They say that in times of strife good music is made. 2016 seems to be proving that adage correct for it was a great year for music despite the gutting losses of musical icons – literal paragons of their artform (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Phife Dawg to name a few). And the eerie final-works delivered just before their deaths from Bowie and Cohen (and Phife not too long after) only added to the pain of our loss.
I am going to have to find a way to cull my list. I always do this- but there are so many great albums put out this year- I have a hard time sticking to my self-imposed Top-5 rule. Again, these are the albums that were released this year that I went back and listened to the most or was most taken by. One album, which I absolutely loved, I’ll leave out of the Top-5 only because it is a compilation of songs from the 70s, and I think the spirit of this list works best when recognizing new music. That album is Wayfaring Stranger No 58 from Numero Group– the compilation of “cosmic American music”; in a nutshell – basically music inspired heavily by Gram Parsons and his particular influence on The Byrds. The rest will have to fend for themselves.
I will say, it’s been a while since I’ve randomly stumbled upon new music that’s really caught my attention, partially because of the way I am introduced to music now (i.e. NOT MTV or WOXY), and because I am busy adulting and being a husband to fully delve into musical releases. Two albums from this year actually caught my ear from the first time I heard them and have kept me coming back: I heard “Something Soon” by Car Seat Headrest on a blog somewhere and played it several times in a row, forcing me to check them out (though that song is not from their release this year). And someone posted about the band The Hanging Stars on the 97X WOXY Facebook page, I found a teaser video for the song “Golden Vanity“, and once I heard the pedal-steel I was hooked. I felt like a kid discovering these new bands. The rest of this list and the contenders for it are almost all established and consistent favorites of mine (Tortoise, Wussy, The Besnard Lakes).
Here, in no particular order, are my Top-5 albums of 2016:
1. various artists – Day of the Dead
On the surface, I shouldn’t have liked this album as much as I do. I heard rumblings about this project years ago- The National doing a Grateful Dead cover album? Really? The current-day incarnation of the terse, taught, and dark Joy Division covering The Dead? I like The National. A lot. And I love the Dead. But just because I like both of these things doesn’t mean that they pair well together. I didn’t see the overlap or influence. As it turns out, the album isn’t just the 5 guys from Cincinnati covering Dead tunes, and that may be why this “compilation” works so well. Curated by the brothers Dessner, most of The National act as the backing-band along with additional musicians or to fill out any given band performing a particular song- as opposed to a random assortment of different bands playing different songs. Certainly, some songs are just the named band playing their respective song, but most of them have this part-National/part-ensemble combination. And, ohmygod this list of (unlikely?) collaborators: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, Tunde Adebimpe, Tim Hecker(?!), and Sharon Van Etten– to name a few.
I was a fan of the album Deadicated when it came out, but after repeated listening, I found that I’d skip over many of the songs just to get to the ones that I liked more. The album is just uneven. Because of Day of the Dead‘s ensemble approach, there is a theme or vibe that carries through most of the songs that helps it gel a lot more. After repeated listens I still only skip over the Mumford & Sons take on “Friend of the Devil”- which is a shame because I love that song.
I will do my best not to name the whole album, but as far as stand-outs, there are many on this 5-disc CD compilation/10-disc LP set(!). Some are fairly true to the original like The War on Drugs’ “Touch of Grey“, Jim James & friends’ “Candyman”, Kurt Vile and the Violators’ “Box of Rain”, and Lee Ronaldo‘s(?!) “Mountains of the Moon”. Most take the song and refine it ever-so-slightly and make something special like Phosphorescent & Jenny Lewis doing “Sugaree“; The Lone Bellow doing “Dire Wolf” (which I could have easily mistaken for Los Lobos); or Courtney Barnett(!) doing “New Speedway Boogie” with a sultry smoky barroom lilt that works a little more for her that Jerry and the boys. Some are true to the vibe of the song but the orchestration is quite different like The National’s “Morning Dew” or “Peggy-O”. Also take for instance Bruce Hornsby’s “Black Muddy River”. Not exactly a Dead-classic, Hornsby, a long-time Grateful Dead collaborator, takes the almost too-smooth sound of the original studio version and turns it into something akin to an Irish dirge. Cass McCombs flips the idea on its head by taking a tape-loop laden and reverby but altogether short “Dark Star” and actually works it into an intro of sorts to a more-ensemble jam called “Nightfall of Diamonds”.
I’ll end on the song that I think is the crown-jewel of this album; a medley of sorts called “Garcia Counterpoint” written and performed by Bryce Dessner. This song takes melodic motifs of Jerry Garcia guitar-licks and weaves them into, out of, and on top of each other into a veritable mix-tape of Jerry’s greatest hits. It is from this song that I can tell how much at least the Dessner brothers appreciate and were influenced by Jerry and the Dead.
And just for fun, if you’ve not seen this- there is a sneak-preview of this album on YouTube:
2. Wussy – Forever Sounds
I’ll be honest, I tried to find a reason to keep this album off my list, if only because Wussy has made it onto pretty much every list I’ve made and I don’t want to seem like too much of a fanboy. But I just can’t help it. This album is so damn good! Wussy has been remarkably consistent writing raw and emotional rock with all of the hallmarks of the music that comes from the Ohio Valley (GBV, The Breeders, Scrawl); there’s the perfect balance of a catchy guitar melody, a wall of distorted guitars, perhaps a tastefully used vintage analog keyboard, and big Keith Moon drums. Wussy is all about the dualities in their music. There’s the beautiful and melodic played over top of (or sometimes underneath) the raw and raucous. Often mistaken for being a roots-based band, possibly for the high and lonesome wail of Chuck Cleaver’s voice, Wussy has more in common sonically with shoegaze and grunge than anything by Hank Williams, but you could make a case for the melancholy in his songs having a distant influence. And on this album the formula congeals even more.
The album opens with a squeal of feedback, over a twinkly piano, and a heavy bass-drop that encapsulates this very sound. The album’s second track “She’s Killed Hundreds” is one of my favorites and even recalls a little “Rockin’ in the Free World”/Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. Track three, “Donny’s Death Scene“, is one of those songs where singer Lisa Walker’s singing is mixed almost underneath the wailing guitars, like the way Michael Stipe’s voice was on early R.E.M. albums- only making it more haunting. The next run of songs is probably my favorite segment of the album: “Gone” is fantastic, “Hello I’m a Ghost” just plain kills me, and then “Hand of God” brings be back just in time to enjoy the wry wit of “Sidewalk Sale”. “Majestic-12” is just downright beautiful.
A lot of people have made a big deal about how long-time collaborator John Curley of The Afghan Whigs was moved to an advisory role on this album, and I can see why. Sonically, this album stands alone. All the elements that have made Wussy such a great band in the past are all here- just thrown into the mix in slightly different places. I would never have said that Wussy were getting stale or anything of the sort- but hearing their music through the fresh ears of Jerri Queen and John Hoffman has made Forever Sounds a stand-out record.
3. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Perhaps it is the 90s zeitgeist that is taking over at the moment, or perhaps I was eager to hear more music from that era after reading Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers (thanks Matt) earlier this year; but this album came along at just the right time. As stated above, I came across this album on a random article, embedded was the video for “Something Soon” and had to listen several times in a row. Car Seat Headrest falls into a category of band that doesn’t necessarily do anything new or unheard-of, but what they do is really good and honest and, pardoning the pun- hits all the right notes. They extend the genre or add to the catalog without watering it down.
Singer/songwriter (and Geoffrey Arend‘s long lost twin) Will Toledo’s slacker delivery and guitar work references alternately Stephen Malkmus (“Vincent”), Beck (“(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”), Frank Black (“Not Just What I Needed”) or even the best of Julian Casablancas- who I have no real love for, but there are some listenable cuts from Is This It, (“Fill In The Blank”).
And for all these ‘homages’, we’ll say, the songs hold up. It’s a good record. And it makes it all the more infuriating- that a kid born in fucking 1992 is able to tap into the music of that era so well. And, adding to the on-the-noseness, Teens of Denial was put out on none other than Matador Records. Good job everyone, the 90s are back.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
…and speaking of the 90s, one would be completely justified in restraining one’s joy at hearing that hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest were planning on dropping a new album in 2016, and on the heels of the death of one of their bandmates? There have been a number of artists trying to capitalize on the 90s zeitgeist- offering new work and not succeeding (Pixies’ Indie Cindy, anyone?). There’s also a question of relevance- for a group who has essentially stayed out of the limelight for the last twenty years, would their brand of hip-hop translate to today? I thought Q-Tip had a good chance to have a decent post-Tribe career, but he got fucked by the sidelining of his album Kamaal/The Abstract, I personally think there would have been plenty of room for it and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It’d be one thing if there were consistent releases in the meantime. But in the interim we’ve had Kanye, Dirty South, and the rise of the mumble rap. How would this album stack up? It turns out it’s not a moment too soon.
I was a little late to the hip-hop game, I’ll admit. But it was the early work of Tribe, De La Soul, and Digable Planets who used jazz samples heavily as the basis for their songs that caught my attention. At the time the general positivism of their albums appealed to me. Some of the aggression of Wu-Tang and the West Coast rap didn’t grab me until later. I remember being at my pals’ Nick and Andy’s place while they were bumping Tribe, and I couldn’t stop my head from bobbing.
We Got It From Here… comes at a really interesting time, it’s partially a tribute to Tribe’s fallen comrade, but also a bold return to the medium- featuring Phife Dawg himself. The album sounds as fresh as if it was from a new group, and at the same time picks up where The Love Movement left off. Some elements are strange, but not altogether bad- namely the Elton John and Jack White contributions, some are curious but amazing (Can samples on a Tribe album?!), and some are familiar and welcome collaborations- as with André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Busta, and Talib Kweli. And adding to the painful loss of Phife Dawg, there are the samples of another lost icon from The Great Culling of 2016™ – Gene Wilder scenes from Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka on We Got It From Here…
This album is everything I want from a Tribe album; the beats are sick, the songs have a strong message (for better or worse, “We The People….” is the song we need in 2016), Busta makes an appearance, Q-Tip’s avant garde touch is all over the place. “Who can come back years later, still hit the shot?” Tribe, that’s who.
5. Yoni & Geti – Testarossa
I struggled a bit with the fifth album for the Top-5. Despite no lack of good music released this year, I kept finding myself going back to Testarossa.
The sleeper-hit dropped in May, though it was written and recorded in 2011, and is a sort-of concept record and a long-form songwriting collaboration between Yoni Wolf of WHY? and Serengeti. Yoni and Geti have worked together before, Yoni produced half of 2011’s Family & Friends, but this is the first major release where the songwriting was shared. Geti, no stranger to taking on characters in his raps, finds himself doing the bulk of the MCing and singing- taking on the mantel of Davy and raps about a his failing relationship with Maddy (Madeline) as he goes out on tour. Wolf, presumably, does most of the orchestration and production- but does contribute backing vocals and the occasional lead vocal. (They toured in late spring with Serengeti MCing, Yoni on vocals and samples/drums, and with Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon of WHY? on keys and guitars and bass. This tour was billed as a one-time only promotion for Testarossa.)
This album didn’t get as much coverage as I think it deserves, so I think the term ‘sleeper’ is apt. But I also think the term is appropriate to describe the vibe- in a good way. Geti’s sleepy delivery (when not performing as the blue-collar rapper Kenny Dennis) has been called confounding by the likes of Pitchfork, but I personally dig it. He finds interesting turns of phrase, and can sometimes seem to rhyme on the backbeat. The fact that he is often rapping these deep introspective lyrics, coupled with the dreaminess of the production and Geti’s subdued brand of rapping ties the concept together into a great album.
The vibe of the album touches on some of the pair’s individual main acts (“Frank” could be on any Serengeti album, “Allegheny” could be on a WHY? album, and “Wassup (Uh Huh)” could almost be on the eponymous one-off album Hymie’s Basement), but also hits on bubbly 80s pop (“Lucky Town”), reggae (“What A Fool”), and early 90s hip-hop (“Down”). Highlights for me are the single “Madeline“, “Lunchline”, “Lucky Town”, and “Wassup (Uh Huh)”, but really I could list more than 75% of the album. While there are a lot of fun moments on this album, there are just as many beautiful ones, I love how little moments like “Change” are interwoven between everything else. “The Lore” is another beautiful moment.
Since it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see this act live again, let me share with you their great performance on Audiotree. Please enjoy.
Honorable Mentions (read: I need to not limit myself to Top-5 lists)
The following are some albums that were released and I either didn’t purchase them or they didn’t get quite as much play-time as the five above.
various artists – Wayfaring Strangers no. 58/Cosmic American Music
The Hanging Stars – Over The Silvery Lake
David Bowie -★
Tortoise – The Catastrophist
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Frank Ocean – Endless
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Jeremy Cunningham Quartet – re: dawn (from far)
Stirrup – Cut
case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs
Old Heavy Hands – Old Heavy Hands
…and some I, quite honestly didn’t get to, despite my best intentions:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Wilco – Schmilco
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Angel Olsen – My Woman
The Handsome Family – Unseen
Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool