The Best Albums of 2016

After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.

  1. ★ – David Bowie

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David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.

Blackstar

Lazarus

I Can’t Give Everything Away

2. Lemonade – Beyonce

Beyonce_-_Lemonade_(Official_Album_Cover)

Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.

Formation

Sorry

Hold Up

3. Hopelessness – Anohni

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Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.

Drone Bomb Me

Hopelessness

I Don’t Love You Anymore

4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

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This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.

Jesus Alone

Magneto

I Need You

5. This Is Acting – Sia

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Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.

Alive

Cheap Thrills

The Greatest

6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John

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Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.

Looking Up

Wonderful Crazy Night

Blue Wonderful

7. Joanne – Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.

Perfect Illusion

Million Reasons

A-Yo  

8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon

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Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.

Wristband

Cool Papa Bell

 The Werewolf

9. Super – Pet Shop Boys

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How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.

The Pop Kids

Say It to Me

The Dictator Decides

10. AIM – M.I.A.

aim

M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.

Borders

Bird Song

Freedun

 

Panic in Detroit

David Bowie imagines the apocalyptic breakdown of civil society. In Detroit of all places, because of course Detroit. It was 1973, and the point of reference was probably the 1967 Detroit riots, as well as the general sense of unrest in the United States at the time. Today Detroit has become as close as any place in America to an actual post-industrial wasteland. Oh, and urban America has been engulfed in rioting and violent unrest, repeating the exact same pattern as before, with the same players in the same roles. All of which makes this an eerily prescient portrait of normal life descending into chaos overnight. The more things change, eh? What was relevant in 1973 is if anything more relevant today. Why does it seem that every dystopian speculation eventually winds up coming true? Is it because people are fundamentally stupid and short-sighted and inevitably bound to repeat the same calamitous mistakes as soon as the previous ones begin to fade from living memory?

Outside

Perhaps I’m one of a few, but the opening notes of David Bowie’s Outside give me the shivers. Hindsight offers new perspectives on a great artist’s work, and in coming years, Outside is going to be held up as one of Bowie’s most ambitious achievements. For one thing, it’s a culmination and fulfillment of the experimental techniques he and Brian Eno pioneered in the Berlin years. Whereas those acclaimed records were sonically daring, emotionally fractured, and only loosely thematic, Outside is fully conceptualized. Bowie and Eno returned to the use of flash cards, oblique strategies, characterization, in – studio improvisation, multi-media, cut and paste narrative and other techniques they’d originally developed in the 70’s. This time they tied it together in a self-contained narrative of near-future dystopia, with commentary on the value of art and human life in a deteriorated, image and media saturated society not far off from our own. Bowie initially talked of Outside as the first in a series of albums documenting the final five years of the millennium, which he admitted was ‘over-ambitious’ but also ‘a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’ Like many of Bowie’s overly ambitious concepts, it was never followed through. However, the Outside sessions were meant to yield enough material for a trilogy, and that material is presumably just waiting for somebody to come dust it off. Perhaps, sometime soon, Brian Eno may take it upon himself to finish the project. (If he doesn’t, sooner or later someone else will.) Although it’s a bitter disappointment that David Bowie, with his famously short attention span, lost interest in this particular project, for my money, his entire career was a once-in-a-lifetime series of overly-ambitious albums documenting the end of the millennium in a dystopian science fiction near-reality parallel to our own.

Oh! You Pretty Things

One of the most regrettable things in David Bowie’s career is that he didn’t make any videos during his Man Who Sold the World/Hunky Dory phase. The resplendent locks and man’s dresses were well photographed, but apparently he didn’t perform much that year. When he did get around to making videos for the albums he was already in full Ziggy regalia. I doubt that Bowie himself regretted those decisions very much, but it’s always pained me as a fan. It was a rare lapse on his part, especially since he was just coming into his own with the whole visual iconography thing. Still, be grateful for what you do get. The pretty things are going to hell, he would inform us in 1999, taking a decidedly different point of view.

Best of 2015 II

Part Two. The Songs.

A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.

1. ★ – David Bowie

David_Bowie_-_Blackstar_song_cover_art

Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.

 

2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King

Elle_King_-_Ex's_&_Oh's

The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.

 

3. On the Regular – Shamir

Shamir_-_On_the_Regular_cover

This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.

 

4. New Americana – Halsey

Halsey_-_New_Americana_(Single_Cover)

Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.

 

5. Tongues – Joywave

Joywave_-_How_Do_You_Feel_Now-_cover_art

This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.

 

6. The Party Line  – Belle & Sebastian

480px-GirlsInPeacetimeWantToDanceBelleandSebastian2015

Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.

 

7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie

Black_Sun_cover

Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.

 

8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit

Passion_Pit_Lifted_Up_1985

Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.

 

9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches

CHVRCHES_-_Every_Open_Eye

This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.

 

10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS

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Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.

 

11. Paranoia – Max Frost

intoxication

Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.

 

12. Painted – MS MR

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Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.

 

13. American Oxygen – Rihanna

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Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.

 

14. Blank Space – Father John Misty

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Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.

No Control

Now, obviously, it’s grossly unfair to ask someone to pick their top five David Bowie albums and stick with it, but if I absolutely must had to do it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Outside would definitely be on that list. It’s a thorny and impenetrable concept album, the concept of which I used to think I understood, but now I feel vague about it. (Must revisit liner notes.) It still gets points for atmospheric depravity, and being a great reflector for teenage angst. Leave it to me to want to hang out in the very darkest corner of the pantheon. But I think it’s monumental.