Looking back at what a shit year 2016 has been, it’s no wonder I published more music writing than ever before. As the months wore on I found myself swiping away more and more real news in my feed and just getting lost in Bandcamp and other music sources. I wasn’t really trying to bury my head; I was looking for a better way of thinking.
The world is what it is, but I can frame it and focus on it however I choose. Immersing in the toxicity of bad news and worse reactions changed my perception one way, so I aimed to change it another way. Art has been a life sustaining tonic all my life, a refuge sought in times of stress, loneliness, and most of all, deep frustration. If I’ve hit a brick wall, I know that obsessing about the problem won’t help. I need to detach, breathe, and follow something made to surprise. A good story or song is something to be lost in, sure, but it grants perspective. It can bend the light just so, showing me a new way to see.
Perspective also comes from travel. The simple but profound act of experiencing other parts of the world can never be overestimated. This is where the image at the top of this list comes in. It’s Greenland, as seen from my plane back home to the United States from Ireland a month ago. I happened to open the window shade during the brief window when we were passing over the very tip of the continent-sized island. It felt like magic.
I’m entering 2017 with hope that good news can happen and that we can press on, even when our heroes are gone. I look around and I wonder who the future heroes are going to be. Those people will be standing against the dark tide and risking everything. They’ve got new ideas to replace the scary old ones that never quite die.
Looking back on the past year of music, I see a lot of new ideas and new perspectives on old ones. The best kind of music always elicits surprise, even if it’s made in a familiar way. There’s a flash of feeling, a rush of blood, and it clicks. Everything on this list mattered to me and I hope some of it can matter to you.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 30 best albums of 2016:
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30. NV – Binasu
NV is Russian artist Kate Shilonosova, a woman who sounds here like a distinctly 80s-era Japanese synth-pop goddess. This charming set of electronic tunes shuffles through candy colored crystalline synth tones and midi-fired hand percussion. The bright and bubbly hooks, breathy vocals, and shimmering production appears deceptively simple at first. After a few spins, I was peeling apart the upper layers, peering vertically into the constructions, getting a sense of this album as a sort of cartoon embodiment of dance itself.
The title track is a perfect encapsulation of her appeal. Binasu fizzes to life with chiptune synth pockets and wandering squiggles from a Super Nintendo daydream, before her crystal clear vocals enter the fray, soaring above the crunchiness of the production in a high contrast ballet jump.
Cassettes have long since sold out, but you can purchase Binasu on its Bandcamp page.
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29. Suryummy – Genesis Clarity
Genesis Clarity was released by Beer on the Rug, a label that became my go-to for adventurous, unabashedly out-there yet super accessible electronic music. The artists, like best of 2015 members Pulse Emitter and Seabat, explore radically spaced out sounds from brand new angles. So when I got an email about the newest label release, Suryummy’s Genesis Clarity, I had the trust to give it a listen.
This is my favorite Beer on the Rug offering yet. It’s a bold mixture of easy grooves and exotic timbres, layer upon layer of transparent synth formations passing by in a far flung digital odyssey. It’s space music of the highest order, folding early Warp Records pathos – SETI broadcasts, video game fever, hippie optimism – in a modern production envelope.
Listening feels like lift up through the rainy skies of some distant future metropolis, ready to swerve through asteroid belts, erupting in crescendos across the rings of Saturn.
After a week on steady rotation, I was convinced more than ever that Suryummy captures the narrative sweep of early Underworld in a way that few artists even want to try. There are meta structures rising and falling across several overlapping sets of tracks, and the whole thing has an unshakable whiff of pure adventure. Infectious rhythm gives way to heady, beatless passages, slowly dilating time. Tension builds into perfect eruptions, serving as signpost constellations along the way.
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28. Thug Entrancer – Arcology
Arcology is a huge leap for Thug Entrancer, aka Ryan McRyhew, after 2014’s hypnotic but oppressively dark Death After Life, which made my best of the year list. Instead of scaling up even larger, he’s taken his process apart and rebuilt it with more nuanced, texturally rich pieces. What once felt like dizzying vertigo is now a sprawling maze.
Arcology goes full cyberpunk with a set of interlocking tunes that drift between the alien forms of deep Detroit techno and the skittering cloud cities of modern footwork. In contrast to the lengthy, blunt-edged productions on his debut, the set here flexes a wealth of entry points, soft edges, and melodic twists that feels positively friendly in comparison.
Here’s the beguiling Ronin video. Warning: not for epileptic folks!
You can hear the whole album streaming and purchase it on the Thug Entrancer Bandcamp page.
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27. Wolf Müller and Cass. – The Sound of Glades
Wolf Müller and Cass created a hybrid that I never knew I needed: the perfect meeting point between new age and balearic synth music. Sure, it takes off from sounds that I’m familiar with, but the result is an otherworldly journey that lasts far longer than its slim 39 minute run time suggests.
The Sound of Glades is a slow-motion, meditative experience, ballooning with open space and sparkling with bird calls and wind chimes. The sound bridges the gap between bouncy balearic and expansive new age drift, zeroing in on a moment of bliss and stretching it beyond time. The intricate details are easily appreciated with so much distance built into the music, as thoughtfully paced as it is. The whole set is perfect ambient music for close listening, blushing with gratitude and zen-like calm while completing a satisfying emotional arc.
This is the title track, a full one-third of the running time.
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26. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Freetown Sound is explosive yet deeply composed, bursting with stylistic variety and melodic density. There are a dozen unique and catchy touches embedded in every song. Each track surprises with sudden shifts in texture and tone, erupting with new instruments, sounds, and hooks. It’s a visceral rush, and that’s before the hair-raising lyrics set in, vocals courtesy of Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange himself) and guests like Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and Carly Rae Jepsen.
A song like E.V.P veers into deep-80s Prince, tumbling through modern R&B before ending on a dissonant cello outro that would have made Arthur Russell blush. Instead of being an odd exception, it feels like the blueprint for the album as a whole.
Early standout Best To You steamrolls through syncopated balearic rhythms with a Reich-like vibraphone and effervescent female vocals. Moments like this showcase the stunning confidence of moving through a dizzying array of styles without even the threat of stumbling. Plasticine synthesizers rub elbows with spiritual jazz saxophone and deep groove funk bass across the entire set. It’s a breathlessly kaleidoscopic experience.
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25. Qluster – Echzeit
Qluster is the current incarnation of one of the longest-active music projects on the planet, continually vibrant and productive from 1971 onward. In this possibly final form, the band once known as Cluster has mellowed some of the rough edges and grown subtly complex, losing none of that original alien magic they’ve conjured for 45 years running.
After one listen I was awestruck. After a half dozen, I was convinced that Echtzeit is best release from this incarnation of the band yet.
Twinkling pianos, analog synthesizer swells, and a playfully light percussion touch dance across the entire spectrum of color through the album’s ten compact tracks. It’s cohesive enough to let drift without note when songs end and begin, perfect for daydreams, studying, or elevating the morning commute.
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24. Young Thug – No, My Name is JEFFERY
I know very well that Young Thug is not for everyone, much less the hip-hop community at large. For such a progressive, constantly evolving genre, its most ardent fans are often nostalgic hardliners, demanding fealty to the canonical greats and throwing shade at any truly new developments. Young Thug doesn’t make music for those people.
His vocals are the biggest sticking point: a weird miasma of syllables and warbles wrapped in an effortless, often unintelligible flow. His raps treat the English language as a mere jumping off point for expressionist construction. Sure, you can parse the words out and follow a loose narrative, treating it like normal rap. But you’re not going to get all you can out of this music.
Instead, I appreciate Young Thug’s productions as holistic pieces, the vocals inseparable from the instrumentals. This is the kind of music to be fully absorbed in, losing all thought, vibing with the sound. It’s rap to get lost in, an alien language painted in rare stretches of the color spectrum. Approached with an open mind, it’s almost more akin to jazz or instrumental hip-hop than traditional notions of rap, and that’s okay.
You can probably buy it digitally anywhere or just listen on Spotify.
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23. ANOHNI – Helplessness
On Hopelessness, Anohni tackles worldwide political violence with nuance, heart, and sense of wonder in such personal, agonizing detail that it’s impossible to look away. Whether exhorting the powers that be to Drone Bomb Me or asking, Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?, she conveys the raw power and sheer insanity of our modern world with the up-close drama of a first person account. To listen to this album is to witness a real magic trick, conjuring relatable human-sized drama from the grand entropy of humanity itself.
Her voice soars and roars, relating stories of pain and suffering, discovery and elation, and of course, the relentless attack on the idea of hope itself. This incredible drama is lifted from any semblance of lecture by the industrial tinged synthetic perfection of the production. Instead, it’s music that you feel first and think about second. She knows that to understand the big story, we have to relate to it first.
With her incredible voice backed by innovative sounds by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (a longtime favorite of mine), this album instantly became my favorite work by the artist formerly known as Antony. Her gender transition seemed to herald a new boldness and sense of purpose, as these 11 songs definitively show.
Hopelessness can be purchased on LP or CD directly from Secretly Canadian.
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22. Convextion – Acido 22
Convextion is the moniker of American techno artist Gerard Hanson, who was influenced by genre icons in his home country and Europe, including Basic Channel and Juan Atkins. He released his debut LP in 2006 and disappeared for a while, but the album was such a monument – often compared with the stratospheric heights of Deepchord’s frigid, spacey techno – that he never really left the radar for deep genre fans like myself.
Earlier this year, I heard he was finally coming back with a new full-length. I searched all over before realizing I was too early. Instead, I found this nameless, numbered 12″ release from Acido Records. It was providence, because nothing could have sounded more perfect at that moment.
Instead of massive pads, infinite icy beats, and hypnotic loops, I was greeted with ominous synths, a slow drone rising, and spaced arpeggios. This hits more like the cosmic sounds of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, and even the fantastic soundtrack of Stranger Things. The music here ventures far outside the beat-centric realms of Detroit and Berlin, reaching for subtly grand cosmic wonder.
I ended up preferring this sound over the more familiar deep techno of Hanson’s eventual full-length release, 2845.
Despite the radical genre shift, this music has a lot in common with the best deep techno: the twenty minute set is similarly designed for jetting off into the far reaches of spacey mindscapes. These tracks wax and wane, ebb and flow, build and disappear, leaving a faint ring of mystery and awe in their wake.
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21. Roly Porter – Third Law
Third Law is a fucking thrill ride. The album feels like a synthesized asteroid blasting into the moon, erupting and rippling outwards ceaselessly. It plays with bold, mechanized energy but it has a swooning heart at its core. This is star-blasted but warmly human music. It’s also deeply cinematic music, flush with atmospheric touches that really sell a sense of extraterrestrial adventure.
The title nods to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and the cover art inescapably conjures Blade Runner, but the album launches my thoughts into a far more distant future. Third Law is the sound of a cyberpunk apocalypse, the very fabric of reality tearing at the seams as the bass pulses along. Just when it can’t get any more intense, a heavenly reprieve arrives in the final moments of the final track. I won’t spoil the surprise by describing it. Suffice it to say: Roly Porter truly earns this revelation.
Check out the Bandcamp page or buy the vinyl probably anywhere,