Favorites of 2016

By Austintayeshus Austintayeshus
updated 3 months ago

Roughly in order of preference.

  1. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

    Moving fully ahead into an entirely new symphonic post-rock sound without so much as blinking, Radiohead are back to being the most talked-about band in the world after nearly disappearing down the post-dubstep rabbit hole on The King of Limbs (which I will defend to this day as a very good album, but alas, the consensus seems to be that it was a misstep). Johnny Greenwood's arrangements are the star of the show. String arrangements on Radiohead albums are nothing new, but in the past, they have mainly been used strictly as accents and exclamation marks to the existing song. With A Moon Shaped Pool, the string arrangements become the main focus in the majority of the album's songs. In the role of a brilliant supporting star role, Thom Yorke's lyrics seem to be preoccupied with reflection and looking back. This makes an already maze-like and often confounding toned album become even more enigmatic in its overall sound. It's thoroughly engaging and, if nothing else, just the sound of it all remains absolutely gorgeous. For an album as mystifying and as seemingly foreign as this one is to end with a brand new studio recording of the nearly two decade old 'True Love Waits' feels very appropriate — it's a moment of comfortably familiar lyrics set atop an unfamiliar, but beautiful, tinkling cyclical piano riff that leaves me feeling strangely satisfied, but with the urge to immediately play the album again. Nothing Radiohead have done previously could have indicated that they had an album this unique and downright dazzling in them. That it comes over twenty years into their trajectory makes it that much more rewarding.
    Key tracks: 'Ful Stop', 'Present Tense' and 'True Love Waits' are standouts for me, but the whole thing is an experience unto itself

  2. Maxwell - blackSUMMERS'night

    After his second-longest break between albums, Maxwell finally shares blackSUMMERS'night. In the long period of frustrating teases following BLACKsummers'night (his social media accounts have literally been hyping this album for years), I had my doubts that he would ever live up to the promise of the pledged trilogy. But, it is now two-thirds complete and this latest installment hovers easily around at the top of an already stellar discography. So, consider my faith officially restored. Recalling the submerged, nocturnal grooves of Embrya, the music here is spaced out and fantastically layered, but with a tighter sense of immediacy than Max's previous masterpiece. Lyrically, Max has moved into his most inner-directed subject matter ever. He has developed a voice that delves into the tertiary and quaternary surfaces of already opaque emotions. And yet, he has become so good at conveying this style of ultra specific inner-dialogue that his words are never unclear or missing the mark. And, in direct proportion to BLACK's exuberant outpouring of good vibes, the further he digs here, the more unrest he uncovers. Indeed, this probably just edges out Now to be his most introspective album. But to say all that betrays the album's undeniably funky and downright catchy nature. The magic of what Maxwell has become is his ability to write seemingly niche songs that are ultimately appropriate for mass consumption. This is carefully considered, mature music that also brilliantly never once forgets the value of a contagious groove. I can already say this is a much "deeper" album than BLACK was. That one probably has the better highlights, but overall, SUMMERS' feels like the more consistent work. To be sure, if BLACK was the initial "honeymoon" phase of a relationship where the infatuation is still strong, SUMMERS' is the incomparable satisfaction one feels after much more time has been spent and that deeper connection is established. I had *high* expectations for this record and it still satisfied. Album's defining quote: "Demons are following me, following what we can't see. I just want to dance, baby."
    Key tracks: the space disco manifesto 'All the Ways Love Can Feel', 'Lake by the Ocean', 'Gods' and the bittersweet closer 'Listen Hear'

  3. William Tyler - Modern Country

    William Tyler's followup to 2013's career-making album Impossible Truth is not quite as all out cinematic and emotional, but it is an album that feels even more refined and has a very clear mission from the start. Impossible Truth, described by William as his "70's singer-songwriter record", was led appropriately with his heart, displaying an emotional depth not often found in instrumental guitar music. Modern Country, in contrast, is a more heady affair; the album William made with an unclouded vision plainly in mind. It's also a more streamlined effort, slimming down to a single LP and clocking in right at fourty minutes. Sure, there's a definite variety to the sounds here —be it the solo acoustic pickings of 'Kingdom of Jones' or the downright stunning Michael Rother-revival of 'Highway Anxiety'— but it all serves its purpose and none of it sounds out of place. This is also William's fullest-sounding album to date, as the majority of the tracks feature two or three other musicians, in addition to himself. So, what's arrived is essentially William's most ambitious project to date. That it also never flinches at the task of following up such a huge album (and arguable modern day classic) as Impossible Truth is undeniably impressive. Yet, as expectations were certainly high for this album, Modern County neither exceeds nor falls short. It simply maintains along with the rock solid consistency that is shaping up to be the discography of William Tyler; one of the world's deepest thinkers and finest pickers. May he never falter; the world just seems a better place with him around.
    Key tracks: 'Highway Anxiety' and 'Gone Clear'

  4. David Bowie - ★ (Blackstar)

    David Bowie's latest is an undeniably strong and artsy affair that shockingly incorporates the artist's sudden death into its own mystique. Bowie knew he wasn't long for this world, so he subsequently puts his everything into this album. This turns out a record that isn't so much obsessed with death as it is fascinated by the process of creation during a limited amount of time. Easily Bowie's strongest album in many, many years and a damned good record that stands up with any of his previous classics — and yet, seems to stand alone even from his previous body of work because of the weight of the material. A tough, but rewarding listen.
    Key tracks: '★', 'Lazarus' and 'I Can't Give Everything Away'

  5. King (23) - We Are King

    An album many years in the making, King's debut is a beautiful cascade of warm soul. The drum machines and synth patches may remind the listener of an early 80's sound, but the loping tempos, clever background harmonies and just the overall warmth of the vibe transcends and achieves a wonderful balance between influence and originality. The album will just wash you over with pure layers of radiance. It almost approaches a shoegaze/soul hybrid in its dreaminess, with the vocals acting as just another layer in the album's ebbing and flowing ocean of sound. It all threatens to become too much, as all of the tunes ride along at a similar pace and lyrics take a backseat to mood. Indeed, if it didn't simply sound as good as it does, it would be easy to write off as background music. Instead, the sameness plays to the record's strengths: King have built a template and they mine that singular groove in as many ways as possible, in one of the best examples of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" in recent memory. Because of the lack of variance in sound, it may take a while to pick up the album's call. But, for those already converted, it's an hour of pure euphoria.
    Key tracks: 'The Greatest', 'Native Land' and 'Hey (Extended Mix)'

  6. Glenn Jones (2) - Fleeting

    Glenn Jones could arguably be accused of getting too intellectual with his past couple of records, so I approached this one with some apprehension. And despite the nerdy documentation of all the songs' strange tunings and curious capo usage, Fleeting clocks in at just under fourty minutes and is quite possibly Glenn's most tuneful album to date. So, there. In his move to become more melodic and engage the listener right off the bat, Jones has created the ultimate gateway album into his world. It's never too late to make a first impression, and if this was mine of him, I imagine I'd be rather excited to have made his acquaintance. As it stands, it's a reassuring move from an old favorite that I'd perhaps started to take for granted.
    Key tracks: 'Mother's Day' and 'Flower Turned Inside Out'

  7. Ben Watt - Fever Dream

    After focusing on Everything But the Girl for the better part of three decades, Ben Watt's solo discography has tripled in size in just the last twenty four months. Indeed, as far as releasing music under his own name, he has waited until his fifties to get truly prolific. Fever Dream, like 2014's Hendra, is an initially unassuming batch of mature MOR pop. It plays as the logical sequel to that album, but repeated listens reveal a more emotionally hefty affair — more lyrical reflection, moodier chord changes and an all around deeper vibe of earnestness. And, with a rawer guitar tone throughout, the songs just sound overall stronger than his previous album. Sure, it may be no-nonsense and not at all flashy in its presentation, but that's part of its charm (not to mention, kind of the point). Truly, if he continues to improve as a songwriter at this rate this late into the game, flashy is the last thing he needs to be, as the songs will linger on at their own rate, speaking for themselves as needed. Really hard not to be into music this unflinchingly sincere.
    Key tracks: 'Gradually', 'Women's Company' and the spectral closer 'New Year of Grace'

  8. Andrew Bird - Are You Serious

    On his eleventh overall album —and first album of all new pop songs since 2012's Break it Yourself— Andrew Bird's tunes sound as comfortable and less-idiosyncratic than ever. But, that's within the scope of just Andrew Bird's music. In the bigger picture, his sound (with violin playing and expert whistling) remains as distinct and unique as fans have come to expect. As the title implies, this album is less fun than albums past, with a lot of Andrew's whimsy falling by the wayside in favor of a more thoughtful tone. It's his most streamlined album thus far, utilizing traditional song structures and all of the tunes clocking in between three-and-a-half and five minutes. While its tunes are all very competent, it is a bit of a step down from the colorful majesty achieved on Break it Yourself. The deluxe edition I purchased added two songs (on a seven inch): the otherwise unavailable 'Shoulder Mountain' and a new (arguably definitive) recording of 'Pulaski.'
    Key tracks: 'Truth Lies Low' and the Fiona Apple duet 'Left-Handed Kisses'

  9. James Blake - The Colour In Anything

    Over three years in the making, The Colour in Anything seemed to take forever to arrive; going through three working titles, many teases via James' BBC radio residency and just a general build-up of hype and high expectations as minute details would leak out occasionally. A last minute title change, a rumored twenty minute song and, finally, James announcing in a radio interview one day in May that the album would be released "in a few hours", after next to no indication that it was even ready. And after all that, to admit that The Colour in Anything is initially kind of underwhelming magnifies the slight disappointment. It's not that it's a bad, or even average, album. It's just that, in the past, whether on singles, EPs or his previous two full lengths, James Blake shot out short bursts of brilliance. The Colour in Anything is sprawling and gargantuan — its running length is the same as James' previous two albums combined. It's a cumbersome listen at first; most of the songs seem to blend into one another, with James not really trying anything new, content to work in familiar territory. It takes a few close listens to really sort things out for yourself and start to recognize each song's different identities. The slow, nocturnal feeling of Overgrown is expanded upon in great, almost obsessive, detail here, with many of the songs disregarding flashy chord changes and/or catchy melodies in favor of focusing on lyrics. And, to be sure, this is a very wordy album, especially for James Blake. Just a quick glossing over of the lyrics will reveal this to be a very heavily emotional album, with many of the songs reflecting on a relationship gone sour. Is it a breakup album? Very possibly, as that would explain the singularly sustained mood. That may also explain its length: in his ambition to clear the air and get out all of his thoughts, James wanted to make sure nothing was left unsaid and that he had covered everything. Hence, an absolutely huge album that unfortunately starts to ramble after a while. Perhaps the most telling track here is the album closing acapella 'Meet You in the Maze' where James declares that "Music can't be everything." And with that, in his ambition to make such a grand statement, he stumbles knowingly, but nobly.
    Key tracks: 'Modern Soul', 'My Willing Heart' and 'Noise Above Our Heads'