26 February 2017

Well, La-di-da!

Over the nearly decade-long history of this blog, most of the predictions I made about future posts failed to come true. (Note the evasive use of the passive voice.) So perhaps it’s only fitting that January’s Top 10 music post, which I declared would likely be the last post on Pop Tones has now turned out not to be the final post after all. This post, however, will indeed be the last one. This prediction will come true because all that is required is inaction, which happens to be my natural state.

My annual Oscars/Top 10 movies post has been a tradition on this blog since its inception—or more accurately, two traditions, both predating the existence of Pop Tones, that merged into a single annual post after I moved away from New York and lost access to press screenings, effectively making it impossible to compile a reasonable Top 10 list by the end of December. I plan to continue writing these posts on my new blog, but this post seemed like an inappropriate beginning for a new project. The perfect way to kick off the new blog will be with a discussion of Silence, a novel by Shusaku Endo and now a film by Martin Scorsese that will play a bit part in this post, thus providing a bridge from the old to the new. The reasons for this will become clear in time.

But for now we should move on to the business at hand. The recent history of the Oscars has revealed a couple trends: the quality of the Best Picture nominees has improved (once again, there’s nothing I hate in this year's field of nine), and the awards have been distributed more widely. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, won only two Oscars, and no film this decade has won more than six. But if you’re nostalgic for the days when some mediocre film would arbitrarily swoop in and sweep the awards, tonight is your lucky night. Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an aspiring actress and jazz musician, appears poised to win the most Oscars since at least Slumdog Millionaire, which took home eight awards for 2008, and possibly even The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won a record-tying 11 Oscars for 2003, taking every award for which it was nominated. La La Land’s 14 nominations (including two in the Best Song category) tied All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Those films won six and 11 awards, respectively, including Best Picture in both cases.

I’m hardly the first to note that La La Land feels like a dissonant Best Picture choice for the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Its total lack of political relevance seems almost quaint, and its upbeat tone could hardly be less appropriate for the angry, depressing era we're living through. The movie is allegedly set in the present, but you’d only know that by its implicit assumption that going to jazz clubs and watching old movies in theaters are hopelessly passé activities. Indeed, for about an hour or so, I thought La La Land might develop into a self-aware argument for the continued vitality of aging artistic forms in the 21st century, but instead it turns into a movie about…uh, the importance of following your dreams, or something. La La Land will be the fourth Best Picture winner in the past six years to center on show business, and it’s easy to see why AMPAS voters have embraced it. More troubling to me has been the unwillingness of many film critics to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in the film. The script feels like a skeletal early draft that should have been sent back for some fleshing out. In addition to the unconvincing contemporary setting, the film has no meaningful supporting characters. Two of the next three actors in the billing order after Gosling and Stone play characters known as “Famous Actress” and “Coffee Spiller.” Rosemarie DeWitt shows up early on as the Gosling character’s sister and is hardly seen for the rest of the movie, while John Legend’s bandleader is little more than an ambulatory plot device. The whole thing hinges on the charm of its two leads, which is almost enough to carry it. Still, La La Land is by no means a bad film, and Chazelle deserves credit for attempting something more ambitious than the usual Oscar bait, even if the execution wasn’t entirely successful. It should go down as an average Best Picture winner, a tick below Spotlight and a tick above 2014’s Birdman. I can live with a La La Land win for Best Picture, but if it wins for Screenplay I’m liable to start banging my head against the nearest wall.

Heading up the list of also-rans in the field of nine are the two most critically lauded films of the year, Moonlight, a lyrical three-part film from writer-director Barry Jenkins about the coming of age of a black boy (and eventually, man) in inner city Miami who gradually realizes he is gay, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the story of a fortyish New Englander struggling with a decision about whether to adopt the son of his recently deceased brother while working through the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy of his own. The film is built around a career-best performance from Casey Affleck, a key player in the only competitive race in any major category tonight. I really like both films, particularly Manchester, which manages to weave quite a bit of humor into its closely observed drama. (There’s one bit involving a stretcher and an ambulance where I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.) Moonlight would be a more radical choice, less on account of its tripartite structure than its fundamentally elusive, poetic character. The first part, dominated by tonight’s likely Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali as a sensitive soul miscast by circumstance as a dope-dealing tough guy who becomes a mentor to the fatherless lead character, is particularly fine cinema, communicating far more with lighting and facial expressions than with words. I don’t know if the Academy would have nominated such an aesthetically challenging film if not for last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, but in any event I’m glad they did.

The Best Picture field also features a pair of ambitious, technically assured genre pieces: Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s World War II drama about the exploits of Desmond Doss, a devout Christian whose strict interpretation of the Sixth Commandment precluded his carrying a rifle, who went on to save the lives of dozens of soldiers as a medic during the battle of Okinawa; and Arrival, a science fiction film about first contact with extra-terrestrials, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams as a linguist enlisted by the U.S. military to help communicate with the new visitors. Hacksaw is not immune from some of the standard war movie criticisms and the ending of Arrival was a major letdown, but both are fine films. Hacksaw should take the Oscar for Sound Editing, while Arrival is competitive in several categories, although not favored to win anywhere.

Four other movies round out the field. Fences is Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the late August Wilson that’s barely adapted at all. It’s a very good play, deftly portraying the psychological and generational consequences of racism, but I wish Washington had decided to make an actual movie out of it. Hell or High Water is a solid sociological drama about a pair of Texas bank robbers that’s now overrated for being underrated. Hidden Figures is a feelgood drama about a trio of black women who worked for NASA during the preparation of a key early-’60s space flight by John Glenn that delivers exactly what it promises. And finally, there is Lion, which remains unseen by me.

This looks to be a boring predictions year, perhaps just as well given my poor performance the past two times out. I did correctly predict that last year’s bandwagon pick, The Revenant, would not win Best Picture but unfortunately went with PGA winner and personal favorite The Big Short, over the more middle-of-the-road Spotlight. I shouldn’t have to worry about missing Best Picture this year, but there are some competitive races. In addition to Best Actor, which I’ll get to below, there is Sound Mixing, where Hacksaw Ridge could challenge La La Land, and Costume Design, where Jackie stands a good chance of interrupting the parade of La La Land wins. The other category to watch tonight is Foreign Language Film, where Iran’s The Salesman is widely expected to beat out the German film Toni Erdmann, which had been the favorite right up until President Trump’s reprehensible and unlawful travel ban tipped the scales. The order led to director Asghar Farhadi’s first being unable to attend the ceremony and then declining to attend in protest. I don’t blame him for not coming, but I do hope Academy voters don’t allow Trump to essentially make their choice for them. Truth be told, I haven’t seen The Salesman, but I was underwhelmed by Farhadi’s previous Oscar winner A Separation. Toni Erdmann is one of the great films of the decade and would be an unusually deserving winner in this troubled category. If Farhadi wins his second Oscar tonight, he will, ironically enough, have Trump to thank for it.

With so many categories seemingly sewn up, this could be a dull ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel will be the host. I have no strong feelings about Kimmel, but I am glad they picked someone new. There will undoubtedly be a fair amount of foot stamping against Mr. Trump, but hopefully no one will mention football or mixed martial arts. At least one winner will be rudely interrupted by the house band, and I will get upset about it. Hopefully, something surprising will happen at some point. Without further ado, we shall move on to the picks. I’m going chalk this year thanks to the results of my recent risk-taking. Please stay tuned for my own Top 10 list at the bottom of the post. As always, thank you for reading. When I reemerge with a new blog, I will post a link here.

Best Picture

Sentiment for Moonlight and the late-breaking Hidden Figures notwithstanding, there is virtually no chance of an upset here.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Manchester by the Sea

Best Director

This feels nearly as locked as Best Picture. Picture and Director have actually gone to different films three of the past four years, but with Jenkins and Lonergan favored to take the two Screenplay awards, there’s little incentive for Academy voters to honor either here. There doesn’t seem to be enough sentiment for Arrival to consider Villeneuve here, but I can’t help thinking there’s a minuscule chance of a Roman Polanski–style shock victory for Gibson, which would surely make for the most memorable moment of the broadcast.

W: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
S: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor

The sole major race that calls for any sort of analysis should come down to a close vote between Affleck’s hollowed-out janitor in Manchester by the Sea and Washington’s embittered ex-ballplayer turned tough-love father in Fences. Affleck has won most of the major precursor awards, but Washington took home the Best Actor prize at the Screen Actors Guild awards, which has matched the Oscar winner the past 12 years in a row. On the other hand, most of those races weren’t particularly competitive. A crucial detail is that Washington had never won a SAG award, so his victory could be interpreted as a lifetime achievement award of sorts. Washington has won two Oscars, including one for Best Actor. Only six actors have ever won a third, with Daniel Day Lewis having achieved the feat most recently four years ago. Washington won a Tony for the same role on Broadway, and his performance, like everything else about Fences, feels a bit theatrical at times. Perhaps he was let down by his director. Affleck, on the other hand, does some brilliant, naturalistic screen acting, so if I’m wrong here I’ll once again blame it on having actually watched the movies.

W: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
S: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress

Stone is favored to win here, but to do so she’ll have to overcome the best performance of the year by the greatest screen actress of her generation. And also Meryl Streep. The French actress Isabelle Huppert remains shockingly unknown to non-cinephile American audiences, but perhaps that’s about to change as a result of her typically fearless performance as a businesswoman who is raped—victim hardly seems like an appropriate word—and attempts to track down her attacker in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative Elle. No film this year was more reliant on the success of a single performance. Without revealing too much about the story, let’s just say that the movie would have been downright offensive with nearly anyone else in the role. Huppert scored an upset victory at the Golden Globes, although she and Stone have yet to face off directly at any major awards show.

W: Emma Stone, La La Land
S: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Supporting Actress

This might be an even easier call than Best Picture, with Viola Davis, who’s nearly a co-lead in Fences, having swept the relevant precursor awards. Davis gave a fine performance, as did Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, but I’d personally give the slightest of edges to Naomie Harris as the troubled mother in Moonlight.

W: Viola Davis, Fences
S: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali looked like a slam dunk for the win until he somehow lost at the Golden Globes to Aaron-Taylor Johnson for the fourth-best performance in a lousy movie. Johnson was not nominated here, although his co-star Michael Shannon was, setting up a battle of the Texas lawmen with Hell or High Water’s Jeff Bridges. But Ali, his great performance in Moonlight now bolstered by a memorable SAG acceptance speech, should win easily here. If there’s an upset, it will probably come from Dev Patel of Lion.

W: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
S: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Screenplay, Original
W: Manchester by the Sea
S: Manchester by the Sea

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Moonlight
S: Moonlight

Animated Feature
W: Zootopia

Documentary Feature
W: O.J.: Made in America
S: O.J.: Made in America

Foreign Language Film
W: The Salesman
S: Toni Erdmann

W: La La Land
S: Silence

Production Design
W: La La Land
S: Hail, Caesar!

W: La La Land
S: Moonlight

Visual Effects
W: The Jungle Book

Costume Design
W: Jackie
S: Jackie

Makeup and Hair
W: Star Trek Beyond

Sound Mixing
W: La La Land
S: Arrival

Sound Editing
W: Hacksaw Ridge
S: Hacksaw Ridge

Original Score
W: La La Land
S: Jackie

Original Song
W: “City of Stars,” La La Land

Animated Short
W: Piper

Live Action Short
W: Ennemis Intérieurs

Documentary Short
W: The White Helmets

And, finally, we arrive at my own Top 10 films of the year. Despite my best efforts, I missed several promising contenders, most of them foreign-language films. I'll try to add some more blurbs to the list later in the week, if only for posterity's sake. I now have two children; some things are slipping.

1. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)

This German comedy (!) from director Maren Ade, whose Everyone Else would have made my never-finalized Top 10 list for 2010, nearly defies description. It is on one level a scathing satire of contemporary EU culture, encompassing family, sex, friendship, and particularly the corporate world. On another level, it’s a father-daughter comedy built around a pair of brilliant performances. But lurking beneath both is a poignant existential drama, concerned with deep questions like what makes life worth living. Sandra Hüller stars as a German businesswoman living in Bucharest whose life is disrupted by an unexpected visit from her father (Peter Simonischek), who eventually manages to insinuate himself into her professional life by taking on the titular persona, a self-styled life coach. The film hums along briskly for the first two-thirds of its 162-minute running time before shooting into the stratosphere with a pair of absolutely brilliant scenes, both involving parties of one sort or another, that would by themselves be sufficient to elevate Ade into the front ranks of global directors, her boldness matched by her mastery of tone. Appropriately enough, the movie ends on an unresolved chord, but I can safely say that the father-daughter bond ultimately proves to be one of great love, if not quite the greatest love of all.

2. Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

3. Sully (Clint Eastwood, U.S.)

4. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.)

5. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.)

6. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, U.S.)

8. Little Sister (Zach Clark, U.S.)

9. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.)

10. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France); Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.); Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, Ireland/France); No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France); Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

26 January 2017

Best Music of 2016

This post is already ridiculously long, so I’ll try to keep the introduction short. This is a blog post about my favorite albums of 2016. Most people seem to think 2016 was a bad year, and they have their reasons. Among the things that happened in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, and Merle Haggard died, along with many other people, some of whom were talented and famous musicians; Donald Trump was elected President of the United States; the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I could tell you which of these events upset me the most, but I’d rather not. On the other hand, it was quite a good year for music, with seemingly everyone releasing an album at some point during the year. While there was nothing from 2016 that I liked as well as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, last year’s No. 1, nearly all the albums on my list of favorites would have made a run at the top five in an average year. If there was ever a year for an unranked list, it was this one. So if you’d prefer these in a different order, that’s okay with me.

I should also note that this will likely be my final post on Pop Tones. This blog originated as an offshoot of Essays & Fictions, a literary journal that existed from 2007 to 2014 on which I worked as an editor, proofreader, and sometime contributor. The blog probably should have ended when the journal did, but I have an unfortunate tendency to procrastinate. I am trying to get better about this, as I am trying to get better about many things.

I am not, however, done with blogging. I hope to launch a new blog in the next few weeks. I’ll post a link here once I have a post up. Perhaps this post will be about Endo/Scorsese’s Silence, or maybe it will be my annual Oscar predictions/year in movies review. But you will be able to get there from here if you so desire. The important thing is that you won’t be able to get here from there. Traffic will move in one direction, and that direction will be forward. I suspect the new blog will be superficially similar to this one, but there will be differences. I feel that I’ve become a different person over the past few years, and these changes in myself will doubtless manifest themselves in what and how I write. But that is a subject for another day. For now, we move on to the list.

1. Radiohead—A Moon Shaped Pool
I may not have had a clear favorite album this year, but the one I listened to the most? A Moon Shaped Pool by a mile. Appearing nearly a quarter-century after their debut, Radiohead’s ninth album is a resolutely middle-aged record. Now in his late forties, Thom Yorke writes in the voice of one with a sizable chunk of his life in the rear view mirror. The brief moment of clarity “Glass Eyes” begins with the singer emerging from a fugue state, stepping off a train and looking around as if wondering whether the past five or 10 years ever existed. But by the end of the song he’s able to move forward without knowing where the path in front of him leads, content to “feel this love to the core.”

There are regrets here too, of course. Many of the lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool were reportedly inspired by the dissolution of the singer’s 22-year relationship with the mother of his children. “And it’s too late/The damage is done,” he sings on the melancholic “Daydreaming.” The following “Decks Dark” begins with the line “And into your life there comes a darkness” before insisting, “It was just a laugh” (or is it “just a lie”?). The song plays like a callback to “Subterranean Homesick Alien” from the band’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer, which also used the metaphor of an extra-terrestrial encounter to map out hidden recesses of the human psyche. And the closer “True Love Waits,” part of the band’s live repertoire since the late ’90s, takes on a sense of deep loss here, a sense that has tragically grown even deeper since the album’s release.

But A Moon Shaped Pool is not all backward-looking by any means. While the previous Radiohead album, The King of Limbs, too often used the blips and bleeps characteristic of Yorke’s solo collaborations with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to signal “innovation,” A Moon Shaped Pool moves the band’s sound forward in more satisfying ways. This is the Radiohead album where guitarist-keyboardist Johnny Greenwood’s avant-classical excursions become fully integrated into the band’s sound, his string arrangements playing no less a lead role than Yorke’s vocals. His chopping, percussive strings propel opener and lead single “Burn the Witch.” Elsewhere, as on “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes,” the strings function more traditionally as color, but they never fade into the background. “Decks Dark” and “Identikit” both feature choral arrangements, albeit to very different effects, with the latter’s chorus of “Broken hearts/Make it rain” providing a rare moment of comic relief. And “Desert Island Disk” even finds room for an acoustic guitar, which in context sounds as alien as anything else here.

The first six songs are all transcendent, but it’s one from the second half, “Present Tense,” that most explicitly engages with the increased urgency of living well that comes when you realize that time won’t stretch out forever. “Don’t want to get heavy,” Yorke wails, and he does and he doesn’t. “Keep it light and keep it moving,” he exhales, and he’s being ironic and he isn’t. “I’m doing no harm,” he says, and he knows it’s not nearly good enough. I may never love this album as passionately as OK Computer or Kid A, both touchstones of my younger years, but one of the lessons of both A Moon Shaped Pool and of middle age itself is that different types of love are possible. (“Daydreaming” “Decks Dark”)

2. David Bowie—Blackstar
Released a mere three days before Bowie’s death last January at age 69, Blackstar appears to have been intended as a final testament of sorts, filled with lyrical reflections on death, departure, and transition. “Dollar Days” considers the bittersweet experience of seeing and doing things for the last time, while “Lazarus” even ponders a resurrection of sorts. But it’s the experimental bent of the music here that makes this Bowie’s best album since his ’70s heyday. Largely eschewing the tasteful alternapop of other late works like Heathen and The Next Day, Bowie’s final album embraces sounds and rhythms from jazz and electronica without forsaking his pop sensibilities. The two-part title track and “Lazarus” break out of traditional song structures, which allows the more conventional closing tracks to hit even harder, as Bowie leaves us for good with “Dollar Days” and, finally, the Cheshire Cat grin of “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In all of modern Anglo-American popular culture, only John Wayne, as un-Bowielike a figure as one could imagine, was able to write his own epitaph as effectively in his final work. (“Blackstar” “Dollar Days”)

3. Chance the Rapper—Coloring Book
Chance’s second solo album—excuse me, mixtape—was a much-needed shot of positivity in a year where there was little to be found in American public life. High on God, marijuana, fatherhood, and hip-hop itself, the 23-year-old Chance oozes the joy of life while making his best music to date. In the context of an online culture that’s largely hostile to religion and more inclined to wallow in its own misery than attempt to do something about it, asking “Are you ready for your blessings?” is a radical act indeed. Chance's insistence on labeling Coloring Book a mixtape seems based less on artistic principle than commercial calculation—he can still play the “debut album” card in a year or two. In any event, if this isn’t an album, then neither was What’s Going On. There are still a few callow moments—I could have done without Chance describing himself and the Almighty as “mutual fans”—and the anti-label shtick rings hollow from someone who gave Apple a two-week exclusive window to distribute his album—pardon me, mixtape. But I shouldn’t be so nitpicky; there is a lot to like here. “Same Drugs” nails the bittersweet feeling of growing up and growing apart, an evergreen topic for a pop song, while the casual intimacy of “Smoke Break” works the other side of the street. The single “No Problem” must be the least threatening-sounding threat in hip-hop history, while the house jam “All Night” injects some levity, as well as some BPM, onto the record. The gospel-inflected tracks feel unusually organic; “Finish Line/Drown” in particular sounds more like a Kirk Franklin record than like anything else in hip-hop (perhaps because Franklin himself is on it), while the soaring intro to “How Great” almost literally takes us to church. There’s already so much variety in Chance’s music that I can’t wait to hear where he goes next. I’m actually looking forward to that debut album. (“Same Drugs” “Finish Line/Drown”)

4. Angel Olsen—My Woman
As its title and cover indicate, My Woman is an work about self-possession, about coming into one’s own, and on her fourth LP singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has done just that, finding a musical language that perfectly expresses her artistic personality. Olsen came onto my radar with 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and while that album often had me reaching for comparisons with other artists—a bit of Linda Ronstadt here, a bit of Leonard Cohen by way of Hope Sandoval there—her influences are relegated to the margins on My Woman. (I’m reminded of the leap Tori Amos made from Little Earthquakes to Under the Pink, less a question of quality than of finding oneself musically, although Amos and Olsen otherwise have little in common as writers or performers.) The first half is all compact pop songs, mostly about love and longing, that would have fit nicely on Olsen’s last album, but the second side is something else entirely, a series of slow, spacious, semi-acoustic reveries with an undeniably spiritual vibe. The highlight is the extraordinary “Sister,” the best song by Olsen and maybe by anyone this year, an eight-minute interior epic about the hard-won peace that comes from learning how to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. Olsen may still be figuring out herself and life, but she is ready for her blessings. (“Sister” “Those Were the Days”)

5. Car Seat Headrest—Teens of Denial
It’s fitting that this indie rock epic from Will Toledo & Co. was released on Matador, as much of the music here can be traced back to onetime label stalwarts like Pavement and Guided by Voices, as well as nerd-rock godfathers The Modern Lovers and Talking Heads. Teens of Denial tells a more or less coherent story about a kid named Joe who gets kicked out of school for doing drugs with friends and has to figure out how to deal with the emotional demands of life—or at least how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and why not Sunday. Toledo demonstrates a strong command of pop song form on early tracks like “Fill in the Blank” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” before stretching out on “Cosmic Hero” and “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” which run a combined 20 minutes and bring the album’s musical and narrative drama to a head. This is the rare 2010s album on which the lyrics are the real star: Teens of Denial has some of the funniest lines of the year (“So there I was, just another shitbag civilian/Afraid of the cops when I was outside/Afraid of my friends when I was inside”), as well as the best song about drunk driving ever. (“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” “Vincent”)

6. Tim Hecker—Love Streams
The eighth solo album from Canadian maestro Tim Hecker is notable as his first to make use of vocals, although he hasn’t exactly gone pop. Hecker enlisted the Icelandic Choir Ensemble to sing nonsense words then used Auto-Tune to distort the resulting recordings. The effect of this mashup of early-modern and hip-hop aesthetics is of hearing a remixed centuries-old liturgy sung in an alien tongue. The presence of vocals and relative absence of sudden squalls of noise (the latter would be playing to the base for Hecker) make this a bit of a departure, but Love Streams is methodologically consistent with his previous work, appropriately so for this most theoretical of artists. Hecker manipulates the choral vocals like any other acoustic instrument, mercilessly subjecting organic sounds to the ravages of technology. (“Music of the Air” “Violet Monumental I”)

7. Elza Soares—The Woman at the End of the World
Some of the most original music of the year can be found on this remarkable album from 79-year-old samba singer Elza Soares. Made in collaboration with producer Guilherme Kastrup and a group of musicians mostly decades younger than Soares, The Woman at the End of the World is a decidedly experimental take on the genre. I must admit that I’d never heard of Soares prior to this album and know next to nothing about samba, so I’m unable to comment on the provenance of most of the music here, although there are elements of funk, rock, and Afro-pop, among other genres. The overall aesthetic reminds me of art-punk groups like Gang of Four or Public Image Ltd. as much as anything else. Soares grew up poor and black in mid-century Brazil, finding fame by winning a talent show as a teenager, and the album’s lyrics largely center on the struggles of marginalized peoples in Brazil, featuring characters such as a vengeful domestic violence victim and a well-endowed trans woman, with darker themes of death and apocalypse lurking beneath. The CD release includes English translations of the Portuguese lyrics, which are invaluable, but it’s Soares’s indomitable rasp and the utterly sui generis music here that landed this one on the list. (“A Mulher do Fim do Mundo” “Solto”)

8. Run the Jewels—RTJ3
Released as a free download on Christmas Eve, the third album from the duo of Killer Mike and El-P is less immediate but more sonically adventurous than its predecessors. Depending on how 2017 shakes out, I may end up wishing I’d saved this one for next year’s list but after consulting the precedent of D’Angelo v. Pitchfork (2014) I decided it had to count for 2016. Unapologetically old school, Run the Jewels frequently go to the tag-team style that peaked back in the days when rap was still mostly a group phenomenon (there’s even a song about Ticketron!). The lyrics, however, are very much of the present, with Mike occasionally referencing his recent political activism on behalf of the black community and the Bernie Sanders campaign, which included some high-profile media appearances (“The evening news giving yous views/Telling you to pick your master for president/Been behind the curtain seen the devil workin’/Came back with some evidence”). El-P’s dense, layered production captures the feel of the walls closing in on America, yet RTJ3 is an energetic, even optimistic album, particularly if your definition of optimism encompasses a vision of police-shooting victims returning from the dead to take their revenge. (“A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” “Talk to Me”)

9. Parquet Courts—Human Performance
After the mild disappointment of 2014’s Sunbathing Animal, the Brooklyn band returns with its best album to date, achieving a seamless blend of the classic rock and indie rock traditions. Singer and primary songwriter Andrew Savage hasn’t been above some hipsterish smirking in the past, but here he shows a new vulnerability on songs like “Keep It Even” and the devastating title track, even as the stone-faced Krautrock of “One Man No City” reassures us that there’s still a place for ironic detachment. The album sounds terrific too, with tracks like the opening “Dust” and the muscular “Paraphrased” popping out of even the cheapest speakers. (“Human Performance” “Berlin Got Blurry”)

10. Frank Ocean—Blond
This is the one I’ll wish I’d either ranked in the top five or left off the list entirely by this time next year. Ocean’s second official album (not counting Nostalgia, Ultra, which was a mixtape) scans as a welcome left turn from his excellent 2012 breakthrough Channel Orange. It’s much less pop-oriented, with some tracks feeling more like sketches than finished songs. At times the languorous feel of the album is like a drug haze, or like lazily staring out a car window at the world rolling by. Sometimes it works, with tracks like “Skyline To” evoking the evanescence of summer, youth, and time itself. It’s undeniably an aesthetic progression from his previous work, and yet…there’s something off-putting here I can’t quite put my finger on. Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Blond trades a little too much on the push-pull between celebrity guardedness and forced intimacy, although Ocean is wise enough to tone it down. (He’s too sensitive to ever write anything as execrable as “I Love Kanye” and too tasteful to release it even if he did.) But the real problem runs deeper, a sense of the unbearable lightness of being that strikes me as what the kids call #problematic. (“Nights” “Skyline To”)

Six runners-up (in alphabetical order)

For the first time, I’ve expanded the runners-up list from five to six, because rules are arbitrary and need to be broken sometimes. Also, it was an exceptionally good year for music and I didn’t feel like cutting any of these.

PJ Harvey—The Hope Six Demolition Project
After radically changing direction with 2011’s Mercury Prize–winning Let England Shake, PJ Harvey follows it up with an album that’s both similar and radically different, another formalized look at war and politics that replaces World War I with the new world order and eloquent poetry with blunt, journalistic observation. The embrace of ugliness as an aesthetic, perhaps inevitably, yields mixed results, and Harvey at times struggles to find an adequate sonic language for her ideas. Many people did not like this album, and indeed it was responsible for the single worst piece of music criticism I read last year. But even with its flaws, The Hope Six Demolition Project is a much-needed boot to the face of respectability politics and its defenders, summing up the political frustrations of the past year as well as anything I’ve seen or heard. At its best, it’s the sound of the world breaking. (“The Ministry of Defence” “A Line in the Sand”)

Huerco S.—For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
The second album from Brooklyn producer Brian Leeds could be described as “experimental ambient” or “abstract techno” or perhaps in terms of other subgenres so hip that I don’t even know their names. It’s easy to get lost in the spaced-out textures, but For Those of You Who Have Never rewards close listening as well, with tracks like “Lifeblood (Naïve Melody)” using reverb to create rhythm in the absence of beats. (“A Sea of Love” “Promises of Fertility”)

Bob Mould—Patch the Sky
The latest from the postpunk legend caps a terrific three-album run, beginning with Silver Age (2012) and continuing with the slept-on Beauty & Ruin (2014), that represents the peak of Mould’s long career as a solo artist and comes within shouting distance of his best work with Hüsker Dü and Sugar. Tracks like the buzzing opener “Voices in My Head” signal that Mould hasn’t entirely left his electronica adventures behind, but any sonic flourishes are placed firmly in the service of the hard power pop that he does best. (“The End of Things” “Losing Sleep”)

Margo Price—Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
This solo debut from 33-year-old Margo Price, self-financed before being picked up by Jack White’s Third Man Records, brims with a quiet confidence born of professionalism and of having waited for the chance to do things on her own terms. A versatile lyricist and restrained vocalist, Price has made me a believer in the trad country revival. (“About to Find Out” “Hands of Time”)

Solange—A Seat at the Table
As on To Pimp a Butterfly, the FUBU ethic rules the day on Solange’s carefully considered, occasionally perturbed, and always dignified third album. Most of the R&B tracks and spoken-word interludes here are firmly rooted in the specifics of being black in America in 2016. But the best song here is as universal as they come. (“Cranes in the Sky” “Mad”)

White Lung—Paradise
Clocking in at over 28 minutes, Paradise is the longest album yet from the Vancouver-based postpunk quartet. In addition to their admirable commitment to brevity, White Lung offers a welcome musical and ideological flexibility on this album. Soaring power ballads “Below” and “Hungry” bust the band out of the punk straitjacket, while singer Mish Barber-Way chafes at the boundaries of feminism on songs like the riches-to-rags “Kiss Me When I Bleed” and the marital-blissful “Paradise.” (“Kiss Me When I Bleed” “Below”)