February 4, 2017 by Wayne.
50. Shura – Nothing’s Real; 49. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!; 48. Hammock – Everything and Nothing; 47. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face; 46. Stimming – Alpe Lusia; 45. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake; 44. The Avalanches – Wildflower; 43. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service; 42. Deftones – Gore; 41. Banks – The Altar; 40. Run The Jewels – RTJ3; 39. Skepta – Konnichiwa; 38. David Bowie – Blackstar; 37. James Blake – The Colour in Anything; 36. Bat for Lashes – The Bride
35. O’Brother – Endless Light
34. BADBADNOTGOOD – IV // Damien Jurado – Visions of Us on the Land
33. YG – Still Brazy
32. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
31. Justin Hurwirtz – La La Land OST
30. Xiu Xiu – Plays The Music of Twin Peaks
29. Logic – Bobby Tarantino
28. Mr. Lif – Don’t Look Down
27. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
26. Apollo Brown & Skyzoo – The Easy Truth // Devendra Banhart – Ape in Pink Marble
25. The Body – No One Deserves Happiness
Shoegaze sludge meets True Detective nihilism meets a pummeling crescendo of doom and noise. Harsh and unforgiving. Just like life, eh?
24. Warpaint – Heads Up
Gloomy, glum and…adventurous? While they largely tread the same road as prior albums – ie. downtempo, atmospheric, and wistful songs – Heads Up brings in confident flourishes and minor experimentation that make the tracks some of the most gorgeously satisfying they’ve churned out in a while. If it’s your first time with Warpaint, welcome to a woozy, heady dreamland. If it’s not, well, welcome back.
23. Mono – Requiem for Hell
Oh, Mono. They’ve reached a point where you come into a Mono album largely knowing (correctly) exactly what to expect. It’s hard to say if that’s good or bad.
22. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Yes, Lemonade was horrendous and perfectly representative of the artifice of commercial pop. And I’m sorry for bringing it up. It’s unfair to Solange to bring it into the conversation. A Seat at the Table stands alone (poor word choice intentional). It’s not exactly Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, or even Kdot’s searing To Pimp a Butterfly, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t stand for the same lofty ideals. This is motown and neo-R&B thrown around pop numbers that speak plainly of the troubled, often conflicted experience of a black woman. But instead of the anger, aggressiveness or even tired acceptance that one would expect, A Seat at the Table reigns it all in for a restrained celebration of thriving in spite of injustice.
20. AURORA – All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend
It’s not great. There are an awful number of filler tracks, for one. It’s a vague blend of Meg Myers, new-Sia and a splash of Lykke Li that adds up to an album featuring some searing singles and largely mesmerizing tales of loss, sorrow and introspection (at least when it doesn’t descend into filler territory). Props to this 19 year old though – and it apparently is very necessary to mention her age in every single review about the album – for delivering the bleakness in such a rapturous, heady package.
20. Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann – Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann
Psych-rock (actually inventive psych-rock!) meets free jazz in this thunderous, brutish, and meaty whirlwind of an album. It’s inventive. It’s demanding. And it’s labyrinthine in its ferocious interplay. All of that hints perhaps at a complex record requiring deep focus to get into, or to just “get” at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is deeply, deeply addictive stuff.
19. Pinegrove – Cardinal
The songs shuffle back and forth, as Evan drawls his way through all-too-relatable tales of introspection and – most crucially – friendships. And the central theme is that of language. The limits of our language may be the limits of our worlds, but sometimes words fall far short of bridging the ever-growing gaps between us. And sometimes you have tracks like Aphasia that are just exquisitely, painfully gorgeous.
18. Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Reggae f0lk? Psych-jazz? Tropical Americana? Plucky pop? Yes. The answer is yes.
17. PUP – The Dream Is Over
Intoxicating and intense. Equal parts self-deprecating and radically happy. I hesitate to say punk pop because of the horrendous connotations but there isn’t a better label to describe the joyously melodic and intense tracks that PUP rips through. They also sound incredible on live videos, can only imagine how amazing it would be to experience them in a gig in a small setting (ahem Black Box?). Unbelievably ferocious stuff from these lads.
16. Fire! – She Sleeps, She Sleeps
Potent, fiery jazz. Phrases are frenetically exchanged and overridden, referenced and morphed, built on into a workmanlike theme or an atmospheric repetition or a storming climax that churns out of an initial cauldron of controlled chaos. This is punk and avant-garde and doom through the workings of the standard jazz trio. The tension is palpable throughout. The momentum is insistent. This is an immense album that pounds its way gymnastically into your brain and refuses to leave. It only places this low in the list because of the sheer length of two of the four tracks – they quite honestly get exhausting at some points.
15. Angel Olsen – My Woman
An intricate album that sees Angel Olsen’s brand of genuine sparse folk get introduced to the filters of dream pop and modern production. Olsen’s vibrato is an abstract warble that pierces through the happiest of background tunes and bare expressions of longing alike. Every song here feels like a rumination on solitude. And yet there isn’t (only) sadness in said solitude; it feels like a shared understanding of the feverish isolation we all face. There are weak spots but for the most part My Woman succeeds tremendously.
14. KAYTRANADA – 99.9%
Restlessly inventive with poly-rhythms and shimmering synths washing through the entire record. Starts off fairly plain but quickly builds momentum into a gorgeously warm and unabashedly groovy collection of tracks. All the guests hit the right spots, lending to the feel of an electric, eclectic stew of genres and collaborators.
13. ot to, not to – Goshen
Folk in the new world. Sparse but electronic, experimental but authentically unpolished, harsh and unpleasant but ultimately awash with genuine songwriting. The songs are ultimately very much melodic, almost to an addictive level. It brings to mind scratchy blues records, or at times even the punk cassettes of latter day. The final end result is a small and intimate album that feels like a heartfelt exploration of life from a living room. If that makes sense.
12. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Donald Glover spent his first couple of releases bragging about how he was the modern Renaissance man. After toning down the braggadocio in Because the Internet, the donglover hit new heights in 2016 with the incredible TV series Atlanta, followed by an album featuring the most abrupt change of direction since Age of Adz. Looks like he’s finally living up to those claims!
Awaken, My Love! is funk meets prog rock, channeled through the avant-pop stylings of Yeezy and raw sexuality of Prince. Gambino screams, wails and falsettos his way through a scattershot of tracks that range from brilliant exuberance to scratch-the-head joints that fall far outside of the tonal scope of the rest of the record. At times exasperating and other times spellbinding, Awaken, My Love! is a powerful reminder of the manic brilliance that Donald Glover is capable of.
11. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
This would still be in the top albums of the year if the entire album was the opening track alone, all 2 minutes or so of it. Following closely on the heels of TPAB and Black Messiah, Freetown Sound is a tribute to striving and surviving despite systematic oppression. To borrow from Cloud Atlas, it’s no more than a drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?
10. Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery
Nimble and euphoric, the songs shift and morph restlessly with unraveling, seemingly throwaway, lines and hooks within hooks within mesmerizing hooks. Hard to think of another 2016 record that has anywhere as much experimentation with the voice as an instrument. It’s a fascinating album.
9. Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
Gloriously orgiastic at points. All points.
8. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Malibu kicks off with the masterfully constructed and impressively assured opening track The Bird, and it’s hard to see it as anything less than a statement of intent for the rest of the record. Expansive and informed, the album feels like a studio jam session with Anderson .Paak, a long list of guests and sounds from the past. The warm, saturated atmosphere of the songs create a backdrop for the vigorous creative splashes of .Paak and collaborators alike. All roads lead to Come Down though, a mid-album piece that explodes into the one of the most gloriously joyful singles of the year. It leaps and crackles like Funkadelic mashed with James Brown by way of a funk track driven along by a bass line. It’s good, but then again so is the rest of the album.
7. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Chaotic, boorish, vulgar, madcap, ridiculous, frazzled, flat-out stupid, loathsome, cringeworthy, performance art, the joke-is-the-album-not-in-the-album, absurd, the Absurd, dazed, joyous, gospel, choral, ecstatic, agonizing, existential, audacious, samples iconic tracks, iconic.
6. Frank Ocean – Blonde
The second half of the album quite notably drops off – after the searing Solo (Reprise) – but the first portion is a strong enough showing to make it one of the best records of the year. Mesmerizing in its apparent minimalism, Blonde sees a wary, weary Frank Ocean occasionally pierce the veil of nostalgia to face growing up, failed relationships and all the mistakes made along the way. Think channel ORANGE but the sheen scrubbed down to an introspective despondency and the dexterous drawl and crooning focused on exploring the Big Questions. And what an exploration it is! Now for another long wait…
5. Uyama Hiroto – Freeform Jazz
Equal parts delicate and haunting, Freeform Jazz effortlessly blends downtempo beats with ambient soundscapes and jazz of the more laconic, subdued variety. Seb from La La Land may disapprove – and at times the album does indeed threaten to lapse into unthreatening territory, notably before it picks up again starting from Solidscreme – but the tracks are awash with enough tricky fills and delightful sections to lift the record cleanly out from the elevator into a top 5 spot.
4. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Swirls and sizzles like a menacing, brooding acceptance of life and suffering. Or, rather, like devotional hymns raised to the agony of aging and the lessons learnt along the way.
In You Want It Darker, Cohen’s grinding voice scrapes against the unflinching raw lines of poetry and the struggles with religion and other trappings. The choir and the strings ebb and flow in the background, restrained but straining to break into the soaring, orgiastic, ethereal proclamations that the lyrics demand for. And over it all, the voice of the great bard creaks and groans in his parting gift to our transitory world. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.
3. Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being
The album kicks off with Life Itself, a perfect encapsulation of the slickly produced, ever-exciting collage of tracks that soon follow suit. The instrumentation is eclectic, the vocals zip breathily through a peculiar sonic soundscape and the lyrics cover a range as wide as the genres that the album effortlessly dabbles in.
Ultimately though, the best part about it is the unbridled joy flowing through the entire record. All the beeps, boops and vaguely africana sounds add up to an exhilarating collection of songs that aren’t afraid of being brash and exuberant in their celebration of the peculiarities of life. Is this how being happy feels like? What a feeling.
Not just the best pop album of the year (Is this pop? What is pop? Who knows?), How To Be A Human Being cements itself firmly as one of the best releases of recent time.
2. Keaton Henson – Kindly Now
The years following Dear… have been strange ones. Every year or so, Keaton Henson has released yet another soundtrack to the breaking of the heart, yet another anthology questioning how much emotional turmoil one can bear without collapsing under the weight of it all.
In recent years, Keaton Henson has branched out to more adventurous sonic territory (I certainly didn’t expect either Romantic Works or Behaving), but Kindly Now sees him revisiting the sparse palettes of his breakthrough debut. The breakdown here is delicate and as bare as ever, with the quivering falsetto shaking over a sole piano for the most part. And yet, this is a slightly more weathered soul now, and the opening track March announces all the changes that Keaton Henson now brings to the table.
Sure, the album doesn’t hit you in the same devastating way that any single track from Dear… did. At this stage, we know what we’re getting with Keaton Henson. We’ve prepared ourselves emotionally for the onslaught. And to a certain extent, this album more than any other in the list absolutely needs to be understood within the context of the artiste’s entire oeuvre. This is a step away from bleak desolation, an admission that some light can and does shine in, and an understanding that it’s been a long road of constant effort and exertion to reach the stage where that sort of admission can even be made. Keaton Henson is a special, special talent and his albums have become inextricable from my life at this point.
1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
A new Radiohead record is an event. In the lead-up to the follow-up to The King of Limbs (and please let that be the last time I ever mention that album again), online communities – particularly the Radiohead subreddit – went ablaze with theories, memes and listening parties. It was a chaotic time. Recordings of past gigs were swapped. We laughed at seemingly ridiculous clues squirreled out from every bit of information released by the band. We shared stories and jokes, refreshed the page daily, and took comfort from the fact that we were a group of listeners spread across the world united in our eagerness for the next album to finally arrive after 5 long years.
Then Burn the Witch arrived. And Daydreaming. And finally the album itself, but not before the outbursts of sentimentality across the board, as we realized we were moments away from the long-awaited release. And not before this post in particular that struck a chord: “Maybe the real LP9 is the friends we made along the way”.
And what an achievement it is that AMSP lives up to that and more. By default of being Radiohead, each of their releases is judged not simply by its standalone merit but of its ability to make a grand artistic statement. With that in mind, AMSP sees Radiohead with their most grandiose, expansive effort yet. Relentless gorgeous and symphonic, the caresses of swelling strings and plinking pianos interlock and interchange, and the reverb becomes an instrument in itself, muffling and throwing about Yorke’s crooning as the arrangements spin around and unravel themselves delicately in the large cavernous soundscape. As with every Radiohead album, this one deserves multiple replays through neutral studio monitors, through proper headphones driven through an amp, through shitty earbuds on the way to work, through every way possible throughout the day until the songs flow into the hours. And even then, with each replay there’s a new backing vocal line or guitar crescendo to focus on. More than anything, A Moon Shaped Pool resembles an orchestration of the apocalypse -but in a package almost too beautiful to bear. There was never any doubt this would be the record of the year. Thank you, Radiohead. Now if you could just come over for a gig in Malaysia…