- WL – Light Years
This album from Portland band WL caught me off guard with its broad focus and ability to implant in your head to gradually cultivate and blossom. Each of the seven tracks on Light Years makes an indelible statement, from the aching hum of “Crossing”, across the moody Krautrock atmosphere set by “Feeling Down”, to the dream pop explosion on finisher “Trash”. The aural landscapes that WL composes come to life both figuratively and in the form of a “visual album”, where each video manages to nail down its correlating track’s essence with a pertinent simplicity.
- James Blake – The Colour In Anything
James Blake has always been at his foundation a soul singer. Yet he is equal parts iconoclast, creating music that consistently skirts around the edge of R&B while explore how much he can stretch and manipulate the genre. The Colour in Anything is Blake’s most coherent work to date, a true double album of sumptuous heartache and extra-terrestrial transmissions. With a double LP carrying seventeen tracks, one can usually find mid-album lulls patched with gratuitous filler. This one actually gathers steam, loaded at the backend with the most moving work he has ever recorded without compromising his ever-developing vision.
- Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Parquet Courts still purveys that DIY sensibility in 2016 by showing no interest in being stagnant. There has been at least one album release a year since the amazing 2012 album Light Up Gold, with each possessing its own distinct pulse. Human Performance is no different as the cleansing breath of ”Dust” opens with an insistent chug that clears out your presumptions and starts things anew. The concept leaps around from the quick, ramshackle takes on tracks like “Outside” and “2 Dead Cops” to the thoughtful extensions revealed for “One Man, No City”. The refusal of Parquet Courts to cement their sound never seems uncomfortable or ill-advised. Instead, Human Performance is the result of four bright and talented musicians still finding new methods to express and perform.
- Mitski – Puberty 2
We were already aware of what an awe-inspiring artist Mitski Miyawaki is and 2016 is the year everyone else realized it too. Puberty 2 not only exceeds expectations, but rockets past them in a startling double-take fashion. She bares her soul throughout the album and gains strength as each of her confessionals is bare to the world. Through the entire album, she indulges her creative instincts to reach new expression and challenge convention. Puberty 2 is full of powerful statements of growth, her inward thoughts now transitioned into clenched anthems of self-actualization.
- The Avalanches – Wildflower
2016 wasn’t all tragedy in the music world as the sixteen year wait for a new record from The Avalanches was finally over. Where their 2000 game changing debut Since I Left You essentially launched an entire genre of music for the new millennium, Wildflower took that formula and revised the components. As the music recreates a perpetual spinning of a radio dial, a cavalcade of guest appearances step to the mic and ground the mix in the present day. Yet, the greatest attribute to Wildflower is the drifting sense of infinite possibility, coming in and out of focus to relentlessly surprise. By acting as an opponent of the cynicism and sameness that drapes over so much of what is released today, Wildflower is the antithesis of music in 2016.
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
The biggest surprise of the year is the sixth and final album from Tribe. The fact that it even happened is stunning and the sudden death of founding member Phife could have understandably derailed the entire project. WIth guest vocalists unfurling throughout We Got It, from Andre 3000 to Chance to Busta Rhymes to Elton John, the amazement of the sheer volume of talent would be noteworthy enough for a tip of the hat. The biggest jaw dropper here is how good the entire album is. This is no nostalgia trip or last grasp for relevancy. We Got It is exactly what A Tribe Called Quest has always given: thoughtfully spun rhymes over charming beats and samples that make you move and think in concert.
- Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
Upon first listen, Next Thing has an unassuming presence, with music that is never ostentatious or building to some rock star climax. The songs are almost shy in delivery, never wanting to draw too much attention for fear of garnering too many stares. It is that simplicity that frontperson Greta Kline and Frankie Cosmos have perfected, making unassuming tunes that suit her simple tales of awkward social interactions. These are songs that anyone can play and sing along, but no one can recreate with the same kind of thoughtful detail and natural modesty.
- Weaves – Weaves
On their self-titled debut, Toronto’s Weaves has no interest in striving for some tuneful epitome, instead finding a narrow route to some sort of intentionally flawed sonic Shangri-La. The oddball chords strike perfectly with the pragmatic yet singular vocals of Jasmyn Burke. Sometimes sexy, sometimes playful, but always swelling with inspired elocution, her wide-eyed lyrics are void of pointlessly sugary pretense. Where so many other bands pursue the tedium of an unachievable ideal, Weaves delivered originality and fun by way of purposeful imperfection.
- Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Once you shake off the restrictive constraints of rock music ideals, the ninth album from the most important “rock band” of the past two decades in Radiohead becomes, as it should be, without context. The band’s trajectory of melding acoustics and electronics has been thrown off course on A Moon Shaped Pool to present us with their most contradistinct album to date. Where we have gotten acclimated to Radiohead’s prototypical album themes of anxiety and finality, the focus of A Moon Shaped Pool is on Thom Yorke’s distinct reflections on his pristine heartache. Whether utilizing string arrangements to accentuate loss or decoding Yorke’s bitter verse concerning the epilogue of his marriage, AMSP will inevitably go down in as the band’s “breakup album”. It should also be cited as their most exquisite work, reaching beyond the well-guarded perimeter of rock music and resting peerlessly in its own artistic medium.
- David Bowie – Blackstar (★)
What is most striking about the 25th and final album from rock music’s greatest chameleon is that he doesn’t spend it hide behind an invented persona. As Blackstar progresses, he strips away all of his characters along with his fame and notoriety to reveal an ugly and stark corporeality. David Bowie is telling a tale that we never heard by including the element of his true humanity without filter. To befit the narrative, the music shifts along from Broadway musical majesty to avant-jazz shronk, still exhibiting a willingness to break convention in favor of artistry and intrigue. Throughout what only he knew to be his final act, Bowie laid to rest his most beloved roles as each song progressed. Starman, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell To Earth, all these costumes now lay on the floor along with his fluid sexuality and androgyny, never to be donned again.
When I finished my original review of Blackstar on the day of its release (as well as his 69th birthday), David Bowie had not yet left our existence. To conclude the piece, I wrote:
“If he never gets another chance, Blackstar is a fitting denouement for the grand marvel of David Bowie, a man who had only the final role of himself yet to play and still reveals only a glimpse of his true being.”
David Bowie died two days later and the story is complete. Blackstar was always his intended eulogy and parting gift to the world.