2016 was pretty terrible. I spent the last six months intermittently not having panic attacks, when I had time to breath between classes, volunteering for Hillary, legal internships and protesting.
After the election, I think something inside me changed. I cannot listen to unserious music anymore. At least not right now. As such, there were a lot of great albums this year by artists like Frankie Cosmos, Porches, Car Seat Headrest and others that I simply could not listen to all the way through, or could not listen to more than once. Their music no longer fits into my reality, though I recognize it as excellent work. As such, this list is confined to the music that did speak to me this year, and as one might expect, it is overwhelming political.
10. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
A month or so ago, I would have listed this as perhaps among the top three albums of the year. After Kanye’s practical endorsement of Drumpf a couple weeks ago, and his subsequent meeting with him (which some speculate was meant to draw attention away from some of Drumpf’s horrifying cabinet appointments), I am only grudgingly placing this album in the last spot on my list for this year. Frankly, I have extreme misgivings about promoting anyone promoting anyone promoting racism, sexism, climate denialism and the like. But if we can focus on the music without the politics around the man behind it, Life of Pablo is an incredible work. Following Kanye’s other two masterworks, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus, Life of Pablo was Kanye’s White Album: sprawling, less focused, but consistently interesting and astounding. It showcases an artist at the height of his powers, so confident and able, he can make an incidental masterpiece just recording experiments with whoever he feels like.
9. Moonface with Siinai – My Best Human Face
Though it lacks the cohesion of 2012’s Heartbreaking Bravery, this year’s My Best Human Face nonetheless features a collection of excellent Spencer Krug songs, which is enough to qualify a record for my top ten list any year. Furthermore, the record showcases another excellent instance of collaborative magic between Krug and Finnish krautrockers Siinai, whose icy, mystical, Nordic otherworldliness beautifully complements Krug’s sageness. The record would, however, be better if they’d just left “City Wrecker” alone, since its presence on MBHF feels forced and anachronistic, and it was already one of Krug’s best solo Moonface tracks.
8. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat
The former Weakerthans frontman has, since going solo, easily made his two best albums since the classic Reconstruction Site. The latter of the two, this year’s Winter Wheat, is not much different from 2012’s Provincial. Like that record, it’s a little sleepy, a little somber, a little literate, but very tuneful and very Canadian. It sounds like the many snowy fields Samson must have driven past in tour buses moving from province to province, and the thoughts and sounds that swirled around in his head as he watched those fields roll by.
7. Matt Kivel – Janus/Fires on the Plain
I’ve been a fan of L.A.-based singer/songwriter Matt Kivel since 2014’s wonderful Days of Being Wild. 2016 saw two releases by Kivel, Janus and the double album Fires on the Plain. Whereas Janus is the excellent heir to Days of Being Wild‘s beautiful, heartfelt semi-folk compositions, Fires on the Plain is expansive, atmospheric, and a little like Mt. Eerie in its ability to turn natural aerie-ness into gorgeous pop music. Both are superb records, and mark the year as a crucial one in Kivel’s artistic evolution.
6. Operators – Blue Wave
Months ago I interviewed Operators frontman Dan Boekner. We talked about his obsession with Russia, the American election, Breitbart, the alt-right, and post-truthiness. Now nobody can stop talking about any of those topics. Operators‘ debut album also explores the issues of the moment, albeit with a backdrop of highly-compressed, New Order-y, post-punk dance-rock.
5. Preoccupations – S/T
The Calgary indie post-punk quartet’s second album is just as paranoid as the first, but musically, it covers more ground. It’s catchier, dancey-er, and more experimental. They use new synth settings and figure out how to get more interesting sounds out of their dual harmonic guitar set-up. Whereas the last album felt like an apocalyptic manifesto, Preoccupations feels like an essay, getting into greater detail and exploring various tangents. An entirely worthy follow-up.
4. White Lung – Paradise
The Vancouver punk crew’s fourth album is their best. It’s a little smoother in terms of production, but the band sounds rough as ever, and the songs have never been tighter or more explosively melodic. Guitarist Kenneth William is all hooks all the time, his countermelodies constantly playing off against frontwoman Mish Barber-Way’s vocal melodies and searing lyrical imagery (“I will give birth in a trailer/Huffing the gas in the air/Baby is born in molasses/Like I would even care”). Everything culminates in a swirl of musical florescence.
3. ANOHNI – HOPELESSNESS
HOPELESSNESS is so dark it becomes black humour. The album is like a musical Dr. Strangelove – it’s too horrifyingly true for one to take seriously, and ANOHNI is entirely direct about all of it. The music, which I can’t imagine anyone actually dancing to, nonetheless retains the qualities and aesthetics of dance music. If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the synths shimmering over HOPELESSNESS’ heavy beats might be better analogously described as helping the cyanide go down. So…depressing stuff. But HOPELESSNESS‘s ‘straight-talk’ feels needed, and the black humour of the work never slides into preachiness. This is angry music. It’s just not abrasive.
2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
22, A Million feels like a struggle, as if Justin Vernon were desperately trying to create new sounds, things that exist outside of humans’ range of hearing. The electronics often don’t so much complement the acoustic sounds as fight or claw at them. Oddly, an artist who became one of the biggest in indie by recording a minimalist folk album in a shed now stands-out as one of the most interesting and innovative producers in the genre. To be fair, other artists like Sufjan Stevens and Owen Pallett made work showcasing incredible electronics vs. acoustic arrangements and production. What sets Bon Iver and 22, A Million apart is the violence of it, and how that violence becomes beautiful in the context of the work.
1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
When AMSP came out, I could not stop listening to it. It wasn’t even that its songs were catchy, or that I just really enjoyed it. It felt hypnotic. Like past Radiohead albums, there were a lot of details to be explored, mined, picked apart through subsequent hearings. But it was also so beautiful. Its lyrical themes so timely (as is to be expected from Radiohead), even prophetic now, in the wake of the US election.
Thom Yorke often sounds like he’s past feeling anger or horror at the politics of the moment. He’s seen it all before, sung it all before. Sometimes he sounds defeated, like in “Daydreaming” or “True Love Waits”. He just doesn’t have the emotional energy to deal with it anymore, but he can’t help but recognize what’s happening and express that recognition in this haunting work.