is it right?  As “Sad Person” alludes, she can’t stop her overactive brain from chasing this question around and around her head when she’s just trying to get some rest.  I know the feeling, all too well.

Adore Life is a fine follow-up to Silence Yourself, although the middle of the record tends to fuse itself together into a morass of mid-tempo throbbing guitar lines peppered with Beth’s obsessive yelp.  There are as many utterly urgent cuts here as there were there, however, and they’ll have you questioning your own assumptions on the nature of relationships for the rest of the year.