The top 10 records of 2016

January 9, 2017 Originally published on SFGate

Every year at this time, my friend Andy sends out an anxious little email asking his most music-crazed friends – sound engineers, clubsters, DJs, me, anyone for whom music is less a casual dalliance and more like lifeblood – to send around their personal lists of the year’s best music, so we can all discover something new and/or gently mock each others’ weird tastes in African banjo disco, kazoo jazz funk or lumberjack doom metal.

And every year, I dive into this venture with an all-consuming fervor, ignoring how I’m no music critic by training and instead opening wide to 30+ years of serious music obsessiveness; couple it to a bottle of Elijah Craig while blithely ignoring the obvious fact that any list of this sort, given the thousands of releases every year across countless genres, borders on ridiculous, and it’s all sorts of delightful indulgence.

It’s all coupled to the fact that 2016 was, by every account, one of the ugliest, most surreal, socially acidic years in American history, packed with trolls and nasty fake news, sexism and hateful neo-Nazi posturing and all ending with the election of the worst president in modern U.S. history, which only compounds the sadness as we mourn the loss of not merely our national pride, but some of our most influential and titanic talents, from Prince to Leonard Cohen, Bowie to Sharon Jones, over to Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder and Muhammad Ali. America, she is shifting. And not in the way we’d hoped.

Here then, some superlative balm for shocked and shattered spirits. See what you think (all links via Spotify, save Bey):

10. Ian William Craig – Centres
I have no idea exactly when to play this gorgeous, weird, multi-textured, slightly operatic, supremely distorted, bleakly beautiful (and vice-versa) record from the young Canadian opera singer-turned-tape mauler. During a rainstorm made of LSD and volcanic ash? Soaking in a bathtub full of warm brandy and unicorn bones? At the wedding of Scylla and Charybdis?

No matter; it’s a surreal, textural masterpiece that fits right alongside Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker project, along with Juliana Barwick and similar blood-altering audio narcotics. Mood music for lost – but still restlessly hopeful – spirit animals.

9. Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

Almost too easy to like. No rough edges, no radical reinventions, no defiant lyrical melodrama or off-putting, in-your-face production. Just hugely affecting, addictive, seemingly effortless slow-soul from the young British singer, deeply felt and sung with care, with expert modern tonal flourishes via producer Danger Mouse to keep it all on your I-need-to-give-this-to-everyone-I-love playlist. The guy you want to stumble across jamming at a midnight show at a funky sake bar in London.

8. Yagya – Stars and Dust
This is just to make amends, really, for not including this young Icelandic (of course) producer’s sublime dream-loop of a record ‘Sleepygirls’ right near the top of my 2014 best-of list, mostly because I didn’t discover it until early 2015, which remains baffling and wrong and let’s correct that right now.

‘Sleepygirls’ remains my most cherished, ambient deep-throb recording of the past fistful of years (topping even Deepchord’s Ultraviolet Music), but ‘Stars’ is now a close second. It’s all lush, atmospheric pulse and wash, soak and float to make your subconscious swoon and your resistance evaporate.

Perhaps you are new to Yagya, AKA Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson? Start with 2009’s gorgeous ‘Rigning’ (“Raining”) on your next drizzly day, and be simultaneously transfixed and transported.

7. Rival Sons – Hollow Bones
Damn, these Long Beach lads are getting so close to nailing the raucous, bluesy neo-Zep pitch and posture they so desperately (and obviously) want. And maybe that’s the problem; you can tell they want it, and if anything, the record – especially vocalist Jay Buchanan – try just a little too hard to sound all loose, soulful and badass, when you can sense how every scream and thump has been perfectly calculated.

No matter – the dual title tracks alone, along with the shameless white-boy gospel stomp of “Black Coffee,” indicates they’re on the verge of a masterpiece. Just need to relax a little, inject some bourbon, listen to Janis Joplin on endless loop and let the notes emerge from the soul, not a playbook. Until then, this will do nicely.

6. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Here’s the fascinating thing: Chance is operating under a bit of a misnomer; only a small portion of this record qualifies as rap, per se, and even that’s playing loose with the term. What’s really here is a delightfully deft hodgepodge of scat, hip-hop, horn-tinged gospel, retro soul and ‘70s FM singer-songwriter. Do you hear hints of Van Morrison, Steely Dan and even – no way! – James Taylor, as I did? Absolutely. And it’s all just charming as f–k.

Much of that charm is due to the playful, buoyant (read: no gunshots, no sirens, no gangsta thug posturing) production, which highlights Chance’s charming way with a vocal melody and all adding to the record’s not-really-rap status. It means Chance kowtows to no one and gets to claim a fresh, bright, poignant space all his own. Blessings.

5. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Yeah, whatever. I have to hand it to the critical bandwagon on this one. It’s an astonishingly diverse, refreshingly disruptive record, spanning nearly every major genre from country to stadium rock, and Bey is nothing if not coolly fearless in each – thanks in no small part to a veritable mountain of samples and an army of co-writers and collaborators, including Jack White, Diplo, James Blake and dozens more (the album’s credits alone are 3,150 words long, sayeth a dazed Billboard).

It paid off. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” makes “Put a Ring on It” seem like something from another, more juvenile musical era entirely. This is a defiant reinvention from the most powerful woman in pop music, made all the more potent by a truly magnificent long-form video (“visual album,” if you must), packed with more style and sass, vision and skill than you can handle in one sitting.

Let’s be clear: As a vocalist and musician, Bey is no Prince (who the hell is?). I have no idea if she could actually write and perform a single song all by herself, without 100 collaborators and dozens of studio whizzes to make her sound (and look) transcendent. But as a performer, risk-taker and screen icon who can work a close-up camera like a neo-goddess? Unparalleled. Go torrent that visual album right now, watch it on a big screen with great speakers, and dare yourself not to be spellbound.

4. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Somber waltzes, elegant shuffles, gracious overtures to God and love and death itself, all culminating in an all-too-perfect epitaph for the finest poet in modern music. Recorded while sitting in his medical chair, Cohen both contemplates and courts his own exit from this earthly plane with equal parts melancholy, grace and soft glances of humor.

Cohen died less than three weeks after this record’s release, thus anchoring 2016 as one of the worst ever in terms of bleak cultural upheaval (Prince, Bowie, Cohen, Sharon Jones, Garry Shandling, Trump), and also nullifying our last chance for one, just one, Cohen duet with Nick Cave – which, come to think of it, might have driven the stars themselves into hiding.

3. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

Stark, gorgeous, haunting

As haunting and beautifully mournful as this record is – all written and recorded around the time Cave lost his teenage son to a tragic accident near the family’s home in Brighton – I also can’t help but hope Skeleton Tree, full of stark, searing imagery and populated by intensely personal ghosts, marks the final phase of the Cave’s Somber Cycle, and he soon feels the creative impulse to douse himself in some of the raucous mess that made “Abattoir Blues,” “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” and Grinderman so compelling.

‘Jesus Alone,’ ‘Rings of Saturn,’ ‘Girl in Amber’ and the title track and will shatter your bones. Now, who to repair them?

2. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
A band that perfected the art of stretching themselves into every artistic nook and cranny, from experimental to digital, rock to pop, ethereal to abstract, only to return to the pure form of analog instruments played as an actual band, to create one of their most beautiful, elegant, least agitated records in their catalog.

This is what happens when one of the world’s greatest bands has little left to prove but everything left to relish. Quietly stunning all the way through.

1. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
What took Beyonce 100 collaborators, 1000 samples and a few million in video, this band of weirdo Aussie misfits did all by themselves in (what feels like) a week. Gizz’ ‘Nonagon Infinity’ is easily the most raucous, rollicking, psychedelic rollercoaster ride of exultant acid rock you will hear this decade, all performed with madcap glee by a crew of gawky young geniuses who all look like they just woke up on the same scruffy velvet couch in 1977.

The Gizz. Dare you not to grin wildly, and play it all over again

The Gizz. Dare you not to grin wildly, and play it all over again


But aside from the sheer sonic joy, the record’s singular achievement comes from a brilliant creative flourish not even Bey herself could to pull off: All the tracks on the record, while recorded separately, still manage to flow straight into one another as a near-seamless sonic loop – which means the final track, ‘Road Train,’ connects straight back to the first, ‘Robot Stop,’ without so much as a pause, to start the ride all over again (hence the title). It works magnificently.

It all sounds like the love child of The Monkees and Iron Butterfly sped up and jacked on interdimensional caffeine and crashing into your garage. Relentless hooks, harmonica wails, screeches and yelps, robots and outer space, repeated themes and vocal flourishes appearing across different songs, endlessly propulsive drums and jazzy excursions galore, all inside the most joyful, exhilarating rock tunes you somehow can’t stop humming along with – right until the release their next record, which is apparently called ‘Flying Microtonal Banana,’ because of course it is.

The top 25 tracks of 2016 (in no particular order – click here to play via Spotify)

  1. Lost in a Crowd – Fantastic Negrito
  2. Atlas, Rise! – Metallica
  3. Get Low – James Vincent McMorrow
  4. Mama’s Gun – Glass Animals
  5. Lazarus – David Bowie
  6. African Blues (Luca Musto Remix) – Majid Bekkas
  7. Dwaal – boerd
  8. Someway – Julianna Barwick
  9. For You My Love – The Virginmarys
  10. Radio Silence – James Blake
  11. Pink Sun – The Field
  12. Tangle Formations – Explosions in the Sky
  13. Young Death – Burial
  14. Soulsong – Steffen Kirchhoff
  15. Amends – Garbage
  16. Division – Tycho
  17. We Were Once Lovers? – Tindersticks
  18. Afrika – Russian Circles
  19. Deceiver – Loscil
  20. untitled_06_(06.30.2014) – Kendrick Lamar
  21. 8 (circle) – Bon Iver
  22. Fill Your Brains – Harrison Brome
  23. The Lambert Reinterpretation – Crussen & Lambert
  24. Light Stones – Kaito
  25. Do You Still Love Me? – Ryan Adams

Read more here:: The top 10 records of 2016

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford