For your listening pleasure: top records of 2016

We’ve all read them – the annual top ten musical choices for the year.  If you’re like me, you have grown weary of predictable selections and swooning language extolling records to which you can’t relate.  This inspired me to compile my own selection for 2016 and to do it in my style, according to my criteria, which are these:

1.     Why ten? Why not just pick the records you like and can reasonably listen to in your limited time for musical appreciation?

2.     Why albums?  Why not EPs?  I am a fan of EPs, they are a wonderful format for musical expression.  If I had my own band it’s probably all I would release.

3.     “Best” is a subjective determination.  My selection is not intended to be the best of anything.  Rather, consider these choices as highlighting distinctive characteristics that make them stand out in the musical landscape.  I will still be listening to these records in five or ten years because they offer something unusual that’s worth coming back to.

4.     As an added twist, I asked some long-time friends and collaborators whose musical tastes I respect to suggest some favorites of their own.  These are listed after mine and I encourage you to stick around and read them.  I guarantee you will be surprised.

In no particular order, I offer Nick Bratton’s Top Records of 2016.

David Bowie:  Blackstar

A few of my choices will intersect with those in mainstream or alternative news media.  No apologies here, Bowie’s final studio album is a breathtaking note on which to end a brilliant career and life.  Much is made of the timing of the release – his gift to fans as he knew he was dying – but it’s the content that is stirring.  A friend confided in me that he’s scared to listen to the album.  After getting to know it I understand why.  This is a haunting work.  It’s beautiful, forlorn, and hopeful, all in the same reedy saxophone phrase.  What I love the most is that his final album has the same blend of honesty, innocence, and mystery that made his first album (Space Oddity) so enthralling.

Aphex Twin:  Cheetah

Richard D. James packs more energy into this EP than some musicians can fit on a double-live album.  In an era of brittle, digitized beats and exhausted autotune, this is the electronic analog of a pterodactyl playing a Stradivarius while riding a Harley.  The music flows like a stream of mud – oozing from the speakers you expect it to pool around your ankles.  What I love most about this record is that you can almost hear how much fun James is having.  You can feel him smiling through the music and it is so infectious you want to smile, too.  It’s not catchy, there’s no hook or drop or conventional device of popular electronic music.  Its jubilation may be synthesized but the whole thing feels organic.

Suede:  Night Thoughts

I had largely forgotten about these guys 14 years ago.  Most American listeners never knew them in the first place as this band had the misfortune of being contemporaries of Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Radiohead, Placebo, and other British rockers whose imports commanded Yankee ears at the close of the century.  Yet this album sounds fresh.  There’s a prickly tension coursing through the music, an electricity that makes the hairs on your arm tingle 22 years after the band’s superb Dog Man Star.  They sound hungry, edgy, and deliver irresistible melodies with characteristic nasal sneer.  This record is the unapologetic antidote of rock to counteract the nausea induced by listening to hipster bands.  Night Thoughts satisfies because it exudes confidence in its authenticity. 

Lush:  Blind Spot

You don’t listen to a Lush concert so much as you swim through it.  I discovered as much at their first U.S. live show in 20 years this summer in Seattle.  Thirty feet from the stage I could barely keep my head above the waves of chorus and harmony.  I was thrilled to hear them play new material.  Would a new album follow?  No, but they gave us an EP which is a treat that leaves you wanting more.  It’s easy to dismiss this record as more songs about complicated relationships, longing, and loneliness from 1990s British shoegaze luminaries – a well-worn path.  Maybe you would be right, but this EP reveals a simple truth:  in this uncertain world we still need introspective songs about our humanity that float on ethereal vocals, surging guitar chords, and shimmering drums.  It’s emotional security.

De La Soul:  And the Anonymous Nobody

Wow.  Where did this come from?  This is unbelievable. Even without the parade of dazzling guest appearances (a diverse spectrum including Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, Damon Albarn, and a fabulous falsetto turn/gratuitous guitar solo from Justin Hawkins of The Darkness), this record blew me away.  De La Soul has been effortlessly flowing between musical influences since day one (remember “Eye Know” from 3 Feet High?  Steely Dan was never repurposed to such heights) and here they seamlessly weave together an eclectic range of sounds into a coherent and compelling album.  What I love most about this record is the feeling of intimacy – it’s heartfelt, it’s revealing, and the arrangements are complex. It sounds like they are right there in the room, performing just for you.  This could be my favorite record of the year.

Green Pajamas:  To the end of the Sea

How many bands have the creative staying power to release 33 albums?  More importantly, is #33 a meaningful departure from, say, #17?  With this record Green Pajamas inexplicably keep cranking out richly textured songs and explore new realms of sound and theme.  I’m not usually a fan of concept albums, yet this one is bewitching.  I’m still not sure what it’s about, but like an ebb tide it draws you out into deeper waters.  The sparing cello is gorgeous and contrasts with fuzzy guitars.  The constituent instruments stand out clearly from each other – a deft studio feat – but interlock in delicate layers to delectable effect.  It’s weird, it’s delightful, and what I like the most is that it invites an attentive listen from start to finish.

Tribe Called Quest:  We got it from here…thank you 4 your service

If you like De La Soul it’s practically a given that you also like Tribe, and like the former the latter have reunited for a record that combines unexpected styles into a sonic masterpiece.  And like Blackstar, the album was overshadowed by death (of founding member Phife from diabetes complications).  A roster of inspired collaborators accentuates the distinctive sounds of Tribe – Busta Rhymes, Jack White, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, and Elton John, among others.  Recorded in Q-Tip’s studio, this album pulses with intensity and is exquisitely produced.  There’s a lot going on here and it’s all fascinating.  What I love most about the record is the awareness of empty space.  The selective absence of sound makes me keep coming back to give it another listen.  There is high craftsmanship to discover here and blistering political commentary.

Addendum 1:  Martin Kociuba’s Top ThreeI’ve known Martin since high school and we have spent more time than I can remember listening to and recording music together. His picks were shaped by profound personal loss, the point referenced as “before” or “after”.

My personally-arrived-at 2016 ALBUMS note essentially reflect the unmoored period of the After (last three months), and also today's exquisite difficulty/rarity for artists to deliver an entire ALBUM's worth of sonic coherence and emotional resonance:

Devin Townsend Project:  Transcendence (Deluxe Edition)

Released only two weeks After (losing a child), I found this while searching for something/anything (non-chemical) powerful/escapist enough to distract from the inner turbulence. I was already a fan of DTP's "Epicloud" and Townsend's work on Vai's 1993 "Sex and Religion." "Transcendence" is a blistering Mass of overdriven harmonies and choral celebration, a heavy Witnessing uplift of sorts (think Blues Brothers' church service scene, with metalheads providing the soundtrack and somersaulting down the aisles with surprising gracefulness), and more impactful with each subsequent listening. 

Riverside:  Eye of the Soundscape

Admittedly a personal bias, the band being from my-birthplace Poland. A very different album vs the Euro-Dream-Theater/Tool-hybrid flavors of their previous releases. The ambience coupled with a notable lack of guitar led me to look up some reviews, turned out their guitarist died of a cardiac arrest earlier in the year, and this was the band's tribute. So it follows with 2016's overall themes. A modern Tangerine Dream release in some parallel universe. 

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith:  EARS

I had not listened to this since earlier in the year, but once my memory was jogged, I gave it another whirl, and was reminded / rewarded / reassured by its warmth, clarity, and nonlinear journey. Faint echoes of Peter Gabriel's "Last Temptation of Christ." Otherwise, it just deserves to be heard and digested slowly (but not over 1000 years...)

Addendum #2:  Ben Mullins’s Top ThreeI’ve known Ben since sixth grade and have been lucky to be peripherally involved in some of his more disruptive musical projects.  His perspective on music has always been so different from mine that I’ve learned many unexpected lessons on creativity from him.

Niki and the Dove:  Everybody's Heart is Broken Now

Most guy-on-laptop + female vocalist indie electronic groups are kind of interchangeable and indistinct to me, but Niki and the Dove manage to actually have a distinct personality and sound. The vocals and melodies are very Fleetwood Mac, while the rhythm components remind me of 80s Prince. Sometimes those influences are pretty darn obvious - and I mean that as a compliment.

An Autumn for Crippled Children:  Eternal

I'll be honest, my favorite album of theirs is still 2013's "Try Not to Destroy Everything you Love", but I like this one too. AAFCC is one of several "Blackgaze" bands I discovered after seeing countless good reviews for Deafheaven's "Sunbather".  I think of Deafheaven as black metal Slowdive, and AAFCC is black metal My Bloody Valentine.  It's intense and screamy and grandiose and I love coding to it.

Dead When I Found Her:  Eyes on Backwards

I don't particularly like the band name, and probably wouldn't have checked them out had they not shown up on a playlist I was following.  They sound like if Skinny Puppy built on the sound of Too Dark Park and Greater Wrong Of The Right.  It's basically early 90s industrial done with newer technology.  Most of the 90s industrial groups that continued into the 2000s got way less layered, but DWIFH is insanely layered.  At any moment in a song, there could be 20 or more distinct sounds flying around the mix, yet it remains coherent and I can even understand the distorted lyrics.  Every year or two, I would tell myself "maybe I should make an old school industrial album now that I have something better than a Tascam 4 track + sampler with 2MB sample memory."  I never got around to it, but this guy did, and it's pretty great.