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 arguably 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 ambient 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, always gives me chills.
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 was foundational to 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 close to becoming the chamber jazz equivalent of those sad "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 post-minimalism that, for me, has a similar charm to the works of Scott Johnson and even some of Zappa's classical work, 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!