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

New mix: There’s Gonna Be Good Times

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Jus a lil something to take to cookouts, the park, the highway, the pool, the stoop, the club, the basement, the gym, the sauna and anywhere else that needs a summery soundtrack. Dyn-o-mite!

Click here to download from Mediafire

 

Deemo – There’s Gonna Be Good Times by Deemo on Mixcloud

1. Beyonce – Drunk in Love
2. Freddie Gibbs – White Range
3. Rae Sremmurd – Up Like Trump
4. Big Sean, Pusha T, Kanye West, 2 Chainz – Mercy
5. 2 Chainz feat Drake – No Lie
6. Three 6 Mafia – Poppin My Collar
7. TNGHT – Higher Ground
8. T.I. feat Young Thug – About The Money
9. Sia – Chandelier
10. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood
11. Jamie XX feat. Popcaan, Young Thug – Good Times
12. Rihanna – Bitch Betta Have My Money
13. Popcaan – The System
14. Robyn feat. Maluca – Love Is Free
15. Z-Ro – Talking To The Po Po

mixed by dave morris a.k.a. deemo on july 18 2015 for a-void.ca

Top 5 Faux-EDM Pop Songs That Won’t Drive You To Kitchen Tool-Related Violence

 

5. Pitbull f Ne Yo – Give Me Everything

Wait didn’t I say in that other EDM post that Pitbull was like the saddest excuse for a “musician” since they made John Travolta sing in Grease? Well, kind of. And I would be fairly happy to have him scrubbed from my memory Total Recall-style, or just via a mild head injury. But many great 90s Euro cheese singles had useless eaters “rapping” on their tracks, and sometimes they moved the cut forward. They just didn’t get top billing over Ne-Yo, who carries an excruciatingly catchy melody through a series of chord changes and production fillips from Dutch producer Afrojack so that every 16 bars feels like a different song. Every time I think “this hook is going to get really annoying,” they switch it up and do something else. When the song ends, you’re like, “that’s it?”

4. Icona Pop ft Charli XCX – I Love It

I might be fairly accused of not giving the (usually female) front-people credit for the songs that work, and privileging the work of the (usually male) producer. Which is a fair cop, although I think we could rectify this by allowing me to have sex with whoever I want, in which case I would be much more agreeable in general. At any rate, producer Patrik Berger might have done a bunch of other great tunes including Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, but he’s not what makes this track work. It’s all in the chant by the Icona Pop ladies. This is the best song to yell along with since Ben Folds Five’s Song For The Dumped, or possibly Toni Basil’s Hey Mickey, and has probably already caused/inspired more vehicular accidents than Thelma and Louise. Tell me this song wouldn’t be the perfect soundtrack for bumper cars.

3. Britney Spears – I Wanna Go

Nothing can keep Brit Brit down, even if she is a shell of her former batshit crazy self. Every album produces number one hits, and whatever her failings as a celebrity burnout (as in, she’s a much less entertaining walking clusterfuck than she used to be), she knows how to pick collaborators. The unfuckwithable Max Martin and his current producer du jour, Shellback, have the wisdom to make Britney the star of the track while still layering in all kinds of production tricks like those delightful stuttered vocals on the chorus. Also: whistling. Why don’t more pop songs have whistling? And what ever happened to baseball cards that came with gum? PS I am old.

2. LMFAO – Party Rock Anthem

It actually physically pains me to praise anything LMFAO do, except for that one fight with Mitt Romney on an airplane which was probably the best act of civil disobedience a celebrity has ever been involved with. But praise them we must, along with man-behind-the-curtain GoonRock, because despite being more brain-dead than a zombie Kelly Osbourne, LMFAO have somehow made one of the decade’s great floor-fillers. And you can’t just credit the production, even if that octave-jumping synth has launched a thousand songs I would rather punch myself in the nuts than ever hear again — it’s as much the little lyrical throws away like numb-nuts #1’s “every day I’m shufflin” or numb-nuts #2’s “alright stop… hatin is bad” that make the tune. OK so they made a good one. Now let us never speak of LMFAO again. Please.

1. Rihanna – Where Have You Been

Whenever I am in the position of defending pop music’s inherent value to the great unwashed (rock fans and/or old people), I often think of bringing up this song, but don’t. For one thing, mentioning Rihanna and her air-horn of a voice to pop skeptics is like waving a bag of Cheetos in front of a stoner – it confuses them and makes them lunge at you, then forget what they were doing and sit down awkwardly. I digress. But more pertinently, Where Have You Been is the song to play for pop haters who like dance music, because aside from having an excellent vocal from Ri Ri, such as it is (she has a style, it’s instantly recognizable, and she uses her full vocal range here for once), this is an absolutely impeccable dance music production. The build-up through the first minute and a half is as epic as anything those mayonnaise-on-fries-eating tools from Rotterdam have ever come up with, from the gradual un-filtering of the kick to the stadium-sized synth stabs and finally the pure acieeed 303 squelch that eventually takes over the track and leads you into the next verse without making you realize the chorus is over until it’s long gone.

Seriously, this cut has everything, it’s a smorgasbord of rhythmic layering that just keeps relentlessly pushing upwards toward an orgasmic conclusion that’s always just around the next breakdown. AND they never get cringe-inducingly corny with it, which is more than you can say for pretty much every track with this much build that has ever been made. It’s hard to know from the laundry list of producers who did what, but Dr Luke and Cirkut (a Canadian, funnily enough, ex of mildly interesting former Last Gang signing Let’s Go To War), Calvin Harris and Ester Dean — all of them in possession of resumes that’d make a label exec hyperventilate — truly outdo themselves. Somewhere in pop music heaven this song is on constant repeat, probably on somebody’s fucking bullshit tinny-ass mobile phone speakers, but whatever. Fuck it, we’re done here.