Thursday, February 2, 2017

Year in Review and Best of 2016 Part 3 - Music

If you haven't had a chance to read them, I poured out thousands of words about every 2016 movie I watched and every 2016 game I played earlier this month. 2017's already felt surreal on both a global and personal scale; the global elements are obvious to anyone living through it right now, with the personal being much more pleasant! My daughter was born a little over three weeks ago, entering this world a little early and making quite a show of it. We're thankfully all doing well now.

Life's slowly getting back to normal and I've taken a moment to finish up my 2016 Year in Review series with a look back at the new music I checked out. As with last year's piece, this is more of a bonus article. I lack the language to write in depth about music and my scope is limited; I missed out on many of the year's big releases. I spent more time continuing to listen to Marina and the Diamonds' three albums than branching out much this year. Still, it's fun to try!

Top Tier - My favorite albums of the year.

David Bowie - Blackstar - 2016 was a year marked by the deaths of many high profile musicians, a few of whom left us with strong farewell albums. Released on January 8th, Bowie's 69th birthday and a mere two days before his death, Blackstar is the ultimate farewell album. It's a strange, often quiet space trip that contemplates life and death with a confident strength. This follow up to 2013's The Next Day feels much more esoteric, and stylistically takes that album's hypnotic closing track, Heat, and builds a complete work around it. The Next Day was easily one of my favorites of 2013 and Blackstar is an even stronger album. Top Tracks: Blackstar, I Can't Give Everything Away

Leonard Cohen - You Want it Darker -  Like Blackstar, You Want It Darker is a farewell album released at the end of a long, prolific life. Released a little more than two weeks before Cohen's death, You Want it Darker is a more minimalist work than Cohen's other 21st century albums, with simple production and pinpoint focus on his talents as a writer, from humor to sharp bitterness. While I've got mixed feelings on some of Cohen's middle to late era albums, this final release is a fantastic achievement from start to finish and stands among his life's best work. Top Tracks: You Want it Darker, Steer Your Way

Phantogram - Three - This band was a new discovery for me and their latest album has been one of my favorites of the year. A poppier (but still grimy) band molded in the Portishead model (with an album named similarly to Portishead's 2008 Third), Phantogram makes a moody blend of the pretty and the discordant, a radiant pool of electric slime. While it may not have the same level of deep anxiety as a Portishead album, Phantogram's Three is nonetheless a great success. At 36 minutes, this is a short but pointed album with no wasted tracks; every one hits its mark and there's no bloat. Top Tracks: Funeral Pyre, Barking Dog

Skylar Grey - Natural Causes - Grey is a musician largely known for writing hit singles with or for other artists; she's contributed to tracks for Dr. Dre, Rihanna, Lupe Fiasco, and more, with her most famous work being her collaborations with Eminem. Though she released an album in 2006 under the name Holly Brook, it wasn't until her 2013 album Don't Look Down that Grey really caught attention as an album artist. I was a fan of Don't Look Down, but it was an album in search of an identity, stylistically drifting from genre to genre, some more successful than others. Natural Causes is an extremely strong follow up, its foggy sorrow and rage playing to Grey's strengths as a writer. I'm pumped to see where she goes from here. Top Tracks: Kill For You, Come Up For Air

Excellent - Great albums worth your time.

Cliff Martinez - The Neon Demon Soundtrack - Nicholas Winding Refn's latest nutty horror show was one of my favorite films of the year and part of its strength comes from this gorgeous soundtrack. Martinez composed the soundtracks to Refn's last three films, and in each, the score plays a prominent, impossible to ignore role. Here, it helps transform both familiar and surreal sights into a dreamy alien landscape. This was my favorite film soundtrack of the year, and I don't tend to listen to soundtracks outside of the movies they were written for. This is one of my exceptions. As with A Real Hero on the soundtrack to Refn's Drive, this album features a song, Mine, that's essentially the soundtrack playing in the lead character's head. Top Tracks: Mine, Demon Dance

Kilo Kish - Reflections in Real Time - A soft, breathy hip hop album with a focus on a new musician finding her place in the world. It's a familiar topic elevated by excellent style, moving back and forth between energetic comedy and panic and spacey psychedelic musing. This is her debut studio album, preceded by a couple of earlier EPs. I dig the playful/bitter ghost lost in space/social media feel she has going on here. Kish would later provide lead vocals on Out of Body, an excellent bonus track on Gorillaz' 2017 Humanz album. Top Tracks: Hello, Lakisha, Collected Views from Dinner

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree - An emotionally raw, exposed album, this is Cave's sixteenth release. The death of Cave's son in 2015 looms over the album, which deals with dread, hopelessness, and loss, with songs focusing on allegory and metaphor rather than direct narration. This isn't Cave telling his son's story, but rather, a man sorting and cataloguing the strains of emotional turmoil. Top Tracks: Jesus Alone, Skeleton Tree

Tegan and Sara - Love You to Death - Finally, we get to an album I've loved that ISN'T grim! That's not to say Tegan and Sara's latest is just empty fun. It's a strong 1980's styled pop album that isn't afraid of addressing deeper personal issues while still presenting itself as a fun time dance track (See the album's first single, Boyfriend.) There's a lot of confidence on display here that makes the album all the more impressive, and it's definitely a catchy one. Top Tracks: Boyfriend, Stop Desire

Very Good - Strong albums with standout elements.

Ariana Grande - Dangerous Woman - I'm a fan of Grande as both an artist and as a celebrity; I think it's hilarious that sticking her tongue on a donut became a bizarre bit of pop culture rage in the summer of 2015. I love that she posts ludicrous Photoshops of herself as Chewbacca on Facebook. I think it's great and appropriate that she's now a Final Fantasy character. All that aside though, how's her new album? Dangerous Woman is a great follow up to 2014's My Everything, a fun album with some solid singles that felt a little too aimless at times. The new album is much more steadily composed, though its strength is still in individual tracks rather than as a coherent whole. Grande's a fantastic singer and this is a marked improvement, so I'm very curious to see where she goes next. As a personal aside, this is also the only album I bought this year that made a store clerk angry. Top Tracks: Moonlight, Dangerous Woman

Sia - This is Acting - This is an album that's had several major hits, which is especially interesting since it's largely songs Sia wrote for other artists who then rejected them. Sia's had a good year, with strong tracks appearing in several films (including the end credits of Neon Demon!) and there's some exceptionally good pop music here. This album feels like a sort of grab bag of singles, but the best songs on here are truly great, while the weaker ones are still decent. Props for writing a song (Sweet Design) that features Sisqo's 1999 classic The Thong Song. Top Tracks: The Greatest, Bird Set Free

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - Almost 20 years since their last release, 1998's The Love Movement, A Tribe Called Quest returns with a strong retro hip hop album. The new album follows the death of founding member Phife Dawg earlier in the year, serving as a fun, loving farewell rather than a sorrowful one. While it addresses contemporary issues, this album feels vintage; it's not hard to imagine it coming out 20 years ago, and I don't mean that as a slight. It's a welcoming album that feels both new and familiar, and while it's a little longer than it needs to be, it's well worth a listen. Top Tracks: The Space Program, Solid Wall of Sound

Ingrid Michaelson - It Doesn't Have to Make Sense - Michaelson's fifth album, Lights Out, was one of my favorites of 2014, containing some of her career's best songs. Her newest album is solid, but doesn't reach those same high points. The death of Michaelson's mother plays a role in both albums, with her songwriting serving as both tribute and healing. While it's not as compelling as Lights Out, this is still a worthwhile album for Michaelson fans. Top Tracks: Light Me Up, Still The One

Regina Spektor - Remember Us to Life - While Spektor's albums typically captivate me immediately, this one took more before I really got it. It doesn't have the same catchiness that her previous albums did, but that feels intentional and fits the winter theme the album and its artwork use. It's colder and less approachable, but that's OK! While I wouldn't call Remember Us to Life an experimental album, it does go in directions that her previous work did not. 2012's What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is an easier album to recommend, but this one's worth it for listeners willing to dig into it. Top Tracks: Bleeding Heart, Grand Hotel

Average - Some flawed, some decent albums.

Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger - I absolutely love Simon & Garfunkel but Paul Simon's solo albums are more hit or miss for me. There's no doubt expert craftsmanship on his latest album, but Stranger to Stranger never resonated with me on a personal level. It's pleasant listening, but rather aimless, and the writing is decidedly decent, but not exceptional. Top Track: The Werewolf


Thanks for reading the Year in Reviews! I hope my recommendations help you find something new or give you a new angle to look at something you've already experienced. I'd love for you, the wobblers, to do the same! Feel free to comment or message me your own favorites or recommendations.

What's happening in 2017? I'm sure there will be plenty of good music, but nothing has me more hyped than knowing there's a new Gorillaz album coming.

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