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)

Picture 1 of 10

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. 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

New mix: Renaissance

Renaissance mix by deemo - cover

**this mix has been taken down**

*slinks shamefully back into blogging mode*

Now that wedding season is over, I can devote some more time to this little outlet right here. Starting with this mix, which I’m feeling rather cheery about. It’s a bit more four-on-the-floor, and there’s almost no scratching; the mixing is a little tighter, and there are a few new artists in it that ought to make you spit out your retainer in delight. Look for posts soon on the latest from Rustie and Martyn (sampled below), the Radiohead remix album and more.

1. Rustie – “All Nite”
2. S-X – “Expensive Talk”
3. Radiohead – “Give Up The Ghost (Brokenchord remix)”
4. Pixelord – “Fish Touch (Busted by heRobust”
5. Ras G and the Alkebulan Space Program – “One 4 Steve EL”
6. Letherette – “Bruse”
7. Om Unit – “The Corridor (Kromestar’s Classroom Seven mix)”
8. Aphex Twin – “Quex-RD”
9. Venice – “New Earth”
10. Slugabed – “Whirlpool”
11. Lone – “Blossom Quarter”
12. Martyn – “Pop Gun”
13. Jacques Greene – “I Like You”
14. Four Tet – “Locked”

Top 5 Singles/EPs of 2011 So Far (Ivory Tower edition)

As I write these words high above downtown Torontopiaville in the 300th floor of the Communications Complex, I recognize that it isn’t as easy as it once was for me to keep in touch with the streets. Are they still watching? Who is to say, really. The next time I take my private elevator to the ground floor and straight into a waiting limo, I will pause for a moment and raise a moistened finger to the air. In the meantime you have this deeply out of touch list, which I hope will let you in on what the caviar-munching, world-travelling elites such as myself are listening to. Behold: the top singles of the year, ivory-tower edition.

1. BlawanGetting Me Down 12″ (white label)

When I heard this first on a 2562 podcast it lodged itself in my brain, but it took me a while to realize how bad I needed it in my life — prompting a frantic Sunday vinyl search on my last full day in London. You might ascribe the addictive properties of Blawan’s meisterwurk to the admittedly bitchin’ Brandy sample. But if you checked his Bohla EP (on R&S, who are giving Brainfeeder a run for their money as label of the year) you’d recognize that blend of hard, ricocheting percussion and sand-blasted tech influences with the well-oiled grooves of UK garage and funky as the mark of a singular voice. Having a vocal carry “Getting Me Down” makes it more immediate, more openly pop, than Blawan’s other stuff, but the tuneless shudder from the depths of the song’s water-tight hull makes it twice as scary � and as thrilling � as any of your harder tech or dubstep. We’re gonna need a bigger boat to haul in a sound as potently heavy as this.

Blawan ‘Getting Me Down’ (White label) by punchdrunkmusicdotcom

2. Mono/PolyManifestations EP (Brainfeeder)

The G-funk legacy hangs over the Brainfeeder stable like, um, well, guess. But where plenty of beat-types turn to the Cameo- and Isleys-sampling so beloved by Death Row alums, Mono/Poly pours the aesthetic through 36 chambers of dread and unease to produce something a little rougher than expected. “Forest Dark” is like Moroder-pop synths wandering down a dark alley and witnessing a crowd gathered around a dog fight; “Punch The Troll In The Neck” prods you with edgy tones like a riot cop on a sugar high; “Needs Deodorant” makes a pimptastic groove into a slightly screechy, agitated answer to “The Hustle.” I never liked ‘relaxing’ music that much, anyway.

Mono/Poly – Needs Deodorant by factmag

3. Four Tet/Thom Yorke/Burial – Ego/Mirror 12″ (Text)

It’s not just the name recognition that bumped this on here. I swear. (Though did I tell you I totally interviewed Four Tet, while he was holding a BABY?) Truth: the most exciting thing about this star-studded (and when has that adjective ever actually implied anything other than potential disappointment?) single is that it sounds like they pressed it inside out, upside down and backwards. Both tunes are little more than uptempo house rhythms with ghostly swirls of melody and Yorke’s vocal dancing in and out. You can sort of see why Radiohead are commissioning remixes from proper dance producers like Jacques Greene and Lone — after this single, you realize that the problem with King of Limbs isn’t that their song ideas aren’t good, it’s just that the beats are shit. Outsourcing: sorry Thom, but it’s the way of the future.

Burial, Four Tet & Thom Yorke – Mirror by ListenBeforeYouBuy

4. LoneEcholocations EP (R&S)

More R&S delectation. I like to think the classic, relaunched Belgian label is annoying the shit out of techno purists with people like James Blake and the much more fun-loving Lone, who throws all kinds of sophisticated synth processing and acid house touchstones in with blatant ‘ardkore references and other hallmarks of someone who really doesn’t give a fuck so long as it’s fun. On the other hand, I also like to think that people who are discerning enough to love Detroit techno are also smart enough to recognize genius moves like the barmy glockenspiel arpeggios all over “Coreshine Voodoo” when they hear it.

Lone – Echolocations by GammaRay

5. Azari & IIIManic 12″ (Loose Lips)

Speaking of being wildly out of touch, I haven’t heard the Azari and III album yet. (Doesn’t help that I’m over my quota with my ISP, in the latest in a series of small acts of charity that have blown up into giant pains in the ass. But enough about me.) Pretty sure it’ll be good, though, since with every release they’ve figured out ever fresher ways to make vintage Chicago house sounds without slavishly imitating them. “Manic” isn’t totally faithful to any particular era of house, which is probably why I like it — the effervescent arpeggiated basslines, the doubled n’ detuned vocals that people keep comparing to Prince for reasons I can’t quite fathom, and the straight-up DJ Sneak remix that makes it much more likely to make mainstream clubbers’ heads explode without losing most of the things that make the original awesome. Always a good sign.

Azari & III – Manic by PurplePR

Honourable Mentions:

Hudson Mohawke – Satin Panthers EP
Slugabed – Moonbeam Rider EP
TOKiMONSTA – Creature Dreams EP
Com Truise – Fairlight EP
Drake – “Headlines” (mostly for the beat)
Mo Kolours – EP1: Drum Talking
Shigeto – “And We Gonna (Samiyam Chopsticks rmx)” – Full Circle Remixes
Venice – Animals, Stars and other Psychedelic Creatures
Wiley – “Numbers In Action”
Prodigy – Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP
Flying Lotus – Pattern + Grid World EP
Discodeine – “Synchronize (f. Jarvis Cocker)”

The best albums of 2011 so far coming soon!