2016 was a year to forget … but also to remember. We lost at least a dozen of the most important artists we will ever hear. As much as the music business is still adjusting to the new frontier, great music seems to pour out of every corner of the world, no longer hostage to major labels, walled garden distribution, and a handful of gatekeepers. This list, my 20th, is filled with as many truly incredible records as ever. They cross every thematic genre I can think of, and pay tribute to everything that has come before. I don’t buy that the “album” is dead. Great artists still make albums, that is why they are great. Try to listen to them that way, playlists can be great, but they only tell part of the story.
1. Rufus Du Sol — Bloom (Columbia)
One thing modern streaming services can tell you that records, tapes, and CDs never could, is what you “really” listened to over the course of a year. In my case the sophomore album by Sydney’s Rufus Du Sol was far and away the album I played more than any other. Having stumbled into their set at Coachella in April, and being literally blown away by their melodic and more song oriented approach to dance music, I had no idea what to expect from the recorded version. What I found was eleven of the most lushly produced, instantly addictive songs of the decade. Although somewhat unrelated, I remember feeling the same way in the mid-90’s when first hearing Morcheeba, Zero 7, and Air — beautiful traditional songwriting and structure layered on top of ultra-clean electronic beats.
Because this is also the most consistent album of the year, almost every song is my favorite. From the infectious “You Were Right” whose lyrics “You were right, I know I can’t get enough of you .. the things that I would do” just keeps rolling hypnotically for just the right amount of time, to the broodingly upbeat closing track “Innerbloom” which glitches and grooves along until we get the triumphant chorus “If you want me / And you need me / I’m yours.” For me, everything I love about music is packed into these 11 songs.
2. Andy Shauf — The Party (Anti-)
Some artists come out of nowhere (or in this case Saskatchewan) and record something so perfect its almost inexplicable. Last year Tobias Jesso Jr. (another Canadian) released the near perfect “Goon” which was that record, but this year the orchestral brilliance of “The Party” fills that slot. If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember records piano based chamber pop like this from artists like Epic Soundtracks and Eric Matthews, but this is a very modern sounding affair.
Shauf has a sweet but distinctly low-key voice perfect for the largely slow and moody “The Party.” You’ll hear a bit of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, strings and brass wafting from the piano on this concept album about young people at “The Party.” On the gorgeous “Early to the Party”, he dials perfectly into the inevitable banality “early to the party, you’re the first one there / overdressed and underprepared / standing in the kitchen, stressing out the host / pulling teeth ’til anyone arrives.” Like most of the selections on this list, this is an “album” — one that pulls you in, warms you up, and takes just takes you away to a better younger place where things were way less complicated.
3. Day of the Dead– Day of the Dead (4AD)
There was no record as ambitious and sprawling as the 59-song, four-year project constructed by the The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Indie rock and jam band enthusiasts have always seemed to have been disconnected both by age and cultural orientation, but below the surface there has always been a connection much tighter than there appears. I can think of no better bridge than these modern interpretations from one of the most important bands of the past half-century.
Whether it’s The National’s sublime “Peggy-O,” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s jangly “Rubin and Cherise,” Real Estate’s “Here Comes Sunshine,” or Kurt Vile’s “Box of Rain” the spirit and songwriting and instrumentation of the Dead’s catalog is unquestionably magical. Recorded over four years in Dessner’s Woodstock studio, there was no collection of songs that connected the history of modern music as impressively as this one. This is truly a musical masterpiece, and one that creates a new relevance to one of the most impressive musical catalogs that we will ever hear, but also critical exposure to some of the most important artists of today.
4. Michael Kiwanuka — Love & Hate (Polydor)
Michael Kiwanuka, a young British born child of Ugandan refugees, has single handedly resuscitated the classic soul and R&B of the 70’s. Like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield before him, he channels a kind of laid back politics that manages to not so much preach but to remind us that the world still suffers from the racist, classist instincts that just won’t seem to disappear.
This time out he is produced by Danger Mouse, whose silky production just adds a bit of lightness to an otherwise heavy themed affair. “Black Man In A White World” is a funked up confessional that is as potent as it is unshakable. While “One More Night” is more a universal anthem about just getting through the bad days, because eventually there will be a good one. In the midst of a terrible year personally, this one made all the difference.
5. Whitney- Light Upon The Lake (Secretly Canadian)
There were few better debut albums released this year than this new project by ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich and former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek. This is a whimsical jaunt through the world of modern indie pop, filled with hazy strings and brass, and the kind of familiar sounding guitar lines that have you just kind of smiling without really knowing why.
Each of the 10 songs seem to glide along filled with low burning jams reminiscent of early Luna or the short lived but brilliant Girls. These are indie-pop songs in the purest sense, they ask only that you lay back and bask in the beauty of everyday emotions. On standouts “Golden Days” and “The Falls” we hear about relationships gone bust, despite the longing. This is a tiny little gem of an album, and one we hope begets a long career of jewels.
6. Lambchop — FLOTUS (Merge)
For almost 20 years Nashville’s most quietly rocking Americana big band of hipster musical geniuses has been making some of the most consistently beautiful music I can think of. At the center of it all is bandleader and vocalist Kurt Wagner whose hushed storytelling meanders along like a waking dream. On ‘FLOTUS,’ which needs to be considered among the best of their long career, the band still paints a beautiful country rock symphony, but this time along the music is decidedly electronic.
Lambchop has long been that sadly beautiful brand of music that pre-dates Bon Iver. This time out we hear a deeper more electronic sound with Wagner’s vocals passed through a vocoder while a variety of keyboards and synthesizers flesh out something considerably more modern. The exquisite 9 minute opener “In Care of 8675309” sets a kind of patient groove tone for what comes next: warm waves of meandering rustic beauty.
7. Angel Olsen — My Woman (Jagjaguar)
Sometimes an artist, naked with guitar and microphone, and a short book of stories, projects a kind of greatness that is hard to extrapolate. Like Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen is that rare singer-songwriter whose earlier confessional acoustic efforts have given way to a fully formed band oriented masterpiece. Her voice is a powerful blend of Lucinda Williams and PJ Harvey, at times quiet and restrained but eventually building into a glorious riot of sound.
“My Woman” is a massive step forward in fidelity and musicianship. Where her earlier efforts were sparse and intimate musings, songs like “Not Gonna Kill You” are bigger more ambitious anthems that just tend to explode into the darkness. Others like “Sister” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” represent chorus heavy almost accessible pop songs, but tattooed with all the signature elements that have come to define her. This is a masterpiece.
8. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Twenty-five years into one of the most consistently extraordinary runs of any band I can think of, Radiohead delivers another languidly exquisite album of patient contemplation. Unlike the last few dubstep experiments that were beautiful, sparse and cold, the orchestral texture of “A Moon Shaped Pool” proves that old bands can continue to evolve without sounding like they are trying too hard. Although it is easy to focus on the sublime vocals of Thom Yorke, this time out it is really the musical composition of Johnny Greenwood that saturates each song with a profound depth of feeling.
There are barn burning ragers like “Burn The Witch,” rootsier jams like “The Numbers” and more somber tunes like “Present Tense” where we hear Yorke whisper “ No don’t get heavy / Keep it light and / Keep it moving.” If there was ever a album that attempted to understand the world we live in today it is this one. I am counting on them to neither burn out or fade away.
9. Ryley Walker — Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
Ryley Walker is late twenty-something Chicago guitar prodigy who could have just as easily been the poster child of the 60’/70’s British folk scene along with Nick Drake, Van Morrison and the Fairport Convention. On “Golden Sings” his pure folk instinct gives way a bit to a more modern jazz folk lineage. This long-playing 9-song masterpiece is unlike anything that you have heard for decades.
“The Roundabout” is one of my favorite songs of the past decade. He opens with the profound but ambiguous lyrics “There’s no instance / In conscience or convenience / Even though you stand / On heavy shoulders.” As much as he is a clever lyricist, it is his intricate guitar strumming that puts him way out there on a different plane. Music like this doesn’t fit anywhere in a modern age filled with electronica, dance pop, and festival sized rock and roll. Perhaps this is why this album is so precious and beautiful.
10. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like A Levee (Merge)
If you are looking for an old school rock record fashioned from the ashes of the best of American country rock music of the 70’s, Hiss Golden Messenger’s gorgeous “Heart Like A Levee” is like some sort of gift from the gods. The band is really the work of Durham, NC’s MC Taylor, a master songwriter and gifted bandleader writing from a time long gone.
With his nasal Dylan meets Petty vocal styling’s, he is a straightforward storyteller who seems so important in an age of screens and feeds and ‘alone togetherness.’ There are a handful of instant classics this time out from the twangy “Biloxi” to the rambling title track “Heart Like A Levee”. This is an album that will help you block out everything, at least for a moment, and remember the past as you’d like it to be remembered.
11. The Radio Dept. — Running Out Of Love (Labrador)
It’s no surprise that the cleanest, crispest piece of New Wave nostalgia is yet another product of the great Swedish music scene. The Radio Dept. has quietly and sporadically been making records for the past fifteen years, never quite spiking a main vein in the US, blending the tween sensibility of Belle and Sebastian with the keyboard buoyancy of the best 90’s Brit pop.
Thematically the album is a modern day protest album, bathed in the bright jangle of casio beats. From the infectious “Swedish Guns” to the even more timely “This Thing Was Bound To Happen,” the band is looking at all of the global political chaos crashing down around us, and creating the kind of art that feels more like a reminder than a call to arms.
12. AHNONI — HOPELESSNESS (Rough Trade)
It is hard to think of another singer whose angelic and other-worldly voice can even compare to that of Nina Simone, but the British born, US transplant Antony Hegarty deserves that kind of unique praise. In an age of both radical openness and extreme hate, the transgender Hegarty, whose most recent project AHNONI, has managed to create the most political dance record of the year.
Despite it’s ominous title, the record creates irony out of real chaos. On “Drone Bomb Me” she sings “Blow me from the mountains, and into the sea … Explode my crystal guts / Lay my purple on the grass” and on “4 Degrees” she tackles climate change singing “I want to see this world, I want to see it boil / It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees.” Heavy stuff indeed but performed with a strangely euphoric touch. Amen.
13. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial (Matador)
Will Toledo was born in 1992, which was coincidentally the year we first heard from Pavement- the band probably most sonically and lyrically similar. Between 2010–15 he self-released a dozen albums on Bandcamp calling himself Car Seat Headrest. 10K hours later, he has emerged as one of the most gifted songwriters of his time.
This lo-fi guitar rock, which has recently lost it’s gravity to the electronic DJs of today, seems to be making a comeback with bands like Car Seat Headrest and fellow wunderkind Courtney Barnett. On the surface the dozen melancholic mini rock anthems seem like more millennial whining, but the joke here is that he seem to be poking fun at all of this undeserved entitlement. He says it better than anyone on “Fill in the Blank” where he wails “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” Yup, game on.
14. Mike Snow — iii (Downtown Records)
The third record from the NY and Swedish dance pop supergroup was about as immediate and consistent as anything I heard this year. I also managed to see the band play live four times in 2016, so with this added context I can’t help but excuse the slickness and embrace the mainstream tendencies — after all these guys have produced albums by Britney Spears, Madonna and Kylie Minogue.
From the massively addicting “Ghengis Khan” to the even deeper “My Trigger” the band taps into everything from classic R&B and Soul to the most modern electro dance beats. If I believed in ‘guilty pleasures’ this would fit the bill, but anything that delivers this much joy requires no guilt.
15. Jagwar Ma — Every Now and Then (Mom & Pop)
On their second effort, Aussie psychedelic dance powerhouse Jagwar Ma, continues to channel that bouncy 80’s Manchester sound with a totally modern groove based electronica. Like fellow countrymen Rufus Du Sol and Tame Impala, they both pay tribute to the riches of history managing to create a sound that is genuinely original.
On “Say What You Feel,” the trippiest ballad of the year, the band croons “Cause it’s all you ever wanted / And it’s all you ever dreamed of / And you wake up and you try to / Try to make amends for what you had.” Like a glitchy, bouncy explosions of sound, Jagwar Ma aren’t afraid to stretch out each of these pop songs into deep groovy colorful jams. Let them wash over you.
16. Banks & Steelz — Anything But Words (Warner Bros)
On paper a record featuring the singers from Interpol and Wu Tang making sweet music seems like a bad recipe, but “Anything But Words” is not only the most successful experiment of its kind, but one of the best albums of the year. It’s neither a hip-hop record nor is it a dark new wave indie rock.
Trading vocals throughout each song, Paul Banks and Rza, have written songs that flow effortlessly into and out of their own personal comfort zones but co-existing neatly within a wonderfully familiar zone. The raging “Giant” is one of the best songs in the past decade, a guitar and keyboard driven masterpiece filled with Rza’s rhymes and Banks understated intensity. It almost doesn’t matter if there is another collaboration between the two — this one says all it needs to.
A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …
17. Cass McCombs — Mangy Love (Domino Records) A quietly loud, often moody collection in an age where rock music struggles to make a ripple in the wake of manufactured pop songs and synthesizers.
18. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree (Bad Seeds Ltd.) 33 years into one of the strangest most prolific and darkly beautiful careers imaginable, Nick Cave has delivered a somber masterpiece as he dealt with the loss of a child and the fragility of life.
19. BadBadNotGood — IV (Innovative Leisure) This is not jazz from your parent’s generation, but something wholly different, a fusion of traditional R&B, classic jazz, and spacier Sun Ra meets Miles expansiveness. Breathtaking.
20. The Last Shadow Puppets — Everything You’ve Come to Expect (Domino Recordings) The second wonderfully orchestral release from Artic Monkey’s leader Alex Turner and Miles Kane is a darkly optimistic string soaked voyage into something both theatrical and cooler than ice.
21. Bon Iver — 22, A Million (Jagjaguar) Few albums were as technically and sonically ambitious as this oddly gorgeous evolution from one of the most innovative singer songwriters of our time.
22. David Bowie — Blackstar (Columbia) One final eerily gorgeous collection of jazzy, interstellar genre bending songs from the man who inspired so much of today’s most important bands. Great not because it was his last, but because he always lived in the future.
23. Local Natives– Sunlit Youth (Loma Vista Recordings) Another solidly confident, distinctly authentic effort from one of the finest SoCal art pop bands of the past decade.
24. Weyes Blood — Front Row Seat To Earth (Mexican Summer) Natalie Mering’s sublime, and patiently confessional third effort is a hauntingly otherworldly affair ripped seemingly from some other time and place that is impossible to place.
25. Porches — Pool (Domino Records) Aaron Maine’s sophomore effort features dozen of the cleanest electro-pop songs of the year, alluding to 80’s New Wave, but staying consistently modern and bright.
26. The Avalanches — Wildflower (Modular) 16 years ago a bunch of Aussie music scientists weaved nine-hundred song samples into one of the most important albums in the history of electronic music. Then seemingly out of nowhere, despite years of rumors and hope, they dropped “Wildflower” on the world. Still great.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest listen here: https://open.spotify.com/user/ruxputin/playlist/7jEo6HP5Nadtmh7StRNqzc