Life is rarely fair; missteps are magnified and, too often, subtle victories go unnoticed. When the World can, nearly instantaneously, absorb and forget splashes of glory, the question that lingers is, “Where do I go from here?” The answer, is only ever one of three options – Quit, Refine, or Change. In the context of music, the Quitters are the panderers – the brands formerly known as artists – and they aren’t worth the ink that will never be written about them. Those who refine, those who change, are Heroes.
After a few more words, I will countdown my list of “The Best Albums of 2016.” My list is, as every other subjective ranking of other peoples’ art, a way of organizing the world around me to reveal some hidden truth about myself. My list is filled with the refiners and the changers; the artists who don’t feed on acknowledgement but are driven by the lack of it. The seeds of lasting art are sewn in uncertain soil and watered with ambition and resilience. This year’s list represents the precious, daring few who have successfully embraced danger.
The era of monetarily successful punk bands is over. Established punk bands have largely switched formats to either pop or a slightly edged adult contemporary out of perceived necessity. Scrappy Brooklyn punks, The So So Glos, stuck to their guns and crafted the hard hitting Kamikaze that remembers it was the combination of melody and heart that made The Clash so appealing. It is also worth noting, The So So Glos are fully invested in the punk scene, operating an amazing DIY venue in Brooklyn, Shea Stadium that has one of the best room sounds I’ve ever heard.
Imagine being an American-inspired band in Iceland, land of ethereal heavyweights such as Sigur Ros and Mum, and knowing that your career is limited by location. America is a big place to just up and move to but the guys in Kaleo did just that, settling in Austin, TX. A/B, as an album, is a bit of a mix because the band doesn’t yet understand their identity but the power exhibited when the band lets itself cut loose is absolutely breathtaking. If Kaleo decides to continue exploring their own path and avoids the attractive deathtrap of being an homage band a la the black keys, they will be something truly special.
I’m Alone, No You’re Not features some of the best harmonies recorded since the Dixie Chicks. Outside of the impressive vocals, Joseph stands out because of the empty space they allow to permeate through their record. Instead of a densely packed, overproduced, perfect album, they use the sparseness to showcase the songwriting. It is a simply beautiful record.
Jeff Rosenstock has always firmly planted himself in the quirky side of punk music, think early Weezer and Say Anything. Worry continues that tradition but the difference here is by fully embracing his weirdness, Rosenstock has made an album filled with neurosis and middle-age panic that sounds positively ecstatic. The ecstatic face adorning the album cover is probably the best representation of how you’ll feel actually listening to the record.
Paradise is a full on, non-stop assault on the senses. The vocals are impassioned and gorgeous and angry. The guitars are technical but still emotive. The lyrics are dark and twisted but never exploitative. The cacophony of White Lung is reigned in perfectly by producer Lars Stalfors who had plenty of practice balancing the beauty and the beat-down with his time in The Mars Volta. For all the times that you just need to drive fast or sprint or scream, Paradise is the soundtrack you’re looking for.
X lead singer, John Doe, has released another classic solo record that is by the title’s own admission, very much a western record. At 63 years old, Doe is still exploring the world and writing whatever comes to him. With an established resume and a legacy that will live on, many artists are satisfied with releasing a mediocre batch of songs that give them an excuse to go on tour and sell t-shirts. There is a rugged courageousness in ignoring your status and taking the time to write songs that actually mean something and can go toe-to-toe with anything from the glory days. Songs like Go Baby Go and Get On Board are so fully realized, it’s hard to believe these brand new works aren’t classics that have been played on repeat for the last thirty years.
The Hotelier released Home, Like No Place There Is in 2014 and it was nearly perfect. It was the type of record most bands would then spend the rest of their careers trying to replicate. The Hotelier had accomplished what they needed to with that record and chose to walk away and start over. Goodness bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Where Home was bombastic, Goodness has spoken word poetry. Where a punk barrage might have been, Goodness gently floats melody into the ether. This record feels wholly organic and authentic. It won’t catch you in the same way other records might, it doesn’t demand attention, it simply flickers in the background until you explore the source of the light.
Sunlit Youth is the sound of Joy in the face of Adversity. That isn’t to say it sounds like forced emotion. It is an eruption of feelings that can’t be held back. It is inappropriate laughter at a funeral; it is hope in the bleakest of conditions. As the bulk of “indie” bands have veered into the business of making music for commercials and soundtracks, Local Natives staunchly defend their right to create and Sunlit Youth is a marvelous expression of art and life.
Lydia Loveless has such a strong voice and personality that she could very easily abdicate songwriting duty to a music factory and churn out a string of meaningless radio. Loveless, however, wrote another album with integrity that could only have been written by her and is unquestionably Real. She blurs the lines of country/punk/folk/rock with the same casualness of Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers. She is an incredibly exciting artist to watch and should be for years to come.
Wake Up Laughing is an entirely unique album in that it feels like it exists above time and genre in a place of free-flowing musical stream of consciousness. None of the songs can really be classified and they don’t necessarily sound like each other and there is no narrative thread through the album but at the same time it is a comprehensive body of work. Music Band is good enough that they could’ve worked with any number of music labels but they took a risk and went with Infinity Cat Recordings because of their commitment to letting their roster grow in whatever direction they choose. That space and freedom allowed Wake Up Laughing to come to fruition and become one of the best albums of 2016.
If you want to talk about taking chances, look no further that The 1975’s i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. Look at that title. It is ridiculous. Everything about this album is ridiculous. The 1975 had a market completely cornered – they owned the darkly lit, hopeless romantic, gothic emo, sex-pop crowd. The band opened for The Rolling Stones. Singer, Matt Healy, went out briefly with Taylor Swift. They could’ve churned out album after album of the exact same quality, which was good, and lived very comfortable lives. Instead, they literally shut the machine down. They turned off their social media. They disappeared. Then one day they reappeared, bathed in colour, releasing 80’s-inspired clever pop. The vocals would seamlessly switch between cooing and screaming. The idea of a frontman in modern rock and roll simply no longer exists. In a time of nameless, faceless singers, Healy took his shirt off and writhed around the stage on every tv station that would give The 1975 airtime. Was it genuine or satire? It doesn’t matter because it was exciting in a time where the radio waves couldn’t be more generic. Look at the album title again. It is excessive. There are 17 songs. In a land of 3 minutes singles, The 1975 released 75 minutes of music. They used a gospel choir. They channeled Prince and INXS and Sigur Ros and Perry Farrell and Big Audio Dynamite. It is excessive in a time when maybe we all need a little more excess…it’s okay to have a little fun.
The reason it’s important to have a little fun is because of how harsh reality can be. Danny Brown shines a light on the darkness and danger that lies underneath the surface. For every rap album that glorifies drug use, Atrocity Exhibition gives a peak into what those characters feel like as they lay down to sleep and have to answer to themselves. If Future and Lil Wayne are Scarface, Danny Brown is Requiem For A Dream. The production on this album is truly exceptional. Rap has been, for the most part, retreading the same water for the last decade. Brown takes a massive risk on this album in not only abandoning the current rap soundscape but creating a sound that is alienating and frightening.
If not for spontaneity, this album wouldn’t be on this year’s list at all. RTJ3 wasn’t supposed to come out until January 2017 and then, lo and behold, by some Christmas miracle, it appeared! RTJ3 hits hard and is fun and political and funny but most importantly, it sounds like a true group effort. Hip-hop relies on intertwined vocals and uses multiple personalities to tell a singular story. Killer Mike and El-P have reached that rarified altitude where two become one and the product is invariably better than the sum of its’ parts. I think part of the reason that Run The Jewels has such a rabid fan base is perfectly displayed on RTJ3, they are aggressively inclusive. The listener is brought on their journey and we get to experience all the stories, emotions, and protests as active participants.
There is so much that could be written about Eliot Sumner’s Information. You could write about the intricate lyrics, the haunting vocals, the melody lines, the production, but all the writing in the world can’t capture why this album stays with you long after it’s over. To understand what makes Information so lasting, you really have to see Eliot Sumner live. After seeing the way she grits her teeth when she sings and how her eyes pierce through everything under her gaze, you start to understand. Despite her slight frame, she is ferocious. On stage she is intense and tightly coiled like an incredibly strong but caged animal. When you see her live, your blood moves quicker than you can imagine. The same thing happens when you listen to Information but without the visual it’s not as easy to pinpoint exactly why. Eliot Sumner is a otherworldly talented and every word she sings and every note she plays, I’ll be listening to.
There never was really a question as to what the Album of 2016 would be. Blackstar is art in its most pure form and the most interesting part of the album is that there are two versions. There is the version of Blackstar that was heard before David Bowie died and there is the version that was heard after he died. Bowie knew he was dying and chose to spend his last few months with family and bandmates and recorded an album that was meant to be experienced on a conscious and subconscious level and he willed himself to live long enough to see the reaction to the first version of the album, knowing he would never experience the reaction to the second version. On the morning Blackstar came out, I listened to it on my way to work. It was unnerving and jazzy and a far cry from his previous works. Bowie was famous for adapting and changing and never being predictable. His career spanned folk, glam, soul, experimental, pop, dance, industrial, and now Blackstar felt it had more in common with Saul Williams or Kendrick Lamar than it did David Bowie. As I pulled into the garage, I parked and finished the last song on the album, I Can’t Give Everything Away. I remember feeling just how morbid and tragically human it felt. Bowie had a way with words but portraying mortality with the simple phrase, I can’t give everything away, felt perfect. Bowie was still alive and it was just another example of why he was such a great artist. Then he died two days later. The eerie qualities to the album that permeated the subconscious all the sudden rose to the top and became entirely conscious. The album was haunting because it was in fact haunted; it contained the soul of a man. The lyrics through the album went from being metaphor to crystal clear, explicit thoughts of a dying man. The second version of Blackstar is so much more meaningful to me having been able to experience the first version. The difference between the two albums is incredible and makes both albums all the richer. Bowie told nobody of his illness so he could create two albums. He told nobody of his illness so he could see his art judged on the art alone. There has never before been an album like Blackstar and I doubt there ever will be.