Friday, December 30, 2016

Such a Sumptuous Table We Set: The Ten Best Albums of 2016

Well, this long, bizarre, confounding year is nearly at a close. We lost some of the greats, and we gained those we didn't want. But through it all, we had our usual heavy splendour: 2016 has given us another fine feast in the world of music. Here's hoping to a better 2017, and days filled with songs strange and beautiful.

Grumbling Fur - Furfour

As I have said many times before, I have a great fondness for the intersection of pop and strangeness. Some of my favorite records take pretty, simple popular melodies and meld them with quirks that only serve to make their hooks hit harder. Grumbling Fur has tempered the experimental electronica of Glynnestra with a heavy dose of Eno/Cale for Furfour. Like Arp's More, a more cynical listener could call the sound derivative, but like More, that would be reductive; outside of Alexander Tucker's and Daniel O'Sullivan's Eno-esque vocals, the music itself is much more digital and layered than Eno's more stark ambiance. Grumbling Fur manage to sound rich and deep and a certain beauty shines through that we could use at the end of this year.

Melanie De Biasio - Blackened Cities

When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal, she was pegged as the next big thing in the world of jazz singers, her voice strong, clear, and beautiful. This year she turned sharply to the left with the release of Blackened Cities, in which her voice is just as lovely and powerful, but couched in haunting, industrial found sounds, like something out of Eraserhead. Armed with her piano, De Biasio reigns as queen over both a Necks-ish jazz combo and a hellish whorl of clattering strangeness that would fit well in the soundtrack of Silent Hill. It's a stunning combination, and I am impressed with De Biasio's dedication to her art and willingness to experiment. The work ebbs and flows from gorgeous to terrifying, and De Biasio is the anchor that makes it all work.


Ulver has always been a musical chameleon, from twisted lo-fi black metal to achingly produced European folk to electronic-spiked chamber music, but in the last few years they have shown a love of '60s and '70s exploratory jamming which comes to full force in ATGCLVLSSCAP, culled from improvisations during live shows and stitched together into coherent pieces. The album feels a bit like the live performances of Swans circa The Seer, that perfect balance of each instrument and the comfort between players to really allow the improvisation to flourish. Everything gels into such an amazingly cohesive whole, like a rock version of one of Miles Davis' improvs. If you want to spend an hour and a half inside a very elaborate headspace, you could do a lot worse than Ulver as a guide.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed - Arc

Another stunning turnaround, Agoraphobic Nosebleed's Arc finds the ultra-fast grindcore band slowing down...way, WAY down. At only three songs, the shortest of which hitting 7 minutes, the longest of which hitting almost 12, some of Arc's songs are longer than their previous whole albums. Kat Katz's vocals are pure, righteous black metal, but they are set within the unholy marriage of sludgy doom riffs and strutting, AC/DC-style arena rock. I'm always down for another doom metal album, and this strange trinity of hard rock styles works amazingly well. Despite the length of the songs, the album went by far too quickly for me, and I would love to see Agoraphobic Nosebleed do something similar in the future.

Terminal Cheesecake - Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients

Despite 22 years between 2016's Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients and their last outing, 1994's massive and glorious King of all Spaceheads, it doesn't feel like Terminal Cheesecake her missed a minute in-between. And even more impressively, this isn't a simple nostalgia record; Dandelion Sauce doesn't really sound like anything they had done before. This is Cheesecake's Hendrix album, pure amplifier worship grounded heavily with brain-melting guitar work. Neither the Butthole Surfers fried psych of Johnny Town-Mouse nor the enormous trippy dub of King of all Spaceheads is much in effect, as if Cheesecake knew that had already covered that ground and it was time to shoot into the stratosphere. The kings of UK psych have been missed, but 2016 finds them sitting the throne quite comfortably.

Comet Control - Center of the Maze

On their first album, Comet Control were a pure, immediate, necessary garage blast, seemingly coming out of nowhere and humbling every other band to strap on a fuzzbox in their path. Center of the Maze finds the band slowing way, way down and letting their freak flag fly high; while there are still the first album's muscular guitar workouts, even the heaviest tracks are absolutely bathed in psychedelic trappings. The mix is stew-thick, and the album just gets weirder and headier as it goes on, culminating in the enormous, fuzzed-out 20 minute suite of "Sick in Space" and "Artificial Light". On Center of the Maze, Comet Control out-Floyds Floyd, and we're better off for having them in our midst.

Black Mountain - IV

Any year that Black Mountain puts out an album can't be all bad. Like Comet Control, IV is the sound of a band stretching way out; compared to 2010's heavy Zep-fest Wilderness Heart, IV drips with psych sludge. The album is metal goddess Amber Webber's time to shine; while she got an occasional lead vocal on Black Mountain's previous efforts, her role in IV is much more pronounced, and her powerful, beautiful, terrifying wailing gives the album a pomp that Stephen McBean's windswept wanderer vocals couldn't quite achieve on previous albums. Black Mountain are still our generation's Zeppelin, but they're getting further and further from the source material with each album, evolving into something new, strange, and massive.

Gnod - The Mirror

A new Gnod release fills me with joy in the same way that Nurse With Wound's albums once did: opening a new Gnod album is like Christmas day, you never know what it is you'll be getting into. Just as the US is in the middle of our own uncomfortable brush with fascism, so has the UK been experiencing something similar, and after 2015's easy album of the year, the monumental 3-disc Infinity Machines, Gnod took their rage at the politics of their country and birthed us The Mirror. The exact opposite of Infinity Machines, a 3-song, 40-minute blast of righteous fury in the vein of Swans' seminal Cop, all thudding, industrial clatter, with vocals howling in anger, trying in vain to compete with the enormity of the music around it. The Mirror is almost insustainably tense, and by the end of the 20-minute closer "Sodom & Gomorrah" it feels like the Infinity Machine is devouring itself. It's easy to be mad about where 2016 has taken us, and The Mirror is your soundtrack to that anger.

Marissa Nadler - Strangers

After the beastly devastation of acts like Gnod and Black Mountain, Marissa Nadler's Strangers is a perfect antidote; a work of such simple, rich beauty that can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynic. Each song's instrumentation is so different, anchored by Nadler's astonishingly beautiful voice, and it's that variety, matched with the familiarity of said voice, that makes Strangers such a treat. This is an album to listen to in the dark during the rain, a sensuous lullaby that can make sense of even the most confusing situations. Marissa Nadler has given us one of the best albums of the year, resplendent in its simplicity even as it changes its conventions with each song.

David Bowie - Blackstar

Bowie does latter-day Scott Walker. Brilliant! Even before Mr. Bowie's absolutely gut-wrenching passing, which in retrospect was the harbinger of everything that has happened since, I knew that Blackstar had to be on my list. And when all has been said and done, no album is more worthy of topping this list. Recklessly experiemental, as cutting-edge as he ever was, David Bowie's swan song is strange and hideous and heartbreaking and oh so, so gorgeous. While nothing tops the arch-experimentalism of the title track, there is not a wasted moment on the whole of Blackstar. Like Infinity Machines, or You're Dead!, or More, or The Seer before it, Blackstar has a sense of infinite possibility to it, an album that will stand the test of time and reveal new pleasures with each listen off into the deep future. Bowie might be gone, but the legacy he left with us is staggering, and it's perfectly encapsulated within the strange, shifting confines of Blackstar. There's no better choice for album of the year.