AUX's favourite albums of 2016

by Tyler Munro

December 30, 2016






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What was your favourite album of the year? Here's ours.

This is the part of a website’s year end coverage that usually comes with a poignant, rambling introduction. It’s where I, as editor, ruminate on our listening habits with some wrought analogy and, this year, the requisite “world is a garbage fire” sentiment tacked on. Has prestige TV changed how we consume music? Is genre agnosticism a reflection of PC culture? Are we all just cucks?

But ultimately – fuck it, who cares. The idea, this year, was simple – we asked some of our favourite freelancers to pick their favourite album of the year, then say why. Does that make it the most definitive list? Unlikely. Like, where’s A Tribe Called Quest? Vektor? Regardless, it’s our list, and, I think, a pretty great reflection of the diverse talent pool we’re swimming in right now. Pop? Country? Whatever vaporwave is? We’ve got it.

So here it is, our favourite albums of the year, unranked, and, yeah, with some omissions (but fuck it, pobody’s nerfect).

Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

For women in the modern world, no word in the English language is pregnant with a distinct power as “bitch.” Conversely employed to attack feminine agency or to celebrate it, it’s a word that can subjugate or empower all the same. Haunted by power and all its trappings, on Blood Bitch, Oslo writer/musician Jenny Hval explodes that concept over a series of conceptually fragmented, lyrically abstract incantations inspired by menstruation, horror, exploitation movies, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the gaze of capitalism, (re)production, sexual desire, and ritualistic love that enchant and disturb all the same – like an ornate, magical collage of diary scraps and Polaroids that could line a teen’s locker or a vampire’s coffin, humour and dramatic flair intact. Delivered over atmospheric synths and rhythmic pulses that convey a feverish, eternal restlessness, it’s a theatrical, potent, and immeasurably important study of the female voice and body – its orientation, and its disorientation. (Tom Beedham)

Rihanna – -Anti

There’s always been an air of edginess to Rihanna that didn’t quite carry over to her records. It was her collaborators that kept her fresh, providing her with a string of hits that made her the superstar she is. Anti saw Rihanna cash in this success to deliver a masterpiece that balances the confidence, crassness, and downright beauty we’ve come to expect from her. Still working with a revolving door of blockbuster producers at every turn, Rihanna stamps her tracks with stirring, hooky vocal performances. Even though the album’s singles – dream pop-tinged “Kiss It Better,” Sail Away Riddim update “Work,” minimalist summer anthem “Needed Me,” and torch song “Love On The Brain” – are all cut from different cloths, they are strung together by gorgeously smooth ad-libs, small mmms, oohs, and aahs that breathe life into each undeniable compositions.

Alongside the singles, the album is stacked with wall-to-wall stand-out tracks, most leaning on Rihanna’s vocal stylings to maintain cohesiveness. What comes through most obviously is that when it comes to her music, Rihanna’s not ready to rest on her laurels; she’s going to work with the best talent she can find and push them, and herself, to meticulously create the best, most creative (but still accessible) music she’s can. At this point, she’s taking control of her own legend, and it’s clear that she knows where she wants it to go. Anti doesn’t only elevate and add dimension to Rihanna’s catalog and her potential as a musician moving forward, it does the same for pop music as a whole. (Chayne Japal)

Andy Shauf – The Party

Andy Shauf is many things. He’s a Canadian. He’s a singer. He’s a songwriter. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He’s a producer. And he is all of these things and more on his third full-length, this year’s charming, depressing, magical collection of tales called The Party.

Shauf is well-known for being authoritarian with his music, but that’s not a bad thing; he’s one of the few truly independent artists left. What you hear is one person’s vision, much like a painter. He writes every note for every instrument on his records, and when recording, he also performs 95% of it. It’s an impressive operation in itself, but the melodic imagination and cornucopian arrangements make his songs living characters themselves, breathing beer and cigarettes and anxiety into your ear.

His lyrics are perhaps the least present feature on the record, purely by virtue of the mix keeping his voice in line with the instruments, and you’d probably have to look them up to really understand his slow drawl. What you’d find are open, giving, malleable narratives, that seem to offer for the listener to dig for and ascribe meaning, rather than be prescriptive and unambiguous.

Many Canadian artists put out dynamite records this year. None of them did what Shauf did; create an album where each song is itself a breathing biosystem, clicked into perfect-place on a record with not a second of filler. (Luke Ottenhof)

Supermoon – Playland

The first time I saw Supermoon was at Plan B in Moncton, New Brunswick, this summer. They played to a fairly sparse room, but I was standing there, holding a gin and tonic, my mouth agape for their entire set.

The band is completely and totally hypnotic, both live and on their 2016 album Playland, released as a double 7” this year. I honestly think this album hit me at the perfect time. With the heat and delirium of the summer, the sheer gorgeousness of this record seemed like a shimmery fever dream to me. I still frequently wonder if I’m still dreaming when I listen to it.

With the silvery, slithering basslines, and the sparkly, chimey guitars, the whole record crawls with a sort of preternatural unease. There’s an unspeakable beauty in the earnestness and sadness of this record, and it’s kept me company on many a long night this year. (Nicolas Laugher)

Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool

Around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead was following the golden path toward Biggest Band In The World status and a surefire, U2-esque late career guarantee of packed arenas and chart-topping singles, provided they simply continued more or less what they were doing. Thankfully for us all, they chose the road less traveled and while this may have saved us the embarrassing sight of a middle-aged Thom Yorke shaking his ass at a Super Bowl halftime show, it ultimately caused many of their later releases to have much less of an impact on broader pop culture.

Their 2016 release A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band employing everything they’ve learned over their now-legendary career to produce a work that reaches a new level of vitality and significance. Almost as though they sensed the impending darkness descending and instinctively responded with a work that contains equal measures of the doom, gloom, hope, strength and fearlessness that we’re all going to need to survive our new world order. Put on some highlights of election night with the sound off and “Ful Stop” playing at full volume and listen to Yorke sadly whisper “you really messed up everything” and you’ll know what I mean. (Rob Rousseau)

Blank Banshee – MEGA

This October, after a three-year absence from the music scene, mysterious, faceless Canadian producer/musician Blank Banshee finally came back with an incredible new album and amazingly valuable contribution to vaporwave music. This album is his best work yet, more textured and layered than anything he had made before, and yet still showing the best of classic, weird, glitchy Blank Banshee flow. MEGA is more accessible than the other Blank Banshee records, but would still resonate with a long-term fan or previous listener of vaporwave. Any lover of electronic and vapor-based music in general would be into this beast of a record, with standout tracks “My Machine,” “Gunshots,” and “Ecco Chamber” resonating particularly deeply within the tracklist. Well-layered vocal samples complete MEGA and make it stand out from the rest of his discography. Truly Blank Banshee’s best work, I highly recommend at least taking a short listen. (Sofie Mikhaylova)

FEWS – Means

FEWS’ guitar noise staggers through rock, indie rock and post-punk territories, without nesting too much in any one. On Means, their debut album released earlier in 2016, the London-based, Scottish band, remedies with a foggy mix of melodic riffs and psych-percussion work—guitar haze. It’s not music that’s going to bore you; it’s an album that, like a flask, can go anywhere you it need to go to be sipped. Their brooding sound was quietly introduced (in a more popularized sense) in 2015 with “ILL,” the final track on the album, which like the record, was produced by Dan Casey (Bat For Lashes, Bloc Party, TOY). Means sticks to a guitar-laden template with a healthy dose of subtly romanticized lyrics, deadpanned by guitarist-singer, Frederick Rundqvist. In addition to their own headlining UK tour this year, FEWS supported the Pixies on some of their European tour dates, which should be an indication of the emerging band’s draw. (Kathryn Kyte)

Skepta – Konnichiwa

“This ain’t a culture, this is my religion”

The Mercury Prize-winning culmination of grime’s ascendance from the genre’s kingpin might not be as rarified in its artistic vision as some other highly-rated releases this year, but it’s all the more vital for that. Even putting aside Joseph Junior Adenuga’s decade-long reign as the head of movement, and ignoring the slew of features from a murderer’s row of grime royalty, Konnichiwa is the still the concentrated essence of an entire genre, and it comes at the perfect moment: at the apex of grime’s long-building but finally cresting global wave. You don’t need to hear Drake’s affected patois at the beginning of “Shutdown,” or Pharrell’s trademark minimal percussion on “Numbers,” or to see a Stormzy show in Tokyo to realize this is the time; that finally, 13 years after Boy in da Corner first made a few dents in consciousnesses outside of pirate radio stations and council estates, it’s finally grime’s moment, and there’s no one more fitting to bring it all home than Skepta. (Jeremy Mersereau)

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson is so often bogged down by elitist politicking, often despite his best efforts, that what matters most gets buried beneath the headline: More than the saviour of “true country,” Sturgill Simpson is, plainly put, incredibly fucking talented. His most dynamic album yet, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth further muddies the Waylon-waters that defined the narrative, dressing a long-letter to his son up with a booming, bouncy horn section and a Nirvana cover that would make Kurt Cobain proud. The resulting effort is a poignant collection of meaningful songs with hooks that earn the record’s place at the Grammys next to Justin Bieber, Adele, et al, but with the kind of road-worn – yes authenticity – that’s had critics raving about him since he was the king turd of shit mountain. But now, years later, he’s traded that crown in for the credit he’s deserved all along.

Simpson is not a martyr – he’s a songwriter. And A Sailor’s Guide to Earth proves that he’s one of the best around. (Tyler Munro)

Astronoid – Air

Astronoid’s Air is the kind of album that you can pretty much bet money on the band will never be able to replicate, nor would you want them to. It’s somewhat reminiscent of another stellar debut LP – Dredg’s Leitmotif, released almost 20 years ago. Like Air, Leitmotif was such an intensely unique offering of heavy music that pretty much every listener’s first reaction was “Wait – what the fuck? Is this real?”

Trying to classify Air is an exercise in futility. While the “if Band X had a baby with Band Y” bullshit is easy to give into, I’d just go with statement that the album is one of the most original and imaginative pieces of heavy music released in 2016 and might be, in my opinion, the best collection of melodic extreme metal I’ve ever heard. Why? Because these tunes (which core members Brett Boland and Daniel Schwartz have given the very apt label ‘dream thrash’) manage to reach the very edges of extreme both in terms of heaviness and melodicism – and somehow blend the two perfectly for a simultaneously dreamlike and powerful listening experience the likes of which I can’t say I’ve ever heard – at least not across the breadth of an entire album. If you like super pretty shit, and you like hella heavy shit, this will be your new favourite album. (Richard Howard)

PUP – The Dream is Over

“If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” opens this outstanding sophomore effort by offering a glimpse into road warrior life. Vocalist Stefan Babcock starts out annoyed: hating guts, feeling ill, wanting to vomit. It’s small, it’s petty, it’s usual. Then it escalates. “You think you’re so original,” he spits. “Can’t wait for your funeral.” It’s passive-aggressive, it’s real. So too is the anguish Babcock spits on “Sleep in the Heat” (a love song/eulogy for his beloved chameleon Norman) and the anxiety from “Doubts” exemplified by perhaps the best lyrics on the whole record:

I haven’t felt quite like myself for months on end /
I spend more nights on the floor than in my own bed /
And I never see my family or my friends anymore /
And I write more apologies than metaphors

The Dream Is Over sounds like a mosh pit feels, knocking you around with crushing guitar work and picking you up with heroic gang vocals. It also messes with tempo and tone to wonderful effect. When it flies (“DVP”), it’s frenetic, and you’re holding on for dear life; when it slows down (“The Coast,” “Pine Point”) everything gets dark and unsettling, and you’re left waiting for the sky to fall. Autobiographical and confessional without being mawkish, and possessing an understated kind of character, The Dream Is Over is the rare kind of record you immediately know will age well. (Dave Jaffer)

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

I can remember the exact moment that I heard Bon Iver for the first time. It was in late 2007; my brother put For Emma, Forever Ago on as we played that year’s edition of Madden. Painfully honest lyrics and sensible instrumental composition had me hooked. My love for the music of Justin Vernon continued to grow with the release of Bon Iver’s self-titled album in 2011. Move forward a couple of years and I found myself convinced that Vernon was done making music for Bon Iver or Volcano Choir. Then came Eaux Claires 2015, a music festival put on by Vernon in his hometown of Eaux Claires, Vermont, where he and his band performed their first new material in five years (an early version of “666 T” and a yet-to-be-released song.) From the first electronic note of “666 ʇ” I knew that Bon Iver was about to give us something new and experimental. 22, A Million is quite different, as it sheds much of the band’s twangy folk vibe and replaces it with a warm and fuzzy electronic sound. The new style is created majorly using a brand-new contraption called a “Messina,” named for Chris Messina, a close friend of Vernon’s who created the new instrument, which is displayed best in “715 – CRΣΣKS.” While unlike the band’s previous two albums, 22, A Million retains their lyrical honesty. (Luke Williams)

David Bowie – Blackstar

On January 10, 2016, David Bowie passed away. Blackstar, his final album, was released just two days prior, on his 69th birthday.

The loss of Bowie shook the world to its core. After all, the man who fell to earth was no mere mortal. He was a futurist, a visionary, an icon, a voice. Blackstar would be his parting gift, one that continues to reveal hidden surprises and secrets, from messages in its cryptic lyrics to starry skies in the record’s gatefold that glitter when exposed to sunlight. This perpetual discovery — which also lends itself to every musical phrase on the album — only reinstates Bowie’s enduring genius.

On “Lazarus,” he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

“Look up here, man, I’m in danger.”

The urgency in Bowie’s voice is heart-wrenching. Avant-garde, jazzy melodies coupled with haunting atmospherics contribute to a simultaneously bold, beautiful, and difficult narrative that stretches throughout the length of the album’s six tracks; musically, and lyrically, peeking into mind of a visionary that acknowledges that he might not see the light for much longer.

But, like he says on Blackstar’s closing track, “I can’t give everything away.”

“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you,” he promises, on “Dollar Days.”

Because, when it comes to Bowie, there’s always more to realize, more to understand. If Blackstar tells us anything, it’s that we can never really lose him. That’s the real gift. The starman is just waiting in the sky.  (Yasmine Shemesh)

Tags: Music, Featured, Andy Shauf, Astronoid, Best of 2016, Blank Banshee, bon iver, David Bowie, Fews, Jenny Hval, PUP, Radiohead, Rihanna, Skepta, Supermoon






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