The Belbury Poly - New Ways Out
The fourth full album from Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp, New Ways Out adds a few new moves to the hauntological playbook. Along with the usual elements of late-'60s educational TV synth soundtracks, Wicker Man-style occultish folk, and motorik krautrock, Jupp adds a dash of glam rock this time, moving Belbury's conceptual timeline all the way up to 1973. Like most of the Ghost Box catalog, it's reconcieved nostalgia from an alternate universe, with dark emotional undercurrents occasionally disturbing the surface calm.
David Bowie - ★
Three years ago, The Next Day put me enthusiastically back on Bowie's path, but nothing prepared me for the whammy of ★, with his death two days after its release and the concurrent unsettling videos. Spurred by his looming demise, Bowie and Tony Visconti carved an ornate audio tombstone, and it's seldom an easy listen. With a soundworld unlike any other Bowie record, the jazz-based core band underpins his charged vocals and lyrics addressing mortality and death in almost every cryptic song. Even the seemingly-minimalist graphics of the cover is reticent to give up any secrets (Google it). It's one of Bowie's best records (ultimately, his most personal), and with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Low in his back catalog, that's no small thing. 2016 was a banner year for the Grim Reaper, snatching away scads of musicians, writers, actors, artists, scientists, and other significant creative people. Perhaps that perception's a ramification of my social media-strangled world, but note: the year was bookended with final albums by Bowie (in January) and the much-beloved Leonard Cohen (whose November farewell You Want It Darker barely missed the cut, damn it), both fully aware of the specter's shade overtaking them…
Charles Bradley - Changes
A tour de force for "the Screaming Eagle of Soul," who tempers his hard-won James Brown vocal style by cutting back the braggadocio and ramping up the vulnerability and empathy. Ably supported by Menahan Street Band (and labelmates The Budos Band on two cuts, including the titular stunning reinterpretation of Black Sabbath's "Changes"), if you dig the modern-retro Daptone Records soul attitude, this is pure gold. Here's to Bradley conquering his cancer issues and knocking 2017 on its butt.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
I'd reached a point of disengagement with Nick Cave's records over the past decades: the music arrangements had become largely rote (even in his mid-life crisis side project Grinderman), and his much-vaunted lyrics - though some were still beautiful, distinctive constructs - had started sliding into the moon-spoon- June mire. 2013's Push the Sky Away partially remedied the lax wordsmithery, but Skeleton Tree intensely course-corrects both words and music. Though mostly composed before his son's accidental death in 2015, that tragedy underscores and informs every nuance of these songs - even when the subject isn't Cave's death/love/God bailiwick. Nick's pained vocals, detailed lyrics (sometimes altered on-the-fly during recording), surprising arrangements (props to Warren Ellis for the overt electronic elements) and understated performances combine for an intensely sorrowful, emotionally powerful album that's difficult to listen to, but impossible to dismiss. And don't miss the documentary film of the recording, "One More Time with Feeling." But in contrast to all the laurels for this album, this album cover stinks so, so much — a scared skunk in a state fair portapotty doesn't even compare.
Exploded View - Exploded View
I first became aware of German musician Annika Henderson though the records she made with Portishead's Geoff Barrow and his side band, Beak>, under the truncated name Anika. I loved the records' dubbed-up post-punk sound, but thought Barrow was pulling a Svengali - and I could not have been more wrong. Annika found new bandmates when she needed local musicians for a solo performance in Mexico City; the personalities and musical interests clicked, hence, Exploded View. Their self-titled album extends the sound of those Anika records into all-original (and largely improvised) material, suitably rough, stripped back, and echo-soaked. In our post-everything era, it's both a throwback and a less-trodden path forward, and evokes my Goldilocks reflex: just right.
Xenia Rubinos - Black Terry Cat
With her second album, this Brooklyn-based Afro-Latina's songs zigzag all over the map, both stylistically and emotionally. By turns angry, resigned and amused (sometimes within the same song), Rubinos genre-splices with abandon in her keyboards/drums duo with Marco Bucelli (and she taught herself to play bass for the recordings). Steering all the musical twists is her gorgeously huge and melismatic voice, its timbral fluidity moving from Billie Holiday to Chaka Khan to beyond, frequently layered in harmonies or reinforcing syncopation with looped mouth-drum parts.
Savages - Adore Life
Album #2 ups the ante from Savages' austerely aggressive debut; rather than merely reiterate the fury of Silence Yourself, the quartet expands their stylistic and sonic palette while furthering their tense, muscular post-punkish sound (disco!). Thematically, love is both the answer and the question here, with non-cynical, repetitively incantatory lyrics. And singer Jehnny Beth still can stridently belt á lá Siouxsie Sioux, but easily dials it back in on the slow-burn downtempo "Adore". Variously celebratory, violent and vulnerable, Savages reinforce their claim as one of the best rock bands going today.
Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Following his breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill doubles down and continues defying expectations on his third album. Ostensibly written for his infant son, the lyrics range from non-condescending fatherly advice to smart love songs to condemnations of politics, war and the media-saturated world — all with determinedly personal emphasis. Musically, in what's perhaps a continued nod to Ray Charles' innovations, he drafts in the Dap-Kings' horn section to add punch for an enthralling soul-country sound. And good lord, the man has the balls to cover Nirvana, to boot — all hail the fearless Sturgill Simpson.
Sound of Ceres - Nostalgia for Infinity
If you've seen any of my previous year-end blabfests, I must come off like a broken record (heh), as various musicians on this year's list have made the finish line before: Sturgill Simpson, Savages, Bowie… And here's another (sort of): Colorado's Sound of Ceres evolved from Candy Claws, retaining the '60s-influenced sophisticated pop melodicism, but sublimating their hazy dreampop with more up-front vocals (though still feathery-light) and overtly electronic elements. Part of a lineage that extends from The Free Design and The Poppy Family through Stereolab, Broadcast, and The Soundcarriers, Nostalgia for Infinity expands Ryan and Karen Hover's fascination with the natural world (and their winking penchant for false mythologies) with top-tier cerebral electro-pop — more, please!
A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
A few months back, I was feeling crummy about not having any hip-hop on my year-end list: I found Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book mixtape too gauzy and ultimately undercooked, Danny Brown's hyper crackhead schtick wore me out after a few tracks, and there were tons of records I just didn't get around to hearing… Then, here come old-school heroes A Tribe Called Quest to save the day. We Got It from Here… doesn't hang together thematically like Midnight Marauders or Beats, Rhymes and Life — though, perhaps inevitably (due to Phife Dawg's death earlier in 2016), tropes of mortality and death reoccur — but makes up for it with a confident show of strength that nails their legacy (and the group's coffin). Q-Tip (impossibly fast flow!), Phife, and (whoa!) Jairobi bring their A-game mic skills here, with cameos and contributions from Andre 3000, honorary member Busta Rhymes, Elton John (!), Kendrick Lamar, and (inevitably) Kanye West amongst a huge supporting cast. Q-Tip's home-studio production flaunts ATCQ's hallmarks of jazz-dappled grooves, anchoring basslines and samples ranging from Musical Youth to "Bennie and the Jets" — and scratching, which sadly seems to've been elided from most contempo hip-hop. With lyrics casting a cold clear black-humored eye on the USA of 2016 and beyond (Trump comes in for repeated drubbing), A Tribe Called Quest sustain their legacy as observers of and commenters on social ills – proof hip-hop isn't inherently just a young man's game – and there's no better anthem for disenfranchised minorities than "We the People…". This isn't a mere nostalgic victory lap from returning elder statesmen, but the most acute and vital rap record of last year — and RIGHT NOW. Farewell, gentlemen.
- The Coathangers - Nosebleed Weekend
- Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
- The Lines - Hull Down
- Thee Oh Sees - A Weird Exits
- Preoccupations - Preoccupations
- Angel Olsen - My Woman
- Warpaint - Heads Up