What a spiteful year 2016 has turned out to be. I won’t hazard how subsequent years may turn out with the impending leadership change in Washington, D.C., but for now, 2016 has just been a veritable shitstorm.
In terms of music, 2016 has been lackluster. I encountered a lot of albums that were likable but very few I could really love. In a few instances, some of my favorite bands turned out some of their most interesting music in their careers, but I couldn’t muster excitement for them.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Sturgill Simpson played a two-hour set with no encore at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle in November. He spent the first hour performing songs from his previous album. Then he spent the next hour playing A Sailor’s Guide to Earth from start to finish with a whole lot of room for jamming. That’s something a composer would do.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4: Insistent.
MONO, Requiem for Hell Of the two albums MONO released in 2014, Rays of Darkness was my favorite. I didn’t imagine the ideas on that album could be exploded.
Solange, A Seat at the Table: Solange not only out-Lemonaded Beyoncé, she also out-Blonded Frank Ocean.
Shaprece, COALS: Björk, if she were black.
Drive By Truckers, American Band: I’ve known about Drive By Truckers for years, but I finally took the plunge with this album. So that’s who took up the Uncle Tupelo mantle.
Cocco, Adan Ballet: This album won’t dislodge Rapunzel or Bougainvillia as a fan favorite, but it’s some of the best work she’s done since Sangrose.
Colvin & Earle, Colvin & Earle: This pairing of Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin looks unlikely on paper, but intuitively, you could tell the universe was ready for it.
Utada Hikaru, Fantôme: I’m beginning to realize Utada Hikaru was PBR&B before Solange started hanging out with Dirty Projectors.
Ty Herndon, House on Fire: It’s tough not to read some autobiography into this album, the first Ty Herndon released after revealing he’s gay. It’s also tough not to get swept up in the confidence and energy pouring out of the speakers.
Other notable albums:
Eluvium, False Readings On
Santigold, 99 Cents
Explosions in the Sky, The Wilderness
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Pixies, Head Carrier
Colin Stetson, Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s Third Symphony
It’s half way through the year, and I’ve listed all but three of the new releases I own this year.
That’s 13 albums from 2016.
So while I can technically create a favorite 10 albums of the year so far, that doesn’t actually mean I feel very strongly about most of this list.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Simpson aimed to make this album his What’s Goin’ On, and he pretty much hits it.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4: Don’t expect a sequel to Górecki’s chart-topping Symphony No. 3. This work goes back to the modernist style he forged on his second symphony.
Colvin & Earle, Colvin & Earle This pairing is counterintuitive but kind of inevitable, and it works.
ANOHNI, HOPELESSNESS: ANOHNI trades in the chamber pop of Antony and the Johnsons for an aggressive electronic sound, something she’s already done before with Björk.
Santigold, 99 Cents: Santigold goes for a sunnier sound on this album, and while it may not be as fascinating as her previous albums, they’re tuneful as hell nonetheless.
Explosions in the Sky, The Wilderness: After the predictability of Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, The Wilderness is a definite zag to its predecessor’s zig. It’s probably the most adventurous Explosions album to date.
Ben Watt, Fever Dream: Watt builds upon the post-Everything but the Girl vibe of Hendra with a stronger set of songs.
Colin Stetson, Sorrow: A Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony: I should hate the idea of a post-rock interpretation of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, but I don’t. I like what Stetson does here.
UA, JaPo: Nope, UA hasn’t returned to her pop roots, but she does provide enough hooks to temper her more avant-garde tendencies.
Prince, HITnRUN Phase Two: Recommended if you like classic Prince.
As it often happens when compiling the year-end favorite list, a few discoveries don’t reveal themselves till after deadline. At this point, none of these albums pose a threat to anything on the 2015 list, but that may change.
Software Giant, We Are Overcome
I thought Chicago singer-songwriter Dylan Rice had fallen off a corner of the earth. He released his second solo album in 2010, then seemingly disappeared. As it turned out, he joined a band in 2013, which then went on to unleash its debut album We Are Overcome in 2015.
Billing itself as “Less Claypool sitting in with Kraftwerk”, Software Giant reminds me more of the grunge jazz of Wayne Horvitz’s early ’90s outfit Pigpen. The music is a bit too human for its mechanistic aspirations — Morrissey singing with New Order is another description — but we can forgive the band for having a live drummer instead of a machine. Rice has the kind of gorgeous croon that makes me wish he were more prolific.
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
PBR&B is a pretty awful term, but it’s succinct in describing the kind of R&B music that appeal to rockist snobs such as myself.
Various recommendations led me to the Weeknd. Beauty Behind the Madness has slowly seeped into my consciousness. I find myself humming portions of the album during those rare moments when no music is playing on my devices.
The collaborative approach to this split album works incredibly well. Rather than devote one side to each band, Gaytheist and Rabbits exchange songs and band members throughout. It ends up sounding like the work of one unit, a true case of the sum being greater than the parts.
Andrew Norman, Play, Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Ask yourself what an orchestra would sound like performing Naked City’s Torture Garden.
We’re half way into the second decade of the 2000s, and I haven’t seen much punditry on what albums have been emblematic of the decade. It’s probably because listening habits have moved on from albums even if the release cycle hasn’t.
My friend will be disappointed to learn I consider 2010 the start of the decade, so I’ll restrict my list to its first five years with 2010 included (i.e. 2010-2014.)
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Elephant” pretty much sold me on this album, and everything else was just seduction.
Tokyo Jihen, Sports: Shiina Ringo loosened her writing monopoly with the band, which then internalized her style to produce its best album.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things: Part of me thinks this album is actually better than Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean: Does what it says on the tin very, very beautifully
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: WHERE YOU AT FRANK??
D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: So many of my friends lost their shit when this album was released that I had to hear it for myself.
Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe: I love her music, but damn, her videos are disturbing.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds of Country Music: What happens to country music when it ingests hallucinogens.
Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now: Thank you, Mark Ronson, for bringing Duran Duran back to itself.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS: Getting Shiina Ringo to write a few tracks is a sure way for Japanese actresses to grab my attention.
I didn’t think a comeback this year could top the return of Sleater-Kinney, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize how much I had missed Janet Jackson till she returned, and Enya quenched a drought of a similar length (7 years.) Even Madonna turned in work that’s some of her best in a while. I also learned the awful term “PBR&B”, which describes the kind of R&B music to which I seem to be drawn.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical: The last time the score of a musical had me riveted to my stereo was The Phantom of the Opera. Not only is the story of Hamilton thrilling to follow, but the hip-hop score is jaw-dropping. Policy debates as rap battles? Maybe that should happen in real life.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Just about every year-end list will include this album near the top. And I don’t even listen that much hip-hop.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: It’s always great to see an artist with a breakthrough album follow up with something just as strong.
Björk, Vulnicura: So now the question is which do you prefer: Vulnicura or Vulnicura Strings?
Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift: I like how Jarell Perry keeps pushes the borders of what R&B can do. He’s got great company with Shaprece, Santigold, Miguel and Frank Ocean, WHEREVER THE HELL HE IS.
Steve Grand, All-American Boy: I still don’t understand why people call him a country artist. He sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson.
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable: Janet returns with her most sonically diverse album since The Velvet Rope.
Miguel, Wildheart: He bragged about being better than Frank Ocean, and I hate to say it, but I think there’s something behind that bravado.
Honorable mention goes to …
Madonna, Rebel Heart
Duran Duran, Paper Gods: Duran Duran tends to misstep after hitting a home run, but that’s not the case here.
Enya, Dark Sky Island: You know what you’re getting with Enya. On a few tracks, she does seem to be dipping a tentative toe into more pop styles, by which I mean less Bach.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett crams a lot of imagery in her songs, but they make for great stories.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future: When ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION take time with their albums, it really pays off.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: No, this isn’t an international crossover album. If anything, it’s some of the most challenging music the quartet has recorded in a while.
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 / Varese: Ameriques: This album is something of a souvenir for me because I attended this concert, but the live recording of Ameriques would be reason enough to pick it up.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty: I didn’t think this album would be very distinct from MONO, but it’s quite a change for Taka and still recognizably him.
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear: This album will also appear on a lot of year-end lists, but it didn’t grab me as much as everything else on the list.
It’s bound to happen that some albums from the previous year don’t get air time on the personal playlist till the following year, and as a result, they alter how the Favorite Edition list should have been compiled.
This time, two albums fell off the 2014 list — Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, and Wayne Horvitz’s 55: Music and Dance in Concrete. I mentioned that Smith’s album could have been more adventurous, so that vulnerability led to his ouster. 55 is still some of Horvitz’s most adventurous music, but the gloom of MONO’s Rays of Darkness won out in the end.
In their place are albums by D’Angelo and Sturgill Simpson.
2015 is turning out to be one of those years where the really good albums suck so much oxygen out of the rest of the release schedule that it’s tough to put together even a speculative list.
That’s a long-winded way to say Sleater-Kinney’s return has pretty much overshadowed everyone else.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: Sleater-Kinney left at the height of their career, and a 10-year hiatus did nothing to dim that achievement.
Björk, Vulnicura: I like Björk best when she’s more beat-oriented because her more introspective work tends to meander. This album is too wrenching to mess around.
Madonna, Rebel Heart: I would agree this album is Madge’s best since Ray of Light mostly because it’s head and shoulders above the last few meandering discs she put out, Confessions on the Dancefloor not withstanding.
Steve Grand, All American Boy: The rockist in me should rally against everything about this album, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under the Beauty: The decidedly non-orchestral direction of MONO’s Rays of Darkness was a welcome direction that I feared this album would be a relapse. It’s not.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: I was bracing myself for more international crossover, but this album is some pretty adventurous and spellbinding music.
Torche, Restarter: I liked Harmonicraft, but Gaytheist’s Stealth Beats was more my speed. Then Torche recorded this album.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind: I hate to say this, but this album is what you would expect from artists with the calibers of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Old Yellow Moon, though, kind of exceeded that.
Something I didn’t anticipate when I moved from Austin to Seattle in 2012 was a classical music scene with an audience receptive to modern works.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra includes a number of commissions throughout its season, and a chamber series focusing on modern works turns the lobby of Benaroya Hall into an informal setting. I got to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains as part of a chamber music festival, and Town Hall has brought in the likes of Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
So the year-end Favorite Edition for 2014 reflects my rekindled interest in new music. It’s easier to indulge when even the record shops make it a point to separate modern music from the common era.
Just because this site is no longer review-driven doesn’t mean I’ve stopped listening to newer releases, and no music writer worth her salt can resist the compulsion to make lists.
The first half of the Favorite Edition 2014 are the titles I anticipate will keep some sort of ranking by year’s end. The second half of the list is up for grabs.
Juanes, Loco de Amor: This album could very well be Juanes’ best. The writing is some of his catchiest since La Vida es … Un Ratico, and producer Steve Lillywhite gives him a big arena sound. (It’s there in the drums.) Loco de Amor finds Juanes rejuvenated after the lackluster P.A.R.C.E.
The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring: I’ve been waiting for this album since a video of The Bad Plus performing the seminal Stravinsky ballet hit the Internet many years back. Similar to the trio’s reworking of Ligeti etudes, The Bad Plus rely on their virtuosity to give The Rite of Spring a fairly faithful reading.
Royal Wood, The Burning Bright: I wasn’t very impressed with Royal Wood’s hitmaking album, We Were Born to Glory, and neither was he. So Wood retreated to Ireland, where he crafted The Burning Bright, an album steeped in heartache and cautious optimism.
Shiina Ringo, Gyakuyunyuu ~Kouwankyoku~: I had to listen to this album three times before I could orient myself to what was happening. Gyakuyunyuu is billed as a “self-cover album,” featuring songs Shiina contributed to other artists. I was half-expecting another Utaite Myouri, but instead, I got her strangest and most baffling solo album to date. The stylistic whiplash makes the album something of a hot but fascinating mess.
Meredith Monk, Piano Songs: Double Edge recorded Monk’s Phantom Waltz back in 1992, and I’ve always wondered if there was more from where that came from. This album answers that question.
Molotov, Agua Maldita: The blistering anger of Molotov’s previous decade has evolved into something much more tuneful.
Inventions, Inventions: My first listen of Inventions’ self-titled album left no impression at all, but an extended coding session made me realize this album is actually quite compelling. I would put the Eluvium/Exploisions in the Sky ratio at around 60/40, though.
Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour: Sam Smith does indeed possess an incredible set of pipes. What he has yet to acquire is an adventurousness on the level of James Blake. This debut is appealing, but like Janelle Monae, Smith has potential that is not yet tapped.
Ben Watt, Hendra: Do you miss Everything But the Girl? Hendra, Watt’s first solo album in a number of decades, picks up where Amplified Heart left off before Everything But the Girl ventured into electronic dance music.