Friday, December 23, 2016

Top 20 Albums of 2016

2016 fucking blew.

The music of 2016, however, did not blow.

Proof of this is below, for your my reading pleasure.

I was never a huge fan of Tribe. They always struck me as a group more focused on their lyrics, and I am more inclined to listen to hip hop with a FAT BEAT.

Seeing them on SNL the Saturday after the end of the world was exactly what I needed though. Facing the world with a positivity rooted in realism is exactly how we should approch the next four years, or we're not gonna make it.

Although the album was written months before the election, the opening mantra of "Let's make somethin happen" carries so much more weight now than it could have. Aside form any cultural implications this record might have, the beats on here, and the way each MC weaves within those beats, is infectious. If your head sits still while listening to this one, you might wanna check your neck.

19. Kero Kero Bonito - Bonito Generation

We done being sad? Good. Cuz the KKB don't want none of that shit. The KKB wants you to turn up your radio, jump on a trampoline, and snap a selfie.

I am not entirely sure if Kero Kero Bonito is that passionate about taking selfies, or if there is something more satirical in their bubblegum lyrics. Perhaps in my old age I've forgotten how to care about trampolines the way I used to, but KKB is gonna force that sentiment down your throat until you too see the world as they do: gumdrop forests and my little ponies fucking everywhere.

18. Moonsorrow - Jumalten Aika

I think the main reason this record is not higher on my list is because it is too damn epic for its own good. Every song feels like a mini-epic. Entire D&D campaigns play out in my mind as I listen to each song. And honestly, if I'm ripping my shirt off and riding a Siberian tiger through downtown (aka the METRO Rail) by the end of each song, I am gonna run out of friggin shirts.

17. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

This album is all over the place sonically. We've got drugged out jazz, street bangers, and minimalist thumps, all while Danny yells overtop in his signature way. Despite how all over the place the record is, it never once stops feeling like a cohesive unit, and that's all credit to Danny's vision. This album could have been made by no one else. He's produced his most "complete" album yet, leaving him with only one mountain left to climb: Kathy Griffin. I wish you well on your quest, good sir.

16. The Drones - Feelin Kinda Free

I See Seaweed made my Top 20 list of 2013 purely off of Gareth Liddiard's vocals. He sings in contempt of the microphone, annoyed that we asked him to sing anything at all, let alone bear his soul to us in a public forum.

Feelin Kinda Free is a whole other beast. The instrumentation on here is exciting yet familiar, rooted in grungy garage rock, but plenty of weird flourishes and unexpected twists to keep a smile firmly planted on my face.

However, it's during one of the more straight forward anti-ballads where the album hits its peak. "To Think That I Once Loved You" perfectly expresses how the disdain you can have for an ex is only matched by your own self-loathing. It's a truly gorgeous song.

15. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Yo yo, it's your boi Thom and he's back to remind us that he's been right all along: the world really did go to shit.

I really thought Radiohead was done after The King of Limbs. That album felt uninspired (or inspired in all the wrong ways) and sounded like the beginning of the end for a great band. And here they come to put me in my place and punch me in the mouth. Not only can they still write a good song, they sound fresh and exciting, despite the mellow tones expressed on this record. The best part is that this does sound like a band in their 40s, and somehow it's a really good thing.

14. Deakin - Sleep Cycle

Deakin has long been my most underappreciated member of Animal Collective. He's on fewer records than Geologist, and when he is present, he's playing electric guitar. I mean, anyone can play guitar. And especially now, in a post-Centipede Hz world, I find it pretty hard to get very excited about new AnCo releases.

Lo and behold, Deakin knows what he's fucking doing! This album sounds like the long-awaited follow-up to Merryweather Post Pavilion. It expands on sounds heard on other Animal Collective releases, but doesn't sound like a retread. It's also blissfully short, expressing exactly what it needs to and then fades off leaving you with memories of brilliant melodies and an overall feeling of melancholy playfulness that I think works super well.

13. Solange - A Seat at the Table

This album is very clearly not for me. I've never had to deal directly with racism or sexism. But Solange brings me into her world on this album. Her soul is laid bare on this record, and it is full of the conflicting emotions one would associate with being human.

As with any hip hop album, I am not too enthused about all the interludes. The first time you hear them, they really paint a picture of what the artist is trying to say with this record. But if the record is any good (and this one truly is) then I want to listen to it on repeat. And every god damn time I have to listen to a guy talking over background music in between every song.

Blargh, interludes.

This album's great though.

12. Andy Stott - Too Many Voices

If Andy Stott released a record, you better believe it made my top 20 list. This guy is an endless well of creativity; always pushing his sound forward while retaining that cavernous dub sound he does like no one else. This album in particular feels influenced by Oneohtrix Point Never, another absolute favorite of mine. Combining strange loops and glitches with Stott's dub sensibilities is a winning combination. Instead of just glaring lustily across an abandoned warehouse, now we can stare lustily across an abandoned warehouse while also making these faces:

11. Gatecreeper - Sonoran Deprivation

I visited Tucson, AZ earlier this year for Southwest Terrorfest. Needing to fuel up for the mayhem I was about to experience, I headed into that bastion of sustenance known only as Jimmy John's. I struck up a convo with one of the sandwich artisans about metal and he proclaimed that local act Gatecreeper had been signed. Being from Houston, I'd never heard of this band, but promised him I'd check them out.

And holy shit, they fucking crush.

Gatecreeper plays no bullshit death metal. If you are in the mood for deep growls and buzzsaw guitars, look no further. But that classic death metal sound isn't enough to proclaim an album great. The songs on here are freaking masterful. The riffs stomp and are never boring.

It's kinda like Star Wars Episode VII. They knew exactly what we wanted and gave it to us in spades. Gatecreeper knows what we want. We want riffs. We want to raise our cheap ass beer in the air and toast the fact that we are drinking cheap ass beer. We want double bass drum kicks at the exact right times and not overdone.

We want to do this:

10. Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis

I thought I knew furious music. But when I first heard Ulcerate, I was gobsmacked. What the fuck is even happening here? Ulcerate unleash a wall of oppressive noise on this record. I didn't know what I was listening to on the first listen, but I knew it was intensely powerful.

I had read that Ulcerate is the fastest drone metal band in the world, and as funny as that is, it pretty accurately describes how the band sounded to me on that first listen. Many, many listens later, and the album has come together as a death metal opus.

I saw Ulcerate live earlier this year and was astounded that there are only three members in this band. The lead singer's booming voice echoes across caverns of ever-changing, mutating riffs so epic you have only the option to stand slack jawed like a simpleton.

This is music you have to feel in your chest. Turn it the hell UP and let it wash over you.

I was never a fan of Post-Rock. It just feels too formulaic, too emotionally manipulative, too easy. Perhaps the lofty goal of presenting rock music as something akin to classical music falls short because it is first rooted in rock and roll. Maybe approaching the genre from the opposite direction is the better solution, starting first in classical and distorting those sounds until it is something else entirely.

Case in point: Colin Stetson's latest offering. Colin does not alter Gorecki's original piece, he only rearranges the instrumentation to better fit within a rock context, and the results are truly astounding. Stetson clearly has an affection for this symphony, it is virtually identical to the original. But the electric guitars, rock and roll drumkit, and saxophone flourishes really elevate this piece to something else. The instrumentation brings an added weight to this already heavy subject matter, and contrasts the beautiful portions exponentially.

How I wish Stetson would continue in this theme: bringing classic and lesser known symphonic pieces into a new age. I doubt we will ever hear anything like this from him ever again, but it will always serve as a shining diversion in his already stellar discography.

8. Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones

Remember what I said about Ulcerate? Multiply it.

DsO has been making difficult black metal for over a decade, so hearing The Synarchy of Molten Bones for the first time was no surprise. That's not to say I understood what the hell I had just listened to. But I knew given time, the album would ingrain itself into my subconscious. I eventually found myself attempting to hum the most convoluted melodies as I folded laundry. Only Deathspell can create music this fucking complex and yet still tuck away melodies that seem impossible to dream up.

They operate in their own genre, and nearly every successful black metal band is compared to them in some way. In my view, modern black metal has one reigning champ: Deathspell Omega.

7. Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion Side B

The Queen is back, expanding on the 80s tinged synthpop she brought us with last year's Emotion. Carly has clearly tapped into the perfect sound for her voice, and she realizes it. I for one hope she pulls a Beach House from here on out and just keeps churning out the same music over and over again. I don't want progression, I don't want an acoustic album, I don't want Carly to show me her raw side. I want to feel like a 13 year old girl with a crush.

Keep it up Carly. Fuck being 30.

6. Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch

Jenny Hval put out one of my favorite albums of 2014 with her collab with Susanna. The beauty of Meshes of Voice was Jenny's avant-garde pop sensibilities were given a structure to play within a folk context. However, her solo work has always been just a bit too off-kilter for me.

With Blood Bitch, I feel like she has finally found the perfect balance between exciting avant-pop and traditional pop ideals. At times, she channels the cool sensuality of  Fever Ray, at others her almost childlike voice is crying out above wispy synthesizers.

But the undisputed highlight of the album is in "Conceptual Romance". This song is simply incredible. Usually when you have a song this strong on an album, it overshadows the remainder of the tracks. Thankfully, this is not the case with Blood Bitch. Jenny really knocks it out of the park with this release, touching on many different sounds but sticking to a central theme.

5. Lemon Demon - Spirit Phone

Lemon Demon is objectively terrible. It's loud and obnoxious, like a bratty kid smashing pots and pans in the kitchen. But I'll be damned if I don't love this album.

I like to think that Spirit Phone is an album Pee-Wee Herman could have made. It's lyrics are playfully surreal and always a bit disdainful. It's as if the singer is inventing the weirdest stories alone in his room and then singing them to us like "You think this is weird? Well then you're the problem, jackass."

Aside from the bizarre lyrics about a man trapped in an arcade machine or embalming a loved one's corpse to preserve it for confectional purposes, the music here is really top notch. The interplay of various synth instruments reminds me of something Brian Wilson might have done if his drug of choice was speed instead of LSD. Ok, maybe if he was on both.

I encourage you to listen to this record. And when you think "this is actually terrible", trust me. Push through. You will not hear another pop album this good this year.

4. Zhrine - Unortheta

Comparing Zhrine to Deafheaven is pretty easy. Both bands infuse shoegaze and post-rock elements into their black metal. Both bands have short hair and dress like hipsters. (Zhrine looks a little less nazi-hipster and more black-shirt-in-a-coffee-shop-hipster.) Both bands are intensely emotional. Zhrine, however, focuses more on an atmospheric, almost symphonic sound.

Their debut album is so well put together that the band plays the album in its entirety when playing live. And that results in the best live act I saw all year. These guys are fucking pros. They play as a seamless unit, no note went unplaced. It's not like this is difficult music, and I am surely a fan of improvisation when I see a band live. But I think Zhrine realizes they have a goddamn perfect album on their hands. There's gotta be some sort of golden ratio thing going on here, because the album, when played front to back, is a storybook experience. What can I say, I am a sucker for arpeggios. And towards the end of the album, they unleash arpeggio after arpeggio. It is a gorgeous and headbanging ending.

If I were to suggest one metal album to a non-metal listener who's a little metal-curious, it would be this one.

3. Death Grips - Bottomless Pit


Death Grips is a band again, everybody! And seriously, what more can I say about Death Grips. They are always... always... something to be reckoned with. This newest album is again incredibly creative, completely bonkers, and intense as fuck.

Highlights from this album:
- "Eh" is hilarious. MC Ride cares so little about everything that he made a song about how little he cares.
- Before the release of Bottomless Pit you could call a toll free number and "dial 1 for trash." This is how the world was introduced to their second single. A shitty recording of a song called "Trash" listened to over my cell phone line. Awesome.
- I had heard "BB Poison" was the shit, so as I listened to the album for the first time, I excitedly saw that song getting closer and closer. When I finally heard it, the hype did not disappoint. I immediately started cracking up and punching the air. This song slaps.

I will leave you with the lyrics from "Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood":

Nylons on VEAL
Side bitches don’t HEAL
Your table through my HEAD
My body through your BED

Pure, unadulterated aggression. Nails are possibly the heaviest band going right now. And while their previous albums were chock full of fist pumping, body slamming riffs, their new album introduces a new element that I'm calling "mosh parts".

Sure, their previous albums had plenty of energy and I am sure moshing happens at their shows (I wouldn't know because they broke up for a one month window that perfectly overlapped the Southwest Terrorfest that I went to specifically to see them... I'm not bitter...) But there are plenty of moments on this new record that feel like they were crafted for the specific purpose of causing chaos in their audiences. The best example of this is at the end of "Savage Intolerance". The drums break down, the guitars squeal, and then suddenly everything goes quiet for half a second before all hell breaks loose. I have almost dislodged my car steering wheel on numerous occasions because of that song.

If you have ever wanted to punch 2016 squarely in the mouth, put on this album. I swear after the 22 minutes runtime, you will feel better. Or at the very least, you will feel less like taking out your anger on that asshole at work.

You know the guy.

Fuck that guy.

1. מזמור - Yodh

This album is almost the exact opposite of that Nails record. It is slow, it is deliberate, it is sparse, and it is painfully beautiful.

When I think about why I enjoy this record so much, I think of many things. The guitars are great; they have the perfect tone for this type of music. The songs are great; each one feels like an epic unto itself. But what truly pushes this record over the top, causing me to play it again and again, are the vocals. ALN has an inhuman control over his voice. His voice is constantly changing to fit within the context of the song, truly becoming part of the music. There are no tricks here, no studio trickery to make it more interesting. Having seen מזמור (anglicized as Mizmor) in his first ever live performance, I can confirm he is a true master of his voice.

I don't want this to come off as soulless technique-worship. Technically proficient music means nothing if it doesn't also serve the emotional purpose of the song. The beauty is how Mizmor is able to change his vocals to underline an emotional theme.

And the emotional themes on this record run deep. Sadness, anger, introspection, optimism in the face of cruelty. Rarely are emotions presented this perfectly on a record. Every note is dripping with the artist's feelings.

This album is the perfect example of how much metal (or fuck that, music in general) taps into me unlike any other art form. Music is a part of us in strange, primal ways that I don't understand, and don't care to. Yeah, 2016 fucking blew. And I'd say there's a good chance 2017 will too. But as long as we have artists like Mizmor sharing themselves in such raw form, I think I'll make it through ok.