ModCon02 returns to active duty at Echoba.se with a look back at his favorite music from 2016 – this most savage of years. Be warned, comrades: heartache and wrenching change lie ahead.
2016 was a rough year.
I’m sorry if that’s redundant or not particularly insightful, but, well… it needs to be said. For the record. So again, I say: 2016 was a rough “god damn it“ of a year.
It was rough in a lot of ways, but for now I’ll stick to the fact that it was particularly rough (one could even say brutal) in the arena of musical icons. We lost so many in 2016. And we lost so many unexpectedly. A few short hours before I sat down to write this list, news arrived that George Michael was gone. For real, one of the greatest singers of his generation. Gone. Just like that. Without warning.
And the bastard part of this is that 2016 was a great year for music. I thought 2015 was the strongest year for new music and triumphant comebacks in maybe a decade, but damnit if 2016 doesn’t just about match it.
I’m gonna shake off the sadness and offer up a list of my favorite 2016 releases. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed. So let’s take the good while we can. These 12 records were all, in their own way, little stabs of hope against the overwhelming tide of awful that I will remember 2016 as. For their invaluable service, I thank them.
12. Strange Little Birds by Garbage
Or, the reminder to never underestimate Shirley Manson and crew.
The 20th anniversary celebration of Garbage’s debut must have triggered something in these veterans of the alternative wars. Strange Little Birds is easily the best thing they’ve produced since 1998’s Version 2.0. Shirley Manson was, is and always will be one of rock’s most electrifying frontpersons, but the last few Garbage releases sounded a little too, I dunno, fussed over. They’ve always been a precise blend of raw emotion and technological sheen, but this latest record feels looser, more open. All without sacrificing the spiky electro elements that define them as much as Manson’s spit and fire. Killer live shows to boot, even if Butch Vig had to miss out due due to illness.
Key Tracks: “Empty” “Blackout” “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”
11. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown
Or, the record that kept hip-hop weird in 2016.
I admit to being totally unfamiliar with Brown’s earlier releases XXX and Old, but the sheer manic weirdness on display here makes me want to go back and give them a listen. Sounding at times like a rebooted B-Real of Cypress Hill (who makes a guest appearance here on “Get Hi”) Brown is probably an acquired taste for some; this is hip-hop by way of scary British techno. (It’s fitting that Atrocity Exhibition is released on the Warp label, best known as home to artists like Aphex Twin). Musically we’re a long way from P-Funk samples and trap beats. Atrocity Exhibition is a dense stew of styles and influences. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know”, for example, has the melody of an 80s cop show theme arranged like a Bollywood dance number. For a year as scarily weird as 2016 was, this is an all-too fitting soundtrack.
Key Tracks: “Really Doe” “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” “Hell For It”
10. My Woman by Angel Olsen
Or, the record that kept alt-country weird in 2016.
Like Danny Brown, I haven’t heard Angel Olsen’s earlier releases. I understand that they chart a path through the byways of Americana and folk sometimes explored by artists like Bonnie Prince Billy or Townes Van Zandt. My Woman expands from those genres to include touches of psychedelic guitar rock and synth-based melancholia, sometimes in the same song (“Woman”). Olsen’s voice is a neat blend of worldly wise and innocent abroad – on “Heart Shaped Face” she sounds both yearning and threatening. As with any great record, the disparate elements come together to create a cohesive whole. My Woman brings us into a specific world and keeps us there until it’s finished. Again, like Danny Brown, it’s uneasy currents perfectly align with the queasiness that was 2016.
Key Tracks: “Heart Shaped Face” “Shut Up And Kiss Me” “Woman”
09. Heads Up by Warpaint
Or, the record that fulfills the promise of earlier work.
Warpaint’s first two records (and one EP) were fine slices of American indie-rock, but to me they lacked a certain focus. They felt too vague, too enamored of atmosphere and not concerned enough with craft. That has been completely rectified with album number three. The atmosphere is still abundant, but now the songs have drive and punch, even when they’re floating on dubby sonic soundscapes not a million miles removed from The Slits or FKA Twigs. It’s weird that music so dreamy and dark can be so groovy and danceable, but as I’ve noted 2016 was a weird year.
Key Tracks: “New Song” “So Good” “Don’t Let Go”
08. Lemonade by Beyonce
Or, the record that deserved the hype.
The maelstrom of think-pieces that arrived in the wake of Beyonce’s 6th solo album kind of obscured just how good it actually is. Imagine if you heard “Don’t Hurt Yourself” without knowing it was being sung by Beyonce. Or “6 Inch”. These are not songs concerned with hitting the top of the charts. All through “Lemonade”, Beyonce mixes the personal with the political until you get the point: the two are not mutually exclusive. Consider the outrage that greeted “Formation” right beside the praise. How many other artists in 2016 so perfectly caught the conflicted mess that was America 2016? For someone so synonymous with mass appeal and massive success, Beyonce made one of the most uncompromising records of the year. She deserves the props.
Key Tracks: “Formation” “Pray You Catch Me” “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
07. You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen
Or, the graceful exit.
Like many other records on this list, I had to marvel at the perfect timing. One of the most powerful advocates for beauty and poetry in pop music exited the stage at the peak of one of the ugliest moments in one of the least poetic years in my memory. But for all the beauty of his writing, I often found the production on Cohen’s records to be bizarrely cheap and weedy. Listen to his albums I’m Your Man or The Future. The songs are brilliant. Lyrics that rival Dylan at his best. But the music behind those words sounds like a karaoke machine in a sad Wisconsin lounge. (Personally, I can’t listen to Cohen’s version of his most famous song “Halleluljah”. It sounds like bad wallpaper looks.) For his swan song however, Cohen’s son Adam assembles a sympathetic, utterly appropriate backdrop. Cohen knew his time was up, and he faces it with grace and grit. May we all be so lucky.
Key Tracks: “You Want It Darker” “Leaving The Table” “Treaty”
06. case/lang/viers by case/lang/viers
Or, the Super Group.
The most surprising part of this “super group without ego” is how light and summery it’s overall tone is. The three queens of alt-country (or whatever the hell genre term you want to apply) all bring considerable talent to the table and they blend together perfectly. It’s a delight to hear k.d. lang apply herself to the swooning “Honey & Smoke”, a title that perfectly describes her still-remarkable voice. Then Laura Viers brings her more vulnerable tones to “Song For Judee” and it seems utterly correct. Neko Case, possessed of one of the most achingly lovely voices in music today, comes along with “Delirium” and it all makes sense. Best is when all three join in at once throughout the album, like “Atomic Number” or “Greens of June”. Simply put, this is a beautiful record. Treasure it.
Key Tracks: “Atomic Number” “Georgia Stars” “Honey & Smoke”
05. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
Or, the shockingly great comeback.
I admit. I was super skeptical about this. The first three Tribe records are among the greatest records in hip-hop history. They are genuine high water marks. Reuniting after nearly 20 fractious years apart, however? That could be a recipe for disaster. Worse, it could be a mediocre shrug. The reality? This is an unqualified triumph. It has all the vibe of the Tribe at their peak, but it skilfully updates and advances the sound. The guest appearances (from Busta Rhymes to Andre 3000 to Kendrick Lamaar) are dead on. And of course, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are as on point as ever. In fact, this doesn’t feel like a comeback. It feels like a pick up and continuation. Sadly, we lost Phife to the relentless monster that was 2016 so it’s a short-lived continuation. But it’s a glorious one. Also? Best album title of 2016.
Key Tracks: “We The People” “Lost Somebody” “The Space Program”
04. Night Thoughts by Suede
Or, the dramatic return to form.
Suede’s debut in 1992 galvanized an English music scene that was best described as “stagnant”. They were heralded as “the best band in Britain”; their first album deemed an “instant classic”. Naturally, things went sour shortly after. Diminished by addiction and illness, Suede called it a day in 2004. Somewhat predictably they reunited for live shows in 2012, but, somewhat less predictably, they also began working on new material. 2013’s Bloodsports was exactly the kind of record I was afraid Tribe’s return would be: a not-so-terrible but not-so-great shadow of past glories. So imagine my surprise when I listened to Night Thoughts and heard a band utterly engaged and producing work that stood toe to toe with their best. There’s always been a trace of the ludicrously dramatic in Suede’s work, but here the drama feels earned. Songs about doomed love, depression and the gap between parents and children shouldn’t make for a listen as exhilarating as this, and yet… here we are. Good to have you back, lads.
Key Tracks: “When You Are Young” “No Tomorrow” “Pale Snow”
03. Adore Life by Savages
Or, the record that kicks against the pricks.
This record appeared early in the year, before I knew just how much of a goddamned trial 2016 would be. It’s a good thing it did, because I found myself coming back to it whenever I needed a metaphorical slap in the face, which was fairly often. From the opening track “The Answer”, on through “Adore” and “T.I.W.Y.G.”, Savages’ sophomore effort is a bracing blast of spirit and fierce joy. It’s also a bit pervy, but that’s just the icing on the cake. If they continue in this manner, album number 3 should be a doozy.
Key Tracks: “Evil” “Adore” “The Answer”
02. X-Communicate by Kristin Kontrol
Or, the record of artistic rebirth.
In an almost complete stylistic u-turn from her previous work in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez channels her love of 80s and 90s pop into a stealthily deep record about facing up to yourself and your demons. Swapping Dum Dum Girls gritty guitars for lush synths and electro drums, Kristin Kontrol might very well alienate the fan base in love with the “realness” of Dum Dum Girls. But the irony is that this is one of the “realest” records released all year. Welchez songs can be read as brutally frank assessments of a love affair, or they could be her confronting herself with the truth that it’s time to move on and leave the safety of the Dee Dee character behind. That it all plays out over sparkling pop melodies with gorgeous vocals makes it this year’s most welcome surprise. Can’t wait to hear what she does next.
Key Tracks: “Skin Shed” “(Don’t) Wannabe” “Show Me”
01. Blackstar by David Bowie
Or, the grand finale.
Released January 8th’, David Bowie’s 69th birthday, Blackstar confirmed his legacy as pop’s most restless and inventive practitioner. And then, days later, he was gone. Amazingly, in this era of information overload, Bowie managed to keep the truth of his illness private – thus making the shock of it all the more painful. I always assumed Bowie would live forever. He seemed ageless. Unlike so many of his generation, he was never content to stay in one corner and reap the benefits of nostalgia. Blackstar is as perfect a swan song as there ever will be, but more importantly it’s a fucking great record; the kind you listen to over and over again because you want to, not because it’s “important” and you “should”. And for all the intimations of his mortality (and yes, Blackstar is loaded with such intimations) there is a joy here that is unmissable. When Bowie whoops at the ending of “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” or lapses into “Clockwork Orange” droogspeak on “Girl Loves Me”, you realize that he’s enjoying himself right to the end. David Bowie died in 2016. His art will outlast us all.
Key Tracks: “Blackstar” “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” “Lazarus” “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” “Girl Loves Me” “Dollar Days” “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
So. There it is. One more list for the bonfires of 2016. I hope you all found as much good music this year as I did, comrades. Trust me, this list could have been twice as long, but, well… 2016 was a beast. And you have to stop somewhere.
Onward to 2017.