Lists, Music, The Revue, Year-End Lists — December 22, 2016 at 4:00 am

Favorite 50 Albums of 2016 – Part 4

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The countdown continues with our Favorite 50 Albums of 2016 – Part 4. The ten albums featured include a spellbinding combination of jazz, soul, and R&B; a trip through 19th Century Western Australia; mandolin folk-rock; the year’s most emotional LP; and the return of one of music’s great bands. The previous 30 albums can be reviewed in Parts 1, 2, and 3.

 

Lucy Dacus – No Burden (Egghunt Records/Matador Records)

One of the year’s best records was so nice it was released twice! Lucy Dacus originally released No Burden in February via Egghunt Records, and from first listen it was undeniable that the Richmond, Virginia resident was the real deal. Not long after the initial release, it was announced Matador Records would reissue No Burden in September.

It’s so hard to point out one thing Dacus does better than anything else, as she does everything phenomenally well on No Burden. Her voice is unbelievably strong. Her lyrics are smart, witty, honest, and relatable. The opening track, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”, is a testament to Dacus’ skills. The instrumentals fit the mood of each song incredibly, from the build of “Troublemaker Doppelganger” to much slower tracks like “Direct Address”.  Oh yeah, and Dacus rocks hard too, such as the anthemic “Strange Torpedos”. When she and her band fire on all cylinders, “Map on a Wall” happens, which is an incredible centerpiece for an album that truly stands out this year. ~~ Rich

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Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math (ATO Records)

As the world gushes over Beyoncé’s Lemonade as the album about love and cheating souls, Margaret Glaspy offered the first (and even better) take on these well-covered themes. Emotions and Math, however, is not the typical, gushy love record nor “you’re-the-cheating-type” compilation. At the heart of this gritty blues-rock LP is a strong, fiery, independent woman, who doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her and simultaneously she won’t be doing the same.

Take your hands off of me. There’s nothing wrong with me,” sings Glaspy on “Situation”, a no-nonsense, antithesis to the usual, melodramatic love song. She adds, “I don’t like sympathy. Don’t you dare pity me because you don’t know my situation. We’ve had at most one conversation, so don’t come out of the blue and tell me what to do.” This defiance, confidence, and wit are echoed throughout the album. “You & I” features Liz Phair-esque lyricism; “Memory Street” is a gritty, fuck-off number; and the title track staggers the line of regret and moving forward. The soulful rocker, “No Matter Who”, meanwhile, injects some optimism with Glaspy channeling her inner Bonnie Raitt.

But as we look back at Emotions and Math, it is more than just an album about love, heartbreak, and moving on. It is a reflection of the human spirit and that it can be fiery, strong, and resilient. In other words, Glaspy has given us the perfect album for any moment, especially during these uncertain times.  ~~ Ben

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Marlon Williams – Marlon Williams (Dead Oceans/Caroline Australia/Universal Music NZ)

Marlon Williams personifies the term, “self-made man”. For years, the New Zealand native traveled across his home country and later Australia, playing whatever gig he could. With his unique, expressive voice, he became an underground legend with the likes of Rolling Stone Australia and The New Zealand Herald championing his name. This year, the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes even did a full feature of the singer-songwriter. All this and Williams had yet to release a full-length album until this year.

His self-titled album is a work of genius. It’s actually more than a great album, but a masterful piece of literature. At first listen, Marlon Williams comes across as a Quentin Tarantino movie, and many ways this concept album is. The entire compilation revolves around the lives of people living in a rural setting (Western Australia possibly) during the gold rush of the late 19th Century and the music matches the era, as Williams channels the likes of Hank Williams, Jr., Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Andrew Bird, and even opera star Colm Wilkinson.

The album busts out like a stagecoach fleeing from a group of bandits with the wild, fast-paced country number, “Hello Miss Lonesome” and ebbs to a traditional country tune in “After All”. The orchestral pop of “I’m Lost Without You” and the theatrical “When I Was a Young Girl” demonstrate the versatility of this talented singer-songwriter and artist. Marlon Williams is unlike anything you will hear this year or even beyond, a dazzling effort by a truly remarkable and unique artist. ~~ Zac & Ben

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Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Polydor)

The title of British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka‘s sophomore album summarizes 2016 in just two words: LOVE & HATE. We love the music these artists made yet we hate the legends that were taken away. “Cold Little Heart” is the sprawling, 10-minute opener that sets the tone for the album with a bluesy, five-minute instrumental intro. Kiwanuka seems to want the music to speak long before he does. But once he does, with tracks like “Black Man in a White World“, you cannot help but feel emboldened by the album’s message.

He may be a black man in a white world, yet his lyrics (“I’ve found peace but I’m not glad / I’m not angry and I’m not mad”) reflect a pragmatic realism, not anger. As one song flows into the next, his calmness becomes more evident. Even the mellower songs (“Falling” and “I’ll Never Love”) reinforce the peace he projects. The retro-soul of “One More Night” and “Rule the World” show Kiwanuka’s talents as a singer, but the standout is the title track. The lyrics “You can’t take me down / you can’t break me down” are the year’s best lines. Combined with the stirring violins and a bouncing bass line from producer Danger Mouse, this song is the anthem for 2016. It’s hard to suppress chills when he sings “Give me something wonderful” in unison with children on the chorus. Indeed, he has given us something wonderful with Love & Hate. It’s only his second full-length effort, but it’s one of the year’s best. ~~ Hollie

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Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)

This has been the year of vocal manipulation. From rap to mainstream pop to art-rock, people have been experimenting with all sorts of studio tricks to make their voices sound, well, not like their voices. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. John Lennon hated how his voice sounded and famously asked George Martin if he would use some studio magic to “smother it in tomato ketchup.” On Puberty 2, Mitski Mitsuki makes extensive use of the old “tomato ketchup.” Stuttering tremolo or syrupy amp-style distortion, what makes all the variation and obfuscation worth it is the lyric content and the strength of Mitsuki’s singing.

Confessional, personal lyrics:

Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me
But I do, I think I do
And you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl

What is really interesting to think about when listening to Puberty 2 is how Mitsuki matches her vocal delivery with the concepts at play in the lyrics. Her voice on its own is gorgeous, open, and traditional. It’s like the voice of a “best American girl.” The fuzzed, abused textures it takes on illustrate the suffering and confusion we inflict on non-male children. No matter how perfect, how all-American on the inside, what manages to strangle through is the sound of someone growing up in a world with the decks stacked against her doing her best to reflect the love and confusion a year like 2016 brought. ~~ Nick

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Mothers – When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired (Grand Jury Music)

I don’t want your kind words / I want your ghost inside a thimble / I woke up feeling mutilated / And I made my way best I can to my place / I made my way best I can to my place.

These lines from “Lockjaw” are just a microcosm of the brilliant songwriting found on Mothers‘ incredible debut album, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired. Built around the captivating vocals of Kristine Leschper, Mothers’ music is personal and vulnerable. It is at times emotionally crippling and often unexpectedly euphoric as they tell tales of heartbreak, loneliness, abandonment, and separation. And for all the wonder in their lyrical prowess, they are also masterful musicians.

The fleeting journey is gripping and full of surprises, where a song takes an unexpected turn from a calm melody to a tidal wave of sound, such as the climatic “Accessory Cloud,” the gritty “Copper Mines,” and the knee-buckling “Burden of Proof.” However, it is on the exhilarating “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t” and the introspective, soul-searching “Paradise At Last” that Mothers’ genius shines through, as the songwriting and music come together beautifully to form two masterpieces. The entire LP, for that matter, is a remarkable achievement. It is one of the year’s emotional powerhouses, where its stories require your undivided attention. By a band who requires our undivided attention. ~~ Ben

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Nap Eyes – Thought Rock Fish Scale (Paradise of Bachelors/You’ve Changed Records)

In an time when most young people are trying to emulate Beyoncé, Coldplay, Maroon 5, One Direction, or Taylor Swift, it is refreshing to come across a band who cite The Velvet Underground, The Doors, and other classic rock bands as influences. Unfortunately, such bands do not catch the attention of radio stations like their predecessors do. That’s the broader mainstream’s loss for missing out on albums that are cool, honest, and real like Nap Eyes‘ terrific sophomore LP, Thought Rock Fish Scale.

The record seeps with the smokey coolness of Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, etc. , “Mixer” and “Stargazer” possess the deadpan emotion of Reed’s riveting storytelling while “Roll It” is an old-fashion, classic-rock anthem. But the quartet from Halifax are not just following the lead of legendary rockers; they’re also trailblazing their own path and creating their version of “Canadiana”. The mood-shifting “Click Clack” takes a shot at the isolation and loneliness experienced in a small town, where people seem to be suspended in time. “Lion in Chains” similarly focuses on life in rural Nova Scotia and that feeling of entrapment.

If Thought Rock Fish Scale was released four decades ago, it would be chart-topping hit. Instead, it is an album that largely has flown under the radar. When we look back at this year in Canadian music, people will begin to realize the achievement Nap Eyes created. This is an album that should be shared with and heard by everyone, not just today but for years to come to remind of us the how great music can be. ~~ Ben

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)

For over four decades, Nick Cave has been the person we turned to when we needed a moment to escape. He was the one artist who knew our darkest secrets and painful moments, and who gave us truth. He was our bedrock, the one musician whose songs would allow us to unleash our anger and pour out our emotions. Never did we expect “The Prince of Darkness” to be the one who would be seeking solace and looking to us to be the outlet. His 16th album with the Bed Seeds, Skeleton Tree reveals a side of Cave never heard nor seen before. The songwriter, the actor, the author, the poet, and the playwright have been set aside, and in their place is a man who has suffered much personal loss.

Cave’s loss is well documented, and he channeled his emotions into re-writing much of Skeleton Tree. The album is dark, emotional, and undeniably brilliant. Cave’s remarkable storytelling still shines through on tracks such as “Rings of Saturn” and “Magneto.” However, the record revolves around four songs where a grieving father is calling out in memory of a son tragically taken away too soon – the spine-tingling “Jesus Alone,” the hymnal “Distant Sky,” the poetic “Skeleton Tree,” and the soul-crushing centerpiece, “I Need You”. No other album this year can match the emotional impact of Skeleton Tree nor has bring us so intimately close to its artist. While we cannot remotely comprehend Cave’s thoughts and feelings, we are forever grateful that he let us share his pain and grief. Hopefully, we, for once, were his bedrock. ~~ Ben

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Oh Pep! – Stadium Cake (Dualtone Records)

Many outlets characterized Oh Pep!’s debut album as “poppy” or “poppier” than their previous three EPs, which had set a precedent for skilled songwriting with a bluegrass/folk/pop vibe. But what the adjective “poppy” glosses over is how complex the writing is on Stadium Cake. The intro to the first song on the album, “Bushwick”, is a bright, snappy mandolin scratch from Pepita Emmerichs (Pep), one of the coolest people in a scene full of cool people. But the song dives into heavy themes and the album stays heavy as it continues.

Love is pain. Following your dreams is pain. But those are also two of the most exhilarating experiences in life. Olivia Hally and Emmerichs sing with a gravity belying their age and the stupid “poppy” label given. Three tracks, “Tea, Milk, and Honey,” “Only Everyone,” and “The Situation” form an anchoring triptych in the middle of the album. Those three songs have a bit of everything Oh Pep! is inside them. Start there and work your way around in this engrossing debut album from another great act coming from Down Under. ~~ Nick

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Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings)

While our focus here at The Revue is on emerging artists, we also embrace quality work from superstars. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not familiar with Radiohead and their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. This LP is, quite simply, a majestic work of art.

Thom Yorke is at his most introspective here with 11 coolly melancholic, including three previously unreleased tracks. The inclusion of “True Love Waits”, a song written some 20+ years ago, along with “Burn the Witch” and “Present Tense” is a sign of Radiohead’s perfectionistic commitment to their art. Instead of including them on Kid A or King of Limbs, Yorke waited until the songs had aged to perfection. And despite having taken a break following the 2012 promotion of King of Limbs, the chemistry of all five members is equally impeccable. Borne of emotional trials that shaped its elegant, moody soundscapes, A Moon Shaped Pool may just be Radiohead’s finest work to date. ~~ Hollie

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