It’s been a tough year. But it was a startlingly good year for music. I admit that this was a hard list to compile this year, partially because a lot of my favorite music from 2016 was actually released in 2015 (or even earlier!) and I’d just not managed to find out about it until this year. I spent a month absorbing the discography of Sweden’s synth-mavens Kite, as well as bingeing on albums by Sigur Ros. And of course, there was a whole period where the only thing I managed to listen to were demos for our own album, as I critiqued and tweaked the tracks that would land on our record. So I probably missed a lot (For example, I’ve heard good things about the latest Body of Light album, but I haven’t picked it up yet).
But putting that aside, here’s 2016’s list of what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I just couldn’t figure out.
Best Album We Released This Year
Null Device – While You Were Otherwise Engaged
This is the album we’ve been trying to make for about 20 years. We’re super-pleased with how it came out. And people seem to like it.
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Best Cover Song We Released This Year
Null Device – What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)
We’re big InSoc nerds. Also Jill and I watched Stranger Things and thought it might be cool to re-contextualize the song as more along the lines of a darker, moodier theme inspired by that series. So it kinda worked!
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David Bowie – Blackstar
Losing David Bowie at the beginning of the year was kick to the head. But he left us with one of his most audacious, personal albums since his late 70’s Berlin period. A fusion of weird jazz, pop and rock, it encapsulates everything we loved about David.
The Melbourne Community Players Present David Lynch’s “Dune”
Empire of the Sun – Two Vines
While it lacks some of the campy charm of their self-titled first album, and the over-the-top antics of Ice On The Dune, they continue their commitment to flamboyant, catchy synth pop. A bit more of a 70’s funk edge to this one, which is a welcome addition.
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In Pain There Is Beauty
Them Are Us Too – Remain
The Oakland Ghost Ship Fire claimed the lives of a number of talented indie musicians, including TAUT’s guitarist Cash Askew. Before the tragedy, though, they released a beautiful, haunting album of ethereal pop music, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins and early Lush.
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Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank U 4 Your Service
Another album marked by tragedy, with the death of Phife Dawg. Their final album – ironically a sort of comeback – is politically charged, full of raw beats and edgy production.
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School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB
With the death of primary songwriter Benjamin Curtis in 2013, it appeared that SVIIB’s career was destined to be cut short, but remaining member Alejandra Deheza took it upon herself to finish the album herself, based on the existing demos. The result is a compellingly dense, lyrical monument of fuzzed-out synths and shoegazy processing.
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Emotional Gut Punch
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Listening to You Want It Darker before Cohen’s death was an eerie experience; listening afterwards is downright unsettling, yet strangely comforting. Cohen’s gravelly baritone meditates on his impending death with a sense of closure that is rare in the history of recorded music (with the notable exception of the aforementioned Bowie). It is a wrenching, beautiful album.
Assemblage 23 – Endure
What can you say about the ever-prolific A23 that hasn’t been said by others? Tom Shear delivers a slab of dark synthpop/futurepop that is unfailingly consistent from the first note to the last. It’s punchy, clean, and hits from the opening whoosh of the title track to the last beats of “December.”
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Don’t Call it a Comeback (because they split up again)
Lush – Blind Spot
The Lush reunion and subsequent tour was something nobody expected, after the suicide of Chris Acland in 1996. It was glorious to see them in action again, and their new EP sounds like they’re picking up pretty much where they left off, except perhaps a little more mature than they used to be.
And then they went back to their lives and said “this time we’re really done. We mean it.” Sigh.
Don’t Call It A Comeback (because they never left)
Garbage – Strange Little Birds
Strange Little Birds is possibly the most dynamic, rocking release they’ve made since 2.0. They’re back to doing what they always did best, melding pop hooks, rock riffs, and taut almost-industrial electronics.
Music For Giant Robots
Mangadrive – Botrun
Glitchy techno meets with futuristic-but-retro synthwave. It’s pretty gritty, aggressive stuff. I like it.
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Broods – Conscious
Broods goes a little heavier this time, and somehow a little poppier too, but it’s still bouyed by Georgia Nott’s powerful voice. The leadoff single “Free” is catchy as hell, too.
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I’d Really Like Him to Release Crap Just Once So I Know He’s Human
Adam Fielding – The Broken Divide
Can he at least ONCE write something that’s not catchy and beautifully produced? A bit chunkier than his previous works, but damn is it striking stuff.
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Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space
Hammock – Everything and Nothing
Super spaced-out post-rock,like Sigur Ros, albeit this time with a bit more in the hook and pop department.
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The Dream Of the 90’s, as Related by 20-somethings
Haelos – Full Circle
The last thing I expected to hear from a bunch of kids from London is an album with so many nods to the classic trip-hop sound of the 90’s. Thick vocal harmonies, funky breakbeats, and wobbly synth atmospheres conjure up memories of Hooverphonic, Massive Attack, and even Sunscream, without being derivative.
The Dream Of the 90’s, as Related by an 80’s band
Pet Shop Boys – Super
Meanwhile, Pet Shop Boys come out with an album that would sound perfectly at home in 1995, to the point where they actually have songs that wax nostalgic for the club songs of the 90’s (“The Pop Kids”).
Underworld, Underworld, You Release a Really Good Album
Underworld – Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future
Barking was a good album, but being tethered to 2010’s cutting-edge producers have made it sound sort of dated as it ages. So six years later they’re back to the core of Hyde and Smith, and it’s a little less dancy, a little more idiosyncratic, and frankly more memorable. It’s not quite dubnobasswithmyheadman but it’s probably the best thing they’ve done in over a decade.
Strange Bedfellow Make Compelling Music
The Black Queen – Fever Daydream
The lead singer of mathcore staples Dillinger Escape Plan teams up with the technical wonk from IDM legends Telefon Tel Aviv and make one of the most compelling electronic pop albums of the past several years. “Ice To Never” features the kind of monster synth hooks we haven’t heard since the heyday of Depeche Mode.
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Divisive, But Good
Covenant – The Blinding Dark
Covenant doesn’t deviate too far from what works for them; the driving synths and Eskil’s crooned lyrics. This time out though, they went for a rawer sound, a bit less finessed, a bit more noise and distortion, and for the most part, it works – although fans of their poppier work might be put off by the changes. It’s probably their grittiest album since Sequencer.
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Grr, Spit, Industrial
Kanga – Kanga
I admit, I’ve kind of lost the plot with regards to a lot of modern industrial music; I’m enough of an old fart that the visceral anger doesn’t quite connect with me the way it used to. However, it’s pretty undeniable that Kanga’s debut album is a strong new voice in the genre; touchstones of classic WaxTrax! and NIN are evident but the material isn’t derivative, and the programming and production is top-notch.
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Hip Hop’s Finest Use of Sample Rate Reduction
Jidenna – Long Live The Chief
It got a profile boost from an appearance in Netflix’s “Luke Cage”, but on its own, the Wisconsin-born, half-Nigerian rapper dropped this single, a beefy, glitchy political track.
Oh god. We lost so much.
So very much.
The Sound of an Artist Disappearing Up His Own Ass
M83 – Junk
Seriously, what the hell was that? Electro yacht rock? What?