2016 has been a comeback year for “the album” with artists like Beyonce, Chance the Rapper, Radiohead, Drake, and Kanye West dominating news cycles with the surprising arrivals of their new full-length albums. I see this as both a blessing and a curse. As a fan of the long-form listening experience, I love that albums as a whole are getting love in the age of Spotify playlists and Pandora radio. On the other hand, many of these albums do not deserve the hype that surrounds them (i.e: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book pales in comparison to his last effort, Acid Rap, and Drake’s VIEWS might be the most uninspiring, uninteresting albums of 2016). Lost amidst all of this album release hoopla is a lot of the great music not getting the attention it deserves. That’s where we here at BDWPS come. Below you will find 20 original, rousing, and memorable albums that you should have been listening to instead of wasting your time with the latest Rihanna album.
(All of the albums on this list were released before June 1st. I set this cut-off date to ensure I’ve had ample time to listen and connect with albums before placing them on the list.)
Aesop Rock, The Impossible Kid
Aluk Todolo, Voix
James Blake, The Colour in Anything
dälek, Asphalt For Eden
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit
Cate LeBon, Crab Day
Marissa Nadler, Strangers
Mutual Benefit, Skip a Sinking Stone
Yoni & Geti, Testarossa
20. Field Music
[Memphis Industries; 2016]
Throughout the history of rock and roll, the arrival of parenthood has often marked a decline in an artist’s creativity and output. We sometimes get gems like Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and David Bowie’s “Kooks” as a result, but the schmaltzy, lackluster content that most post-parenthood artists churn out far outweighs the memorable material. Field Music has bucked this tradition with their recent release, Commontime.
While past efforts often felt muddled by excess, the brothers’ 2016 album is an easy-going, serene listen. The songs, for the most part, have an amiable spirit and borrow heavily from familiar 80s touchstones. “Disappointed” could sit easily next to Kenny Loggin’s catalog, “It’s a Good Thing” is unapologetic Billy Ocean style R&B, and album opener “The Noisy Days are Over” is a jumpy funk number reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Some of the funniest moments on the album are when the lyrics focus on the experience of being a new father. “I’m Glad” questions the choice of becoming a parent (“If someone had told me/ how this would be/ Well, I’m glad I never knew”), “It’s a Good Thing” is an acceptance of the more boring yet fulfilling aspects of parenthood, and “Stay Awake” might be the greatest love song ever written about offering to stay awake for your exhausted wife. By becoming parents it seems that the Brewis brothers have less time to tinker and more time to get down to simply writing great songs.
“The Noisy Days Are Over”:
19. The Body
No One Deserves Happiness
[Thrill Jockey; 2016]
There was a time when I felt EPs didn’t belong on “top albums” lists due to their brevity, but that all changed in 2013 with The Body’s Master, We Perish, a four track EP that was so crushing and enraged that it would have been too overwhelming if stretched out over the course of a full length album. My point would be proven on their next effort, Christs, Redeemers, an LP that is unbearably brutal. In 2016, The Body took another stab at a full-length album with No One Deserves Happiness and have succeeded at creating a harshness that is still palatable.
A major element in this transformation is the voice of Chrissy Wolpert. She has worked with the band in the past, but on No One Deserves Happiness, her vocals are up front and center, singing with a chamber voice that is peaceful and unmoved by the bedlam behind her. Rather than softening their approach, Chip King and Lee Buford built an even more strident and terrifying tapestry to loom over the proceedings. King’s voice has never sounded so petrifying, shrill and unrestrained. Buford’s drums pound down furiously, like a claw hammer into the skull of an unsuspecting bystander. The dominant duo may be whipping up a dreadful storm throughout, but Wolpert brings serenity to the unavoidable tragedy.
18. Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
[Def Jam/G.O.O.D. MUSIC; 2016]
The Life of Pablo is an antithesis to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The latter was an intricately arranged, meticulously structured tour de force that told the story of a man struggling with his legacy. The Life of Pablo, on the other hand, is a slapdash, messy 18-song purge of seemingly unfinished material. As confusing as the album’s direction can be at times, it’s clear that the once struggling megalomaniac has embraced his madness.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, Life of Pablo is a flawed album. At times I hate its randomness, and at other times I relish the spontaneity that went into a project that refuses to follow the norms. It’s an album where a gospel song like “Highlights” is followed by “Freestyle,” a track that could have been pulled from a Friday the 13th soundtrack. It’s an album where Kanye can go from saying “Pray for Paris/ Pray for the parents” to a joke about bleach transferring from a model’s anus to his t-shirt. It’s an album where well-produced pieces like “Ultralight Beam” and “No More Parties in LA” are surrounded by short, seemingly incomplete tracks that clock in at just over two minutes (two tracks don’t even reach the minute mark). Kanye’s controversial Twitter rants leading up to the release of the album might give more insight into the unfocused mindset that went into an album thats moments of brilliance outweigh its blemishes. Instead of obsessing over tracks in the studio like he has in the past, Kanye has throw them all against the wall, imperfections and all. Maybe the album should be called “The Life of Pollock”.
17. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
A Man Alive
[Ribbon Music; 2016]
A Man Alive is an album that shows how two minds are greater than one. For years, Thao Nguyen has been struggling to break through with a series of soulful albums that showed promise but lacked the distinctiveness to set it apart from the rest of the musical landscape. Meanwhile, Merrill Garbus was turning heads with an outlandish, boisterous blend of songwriting with her band tUnE-yArDs. However, once you got past the unexpected nature of her songs, there wasn’t much of a soul to grasp on to.
The two songstresses have joined forces for Thao’s latest effort with Garbus adding flourishes to Nguyen’s funky style. The result is an album that is as soulful as ever, yet lively and bizarre at times. Garbus’s production work definitely stands out, but Nguyen’s personal lyrics provide an anchor to the auditory fiesta. On “Departure” she explores the resentment she still holds toward her father who abandoned her family, and on “Endless Love” she opens her soul in order to discuss her struggle to stay strong and positive in the face of heartbreak. The combination of Nguyen’s darkness and Garbus’s light results in a listening experience unlike anything the two have created on their own.
16. Nap Eyes
Thought Rock Fish Scale
[Pardise of Bachelors; 2016]
One might argue that technological advances over the past 20 years have made our lives easier and more fulfilling. Social media keeps us connected and informed, advancements in software have given more control to the people, and the availability of content (music, video, information) is literally at our fingertips. However, I think we can all agree that something has been left behind this runaway train of advancement.
Nap Eyes Thought Rock Fish Scale stands in stark contrast to this age of distraction. While most musicians utilize digital recording software to create convoluted productions, Nap Eyes opted to record their entire album the old school way: four guys in a room with a tape recorder, capturing the songs in one take. There’s no post-production magic – Nigel Chapman’s voice sometimes slips off key, the guitars periodically ring a little too loudly, the drums occasionally falter offbeat for a moment. But these imperfections give the album’s tranquility even more intimacy and credence. These songs probably won’t jump out at you from a Spotify playlist nor will you find the album very interesting as background music to an inundated evening of multi-tasking. But if you sit down in a dark room, place a needle on Side A of Thought Rock Fish Scale, and allow yourself a moment of introspection, you might just realize that some answers can’t be found on Google.
15. Big Ups
Before a Million Universes
[Tough Love/Exploding in Sound/Brace Yourself; 2016]
Hardcore punk is rooted in aggressive masculinity, which makes what Big Ups create on Before a Million Universes all the more intriguing. Unlike the traditional hardcore line-up of disaffected youth, Big Ups is comprised of four NYU students who met while taking a technology class. The foursome look more like the cast of Silicon Valley than the customary tatted skinheads of hardcore yore. On their debut, Big Ups attempted to follow in the footsteps of tradition with mixed results, but on Before a Million Universes, they’ve embraced the fact that they are not your quintessential hardcore band.
Free from constraints, the band brings in elements of 90s stalwarts like Fugazi, Shellac, and most notably, Slint. It’s surprising more bands haven’t mimicked the whisper to whiplash nature of classic Slint album’s Tweez and Spiderland, but Big Ups are up to the task with an album that hearkens back to the height of post-hardcore. Big Ups use these volatile dynamics to create tension and release, building off of lyrics that express disappointment and frustration with a capitalistic society. But this isn’t simply an album of anger – the band is striving for more respect for humanity, which makes the album title’s reference to Walt Whitman all the more fitting. Singer Joe Gallarga’s quieter moments give more depth to the emotional upheaval, often sounding too beat-up and tired to continue the fight. On Before a Million Universes, Big Ups bring introspection to a genre that often doesn’t think before it acts.
14. Heron Oblivion
Heron Oblivion are a bit of a psych-rock supergroup: Comets On Fire guitarist Ethan Miller and drummer Noel Von Harmonson are half of the brain-trust; singer Meg Baird has a similar pysch-rock track record with her past work in the band Espers; and guitarist Charlie Saufley played in the stoner rock outfit Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. Their debut album, a seven song, 44-minute LP, swirls by in an intoxicating haze, one gauzy, mystical melody after another. Baird’s placid voice brings a calm to the animated guitar swells. Sometimes Miller and Saufley’s guitars change course, bouncing off each other like bubbles in the wind, aimlessly floating out across the pastoral sprawl. On slower songs, Baird’s vocals are ethereal and composed, but on the heavier tracks her calm voice will quickly dive into off-key tongues that, in combination with the dissonant guitars, are reminiscent of Kim Gordon’s legendary rants (think Dirty).
Heron Oblivion may be this collection of musicians’ first effort together, but these space travelers have made similar journeys before. Fortunately, they still have uncharted galaxies left to explore.
13. Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Recently Yahoo! News writer Chris Willman posted an article entitled “Why Taylor Swift is the greatest living songwriter (under 60)”. While I’m pretty certain this piece was written simply for a click-bait response, its premise is blatantly flawed in a world where Sufjan Stevens, PJ Harvey, and Brit Daniels have yet to reach the age of 60. In fact, I’d argue that there are dozens of artists under 30 who Swift can’t hold a candle to, one of them being Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo. Many legendary songwriters took years to hone their craft (Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder), but at the ripe age of 23, Toledo has skipped the pruning process and jumped right in with two high-energy, infectious albums in under 12 months, both featuring insight and maturity far exceeding his age.
On Teens of Denial, Toledo captures the mindset of a millennial, facing an uncertain future where participation trophies and bike helmets are no longer there to soften your failures. Instead of whining about his lot in life, he presents this perspective with wry wit and compassion. This is best seen at the mid-point of “Costa Concordia” where he lists questions that are a mix of young adult reality (“How was I supposed to know how to hold down a job?”) and a heavy dose of sarcasm (“How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and why not Sunday?”). On “Fill in the Blanks” he mocks this self-loathing (“You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t seen enough of this world yet”) but follows it up with an understanding of the complaints of novice adults (“but it hurts, it hurts, it hurts”). He also has a knack for melody throughout and writes songs that are finely constructed (the outro of “Friends are better with/ Drugs are better with/Friends are better with” should be this generation’s “Hey Jude”). On Teens of Denial, Toledo shows his maturity as a songwriter, nimbly mocking his own sadness in a way far more brilliant and genuine than any sappy Taylor Swift song.
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”:
[Profound Lore; 2016]
For ten years, the duo of Phil McSorley and Erik Wunder have been producing pummeling black metal with their band Cobalt. But in 2014, it seemed like the band was finished with McSorley’s on-again-off-again threats to leave the band. After McSorley had an online tirade that contained misogynistic and homophobic vitriol, Wunder cut ties with his bandmate and decided to continue Cobalt with new singer, Charlie Fell.
Often a roster change means a decline in quality for bands, but with 2016’s Slow Forever, this shake-up of Cobalt has resulted in an album that is more invigorating and intense than anything written by Wunder in the past. Breaking the shackles of the past has given Wunder more freedom to stray from the band’s signature chaos. Black metal elements are still present, but these moments are given more power by the album’s multiplicity, moving from doom intros to acoustic interludes to break speed madness as the tracks unravel like one great metal tapestry. Fell’s voice cackles throughout, providing fury to the radiant riffs and pulsating drums. In the past McSorley wrote the lyrics, but this time around Wunder takes the helm, telling tales of depression, addiction, and frustration. Oftentimes, the lyrics seem to be taking aim at McSorley, condoning his hatred while exposing the disappointment Wunder feels toward his childhood friend and former bandmate. Commonly, metal singers seem like they’re screaming just for the sake of screaming, but on Slow Forever, Fell’s expression of Wunder’s struggle provides realism to the album, making the listening experience even more riveting.
“Hunt the Buffalo”:
City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Earlier this year, I saw Woods put on a stellar show at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. As the band performed “Can’t See It All” from their latest album, the brooding bass line slinked across my psyche and an image of a snake entered my mind. It seemed like a random vision, and I chuckled to myself at the weird places my brain can take me during a concert. But as I watched the band continue to play a set composed largely of material off of their latest album, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, I began to think about how this band has been able to slither its way through the past decade, shedding skin with each album and returning with a fresh new take on psychedelic folk rock.
The little lo-fi band from Brooklyn, New York has slowly evolved over the course of their eight album run, but the transformation has been a subtle and natural progression. From their quaint lo-fi beginnings to their psychedelic explorations, the band finally reached what seemed their apex with the 2014 folk-pop masterwork, With Light and With Love. Instead of trying to recreate the magic, the band has found new ways to present their memorable melodies on City Sun Eater in the River of Light. With their 60s hazy folk sound still intact, the band chose to dabble into reggae and Ethiopian jazz. For the Woods initiated, the addition of saxophones, trumpets, and flutes may be a bit jarring, but the band pulls it off without a hitch. This isn’t a band trying to pull a 180; instead, it’s a band learning how to bring more depth and complexity to their already stirring experiments in pop. A major element in coalescing the band’s folk melodies with Afro-centric explorations is the sneaky bass work of Jarvis Taveniere. Summoning the spirits of 70s Afro-beat, he creates a menacing backbone that lurks just below the surface of each track. Woods have proven once again that they are one of the most crafty, industrious bands out there today, and if City Sun Eater in the River of Light is any sign, this snake-like band has many more skins to shed.
“Can’t See It All”:
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
The purpose of electronic dance music is to make you happy. If it makes you feel any other emotion, it is usually placed into a different sub-genre (drone, ambient, industrial, dub step). As a result, I often struggle to connect with a music style that has the sole intent of making me get up and dance. Underworld’s Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future hits the EDM sweet spot, activating the brain and the heart while still getting your toe to tap.
Underworld have been creating electronic music for over 25 years. Over that time, they’ve explored every nook and cranny of the genre, which is evident on Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future. “I Exale” stirs up Gary Numan nostalgia, the ambient “Santiago Cuantro” is likely a result of Karl Hyde’s time spent working with Brian Eno, and “Nylon String” provides a modern pop-song take on Kraftwerk. But Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is so much more than just a trip down Electronica Avenue. Instead of the tried and true lyrical content of “get up and dance,” Underworld provide a more thoughtful means of raising the listeners’ spirits, often sounding more like a motivational speaker than a dance song. On “Motorhome” Hyde sings the cyclical mantra of “Don’t let life drag you down/ Keep away from the dark side,” and on “Ova Nova” he talks the listener off a ledge, softly singing, “Change your mind.” Instead of trying to bring complexity to their lyrics, Underworld keep it simple yet powerful. This is best seen on album closer “Nylon Strung” where the feeling of love is beautifully captured in the repeated line “Open me up/ I want to hold you, laughing.” Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is an album for those of us who want to feel the joy and jubilation of dancing while sitting on the couch.
[My Animal House; 2016]
Animal Collective’s 2016 release Painting With feels a bit like a final effort for the band. It’s a satisfactory album but lacks the spirit of adventure found in early AC works. After a 16-year span where they’ve released 11 albums, you can’t blame the boys for going through the motions at this point. Much like The Beatle’s near the end of their run, AC seem more comfortable and willing to take risks as solo artists. Panda Bear and Avey Tare have both found success on solo efforts over the past 10 years, but in 2016, the underappreciated and mysterious Deakin has emerged as AC’s biggest secret with his first solo album, Sleep Cycle.
In the same way George Harrison emerged from the Fab Four’s shadow back in 1970 with All Things Must Pass, Deakin’s Sleep Cycle arrived in 2016 with a six song track list that is the most authentic and compassionate music to come out of the Collective in a long time. While his self-assured bandmates have continued rolling out new music every year, Deakin has spent the past seven years struggling with anxiety and a lack of confidence in his work as a solo artist. This melancholy timidity is at the heart of Sleep Cycle and these same endearing qualities often remind me of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, another undervalued artist who finally made his mark after years of trying to find his voice. The lyrics often resemble that of a journal found left behind at a rehabilitation center, a message of having faith in the midst of despair. “Seed Song” and “Good House” end the album on a tranquil note, bringing calm back to raging waters. Synths bubble around his voice and wisps of a hollow air resonate peacefully up toward the surface. By the end of “Good House”, Deakin seems fully submerged, his voice tumbling calmly to the bottom of his ocean of sound. No longer does he seem scared or worried or uncertain – rather, he seems at peace with the world around him, even when he feels like a sinking ship.
8. Ty Segall
[In the Red; 2016]
Since emerging from the San Francisco music scene back in 2008, Ty Segall has released eight albums (not including his two albums with side-project Fuzz, a handful of EPs, and a collaborative album with White Fence). His workhorse output has resulted in a breadth of material that can become bewildering for avid fans. Despite every album having its highlights, there comes a point where much of his garage rock anthems begin to all sound the same. There are a couple of exceptions to this commonality: 2012’s Slaughterhouse was a nice, doomy departure, and 2015’s Manipulator was a blatant and largely unsuccessful stab at glam rock. But for the most part, Ty Segall’s sound has remained the same for the better part of eight years.
Segall’s most recent release, Emotional Mugger, remains buoyed to his trademark fuzzed out guitars and infectious melodies, but the album as a whole has a jittery, neurotic persona in comparison to past work. Mugger rushes out in a frantic, spasmodic gallop, each song taking an unorthodox path. The beats throughout are off-kilter and skittish, changing speed without much warning. The addition of Wand members Evan Burrows and Cory Hanson to Segall’s line-up also adds to this frenetic mess, especially the latter whose guitar theatrics are a dominant character throughout the album. Underneath this swarm of fret-board absurdity is always a discordant organ, shaking up an already discombobulated listen. Amidst all this lunacy, Segall screeches and swoons with a voice that is one part Plastic Ono era John Lennon and one part Thin White Duke era David Bowie. It’s a fitting blend for an album that explores the fruitless relationship an addict has with their “candy,” the place marker commonly used on the album. All of these elements in combination make for what might be Segall’s most cohesive album to date. References to “candy” and the “queen” help build a thread of narrative throughout, and the hysteric music only furthers the addiction-fueled theme of the album. Overall it’s a wild listen that’s brief and fun, but it’s also a reminder that we all have our own candy (drugs, alcohol, food, sex, our phones!) that diverts our attention from what’s really important.
It goes without saying that most music you are going to hear on popular radio today isn’t going to have the honesty and authenticity of someone like say a Sufjan Stevens or a Mark Kozelak. With a moneymaking media conglomerate guiding their career, pop stars often aren’t even in control of their image or the content of their songs. Plus, their lives are already under the microscope of celebrity, what’s left to reveal in their lyrics? In the past, Beyoncé has been a powerful cog in this machine, churning out generic songs about empowerment and love that satisfied the general public in the same way McDonald’s nourishes 62 million customers daily (bland and over-processed, but it does the job).
But in 2016, Queen Bey no longer needs to meet a major label quota. Instead, she released Lemonade, a personal, uncompromising album that tells the story of the demise, struggle, and resurrection of her relationship with hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Rather than let the tabloids speculate on her marital issues, Beyoncé takes it head on, revealing her journey from heartbreak to forgiveness over the past two years. She still has a music-making militia behind her work (the album’s credits contain 3,500 words including names like Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Jack White, Father John Misty, The Weeknd, Diplo, and Ezra Koenig), yet the album still feels genuine and heartfelt. It’s hard to tell how much Beyoncé contributed to the songwriting process, but the emotions of the album come through clearly through her vocal delivery. The usually powerful voice of Beyoncé is often replaced with a wavering whisper, and even when she does try to sound strong and empowered, there is a hint in her performance that she’s trying to convince herself she’ll be okay. Lemonade is a colossal album conceived by an army of musical maestros and backed by a major record label, but the soul and sincerity in Beyoncé’s voice is able to bring realism to this behemoth of a project.
“Pray You Catch Me”:
6. David Bowie
David Bowie’s Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016. He died two days later. To suggest that this was a coincidence is ignoring Bowie’s 50-year music career of grandstanding and shocking his audience. Bowie wrote and recorded Blackstar while battling cancer, hoping to make one final statement before dying. When he sings “I have nothing left to lose” on “Lazarus”, it’s obvious that he has put everything on the table for us to decipher.
The result is an album that is inventive, mystifying, and unflinching. While the songwriting of other music legends has become bland in their later life, Bowie continued to innovate up until the end with an album that is arguably his most original work since 1977’s Low. Blackstar is a brooding jazz-pop album that explores mortality, legacy, and the afterlife. Finding meaning in the lyrics of Blackstar can be a dive into a wormhole. The album title alone might be referencing the Elvis song of the same name that focused on death, or it could relate to the fact that the term “blackstar” is often used in reference to cancer lesion, or it could be the simple interpretation that the one-time Starman has become the literal meaning of a “black star” – a dying star. Add in the evocative artwork (Bowie’s first album without his picture on the cover), the interesting choice of samples (1977’s “A New Career in a New Town” – get it?), and the death-filled imagery of the music videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”, and you’re left with an elaborate metaphorical puzzle of James Joyce-ian levels. Bowie may not be around anymore to wow us with his genius, but he’s left a swan song that will continue to puzzle and amaze fans for years to come.
5. PJ Harvey
The Hope Six Demolition Project
For her latest project, PJ Harvey took a voyeuristic approach to the recording process by allowing the public to witness the band in the studio through one-way glass. On face value, this seems a bit gimmicky, but it’s a pretty fitting reflection on PJ’s songwriting for The Hope Six Demolition Project. For the concept album, she was an observer herself, taking on the role of a reporter, traveling the world with photographer Seamus Murphy and viewing the impact of American capitalism on the world.
PJ’s journey begins in Washington D.C. where on album opener she describes the scene she saw while driving through neighborhoods that had supposedly been rejuvenated by the Hope Six Demolition Project. Instead, PJ observes a school that “looks like a shithole,” addicts she describes as “zombies,” and what was once a mental institution, now replaced by a shiny new “Homeland Security Base.” The song ends with the sarcastic chorus of “They’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here! They’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here!” It’s clear from the onset that this is an album focused on exposing misguided and misused bureaucracy. On “Ministry of Defence” and “Money, Money”, Harvey visits the dilapidated remains of the United State’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Harvey’s visit to Kosovo is discussed on “The Wheel”, an urgent, solemn track that describes the cycle of chaos that still reigns in the region. The album can be best summed up by an image repeated in “Near the Memorials of Vietnam and Lincoln” – “a boy throws out his hands/ as if to feed the starlings/ but really he throws nothing – / it’s just to watch them jump.” Much like the fruitless, empty gestures of the United States, the boy taunts the hungry birds for his own diversion. Harvey may just be a bystander throughout the album, but through her observations she exposes the government’s ugly arrogance and gives light to those crushed and left behind in the country’s wake.
“The Community of Hope”:
A Moon Shaped Pool
[Amoeba Music; 2016]
Despite the constant evolution of Radiohead’s sound over the past 20 years, a feeling of helplessness has remained a constant. OK Computer focused on our vulnerability in the digital age; Hail to the Thief spotlighted the government’s excessive control; and Kid A explored lost identity in the modern age. This common theme remains on their 2016 release, A Moon Shaped Pool, but this time around, those feelings of isolation and disorientation are more personal. It’s likely that this internal struggle is a direct result of Thom Yorke’s divorce with his wife of 23 years this past August.
There are still universal themes at play (“Burn the Witch” looks at conformity and tradition and “The Numbers” protests those who deny climate change), but the majority of the album focuses on Yorke’s struggle to make sense of his heartbreak. Near the end of the foreboding “Dark Decks”, Yorke repeats “Have you had enough of me?”. On “Desert Island Disk” he describes the pain as “The wind rushing round my open heart/ an open ravine,” and “Glass Eyes” ends with the devastating line of “I feel this love turn cold.” It would be tempting to say this is Radiohead’s most revealing album, but apocalyptic imagery of forest fires, weapons of war, and UFOs provide a backdrop much bigger than one man’s broken heart. The music production matches this heartbreak, most songs anchored by a watery piano and accented by ornate orchestration. Radiohead is known for their ability to create otherworldly songs that surprise and excite the listener, but on A Moon Shaped Pool, the tracks are somber and down-to-earth. Radiohead has always warned listeners of the troubles that lie ahead, but on A Moon Shaped Pool, the pain and suffering has arrived.
“True Love Waits”:
3. Oranssi Pazuzu
[20 Buck Spin; 2016]
In the past several years bands like Deafheaven, An Autumn for Crippled Children, and Locrian have softened the harsh confines of black metal by bringing in prog rock elements. Many black metal purists have balked at this development, feeling that the feral, frenzied beast gets neutered by the more listener friendly embellishments. Others, like myself, have enjoyed the transformation of the genre, although I can concede many of the complaints from the corpse paint community. Finnish quintet Oranssi Pazuzu’s Värähtelijä might be an evolutionary step to the genre that we can all agree on.
Värähtelijä is as harsh as black metal gets but the listening experience is so much more than the typical garbled vocals and breakneck drums of old. From thrash metal to interstellar psych-rock to murky doom metal, Värähtelijä has no interest in staying tethered to the tenets of black metal. Often times the album reminds me more of noise-rock legends Swans than anything Burzum ever created. Songs slowly build off echoing guitar riffs or a plopping xylophone, eventually spilling over into euphoric, chaotic bliss. Aranssi Pazuzu are masters of manipulation throughout the 70-minute journey, taking the listeners seamlessly through moments of beauty and bedlam. The destination is never clear, but it’s for certain that Oranssi Pazuzu’s only interest is in exploring the unknown.
2. Miles Davis & Robert Glasper
[Legacy/Columbia/Blue Note; 2016]
The world of hip-hop has borrowed from the works of Miles Davis for decades now, ranging from Ganstarr to Queen Latifah to Notorious B.I.G. In the late 80s, sampling became a major issue of contention in the music business (similar to the current predicament with streaming services), but Miles Davis embraced the new movement near the end of his life. In fact, the last album he was working on before his death, Doo-Bop, was a hip-hop/jazz mash-up that contained samples from Kool and the Gang, KC & the Sunshine Band, and Slick Rick.
It’s likely Davis would have enjoyed what producer/pianist Robert Glasper has done with some of his older work. When Don Cheadle asked Glasper to contribute some reinterpretations of Davis classics for his Mile’s biopic Miles Ahead, Glasper jumped at the chance to play around with the music of a legend. Once the Davis vaults were opened, he couldn’t limit his work to a five-song soundtrack contribution and was given the blessings of the Miles Davis Estate to take his explorations further. The result is Everything’s Beautiful, an album that takes sampling to another level, using snippets of piano, trumpets, and even Mile’s talking to create a new tapestry of alluring hip-hop jazz. The album is jam-packed with what Glasper describes as “your favorite rapper’s rapper and your favorite singer’s singer” – underground artists who live off the same boundary expanding muse as Miles did throughout his 50 year run as a game changer (some highlight appearances: Erykah Badu, Bilal, Illa J, and KING). One can only wonder if this incredible collection of reimaginings is the type of music Miles would be making if he were around still today.
[Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade; 2016]
The United Kingdom’s recent Brexit from the EU and a possible Donald Trump presidency have resulted in a future that looks pretty bleak, but Anohni reveals on HOPELESSNESS that we are already living in pretty dire times. Anohni doesn’t hold any punches on an album comprised of 11 electronic protests songs. Much of the album focuses on the failed efforts of President Barrack Obama and his promise eight years ago of “change we can believe in.” Anohni knows first hand what it means to change. Formerly known as Antony Hegarty, Anohni went through gender transition several years ago and has left all remnants of her successful career with the chamber-pop band Antony and the Johnsons behind. As she said in a recent interview, ““Artists have different responsibilities in different eras, but at this point, I really feel like it’s all hands on deck. We don’t have the luxury of time any more.”
With the help of producers Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Hudson Mohawke, HOPELESSNESS is a lustrous album, melding electronica and R&B into a wave of warmth. But beneath the smooth synths and upbeat tempos lies a message that can’t be ignored. Anohni takes on drone warfare, surveillance, capital punishment, and global warming in surgical fashion, exposing each issue from varying perspectives. Whether it be the unknowing victims of government surveillance on “Watch Me” or the perspective of global warming deniers on “4 Degrees”, each song cuts straight to the core of a flawed democracy and the consequences of its carelessness. Messages are not masked in metaphor, rather they are bluntly swooned through Anohni’s distinctively gorgeous voice. HOPELESSNESS isn’t going to change an ugly world, riddled with selfishness, bigotry, and greed, but it’s a reminder that pop music shouldn’t divert our attention from the evils that surround us – it should be a constant reminder of the imminent crisis we still have time to avoid.