30 Best Albums Of 2016

bestof2016greenlandsmall

20. Underworld – Barbara, Barbara We Face A Shining Future

Underworld - Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future

Instead of grasping onto their old footholds as the greatest dance sculptors on earth, the group is embracing their role as a metaphysical soul band. Instead of the ecstatic rush of Born Slippy, we get the wobbling hum of Motorhome. Instead of transcendent club burners, we get meditative weirdo pop for the 23rd century. It’s perfect in its own way.

When the duo finally lets go like this, the freefall is stunning to behold. Genre signifiers melt into sonic magma, bubbling out in new forms, folding back in and disappearing forever. There’s a tactile sense of real instrumentation throughout, cresting with the Flamenco guitar of mid-album interlude Santiago Cuatro, but an electronic glow permeates every moment, bulging and swaying with an unseen gravity.

The album’s emotional peak, Motorhome, is a minimal-maximal ballad in the vein of Hey Jude. Thin drums skip over a sea of disembodied open vowels and throbbing hums, but a distinct buzz creeps into the mix. A single phrase keeps repeating, growing, “what don’t lift you drag you down, keep away from the dark side,” sounding like an old familiar anthem beamed in from another timeline. Slowly coming to the fore, a jigsaw synth arpeggio erupts midway and repaints the entire song as it echoes over an extended coda. I’m reminded of nothing more than the iconic Terry Riley-inspired organ intro to The Who’s Baba O’Riley. It’s nervy, weird, and profoundly affecting.

Review here.

You can buy the vinyl edition right from Underworld.

•  •  •

19. Central – Political Dance #1 and #2

Central Natal Zaks

Central, a project of Danish producer Natal Zakshas, released a pair of incredible 12″ vinyls that explored the deep, weird ends of techno and house in a way that few artists in 2016 even attempted. This is densely packed with breathtaking moments, setting a high bar for any eventual full-length. Altogether, this hour of music comprises some of the freshest sounds I heard all year.

Over the course of each of these roughly 30 minute releases, Central folds a broad range of styles into a cohesive march. His kaleidoscopic take on techno comes as the result of his longterm involvement in various music scenes in his native Netherlands. This is deep techno that’s unafraid of going to frankly emotional spaces, exploring beatless realms, and even getting straight up jazzy when it feels natural. By the second set, the sound evolves into more of an expansive house workout, drifting over synth pads and bubbling with sharp samples and restrained drum programming.

I’m counting this as one “album” because it just works so well that way. Listen and you’ll understand.

Review here.

The Political Dance #1 12″ is available direct from the Dekmantel imprint and can be heard streaming on Spotify. Same goes for Political Dance #2 on both Dekmantel and Spotify. Listen to the pair back to back for the full experience.

•  •  •

18. Studio OST – Scenes (2012-2015)

Studio OST scenes 2012-2015

The name Studio OST grants an air of anonymity, and the album title gives the impression of an anthology. But this is a tightly crafted set of intricate, intelligent techno experiments that sounds as cohesive as anything made in a single session. Appropriate to the album title, it’s the product of a series of recordings between Galcher Lustwerk and Alvin Aronson, the former of which runs Lustwerk Music, based in New York.

There’s a jazzy fluidity of structure here, an adventurous lean into spaced out sounds from the Oneohtrix Point Never corner of the music world, and a mournful UFO vibe that, like a lot of my favorite music recently, reminds me of the early pioneering Warp Records days.

Throughout the album, an ocean of techno and deep house waves mingle with the frayed edges of experimental drone tones, bent broadcast frequencies, and destroyed synth lines. The only signposts of direct human contact arrive in the form of deeply modulated vocal samples, appearing like faces in clouds before drifting away. In moments of startling clarity, tight drum programming and slick bass lines rumble through the mix, granting the whole experience a sharper, more tactile feel than other albums playing in the psychedelic outer limits of techno.

For those who experience techno as an environment to sink into rather than a narrative to follow, Scenes (2012-2015) could be one of the most perfect releases all year.

Review here.

The album can be bought digitally on Bandcamp or on vinyl from Juno.

•  •  •

17. James Blake – The Colour In Anything

James Blake - The Colour in Anything

The Colour In Anything is expansive yet minimal, packed with moments of deafening silence, erupting in extraordinary detail. The lengthy running time allows Blake to stretch out each of his impulses, indulging in pure vocal explorations and extended instrumental passages alike. Longtime fans, familiar with his groundbreaking CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs on classic dance label R&S, will recognize that iridescent blue glow all over the production techniques. It’s been buried for years, but the impulse returned stronger than ever. The cumulative effect leaves me gobsmacked, running through a sensory juggernaut.

This is the first time that Blake has collaborated extensively with other artists, including Frank Ocean on writing and production duties. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon carries his signature high-register voice in a perfectly sympathetic dance with Blake’s tenor vocals on mid-album highlight I Need A Forest Fire. Since both artists are well known for manipulating their unique voices, it’s one of those eureka moments where you wonder why they haven’t crossed paths since the one-off single Fall Creek Boys Choir in 2011. It’s also emblematic of the way the entire album is put together: a series of high contrast moments of striking sincerity and nuanced bombast that elicits surprise despite its lack of truly new elements. James Blake has reformulated his signature dish, but he’s using the same ingredients he’s worked with all along.

Review here.

The album is available on vinyl on Bleep.

•  •  •

16. CFCF – On Vacation

CFCF - On Vacation

On Vacation opens like the theme music for an 80s travel documentary, all bright optimism and plastic approximation of co-opted third world instrumentation. But it’s no mock; it’s total reclamation. CFCF is taking the cheesiest aesthetic slices from our childhoods and refashioning them into the building blocks of the future. The mood quickly tumbles from get-up-and-go into a melancholic daydream, never even realizing it’s changed until we’re all sucked in.

There are dozens of little twists that work like magic, throughout the 30 minute run time. The shortest song on the album, Chasing, is a powerful 2 minute example of this sorcery in action. It’s a cavalcade of pure escape. The midi-era novelty gives way to heartfelt emotion, and the melody transposes a romantic guitar feel. That guitar tone, more than ever for CFCF, has bloomed into something close to The Durutti Column‘s exploratory grace. This is a comparison I don’t take lightly, considering band leader Vini Reilly is my favorite guitarist of all time.

Review here.

On Vacation can be found on LP at Pacific Beach Vinyl.

•  •  •

15. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

A Moon Shaped Pool is a fully matured evolution of everything good that was hiding in the background and around the fringes of their past work. Those dreamy interstitial passages, the lattices of synths, whispered samples, they’ve all come to the fore, supplanting the mostly traditional rock sounds that the band was always anchored to. Instead of merely nodding toward Can via snippets of motorik pulse or jazz-infused drumming, they’re actually making art in the same otherworldly vein as the hugely inspirational band themselves. This is a Radiohead with nothing to prove to anyone but themselves, unmoored from expectations.

The pieces here aren’t really songs in the most traditional sense; they’re pure groove constructions. Each track builds over a slow motion rhythm section, snowballing in intensity while remaining locked into its essential momentum. Verse-chorus-repeat structures are subsumed and dissolved. Chord changes are masked and minimized. Each new element enters organically, lit by the same stars as the rest of the production. I’d call it minimalism if it weren’t so lush and overstuffed with detail. Mid-album track Ful Stop is a perfect example, all coiled up violence and slow building drum intensity that chugs with clear-eyed focus into oblivion. Instead of exploding at the end, the groove consumes itself.

Radiohead hasn’t ever sounded further from radio rock, but they sound more like a band now than they ever have before.

Review here.

The album can be purchased digitally on Radiohead’s website and the vinyl and CD editions can be found on amoonshapedpool.com.

•  •  •

14. Andy Stott – Too Many Voices

Andy Stott - Too Many Voices

Andy Stott returned again like clockwork, another two years past his last album, with a stunning new twist to his signature sound. While a familiar industrial atmosphere lingers over Too Many Voice‘s  entropic techno core, there’s a new sense of looseness at play. No longer does his sound jacknife between rigid beats and squalling noise; it splits off laterally, shifting through a range of hip-hop accented bass thumps and damaged drums beneath a new palette of melody. His music feels more alive than ever before, unpredictable and restless.

Stott seems to have traded in his stark black and white solitude for the neon soaked glow of crowded urban life. Despite the album artwork fitting right in line with his greyscale discography, Too Many Voices feels like the start of a completely new direction for the Manchester producer. The metallic grind of his slow motion techno has evolved over the past two albums, adding operatic female vocal fragments, then actual sung phrases without diluting the truly alien effect of his sound. This album seems to approach spacey Dam-Funk territory from an oblique angle, welding curvy synth tones and sensual vocals to the undulating backbone of dark rhythm. Change can feel scary, but surprise felt instantly right.

The album was released on Stott’s label Modern Love, always sold on Boomkat.

•  •  •

13. Hybrid Palms – Pacific Image

Hybrid Palms - Pacific Image

Hybrid Palms is the project of Russian artist Konstantin Skolnikov. His work brings new weight and meaning to the idea of what new age music can be. Far more than pleasant background music, this album conjures the frontier spirit of artists like Alice Coltrane and Laraaji, subsuming the deeply weird and uplifting ends of jazz and electronic music in a true hybrid fusion.

This is new age music at its most vibrant and weird, defiantly alive. I kept searching for another genre signifier, another name to cap it with, but nothing rang true. Sure, ambient is close, but Pacific Image doesn’t really fit in that hazy box. Accept it, feel it, live it. Despite the years of abuse that tag carried, it still could mean something. The lingering mood I’ve drifted on since hearing this album for the first time might define that something, or at least color it in.

It’s that prickly sensation on the back of your neck as you wander into the darkest shade of an unfamiliar forest. It’s the lifting sensation in your toes when the clouds break on a stormy summer day. It’s the electricity in the air one second after school gets out for the year. This music smears the resin core of these feelings in a blurred streak through time, spreading each element out for examination and exultation.

Review here.

You can buy the album on Bandcamp from Michigan-based label Sounds of the Dawn.

•  •  •

12. Beyonce – Lemonade

beyonce-lemonade-cover

Without hesitation, I called Lemonade a pop masterpiece. I hadn’t felt this awed by the sheer audacity of a major league R&B album since Frank Ocean’s explosive breakthrough Channel Orange in 2012. There’s a physical power running through these songs, threatening to burst at any moment. At the end I’m left giddy and exhausted, thankful for the emotional workout inside such an impeccably produced environment.

At a trim 45 minutes, there’s zero room for filler on this set. Even the requisite ballad tracks pulse with energy, fitting perfectly in the emotional arc, morphing seamlessly into harder-edged pieces. The guest list is small but efficient, seemingly hand-picked for variety and style buffing. Jack White’s guitar rips through the angriest tune, teasing up a rush that builds into the hardest lyric of the entire record. Nothing feels more powerful than hearing Beyoncé roar, “WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I AM?” The Weeknd layers icy cool and dangerous seduction on a track sampling Isaac Hayes’ Walk On By, James Blake paints plaintive rings around the contemplative heart of the album, and Kendrick Lamar delivers an acrobatic, hair-raising verse on Freedom.

Still, the most surprising weapon in the arsenal is Beyonce’s voice itself. Her elastic physicality bounces between hopeful whisper and raging lament, fluid and dangerous. Anger and exaltation share the stage in a perfectly choreographed duet. Her deeply personal story is expressed in gigantic, universal terms, captured at its absolute flashpoint.

Review here.

I’m pretty sure you can buy Lemonade everywhere.

•  •  •

11. Cocainejesus – We’re Worried About You

cocainejesus - we're worried about you

Cocainejesus dropped best album on Dream Catalogue since 2814’s epoch-defining 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day). We’re Worried About You introduces a new chapter for the prolific label.

I watched Dream Catalogue grow and expand, its signature aesthetic evolving while retaining its core identity.  I immersed myself in the surreal works of HKE, Nmesh, R32X, t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 – 柔らかい唇, and so many more. I formed a concrete image of what the label meant to me.

We’re Worried About You smeared that image beyond recognition, leaving recognizable vaporwave behind. The album is loaded with syrup-slow synths, hip-hop drum programming, backmasked female vocals, and a tender yet heavy atmosphere; I recall the pinnacle of trip-hop, the sound of acts like Massive Attack and Portishead at the peak of their powers. Still, there’s a moody sense of exploration, of extraterrestrial broadcasts, of a history that never was, being unearthed. It’s the uncanny valley of my own memory.

Review here.

I bought the CD but the album is also on cassette on the Bandcamp page.

•  •  •

30 – 21  |  20-11  |  10-1

16 thoughts on “30 Best Albums Of 2016

  1. Great list. Blackstar gets me emotional everytime. I’m still thinking about my list, but I think Blonde is going to end up on number #1. Have you heard the new Huerco S.? It’s one of my favorites from this year. Also, what you think about the new ep from Vince Staples? I don’t ktnow if you are a Autechre fan, but Elseq is definitely a top 10 from this year. Anyway, cheers, man. ;) (I’m a bit drunk right now)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I will say that Blonde is maybe my most listened to album of the year, since it spent a couple straight months on rotation in my car.

      I actually really like that Huerco S. album, it’s going on my Honorable Mention list for sure. Same goes for the Vince Staples EP. It’s intriguing and fresh but didn’t grab me as much as his album from last year.

      I’m actually a huge Autechre fan but I only gave the new album one full listen, so I really need to go back to that one, give each segment some time. I’m sure I’ll love it; I just wasn’t in the right mood when the album dropped, I guess. I’ve been listening to their early albums a lot lately, so today might be a good time to try :)

      Cheers to you, too! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I should have that Honorable Mention list up soon too!

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      • Blond is my most listened album of the year too. The new Huerco S. was my “go to sleep” (in a good way) album this year. It really reminds me of Gas and I guess that why I loved so much. Elseq is real monster of an album. I never tough that they would make somenthing more abstract and cold than Exai but they did. .What are your favorites from their old stuff? I going to check some of the techno stuff from your list that I didn’t listened yet. Hopefully some of them will end up on my list. Also, you are optmistic_tour on last.fm right? You last.fm is going to be very useful for discovering new stuff. I’m looking foward for you Honorable Mentions list.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Huerco S. album is really good, but the strange way that songs cut off abruptly kept it from being something I listen to before sleep. I joked about it on twitter and he actually RT’d me! As for Autechre, oh man I think that my favorites are a weird combo – I love Incunabula for its warmth and accessibility and I love Confield for its sharp, alien feeling that stands almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. I also really love the Garbage EP, the final track reminds me of Fennesz.

          I hope you like some of the techno releases! That’s become kind of my main genre these days, so it gets more exploration here. Yes, I am optimistic_tour on lastfm :) Give a shout on my wall!

          PS the HM list will be up soon! The holidays kinda slowed me down.

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  2. i’ve been making my way through this set a few albums a day since you posted it. as with all of your previous year-end lists, i took away about a dozen new loves. for that and more generally for your continued energy put toward OU, i thank you David. cheers from Seattle

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Shaun! This is the best comment I’ve received in a long time. I’m super happy to know that I’ve shown you new music to enjoy. That’s why I write! Cheers from my little blizzard in Michigan

      Like

  3. Pingback: Oren Ambarchi – Hubris | Optimistic Underground

    • Thank you for the kind words! I’m so glad to have introduced you to those artists; that’s my number one goal with this site, so it’s fantastic to hear that I helped someone connect with something they love. Fred P (aka fp-oner) has loads of other projects too, including Black Jazz Consortium which I posted about last year. His album under Fred P from 2015 is also a superb set of deep house dreaminess.

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  4. NV, Convextion, Qluster and Oren Ambarchi are my picks. Thank you for pointing that out. All other artists are either way too “standard”, “regular” or “already heard”. I can’t even listen pop music for last decade or so. It’s mostly recycling of old approaches and ideas.

    Regards. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad that you discovered some new stuff with the list. You’re the first person to say they appreciated the inclusion of Qluster, in fact. I love that album but was not surprised to see it missing from most year-end lists, since they’re old guys and not young and hip.

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      • And to be honest, Qluster, even with this new album, still sounds “old”. They somehow didn’t allow to be “eaten” by capabilities of new technologies. I still don’t know whether I like it because of nostalghia or…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh yes, the Qluster album was definitely made in the same vein as the old Cluster material. I believe they use newer equipment, but they certainly don’t use newer styles. The album just sounds good to me – I had to go back a few times before I admitted, yes, it belongs with other brand enw albums on the list.

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  5. Pingback: 50 Best Albums of 2017 | Optimistic Underground

  6. Pingback: 50 Best Albums of 2018 | Optimistic Underground

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