It may be the third time in the past five years I’ve said it, but it’s been true every time: this has been the best year for music since I started keeping track. 2016 was the third year this decade, following 2012 and 2014, where not only did I have multiple Album of the Year contenders right down to the wire (and as a side note, this is the first year where the album that ended up being Album of the Year was not one of the original contenders when I made the first draft of my list*), but I ended up having to tweak things because there was so damn much good music that it seemed leaving stuff out would be a crime against humanity. As a result, this year, for the first time in the history of my Album of the Year lists, the Honorable Mention section has been expended to twenty-five. Because no less than thirty-five albums this year deserve mention as being impeccable avatars of their respective genres.
And here’s something that has been gradually coming, but really exploded into its own this year: this is a really wide-ranging list. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six or seven years really trying to get out of my cocoon and be aggressive about listening to stuff outside my comfort zone, to become more inclusive in my enjoyment of music. The way I was when I put out that first top-ten list all the way back in 1979. And there’s no denying that my lists have gotten more diverse, but man, this year. There’s stuff from damn near every corner of the musical spectrum represented, and it’s all stellar.
A quick reminder of the criteria I use for initial filtering.
1. An album has to be contemporary music. I love classical and listen to it all the time, but (a) original classical albums are far less on my radar than “reissues” of new recordings of works composed during earlier centuries (and y’all know how I feel about reissues on best-albums lists… even if you’re going to see one here) and (b) if I didn’t limit myself, I’d probably go insane trying to keep up. I’m seriously considering separating out noise and traditional next year, because the universe is already too wide.
2. An album has to be too long to fit on a 3” CD, because if it fits on a 3” CD, it’s an EP, not an album, and I don’t give a shit how many “albums” Nails puts out that are seventeen goddamn minutes long. (That was on quite a few year-end lists in 2013.) Therefore, if it’s under twenty-one minutes, it doesn’t get considered for the lists.
Yep, that’s pretty much it.
(* How good was this year? Just two of the ten albums on that first-draft list made it to the actual ten. All the rest are honorable mention.)
And now, without any further ado…
Best Albums of 2016: Honorable Mention
(presented in alphabetical order)
Amulets, Personal Power (Bandcamp)
Austin, TX’s Amulets are doing the lovely-drone thing, but on this album, at least, there’s an agenda. And it’s not buried too far. Amulets have ventured into the world of motivational self-help here. They aim to get you living Your Best Life Now(TM). Except that, well, they’re too busy making fun of everyone else who does this sort of ridiculous shit to make it stick. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed while listening to a drone album before.
Antaeus, Condemnation (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
Antaeus releases their first album in a decade and how is it not on everyone’s best-of lists this year? The boys have kicked things up a few notches in the production department and left behind the “raw” (read: zero-budget) sound of their first few albums, but there is not one iota less savagery on Condemnation than there was on Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan sixteen years ago. With all the turns and twists black metal has taken recently, it’s wonderful to hear someone who was there back in the day bringing the old school misanthropy back to the forefront. This is glorious.
Band-Maid, Brand New Maid (Crown)
Band-Maid’s first few releases felt gimmicky. The music is great, but okay, here’s some hot women, we’ll dress them up in maid cafe outfits and have them sing sexually forward songs. I’m not denying the formula worked, and very well, but Brand New Maid is not just a title. This feels like music they wrote, and my god, is it darker and more desolate. The album has so far spawned three singles, and you’ll never mistake any of them for “Real Existence” or “Don’t Let Me Down.” And one of them is my Single of the Year: “Alone”. This is all the catchiness and technical expertise one expects from Band-Maid, but put in service of something that should have come packaged with razor blades.
Julianna Barwick, Will (Dead Oceans)
Here’s a guess: if you’ve followed my year-end lists for the last half-decade or so, if you knew there was a new Julianna Barwick release out this year, you knew it was going to be here. No surprise, every album Barwick puts out pretty much has a free pass on my lists. I’m sure that at some point, Barwick will realize there’s a whole world of musical experimentation she could branch out into, but Barwick doing ambient is like Breaking Benjamin doing nu-metal or Dead Letters Spell Out Dead Words doing glitchpunk—they’re such avatars of their respective genres that they could spend an entire lifetime working on the variations in what seems a very narrow field and I can’t imagine I’d ever get tired of what they put out. Will is supernally beautiful. (No, that’s not a hyperbolic synonym for “good”. In the words of Steve Albini, “look it up, numbskull.”)
Brood Ma, Daze (Tri Angle)
My general dislike of electronica got a real kick in the pants a few years ago when I discovered the amazing world of Bobby Krlic, the man behind The Haxan Cloak. No surprise that a lot of the electronica I listen to now has that same feel to it. When Brood Ma’s new one started showing up on best-of lists, I cracked it and the first track sounds like it could have come right off Evocation. Of course I sat up and took notice. This isn’t to say that Brood Ma is riding coattails, though; the rest of the album branches off that dark horror-movie feel THC has and moves into what feels more post-apocalyptic wasteland to me. It’s still hella dark, but it’s different enough to hold my interest.
Contrepoison, Discography (Hospital)
I hate best-of releases showing up on year-end lists, but goddamnit, it’s Contrepoison. Now here’s the funny thing—I can’t stand a single other project Pierre-Marc Tremblay has ever turned his hand to (and I’m still not convinced his signature project, Akitsa, isn’t NSBM, which makes everything all the more problematic). But who’d have thought a kid who dresses up in corpse paint and spikes and wanders around the remote forests of Quebec looking for inspiration could put out music that sounds so goddamn New Romantic if you crossed NR with Goslings? It’s just plain perfect.
Crowhurst, Black Funeral Atmospheres (Bandcamp)
Crowhurst’s II has been getting a lot of attention on year-end lists, and deservedly so. But I’ve always been more of a noisy-Crowhurst fan, and Jay Gambit tossed us his best non-music album since Memory/Loss a month or so ago with the deep, disquieting Black Funeral Atmospheres. It treads the line between many subdisciplines here, black ambient and death industrial and flat-out noise and even electronica now and again, and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Fall asleep to this if you want to have nightmares.
Dedekind Cut, $uccessor (Hospital)
Dedekind Cut is occupying a space between genres that I’m not sure anyone else has ever attempted to carve out. This is recognizably electronica, but it veers off into black ambient territory on a fairly regular basis; the best way I can describe it is “what The Haxan Cloak would sound like if really, really depressed.” Fred Warmsley lists some of his influences as Philip Glass and Steve Reich; suddenly, everything becomes clear.
Delain, Moonbathers (Napalm)
I am willing to admit that Delain’s first album to hit Honorable Mention, rather than being on my Top 10, may well be because I haven’t had enough time with it yet; I picked it up day of release, then somehow forgot to transfer it to my phone, so I’ve only been listening to it for about three weeks now. And of course it’s good, it’s Delain. Come my first list revision that includes 2016, maybe this will hit the top 10, but for now, it feels “good, but not We Are the Others” good, if you know what I mean.
Clara Engel, Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss (Bandcamp)
Engel returns with her strongest set since 2009’s Secret Beasts, throwing us an album that manages to be both searing and soul-searching on an almost atavistic level. There are a whole lot of singer-songwriter albums on the list this year, but this one is markedly different than anything else you will hear here. You wanted it darker? You got it.
The Hotelier, Goodness (Tiny Engines)
The Hotelier have been quietly building a fanbase while other bands who tread this same ground (read: Icarus the Owl) have been doing it rather more splashily. Has it paid off? Goodness hit end-of-the-year lists in places like Billboard and Stereogum, as well as being #5 on the Onion’s list. This is solid emo, indie and grungy and with more feeling in a single song than Fall Out Boy or Hawthorn Heights managed in their entire careers.
Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones)
Hval’s follow-up to Innocence Is Kinky is a beautifully scarred album, make no mistake, and anyone who’s heard Hval before isn’t going to be surprised by the sound here. But it kind of feels like two albums. The first half, which I like better, is more experimental, Hval using the voice more as instrument than communicative tool. Then the second half gets more poppy and Innocence…-like. Both are good, but the transition jars a bit, which keeps this in the HM section.
Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp (Yellow K)
Japanese Breakfast were the biggest surprise of the year to me, a band who takes the sounds of nineties dreampop (think Luna here, especially) and add just enough lo-fi grunge to set them apart from the rest of the pack. This should be all over the radio. Why isn’t it?
Myrkur, Mausoleum (Relapse)
Ex-Cops vocalist Amalie Bruun quickly established herself as the reigning queen of what the troo kvlt kids on the MetalSucks boards refer to derogatorily as “hipster black metal” (and it says far more about them than it does the bands they hate that most of their insults thrown Bruun’s way have to do with her being a woman; they insult her looks more than her music. Way to criticize, white guys who hate the idea of diversity in metal!), and she follows up one of the best demos I’ve ever heard, and a damn near perfect debut album, with an all-acoustic live set recorded in a tomb. With a choir of teenagers. How much more fucking cult can you get? Another where a bad (to my mind) decision kept this from being a serious top 10 contender—the version of her unbearably beautiful cover of Bathory’s “Song to Hall Up High” to be found here is substantially inferior to the one that’s been haunting YouTube for the last year, and to me, it mars an otherwise perfect album, one of the best live sets I’ve heard recorded in at least a decade.
Nhung Nguyen, Nostalgia (Bandcamp)
You would be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into the new-age minimalism of someone like George Winston listening to the opening of Nguyen’s newest (and the newest on this list, released December 12th) album, but the farther you go, the more droney, and the more fascinating, this becomes. Which is not to say that Nguyen doesn’t do new agey minimalism just as wonderfully as she does drone.
Phyllomedusa, Gepytto’s Guillotine (Of Sound and Species)
Here’s the thing about HNW: I have no idea why, but I like it better when it’s themed, even if you can’t tell how the noise relates to the theme. (Case in point: I prefer She Walks Crooked to Vomir, in general.) Phyllomedusa’s work centers around frogs, and the interesting thing about Phyllomedusa is that while the theme stays the same, the type of music changes from release to release (noise, death metal, grindcore, ambient, you name it). And he’s pretty damn good at all of them. But you take a bunch of frog vocal samples and you distort the hell out of them and you wind up with this? Shut up and take my money.
Puce Mary, Yours (Posh Isolation)
Puce Mary has been doing great stuff for a few years now, but the two discs she put out this year are on a whole new level. Yours was the later, released as a tour-only CD that would later show up digitally on Bandcamp. It’s closer to the traditional Puce Mary sound, deep and ominous even when it’s waking up the neighbors. Creepy and delightful.
Sex Swing, Sex Swing (The Quietus Phonographic Corporation)
I keep wanting to compare this band to Trop Tard, and not just because of the alliteration in their respective names. Sex Swing take that sort of early eighties lo-fi industrial sound Trop Tard did, arguably, better than anyone else except maybe SPK, and they drag it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century; this is the music Graeme Revell would be making today if he hadn’t mellowed out in 1989. Old-school industrial fans take note.
Space Funeral, City of Forms (Bandcamp)
Wonderfully sludgy guitarless rhythm section get their Bridesmaid on here, but with more of a jazzy feel, and paradoxically more meditative at the same time. When I made my original top 10 list for 2016, this album was #2, which tells you not only how strong this year is, but how strong this album is.
Split (Gnawed/Ligature Impression) (Maniacal Hatred)
As much as I loved Gnawed’s Death Evident from earlier this year, the split with Ligature Impression strikes me as a better showcase for Gnawed’s impressive ability to move between black ambient, death industrial, and flat-out noise with ease. Even more impressive: Ligature Impression’s side holds its own against the noise titan of Gnawed.
Sunken Cathedral, Subtle Body (Black Horizons)
Perfect album from these Oakland, CA gods of deep, meditative ambient would have easily made the top 10 in most years. I am continually impressed by bands who can do something this calm on the surface, yet so full of dynamic and emotion.
TRNA, Lose Yourself to Find Peace (Bandcamp)
What are we supposed to be calling this stuff that feels like a combination of metal, emo, and jazz? “Post-hardcore” has become a meaningless catch-all phrase for “I don’t know what it is but it sounds kind of harder than hard rock” (I saw a YouTube description the other day that labelled Big Black as “post-hardcore”. Oh for the love of fuck.) Post-metal? Post-anything? Whatever it is, I’m a really big fan of this sound, kind of like the Alcest blackgaze thing right around Ecailles de Lune but without vocals, and a lot more melodic than something like Jucifer or This Will Destroy You without going all the way over into Godspeed! territory. Whatever it is, TRNA may be its archetypes. Lose Yourself to Find Peace is two side-length explorations of dynamic and metallic soundwash that have more raw emotion than anything you’re liable to hear on the radio. Outrageously good.
V/A, Yesterday, Perhaps: Songs of the Kitchen Cynics (Les Enfants du Paradiddle)
Alan Davidson’s lovely freak folk finally gets a tribute album with some names you know and some names you don’t. The affection for the source material comes through on every note. If you are somehow not yet a Kitchen Cynics fan, this is an interesting starting point.
Gyđa Valtýsdottir, Epicycle (Smekkleysa)
Co-founder of Mum’s latest solo album is described as “recloaked gems of classical repertoire through last 2000 years.” From Hildegard von Bingen to Harry Partch, Valtýsdottir creates the kind of classical album that people who don’t think they like classical music never realized they needed to hear. Ever wonder what classical drone would sound like?
Wadge, The End of Ethnology (Mortville)
We’ve been told that after twenty-five incredible years, Paul Pfeiffer (now a member of up-and-coming grind sensations Reeking Cross) is hanging up the inimitable Wadge banner. Starting with the hilarious Guise demo in ‘93, Pfeiffer and, occasionally, a rotating cast of miscreants did the lord’s work in both codifying and pushing the boundaries of grindcore, throwing up release after release of solid, catchy tunes that even those offended by them couldn’t help but like. And The End of Ethnology couldn’t be a better send-off. All the rage, all the humor, all the violence of a quarter century of Wadge encapsulated in these forty blissful tracks that are, arguably, darker and uglier than anything Pfeiffer has put out before. For some odd reason, I want to compare this to Icarus the Owl’s stellar Pilot Waves from last year. They couldn’t be more different sonically, but man, they both plumb the depths so, so well.
The 10 Best Albums of 2016
10. Death Index, Death Index (Deathwish Inc.)
Death Index exploded onto the Detroit scene last year, and almost no one noticed the best garage band to come out of Detroit since Dirtbombs. February 2016 rolled around, and they released an album barely long enough to make the cutoff for consideration on the list, and it’s stellar. And a few more people noticed. At this rate, they’ll be as big as they deserve to be around 2150. Might as well get in on the ground floor with your new favorite rockers.
9. Everyone Dies in the End, Space Between Spaces (Bandcamp)
I tried to nail down that post-whatever sound talking about TRNA, above. Every band who’s doing it, I think, wants to sound like Alcest. EditE get closer than anyone I’ve ever heard. (I should specify Alcest at their most shoegaze, think “Solar Song” here.) This is music that, it strikes me, wants to be minimal, but is so packed with emotion that it can’t help but bust out of its mold on a fairly regular basis, leap up, and smack you in the face with how good it is. This is the kind of stuff Godspeed! were doing before they got bloated and self-important.
8. Puce Mary, Spiral (Posh Isolation)
Spiral has found its way onto a few much higher-profile best of the year lists than mine, and deservedly so. (For example, it’s #41 on the always-exciting Quietus list this year.) This is the album where Frederikke Hoffmeier breaks out of the shell she has built up over a handful of past albums and starts pushing the boundaries—infinitesimally but inexorably, as is to be expected from that phrase pretty much describing Puce Mary’s complete output over the years. This is an album that not only satisfies on every level, but makes me excited to see where the artist is going to go next.
7. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia)
People have been going bats over the fact that Bowie recorded Blackstar when he knew he was dying. Leonard Cohen was in his eighties and smoked heavily for most, if not all, of his entire adult life. Are you going to tell me he didn’t? You Want It Darker is a perfect denouement, the most affectionate fuck you to the fans he could have possibly produced. We did indeed want it darker, and we got it.
6. Nested, 3 (Bandcamp)
Nested are another band who are doing that post-whatever thing TRNA and EditE are up to, but there’s a much wider range in Nested’s work, even on this album. (And if you put 4 on after this, prepare to be blown away by this guy’s range. Seriously.) This album is so all over the map that it sometimes switches genres in the middle of a song, and yet it’s all so remarkably coherent that I’m still shaking my head trying to figure out how it all works. Impressive indeed, even before it hits you what the inspiration on this album was. (If you were born in the mid-eighties or later and don’t often listen to classic rock stations, it’s Donald Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly.)
5. Johanna Warren, Gemini I (Spirit House)
Gemini I was the last album, aside from the one that took the prize, that was under consideration for Album of the Year. It was a truly tough call; this is a spectacular piece of work from first note to last. (The reason it’s at #5 is because the albums in between were all also AotY contenders. All five of these pieces had a long, drawn-out fight for the title.) Warren is yet another singer-songwriter on the list this year, but like all the rest, she has a style that is quite different from the others who made it; Gemini I is the s-s album this year I would class as closest to a traditional folk album, but I rush to add that is a very relative term. Warren’s indie-pop sensibilities shine through here constantly, and the album is as likely at any given moment to remind you of Lauren Shera, or hell, Rick Astley, as it is to remind you of Pete Seeger. Be warned: this album can cause actual tear-shedding.
4. Babymetal, Metal Resistance (BMG/Fox)
I spent eight months of this year completely and utterly convinced that Metal Resistance was going to be my album of the year, and it ended up occupying the same place that Babymetal’s debut did two years ago. Where the first album, as is often the case with Japanese major-label bands, was a singles collection, Metal Resistance is more cohesive, more mature, and pushes more boundaries for the band stylistically. In most years, it would have been AotY without a second thought. But man, this year is something special.
3. Youth Code, Commitment to Complications (Dais)
It should not surprise anyone that a band I’ve never been in whose logo is tattooed on my body is going to make this list. That they are so high on it this year has to do with the approach on Commitment to Complications, which is markedly different than it was on the self-titled debut a couple of years ago. That was a solid, basic industrial album that could have easily come right out of the early nineties. CtC is thrashier and harder, while still cleaving to the band’s industrial roots; if you turn your head and squint right, there are piece of this album that one might even call power noise. (And, of course, Sara and Ryan are just as pissed off as ever; “Transitions” was the only song other than “Alone” [above] that was even under consideration for single of the year.) How can you go wrong?
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed)
Skeleton Tree is another album that could have easily been AotY, and there are definitely arguments to be made that it should be. But to me, one of the hallmarks of an Album of the Year is its listenability; it should be something you can put on at any time, something you’re always in the mood for. The Skeleton Tree will never be that album. Part of its brilliance is that it is so devastating it can only be listened to in small quantities.
Album of the Year: Marissa Nadler, Strangers (Sacred Bones)
Strangers was not one of my original choices from Album of the Year. In fact, it wasn’t even in the first cut of the top ten. But from the first time I heard “Janie in Love”, I knew that Strangers was a very special album indeed. My benchmark with Nadler has always been 2009’s Little Hells, a damn near perfect album that is equal parts melancholy and bliss, where love songs sound like funeral dirges and funeral dirges sound like love songs. You won’t get any of that sort of deception here; this is an album that wants to make you drink your troubles away, like the best old-school country albums do, but Nadler’s work is still far less country than that odd, enchanting mix of folk and goth and pop and more than a little drone that is Nadler’s hallmark. And if you think “Janie in Love” is great (you’re right, it is), wait till you hear the title track. Or “All the Colors of the Dark.” Or… you get the idea. Every singer has a song that you hear and say “that person was born to sing that song.” “Janie in Love” is that song for Marissa Nadler. And yet here it is a first among equals; every piece of music on this album is sheer sonic perfection. This is an exceptional sonic artifact, even in a year when there were so many exceptional sonic artifacts. You may never hear another album as depressing as this one that fills you with such ineffable joy.