Sunday, December 18, 2016

Best of 2016

From what I can tell, this list is not like many others (#1 pick notwithstanding). I'd love to have seen more people talking about Veda Hille, Michael Kiwanuka, Eric Bachmann, Tami Neilson, The Comet is Coming, Black Mountain, Nels Cline, Glauco Venier, Paul Simon, Lizzo, Hidden Cameras and Jim Bryson, as well as many more great records found at the bottom of the main list. 2016 gave me panic attacks and made me think more about my mortality than at any time in my life, but at least there was no shortage of great music.

Some of these blurbs ran over two columns in the Waterloo Record, some ran on

1. BeyoncĂ© – Lemonade (Sony). This is the only album that drove the collective conversation in 2016—and deservedly so. It’s the rare blockbuster pop album by a superstar that prompts political headlines, endless think pieces and taps directly into the zeitgeist in ways we haven’t seen in decades. It was also the first time the seemingly untouchable goddess appeared human, vulnerable, even vindictive, just as flawed as the rest of us. That came through not only in the lyrics but her vocal delivery, which was far more emotionally raw than she’s ever shown us. The cast of A-list collaborators gives the record an eclectic yet still consistent musical vision that by no means diminishes who exactly is in charge here: one queen to rule them all.

2. Veda Hille – Love Waves (independent). The Vancouver art-pop songwriter writes melodies that could sell a musical (which she’s done, to great acclaim), has the gall and the talent to rewrite and (gasp) improve her favourite songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, employs many of Vancouver’s finest players, pens a plaintive ode to her young boy and reimagines the ordeal of Orpheus and Eurydice—in German, no less. Oh, and she’s wickedly funny when she wants to be. There’s no end to her insatiable curiosity—or her talent. (Original review here.)

3. Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL). The year’s weirdest success story also spawned one of the best records: 23-year-old bedroom-dwelling Haitian-Montrealer known for SoundCloud remixes pulls in up-and-coming international collaborators (Anderson.Paak, AlunaGeorge), almost-forgotten R&B and hip-hop artists (Craig David, Phonte), and new Toronto beatmakers (BadBadNotGood, River Tiber) and ends up creating the straight-up funkiest record to come out of Canada—perhaps ever, winning the Polaris Music Prize in the process. It’s draws from old school hip-hop, jazz fusion, Brazilian beats, Donna Summer disco, house music, DJ Shadow deconstruction, and anything else that sounds fantastic on the dance floor. Drake may have dominated the charts and the headlines, but Kaytranada made the infinitely superior—and much more fun—record. (Original review here. My take on his Polaris win here.)

4. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Sony). Frankly, Leonard, I’m not sure we did want it darker; 2016 turned out bleaker than we could ever have imagined (and it’s not over yet). It was enough that Cohen left us with one final masterpiece before he died, but his death proved to be a gift that gave us reason to re-examine his entire catalogue in a year when we were grasping for a glimpse of any light through the cracks. Unlike the elliptical Bowie record, You Want It Darker dealt specifically with death, with finality—and it was also funny, characteristically so. But there were no more chilling words sung (or spoken) this year than Cohen intoning, “I’m ready, my Lord.” (Original review here. My obit for him in Maclean’s here. I curated some memories of him from ordinary Canadians here.)

5. David Bowie – Blackstar (Sony). Even before his death shocked the world, this was already being hailed as his best album in (gulp) more than 30 years, one in which he fully embraced the influence of his hero, Scott Walker, and joined forces with Donny McCaslin’s powerful jazz band. Coy devil that he is, on Jan. 10 the always-innovative Bowie was also the first person to tell us that, other than music, 2016 was going to be a steaming pile of shit. (Original review here. My obit for him in Maclean’s here.)

6. The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem (Universal). Gord Downie was a newsmaker of the year for staring down death and delivering a series of triumphs, but least discussed among them was the fact that the newest Tragically Hip album was alone a reason to celebrate. Written and recorded before Downie’s diagnosis, and co-produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, it was a reinvention that could well have turned over a new leaf in the legendary band’s catalogue—and still might. Downie claims it’s not the last we’ll hear from them. (Original review here. My story on the Hip’s farewell and legacy for Maclean’s here. My review of the “final” show here. My year-end piece for Maclean’s Newsmakers here.)

7. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Sony). It wasn’t just Baby Boomers dying off; Phife Dawg was a mere 45 years old when he succumbed to diabetes, just after completing Tribe’s first album in 18 years. Both he and Q-Tip, neither of whom had prolific solo careers, proved they’d lost none of their potency and elevated their already-strong status as legends, not by emulating their glory days but by looking forward. Also: what a glorious thing it was to hear an actual rap group play off each other, as opposed to random guest verses on a superstar's record. It's a lost art. (Original review here.)

8. Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate (Universal). This British soul singer transformed his unassuming, folkie take on soul into the realm of the psychedelic, crafting a devastatingly beautiful respite in troubled times. The sound is undeniably retro—Nick Drake fronting Pink Floyd, or Marvin Gaye fronting Funkadelic—but never goes out of style. Nor should it. (Original review here.)

9. Eric Bachmann – s/t (Merge). Bachmann has been one of my favourite writers for more than 20 years (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers), but it was his 2016 song “Mercy”—haunted by personal loss, impending apocalypse, and intense political divisions—that might well be his crowning moment, and was the one song I played more than any other in 2016, for obvious reasons. The rest this self-titled album is just as strong and heartbreaking (starting with “Modern Drugs”), a collection of perfectly crafted songs that pick up pieces of a shattered psyche. (Original review here.)

10. Anderson.Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool). This late bloomer (okay, he’s 30) is a studio veteran and multi-instrumentalist whose second album easily staked his claim in a crowded field of R&B reinventors. Malibu owes musical debts to D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, but with a considerably more joyous vibe—it’s no surprise that he also shows up on Kaytranada’s record. Miguel should watch his back. (Original review here.)

11. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid (Outside). No, really, one more record about death: this one by a Canadian expat in New Zealand, writing about her late father, the patriarch of a family band that toured Canada in her youth. Don’t Be Afraid is emotionally deeper than anything Neilson has done to date, which was well-executed but decidedly retro, bordering on kitsch. Not this time. The deeper she goes into the blues, the better she gets. Neilson’s voice has few equals in this country—k.d. lang? Serena Ryder?—and has to be heard to be believed, when she’s either hollering gospel (“Holy Moses”) or delivering a gorgeous country ballad (“Lonely”). (Original review here. Live review for Maclean’s here.)

12. The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits (Leaf). Led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, this London trio’s debut is a synth-heavy, percussive, interplanetary psychedelic journey that lives up to titles like “Cosmic Dust” and “Slam Dunk in a Black Hole.” The New Musical Express dubbed the band “the Mercury Prize’s least-known nominee”—they were shortlisted alongside Bowie, Radiohead, Kiwanuka and other heavy hitters (and lost to Skepta). There’s nothing obscurist about them; this would go over like gangbusters in a Canadian rock club on a bill with Holy F--k and BadBadNotGood. (Original review here.)

13. Black Mountain – IV. If any rock record in the history of this country has a more powerful opening track than “Mothers of the Sun,” I’m not sure what that would be. A pulsing synth, a droning organ, a monster guitar riff, and the chilling vocals of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean keep us in suspense for more than three minutes before drummer Josh Wells kicks in to kick things into overdrive on what is an incredibly satisfying psychedelic rock record that never fizzles into pointless jam territory. McBean’s guitar solos are lyrical and evocative of Funkadelic great Eddie Hazel, but it’s Jeremy Schmidt’s keyboards that steal this show. (Original review here.)

14. Nels Cline – Lovers (Blue Note). The lead guitarist in Wilco appears on more than 200 records by others; his solo work, until now, has largely been experimental and skronky. On Lovers, his debut for the prestigious Blue Note label, however, he delivers a double album of love songs by composers ranging from Richard Rodgers and Henry Mancini to Arto Lindsay and Sonic Youth, along with original compositions. Lovers is lushly orchestrated, utilizing some of New York City’s most renowned avant-garde players, yet allows for plenty of abstraction and colouring far outside the lines, alongside more straightforward, classically beautiful performances. Though it never gets loud, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get deliciously weird. (Original review here.)

15. Glauco Venier – Miniatures: Music for Piano and Percussion (ECM). Many were the days when headlines made me want to bury my head in the sand. For those days, this prolific Italian pianist—who normally performs in a trio format, studied Italian Renaissance music, and has recorded albums covering Tom Waits and Frank Zappa—offers sparse compositions and improvisations augmented by gongs, bells and other metallic instruments. Only two of the 14 tracks are uptempo; the majority are meditative yet melodic, not sparse enough to be ambient music, but played with a delicacy and somewhat cautious deliberation. (Original review here.)

16. Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Universal). "The fact is, most obits are mixed reviews." When his day comes, that's going to be as true of Paul Simon as anyone else, but at least he's still here, even if he's strongly hinting this will be his last album. He sounds far from spent. He's still borrowing from wherever he can, including a young Italian DJ, but, as always, there's no sense he's trying to shoehorn himself into something he can't turn around and make his own. He can write circles around his peers or descendents, even if no one seems to care anymore; the man can't even get a Grammy nomination these days, even though those seem to get handed out like participation stickers. Stranger to Stranger, indeed.  (Original review here.)

17. Badbadnotgood – IV. Space-age bachelor pad music from a jazz band steeped in hip-hop and joined by guest singers, including Future Islands’ Sam Herring, Chicago MC Mick Jenkins and Toronto newcomer Charlotte Day Wilson (Kaytranada and Colin Stetson stop by as well). This band gets better with each record, and the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whittly pushes them even further. Also—for the love of God, don't judge this album by its cover. (Original review here.)

18. Lizzo – Coconut Oil EP (Universal).  “I’m lit / don’t mess with it,” says Lizzo, on a track where she demands that you “worship me.” She doesn’t need to ask twice. Lizzo is as strong a rapper as she is a singer—and she’s one hell of a singer, which puts her on the level with Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Nicki Minaj right off the top. One of the last new artists to be taken under Prince’s wing before his death, Lizzo is equally political and playful, a feminist who rolls with an all-female crew, a plus-size woman pushing body positivity, and whose music fuses old-school hip-hop with modern trap, with Latino elements and nods to James Brown interspersed throughout. After two promising independent records, this is her major-label debut, six songs with producer Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Meghan Trainor) that strip everything down to the pop basics and set her on a path to stardom: expect to see her everywhere, starting with her own MTV show (Wonderland). (Original review here.)

19. Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land. Joel Gibb’s Hidden Cameras inspired Arcade Fire’s debut album, brought a queer aesthetic into a straight-laced indie scene, and went full-on electro on their last album. Here, however, Gibb goes full-on country, which suits both his songwriting and his voice. He throws in a few covers—including a take on “Dark End of the Street” that places the classic soul song in a closeted context, and a joyous romp through “Log Driver’s Waltz” with Feist, Rufus Wainwright and Mary Margaret O’Hara—but it’s his originals that serve as a reminder of his unique talent. (Original review here.)

20. Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place. On the surface, this Ottawa singer-songwriter (and sideman to Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans and Tragically Hip) writes pleasant, sad-sack Ontario folk-rock (one of my default favourite genres). But his interest in synths and experience doing production work on the side—as well as bringing in Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin as a collaborator, and Shawn Everett (Grammy-winning Alabama Shakes engineer)—informs the expanded sonic palette heard here, which provide vivid colours to his tales of disconnection and ennui. (Original review here.)

AnchorsongCeremonial (Caroline) (Original review here.)
A Tribe Called RedWe Are the Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend) (Original review here.)
DaughterNot to Disappear (Glasshouse) (Original review here.)
Craig DavidFollowing My Intuition (Sony) (Original review here.)
DeerhoofThe Magic (Polyvinyl) (Original review here.)
Johan JohannssonArrival OST (Deutsche Grammophon) (Original review here.)
Jordan KlaasenJavelin (Nevado) (Original review here.)
LoscilMonument Builders (Kranky) (Original review here.)
Selina Martin –  I’ve Been Picking Caruso’s Brain (independent) (Original review here.)
Aaron NevilleApache (Sony) (Original review here.)
Agnes ObelCitizen of Glass (Play It Again Sam) (Original review here.)
OperatorsBlue Wave (Last Gang) (Original review here.)
PoirierMigration (Nice Up!) (Original review here.)
RihannaAnti (Universal) (Original review here; this album grew on me considerably.)
John K. SamsonWinter Wheat (Anti) (Original review here.)
Sturgill SimpsonA Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic) (Original review here.)
Colin StetsonSorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (52hz) (Original review here.)
Allen ToussaintAmerican Tunes (Nonesuch) (Original review here.)
TUNS – s/t (Royal Mountain) (Original review here.)
Donovan Woods  Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled (Meant Well) (Original review here. This too grew on me considerably.)


Tom M said...

Great list, Michael. I too lament the lack of Veda in our musical discourse.

bubbalouiex said...

Always appreciate your input on best albums of the year, as I've found many great artists thanks to you. For best albums, I would add Jean Michel Jarre (Electronica) and Hannah Georgas (For Evelyn). All the best in 2017.