Published on January 3rd, 2017 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Feedback Society’s Top 20 Albums of 2016
As he does every year, music writer Dave Scaddan gives us his top 20 albums of the year! Here’s Dave’s Top 20 albums of 2016!
The December 25th drop of the third Run the Jewels album has complicated my already ridiculous attempt to tell you, the reader, about my thoughts concerning the most highly regarded music releases of 2016. RTJ3 has a physical release date of January 13, but we’re already enjoying it via various streaming methods. Be assured, this record will appear on my list for 2017, and if I had to fit it into my 2016 list after hearing it only a few times, I could definitely slot it into the top five without reluctance. Or, if twenty records are released in 2017 that trump RTJ3 and it never ends up on one of my precious nerd lists, then we are in for one of the best years in music of my lifetime. So much of 2016 is best forgotten, but these are the twenty albums I think will be remembered, at least on my stereo.
20 The Avalanches – Wildflower
I knew I would buy this record before it even came out, because back in 2000 (the last time The Avalanches put out a record) someone burned me a copy on CD before I’d even heard it and that copy has spun hundreds of times in my car as a regular go-to, feel-good selection. I felt I owed it to this group to purchase the follow-up without contemplation. At first, I didn’t love Wildflower. How can a record live up to sixteen years of anticipation? Over time, my reactions to it have warmed. It’s cool to hear Danny Brown, MF DOOM, and even Biz Markie (rapping exclusively about cereal) guesting on a record that doesn’t really say, ‘hip-hop’ as much as its predecessor.
Come to think of it, I’ve never really considered this band to be an instrumental hip-hop group, and I think they only get categorized that way because Since I Left You contains so many samples, and in 2000, when you thought, “lots of samples” you probably thought, Paul’s Boutique, Nation of Millions, 3 Feet High and Rising, the hip-hop records from the late eighties that were made right before sample clearance became a financial nightmare. Wildflower won’t hit people as a hip-hop record if they don’t know the background, especially with Jennifer Herrema guesting and more than half the songs leaning more toward a chill, atmospheric vibe.
19 Aluk Todolo – Voix
In Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, the greatest movie about popular music culture ever made, there is a phase that Spinal Tap go through where Nigel Tuffnel leaves the band and their live setlist is compromised because of all the “Tap classics” he’s co-written with David St. Hubbins. At this point, bassist Derek Smalls suggests that Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band, take the opportunity to perform his composition, A Jazz Odyssey, a freeform jazz exploration, in front of a festival crowd.
Aluk Tolodo’s Voix is what I imagine a good metal-based band could sound like with a jazz mindset. Voix sounds like a tight three piece that would be equally comfortable playing psych rock, math rock, ambient music, or black metal. The songs are vocal-less, title-less, and clearly designed for total immersion.
18 Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
This is a pretty off-kilter and abrasive record with definite clear-the-room potential, but I like it. Danny Brown’s voice exists in a claustrophobic, tube-shaped space with B Real on one end and Andre 3000 on the other. I would call Atrocity Exhibition hip-hop’s Trout Mask Replica. Brown resembles Captain Beefheart in that he clearly does not care if his presentation of music fits any genre or listener expectation. If you reach for this one, be ready to have whatever pretense you have about rap to be destroyed.
17 MSTRKRFT – Operator
At first listen, this record seemed deadened. Over time, approaching it as an electronic punk record (a la Suicide) instead of as a new MSTRKRFT record, I turned around on it. When I found myself hearing elements of stuff like Ministry and Skinny Puppy (groups I like, but don’t really hear much anymore) as some of these tracks would pop in on shuffle play, I stopped expecting it to be clubby and just let it be what it is. Operator is really full of bounce, but with a dark, minimal edge – not really a party record, but still an interesting addition to the year’s roster. It’s good to see this duo going instrumental again – the guest vocal schmozz of Fist of God is long and gratefully forgotten.
16 Black Mountain – IV
I’ve read and heard plenty from those who aren’t into this band’s brand, but I hear them coming more and more into their own. Co-vocalist Amber Webber sounds fantastic on this record, reminding me a lot of how Rachel Fannan used to fit into Sleepy Sun (before she departed and left a major hole in their sound). If you haven’t heard this record yet, imagine if Rush started listening to lots of Fleetwood Mac. If that sounds terrible to you, then you’ve been duly warned and you’ll have plenty of company. Monstrous riffs and Floydian space-outs abound on IV, so be prepared to play it loud and have it overwhelm you.
15 Africaine 808 – Basar
This is one of those debut releases that underscores just how multiculturally layered music is in 2016. Africaine 808 are a German duo whose sound meshes African funk rhythms with 90s British techno. As more people in more places are getting in touch with more varied styles and eras and bringing them into their own music, it’s easy to get complacent about whatever cool new blend comes next. Africaine 808 cut through all that – after a few minutes of any of these hypnotic tracks, you won’t likely be thinking about the blend of influences, you’ll be dancing and/or grooving.
14 A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here – Thank You 4 Your Service
This album highlights for me just how out of touch I am with hip-hop in 2016. All the MCs on this list are over 40. The young generation of rappers all seem like cartoons to me. Sure, they come out with a good track once in a while, but it’s mostly just about marketing, and in my opinion, most of them couldn’t hold a candle – lyrically – to the men and women who blazed the trail for them.
Tribe (now with Busta Rhymes as an honorary member, which, ever since Scenario, is really how it should be) are not “back,” but they did put out a record this year, and showed up on SNL. The new album is refreshingly under-produced, and as visionary in its message as any Tribe record that precedes it. Maybe in time, the sadness that I feel over Phife’s absence from this album (and the fact that they couldn’t get this done in the ample time they had while he was living) will fade, but I doubt it.
13 David Teie – Music for Cats
Bear with me on this one. As technically the first and only album in this genre of music, part of its appeal is that it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard. Composed by cellist David Teie, the approach here is more scientific than musical, literally creating music that is meant for cats to enjoy and be soothed by, regardless of what that may sound like to the human ear.
So, I fully realize how goofy this sounds, but I really dig what’s going on here. I honestly cannot think of any other record that’s so effective in consistently changing my mood except for Brightblack Morning Light. All melodic and rhythmic concerns are thrown out the window here, leaving us (or our cats) with nothing but ambient cello notes, purring sounds and taps that sound a little like scratching on paper. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well that’s what made me try it in the first place – I thought I’d just end up having a laugh and maybe seeing how my two cats reacted to it, but then I kept putting it on again and again (for myself) and finding it very relaxing and comforting.
By the way, one of my cats is not really that into it; it gets her attention at first and then she wanders out of the room, which is weird, because she’ll usually hang out wherever loud music is playing. My other cat is absolutely into it – she positions herself to listen to it, intrigued at first, then relaxed, then asleep.
12 American Wrestlers – Goodbye Terrible Youth
This is another one of those records that didn’t sound very good to me until after I put the first listen behind me. Last year’s American Wrestlers album started off with a great track called No one’s Crying Over me Either that announced its presence with authority – a catchy, smooth track making the ear curious right away. Goodbye Terrible Youth does not have that presence-announcing track, so at first I was nonplussed, but after shelving my initial expectations, these songs started to shine.
Frontman Gary McClure has no obvious quirks or skills to set him apart except for consistently solid songwriting – without the big single track and the zazzy media presence, (ala Mac Demarco) I fear this could be another talented band that never gets the attention they deserve.
11 DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
Even though the single featuring Run the Jewels is not really representative of the rest of the album (and clearly the best track) this is still a cool record. When it’s not banging, it’s atmospheric. I only wish that Shadow would use certain samples and loops less repetitively.
10 Trentemoller – Fixion
After he worked with Savages, Danish producer Trentemoller got back in my earshot this year, pulling lots of influences that are warming for me. Leaning heavily on the styles The Cure triumphed with on Seventeen Seconds and Faith in the early eighties, Trentemoller also dips into other sounds from the same era (Depeche Mode, New Order). River in Me – featuring vocals by Jehnny Beth of Savages – is the closest thing we can get to the jumpy, quirky pop of The Knife now that they aren’t making music anymore.
9 Savages – Adore Life
Adore Life is a totally decent follow-up to Silence Yourself, adding more poesy and precociousness to Savages’ intensely biting sound. The centrepiece track, Adore, really overwhelms the record with its earnest hunger amidst a gently composed backdrop, but there’s plenty of rollicking, angular rock here too.
8 Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)
As much as I enjoy Alice Glass as a vocalist and performer, Amnesty does not skip a single beat in the Crystal Castles catalogue now that she is gone. The beats get a little more trappy, the avant-garde features fade into the background a bit, but it’s still the same great signature sound. Ethan Kath is focused more on building tracks (and the track list overall) here, not just dropping his incredibly chippy, industrial loops and letting them rock.
7 Mr. Lif – Don’t Look Down
Lif joins Shadow, Danny Brown, Aesop Rock and Tribe in the list where no hip-hoppers born in the eighties or later reside. This is a really “mature” record, too. Lif just embraces his age and pens rhymes with all the perspective, patience, and pith that comes with it.
6 The Dean Ween Group – The Deaner Album
My hope when Ween broke up was that it would increase their productivity. At the start, when I fell in love with them, they were a reliable, album-every-year duo. Towards the end, there would be three or four years between studio releases, which was tough for me to wait out. I figured when they split that neither of them would be able to stop making music, and that one of the saddest musical breakups might have the silver lining of getting them both to put out records more often, albeit on their own.
Maybe someday Dean and Gene will do another record. Aaron Freeman put out a really good solo album in 2014, and Ween have played together live since then, so who knows? 2016 was the year we finally got to hear a solo record from Mickey Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween (though he has done five LPs with his harder-edged band, Moistboyz). The Deaner Album is very much a Ween-spirited record, investigating lots of different musical styles, not taking the lyrical content too seriously, and providing laughs along the way. It’s refreshing to hear such a great guitar player flying by the seat of his pants, which has always been Deaner’s niche. His goofiness has always been funnier because of his playing acumen, and his guitar virtuosity has always been more impressive because of his light-hearted approach. Plus, as with the guitar playing on every Ween record except for 12 Golden Country Greats, the range simply stupefies over the course of an hour or so. Deaner dips into plenty of his favourite guitar styles here, fret-checking The Allman Brothers Band, Dead Kennedys, and Prince, to name a few.
The album highlight, for me, is Garry. Just as Deaner kicked out a tribute to Eddie Hazel (A Tear for Eddie from Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese) when he died, Garry Shider, another Parliament-Funkadleic guitarist, gets his tribute here. The Deaner Album is a working man’s guitar record, and listening to it is like going to work with your favourite co-worker, the dude who makes each shift fly by with his know-how and hilarity.
5 Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
If Sturgill Simpson’s vocal drawl didn’t automatically make the listener think, “country” (which it most certainly does) A Sailor’s Guide to Earth could fit, musically, into many other genres. After investigating how country and psychedelia might work together on his last record, this time Simpson presents himself as a balladeer, a troubadour, even working in a grandiose framework that would suit someone like Neil Diamond at times.
This record also shines a little brighter because of a great tour, where Simpson brought together a group of musicians who were all about the musical performance (not the “stage performance”) and let them do what they do best while showcasing these songs. It was great to see a rising singer/songwriter put together a tour combo designed to accent the music and not the star.
4 Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: The Fillmore East Show
Now that the Hendrix estate has reached a point of solvency after many years of stasis due to legal battles, much “new” material is hitting the market. This is one of those releases where everything is done right. Previous to this, the Band of Gypsies record (consisting of only five tracks) was the only legitimate live Hendrix record from this era available on vinyl, and since the Band of Gypsies lineup (featuring Billy Cox and Buddy Miles) never produced any studio records, the live stuff is all we really have to go on if we want to hear what Jimi was working on right near the end.
No longer satisfied with sticking to the rock n’ roll genre he single-handedly transformed, Machine Gun-era Hendrix set his sights on bringing more blues, funk and jazz styles into the fray. The resulting performances (by all three members) are themselves transformative, capturing a level of musical achievement and innovation that probably just doesn’t exist anymore. These Fillmore shows are quite simply a priceless chunk of musical history, and the release treatment this time seems to have everything to do with preserving that chunk, instead of just mining it to fulfill contractual obligations, as was always the case with the sparse Gypsies material until now.
3 Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
This is my favourite Aesop Rock record by far, and I’ve spent plenty of time with most of them. It’s a shame that so many hip-hop fans are put off by Ian Bavitz’ fully automatic delivery, because in the midst of most of that complex speed-rhyming is a great deal of lyrical panache. The Impossible Kid is the record where that fully automatic mic blast gets traded in for a semi automatic; the delivery is still quick, witty and unique, but it’s dialed back in pace just a little, making it more “accommodating” and accenting the personal storytelling style that’s used on most of these fifteen tracks. The production, as usual, is totally on point – you’ll get your share of banging beats from this one, and lots of creeping, darker tracks as well.
2 Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
Nicolas Jaar is starting to seem like a young Eno in the sense that his music stands out as much for how it is presented as it does for the merits of the songs themselves. Sirens is Jaar’s first immaculately “put together” album – the individual tracks cover plenty of ground, but the sequencing and production tie them all together. For a guy that’s still in his early twenties, the mind reels at what he might be able to do to the landscape of recorded music over the next twenty years.
Looking at most other successful music producers in their early twenties these days, Jaar has no peer. Many other young talents are geared towards getting one of their tracks attached to a big-name vocalist, but when Jaar isn’t helping develop undiscovered talent, he minds his own store, meticulously grooming this record into the aural equivalent of whipped maple-butter. The moves on Sirens as it weaves through dance, lounge-croon, pop and soul are incredibly smooth. This is a record that really pushes its way into whatever space it’s played in.
1 The Radio Dept. – Running Out Of Love
While I am only just now becoming familiar with the early, shoegazey work that this Swedish outfit became known for almost a decade and a half ago, I have been a fan of their 2010 record, Clinging to a Scheme for years. Running Out of Love doesn’t sound much like the previous effort; it is also even better.
After the opening track, where both are used beautifully, this record almost completely eliminates the guitar and human-hit drums, transforming The Radio Dept.‘s sound from upbeat, folky pop into a more electronic, slickly programmed dance sound. The effect here is a bit like hearing The Smiths break into How Soon is Now when one might be expecting This Charming Man or Still Ill; it’s different, it’s exciting, it energizes the great vocals and songwriting that The Radio Dept. have always had on offer.
Lyrically, there’s a lot more going on here than in most slickly produced pop songs. Running Out of Love conveys a distinct left-wing bent while also capturing the political ennui that any anti-capitalist would feel in the midst of this year. The Radio Dept. do not shy away from politics, but they also don’t pretend to be above shrugging a little at the face of current governmental trends. Even the song titles tend to reflect this engaged-yet-handcuffed feeling; titles like Thieves of State and Committed to the Cause let us know these won’t be common love songs, but others, like This Thing was Bound to Happen, Can’t be Guilty and Teach Me to Forget attach the band’s politics to very human feelings of ambivalence and frustration.
The overall effect of all this politicking isn’t off-putting, just thought-provoking, creating quite the contrast against these ten bubbling tracks, where the souls of The Smiths, OMD, and The Stone Roses lurk.