What a crummy year. Lots of great musicians died and the world embraced fascism. I worry about the assault on art that may come in the next few years, but for now music remains a potent means of expression. There were a lot of good records released this year although due to a lack of funds, I’ve honestly only bought one of the albums on my list (my number one). I hope to remedy this soon. The good part about not owning any of the following is that it’s given me a novel way to rank them. I’ve ranked them based on which I am most excited to buy.
I don’t know if it was my gloomy mood, but much of what I liked was pretty dour. I don’t know if there was less “happy” music being released or if I only tuned into the dismal stuff. One positive trend I noticed was there seems to be a movement towards releasing shorter works. This was particularly noteworthy in some hip hop records, a genre which tends towards hour-plus releases. A lot of the records on my list are under 45 minutes. I’m all in favor of a return to artists releasing shorter (28-45 minutes) albums more frequently.
The further down the list you go, the more arbitrary the ranking and the greater the chance that on any given day one could rise or fall ten places. At the end I’ve alphabetically listed a bunch of records I enjoyed that are worth a mention and a listen (in some cases, I’d didn’t give these enough spins). As always, I’ve created a jukebox of favorite songs at the bottom, including worthy tunes from albums that didn’t make the cut.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar: I finally gained enough distance from the tragedy surrounding the release of this album to appreciate it for its merits alone. The record is a dark, moody record drenched in symbolism. It’s probably the weirdest, artiest album to go to Number 1. A cross between the occult Kabbalistic mysticism of Man Who Sold the World and Station to Station with some of his 90s output, it’s not a typical Bowie album. Then again, ever the chameleon, most new Bowie records were atypical of his other work as he constantly recast himself.
2. Wild Beasts – Boy King: The best art rock band working today returns from the land of cerebral subtlety to deliver a visceral hip shaker. The record is bathed in sultry distorted tones and swinging beats. No other record was as brawny, as brainy, or as horny. This is music of a throbbing virility, unabashedly masculine and unashamedly sensitive and sensual. The singles are good, but my favorites are the album tracks “Alpha Female,” “2BU,” “He The Colossus,” and “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis.” A couple of years ago I questioned if they would still be a band by now. Popularity be damned, this is a band that sound like they can continue for as long as they wish.
3. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound: This album has all the political import of the latest Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo records, but it presents a softer, more emotionally sensitive voice. Resistance can be catchy and melodic, and it often is here. This is like the soundtrack to a great lost 80s movie about young black America that was never made. There’s a earning quality, like a romantic plea for love, that’s inspiring. It also sounds like it wouldn’t have come out at any other time than right now.
4. Shura – Nothing’s Real: This is a really nice patch of indie new wave. There’s an insular, personal feel to this album that’s comforting in a year where reading the news is so emotionally exhausting. This record actually offered some lighter moments which were all too rare this year. There is a bit of an unironic teenage earnestness to the album, but it manages to be charming rather than cloying. The little skits and the last track of arty nothingness are pretty forgettable, but the rest is so naively winning and fresh the pacing doesn’t really suffer.
5. Metallica – Hardwired… To Self-Destruct: Heralded as a comeback, it makes good on that claim, for the most part. It brings back the thrash tempos and complicated song structures of Death Magnetic, but this time there are actual songs. It’s the best record the band has made in 25 years, featuring some of the catchiest choruses of their career. James Hetfield hasn’t sung this well since ...And Justice for All. Lars hasn’t played this well perhaps ever (seriously, it sounds like he went to a drum clinic). There are NWOBHM-style guitar harmonies all over. It’s not Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets-level good, but it’s the first album of theirs since the 80s that I feel I’d actually pull off the shelf and play.
6. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.: This feels like it was intended as just a collection of TPAB cast-offs, but it sounds better, and more focused than most other artists carefully considered albums. It’s nice to hear new Kendrick tunes without the weight of a concept album. Dark and jazzy, in many ways it sounds of a piece with the new Bowie which is interesting since TPAB was said to be a big influence on Bowie’s album. This is a short, concise record that does what it needs to and gets out. His guest spots on other artists’ records have been great too.
7. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate: I had heard this record when it first came out, liked it, and then filed it away to check out further later. I kept forgetting about it, until recently. This is a bold, confident album. This is a pretty perfect synth pop record, and I don’t know it didn’t get more love. Kontrol’s voice is strong and the melodies are top shelf. In a few weeks this might rank in the top 5.
8. ZuluZuluu – What’s the Price?: This is a great future-funk record that gives me a Zapp meets Janelle Monae vibe. It’s hard to categorize, but that’s what’s great about it to me. The synths on here have a really fat, wobbly analog sound. It doesn’t feel like yesterday, so much as adding a new dimension to the Minneapolis sound. It’s smart, relevant, and musically cool. I hope that this just doesn’t end up being a one-off shot. Keep the group together, guys.
9. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate: This record is a little overblown in terms of the production, but it’s really pretty and musically rich enough to be a film score. He still has a very Terry Callier meets Traffic kind of feel, which to my mind, is no bad thing. Kiwanuka may never have a hit or be anything other than a critical darling, but in the meantime, he’s making beautiful records in the present moment.
10. Underworld – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future: Underworld made a Fall album which surprisingly makes a lot of sense. Less surprising, the results come off like an LCD Soundsystem record. This is a bit unfair since these guys have been at this a good long while and partially created the space that allowed James Murphy to do his thing in the first place. It’s not strictly as much of a dance record as their past work, but it’s propulsive and beautiful nonetheless.
11. William Tyler – Modern Country: This is a lush instrumental album along the lines of Eno’s work with Daniel Lanois or even Ry Cooder’s soundtrack work. Beautifully fingerpicked guitar licks branch out over rich accompaniment that sounds like Popol Vuh making a Fresh Aire album. It sounds like a desert sunset, languorous and beautiful. Sometimes music can offer solace where words can’t.
12. Kings of Leon – WALLS: This group is terminally uncool. They’re often accused of making hacky stadium rock, but they have too much talent to dismiss out of hand. They have a great ear for catchy melodies and this is packed full of them. “Waste A Moment” is a catchy single, but “Muchacho” actually has real heart. Caleb Followill has one of the best rock voices of the best two decades. They’re one of the few “real” rock bands now that still get played on pop radio, so I find myself pulling for them.
13. White Lung – Paradise: This new album is more hook-filled than Deep Fantasy, but it still has plenty of teeth. It’s a short burst (28 minutes) of breakneck rock that continues to reference Hole and Big Black guitar harmonics while adding a touch of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I heard some protestations about it being too pretty-sounding, but this is still so much fiercer than most of the new rock music I hear now.
14. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition: This is a really spooky, warped-sounding record. It’s packed with great guest spots from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, B-Real, Earl Sweatshirt, Kelela, and Petite Noir. Brown’s voice is a grotesque caricature of his usual delivery which sounds incredibly manic, even possessed. The mood is unrelentingly dark, but it’s really well done.
15. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat to Earth: This is a great singer-songwriter record. Her voice sits in the same area as Laura Nyro, Mimi Parker (Low), and even Karen Carpenter. The production and arrangements are given the full 60s pop treatment, but not in a way that feels retro. Few songs build and swell anymore the way that “Do You Need My Love” does.
16. Gallant – Ology: This guy has a beautiful, high voice that serves this set of soulful tunes really well. “Bourbon” sounds like the best song Al B. Sure! never made. Even some of the production harkens back to late-New Jack stylings albeit with a more morose turn. I don’t mean to suggest this is your typical Massive Attack should put him on their next record.
17. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!: Donald Glover is a little too talented for his own good. This album has an almost haunted Haitian voodoo funk about it. “Have Some Love” and “Boogieman” sound like they could have come off of Maggot Brain. The influences are wide-ranging though. I can hear some Nilsson (“California”) and even Zappa in some corners.
18. Iggy Pop – Post-Pop Depression: Josh Homme makes records so perfect they have an almost annoyingly formulaic feel to them. As Iggy’s foil this time out, Homme crafts a solid backing for Iggy most consistent record since New Values. In some ways, there’s almost too much control. It sounds as much of a Homme record as an Iggy one. Iggy is really his best when he’s allowed some room for wild, extemporaneous expression. The only time it comes close is the very end of the last track.
19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker: His death was less surprising than David Bowie’s, but it’s a shame when someone passes who can still operate at this high of a level. Produced by his son, this album is more acoustic in its arrangements, foregoing the cheesy synths and back-up vocals of recent years. “Tapestry” is one of his best songs, and the rest of the record is a great goodbye.
20. Clark – The Last Panthers: This is beautifully atmospheric, electronically-rendered background music. That isn’t meant as an insult. Some music has a greater impact when you’re not exclusively focused on it. It could lazily be called ambient or soundtrack music. The individual pieces themselves are short, kind of like Another Green World, working cohesively as part of a larger whole. This album isn’t as much of a game-changer as that legendary record, but it works really well for its kind.
21. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits: Good g-funk meets jazz with help from Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper, and more. I don’t think the vocal tracks work as well as the instrumental ones, but the whole record feels warm and connected. It plays like a great collective workshop project coming out of some of L.A.’s new jazz/hip hop/soul scene.
22. Trentemoller – Fixion: Trentemoller has always been dark, even when he made minimal techno. Now he makes expansive goth albums with chorus-pedal bass lines and ethereal female vocals. A lot of reviews have mentioned Joy Division, but those people don’t know what they’re talking about. There are definitely some Cure bits in there though.
23. D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated: This record is relentlessly quirky. The singer sounds like Police-era Sting and the music has a spring-loaded, African groove like the Talking Heads used to employ. The Dirty Projectors do this a bit. There’s a twitchy restlessness to these songs that I like and it stands as one of the few upbeat records I heard and liked.
24. Alex Smoke – Love Over Will: Alex Smoke’s Crowley-inspired album was released early in year and I kept going back to. It sounds like Matthew Dear trying to make a Current 93 record. It’s appropriately dark and groovy. At 34 minutes it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, giving you just enough spooky, magickal mojo.
25. Monica LaPlante – Noir: This is a dark little rocker of a record (an EP, actually) that I’ve only recently heard. I’m pretty much completely ignorant of the local scene nowadays, but I have a feeling LaPlante may break out soon. She has tremendous presence and the production, though bare bones, sounds great.
Worth A Listen
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service: Need more listens. What I’ve heard is surprisingly on top of its game.
Ab-Soul – Do What Thou Wilt.: This Crowley-inspired record is an immature mess, but it’s never boring and pretty original.
Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful: Great sunburned rock & roll.
Alexander Paak – Malibu: Very foggy hippie funk.
Andy Shauf – The Party: Early 70s, low-key Beatles-y songwriter/chamber pop vibe (think Elliott Smith meets Emitt Rhodes). I wonder what Phil Dougherty thinks.
Aphex Twin – CHEETAH EP: Typically great although not super complex. Fun futurism.
Brian Eno – Ship: Nice Velvets cover.
Classixx – Faraway Reach: A couple of nice feelgood dance tracks.
Common – Black America Again: Better than I expected. I think people slept on this.
DIIV – Is the Is Are: Very good dream pop - a little samey.
Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+evolution: Not very much jazz, but very quirky and interesting. Strangely reminds me of an R&B Dagmar Krause.
Haley Bonar – Impossible Dream: The more rock and roll she gets, the better I like it.
Juan Atkins & Moritz von Oswald – Present Borderland: Transport: Techno. And more techno.
Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto: Hip hop from a brassy and sassy lady.
Kate Bush – Before the Dawn: TBH I haven’t heard it, but I will buy it regardless.
Mitski – Puberty 2: This is a Jason Swanson kind of record, which means it sounds like Helium.
Preoccupations – Preoccupations: Better name, but I still question their motives. Good post-punk.
Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome: Mick is the weakest link here, but the band sounds great. The Wolf tune is tops.
Santigold – 99 Cents: A step down from the last one, but there are some good tunes here.
Sarah Neufeld – The Ridge: Good to hear her violin on her own, away from Arcade Fire and Colin Stetson. She should join King Crimson.
Shirley Collins – Lodestar: Her voice is lower now which makes her brand of trad British folk more palatable.
Solange – A Seat at the Table: I admire this record more than I like it. True was better for me, but this is nice.
Swans – The Glowing Man: There’s a stain on this, but sometimes creeps make good music.
Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death: Pro pop by real folks. Not as great as recent records, but good.Yussef Kamal – Black Focus: A new direction in jazz.