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 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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