Has anyone ever asked you why you listen to heavy metal? It happens to me, from time to time, and I always find myself without an answer. It’s not that I’m indignant at the question, or that I think my own listening habits are so enlightened as to be unworthy of a response; it’s just… I don’t know why, really. Most of the time when someone asks that question, I think the subtext is, “How can you listen to something that sounds so awful?” I suppose the most direct ways to respond to that line of questioning are either, A) Because I don’t think it sounds awful, or B) Because something about the way in which it sounds awful resonates with me. Maybe those are even true for me! But if they are, it’s only in a pre-cognitive sense. The truth is, I have never really given much thought to why I listen to this stuff.
That’s a kind of strange thing to say for someone who spends a decent amount of time thinking and writing about heavy metal. I can tell you plenty about why I like THIS heavy metal or THAT heavy metal, but I’m not sure I can really tell you why I like heavy metal as an entity. There’s a lot that’s great about heavy metal, and there’s a lot that’s shitty about heavy metal, but that’s hardly a unique balance; the same is true of people, of countries, of life. Maybe the struggle I find myself in is that I don’t believe there’s some irreducible thingness of heavy metal that separates it from everything else. Heavy metal has myriad signifiers, of course, but they’re always gesturing to the promise of the signified rather than the thing itself.
All of this is mostly asinine and beside the point of why we’re here, which – ostensibly – is to hold up the very best that the genre had to offer this year. To angle it in the light and really get a good look at it. To walk around it and kick the wheels. To throw it at some heuristics and see what sticks. I don’t know why I’m driven to think about music in this way, just like I don’t know why I listen to this music at all, except to say this: it is a thing that I do, and I would like to see what I can learn from it.
Think about it this way: imagine entering a vaulted space of smooth, hard walls, sounding a gong or ringing a bell, and then listening to the tone echo and dissipate. If you focus your attention on following the sound waves as they bounce and refract, if you lean into it with your ear as they begin to recede, there’s a point (and it only lasts a brief moment) where you’re no longer sure if you’re hearing the bell’s resonant frequency, or the ambient tone of the room, of the earth, of the world around you. I think maybe I listen to the music I do because listening to it feels like living right at that disappearing moment, that vanishing point where the listener has to reconcile something with nothing, self with other, inside with outside.
But that’s still not an answer about heavy metal, right? It’s an answer about being in the world, which, for reasons unspoken but surely obvious, became significantly harder this year. There’s a time for more direct answers about being in the world and a time for direct action, but for now, I’m still chasing a sound. Chasing it for Prince and all the other sexy motherfuckers we lost; chasing it for ourselves, still incredulous and reeling yet beginning to turn our gathering strength into purposeful struggle; chasing it for the world, wracked in turmoil yet thirsty for renewal; chasing it for life, while we’re here. Let’s ring those bells and chase the sound together.
• • • •
HI, HELLO, YES I AM TERRIBLE (NUMBERS 21-50)
50. Battle Dagorath– I – Dark Dragons of the Cosmos
49. Striker – Stand in the Fire
48. Zealotry – The Last Witness
47. Behexen – The Poisonous Path
46. Heavens Decay – The Great Void of Mystery
45. Cantique Lepreux – Cendres Celestes
44. Rhapsody of Fire – Into the Legend
43. Reptilian – Perennial Void Traverse
42. Katalepsy – Gravenous Hour
41. Inquisition – Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar…
40. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
39. Wode – Wode
38. Sithu Aye – Set Course for Andromeda
37. Obscura – Akroasis
36. Seputus – Man Does Not Give
35. Opeth – Sorceress
34. Ashbringer – Yugen
33. Sacrificio – Guerra Eterna
32. Chthe’ilist – Le Dernier Crepuscule
31. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones
30. Mare Cognitum – Luminiferous Aether
29. Helcaraxe – The Last Battle
28. Savage Master – With Whips and Chains
27. First Fragment – Dasein
26. Sinistro – Semente
25. Stilla – Skuggflock
24. Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika
23. Ihsahn – Arktis
22. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
21. Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason
MORE THINGS THAT ARE ALSO GOOD
20. Avantasia – Ghostlights
• This extravagant, overstuffed symphonic power metal buffet comes from a place of deep contentment, and I pity the callous heart that shrinks away from belting out “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” with all the choirs of angels as they sing.
• Band website
19. Urfaust – Empty Space Meditation
• A hypnotic suite that moves from ambient to black metal to echoing doom to melancholic rock, all while maintaining a sense of deep unity.
18. Ravencult – Force of Profanation
• Hello, do you like rif-OH SORRY I COULDN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF ALL THESE RIFFS.
17. Imperium Dekadenz – Dis Manibvs
• Dis Manibvs? Dat Manibvs? I don’t much care which one it is when the sweeping yet furious atmospheric black metal is as grand as this. Black metal didn’t get more professionally epic than Imperium Dekadenz this year.
16. Lotus Thief– Gramarye
• Impossibly beautiful shoegazing bliss that blankets riffs and blasts in a rubbery suspension of the cosmos made manifest as sound. Just lovely.
15. Thy Catafalque – Meta
• Although Tamás Kátai broadens the palette of Thy Catafalque with each album, his vision is so strong and so singular that all manner of extraordinary diversity seems entirely natural.
14. Wormed – Krighsu
• Wormed remain the absolute pinnacle a very specific musical impulse: to write spectacularly tricky and smart music, and then to just SMASH it to pieces by getting brilliantly stupid when the spirit so moves.
13. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
• Look, if you had written “In the Shadow of the Horns,” you could ride those laurels until the entropic collapse of the universe. If you’re Gylve and Ted, though, your excellent adventure is to make pugnacious, classicist metal that always privileges riffs over orthodoxy.
• Band website
12. Forteresse – Thèmes pour la rébellion
• Triumphal black metal with serious legs. Forteresse may be the archetypal Quebecois black metal band, but they’re also the best.
• Band website
11. Helion Prime – Helion Prime
• Soaring, candy-coated power metal that’s still heroic and muscular. Helion Prime announced just this week that they had parted ways with their vocalist Heather Michele, BUT the album is also dedicated to Leonard Nimoy, so the power metal giveth and the power metal taketh away.
• • • •
10. MADDER MORTEM – RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW
Madder Mortem is probably the best band you’re not listening to. Okay, thanks, thin-moustached creeper at the video store who spends way too much time pushing Truffaut, but I still think I’m going to go with Die Hard tonight. Let’s try it another way: Madder Mortem’s powerhouse singer Agnete Kirkevaag is one of the most charismatic vocalists currently working in heavy music, and if for nothing else, Madder Mortem is worth your time and devotion purely to revel in her astounding performance. Although Kirkevaag’s range is huge, she most often lingers in a burnished, golden alto range that croons and sighs darkly, but which can snap to blown-out mic exertion with little warning; if Julie Christmas came from a Partridge Family-style musical family, Kirkevaag would be the older sister. Beyond the pure joy of hearing her sing, however, is the fact that Red in Tooth and Claw also boasts some of the most devastating and concise songs of Madder Mortem’s career. While the band occasionally calls to mind The Gathering, one imagines that the occasional nu-chug of the guitars might cause some to write off the band, but just like late-era Katatonia, those familiar signposts are twisted and shaped into endlessly compelling new forms. Red in Tooth and Claw’s opening tandem of “Blood on the Sand” (with its keening refrain of “Wait for me / Wait for me / Set the world on fire for me”) and “If I Could” might be the best one-two punch of the year. In an unguarded, otherwise unemphasized moment in “Pitfalls,” Kirkevaag sings “I may be frail of heart / But I’m strong of will.” Maybe the words don’t sound like much, but in her delivery they don’t sound like anything other than absolute, heart-rending truth. And really, that’s the strength of this mesmerizing and consistently underrated band: to speak an emotional truth that catches in your throat, simultaneously tearing you down and working to build a new, braver self.
• • • •
9. DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT – TRANSCENDENCE
I can’t really be objective about Devin Townsend. His music has so much of what I’m fundamentally drawn to: big, brash, unembarrassed melodies, a wide range of moods and styles and themes, beautiful singing, instrumental prowess and dexterity used for narrative purposes as much as showiness, and a sense of being emotionally unguarded. On Transcendence, Townsend nods in slight deference to some of his most widely revered albums (namely, Ocean Machine and Terria), but nothing is a carbon copy of what has come before. Album centerpiece “Higher” is surely an intentional effort to replicate the impact that “Grace” had on Epicloud, and with a remake of Infinity’s “Truth,” Townsend continues to demonstrate his artistic impatience through that willingness to tinker and reenvision aspects of his earlier work. Still, “Offer Your Light” is a speed-glam wonder, while the cover of Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration” sounds like it could have come from the back half of the perennially underappreciated Synchestra album. More important than the thrill and satisfaction of any of these individual songs is the fact that Transcendence feels like an album-length exercise in gratitude, meditation, and self-awareness. If Devin Townsend continues to be a somewhat divisive figure among heavy metal fans – and please trust me when I say that the behind-the-scenes sniping among your pals here at Last Rites about Townsend has been going on for the better part of a decade – it is likely because his music sometimes sounds like new age spirituality set to heavy metal lite. And it’s true! But to follow Devin Townsend’s music and career over the past 20-odd years has been to hear someone learning about himself, searching for peace, and working all of that messiness out in full public view. That his music resonates and compels and enraptures anyone else is a testament to the universality of that search for meaning, that need for tranquillity, that desire for transcendence.
• • • •
8. ORANSSI PAZUZU – VÄRÄHTELIJÄ
Oranssi Pazuzu makes weird music. That much seems beyond dispute. It’s music for fractals to dance to; music for self-driving cars to murder to; music for universes to vibrate to. All of that is true, and yet the experience of listening to Värähtelijä is, well, just plain fun. How often have you listened to difficult music and thought, “Sure, this is fine, but I can hear these dudes scribbling their notes on graph paper”? The avant-garde, the progressive, the technical, the challenging: too often these become a haven for the bloodless dissection and over-intellectualization of something that by rights ought to be all muscle memory and base-level instinct. By taking the cerebral and often detached elements of krautrock, psychedelia, noise rock, and even jazz and merging them into a framework that is still defiantly heavy metal at its core, Oranssi Pazuzu flips their base-level weirdness from a gimmick or a crutch into an inevitability: of COURSE these songs needed to come out this way. It’s a rare talent, to be able to thread these academic needles while still sounding like some long-lost creature, some evolutionary missing link only recently discovered in the depths of the dwindling rainforest or circling the mouth of great sea floor volcanoes, but that’s what Oranssi Pazuzu manages, again and again: to sound like a marauding pack of giant feral cats with PhDs.
• • • •
7. KHTHONIIK CERVIIKS – SEROLOGIIKAL SCARS (VERTEX OF DEMENTIIA)
One of the themes that I always seem to be running my dang mouth about is heavy metal’s adaptability. This certainly isn’t unique to metal in comparison to other genres, but for all that heavy metal’s image in the culture at large revolves primarily around extremes (of volume, speed, thematic content, etc.), the genre is capable of tremendous finesse, sophistication, and subtlety. Khthoniik Cerviiks, you may be pleased to know, is here to change all that. After storming onto the scene with a pitch-perfect evocation of razor-sharp war metal churn on their Heptaedrone demo, the major shift with proper debut SeroLogiikal Scars is to throw a whole bunch of Voivod in with the Katharsis. This means that from start to finish, Khthoniik Cerviiks throws riff after world-leveling riff into a Killing Technology-shaped cauldron until the whole damn thing boils over. This is music that sounds filthy while being perfectly clear, that feels twisty and avant-garde despite being fairly straightforward in composition, that mangles and thrashes and clunks along in the long, proud tradition of Music to Slake Your Reptile Brain’s Nigh-Unslakable Thirst. Liisten to iit long enough, and you just miight fiind yourself wriitiing liike thiis all the tiime; the Cerviiks cares not for your preciious grammar and syntax.
• • • •
6. ANAAL NATHRAKH – THE WHOLE OF THE LAW
The tempting way to analyze Anaal Nathrakh while perched on the bleeding end of 2016 is to laud its tremendous violence and rage-flecked insouciance as a natural – even desirable – twin to the madness which looms and threatens the world as a whole. Tempting, but wrong, because not only does that archness mask a desperation that cannot be so easily irony-ed away, but because Anaal Nathrakh has always teetered on this same knife’s edge of (in)sanity. If the world around us is now in closer harmony with the tumult so ably represented by Hunt & Kenney’s impossibly dexterous black-and-everything-else-too metal, it’s more caution to us than credit to them. Still, if the question is still where to draw the line between humanism and nihilism – even if my review was written in a state of pre-election innocence – then I choose humanism. Always and everywhere, I will take the light that broadcasts unflickeringly even from the depths of Nathrakh’s misanthropy, and I will keep it inside as a succor and a bulwark, because – and here’s the key – you simply CANNOT mark music this intense and scathingly critical if you don’t have great love in your heart.
• • • •
5. SUBROSA – FOR THIS WE FOUGHT THE BATTLE OF AGES
SubRosa is, without hyperbole, one of the finest bands of the decade. The reasons for this are legion, but chief among them is the fact that their songs find their way into my mind constantly. Although the band’s songs routinely stretch to quarter-hour runtimes, the ache and quiet certitude of the melodies mean that the music sinks in deeper even than we realize. The band’s tools remain unchanged from the preceding albums, but there’s a more organic groove that marks the heaviest sections, and the counterpoint interplay between the violins and guitar is so subtle that it sometimes almost fades entirely into the background like crystal parabolas on an icy windowpane. Although the undisputed knockout punch is the closing track “Troubled Cells,” it feels like the crux of the album might be contained in the utterly devastating mid-album highpoint of “Black Majesty,” with its almost painfully self-aware opening line: “Isn’t it good to be / Acquainted with darkness?” For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is another unimpeachable entry into the inky canon of SubRosa’s hymnody.
• • • •
4. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE – DEAD REVOLUTION
Heavy metal is not a thing. I mean, of course it exists, but what I’m getting at is that heavy metal is not A thing, singular. The wild, wiry, willfully wooly diversity of this music that so many of us call home (or at least home-adjacent) means that it can hardly be defined, let alone represented or exemplified. Nevertheless, if some damn alien fell to ground or some damn ice woman thawed from a glacier or some damn Seinfeldian time traveler winked into frame and asked, “Hey, what’s the DEAL with heavy metal?” well, friend, I just might plunk them down with the collected works of the Bay Area’s Hammers of Misfortune and let them get learned. With their two most recent albums, the Wrenches of Bad Luck have moved slightly away from pastoralism and progressive suites in favor of a more 70s-rooted lick-and-groove (™) approach that emphasizes white-hot instrumental interplay at the same time as it foregrounds powerful choruses that echo for days. John Cobbett’s songwriting throughout Dead Revolution manages to be both elegiac and ebullient, and though it’s tempting to be a milk-eyed pie-huffer and pine for the Cobbett-Scalzi days of yore, in truth the Pliers of Adversity may have never had a stronger lineup than they do in 2016. And when this band – this miraculous band – hits their chiefliest of strides, as they do on Song of the Year (bite me/fight me) “Flying Alone,” there is simply no one the entire breadth of God’s green and gruesome creation to compete with the Mitre Saws of Poor Timing.
It is right and good to hail heavy metal for its non-thingness, but it is even righter and gooder to hail the Putty Knives of Calamity.
• • • •
3. BLOOD INCANTATION – STARSPAWN
For lack of a better term, Starspawn’s greatest asset is its slipperiness. It’s a slippery album in its tones, and it’s a slippery album in its compositional approach. Of course, world-pulverizing riffs are job one, but the way the band moves from one to the next to the nth (because really, good luck counting ‘em all…) is, well, slippery. Slippery riffs. Rippery slips. Frippery skiffs. You get the point – words are insufficient. The band moves from oozing morass to yawning spectral vortex to bleep-bloopy ambient swooshing to marrow-deep melodicism with such – yes! – slipperiness that the listener often lands in a new place with no clear recollection of how she got from Point A to Point RIFF. With most bands, that would be a criticism, but here it’s intended as high praise. Blood Incantation aren’t exactly doing anything brand-new with death metal, but all the bits and pieces they’re hungrily vacuuming up and reconstituting quite literally as you listen are handled with such love, such care, and such dirtbag grace that they sidestep whatever whining your dumb brain might like to do about ‘originality’ in favor of a headlong plunge into the realm of the ‘originary,’ which is a two-fold promise: 1) that Starspawn barrels and rackets and quavers and vibrates with the same heady fervor of the genre’s origins, and 2) that Starspawn just might be laying down an origin-story for the future’s past, because sweet saltlick of a tap-dancing Job, have mercy – this is their first album! Who knows what heights of undreamt slipperiness still dwell in the hearts and hands and riff-brains of these slipperiest of creatures?
• • • •
2. MITHRAS – ON STRANGE LOOPS
It was something of a banner year for technical spins on death metal, with albums from First Fragment, Obscura, Blood Incantation, Wormed, and Katalepsy each prodding the protoplasm of death metal with their own unique live electrical wires. Even with such stiff competition, though, Mithras bested them all. But more than that, Mithras bested all those other technical explorations by not particularly being a technical metal band. Splitting hairs, maybe, but Mithras’s music, for all that it revolves around astonishing displays of technical prowess (and hooooo boy, does it ever), does not pursue technique as a goal. Instead, Mithras pursues technique as a means to achieve the same overweening awe and transcendence one might experience after contemplating the vastness of space, the comforting insignificance of humanity, and the confounding mysteries of love, time, and death. Alternately, the whole gosh darn thing sounds like shotgunning eight gallons of liquid mercury and flying to the Horsehead Nebula on the back of a dark matter dragon while high-fiving a million angels. Potayto, potahto, po-*INTERGALACTIC EXPLOSION OF JOY*.
• • • •
1. ALUK TODOLO – VOIX
Voix snuck up on me. Well, no, that’s not quite right, because I fell in love with the album more or less immediately. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the extent to which Voix would stick with me snuck up on me. Looking back at some of the albums that I’ve crowned the best of their respective years during my tenure at Last Rites (Giant Squid, Agalloch, SubRosa [twice], etc.), it seems clear that I gravitate towards nontraditional metal albums that make me feel big feelings. And although I wouldn’t have expected to put Aluk Todolo into that same category, the more I listened to Voix throughout this long, strange, ugly, hopeless, demoralizing year, the more it became a comfort and a salve, a guide and a friend and a stranger testing the limits of my hospitality. The philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of the concept of hospitality: on the one hand, in order to be truly hospitable, one must always be ready to welcome the unexpected guest; on the other hand, if one is in a state of constant readiness, then the guest is never truly unexpected, and the hospitality is rehearsed – a mere copy of the form. For Derrida, true hospitality always entails some threat of violence, because guest and host are each mutually vulnerable to the other. Maybe this is a strange way to think about music, but then again, in order to really understand what a piece of music is saying or doing, don’t we have to subjugate ourselves to its rhythms, to hollow out the space usually filled by our own needs and expectations, to listen with a certain vulnerability? Voix pulsates like a seed of light planted in deep soil, stretching and pushing and gradually expanding until it breaks free and tastes the air. It creeps like a vine of clay, like a moss of smoke, like a limb of air clutching rough-hewn stone. It is remarkable not so much in its scope, but rather in how much its tightly constrained focus suggests a vastness surpassing its actual scope.
• • • •
TOP 10 EP AWARDS OF 2016:
- Qrixkuor – Three Devils Dance
• Released: Invictus Productions, April 30
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Cause Spontaneous Papal Combustion”
- Gorguts– Pleiades’ Dust
• Released: Season of Mist, May 13
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Shatter Friendships over Interminable “LP or EP?” Arguments”
- Grave Miasma– Endless Pilgrimage
• Released: Sepulchral Voice, May 6
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to be the Soundtrack to a Nutcracker Ballet Staged in the Hellraiser Universe”
- Toska– Toska
• Released: Eihwaz, May 15
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to be Found in Thorns Cosplay at the Next Melancholy Cosmic Black Metal Convention (MelCosBMCon)”
- Mesarthim – Pillars
• Released: Self-released, March 13
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Be Played by the Janitors on the Night Shift at the Mauna Kea Observatories while They Dream of Laser Floyd”
- Piss Vortex – Future Cancer
• Released: Self-released, April 1
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Get You Pepper-Sprayed by Cops for Trying to Flip a Sick Ollie at the Danish National Gallery”
- Pyrrhon– Running Out of Skin
• Released: Self-released, March 15
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely Not to Get You Laid (Hi, Guys!)”
- Voivod – Post Society
• Released: Century Media, February 26
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Bend the Fabric of Space-Time into a Galactic Locked Groove”
• Band website
- Thralldom– Time Will Bend Into Horror
• Released: Ritual Productions, November 11
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Be Unfindable Because It Was Released on Bandcamp for a Hot Minute but then Taken Down Because the Band Got a Label Interested in Releasing It Sometime Next Year, So… Watch For That, I Guess?”
• (Just kidding, looks like it’s back up on Bandcamp)
- Sivyj Yar– The Unmourned Past
• Released: Self-released, June 21
• AWARD: “EP Most Likely to Still Be Way Better than the New Alcest Album (If I Ever Get Around to Hearing the New Alcest Album)”
• • • •
TOP 10 DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2016 (IN HAIKU):
- Saor– Guardians
Far from terrible,
but this one plods and lists where
Aura warmed the rain.2. Bolzer – Hero
Hero is just so,
So, so, so, so, so, so, so
So laughably bad.
3. Cobalt – Slow Forever
Hi. Did you know that
It is okay to do more
Than one thing? K, bye.
4. Fallujah – Dreamless
If your watchword is
“Ev’rything all the time,” you’d
Better keep it tight.
5. Denner/Shermann – Masters of Evil
Sure, Mercyful Fate
Was a long time past, but that
Spark is badly missed.
6. Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow
The last one was a
Joy because it knew its past;
Here, the shine wears off.
7. Inverloch – Distance | Collapsed
Doom of this sort is
Slow by design, but needn’t
Also be so dull.
8. Striborg – Spiritual Deprivation
I love Sin-Nanna,
And I love Striborg, but I
Do not love this noise.
9. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
I will show them grace
For the fullness of their art;
More songs next time, please.
10. Irkallian Oracle – Apollyon
“Hey guys, what if we
Made spooky black/death, but, like,
Really, reaaaaaaaaally slow?”
• • • •
TOP 30 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2016:
30. Roly Porter– Third Law
29. Krakoda – Strange System
28. Ionophore – Sinter Pools
27. The Range – Potential
26. Savages – Adore Life
25. Kompakt Records – Total 16
24. Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley
23. Ital Tek – Hollowed
22. Matmos – Ultimate Care II
21. Josef Leimberg – Astral Progressions
20. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
19. Gilles Peterson – Magic Peterson Sunshine
18. Ugly Heroes – Everything in Between
17. Leon Vynehall – Rojus
16. Venetian Snares – Traditional Synthesizer Music
15. The Field – The Follower
14. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
13. Sia – This is Acting
12. Colin Stetson – Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s Third Symphony
11. Tim Hecker – Love Streams
10. Margo Price– Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
The first thing to marvel at with Margo Price’s thrilling debut album is her voice, which is an almost bell-tone pure radiance that nevertheless bends and twangs like Loretta Lynn (though you might almost hear Gillian Welch and Neko Case). Her whole band kicks up a backyard holler of a racket, though, as the songs swerve from ballad to honky-tonk and well-trod ground in between.
9. Autechre – elseq 1-5
Yours truly is a certified mark for Autechre’s abstract symphonies of beats and skitters, statics and drones, chirps and thunks. So yes, you might say I was ecstatic when Booth and Brown released the five-part, four-hour album elseq with typical lack of fanfare. If the quantity and range of the album is reminiscent of Quaristice and its affiliated EPs, that’s not a far stretch, but Autechre are pushing limits at the same time they’re playing in their own backyard. A difficult but hugely rewarding sprawl of sound.
8. David Bowie – Blackstar
Sometimes an artist makes music that is perfectly of its time; sometimes an artist makes music that is perfectly timeless. For much of his career, David Bowie did both. “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are the most immediate – and immediately haunting – tunes, but the oddball drive of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is infectious, and when that same tripping rhythm pops up in slightly different form on album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” it’s hard not to just stop and marvel for one last time at how deeply this icon’s craft ran. Look up there; he’s in heaven. Ain’t that just like him?
7. Eluvium– False Readings On
False Readings On is Matthew Cooper’s finest Eluvium album since Talk Amongst the Trees (although I must admit that the improvised solo piano diversion of An Accidental Memory in Case of Death is the piece of Cooper’s I return to most frequently). Here, the shimmering drift of Eluvium’s work from Copia onward continues, but it’s given a dark sibilance punctuated by occasional keening vocals and swells of noise. By far the most diverse of Eluvium’s albums, it may also stand the test of time as the most deeply engrossing and affecting. Night songs for a troubled ocean.
6. Oddisee – The Odd Tape
DJ Shadow, The Avalanches, and RJD2 all put out fine new albums this year, but Oddisee easily topped them all. Although you might loosely classify The Odd Tape as a beat tape, that does it a slight disservice, because it is a fully realized album of jazz grooves, laidback tones, and gently funky instrumental hip-hop that follows a compelling if loosely delineated journey from morning to night – a real day in the life. “Long Way Home” is the realest jam of the year.
5. Beyonce – Lemonade
As deeply personal as it is unabashedly political, Lemonade is a tremendous accomplishment. Beyonce’s talent has never been in question, but the breadth of styles at play across this taut, boundlessly energetic album is still almost dizzying. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a spurned lover’s “fuck you” for the ages, while “Freedom” is the anthem this tired year needed more than any other. “Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy,” as far as things go, is a pretty rock-solid motto.
4. Ensemble Kolossus & Michael Formanek – The Distance
I wrote a full review of this album earlier in the year here, so I’ll be brief: The Distance is my favorite jazz album of the year, and strikes a wonderful balance between big band heritage and post-bop exploration. The personnel are top-notch, but Formanek’s arrangements are what really shine, giving as much time to highlight individual players as to move the whole ensemble through great careening outbursts.
3. Tanya Tagaq– Retribution
Tanya Tagaq’s throat singing itself is worth the price of entry here, but on Retribution (which is “Dedicated to those we have lost to suicide”), her voice is but one piece of a fascinating tapestry of sound that includes brass, strings, synths and electronic programming, and a choir several dozen strong. The songs feel inward, but constantly push out with indignation and righteous anger, making Retribution a truly dark, disconcerting, yet beautiful journey through interior space. And if Sturgill Simpson’s milquetoast Nirvana cover was disappointing, Tagaq closes Retribution with a show-stoppingly hushed version of “Rape Me.”
2. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Anohni’s voice is one of the great miracles of recent music history, but on her first album under this name, the Antony & the Johnsons singer worked with two notable electronic music producers – Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin and Hudson Mohawke – to create an utterly transfixing album of haunted love songs and furious accusations. She sings about global warming, about drone warfare, about high hopes and dashed expectations for President Obama – but most importantly, she sings with burning conviction about things that matter against a backdrop of cresting beats and swelling strings. What a stunning piece of music.
1. Thug Entrancer – Arcology
Arcology is the sound of a dystopia that sprang up before anyone realized it was here. Borrowing tricks from some of electronic music’s greats (including Autechre, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, et al), Thug Entrancer’s latest album is ambient music for dancing, drill music for the narcotized, brittle electronic noise and warm analog underpinnings and an implacable narrative arc. It’s a wonderfully tactile album (as most electronic music should be), but its pins and pistons and synths and swoons guard themselves, restrain themselves, clearly want to surpass the bounds of their frequencies but abstain. That makes it sound like self-abnegation, but more than anything, it’s a damned beautiful architecture.
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