New Order is one of the few bands I’ve loved since childhood and continue to do so well into my adult years. The band’s nervy, dystopian take on synth pop was almost a template for my nascent tastes, mixing deep bass grooves, crystalline synthesizer tones, frantic guitar work, and abstract lyrics about love, loss, society, and other fun nonsense.
In my humble opinion, 1985’s Low-Life was the pinnacle of this style, mixing hard dancefloor impulses with sweeping romanticism to unbelievable perfection. The lead single, The Perfect Kiss, came with an appropriately deadpan video directed by Jonathan Demme. Behold:
I don’t often take note of federal holidays, especially when I’m not let off work, but Martin Luther King Jr. Day is perhaps the most important one in American history. It’s a modern holiday celebrating the life of a man whose passion for justice and equality changed the shape of our country undeniably for the better.
Unlike our other named holidays, nodding to historical figures with dubious or downright depressing impacts – can we end Columbus day already? – this one is an unquestionably good thing. King is one of the truest heroes my nation has ever produced. Recent world-shaking events have shown how vital his lessons continue to be.
Because this is a music site, I feel like sharing my favorite song that samples King’s words. This tune takes the fiery energy from his final speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” and wrings every ounce of suffering from it. This is a harrowing but strangely soothing epic. It’s called Motorik Life (DJ Sprinkles’ Mountain of Despair):
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:
Freetown Sound is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, and I’ve felt tongue-tied every time I listen. This album is a violent rush of pop mastery, the kind of cultural explosion that’s rarely matched with such slick and catchy production. It’s difficult to talk about.
What I do know is that Blood Orange has somehow conjured the urgency of Kendrick Lamar’s American dystopia and the defiant fantasia of Beyoncé’s Lemonade while sounding like no one but himself.
Central brings a pair of brief but incredible 12″ vinyls that explore the deep, weird ends of techno and house in a way that few artists in 2016 are even attempting. The density of quality here is breathtaking, and sets a high bar for any eventual full-length. Together, this hour of music is some of the freshest sounds I’ve heard all year.
It’s the summer of 2016 and I’ve felt more energized than I have in years. In addition to writing more frequently than ever, I’ve rediscovered my passion for mixing and recontextualizing music.
I make mixtapes that I’d want to listen to, sharing music the way I hear it. This one is a night drive for future ghosts.
This is the first time I felt compelled to make a mixtape for people I’ll never know.
Ballroom is dedicated to everyone who lost the fight of their lives when someone tried to silence an entire culture. It’s also a dive through my own personal history with dance music, exploring the deep end of the electronic ocean, the sounds that come out as everyone’s going home.