Top Ten Albums of 2016

As per tradition in this digital space, the close of the calendar year means it’s time to reflect on the best music releases of the year. It’s been a while since I’ve been beholden by writing duties to an outside source, which was the initiating cause of my modern top ten albums lists, but I still do the best I can to keep up. I’ll acknowledge that it was more challenging than ever in 2016 to be comprehensive in my listening, and more than a few of the titles that make this tally have only making glancing appearances in my personal rotation. Still, every last one of these is striking and memorable. And I’m prepared to say my pick for the year’s best and the runner-up — neither of which is a particularly esoteric selection — are the first albums in quite some time to elevate to form to something near dazzling art.

1lemonade

1. Beyoncé, Lemonade Honestly, how could it be anything else? Political and personal, and thrillingly ferocious in both territories, Lemonade is a blazing, blinding, boisterous statement of purpose. I stand by every word I wrote about this back in May, with even greater conviction, but with every new listen — to the whole release or any given track — I’m further amazed by Beyoncé’s generosity in collaboration while maintaining a thoroughly dominant voice of her own.

2 blackstar.jpg

2. David Bowie, Blackstar I came to this late, cynically certain that the most awestruck assessments were rounding up, even before the loss of David Bowie, mere days after the album’s release. My preemptive dismissal couldn’t have been more wrong. Blackstar is dazzling in its ambition and sonic breadth, its jagged jazz-like meanderings demonstrating one more time Bowie’s fearlessness in reinvention.

3 woman.jpg

3. Angel Olsen, My Woman Angel Olsen still favors the stark, but there are more intricate layers of intellectual, emotional, and musical robustness to be found on My Woman than its sterling predecessor, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. It is eloquent in every way, and Olsen expands her range so artfully that it makes her musical future seem limitless.

4 puberty.jpg

4. Mitski, Puberty 2 Ethereal ache and abstract lyrics that somehow strike the heart as more piercing and true that literal testimony, the latest from Mitski is enveloping. It is smeared with all the shades of a black-and-white rainbow, and it feels always poised to shatter into a cascade of the crushed little stars she sings about.

5 blonde.jpg

5. Frank Ocean, Blonde — Others on this list make strides to perfect the chosen forms of music, even as they combine seemingly contrasting melodic instincts. Frank Ocean is the one who seems to be inventing a whole new form, drawn from hip and hop and soul but so alien to either that it can be pinned down.

6. The Savages, Adore Life Buzzy and driving, the sophomore effort from the Savages argues that there’s life in throbbing post-punk workouts. It’s reminiscent of music that came before, but the familiarity avoids derivative recycling. It helps that lead singer Jehnny Beth is wildly charismatic.

7. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, A Man AliveThao Nguyen cracks herself open like few others who stand before a microphone to spill out their truth. This latest album circles around familial aches, especially those caused by her absent father. The songs land like punches.

8. Parquet Courts, Human Performance Insistent indie rock that comfortable takes its place in a lineage that began with the Velvet Underground and traveled through the chain links of countless bands until now. Parquet Courts takes the accumulate history and makes it sound new again.

9. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter This Nashville singer-songwriter was featured in the New York Times piece on the future of music than I aimed my ire at back in the spring. The overly effusive praise of the piece — before her debut was even released — was deeply misleading. Margo Price’s triumph isn’t in her innovations, but in her sharply traditional approach to country music songwriting.

10. Solange, A Seat at the Table I concede this album is settled into this place because the idea of Knowles bookends is plainly irresistible. But Solange’s album is deserving of every bit of praise that’s greeted it. A Seat at the Table is an intoxicating wash of modern soul.

 

Previously…

Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2012
Top Ten Albums of 2013
Top Ten Albums of 2014
Top Ten Albums of 2015

The New Releases Shelf: AIM

mia
(source)

 

I’m not sure M.I.A. has ever made a single album that’s great from start to finish. Her muse has too much wanderlust for that. Running freely can lead an artist to cross entirely new landscapes, but it can also result in a mad rush into a blind alley or two. It can also lead to a sort of artistic exhaustion, which isn’t quite what M.I.A. copped to in suggesting that AIM, her fifth full-length overall, will be her final album. Still, she’s said she’s ready to move onto other projects, and there are times when AIM betrays a sense that she’s growing restless. Even the album’s title was a alternative choice within the bucket of fan-sourced options for her prior release, Matangi. M.I.A. is mopping up rather than drafting new plans. Sometimes wanderlust can take a performer far enough that there’s no longer a microphone within reach.

AIM doesn’t particularly feel valedictory, but it does have a quality of militancy softening into maturity, which itself suggests completion of a process. It can play like M.I.A., wobbly but triumphant, crossing a line to pass the baton. She’s said plenty. Someone else raise your voice. Occasionally a track (“Bird Song,” “Fly Pirate”) sounds like little more than a sonic notion repeated enough to reach a runtime that justifies placement on the album. Overall, though, the album is rife with the characteristic wild laying that can induce a blissful vertigo. Rhythms interlock like chain link and style gently plucked from around the globe zip in and out like fireflies slaloming down the expanse. The music is more relaxed, which does mean it’s less dense.

Though M.I.A. isn’t striking as hard, she isn’t standing down. On the single “Go Off,” she intones, “I’m gonna talk and you gonna listen,” and that confidence prevails across the album. In a shift from prior efforts, her fearless expression often manifests as a statement of personal identity more than a provocation. M.I.A. touches on her own experience as a child moved from war-torn Sri Lanka to London in the song “Foreign Friend”: “I said as a refugee, you know/ Where we come from, we get out our tent/ Then we climb over the fence/ We don’t wanna cause an offense.” part of the goal of the album, according to M.I.A. is to open up a bit, showing a different side of her creative being. Revelation can burst forth fromstudio dazzle, but it can also arrive more stealthily, through the comparative murmur of intimacy. For an artist who’s never been short of theses, this is a new and welcome one.

Maybe this is the final M.I.A. album. Then again, maybe it’s not. The history of pop music is filled with artists who claimed they were walking away from it all only to grind out a small fleet of additional material when boredom or creditors started tugging at their guitar straps. More than that, even as she evolves and slows, there’s a lingering certainty that she has more to say, that she’ll always have more to say. As I noted, AIM isn’t defined by its supposed finality. It’s only another step, or maybe a breather before the next sprint. If nothing else, the feeling of solidarity M.I.A. inspires will last. In one of the album’s clearest declarations of purpose, the closer “Survivor,” the expansiveness of the lyrics is telling. M.I.A. declares, “Who said it was easy?/ They can never stop we.” Damn right.

The New Releases Shelf: My Woman

angel.png

Consider the enormous pressure that must come from following up a true breakthrough. Angel Olsen’s 2014 album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, wasn’t a debut, but it felt like it was. It was infused with the immediacy of a voice that had no previous avenue suddenly unleashed, able to express everything that had been stewing in a wounded soul. That it offered this smack of fresh perspective with an intense restrained quiet rather than a reverberating caterwaul only made it more striking. Perhaps the more impressive thing about My Woman, Olsen’s new release, is that it honors and maintains the soul of the preceding album while adding sonic textures and a different edge of propulsive to achieve a welcome distinctiveness.

Like Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s new album comes pre-haunted. There’s an unshakable ache that gives the whole endeavor a fierce modernity, a sense that it is almost an immune system reaction to the smothering pressures of existence itself. Olsen has said the album is about “the complicated mess of being a woman,” and she emphasized the creative intent to shape its two halves into different tones. There’s a worrying suggestion of pompous concept album shenanigans to those notions, but thankfully such labored unity isn’t a characteristic of My Woman. However, it does manifest in a engrossing purity across all the tracks, a certainty that these songs are coming straight from the same trembling wounds.

The song may be coming from the same place, but they radiate out in splendid, subtle variations. “Never Be Mine” has a wistful, pining quality, and just enough classic sixties pop feel that it could be the spectral retort one of Springsteen’s Marys or Candys offered from their lonely spot of abandonment under the boardwalk, and  “Shut Up Kiss Me” has a nifty, spare churn that emphasizes the urgency of the practically sputtered chorus line “Shut up kiss me hold me tight.” “Give It Up” has the sparse slow burn rock tug and shove of vintage Liz Phair, but instead of salty bravado, the song is beautifully mired in co-dependent need. “Hurts to be around you/ I can’t stand your lyin’/ Whenever you’re beside me/ A part of me is dyin’,” Olsen sings, and it is piercing.

“Sister” is a languid epic, with a deep, echoing guitar part that can make it sound a little like its auditioning for the last dance at the Twin Peaks Fall Ball, at least until the tempo picks up across the last third of the track and it becomes a modern take on Stevie Nicks’s pop witchcraft. Lolling to nearly eight minutes, “Sister” does show how Olsen can stretch individual tracks out a touch too much. In rare instances, songs can cycle into such immersive experiences that they ironically become a little distancing, inviting some mental drift. Mostly, though, Olsen’s enhanced skill at tricky dynamism counteracts this tendency. The mind can only wander so far before she reaches and yanks it back to attention.

Like practically everyone who occasionally processes their words in reaction to records, I thought Burn Your Fire For No Witness was an astounding achievement. In its immediate afterglow, I’m tempted to say My Woman resides in the realm of the improbable. Against any reasonable expectations, Olsen might have made an album that’s even better.

The New Releases Shelf: and the Anonymous Nobody

de la.png
Nabbed from elsewhere.

Here’s my true confession, offered with more shame than usual: much of hip hop resides in my musical blind spot, or deaf spot, I suppose. I tried and tried when I was in college radio, as a slew of formative acts in the genre released seminal albums. Time and again, I was left cold, maybe admiring the material intellectually, but never holding it to my rebellious heart the way I did punk or even, in the words on Kathleen Hanna, “the whole, like, big-white-baby-with-an-ego-problem thing” form of alternative rock that took hold at about the same time. Back in those days, there was one act that operated with an artistry that I couldn’t turn away from, that I couldn’t shake. That was De La Soul.

There was something immediately iconoclastic about the Long Island trio (Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo) that distinguished them from everyone else. I know there were plenty of other trailblazers at the time, but De La Soul seemed like the only act that wasn’t following anyone, even as they deployed samples to a degree that has left much of their back catalog almost impossible to properly release as copyright laws have tightened up. It was that label reticence that led the act to briefly distribute their earliest albums for free online, to the chagrin of their former music biz overlords. That act of musical sharing — perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not — gave De La Soul a list of potential supporters that they leveraged into a Kickstarter campaign which resulted in and the Anonymous Nobody, the group’s first album in twelve years.

The album opens with “Genesis,” effectively a spoken word piece by Jill Scott that is delivered over a heavily orchestral, jazz-influenced music bed,  making it sound like an interstitial scene from some great lost Spike Lee film. This is a signal that the album will play completely and unapologetically by the De La Soul’s unique set of rules, prioritizing drama and unpredictability. Single “Pain,” featuring Snoop Dogg, has a devilishly rubbery undercurrent with a funk loll that sounds like the Soul Train has decided to just chill out and take its time getting to an unspecified destination. “Snoopies” invites David Byrne to participate. Even though the former Talking Head isn’t a credited songwriter, the track gives him a perfect platform for his patented triumphal, spiritually downbeat destitution (“In a hundred years from now/ We will not recognize this place/ The dollar store is filled with love/ The parking lot is full of grace”).  “Trainweck” sounds like a sentient cowbell scoring a languid debate between the generations about the perils and pleasures of finding the right romantic partner, and “Here in After,” featuring Damon Albarn (who De La Soul have collaborated in with in Gorillaz) sounds like nothing less than pop retrieved from the distant future and thoughtfully reconfigured for modern ears.

All of the above descriptions should suggest that the album can go anywhere at anytime, without warning or any overt stabs at justification. And that’s as it should be. As I noted, I committed to De La Soul back in the day, but I’ll admit I didn’t exactly get them at first. Their landmark debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, sat in my college radio Program Director office for weeks. I took it into our production studio every once in a while and listened anew, baffled as to whether or not it could have a home on our relatively genteel station. (I’m happier to report that their sophomore album, De La Soul is Dead, went straight into rotation, and I played “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday” like there was a legal requirement compelling me to do so.) To me, there’s maybe nothing more satisfying about and the Anonymous Nobody than the fact that is leaves me invigorated, exhausted, and, yes, again perplexed, all at the same time. From De La Soul, I would want, and expect, nothing less.

The New Releases Shelf: Emotion Side B

carly

It happens every now and again. A pure pop performer, completely unabashed in their rejection of arty, anguished pretenses, flares up with a handful of songs that makes the cool, snobbish music aficionados decide the artist is briefly acceptable to embrace. Sometimes there’s a hint of irony to it, a genial protestation that insists a rule-proving exception is afoot. Kelly Clarkson had her dance on that particular floor several years back, when “Since U Been Gone” took up residence between Death Cab for Cutie and Decemberists on all the proudly scruffy mix CDs.

These days, Carly Rae Jepsen is the beneficiary of this same strange strain of affection, beginning with last year’s Emotion (though there’s been some retroactive acceptance dust sprinkled on “Call Me Maybe,” transforming it from a guilty pleasure to a splendid hint of the joys to come). I think the mighty pleasures of Emotion‘s very best songs caused some to round up in their estimations of the full album, but it’s hard to deny Jepsen was tapping into something. For all the acts playing with the sound of the nineteen-eighties, especially on the indie pop side of the music house, none swirled that cocktail with quite as much panache as Jepsen. At its best, the music had an obvious resemblance to its ancestors, but it somehow seemed completely fresh. It was familiar, but not so retro that it immediately became dated. Quite the opposite is true. Jepsen took the old tricks and made them her own, and in doing so created material that feels remarkably timeless, like pop songs that have always been there, conjuring happy nostalgia from the very first encounter.

Just over a year after Emotion hit, Jepsen demonstrates the well she drew from may just be bottomless. Drawing from material recorded at roughly the same time — I’ve seen one review that claims she banked around two-hundred songs — Jepsen has released Emotion Side B, which she straight up concedes is a mere placeholder as she works on new material. And yet it doesn’t feel like that. There’s nothing throwaway about it. Instead, like the original Odds & Sods, Jepsen’s album comes across as a vital expansion. The camera pulls back from its close-up to reveal even more of the vast, intoxicating mosaic. Hell, by virtue of the succinct focus that comes with brevity — the new release checks in at a mere eight tracks and less than thirty minutes total — Emotion Side B may actually be superior to its namesake.

The pop mastery of Jepsen — and, it is important to note, her hearty band of collaborators — might carry reverberating beats from U.S. hits thirty years past, but it’s also reminiscent of the giddy highs hit by Robyn on her Body Talk releases. “Higher” has a quivering inner life that recalls the great “Dancing on My Own,” and all of the songs operate with the same piercing directness in their lyrics. Jepsen is committed to the notion that this music is best — is truest — when it’s conveying emotions that locked in somewhere around the age of fifteen. On “Fever,” Jepsen sings about stealing and riding the bike of a guy who broke her heart, and it’s clear we’re talking something closer to Huffy than Harley, even before the telltale line “Dropped off your helmet and lock for me.” As plenty have already observed, the ludicrously infectious “Store” skews perilously close to the manufactured spoofing of the Robin Sparkles hit “Let’s Go to the Mall.” That the Jepsen track maintains a grand, unlikely dignity despite this hints at the level of brilliance at play.

It’s fine to dig, dig, dig to figure out why Jepsen’s music soars while offerings from her peers come across like cheap plastic doodads toppling off a conveyor belt, but the repeated refrain in the delectable “Body Language” offers a piquant counterargument: “I think we’re overthinking it.” Bubblegum gets invoked plenty for music like this, but it’s more precise to correlate Jepsen’s songs to gumballs. They come in a jillion different colors, but there’s a fundamental similarity to each one. They’re all equally satisfying. More pertinently, when engaged properly and vigorously, they all snap the same.

The New Releases Shelf: Hit Reset

julie ruin
Lifted and snipped from elsewhere.

Let’s face it: punk isn’t known for its subtlety. So why not call the new album from the Julie Ruin, the band fronted by Kathleen Hanna, Hit Reset? The scorching performer has consistently taken charge of her own iconography ever since the days she and her band Bikini Kill punched back at grungy rock boy self-importance in the early nineteen-nineties, defining the fleeting but forceful riot grrrl movement in the process. Following an extended layoff from performing, necessitated by a humbling bout with Lyme disease, Hanna returned to the stage just last year. Officially the second full-length album from the Julie Ruin (Hanna previously used a slightly modified version version of the name for a solo effort), Hit Reset is clearly a new beginning. The album title should convey exactly that message.

But it’s more complicated than that. The title cut and opening track is indeed about survival and coming through the other end of an endurance test as a person who was not cowed by circumstance (it’s possible there’s no human currently given access to a microphone who is more convincing than Hanna in delivering a lyric like “At least I made it out at fucking all”), though it reaches back deeper into the past. While Hanna is uniquely forthright, “Hit Reset” is considered the first time she’s used her music to address childhood abuse suffered at the hands of her father. As might be expected, the lyrics are brutally tough: “Slept with the lights on on the floor/ Behind a chair that blocked the door/ Watching from bedroom to plate/ Stability just words of hate.” The title might imply revival. To hit reset also requires erasure, which means there’s something that merits being struck from being.

Across the album, Hanna repeatedly demonstrates the value and uniqueness of her voice, just how much is missing from the music atmosphere when she’s not contributing to it. Other examples of raw personal revelation are more glancing, but her talent for withering social commentary remains fully intact. “Mr. So and So” takes aim at hypocritical male fans who still engage in diminishing, condescending nonsense under cover of their proud enlightenment (“I’ll show your autograph/ To my women’s studies class”), and “Hello Trust No One” percolates with sharp comic details (“Cause I can play electric guitar/ While shaving my legs in a moving car”).  She’s hardly infallible on this front, though, as evidenced by the way the painfully dopey repeatedly chorus line “Start a Kickstarter for your heart” all but sinks the otherwise buoyant “Planet You.”

As a vocalist, Hanna can still unleash a snarl that can make sturdy paper curl at the edges, and there’s plenty of opportunities for that. One of the real joys of the record, though, is hearing the modulations in her delivery as she careens around different styles, whether the racing agitation of “Be Nice” or the tender album closer “Calverton.” It demonstrates a certain level of maturity, showing what punks can do when they persevere and figure out precisely when to replace force with musicianship. Hanna has actually been exhibiting that level of creative evolution for a while, no matter how readily (and, it’s worth adding, appreciatively) most still categorize her by her the work of her formative self. The title Hit Reset suggests reverting and retrenching. That’t not really Hanna’s style. She’s long been committed to moving forward.

The New Releases Shelf: Puberty 2

mitski.png

Puberty 2 opens with “Happy.” Against delicate, intricate music, Mitski sings, eerie and ethereal. Initially, the lyrics seem settled in the mundane: “Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way/ I poured him tea and he told me it’ll all be okay.” If it’s the contrast between the spooky and the plain that initially grabs the attention, the track insinuates itself further with its lurking abstractions, led by the anthropomorphizing of a highly coveted emotion. The music introduces itself as fairly standard aching indie rock. Then it drills to a deeper level.

The fourth full-length from Mitski Miyawaki, who sticks with her first name for performing purposes, is a fascinating blend of intense emotions and coy withdrawal. It feels like a soul cracked open, but only to deliver more mystery, as if the inner self can’t really be known by anyone scrutinizing it from the outside. That could very well be the point. Mitski has chafed a bit at attempts by music writers and others to offer up definitive interpretations of the resonant meaning of individual songs or the album as a whole. Meaning is fluid, and purpose is not for those standing outside of the creative process to name.

This is the sort of material that’s often presented in stripped-down forms: a voice, a guitar, wan melodies, rhythms that dissolve like mist. Puberty 2 is hardly epic in its sounds, but Mitski is a crafty sonic explorer. I’m fond of the punky indifference to tuneful niceties on “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and the bendy tones of “Thursday Girl.” At a punchy minute-and-a-half, “A Loving Feeling” is like the Modern Lovers with an injection of up-to-the-minute buzz. The restlessness doesn’t always work — “Crack Baby” hovers around the notion of a song without ever becoming one — but tireless daring in undoubtedly preferable to the alternative.

The more tender music is, the more likely it is that it’s cast as confession. On the lovely, drifting “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” Mitski sings,  “I’ll be there on their side/ I’m losing by their side.” The impulse is to characterize that as the prevailing mood of the performer, a helpless expression of existential agony. For the countless listeners who will clasp the sentiments of the song to their chest like a locket that carries heartbroken memories, such revelatory truthfulness can feel like a necessity. How can Mitski speak for them if she doesn’t speak for herself? I fall prey to that predilection, too. In ways I can’t quite pinpoint, Puberty 2 makes the case that such insistence on transparent genesis is deeply misguided. The album succeeds because it is what it is. Where it came from is beside the point.