2016: We Kill The Flame

Compared to last year, 2016 was not a great year for albums (or a great year, period). Still! I quickly threw together a playlist of thirty favorite songs and I could easily add on another ten or twenty. While long-awaited records like Tegan and Sara’s Love You to Death or Junior Boys’ Big Black Coat felt a little underwhelming in lieu of what came before from each duo, I played the heck out of both “U-Turn” and “Baby Give Up On It”. The Bastille single ended up as much of an earworm as “Pompeii” was a few years before. The Florence + The Machine song, a soundtrack cut, certainly didn’t feel like filler or a leftover from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. “Radio” stoked some anticipation for a second album from Sylvan Esso in 2017.

I’ve also included tracks from a few discs that very nearly made my top ten (KT Tunstall (her best since her debut), Parquet Courts, true supergroup case (Neko) / lang (KD) / veirs (Laura)) and better-than-average album cuts from the likes of Wilco, Santigold, Eleanor Friedberger and Corinne Bailey Rae, among others. If this year had a theme song, it’s undeniably the title track from what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s final album (a good one, but not as interesting as Popular Problems). Nearly up there with “Everybody Knows” and “The Future”, it’s as much in tune with the times as my #1 album of this year.

Click here to listen to my Spotify playlist of thirty great songs from 2016:

  1. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
  2. Santigold, “Rendezvous Girl”
  3. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
  4. The Radio Dept., “Committed to the Cause”
  5. The Avalanches, “If I Were a Folkstar”
  6. Martha Wainwright, “Traveller”
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
  8. Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
  9. Whitney, “No Matter Where We Go”
  10. Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
  11. Bastille, “Good Grief”
  12. KT Tunstall, “Turned a Light On”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”
  14. Pet Shop Boys, “Burn”
  15. The Divine Comedy, “A Desperate Man”
  16. John K. Samson, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”
  17. Florence + The Machine, “Wish That You Were Here”
  18. The 1975, “Somebody Else”
  19. Wilco, “Someone to Lose”
  20. Andrew Bird, “Truth Lies Low”
  21. Roisin Murphy, “Ten Miles High”
  22. Junior Boys, “Baby Give Up On It”
  23. Eleanor Friedberger, “Because I Asked You”
  24. Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”
  25. case/lang/veirs, “Best Kept Secret”
  26. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
  27. Tegan and Sara, “U-Turn”
  28. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
  29. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
  30. Field Music, “Stay Awake”
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Best Albums of 2016: # 1

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1. The Radio Dept., “Running Out of Love”

This Swedish duo’s first full-length studio release since 2010 was already this year’s most relevant album before the November elections; the morning after, as many of us recoiled in horror at the results, they posted a link to the track “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” on their Facebook page and, in retrospect, of course it was. The warnings we chose to ignore were loud and clear all along. On “Occupied”, the preceding track here but also a standalone single released back in Summer 2015, they sang, “It’s a shame / how people claim / to be one thing or another / When it fact it’s nothing but an act.”

Running Out of Love is essentially an album-length condemnation of the rise of fascism in Sweden. The opener, “Sloboda Narodu” (Croatian for “Freedom to the people”) is anthem-like and hopeful; the closer, “Teach Me to Forget”, ominously seethes with disappointment and contempt (they follow the title with the lyric, “Because baby you’re so good at it.”). In between, they ridicule the omnipresence of “Swedish Guns”, attempt to rationalize fascist motives (“Committed to the Cause”) and justify their own muted responses (“Can’t Be Guilty”).

Having drawn inspiration from both The Cure and New Order throughout their career, this synth-heavy record tips the scales towards the latter, although it often surprises. Reggae-inflected “Swedish Guns” is the modern equivalent of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”; “We Got Game” recalls early ‘90s house music like Inner City and Technotronic. “Can’t Be Guilty” could be classic ABC (albeit with far more subdued vocals) while “Committed to the Cause” mixes Happy Mondays-indebted dance rock with a just a touch of Toto (!). That last song might be the best thing they’ve ever done, but all of Running Out of Love fully registers both musically and politically. It’s a definitive album of the world we live in now.

Favorite tracks: “Swedish Guns”, “We Got Game”, “Can’t Be Guilty”, “Committed to the Cause”

“Committed to the Cause”:

“We Got Game”:

Best Albums of 2016: # 4, 3, 2

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4. David Bowie, “Blackstar”

Would this have been as beloved if Bowie hadn’t died days after its release? Does it matter? Far more focused, innovative and affecting than The Next Day, it both encapsulates everything we loved about the man, and also blows it all up. The title track mirrors the structure of “Station to Station” without sounding anything like it; “Girl Love Me” shrugs off Major Tom-style mythmaking with a sobering directness; “Lazarus” looks death straight in the eye, shattering any claims of shielding himself from the world with another persona. What a way to go out, to sum up a life like only Bowie could, while still leaving people wanting more: not for naught is the final track called “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.

Favorite tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

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3. Field Music, “Commontime”

I had high hopes for this record after its six-minute-plus first single/opener “The Noisy Days Are Over” dropped late last year—it reiterated everything good about this English art-pop combo while also opening up their sound to contain beefy horns and a funk-rock rhythm not far off from vintage Talking Heads (even the now-departed Prince (of all people) linked to it on his Twitter feed). Although it’s the undeniable highlight here, the rest doesn’t disappoint, as they temper their always-appreciated XTC fixation with welcome nods towards Squeeze, Split Enz and Paul McCartney circa “Take it Away”. Equally welcome: the newfound maturity and insight of tracks like “The Morning is Waiting” and poignant closer “Stay Awake”.

Favorite tracks: “The Noisy Days are Over”, “Disappointed”, “Stay Awake”

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2. Michael Kiwanuka, “Love & Hate”

If Kiwanuka’s 2012 debut confirmed a talent for Bill Withers-like folk-soul, his follow-up reveals this Londoner’s ambition and vision. Opening with “Cold Little Heart”, a ten-minute, two-part extravaganza that crosses Pink Floyd with Donny Hathaway, Love & Hate rarely lets up from there. It graciously finds space for jazz-inflected, classy but incensed protest songs (“Black Man in a White World”, “Rule the World”), extended, expansive soundscapes (the title track, “Father’s Child”) and good old, radio-friendly pop (“One More Night”). For once, Danger Mouse’s baroque production compliments rather than overwhelms the artist’s intentions as the swooning strings, Stax-ish horn charts and both acoustic and electric guitars all seem to fit perfectly together with Kiwanuka’s warmhearted croon.

Favorite tracks: “Cold Little Heart”, “One More Night”, “Father’s Child”

Best Albums of 2016: # 7, 6, 5

super

7. Pet Shop Boys, “Super”

A solid sequel to the album that brought them back from the dead, Super is business-as-usual Pet Shop Boys: catchy, cheeky and ever-dancefloor ready. If it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog, the best songs show that Tennant and Lowe still know their way around a killer hook (the glorious, relentless chorus of “Burn”) or how to evoke deep feelings for a past era without delving into cheap nostalgia (“The Pop Kids”). And “Happiness”, “Groovy” and “Pazzo!” all provide heady escapism at time when it’s most needed.

Favorite tracks: “The Pop Kids”, “Say It to Me”, “Burn”

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6. John K. Samson, “Winter Wheat”

With The Weakerthans now officially kaput, leader Samson’s second solo album (I somehow missed the first) isn’t radically different from that outfit’s literate, lived-in folk rock—after all, it does feature two of his three former bandmates. It’s a tad gentler and more acoustic than Reconstruction Site, but no less world weary or endearingly scrappy. Imagine if Michael Stipe made a solo album in 1985 or if Billy Bragg was from Winnipeg instead of London. But arguably only Samson could pull off leftfield experiments such as the spoken word “Quiz Night at Looky Lou’s” or a lyric like, “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.”

Favorite tracks: “PostDoc Blues”, “17th Street Treatment Centre”, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”

wildflower

5. The Avalanches, “Wildflower”

This was never going to exceed or even equal Since I Left You—it just can’t match that album’s limitless sonic design or its seamlessness, and it also gradually peters out in its final third. However, Wildflower is still far better than a second Avalanches LP has any right or purpose to be, especially in that sublime, vintage-disco-to-psych-pop run from “Subways” to “Zap!”, capped off by the kinda stoopid/near-brilliant Biz Markie/Beatles mash-up “The Noisy Eater”. That five months on, I’m still discovering new things to savor within a majority of these songs is a good sign this LP will endure.

Favorite tracks: “If I Was a Folkstar”, “The Noisy Eater”, “Harmony”

Best Albums of 2016: # 10, 9, 8

1975

10. The 1975, “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”

While not as shocking as the deaths of some major musicians this year, I was thrown for a loop at just how good this British quintet’s second album turned out (since I swiftly dismissed the first one). Get past the somewhat cringe-inducing “Love Me” and you’re left with a continually unfolding double album-length collection veering between texture-heavy, Prefab Sprout-level tone poems, Wham!-worthy ballads and such wry conceits as, “If she says I’ve got to fix my teeth, then she’s so American.”

Favorite tracks: “She’s American”, “Somebody Else”, “The Sound”

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9. Roisin Murphy, “Take Her Up to Monto”

Culled from the same sessions that made up my #1 album of last year, this could be its slightly evil twin. Even more insular and adventurous its predecessor, Monto is surely not an ideal place to dip into Murphy’s catalog, even though it has her most direct uptempo track since Overpowered (“Ten Miles High”) and a bossa-nova even your parents could enjoy (“Lip Service”). The final two songs go off the deep end, but she’s the kind of artist you want to attempt such death-defying leaps. From the warm bath of “Mastermind” onward, she rarely disappoints in that regard.

Favorites: “Mastermind”, “Thoughts Wasted”, “Ten Miles High”

whitney

8. Whitney, “Light Upon the Lake”

On a record that could’ve come out in 1973, this Chicago band (featuring former members of the Smith Westerns) lovingly graces that Beatles/Badfinger axis (Elton John is also a fan) without sounding as if covered in mothballs. Sometimes, all you need are ten songs in a mere half-hour to make an impact, although the hooks aplenty certainly don’t hurt. With falsetto vocals that slowly grow on you, occasional, unexpected horns and passages of sheer beauty (cue the title track), this is an unpretentious little gem of a debut album.

Favorite tracks: “The Falls”, “Light Upon The Lake”, “No Matter Where We Go”

Halfway Through 2016: Albums

At this point last year, in compiling my favorite 2015 albums to date, I had heard a few good enough to ostensibly place on a best-of-decade list. Sadly, that’s not the case this year: of the ten titles listed below, I can’t imagine any of them ending up the absolute best one I’ll hear in 2016. Of course, at last year’s midpoint I had heard Froot but did not anticipate what impact it would eventually have, so who knows—the year’s still young.

I will say Andrew Bird’s latest is his most immediate since Armchair Apocrypha, Field Music’s is their best-to-date, Blackstar would have made most critics lists even without Bowie’s death, and I’m shocked at how good The 1975’s second record is, ridiculous Fiona Apple-length title and all. Tegan and Sara and Pet Shop Boys both scrape by on goodwill left over from their previous, superior LPs; hopefully, new works from Roisin Murphy and (gasp) The Avalanches (both out July 8) will at least be up to that level.

My favorite 2016 albums so far, in alphabetical order:

Andrew Bird, Are You Serious
Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks In Whispers
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Field Music, Commontime
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat
Pet Shop Boys, Super
Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death
The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.