words and curation by Wade Ellis Wilby
Here we are again at the start of a new year, not as hopeful perhaps as last January, but here nonetheless. Major political changes across the globe have put all of us in a state of doubt bordering on hopelessness and planted firmly in distrust. However, it is in the search for hope that all mediums of art will thrive, and for this, we will be thankful.
The creative community will see to it that our collective consciousness remains focused on a new tomorrow for not only Americans, but the world at large. And while we endure this social disfigurement, I want you to remember the words of the recently departed legend Leonard Cohen:
“We are ugly but we have the music.”
It is with this wry sense of dark comedy that we as music lovers/influencers/artists must push forward with to find a way to inject humor, and thus hope into everything we do. Though we lost so many of our beloved idols and tastemakers in 2016 we saw a ton of the new guard stepping up and delivering jaw-dropping pieces that will surely stand the test of time. “The kids are alright” indeed.
So without any more delay (or reverb) here are my Top 10 Albums of 2016. I will once again preface this by saying I do not feel this list is in any way, shape, or form definitive, as these are just the Top 10 albums I listened to the most after their initial playback. I pride myself on seeking out as much new music as possible, but no one can hear them all, right? Right…
10. Chance The Rapper-Coloring Book
As we stated last year with Kendrick, hip hop has entered a new renaissance period, ushering in an era of what I refer to as “Art Rap”. Every aspect of “Coloring Book” was handled with the utmost care, down to the pop up exhibitions** following its release, giving it more of a gallery feel as opposed to an album drop. With the collapse of the major label artists have been charged with finding new and innovative ways to market themselves and this release is a prime example of that.
Musically this album has deep roots in American music, from gospel to jazz to futuristic blues, opting for indigenous instruments more often than drum machines and synths. Also of note is the precise execution of guest verses which are often a complete distraction in modern hip hop albums. Here we see quintessential bars from titans like Kanye and Yeezy and plenty of shine to share with newcomers Future, Young Thug, and luminary Anderson Paak. All the while Chance acts as curator, master, and guide through his lush vision keeping everyone coloring inside the lines while giving them the ultimate freedom they could be afforded: any colors they chose to use.
In the late 80’s as house music was really starting to mutate into subgenres all over the globe, there emerged a style known as “Hip House”, combining the Bronx sounds of hip hop with the Chicago sounds of house. Though there were some tracks with charted success and noted underground appeal, the genre never really took hold. Partly to blame was the half-assed approach the producers took, never truly marrying the two sounds in any significant way.
Fast forward nearly 30 years to a time where the most sophisticated software has been made available to all aspiring producers and the lines between genres are more blurred than ever. Enter Kaytranada. Rarely does an album equally excel at both production and composition usually skewing one way or the other. Every cut here is a feat of top notch engineering mixed with a true flair for songwriting that flirts with many styles of music. One moment you are caught in an emotional R+B groove “Got It Good” and the next moment you find yourself on a packed dancefloor “Together” all the while gliding in the fluidity of his sonic landscapes that serve as the glue that holds this masterpiece together.
8. Nico Jaar-Sirens
Since his stunning debut in 2011 “Space Is Only Noise”, Chilean-American producer Nico Jaar has been on an ethereal tear. Combining the slow-mo tempo of space disco with his classically trained sensibilies produced such a unique and sophisticated take on house culture and turned the genre on it’s ear. He has also been an innovator in the live setting producing such original events at MoMa featuring a 5-hour concert with collaborator Will Epstein, videographer Ryan Staake, dancer Lizzie Feidelson and singer Sasha Spielberg.
This album finds Jaar in peak condition, as usual opting for the minimal and sparse. Brian Eno once said “It’s not the notes in the measure that count, it’s the space between them that matter”. “Sirens” is that message incarnate, leaving ample space for the listener to insert their own ideas into the measure and drift along with the tracks as their spirit guide. The opening piece “Killing Time” is the perfect set up, serving as the sonic legend to the emotional map he has created. At no point does the record exude pretension, as a lot of ambient records do. Rather, it shows the everyday music fan the beauty and overall value of keeping things simple while still making a mark.
7. Twin Peaks-Down In Heaven
Chicago produces yet another indie gem in young upstarts Twin Peaks. The band formed in high school and after a short and uninspiring run at college the band decided to drop out and follow their dream. It certainly didn’t hurt that Cadien Lake James a.k.a. Big Tuna’s brother was in Smith Westerns. Their age belies their sensibilities, as they have found some sacred space between both Pavement and The Rolling Stones, giving both the sense of drifting and driving-floating with purpose.
“Down In Heaven” is the natural progression of their sonic journey. Here we see the group leaning more towards classic rock and blues hooks that, in the hands of lesser musicians, would sound like a weak-hearted tribute to idols they can’t connect with. Instead tracks like “Wanted You” could easily be a B Side from “Exile On Main Street”. Even though they have clearly sided with history on this album they still hang on to their indie roots on tracks like “You Don’t” and “Keep It Together”. If this is any indication on the future of rock and roll in the hands of the coming generations we are in good shape.
Evolution of the highest order. Period. Lambchop is the most experienced collective in our list with their first release dropping in 1990. Never sticking to a “core” lineup, the personnel has shapeshifted with the times around its principal songwriter Kurt Wagner, even serving as Vic Chestnutt’s backing band on his album “The Salesman and Bernadette”. Hailed as pioneers of the alt country movement, this prolific outfit has slowly but surely arrived at their opus and thus, their truest form.
FLOTUS or “For Love Often Turns Us Still” is a calming vessel that can take you to that place no other album can -both retreat and surrender to the silence begging to be heard. Sure, auto-tune is running through every vocal take, but instead of serving as a distraction, it synthesizes Wagner’s voice with the measure making it an equal to every instrument down to the ride cymbal. There is no star. There is no front man. There is only a most unified front enveloping the listener in an aural cocoon. What you do inside of it is up to you.
5. Modern Baseball-Holy Ghost
To the brutal music cynic reading this I might have some troubling news for you: Emo is alive and well in Philadelphia, PA. It stands to reason that it’s like that all over the country and THANK GOD. Don’t get me wrong, there is a TON of shitty emo. Modern Baseball proves that maybe all emo needed was time to grow up a bit without losing the youthful angst and melancholy that defines it. No easy task and these kids handle it with style and aplomb.
“Holy Ghost” is filled with lyrics that cover the emo spectrum: ex girlfriend missing, boozy storytelling, and tour diary charm. Somehow Lukens has taken the whiny nature of these sentiments and turned them into poetry, crafting thoughtful stanzas that are vivid with imagery, painting a picture of fleeting youth at a distance, harkening our own arrested developments and escapes from adolescent awkwardness. Beneath it all, however, is a strong understanding of how a song is written, realized, and produced, which is sorely missing from most bands who have dabbled in “emotional rock”. Dig up the time capsule at your high school and take a deep look inside of it. “Holy Ghost” will provide you with the soundtrack to sift through the artifacts of your past and make you smile no matter how awful or beautiful your time there was.
4. Radiohead-A Moon Shaped Pool
“This is a low flying panic attack” indeed. Per usual, Thom Yorke has lead us to a dark corner of his psyche as he so often does, but this time, it may just be forever. The imagery surrounding the release of the album was as cryptic as ever, showing off their artistic chops and reminding us that they can do whatever they please and succeed. However, once the video for “Burn The Witch” dropped we were faced with the impending darkness they told us was coming since “Kid A”, but now it is here to stay.
Take time examining the lyrical content and you will see they are not only signaling an end to the comfort and decadence we enjoyed as “first worlders”, but an end to Radiohead as we know them.
“Through an open doorway
Across a street
To another life…”
This passage from “Desert Island Disc” is just one of the many hints that this juggernaut of modern, experimental rock is just about finished. Yorke has never been quiet on the subject of Radiohead’s constant pressure and this album is a very eloquent way of visualizing its boiling point. Not so much a statement of “we’ve said all we can say” as much as “there is nothing else we can do”. Both humanity and Radiohead have run their course and I couldn’t think of a better way of to express that than AMSP. Overtly calm in its delivery but as serious as a heart attack with its implications-this is the sound of a train imploding at the horizon line in a vacuum. Silent oblivion to a click track…
3. Bon Iver-22, A Million
Justin Vernon has created his most polarizing and brilliant piece to date. Nestled away at his home studio in Eau Claire, WI, Vernon’s successes became the focal point of his anxieties, causing him to question everything that lead up to this point, resulting in his own version of “Kid A”. Vernon finds refuge in gear that would have made zero sense on his other releases, signaling a heavy departure from everything we know about Bon Iver. More Aphex Twin than John Prine, the avante weird even shows up in the song titles, opting for symbols and numbers to articulate just how far from home our protagonist has wandered. The binary nature of the rhythm patterns lays out a grid of ones and zeroes creating less of a group of songs and more of a map to somewhere jagged and angular, softened only by Vernon’s angelic voice.
It is in that voice that we find hope, as we so often do with Bon Iver. The lyrics, while existential in nature, still hold a faint glimmer of positivity. After the darkest night… The “title track” opens with the line “It might be over soon”, “might” being the operative word. The uncertainty of return seems to be the whole point here, forever lost, perhaps, to the digital stronghold of the surrounding soundscapes. Though the invasive nature of every square wave is felt to the nth degree, I don’t feel the timbre is social commentary. Vernon is well past examining the technological nightmare social media has placed us in. Rather, he is using this tech to drive home the point that he is lost, and in this lapse of direction, has lost someone who believed to be his guide. Where they have gone seems to be no consequence here. He clearly loves them, but the way home is more important than the way back to them.
2. Frank Ocean-Blonde
The country waited with baited breath as rumors of “Blonde” started to circulate. The album went through many release delays, but rightfully so. Like Chance and Beyonce, Ocean opted for an incredibly unique rollout; first as a timed exclusive on the iTunes Store and Apple Music, and followed the August 19 release of Ocean’s visual album “Endless”. Like Bon Iver, this album departed from Ocean’s debut “Channel Orange” in a major way -deliberately sparse and often times relying on laying waaaaay behind the beat, giving his samplers an almost human cadence.
The lyrics are given special praise here, not only by their audience, but by the production that surrounds them. Every step is taken to ensure the listener is welcome into his world and given an intimate tour of its surroundings. Like most sophomore efforts we hear plenty of themes that wrestle with newfound success but a clear message persists: I have changed for the better but I am still unapologetically Frank Ocean. Sensitive and sensual in every single bar, “Blonde” excels where most artists in hip hop dare to tread -vulnerability. Ocean is wide open here, warts and all, giving the album an open diary feel, even going as far as inserting a voicemail from his mother warning about the dangers of drugs. This is highly personal territory and Ocean wears it like a crown.
- Car Seat Headrest-Teens of Denial
Will Toledo’s moniker stemmed from his nickname for his makeshift iso booth, the back seat of his car. This is the DIY nature of the band that thrust them into the public eye, first gaining a huge cult following from Bandcamp releases then sauntering into the pages of Pitchfork with their first Matador release “Teens of Style”. Raw for the sake of raw, CSH pays homage to Velvet Underground in every song, more importantly Lou Reed, as any one of these songs could have been on “Rock And Roll Animal” and stretched to the 20 min mark. Owing as much to post-hardcore as it does to the 70’s, the album also succeeds in an area most indie records can’t..
While most of the songs hover around the 5 min mark, we still see some songs getting “the treatment” -an extra dose of fuzz and fervor banging around the stratosphere as a method of driving the listener to a controlled frenzy that shines not only in the car or the office, but a raucous house party as well. Toledo isn’t afraid to get his scream on and it only adds to the incredibly fun vibe this album exudes. This is why I have returned to this album the most. Typically I reserve the “1” spot for some pretentious and over-produced think piece that, while still an amazing piece of art, doesn’t fill me with the joy and excitement that “Teens of Denial” does. I invite everyone to get past the lackluster vocals and garage band aesthetic you hear on the surface to dive deep into the sound of youth incarnate. Your life will be better for it.