The 50 Best Albums of 2016

In this post: an introduction, reviews of the top 10 albums of the year, a complete top 50 list, and a streaming playlist with a track from every top 50 album save for those not on Spotify. See you in 2017!

There were no seismic shifts in the pop landscape in 2016, nor in 2015, nor in 2014, nor in recent memory. The last time I remember feeling a legit sense of the earth moving under my feet (um, ears?) was when in 2006-2007 the Neptunes and Timbaland ceded ground to Kanye West’s now-dated chipmunked vocal samples, The White Stripes (and before them, The Strokes) firmly rewrote the pop-rock template and the Dixie Chicks told the world they weren’t ready to make nice. All the change since then has felt incremental, which may be a function of my age, but aside from maybe Drake and 40, who has rewritten the playbook — anyone’s playbook? Maybe it doesn’t work like that anymore. Technological change can generally be seen only in the rear-view mirror, but I can’t help thinking it’s changing the way the music evolves. Weep for the future historians who have to find a through-line in the evolution of music in the teens.

If that’s the way things are, or will be, then 2016 was the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the absence of a bomb. None of the albums on my top 10 list feel like any kind of quantum leap forward, but they are all masterful and constantly stimulating, even surprising, on the tenth or even fiftieth listen. It’s pretty shocking to me that a straight-up gangsta rap record like Still Brazy or an instrumental-rock spazzout like Return To Sky would end up atop my list, to the point that I often wonder whether I’ve started privileging the familiar over the unexpected as a kind of defensive mechanism, against the shell-shock of the new. But the flipside of that is my disdain for the records proclaimed as epochal (Arcade Fire *durrr*, Taylor Swift *yawn*) has made me more enthusiastic about records that feature maturing talents, like Blonde, and that showcase mature artists operating at their peak, like Anguis Oleum and A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s exciting to be around when the music world is being turned upside down, but it’s no consolation prize to bear witness to a crop of artists who be doin it and doin it and doin it well.

1. Frank Ocean - Blonde (Boys Don't Cry)

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Team Frank Ocean was already a heaving bandwagon when Blonde dropped, though to these ears the hype was premature when Channel Orange was the only evidence on offer. Whatever, I probably wouldn't have thought Prince was a genius on the basis of his first album, and yet, and yet. Blonde is plenty full of genius-signaling greatness, in flashes of wry lyrical humor ("did you call me from a seance? You from my past life") and epic ballads like "White Ferrari" that just scream This Is Everything You Never Dared Hope He Could Become. There's something in Ocean's ability to leave a line hanging in the synth-soaked, sometimes guitar-wrist-flick-punctuated air. He owns the space between words, shapes it invisibly with the last line and the next one. Even the funkier moments like "Pink + White" are expertly paced hops from one melodic cloud to the next, with his signature move of brightening the harmony in mid-lyric. More than any other impulse he seems to have, Frank Ocean just loves to yank the listener from nostalgic, sometimes idyllic images drenched in romance to mundane, pungent detail about drugs or, often, driving. "We're alone, making sweet love, taking time / but god strikes us!" To me, the centerpiece of the album is "Solo" for the simple reason that it works on a granular detail level -- capturing a moment of pure bliss from an acid trip on a dance floor -- but it also works its way gradually through a heartbreak that left him alone, exposed without a lover and without the rhythm section whose absence leaves a joy-shaped hole in the track. Absence and space are the most expressive parts of the album, and knowing how to play them is irrefutable proof that Frank Ocean has ascended to a higher plane. Though if he really were some kind of god, he'd be the kind that likes to day-trip back to earth, maybe as a swan, just to mess with some poor human for a few hours before returning skyward.

 Selections from a-void’s Best Albums of 2016

 The List: 1-10

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
2. YG – Still Brazy (400/CTE/Def Jam)
3. Lorenzo Senni – Persona (Warp)
*4. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Anguis Oleum (Screwgun)
5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – FRKWAYS Vol 13: Sunergy (RVNG Intl)
6. Causa Sui – Return To Sky (El Paraiso)
7. Pangaea – In Drum Play (Hessle Audio)
8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
9. DVA [HI:EMOTIONS] – Notu_Ironlu (Hyperdub)
10. Kaytranada – 99.9 (XL)

 11-50

11. Pet Shop Boys – Super (X2)
12. Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP (Def Jam)
13. Weaves – Weaves (Buzz)
14. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Matador)
15. Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yr Not (Jagjaguwar)
16. Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
17. Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (Atlantic)
18. *Purling Hiss – High Bias (Drag City)
19. A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend)
20. *Useless Eaters – Relaxing Death (Castle Face)
21. The Gaslamp Killer – Instrumentalepathy (Gaslamp Killer Music)
22. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Dirty Hit/Interscope/Polydor/Vagrant)
23. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
24. Bardo Pond feat Guru Guru and Acid Mothers Temple – Acid Guru Pond (Fire)
25. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)
26. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service (Epic/Sony)
27. Kenny Barron – Book Of Intuition (Impulse/Universal)
28. Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)
29. Hieroglyphic Being And The Configurative Or Modular Me Trio – Cosmic Bebop (Mathematics)
30. Camera – Phantom of Liberty (Bureau B)
31. Rihanna – Anti (Def Jam)
32. The Field – The Follower (Kompakt)
33. Trevino – Front (C Birdie)
34. Marquis Hawkes – Social Housing (Houndstooth)
35. Warpaint – Heads Up (XL)
36. *Fp-oner – 6 (Mule Musiq)
37. Lone – Levitate (R&S)
38. *Lawrence – Yoyogi Park (Mule Musiq)
39. Black Milk and Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly)
40. Pye Corner Audio – Stasis (Ghost Box)
41. Africaine 808 – Basar (Golf Channel)
42. *Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
43. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution (Blue Note)
44. Jakob Skott – All The Colours of the Dust (El Paraiso)
45. Dynamis – Distance (Tectonic)
46. Gerry Read – Chubby Cheeks (Timetable)
47. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Columbia/Sony)
48. Steve Haushcildt – Strands (Kranky)
49. Future – EVOL (Epic/Sony)
50. Prins Thomas – Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)

* = not on Spotify

a-void.ca’s best albums of 2014

Click here to listen to the Soundcloud playlist, featuring tracks from each album

WHERE IS T-SWIFT?

Ok, I admit it, I didn’t listen to it. Nor did I get through albums by Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Keyshia Cole, Calvin Harris, et al and sundry. I also didn’t hear all of Ariel Pink, Foxygen, Swans, TV on the Radio, Leonard Cohen, Julian Casablancas and too many others to count. Don’t even talk to me about jazz or country. (I wouldn’t have much of interest to say.) So WTF *did* I listen to? I’m not even sure how to describe it. Dave-core? Morris-dance? …maybe it’s better if I don’t.

This is the odd post-poptimist desert I feel like I’ve been sent to, via my escape pod hurtling from the full time music-crit grind. The barriers have all fallen – like a lot of right-thinking people, I’m perfectly happy to flip flop from Nicki Minaj to Neil Young to Young Thug in the space of an hour, but what happens when you don’t have time to devote to what might properly be called truly Catholic tastes? Does my embracing of a specialty – electronic music, not even really including the hip-hop that used to be part of my professional bag – mean I’ve re-embraced some of the biases I spent the early 2000s working to shed, like an earnest young Chinese party bureaucrat devouring Marx and Mao, and then giving it up in favour of Day Trading For Dummies?

It’s not a question of openness, I’ve realized, but a question of how you apportion your listening time. For better or for worse, I shoved the stuff that seemed like a long shot into a hard drive folder marked ‘Later’ and threw on another platter of grime, and this is the list that came out.. There was certainly no kind of shortage of amazing electronics to digest; the volume of almost-worthy discs attests to that. (Sorry Tre Mission, SBTRKT, DMX Krew, Shi Wisdom, Mark McGuire, Run The Jewels, Pop Ambient 2015, I could go on.) The LPs that did make the cut seemed not quite dancefloor friendly, except in an abstract sense. Bits and pieces of LV and Joshua Idehen, Caribou, Distal et al slipped into my mixes with scant friction. But the inventiveness I loved often didn’t fit in the space between floor-filling singles, not that I mind. Still, this is a list borne of someone who experienced dance music in 2014 mostly in a bedroom or between headphones. Simon Reynolds’ inveighing against IDM-like anti-dancefloorism aside, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The startling truth is that being kind of lazy, in terms of challenging your sense of what you like, can still be an astonishingly rich listening experience. There was enough originality and delight in my year in albums to make the absence of all that pop and hip-hop I missed feel about as painful as the knowledge that I didn’t eat nearly enough artisanal cheese in the last twelve months – not quite the sting of regret as much as the vague acknowledgement that I may have missed something good, possibly, but it’s not keeping me up at night.

If I had one thing I would ask of dance music in 2015, it would be for the most hypnotic, challenging, arresting, electrifying albums to be a little more melodic. I love the discs I chose, but as a whole I felt like my diet was a smidge on the grey side. Producers like Mumdance and Logos, Peverelist, Objekt and others put out single after single of holy-shit-guys-listen-to-this-ism, but when I put them all in a mix, I ended up taking a bunch out and replacing them with some chooons to break up the monotony. And the grab-bag of albums felt roughly the same, though I didn’t curate this list in a similar way. You can’t turn down a slamming, mesmerizing beat like the ones all over the Next Life comp or the Clap! Clap! record, melody or no. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

LPs: Hercules & Love Affair get bitchy, The Horrors take speed + Future, Jakob Skott

herculesloveaffair

Hercules and Love Affair
The Feast of the Broken Heart
Moshi Moshi

I’m trying to think of a more spine-tingling sound than the bit in Hercules and Love Affair’s “That’s Not Me” when a vocal stab from Gustaph launches off into the ionosphere on a rocket made of echo. Nope, can’t do it. The new Hercules album is less an album than a collection of singles; to complain about that is like complaining that a box of doughnuts isn’t a cake. The amazing thing is that they’ve managed to make a set of tunes that are sufficiently weird and different from each other that it doesn’t suffer from the track-y-ness that some dance albums – especially house albums – suffer. “The Light” is thick and intense, with Krystle Warren giving a smouldering performance, while the single “Do You Feel The Same?” rides a perfect bit of moody 303 bass to a pulse-quickening chorus. And if you don’t totally love the throwbackness of the old-movie-dialog-snippets on “5.43 to Freedom” (“shit-kicker! Or a clever girl!… no, she’s a hippie! A communist! Probably a speed freak!”) then you need to explore your inner bitch.

jakobskott

Jakob Skott
Amor Fati
El Paraiso

The number one complaint lobbed at Krautrock/kosmiche-style music is that, with the lack of harmonic and rhythmic invention and the focus on subtle change, it’s boring. The number two complaint about Krautrock/kosmiche-style music is that it’s repetitive, which is another way of saying that it’s boring. This, I’m afraid, is inevitable; arguably, it’s actually the whole point of a certain influential school of minimalism that strives to reach beyond linear structure; in other words, it’s supposed to be boring. Part of why I find Causa Sui drummer Jakob Skott’s Amor Fati so fascinating is that, for an instrumental record that fits firmly in the Kraut school in terms of repetition and harmonic simplicity, it’s still really active, ie. not boring. “Araucaria Fire” has three notes in it and it’s 8 minutes long. And yet, the swirl of distended synth squeals and Skott’s fairly virtuosic drumming are easy to nod along with. Neither is it jam-band-ish, which was my fear; the bits that are active are in the foggy middle-distance, while the most in-your-face bits are the repetitive ones. It’s an amazing formula that feels like a worthy successor to another drummer’s masterpiece, Harald Grosskopf’s Synthesist, if Synthesist had a title track that veered into Sabbath-y doom rock for a few thrilling minutes.

horros-lumi

The Horrors
Luminous
XL/Beggars Group Canada

I have a soft spot for painfully slow music, eg. screwed & chopped music, certain trip-hop (Tricky, Massive Attack, Portished and basically nothing else in that fetid dumpster of a subgenre), this mix, etc. After the hypnotically languid Skying, The Horrors have jacked up the BPMs slightly on Luminous and I have to admit, as arbitrary as it sounds, I’m not as into it. I have been known to complain about such things – the most hate-mail I ever got was for a live review of LCD Soundsystem where I lamented their playing all of Sound of Silver like it was being run through a tape-deck set to high-speed dubbing – but seriously, the absolute brilliance of their syrupy proto-shoegaze textures are somewhat less effective when you can’t linger on them. Though props for the MBV-jacking “Jealous Sun” and the gently loping “So Now You Know.” More to come after I see them live this summer…

future-honest-deluxe-cover

Future
Honest
Epic/Sony

Rappers, stop putting Andre 3000 on your albums. I was thoroughly enjoying Future’s frothy new disc – he even holds his own with Pusha T on “Move That Dope” – until I got to “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)” and had to listen to it four times to absorb every syllable. Just go listen, I’ll wait. Dre did it to Unk on the “Walk It Out” remix – “see, to me, your white tee, looks more like a nightgown / make your momma proud, take that thing two sizes down.” Now how you gonna be Unk after that? How you gonna wave a chain around and mumble just like every other rapper? Even Future, who admittedly has a pretty good thing going with his plaintive Auto-Tune croak, and who fits into Mike Will Made It’s production snugly like a rim into a tire, sounds like a dumb-ass talking about his money after Dre’s anti-car-fetish screed, ending with “I will ride my fuckin’ bike, or walk.” BURRRRRRN.

Of course, the balance is righted by Kanye’s verse on “I Won,” though when I say “verse” I really mean “horrifying Mad Libs word-association that had to have been written by a not-very-enthused intern.” “You the number one trophy wife / so it’s only right you live the trophy life”  AAAAAAARGHGHGGHHU02u450tf3djqwofhewfefw.!@@$!@#! *kicks monitor over, skulks off*