The albums I connected to most this year are visceral, tortured, forged by emotional hell and mostly leave me with a deep sense of despair. So yeah, 2016 was no picnic.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar
Bowie was the consummate chameleon. His last album Blackstar was awash in the influence of Kendrick Lamar’s schizophrenic, jazz-infused hip-hop and produced with astonishing clarity by longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti. The tracks of Blackstar are unquestionably the most inspired of anything Bowie has released in the last 30 years. But when he passed away from cancer on Jan. 10, 2016 all of that was stripped away. What was left was the unshakable impression that Blackstar is Bowie’s attempt to document and come to terms with his own death. “Where the fuck did Monday go?”
2. The Dillinger Escape Plan, Dissociation
Dillinger Escape Plan have always been a band willing to go to extremes to prove their dedication to their art. They’ve lost a few members along the way, and wracked up a number of career-threatening injuries. Some of their albums have also suffered due to their devotion to extremes. On Dissociation the band added a new wrinkle, they’re breaking up before they get stale, and oh boy they figured out how not to be stale–dynamic jazz-metal compositions with an overriding sense of dread and a feeling like everything is about to fall apart.
3. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Spacious, rich and warm, Blonde is emotionally devastating like other entries on this list but it stands out because it is an album that offers a hope and love.
4. Nick Cave, Skeleton Key
While David Bowie grappled with his own impending demise, Nick Cave’s latest was shadowed by the accidental death of his 15-year-old son. Cave, who usually tells fanciful, gothic tales of of the odd and ugly. On Skeleton Key he’s pushed inward and accompanied by cracked and tortured art rock.
5. The Body, No One Deserves Happiness
Portland’s The Body combine sprawling doom and sludge metal with choral pop. Contributor Chrissy Wolpert arranges haunting and gorgeous choruses over lead singer Chip King’s feral screams. Drummer Lee Buford lends a focused simplicity that nods more to pop than metal. Rather than creating an inescapable hell of despair as they have on previous works, No One Deserves Happiness is brief, to the point and insidious.
6. Angel Olsen, My Woman
Stark and crisp. My Woman finds Angel Olsen becoming a truly great songwriter. It’s an album out of time.
7. The Body/Full of Hell, One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache
An experimental doom band collides with an uncompromising grindcore cabal. What do you get? A ponderous, complicated, textured and nuanced set of noise experiments that transcend most of what is going on in the metal genre today.
8. Oranssi Pazuzu, Varahtellja
Bewildering and overwhelming in its sheer audacity Varahtellja is an oppressive, psychedelic expanse of Krautrock infused with the raw aggression of black metal.
9. Xiu Xiu, Plays the Music of Twin Peaks
Who could have guessed that the confrontational noise pop outfit would deliver their most accessible work with an album of covers of music composed by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti for the Twin Peaks Soundtrack.
10. Leonard Cohen,You Want it Darker
Cohen was ready to make his exit and he left on his own terms. “You want it darker. We kill the flame.”
Biggest Disappointments of the Year
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
There are pieces of great songs on Radiohead’s latest paranoid offering–the problem is that they’re delivered in ways that seem designed to taunt listeners. The compositions aren’t particularly coherent. I would have once thought it blasphemy to criticize Radiohead’s loyal producer Nigel Godrich but his production on the effort is messy and dry. The band appears to try to save the affair by trotting out the first proper recording of “True Love Waits,” a song they’ve been playing since 1995. It’s a valiant effort to instill the effort with soul, but it’s too little too late.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
West’s antics off stage and away from the studio make it increasingly hard to enjoy his work. This year separating his personal life from his work became almost impossible as the recording and release of The Life of Pablo got caught up in the West/Kardashian circus and his entanglement in the Tidal streaming service. When were we actually supposed to listen to the album? Is it finished yet? Does it matter anymore?