10. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris
This hits a core part of my musical love in two distinct places. First is my endless adoration of shimmering, layered modern minimalism from childhood Philip Glass listening to my mid-twenties obsession with Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians (I still consider it a perfect piece, especially in its original ECM recording). Next is my primal addiction to rampaging tranced out psychedelic rock, exemplefied by Boredoms’ Super Roots 7 or The Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. The way it Hubris folds these two elements together feels like magic.
In Berlin, Ambarchi gathered a star packed team of musicians for this latest effort, including Mark Fell, Will Guthrie, Arto Lindsay, Jim O’Rourke, Konrad Sprenger, Crys Cole, Joe Talia, Ricardo Villalobos, Keith Fullerton Whitman. By my count, that’s four musicians I have spent a lot of time with over the years, all exciting artists with wildly different discographies. The crazy thing is, this is one of the most tightly coiled albums of the entire year, sounding too laser focused to have come from such a broad team.
The forty minute set is divided into three songs, with a pair of massive bookends and a slim two-minute guitar workout in the middle. The first track is all hot precision, with shifting layers of palm-muted guitar tones shifting across the stereo spectrum, open vocal choirs humming between the sharp notes, and a slowly unfurling synth explosion. After a brief moment of calm at the center, the third track rises up loud and fierce. It’s the reincarnation of the opening piece, transforming the playfully focused jam into a noisy eruption in slow motion. The energy keeps building past the ten minute marker, threatening to rip into a maelstrom of skronk but never quite toppling over its motorik groove.
There’s almost nothing I’d want more to hear live right now.
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9. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
I’m listening on a cold December night and it’s been forever since I’ve heard this album. I’ve lost whatever opinion I had last March. It sounds completely fresh, more polished but just as jazzy as I recall, loose and psychedelic in the purest sense. This set of To Pimp a Butterfly outtakes really does feel like its own album with its own flow. It’s a little more languid, a little more playful, sliding far from narrative form.
Like any good B-side collection, it displays a weirder side of the artist, the kind of awkward branches that get pruned when it comes time to cut an album. What elevates untitled unmastered is its atmospheric coherency, its urgent pace, and its sharp brevity. There’s no room for waste here; it’s a pure stream of new ideas, one fired right after another, often several to a song. The mood flows from anger to exaltation, sultry to salty, an explosion of feelings in a compact dose of genre exploration. Orchestral R&B, future funk, and free jazz collide in a psychedelic parade. It feels like the dizzying upside-down world to Kendrick’s charged, focused full length last year, like all the oddest, darkest detours managed to snap together in a perfect loop, separate from the main story.
It’s as worth a listen as anything else I’ve heard in 2016, proper album or not.
You can buy the album pretty much anywhere. The label doesn’t allow anything on youtube but you can still listen on Spotify.
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8. The Avalanches – Wildflower
It felt like forever, but The Avalanches finally, truly, actually came back with a followup to the monumental Since I Left You. It’s actually real, it’s a worthy sequel, and it’s one of the best albums of the year. Wildflower is a sampledelic masterpiece, fifteen years in the making.
Taking the kaleidoscopic approach of their debut and applying it to a more purpose-built structure has resulted in an album every bit as exciting and unpredictable as that timeless landmark. Along with an ocean of samples, we get live instrumentation and guess verses from Danny Brown, Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, MF Doom, Biz Markie, and a dozen more voices. Supposedly crafted to feel like a journey from the suburbs to unknown lands on LSD, the album is a true journey, leaving the listener far from where they started. The dizzying array of details begins to overwhelm until the group pulls back for gentle passages like the disco country of I Wish I Was a Folkstar or the 1960s psychedelic lament, Colours.
I trip over myself every time I talk about the Avalanches, even on the very first post on Optimistic Underground. I called their debut my all-time desert island album. That’s the kind of hyperbole they inspire. So now I just want to share a pair of videos that are bursting with fun and feeling, as life-affirming as any music this year.
That’s the thing about The Avalanches’ new album. It just makes me feel good to be alive more than anything else around. If there’s anything that 2016 needed, it was positive vibes like that.
First, there’s album opener Because I’m Me. Guaranteed to make you smile.
Now, enjoy the ecstatic flow of Subways, the jam of the summer, if not all of 2016. It’s one of those eternal grooves that will echo in your mind forever, whether you like it or not.
Wildflower is available on CD or vinyl from The Avalanches official shop.
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7. Fp-oner – 6
Fred P’s two releases under this alias happen to encompass some of the most sublime deep house I’ve ever heard outside of a DJ Sprinkles set. This is pure cosmic beat music painted in soulful dark shades. Running through an indefinable mixture of classic electronic genre colors, the album is perhaps the purest expression of subtle musical joy in all of 2016.
Where the last album leaned into the more jazzy, playful side of deep house, this one dives into the meditative depths of the genre. It’s a mesmerizing set of cascading rhythm, hypnotic textures, and seductively subtle melody that doesn’t let up once the first track begins. There’s an immense sense of scale to the album, with slower, intimate passages leading into one miniature epiphany after another. Micro-details add up to an overarching sense of narrative, a tangible arc that transposes in the way that only the best techno and house sculptures can do.
I can hardly muster the words to describe the appeal of an album like 6, but suffice it to say that this is the kind of deep electronic music that you really have to meet on its own terms. At a glance, there appear to be no footholds for the uninitiated; there are no overt hooks or vocal features to draw in the newbie. Fred P doesn’t make a great ambassador for his sound, but he is a wizard behind the boards, letting the music speak for itself.
The album might take a while to grow on even seasoned genre fans, but the payoff is worth any time investment. As the year rolled on, I found myself returning again and again to this sublime free space adventure, floating weightless in a galaxy of starbound bliss. It was my soundtrack for work, for driving, and most often for writing. Its opaque facade hides a limitless depth of fascinating texture and rhythm. 6 is the kind of album people will return to years from now, wondering how it slipped by so quietly in the night.
Here’s a great sample from the album, a tune called Reap Love:
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6. Marielle V Jakobsons – Star Core
Exploring far beyond the puzzle dream landscapes of 2012’s Glass Canyons, the album opens like an orchestra warming up on some distant asteroid, slowly hurtling into view. An organ hum gathers chiming tones, weary violins, and something that feels truly new in this context. Ethereal female vocals appear right on the first track, floating between ping-ponging synth tones on an extended, atmospheric coda.
A more song-like approach manages to keep the music as seamless and cohesive as before, yet breathe with distinct lives of their own. It makes the experience feel much larger than its 37 minutes suggest. While the vocals are the most obvious new addition, the bulk of the tracks are dominated by sawing synth waves, desert-tinged strings, and a suite of intimate woodwinds. Electronics and ancient instruments mix with effortless cool, eradicating all sense of time and place.
The album climaxes with Undone, a celestial drone reincarnation of the blues, featuring Jakobsons’ most striking vocal performance of the album. Her cool, echoed deadpan finally connects the dots in my mind: this feels like Spacemen 3 in the best way. My heart swells with the same sense of spiritual gravity.
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5. Dino Sabatini – Omonimo
This was my favorite self-discovery of the year. The Italian techno producer may be a contemporary of artists like Donato Dozzy and Rod Modell, but the sound captured on Omonimo is unlike anything else around.
This is beat music for deep sea exploration, for real adventure, for laying-in-bed-all-day introspection. The textures caress my eardrums like few other albums have ever done. The overarching mood is meditative, spiritual even, but the production is blessed with a profoundly tactile feel, rife with handcrafted instrumentation and palpable humanity behind the boards.
Omonimo was made for full hypnosis, inner explorations into shamanic discovery, unfolding in four distinct movements, neatly matching its sides on vinyl. The first three blend together in perfect coherence, forming a logical progression that blooms organically, like a tightly wound jazz band riffing in slow motion. Then everything winds down; it feels like Sabatini is taking a deep breath, inhaling the little universe of sound he’s just unraveled.
It’s just a ellipsis. The final stretch opens to shimmering synth curtains billowing over a beatless plane of existence; it’s the sound of ascension, speckled with flutes and distant chants, urging the listener upward. As these fresh elements dance through a brighter atmosphere, colossal beats re-enter the frame, muted by distance to a gentle roar.
If the album feels like marching through a torchlit jungle at night, the final passage is reaching a temple, entering a zen garden, and seeing the stars, knowing intrinsically that it’s home. The final denouement is an appropriately named nine minute sendoff: And It All Ends Here.
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4. Frank Ocean – Blonde
We’ve had a remarkable run of auteur pop albums this year, including Beyoncé’s Lemonade, James Blake’s The Colour In Anything, and now Frank Ocean’s hyped-to-the-stars sophomore album
Boys Don’t Cry Blonde. Or Blond. The confusing name scheme and track listing did nothing to obscure the astonishing music itself.
The songs here can be both super lush and weirdly nuanced, often swerving between bold pop catchiness and moments that aren’t especially new-user-friendly. The sense of scope is massive, yet it’s dotted with up-close moments of confessional intimacy. In a way, Ocean’s psychedelic confessional style reminds me of the tragically late, great Sparklehorse, aka Mark Linkous. Then I remember that Sparklehorse always reminded me of Todd Rundgren, perhaps the biggest weirdo-pop genius of all time. The thought runs full circle as I realize that Blonde has more in common with the messy sprawl of Rundgren’s era-defining work A Wizard, A True Star than it does with anything released in 2016. That knotty double album buried its brightest pop flourishes in lengthy suites, tucked between abrasive early sampling and innovative instrumentation, as dizzying as it is beguiling.
A song like Pink + White is a perfect example of how Ocean has turned traditional pop production on its ear, with a layered production that would have made Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys melt. The orchestral buildup feels straight out of God Only Knows, dropping the bottom out at key moments, highlighting the hand drums, ethereal backup choirs, and Frank’s voice itself. The army of interlocking elements zooms together magnetically for a humongous finale. Epic gospel choir arrangements provide a structure for Frank’s freestyle roaming
A full album listen is akin to following Ocean down a series of rabbit holes, hopping from dimension from dimension, constantly crossing lines of perception. It’s the same song, rendered radically different through each shifting lens as you plummet endlessly.
Cool moments of synth bravado and beat swag trade places with yearning guitar plucks and subtly grandiose string arrangements. Vocals leap from acoustic whispers to reverb-laden choirs in moments of flashing grace, like opening a hatch and emerging into sunlight from a cramped bunker. The entire album feels like that kind of wide-eyed revelation, fresh air bursting into a sealed room and blowing the walls away.
The wait might have felt interminable, but funny enough, the resulting album was worth it. This is far more than a return to form; this is a new evolution for one of the best singer-songwriters alive today.
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3. Steve Hauschildt – Strands
Strands seamlessly blends the entire spectrum of dreamy synthesizer music into a breathless futuristic rush. Flowing like a singular river cross nine tracks, the album is an unyielding force of synthesized nature. This is astonishingly cohesive music despite its textural depth and virtuosic musicianship.
The album pulses with huge washes of ambient synths, intricately decaying melodies, twinkling arpeggios, and an arsenal of quietly eruptive rhythm programming. It ensconces me in a wind tunnel’s worth of cozy atmosphere, but keeps me on my toes with constantly shifting textures and production flourishes. This intricate dance plays out across forty minutes that seem to dilate time before disappearing completely.
Many of the individual components of this sound are recognizable: clipped, metallic pads swell up, yearning pianos echo across oceans of reverb, and fat analog synthesizer chords make the hair on my neck stand up. Many are not: brittle washes of distortion, icy These pieces are mixed with a newfound sense of nuance, a hyperactive attention to the granular experience of the sound on the ears. The greatest accomplishment of Strands is that it meshes sweeping, big-picture sentiment with obsessive moment-to-moment detail.
Strands can be purchase on CD, digital, or vinyl via Bandcamp.
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2. Demdike Stare – Wonderland
Wonderland is a revelation from any direction, surprising longtime fans and cracking open unexplored depths for the uninitiated. The timing couldn’t be better: this album hits an apocalyptic fever pitch right as 2016 winds to its dystopian end.
For a year that opened with the death of David Bowie and gave us the disastrous US election, an appropriately jarring sendoff was necessary. If anything was going to set me reeling after the long, hard road of this year, it had to be this album.
With this album, Demdike Stare approach a more straightforwardly modern tone, existing somewhere outside of time, but at least glancing at the last couple decades. No longer do their songs rumble with the anguished ghosts of the industrial revolution. Now the music evokes its own time, twisting dancehall, jungle percussion, and urban field recordings of 1990s techno through a signature maelstrom of headfuck production techniques. Every familiar tick and groove has been subsumed in something fierce and unpredictable. It’s a hot weapon in friendly hands.
The oppressive black shell that’s kept these guys tucked in the dark over the years finally has a few cracks. More than the pinprick dots of moving stars from their earliest releases, these are full, bright shafts of daylight pouring into the set, spilling over expanses of skittering percussion and scorched ambient pads. With the light comes a new warmth and an implied embrace. While just as defiant as ever, this is Demdike Stare at its most approachable.
Wonderland can be found on physical and digital formats at Boomkat.
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1. David Bowie – Blackstar
Here we are, the best album of the year. It’s David Bowie’s Blackstar. It had to be. I fought this feeling for a moment but realized I shouldn’t resist. It wouldn’t be true. I write everything on this site and I can’t rate music objectively, so emotional honesty is my only metric. To be completely honest, Blackstar affected me more than anything else released in 2016.
It was a hair-raising spectacle when it dropped, a pitch black swan song a couple days later, and now, after months of careful avoidance, a eulogy for the anxious, possibly apocalyptic year we’ve had.
I was overseas the day David Bowie died, hearing the news on spotty hotel wifi hours before hopping on a plane. I wrote about what he meant to me the entire flight home. My pre-ordered vinyl was waiting for me, so I listened and listened again. I burned a copy to CD so I could hear it in my car. I spent the winter living and breathing Blackstar.
I listened to everything in Bowie’s discography, trying to soak it all in while grief spiked my senses. I listened so much that when the weather finally changed and I spent time outdoors in the sunlight with new music, I didn’t want to go back to the start. I began avoiding his final album, imbuing its memory with undue darkness. Months went by. Suddenly it was snowing and I was thinking about the best albums of the year and what shape this list might take. I realized I’d need to go through my running tally again, give a fresh listen to everything on it. Then I realized that Blackstar is a much more joyous experience with age.
The album is a wild, thrilling portrait of a master artist operating at the peak of his considerable powers. It’s unbelievable, coming from a man nearing his seventh decade of life. Instead of resting on his laurels during a lengthy terminal illness, Bowie forged onward, hiring a jazz band to complete his vision of music beyond recognizable realms. The tunes here shift from dreamy krautrock, echoing his most creatively fertile period in the 1970s in Berlin, to the noisy skronk of mutant jazz, covering every high point in between. Lyrics nod toward complex literary darkness and earnest acceptance of death in the same breath. Bowie’s first instrument, the alto saxophone, makes an MVP appearance throughout an album for the first time in his half-century career.
The entire experience of Blackstar is so breathlessly urgent, so defiantly bursting with life, that nothing else could compete through the rest of the year. No matter how dark things got – and they did get so very dark – I had David Bowie to look to for inspiration.
Even in death, he made art out of the connections between people around the world. More than the album itself, this is his final gift to us all. The dreamlike peace that followed his death didn’t last, but I gripped it tightly through the months past. I’ll do well to continue taking heed of the man’s own words and lessons, the way he taught us to embrace what’s real inside, no matter how uncool and ephemeral it may be.
Nothing in 2016 felt as vital or timely as Blackstar, and for that it stands as the best album of the year.
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Thank you for reading. Please comment and let me know what you think about any of these albums, anything I may have missed, or whatever really.