Best of 2016: Top Ten Albums

I don’t always do one of these lists at the end of the year, because I’m old and lazy and I don’t think anybody really cares what I think, and all this needless self-deprecation is no-doubt making you sick. The main thing you need to know is that I did one of these this year, and this is it.

2016 was a tough year (hot take, I know), but some very good music rose out of the carbonated black horror of populist reactionaries and their taking the wheel of Western civilisation and swerving into oncoming traffic. Who’d have thunk, all it took for fascism to rise again was a looming refugee crisis and a pack of malicious self-interested shit stirrers preying on the wilful ignorance of idiots.

Anyway… Music, huh? That’s still good sometimes.

It wasn’t too hard to draw up a long list, but I am loath to arbitrarily put things in order. My long-list was about 6-7 albums short of where it ought to have been due to extensive travel, broken headphones, and an intense malaise about the future of Western civilisation. But in the new year I will catch up with the new Run the Jewels, A Tribe Called Quest (RIP Phife), and of course my annual care package from Montréal’s finest, Constellation Records.

Anyway, that’s enough faffing about. Here are ten records that came out in 2016, that I loved in 2016:

  • Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
  • Christine & the Queens – Chaleur Humaine (English version)
  • Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
  • clipping. – Splendor & Misery
  • Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky
  • David Bowie – Blackstar
  • Mamiffer – The World Unseen
  • Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
  • Disasterpeace – Hyper Light Drifter (soundtrack)
  • Ben Babbitt – Kentucky Route Zero – Act IV (soundtrack)

Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

I must admit, I was a little late to the Death Grips party. So late in fact, that the band had already broken up, announced a new record, and then un-broken up. But I’m at the hipster party now, and sitting miserably in the corner as is my wont.

It seems that we live in an increasingly fractured state of reality, the accumulated and festering boil of cynicism, manufactured fear and outrage, false news, and hyper-macho chest thumping shit-throwing internet trash worship, having finally bloomed and burst.

What better band to reflect the state of Western civilisation in 2016 than the gaudy, violent, writhing, angry beast of Sacramento’s noisy hip-hop trio Death Grips; a buzzing hornets nest of reflective disgust, a cathartic and timely release of the pent-up impotent rage of all our rotted and gentrified urban centres.

Bottomless Pit isn’t what I would call a fun listen, but if you come to music only looking for fun then I probably have nothing to say about anything you’re interested in. “Eh” is a relatively accessible standout, while the likes of “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” and “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighbourhood” will shred your speaker cones and clear the house of all your insufferably dull (imagined) Coldplay-loving party guests.

When somebody has the audacity to claim “oh, I like all sorts of music,” play them Death Grips’ Bottomless Pit until they tell the truth.

Christine & the Queens – Chaleur Humaine

Having said all of that, you might think I only listen to ugly hipster music for serial killers. Not so. Sometimes, I even enjoy popular nice-sounding music that other people like!

I stumbled upon Christine & the Queens while doing research for some electronic music I’m working on. It was exciting to hear European electronic pop music that doesn’t rely on shitty club-thumping dance tropes. Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine & the Queens, is an excellent pop music writer, producer, singer, and dancer. All of this feeds into the strongly identified persona of the genderqueer titular Christine character.

Technically, Chaleur Humaine released in 2014, in Letissier’s native French language. This year saw the release of the re-recorded English version and breakout success. Makes an excellent soundtrack to late summer evenings, and late night writing sessions. “Science Fiction” runs around my head a lot these days.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I’ve resisted Radiohead for a very long time. I always liked them in theory, and I probably should have listened to them about 10-15 years ago. But I was stubborn about it, for some reason I can’t quite bring to mind now.

Fast-forward to 2016, and I stumbled across the amazing video for “Burn the Witch”, and being one of those politically correct leftist scumbags, its contemporary message about dangerous xenophobic populism resonated with me. Also, them strings. Very Steve Reich. I finally took the plunge with the long-awaited A Moon Shaped Pool.

Highlights include the aforementioned “Burn the Witch”, and the semi-eponymous “Identikit”, as well as the aching “True Love Waits”, as hauntingly simple and painful a love song as I’ve heard. I understand a number of these songs have existed in some form for decades. As such, the album feels like a closing statement, a tying-up of loose ends.

clipping. – Splendor & Misery

As far as noisy outsider hip-hop goes, clipping. are one of the more mainstream-adjacent acts. Rapper Daveed Diggs took a hiatus from the band to play a couple of characters in the some obscure Broadway musical called Hamilton or something. When the band returned to action this year, they came packing a new EP, and this singular LP, Splendor & Misery.

S&M is a concept album, a dystopian Afrofuturist story of the lone-survivor of a space-going slave ship, escaping his fate by wandering the stars forever, accompanied only by the ship’s AI, which might be in love with him. Unlike previous clipping. releases, there is little emphasis on songs, and more on the contiguous flow of the record, with careful sound design and foley work, feeling like a peculiar and dark radio-drama. The record repeatedly references slave songs and dark science-fictional tropes.

“True Believer” stands strong at the centre of things, while the white-hot static bursts of “Baby Don’t Sleep” harken back to their debut mix-tape, midcity.

Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky

I reviewed PHOBOS earlier this year. Since that review, I’ve come around a little on that second track “All the Pain in All the Wide World”. This album continues to be a strange and singular object, a kind of obstinate stone in a river that all else flows around. It’s unique amongst Kayo Dot’s catalogue, although in Kayo Dot’s case, that’s par for the course.

David Bowie – Blackstar

I’ve always had a weird “thing” with David Bowie. I’ve liked certain songs and albums, certain stylistic things. I always admired the artistry of it all – and yet I never quite felt his music was nearly as interesting as all of the accoutrements. It mostly just seemed like a lot of glam rock and pop – which is fine, but too plain for my pretentious tastes. There always seemed to be an element of substance missing underneath layers of makeup, clothes, and posture.

But, when I caught the incredible video for Blackstar‘s title-track, something clicked for me. I was so excited to see and hear him pushing the envelope out so far, so late into his career. I had been listening to Blackstar quite heavily immediately prior to Bowie’s untimely death in January, but with the weight of his passing, it does take on a new sense of profundity. The lyrics and arrangements seem to eerily foretell his own passing.

There are shades of Scott Walker experimentation here; jerky, jazzy rhythm sections, alternately dense and sparse arrangements, overtly theatrical vocals. But ultimately, the key to all of it is a morose, almost funereal mood. The title-track is the kind of bold and beautifully weird thing I always wanted from Bowie.

Mamiffer – The World Unseen

Faith Coloccia’s main project Mamiffer continues to bowl me over at every turn. In recent years, Coloccia’s haunting multi-part vocals have come to the forefront, and broadened the palette of what was once a primarily-instrumental band. Her work offers a much-welcomed feminine perspective to a what is a predominantly male experimental music scene.

On The World Unseen, simple and powerfully melodic piano still leads most of the arrangements, looming over beds of lush drones, but it’s the voice that steals the show on many of these tracks. With lyrical themes of motherhood and loss, and that common Mamiffer aesthetic of quiet earthly beauty, the effect is more cohesive and haunting than it’s ever been.

“Flower of the Field” and “Mara” are perfect reflections of wandering through wet, wintery woods. After the relative comfort of the album’s first half, the three-part “Domesitication of the Ewe” journeys through waves pure abstract sound and noise. Outstanding work.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger

Stranger to Stranger is a joyous and bold blend of styles and influences, folded deftly into the familiar frame of Paul Simon’s songwriting. Simon’s writing has always been more interesting than many give it credit for. The chord progressions and rhythmic structures are often much more complex and dense than they appear on the surface.

Here, all his tricks are out in force; dense layers of claps and percussion underpinning the satirical opener “The Werewolf”. “Wristband” has some of his best wordplay in years, deftly turning a silly show-business style anecdote into a reflection on inequality. It’s “Cool Papa Bell” that stand as the highlight however, with its startling use of language and haunting melody.

In a year drowning in obscenely disgusting bullshit, it’s a great comfort to me that the Paul Simon is alive and has turned out at least one more album – and one that stands comfortably alongside the best of his half-century long career.

Disasterpeace – Hyper Light Drifter (soundtrack)

I’ve been a big fan of Disasterpeace’s game soundtrack work for a number of years, particularly for Fez, which I listened to more than I played the game. Indeed, I’ve listened to the Hyper Light Drifter soundtrack quite heavily since its release, but I didn’t get round to playing the game until the last week of the year.

The soundtrack is a lengthy mixture of incredibly stylised ambient and abstract chip-style music, with sparsely deployed live instruments. Rich Vreeland often focuses on evoking a particular feel within a set of limitations dictated by the project’s aesthetic (that being the job of a composer of course), but these restrictions are often less obviously prescribed than a lot of chiptune artists. He has an incredible knack with bit-crushed reverb that I’m incredibly envious of, and his music has a characteristic worn-out feel to it, the gently wobbling pitch, the super-saturated ducking compression. It’s idiomatic without being slavish to the bleepy tunes of the 8 and 16 bit eras.

On the Hyper Light Drifter soundtrack, the mood is lo-fi and sombre, even haunted, distinigrate repeatedly into sharp angular artefacts. Brash detuned leads stride over sweeping fizzling pads, as throbbing bass swells up to engulf everything. In tandem with the game, it’s an astonishingly cohesive aesthetic. On its own, it’s yet another compelling ambient adventure.

Ben Babbitt – Kentucky Route Zero – Act IV (soundtrack)

In my second winter of 2016 (I was in New Zealand) I got restless waiting for Act IV of the superlative adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, which I have gushed about endlessly over the past couple of years, so I decided to go back and play through the game’s first three acts again. Then, as if by magic, Act IV dropped.

One of the main highlights for me with KY0 is the combined audio-visual language of the game, which has evolved, somehow both broadening and deepening over the game’s extended development cycle. Act IV continues the trend, with evocative and dreamy Lynchian lounge music in “Dark Noir Rum” and “My Light Heaven”, the stunning environmental of “Riverworld”.

KY0 has been toying with the notion of diegetic music from its outset, reaching a peak in Act III with the showstopping “Too Late to Love You Now”. Nothing quite tops that here, and there’s no appearance from the Bedquilt Ramblers. Instead, we get Babbitt drifting by on a raft playing his stunning solo guitar cover of “This World is Not My Home”. To close out the soundtrack there’s an absolutely haunting theremin melody from the game’s closing scene, which leaves things unresolved.

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