1: David Bowie – Blackstar
Here, at long last, is my pick for the best album of 2016, weeks after that year sputtered ignominiously into oblivion and a full 11 days too late to honour the first anniversary of its maker’s passing. So much for my new year’s resolutions to be more efficient and punctual. Maybe I should start my best of 2017 list tomorrow.
But it’s fitting that my accolades for the brilliant “Blackstar” are behind schedule, seeing as how I put off listening to it for months following David Bowie’s death, a mere two days after the album’s release. Continue reading
2: Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
London-based singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s 2012 debut album, “Home Again,” was a nice enough collection of laid-back soul tunes, simmering with potential but modest in ambition. No one can accuse his follow-up of being modest. “Love & Hate” makes its grand intentions clear on the epic 10-minute opening cut, “Cold Little Heart.” Hot-shot producer Danger Mouse works with a lush palette here and on several other tracks, layering on the strings and gospel-choir backing vocals and bringing to mind “Hot Buttered Soul”-era Isaac Hayes. (On a couple of songs, such as the mournful “I’ll Never Love,” the versatile Mr. Mouse employs a stripped-down, folky approach reminiscent of ‘70s cult hero Terry Callier.) Kiwanuka seems to be in a far more serious mood this time around. He weighs in on the frustrations of being a “Black Man in a White World” and begs his demons to leave him be on the mesmerizing, slow-build title track. It might be nice to hear a few more upbeat numbers on his next outing, both in tempo and tone– the mood on “Love & Hate” is unequivocally melancholy. But that’s a very minor quibble. With this glorious sophomore effort, Kiwanuka has gone from promising newcomer to one of our most important contemporary artists in a single stride.
Dear Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs: Please make 10 more albums together. At least. The origin of this astoundingly simpatico collaborative effort may have been casual—out of the blue, lang emailed Case and Veirs to propose recording together and they quickly agreed—but it’s clear that once in the studio, these seasoned solo artists worked diligently to blend their differing styles. The truest vocal collaboration is the opening track, “Atomic Number,” on which each takes a line in the verse. lang’s hot-buttered-rum alto gives way to Veirs’ sweet folkie timbre which cedes to Case’s high, emotive twang before the trio unites in exquisite harmony on the chorus. It’s the aural equivalent of a flower unfolding to full bloom. On the rest of the tracks, one sings lead while her cohorts chime in with pitch-perfect backing vocals. Veirs, previously the least-known and most stylistically constrained of the three, really holds her own, co-writing every song and taking the reins on many, including “Song for Judee,” a lovely, evocative tribute to obscure ‘70s folk artist Judee Sill, who succumbed to drug addiction. “They found you with a needle in your arm,” Veirs sings, “Beloved books strewn around at your feet.” Producer Tucker Martine, Veirs’ spouse, adds charming ‘60s pop touches here and there. As effortlessly gorgeous as this album sounds, Veirs has said that the recording process was difficult and there may not be a follow-up. Let’s hope that’s not true. This formidable threesome is too good to be a one-off. (And that countdown pun merits a score of zero.)
4: The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
Like its title, the 1975’s sophomore album is alarmingly long, equal parts amusing and pretentious, and ultimately unforgettable. And like the act ranked #9 on my year-end countdown, these Manchester lads pay homage to/shamelessly steal from the ‘80s pop canon—at times they sound like INXS, Scritti Politti, and Howard Jones formed a supergroup. But “I Like It…” (I won’t even attempt an acronym) manages to be both an entertaining throwback and refreshingly forward-looking at the same time. The melodies and production can feel akin to scanning through one of those “Just Can’t Get Enough” new wave compilations, but frontman Matthew Healy—a polarizing Brit brat who regularly vexes critics with proclamations like “The world needs this album”—sings lyrics that are in general wittier, more explicit and definitely more social media-savvy than his Thatcher-era forebears. “You said I’m full of diseases, your eyes were full of regret,” Healy warbles pleasingly on the sublime ballad “Change of Heart,” before adding, “Then you took a picture of your salad and put it on the internet.” But just when you’ve given yourself over to the Gen X-meets-Millennial groove, the 1975 disperses a handful of downtempo change-ups into the mix, of which the dreamy six-and-a-half-minute title track is the standout. The U-turns in tone might be jarring in less assured hands and at 17 songs, “I Like It…” threatens to wear out its welcome. The fact that it never does is something of a mini-miracle and a credit to this ambitious and hugely exciting young band.
5: Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future
Much like New Order’s 2015 comeback “Music Complete,” which topped my 10-best list last year, Underworld’s latest is an all-too-rare example of an aging group that hasn’t lost its youthful potency. Nine albums in, electronic envelope-pushers Karl Hyde and Rick Smith can still school the current crop of interchangeable EDM newbies on how to make dance music with substance. “Barbara” bats away all doubts with its striking opener, “I Exhale.” Over a throbbing industrial pulse, Hyde spits out spoken-word snippets that evoke overheard bits of conversation on a busy street corner or crowded Tube train. Crackling with urban tension, it’s the highlight of this concise seven-song set. A close second is “Nylon Strung,” the album’s closer. Where Hyde’s delivery is all edgy confrontation on “I Exhale,” here it’s warm and soothing as he chants “Open me up, I want to hold you, laughing” over a percolating techno beat. The tempo ebbs and flows in between these bookends, with the Latin-kissed “Santiago Cuatro” providing a lovely chilled-out interlude, but “Barbara” never loses its swagger. Bonus points for the year’s most intriguing—and touching—album title, taken from an exchange between Hyde’s mum and dad shortly before his father died. If this late-career triumph is any indication, Underworld’s future shines bright indeed.