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”)