None of these 10 albums is just a collection of songs: Each one tells a story, and each story is a chapter of 2016. That’s why I’ve listed them not in order of preference or alphabetically, but chronologically.
They have symmetries too, patterns I am still discovering. There are the valedictions, of course: David Bowie and Leonard Cohen (even the titles of their final albums, Blackstar and You Want It Darker, echo each other) and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. There are reunions: A Tribe Called Quest and Underworld. There are pairs of art rockers (Bowie and Jenny Hval), indie rockers (Parquet Courts and Car Seat Headrest), New York groups (Parquet Courts and A Tribe Called Quest), jazz combos (Kneebody and Mary Halvorson Octet), chamber ensembles (Calidore String Quartet and Mary Halvorson Octet), electronic producers (Underworld and Daedalus) and poets (Cohen and A Tribe Called Quest).
More broadly, there are themes of death and resurrection (Blackstar, Hval’s Blood Bitch, You Want It Darker). But most of all, on nearly every album there is experimentation, exploration, the impetus to bend boundaries and blend genres (with the possible exception of Cohen, who lets simple, spare arrangements carry his words). Ironically, this may be clearest in the century-old chamber music played by the Calidore String Quartet.
“I can’t give everything away,” the dying artist cries, yet he tries, one last time, to peel off all the masks he’s donned over the decades, to bare his face to us as well as to the pitiless eyes of eternity. And when the guises fall away, what remains? In the most haunting image from the searing title track’s eerie video, it is the desiccated skull of Major Tom, still sealed in his spacesuit in some strange land beyond the event horizon of a black hole.
Blackstar was released eight days into 2016, an all too accurate portent of a dark year barely begun: “I know something is very wrong,” its final track begins. Bowie died two days later.
The first new album by British dance/electronic duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith in six years became our personal soundtrack for the year. Blackstar was too poignant to play when we were sad, but when Barbara Barbara thumped and throbbed, we felt better. When we were happy, we played it to stay that way. When we were horny, we made love to it. And when the remixes came out, we shuffled them in with the original tracks and piped them through the house, not because were bored with Barbara Barbara but because we weren’t, because we wanted to extend the experience. Barbara Barbara became our panacea for the manifold woes of 2016. It made the future easier to face.
The opening track, “I Exhale,” is a jaded clubgoer’s reprise of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” a stream of disjointed existential ruminations (“Life… it’s a touch… everything is golden”) that eventually coalesce in a yearning for transcendence “over the horizon.” “If Rah” comprises more world-weary reflections overlaid with buzzing beats: “You don’t look old enough to have suffered so much.” But then it’s as if the club is closing, the party winding down: The beat subsides and the mood turns meditative as a pilgrimage wends its way through cynicism to hope.
“It’s a drive-by lullaby that couldn’t get worse, a melody abandoned in the key of New York.” It’s deadpan urban art punk confidently constructed by a band that’s too mature to remain content with being merely quirky and charming. It’s very New York. It also has the only song I know with a guided meditation through its instrumental break.
“What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys?” rock ’n’ roll prodigy Will Toledo sings. Well, he’s graduated from self-recording in his college dorm room to a real studio with a real band. But guided by the model of Guided By Voices, he has wisely retained his lo-fi aesthetic, as well as his intimacy with the dramas and traumas of youth, which he evokes in bleakly funny lyrics about drugs and drinking and despair that he hoarsely declaims as power chords thunder. He faces a shining future.
Jazz fusion is a little like cold fusion: It sounds great on paper, but nobody seems to have been able to make it work (at least not since the heyday of Weather Report and late-period Miles Davis). But now the contemporary jazz ensemble Kneebody collaborate with LA producer Daedalus, and together they weave fresh sounds that are complex but accessible, and often beautiful. Perhaps it’s the genesis of a new fusion, merging jazz and electronics.
These young musicians may be the most exciting new string quartet since the early days of the Kronos. When I saw them two months ago, they brought a largely geriatric audience to its unsteady feet with the passion and near-telepathic cohesion they brought to Mendelssohn.
But on this album they demonstrate their technical mastery on early 20th century works by five composer-musicians, including Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud. All of it pushes relentlessly into modernity; all of it bears the indelible marks of World War I (the “Great War”).
(The provenance of this splendid record is a bit obscure. It’s part of a sprawling, ambitious survey of World War I-era classical music on a French record label called Editions Hortus. It appears to be the only volume in the series performed by the Calidore, and the only volume available in the U.S.)
An eccentric, often ecstatic tone poem to vampirism, feminism and menstruation that weaves Hval’s keening vocals and esoteric meditations around chilly electronic beats and fragments of musique concrète à la Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. I give it extra points for the most wittily transgressive song title of the year: “Period Piece.”
“I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” the dying poet growls, yet he summons his waning strength to explore, one last time, the Christian imagery that informed his best-known songs and to make his peace with… who? “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine,” Cohen sighs. Is he addressing an old lover, or God? (My money’s on God.)
Bowie’s valediction is plaintive and fervent: Cohen’s is wry and grimly resigned, his voice so gutteral it makes Tom Waits sound like Frankie Valli. He is a poet, and his language is as beautiful as his meter is simple and his arrangements spare. He’s often very funny, too, which makes his farewell all the more heartbreaking.
Halvorson’s slippery, sinuous electric guitar (she plays a Guild Artist Award, a guitar that’s nearly as big as she is) is one of the most distinctive voices in avant-garde jazz. This chamber ensemble of gifted musicians shows her to her best advantage; the music is challenging, exciting and unpredictable, bending and twisting restlessly.
Eighteen years since their previous album, A Tribe Called Quest return to fulfill all their shining promise, and that of hip-hop itself. This is their State of the Union address, a clear-eyed, up-to-the-minute survey of an America where there’s “troublesome times, kids, no times for comedy,” where “it always seems the poorest persons are people forsaken.” The raps are as nimble and witty as ever, but their message — “let’s make something happen” — is more urgent; the production and arrangements are as sophisticated as the language is raw. For all the praise it’s gotten, this album is underrated.
Field Music: Commontime (2/5)
Steely Dan meets Hall & Oates somewhere in northern England.
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered (3/4)
Even the bits and pieces this guy leaves on the studio floor are better than 90 percent of what came out this year.
Suuns: Hold/Still (4/5)
It’s gloomy and repetitive, and I’m OK with that.
Wire: Nocturnal Koreans (4/22)
DJ Shadow: The Mountain Will Fall (6/24)
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree (9/9)
Opeth: Sorceress (9/30)
Unrepentant guitar shredding! A Jethro Tull homage! And these Swedes just don’t care that the Doors already rhymed “higher” with “funeral pyre.”
Syd Arthur: Apricity (10/21)
The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome (12/2)
It only took them 50 years to get around to the follow-up to 12 X 5, their second album.
Neil Young: Peace Trail (12/9)
Rock ’n’ roll’s most gifted old crank gets in the last word on 2016 with this collection of deliberately untidy rants.
Songs of the Year:
Field Music: “The Noisy Days Are Over”
DJ Shadow featuring Run the Jewels: “Nobody Speak”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: “Jesus Alone”
Syd Arthur: “No Peace”