For me, choosing best songs is much easier than picking best albums, because I just don’t have enough time to listen to all the albums I want to, let alone listen to them enough times to decide whether any might be a “favorite.” So all I can do is look at my play counts (I listen to most everything on a digital player that marks each time I play a song) and then ask myself, “Am I playing the entire album or just a song or two?” Sometimes an album might have a theme, where all the songs are related to one another, which can often work to bring a cohesion to the whole. I’m thinking of Beyonce’s Lemonade, though that didn’t make my list. In fact, probably 8 of my top 10 albums of 2016 aren’t on the majority of “best of” lists that will be making the rounds. I’ll double check this when I’m done, as I’d hate to be revealed as a liar. But unlike seemingly every list that has Beyonce, Radiohead, David Bowie, Bon Iver, A Tribe Called Quest, Frank Ocean and Sturgill Simpson — and most of those albums contained several strong songs — mine is less about scoring cool points and more about what did I play and not even consider skipping any songs. A few of these artists will make my “best songs of 2016” lists, but for most, it was the sum of the parts that stood out for me, not the parts of the some.
There are several albums that I expect might make my top 10 if I had more time to listen to them. Five of these are:
Neko Case, K.D. Lang & Laura Veirs – case/lang/veirs
Fruit Bats – Absolute Loser
Ages and Ages – Something to Ruin
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Black Market Brass – Cheat and Start a Fight
You might think this is just a tricky way of adding five more items to a 10 best list and maybe you’re right. But I haven’t even listened to those albums once all the way through so it’s a combination of numerical manipulation and genuinely moral standing.
If you want to call me out – it should be that I’ve got two number 10’s below…
10. Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Little Windows
10. Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop – Love Letter for Fire (tie)
Teddy Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson and he definitely inherited the musical gene. He’s partnered here with Kelly Jones, whose been singing with a number of folk and country-tinged bands over the years (though I hadn’t heard of her before this) and their voices melt like buttah (my SNL Streisand nod). You might think that Little Windows is an Everly Brothers tribute album or a covers record of unsung singer songwriters from the 50s and 60s. But that just goes to show how timeless and classic the 10 short tracks on the album are. I would bet this will be a staple on my next futuristic music device in ten years time.
Sam Beam is the singer/songwriter for Iron & Wine, who have been making atmospheric and melodic Americana music since 2002. Jesca Hoop, who I knew nothing about before Love Letter for Fire, has been a prolific solo artist for almost as long as Sam, with, if I’m to believe the internet reviews, a more eclectic, experimental edge. I’ll look into her music later and get back to you. There isn’t a weak track on this, their first album together. And it gets better with repeated listens.
9. Matt Corby – Telluric
This might be my first “Idol” to make a top 10 list for me. Though, to be fair, it was Australian Idol, back in 2007 and he was the runner up. At that time I was watching Melinda Doolittle get knocked out by Blake Lewis on American Idol, getting riled up for some stupid reason. “It was a big fucking mistake,” Matt said a year or two later, which a lot of runner ups seem to say. But I knew none of this when I heard “Telluric” for the first time. I just came across it on a new release list, loved the sound and then did some research into who this groovy dude was. I was taken in by the soulful, raw vocals, the lush but spare production, the touches of folk and electronic. It’s got a downtempo deliberate pacing, perfect for a romantic evening or a rainy night. It’ll fit into a nice spot between a Maxwell and Bryan Ferry mix.
8. Konono No.1 – Meets Batida
Konono No.1 (is there a Konono No.2?), a fantastic Congolese band known for its homemade instruments, has been making music since the 1970s. Though their albums have only been available in the U.S. since 2000. Not sure why that is, but anyone who knows their African music puts Konono at the top of the list. These guys are that good. This time they are working with Batida, an Angolan-born, Portugal-based producer known for his electronic wizardry. It’s a hypnotic, trippy album that stands up to any of their earlier albums. Gets better each time I listen to it.
7. Wilco – Wilco Schmilco
I had relegated Wilco to the “pleasant but unmemorable” bin, ever since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 14 years ago. I’ve always found a couple songs to like on the subsequent albums, but nothing made me stop and take notice. Until Wilco Schmilco. They’ve found the right blend of noise to pop on this album, but most of all, the songwriting seems somehow both simpler and more complex. I liked it on the first listen and after the 10th listen I love it even more. And I love the title too. Partly a reference to Nilsson Schmilsson, but from what I heard, it was a placeholder title that ended up sticking.
6. Atmosphere – Fishing Blues
This is the hip-hop album of 2016 for me. Although I love the first track of A Tribe Called Quest’s highly revered new album We Got it From Here… “The Space Program,” the rest of the record doesn’t match up for me. It’s hit and miss. “Fishing Blues,” though lacking a “Space Program” level anchor, is simply an album without a miss. I play it on shuffle and enjoy every song. It may be a bit safe and melodic for most hip hop lovers, but as a dude pushing 50 (maybe on the other side of it, depending on when you are reading this), who gravitated to the conscious rap of the late 80s/early 90s, Atmosphere is the perfect throwback to that fertile era. And if you like this, check out the rest of the albums by the other Minneapolis artists that make up the Doomtree Collective (which Sean Daley –the originator of Atmosphere — started).
5. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
I will give a shout out to the one music discussion podcast I listen to religiously, Sound Opinions, for exposing me to this enormously talented R&B artist. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard “Black Man in A White World.” I was in a hotel gym, riding a rickety recumbent bike, listening to Jim Derigatis and Greg Kot wax rhapsodic about Love & Hate, comparing it to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On. High praise indeed and an apt comparison. This has the same soulful blend of political and romantic themes that the Gaye classic is known for. I’m shocked it hasn’t taken the world by storm. Guess we are too splintered a world for something this essential to make any traction.
4. Eleanor Friedberger – New View
I was never a big fan of the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger’s more widely known alternative duo with her brother Matthew. The songs gave me nothing to grab onto. Which is why I am so blown away by Eleanor’s exquisitely charming Laurel-Canyon infused 3rd solo album, New View. There are some oblique lyrics, but the majority of the songs here are laced with an unfiltered honesty that give each song an intimate, timeless charm.
3. Russian Circles – Guidance
Holy shit does this album rock. If I need an album to put on to get my energy flowing, to play should I ever decide to train for a marathon, it would be Russian Circles’ Guidance. The best way I know to describe it is: imagine a very dramatic orchestral movie soundtrack; now picture that soundtrack performed by a heavy metal instrumental trio. If you are familiar with Explosions in the Sky, Russian Circles are the Many More Explosions in the Sky. They can go from delicate acoustic dreamscapes to thundering fireballs of death in a flash. I would love to see these guys play in a surround sound theater one day. If you like your heavy music laced with dynamics and impeccable musicianship, this is your band.
2. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
You might think that with a name like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard that this is going to be some strange sounding music. And you wouldn’t be wrong. This nutty Australian psychedelic band has been around for almost a decade, but I hadn’t heard of them before 2016. Nonagan Infinity, I think, is some sort of concept album, with recurring musical themes, no musical breaks, and where the last track, “Road Train,” supposedly loops back to the first track, if played on repeat. Thus the “Infinity” of the title. There are bits of heavy metal guitars, freaky vocals, strangely distorted tinny production, pounding drums; all run through a psychedelic chainsaw. I’ve played this one more than any other album on this list. This album reeks with inspiration and when I listen to it, even though the lyrics are really beside the point, I get high, I get pumped up, I am reminded of the power that music has on my moods and psyche. Some truly sick drumming throughout.
1. Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland
How in the HE-double-hockey sticks has this amazing, timely album not made it to any top album picks of 2016? Does nobody understand how fantastic Fantastic Negrito is? Even I didn’t know this album came out until I read an article somewhere online referencing it, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I didn’t know they had a new album.” It’d been out for months. And it’s all about my hood. The city I know and love. The city that gets beaten up and kicked around and set on fire and still bounces back with open arms, even if those arms are blistered and bruised and needle pricked and tired and weak.
It’s about Oakland, but it’s about the entire country, it’s about our times, it’s about the urban African American experience, and it’s, at it’s heart, a blues album. The Rolling Stones have been getting a lot of praise for putting out an authentic sounding blues album this month. But there’s nothing authentic in what Mick Jagger is singing — nothing urgent and vital. Fantastic Negrito should be getting the sort of attention the Stones are receiving. The Last Days of Oakland is an album at the crossroads where Sly Stone, The Coup, Mavis Staples and Muddy Waters merge, creating the best album of 2016.