The 2016 Album of the Year

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Kaytranada, 99.9% (XL)

I had a budding listener-artist relationship with Kaytranada all year long, which grew from mild curiosity to full-on obsession, as well as with a very strong connection to a couple of massive events in my life. It all started with Katy B’s track “Honey”, which came out early in the year. It was a track whose minimalist approach to electronic R&B drew me in immediately, but at that point I had no idea a) who Kaytranada is, and b) that the man is Canadian. A few months passed, the Polaris Prize short list came out, and Kaytranada’s album 99.9% was the only title I was unfamiliar with. If so many of my peers think so highly of it, I thought, I’d better give it a listen! I was very intrigued by what I heard, and its sheer breadth and eclecticism was a lot to take in, so I kept going back to it whenever I had a spare moment or two.

Then Big Event Number One happened: I was selected to be a Grand Juror at the Polaris Prize gala in Toronto. It required a lot of work – it’s a very important responsibility – so I had to know all ten short-listed albums inside-out, and of all titles, 99.9% was the one I needed to dig deeper into. So I played the heck out of it, and the more I immersed myself in in, the more I started to love its wildly creative blend of electronic, house, hip hop, R&B, tropical house, jazz, krautrock, and funk. It attracted my girlfriend Stacey and her pup Eddie too. She loved its beats and musicality, and of all ten nominees it was the one that Eddie enjoyed hearing as he napped, which is high praise!

Anyway, I went to Toronto all set to defend my own top choice, which happened to be one of the best albums of 2015 – Polaris 2016 straddles the latter half of 2015 and the first half of 2016 – and proceeded to spend 11 hours over two nights with ten other very brilliant peers debating the merits of all nominees. Two people in particular offered very, very convincing arguments for Kaytranada, explaining in great detail the groundbreaking nature of 99.9% and why it’s such an important debut album. It was so illuminating, and while I had gone to Toronto knowing it was one of the best albums of the year already, that deeper knowledge of the album I had gained sealed the deal. Of course I wanted my own choice to win the Polaris, but I was thrilled to see Kaytranada win the big award that night, and it was such a pleasure for Stacey and I to say hello to Kevin Celestin. What a gracious gentleman he is.

Celestin is a perfect reflection of Canadian culture. Contrary to America’s “melting pot” – and let’s face it, their ingredients might melt but never fully mix – Canada adopts more of a “patchwork quilt” philosophy, and as Kaytranada Celestin takes musical influences from all over the world and similarly brings a new, unique perspective to them on 99.9%. His arrangements sound so fresh, vibrant, and highly original, and while he has attracted a very impressive array of guest contributors on the album (Craig David, Anderson.Paak, Alunah George, BADBADNOTGOOD, Syd, River Tiber), they never steal the spotlight. Their contributions adhere to Celestin’s on musical vision. And what range he shows on this album! He shifts gears more times than Steve McQueen did in Bullitt. Steamy R&B ballads, wickedly swaggering hip hop, straight-up dance, funk, tropicalia…it’s so varied, but in the end his own personality dominates the album and keeps it all tied together. In the end my big takeaway from 99.9% is its focus on the song rather than the beats. He is a songwriter first and foremost, and his genius as a producer allows him to twist these compositions in a way that no one else can. Perhaps the best indication of that wildly creative side is on “Lite Spots”, in which he takes an old Brazilian track by Gal Costa called “Pontos de Luz”, pumps up the tempo, and makes it such a lively, peculiar, cheerful track. It puts a big smile on my face every time. And its video is adorable as well.

The second big event in my life eventually convinced me that 99.9% is the perfect choice for my Album of the Year. I was working as a lab assistant outside the city for two months every day, and I listened to Kaytranada every single day as I drove out to the work site, which was a perfect way to start my days. It was during this period when Stacey and I decided that this was the perfect time to move in together, so because 99.9% was soundtracking my life at that very moment meant that it would be forever linked to one of the happiest moments in my life.

2016 might have been a very sad year on a cultural level. So many famous deaths, so many crises, so many horrible tragedies around the world. At the same time, though, I hate how that in turn has made a meme out of the whole “2016 sucks” trope. What a lazy, sad-sack thing to do. Most of these people are saying this on devices or computers, living comfortable, sheltered lives, enjoying feeling depressed because this famous person died or that idiot was elected. Get over yourselves. Life is what you make of it, and although it was a tough year for me, I still found plenty to be happy about. I liked a lot of dark, sad music this year, but I had a lot of good things happen to me too, and 99.9% is a perfect reminder of how there was a lot of good in 2016. Cheer up. Life is worth living. Be good to people, be inclusive, smile. And maybe even dance a little.

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The Best Albums of 2016, #2

2. Drive-By Truckers, American Band (ATO)

American popular culture has a terrible history of burying its head in the sand during troubled times. In the wake of 1968, one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century, the most popular song in the United States was the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”. During the Gulf War the biggest things in pop culture were Wilson Phillips, Home Alone, and America’s Funniest Home Videos. And who can forget the heightened sensitivity to satire right after 9-11? The truth hurts, so people want distraction. Harry Lime might have had a point when he said, “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” But sadly times of strife in America rarely if ever yields great art, and a big post-Trump artistic Renaissance feels highly unlikely.

America blew it in 2016, plain and simple. As CBC hosts watched in disbelief as Donald Trump was elected in one of the most shameful moments in that nation’s history, one commentator stated without irony, “Well, 241 years is a pretty good run for a republic.” For a country that gave us the Declaration of Independence, jazz, baseball, Looney Tunes, Jackson Pollock, the Beat Generation, Bob Dylan, the Ramones, the Misfits, and Slayer, it has quickly become the shame of the democratic world, a shadow of its former self. The American Experiment was a great idea, but with each passing year it feels more like a failure. What you build a nation around racism and yet flaunt the idea of “every man for himself” (denying citizens of the basic human right to health care in the process) you’re in for trouble. When you view your country to be uniquely blessed by God, as America has done from the get-go, you always demonize your enemies. The less said about the Electoral College and a system that allows a grossly underqualified person to become President, the better. And when you lead the world in progress yet can’t fix your own festering problems in your own backyard, those chickens are going to come home to roost sooner than you think.

Thing is, for all the problems in that damned country, there are millions and millions of decent American people trying to make sense of it all. Among them, the Drive-By Truckers, who took it upon themselves to make an album directly inspired by the state of the nation. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley don’t have any solutions; heck, they’re as baffled as the rest of us are, but they’ve taken their supreme storytelling skill and made the most unflinchingly relevant album of 2016. The band might not rock with the booze-fuelled ferocity of a decade or more ago, but the intensity is there in more restrained form. There’s more room for texture, for Hood and Cooley to explore their more soulful side, which in turn lends this album an even more elegiac tone. So many tracks hit home hard, but Cooley’s shattering “Once They Banned Imagine” From baseless inquiry / to no knocking entry becoming the law of the land / to half cocked excuses for bullet abuse regarding anything browner than tan”) and Hood’s “What it Means” (”And that guy who killed that kid down in Florida standing ground / is free to beat up on his girlfriend and wave his brand new gun around / while some kid is dead and buried and laying in the ground with a pocket full of Skittles”) are especially affecting, as both singer-songwriters look around themselves and ask how in the heck it got as bad as it has. They confront hard truths about their country with sadness, rage, and empathy, and it has yielded their strongest album in more than a decade. At least one band is committed to make great art during this strange and scary time we live in.

The Best Albums of 2016, #3

band013. Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker (Sony)

A couple years ago I was having a conversation with a friend about whose musician’s death would affect me the most. After some thinking I mentioned Leonard Cohen, because his songwriting has had a major impact on my life as a music listener since the early-‘90s. In fact, the older I get, the deeper understanding I develop for his music and poetry. What captivated me as a 21 year-old often differs from what enthralls me at 46. It’s the kind of relationship (as a listener) with an artist that is unlike any other in my life, to the point where the two times I was lucky enough to see the man perform, in 2009 and 2012, were, for lack of a better word, spiritual experiences. Prior to the release of his 14th album Cohen told The New Yorker that he was ready to die, and that blunt admission sent many of us scurrying back to that album’s title track, which had just been released a few weeks earlier. “Hineni, hineni,” he sings gravely, intoning the ancient Hebrew word for “here I am”. “I’m ready Lord.” What already was Cohen’s bleakest song since his 1992 masterpiece The Future became all the more powerful thanks to that published statement. He was frail, living quietly, his greatest muse had died earlier in the year, and the article made it seem he was mentally preparing himself for the end. The end came sooner than expected, barely a couple weeks after the album was released to universal critical acclaim.

When the news came out, three days after his death and two days after the calamitous American election, I didn’t fall into flamboyant paroxysms of despair like plenty of people did. I think the fact that he gave us one final gift in the form of a perfect little album cushioned the blow. Although his “comeback” albums Old Ideas and Popular Problems were lovely, there’s a greater sense of focus on You Want it Darker, honed to a sharpened point. Cohen is confronting his own mortality, but doing so in that way that only he can do: with darkness, with humour, and with tenderness. His lyrics dance around love and loss and death and life with nimble grace. On “Treaty” is he singing about the conflict between his Jewish upbringing and his Buddhist faith in later life? Or is he trying to reconcile with past lovers? He’s often too vague to make either a certainty, and that sense of mystery makes this little 36-minute album so alluring. Best of all, that voice of his, that deep, smoky voice, sounds indefatigable and wise, like an old master should sound, and his singing hits powerful noted on the mid-album trifecta of “Leaving the Table”, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”, and the sweetly playful “Traveling Light”, the latter of which hearkens back to three different decades of his music at the same time.

Why be sad about Leonard Cohen’s death? He lived a full, uncompromising life and influenced music and literature in a way that very few people ever will. What an achievement that is. You Want it Darker is the final majestic crenellation on a mighty, incomparable tower of song. I’ll keep celebrating his work for the rest of my life, always climbing that tower, discovering new things about the man, and my own self.

 

The Best Albums of 2016, #4

band014. Metallica, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct (Blackened)

A few months ago it dawned on me that I have not thoroughly loved a Metallica studio album, from start to finish, since 1988. Nearly 30 years. Time flies, I tell you. They’re still a band that’s very near and dear to me – though my naming S&M my 1999 album of the year was more a result of a life in serious flux, spent removed from a great deal of new music – but oh my, what a slump they’ve been in. Ever since side two of the Black Album (I listened to it the other day and it is still awful!) Metallica has been so painfully inconsistent, always giving in to self-indulgence, cramming albums with too much filler. When I finally heard their tenth album this fall, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the crazy thing was that it never happened. Sure, things wavered a tiny bit, but it was a cohesive listening experience. I was dumbstruck. Indeed, Hardwired…To Self Destruct shows audiences a side of Metallica that’s been sorely missing for the last 29 years: fiery, focused, aggressive, disciplined.

Yes, disciplined! Metallica has always crammed its albums to the gills with content – at 47 minutes Ride the Lightning is the shortest album in the discography – but starting with side two of the Black Album the sharp focus slipped to the point where every subsequent album would be bogged down by filler, partially a product of the CD era. This time, the 77-minute Hardwired has been split into two distinctly sequenced halves, which in turn allows the listener to ease into the large volume of music instead of taking it in all at once.

“Hardwired” is a glorious return to the thrash metal sound the band helped create. Propelled by Ulrich’s loose-but-steady double-time beats and held together by Hetfield’s trademark muscular rhythm riffs, the song’s angry sentiment (“We’re so fucked, shit out of luck”) feels unfortunately relevant considering the tumultuous year the world had endured. In direct contrast, “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” exuberantly revisit Hetfield’s and Ulrich’s early-‘80s metal fandom, channeling Diamond Head, Mercyful Fate, and Killers-era Iron Maiden by adding melodic flourishes to a strong sense of groove, yielding a pair of the band’s catchiest fist-bangers in ages. Speaking of hooks, though, the mid-paced chugger “Now That We’re Dead” is built around a brilliant, crisp little marching riff and rides that groove for a full seven minutes. Its simplicity echoes the Black Album at its best, and features some of Hetfield’s strongest vocal work on the entire album. “Halo on Fire” starts off melancholic but builds to a wonderful climax, featuring an up-tempo coda built around a blessedly simple riff and an expressive solo by Hammett that echoes Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi. And in an inspired touch, Master of Puppets’ Lovecraftian colossus “The Thing That Should Not Be” is alluded to on the stomping, crushing “Dream No More”.

The second half of the album is more of a mixed bag. “Confusion” bears a strong similarity to Death Magnetic, in how it tries to find an even ground between atonality and melody, but it succeeds mightily thanks to very strong interplay between the lead riff and vocal melody. Despite its unfortunate title, “ManUNkind” is a wicked Southern rock jam that features Trujillo’s finest bass work, and echoes the better deep cuts from Load and Reload two decades ago. “Here Comes Revenge” swings hard, alternating between creeping menace and anthemic vitriol, while “Am I Savage” neatly releases its building tension with a clever ascending riff in its chorus. “Murder One” is arguably the album’s weakest moment, as the band’s heartfelt tribute to the late Lemmy Kilmister falls slightly flat, but the ship is righted immediately after as the dystopian “Spit Out the Bone” closes things with another ferocious, angry blast of speed.

As much time as it took for Metallica to rediscover that old magic, though, upon hearing the end result it was well worth the wait. More than anything, Metallica sounds like they’re having fun again. You hear it in those little touches throughout Hardwired…To Self Destruct that pay homage to their old favorites, and even in those extended passages where they keep going just a little longer because the groove feels too good. The subject matter might be bleak, but there’s a lust for life on this album that will leave a big smile on the faces of their millions of fans, and even on a few of those grumpy old ones. Including yours truly.

The Best Albums of 2016, #5

band015. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed)

After making a career of making music about the darker side of life and spirituality, Nick Cave was dealt the darkest hand a parent could possibly get: the death of one’s child. In July 2015 his 15 year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff in Brighton, England. Even worse, the tragedy happened during the making of his 16th album with the Bad Seeds. How does a person continue with their work after such a devastating, horrible thing? Instead of retreating, Cave kept making the new record, and the shadow of his son’s death looms over the entirety of Skeleton Tree, which is essentially an album about Cave working through his own grief, in the only way he knows how.

The thing is, though, as much as it is about Nick Cave and his own family, and it will be inextricably linked to it forever, Skeleton Tree also succeeds mightily because it’s an album about trauma: experiencing trauma, dealing with trauma, and ultimately healing those wounds. Frankly I don’t know if I have ever heard an album as immersed in trauma and sadness and grief as much as Skeleton Tree is. Its eight tracks form a distinct arc, which is central to the album’s success. “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field,” Jesus Alone begins portentously. Written well before his son’s death, it is absolutely harrowing, from the atonal backing arrangement to Cave’s poetic imagery (“You’re an African doctor harvesting tear ducts”). “Rings of Saturn” reads like a snapshot of Cave’s love for his wife prior to the accident, while “Girl in Amber” is a sketch of her after the accident, the repeated “Don’t touch me” at the end depicting their utter helplessness. “Magneto” brutally captures the numbness of trying to live after trauma: “Mostly I never knew which way was out… the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming…I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues…In the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink.” After hitting rock bottom, “Anthrocene” finds Cave struggling with man’s innate will to live in an era where mankind seems to be dooming itself to extinction. Then the fog clears. “I Need You” finds Cave calling out to his wife and his departed son, the raw emotion palpable. “Distant Sky” is the climactic breakthrough, in which you sense the healing starting to happen, Else Torp’s beautiful singing leading Cave’s narrator by the hand out of the darkness and into the sunshine. The title track brings things to a sombre but, ultimately, a quietly optimistic conclusion. “I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / And nothing is for free,” he sings, and that’s where the subtle change happens: he is now aware of the futility of trying to undo a tragedy, he looks around him, at his wife and Arthur’s twin brother, and realizes, “It’s alright now.” We often don’t heal without a scar remaining, but we heal nevertheless. The desperation expressed by Cave on Skeleton Tree is devastating, but as emotionally intense as the album is, it’s a beautiful journey. It’s sad, but far from depressing. Bad music is depressing. Skeleton Tree, for all its grief and desperation, is life-affirming.

The Best Albums of 2016, #6

band016. 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.

The Best Albums of 2016, #7

band017. 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.

The Best Albums of 2016, #8

band018. 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.

The Best Albums of 2016, #9

band019. 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.

The Best Albums of 2016, #10

band0110. 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.