Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Top 40 Albums of 2016

By consensus, 2016 was a pretty lousy year. Some good things happened, but, in the end, y'know...Trump happened. And, of course, we lost so many musical legends, including one who bowed out with a career highlight. But the music kept going and lot of it was terrific. I listened to somewhere around 180 to 200 full albums this year. The usual disclaimers apply: 1) this is just my faves. With so many albums and so little time, no one can make a definitive list, and, 2) once you get past the top 25 or so albums, the difference between the individual albums is pretty small...and there are about 30-40 more albums I considered. Without further ado, here it goes.

1. Beyonce -- Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia): She has been a superstar for so long, and, due to her ubiquity, I never bothered to check out anything beyond the hits. Watching the HBO longform video album made me realize what a mistake I had made not delving more deeply. In a year that brought us the death of David Bowie and Prince, this is the album we needed -- one of the biggest stars in music making a definitive statement. What is striking about this album is how Beyonce takes any style she feels like to match the thoughts and feelings she is trying to express. Whether it’s chilly modern electro-soul, rock, or Americana, among other styles, she takes it and makes it hers, making her message(s) all the more powerful.

2. Michael Kiwanuka -- Love & Hate (Polydor): I loved Kiwanuka’s debut album, but seeing him live, it was clear that there was a lot teeming under the surface of his retro soul-folk-rock. This album picks up on that, and manages to be more sweeping and epic, yet also more direct and personal. Working with Dangermouse and Paul Butler, Kiwanuka continues updating ‘70s music tropes, but with greater purpose, putting his expressive voice to work and showing his guitar playing is just as impressive.

3. Emma PollockIn Search of Harperfield (Chemikal Underground): The third solo album from this former member of the Delgados provides the same stately pop pleasures of her best material of her former band. Pollock is an authoritative vocalist and the tunes are state-of-the-art indie rock and chamber pop, with really smart lyrics. This is proof that you can do a rock album about being middle aged, as Pollock addresses a lot of those concerns in inviting packages. This is the culmination of her great work over the years. An overlooked gem.

4. David Bowie (ISO/Columbia): His passing immediately after the album’s release could have overwhelmed the listening experience. But it merely provided context. Not enough can be said about Bowie’s brilliant decision to hire top flight jazz musicians to give this record a specific feel. It’s still Bowie, but with a slightly different vibe, and it’s particularly effective on the longer tracks. Bowie really got in touch with his muse on his final two albums, and this release ranks with his best.

5. The Monkees -- Good Times! (Rhino): The advance buzz on this record sounded too good to be true. But this album shows that getting top drawer songs from any and all sources and having three terrific singers show they’ve still got it is still a pretty unbeatable formula. Producer Adam Schlesinger seamlessly blends old recordings and new ones, the outside songwriting contributions from contemporary writers are uniformly wonderful (with special kudos to Andy Partridge for the hyper-catchy “You Bring the Summer” and Ben Gibbard for the hauntingly beautiful “Me and Magdelena”), and every Monkee shines, especially Micky Dolenz, one of the greatest lead singers in rock history.

6. Jamila Woods -- HEAVN (Closed Sessions): Woods comes off like a younger cousin of Erykah Badu on this excellent debut full length. The concise songs are spare, but not too spare, and an excellent platform for Woods’ evocative vocals and smart, incisive lyrics. Woods does a great job making statements that never devolve into dogma or standard polemic. There is a warmth to this record that was sorely needed in 2016.

7. Suede -- Night Thoughts (Suede Ltd.): The second comeback record from Suede ups the dramatic stakes without going over the top. Basically, it’s Dog Man Star as recast through the eyes of older, wiser, and more mature musicians. Brett Anderson has barely conceded anything to age and this music brims with passion and feeling. While I’m much higher on the post-Bernard Butler Suede albums than most fans, this is the first time they’ve equaled his all-too-brief tenure in the band.

8. Anderson. Paak -- Malibu (Steel Wool/OBE): Having originally recorded under the moniker of Breezy Lovejoy, Paak is the classic artist with lots of talent, trying to find his particular voice. On Malibu, he finds it, a mix of modern and classic hip hop with a heavy dose of good ol’ R & B. The rhythms are insinuating, the melodies are winning, and there are plenty of hooks, with Paak singing and rapping with equal command.

9. Robbie FulksUpland Stories (Bloodshot): Fulks continues in the sparer, folk/bluegrass direction of his last album, Gone Away Backwards, playing a collection of songs that sounds somewhat in line with my favorite album of his, Couples in Trouble. There is a literary quality to the lyrics that makes them very compelling, with Fulks’ talent for saying a lot without ever getting wordy. The album is serious without ever getting grim, and he finds room for some light moments to make everything go down easier.

10. Esperanza SpaldingEmily’s D+Evolution (Concord): This is Spalding’s most audacious mix of jazz and R & B, where she seems less compelled to compartmentalize. Instead, she takes the songs wherever she wants to go, and it is always worth following her. I need to investigate how Tony Visconti approached this production job. Whatever he did, this seems to be the purest expression of Spalding’s vision, all with the dictates of an impenetrable concept album that is so strong in terms of music and performance, the storyline is immaterial.

11. Weyes Blood -- Front Row Seat to Earth (Mexican Summer): The third Weyes Blood album was my introduction to the music of Natalie Mering. This album is a mix of folk and psychedelia, fitting somewhere along the spectrum of artists like Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs, with the modern approach of artists like Julia Holter mixed in. It makes for an inviting blend of challenging, but accessible, songs with warm, enveloping electronics making it a very compelling listen.

12. Nao -- For All We Know (Little Tokyo): A very impressive modern soul debut album. Nao gives a nod to the chilly electronics of FKA twigs and The Weeknd, but her music is bouncier, which is fitting for her expressive vocals. The beats and rhythms are enticing, but it’s the melodies that really sparkle. If there were more of a market for adult pop music beyond Adele and a few others, this would seemingly be all over the radio.

13. Joey Purp -- iiiDrops (self-released): With the possible exception of Vic Mensa (who would have rated highly had he put out a full LP in 2016), Purp is the hardest edged MC of the many fine rappers that have come out of the contemporary Chicago hip hop scene. Of course, Joey works with many of the same producers and fellow rappers as everyone else here, and the tracks fit his commanding presence very well. This album is littered with rhythmic hooks.

14. Teleman -- Brilliant Sanity (Moshi Moshi): For the most part, this British quartet goes with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach on their second album. The spare post-punk pop is always toe tapping, using sonic space well, giving plenty of room for the quirky and totally charming vocals of Thomas Sanders. This album doesn’t have quite as many killers as the debut, which is the only reason it ranks lower.

15. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.): Cave and crew were well into recording this album when Cave’s 15-year-old son died from falling off a cliff. Presumably, this was already a sad, reflective album, with the tragedy only adding to that feel. But there is something more than that here. Cave isn’t wallowing in pity, but processing things, and in so doing, there is a strength that comes through in these quiet, mid-tempo songs that is quite powerful.

16. A Tribe Called Quest -- We got if from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic): For the first seven or eight songs, this comeback effort is as strong as anything the Tribe has ever done. The lengthy album can’t sustain this quality full through, but the Tribe manages to maintain their sound in a more modern context, with an extra energy that made this the perfect post-election disappointment soundtrack.

17. Sturgill Simpson -- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic): Simpson didn’t hold back on his major label debut, unleashing a concept album that incorporates soul, psychedelia, and Southern rock, among other things. The songs are looser, which is not a detriment where the performances are so strong. It’s probably impossible to entirely take the country out of Simpson, not with his tailor made singing, but he showed that he is not bound by any expectations, and did so in a manner that wasn’t overly self-indulgent or impenetrable.

18. Wild Beasts -- Boy King (Domino): Working with a sympathetic producer in John Congleton, this British quartet manages to become more of an electronic based band while getting an even harder edge. While never too far from decadence, their attacks on machismo provide a distinct viewpoint. Their observations aren’t earth shattering, but are heartfelt. That they can address a serious topic without sacrificing catchy tunes makes this a winner.

19. case/lang/viers -- case/lang/viers (ANTI-): Kudos to k.d. lang for force fitting this collaboration. The final product sounds seamless, but apparently there was a lot of conflict behind the scenes, as the three women had to define roles. Thankfully, they managed, and the expected stunning vocals are melded to fine songwriting, particularly by Viers, who steers them into the welcome direction of Laurel Canyon, by way of the Pacific Northwest.

20. Solange -- A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia): Solange has had some chart success in the past, but this album is the first time where she has been taken seriously as an artist on the level of her older sister. Instead of delving further into the modern R & B/rock mix of her great True EP from 2012, Solange instead heads to a nice mix of ‘70s singer-songwriter and R & B. This is a great platform for her look at feminism and race relations. Just like her sister, Solange knows how to tackle social issues without being strident, melding her lyrical acuity to warm, inviting songs.

21. Brandy Clark -- Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros.): Clark is writes some of the best lyrics in the biz, regardless of genre. On her second album, she teams up with producer Jay Joyce, and they create songs that deserve to be in high rotation on country radio (but that’s hard for most women these days), with colorful production and instrumentation. Clark is a fine performer, who is full of sharp observations and knows how to work a hook.

22. Danny Brown -- Atrocity Exhibition (Warp): Brown is practically his own sub-genre of hip hop. On his Warp Records debut, his oddball haranguing works well with the aggressive and creative backing tracks. Brown, as per usual, holds nothing back, and can seemingly rap about any subject and be interesting. And he has to be the first artist to sample something from the sole album by Nick Mason and Fictitious Sports, for which he deserves to be lauded.

23. Bat For Lashes -- The Bride (Parlophone): Natasha Khan successfully pulls off a concept album, continuing in the vein of the musical vibe of The Haunted Man. Even with a basic storyline, the lyrics are impressionistic. Meanwhile, Khan has mastered her niche of the musical world, mixing keyboards and other instruments into a warm and inviting blend.

24. The Lemon Twigs -- Do Hollywood (4AD): The D’Addario brothers aren’t yet 20 years old, and they have already mastered ‘70s pop. One reviewer described them as sounding like “Sparks doing Nilsson songs,” and that’s actually not too bad of a description. They totally have the feel for the era, but don’t slavishly imitate. They should do some sort of retro tour with Tobias Jesso.

25. Kandace Springs -- Soul Eyes (Blue Note): One of the last Prince proteges, I guess, Springs dazzles with her superb vocals, that seem to be two parts Roberta Flack and one part Norah Jones. The mix of original songs, some written by Springs, some by Jessie Harris, who wrote for Jones, and covers is very well chosen. Her interpretations of Shelby Lynne songs are particularly impressive. She has a very bright future.

26. De La Soul -- and the Anonymous Nobody (AOI): To the credit of this legendary trio, over 25 years after they first dazzled the world with the amazing 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul is still bursting with ideas. Recording hours upon hours of material with a house band and then finding a great array of special guests, this is one of the most diverse hip hop albums ever. Not everything works, but enough of it does to make it one of the better releases in their catalog.

27. Angel Olsen -- My Women (Jagjaguwar): For many folks, this is a big breakthrough album for Olsen. I thought she broke through artistically on her last album, so this is just further expansion and refinement of her sound. Olsen knows what best suits her voice, and a number of tracks could have found a home on her prior albums. And she’s got a good sense of other types of songs she can do. For whatever reason, this didn’t grab me as much as her last LP, but this is still quite good.

28. The Flat Five -- It’s World of Love and Hope (Bloodshot): While a lot of fans of the Flat Five live experience might have preferred a more eclectic mix of songs, doing solely Chris Ligon compositions allows for a very cohesive work. The vocals, of course, are simply superb, and the arrangements are snappy. Ligon’s oddball sense of humor is enhanced by the chirpy singing, as this is an album you could get your great-grandparents, as long as you didn’t think they’d pay too close attention to the lyrics.

29. Kate Jackson -- British Road Movies (PIAS): The long awaited solo debut from the lead singer of The Long Blondes is augmented by her smart choice in a collaborator: Bernard Butler of Suede. Together, they craft songs that are pretty consistent with the music of her former band, and since The Long Blondes were very good, so is this. The revelation is that Jackson, who was not the primary lyricist in the Blondes, proves to be very adept with words, full of interesting observations.

30. Paul Simon -- Stranger to Stranger (Concord): It is impressive how Simon is constantly looking for new sounds and rhythms to frame his songwriting. For a man who is crafted many a timeless melody, it is the rhythms that inspire him. Working with instruments crafted by eccentric Harry Partch, Italian EDM musicians, and vocal groups, Simon is never boring. If anything, the album is not as cohesive as it could be, but there are plenty of gems on here, and, on the deluxe CD version, a live duet with Dion.

31. Shabaka and The Ancestors -- Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood): Shabaka Hutchings is a perpetually busy jazz saxophonist, who plays with a number of groups. For this album, he got together with a group of South African jazz players for a one day session that produced this remarkable album of originals. Hutchings is a disciple of Sun Ra and that influence melds well with the African vibes on some songs, while others mix modern sounds with traditional ideas put across by trumpeter Madia Miangeni.

32. Lady Wray -- Queen Alone (Big Crown): Nicole Wray was half of the retro soul duo Lady that put out a swell debut album a few years ago. The other half of the duo split, but Wray continues in that vein on her second solo album. Wray is a sassy singer and the songs aren’t quite as consistently great as on the Lady album, but this should satisfy any hankering for ‘70s style R & B.

33. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down -- A Man Alive (Ribbon): A full collaboration with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards isn’t quite as great as it could be. It might be that the songs aren’t quite at the level of Thao’s last couple of records. Still, Thao is one of those singers whose singing and lyrics just get to me. I wish they had gone for more big rhythm numbers like “Meticulous Bird”.

34. Eric Bachmann -- Eric Bachmann (Merge): The Archers of Loaf/Crooked Fingers frontman decides to do some ‘70s-style piano pop. It turns out he is pretty good at it. His reedy voice and strong melodies blend well with the thoughtful observational lyrics on a bright and smart album.

35. Kylie Auldist -- Family Tree (Freestyle): After tasting some success as a vocalist for The Bamboos and, especially, Cookin’ on 3 Burners, Auldist still can’t get more attention for her commanding singing. Which is a shame. Kylie is still collaborating with Bamboos leader Lance Ferguson, and on this collection, Auldist tries her hand at ‘80s style R & B. It turns out that she can pretty much do any type of soul based music.

36. Alice Bag -- Alice Bag (Don Giovanni): The first solo album from the frontwoman of the legendary L.A. punk band The Bags leaves me with regret that she waited decades to finally get into the studio. This is a good mix of crunchy rockers with some more melodic, kind of poppy stuff, with cutting lyrics that never lapse into polemic.

37. Michael Carpenter -- Big Radio (Big Radio): Carpenter’s amazing consistency makes his records easy to love and difficult to rate. His 2016 albums with his band The Cuban Heels and yet another cover collection are also pretty darn good. His shimmering power pop mixes love for the usual sources, such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, with a somewhat rootsy vibe, making this mandatory jangle rock listening.

38. Justin Roberts -- Lemonade (Carpet Square): Working with an impressive group of musicians, including Robbie Fulks on guitar and other instruments, Roberts goes with a back-to-the-basics approach. Of course, the songs are still hooky, melodic gems, generally bouncy, with the occasional hearttugger mixed in. He makes it seem effortless, but making kids records that grown ups can listen to repeatedly is quite the skill.

39. Divine Comedy -- Foreverland (Divine Comedy): Neil Hannon hadn’t put out an album in quite a while, focusing on his collaboration with Thomas Walsh, The Duckworth Lewis Method. But it seems like he could step into the studio on any day and reel off an array of witty pop nuggets. Most of the songs are typically erudite and urbane, with a few more “rock” songs that work very well.

40. Laura MvulaThe Dreaming Room (RCA): This is one of those albums where the singles so dominate the other tracks, it diminishes otherwise fine music. Mvula consolidates the blend of rhythms, melodies, and stacked vocals that define her sound. It is a big and enveloping sound, rich with feeling. She may be one album away from making a classic.

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