The best albums of 2016

OK, I’m not even going to try and rationalise this surrender to a ‘best of’ listicle. Still…maybe there is an argument for making some semblance of narrative order out of a year that brought us Trump, Brexit and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Alan Vega, who I missed just as much as the Big Three. So without further ado….oh, but first a word from the sponsor :

1. Mitski : Puberty 2

This fourth release by the 26 year old, conservatory-trained Japanese-American born as Mitski Miyawaki is my pick for album of the year. Her earlier Bury My Heart At Makeout Creek only hinted at what this one (which was recorded in only two weeks) managed to deliver : haunting, jazz-influenced melodies married to lyrics that took those MOR elements, and re-contextualised them entirely.

Which is another of saying that the subject matter is usually downbeat, but the music transports you – and hopefully, her – beyond the twentysomething experiences she nails so well in the lyrics. In the album opener “ Happy” for instance, the female narrator treats being desired by someone else as the basis of self esteem. (So he brings cookies, comes inside her, and leaves while she’s still in the bathroom. Nice. )

The album’s standout track “Your Best American Girl” also deals with self worth in the face of cultural codes that define what’s deemed to be desirable. As a Japanese-American, Mitski has obvious reason to treat this in cross-cultural terms, but the song seems applicable to any relationship disfigured by ideals that prove to be ultimately irreconcilable. The abrasive “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” also strikes a near-perfect balance between heartbreak and defiance. The “would you kill me, Jerusalem” line is a plea for martyrdom, but its grounded in work pressures that feel desperately immediate :

I’m not doing anything
I’m not doing anything
My body’s made of crushed little stars
And I’m not doing anything
I better ace that interview
I better ace that interview
I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die
I better ace that interview

Mitski delivers these deadpan, lyrically condensed tracks with a creamy, almost Karen Carpenter-ish voice. The contrast between the accessible form and the spiky content is striking…

And finally, there’s “Once More To See You’ with its doom da-doom “Be My Baby” structure, and its quiet railing against the injustice of having to conceal an obsession that finds her silently screaming his name from atop every building in the city of her heart…Yikes. The mid 20s aren’t an easy time for anyone.

2. Rihanna : Anti

All of the big three divas did sterling work this year. Forced to choose, I’d rank Rihanna’s Anti just ahead of Solange’s A Seat At the Table, and over the long haul I preferred both by a sizeable margin to Beyonce’s Lemonade. On the diva B team, Santigold’s 99 Cents had a few great mix-CD moments (“Can’t Get Enough Of Myself, “Chasing Shadows”) as well.

No doubt, Lemonade was an event, a showstopper with huge production values, famous guests ( hi Kendrick) bells, whistles and mission statements. It was Broadway big, but felt progressively emptier after show time. IMO, the political message also seemed dodgy – like sure, its great to express public defiance of your partner when he’s been a dick (Giving you lemons? Make lemonade !) but is it really all that great to launch said album on the music service he co-owns, thereby virtually saving it from going under ? If this is empowerment, it’s a one percenter’s version : ie the choice to continue to do what’s best for the family business, even though this involves peddling music about being assertive, independent and your own woman while apparently forgiving ( for reasons of commerce ?) the said dickishness of your (still) significant other and ongoing business partner? Beyonce is awesome, but she’s also conveying an awesomely conflicted message.

Rihanna’s album achieved – on a more human scale – much of what Lemonade preached about. Here was superstar Rihanna, with unlimited resources at her beck and call, yet choosing instead to dim the star wattage to explore an unpredictable array of styles – from simple folk-tinged arrangements (“Never Ending”) to dancefloor hits (“Work”) to white indie pop ( “Same Ol’ Mistakes”) to Caribbean-tinged pop ( “Consideration” Desperado” ) to a harsh, aching two minute ballad called “Higher” about calling an old flame from a bar at 2am, even when you know full well you shouldn’t be doing it. At first hearing Anti confused almost everyone. Over the course of a year, it came to sound organically whole, and a genuine triumph.

 

3. William Tyler : Modern Country

Tyler used to be lead guitarist for the idiosyncratic Nashville indie band Lambchop (who also released an interesting electronic album in 2016 called FLOTUS, complete with an 18 minute single.) Since Tyler makes all-instrumental guitar albums grounded in geography and Americana tropes, he’s invariably compared to John Fahey and/or Leo Kottke, but there’s an unease running through these tracks that seems far more contemporary.

Those two simple words in the album title were deliberately chosen. Tyler’s atmospheric subject matter is the evident decay in what “ the country” (the wide open spaces, and US as a whole) now represents. The album kicks off, for example, with a nine minute tour de force called “Highway Anxiety” that Tyler wrote while driving alone between gigs, and with time on his hands to think about the trajectory of the nation, and the ecological fate of its land. In that respect, Modern Country can be a soundtrack for all of us, in the age of Trump. Tyler’s earlier albums Behold The Spirit (2010) and especially the terrific Impossible Truth (2013) are also well worth your time.

4. Angel Olsen : My Woman

Angel Olsen toured New Zealand in mid December, backed by a powerhouse five piece band dressed in uniforms that made them look like a throwback to 1950s pop. The tour followed hard on the heels of the release of the My Woman album, whicvh marked Olsen’s step up to full-blown pop stardom from her folkie origins. Her past had included a wild child interlude on the road with Will Oldham’s band of gypsies. (Check out the beautiful Oldham/Olsen track “Time To Be Clear” on the Wolfroy Goes To Town album.)

Onstage, Olsen seemed aloof. Like Elena Ferrante, she just does what she does, take it or leave it. Yet this anti-persona – when combined with her waywardly powerful Roy Orbison-like voice and wry sense of humour – amounted to its own unique brand of charisma.“Sisters” was the striking eight minute centerpiece of both the show and the album alike. Its a song about awakening “from the sleeping life I lead” to new feelings of resolution :

I want to go where
Nobody knows fear
I want to follow
My heart down that wild road…

Like one of those early “Down by the River” jams that Neil Young did with Crazy Horse, ”Sisters” builds to a point of rocking stasis where its hard to tell whether Olsen is celebrating her capacity for change, or accepting her inability to achieve it. Onstage, even the lesser seeming songs on My Woman (eg “Intern”) took on a fresh lustre. There’s been a certain inevitability about Olsen’s onward march to stardom – Halfway Home and Build The Fire were great albums in their own right – but it has been an exhilarating journey to follow, over the past three or four years.

BTW Olsen’s terrific backing singer Heather McEntire for her New Zealand shows also fronts her own band, called Mount Moriah. “Bright Light” was the best cut from their 2016 album Miracle Temple, which overall is a good showcase for McEntire’s Dolly Parton-ish vocals. (Olsen recently shifted via Missouri to Chicago and on to North Carolina, and that I guess, is where she met up with McEntire and Co. ) Here’s “Sisters” and the lighter, poppier “Shut Up And Kiss Me….”

5. Pinegrove : Cardinal

Emo and country both wear their hearts so openly on their sleeves that its surprising so few emo-ish bands have straddled the borderline. Pinegrove are from New Jersey. They’re six years, three EPs and a couple of albums into what still sounds like a formative stage of their development – and Cardinal is only 30 minutes long – but singer/writer/frontman Evan Stephen Hall happens to write sharp, once heard never forgotten melodies that mine familiar tropes, while still somehow sounding freshly minted. We’ve been here before, but not quite like this. There’s not a dud track on Cardinal, nor anything that overstays its welcome.

Here’s “Old Friends” and “New Friends”….there’s also a track ( “Then Again”) about feeling afraid to tour Japan.

 

6. A Tribe Called Quest : We Got It From Here…

The virulence with which many of my boomer generation peers hate hip hop… ultimately, it mystifies me. As I’ve discovered whenever I’ve linked to a hip hop track in this column, the haters seem enraged that this music even exists.

That’s really weird. Even my parents who did not like rock’n.roll were – by only 10 years later – starting to come around. If the winkingly self-deprecating dark humour of the late Leonard Cohen is legit, why can’t the same qualities aso be OK in say, Young Thug? He’s screwing around with you about sex and death too, just as Leonard did.

Besides, hip hop is not some new fangled thing, given the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” single kicked the genre into gear back in 1979, nearly 40 years ago. Hip hop has outlasted punk and grunge and incorporated elements of both. The boomer antagonism also runs counter to the democratic inclusiveness ( Kraftwerk, psychedelia, 60s soul, disco) of the music itself. I’m not trying to justify hip hop with a timeline or a pedigree. It needs neither. Yet the final A Tribe Called Quest album this year – Phife Dawg died in May of diabetes complications – can be cherished because it is so true to the band’s heritage, while succeeding on its own here-and-now terms. The ritualized to and fro rivalry between Phife and Q-Tip, the warmth of the old school arrangements, and the chill of the modern relevance of much of the lyrics….comeback of the year, and a finale.

Other hip hop and/or r&b standouts : Maxwell’s’BlackSUMMERSnight, Vince Staples’ Prima Donna, and Anderson Paak’s Malibu, the follow up to his breakout appearances on the Compton soundtrack. The guy is a charmer, and this relaxed NPR mini-concert is a fine showcase for his Marvin Gaye meets James Brown skills.

7. Margaret Glaspy : Emotions and Math

With her fierce and angular compositions, Margaret Glaspy is a new entry in that very old folkie-gal-with-guitar tradition…(There are even guys with beards in her backing band.) Her voice can be as harsh in the upper registers as Joanna Newsom, but Glaspy is her own person, talking with no bullshit directness about her own desires and limitations, take it or leave it. From the title track :

Countin’ all the days till you’re back
Shiverin in an ice cold bath of emotions and math
I’ve gotta get outta this tree, off of this limb
I’m a woman actin like a kid
A skinny mess that’s breathless from telling you all the things that I’m gonna do…

“Something To Anybody” is a funny, serious dialogue about the tensions in being part of a couple, and the rewards/curses of being free of constraint.

Once I was loved but I wouldn’t dare
Take a compliment or give a kiss
Just thinking of bein’ a pair
Had me suffering and made me split
Cuz I dont wanna be somebody to anybody
No I’m good at no-one
I keep my head down and both eyes wide
I don’t look up, just side to side
And I stay well kept so they can see
There’s nothing wrong with me
Its just that I don’t want to be somebody to anybody

Here’s a live version of that song

and here’s a live version of “You and I” -which deals with essentially the same subject matter :

Also worthy of mention : Car Seat Headrest’s guitar and teen angst heavy Teens of Denial will ensure Will Toledo is one of the main attractions at next month’s Laneway festival :

Nicolas Jaar’s spacy Sirens and Jenny Hval’s Conceptual Romance were also worth checking out. Best re-issue ? That would have to be the big box set ( complete with fantastic scholarship notes by Michael Corcoran ) of the gently mysterious, unearthly recordings from 1927 of the gospel singer Washington Philips ( pictured below ). Amazing trivia note : the travelling talent scout who recorded Philips’ entire oeuvre on a Saturday did much the same thing the next day, when Blind Willie Johnson stepped in out of virtual obscurity and laid down many of his most prized recordings. Did that guy realise what had just happened on that hot and dusty day back in 1927 ? That he’d recorded the Mozart of gospel on one day, and its Beethoven only 24 hours later.

Footnote : if you’re still trying to find a Christmas present for someone special…keep in mind that New York singer/writer Frankie Cosmos will (amazingly) be playing the Moon Bar in Newtown in early March. Tickets only $30 from UndertheRadar. She was born Greta Kline, daughter of the actor Kevin Kline, and she writes short, sharply observed gossamer light songs that will sound great, live, in such a small club. Here’s “Young” a terrific song about being Youth, The Commodity :

With this I’m scraping by
At least it’s cute that I try
I wrote some songs that I sung
And have you heard I am so young So young
I heard about being young
But I’m not sure how it’s done
Thought I heard a mumble
Something about fun
Fun
Fun

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