Saturday, January 28, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2016

So it took me awhile, but I have finally written up my favorite albums of The Worst Year. I don't have a lot to say introduction wise, I kind of did that on my song's list (found HERE.) But, needless to say, this was a very rough year, and I'm thankful for all the musics, both sad and sadder (some were happy).

First off, some miscellaneousness...


1. Radiohead - Los Angeles, Shrine Auditorium
2. Sigur Ros - Salt Lake City, Kingsbury Hall
3. Deftones - Salt Lake City, The Great Saltair
4. Tool - Salt Lake City, Maverick Center
5. Smashing Pumpkins - Salt Lake City, Kingsbury Hall
6. Nothing - Salt Lake City, Kilby Court
7. Peter Bjorn and John - Ogden, Ogden Amphitheater
8. Washed Out - Ogden, Ogden Amphitheater

Kubo and the Two Strings \\ Dario Marianelli

Runner Up
Arrival \\ Johann Johannson

Sing Street

Runner Up
La La Land

Cheetah EP \\ Aphex Twin

Runner Up
Future Present Past \\ The Strokes

Magik*Magik \\ Magik*Magik

Melodic and sad. Kind of a shoe-in theme for this year
Freetown Sound \\ Blood Orange

Preachy records can be a hard sell. But this one feels more sincere than many of the higher profile records with similar themes. And the grooves are more memorable.

Tidals \\ Spotlight

They opened for Deftones, and I said "Alright, sir." One of the better opening acts I've seen for awhile.

Is the Is Are \\ DIIV

Melancholy dream pop. I think it's the bass player that gets me.

Who Really Cares \\ TV Girl

Addictive dance songs about sex that aren't subtle about the dancing or the sex. And they kinda sound like The Go! Team. I know, right?

If You See Me, Say Yes \\ Flock of Dimes

Wye Oak singer has a side project? Alright, ma'am.

Der Klang der Offenbarung des Gottlichen \\ Kjarten Sveinsson

Former Sigur Ros multi-instrumentalist has an opera album? Alright, sir.

Blackstar \\ David Bowie

I wanted to like this one more than I did, because it's objectively one of the most powerfully brave musical statements of all time.

We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your service \\ A Tribe Called Quest

The greatest rap group of all time returns with Phife's swan song. The best album (of the many) to tackle the racial tension in our country this last year.
Sirens \\ Nicolas Jaar

Simultaneously some of the best ambient and best dance music of the year. And mini-Jaar speaking Espanish is a bonus treat that adds a surprising level of intimacy.

Puberty 2 \\ Mitski

Mitski's more subdued and personal approach to the unease of being a minority in America may not be as powerful or as urgent as others this year, but it might be more relateable. And certainly more enjoyable.

99.9% \\ Kaytranada

The hip-hop version of Disclosure? Alright, sir.

Painting With \\ Animal Collective

Not as impressive as albums past, but these guys still churn out audio gold better than almost anyone working today. Headphones were invented for albums like this.

Hum \\ Eerie Wanda

A surprise dream pop debut with and old school 60's flair. Beautifully calm and hypnotizing.

With Love, from Laniakea \\ Mesita

A deliciously depressing one-man show of rock-tronica that somehow sounds like the good parts of the late 90's. This guy is an unknown now, but I anxiously await his career from here.

Running Out of Love \\ The Radio Dept.

The Swedes are finally back! This album finds them looking up from their shoes for a bit of political synth-pop. And wouldn't ya know? It works. Still dreamtastic as always.

The Bride \\ Bat For Lashes

Natasha Khan's concept album about a bride who loses her groom to a car crash on their wedding day manages to find a surprising amount of honest emotion packed within its melodramatic fiction. I think it rained every time I listened to it. Felt like it anyway.

Nothing's Real \\ Shura

After slowly sharing half of the album's tunes over the last few years (two of which made my lists in '14 and '15), Shura finally graced us with a full length debut pop bliss. And it didn't disappoint. Admittedly, the impact was muffled slightly having already heard much of its best moments. But the album was definitely worth the wait. Rookie of the year!

False Readings On \\ Eluvium

Matthew Cooper is the Grandmaster of Ambience. The Sultan of Soothe. And this lush collection of godly sighs couldn't have come at a better time. My soul needed this in 2016. So did yours, trust me.

Hardwired...To Self-Destruct \\ Metallica

I am ecstatic that this album was as good as it was. The good ole' boys must've known they were tapping into the veins of yesterdecade, because they thought it was a good idea to throw out a double album. Well, they probably could've shaved it to one and had themselves a collection of perfection. Nonetheless, the first disc alone is enough to merit this spot, just shy of my Top 10.

10. Jessica Rabbit \\ Sleigh Bells

I was worried about these two. I thought maybe they'd burned through their shtick with 2013 album Bitter Rivals. But 2016 found them roaring back to life and doing what they do best... and then some. Alexis Krauss has never sounded better as she wails over Derek Miller's reliably vicious riffs. They actually sound a little angry, which suits them (and me). There's an element of fighting to stay alive, almost as though they sensed their number might be up. It's a welcome urgency that I related to quite a bit this year.  

9. Tired of Tomorrow \\ Nothing

These guys made the album Yuck should have made this year: a near flawless execution of 90's soaked shoegaze euphoria with a bit of heat. Tired of Tomorrow is draped in the exact kind of exhausted sadness you'd expect from such a melancholy title. Even when it's rockin' (and, boy, does it rock), frontman Domenic Palermo never brings his voice beyond a defeated sigh with lines like "I'm living in a dream world \\ Life's a nightmare \\ and I don't ever want to wake." It's remarkably consistent yet refreshingly varied for the genre - lush ballads join crushing face-melters and combine for a beautifully dark but energetic experience.

8. Heads Up \\ Warpaint

Warpaint has one of my favorite rhythm sections in music these days. Jenny Lee Lindberg's bass kills me. She also happens to be the sister of actress Shannon Sossamon and wife of one of my favorite video artists, Chris Cunningham (of Aphex Twin and Bjork fame), but it's her bass that does it. However, it took me awhile to warm up to this record. On a personal level, Heads Up exists somewhere in that in-between stage of grief. After the initial shock, but before the trauma of it all truly hits you. It feels emotionally numb, almost like audio avoidance behavior - covered by impeccable groove and thick atmosphere. But it is there, just under the surface. It's a hidden pain that somehow feels like both sides of a sad story. Even on "New Song," sonically and thematically the most upbeat track, there's a sense of longing. Almost like slowly dancing the night away with your friends is all you can manage for the time being.

7. Ouroboros \\ Ray LaMontagne

In a year that seemed dominated by a craving for the sad and the sap, Ouroboros remained one of the bright stars in a dark year. One of the few albums that truly lifted my spirits and calmed my soul. It helps that Ray possesses one of my all-time favorite voices. How can I not perk up a bit by the sound of that soulful croon? With the help of My Morning Jacket mastermind Jim James, Ray concocts quite the Led Zeppelin tribute on this record. Plenty of psychedelia, and plenty of bluesy riffage, but a good helping of quiet intimacy to go with it. I've always been a fan of LaMontagne's, but that fandom was usually anchored in his voice more than the songwriting. Having said that, Ouroboros may be his finest collection of songs. It's the first album of his to truly deliver from start to finish with such astounding results.

6. 22, A Million \\ Bon Iver

22, A Million is like an old teddy bear that has been worn with age and use - rough on the surface, but there's something charming and warm underneath the grime. And it's this juxtaposition that gives it its distinctive personality. The record is also somehow very brave yet completely expected. Justin Vernon isn't doing anything particularly new here - all the audio tricks are things artists like Radiohead, James Blake, Bjork and Vernon himself  have dabbled in for years. But fused with his backwood sensibilities, it's a beautifully welcome sensory experience and one of the most sonically pleasing albums all year. He's managed to marry the intimacy of his first album with the grandiosity of his second. And sure, Vernon still seems like his picture would sit prominently next to the dictionary definition of "pretentious." But he also comes across as being ridiculously sincere. And it's because of that sincerity that I can draw very real emotion out of his cryptically nonsensical lyrics and love the hell out of every damn saxophone on this album. Of which there are many. And so, I am a fan once again.

5. A Mineral Love \\ Bibio

Well, Bibio has consistently managed to reach my top ten with every official album he's released since 2009's remarkable Ambivalence Avenue. I think it's safe to say Stephen Wilkinson is one of my favorites at this point. This was a particularly light and airy release, and like Ouroboros, one of the few albums to truly lighten my spirits this year. There are occasional hints of melancholy within his poetic imagery, but overall there's a joyful and welcome old-school bounce to his audio collage, as if the sad memories are in the past.

The most noticeable deviation this time around, is the absence of any glitch heavy electronic tracks. Instead we get organic old school numbers like the funky "Town and Country." It used to be that the skittering electronica pieces were the highlights of his albums, but A Mineral Love picks up where 2014's dreamy Silver Wilkinson left off and further opens up for a more organic sound and lyrical approach. "The way your Polaroid appears \\ She wrote a song about it yesterday," he softly sings on the oh-so-lovely "Raxeira." It's these moments that keep Bibio in my top ten, right where he belongs.

4. Atomic \\ Mogwai

The record was originally conceived as a score to the BBC documentary called Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, which they reworked to release as an album, and recently I watched Mogwai perform it live, in-sync with the film itself. I purposely waited to have that experience before I put my thoughts of this album to words. The film was moving - terrifying and amazing at the same time. And accentuating the terror and amazement were Mogwai. It was one of the more unique concert experiences I've had, and confirmation that this is one of the band's best moments, "soundtrack" or no. For my money, it is the best Mogwai work since 2003's classic Happy Songs for Happy People

Appropriately, the album scales both macro and micro with moments like the monstrous "Bitterness Centrifuge" and the delicate "Are You A Dancer?" Not only is my perception of it's intended emotion significantly augmented since seeing it live, but this was a record that perfectly matched the destructive chaos of emotion I experienced in 2016. Being an instrumental album, I was able to mold it to my moods (which also happened to scale the extremes of macro and micro), and that's something I needed. Sometimes words just won't do, and it takes a certain kind of Scottish post-rock to soundtrack the inner splitting of atoms, whether literally or metaphorically.

3. The Colour In Anything \\ James Blake

James Blake typically works in a collage of sound and thought. Pieces of emotion chopped up and sampled, punctuating rather than explaining. Across 17 tracks and 76 minutes of futuristic rhythm and blues, The Colour In Anything manages to touch on nearly every emotion of the devastation of true heartbreak. Certainly, my heartbreak. But not just mine. There are two sides to every sad story, and as I let this album sink in, I felt the emotions of both. This isn't a "woe is me" cry, it's a "woe is us." "But giving up is hard to do," he sings. I found so many of the spliced declarations of this record drawing eerily close to my situation, at times more so than any record this year.

Most recently, a moment in standout track "Modern Soul" hit me particularly hard as I heard its meaning encapsulate the record as a whole. He opens the track with the line "I know crossroads when I see them," and repeats the refrain "I want it to be over, I want it to be over" throughout. It's a cry for respite - for relief from the pain of waking up and no longer seeing "the colour in anything," and the pain of losing your place ("Where is my beautiful life? \\  I don't live here anymore"). From the pain of uncertainty ("I hope I'm right when I'm speaking my mind"), and the pain of realizing that the person you used to share the world with is "sadly no longer her." Blake ends the album with a defeated sigh: "All those songs that came before \\ They were once awaiting \\ Music can't be everything." And so ends a truly magnificent collection of musical devastation. I needed this album.

2. Gore \\ Deftones

"There's a new strange \\ godless demon awake inside me..." begins the eighth studio album by tenacious veterans Deftones. It's a simple phrase that announces the theme of what's to follow in their dream-metal opus. Gore is the other side of heartbreak: terror, exhaustion, rage, escape, rebirth. But beyond that, it's the sound of unleashing a primal will to survive in the face of certain destruction. Basically, it's the sound of turning Super Saiyan. It was this explosive euphoria that set it apart from virtually every other album I listened to this year. There is a sadness to it, for sure, expressed with an evocative gothic flair that comes natural to Chino Moreno. But it doesn't let itself stay there. It refuses to be held down.

I was surprised that this album ended up being the "positive" one. More than any other Deftones record to date, it finds beauty in the chaos, a trait mirrored in it's stunning cover art. Chino's lyrics represented my experiences as closely as anything this year, but in a way that inspired a burning perseverance I didn't get from any other artist. Survival is sometimes violent and messy, but Gore revels in the explosive rebirth, like a phoenix from the ashes. Or maybe a flamingo.

1. A Moon Shaped Pool \\ Radiohead

Yes, I have a bear sticker on my car. But for the record, this is the first time a Radiohead album has topped my end of year list since 2003's Hail to the Thief. So chew on that a bit before you roll your eyes at this seeming inevitability.

Grammatically, the album title seems to refer to a pool shaped by the moon, not a pool shaped like the moon. When I first listened to A Moon Shaped Pool, it was raining. I was in a car and the windshield looked like the cover. It was Mother's Day, and I was still married. I had no idea just how important this album would be to me, but - like a moon shaping a pool - I could feel its gravity. I knew it was constructed amidst loss; producer and "sixth member" Nigel Godrich had lost his father, and Thom Yorke had dissolved his nearly 25 year relationship with the mother of his children. Those heavy emotions, combined with the band's special brand of prophetic paranoia, are all present. But it was saturated with another emotion - exhaustion. For the first time, Radiohead sound almost...old. And that's not a slight, it's just an observation. There's not a whole lot of experimenting going on as they've essentially taken the last three tracks of The King Of Limbs and built an album off them. It's simply the best band in the world being the best band in the world. The truth is, they are getting old. They've spent a lot of years being paranoid androids (besides U2 they have the longest-tenured original lineup in popular music), and this album has the faint feeling of throwing in the towel to the world in a sad-but-powerful way. I couldn't help but think that if this ended up being the band's swan song (knock on wood), it would somehow feel appropriate.

As the horror of this year rolled on, I found myself astounded at the fact that my favorite band had seemingly made an album just for me. As Thom bared his heart, it was as though he was baring mine as well. I was also exhausted and heartbroken. I was also throwing in the towel. The world around me was going to shit, and Radiohead had soundtracked it. "You really messed things up," "and it's too late, the damage is done." "This is a low-flying panic attack" "and there's nowhere to hide." Gore may have been the sound of rising from the ashes, but A Moon Shaped Pool was the sound of seeing the end, closing my eyes, and just letting it happen. "As my world comes crashing down, I'll be dancing. Deaf, dumb, and blind." The ying and yang of these two albums was crucial to me. In fact, there were times I thought maybe Gore's positivity deserved the top spot. But, though I am in the process of rising, the damage was done. And when I remember the worst year of my life, I will forever connect it to this album, for better and worse. I can admit it's not my favorite album of theirs. But it may be the most important one they've ever given me.

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