For a certain demo of music fans (mine) 2016 was a year defined by a number of the all-time greats dying — David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, etc — which provided strong motivation to make sure I saw concerts from a number of elder musical statespeople like John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Robert Plant, Arthur Brown, Pagliaro and Bruce Springsteen.
It might be a by-product of pursuing this Before They Die list, but I definitely felt out of step with the music critic hegemony this year when it came to what the best records were. The kids these days all like the pop music and as much as I respect a more politicized Beyonce, this immaculately manufactured and marketed mega-pop world holds little sonic intrigue to me.
There were a number of bubbling under acts who did make music I found intriguing, though. Monomyth, American Lips, Elephant Stone, Fresh Snow, Doomsquad, LAL, EONS and U.S. Girls were just some of the Canucks who made fabulous albums. International acts James Hunter Six, The Avalanches, The Last Shadow Puppets and, surprisingly, The Rolling Stones, all made music of intrigue as well. There were also a couple wildly different compilations that really captured me, the Polyvinyl Plays Polyvinyl label tribute and Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959, an utterly fascinating curated collection of Moroccan street musicians recorded in 1959, were both exciting listens.
That said, there were other records that moved me more than these. Which I will explain further below.
Here’s my official Top 10 album list for 2016:
10) Jim James — Eternally Even
On My Morning Jacket lead singer Jim James’ second solo album he goes all psych soul with a number of keyboard-y space outs that sound mighty good when you listen to them on headphones.
Watch “Here In Spirit”
9) Duotang — New Occupation
This album was quite a creeper hit for me. There’s a not-so-subtle theme to this record that revolves around aging and having to give up your rock ‘n’ roll dreams because you never made it. I’m not unaware of how such a theme can work its way into the subconscious of a modestly employed freelance writer of a certain age. The thing is, in making a record about having to give up and get a real job because the dream is dead, they’ve actually shown that the dream isn’t dead. Because they’re still making music. That’s a good lesson to take into 2017.
Watch “Karma Needs To Come Around”
8) Preoccupations — Preoccupations
It hasn’t been lost on me that Preoccupations, the band formerly known as Viet Cong, haven’t exactly been appearing on a lot of year-end best-of lists. I’ve noticed in part because I like Preoccupations‘ heavy post-rock a tad more than I liked the last Viet Cong record. And I suspect Preoccupations are getting punished politically for their bumbling navigation of the controversy around their old band name. Empirically, though, this is a really good record and anyone whose sartorial philosophy is “only wears black t-shirts” will find much to appreciate here.
7) Vince Staples — Prima Donna
Chance The Rapper is wack. The best rap record this year was this half-record by Vince Staples.
Watch “Prima Donna”
6) Michael Kiwanuka — Love & Hate
I’ve got this thing about retro sounds and revivalists: basically, if you’re a half-decent imitator of a musical form I like, I’ll probably like your act. For example, if you’re a competent Black Sabbath surrogate or a Jesus And Mary Chain knock-off I’m all-in. But just because I’m all-in that doesn’t mean I think you’re actually good. It just means you’re a good copycat.
What I need from revivalists is something more. Michael Kiwanuka’s old school soul record Love & Hate is full of “more.” It’s a big symphonic throwback to the grandest moments of Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield, but the focus and concerns in songs like “Black Man In A White World” and its title track are entirely now.
Watch “Love & Hate”
5) Charlotte Day Wilson — CDW
Charlotte Day Wilson was another one of my deep headphone trips this year. In her case it was all about her smoldering voice. It’s a truly wondrous instrument and her song “Work” is the perfect venue for it.
4) Drive-By Truckers — American Band
Before American Band I didn’t really understand the hype about Drive-By Truckers. My tolerance for roots rock is pretty low and even though I didn’t dislike DBT, they’d done very little that moved me. Then this album happened. A heavy narrative exploration of America’s ugliest features, American Band tackles topics like race and class with the same righteous zeal of a Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar or Tom Petty. That’s lofty company, but those are the people they match on this album.
Watch “Surrender Under Protest”
3) Casket Girls — The Night Machines
One of the most exciting, confounding, mysterious and wonderful albums I heard all year was Casket Girls’ The Night Machines. To the best I can figure they’re two sisters from Savannah, Georgia who play the sort of gloomy keyboard rock that Emily Strange would make if she bailed out of art college in her third year “because it’s all bullshit.” Whether it’s wistful (“Sixteen Forever”), surreal (“Mermaid College”) or bristling (“Tears Of A Clown”), The Night Machines makes for a deeply magical trip.
Watch “Tears Of A Clown”
2) Black Mountain — IV
Whenever I read one of those “rock is dead” thinkpieces one of the first things I always wonder about is “what rock music is this writer actually listening to?” Because if you’re judging “rock” based on, I dunno, the last Disturbed album, then sure, you probably have an argument. But if Disturbed are what you consider to be proper rock music in 2016, well, um, there’s some cognitive dissonance going on.
There was amazing rock music in 2016 and the best of it was Black Mountain’s IV album. When I first heard IV back in April I called it “a hurtling, mind-warping journey” that “investigates some of classic rock music’s most thrilling tropes, all with controls aimed straight towards the cosmos.” I stand by those words still. Let there be rock.
Watch “Mothers Of The Sun”
1) Daniel Romano — Mosey
In all my years of listening to and reviewing albums I’ve given out maybe a dozen perfect ratings for albums so beautiful, so unique and so unimpeachable that I know in my heart that in five, 10 or 20 years from now I’ll still feel the exact same way about them.
I don’t grade any reviews I write on Risky Fuel, but if I did Mosey would be one of those albums. Bob Dylan, Lee Hazlewood, Leonard Cohen… these are impossibly high benchmarks to match, and yet here we are. Daniel Romano’s Mosey was my favourite album of 2016.
Watch “Valerie Leon”
Other album lists…
2016 Top Ten — Daniel Romano‘s Mosey is #1
2015 Top Ten — SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart is #1
2014 Top Ten — Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is #1
2013 Top Ten — M.I.A.’s Matangi is #1
2012 Top Ten — Dirty Ghosts’ Metal Moon is #1
2011 Top Ten — Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On is #1
2010 Top Ten — The Black Angels’ Phosphene Dream is #1
2009 Top Ten — Gallows’ Grey Britain is #1
2008 Top Ten — Portishead’s Third is #1
2007 Top Ten — Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock is #1
2006 Top Ten — My Brightest Diamond’s Bring Me The Workhorse is #1
2005 Top Ten — Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl is #1
2004 Top Ten — Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry is #1
2003 Top Ten — The Dears’ No Cities Left is #1
2002 Top Ten — Archive’s You All Look The Same To Me is #1
2001 Top Ten — Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow is #1
2000 Top Ten — Songs: Ohia’s The Lioness is #1
1999 Top Ten — The Boo Radleys’ Kingsize is #1
1998 Top Ten — Baxter’s Baxter is #1
1996 Top Ten — Tricky’s Maxinquaye is #1