Space Between

The last few years of the decade were dominated by Sia’s power pop. Sia Furler was a hired-gun songwriter who decided to stop letting vocalists like Rihanna and Beyonce have her best material, and ended up becoming a huge pop star herself. She dealt with the handicap of being over 40 by performing with her face covered. The paper-bag gimmick may seem extreme, or unnecessary, but it paid off, in part because it was new, and also because it put the focus back where it needed to be, on the singing. Sia has bigger lungs than just about anyone else out there. She can belt it out to the back rows of a football stadium and still make it sound like she’s crying in her bathroom. Being a generation older than most of her clients puts Sia ahead in at least one regard; she actually has something to write about, like a lifetime of ups and downs, failures, regrets, heartbreaks and breakthroughs, aka a lifetime of life lived that a girl of 20-something just doesn’t have to fall back on.

Reaper

There are a lot of things to admire about Sia; her powerhouse voice, her artsy music videos, her clever response to the sex- and scandal- hungry celebrity culture that cannibalizes female artists. There are also things about her that may annoy you. For instance her tendency, as a professional songwriter, to engineer every tune for maximum back-row-of-the-stadium bombastic effect. Writing smash hits is her job. The result is that she fills her records with wannabe smashes that never quite get there. Nuance ain’t her bag. Then there’s her relentless positivity. Every song doesn’t have to be the triumphant anthem that scores the sports montage in an underdog movie, Sia. Not that she’s never written about anything dark; Chandelier, her biggest hit, is about her own alcoholism. It’s just that she makes everything sound like, well, the triumphant anthem that scores the sports montage in an underdog movie. This track was originally written for Rihanna, and you can see why she turned it down. Ri-Ri has a healthy sense of nuance, for all of her glamour, and she tends to steer away from the overly uplifting or sentimental. Uplift should be earned, not hammered home. On the other hand, there’s a place in every record library for an album full of nothing but aggressively fist-pumping pop anthems, and it should probably be This Is Acting.

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

blackstar_front_cover

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

hopelessness_front_cover

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

skeleton_tree_album

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

Thisisacting_albumcover

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

Elton-John-Wonderful-Crazy-Night

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

lady_gaga_-_joanne_official_album_cover

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

stranger_to_stranger_cover

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

pet_shop_boys_-_super

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

 

One Million Bullets

Like the rest of the world, I’ve recently discovered Sia Furler. Hers is an unusual success story. She has zoomed in, seemingly out of nowhere, and occupied the niche where pure pop lies down with the avant-garde, that sweet spot where weirdness has monumental mass appeal. (Lady Gaga lives there too.) But if it seems that Sia came out of nowhere, in fact, she’s been dominating the pop stratosphere for years. She’s written and sung on some of the biggest hits of the decade; she wrote Rihanna’s Diamonds, and she’s the one who is Titanium. The fact that she wears crazy wigs in public and uses a precocious teenage proxy in her videos and live performances may have less to do with highbrow big ideas and more a practical minded means of navigating the image crazed media world as a woman of 40. Not that those things are mutually exclusive. Sia’s image is a calculated reaction to an industry that prizes nubile sexuality above all else. She has the artistic goods to be a pop icon – her voice is amazing and she knows how to write songs that sell – but no one becomes a pop icon at 40, especially not if they’re a woman who was never a Victoria’s Secret Angel to begin with. Sia has become a pop icon overnight, after years of semi-anonymous success, partly because she’s got an unmatched hand for pop music, and partly because she’s given a firm fuck you to the cult of beauty and youth and replaced it with something more interesting.