The Top 50 Albums of 2016

the-top-50-albums-of-2016


10-uccessor-ded004

Over time, ambient and drone music has gained a level of innocence. It has been consumed with a copacetic attitude, sterilized the more popular it has become. Frequent Spotify playlists use the term “study playlists”, a genre that serves as background music, in the worst sense. Fred Warmsley, psuedonym: Dedekind Cut, provides a vital assault on the senses that fractures the sounds of the genre, shaking the status quo. Spires of holy refinement are built up constantly, nebulous and overcast in hue. Then, at a whim, Warmsely severs the cords and lets a blitz of sampled sound effects pillage what he has created. He understands the necessity of ambient music, the purpose of it. To strike a balance of harmony, there needs to be disharmony. There needs to be a convulsion to upset the conformity. To balance the glowing statues, there needs to be fault lines that swallow them whole.     – T. Pennington

9-bottomless-pit

Can Death Grips still be surprising? It feels like they’ve done it all: skipped out on shows, dropped albums without the consent of their label, broken-up and then returned, outwardly mocked publications and organizations that they’ve bailed on. Maybe some looked to Bottomless Pit as hope for more of the Death Grips they knew to be “shocking”. But Bottomless Pit is anything but shocking. It’s a victory lap: a career-long summary of the sounds and influences the trio has explored and developed up until this point. It doesn’t rock as hard as Exmilitary, or confound pop the same way The Money Store did, or explore electronica like Government Plates. Bottomless Pit is loud, but still not as loud as NO LOVE DEEP WEB. No, Bottomless Pit doesn’t sit at the top of Death Grips’ anything. So why is it as enthralling as it is? Because Bottomless Pit is everything Death Grips has ever been – the angry, the catchy, and the noisy. It may be firmly situated in hip-hop and electronic genres, but Death Grips prove their effortless tenacity for pop on Bottomless Pit. And for a band that’s shown they can do anything, including returning from the dead, this feels like the perfect conclusion.     – Zach W.

8-beyond-the-fleeting-gales

Listening to Crying in 2014 was like experiencing a car crash of nauseating 8-bit chiptune and sour-sweet pop rock. It was Scott Pilgrim on Adderall. It was way, way, way too much. And it wasn’t too much of a good thing – just an unstoppable force of sugary, veritable attacks that buried Elaiza Santos’ true-to-the-heart lyrics deep, deep down into a cavernous, rainbow abyss. But something flipped with Crying. Somehow, between releases, they penciled in on exactly what worked on Get Olde/Second Wind and obliterated any trace of the rest. Now, Crying flail about earnestly to the tipping point between the overwhelmingly honest and the cloyingly sentimental, always abstaining from quite pushing it over. Through this, they soar.

Beyond the Fleeting Gales retains the sense of absolute. When Crying want to jam out, to rock in illustrious arena fashion, they do so with intensity and immensity, like on “There Was A Door” and “Revive”. But more often than not, underneath the sheen of the 80’s and the fun that music can bring, Elaiza Santos and co. bring forth emotional authenticity uncommon for music this full and energetic. Even during the ballad-esque moments of “Children of the Wind” or “Well and Spring” or “A Sudden Gust”, the vacuous surroundings of our lives become shrouded by a nonstop musical euphoria that hasn’t erupted this piercingly in, well, too long.     – Zach W.

7-ez-minzoku

Foodman is aware of the irony in classification. As soon as any song is put within a certain classification, it loses its potency to whatever else exists in that confine. Juke and footwork conjure ideas of urban dance hysteria, semiserious in the technicalities of the rhythms jerking back and forth. Foodman takes this juxtaposition of prog-like formalities, and creates an aggressive affront to the sonic pallets. Playfully dicing up childish samples and goofy ad-libs, EZ Minzoku is a vital guide to an imaginative place that distracts from the chaos surroundings to provide an inventive and humorous cadence. Seussian characteristics pop up with burping blurbs and unorthodox maneuverings. It’s impossible to properly quantify what this record sounds like, but it’s a record that intends to point out the aggression in the world while attempting to find the humor in it as well. It’s best not to decipher it, just enjoy the hypnosis induced by these precise, childlike timbres.     – T. Pennington

6-blackstar

Blackstar was the first album review we published for this site. It was the first album I heard of the year, and when I had finalized my writing on it, David Bowie was still alive. In many ways, it’ll always be the album of 2016. It’s a first – the first time an artist has used their own forthcoming death as a thematic springboard, the first time (in too long) David Bowie reinvented his sound completely, and the first time you’ve not only been encouraged to listen to music outside an isolated context, but actively forced to. Nearly every moment on Blackstar was a clue as to what was coming. Now, after his passing, these moments haunt as remnants of what wasn’t foreseen. Hearing Bowie’s ghost sing, “Look up here/I’m in Heaven” is the most devastating piece of songwriting this year. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” is surreal – as if it were predetermined he was to die that Sunday. With Blackstar, we lost the greatest musician to ever live, but we also gained the most satisfying conclusion to a nearly fifty-year, otherworldly career.     – Zach W.

5-blonde

Blonde is sobering – a kaleidoscopic glimpse of memory, regret, nostalgia, family, love, mistakes, anything – everything. Seventeen tracks drift by in dazes of paused realizations that remind us why we love Frank Ocean and why we were so selfishly impasse in our impatience and demand for more. It was overhyped unlike anything before it, and Blonde still stunned. Blonde is post-R&B; anti-maximalist; barrenly overwhelming; detached, still emotionally penetrating; a subversion of all channel ORANGE was and stood for. “Boys Don’t Cry” was, at one point, rumored to be Blonde’s title. A misnomer if there ever was one, Frank Ocean uses his limited runtime to destroy that aforementioned conceptualization of the normative – publically breaking down notions of sexuality, fame, and meeting the expectations that have been cast (plagued/cursed/forced) onto you. Live through it. Know that with intimacy comes agony, but with it too comes clarity.     – Zach W.

4-for-those-of-you-who-have-never

If albums were meant to be soundtracks, highlighting the moments we experience without overshadowing them completely, the parameters for each album would be narrow. We rarely do anything or experience anything that calls for variety in our lives. We wake up, we find our daily routine, we do things that excite and we do things that relax. The music that would fill these moments would rarely overlap; it’s difficult for music to be a catalyst for action and transcendentally meditative. Save for Huerco S. and his magnum opus, For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have). The third album from Brian Leeds under the Huerco S. pseudonym finds him tethering together dazzling and differing stems of music into a grander and stylistically richer album compared to his previous album Colonial Patterns. The foundation he provided on that release is here, only baptized in a fascinating gloss.The bass pulses stride forward with a steadfast vision, but the celestial synths gravitate toward a heavenly epicenter, all while a haze of nostalgia literally and figuratively wrap around every idea. Small, danceable bass patterns are orbited by contorting  synths that reveal a scene that is equally halcyon as it is raging.  The ability to evoke everyday gorgeousness in tandem with divine visions of grandeur should not be overlooked, because while Leeds music has made it look effortless, an album that engages in heterogeneity with such comfort is an album that is rarer to find in years of such maelstrom.     – T. Pennington

3-jeffery

Jeffery is an ode to Young Thug’s idols – Kanye West, Rihanna, Floyd Mayweather – in the same way Barter 6 was an ode to Lil Wayne. That is, it isn’t. Much like the accompanying “shout-out” video posted on Instagram that ended with a mocking laughter targeted toward Wayne, Jeffery is deceptively calculated in its statements on the famous and now. Like most anything Young Thug puts his name on, the meaning behind the action is rendered inscrutable. “Kanye West” was initially “Elton John” and then “Pop Man”. Gucci Mane and Wyclef Jean don’t appear on the tracks named after them, despite being featured on the album. Harambe the dead gorilla is given mutual reverence as Swizz Beats, Webbie, and Future. All of that, coupled with so many tracks not mentioning their titular heroes, makes it clear Young Thug has compiled a list of artists on his radar that he intends to overthrow, or at the very least point to as career-height checkpoints.

If his intention was to take claim over an industry dominated by bigger names, Jeffery is the first act of chipping away the impenetrable. “RiRi” takes “Work”, saturates it in a syrupy afterglow, and turns the radio-hit into a loose banger hinged on a hook of seal barks. “Future Swag” steals the siren samples that so prominently blared throughout DS2 and exaggerates it, Young Thug rapidly bragging, “I fuck on your baby mama” in his best Future impression. Even on “Webbie”, he dabbles in a more conscious-rap styling, half-seriously spouting, “This politician is so fake/They politickin’ bout them cases” – another moment of contrived lyricism whose purpose may forever be uncertain. In truth, I could point to any song as exemplifying the personality and brilliance of Young Thug, of showing the lengths he’ll go to in using his voice beyond a mere deliverer of words, and of securing an atmosphere that’s never been this cohesive on a mixtape before. I can do this because Jeffery is the apogee of everything Young Thug has been working toward.     – Zach W.

2-blisters

There is a cord that tethers the grandiosity of theater and the sacred form of performing epics, and the mysticism of the gospels. These mediums clash together, passing stories of creation, humanity, and our eventual downfall. They are universal tenets that bind our stories together. The earliest forms of theatrical flagrance can be seen in Christian mythology, and the story of protasis, epistasis, and catastrophe can be seen in Christ.

Josiah Wise, and his pseudonym serpentwithfeet, acknowledges these influences. Being raised in a church as a gay African-American, he understands that he cannot escape where he is from. Instead, blisters pulls from these to create a narrative that wraps up intimacy and wounds that are bestowed to us all. With the help of The Haxan Cloak, Wise creates an orchestra that is as secular as it is spiritual, binding Wise’s operatic tenor into a devoted, five stage testimony. The eponymous opening track establishes the confine of this record: a singular stage in which Wise conveys grace in concepts of impossible forgiveness. As “flickering” ushers in a sense of detachment, it’s clear loneliness takes hold and the ground gives out with a resonate pulse from The Haxan Cloak. The lynchpin of blisters is “four ethers”, a climax that demands attention and grips with canorous embellishments. Pain is felt as freshly as when it was first given; this is no muted bruise. Generations of pain are stripped open. The slow strummed guitar of “penance” spirals down as Wise begs for forgiveness. “redemption” features no actual redemption, only acceptance of the finality. Each song summons gravitas with a commanding understanding of each moment’s importance. Each stage balancing spiritual tonnes.

Wise gives this performance conviction, heart, stunning with symbols that mark the end. It’s a performance that I am sure he has lived and experienced countless times within his mind. Within a room. We are a stranger here. The orchestral and gospel swells that punctuate every profound moment are marked by tumultuous sounds in the background. There is an unknown chaos behind the doors inside Wise’s room. But it’s his understanding of the charged moments between a pair of people, where drama is reality, are the moments that bring about the most pain, but more importantly, the most beauty.     – T. Pennington

1-elysia-crampton-presents-demon-city

One of our biggest flaws, as fans of music, as nodes of communication, and as products of history, is we fail to change the way we use our language. We incorporate other ideas to describe new things, but rarely do we not approach communication in a linear fashion. It’s an omnipresent phenomenon, and it molds the way we think as a result. It’s harmful to say Elysia Crampton completely understands this and tries to rebel against it. But her latest album, in concept, furiously conveys a multitude of ideals that require a new language to fully admire its brilliance.

The name, Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City, is the first clue that Crampton has challenged her throught process regarding her releases. 2015’s American Drift was a great record, but its function as an album is apparent. It’s conceptually straightforward. Because Demon City is presented as a landscape for other artists to work together as a collective, it begins to change the shape and function of the music. Contributions from Rabit, Why Be, Lexxi, and Chino Amobi all mesh together in order to create a stunning aggregation of ideas. These songs often are cluttered with thunderous rhythms and demonic sound effects, DJ drops serving as callsigns and multipurpose tags to give an identity beyond the individual. Synths and strings often mutate and race towards each other, rippling back ideas and patterns until a claustrophobic delirium is incited. The push and pull of each of their contribution is unknown, forcing a new perspective that these “features” do not serve as features, but as a platform for equal voices in this futuristic world.

As the record traces the Severo style, it becomes clear that Elysia Crampton is aggressively channeling something beyond the futuristic experimentations on the surface. The way certain rhythms transform into post-apocalyptic bombardments not only serve as blighted prophetic dance tracks, they act as reviving lost spirits and ideas. “Irreducible Horizon” huffs toward an impossible doom. “After Woman (for Bartolina Sisa)” is futurist take on a martyr, featuring strings that battle it out with cackles and explosions. Her world view is concurrent, there is no beginning or end to cataclysm, war and transgression occur like an immortal being. Elysia Crampton’s ability to not only trace, but create a panorama of the past and our impending future is unmatched. Deconstructing language is a near impossible task, but on Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City, she not only changes the way sounds function, but creates a new language with them. It’s a fervent, often nightmarish language, but when viewed all at once, it’s a magnificent illustration of mastery within one’s medium, and is a key figure in changing the way we talk about experimentation.     – T. Pennington