2016 was a horrible year in countless ways but musically was not one of them. Fortunately a few artists were crafting some of the coolest music to come out in recent memory – amidst a backdrop of political and social strife, faraway warfare and domestic hate atrocities, and a lot of shitty top 40 hits.
Snoop Dogg, DJ Shadow, and Run the Jewels made hip hop as heavy as a metal riff, while Deftones and Meshuggah released some of the most beautiful hard rock music of the past few years. It was really hard to compile this list. So much great stuff didn’t make the cut…
Which is why most will disagree with the selections on this list. To those folks I say make your own goddam list. I don’t believe in trying to “objectively” tell readers what the “best” art is. Nor do I believe that making a list of my personal, selfish favorites is completely useless. Largely, profoundly useless no doubt – but completely useless? Surely someone out there shares my musical taste on at least one of these picks. Perhaps it’s a band they’ve never heard and it becomes a new favorite. To that reader I say cheers and for the rest who have an opinion about my list, I send a hearty “Fuck you!” and a happy new year.
Firstly, I want to acknowledge a few great works of art that just didn’t match my taste *as much* as the things that made the list. Still amazing, top of the year albums that I jam on regularly, but just not aligning as much with what I’ve been enjoying lately.
That said, I’d like to mention:
- Adrian Younge – Something About April II
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
- STRFKR – Being No One, Going Nowhere
- Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
- The Jezabels – Synthia
- Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow
#10 Swans The Glowing Man
With the pensive and smoldering The Glowing Man, longtime experimental rockers Swans conclude this era with their current lineup. Much like the title track the entire album is an intense, building, hypnotic grating on the soul that hurts so good. It’s an aesthetic Swans’ latest incarnation has been quite good at. There are some long ones on here, with five out of eight tracks longer than ten minutes – some almost 30. It takes the form of double disc for physical copies.
For those with the patience and inclination to enjoy the deep drone bits, reward waits in the form of true musical gems. The songwriting is there indeed, and it’s delightful. There are not many hooks in Swans, especially not the new stuff, but the melodic forms they sculpt add vital flavor to the mix. Meanwhile, leader Michael Gira’s band plays arrangements sounding more serious than a murder. Time and again they execute dynamic revelations moving the mood and energy along with purpose.
The Glowing Man is one of the great musical statements of 2016. It’s not for those looking for hooks instant gratification. It’s a weird, dark, spacious album.
#9 Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 3
Run the Jewels 3 starts with pure fire and doesn’t stop. El P is one of the most hard hitting producers of all time as evidenced on pretty much every track here. Guitars stab and wail, hard hitting drums groove at full stride, and gritty synthesizers pulsate. The bass is grinding and imparts a foreboding heaviness to their overall sound. Run the Jewels gives hip hop the sonic intensity of a live rock show.
Killer Mike and El P’s flows have developed even more with each other since their outstanding sophomore effort. Their lyrics are reminiscent as always of a more humorous Zack De La Rocha, with whom they’ve worked. They deliver poignant messages in a way that elicits chuckles as well as deep thought. Run the Jewels could and should be hailed as one of hip hop’s top current talents.
#8 Meshuggah Violent Sleep of Reason
It should come as no surprise I like Meshuggah. I’m kind of a heavy music guy but I’m picky about it. Anything that sounds too horns-in-the-air or posturing needs to be damn good to make me a fan. Meshuggah can clearly be considered a metal band but only insofar as Tool can be. Violent Sleep of Reason is a crushing practice in very loud art-making.
From the tumbling intro on “Clockworks,” it just gets more visceral and brutal. The abstract punches of “Nonstrum” come in grooves that both perplex and cause persistent foot tapping. Every album is everything good about Meshuggah so there’s not much more to say here other than it’s a hell of a ride as usual.
#7 Crystal Castles Amnesty (I)
One of the beautiful things about the new Crystal Castles is that after the departure of singer Alice Glass, the rebooted duo doesn’t force a stylistic change or shift awkwardly. Their trademark dirty synth blasts and bizarro pop composition still trips me out and breaks my heart just like before. Ethan Kath is still making great stuff, and new singer Edith Frances is a perfect replacement for Glass.
The album is haunting, catchy, and completely out there. Eerie digital sounds texture amazing songs like the sentimental “Char” and “Chloroform” sounds like the most beautiful haunted mansion ever. The intensity of emotion Crystal Castles is able to evoke from such a grungy platform speaks volumes to their resilience in the face of lineup change, and their confidence moving forward.
#6 Snoop Dogg Coolaid
The opening of Snoop Dogg’s Coolaid is a nod to modern rap styles, but to me, the real start of the album is the second track. After the introduction, Snoop Dogg lays it down with “Coolaid Man,” spitting witty rhymes over a slick, dark beat. The effect is a stern musical beatdown that only a rap legend like Snoop can deliver. His cadence and rhythm is classic and as clever as ever.
The music production is stimulating, and the songwriting doesn’t sound cheesy or half baked like on other recent efforts. In fact, Snoop Dogg sounds sinister on this one, not afraid to talk some serious shit with style and class. It harkens back to his early material on occasions with old school California synth lines and hip hop drums that echo the best of that era. It doesn’t sound dated though which is a hard feat for veteran artists lately. It sounds more like Snoop Dogg is progressing and building on his music’s murkier side.
#5 Weezer Weezer
Fuck all that new horse shit at the top of the charts. Weezer rolled up in 2016 with a recovered standard of quality and in turn created the greatest pop music of the year hands down. Equal parts moving, quirky, and catchy as hell, the band proves that it can still operate at top form when it wants to.
Their classic sound is intact but they’ve progressed since their last on par album Make Believe. It’s as if they needed to purge a few unfortunate rap and electro-pop forays from their system before making another masterpiece. That and get a bunch of mediocre songs out of the way.
I’ve got a theory that some bands have “the meeting.” They convene over a high-end lunch and unanimously agree to stop giving a fuck about songwriting efforts, resigned to lean lazily upon success until their career’s end. I’m ashamed to say for a short time I considered Weezer one of those bands.
But every song here is awesome. Pinkerton era B-sides awesome…ok maybe not Pinkerton era B-sides awesome but damn close! They’ve finally made the great piece of art I’ve craved from them since I was 16.
#4 DJ Shadow The Mountain Will Fall
Snoop Dogg and Run the Jewels made awesome rap in 2016 (Run the Jewels actually contributed to “Nobody Speak” on DJ Shadow’s album) while DJ Shadow took the hip hop style and created more of a dream than an LP. It’s a collage of music – some with rap over it and some instrumental.
Enjoyed best with headphones and a heady spliff, this moody collection takes listeners on a trip filled with trap hi hats and modulated, distorted, and edgy flashes of organic instrumentation. DJ Shadow’s trademark old fashioned samples are present throughout the album like in the surreal repetitive instructions of “Mambo” and the epic introduction of the opening title track. “Ashes to Oceans” (featuring trumpeter Matthew Halsall) also shows that talented musicians can fill the place of samples and make for an incredible highlight.
Ever since Endtroducing…, DJ Shadow has kept people guessing what his next move was but it would rarely disappoint and this time it was downright badass.
#3 Radiohead Moon Shaped Pool
A lot of hate has been thrown Radiohead’s way lately for some reason. I’m not sure why. They write forward thinking music that stands firmly as beautiful art to behold. They’re not afraid of trying new things and sure, that can sometimes lead to an “only decent” album or two (looking at you, King of Limbs). But anyone slinging the words “pretentious” or “self-indulgent” and trying to imply how someone should make their art, is a cowardly scumbag worthy of a shameful public death.
A Moon Shaped Pool is gorgeous and would serve as a soundtrack to the execution.
Most of the album is downtempo but a swirl of bewitching melodies throughout makes one forget about that. The opening track and lead single, Burn the Witch, is one of the most uptempo pieces and it loses no loftiness or atmosphere for it. At the other end of the spectrum, the piano-based soundscape of “Daydreaming” serves as the canvas for one of the most enchanting slow songs on the album. Each step along the way has a charm and depth alluring listeners to get lost in the arrangement.
#2 Deftones Gore
The public jury is divided on Gore from what I understand (aka from what I see in YouTube comments) but I’m not the public so they can eat shit. The album is great straight up. After all the press coverage of internal strife about songwriting, heaviness, and yadda yadda, the end result in my opinion is fresh and even experimental. Why experimental? Well, they did justice to the concept of taking “heavy music” and pursuing it down avenues not often seen in that style.
It took a few listens to sink in but when it did I was glad I sat down for the third and fourth spins. It grew on me and became one of my favorites.
Deftones play here with flavors seldom heard on past releases – like bluesy guitar lines and even more outside-the-box melodic flourishes than before. Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains even contributes a guitar solo on “Phantom Bride.” They’re taking their music to new places and that can test fans’ minds and ears but I was ready for it. A few jaw dropping standouts were “Hearts/Wires” and “Rubicon,” one of the greatest album closers I’ve ever heard.
#1 Warpaint Heads Up
I’ll admit I bought this after hearing just two songs because Warpaint is awesome and I’ve loved everything they’ve done. Unsurprisingly this effort is fantastic as well. It’s their least upbeat work yet despite the disco inspired single, “New Song.” The rest of the album is at the same time serious, whimsical, and indulgent in the best way.
Personally it’s so far the most challenging too, meaning that for whatever reason some of these melodies and arrangements are unfamiliar and new to me. It took me repeated listens to get used to them – in order to fully grasp the sheer quality on display. This “growing on me” factor is almost never a bad thing and like with the Deftones, Swans, and Radiohead this year…patience is worth it and then some.