The 10 Best Albums of 2016 (So Far)

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.

So let’s dive in:

10. Gag Order – Vainhein

Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.

9. Collect – 18+

18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.

8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne

Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.

7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.

6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler

Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.

Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.

5. Blackstar – David Bowie

I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.

Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.

4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.

3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu

This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.

Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.

2. Not to Disappear – Daughter

Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.

1. Puberty 2 – Mitski

She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.

“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”

Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?

These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.

Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?

“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.

I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.

I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”

Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.

Feature image comes from Impose Magazine.

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