Steve's Favorite Rock/Pop/Folk/R&B/Electronic Albums of 2016

This is where I'm supposed to summarize the past year, find some overaching theme or thread running through my choices, spot trends, or something along those lines. Instead it's just another mea culpa for my continuing and accelerating estrangement from mainstream pop music. Don't mind me, I'm just a grumpy old fart. But these twenty new albums made me less grumpy.

1. DIIV: Is the Is Are (Captured Tracks)

I enjoyed their first album, and far from a sophomore slump, their second is even better. Sure, I'm heavily predisposed to love bands that conjure a moody '80s vibe with thrumming bass, chiming guitar jangle, and submerged vocals, but this is greater than the sum of those parts, simultaneously updating the sound while tapping into a new level of melodicism for this band.

2. David Bowie: Black Star (Sony)

I wrote about this at length. What can I add now that I've had time to absorb the shock of Bowie's unexpected death? Only that stripping out the context in which it was made and, shortly thereafter, received -- though really, for fans, that context is inextricable from the album's reception, so I'm still not sure whether I can say this objectively -- doesn't seem to diminish its quality, its risk-taking, its pure musicality, its verbal legerdemain. Faced with death, rather than retreating into comfortable music, Bowie chose to continue challenging himself and his listeners, and  (though his work of the past quarter century has often been unfairly underrated) this really is his best album in a long time.

3. Versus Shade Collapse: I'm Going to Die (self-released)

I don't know anything about Sandra C. Valencia (the mastermind of this project) other than what her Bandcamp bio told me -- she's from Medellin, Colombia but now teaches in a Los Angeles high school, and this is her debut -- and what my ears tell me: she wrote two of the catchiest songs of 2016, "Straight Lines" and the haunting "Hooked." Those are the first and second tracks on this album of moody indie-pop, relatively polished for a DIY effort, but not so much as to lose indie cred, and anyway the arrangements are perfect, ebbing and flowing organically yet stirringly, their uncluttered textures subtly reinforcing the songs' shadowed emotions. Valencia's lyrics have a colloquial profundity, a knack for telling detail in unselfconscious poetry, with her charming accent lending them a certain deadpan coolness.

4. Wire: Nocturnal Koreans (pinkflag)

Wire doesn't get enough credit for its incredible run of albums this decade. Their reunion in 2000 got off to a relatively slow start, with some fine but far from stunning EPs; it wasn't until 2011 that they started operating on the level of their original incarnation. Every album from then on has been quietly brilliant, even or especially this one, consisting entirely of outtakes from the previous album. That's how good they are now: their leftovers are better than most bands' best shots. I still never feel sure what most of their songs are about, or even if they're meant to be about anything more than the sounds of the words, but musically they've tapped into a low-key yet inexorable motorik groove that propels their structures of richly textured guitar chords, topped by the flat-affect singing of Colin Newman. They're not just repeating themselves, though; this album -- their 15th studio LP -- offers a more intricately manipulated sonic palette than before.   

5. Anohni: HOPELESSNESS (Secretly Canadian)

The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons, and an occasional Lou Reed collaborator) challenges listeners with her debut album under her current name. She almost challenged me too much: the seeming tastelessness of the opening track, which requests, "Love, drone bomb me...blow my head off," would have turned me off to an unknown artist. But I noticed a track in the middle of the album entitled "Obama," which curiosity compelled me to check out, and it proved to be a vehement attack on the violence and destruction of war. So are several other tracks; that gave bitingly ironic context to the opener. The sharp-edged electronic textures of Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, who co-produced with Anohni, balance somewhere between current pop production and lo-fi avant-garde, a huge contrast to the lush production of Antony and the Johnsons. A bold album that richly deserves all its accolades.

6. Underlined Passages: The Fantastic Quest (Mint 400)

It took me about a minute into the first track to fall in love with this Baltimore band fronted by Michael Nestor (ex-Seldon Plan), and the longer the album played, the greater I decided it is. The press release's RIYL cites Nada Surf, Speedy Gomez, American Football, and Real Estate. I'm not hearing the last of those, but the best comparison in my opinion is latter-day Teenage Fanclub, because they've both mastered jangly, wistful minor-key ditties with killer two-part harmony vocals and anthemic choruses, yet with a relatively stripped-down sound rather than the density of Nada Surf's arrangements. Achingly beautiful album of guitar-powered indie-pop.

7. Lack: Undoing Gaze (2MR)

"A Suture" starts off this four-track, 29-minute EP with droney, slightly glitchy electronic music from varying timbres of static, suggesting a radio set between stations late at night, catching the edges of quiet washes of noise. If you're wired like I am, the effect is simultaneously stimulating yet soothing. "Polytrichaeae" changes things up with clean, sustained tones shimmering like sonic starlight before a highly erratice lo-fi beat enters and things begin to fray and multiply. "Undoing Gaze" is rather minimal, echoed percussion gradually joined by a more insistent and almost regular beat for kaleidoscopic polyrhythms occasionally augmented by swelling drones, like deconstructed dubstep (the askew British kind from ten years ago, not the gawdawful pounding American version that didn't even deserve the name). "Reuni (Reshape)," an etude of asymmetrical not-quite-repetition, closes things out in unsettling fashion. Thanks to whoever at Academy Records in Greenpoint played this during one of my visits.

8. Teenage Fanclub: Here (Merge)

These wonderful Scots aren't the most prolific band, but when they do make an album, you can absolutely count on it being yet another gem filled with jangly guitars, lush harmony vocals, and wistful lyrics. Nothing new for them, but when you've perfected a sound as good as theirs, why change? Their appearances in N.Y.C. on the tour supporting this album were also highlights of the year.

9. David Crosby: Lighthouse (GroundUP/Verve)

This is Crosby's best album since his 1971 debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Surprisingly just his fifth solo album, it comes close to the glory of that weird and wonderful '70s masterpiece by abjuring the big but now-dated production style of the intervening albums in favor of a return to the jazzy harmonic sense and looser song structures that set his best work apart from his rock peers'. Rather than trying to sound less unusual by reining in his eccentricities, he chose to work with Michael League of Snarky Puppy, a guitarist whose jazz sensibility and exquisite musicianship make him a perfect match for Crosby's musical vision. The arrangements, like the melodies and harmonies, are whisper-light; often the molecules of these songs seem about to drift apart; they are built like clouds rather than buildings. This gives them a special beauty that draws the listener into the moment with a paradoxically more urgent and keener focus.

10. Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (Bloodshot)

Fulks has his rowdy, provocative side, but here he focuses on his literate, contemplative, intimate side with a dozen songs that require listeners to pay attention to the lyrics to appreciate the depths of these songs. Three songs here are directly inspired by James Agee's Southern poverty study Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Fulks also cites Flannery O'Connor in the credits under the heading "stimulants," where Bobby Charles and Jesse Winchester are also listed, among others. There are a few uptempo ditties, such as "Aunt Peg's New Old Man," but most tracks are considerably more low-key, more folk than country.

11. Jono Manson: The Slight Variations (Con Artisti)

Manson, long a New York fixture (Joey Miserable & the Worms, The Mighty Sweetones, many collaborations) but in recent years ensconced in Santa Fe, is a four-decade veteran of rootsy rock. Variations finds him co-writing with Caline Welles (his wife) and old pals Chris Barron (Spin Doctors) and Joe Flood. With its bluesy guitar riffing, honky-tonk piano, and gospelish female backing vocals, "Rough and Tumble" recalls the Rolling Stones, except more vital than they've been in years. There are also songs of sweet tenderness (but never sappy) and some thoughtful material that elevates Variations above the roots-rock norm.

12. Metallica: Hardwired...to Self-Destruct (Blackened)

I've heard rumors that the making of this album was a tortured project of painstaking agony and little spontaneity. I don't care. No, it's not as good as their four '80s albums (as good a run as any band has ever had), but it's as close to their dazzling intensity and passionate fervor as this group has come in the quarter-century since. Make sure to get the three-disc deluxe edition, because the assortment of metal covers and a 2016 record-store concert on that third disc are significant additions that make this release more joyful.

13. Paul Foglino: Inside/Another Side of (s/r)

Foglino is a New York City singer-songwriter of long-standing excellence, best known for his membership in Five Chinese Brothers. A fair number of his classic songs for that band ("These Dreams," "If I Ain't Falling," "Alone Together," "Look at It Rain," "I'm Not Finished Yet") are reprised on this voice-and-guitar acoustic album (with some overdubbed harmony vocals), but a slight majority of the tracks here are previously unheard on record, though folks who've attended his shows will recognize such favorites as "You Can't Be Too Old to Get Drunk." His wry wit (sample: "If the road of excess leads to wisdom, I must have missed a turn somewhere") is the most immediate attraction, but he's also a good guitar picker, his melodies are memorable, and there's an underlying stick-with-it philosophy that's simple but not simple-minded, but also a willingness to face some hard truths, as on "Every Face You See" ("You can't be young forever/you'd better be good at getting old"). Waiting so long to make a solo album resulted in Foglino accumulating such a wealth of material that every track here is strong.

14. Minor Victories: s/t (Fat Possum)

Mostly shoegazey, as one would expect from a band featuring vocalist Rachel Goswell (founding member of the great Slowdive), but with additional influences, some what would naturally follow from also having guitarist Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai) and Justin Lockey (Editors), some less obvious: the anthemic repetition coming perhaps from  Braithwaite sometimes recalls the textures and methods of Minimalism, and the dense retro synth textures call to mind M83; there's also a memorable co-vocal with Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon).

15. Ethicist: II (Phratry)

This Cincinnati band calls its style "blackened post-metal." Quiet shoegazey passages contrast with the blastbeat sections; always there is a knack for compelling riffs. The vocals are the usual indecipherable growling roar, but the lyric booklet reveals the first two tracks to be about relationships -- very angsty, though. Then there's a short semi-instrumental (semi because there's a sample of somebody talking, possibly on the radio) that closes side one of the LP. Side two is the 17-minute "Language Bearers," with gristlier lyrics that seem to be about giving birth, though without the pregnant woman on the cover, it would be harder to guess that. Whatever it's about, it sounds great.

16. The Twilight Hours: Black Beauty (s/r)

The core of this band, formed in 2005, is Trip Shakespeare members Matt Wilson (vocals, guitar) and John Munson (bass, vocals), and this time out Matt's brother Dan, also of TS and a Semisonic bandmate of Munson, co-wrote two songs. Matt has cut back on his guitar duties in favor of Steve Roehm (formerly the band's drummer) and Jacques Wait, with Dave Salmela on keyboards and Richard Medek the new drummer. The songs on Black Beauty, just their second album, are pop gems, less lush and eccentric than in TS but still with a few endearing quirks and featuring the familiar perfect vocal harmony blend of Matt and John.

17. Childish Gambino: "Awaken, My Love!" (Glassnote)

I'm probably overrating this album, but it so perfectly captures the Parliament-Funkadelic vibe, buzzing guitars and spacey effects included, that nostalgia overwhelms me. Though the main musicians are the same as on his earlier albums, the hip-hop and rapping that characterized those releases is absent here, and Gambino (a.k.a. actor Donald Glover, formerly of Community) proves to be a pretty good singer. There are enough non-P-Funk touches scattered throughout to keep this from being pure pastiche, and though it's still a period piece, it's a good period -- timeless, even.

18. Nada Surf: You Know Who You Are (Barsuk)

With lead singer Matthew Caws now living in England, this formerly New York-based band is making us wait longer between studio albums, but fortunately their quality remains high, so this is yet another power-pop gem. Between the distinctive vocals of Caws and the brooding minor-key ditties, this is familiar territory, but I've liked them even more since Doug Gillard (Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, Guided by Voices) joined in 2012; he's now billed as a full member. Bittersweet angst that manages to be uplifting.

19. Dylan Golden Aycock: Church of Level Track (Scissor Tail)

One of the younger American Primitive guitarists (fourth generation?), Aycock has concocted a highly atmospheric style all his own by including pedal steel along with the acoustic finger-picking, with the occasional bit of drumming for variety. This is the most beautiful instrumental album of the year, and he's equally mesmerizing in concert, as he showed at a great concert at The Schoolhouse in Brooklyn this past autumn.

20. SPC ECO: Anomalies (Saint Marie)

The ethereal vocals of Rose Berlin certainly fit the shoegaze label this band has, but the arrangements by multi-instrumentalist Dean Garcia of Curve fame are harder to categorize. They have the beauty and some of the textures of shoegaze, certainly, but rhythmically there's a strong debt to various kinds of electronica -- of the chiller sort, of course. Whatever you call it, it's certainly appealing in its majestic richness.

P.S. You know how people have been saying that one of the bright sides of the next four years is that there will be more great protest songs? Guess what, it was already happening before the election results were known. Listen to lyrics for the tracks I picked to represent albums 5, 9, and 10. - Steve Holtje

The reviews of 6, 10, 11, 15, and 16 appeared first in The Big Takeover.

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was released in August 2015 by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).

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