10-6 | 5-1
Tough year, 2016.
Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frye, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, Paul Kantner, the fifth Beatle George Martin, and two-thirds of Emerson, Lake, and fucking Palmer. If pop music means anything to you, then someone who meant something to you died an untimely death this year. (And let’s not even talk about Carrie Fisher or the tattered ideals of American tolerance, civility, and decency. Sigh.)
But amidst the wreckage, these artists managed to make vibrant, brilliant albums — the sort that stir the soul today and will stand the test of time tomorrow — and that means everything. On dreary days, when it feels frivolous to publish Top Ten pop culture lists in light of all the world’s troubles, 2016’s high casuality rate reminds us, if nothing else, that celebrating music as an art form is essential. Because, ultimately, what is art if not a mortal being’s chance at immortality in the hearts of others.
I hope these ones stay with you.
“Golden Days” – Light Upon The Lake
As founders of now defunct indie rock outfit Smith Westerns, guitarist Max Kakacek and singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich found comfort aping sounds of the 70’s — garage rock, glam, and punk. But as principal songwriters behind Whitney, they practically inhabit the era. The countrified guitar and brass pop of their debut album Light Upon the Lake feels like a veritable butterfly pinned to parchment, the fleeting soundtrack to an endless summer that bloomed some four decades ago.
It’s ten tracks drift and burrow like dandelion spores on a hazy, August afternoon, the melodies achingly familiar yet marked by idiosyncrasies. Opening gem “No Woman” concludes then reopens like a jewelry box with a false bottom. “The Falls” stretches out like a horizon yet ends abruptly, leaving you craving that missing third verse. Kakacek’s sunlit falsetto flits over the sumptuous valleys and peaks of “Golden Days” like the living sound of 70’s AM radio — equal parts Todd Rundgren, America, and The Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” It’s time-in-a-bottle pop that feels like some lost classic from Almost Famous, imparting the very vibe for which it pines — ephemerality, wistfulness, and the memory of innocence.
9) Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
“A 1000 Times” – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
The most dependable collection of songs in 2016 would have warranted a snappier band moniker, but Walkmen and Vampire Weekend alums Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij astutely wagered that I Had a Dream That You Were Mine was best presented as an expression of their individual talents. The dizzying scope of instrumentation that Rostam throws at us — banjos, belching sax, pedal steel, chamber choir, synth flourishes — never feels like a kitchen sink affair because it’s all bound by his unerring studio craftsmanship. He shapes sound like a master chef employs flavors; disparate textures contrast expertly, compliment one another, and stand alone in their simple beauty when called for. Hamilton Leithauser’s raspy croon imbues each genre upon which it’s unleashed — country, doo-wop, Spoon-like R&B, piano bar blues — with world-weary ennui, grinding even the most hopeful lyrics to fine ash.
There’s a lived-in charm to these songs that offsets any sense of novelty to which this unlikely partnership might have succumbed. Every track sounds a bit like something you might have heard before in another life; “A 1000 Times,” with its timeless, immutable chord progression and Leithauser’s journeyman’s ache, feels like a classic that’s been played as often as the title suggests. Leithauser’s spiritual epiphany in “Peaceful Morning” is a surrogate for the gratification that I Had a Dream That You Were Mine brings: “Those old familiar harmonies/ They carried us…I still feel the spirit/ From the rafters to the ceiling/ I’m waiting on that feeling.” He’s found and passed it along.
8) Bon Iver
“33 ‘GOD'” – 22, A Million
The unmaking of Justin Vernon as indie folk purist began in 2009 when, fresh from the wintry hibernation of For Emma, Forever Ago, the Bon Iver front man did the unthinkable — he fucked with his voice. It was a delicious bit of cognitive dissonance, hearing Vernon’s singular, ethereal falsetto (a voice made for singing about brokenness in a remote Wisconsin cabin if there ever was one) hardened into cyborgian beauty by the magic of Auto-tune dialed up to 11. “Woods” was unsettling yet weirdly uplifting — a mantra on nature’s sacred stillness augmented by technology, a meditation unspoiled by its sense of experimentation.
Seven years and two albums later, 22, A Million is postscript to that story, one where Vernon’s romanticism meets terabyte hard drives. Nearly extinct are the acoustic guitars; in their place reign synthesizers, drum loops, bifurcated horns, and a Vocoder-like sampling instrument that Vernon and a band mate invented called “The Messina.” The sonic chaos is further exacerbated by word-salad lyrics, cryptic numerology-based artwork and bat shit crazy song titles like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, “715 – CR∑∑KS,” and “21 M◊◊N WATER.” In a world that craves purpose and understanding, 22, A Million feels audaciously post-meaning, a foreign language without a Rosetta Stone.
But buried deep in the disorder are reflections on mortality (“It might be over soon”), acceptance (“Love, don’t fight it”) and loss (“I had you in my grasp”). In interviews, essays, and press conferences, Vernon divulged recording 22, A Million to combat crippling fears over writer’s block, depression, and creative exhaustion. Context is crucial in Bon Iver records — the post-break up mourning of For Emma, the journey into places (real and fictitious) of Bon Iver, Bon Iver — but never more so than here. 22, A Million is both acknowledgement of Vernon’s paralysis and escape vehicle from it.
On “33 ‘GOD’,” fractured pianos and yelps devolve into a monstrous wall of sub bass as cathartic as it is obtuse. I still cannot fathom what an Astuary King is, why Vernon’s staying at the Ace Hotel, or what the neologism “fuckified” means, but Vernon’s superb melodic sensibilities and self-conviction are the golden thread through this labyrinth. Somewhere along the journey, there’s a shift from absurdity to assurance. Whatever Vernon’s saying, he believes it.
“Your Best American Girl” – Puberty 2
The arc of wounded indie feminism is scrawled across Puberty 2 in familiar signatures — you can trace the sounds of a young PJ Harvey’s seething dissent, St. Vincent’s icy magnetism, and Liz Phair’s shark-eyed carnality. But assembled together, it sounds undeniably like Mitski Miyawaki. The 26-year old Japanese-American singer’s fourth album skirts the boundaries between naïveté and provocation. She solicits “pinky promise kisses” and praises the virtues of spooning, only to drop a bomb like: “You’d be over me, looking me in my eyes when I cum/ Someone to watch me die.” Puberty 2’s best moments are its most cacophonous (“A Loving Feeling,” “Dan the Dancer,” “Happy”) when Mitski’s vocals exude the dead calm in the eye of a hurricane. She shifts between crushing shoegaze textures, electro pop, and noise folk with aplomb, concealing musings on sexual oblivion, depression, and dislocation inside shockingly celebratory melodies.
The flash point is “Your Best American Girl” where Mitski’s half-Japanese bloodline renders moot her desires for intimacy at the precise instant the sledgehammer guitars descend. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do/ I think I do” she laments “And you’re an All-American boy/ I guess I couldn’t help trying to be the best American girl.” It’s not so much the perfect quiet/loud dichotomy circa 1993 that gets you or even the acute sting of ostracism lurking beneath the chorus’ vaporizing catharsis. It’s her simple, painful act that we can all identify with: wanting.
6) David Bowie
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – Blackstar
In retrospect, the shroud of Bowie’s mortality was draped all over Blackstar — his heaving gasps beneath the thick patina of horn squonk on “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” the Major-Tom-meets-the-occult symbolism in the title track’s mind-boggling video, and the chilling first line of “Lazarus”: “Look up here/ I’m in heaven.” But as crucial as Bowie’s death is to parsing Blackstar, equally important is the fact that when the world first heard the album, it’s author was presumably alive and well.
Bowie initially intended for us to experience Blackstar as a mindfuck in a vacuum — something alien, inscrutable, and defiantly bleeding-edge. Nearly fifty years into a career built on risks, it was furthest from the sound of pop music as he had ever ventured. Bowie synthesized the talents of familiar faces (producer Tony Visconti) and forms (rock, jazz, electronica, drum & bass) into something seemingly unfathomable in its ingenuity. Lyrically, Blackstar was often fractal, ear-bomb poetry, signifying everything and nothing. Even without the back story, it was still the most intrepid act of 2016, an old dog inventing a new trick.
But as the lock’s last tumbler pin fell into place and the finality of Bowie’s death sank in, Blackstar changed. A year later, it has come to mean something much more. In an era bereft of sanctity and confidentiality, Blackstar is an astonishingly public person’s most profound and private final act. It is the sound of a man staring oblivion in the face, alone, and transcribing what he sees — everything and nothing. “I can’t give everything away” were Bowie’s final words on the album, but with Blackstar’s gradual unfolding, he managed to relinquish more of himself than any other artist before him.
In the study of semi-classical gravity, a black star is thought to be “a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity,” an object that burns so brightly in life that even after its death, its mass remains. That is Bowie on Blackstar, still somehow there, reaching back from the grave to pull the rug out from under us all one last time and convey some deeper message. It’s a grand illusionist’s greatest reveal that arrives the moment after he’s vanished forever. “Oh, I’ll be free/ Like that bluebird” vows Bowie with a wink. “Ain’t that just like me?” Yes, David, it is.
10-6 | 5-1