Best Albums of 2016: #25-1

#25: Aurora, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
A phenomenal debut from Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora Aksnes. This is more in the tradition of orchestral, torch music of Lykke Li than the upbeat pop of Peter, Bjorn and John.
#24: The Hotelier, Goodness
A unique sound, hard to pull off these days without being unlistenable, but The Hotelier does it. Take Goodness Pt. 2: it starts as nothing but a simple strong beat and bassline, but then a simple almost off-rhythm single chord is strummed on a guitar, then equally simple keyboards join in. The whole thing is entirely affecting and propulsive.
#23: Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion
This is one of those bands whose name perfectly captures their sound. I can’t even describe how, but when you listen to them, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Lead singer Meg Baird’s voice is superb, yearning and emotional, and they just grind out the guitar solos.
#22: pinkshinyultrablast, Grandfeathered
Ringing, chiming, upbeat and ethereal, this is the kind of music that makes you want to blow bubbles and spin around in a meadow somewhere. Very much in the vein of the Bresnard Lakes with a happier vibe.
#21: Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Just plain superb songwriting that creates deeply intimate and authentic portraits of small time life and drama. One of those albums that people who don’t like “country” music should listen to!
#20: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
Never has the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds formula of dark gothic drama sounded fuller or more coherent.
#19: Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Striking and dramatic, and sounding nothing like Watt’s ‘80s/’90s duo Everything But The Girl. It’s a blend of jazz, folk, and rock anchored by solid songwriting and Watt’s subtly emotive voice.
#18: Alicia Keys, Keys
One of several strong artistic statements from women (particularly African-American women) in 2016, this is an organic, fully realized vision combining hip-hop, funk, uptown soul, and R&B with socially and politically aware lyrics broken up by recorded voices from the recording studio and street.
#17: Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
He’s still pulling a wide range of influences into a coherent and organic sound, anchored in exceptional songwriting.
#16: Agnes Obel, Citizen of Glass
Another fabulous female singer-songwriter from Scandinavia (Denmark in this case), Agnes Obel’s music rides a line between classical piano music, jazz and pop with quiet, moody and emotional results.
#15: Preoccupations, Preoccupations
Formerly (and controversially) known as Viet Cong, the newly renamed Preoccupations produce a type of grinding, goth-influenced industrial rock that dances along the line between fear and paranoia.
#14: Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Fantastic, topical and politically charged lyrics (the first line of the whole album is “It all started with the border and that’s still where it is today”) matched to classic chiming southern rock ‘n’ roll.
#13: Mitski, Puberty 2
A kind of dark, murky, grungy torch music. I’ve never seen her live but I can imagine someone standing on a darkened stage not even moving from the mike.
#12: The Tragically Hip, Man Machine Poem
I read a review of this album in which the reviewer wrote, “Please don’t let this be their last album.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment. I, sort of, understand the sentiment. Having followed the Hip since their origins (as I documented here), I get the desire so many fans have to see another Fully Completely. But every band needs to move forward, and the Hip tried this for years with mixed results. This album, produced by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene fame, moves the Hip’s sound forward in a fascinating way, and points to where they might have (and might still) take their music.
#11: Parquet Court, Human Performance
Crunchy, jagged, jangly punk-pop
#10: Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Gusty independent rock in the tradition of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted.
#9: Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes, who records as Blood Orange, has created a masterpiece, a powerful statement about identity – racial and sexual – that appropriately crosses many musical genres: electronica, dance, house, hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, Afro-pop.
#8: Solange, A Seat at the Table
A phenomenal artistic statement from the lesser known Knowles sister (the other being Beyoncé, whose albums are just so overproduced, overwritten and generally reek of corporate music that I can’t get behind them), a mixture of soul, pop, R&B, gospel, and funk, with interludes of interview segments from her father and mother, and rapper Master P about their experiences.
#7: Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland
Xavier Dphrepaulezz (aka Fantastic Negrito) created the best of a very deep pool of socially and politically consciousness albums (Alicia Keys, Solange, Blood Orange) in 2016. At times angry, uplifting, and observational, it pays homage to many threads in African American music, with a particular emphsis on the blues.
#6: Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
The title track is haunting and repetitive, like a Nick Cave song. The album is a haunting combination of Dylanesque vocals and tension-filled backing instrumentation. Songs often feature slow dramatic builds.
#5: Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
A song cycle about vampires, menstruation and moon cycles? Why not? And I can’t imagine anyone other than the Norwegian experimental musician Jenny Hval who could pull this off.
#4: Bon Iver, 22 Million
In which Justin Vernon 1) goes wild with Auto-Tune and in the process demonstrates that it’s not necessarily the most evil device invented; 2) walks even farther away from the “heartbroken hippie locked in a cabin all winter” vibe of For Emma, Forever Ago, and yet 3) somehow pulls back toward it with rapturous harmonies and electronic yet very human sounds.
#3: David Bowie, Blackstar
I read reviews referring to this as a “free jazz” album but that doesn’t begin to cover the range of sounds included in this, Bowie’s final artistic statement. Electronica, bass and drums, house, jazz – you name it, it’s likely here but it sounds completely unified and organic. The distorted jazzy sax holds several tracks together while Bowie sings in his higher register in a murky and distant manner.
#2: Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Building on his phenomenal, genre-bending Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the Kentucky native turns blues and soul artist on this outing. Impeccable songwriting, terrific horn arrangements, and a gutsy and compelling voice drive this work. Highlights include a soulful cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” the opening track, and the propulsive “Call to Arms.”
#1: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
An incredible work of musical art. From the opening crunch of strings on “Burn the Witch” (a highly relevant song in the current political and social climate) to the piano arpeggio and delicate voice of “Daydreaming” and beyond, this piece works like a post-rock symphony with different movements. That it doesn’t scream “Take me seriously” like O.K. Computer makes it even more urgent as a work of art.

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