Stellar Albums of 2016
by John Amen
2016 may have yielded innumerable political shocks, nationally and internationally; however, it was also a fertile year for popular music. From timeless swansongs, to continued evolutions in hop hop and electronica, to a resourceful mining of sounds integral to the 80s and 90s, to audacious statements regarding human nature, this year offered a plethora of dynamic albums. The list below highlights twenty of this year’s most compelling releases.
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
Drawing from such sources as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lake Street Dive offers their most notable set to date—a heightened pop awareness and attunement to enrolling melodies and instrumental hooks. Rachael Price emerges as the consummate frontwoman and vocalist, a diva who knows when to shine, when to share the stage, and how to operate as both part and leader of a musical team. (Full review: http://nodepression.com/album-review/lake-street-dive-takes-center-stage)
Quilt – Plaza
Infectious melodies predominate and seduce the ear, but Quilt’s third album also revels in subtle harmonies, understated grooves, well-crafted instrumental lines, and ambient flourishes. Navigating such influences as the Beatles, early Pink Floyd, and the avant-garde folk band Tunng, the band offers undeniable hooks and intriguing lyrics.
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
While not as meticulously crafted and seamlessly integrated as To Pimp a Butterfly (my choice for best popular album of 2015), Lamar’s latest still offers compelling beats and ambient soundscapes as well as sultry and rapid-fire commentaries on the African-American experience and the merits and pitfalls of stardom, demonstrating that even his marginalia is aesthetically alluring and commercially viable.
Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
Brooding sonic landscapes, disturbing splices, and percussive experimentations sprawl and loop, fusing with Hval’s angelic vocals, occasionally reminiscent of Bjork. Lyrically the Norwegian-born Hval references vampirism and menstruation, exploring blood as a metaphor for both the fundamental essence of life and the recurrent nature of violence.
Goat – Requiem
Delving into “world” and “co-op” music more thoroughly than on previous releases, the Swedish band mines exotic sounds and eastern vibes while continuing to hone a signature 60’s aesthetic—guitar antics a la Hendrix, campfire cum Woodstock jams, and quirky instrumental flourishes punctuating what occur as ecstatic sangha chants and psychedelic singalongs.
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Further refining their absorption and reconfiguration of southern rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker) and proto-grunge (Neil Young and Crazy Horse), the Drive-By Truckers offer their most galvanizing set since 2004’s The Dirty South, hard-edged and atmospheric guitars, relentless rhythms, and lyrics that, in signature fashion, alternate between the confessional and political.
White Lung – Paradise
Mish Way-Barber’s raucous vocals rise from a distorted swirl of unflinching guitars, bass, and drums. Conjuring post-grunge elements reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney, as well as the unbridled indignation and rage-meets-self-loathing of Hole and Nirvana, the band offers a succinct but exemplary twenty-eight minutes of hard-rock catharsis.
Kyle Craft – Dolls of Highland
Glam swagger meets poetic lyricism occasionally reminiscent of Dylan, early Springsteen, or Meatloaf circa Bat Out of Hell; add rollicking vocals, Big Band instrumentation, and an appreciation for the Broadway show tune: this Sub Pop debut marks a stellar beginning for the twenty-seven year-old from Matches, Mississippi.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Drawing from a lifelong appreciation of canonized jazz as well as contemporary applications a la Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Blackstar highlights Bowie’s most introspective vocals and lyricism, set within explorative and rambling soundscapes. Released on Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday and two days before his death, this album, particularly “Lazarus,” shows the songwriter, singer, and consummate performance artist contemplating death with both courage and wistfulness.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
The grief with which Nick Cave’s latest tracks are infused is intensely palpable, which saves the album from collapsing into solipsism or nihilism. From the invocatory first track, a listener is transported into a mythic underworld, a labyrinth of existential frailty and psychic pain that leads, with the final track, back to a world in which we see “a window with a candle” and realize “it’s alright now.”
Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
Continuing to embrace garage rock and art punk, the prolific John Dwyer and Company add to their repertoire an affinity for alt-Americana (Cotton Jones), releasing their most eclectic set yet. Dwyer emerges as the consummate indie guitarist, ripping melodic pop solos as well as monster riffs undergirding well-crafted songs.
Black Marble – It’s Immaterial
Combining low-fi production methods with a resourceful take on 80s’ and early 90s’ musical aesthetics (Young Marble Giants, Talk Talk), Black Marble forges a low-key but simmering set of songs. Vocals range from a punkish deadpan to an anxious snarl; swirling atmospherics, stark but unwavering rhythms, and subtle but sultry melodies coalesce to create what might be dubbed, stylistically, sonic noir.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
With his third full-length release, Justin Vernon hones his skills as a songwriter, sonic architect, and producer. Songs that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi soundtrack reveal Vernon venturing further from his folk roots; or, more aptly, further embracing electronica and ambient approaches in order to expand the genre of folk in fertile directions. (Full review: http://nodepression.com/album-review/anima-ex-machina-bon-iver%E2%80%99s-22-million)
Anderson Paak – Malibu
Drawing equally from Motown, soul, funk, jazz, rap, and hip hop, Brandon Paak Anderson is paradoxically suave and assertive, cynical and celebratory. Melodic instrumentations highlight R&B-infused rap segments as well as smooth but moody vocals, occasionally reminiscent of Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, or the Temptations.
YG – Still Brazy
Keenon Jackson continues to reconfigure gangster hip hop, laid-back west-coast grooves, and electronic nuances, crafting such timely declarations as “FDT” (“Fuck Donald Trump”) and the N.W.A-esque “Police Get Away With Murder.” If rap is as identity-driven as it is hook-driven, Jackson finds a balance, building on his own myth of origin while creating a communal vibe sustained through catchy choruses and seamless guest features.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Drawing on elements explored in previous albums, Radiohead’s latest documents the band’s continued integration of delicate nuances and pulsing rhythms, earthy riffs and celestial melodies, roiling instrumentation and ethereal vocals. As with so much of Radiohead’s oeuvre, these tracks consistently transport a listener into uniquely alien realms—at times paradisal, at times hellish.
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Iggy Pop is at once the Byronic spokesman and the carnivalesque frontman, singing with authority and humor, whether describing sexual fantasies (“Gardenia”) or decrying the corporatism and commercialism of contemporary America (“Paraguay”). Each track includes memorable instrumental and melodic hooks, the songs complemented by mammoth riffs and pounding rhythms courtesy of Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, and Matt Helders.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
On his latest, Ocean combines elements of electronica, psychedelic pop, R&B, and lo-fi experimentalism. Lyrics are diaristic—occasionally tongue-in-cheek; occasionally sincere, political, or revelatory. Melodies and atmospherics blend to create a soundtrack for a late-night cross-country drive or a walk with headphones through a digital warzone. Hardboiled observations and haunting anecdotes are frequently offset by spontaneous affirmations and oblique celebrations of life.
Anohni – Hopelessness
The lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons releases her debut solo album, eleven tracks brimming with political declarations and apocalyptic visions. Alternately sparse and layered, Hopelessness navigates the realities of militarism, racism, gender bias, and climate change. Throughout the album, Anohni offers veiled prayers and protestations, questioning the role of God in human existence. True to its title, Hopelessness exudes world-weariness, but is also infused with strength, the conviction that art can facilitate transformation.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
With his swansong, released approximately two weeks prior to his death, Leonard Cohen employs Buddhist and Judeo-Christian metaphors to explore love, history, desire, and the fleeting nature of identity. His vocals have never sounded as mesmerizingly introspective, his melodies as crystalline and compelling. With this album, particularly such tracks as the title song and “It Seemed the Better Way,” Cohen crafts, with the possible exception of Dylan’s work in the mid-60s, what may stand as the most sophisticated lyrics in the rock canon. (Full review: http://nodepression.com/album-review/leonard-cohen%E2%80%99s-memento-mori)