(In what has become an annual tradition as we near the finish line for our LISTMANIA series, our good friend and long-time NCS comrade BadWolf (aka Joseph Schafer) takes a break from his responsibilities as editor of Invisible Oranges and brings us his year-end list of top non-metal albums from 2016.)
Three things kept me from turning this list in sooner, one large and fairly insurmountable, the other small and petty but terribly uplifting.
Let’s begin dark, and head upward toward the light, because these albums are, on the whole, not very pretty.
It’s hard to think about music when the world seems so irrevocably fucked. You know the words, the individual particles in the oncoming storm clouds that seem like so many Oklahoma supercells, ready to flatten the farm that is civilized society: Brexit. Trump. Nukes. Putin. Climate Change. Hell, since this is a blog, let’s add Theil to that mix. Libertarian venture capitalist Peter Theil’s successful legal campaign against Gawker (like it or not a formative influence on pretty much every form of new media you read, including this one) just formed the bedrock for a new playbook in the ongoing war of capital against free speech and independent journalism (even snide, gossipy smut has its purpose).
In the wake of all that, how the hell am I supposed to care about music?
At times, exposing myself to new sounds became, honestly a chore. Sometimes I hit that play button only because I write this article every year and it’s come to have some emotional significance to me, but not because I wanted to grow my scope of experiences. I’m glad I did, though. Some of these records, particularly those near the top of the list, gave me something to focus on during the most dismal times of 2016.
In a mixed blessing, however, the premature passing of Prince opened my eyes to what has quickly become one of my favorite artists, full-stop. Much of the time I would have spent exploring new non-metal artists (or even metal artists) was occupied by a prolonged deep dive into the discography of a man who kept his massive catalog as far from the internet as he could, and therefore as far from me.
I now lament the man’s passing, but as much, I kick myself for not having invested in great records like Controversy or Gold Experience sooner. Corny? Sure, but also masterful. Prince blended every genre, from pop to hip-hop to jazz fusion and, yes, sometimes metal, into a synthesis that was always uniquely his. May we one day see his like again.
The small but happy thing? A gift. Run the Jewels dropped their third record on Christmas Day. I adore the group (every one of their records has made this list, and RTJ2 was my favorite album the year it was released). Three times in a row now, they’ve recorded a triumph.
I struggled with whether or not to include RTJ3. For sure, it’s worthy. Hell, it’s the equivalent of a basketball team putting in last year’s MVP with one second left on the clock and having that player sink a three-pointer from the opposite end of the court.
In the end I opted not to include it, because I still haven’t had the time to digest it fully, but expect it next year.
Lastly, before I begin, a few notes on what didn’t make the cut. A Tribe Called Quest’s unexpected comeback We Got it From Here… Thank you 4 Your Service. was a treat, and the rare comeback album worthy of the New York hip-hop crew’s legendary career. Their albums Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders form the basis for the novelistic and confessional jazz-hop that has now come en vogue again with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. More incredible, the album features verses from emcee Phife Dawg, who passed away this year shortly after spitting his bars. It’s worth listening to for the song “We The People” alone, but I don’t feel that I’ve heard it enough to say much more about it than that.
Other perennial favs that missed the cut include The Weeknd and Drive-By Truckers, both of whom released very lovable albums that I listened to for a single day and forgot existed. Sorry guys. Maybe it’s me?
Here’s what did make the cut though.
Thorne – Nothing was Beautiful and Everything Hurt / Laudate Reverentia
The most pleasant surprise of the year, this double-header of albums by Appalachia’s Josh Thorne blend the imagery and satanic fixation of black metal with something like the Bristol sound. The beats aren’t quite as buttery-smooth as Massive Attack, and Thorne’s not so accomplished a singer as Beth Gibbons of Portishead (then again, who is?), but the obvious DIY nature of these recordings adds a certain charm. Besides, Thorne’s lovesick, pass-me-another-Parliament croon is the perfect vessel for some vitriolic R&B that Tricky would never rap over.
The best cuts here, like “Cursed”, touch not on Thorne’s personal tribulations but on the economic and narcotic pall that hangs over his surroundings. The great untold story of 2016 was, for better or for worse, the absolute devastation that the Great Recession, the War on Drugs, and a bullshit up-by-your-bootstraps mentality has wrought upon so-called flyover states, one of which yours truly sued to live in. Back home, everyone is either shooting up heroin (it’s cheaper than the prescription drugs people get hooked on) and or getting knocked up. It’s a hopelessness only described in J.D. Vance’s great book Hillbilly Elegy, and, of course, these two Thorne albums.
Clipping – Splendor and Misery
LA Noise-rap trio Clipping were aiming for a quiet 2016 until emcee Daveed Diggs became a minor celebrity thanks to his contribution to the original cast recording of blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton. I don’t like the soundtrack, myself, but Diggs is the best part of it, and he could have easily spent years riding that wave and letting Clipping slowly assemble new material.
Nope! The group dropped the excellent Wriggle EP earlier in the year and followed it up with a short LP, Splendor and Misery, which in some way more closely resembled Hamilton than either of Clipping’s previous LPs. To whit, it’s a concept album (Diggs plays every role) about an escaped slave in a future galactic empire evading his one-time captors with the help of an intelligent spacecraft, which seems to be in love with him.
Timely thematic dovetails aside, it’s one of the group’s least-accessible albums to date. Songs bleed together and pass by at near light speed like debris roving past the escape craft’s windowpanes. The almost easily accessible verse-chorus-verse song structures that made the band’s last album so likeable barely show up, and as the record continues, the noise only increases. Still, it’s a harrowing and kind-of touching record, as well as one of the most imaginative hip-hop records I can think of.
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
After his string of scene-stealing guest appearance on Dr. Dre’s Compton last year, I dove headifrst into Californian R&B signer Anderson .Paak’s relatively shallow discography. I didn’t wade in far before .Paak (the dot stands for detail, naturally) released his sophomore LP, Malibu.
Using a mix of excellent live musicians and beats from producers like Kaytranada and Hi-Tek, .Paak lands on the perfect, narrow ground between cool electronics and warm funk. These beats are subtle and wonderful, as is .Paak’s sometimes creaky, pained voice. The Madlib-produced “The wAters” unites him and fellow seminal guest singer BJ the Chicago Kid in probably the best R&B jam of the year. Well… except for one album later on this list.
New Model Army – Winter
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t explore the world of New Model Army before 2016. The UK goth-rock mainstays have a huge and acclaimed catalog dating back to the early 80’s. Sepultura even covered their song “The Hunt” on Chaos AD. Still, they just slipped through the cracks, but Winter made for an ideal introduction.
Moody and brooding, the album edges on metal with songs like “Burn the Castle”, propelled forward by Ceri Monger’s muscular distorted bass riffs. In its latter half songs like “Echo November” and especially the masterful “Born Feral” balance the mood with lush instrumentation and plaintive singing, not unlike last year’s Tau Cross album. In fact, this band is an obvious influence on Amebix that somehow I never traced until now. Oh well, better late than never.
Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
Former Australian goth-punk bad boy turned maybe-greatest-living-singer-songwriter Nick Cave never stopped writing great music, but nothing he’s done in the past decade has felt particularly urgent. His previous album, Push the Sky Away, sounded lush and excellent and playful, but did sort-of miss the guitars of departed co-writer Mick Harvey.
Harvey hasn’t returned, in fact Cave lost even more: one of his twin sons. Skeleton Tree chronicles the fallout of that event in a subdued and incredibly somber fashion. Nearly darkwave, these songs sort of begin and end without reason, simmering between, commencing and then stopping in the arbitrary way that a human life on earth does. Sure, there’s verse-chorus-verse structures, but they seem more like a convention than an element of composition.
The same way, Cave’s nearly spoken-word vocals spin around but never touch the dour subject of his poetry. He swirls like smoke rising from a cigarette in an ashtray, and it’s gorgeous. Listen to his latest masterpiece, “Girl in Amber”, and try to not bawl your eyes out. This album is heavy in a way that distortion cannot be. You carry it with you, inside of you, after giving it a few listens.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Out of the gate, Lemonade was a kind of untouchable critical darling the likes of which Beyonce has never achieved before. Much of the album’s almost cloying halo comes from its loose association with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that the album sort-of deals with the R&B first lady’s husband, hip-hop president Jay-Z’s possible affair with some faceless but well-coiffed “becky”.
Now, to be fair, the album’s political sentiments stem mostly from the aesthetics surrounding it, and maybe the whole Jay-Z thing isn’t entirely true. But who cares? This fucker rips.
I grew up when Destiny’s Child ruled KISS FM, but Beyoncé’s solo career never meant an iota to me before this. Conceptual and almost gothic, easily leapfrogging between powerful and indelible emotions like heartbreak, rage, vainglorious pride, and pity-laced forgiveness, Lemonade is everything one could ask from this kind of bedroom poetry writ large, and the sonic experiments follow suit.
The Jack White-produced “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is as close to a metal song as Beyoncé’s ever going to perform. Elsewhere she experiments with honky tonk on “Daddy Lessons,” and doubles down on sleazy banging with “Six Inch”. With Kendrick Lamar’s assistance, “Freedom” is a highlight and closer “Formation” is as infectious as pop music could possibly be while still deviating from my expectations of what a mainstream R&B album could be.
David Bowie – Blackstar
This hurts. David Bowie was one of the most important, genre-bending musicians to ever live. He even has an unsung hand in the roots of metal on The Man Who Sold the World. His loss at the beginning of 2016 was a blow that will take decades to heal in every community, metal punk, goth, dance, progressive. With his passing, through, Bowie gifted us one of his darkest, most twisted, and most precious albums.
Like Cave above, this is not metal but it’s more frightening and beautiful than most black metal bands ever achieve. Made when Bowie knew he was terminally ill, the album roils in the lower register, occasionally exploding into jubilant glory, like the title track’s odd-pitched chorus, or the triumphant finale of “I Can’t Give Anything Away”. As good or better are the unstoppable basslines in “Lazarus”.
On the whole, though, it’s a beautiful capstone to the career of a truly one-in-a-million human being, and a testament to the power of music to transubstantiate from ephemeral pop consumerism into something that carries real meaning and emotion.
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
I didn’t expect this to be so good. Aesop Rock, the rapper with the largest vocabulary in the world, reigned in his unstoppable, loquacious tongue but amped up his production (previously, Aes had something of a tin ear) and released a surprisingly touching album about deciding to go to psychotherapy.
Ok so it’s also a concept album that syncs up with a full-length music video recreating Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with popsicle sticks, but I digress. This is the best Aes has been since maybe Labor Days. Slowing down and making his rhymes more palatable adds weight to some of his morose confessions: when he talks about letting his love of painting and drawing relapse on “Rings”, it’s genuinely sad, even when he’s knowingly being a stuck-up curmudgeon on “Dorks” and “Lotta Years”.
Maybe best is recounting the story of how his mom prevented his older brother from seeing Ministry live in concert on “Blood Sandwich”. But even a few upbeat tracks like an ode to his kitten on “Kirby” can’t stop most of this record from dredging up dark memories and ruminations which, as per the norm, inspire the best wordplay out of Aesop Rock.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
Finally, a record that isn’t a total slit-wrist symphony.
Just kidding. This one’s maybe the most morose out of all of them, and that’s including the records about kids dying, incurable cancer, drug addiction, and going to therapy.
Emma Ruth Rundle, frontperson of metal outfit Marriages and former guitarist of Red Sparrowes, used to be an also-ran for me. She’s good, but Chelsea Wolfe and Marissa Nadler do it better. Something on Marked for Death sticks, though. With just a barely-distorted guitar, Rundle navigates the reeds and weeds of the same slowcore river that Patrick Walker did on the new 40 Watt Sun, but Rundle’s got something going on here that gives me the chills every time.
I can’t listen to this album while walking to work, or riding in my car. I need to just sit and give it my full attention. Spellbinding. Captivating. These words denote hyperbole, but they scan on Marked for Death, maybe because the album so explicitly deals in the language of religion, and I am a lapsed Catholic. Or maybe because I’m a romantic, and there’s something about the desire to love and be loved in return that is so central to this album, while her peers delegate that struggle to the sidelines.
Rundle’s despair runs deep but her yearning flies high, and she has an intimate way of placing the listener inside her experience. There’s obviously no real metric for this but I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to understand better what it’s like to be a woman than on the song “Hand of God.”