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 2016 Single of the Year

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1. MØ, “Final Song”

On the heels of her guest vocal performance on Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s 2015 global smash “Lean On”, Danish singer-songwriter Karen Marie Aagaard Ørsted Andersen, otherwise known as MØ, released the exuberant single “Final Song”. Unlike “Lean On”, “Final Song” is the sound of a young artist finding her own voice, creating (along with fellow songwriting phenom Noonie Bao) a fireworks burst of tropical house and dance. All the while MØ charismatically carries the track with her playful delivery, not to mention her insistent, empowering lyrics. Actually the big eureka moment was when I saw her perform a surprisingly raucous and energetic set in the blazing early afternoon heat at the Osheaga festival. She’s an unconventional pop artist, one with a unique personality and style that sets her apart from all the other soundalikes and lookalikes. This single was a burst of ebullience and lust for life that this downcast cultural year badly needed, and her new album can’t arrive soon enough.

And here’s the final overall Best Singles list in playlist form, along with a whole bunch of other songs I loved in 2016. Enjoy!

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 Singles of 2016, #2

2. Tove Lo, “True Disaster”

Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo made a name for herself two years ago with her unflinching approach to pop music tropes: euphoric highs, devastating lows, all with explicit, honest depictions of love and lust. “True Disaster” keeps an even keel musically, its hypnotic, ominous electropop arrangement mirroring the sound of CHVRCHES, but lyrically she doesn’t hold back. “Give zero fucks about it, I know I’m gonna get hurt,” she sings, willingly embracing the moment while fully aware of the horrible repercussions that will inevitably follow. That sense of “carpe diem” underscored by impending doom creates a sense of tension that, frankly, is alluring.


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 Singles of 2016, #3

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3. Kaytranada featuring Craig David, “Got it Good”

It’s been a marvelous year for Craig David. In addition to scoring his first UK number one album in 16 years, he collaborated with Katy B on her single “Who Am I”, and best of all, he contributed vocals to the best song on Kaytranada’s astounding debut album 99.9%. He and Kevin Celestin prove a perfect match, with Celestin’s slow jam beats and minimalist arrangement creating a simple yet luxuriant backdrop for David’s profession of devotion: “Tell me do you remember when we started? / Remember me and you creepin’ round late at night / And yeah you held me down when I had nothing / And that’s the reason I must spoil you now that I can”.

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 Singles of 2016, #4

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4. Metallica, “Atlas, Rise!”

The best song on Metallica’s best album in 28 years finds the band going back to the music they grew up with, capturing that energy, and coming up with a track that shows they are big, nerdy fans just like the rest of us. They’re in full early-‘80s mode on “Atlas, Rise!”, the riffs sharp and melodic, the drums groovy, the bass deep in the pocket, the vocals assertive. As good as the first half is, things really take off during the solo break, which pays obvious homage to circa-1981 iron Maiden and early Mercyful Fate. The “back to basics” gimmick is such a cliché in music, but it can result in truly transformative moments, and in some cases kick off a creative rebirth. This song sounds just like that.

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 Singles of 2016, #5

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White Lung, “Below”

Vancouver band White Lung hit their stride in 2016, and in so doing put out the best rock single of the year. Much like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”, it’s an unusual moment of confession and emotional vulnerability from a very outspoken and confrontational singer atop some ingeniously atmospheric guitar work. To the band’s great credit, they don’t so much cynically copy that formula as use it to bring out their own distinct personalities. At the heart of it is singer Mish Barber-Way, who sings about feminism’s need to appreciate glamour, doing so with honesty and tenderness.