The weekly segment in which Anthony touches down on some of the best and worst tracks he has heard in the past week.
The magical monthly segment where Anthony briefly touches down on a gauntlet of albums he didn't get a chance to review this past month. These are just his short, straightforward, passionate, biased opinions.
Hello again! Happy December! It’s almost the end of this shitty year, and I for one cannot wait for 2017 to be also shitty! Thankfully, 2016 gave us no shortage of fantastic music. And now, for the second year in a row, Anthony has been kind enough to let his shadowy minions post about their personal favorite records of the year. Most of you probably have no idea who I am, really, unless you listened to either of the podcast interviews I did this year, WHICH YOU LOVED, RIGHT? (It’s ok. I get it.)
Anyway, the list that follows is my stab at a “top ten” – a feat that gets harder for me every year – followed by six honorable mentions from this year that need to be heard. (I also made a Spotify playlist of my Top 20 Singles of the year, which is down there at the end). I kinda wish I could’ve pulled an Ebert and just released an alphabetical list of my favorite records, but alas, here it is. If nothing else, I hope this list turns some of you on to some records you may have ignored or missed, or nudges you to give some a second chance. Either way, I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!
Anyone who knows me probably saw this one coming. The album I’ve played the most frequently, danced to the most unstoppably, had lodged in my head most completely – every song here is fun, groovy, witty, and profoundly catchy. It’s also extremely thoughtful, with themes of race and politics running through its DNA. Songs like “Mexican Chef” and “Right?” and “See Them” have highly valuable messages ingrained within, but don’t forget that you’re also here to dance. On the flipside, we have sexy, slinky numbers like “Don’t Wanna Be” and “Lonely Lover.” The fact that Rubinos made such an important album that was also such a god damn good time is what really seals the deal for me. It’s truly the album of the year.
One of the finest songwriters working today, Marissa Nadler continues to improve and to darken on her latest record, her second for Sacred Bones, a marriage of artist and label that makes so much sense for her brand of dooming folk that it’s a wonder it hadn’t happened earlier. Strangers is Nadler’s darkest, dustiest record yet, treading the waters of anxiety, relationships of the past, and apocalyptic visions. The one truly bright moment, “All The Colors of the Dark,” is also one of the finest songs of her career, as is the stormy “Janie in Love,” in which Nadler compares a friend’s self-destruction to a hurricane. This is definitely mood-music, and it might not be appropriate for casual, middle-of-the-day listening, but it’s an exquisite document, and by far the finest of the genre this year.
It’s hard to say much about Matmos’ latest record because it really just demands to be heard. When you say it’s an album consisting entirely of the sounds of a washing machine, that could come off as a desperate gimmick. But the thing is, Matmos have always dealt in this kind of conceptual composition. Whether it be plastic surgery noises or the innerworkings of ESP, the band has always walked that fine line between being smart and clever, and being decidedly up their own asses. Luckily, their 2016 release is the former. It’s a behemoth of a record – a single 38 minute track – that is, essentially, the full journey of a single wash cycle. Of course, Matmos being Matmos, it’s chopped and screwed and profoundly manipulated, to the point where it’s aggressive, abrasive, beautiful, and labyrinthine all at once.
This one took a minute to grow on me. I am an ardent fan of Angel Olsen’s debut record, Half Way Home, and less a fan of her follow up, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, so I was a little skeptical of this new one. After a few listens though, it opened up, and I found myself lost in it. Olsen’s singing has changed pretty drastically since her early days – there’s very little in the way of her once-trademark warble – and I think this record illuminates how much a transitional period her sophomore record was. Here, she emerges confident, smart, with a keen eye for melodic detail. Lyrically, too, she really comes through with some memorable, moving passages, spinning songs – often quite long songs – about love, desire, and what it might mean to be a woman right now. The first half is endlessly catchy, and the second half is sublimely, sensuously drawn out. After all my hesitation, this is doubtlessly Olsen’s best work yet.
Another largely politically-minded record from PJ Harvey, a songwriter who used to write about love and heartbreak and anger in ferocious, visceral, nearly unmatched ways. These days, she’s less interested in the personal and more interested in the global, the historical. Unlike her last record, which dealt mostly in British war history, this album takes a more international approach, inspired by her travels in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. The album is fiercely poetic, to the point where many listeners have been left wondering if this is Harvey singing these songs or if she’s channeling someone else’s POV. Regardless, it’s a tense, fiery piece of work, with a brittle, almost lo-fi energy. Songs like “The Ministry of Defense” are charging and industrial, while “The Ministry of Social Affairs” and “The Wheel” are gritty with sharp guitars and blaring saxophones. Harvey remains one of music’s sharpest observers, and this album keeps up her streak of releasing great records in her third decade of making songs.
I didn’t expect it, but this record is great. It’s the kind of Big Pop Album that I am often a sucker for, from arguably pop’s biggest voice right now. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked Beyoncé; every one of her albums have songs I loved (“Irreplaceable,” “Ring the Alarm,” “Love On Top,” “XO”) but I hadn’t been head over heels for a whole album of hers until now. Lemonade is an intimate, beautifully thought-out document of the fall and eventual hopeful rise of a relationship. Beyoncé starts off wondering, moves to anger, descends into sadness, then sort of comes around to hope and determination. Things might’ve ended up OK, she just really had to work this one out. Every song is impeccably produced and performed, with catchy bits all over the place (the chorus of “All Night” and “Hold Up”, the ending of “Sorry”, the entirety of “Formation”). The question is: what could she ever do next?
What a sad couple of years for School of Seven Bells. The musical – and romantic – duo of Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza saw a tragic loss when Curtis passed away in 2013, after a battle with a rare form of cancer. The songs were all written before his death, and finished after it. It’s hard not to see them in an all-too-heartbreaking light. When on the glistening single “Open Your Eyes,” Deheza sings, “Open your eyes, love / You’ve got me crying,” and talks about how she’s been waiting “for too long,” and when she sings on “Confusion” how “I understand nothing of these changes,” with such exhaustion, it’s just crushing. It’s not all gloomy – there are moments of great joy and energy, like the charging opener “Ablaze” – but the album exists in a sort of melancholic space. It’s unclear what will come of the School of Seven Bells moniker now, but let it at least be said that if SVIIB is the band’s last album, it’s a majestic, masterful swansong.
I fear this record, Shearwater’s eighth record, will be one of 2016’s most slept-on, and that’s a shame, because this is far and away the strongest thing the band has released since 2008’s Rook, and one of their best records to date. Masterful drummer Thor Harris has departed, which is perhaps one of the reasons there are a few more electronics and programmed beats here, but the band still hits hard, with some shimmering, towering songs like “Quiet Americans” and “Filaments,” with the thundering “A Long Time Away” being quite a high watermark for the band. As usual, Jonathan Meiburg and co. know when to tone it down, as on the beautiful “Only Child” and the closing track. Meiburg’s voice is, as ever, able to be forceful and gentle, often within the same song, going from rough to tender and back again. I hope people find this record while catching up on 2016’s music output, because it would be a small tragedy for a surprisingly good record, from a band who some have sort of turned away from, went unnoticed.
I’ll gladly go on record and say I don’t really consider myself a Radiohead fan. I never took to OK Computer, I think Kid A is at least very interesting, and I love In Rainbows. That probably tells you most of what you need to know. I don’t usually look forward to their LPs, though I don’t dread them, and with this one, I was pleasantly surprised, much like how I was with In Rainbows. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous record, full of weeping strings, raindrop pianos, and sensitive slow singing from Thom Yorke. It’s basically everything I like about Radiohead. “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” practically melt out of the speakers, while more intricate songs like “Ful Stop” and “Burn the Witch” pulsate with a brittle energy. I am not sure if this is their greatest record ever, but it is the kind of Radiohead album that actually does leave me curious for their next step.
Yet again, Charlift – a band I liked since their debut but never thought would become a band I adore – have proven themselves to be an incredibly strong musical duo. Their last record, Something, pushed them into new, focused territory, marrying their electronic pop influences with their own specific brand of weird and clever songcraft. Caroline Polachek’s voice remains one of indie music’s most versatile, emotive, and strange instruments, guiding each of Moth’s beguiling pop numbers like a beaming ray of light. She zips through “Romeo” and “Moth to the Flame,” grooves through “Polymorphing” and “Show U Off,” and glistens sadly through “Crying in Public.” Her swagger is infectious on should-be hit single “Ch-Ching,” and she knows when to dial it back, as on the plaintive closer “No Such Thing as Illusion.” The band may not be the most unique stylistically, but they have enough of their own individual flavor to push them into their own small, vital world of music, and it’s such a wonderful world to visit.
ANOHNI – formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons – has released one of 2016’s more important releases here. The music is weird and off-kilter, with production help from Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, giving ANOHNI a newly electric and beat-driven setting for her tortured tunes. Some of her lyrics are awkward or cumbersome, but pretty poetry was never the point here. Getting her points across – as depressing and upsetting as they are – was the goal, and she succeeds in spades.
Olga Bell has been on my radar since her LP Diamonite a few years back, but her newest record, aptly titled Tempo, is a sign of new heights. Bell’s rubbery, beguiling voice is such a unique instrument unto itself, and her beats and lyrics are just as playful and unpredictable. It’s so nice when an album cover like that matches the music within.
Kate Bush needs no introduction. This is a beautifully produced live record, taken from her set of instantly sold-out shows a couple years ago, also called Before the Dawn. She starts off singing a few of her well-known songs (including a fiery “King of the Mountain”) but then goes into her two ambitious song suites, “The Ninth Wave” from 1985’s Hounds of Love, and “A Sky of Honey” from 2005’s Aerial. Both come off well, especially the latter, with its warm and drawn out structures. That Kate closes with a solo piano number, followed by a rousing “Cloudbusting” is a nice cherry on top. If you like Kate Bush at all, go check this out.
I would’ve put this somewhere in the middle of my top 10, but since it’s an EP, I am putting it here out of fairness. In truth it is a spectral, profoundly beautiful set of songs, consisting only of Lu’s wailing, looped cello tracks, her gorgeous voice, and her emotive lyrics. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
Kristin Hersh is one of music’s best lyricists. She writes incredibly vulnerable, personal songs, but with a pen borne by elusiveness and enigma. Her lyrics are full of allusion, metaphor, and highly specific references to her own life that may escape the listener (her records now come with books of essays and anecdotes, which helps), but above all, they are beautiful poetry. Hersh’s voice has always been gruff and raspy, and is perhaps more so now, and her guitar playing is intricate and fascinating. She’s been at it since the '80s, and her songwriting has only gotten sharper and more intriguing as time has gone on. Don’t sleep on this record.
A lovely, deeply sad shoegaze record that unfortunately not enough people heard about. Kristina Esfandiari’s lonely, ghostly brand of shoegaze, replete with her deep, weary voice, is definitely a worthy addition to the canon.
Finally, here is a Spotify playlist of my 20 Favorite Singles of the Year. I had to narrow it down somehow, so I only considered songs released as proper singles, promotional singles, or videos (before or after the album release). For example, you’ll see Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons” on here, because it was released before her record Joanne dropped, but you won’t find my favorite song from that record (the title track) because it wasn’t. The playlist isn’t really in a preferential order; I tried more to make it flow well, to make into a good playlist. That being said, I couldn’t help but put my #1 song of the year at the top: “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells. As for the rest, they’re pretty much unordered. Enjoy!!
The weekly segment in which Anthony touches down on some of the best and worst tracks he has heard in the past week.
Your boy Austen is back with another obscenely early year-end list. For those who don't know, I'm Anthony's right-hand man - I help him run social media, manage this site, and (as of this year) edit a good portion of his videos. Last year I made a couple of lists about my favorite music of 2015 and was flattered by the reception. A lot of you guys seemed to enjoy getting an alternate point of view to Anthony's and I certainly enjoyed commending the artists whose work he either didn't care for as much or didn't get a chance to cover. Especially with my role on TND expanding, I didn't see a reason not to come up with another list for this year. So without further ado, here's the music I loved from 2016.
The Top 10
The changes Swans made between To Be Kind and The Glowing Man may not have been substantial enough for some listeners, but they made a world of difference for me. Although TGM has a shorter runtime than its two predecessors, it contains a greater number of "epic" tracks, which thankfully show more refinement and unfold more naturally than those on the band's earlier records. This one is also more overtly spiritual and meditative than past efforts, inspired by Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and the writings of Aldous Huxley. But the most noticeable stylistic adjustment (granted it's still pretty subtle) is the integration of orchestral and choral arrangements, which gives the album a cinematic scope and displays Michael Gira's Ligeti influence more than ever - particularly during the cosmic intro of "Frankie M," which sounds as if it came straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of these things add up to what I believe is not just the best album of Swans' reformation, but the best of any Swans incarnation.
2016 has been the cruelest year in recent memory when it's come to the loss of musical legends; Blackstar essentially forecasted that. Upon first listen, it immediately became my favorite Bowie album and it suggested such great potential for his late career. I was far from the only one whose hopes were dashed just a few days later. Truly a bittersweet masterpiece.
Conceptually, there is a lot going on with BBF - it uses the hosted mixtape format to satirize English nationalism and grime culture, and on top of that, it's a tragic character study of the titular DJ Escrow, who portrays a pirate radio host aspiring to be a rapper. The music here might fall short for some, considering the notorious opening mantra, the brevity of most tracks, the somewhat kitschy production, and Dean Blunt's underwritten raps (if you've heard any of his freestyles you know to expect a pastiche of gangsta clichés). But personally, I think these things work in Babyfather's favor and give this album a really fulfilling arc.
I'll admit that even though her previous album Animism took home the Polaris Prize in 2014, I was really only familiar with Tanya Tagaq through her contributions to Björk's a cappella album Medúlla. But a few years ago I got into throat singing and vocal acrobatics when I discovered Koichi Makigami's material on Tzadik, and that drew me to Tanya's latest release, Retribution. There are tribal soundscapes here that actually call to mind Koichi's last release, but on the whole Tanya's music is more visceral and cathartic. A few tracks here build to rocking crescendos and there's even a rap cut that goes over surprisingly well. Most importantly, Tanya's voice is strong as hell throughout and her environmental and social commentary, while not particularly nuanced, is respectable.
The Earth and the Sky finds Current 93 pianist Reinier van Houdt performing 11 compositions written by Michael Pisaro over the past two decades. These pieces span three discs and total almost four hours, which is obviously a whole lot of time to spend listening to van Houdt's minimalist piano playing with only occasional embellishments by Pisaro's electronics and field recordings. Still, I dig these sparse and sprawling soundscapes and think they make for perfect background listening.
Community is Graham Lambkin's first solo album since 2011's Amateur Doubles, which is probably my favorite ambient recording of this decade. This new LP has more in common with the sound collage approach of Salmon Run and, as usual, anyone who's into sound design should take note - Graham's collages are pretty much in a league all their own. However, there are notable changes this time around, including the introduction of spoken word and more original instrumentation to the mix. This almost gives Community the vibe of a singer-songwriter album... albeit a very unorthodox one.
Echoing the sentiments of everybody who's heard this album, my heart goes out to Nick Cave. I'm not familiar with a set of songs that explore the anguish of grief to the extent that Skeleton Tree does. Nick's voice is just so vulnerable throughout, and the band complements him perfectly with drones and arrangements that range from murky to ethereal. "Girl in Amber," in particular, gives me chills every time.
Well, this didn't end up being Lulu 2. Not sure why people thought it would be, seeing as Mark Kozelek's early work with the Red House Painters heavily influenced the melancholic type of post-rock Jesu specializes in. Also, Lulu's an awesome album anyway, but I'm getting off track. Of all the Koz's collaborations, I'm glad this is the one that's getting a follow-up. Mark does well to match the energy of Justin's instrumentals and I consider the track "America's Most Wanted" to be the high-water mark of his diaristic songwriting process. My only gripe is that the electronic numbers slightly pale in comparison to the ones that rock, but judging from the new singles, it does sound as though the beats will have a bit more character on the sequel. I enjoy those tracks' off-color subject matters as well, so my hopes for the Koz's 2017 output couldn't be higher.
Going into Plastic House on Base of Sky, I was becoming one of those "go back to metal" Kayo Dot fans. Coffins on Io was a little all over the place and probably my least favorite Toby Driver-related project to date. Thankfully, PHOBOS's aesthetic is way more consistent, and while the synthetic direction is a major change of pace for the band, the progressive and dense compositions still scream Toby Driver. I actually hope he keeps listening to those anime soundtracks; wouldn't mind more like this.
On Perdurance, Jute Gyte develops a breed of microtonal, polytempic, and electronically-tinged black metal that, if you share Anthony's sensibilities, will probably give you a headache. But this unrelenting limits-pushing is sort of what's missing from so much metal at this point. Jute Gyte's chord progressions are seriously twisted, bordering on Brancian at times; and there are ambient interludes spattered throughout that offer some beauty, as well as some much needed breathing space. The climax of the closing track was the greatest musical payoff I heard all year - "overwhelming" doesn't even begin to describe it.
This album dropped at the end of 2015, but I didn't get to hear it until earlier this year. Księżyc is kind of a cult avant-folk outfit from Poland who had been almost completely silent since the release of their self-titled debut back in 1996. Rabbit Eclipse broke this silence and it's totally worth checking out if the sound of "droning Slavic folk music" piques your curiosity.
Yes, Xiu Xiu had some very strong source material to work with for this Twin Peaks tribute, but that doesn't change the fact that they knocked it out of the park. The band's selection and sequencing is brilliant, and they put their own spin on Badalamenti's music while still preserving all of its charm and horror. With a series as extraordinary and evocative as Twin Peaks, that's no small task.
Tomutonttu is the solo moniker of Jan Anderzén, frontman of the Finnish free folk group Kemialliset Ystävät. KY's previous album Alas rattoisaa virtaa is pretty much the most blissed-out thing I've heard in my life and is an all-time fave. Trarat here, while not quite as colorful, has enough of the qualities that made that album so magical.
I much prefer the warmth of Love Streams to the bleakness I've come to associate with Tim Hecker's previous efforts. I don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory way - those albums are by no means all doom and gloom and there's an apocalyptic beauty to Ravedeath and Virgins, for instance. On the whole, though, I just find Love Streams to be more alluring.
I was skeptical going into Human Story 3; it was James Ferraro's most memeable project since Far Side Virtual and it seemed to be sort of a thematic retread, as well. But I ended up loving a lot about it - James takes a whimsical approach to postminimalism that, for me, has a similar charm to the works of Scott Johnson, and his commentary on commerce and technology comes across as oddly poignant at times. James really proved his chops as a composer this year (s/o to Burning Prius ® too).
Not gonna lie, this thing's a bit of a mess, especially once it reaches the closing track "Bezel II." There are a few spots where Hunter comes up with compositions that sound either half-baked or cluttered, but for the most part, this is some of the most inventive and densely-detailed electronic music I've ever heard. The centerpiece "Ontological Love" alone makes New Introductory Lectures worthwhile. Fuck, I even think Hunter gets a good flow going toward the backend of that one.
And that has been my 2016 list. I appreciate you for reading the whole way through and hope you got something out of it. If you did, be sure to hit up Anthony on Twitter to tell him how much more patrician I am than him - those were his favorite messages to get last year. But seriously, I don't know when or how you guys will hear from me again so I wanna wish you all a happy holiday season and whatever else until I write another feature. Forever!
The weekly segment in which Anthony touches down on some of the best and worst tracks he has heard in the past week.