Most years have a sanity preserving mix of ups to accompany the downs but, from the very start, this year seemed determined to highlight the downs and then drive us deeper and deeper into the depths of the downs until we all gave up and spent the last couple of months talking exclusively about how bad 2016 was. The year started with the release of David Bowie’s 25th studio album and immediately followed with the artist’s passing. While the year would go on to kick us all in our collective teeth for the next twelve months, we did as we always do, and took refuge in great music.
Fittingly, Bowie’s Blackstar album tops the list this year and it was the number one choice by a wide margin. Keeping with the theme, we also have Leonard Cohen making the list, who died in November (the day before election day, as if he knew what was up) and A Tribe Called Quest who released their first studio album in 18 years, completing the album amidst the passing of Phife Dawg. It speaks to the talent of these artists to produce great work even as they come face to face with their own mortality.
Well, this list is getting off to a fun start! Let’s shift focus to the positive.
First, 2016 is nearly over and I am fairly confident there will never be another 2016 again. I’m not a calendar scientist or anything, but I’ve been alive for 30 years (give or take almost another 10 years) and I don’t remember a single one of those years repeating.
Second, and more importantly, this list offers an eclectic mix of engaging tunes unlike any other. This list truly reflects the diaspora of weirdos and ne’er-do-wells who frequent and contribute to Team Unwinnable. From Childish Gambino’s soulful sophomore effort to Beyonce’s astonishing Lemonade album/movie to whatever it is that Perturbator does, there is something for everyone on this top ten list.
– Ed Coleman
Listen to the Unwinnable Best Must of 2016 Maxi-Playlist
(includes every album nominated – all 1,423 songs worth)
Best Portent for the End Time (Best of Runner-up): Fuck Everyone and Run, by Marillion
It seems strangely appropriate for me to have seen Marillion last on Election Night. As I left the Playstation Theater for what was the final gig of their North American tour, their manager warned me not to look at the news reports on ABC’s marquees as I left. I thought she was being “cheeky,” as the Brits say.
The bulk of this album was written in 2015. Well before Brexit, well before the political rise of Donald Trump and well before the grim sense of foreboding that both events brought. And yet, the band saw so much of this coming, simply in the way the UK and others treated refugees from Syria, the rise of Russian oligarchs, or the feeling of paranoia that gripped a number of people over the last two years. It’s telling that there are large chunks of “The New Kings” that could have been written today: “Well do you remember a time when you thought you belonged to something more than you? A country that cared for you? A national anthem you could sing without feeling used or ashamed? You poor sods have only yourselves to blame. On your knees, peasant. You’re living for the New King.” That verse alone seems to have predicted everything from Trump and Brexit to Colin Kaepernick choosing to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.
The album makes for a grim, yet powerful marker for 2016, but leaves little hope for the future. I’d imagine a lot of us understand that feeling.
– Don Becker
Lemonade, by Beyoncé
How do you turn your name into the default word to describe “a surprise immediate album/video launch?” Go back in time and beat Beyoncé to it.
Lemonade does not reach such a high point on this list in the vacuum of its song content alone, though if you only know this album on your headphones, you’re not hurting for quality. Beyoncé cements herself as a songwriting monster here, and “Hold Up” in particular slays by letting sticky lucre between her words serve in place of percussion. The whole record teems with warm embraces of her Southern musical heritage; a potentially cheesy ballad like “Daddy Lessons” shines thanks to its Tex-iana guitars-and-claps arrangement.
Where Lemonade reaches celestial heights is in a full accompanying video component that bathes in public drama and hearsay – and squeezes her Jay-Z lemons for all their worth, head high, bat swinging. (As much as I love and forgive much of Kanye’s weirdness, his 2016 track about Taylor Swift serves as a polar opposite example of this kind of songwriting turn.)
This is an album of its moment, sure, but Lemonade will live on by assigning new strength to a trope of female fame: the shadow of a lover scorned. If 2016 is forever remembered as a bitch of a year, at least we can fondly remember the moment when Beyoncé fucked her up real good.
– Sam Machkovech
Sorceress, by Opeth
I will admit: I was one of those who thought Opeth had lost something special in its shift away from its longstanding combination of metal and folk elements with 2011’s Heritage. The songwriting on both Heritage and its follow-up, 2014’s Pale Communion, seemed like it was missing something crucial; without the death metal of prior releases as a counterpoint to the band’s folk and progressive rock excursions, its songs felt like they lacked focus, instead meandering through sections – sometimes very nice ones – without an anchor.
On Sorceress, though, Opeth sounds totally comfortable in this newer style, finding an energy and momentum reminiscent of its best work. This is a heavier album than the previous two, but there’s more to this evolution than that. Sorceress is an album with a confidence apparent even when the band is making its oddest musical decisions and it results in a set of songs with exciting ambition. Not every transition or idea works as well as it could, but hearing the band maneuver through this material – a blend of heavy metal, prog rock and folk of various vintages – is a surprising and rewarding experience.
At the album’s best, on tracks like “The Wilde Flowers” or “Strange Brew,” Opeth is able to engage the listener with each new musical development without sacrificing the structure or coherence of the song. Perhaps most impressive is that this new formula somehow highlights the band’s signature acoustic material. “Sorceress 2,” the outro of “The Seventh Sojourn,” and the delicate piano motif at the opening of “Era” all stand out as striking, beautiful moments, and they do not suffer at all from the lack of contrasting sonic brutality. With “Sorceress,” Opeth makes it most convincing argument yet for its continuing musical explorations.
– Adam Boffa
Wave/Form, by Terminal Gods
After punk rock destroyed music in the late 70s, post-punk tried to put it back together again. A lot of things factored into that rehabilitation – the politics of the era, the development of new technologies, massive changes in the marketplace, and more. The upshot was that post-punk is less a formal genre than it was a period of experimentation born of a unique set of circumstances. If, like me, you are enamored of that period, you love bands like Sisters of Mercy or Joy Division and you think, nothing sounds like this anymore, boy do I have news for you. Let me introduce you to Terminal Gods.
Honestly, just listen to “Electric Eyes.” There’s stuff in there that sounds like modern recording (mostly in the drums and the overall mix) but I’ll be damned if the heart and soul of that song wasn’t found in 1981. There’s an urgency, not identical to the late 70s anxieties, but similar enough to perhaps scoff a little less the next time you hear some dingus at the bar say at least we’re in for four years of great music ahead.
– Stu Horvath
You Want it Darker, by Leonard Cohen
This year was dark. As we approach 2017 with trepidation, we must also bring with us the inspiration brought on by the human spirit, the ability to pull out one last act of magnificence, look back one more time, step forward and laugh in the face of death. Leonard Cohen does that last part with You Want It Darker, a beautiful final album and statement from a man who knew his journey had come to an end. What led up to it was not the act of a man laying down though.
I saw Leonard Cohen at Barclays Center in 2012. He gave one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen and the way he moved and commanded the stage, you wouldn’t have believed that this was a man in his late 70’s. It wasn’t until after the performance that I read he was going through horrible financial problems brought on by being cheated by a manager and that his constant touring was to pay off various tax debts. He didn’t have to give his all, but he did; in his final years, he released some of his best work in decades. He was a man who knew his time here was ending, and he closed out his affairs on his terms, with a final statement full of grace and dark wit, to all he’s ever loved. We should all be so lucky, but in the meantime we should take inspiration from Leonard and not face the darkness laying down. “You want it darker, we kill the flame”, Leonard sings on the title track.
He also sings, (Hineni being Hebrew for “here I am”), “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.”
– Michael Edwards
The Uncanny, by Ruby Rae
Ruby Rae followed up last year’s Voodoo Queen EP with The Uncanny, the group’s second full-length LP. Most of the album was conceived while Ruby Rae herself (Abby Hannan) attended an artist’s retreat in Mexico last winter. Inspired by grim tales of virgin sacrifices and her own late-night adventures exploring underground cenotes, the record expands on the band’s noir-ish honkytonk sound with some songs that incorporate more traditional twang than anything they’ve produced so far. From the haunting opening track “Last Night I Was A Virgin,” to the dance rock pop of “Magnetic Joy,” to the shimmering dreamy outro of “Three Sirens,” the album reveals a singer-songwriter and her band pushing into uncharted waters, with only rich harmonies and finely crafted production to bring their ship ashore on the other side.
Featuring longtime Ruby Rae instrumentalists Tyler Beckwith on drums and Olivia Mancini on bass, the album also features a guest duet with Jeremy Moore and guest guitar work by the always awesome Ed Donahue (who along with Olivia Mancini delivered one of my favorite albums of last year, Ed & Donna). My personal favorites include the wasteland road-trip rocker “Heart of the Desert” and the lush pedal steel guitar work by Jim Kremidas on “Cry Crocodile” and “Wild Unknown.” Of course, most everyone who listens to the album reports a particular fascination with the lead electric guitars throughout the record and I cannot disagree.*
*In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to state that I am the lead guitarist of Ruby Rae. However, everything I’ve stated above is absolutely true. Perhaps with the exception of the bit at the end where I say that most everyone who listens to the album is fascinated with my guitar parts. But my mom is a big fan and that’s good enough for me.
– Ed Coleman
The Uncanny Valley, by Perturbator
This year saw the release of the fourth full length album from Perturbator and it did not disappoint. You might put this record on and think that it’s another polished attempt at synthwave but I see it as an evolution for James Kent AKA Perturbator. Kent closely follows up Dangerous Days themes with a continued story about the robotic revolution and I think this album paints a dark picture of how things would turn out should artificial life overcome the human race.
While Kent’s mastered the four-on-the-floor recipe that makes up much of the electronic scene, he dabbles in experimental soundscapes and unusual samples choices that redefine his sound. All of his trademark sounds are here, like his very 80s tom rolls, but he expands things a bit by changing his drum kits and using more natural sounds and instruments. I think he takes some brave steps in producing a soundtrack to a movie that exists in his mind. I say brave because it’s not often that an album ends with slow, experimental songs. You would think one would want to end on a high note with a track that punches people in the gut. Maybe that’s why this is so great. He takes a lot of risks here and instead of churning out another record like most electronic artists do, he sat down and crafted something amazing.
I looked up Uncanny Valley on the internet after reading an article about replicas and found the definition to be “the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings, elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers.” I think this aesthetic drives that dark, synth sound of Perturbator and comes through on The Uncanny Valley, especially if you view it as the lost soundtrack to Blade Runner or The Terminator.
– Ken Lucas
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service…, by A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, arrived just when it needed to. Haunted by the loss of Phife Dawg and the last year of American politics, Tribe’s sixth and final album is born of loss and frustration. The record sounds exactly how it should. It draws on the last 18 years of hip-hop while maintaining the timeless jazz feel of previous A Tribe Called Quest albums.
We Got It From Here isn’t mired in nostalgia, but the group has a keen historical awareness. The record flows between self-examination (“Ego”), mourning (“Black Spasmodic” and “Lost Somebody”) and disappointment (“Conrad Tokyo” and “The Donald”). Everyone on the record, from members to their guests to the producers, are on point, surpassing all expectations. A record that specifically references current events and the loss of an important voice in the group should not be this good, but it is and we are richer for it.
– Ian Gonzales
Kodama, by Alcest
Alcest, the pioneers of blackgaze, have crafted yet another masterpiece with their latest offering, Kodama. For the uninitiated, blackgaze is the amalgamation of the shoegaze and black metal genre, both seemingly at odds with one another aesthetically. The French duo, however, was able to tap in the genres’ ethereal elements, creating an atmospheric and emotive album from start to finish.
Unlike the lighter, post-rock sounds of its previous album Shelter, Kodama is a return to their heavier roots; darker and much more melancholic, it is still a strikingly beautiful creation, rife with dynamics that masterfully dictate the ebb and flow of the music. Alcest also harnesses the theatrical spirit of Japanese folklore to perfection in the album, making it a sublime addition to their already stunning repertoire. I’m tempted to name Kodama as the band’s magnum opus, and that’s why it is my pick for the album of the year (my sincerest apologies to Queen Bey).
– Khee Hoon Chan
Awaken, My Love!, by Childish Gambino
Donald Glover wasn’t content with creating one of the best new TV series of the year in Atlanta. Just before 2016 closed, with little fanfare, he released his latest Childish Gambino album, which, like Atlanta, was unexpected and adventurous while feeling distinctly like Glover’s handiwork.
Rather than continue along with the rapping that had defined his previous musical work Awaken, My Love! is a funk and soul album, at times modern and at times straight from the 70s. It’s a virtuosic performance from both Glover and his co-producer Ludwig Göransson. Awaken, My Love! is lush, generous and full of twists and turns. Alternating between some of Glover’s preferred themes, the difficulties of navigating fame on “Zombies,” and odder, more tossed off confections – “California” is filled with odd vocal rhythms and loopy musical compositions – allows Glover to keep the album sprightly and always in motion.
It’s a delicate balancing act that Glover manages with aplomb. A stark, stylistic departure that at once feels like a big reach and completely within his grasp. Awaken, My Love! is a great album, but it’s also a signifier of Glover’s ability to work beyond what is expected of him. It was the biggest surprise of Glover’s career so far, but it’s also exciting for the surprises that it presages. Glover’s not done yet, and if he can pull off something like this, what else is he capable of?
– Logan Ludwig
A Moon Shaped Pool, by Radiohead
One of the great things about one of the great bands of the past quarter century is Radiohead’s ability to fire up bleeps and bloops and blasts as Thom Yorke wails some of the most heartbreaking and apocalyptic rock lyrics ever put to tape. On Kid A, their 2000 masterpiece, songs like “Optimistic” are anything but, with dinosaurs roaming the earth, while the crunching dance beats and fragments of electronic music samples on “Idioteque” warn that “we’re not scaremongering, this is really happening.”
Enter A Moon Shaped Pool, a record that arrives 24 years after the band’s debut single, “Creep,” and, more importantly, after the end of Yorke’s 23-year relationship with wife Rachel Owen, which produced two children. The songs here, arranged with a beauty Johnny Greenwood has been honing in writing movie scores, still has the fear, the politics, the typical Thom Yorke voice. But now there is less desperate despair and more quiet longing, less pleading and more resignation. There’s some dread (see “Burn The Witch”) and anger, too (“Ful Stop”), but on songs like “Glass Eyes,” Yorke steps off a train and disappears into the woods, away from the cold and unfriendly city and his crumbling, lonely world. He admits in “Present Tense” that distance is a weapon, even as he assures us he’s trying to keep it light and moving on. “As my world comes crashing down, I’ll be dancing, freaking out, deaf, dumb and blind.”
But the record’s final song, a longtime fan favorite that finally found its time, “True Love Waits” turns from a frantic, pathetic plea to a leaving lover over acoustic guitar played so hard the strings might shred fingers, to the quiet, understated understanding that it’s already long over. It’s a recording Radiohead tried and failed to make for many years. It was waiting for now. And it doesn’t end with any catharsis. It just ends.
On Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, one of the worst years I can recall for so many reasons, Rachel Owen died of cancer. She was 48.
– Matt Marrone
Blackstar, by David Bowie
David Bowie released Blackstar January 8, 2016. Two days later, he was dead. The album has now become inextricable with his passing, with Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti confirming it was pretty much always meant to be. After a long year of losing so many other icons, it’s hard not to view it as a death knell for 2016 as a whole. Hey, with the Starman gone supernova, what better time to jump Spaceship Earth?
Something I’ve always loved about Bowie, though, was his playfulness. He was never afraid to try something weird in the name of inhabiting the realm of the “new.” Some of his efforts were more successful than others, of course, yet his overall evolution as an artist never seemed stymied by any attempt. While we were bitching about Diamond Dogs (look up James Wolcott’s 1974 review from The Village Voice for a delightful hatchet job), he’d already moved on to Young Americans. Earthling remains one of the strangest Bowie albums to date, but how many times did “I’m Afraid of Americans” get stuck in your craw during the election season?
A lot of ink has been spilt on the allusions to death and dying found in Blackstar’s tracks, and there are many, but it’s the playful moments that stick out to me the more I listen. The cheeky trickster from the middle of the title track threatens to steal your shoes. The salty rake from “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” admits “she” gave him a punch for the ages. Even the reflective angel from “Lazarus” laughs at himself for dropping his cell phone. The album is a bittersweet whole, no doubt, but these are the rays of light shining through the clouds. As always, the darkness makes the light all the brighter.
– Sara Clemens
For the month of January, masochistic members of Team Unwinnable will be listening to nothing but the Best Music of 2016 playlist, on random, without skipping a track. If you think you can hang, feel free to play along. We’ll update you on our sanity every week.