Best Albums of 2016: # 4, 3, 2


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”


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”


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


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”


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”


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


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”


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”


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”