When I was ten years old, I chose the alto saxophone as my instrument for school band. I kept at it through high school, but gave up when my interests turned elsewhere. I still own that sax, but I haven’t touched it in years.
If only I’d known that it could create otherworldly music like Joseph Shabason does on his masterful debut album, Aytche, I’d probably still be playing today.
Three years ago, Actress, aka English musician Darren Cunningham, dropped the apocalyptic, noise-damaged Ghettoville and promptly announced that he was retiring the moniker for good. Sure, he was cryptic, but there aren’t many ways to interpret “bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” or “R.I.P Music 2014.” The album was maybe the best album of the year so it would have been a grand finale.
As it turns out, Cunningham’s eulogy was mercifully premature. He just released a new Actress single, and it’s a revelation for anyone familiar with his work. X22RME sounds like a whole new evolution for the artist. Check the video:
I’ll tell you a very short story about how quickly Oren Ambarchi’s latest album became one of my favorites of 2016. My first listen to Hubris resulted in the below note, found scribbled on a note pad at my desk the next morning:
“Giant stupid grin inducing fusion of New Music minimalism and krautrock groove.”
That jumbled run-on was all that I could muster after having my mind blown by surprise, early one December evening. What follows is my attempt at organizing that electric feeling into something more digestible.
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:
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.
Skyjelly is that perfect kind of discovery, the sort of album that falls into my lap when I least expect it. I wasn’t looking for music like this, and I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy it at the moment.
So it goes and so it goes, and in some bleak moments, the world seems a bit more abrasive this year. Sometimes I retreat entirely into art and fiction, absorbing as much beauty and weirdness as I can before having to emerge to responsibility. It’s inevitable, it’s cathartic. It’s where things change.