2016 In Review: The Best Albums From A Brutal Year
2016 was a tumultuous year, however the Earth’s dark tone set the stage for artists to reflect the times as they see fit, and many did so to great effect. 2016 produced several fantastic albums, and while Rupa was only able to pick ***eight of her favourites, I still thought there were at least 10 worthy of recognition. The following are the best albums of 2016 according to LYFSTYL editors Rupa Jogani (Chicago) and Kevin Vanstone (Vancouver).
Chicago, IL Editor Rupa Jogani
***Editor’s note: due to a mistake in when MOTORO FAAM’s album was released, we’ve edited its dates. Since it was still a very good album, we’ve left it as is. 8. MOTORO FAAM – Fragments There’s something magical about musicians who can marry jarring dissonance with childlike whimsicality without it feeling contrived. From one of my favorite indie labels, Flau, based out of Japan, MOTORO FAAM, comprised of three classically trained musicians (Ryuta Mizkami [electronic sampling and programming], Daisuke Kobara [violin] & Ayumi Kato [piano]) wrote one of the most compelling modern classical albums of in the last decade with Fragments. It’s 10-year reissue (originally from 2006) shows how it continues to stand the test of time. Using negative space between lines of creeping dissonance with violin, synths, and glitches, they break into relative cadence with samples of cuckoo clocks, shimmering piano, children laughing, and upbeat lines, like on “ridgeline 0”. Fragments keeps you on your toes, before you can settle into a sense of understanding and calm they wrench the composition from your grasp and force you into reimagining their world. The album title fits into how each piece is connected to form a larger picture of the moments in people’s lives. If you are looking for an instrumental, thought-provoking album in a mire of musical sameness, give MOTORO FAAM and their Fragments undivided attention. Listen and buy the album from Flau’s Bandcamp.
7. NAO – For All We Know Let’s talk about how indelible 2016 was for black women artists. Leaving deep impressions of history, power, and eloquence, artists like Beyonce, Solange, and NAO turned us on our heads and gave lasting art. With NAO’s incredible debut albumFor All We Know, the British singer’s joy in her artistry and tight vocals blend beautifully with her R&B and funk stylization. After seeing her perform at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I knew we were on the cusp of the next major force to sweep the industry. She shines on stage, her songs standing alone on a mastered album and translating it into a live performance kept us in the audience riveted. Hearing “Fool to Love” on stage further solidified this understanding. Keep your eyes on NAO in the year to come and I promise you will not be disappointed.
6. KNOWER – Life Internet musicians exist in the alt spaces of social media, where other producers scream about songs or they ride on a Twitter buzz before retreating back into the dark recesses of underground culture. KNOWER is no stranger to this phenomenon. I only heard of their music when other musician friends of mine excitedly posted their videos or talk about them at parties. They make the type of Internet ridiculous music that won’t be on other EOTY lists, except for one key component other outlets overlook – they’re talented. I say this with little irony, even with lyrics from “The Government Knows” talking about the government watching you masturbate or “Die Right Now” fun quips about wanting to die in an exciting way like being dropped into a black hole. Huh. KNOWER is the kind of band where you want to scream dance to all their songs, which I still can’t stop doing to “Butts Tits Money” and every song’s infectious synth riffs and absurdity.
5. Mitski – Puberty 2 Mitski is a beacon of light in a dark world. Her fourth album Puberty 2 was met with widespread critical acclaim. Featuring her greatest breadth of indie rock and D.I.Y. influenced punk, she pushes her sound to its limits. She sings with earnest optimism in the face of harsh memories, choosing to let them age as she moves past them, like in “Fireworks.” The type of music Mitski makes, the feelings she poignantly writes in her lyrics are what young people yearn to resonate with. Puberty 2 is an honest album that’s authentically tangible in a scene which is often fraught with disingenuity.
4. Various Artists – Oh! Suketora!!! Yuri!!! On Ice – Original Skate Song Selection None of you should be surprised that one of my top contenders for Album of the Year is the soundtrack to the breakout hit anime series of 2016, Yuri!!! On Ice. The first official release, Oh! Suketora!!! – Original Skate Song Selection features the music used for the original figure skating routines in the show. The range of composition is extraordinary, with classical rearrangements paying homage to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, opera, original songs, stadium rock anthems and even pop music. I could go on about the brilliance of the arrangements, like the titular track “Yuri on Ice” showcasing the most beautiful piano I’ve heard for a movie or television show since Jean-Yves Thibadeut’s “Dawn”. Or how the show creators commissioned songs for a tertiary narrative where The King and Iexists as The King and the Skater, used by a Thai skater for the first time in Yuri!!! On Ice’s universe. The soundtrack benefits from the genius of its two main composers, Taku Matsushiba (25), who graduated with a Masters in Composition from Tokyo University last year citing influences from artists like Cornelius and D’Angelo, and Taro Umebayashi (36), influenced by new wave like Serge Gainsbourg who’s previously collaborated with Feist’s composer for “1,2,3,4” (Sally Seltmann). Each piece they created is well-rounded, complex, and above all interesting, giving further depth to a television show where storytelling, music, and animation seamlessly weave together to create a piece of art. I can pen a thousand words on the music alone so make sure to stay tuned for a long-form review coming soon.
3. The Range – Potential Little has changed in James Hinton’s quest to bridge duality within his music. Where his debut album Nonfiction lived in negative space striving for positive elements, his sophomore LP Potential flipped that duality and shifted from hopeful into the desperate. While still incorporating footwork, polyrhythmic syncopated beats, and melancholic synth lines, he adds a warmer touch to Potential. Using his crate-digging prowess on YouTube, he brought on help from vocalists to lend their voices for the album and also participate in his supporting documentary, Superimpose. Each song tells a personal story, but one that’s shared collectively – as Hinton put it regarding the single “Five Four”: “[Five Four] is about the frustration of not being able to change the tough circumstances in which you may find yourself, but still attempting to maintain a hopefulness about life.” And each piece on Potential showcases a theme of hope while looking back on hardship. His closing song, “1804,” serves as cadence to a dark chapter, one that is put behind you in order to face forward and fight for your future in an increasingly bleak world.
2. Tourist – U William Phillips, the man who wrote Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” who releases songs and remixes under his MySpace pet name Little Loud, finally released his debut album as Tourist in 2016. He’s one of the penultimate producers of sad dance music and creating songs for people who don’t normally dance. He chops vocals and inserts them for each crucial, gripping moment, allowing the sparse lyricism to build and draw out every song’s potential to its fullest. Take “Run,” a near infuriating perfect example of peak sad dance music. Not only is “Run” The Best Song of 2016, every time it plays it never fails to evoke gut-wrenching pain and desperation. It’s personal, collective, and visceral – seeing him perform it live on his first headlining North American tour was emotionally overwhelming for the dancefloor. Each song is painstakingly built for the peak emotive dance anthem, with “To Have U Back”, “Too Late”, and “Separate Ways,” effectively destroying your body. He constructed U’s theme around his breakup with an ex, moving from the initial heartbreak, into anger, depression, acceptance before ending with him moving on and looking back with fondness. It’s an album that every person can relate to, and Tourist made it with strong melodic structure without heavily relying on lyricism. It’s evocative and heart-wrenching, keeping Phillips strongly in place as a sad dance music connoisseur.
1. Gold Panda – Kingdom 2016 was a productive year for Gold Panda. After releasing a bittersweet nostalgic album with Good Luck and Do Your Best, a collaboration photo book with Laura Lewis in support of the album, and completing a North American tour, he quietly released Kingdom, one of my favorite electronic projects in the last five years. While the humble EP barely received press of any kind, it is Gold Panda’s most ambitious project to date. A looping synth montage suited for an evening flight, Kingdom pays clear homage to William Basinki’s iconic project, The Disintegration Loops and Gas’ Königsforst. Keeping close to Gold Panda’s signature style of toasted analog recordings, he focuses closely on layered loops, quiet builds, and restrained drum samples. As a producer who favors strong melodies with synthesizers, strings, and keyboards, Kingdom is a slow build and exists on the fringes. The closing tracks “Blown Out” and “Eurotunnel” are foreboding, taking a much darker persona than his penchant for introspection. If you aren’t paying close enough attention, “Eurotunnel” gets buried in ambient soundscape until you realize the blown air you thought was a draft is in fact undulating synthesizers pulsing in the background, almost suffocating you.
Vancouver, BC Editor Kevin Vanstone
10. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious? Andrew Bird’s latest studio album is as delightful as ever, yet it failed to receive the critical acclaim many of its predecessors have been met with. Instead, the master multi-instrumentalist flies under the radar on Are You Serious?, remaining in a familiar comfort zone where he crafts sensual melodies and sharp lines all of which beautifully display Bird’s musical craftsmanship. With the creative confidence to explore freely, Andrew Bird demonstrates a master’s touch on Are You Serious?, and the result is a rewarding record, one which displays elements of classic Bird but also blends together new aspects of his interesting, intrinsic, and talented self.
9. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition Not only does Atrocity Exhibition feature one of the best rap tracks of the year in ‘Really Doe’, it also lays claim to many of the best sounds of 2016. From the ballistic beat on ‘Dance In The Water’ to the nod-inducing ‘Pneumonia’ Danny Brown spits his signature sound all over a bevvy of tracks that sound very little like their contemporaries. Maybe it’s the drugs, or maybe Brown has been listening to a lot of tUnE-yArDs lately, but regardless of the reason, Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most interesting rap albums of 2016.
8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool 2016 was a dark and dreary year, which made it perfectly appropriate for Radiohead to re-emerge with an album that framed the tumultuous yet uncertain times the world at large faces today. The opening track ‘Burn The Witch’ sets the tone for both the album and its themes, outlining a world in which we fail to learn from history’s failings, hurtling forward in a modern, technological dystopia. While there may not be much to do about such tragedies, it is at least comforting to know that Radiohead are still capable of creating a fitting soundtrack to play us out during our march towards impending doom.
7. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits John Berry’s raucous rotating ensemble returned with a vengeance in 2016 with A Weird Exits, a fuzzed-out redline of a record. Having settled on a four-piece band lineup after years of different iterations, Thee Oh Sees have released one of their best pieces of work in A Weird Exits, one that blends traditional rock sounds with an acidic twist in order to create something fresh that keeps pace with recent psych-rock offerings from bands like Tame Impala and King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard, among others. While there were more complete rock albums released in 2016, the opening five tracks on A Weird Exits may represent the best A-side of the year. All fans of guitar-based music need to give this a listen.
6. Anderson .Paak – Malibu It’s easy to understand why Anderson .Paakwent under-appreciated in 2016. Released early in the year, Anderson Paak & The Free Nationals’ Malibu seems like a distant memory after a year in which Kanye West, Chance The Rapper, and Childish Gambino all released multi-dimensional albums that all accentuated different genres and styles of black music, including rap, funk, gospel, and soul. But Malibu is a more consistent album than anything released by those mentioned above, and the funniest part is that Anderson himself told us right from the beginning, from opening track ‘The Bird’: “I had to wake up just to make it through I got my patience and I’m making do I learned my lessons from the ancient roots I choose to follow what the greatest do” Later, on ‘The Season / Carry Me’: “Went from playing community ball to balling with the majors (Oh, what you major?) Yeah nigga I ran bases, pitch flame I call plays, remove labels And fuck game, that killed all my favourite entertainers” Much like the wordsmith below, Anderson .Paak demonstrates a wisdom and righteousness on Malibu I feel we will look back on with both reverence and respect.
5. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid Aesop Rock is the nerd’s rapper. When data analyst Matt Daniels ventured to study lyrical diversity in hip-hop, Aesop Rock was predictably at the head of the class. On The Impossible Kid Aesop continues this trend, rapping intricate stories as if there were no rules to rap at all, and it sounds amazing. Looking deeper at a lyrics sheet, Aesop articulates a depth of intelligence rivaled by few. He opens on ‘Shrunk’: “My first name is a random set of numbers and letters And other alphanumerics that changes hourly forever My last name, a thousand vowels fading down a sinkhole To a susurrus, couldn’t just be John Doe or Bingo” It’s an exercise just to keep up with Aesop Rock’s beautiful, wandering mind, which is what makes a song like ‘Shrunk’ that much more appealing. Aesop knows he’s a complicated dude, and part of the song is an admission that he can’t be an easy patient, either. That is a veteran wisdom many other rappers aren’t capable of, and it’s one of the many reasons The Impossible Kid is worth engaging with, listen after listen. And I haven’t even told you about Aesop’s ode to his cat, Kirby.
4. King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard – Nonagon Infinity King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard are prolific rock and rollers. Since their debut release 12 Bar Bruise in 2012 this Australian septet has released a pair of albums during each year up until 2016, when the streak ended with Nonagon Infinity. Presumably this was due to live demand, as King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard are regarded as one of the best live rock bands around today; however, after a “lazy” 2016 the band plans to return with five albums in 2017. The raw amount of music the band has released is absurd, and the fact that Nonagon Infinity sounds so goddamn-fucking-amazing is that much more preposterous. These guys are for real and Nonagon Infinity is evidence of that. Like the band itself, this record just keeps going. Place iTunes on repeat and let yourself sink in to an epic rock and roll roller coaster.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service Word to Phifer, this was the best rap album of the year. It was something we all needed, really. After the world lost Phife Dawg earlier in 2016, the looming album took on a new life as a proper send-off to one of rap’s great groups. Political, groovy, and full of fierce rhymes, We’ve Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service might be A Tribe Called Quest’s best album, and that blows my fucking mind. Rarely do artists return from their “supposed” prime to reach such greatness, this is one of those times. Cherish it.
2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial Of all the albums on this list, Teens Of Denial is the one I relate to most, and by a wide margin. For this reason it almost feels biased or unfair to place Car Seat Headrest here at #2 with other established artists, but here it is anyways. Driven by frontman and songwriter Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest is a smart, introspective, harmonious look at life in the modern malaise. From the brilliant “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” to the soul-crusher “The Ballad Of the Costa Concordia” this album is jammed with dark indie-rock tracks that have enough pop sensibility to provide cover for lyrics that are as passionate as they are painful. While “Fill In The Blank” and “Vincent” set the pace for the album both sonically and thematically, the real hidden gem is “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, a rock ballad about the tragedy of drunk driving which evokes other earthly tragedies with a not-so-subtle reference to the treatment of Killer Whales depicted in Blackfish. As a whole, Teens Of Denial shines as a testament to Will Toledo’s writing skill, however after several independent releases he still has a to go before he enters the cosmic mastery of the artist below.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar What is there left to say about David Bowie? He went out on top with style and grace, leaving the Earth with one final gift in the form of his death album. Make no mistake – Blackstar represents a master at work, artistically aligning pieces in the game of life in order to have the final word, all while looking back on an incredible life of achievement. The album itself is a puzzle, however there are no correct answers to this mystery. Instead, David Bowie intentionally scattered clues throughout his life and his final project, from the obvious (The album title Blackstar, the song ‘Lazarus’) to the cryptic and strange (The Blackstar music video). And while there will never be a final reveal of the meaning of Blackstar or David Bowie’s final days on Earth, I can’t help but feel that is how it should be. A person of Bowie’s quality and character is rarely understood in the moment; however, in time I imagine the genius of his art and his life will continue to reveal itself just as it has for the past few decades. Rest in peace, David Bowie.