Music

The 70 Best Albums of 2016

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving hip-hop scene... from soul and Americana to rocking and popping indie... 2016's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

Artist: Eluvium

Album: False Readings On

Label: Temporary Residence

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Eluvium
False Readings On

If you listen to NPR in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you still occasionally hear Eluvium's "Genius and the Thieves" or one of a few other tracks from An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death used as interstitial music between segments. That 2004 album, consisting solely of Matthew Cooper playing a piano, was Eluvium's second, and set the terms early for how flexible the parameters of the project would be. Each subsequent record has tinkered and expanded, but, still, the foggy looseness of False Readings On has the ability to surprise. Weighing on Cooper's mind throughout the creation process were notions of belief, one's security therein, and cognitive dissonance -- themes that perhaps feel even more on-point now than when False Readings On was released in September. The distant echoes of lost opera transmissions and lunar church organs lend the music solemnity, but there is playfulness in its elastic sense of time and space. -- Ian King

 
Artist: Alice Bag

Album: Alice Bag

Label: Don Giovanni

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Alice Bag
Alice Bag

Proving the adage that some things do indeed get better with time, original LA Chicana punk rocker Alice Bag released her exception self-titled debut nearly 40 years after first come to prominence with her group, the Bags. In a year that saw political and social divisions at an all-new level of intensity and extremity, Bag's brand of fiery, lyrically precise examinations and recriminations on topics ranging from domestic violence to the state of the modern American education system to genetically modified crops landed with a level of almost otherworldly prescience. From the scorching opener "Little Hypocrite" -- a song that could well have served as the theme song to any number of prominent individuals in 2016 -- through the tragic, domestic mise en scène that is "Suburban Home," Bag shows herself to have lost none of the intensity and social commentary that has marked her decades long career as a musician, activist, writer, educator and mother. -- John Paul


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Artist: St. Lenox

Album: Ten Hymns from My American Gothic

Label: Anyway

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List number: 68

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St. Lenox
Ten Hymns from My American Gothic

During a political cycle within which the subject of immigration played a pivotal role, there seemed few brave or perhaps compelled enough to address the issue head-on in song form. And while Ten Hymns From My American Gothic is not necessarily a political album, its overarching theme of a second generation immigrant reflecting on his experience versus that of his parents gets to the very core of what should have been the main argument in the pro-immigration camp. Namely, those who have come to the United States -- for several centuries now -- have done so in hopes of providing a better life for their future generations. In so doing, they seek to leave behind unspeakable horrors including war and political and ideological oppression in the hopes of being afforded a second chance at a better life.

Andrew Choi, the singularly distinctive voice behind St. Lenox deftly conveys these basic sentiments and more within his astonishing pop-based compositions and vocal torrents that ring with the desperation and emotional heft known only to those who have found themselves on the wrong side of American history. Created as a gift to his 70-year-old Korean father, Ten Hymns transcends this single family's narrative, creating an opening for a broader discussion regarding the immigrant experience in the 21st century via exceptional music. In this, the album proves to be one of the most vital, culturally-relevant releases of 2016. That it's also one of the best is small comfort in this most difficult of years. -- John Paul

 
Artist: Suuns

Album: Hold/Still

Label: Secretly Canadian

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Suuns
Hold/Still

Hold/Still is the kind of complete statement that an artist was always capable of producing, but still comes as something of a surprise when it arrives. Suuns' second album, Images Du Futur, solidified the Montreal band's chilled, sharp-edged physicality, but their third pushes out further into dark corners and harsh light. The band have spoken about the use and influence of more electronic elements in the creation of Hold/Still, and though guitar, bass and drums are still foundational to their music, the album doesn't often track as 'rock' in a traditional sense. There is space, but there is also claustrophobia. The thick rhythmic slabs frequently laid underneath the wiry melodies and Ben Shemie's semi-cryptic coos emphasize a recurring sense of barely suppressed postmodern agitation. This is even more pronounced in Suuns' live performances, as anyone who caught the band on tour this year and felt "Brainwash" rattle the floor underneath them can attest to. -- Ian King

 
Artist: Nels Cline

Album: Lovers

Label: Blue Note

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Nels Cline
Lovers

Nels Cline's resume is one of rock's more curious ones: avant-jazz guitar slinger, alt/punk hero alongside everyone from Mike Watt to Thurston Moore, and resident Wilco secret weapon/whiz kid since 2004. But through all his different career phases, the album he's been wanting to make for the last 25 years has been left unmade -- until now. Lovers is Cline's most personal album, his most intimate-sounding one, and -- considering his penchant for effects-laden guitar skronk -- perhaps his most accessible one. Combining lush arrangements (backed by 23 ace musicians) with his unique guitar flavor, Cline mixes his own original compositions with covers by everyone from Sonic Youth to Rodgers and Hart, resulting in a seamless collection that works both as gorgeous "mood music" and an impressive display of Cline's many musical gifts. If you have a Wilco fan on your Christmas list who needs to dive into jazz, Lovers has you covered. -- Chris Ingalls

 
Artist: Paul Simon

Album: Stranger to Stranger

Label: Concord

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List number: 65

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Paul Simon
Stranger to Stranger

When you have a mind as observant, as cutting and as engaged as Paul Simon's, you don't grow older; you grow wiser. Stranger to Stranger, the 13th studio album from the Only Living Boy in New York, is a testament to curiosity, a tight, fat-free collection of songs that continues the singer's later-years winning streak. Single "Wristband" turns from quirky unfortunate backstage experience to a meditation on social injustices on a dime, while the title track is one of the most longing, desperate love songs of the year, no matter the genre. "Most obits are mixed reviews," Simon intones on one of the set's most scathing moments, "The Werewolf". "Life is a lottery, a lot of people lose." Stranger to Stranger is the sound of a man hitting the jackpot... again. -- Colin McGuire

 
Artist: Ian William Craig

Album: Centres

Label: Fatcat

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List number: 64

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Ian William Craig
Centres

Beautiful drone music is such a commodity these days that it almost always helps if something out of ordinary needs to be thrown into the mix. That's why Centres, a huge record of scorching, occasionally harsh ambient music, stands out; the most prominent element in most of these songs is Ian William Craig's voice, a bombastic beacon of texture that emerges from classically-trained lungs and is manipulated into oblivion. Many of the shifts in these songs are subtle, but the effect they have isn't. Whether Craig is immersing himself in plodding celestia or pushing the noise up into its higher registers, Centres is so post-linear and committed to maintaining a variety in its textures that the rewards never stop coming. Craig's attention to detail and ability to ensure the sonic prosperity of every idea is untouchable. Even the songs that commit to more standard drone and tape recording tropes are so turbulent, dynamic, and gorgeous that every new sound is just another invigorating breath. -- Max Totsky

 
Artist: James Blake

Album: The Colour in Everything

Label: Universal

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James Blake
The Colour in Everything

In the era of superstars and intense media attention, James Blake has maintained a relatively low-key profile. He raised his head above the parapet a few times in 2016, including contributions to Frank Ocean's Blonde and Beyoncés Lemonade, but his shining moment was his suitably understated third record, providing his trademark blend of futuristic soul, R&B, and electronics. Alongside fellow pioneers the xx, Blake introduced the trend for minimal, emotive electronica. Blake built his stark, minimalist sound on a bedrock of dubstep and the glitch influenced beats still underpin much of his work. With each release, however, has come a greater instrumental range, and The Colour in Anything is richly textured, with pianos, synths, and deep bass, yet it remains gloriously spacious in its production.

While a long release, its creativity, and strong sonic narrative prevent it from ever dragging and the record manages to remains remarkably insular as Blake sings with often distorted emotion of alienation, longing and lost love. The album also calls on high-profile collaborators, including Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean, and was co-produced and mastered with Rick Rubin but Blake remains central, and his vocal is the greatest strength of his work, as shown on standout "Love Me in Whatever Way". Although a raft of imitators has long followed in his wake, this record proves Blake is still one step ahead of them. -- William Sutton

 
Artist: Explosions in the Sky

Album: The Wilderness

Label: Temporary Residence

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List number: 62

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Explosions in the Sky
The Wilderness

From "So Long, Lonesome" to Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, it sometimes felt that, throughout the second half of the ‘00s, Explosions in the Sky were slowly rolling out a very extended farewell. Those were certainly not wilderness years for the Austin post rock flagship, but in the fractured and reconstructed light of The Wilderness it is possible to see how the band had for some time been looking for a way to say goodbye to the inimitable-but-not-for-lack-of-trying (see pretty much any television program about football from the past decade) style of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place that had cemented their reputation. The Wilderness isn't a reinvention, but it does find inventive ways around expectations and refuses to telegraph its next moves. Explosions in the Sky still get quiet and they still get loud, but not quite in the way they used to. They remain, though, as grand as ever. -- Ian King

 
Artist: Kate Tempest

Album: Let Them Eat Chaos

Label: Lex

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Kate Tempest
Let Them Eat Chaos

Confronting, articulate and engrossing, Kate Tempest's Let Them Eat Chaos is the work of an artist with direction. Already a lauded performance poet in her own right, the cohesion between Tempest's sophisticated verse and her buoyantly dark musical accompaniment has come full circle on her sophomore release. Indeed, Tempest's verse is precocious on its own, but when grounded by minimalistic electronic sounds, it takes on new life. The record's true power, however, stems from the resonant portrait it paints of our time. Tempest details the political calamity of her world, relating this chaos to the domestic unrest which occurs around all of us. "Europe Is Lost" is a high point in this regard, as Tempest allows her nihilism to shine through immaculately. The record, with its themes of disenchantment and the tumultuous nature of "progress", is even more harrowing when re-visited post-Trump election. All at once stylistically inventive and contextually focused, Let Them Eat Chaos may be one of the first defining records of a dark new political age. -- Jasper Bruce


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