My Top Albums of 2016

December 10, 2016

 

 

 

 

634934910) Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust

The Jayhawks have long since moved on from the bulk of the original twang present in their alt-country beginnings to a more 1970s radio aesthetic which really kind of suits them even better. Rainy Day Music was one of the downright prettiest albums of the ’00s and Paging Mr. Proust almost matched that this year. Mark Olsen’s vocals are just so gorgeous and the soft (but not weak) rock that supports those vocals is full of melody and melancholy. Put on “Isabel’s Daughter” or “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” and you’ll think you’re living in an alternate ideal version of 40 years ago.

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9) Cobalt: Slow Forever

I know the fans loved Gin and with the loss of the two-piece’s original singer most probably didn’t hold much hope for a follow-up album. Yet as raw and talented a vocalist as Wunder was, Cobalt is really drummer Phil McSorley’s band and project. This may be one of the only bands this side of jazz this truly drumcentric. The drums create the thunder and rhythm that propels this warbeast forward, intense and at times overwhelming. However, new vocalist Charlie Fell of Lord Mantis fame perfectly fits right in with an intensity fans of his previous work knew he could match. They work together excellently here (and live). Slow Forever adds swaths of blues, bayou, goth and folk to the black metal stew and in that finds a hauntingly unique sound. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is present once more as he’s the spiritual father of Cobalt in the “Iconoclast” intro to the title track near the end of the record. Cobalt toured with excellent German upstart two-piece Mantar (whose Ode to the Flame this year was also fantastic) showcasing the power of the drum.

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8) Leonard Cohen: You Wanted Darker

Did we Leonard? Did we want darker? If so you certainly delivered. The opening title track might contain Cohen’s darkest imagery to date and that’s quite a feat for a cynic (or an optimist masked as a cynic) like Mr. Cohen. “Treaty” follows up without dialing it back. While listening to this record when it first came out I (like most others) had no idea we would soon lose Cohen. This album seems to be his making peace with death but as always he finds beauty in the darkness and hope in the hopelessness. Recorded minimally in his own home as he was dying he nevertheless sounds strong and timeless. The only other album to come close to this in stark desperation is Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree which somehow managed to find great music in the artist’s struggle to deal with the death of his teen son.

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7) Lydia Loveless: Real

They may market her as “Americana” which really nowadays just means “country that doesn’t suck” as mainstream Nashville continues to disintegrate culturally and musically (a long slow death that bro-country just put the cherry on) but Lydia Loveless is really just great damn country music, to me so good that she reminds you the genre is worthy of attention. Real is a perfect title for this album because that’s what she gives you-realness. Real stories, real emotions, real hope, real desperation, real feelings produced by honest lyrics, honest vocals and warm welcoming music.”Out on Love” was easily one of my most played songs this year.

 

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6) Subrosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Subrosa have been making captivating and unique music for years now and their latest record is their most creative yet. Musically they continue to mix doom metal, classic rock, classical, chamber, and indie to create complex, layered long-form songs (or movements). Lyrically this time around they use a (to most American readers) rather obscure Russian dystopian sci-fi novel from the 1920s as a jumping off point for songs of a near and all to close future of state suppression and loss of identity. Rebecca Vernon’s vocals sound stronger and more emotional than ever and violinists Sarah Pendelton and Kim Pack give listeners chills. Some of the best lyrics committed to music of any genre this year were on this record, phrases and codas that simply demand to be heard and felt.

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5) Anthrax: For All Kings

2016 was a year in which veterans of Thrash Metal decided to do their best work since their prime. Megadeth has been notoriously incapable of making a great record in a long time yet in February they released, to the surprise of everyone, their strongest work in more than two decades with Dystopia. Though it doesn’t reach the peaks of their classic 80s work (Rust in Peace) it was arguably as fun as their last great record (Countdown to Extinction).  Then near the end of the year, Metallica went and released their strongest record in more than 20 years as well with Hard Wired to Self-Destruct. Testament, though never considered in the “big 4” has actually been more consistent than any of them and kept their train rolling with Brotherhood of the Snake. Yet none of the above matched up to Anthrax’s For All Kings. which may very well be their best record EVER not just since their prime. The songs, riffs, vocals, drums, production and everything here is better consistently than anything they’ve ever committed to record. Anthrax has always been better live than on record (and if you got to see them on tour for this record you saw they haven’t lost it) but this time they matched the quality of those live performances on record. Anthrax in many ways are unique among their thrash peers and descendants in that (with vocalist Joey Belladonna) their vocals are closer to older pure “heavy metal” with soaring highs and melodic lows (no growls, barks or grunts to be found) and their lyrics are generally upbeat, positive and fun…heck even that “pentagram” on the cover and their merch is actually and “A” for “Anthrax” logo. Though a tad on the long side this record is a blast front to back with a fun joyful energy that is welcome even to the dourest of metalheads particularly in the pit. Who else can make calling out religious extremism and terrorism sound fun?

 

 

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4) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here Thank You 4 Your Service:

Wow we had De La Soul return this year AND a final album from Tribe? Other than those two it was a rather sparse year for hip hop (IMO) other than a few solid entries from DJ Khaled, Common and maybe Drake (though a last minute drop from J.Cole I’ve yet to digest is likely worth some time too).  Anyway, Tribe was far in the lead of the pack for Hip Hop and “We Got It From Here” works as a tribute to their fallen Phife Dog and a state of the nation address. Even with the politics and the weight of their fallen member there is an unmitigated joy to be found on here reminding us how much fun hip hop can be. The production on these tracks showcases the best use of samples, original beats and instrumentation combinations to be found in classic or modern rap music.

 

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3) Khemmis: Hunted

Doom Metal is often inaccessible to casual listeners–what with the extra long songs, repetitive riffs and often harsh vocals most of the modern classics of the subgenre are loved only by diehards. Pallbearer broke that mold a little bit over the past few years by finding a way to inject heavy doses of melody and outright beauty into the formula without sacrificing the heavy and Khemmis traverses that same path. Khemmis’ debut album Antediluvian just dropped last year and it was more than solid–yet here they are to immediately follow it up with an even stronger work. Hunted has fewer but longer songs than its predecessor and even more melody (clean vocals make up 85% or so of the singing) but the riffs are heavier, more intricate and catchier than ever. The lyrics are great too, and even the longest of songs here never meanders or even feels its length, nary a wasted or superfluous note to be found and that’s saying something for work this weighty. If you like what you hear on Spotify or whatnot, head over to 20BuckSpin and order this one on vinyl or CD as the packaging and booklet, artwork, etc. seems to add another level.

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2) Drive By Truckers: American Band

If not for Beyonce this would have been my pick of the year. I mean, DBT have long been my favorite modern band and this is the best album they’ve made in a decade. This is their most timely, topical, and mature work yet and each song catalogues the state of the world today in assured but often subtle and complex ways. Not to mention that it rocks, the band sounds tighter and more focused than ever. DBT mixes the classic sounds of Exile era Stones, original (and hippy) line-up Skynard, bar band era Springsteen and witty, turn of phrase lyrics that evoke classic Dylan and nineties college rock. “Ramon Casiano” is an excellent opener and one of Cooley’s best ever, Hood’s “What It Means” eulogy for Trevon Martin and other black victims of gun violence, the sly repudiation of those who defend the confederate flag “Surrender Under Protest” and the immigrant history of “Ever South” stretch the focus of DBT’s keen eye for detail to the entire nation. A truly great and new statement across the board from one of America’s finest touring and recording bands working right now.

 

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover1) Beyonce: Lemonade

I know I sound like a copycat to say it but Lemonade was my favorite record of 2016 by far. So many others are saying the same thing so one would be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of critical contagion, an opinion spreading that takes over or whatever. All I know is that I’ve been a Beyonce fan her entire career and while she’s had many great songs she’s never had a great full album…until now. I knew from the first time I heard these tracks last summer this would be my pick of the year barring an unforeseen upset and here we are at the end of the year and only one other album has even come close (see above). I’ll also disclose this–I haven’t seen the videos. I know this is a video album and I’m sure that adds an entire other level to the experience but I simply haven’t yet. I’ll likely purchase a 2 disc copy at some point to get those but just judging the songs as they are I’m confident in declaring this my winner. Each song works on its own and as part of a stellar overall whole. The crossover layers of genre, nods to outside art, the detailed inner journey of the artist–the production, the guest spots, the lyrics, everything works completely. There’s not a wasted or skippable moment to be found and declaring THE best moment is even difficult as I found “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” to each be equally fantastic…but then again everything surrounding those few highlights is top-notch as well. Who’d have thought it? A true album-lovers album delivered in 2016 by a world-famous popstar released initially through a niche streaming service and accompanied by HBO videos.

Honorable Mentions:

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AMSG-Hostis Universi Generis/Gevurah-Hallelujah/Myrkur-Masoleum/Inquisition-Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

Black Metal has always been the most controversial, least accessible and most aggressive subgenre of them all and while it moves into its third decade or so of existence many may argue (as they did with punk) it is no longer “really” black metal if it’s being made today particularly in North America. Whatever. It is true that it has moved away from it’s original birthplace and pretensions in many ways. The last few years have found black metal to be experimental, complex and diverse in a multitude of ways from the identities of its performers to their philosophical leanings and instruments. This year Chilean to US transplants Inquisition made their best record yet; female multi-instrumentalist Myrkur stripped songs from last year’s great M. album and added a few covers–recording them live in a mausoleum backed by a girl’s choir. Her hauntingly beautiful vocals sing the songs in her native Danish language and showcase black metal as high art. Two of the year’s best BM records came from Canada–Gevurah‘s esoteric and challenging Hallelujah and best of all AMSG’s disturbing, terrifying and captivating Hostis Universi Generis.

Other Notable Mentions: Experimental post-metal artists Neurosis made their most accessible yet uncompromising work yet with  Fire Within Fires, Veteran sludge metal band showcase riffs galore with Crowbar: The Serpent Only Lies, Meshuggah perfected their formula decades in with The Violent Sleep of Reason, Neko Case and pals Laura Veir and K.D. Lang showed everyone how to actually do a “supergroup” with Case/Lang/Veir, American R&B proved more exciting than hip hop for the year with, in addition to Beyonce, great new albums from Maxwell, Alicia Keys, and Frank Ocean and speaking of hip hop–I almost forgot Common’s Black America Again. I’m leaving a lot out as it was one of metal’s strongest underground years ever and there was even great new jazz to be found.

 

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