Disregarding the current social and political climate for a moment (not that I would care to talk about that on a music review series), 2016 was certainly an eventful year. Amidst the deaths of many great music artists, — disregarding the obvious one, there were also Prince, Dennis Davis, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Nick Menza, John Berry, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and Phife Dawg among others — we have been able to see long-running groups and artists not only release efforts after many years of silence, but also, in some cases, come up with great albums after a long period of middling releases. Some artists are making their exit, while others have entered into new and unexpected directions. Something is certain: there was something to please everyone, and there was always a surprise around the corner, which made 2016 a delight when it came to digging into new albums.
As usual, this is a non-definitive list, not only because the difference in quality between two different records can be very arbitrary, but also because my feelings on these albums and their placement can change as time goes on. For the time being, however, these are the best albums to come out in 2016.
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
For those who had the chance to read my reviews from the very beginning, it’s no surprise by now that I’m a fan of the Bowman. For those who haven’t, here’s a quick introduction: Michael Guy Bowman started off as a member of the music team for the webcomic Homestuck (the same team in which appeared Toby Fox of Undertale fame). There, he contributed a fair amount of solid material as well as a brilliant electronic/ambient pop album named Mobius Trip & Hadron Kaleido, which still towers above the rest of the Homestuck catalog. In 2012, he began his solo career, where he would carve out a sound distinct from the Homestuck style and experiment with real instrumentation. To this day, he hasn’t released a single full-length effort that isn’t superb (disregarding Archive, an understandably spotty compilation that came out this year).
Bowman’s newest effort Electric Daydreams is very good, but it’s his weakest so far. The album consists of material that he came up with over the course of 2016, and it only clocks in at 29 minutes over 8 tracks; all of them are solid, and some of them are even outstanding, but they aren’t as remarkable on the whole as the numbers on the previous records. However, the main issue isn’t the quality of the tracks, but rather the fact that the sound isn’t as thoroughly developed as the other albums (the instrumentation is more phoned in than usual, for one), making Electric Daydreams a much more understated effort as a result, and not in an entirely good way. Still, for a quaint pop rock mini-album, it’s worth picking up, and it has its share of highlights, such as the mellow “Wherever We Go”, the upbeat rocker “The Wild Years”, and the folksy “Purgatory”.
#9: Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
What usually happens each year is that an already established artist releases an effort that generates a lot of buzz, and the effort in question ends up my introduction into their discography. Last year, this applied to Lil Ugly Mane and Sufjan Stevens; this year, it’s Danny Brown. I have yet to listen to his other records, but Atrocity Exhibition is a delightful experimental hip hop release; the most interesting part of it is the dark and twisted atmosphere, which primarily comes to be due to the variety of unconventional samples and beats that make up the musical backbone of the album. This, in combination with the very solid rapping as well as the occasional guest star in songs such as “Really Doe”, makes for one of the more interesting releases of the year.
There are a lot of notable tracks on here, but my favorites include the more frantic numbers, namely “Ain’t It Funny”, “Dance in the Water” and “When It Rain”. The album is consistently strong and inventive on the whole, however, with no real low point. Atrocity Exhibition is definitely recommended for fans of hip hop in general: it’s adventurous, but it’s not impenetrable.
#8: Weezer – Weezer [White Album]
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
One of the bigger surprises of 2014 involved power pop group Weezer coming up with a new record that was actually good. For those who are unaware, the band is infamous for releasing a streak of middling (if not bad) albums between 2002 and 2010, and as this period went on, there was a feeling that the group was desperately trying to cling to the nerdy college rock style that made them popular in the first place, even though they were well into adulthood. Raditude, with its inexplicable late 2000s pop leanings, demonstrates this with ease. With that said, their 2014 effort Everything Will Be Alright in the End, while no masterpiece, showed the band could still pull off this style effectively in spite of the members’ age.
Weezer’s fourth self-titled record (or “White Album”), released this year, is even better, and feels as authentic as their first three albums. While it does take inspiration from their classic efforts and re-tread some familiar subjects (including relationships, but that should be no surprise coming from this band), it also boasts a strong Beach Boys influence that works in conjunction with the group’s usual style; this becomes evident right away with the opening “California Kids” and “Wind in Our Sail”, two smashing and uplifting rockers that tower over all of Weezer’s 2002-2010 material. The other cuts aren’t much worse either — my favorite is “L.A. Girlz”, one of their best ballads so far. For a newcomer to the band, their debut remains the best point of entry, but a fan simply can’t go wrong with this.
#7: Swans – The Glowing Man
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
The Glowing Man is the final part of Swans’ trilogy of 2-hour post-rock records, and it’s also the last album of the group’s current incarnation. Whereas The Seer integrated elements of drone into a powerful rock style (as its track lengths show) and To Be Kind added a mantra-like approach to its songs’ progression (as its track lengths show), this album is more atmospheric in terms of sound and songwriting. This new style works hand-in-hand with the record’s focus on lengthy cuts (unlike The Seer, which alternates more often with “short” and long tracks), allowing it to avoid becoming tedious like its predecessor often did.
As a result, the highlights mainly consist of the longer songs, and the best out of all of them would be “The Glowing Man”, which stands as the high point of Swans’ 2010s material. In comparison, the shorter numbers are a little weak, with the only exception being “Finally, Peace.”, a beautiful closer with a fitting name. In sum, The Glowing Man is a successful progression from the two previous parts of this trilogy, and it serves as an effective send-off to the band’s current line-up, as well as an album to rediscover time and again while waiting for the next version of Swans to appear.
#6: Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
RANK: Beta / Gamma (Solid 8/10 – High 8/10)
I didn’t expect at all that Metallica’s new album would be this good. Their previous album Death Magnetic was solid for sure, but it stood in the shadow of the group’s classic thrash records from which it drew inspiration, and it suffered from an excessive 75-minute length. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct doesn’t look like it will fare much better with a 77-minute duration, but it turns out to be their best album since …And Justice for All. Part of the reason why is that the group make use of multiple styles they explored beforehand, including heavy metal and blues in addition to thrash. This helps make the selection of songs more diverse, although the focus on mid-tempo tracks does make the second disc feel longer to sit through than the first.
On a song-by-song basis, everything is a keeper, but only “Spit Out the Bone”, the fastest and most frantic number on the record, comes close to being a Metallica classic; the groovy “Now That We’re Dead” isn’t much worse, however. There is a lot more to hear too, with other highlights including the slow and menacing “Dream No More”, the chugging “Confusion”, and faster songs such as “Atlas, Rise!”. For a newcomer to Metallica, I wouldn’t recommend making this one of your first purchases, considering the multiple instances in which the band quote their earlier material (“Dream No More” recalls “The Thing That Should Not Be”, for instance), but a seasoned fan will more than likely be satisfied.
#5: The i.l.y’s – Scum With Boundaries
RANK: Gamma (High 8/10)
This was another big surprise for me. The i.l.y’s are a Death Grips side-project, involving drummer Zach Hill and producer Andy Morin; they first put out an album under that nickname in 2015, but that debut, I’ve always been good at true love, was only okay overall. With such a start, I was tempted to think the group would end up little more than a footnote, but the follow-up Scum With Boundaries, announced less than two months after Death Grips’ Bottomless Pit and released not long after that, quickly changed my mind.
One aspect of the record that’s noticeable right away is the excellent sound, which accentuates the loudness and chaos of the songs so as to create a sort of noise rock hellscape that, yes, isn’t too far from the Death Grips sound, but still stands up on its own in that regard. The tracks themselves are great too, with highlights including “Doing Things That Artists Do”, the closing “Spiral to Me” (which, true to its title, gives off the idea of a spiral into madness), and “I’m Gonna Have Sex”, which has a charming chorus. If you’re a fan of Death Grips and you were skeptical about this group, this is definitely recommended.
#4: Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
RANK: Delta / Gamma (Low 9/10 – Solid 9/10)
My favorite album of 2015 was The Powers That B, by experimental hip hop group Death Grips. It was their biggest project thus far, clocking in at 80 minutes and containing two drastically different discs (Niggas on the Moon and Jenny Death) that complemented each other brilliantly for that very reason. The album impressed me so much that it led me to think that it would be a perfect way to end the group’s discography, if it hypothetically were their swansong. Because of this, it also made me wonder how they could possibly follow up on an effort of such a scale.
Somehow, they did. Instead of continuing to expand upon the electronic aspects explored in multiple of their previous records (Government Plates, Niggas on the Moon), Bottomless Pit pursues the noise rock approach that appeared in Jenny Death and dials back on the length of the songs, giving the material a fast punk edge that works wonderfully with the group’s recognizable sound. Along with that, Death Grips manage to keep coming up with engaging numbers and quotable lyrical hooks, with the highlights including “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood”, “Ring a Bell”, and the explosive title track. Whatever the next album will be, I will be amazed if they continue to sustain such a level of quality.
#3: Justice – Woman
RANK: Delta / Gamma (Low 9/10 – Solid 9/10)
As I mentioned in my review of this album, I would not enthusiastically recommend Woman to those who liked Cross but didn’t like Audio, Video, Disco. Instead of going for the raw, noisy sound of their debut, it aims for more complex song structures, and takes the time to make its material expand. To my ears, this decision makes this record more of a listening experience than a dance experience, but with that aside, it’s roughly just as good as Justice’s other albums. The more progressive direction is well implemented into the music, and many of the best tracks are among the longer ones, including “Safe and Sound”, “Chorus” and “Randy”. Sure, there are some weaker cuts (“Fire” and “Heavy Metal”), but that’s nothing too surprising coming from the same group that made “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” and “Parade”.
For further detail, see my review, but I was very pleased by Woman. Still, considering its modest critical and commercial reception, I think the duo will have to make some serious changes to their style if they want to come up with something with the same impact as Cross; if they do such a thing, I’m eager to see what the results will be.
#2: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
RANK: Epsilon (Low 10/10)
I didn’t consider myself that big of a Radiohead fan prior to the release of this album, but I suppose it converted me in a way. Following multiple releases that focused on the dark and cold aspects of the sound that the group introduced in the revolutionary OK Computer, A Moon Shaped Pool is a radical change in direction. It’s the group’s warmest and most organic release, both in sound and in instrumentation, and it’s their most emotional effort as well, perhaps due in part to the fact that lead singer and songwriter Thom Yorke broke up with his (now deceased) partner Rachel Owen in the midst of recording the album — the reversed voice clip at the end of “Daydreaming” alludes to this event, in fact.
It’s known that many of the numbers on this record have been written or played live before its release, or even before the recording sessions. Since I didn’t listen to the earlier versions of some of those tracks before going into A Moon Shaped Pool, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t imagine the material would be consistently excellent. Every song is engaging and adds to the overall experience, which is a compliment I can’t even give as enthusiastically to Kid A, my previous favorite Radiohead album. Only two tracks, however, approach the status of classics, and those would be the calm, atmospheric “Daydreaming” and the new version of “True Love Waits”, an old live fan favorite. It’ll take some time to see if A Moon Shaped Pool ends up one of the more or less acclaimed efforts in the Radiohead discography, but for me, this is their finest moment so far.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:
#1: A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service: The classic hip hop group’s sudden return (and farewell) is particularly worth of note for its old school sound, which will be a treat for those who are tired of the genre’s current mainstream production values; however, while the material is nice on the whole, a few songs could have been removed.
#2: Preoccupations [Viet Cong] – Preoccupations: A forced name change later, Preoccupations follow up on Viet Cong with an album that offers a bit more of the same, though with an even darker atmosphere. Nevertheless, the better tracks, such as “Anxiety” and the first half of “Memory”, make the record worth checking out.
#3: The Avalanches – Wildflower: The long-awaited return of plunderphonics group The Avalanches is, unsurprisingly, inferior to their acclaimed debut. However, it does succeed in creating a convincing psychedelic atmosphere, which shows that the group’s style of music still has a lot to offer. We’ll have to see what they come up with next.
#4: Frank Ocean – Blonde: This album integrates elements of ambient music into Frank Ocean’s soul style, resulting in dreamy and memorable songs. Blonde could definitely benefit from some trimming, but it remains superior to its famous predecessor Channel Orange, which suffers from a similar problem with length.
#5: Autechre – elseq 1-5: A four-hour IDM behemoth. It’s hard to digest in one sitting, but the material is very interesting on the whole, and the scale of the project is such that it’s worth mentioning.
#1: David Bowie – Blackstar
RANK: Epsilon (Low 10/10)
This album is an obvious pick for the #1, but I didn’t choose it merely to acknowledge David Bowie’s long-running career as well as his massive influence in popular culture: in the first few months of 2016, Blackstar had such an impact on me that it would be a lie for me to choose any other release. Musically, the record is one of his most experimental, toying with familiar genres such as jazz and electronic dance music in unfamiliar ways, continually calling back to his previous albums while remaining a completely distinct entity. The title track is not just one of Bowie’s most adventurous numbers; it’s one of his finest moments as an artist, and the rest of the material isn’t too far behind.
I had this opinion regarding the music before the announcement of Bowie’s death; admittedly, I thought even more highly of the album as a whole after the fact, like many people did when co-producer Tony Visconti stated the musician’s intent was to make Blackstar a parting gift to his fans, since his cancer was such that he expected it to be his last (it’s worth noting the cancer only became terminal in late 2015, after the album was recorded). It’s perfectly fair to argue an album should be able to stand up on its own without having to rely on the circumstances surrounding it (see the first Bon Iver album). The fact remains, however, that Blackstar isn’t associated with Bowie’s death just because it was released shortly before his passing; it’s very likely directly about his death. Lyrically and tonally, it plays out like an internal monologue where he reflects on his imminent demise, his fame and his image, and it’s also through this monologue that he expresses his fear and his eventual acceptance.
It’s partially because of this, in fact, that the album enters the realm of genius. Part of what made David Bowie so famous was the theatricality behind his music: almost every single one of his records has a different personality to it, reflected through characters such as Ziggy Stardust and Nathan Adler, and this allows each effort to stand out. However, these albums rarely give a glimpse of Bowie himself — at least, not at first glance. In the case of Blackstar, though, he is front and center, and it’s striking to hear him convey his emotions so effectively, and in no less than his final album. With all this in mind, this is not only the best album of 2016, but also the best album of the decade so far.
Happy new year!
What parts of this list do you agree or disagree with? What were your favorite albums of 2016? Be sure to post a comment and tell me all about it.