I'll be honest: the majority of this collection is in the singer/songwriter vein, it's almost 90% male-dominated, and it's mostly sad music about death or breakups or encroaching doom. That's been the year, I guess. I've been relatively disengaged from music for a while, but for whatever cocktail of personal reasons I've become re-invested this year (I'm even writing music again), and these are the artists that have been exciting me. With apologies to Kendrick Lamar and Tim Hecker, whose albums this year I've only recently begun to appreciate, here are the gems.
1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
Artistic expression doesn't really get more devastatingly close-to-the-bone than Skeleton Tree, the alternately stygian and encouraging suite of songs that has emerged from Nick Cave's grieving process over his recently deceased son. Though written in large part prior to the tragedy that involved the 15-year-old falling from a cliff during an LSD trip, the album repeatedly doubles back on veiled allusions to the incident and to more direct dealings with Cave's mourning, while the grey sonic cloud that looms over much of its duration, and which finally starts to hesitantly lift in the heartening final two songs, feels unmistakably dirge-like. Opener "Jesus Alone" sustains an oscillating growl and an extraterrestrial whine for approximately six minutes, establishing the free-time, minor-key atmospherics that dominate the subsequent tracks. As a testament to a group of musicians in command of their craft and utterly in tune with one another, Skeleton Tree is peerless. Its audacious song structures, built on cresting and falling waves of textured distortion, practically necessitate precise musical chemistry, as distinctly apparent on cuts like "Anthrocene" and "Girl in Amber"—the former a downright creepy jangle with a skittering beat disappearing and reappearing, the latter a low-hanging fog of muted synthesizers resonating against ghostly backing vocals. That said, it's on album highlight "I Need You," a comparatively straightforward groove anchored by Cave's guttural croon, that the album's virtues are most clearly embodied: at the center of the pile-up of nightmarish details is a burning ache for a lost companion that won't be eased by pleas to God or well wishes from friends.
2. Alasdair Roberts and James Green: Plaint of Lapwing
My favorite musical discovery this year (with thanks to my good friend Jon Davies) has been the idiosyncratic and joyfully anachronistic folk of Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, and Plaint of Lapwing is probably his catchiest collection to date. Filled front to back with baroque earworms, the album is a dynamic showcase for Roberts as a virtuoso of melody, song structure and unorthodox time signatures (the springy interweave of guitar and voice on opener “Anankë” has been stuck in my head at least once a week this year). But the most unique source of fascination is Roberts’ gibberish-by-way-of-Old English vernacular, which has its own curious system for describing familiar phenomena: recounting an erotic encounter on “The Evening is Growing Dim,” for instance, Roberts sings, "and how my questing fingers made your every clasping to unfasten." Tales of drunken revelry, thwarted revenge and summer love take on a Chaucerian quality in their bounty of incident, and Roberts, with invaluable assistance from instrumentalist James Green, nests it all in warm curlicues of guitar, harmoniflute, and various bells and whistles. Plaint of Lapwing builds an entire world equal parts medieval and fantastical.
3. James Blake: The Colour in Anything
I went through the breakup of a nearly six-year relationship in early 2016, and James Blake's third album, The Colour in Anything, was the new record that did the most to get me through it. Blake's always had one foot in the soul genre, but this is his first to fully justify the terminology; where his self-titled breakout and his follow-up Overgrown never quite landed for me in their coolly cerebral stylings, The Colour in Anything anchors Blake's sonic experimentation to a heavy core of human emotion. The full gamut of feelings that accompany a breakup—shock and disbelief, anger and disillusionment, nostalgic fixation and reluctant acceptance—is tackled with courageous directness in Blake's lyrics, which favor straightforwardly worded self-assessments ("It's sad that you're no longer her") to symbolic obfuscation. And Blake hasn't become a lesser aesthete in pursuit of this emotional openness; on the contrary, this is his richest work as both a producer and a pianist. Crackly analog textures mingle with full-bodied synthesizer patches to cover the tunes in an overcast sky, but edgy drum machine backbeats and unorthodox accompaniments (a jew harp, a syncopated dog bark) keep the very long record from getting bogged down in gloom. It helps that Blake mixes the epic fistfuls of pain ("Love Me in Whatever Way," "Choose Me") with anomalous detours, like ravishing Bon Iver duet "I Need a Forest Fire" (better than anything on said artist's flatulent 2016 offering) or the virtuosic self-titled grand piano track. I'll submit that Blake probably could have cut a track or two (I'd sacrifice "I Hope My Life," personally), but in all its enormity The Colour in Anything instantly enters the pantheon of great heartbreak music.
4. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool was met with what seemed like widespread skepticism when it was first released, so I'm glad that seven months later it's topping lists. I don't know what exactly people expect from Radiohead, but whatever it is, the band hasn't been delivering it for the last few releases, veering away from generation-defining statement albums and toward more modest records with expertly honed musicianship. The draw of this new collection is the increased emphasis on collaborative orchestration, with Jonny Greenwood bringing to bear his recent experiences in film scoring for Paul Thomas Anderson and thus gracing the music with a warmth and spaciousness not as evident on the more internalized The King of Limbs—a quality also attributable to Thom Yorke's uncharacteristically soul-baring lyrics, which touch with surprising candor on subjects like global warming, mass stupidity and the collapse of Yorke's marriage. A Moon Shaped Pool spills over with evocative grace notes: the violent surge of staccato strings that follows Yorke's declaration that "people have this power" on "The Numbers"; the almost subliminal way in which the dark piano arpeggio of "Daydreaming" shapeshifts into a synthesizer loop; the unpredictable vocal EQ automation on "Full Stop" or Phil Selway's barely articulated ghost notes on the same track; the wheeze of clipped phrases that prick the right ear in "Present Tense" behind Yorke's main melody. Sitting here revisiting album highlights, I feel like I could go on forever. This is the best band in the world feeding beautifully off each other.
5. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker
The declarative audacity of Leonard Cohen's final album title extends to the execution of the music: this is not a record that beats around the bush. Cohen faces his incoming death head on, sans moping and with a lethal dose of humor, and comes away with one of his most touching works. I don't know how he did it. The elegant, straightforward arrangements skirt cheesiness, which has long been Cohen's achilles' heel; the instrumentation is largely non-electronic, with grand piano, guitar, pedal steel and a string section only occasionally supplemented by snatches of drum machines and synth pads; and Cohen's voice is the deepest and richest it’s ever been, wearing both his heart and his larynx on his sleeve. Former relationships are reflected upon, childhood memories are summoned, mistakes are forgiven, sex life is wryly dressed down, and religious matters are cast aside for earthly wisdom. Farewell is finally issued with the glorious “String Reprise/Treaty,” a bastion of unsullied beauty in a year of global instability.
6. David Thomas Broughton: Crippling Lack
UK-born, South Korea-based songsmith/performance artist David Thomas Broughton has been said to contain multitudes. I'd agree, and add that his new triple album, Crippling Lack, which clocks in at an hour and 41 minutes, contains multitudes within his multitudes. Synthesizing the lo-fi chamber folk of The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, the full-band grooviness of Outbreeding, and the choral-infused balladry of Sliding the Same Way, Crippling Lack adopts a grand conceptual canvas if only to leap from idea to idea with reckless abandon. Recorded, per usual, in live scenarios with help from a loop pedal and containing all the invigorating inelegance that implies, the album is marked by the potent sense of Broughton completely losing himself in the songs—that is, until something brutally direct pierces the fog of the enigmatic storytelling. And then there's Broughton's voice on top of it all: florid, operatic, and tinged with just enough of a smirk to make the passages of purple prose work. That tonal ambiguity—the rue mixed with the venom—is what gives something like "The Plunge of the Dagger," a suicide note in song form featuring bad-taste injections of black humor from a thick-accented voiceover, such lingering resonance.
7. Hamilton + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
The second collaboration between Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij finds them fully harmonizing their distinct sensibilities into a cohesive whole rather than simply brandishing dormant Walkmen ideas with some Vampire Weekend ornamentations. This is not to say I don't also adore the somewhat uneven Black Hours, just that I Had a Dream That You Were Mine feels thoroughly cooked. Batmanglij's greatest contribution, in addition to curating some of the punchiest drum sounds and most singular piano tones I've heard on an indie rock album in some time, is in pushing Leithauser's next-level voice toward new inflections and flourishes, like the crackly hollering that closes out "Peaceful Morning" or the fatigued chattiness in the verse of "You Ain't That Young Kid." After seeming to issue a mellowing statement of adult contentedness in Heaven, Leithauser now seems re-energized in his relative middle age, blending his usual dewy-eyed romanticism with a rowdiness that I haven't heard in his voice since The Walkmen's live-recorded remake of Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats. This is just an irresistible set of tunes, ideal for blasting at a high volume while driving.
8. Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle
I recently realized that this is technically a 2015 release, but I spent the whole year under the assumption that it was dropped in early 2016, so I don't care. I went through a little Baker phase in the middle of the year where I scoured the web for live videos of her performing (this one's the best if you can ignore the dweeb asking questions), all of which helped cement Sprained Ankle as something pretty special despite its surface resemblances to other stripped-down emo-confessional music. Baker's personal story of drug abuse and homosexuality colliding with abiding Christian faith lends the record a potent specificity that graces the woe-is-me musings with real dramatic dimension, and her impressive vocal range (peaking in the epic "Rejoice") really helps sell it. The songs here are sparse and simple—usually featuring only an acoustic or electrical guitar buttressed by subtle reverbs and delays—but Baker has such an intuitive feel for dynamics that the lack of supplementing instrumentation never feels limiting. As a side note, she's also super cute and erudite.
9. David Bowie: Black Star
Unlike Leonard Cohen's goodbye record this year, which sustains one register of unapologetic directness, David Bowie's own parting gift finds the singer in intimidatingly chameleonic form, vacillating between sounding possessed, desperate, devious, energized and exhausted. The seven-track Black Star contains an incredible waterfall of end-of-life creativity, sounding nothing like the flamboyant glam rock that rocketed Bowie to stardom in the seventies or the highly technical electro he produced in the nineties. I don't claim to know everything about Bowie's progression through the decades (I'm one of those casual listeners who took the national mourning over his death as an opportunity to discover and rediscover his body of work), but I'll be surprised if I stumble upon something in his catalogue that feels this haunted and noirish. The monumental title track, which lays a halting, convoluted beat over a moaning bed of woodwinds and guitar drone before switching gears multiple times through celestial funk and something approaching gloomy hip-hop, is an all-time album opener, and despite some duds (for all its coiled anger and atmospheric freakouts, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" is undone by its tacky central riff), Black Star never loses its capacity to surprise.
10. PJ Harvey: Hope Six Demolition Project
A highlight from this year: emerging from an overwhelming PJ Harvey concert at the Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles with a renewed appreciation for Hope Six Demolition Project, then blasting the buoyant opening track in my car while driving past the still-dispersing crowd. It was on that night that I settled on this latest LP as a special work—not as monumental as Let England Shake per se, but a very worthy companion piece nonetheless. From the day of its release, claims of flippant white privilege dogged the album, which reflects in diaristic fashion on Harvey's experiences in the war-torn Middle East and in Washington D.C. and finds much to lament in the contemporary world's abuses of power and pockets of crippling disenfranchisement ("This is how the world will end," she rightly concedes). As long as Harvey's writing music and not legislation, I expect her to record her thoughts and feelings in an honest way, not to prophesize about paths to prosperity. And for Harvey, for whom restless evolution is an artistic M.O. and whose decades as a performer have involved countless leaps in persona from album to album, an acknowledgment of her own critical distance from abject poverty and inability to directly reverse it feels par for the course. What compels most about Hope Six Demolition Project is the ongoing collision of different styles and aesthetics (hard rock and blues, marching band theatrics and hypnotic incantations, Harvey's ethereal voice and the call-and-responses of macho background singers), which occurs not just on a song-to-song level but within compositions. That a charging rocker like "The Wheel" can segue so fluidly into a placid elegy like "Dollar, Dollar" is indicative of the musical range on offer here.
11. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: S/T
Mark Kozelek's continuing retreat from conventional song structures and melodies, which has occasioned a new spurt of productivity in the last few years, apexes with this uncategorizable collaboration with guitarist Justin Broadrick of Jesu and Godflesh (already present in the Kozelek universe via Mark's description of him as a "hungry great white" on Universal Themes). It's not the most successful entry in Kozelek's ragged back catalogue, but it's certainly the weirdest, metamorphosing as it does from a sludgy black metal album to a vaguely danceable collection of slow-mo electronica about halfway through. The guitar-based pieces are jagged, sonically narrow and a bit of a distraction if you're trying to hear the lyrics, but in the latter mode, Broadrick excels at spinning dark cocoons of sound that function as ideal backdrop for Kozelek's streams of casually profound mundanity, which ebb and flow without following predictable narrative arcs. At some point, I'll need to write at length about whatever it is that moves me so deeply about Kozelek's new lyrical approach, but suffice to say that, with the leap into spoken word and absurdly specific personal anecdote, he's tapping into a level of unfiltered intimacy that reaps huge emotional dividends. That's nowhere more apparent than on album closer "Exodus," a harrowing act of empathy for grieving parents that I needed this year following the death of a close friend.