30 Best Albums Of 2016

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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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Demdike Stare – Wonderland

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Demdike Stare have returned with a full length release over four years after their last with a quietly radical shift in sound. After exploring all the hidden spaces beneath the world of techno, they seem to have finally let some light in.

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.

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Marco Shuttle – Visione [full album streaming]

Seeing ‘with Donato Dozzy’ attached to the first track on this debut album from Marco Shuttle, I absolutely had to listen. As a total unknown to me, the bespoke surrealism of the cover art caught my eye, but Dozzy grabbed my attention. As half of Voices From The Lake and an incredible techno artist in his own right, this guy will always deserve my time.

Featuring on this album is an endorsement that’s paid off handsomely. This is one of the best albums of 2015 so far. The best news is that the entire thing is streaming free:

Just, wow. I love Donato Dozzy and everything he touches, but I never expected to hear him associated with a guy who’s inadvertently soundtracking that heart-ripping-out scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Pried open with a slow motion drone tumble, the album kicks off in spectacularly ominous fashion. The cavernous sound would feel right at home on the Modern Love imprint, as a close cousin to Demdike Stare in their rhythmic moments. There’s a primal undercurrent at play here, soaking the beats in atavistic decay.

As the tracks progress, a heavy momentum kicks everything up a notch. The dread remains, yet creeps into a muted frenzy as the pace quickens. This is techno as a death march, stomping panic underfoot before emerging into brighter timbres in the album’s second half.

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I feel like I’m giving the impression that this music is scary. It might be spooky at a glance, but it’s definitely not the howling-existential-panic I’ve plumbed the depths of in the past. There’s a buoyancy and charm to the mix, shining through in the handcrafted nuance of these songs. There’s the very fact that it never drops completely into a droning abyss; the beat always remains within arm’s reach. This is certainly not club material, but it is resolutely not a soundtrack for laying in bed all day. I’m going to listen on my commute to work tomorrow, and the rest of the week, I’m sure.

You should already be listening by now, so I’ll stop with the description and simply state that this was such a pleasant surprise to find in the throes of another frozen January. Like Andy Stott, Actress, Burial, and Shackleton before him, Marco Shuttle has managed to lift my seasonal spirits with music that’s somehow both wholly appropriate for nighttime blizzards and meditative daydreams.

Here’s that gorgeous artwork again, just because I like it:

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The 2LP set is in stock at Amoeba Music in the US, Juno Records in the UK, and Delsin Records in the EU.

Demdike Stare – Erosion of Mediocrity

This video.  This massive tune.

I don’t really have anything to say about this today.  Just…

Edit:  Ok, I will at least mention that this is one of my favorite moments from one of the best albums of 2012.  I will also note that this video is fucking brilliant.  You’re welcome.

Demdike Stare – Elemental

Demdike Stare hit my radar when a friend insisted I listen to The Stars Are Moving because it was totally my sort of thing – and a massive understatement.  Liberation Through Hearing was not only on my Best of 2010 list, but part of the Tryptych compilation serving up a universally praised 160 minute slab of deep nocturnal bliss across three albums and discs.  Having so much aural brilliance to chew on felt like an embarassment of riches before the craving for new material hit well before a year had passed.  Thankfully the duo of Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty were busy interlocking the pieces on an even more audacious free fall into the abyss with a 4 EP / 2cd set which stretches their sound in increasingly hypnotic new directions.

The music here is given more space to move and to sit still.  There are great leaps beyond their established spooky dub dream style into riots of kraut percussion, melodic poems buried in noise fields, and climaxes of bloody tribal warfare.  This is nothing short of the full realization of their shamanistic trance ritual ethos, both more explicitly sculpted and expansive than all prior work combined.  Songs cover wildly varying grounds – from beatless waves of digital grain to mountains of swarming disembodied vocals – while retaining a unified identity that would make the cover artwork jealous.  Elemental strikes this perfect duality of technical bass mastery and unhinged manace, igniting every dark pleasure center in my auditory complex.  It’s a soundtrack to my strangest apocalyptic dreams and the kind of art we could only wish more artists knew how to craft.  This is a self contained cult in album form, a ritualistic palate cleanser which will make other music obsolete for a while.

Elemental, in its 2cd form, is fully streamable on soundcloud, right here:

For those lacking time or attention span, a couple highlights:  cinematic Mephisto’s Lament and steamrolling Erosion of Mediocrity both destroy worlds and illuminate vastly different aspects of this set.

The fidelity is great but buy the real thing to fully absorb the meticulous near-chaotic detail in Demdike Stare’s work.  If you’ve got the fetish and the cash seek out the extremely sold-out 12″ vinyl set from sellers on discogs or ebay.  If you want to hear this masterpiece in optimal form for a reasonable price, grab the 2cd set, featuring alternate edits and new cuts fleshing out the experience; believe me, they’re essential and can’t be considered bonus.  Keep in mind that this is selling out quickly as well!

For fans of: Shackleton, Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never, Coil, David Lynch, Joseph Conrad, exciting nightmares