The 12 Best Records of 2016

2016 was undeniably rough. Lots of shit happened, and most of that shit sucked. Still, it’s worth taking a look back at the year, because  a lot of fantastic music came out. These are, in my opinion, the best projects of 2016. Whether you agree with me or not, hopefully this list will point you towards some new tunes.

Honorable Mentions:
These are thirteen fantastic records, in no particular order, that I didn’t feel particularly inclined to write about. And that’s on me/ But these are among the best releases of the year, and I felt that they at least deserved a mention.

Holy Wave – Freaks of Nurture
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Swans – The Glowing Man
Preoccupations – Preoccupations
Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Mitski – Puberty 2
Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

Alright, now let’s get into The Top 12

12.  Christian Fennesz & Jim O’Rourke – Its Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry

I really fucking like Jim O’Rourke. From his days in the seminal post-rock band Gastr del Sol to his streak of exceptional solo albums such as Bad Timing, Eureka, and Insignificance, he’s made a some of my absolute favorite music of the past twenty-five years. O’Rourke has also solidified himself as one of the premier producers in indie music, producing Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Smog’s Knock Knock, Stereolab’s Sound-Dust, and Joanna Newson’s Ys, to name a few. He also has a dauntingly extensive and continually growing experimental and collaborative discography. As a result, new O’Rourke releases often slip by unnoticed, but luckily It’s Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry caught my eye. Sorry is a collaboration between O’Rourke and Christian Fennesz, one of the foremost glitch and ambient artists of the past two decades. The result is a beautifully lush ambient album. With just two tracks around the twenty minute mark, Sorry doesn’t deliver any catchy moments. But the atmospheric soundscapes Fennesz and O’Rourke create on this record are gorgeous and serene. In such a tumultuous year, Sorry provides a much needed peaceful pause.

11.  Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

What is there to say about Death Grips that hasn’t been said a million times already. Not much. But even after all the cancelled shows and overt fucking with fans, they still got it. Bottomless Pit really doesn’t have a weak moment, but there are certainly some stand outs. “Eh” might rival “I’ve Seen Footage” for the catchiest Death Grips song, and “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” is a terrific opening track. The hook on “Spikes” is catchy as fuck, and tracks like “Three Bedrooms In A Good Neighborhood” really showcases Flatlander’s impressive production. Nothing super new for the band, but Bottomless Pit is a fantastic release regardless.

10.  Arca – Entrañas

Arca’s Entrañas is a brilliant mixtape, a dark, glitchy amalgam of samples, wonky drum and bass production with ample noise. On Entrañas, or “bowels” in English, Arca takes an introspective look at the deep dark parts hidden within. As a result, Arca does not shy away from grimy, messy sounds on Entrañas. An eeriness permeates Entrañas, from the Cocteau Twin’s sample worked into “Baby Doll” to the ghostly closing track “Sin Rumbo”. The textural depth Arca creates on Entrañas is truly staggering, as are the many atmospheric shifts. Soothing ethereal moments and abrasive explosions of noise are brought together by consistent and tight breaks making Entrañas an arresting record, surreal, cryptic and disorienting. Entrañas is a truly unique project that solidifies Arca’s position as one of the most idiosyncratic and forward-thinking producers of the decade.  

9.  The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free

Australian noise-rockers The Drones come through with an anxious, aggressive, politically charged record full of punchy, noisy experimental rock and post-punk tunes. While this album still features some frenzied, raw tracks, many of the songs are more calculated and restrained. Feelin Kinda Free is the most dynamic The Drones have ever sounded, and with abounding dissonance they explore a very dark, anxious side of neo-psychedelia. There are also tons of fantastic one-liners on this record, and the cynical, biting lyrics perfectly complement the frantic, fervent instrumentation. “Taman Shud” and “Boredom” are standouts, but the whole record is fantastic.  

8.  Mild High Club – Skiptracing

Skiptracing is a gorgeous psych pop record, expansive and serene with a built-in sense of nostalgia. The band’s lethargic brand of psychedelia is lush, warm and enveloping, with a healthy dose of funk. Skiptracing is a radiant record, with Alexander Brettin’s distant, muffled vocals evaporating into a hazy aura of reverb-soaked guitars and mellotron that meld together to form expansive soundscapes. Tracks like “Cary Me Back” and “Chasing My Tail” gently wash over you, while more soul-influenced cuts “Tesselation” and “Chapel Perilous” are mellow and funky.  Skiptracing is vibrant, layered, and downright gorgeous from front to back.

7.  Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

After the folk-rock leanings of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, I was surprised when Angel Olsen dropped “Intern”. With just icy synths to back her vocals, “Intern” was an arresting track, minimal but deeply emotional, reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. But it works, and for my money MY WOMAN is Angel Olsen’s best LP to date. The first side of the LP retains some similarities to Burn Your Fire. The crunchy distorted guitars are still there, as is the 60s pop influence. But unlike Burn Your Fire, MY WOMAN is stylistic diverse, sparse, and more melancholic. More minimal tracks like “Pops”, with just a lonely piano line, and the dream-pop leanings of “Woman” are juxtaposed with the country-rock tune “Heart Shaped Face” and the fantastic single “Shut Up Kiss Me”. Olsen’s vocals are enthralling; her range is extremely impressive. The highlights are many, but the two longer tracks, “Woman” and “Sister”, are my favorite Angel Olsen tracks to date. MY WOMAN is a gorgeous record, heartfelt and formidable.

6.  King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity

The prolific Australian psych/garage outfit King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard love their fuzzy guitars, and they take it up a notch on Nonagon Infinity. Nonagon Infinity is a blistering record, gracefully walking the line between experimental and fun as fuck. This record never skips a beat or gives you room to breath; the album actually works as a continuous loop, with every track seamlessly blending into the next. The last track even blends into the opening track perfectly. Despite the furious, suffocating, psychedelic walls of noise, the hooks and infectious melodies cut through and are catchy as all get out. With heavy riffs aplenty, Nonagon Infinity kicks some serious ass.

5.  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Skeleton Tree is one of the darkest, most emotionally raw albums Nick Cave has ever released. In the midst of recording Skeleton Tree, Cave’s fifteen year old son fell off a cliff to his death. And even though the album was already written, this tragic loss of his son Arthur seems to have led Cave to make Skeleton Tree the bleak, cavernous record that it is. The sparse compositions let Cave’s vocals take the forefront, and his haunting voice reverberates through the record like a restless spirit. Cave’s lyrics have always erred on the poetic side, and Skeleton Tree is no exception. But on this record, Cave’s voice is as frail as it has ever sound. This album is a prescient outpouring of grief, making it one of Nick Cave & the Bad Seed’s most moving records in their storied discography.

4.  Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits

Thee Oh Sees return with a hypnotic, krautrock-inspired psych punk record that might just be their best record to date. John Dwyer and company have been nothing but prolific since their first release ten years ago, and with records like Carrion Crawler / The Dream, Floating Coffin, and Help it seemed like the best of Thee Oh Sees might be in the past. But A Weird Exits squelches that notion with spine-shattering force. This record is energetic, raw, and trippy as all get out. This is the most psychedelic Thee Oh Sees have ever been, and that’s a fantastic thing. The slower, longer tracks allow for ample experimentation, but that doesn’t make this thing any less heavy. A Weird Exits is one of the most cryptic records of 2016, shrouded is a hissing cloud of fuzz and reverb. Thee Oh Sees prove yet again that garage rock is alive and well.

3.  Deakin – Sleep Cycle 

Animal Collective guitarist Deakin opted to work on a solo record rather than writing, recording and touring the band’s 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, a move that seemed questionable at the time given Merriweather’s success. Sleep Cycle is that album, and it does not disappoint. It is a lush, dreamy, melodic record, bearing heavy resemblance to Merriweather and Strawberry Jam. And this is why Sleep Cycle is such a welcome surprise. The two most recent Animal Collective LPs, 2016’s Painting With and 2012’s Centipede Hz, have been dense, cluttered records, suffering from chaotic samples and noise that muddle many tracks. Sleep Cycle is free of these issues, making it easily the best Animal Collective-related project in years.

Sleep Cycle is short, sweet and absolutely infectious. Deakin’s warbling vocals are delightful, the lyrics are personal and resonant, and Deakin’s vocal melodies are phenomenal. Instrumentally the album throws back to mid-2000s Animal Collective. “Footy” recalls “Cuckoo Cuckoo” and other Avey Tare songs from Strawberry Jam, but Deakin makes it distinctly his own. “Just Am” is a brilliant track, bouncing along with a subtle groove and skeletal drum beat. “Seed Song” floats along effortlessly into the emotional, panoramic closer “Good House”. Sleep Cycle is healing music, meditative, introspective and soothing. While Animal Collective has recently forayed into more manic territory, Sleep Cycle inhabits a different realm entirely, blissfully calm and hypnotic. I just wish this album wasn’t so fucking short.

2.  Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition 

Atrocity Exhibition is an absolutely brilliant album. Danny Brown creates an album so mind-blowingly different and weird that it’s mere existence almost seems impossible. The production is bizarre and off-kilter and freaky, with cuts like “Golddust”, which features a sample from krautrock band Embryo, and “Ain’t It Funny”. The opener, “The Downward Spiral” sets the dark, manic, nihilistic tone of the record with themes of drug abuse, depression, and desperation. The lead single “Really Doe”, while unlike most other tracks on the record, is a banger with exceptional features from Kendrick, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt. But even ignoring “Really Doe”, Danny Brown consistently kills. His flow is insane, especially given the angular, skeletal production. Danny’s verses are heavy and honest, but his twisted sense of humor pushes through the gritty, bleak atmosphere he creates. This record is grotesque, unsettling, dark, and without a doubt one of the absolute best hip-hop releases of the century so far.

  1.  David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer, and only two days after his 25th and final studio album,  Blackstar, was released. Entirely removed from the context of his death, Blackstar is still an incredible record. With arranged jazz, electronic, and avant-garde elements tied together with an art-rock sensibility, Blackstar is perhaps the farthest Bowie ever strayed from pop. Intricate grooves, screeching horns, occult imagery and some of Bowie’s most emotional vocals ever make this an astounding record. But this record is more than that; Blackstar is Bowie’s swan-song, a response to his own impending death. The menacing, dark vibe of the record is cut by undercurrents of acceptance and self-reflection, highlighted by musical and lyrical allusions to Bowie’s past records. Never has a record so poignantly captured the uncertainty of death as this one. Blackstar is Bowie’s flawless farewell, and shows the dedication he put into his art, regardless of the circumstances.

 

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