1. Deakin : Sleep Cycle
Nothing is too complex. Everything can be worked through by breathing slowly. Spit out that rage. Breathe out all that shame. Even peaceful moments can contain anger. Even moments of chaos can contain catharsis.
Here are six songs that are only interested in solutions to problems. You’ll hear the voices of Animal Collective’s most lucid work and Bjork’s most life-affirming akin to “All Is Full of Love.” “Just Am” is the sound of growing up that Deakin was absent from during the Merriweather Post Pavilion hubbub. It’s wonderful to see the oft-neglected member of a band churn out their best song of the current decade (“Wide Eyed”) and release an album that coolly places itself among other AnCo greats like Down There and Sung Tongs.
2. Radiohead : A Moon Shaped Pool
The King of Limbs left a lot of Radiohead fans in a jaded way (myself not included). Thom Yorke had retreated into himself, and we had to follow him for a long time before reaching listener/artist dialogue. He’s opposite of that on AMSP; slowly approaching his listeners with eyes and heart wide open.
The members of this band are around 50 years old, so there are few rock and roll tricks save the gnarled guitars on “Identikit” (a frighteningly sharp culmination of everything post-Wallace) and the reverse-beat antics on “Ful Stop.” What we have instead is periods of fussy emotionalism like the pianos before the flood on “Decks Dark.” The pristine production is advanced by the question of Yorke’s subjects: Is he speaking to himself or speaking to all of us?
3. Kendrick Lamar : untitled unmastered.
An album simultaneously about nothing and everything. From the head-scratching pigeonhole-logic of #3 to the prescience of #1 (as prefaced by 80 seconds of soft core porn audio), it’s incredible that these beats and ideas didn’t make it onto To Pimp a Butterfly. What could it have been like to produce a track with Cee-Lo and subsequently be like “yeah, okay we’ll use this later.”
uu is only unmastered in its lack of a consistent thread, but even TPAB required an album length poem for guidance. This has none, but is almost its equal in terms of scope and variety. Kendrick shares bars with nobody, and refuses to make 8 “unrelated” tracks anything less than the best rap of the year.
4. David Bowie : Blackstar
Bowie and Visconti gave us everything Bowie’s best albums have always possessed: fantastic employment of dozens of instruments, forward-thinking poetry and imagery, and placement of Bowie’s voice at the center; never once becoming grating or tired despite knocking at death’s door. We have a new, more powerful synonym for swan song.
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds : Skeleton Tree
Cave needs to cope, and he does so here by projecting his music across the rings of Saturn, into the mist rolling off the sea, and into a bathroom mirror; vomit, blood and someone else’s diseases on display. Grieving doesn’t limit itself to places in a house or on a map. You recognize the person in the mirror although the person on the inside has been overhauled, and mundane tasks like standing in the supermarket queue become new and confusing. “Maybe I’m just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain,” Cave sings on ‘Rings of Saturn’, where we catch him attempting normalcy with his loss painted across his face; which looks older and less familiar than it did before July of last year. In this way, death also transcends people and places, ultimately fucking with time itself.
6. Jenny Hval : Blood Bitch
Where does Jenny Hval find her strength? In some ways, she revels in her “bad art and failure” as Patrick Stickles might. In others, she celebrates it with details finer than Vespertine-era Bjork – from blunt concessions turned heartfelt comforts like taking birth control with rosé and finding connectedness at the gynecologist.
7. PJ Harvey : The Hope Six Demolition Project
Apart from “A Line In The Sand,” there aren’t many solutions offered to the world problems presented on Hope Six. Polly Jean Harvey is more of a witness: There’s a Department of Homeland Security base being built over an old hospital. There’s a wall in Kosovo with thousands of pictures of missing persons. There’s a woman in a slum saving her neighbors keys although they most certainly won’t be returning.
Listeners are left to fill in the gaps of past conflicts that brought these locations to such destruction. Her only guide is “The Orange Monkey” who insists that traveling and studying history is the path to understanding. She’s made such journeys for us, and brought a scrappy, saxophone-adoring, controversial piece of art back to England. It’s a shame some of these tracks aren’t longer.
8. Kevin Morby : Singing Saw
This is the easiest and most inviting record of the year. Singing Saw’s themes are ones anybody can relate to: leaving home on “Destroyer,” contemplating death on “Singing Saw,” and celebrating the good times in conjunction with the bad on “Dorothy.”
9. Nonkeen : The Gamble/Oddments of the Gamble
Three German children find a common interest in found sounds and improvisation in 1989. They perform some of them, but disband after an accident in 1997. Well into their twenties, they reconvene, reconfigure their rudimentary 4-track samples, and compile dozens of tracks that capture ambient, krautrock, and electronic music. Listen to these records when you’re feeling contemplative, when you’re feeling smart, and when you’re feeling like producing something worthwhile of your own. Another knockout by Nils Frahm, modern classical music’s finest product.
10. Frank Ocean : Blonde
All Frank Ocean has retained since channel ORANGE is his voice, thereby subverting his classification as an R&B artist. Blonde is a record that shaped Ocean’s queerness into a relatable palette of American excess; as told through the lens of often beat-less ambient structures. Blonde contains everything Justin Vernon has sought in his folding over of rap and folk, but pierces the heart more directly. No chipmunk voice is underutilized, no guitar lick is overwhelming, and no bassline is less than tasteful.
11. Jessy Lanza : Oh No
Pop music of the eighties and nineties compressed into an album that glitters like a diamond in pure emotional beauty.
12. Kanye West : The Life of Pablo
A garrulous, overproduced, and often despicable piece of modern art. Look a little closer at the cracks between the sentiment and you’ll find that West is still our generation’s finest curator of his genre.
13. Fog : For Good
The total picture of anxiety on a daily basis. Through rush hour traffic, concerns about taking lunch, buildings on fire, and unexpected sex in Minneapolis suburbs, Andrew Broder has the grit and gumption to remind us how love keeps on trying to win our lives over.
14. Ty Segall : Emotional Mugger
A no holds barred rock and roll affair. Segall brings his studio know-how and punk scrappiness together in ways his previous albums have only attempted.
15. The Body : No One Deserves Happiness
Where 2014’s I Shall Die Here had us staring darkly into the void, No One Deserves Happiness has us reveling in it. Typically The Body have taken a longview of metal, industrial, and noise. Here, they dive headlong into it over the most visceral instrumentals of 2016; complete with Chip King’s trademark howls and a stellar list of guest vocalists.
16. A Tribe Called Quest : We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Impossible to put to words. Tribe covered it all.
17. Tim Hecker : Love Streams
An icy wormhole of all music from Mozart to Eno. All of it.
18. The Drones : Feelin Kinda Free
“To Think That I Once Loved You” is the most brooding track of the year, whereas “Taman Shud” casts a “fuck off” huge enough to impress even Sleaford Mods.
19. Islands : Should I Remain Here At Sea?
The unnatural successor to 2006’s Return to the Sea, which is perhaps the finest album of its year.
20. Fat White Family : Songs For Our Mothers
Drug-addled, college-educated, formerly homeless history and fine art buffs making pristine pop culture satire.