Monday, February 20, 2017

COLUMN: Best of 2016 - Music

You know what they say, right? Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes, and that one column you have to suffer through every year when I tell you my picks for the best records of the year:

#10 - David Bowie - Blackstar - When we first met "Blackstar" with its bleak jazz and troubling lyrics about alienation and separation, none of us realized we were listening to David Bowie performing his own epitaph. Leave it to the Thin White Duke to turn even death into art. Bowie might be dead, but "Blackstar" is very much alive and unwell. "I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again," he sings. We loved the grand charade, sir.

#9 - Patrick Boutwell - Hi, Heaviness - The most under-appreciated band in all of music -- Providence, Rhode Island's The Brother Kite -- is on an extended hiatus. In the meantime, lead singer Patrick Boutwell took it upon himself to attempt the RPM Challenge: create and record an entire album in 28 days. Long nights and marathon recording sessions birthed "Hi, Heaviness," a quirky collection of would-be demos and power pop gems that prove yet again how badly the rest of the world needs to get clued in.  

#8 - Trashcan Sinatras - Wild Pendulum - My favorite Scottish band's sixth album is neither wild nor pendulous, but remains full of the refined romanticism, fragile harmonies, and layered understatements that have become the band's trademark sound. The Trashies take their sweet time between records, and I'm pretty sure the entire latter half of their career has been crowd-funded by their small yet ardent fanbase. But with this band, the results are always worth the effort.

#7 - ette - Homemade Lemonade - Maybe I'm just a sucker for Scottish indiepop, but this record soundtracked a majority of my summer. ette is the side project of Carla Easton, who fronts another great Scottish band called TeenCanteen. On her own, though, this is the clear sound of liberated, independent, lo-fi fun -- and it's contagious as all get out.

#6 - Viola Beach - Viola Beach - An aspiring UK band gaining ground on the back of their debut single, Viola Beach were on their first major tour back in February when their car plummeted through an open drawbridge in Sweden, instantly killing all four members and their manager. The tragedy made Viola Beach household names in the UK, and Coldplay even covered one of their songs at Glastonbury so the band could fulfill their dream of headlining a festival. All of their completed tracks were compiled posthumously into an album full of promise and exuberance that I wish we could've heard under different circumstances.

#5 - Lush - Blind Spot EP - When veteran British shoegazers Lush announced their 2016 reunion, it was exciting news. Sadly, it only lasted long enough for a quick tour, but they were still able to produce a 4-track EP that's among their best ever work. Towards the end of their original run, Lush abandoned their hazy shoegazer roots in favor of the more trendy Britpop sound at the time, but on this final EP, their gaze is again pointed directly shoeward. It's a mighty final gasp from a band it was an absolute pleasure to revisit.

#4 - A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - When ATCQ's first album showed up in 1990, it was the first time I realized that hip-hop could be SO much more than braggadocio and dance beats. When co-frontman Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year from diabetes complications, it was a sad end for the most groundbreaking group in hip-hop history. What no one knew, though, was that they had secretly recorded one final album before Phife's death -- and it's every bit as edgy, challenging, and empowering as you'd expect.

#3 - Weezer - Weezer (The White Album) - Who'd have thought that America's favorite nerd rock band of the 90s would still be showing up on Top Ten lists some twenty years later? Weezer arrived in the 90s with the incredible one-two punch of the Blue Album and "Pinkerton," but since then, their output has been maddeningly uneven. For the fans that stuck with, though, 2016 was a big payday. Weezer's tenth album ranks among their best, an epic boy-meets-girl song cycle set to a Californian summer of love, loss, and the amazing hooks that have always kept me a fan. It's a brilliant return to form.

#2 - Frank Ocean - Blonde - Even in a year when Beyonce dropped the groundbreaking "Lemonade," no artist pushed the boundaries of R&B in 2016 quite like Frank Ocean. On "Blonde," Ocean veers into abstract experimental territory more than ever before, and the resulting tracks wash over you with sonic dreamscapes that drift into muted textures and an almost-maddening introversion. If you want pop choruses you can sing along to or beats to make you juju across dancefloors, keep looking. This is a record that owes more to Brian Eno and the Beatles than Usher or Drake. If Marvin Gaye had come up in this era, I guarantee he'd be making records that sound like this.

#1 - Let's Eat Grandma - I, Gemini - Finally an album that answers the age-old question: What would happen if the murdered ghost twins from The Shining hit puberty and dropped a record? Let's Eat Grandma is the British duo of Rosa Walton & Jenny Hollingworth. Best friends since they were four years old, the girls starting dabbling in music as a teenage lark and recorded most of "I, Gemini" when they were 15. Listening to it is like getting a ticket to a haunted playroom. It's a world where child-like handclaps and innocent vocals share space with submerged synths and foreboding walls of gloom. Just when you think you have it figured out, a saxophone wails or a recorder shrieks or someone starts rapping. It's as if someone gave them a dictionary definition of the word "music" and then turned them loose in a recording studio with no instructions as to how music SHOULD sound. It's THAT weird. But it's also achingly beautiful, life-affirmingly impulsive, and the most exciting thing to come out of 2016's speakers.

Next week: The Best of TV in 2016, or, Justification As To Why I Spent A Year On My Couch.

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