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!!