I think we can all agree that 2016 was not a great year. From terrorist attacks to deaths of beloved celebrities to the tumultuous presidential election, it’s easy to compile a list of 2016’s lowlights. What has been lost in this sea of let-downs and despair is the amount of great music that was released this past year. Once again, I’ve compiled a list of some incredible albums that hail from a wide range of genres. Give the final 20 a read through and a listen. I’m sure you’ll find something you also enjoy, and maybe you’ll discover something that strayed beyond your listening peripheral in 2016.
20. A Tribe Called Quest
We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service
I was pretty skeptical when I first heard that A Tribe Called Quest would be releasing an album just months after the death of Phife Dawg. Q-Tip’s production and vocal prowess are obviously important touchstones of the band’s seminal work in the 90s, but Phife Dawg was inarguably the heart of the group. It wasn’t until I saw Tribe’s performance on SNL with a giant mural of Phife behind them and his vocals being pumped into the mix that I realized I had to give my favorite hip-hop group’s first effort in 18 years a chance.
And thank God I did. While the album may lack the focus and vision of their perfect string of albums in the 90s, it still features the rhythmic, distinctive backing tracks and the introspective lyrics (and plenty of Phife Dawg to go around). The album, entitled We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service, was recorded over a year ago but is the most politically poignant hip-hop album of 2016. The album opens with “The Space Program”, a song that mirrors their classic soulful sound all while taking on the exclusionary rhetoric of Donald Trump in a way that is quintessentially A Tribe Called Quest – imagining a future where black people aren’t allowed to go to space. “We the People…” continues to mock the Alt-Right, listing all the subgroups that Q-Tip coyly commands, “you must go.” The album’s only drawback might be its one hour run time, but it’s hard to complain when it has been 18-years since we’ve last been graced by these legends of hip-hop.
“We the People…”:
19. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
[Ivy League; 2016]
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s debut Talk Tight might only be comprised of seven songs, but I defy you to find a more enjoyable 29 minutes of music in 2016. Many albums on this list are here due to their depth, their production, or even their over-reaching themes, but Talk Tight cracked the top 20 due simply to the fact that it’s a batch of really great, garage pop songs.
The band may hail from the indie rock haven of Melbourne, but these young Aussies don’t exactly fit the template set by other successful acts like Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Royal Headaches. Instead of the distorted edge, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever take aim at a more measured, pop-forward approach reminiscent of The Feelies and The dBs. The arrangements are complex with layers of wirey guitars bouncing off each other, but they are just window dressing to the album’s centerpiece – its memorable melodies. If Talk Tight didn’t cross your radar in 2016, let it be your favorite album in 2017 (and let the good times roll).
“Wither with You”:
[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 menagerie. 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”:
17. Bon Iver
22, a Million
It has been nine years since Justin Vernon released For Emma, Forever Ago, and since then he has struggled to recreate the intimacy and sincerity that came with his first effort. The story of For Emma, Forever Ago has become the stuff of legends – a broken hearted musician locked up in a secluded cabin amidst a bitter Wisconsin winter, dealing with his sorrow through the recording process. He has had several efforts since that landmark album, but none has been able to recreate the raw, revealing nature of his debut.
Instead of returning to the cabin, Vernon has reconnected to that solitary sadness on 22, a Million by going a completely different direction and utilizing technology to convey the feelings of disconnect. Songs are riddled with glitches, warped melodies, and distorted, decaying vocals. Vernon still sings of feeling isolated and anxious, but his loneliness sparks from a world inundated with social media and selfies. The production helps heighten the album’s theme, the manipulated elements recreating the feeling of being swept away by the information age. If For Emma, Forever ago was Vernon’s Walden, then 22, A Million is his Fahrenheit 451.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”:
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 falsetto serenades 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. 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”:
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”:
The Glowing Man
[Young God; 2016]
Swan’s frontman Michael Gira understands what many other artists realize too late – in order to continue, you must constantly evolve. Over the past three decades, Gira has reinvented his vision multiple times. Once a pioneering band of the abrasive, no-wave movement, Swans would go on to soften their blows with a more melodic approach in the mid-80s, and then move to a somber, almost conventional stint on MCA Records. Between 1983 and 1996, Swans went through four different line-up changes, and currently, the band’s alumni features a list of 18 musicians. After a 14 year hiatus between 1996 and 2010, Gira emerged with his fifth line-up, returning with a sound more ambitious and potent than anything explored by the band before.
Following a string of critically acclaimed albums, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope in the Sky, The Seer, and To Be Kind, Gira announced that 2016’s The Glowing Man would be the last effort from the band’s current, powerful line-up. Instead of going out with one last impactful bang, Glowing Man is a more cerebral listen than the past two efforts from the current incarnation of Swans. As a result, the album is a bit of a sleeper. Notes echo endlessly, guitars strum hypnotically, pianos twinkle randomly, and the drums rattle along at a lumbering pace. If The Seer and To Be Kind were albums of shock and awe, than Glowing Man is a measured meditation on how to deal with disappointment. The album plays like one final, exhausted gasp from a line-up that achieved an unprecedented string of albums these past few years. Glowing Man is a perfect epilogue to the current iteration of Swans; let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years to hear what unparalleled soundscapes Gira has fermenting in his glorious mind.
“People Like Us”:
13. 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”:
12. 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, technology) that diverts our attention from what’s really important.
11. Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Earlier this year, 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”:
It has been a while since Wilco has released an album in the same stratosphere as classics like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and upon first listen, 2016’s Schmilco seems like another mediocre release, far from the grandeur of their early 2000s output. Unlike those grandiose masterpieces, Schmilco is a low-key, acoustic affair, making for an album that’s easy to slip past your radar. But don’t be fooled by this sleeper of an album – it’s the band’s best effort in 10 years.
In the past, Jeffy Tweedy’s lyrics explored the trials and tribulations of adulthood, but on Schmilco, he revisits childhood and how those early experiences are often precursors to future struggles. “Normal American Kids” looks at the feelings of being an outsider while “Ever Was a Child” discusses a loss of innocence. The unassuming production fits perfectly with the album’s focus on adolescence, Tweedy’s gift of melody playing like depressing nursery rhymes, warning of the death and despair that comes with growing old. Several of the songs seem to be about Tweedy’s wife, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. As a result, he sounds cranky and tired. The album definitely plays off themes of youth, but in the end, Schmilco is an album about all the sadness and struggle that they don’t warn you about in grade school.
“Normal American Kids”:
9. 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, Glasper 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 mix of alluring hip-hop jazz. The album is jam-packed with 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.
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”:
7. Alex Cameron
Jumping the Shark
[Secretly Canadian; 2016]
We are all flawed humans. All of us. Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, and yes, even Ken Bone. Celebrity provides us all with an outlet to judge others without fear of repercussions, but in the end, we all have our own crosses to bear. Instead of taking aim at fame, Alex Cameron decides to expose the mundane flaws of all of us: the businessman, the drunk, and the dude living in his parents’ basement.
Cameron, best known for his work with the electronic pop trio Seekae, has ventured out on his own with his first solo album Jumping the Shark and the results are silly, sleazy, and surprisingly tender at times. For the project he donned facial make-up of scars and pits to better represent the seedy lounge singer he embodies on the album alongside his sidekick Roy Molloy. Together, they create songs that sound outdated and cheap, an unadorned approach that better exemplifies the brilliance of Cameron’s storytelling. The album’s mix of lo-fi production and entertaining storytelling reminds me of Stephen Merrit’s early work as Magnetic Fields or anything off of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. The characters on Jumping the Shark are also similar to those found on The Idiot – broken, self-centered, and on the brink of losing it all. Jumping the Shark is a dark humored character study on the basket of deplorables that helped put a mad man in the White House.
6. Danny Brown
Atrocity Exhibition opens with imagery reminiscent of Howard Hughes with Danny Brown shouting in his distinctive, nasally voice “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/ Been in this room for three days/ Think I’m hearing voices/ Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es.” This bleak description sets the scene for an album that is one man’s struggle with drug addiction and his own sanity.
The album’s production often mirrors this disorienting paranoia, brooding synths lurking around each plodding beat, psychedelic flourishes arising sporadically throughout. The samples are unpredictable, the beats stilted and awkward, and the instrumentation discomforting, but Danny is able to surf the wave of confusion and somehow make it all work together. The album pairs the lyrics of mental illness with a schizophrenic pace, moving from low-key confessionals to frenzied bursts of bedlam. The result is an album that doesn’t sound like anything else on the hip-hop landscape. By the end of this otherworldly, addiction-fueled expedition, Danny is still confused and lost, but his last verse is an assertion that music remains his northern star: “I just wanna make music/ Fuck being a celebrity/ Cause these songs that I write/ Leave behind my legacy.”
“Ain’t It Funny”:
[Secretly Canadian/Rough Trade; 2016]
The United Kingdom’s recent Brexit from the EU and an eminent 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.
4. 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.
[Dead Ocean; 2016]
When we finally reach adulthood, all of the pains of puberty are supposedly left behind for a more measured and mature livelihood. We all know this myth is far from true. In fact, often those feelings of insecurity and fear are heightened with age, all of us bumbling around like big dumb teenagers trying to find our way in the uncertain future. Mitski explores this perpetual adolescence on Puberty 2, an album that exposes the endless battle to find happiness in the mundanity of adult life.
It’s surprising that Mitski was born in 1990 considering how many early 90s bands she draws sounds from on Puberty 2. The outro to “Your Best American Girl” is classic blue era Weezer; “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is PJ Harvey circa 1992; and “A Loving Feeling” sounds like a jangly Juliana Hatfield pop song. However, Mitski’s biggest influence has to be Annie Clark with her off-kilter arrangements, left-turn lyrics, and her smooth alto croon that could easily be mistaken for St. Vincent. Mitski’s lyrical prowess thrive on Puberty 2, an album that tells of small victories trying to counter-balance heartbreaking lows, and there are plenty of them. On “Fireworks” she describes with pinpoint accuracy the feelings of depression with the opening lines of “One morning this sadness will fossilize,/ and I will forget how to cry.” Within every devastating track, there are moments of brief glimmer, whether it be the moment of climax with a casual sex partner on “Happy”, relishing a failing relationship on “I Bet On Losing Dogs”, or on “A Burning Hill” when she waves the white flag with the concession “I’m tired of wanting more,/ I think I’m finally worn/…I’ll love some littler things”. It’s on this final track that all of her pain culminates in a metaphorical forest fire, but instead of trying to put it out, she basks in the glow of the embers, a perfect finish to an album that finds beauty amidst an internal inferno.
“Your Best American Girl”:
2. Frank Ocean
Fans of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and its infectious, soulful songs were a bit shocked by the arrival of Blonde in 2016, an album of strange mixes, abrupt changes, and stream of consciousness lyrics. On face value, the album sounds like a series of unfinished sketches. Instead of capitalizing off the success of Channel Orange, Ocean has opted to take the opportunity to explore his own vision without fear of repercussions, and the result is one confounding and rewarding listen.
In the past, Ocean’s melodies were the focus of his tracks, but on Blonde, he seems more interested in experimenting with the boundaries of pop music, often letting the bizarre atmospheres take precedence over his own voice. The warm organs and fully realized production of old have been replaced with sparse arrangements and chilly synthesizers, the entire mix drowning in reverb. Album opener “Nikes” is a perfect representation of the album’s unpredictability, one second joking about Carmelo Anthony not having a championship ring followed by a profoundly moving discussion of Trayvon Martin before returning to the silliness of mermaids and lemonade. At times the album feels like a fever dream, Ocean rambling fragmented lyrics over woozy basslines and simplistic beats, and at other times, Blonde feels like a hangover, sorrowful lyrics of loss (and being lost) mumbled over cold, hazy production. On Blonde, Ocean has no interest in revisiting the past. Instead, he creates an ethereal album of disjointed songs that are a glimpse into the future of soul music.
1. 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.
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