Best of Pop, 2016!

Over ten years ago on my blog, The Rosewater Chronicles, I started making lists of my favorite albums of a given year because many of the big-name, sponsored lists (e.g., Spin, Rolling Stone, etc.) missed my choices, favoring major label finds over the stuff my friends and I were actually listening to. All of that has changed after Napster, self-release, and Bandcamp, and mostly for the better: I’m exposed to more great music, more foreign music, and more weirdness, than I ever was back in the Golden Age of Compact Disc. There is plenty to criticize about the music industry, but the share of major conglomerates is shrinking, and more and more talented musicians are making albums in their bedrooms on laptops. I celebrate the return of vinyl (though not the price, good lord) and lament the demise of the CD (which I still prefer to mp3s), of course, but I’ve noticed in recent years there is so much good stuff coming out — every single week — I cannot keep up. I have turned to lists like my own for help in sorting what to try, what to buy, and what to ignore. Reviewing my lists from the past decade or so, I see my picks are fiendishly consistent: goth, synth-pop, ambient, dream pop, soul, Roy Orbison.

This year there were a number of remarkable albums and my personal “best of” list has over 30 entries, but I couldn’t possibly write all of it up. So below I have winnowed my list to a top ten, omitting major label entries to promote the self-published and independent labels when I can (there are a few of exceptions here, I couldn’t help it). I must note that any lover of popular music will agree that Beyoncé’s Lemonade album is not only amazing but also historically significant for its imagery (and if you have not seen it, really, you need to see it). The music is fascinating, especially when comparing the audio album with the video album (the differences are many and worth contemplating), and I have a lot to say about the both— not to mention my experience teaching it in my Celebrity Culture class last semester. The last time I sat in a living room with good friends and cried listening to an album was with Lemonade (before that, I think perhaps The Cure’s Disintegration, which is high school y’all).

Still, there were other gems too, and here are some that maybe you have not considered . . .

10. Jóhann Jóhannsson: Orphée (DG): This is beautiful music, hypnotic, both small and symphonic; more than any album on my list this year, I have listened to this one the most, usually at night when reading. I suppose technically adding this album to my best of 2016 is cheating a bit, because it’s more “classical” than “pop,” but I’m adding it because I think Jóhannsson has a lot of crossover appeal for music fans that hanker for melody. This album is lush and complex, woven around the Orpheus story (but really, recalls to mind Cocteau’s film — it’s film music, in a sense) and, strangely, eerie recordings of Numbers Stations. Here is yet another, talented Icelander pushing the limits of what “counts” as classical by weaving in electronics and samples, much in the same vein of Olafur Arnalds’ For Now I am Winter (2013) and Max Richter’s impressively nuanced work. Fans of drone and minimalist composition (Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and so on) will love it. This ties as my number one album of 2016, but I’m putting it last because it’s not really pop. It is something like classical, ambient film music with samples . . .

9. Dandy Warhols: Distortland (Dine Alone Music): Since they left their major label the Dandies have had the room to explore, with mixed results — but they try stuff, are fiendishly creative, and when it works it really works. When it doesn’t work, I worry that’s because I’m not tuning in at the right frequency — their stoner dream pop at times is too stoned for me (I am not 4:20 friendly myself). The rambling Odditorium LP, for example, only makes sense with a bong. That said, the Dandies excel consistently in sustaining a mood and groove, and this album does that well. Distortland is hazy fun, with hushed vocals, and a mostly relaxed vibe, as this single catching after a beloved book demonstrates:

8. ABC: Lexicon of Love II (Virgin/EMI): While the sequel to the lavishly produced, #1 album of the same title is astonishingly fresh sans heavy-handed producer Trevor Horn, it’s not quite on par with the original 1982 volume (with some less cohesive ballads). Martin Fry apparently thought it was time to revive the sensibility of the early 80s, and it does work quite well — his voice is still strong. This album would not have typically made my list, except that I was surprised it was so good, and seemed “now” while reaching back to ‘82. It’s hard not to hear Horn’s orchestral influence here (there’s a lot of that), and it’s flamboyant as anything Fry’s ever done, but it works well for parties. At a dinner gathering some months ago I put the album on, and we danced in the living room for a half-hour. If you like 80s cheese, disco bass lines, and sequins, this will float you, flutes and all:

7. Cult Club: Play with Lies (Domestica Records): Fat bass 80s grooves, flat female vocals, postpunk handclaps, cold dancing alone. Gothy synth-pop, exquisitely crafted. Berlin much?

6. Message to Bears: Carved from Tides (Message to Bears Music): English musician Jerome Alexander makes beautiful, ambient tunes that amble along with hushed vocals sometimes and strings and glitchy percussion and piano sometimes and it’s all very, tragically pretty. Bandcamp darling, and for good reason:

5. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it From Here: Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic): With Phife Dawg’s surprise passing after years of struggling with diabetes, and with 18 years passing since the last release, no one expected ATCQ’s final album. This is “old skool” of the brand white, suburban boys jammed to back in the day . . . but it is such a refreshing sound to have revisited, quirky smart rap about social issues. Smart lyrics, this is undoubtedly the soundtrack of the election, if not the year:

4. case/lang/veirs: case/lang/veirs (Anti/Epitaph): It’s a line-up like no other, like a strong punch in the face on a country road with sensitive women who are, nevertheless, tough as nails. Neko, KD, and Laura, three very strong voices and egos joining forces to do the battle with darkness of bad, phone-it-in music. Of all my recs this year, this album is the most technically proficient, three pros making music at the top of their game and abilities. Although only a couple of tracks demonstrate a “group effort,” each song nevertheless has benefited from the input of others, making this a rather tight and impressive, meditative LP. Lushly produced, each singer shines on their respective tracks — there are only a couple that seem jointly and equally penned — with lovely sentiments rimmed in dark-salt humor. I adore Laura Veirs; her voice is a wobbly, delicate, and lovingly fragile counterpoint to the throaty belts of Lang and Case, demonstrated here on my favorite track, dedicated to another favorite singer of mine, Judee Sill:

It would be easy for Lang and Case to dominate Veirs on this album, but they do not, and it’s that overtly-careful balance of their strengths that make this album such a joy on repeated listens. I didn’t know what I thought about the album at first because I didn’t know which heavy to focus on, but then I came to adore it ferociously as a collective. (By and by, if you don’t know Judee Sill, you should. Sill is not easy listening because it is sad, churchy piano music, and you will weep if you play it on a road trip, but a food so worth “eating.”)

3. Sunflower Bean: Human Ceremony (Fat Possum): This Long Islander trio have blazed the buzz gigging in New York city, but have yet to break nationally, despite the early endorsement of Rolling Stone and landing on a much beloved (formerly blues) label. Fronted by model and bassist Julia Cumming with a high and sweet voice more lovely than any of her photoshoots, the band riffs out the kind of psychedelic dream pop Ivo would have signed to 4AD had they arrived sooner (the Lush and later Pale Saints comparisons are easy to make). Human Ceremony is a somewhat uneven album with some hard rockers and dream poppers, but every listen makes it more and more coherent to me. “Easier Said,” a song of pop perfection if there ever was, is easily said to be one of the best singles of 2016:

2. Sleep of Monsters II: Poison Garden (Svart Records): Finland’s Goth Elvis of Death Rock frontman Ike Vil made an early splash with Babylon Whores, a fairly heavy mash-up of pop crooning and metal mayhem. His new outfit’s second album charts an increasing trend toward what we would have dubbed “radio friendly” back in the day, except it’s too weird, over-the-top, and obsessed with occult themes to ever find a place on the dial in the states then or now (even on college radio). While not as consistent in mood as the debut, Poison Garden still manages to get me singing in the car and shower, with it’s triumphant choruses and the marvelous — just marvelous — angelic, Abba-esque back-up vocals by “The Furies.” SoM have a very strong sense of riff and catchy choruses, although you might find yourself questioning why you are singing, full throated, “Nama, Nama, Sebesio” (it’s a prayer central to the Mithraic Liturgy, duh!). I’m fascinated by the occult and mystery traditions, but I gave up studying that stuff long ago . . . I just love the music. I’d describe it as something like a Finnish Meatloaf death rock soundtrack. Folks who are turned off by the self-serious stylings of goth and death rock should really give SoM a try, if only because Ike Vil’s voice is invitational and enchanting and . . . well, pretty. It’s the end of the world, so you need a ridiculous, overblown soundtrack don’t you? This is my favorite track:

  1. Tellef Raabe: Idiographic (Riot Factory): I’ve been known to purchase an album because of the cover — though rarely — and Raabe’s latest was one of them, with its hilarious parody of Deutsche Grammophon album covers (and a portrait of him half-naked with a one of those you-know-what-eating sorta-grins). This is a gentle, quasi-synth pop album with layers of details and careful picking that you only notice on the fifth audit (flutes and strings flirt with filter sweeps, drum kits, and drum machines). Norwegian yoot Raabe, a mere 26, has a sweet and goofy baritone and a penchant for Robert Smith-style melodies with female back-ups: its twee-on-a-stick, to be sure, but something about this album is out of time, like the Kings of Convenience mashed up with Christopher Cross with synthesizers primed for the Steely Dan crowd. “Flying on the Ground” is a stand-out single and a good taste the the LP:

Now, here’s the part of my writing that will irritate those of you with similar tastes: my favorite album of 2016, from this relatively unknown pop genius in Norway, is inexplicably hard to get. I think you can still stream it from Spotify, and it looks like iTunes has tracks, but for some reason the album has vanished from the label’s website. It’s worth finding: the whole thing is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, funny, and earnest.