Text by Adam Lehrer
People complain about contemporary music. This is short-sighted: the complaint should be directed towards the music industry and not musicians. 2016 was actually an amazing year for new records, but there is just simply no economy for any musician less than a massive pop star and a couple indie acts that are able to get rich touring the festival circuit; the working class rock star is gone. But people haven’t given up on making new sounds. I had to cut this top 50 list from an original list of 217 (which can be found on my Spotify playlists) and I’m already feeling guilt over my decision to not include great records from all-time favorites of mine: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Brian Eno, Neurosis, John Cale, PJ Harvey, Dead C, Wire, Mark Pritchard and Deftones and great new stuff from younger acts like Surgeon, Driftmachine, Okkultokrati, Sex Swing, Let’s Eat Grandma, Vince Staples, Preoccupations (formerly Viet Kong), Sumac, Tomaga, Marissa Nadler, Taman Shud, Mica Levi & Oliver Coates, Chance the Rapper, Ocean Wisdom, Via App, NoName, Tough Tits, Julianna Barwick, Serpent Music, and Circuit Des Yeux side project Jackie Lynn. If I went on any further I’d probably just grow more anxious about not mentioning even more (I also liked ‘Lemonade’ a lot when it first came out but have grown tired of no one ever even questioning Beyonce’s artistic choices. It’s just pop music, folks!).
I sympathize by those that feel overwhelmed by the sheer massiveness of musical choices that are out there. I admit, I often feel the impulse to just give up filling my head up with new shit and endlessly re-playing my Lou Reed, Sisters of Mercy and Wu Tang records. But if you think there’s nothing good out there, you are being obstinate. Yes, we’ve lost Bowie, Prince, Alan Vega, Leonard Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Lemmy and seemingly more greats than ever this year, but the rebellious spirit of radical music lives strong. Go on music sites like The Quietus, Self-Titled Magazine or Resident Advisor once a week and you’ll have enough new record ideas for the whole year. It’s out there, just harder to pin down. Anyways, these are the 50 records that soundtracked my life and art in 2016.
50. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool, track: Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man
There was a time when I didn’t want to be a Radiohead fan anymore. It’s just a by-product of unanimous critical praise; human beings tend to grow obstinate in the face of having points constantly hammered into their brains. But now that Radiohead’s brilliance has gained its detractors, I have begun to re-understand that brilliance. Hell, I even liked The King of Lambs, perhaps even more so because it was Radiohead’s least acclaimed album since Pablo Honey. Its strange ayahuasca dub atmospheres really grew on me. A Moon Shaped Pool is a much more accessible album than its predecessor, made of tracks that Radiohead had played live for the last decade or so. There are moments of sincere breathtaking beauty on the album. More than Thom Yorke’s obtuse poetic lyrics, or the band’s not-so-subtle political stances, or their penchant for avant-garde appropriation, it is the beauty in Radiohead’s sound that has always appealed to me. Professionals to the core, A Moon Shaped Pool emphasizes the craftsmanship of pop music composition and finds itself at odds in the democratization of the arts that has become the benchmark of millennial culture. When you listen to Radiohead, you can't think to yourself, “Maybe I could do this.” You know your place as the listener, and are forced to either appreciate the music, or not. Is A Moon Shaped Pool as good as OK, Computer or Kid A? Not even close. But it’s still a good Radiohead album, which is enough to leave an impression in 2016.
49. Zomby, Ultra, track: Sweetz (featuring Burial)
The British dubstep producer Zomby had lost his way since defining the sound of a movement with his debut Where Were U in ’92 in 2008. Eight years and a couple missteps later, Ultra reaffirms the producer’s status as one of the genre’s great auteur visionaries. Ultra is a testament to Zomby’s focus on album length pieces of music. Unlike other producers, a lot of the tracks on the album don’t work on their own. Take his collaboration with Burial, Sweetz, and its empty cries “Get mE Fucked Up,” and you wouldn’t be wrong to raise an eyebrow when listening to the track as a single. But when sequenced into the entirety of Ultra, it makes sense. The record is full of twists and turns, highs and lows; synths bleed into modulated voices and expand to roaring booms and contract to sinewy whispers. Zomby’s adherence to the album format is brave. So much of electronic producers’ success is wagered on DJs being able to play their tracks as part of set lists in clubs. But Zomby doesn’t care. He believes in his music. He’s an artist.
48. Kano, Made in the Manor, track: Hail
2016 might go down as the year that Grime artists finally got the same amount of attention and acclaim as their American rap counterparts. While Skepta led the pack winning a Mercury Prize over the dearly departed David Bowie, there have also been a pack of young artists setting the world aflame: Stormzy, Novelist, and Abra Cadabra among them. It was easy to forget that Grime veteran Kano put out the best album of his career in ‘Made in the Manor.’ Reflecting on the gentrification of East London and youth soon-to-be-gone, Kano manages to scorch the Earth while remaining accessible to a wide audience.
47. These Hidden Hands, Vicarious Memories, tracks: Glasir
Both members of British duo These Hidden Hands are firmly entrenched into London’s dance music scene: Tommy Four Seven is a DJ and runs an events series and Alain Paul produces techno under the name Shards. But These Hidden Hands isn't dance music, not specifically so anyways. In an interview with The Quietus, the duo says their new approach has more to do with IDM. Not that they sound like Autechre, but the very fact that Autechre sounds quite different than Boards of Canada but still approaches electronic sound as a discipline. Vicarious Memories is an intense listen; there are elements of the thudding early goth of Bauhaus, glitch-y Industrial like SPK, noise, and techno. This is a thoroughly conceptual record tightly edited to a one-sided disc. Almost reminds you of albums like Dark Side of the Moon, in which Floyd was able to distill a sweeping grandiose story in a measly 40 minutes. It’s an engaging listen with a fully formed aesthetic: grand, dark, sweeping, and powerful.
46. Ka, Honor Killed the Samurai, track: That Cold and Lonely
The Brownsville, Brooklyn-based MC Ka is one of hip-hop’s great stylists. His sound melds together the grit of early RZA productions with a minimal backbeat, found sounds, and minor keys. Does he get the recognition he deserves for this? Of course not. But Ka is happy to be a working class underground hip-hop star, cutting a living as an NYC firefighter. This gives him a unique perspective on the decay of urban life, and he delivers devastating cultural criticisms and truths in his contemplative, hushed and calm tone. It’s the indifference in the sound that amplifies its impact. He was signed to Tommy Boy records in the ‘90s as a member of group Natural Elements, retreating into his Brooklyn home until we needed him again. On Honor Killed the Samurai, Ka is appropriately broken. His hip-hop is not trying to relate his story to mass audience. His is a much more personal expression. On the first verse of track Mourn at Night, Ka raps, “My scars last.” So will his music.
45. Factory Floor, 25 25, track: Ya
Since Factory Floor released its self-titled debut record in 2013, the post-Industrial duo have become unlikely stars of the experimental music world. Guitarist and vocalist Nikki Void found herself recording and touring with two obvious forebears of the Factory Floor sound, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti who were once in Throbbing Gristle and later played as a synthpop/techno duo in Chris & Cosey, as a new trio Carter Tutti Void. Factory Floor has repopularized the idea of the dance floor as a location for punk infused rebellion. 25 25 finds Factory Floor shaved down to a duo following the departure of Domnic Butler and his SH-101, but what the duo has lost in apocalyptic aggression it more than makes up for in obtuse Disco glory. Void has ditched the guitar for a synth, and the music can be easier classified as straight electronic techno than its predecessor. There are still elements of the punk-dance hybrid that made Factory Floor so interesting in the first place, but it’s more in attitude than musical approach. 25 25 is the soundtrack to end times disco. Perfect considering these might very well be the end times.
44. Delroy Edwards, Hangin’ At the Beach, track: Horsing Around
As Los Angeles’ stock as a major city for art and fashion has risen, so has its need for a substantial club music scene. Among the leaders of this movement are Delroy Edwards, a producer and honcho for electronic music label L.A. Club Resource. Edwards’ approach to electronic music echoes Arthur Russell’s approach to disco or Ariel Pink’s towards indie pop. There’s a decidedly ‘80s retro VHS feel to the compositions, both sunny and fragmented. There’s joy in his products that are belied by a sinister undercurrent of lo-fi fuzz. But it’s dance music. So, you know, dance away.
43. Necro Deathmort, The Capsule, track: In Waves
The london-based duo Necro Deathmort is one of the picks on the list that I include knowing that they won’t appeal to everyone. Combining dub-infused electronica, pounding drones, and bleak harsh noise with a Satanic early black metal-inspired visual aesthetic, they aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But I fucking love them. Their 2016 release The Capsule finds the group ditching the John Carpenter horror synths, MDMA fueled dance music, and vortexes of guttural screams and guitar breakdowns that would make Khanate say, “damn,” in lieu of cinematic soundscapes that might find forebears in the Cliff Martinez soundtrack for Nik Refn’s Only God Forgives and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for ‘The Thing.’ The Capsule sounds like the album Darkthrone main man Fenriz would make if he finally said “fuck you” to black metal purists and indulged his taste for electronic music and techno. It’s not their best album, and I prefer the highly modernist combinations of noise sleaze and sleek techno, but it’s an interesting testament to the duo’s highly erratic artistic nature. When these guys like certain music, they make that certain music. It’s hard to maintain a tight aesthetic while veering all over the stylistic map like this, but Necro Deathmore do just that.
42. Swans, The Glowing Man, track: Cloud of Unknowing
Michael Gira reformed Swans because he felt the project had more to say in this particular cultural climate. And yet, Swans 2.0 feels like it was a very different band than the scorching noise rock of Gira’s ‘80d-‘90s run. I almost see the Swans reunion run as sharing characteristics with The Velvet Underground’s run: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Side was their Velvet Underground and Nico combining the aesthetics of experimental sound with rock n’ roll and blues, The Seer was their White Light/White Heat, wildly unhinged and poetically potent, and To be Kind was their Velvets’ self-titled bringing back in elements of rockabilly and blues. But The Glowing Man is most definitely Gira’s loaded. It feels like the album where he, like Lou Reed did with Loaded, announces himself as a solo composer and a true New York City rock star poet. The album, while still full of soaring highs and punishing textures, is more subdued than its predecessors and pushes Gira’s beautiful prose to the forefront of the sound. He really tears his guts on this album, diving into substance abuse, depression, and sexuality. This has been a difficult year for Gira (look it up if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but I would love to see him embark on a solo career. He could be the NYC rock artist icon that the city has so desperately needed since Patti, Lou, and Richard Hell have all moved on, literally or figuratively.
41. Roly Porter, Third Law, track: In System
In recent years, it’s become less strange for artists predominantly known for creating noise and drone music to be trying their laptops at more familiar forms of dance music (Dom Fernow’s Vatican Shadow project, Justin Broadrick’s JK Flesh project, etc..) and this has given way to artists predominantly known for making dance music to reach for denser and less inviting sonic soundscapes. Bristol-based producer Roly Porter was once one half of pioneering dubstep duo Vex’d. But dubstep Roly Porter’s 2016 release Third Law is not. Vex’d’s approach to dub-step was always full of heavy bass and industrial throb, but with this project beats are nowhere to be found. The title, Third Law, refers to Newton’s third law of motion that every action has an opposite reaction; a signifier of the powerful force contrasted by dizzying stillness that define the album. A remarkably engaging piece of electronic composition at its lengthy 52 minutes.
40. Billy Bao, Lagos Sessions, track: C
Billy Bao is usually a project created by the French noise artist Mattin. He’s collaborated with noise big boys ranging from Bruce Russell (The Dead C) and Mat Bower (Skullflower) but the Billy Bao project was initially his most rockist project; ugly sneering punk noise reminiscent of ugly titans like Rusted Shut jettisoned by Mattin’s extreme anti-copyright and anti-capitalist ideology. The Billy Bao project would grow more conceptual over the years with albums like Urban Decay and Buildings from Bilbao that mutated the noise rock with conversational tidbits, field recordings, and deafening silences. And no we are here, and 2016’s Lagos Sessions has turned Mattin into a fictional character named William; a young Nigerian troubadour who would become one of Bilbao, Lagos’ most important players in a so-called punk scene in 1986. But what the album really is is an examination of the city. Mattin spent 12 days in Bilbao recording in a local studio Eko FM and with local musicians like Orlando Julius, former Fela Kuti Keyboardist Duro Ikujenyo, and Russo-Nigerian Afro-Jazz singer Diana Bada. And yet this is not an appropriation of, just a meditation on a city from the perspective of an outsider who happens to be one of the most fiercely individualistic artists from any medium in the entire world. The album jumps between Lagos musicians’ sounds and Mattin’s sneering shards of noise. It’ll take a lot of listens for this to sink in. It works like great fine art cinema; what at first is off-putting and nonsensical soon starts to burn a maddening concept into your brain,
39. Death Grips, Bottomless Pit, track: Bottomless Pit
You’d be forgiven for forgetting about Death Grips. After years of internet trolling shenanigans, quitting labels, breaking up, and re-forming, it become ever more apparent that MC Ride and Zach Hill hadn’t put a great piece of music together since their only major label release The Money Store back in 2012. But four years later, and Bottomless Pit has totally revived the group’s sound. MC Ride has never rapped this good, and the group opted to make songs as opposed to oppositional rap noise. That is when they have always been at their best: allowing themselves to make hits that still had maximum sensationalist impact. Fight music for those that don’t know how to fight.
38. Ghold, PYR, track: Collusion with Traitors
In its first incarnation as a trio, Brixton-based progressive sludge band Ghold shattered eardrums with the four songs on 2016 release Collusion with Traitors. Ghold shatters conceptions of the two genres they work in: they are able to expand sludge metal outward and inward while making progressive rock that is dirty, deranged, and nihilistic. The Melvins' headlock riffery meets the deeply compositional albeit deranged song craft of King Crimson, but those comparisons really don’t don't do this band justice. This is the first truly progressive band to also be roaringly heavy. This has been attempted countless times, but never has so intricately composed rock music been so nail bitingly nasty.
37. Cobalt, Slow Forever, track: Beast Whip
Colorado-based black metal duo Cobalt have always felt like the American contemporary black metal band truest to its Scandinavian origins but also the least beholden to the early black metal ethos. How does this make sense? I don’t know, but you’d be wise to listen to the band’s 2016 release Slow Forever, their first since 2009’s Gin and even without the vocals of Phil McSorley, perhaps the band’s best and certainly most palatable record. Band founder McSorley and band conceptualist Eric Wunder came to ideological differences that eventually resulted in their disbanding. But the album doesn’t seem to miss McSorley’s presence. It was Wunder, after all, that provided the band’s gateway to art, literature and experimental music. His interest in the literature of Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson and his experience playing in Jarboe’s band have allowed him to tilt the idea of what Cobalt could be. Under him, the band isn’t just “war metal,” it’s conceptual war metal. Slow forever has a tonal clarity that allows the band’s musical identity to emerge. It’s still nasty, but it’s also intellectual. This lack of metalhead pretension makes the band more interesting, and also, more genuine. They aren’t just overwhelming your ear drums, they are delivering a message.
36. Marie Davidson, Adieux un Dancefloor, track: Interfaces
Montreal-based producer Marie Davidson made her bones as a member of the DFA-signed Essaie Pas and evidently learned how to make alien sounding electronic music both unwaveringly personal but also relatively accessible. Adieux un Dancefloor is the artist’s first solo album to emerge itself fully in the exuberance of the dance floor. Using synths, drum machines, and sequencers, Davidson half-sings and coos an amalgam of French and English haikus over a joyously momentous body of tracks. This is an experimental dance record that never veers too far off course; in its 45 minutes, Davidson manages to weave complex arrangements and avant-garde flirtations into a concise, beautiful, and pop-oriented dance record.
35. The Body, No One Deserves Happiness, track: Shelter is Illusory
Being a fan of Portland, OR-based experimental metal duo The Body garners much satisfaction. As a fan, one is always waiting to see who the band will create music with next, whether it be Baton Rouge sludge metal band Thou, Richmond doom act Braveyoung, or experimental producer The Haxan Cloak. But until 2016, they had failed to make that perfect and art defining body of music. In 2016, the band found it with No One Deserves Happiness. NODH is the band’s simplest record yet; it adds no new sounds or textures to their output nor does it include any collaborators. Instead, it boils the sounds down to its defining elements and amplifies them to maximum terrifying effect.
34. So Pitted, neo, track: pay attention to me
I was still 10 years from being born in 1977. With punk already having gone through multiple deaths and rebirth by the time I came of age, noise rock ended up being my punk rock. It was the music that both generated my interest in subversive rebellion and finding art within rock n’ roll: Big Black, The Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Nirvana’s Bleach, etc.. So Pitted is in that lineage, particularly the bands that defined their city Seattle. Their music sounds like a blown out version of the early noise rock bands that would eventually both influence and get lumped in with grunge: Mudhoney, Tad, and definitely early Nirvana. The early Cobain influences are immediate apparent from the trio’s gender neutral fashion choices, as well as their burying of catchy hooks under layers of scuzzy feedback.
33. Brood Ma, Daze, track: Well Equipped
London-based producer Brood Ma told me earlier this year that his Tri Angle Records release Daze was an exploration of how contemporary concepts of masculinity strangle the creative process. What’s interesting then was how this inner turmoil fueled such a breathtaking piece of conceptual electronic music. Daze jumps all over the stylistic map, but is fueled by a cohesive rebellion against gender norms. It is a violent auditory sensation.
32. Underworld, Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, track: Low Burn
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been doing progressive house music for 36 years now, forming at a time when industrial and post-punk bands were only beginning to learn the possibilities inherent to electronic sound manipulation. After six years of no music, the longest gap between new music in Underworld’s career, Barbara Barbara far exceeded its expectations in 2016 and is easily their best album since 1999’s Beaucoup Fish. Hyde’s ludicrous lyrical proclamations are all over the place, but only serve to make the album slightly less self serious and more enjoyable. The first half of the record features the duo’s joyous and eternally danceable bass lines and the record takes a turn for the solemn on side two indicating the duality present un Underworld’s music that has made the appealing to such a wide spectrum of music fans.
31. Puce Mary, The Spiral, track: The Night is a Trap II
While American noise has been in sharp decline since its mid-00s No Fun Fest heyday, a powerful noise has developed in Stockholm. One such practitioner is Frederikke Hoffmeiers, aka Puce Mary, who released her third album The Spiral this year. Using synths, percussion, obscured vocals, field recordings, and swaths on unholy noise, Puce Mary is able to pay homage to her industrial and power electronics forebears like Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse while also charting out a viable future for the genre. Puce Mary manages to scorch eardrums while also finding a sensitivity in the sounds. There is not played out noise tropes of serial killers and goofily over the top macho nonsense. It’s noise as personal expression.
30. Wolfgang Tillmans, 2016/1986 EP and Device Control EP, track: Make It Up As You Go Along
Wolfgang Tillmans has been one of my favorite artists for as long as I can remember, and watching him gain newfound mainstream success has been one of 2016’s greatest delights. Whether it be his raging against fascism, Brexit and Trump on his profile picture-less instagram page or his contributions to Frank Ocean’s Endless video or his profile shot of a green haired Frank Ocean on the cover of Blond/Blonde, Wolfgang has been everywhere this year. Wolfgang started his artistic life when dressing up as a fictional Culture Club obsessed group named Fragile with his friends that would go around and take pics of themselves around Berlin, and his earliest published work included club shots in iD. Now the musical world that he has created in his pictures has come to life through his release of albums 2016/1986 and Device Control. It’s a dreamy set of ‘80s indebted club tracks that also sounds forward thinking. It both standalone as a musical project and enriches Wolfgang’s artistic world.
29. Huerco S, For Those of you Who Have Never (And Those of You Who Have), track: A Sea of Love
Like Aphex Twin before him, Brooklyn-based producer Huerco S has ditched the majestic techno of his debut for an introspective albeit beautiful ambient set in For Those Of You Who Have Never. What’s most intriguing is that when Huerco S put out Colonial Patterns in 2013, the then 21-year-old had never even set foot in a club. It was a fantasia of what club music could or should be like. But now that he has been banging clubs for a few years, he ditches it for a dreamscape in this new album. This is an artist that immerses himself fully in his fantasies and interior world.
28. Gnod, Mirror, track: The Mirror
It should be clear by now that nasty, crunchy, sexy, psychedelic punk rock music is alive and well in the UK more than any other country in the world. One of those bands doing this better than any other is the North English four-piece Gnod (though 41 people have veered in an out of the band). After releasing a three-disc psychedelic jazz bad trip on last year’s Infinity Machines, the band leans out on The Mirror (that could be used as a double metaphor by the way). It is a much shorter and also much bleaker record, reminiscent of the starkly political but subtly post-punk of The Pop Group. It grooves out, and then it hammers home. It reminds you of Miles Davis’ fusion band on Bitches Brew started shotgunning vodka and listening to Eyehategod at an Occupy Wall Street rally.
27. Jambinai, A Hermitage, track: For Everything That You Lost
When it comes to the so-called genre “post-rock,” for me there is Godspeed You Black Emperor! and then there is nothing. I’ve always found the bands operating in this style tend to sound like de-fanged rock bands trying their hands terribly at creating jazz music with rock instrumentation and creating a wanky boring mess in the process. And then these South Koreans come along and fuck my world up! Jambinai’s post-rock works primarily because the band never forgets to absolutely rock. Even when weaving in strange ambient sounds and horns and keys, the music moves along at the aspirational pace of rock music. It’s sweaty and hard and loud but still strange and alien and small. It’s highly composed but allows breathing room for the magic to happen.
26. Powell, Sport, track: Fuck you, Oscar.
I’ve listened to a ton of Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen over the years and count all three amongst my favorites artists to have ever lived. But it was the loss of Alan Vega that really through me for a loop. Vega’s music with Martin Rev in Suicide and his underrated solo career helped me to define my personal tastes; a venerated mix of rock n’ roll and blues boogie, punk attitude, and electronic weirdness. But the London-based electronic producer Oscar Powell proves that the intersection of punk and techno is just finding its groove. On full-length ‘Sport,’ Powell draws inspiration from the drum machine backed noise punk of Big Black (and even reached out to Steve Albini to sample his music, to which Albini replied “I detest club culture as cantankerously as anything on Earth”), funky ‘80s No-Wave band Theoretical Girls, Mark E. Smith and The Fall, and of course, lots of Suicide. But what I find fascinating about the record is that it isn’t just a hybrid of rock and techno, it’s purely electronic-based techno played with a punk libertine mindset. There’s a sense of risk involved in this music that proves that Powell’s primary concern isn’t just if he can make you dance or not. It’s that can he find sounds to fuck your head up and push electronic music forward. If you dance, even better. Powell has found a sense of individuality and iconoclasm in his music that is sorely lacking in techno music. He has a voice. While ‘Sport’ isn’t a perfect record, it defines a fascinating musical aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic that I’m interested in, and I believe that a lot more great music will come out of it.
25. JK Flesh, Rise Above, track: Defector
Justin Broadrick’s strength is maintaining aesthetic unity across multiple projects and vast stylistic shifts. From the metallic industrial of Godflesh, to the sweeping shoe gaze doom of Jesu, to the noise of God and Final, his vision of a bleak and cold world always bleeds through. The JK Flesh project is Broadrick’s take on nihilistic club music; a futuristic hybrid of noise and techno. Rise Above is Broadrick’s most interesting album in any style in many years. Though Jesu is still alive and kicking (releasing an interesting collab album this year with Sun Kil Moon), his heart appears to be with the 4/4 beat. JK Flesh takes cues from some of the UK’s most abstract club kids: Andy Stott, Surgeon (who Broadrick did an EP alongside), and Actress among them, but it’s far more intense than any of the music made by those mavericks. It probably sits most comfortably alongside Dom Fernow’s Vatican Shadow project, but feels more realized in its vision. Broadrick has long been interested in techno and electronic music; Godflesh certainly had elements of underground club music and his project with The Bug’s Kevin Martin Techno Animal provides an early template for dubstep. But the electronic music made as JK Flesh is the dance music that he’s always strived to make: as visceral as anything he’s ever done in the context of heavy music.
24. Yves Tumor, Serpent Music, track: The Feeling When You Walk Away
Ever since Kanye demonstrated R&B’s ability to be mutated and shifted by experimental sound tendencies, an entire genre of popular music has bubbled to the surface: Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, How to Dress Well, dvsn, and the artists of Tri Angle records have all followed suit using the genre as a mood board for moody artistry. It was only a matter of time before an artist would make full-blown R&B avant-garde. The artist in question, Yves Tumor, was raised in Tennessee and put out some some releases and performed at Hood by Air’s LA show before putting out his debut Serpent Music. Guided by spirituality and repelled by religion, the record finds Yves using his warm vocals and melodic guitar lines to accent otherworldly soundscapes of psychedelic noise, crackling ambient sound, and Arthur Russell kaledioscopic pop.
23. Moor Mother, Fetish Bones, track: Creation Myths
Moor Mother, AKA Camae Ayewa, is a Philadelphia-based artist and community activist who has been releasing music on SoundCloud since 2012. As a fine artist, she uses photography and collage to examine the universal truths of systematic oppression. Her debut album, Moor Mother, operates in a similar mood, reimagining the protest song as a fragmented sound collage. Describing her music with self-created genres such as “blk girl blues” and “project housing bop” to “slaveship punk,” she allows herself to work across a range of stylistic mediums while remaining true to a sense of history. Pitchfork compared her to both Sun Ra and Shabazz Palaces, but Moor Mother’s music is also more difficult to discern than that. Her poetry is abstract, and the music underneath is just as if not more abstract. And yet this music feels so radically contemporary that its obtuseness feels direct. With an era of neo-fascism dawning upon us, artists like Moor Mother are going to become rarer. Let’s cherish this record.
22. Katie Gately, Color, track: Sift
As the lines between experimental and pop continue to blur in the digital era, it’s becomingly increasingly difficult to find music that walks this tightrope in a genuine manner. There is a vast difference between the disastrousness of Miley Cyrus’ collaboration with The Flaming Lips and Frank Ocean’s sublime dalliances with Wolfgang Tillmans, for instance. Katie Gately is an LA-based sound designer and producer turned musician and her debut for Tri Angle records is ostensibly a pop record; albeit a pop record full of mutating oscillators and seismic synths. Gately applies a top 40 sheen and polish to avant-garde sound structures that makes her come off as fearless in the face of experimental purists.
21. Jute Gyte, Perdurance, track: The Harvesting of Ruins
Jute Gyte is Adam Kalbach; a composer with a BA in music composition. Under the Jute Gyte moniker, he has recorded noise, IDM, ambient, and drone, but the vehicle is primarily known as a conceptual black metal project. Perdurance is the pinnacle of all that Kalbach has been driving towards. Using a guitar equipped with a microtonal fretboard, Kalbach is able to write in intervals a half-step smaller than traditional Western music (and more often found in some traditional African musics); this set-up allows him unprecedented harmonic control over his sound. “Control” often indicates safety, but there is nothing safe about Perdurance. It is as loud, scuzzy and dark as anything in the world of experimental black metal, but there is an intellectualism at play that the likes of nazi murderer Burzum only wishes he was capable of having. Kalbach told The Quietus that he started the project wishing the that modern composition elements were applied more to the music he most enjoyed, i.e. black metal and industrial. His music is a template for possibility.
20. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face, track: THat Part (featuring Kanye West)
Schoolboy Q comes off as an elder statesmen of west coast hip-hop on 2016’s massively underrated Blank Face LP. The record is a substantial improvement over his previous release, OxyMorons, that too boldly tried to court the favor of mainstream hip-hop attention. Schoolboy Q is a classicist in the mold of Aftermath records. At 72 minutes, you’d think the record could be cut down a notch. But even though it doesn’t reward straight through listening, it’s a wonderfully textured record to come back to. It neither moralizes nor minimizes the realities of gang lifestyle, reaffirming hip-hop’s importance as a journalistic American art form. It also has the best Yeezy feature on the year on the hit track, That Part.
19. Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker, track: You Want it Darker
With Leonard Cohen’s death, You Want it Darker will be obsessively editorialized by writers trying to find performance art in the act of death. That really was the case for Bowie’s Blackstar, but You Want it Darker is simply a great Leonard Cohen album full of songs about sex, love, desire, longing, loneliness, fear and, yes, mortality. That was always Leonard’s modus operandi.
18. Savages, Adore Life, track: The Answer
London-based gout-piece rock band Savages’ lead singer and lyricist Jehnny Beth has kept me captivated all year through her excellent Beats 1 radio show Start Making Sense in which the front woman discusses the importance of music and rock n’ roll with venerated guests including Underworld’s Karl Hyde, Fugazi/Minor Threat’s Ian Mackaye, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillepsie, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Fantomas’ Mike Patton, and more. The radio show reaffirms the importance and viability of rock n’ roll on contemporary culture. Fittingly, that is exactly what Savages have done. Forget the fact that they are all stylish and well-presented ladies that have brought influences ranging from PiL, Siouxsie and the Vabshees, and Joy Division back into the conversation, what Savages have really done is prove that a rock band can have a successful career in the digital era without having to compromise their sound for radio or over-market themselves. Adore Life, while more melodic than its predecessor, is still a scorching set of rock n’ roll songs. Savages released the album in February, but have been able to stay a part of the conversation through constant touring, well executed press, and Beth’s highly intellectual and opinionated voice. This is what rock stars can look like in 2016.
17. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition, track: Really Doe (featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt)
After Danny Brown’s EDM friendly 2013 release Old, he could have been a massive mainstream star. The only problem? He would have had to sacrifice his highly attuned artistic vision. Instead, he decides to sign to IDM record label behemoth Warp and names his new album after a Joy Division song. Atrocity Exhibition returns back to Brown’s auteurist vision that he solidified on his major debut XXX. Drawing on rock influences like New Order, Rage Against the Machine, and Bauhaus, incorporating techno beat flourishes, and utilizing haunting soul samples, Brown created the most sonically rich album of his career. And yet, it’s still his unhinged rapping style that holds the album together. Really Doe is testament to Brown’s confidence in his lyricism; rapping against two rappers considered to currently be the best in the world, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, Brown still shines on his own.
16. Skepta, Konnichiwa, track: Konnichiwa
How many time has grime attempted to become a part of the pop music mainstream and ultimately failed? At least two, possibly three times now. It took a Tottenham-based Nigerian to firmly establish grime as an artistic platform ripe for commercial viability. Skepta’s Konnichiwa took The Mercury Prize this year over the late David Bowie. Of course, this earned a raucous pseudo-racist outcry on Twitter (as if anyone actually gives a shit about awards) but it well gauges the importance of grime in contemporary culture. It’s an entirely new voice of young men and women being heard in the culture. And Konnichiwa is a stunner of a record and easily the first grime album that transcended the notion of grime being a single-based medium. It’s a highly addictive record, one that you can play from stop to bottom. Dizzee Rascal and Wiley were never able to keep their albums this cohesive. What is most remarkable, however, is that despite Skepta courting US attention and earning fans in the likes of Kanye, Drake, and A$AP Rocky, this is a firmly British voice. Skepta has faith in his voice and his outlook, dawning a new British Invasion.
15. Elysia Crampton, Elysia Crampton Presents Demon City, Track: The Demon City
On Elysia Crampton Presents Demon City, producer Elysia Crampton explores the medium of electronic music as a vehicle for poetry, sociology and history. The album is a companion piece to Crampton’s theatrical production and DJ set called Dissolution of the Sovereign: A Timeslide of the Future, and both use conceptual art to tell the story of Bartolina Sisa, an Aymara folkloric hero that led an indigenous uprising against Bolivia in the 1750s, told from the perspective of her severed limbs after her murder. That is just a taste of the concepts that the brilliant artist Crampton can explore through her music. Drawing on genres from past and present, Crampton explores her roots as a trans Latina woman by exploring the sounds that fuel her personal history and cultural identity: Southern hip-hop, Latin metal, psychedelic folk, neoclassical music, pre-Columbian khantus music, ragtime, early blues, her brother’s avant—garde records, and her grandfather’s hyayno and cumbia music. She looks at the history of music to explore her own cultural history. Listening to her music is to listen to everything that resulted in her genesis.
14. Solange, A Seat at the Table, track: Cranes in the Sky
It’s unfair to mention Beyonce when discussing Solange but it’s going to happen here anyways. While Beyoncé’s Lemonade was an important artistic act of multimedia disruption, the closed-off nature of Beyoncé diminishes her intrigue. Solange, on the other hand, is an open book. Her music is pure personal expression and she reflects her authentic self in both her press appearances and artistic output. A Seat at the Table has been in the writing process since 2008, and Solange became a star (albeit one on a much smaller scale than her big sister) in the meantime with her 2012 Dev Hynes-produced EP True and the launch of her label Saint Records. The result of years of labor is an outstanding work of artistry; drawing on themes of blackness, empowerment and segregation, Solange’s soul is more in line with the greats like Gladys Knight and Nina Simone than anything in contemporary music. That isn’t to say the record is antiquated, it just a rawness, or yes, an authenticity that is scantly found in contemporary pop. Enlisting the help of fellow pop stars like Lil Wayne, Kelly Rowland and The Dream as well as major indie stars like The Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, Sampha and Kelela, Solange proves that sweeping soul is still commercially viable, earning her first number 1 album in the process.
13. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here… Thank You for Your Service, track: We The People…
This album was 2016’s most joyously surprising. It’s been 18 years since A Tribe Called Quest’s last album; time that the group’s members spent mostly squabbling until Phife Dawg would ultimately pass away. Not to mention, we should all be suspicious of reunion albums at this point. For every MBV there are three utterly garbage Pixies albums, and even the competent reunion records by the likes of Dinosaur Jr. have lost the youthful spark that made the early work such magic. And yes not only is WGIHTYFYS Tribe’s first record in 18 years, it’s their best since 1993’s Midnight Marauders. This is a group that was formed before Biggie, Tupac, Wu Tang, Nas and Jay-Z and yet they are still making music that feels both celebratory of hip-hop’s history and contemporary. Released days after the devastating win of our President Fuckface Elect and faced with the death of progressivism and quite possibly democracy as we knew it, Tribe’s music was a reminder that no matter what the political circumstances, the rational majority can still look after each other. That freedom of thought and speech can never smothered. Using collaborators ranging from Kanye to Busta Rhymes to Anderson .Paak to
Kendrick to Elton fucking John, the record is a joyous collage of hip-hop, soul, and jazz highlighting the importance of black art and culture against a racist paradigm that has always sought to silence it.
12. Fat White Family, Songs From Our Mothers, track: Satisfied
It took a handful of art school dropout squatting Londoners to reignite passionate rock n’ roll music. Fat White Family has always known how to play the game using raucous performances, nudity and controversy to boost the profile of a rock band that in most modern circumstances would be relegated to the deep underground of British art rock. But the group has also found a way to weld their difficult influences (The Fall, The Birthday Party, Big Black, The Gun Club, The Country Teasers) into a palatable and even catchy rock approach. Their second album Songs From Out Mothers filtered the band’s nihilist energy into the wall of sound melodies of Phil Spector, the damaged soul of Ike and Tina Turner, and the motor rhythms and joyous synths of Neu. The combination of catchy singalong anthems and volatile riotous energy has resulted in Fat White Family becoming one of the best live bands on the planet, I see them every time they come to New York. Now signed to Domino records, Fat White Family have the opportunity to become the first noise rock STARS since Sonic Youth.
11. Bruxa Maria, Human Condition, track: Hipsters and the Heathens
Though taken on a shitty Samsung photo, the self-portrait that graces the cover of former member of British punk band Dread of Conmungos and fine artist Gill Dread’s debut album as Bruxa Maria is subtly evocative. Welding a machine gun strapped on her back while her face is obscured by a cap and bandana, a mysterious revolution is hinted at. The Bruxa Maria project was inspired by Dread’s experiences during the 2011 London riots, and she became fascinated by the empty rebellion of consumerist hipster culture. To combat that, Dread looked towards the acapitalist culture of noise rock and post-hardcore to inform the Bruxa Maria project. Human Condition is influenced by the absurdist noise rock of The Butthole Surfers, the manic and politicized post-hardcore of Nations of Ulysses, and any number of acts once signed to noise rock behemoth Amphetamine Reptile Records (NoMeansNo, early Helmet, Alice Donut, Cows). It’s a tried and true raucous approach to sleazy rock n’ roll made contemporary by a particular aesthetic approach to imagery and a political philosophy.
10. Gaika, Security/Spaghetto, track: 3D
“These are my cities and these are my streets IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY” barks Gaika on his Warp Records debut EP Spaghetto. On both his EP releases this year, Spaghetto and the previous release Security, Gaika has emerged as a uniquely contemporary voice in the genre of protest music. Combining dancehall, grime, R&B, trip-hop, industrial and Prince, Gaika’s music uses the history of black British music to rail agains the homogenization of the urban city, particularly in his home of Brixton. He’s a straight black man that has no problem dressing up in Hood by Air runway looks or utilizing the tropes of performance art or working with Mykki Blanco to make an artistic statement.
9. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo, track: FML
It’s been a rollercoaster year for ‘Ye, and I was there at the beginning: when he simultaneously introduced The Life of Pablo and his Yeezy Season 3 collection to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. After designing collections and touring relentlessly all year, Kanye has burned out. It was inevitable. So I’m disappointed that he’s meeting with Donald Trump as I write this, but I’m still thankful for the work he’s given us. I've never thought TLOP was on-par with the exquisite genius of Yeezys or 808z, but it is a massively listenable collections of songs that Kanye allowed us to engage with in real time. It was thrilling listening to see his edits of the album on Tidal, and who can forget those three months of time when we actually all had Tidal accounts? Honestly, it feels like the end of things, like the most fully realized of Kanye’s post-modernist approach to futurism. He has always been intimately aware of the ways in which people consume content in 2016, and I doubt any gesture will be as relevant as his roll out of The Life of Pablo album. The most disappointing thing about all this Trump nonsense is that it refutes my concept of Kanye as the digital era’s Malcolm X; the man able to call out societal racism exactly as it is with no considerations for PC culture. It’s hard to listen to Black Skinhead or No More Parties in LA quite the same way.
8. Hieroglyphic Being, The Disco’s of Imhotep, track: Spiritual Alliances
Chicago native Jamal Moss, AKA Hieroglyphic Being, has been a part of the Chicago acid house scene since the mid ‘90s, but his Hieroglyphic Being project is his most adventurous incorporating elements of free jazz, industrial, and musique concrete. An outsider in a whole scene of outsiders, Moss is a formerly homeless intellectual that is beholden to the afro-futurist approach of Sun Ra. The Disco’s of Imhotep is his most accessibly body of music yet but sacrifices not shred of strangeness. It’s dance music that is not beholden to a Pro Tools grid, it’s too wild and untamable for that. Moss calls it “rhythmic cubism” and that is as apt as any other description could be. There is an unhinged mysticism at play that evokes the healing power of soul while letting darkness creep into the fold in the form of industrial beats that evoke ShapedNoise or the mutations of Laraji. It’s a dance album that is hopeful and spiritual without devolving to cheese. This is as good as dance music gets.
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, track: Rings of Saturn
No rock n’ roll star has ever aged quite as gracefully as Nick Cave. From his druggy beginnings as the sleazy sexed out goth frontman of noise punk The Birthday Party to his contemplative present as a distinguished literary murder troubadour leader of The Bad Seeds, Cave has always been a fascinating poet of rock star. Though murder and death have always hovered over the music and words of Cave, it’s impossible to separate the darkness of 2016 masterpiece Skeleton Tree from the untimely death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015. Though the death happened between recording of the album, harbingers of doom are everywhere, “Are you still here,” sings the artist on Rings of Saturn. Cave’s wife, the British model Susie Bick, has discussed Cave’s eerie ability to foresee the future in his poetry. Musically, the album is indicative of The Bad Seeds’ reinvention as purveyors of adult-themed literary rock n’ roll, and the symbiotic artistic relationship between Warren Ellis and Cave has never been more pronounced. There has never been a punk rock icon to have such a financially successful AND artistically fruitful career for so long: not Iggy, not Lou, not Joey, not Richard Hell, and certainly not Ian Curtis. Nick Cave has never fought age, instead embracing it and drawing inspiration from it to mutate his music and words along with his body as it grew older.
6. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch, track: Period Piece
Only a year after the release of her excellent Apocalypse, girl album, the Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval drops a work of conceptual brilliance and artistic conceit in her 2016 release Blood Bitch. Influenced by menstruation, ‘70s horror and exploitation films, and Virgina Woolfe, Blood Bitch is a concept album that draws parallels between a fictional time-traveling vampire named Orlando and Hval’s experiences on her last tour. Using the theme of blood, Hval is able to continue her exploration of the themes of gender, sexuality, language and identity while reconnecting with her past spent listening to black and death metal, “menstruation blood is the scariest blood of all,” said Hval in an interview in London in Stereo. Working with producer Lasse Marhaug, who is known for his work with noise metal unit Jazkamer as well as drone metallers Sunn O))) and japanoise god Merzbow, Hval decided to start improvising lyrics while watching exploitation films. She then used crackling tape hiss and manipulated electronic sounds to create a kind of sound collage that envelopes the lyrics, letting them breathe and live. It’s an aesthetically driven record that both stands out in Hval’s catalog while also forming a unique aspect of a discography that is becoming one of the most interesting bodies of work in modern music.
5. David Bowie, Blackstar, track: I Can’t Give Everything Away
I don’t really know what to add to the discussion of Black Star, other than to say it’s a great act of death as the ultimate form of performance art. Bowie decided to release his last album, his best since the late ‘70s, just days before ultimately succumbing to cancer. That was always going to amplify the reception of the record, but it still stands out for its songs. With Bowie experimenting with jazz instrumentation and arrangements like he has never before, it’s his most conceptually difficult album since his Berlin years and ironically his first number 1 hit in the U.S. All that goes to prove how powerful the death of an icon can be over the cultural paradigm. It’s been out for a while now and I still find myself giving it a spin every few weeks or so.
4. Arabrot, The Gospel, track: The Gospel
Since the Norwegian noise rock pummelers Arabrot released their Melvins and Swans worshipping debut record Rogues Gallery in 2003, they have started stretching their sound out clearly aspiring to something more than raw aggression. Slowly but surely, the band has started taking on more diverse influences both musical and artistic: the neofolk/post-industrial of Death in June, the psychedelic country of Lee Hazlewood, the romanticism of Thomas de Quincey, the eroticism of Henry Miller, the mysticism of Aleister Crowley, and the oppositional theatricality of Federico Garcia-Lorca. The Gospel is the incarnation of all those influences, but also of the full artistic realization of Arabrot’s sole remaining founding member Kjetil Nernes who has just recovered from throat cancer after a diagnosis in 2014. The Gospel is loud and forceful, and sometimes quiet and contemplative, and always carries a grace derived from the dark charm of cabaret theater. It it the sound of a loud rock band shedding their youthful abandon and embracing intellectual and artistic maturity. Though the album has an impressive array of guest noise kings (Sunn O))) member and visual artist Stephen O’Malley, Nurse With Wound/Current 93 rotating member Andrew Liles and Ted Parsons who has played with Swans and Killing Joke), none of the members try and make a name for themselves with a racket on the record. They blend in seamlessly to a swirling vortex of sound. The use of keys on the record are magnificent, adding an element of vaudeville to the proceedings that has not been seen in a loud rock band since Faith no More’s masterpiece Angel Dust. Nernes is a compelling frontman, a dark joker troubadour in the ilk of Scott Walker, and is capable of avant noiseisms as well as conventional pop melodies. Arabrot is very much his band, and The Gospel is his record.
3. Grumbling Fur, Furfour, track: Acid Ali Khan
Daniel O’Sullivan is an in-demand experimental musician, having played in bands like post-rock outfit Guapo, abstract black metal unit Ulver, and Sunn O))). Grumbling Fur is weird, but it’s grounded in pop music realities. The duo has honed their sound considerably since the abstract psychedelia of 2013 release Glynnaestra, and on 2016 album Furfour they are majestically updating the avant-pop of Brian Eno’s solo career. O’Sullivan along with partner and comic book artist Alexander Tucker, clearly see Grumbling Fur as the priority in their long list of musical endeavors. Furfour’s mastery comes from its ability to create abstract soundscapes using the basic harmonies and melodies of pop and building layers on top. They are in the lineage of the late great Arthur Russell, krautrock unit Faust, Stereolab and even Madlib; artists that have found experimental possibilities within pop simplicity. Though Grumbling Fur have tended to reach for psychedelic abstraction influenced by The Dead C and Ashtray Navigations on previous releases, Furfour is a succinct achievement. It utilizes the blissful simplicity of pop music structures to build swirling hypnotic textures. Trust me, you will be listening to this album constantly once you start it.
2. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound, track: Augustine
1. Frank Ocean, Blond/Blonde and Endless, track: Self-Control
OK OK, I know. Maybe it’s in poor taste to lump in my number 1 and 2 album of the year picks together. And I also am firmly against letting social justice narratives get in the way of aesthetic appreciation. So I want to just say this immediately, these choices only have a little to do with the timeliness of their releases. It is important to have two black male queer musical geniuses play an important role in contemporary music in 2016. But I would not have included either Frank Ocean or Blood Orange at the top if I didn’t believe that their ART and music was the best I heard this year.
The kaleidoscopic pop and R&B of Frank and Dev Hynes feels more contemporary than any other music out there. On Freetown Sound, Hynes has found the pinnacle of what makes his artistic voice important. Utilizing the classical texture of baroque pop, the lush danceability of alt-R&B, the sample friendliness of synthpop, and queer and black activism, Hynes creates a collage of his self and displays on a billboard for the world to see. Hynes’ self presentation is not written about enough. While the rest of the world tries to create a version of their authentic selves that are just as phony as any media persona could be through their social media accounts, Hynes has given himself over to the world. Freetown Sound was amplified by the event surrounding its release, including the Orlando Massacre and the freedom of Freddie Gray’s murder (one of a few), but Hynes has managed to deliver a historically political album palatably through the sheer beauty of his melodies, tones, and basslines.
There were a lot of mega-hyped albums this year: Kanye, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Drake among them. But nothing was more hyped than the return of Frank Ocean after four years of silence following being hailed as a genius with the success of Channel Orange. But then, in August, Frank dropped a 45 minute video album called Endless getting millennials to sit and stare at him building an abstract sculpture just to hear the tragic beauty of his voice. A few days later, came Blond/Blonde. Though it was an instant hit, it was not as immediately satisfying as Frank’s previous releases. Drawing on the digital cut-up techniques of vapor wave and the experimental soul that he made his name on, it is a slowly engrossing album. I didn’t fully grasp its beauty until about four listens. Frank is on a journey of self-discovery and he has taken music fans all over the world on the ride with him. No music in 2016 can bring me to tears other than the music of Frank Ocean. It’s the rawness in his lyrics, the nakedness of his soul bearing, the breathtaking scope of his lush voice, it’s all so emotionally overwhelming. The sound on the album are fairly minimal, however, which is further testament to how much Ocean is able to achieve emotionally without the grandiosity of modern pop production. He’s every bit the genius that they say he is.