6. David Bowie, Blackstar (ISO)
How often does a major artist have an opportunity to create a work that they are fully aware will very likely be their swan song? As sad as it was for the world to lose David Bowie at the age of 69 in early January, it felt so perfect for such a chameleonic, versatile, groundbreaking artist to put a final stamp on a 50-year career. That part of Blackstar, the part that will see it forever known as the final work of David Bowie, will always loom over this work. However, and this is most important to yours truly, upon hearing “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” prior to the album’s release, I was struck by the fact that it was the first time I’d been truly mesmerized by new David Bowie music in a very long time. Although I’d admired bits and pieces of his post-‘80s work (“I’m Afraid of Americans” is probably the last track of his I loved) Blackstar is so commanding and effortless in its experimentalism that it hearkens back to his artistic peak of his Berlin period, specifically Low, which for the longest time was my favourite Bowie album. More specifically, judged against the rest of his entire body of work, it is his finest album since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
There’s so much happening on Blackstar, but the intelligence of it is how Bowie and Tony Visconti harness so many different influences and styles with such discipline. The ten-minute title track is a marvel, and the finest example; it has everything from drum and bass beats, to singing derived from Gregorian chants, to jazz saxophone, to krautrock, to the surrealism of latter-day Scott Walker, to an absolutely lovely section that echoes the cosmic sounds of Hunky Dory, yet it all holds together thanks to the supreme skill of the duo. It’s like that throughout the entire record, whose epic breadth and scope belies its surprisingly scant 41-minute running time. “Lazarus” is so languid and pretty, one of several moments where Bowie confronts his own mortality. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings, “Oh I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me,” as a saxophone sends the song skyward. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is an incredible re-recording of his 2013 song, with the jazz ratcheted up to the point of sounding unsettlingly taut, while “Dollar Days” sees him playing around with the fictional Nadsat slang from A Clockwork Orange. By the time he gets to the sublime denouement “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, it’s not darkness or brooding or sorrow that you sense, but joy. “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.” Bowie’s was a life well lived, his body of work is his testament, and Blackstar is as perfect an epitaph as anyone could have hoped for.
6. Jenny Hval, “Conceptual Romance”
Norwegian artist Jenny Hval has mesmerized me these last couple years with some of the most striking music I have heard this decade, but for all her confrontational performance art and experimental music, “Conceptual Romance” is a huge creative breakthrough, in which her poetry is underscored by the prettiest melodies she has ever created. Like Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, Hval bridges high art with pop appeal, as well as her own enigmatic nature (“It could be making sense of impermanence, failure and overlooked artwork, but it could also be making sense of the eternal. A floor plan of eternity,” she has written about this song) and the end result is astonishing.
7. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones)
A year after the brilliant Apocalypse, girl, an album that held me spellbound like few other records in 2015, Norwegian artist Jenny Hval returned with a sixth album that turned out to be even darker and more confrontational than before, yet at the same time, displaying a pop sensibility that her past work has hinted at but never fully embraced. It’s all well and good when an artist experiments, trying to push the parameters of popular music as far out as they can possibly go, but to do so and retain that pop sensibility at the same time is a very difficult balance to achieve. The more Hval pushes her music and herself, the better that dynamic becomes, which is proven on Blood Bitch, a sensational little concept album that is equal parts performance art, ambient electronic, and genuine pop music. “For the virgins, the whores, the mothers, the witches, the dreamers, and the lovers,” Hval states, going on to celebrate womanhood in explicit, graphic, harrowing, and dryly humorous fashion. I can’t elaborate on how empowering or relatable or inspiring Hval’s themes are; I can only say that the way women have to deal with blood in their lives – compared to we men who get squeamish over razor cuts – is alien to men, and it’s a marvel to see it addressed here as unflinchingly as she does on this record. Along with producer Lasse Murhaug, Hval creates a sparse, cinematic sound that alternately evokes a horror film (“Female Vampire”) and a surreal, gothic form of pop music (“The Great Undressing”). Descibed by Hval as “a love song for a vampire stuck in erotic self-oscillation”, “Conceptual Romance” is the real breakthrough moment here, in which rich poetry, staggering beauty, and musical minimalism coalesce into a thing of rare, awe-inspiring beauty. Jenny Hval’s music is the kind of art whose power and breadth grows the more you immerse yourself in it. It never fails to thrill and illuminate.
7. Ghost, “Square Hammer”
Coming on the heels of the superb 2015 album Meliora, which cemented Ghost’s status as one of the best heavy metal bands in the world right now,the Swedes continued that positive momentum with Popestar, a very fun five-track EP featuring four creative covers and an inspired original track called “Square Hammer”. Arguably the hookiest song they’ve put out to date, the way heavy guitars and keyboard melodies interweave echoes Blue Öyster Cult, and especially in the chorus, which gets in your head immediately and stays there. It’s so great to have a metal band who knows their way around a good melody like these guys do. It’s a dying skill in heavy music, but Ghost are masters.
8. Tove Lo, Lady Wood (Universal)
With Queen of the Clouds catapulting Swedish singer Tove Lo to the cusp of global stardom – and rightfully so, as it remains one of the smartest pop albums of this decade – you had to wonder what she and her producers would attempt on the hotly anticipated follow-up. If she did more of the same, it would have been mighty satisfying – after all, the Max Martin-connected production team The Struts excel at creating crowd-pleasing pop music – but it would have had folks wondering if her talent and creative range was limited and a little conservative. As her 2016 single “Cool Girl” showed, however, the young artist clearly wanted to take a different approach.
Lady Wood is an intriguing second album, fairly unconventional by contemporary pop standards. The instinct on a follow-up to a successful album is to repeat the formula only on a grander scale, but on this album Tove Lo dials things back significantly. There are fewer fireworks, fewer moments of tortured melodrama, replaced by restrained arrangements that keep a steady, hypnotic pace. If you want big payoffs like “Time Bomb”, you’re out of luck. Instead it’s all about the slow burn, as the bulk of the tracks on Lady Wood are more informed by electropop and R&B than contemporary pop. She remains a big fan of album concepts too, and while it doesn’t have as rewarding an arc as Queen of the Clouds did, the two halves of Lady Wood offer differing perspectives. Side one, which is loaded with a series of stunning electro tracks, chronicles a protagonist dispassionately living in the moment, hedonistically living a life of physical pleasure but zero spritiual connection, capped off by the sensational “True Disaster”, in which she readily admits she’s “gonna get hurt”. The second half turns its focus on the protagonist herself, confronting her own insecurities. It’s here where the arrangements become more vibrant, more reflective of the Tove Lo we got to know on the last album. “Imaginary Friend”, “Flashes”, and “WTF Love Is” bring the album to a surprisingly rewarding conclusion given the brooding intensity of side one. “I got fire eyes, glitter in my tear lines,” she sings near the end, a perfect snapshot of the persona on display on this surprisingly bold record.
8. Chelsea Lankes, “Bullet”
Some people might disagree with me, and that’s just fine, but personally one of the great musical joys in life is a good, concise pop song whose sole ambition is to be a perfect pop song, and nothing else. Not maximizing a brand, not serving as a showcase for obnoxious reality show singing, not pretending to be anything bigger than it is. Chelsea Lankes, who caught my attention in 2015 with a stunning electropop cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Too Young to Fall in Love”, returned this year with an EP highlighted by “Bullet”, three minutes of near-perfection along the lines of Carly Rae Jepson, in that it doesn’t try anything more than excel at what it does. It’s a simple “I’m better off without you” song that starts off melancholy but then explodes into an empowering chorus: “And so I took the nights and heights / And I just threw ’em in the trash / They didn’t matter at all / And I played my favorite song / Turned up the volume and I danced / I didn’t care anymore”. It’s simple, a formula as old as popular music itself, but it’s a dynamic that always pays off when done well, and this track does a sterling job.
9. Black Mountain, IV (Dine Alone)
Did I ever miss Black Mountain. In the Future was one of my favourite albums of 2008, and one of the best of that decade, frankly, while 2010’s Wilderness Heart was a cool little departure that steadily grew on me. It was hard to believe six years had gone by, but when a tenth anniversary re-release of Black Mountain’s debut album came out last year, that’s when I truly started to wish they’d return. Funnily enough, it was a favour that the Roadburn festival asked me to do in late 2015 that clued me in to some top-secret news that had me to the point of giddiness: Black Mountain had reunited, and new music was due in the coming year!
Better yet, Black Mountain came back with a record that has them sounding reborn. All the characteristics of their sound are there: an even mix of psychedelia and heaviness, riffs commingling with melody, the stoner drawl of Stephen McBean in staging a give-and-take with Amber Webber’s detached singing. Had they just stuck with that I would have been thrilled, but instead the band raised the bar by integrating more keyboards into the fray. Synths had always played a prominent role in Black Mountain’s music, but always in a late-‘60s, early-‘70s way. Like Hawkwind and Deep Purple. On IV, though, there’s more of an ‘80s element, like Rush’s Signals or Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle. It’s a bold thing to do, but that combination of heavy guitar rock and new wave synths works so wonderfully, whether on the surreal epic “Mothers of the Sun” or the hooky “Cemetery Breeding”. There are some decidedly keyboard-centic numbers like “Over and Over (The Chain)” and “Defector”, and then there’s “Florian Saucer Attack”, the hardest-charging rocker the band has ever written. The hazily romantic “Crucify Me” and the dreamy “Space to Bakersfield” are late-album treasures, echoing Mazzy Star and Pink Floyd simultaneously. It’s been trendy for indie music critics to declare rock “dead”, but anyone with eyes and ears knows that’s far from the case. Black Mountain made one of the best rock albums in years, by dipping into three decades of history and creating something adventurous and oddly futuristic.
9. Black Mountain, “Florian Saucer Attack”
Sometimes you need a great big, gigantic, dystopian rock ‘n’ roll song about flying saucers. Huge guitars, wicked singing by an unusually boisterous Amber Webber, a GREAT synthesizer solo lifted right out of Rush circa 1981, and crazily vivid lines like, “Cold bodies with the cement eyes / Over Berlin ‘neath the winter sun”. It’s so insanely catchy, and Stephen McBean’s robotic “zero one data one two one two” is one of the year’s coolest hooks. From an album that proved to have so much longevity over the course of the year, this was the most immediate track, the most fun. Heck, it even had Dave Grohl drooling.
10. Jessy Lanza, Oh No (Hyperdub)
Jessy Lanza quietly made a name for herself in 2013 by signing to UK tastemaker label Hyperdub and releasing the beguiling Pull My Hair Back. Her sense of simultaneous detachment and playfulness made for an engrossing debut album, while on her spellbinding follow-up the music sounds broader, more vibrant, more uptempo than ever. Yet the ingeniousness of it all continues to be how stripped down the arrangements are, one of Greenspan’s great strengths as a producer. In doing so, the music creates so much space for Lanza to work her own vocal magic, who sounds so much more assured and adventurous than before. Where a sense of shyness helped make Pull My Hair Back so charming, Lanza’s increased confidence provides so much more color on Oh No.
“It Means I Love You” lives in its own unique yet equally imaginative universe. With its effervescent blend of gently pulsating, skittering beats, and playful synth stabs, it dances nimbly around the edges of avant-garde, dubstep, R&B, and pop, exuding a sense of nervous energy. Contrary to the album’s recurring theme of anxiety, however, the mood is ebullient, echoed by the repeated refrain of, “When you look into my eyes, boy, it means I love you”. “VV Violence”, meanwhile, is the kind of track with the potential to attract indie listeners as well ignite a dance floor. “Going Somewhere”, on the other hand, is a sparkling array of airy dubstep and new wave, its pristine tone contrasted by small instances of atonality that add an unsettling feeling. That unease carries over later into the album with the standout “Vivica”, which achieves just the right balance of alien, synthetic soundscapes and classic soul composition. It’s another tremendous example of the extraordinary breadth of Oh No, as Lanza metamorphoses from an intriguing curiosity to a formidable talent in contemporary electronic music.
10. Alessia Cara, “Wild Things”
It’s funny where and when a song will click. When it comes to Alessia Cara’s anthemic “Wild Things”, it captured my attention when I was taking a taxi to my hotel in Montreal. “No mistakin’, we make our breaks, if you don’t like our 808s”: what a line! It kept grabbing me, and even at 46, well 45 then, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the song’s youthful energy. I Shazammed the track, and that was it. With its blend of pop, dance, and Caribbean sounds, it’s a perfect summer song about young rebellion. Based on the shimmering brilliance of this track, this young artist is one to watch.