You know, I never thought I could look forward to a year ending as much as I’m looking forward to 2016 ending. It’s been a pretty lousy year; political bullshittery, musical geniuses passing on before their time, so many tragedies worldwide(too many to name here), and just a general feeling of existential malaise that at times it felt hard to even swallow. There were a few bright spots, though. Lots of great entertainment to take us out of the sludge, even for just a handful of episodes or a couple hours in a darkened cinema. Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, Captain America: Civil War, X Men: Apocalypse, Dr. Strange, and a handful more of films and television that gave my brain somewhere to go besides the current state of reality. But the most important thing, the reason we’ve all gathered here today, is the records that filled the space between my ears and calmed those existential fears. Despite the burning bag of shit on our metaphorical porch that 2016 was, it was a phenomenal year for music. You disagree? Well, I can’t help you. Grab a cookie and another cup of coffee and show yourself out the door. The rest of us have some records to talk about.
I don’t dip into pop charts too much, so if you notice albums by Solange, Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, Childish Gambino, Beyonce, and Kanye missing from the list it’s because I’ve built a wall around myself and keep to my own musical proclivities. I know all of the above mentioned have put out pretty astonishing albums this year and I plan on getting to them. But for now, welcome to my year-in-review.
10. Causa Sui : Return To Sky
Denmark’s Causa Sui are like this wellspring of individual talent that somehow through a higher power came together and make amazing, mind-altering albums. Return To Sky is their most pared down, honed-in record to date with 5 songs that range from riff-heavy grooves to dreamy soundscapes. When I spoke to Jonas Munk earlier in the year, he said of Return To Sky, “One thing we all agreed on this time was that this should be a shorter ride.” It may be shorter, but it’s in no way lesser in the Causa Sui canon. “Dust Meridian”, “Mondo Buzzo”, “The Source”, “Dawn Passage” and “Return To Sky” sound like free form jams, but there’s a continuity to them that allow the songs to flow beautifully.
Lost in the desert? Return To Sky can be your enlightened soundtrack for the journey.
9. Wild Nothing : Life Of Pause
Jack Tatum’s Wild Nothing has been a favorite of mine since the beautiful Nocturne back in 2012. I also quite dug his Empty Estate EP from 2013. It was weird and a little all over the place. It showed that Tatum was the kind of musician that had quite a few tricks up his sleeve and didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a purveyor of dream-y, shoe-y, gaze-y pop. Life Of Pause is the proper follow-up to Nocturne and it shows a guy busting his head open and dumping its contents onto tape(or hard drive). Pop excursions, post-punk bounciness, and even elements of art rock come to the surface. The album opens with the exquisite “Reichpop”, an ode to avante classical composer Steve Reich and from there anything goes. Elsewhere, “A Woman’s Wisdom” has the feel of a classic 80s radio hit and “Japanese Alice” pulls off some serious Wire vibes. “TV Queen” is grandiose melodrama with hints of Saga and Tatum’s own Nocturne.
With studio help from Medicine’s Brad Laner on guitar and Peter, Bjorn, and John’s John Eriksson on drums, as well as tight production by Thom Monahan Life Of Pause feels like a next level kind of pop album.
8. Jakob Skott : All The Colours Of The Dust
Jakob Skott has become a new favorite of mine in the last two years. His records as front man(away from his drumming duties in Causa Sui) have become these worlds themselves. Wavy synths blip and bleep as Skott builds these massive drums around the analog language he makes with his synthesizers. This year’s All The Colours Of The Dust is this groovy masterpiece where man and machine collide and create noisy tropical grooves. “Age Of Isotopes” is 12 minutes of Bitches Brew-like noise and neo-futuristic computer funk. This is interstellar mind melting right here. “The Variable” is a great balance of soaring melody and jazz fusion drum excursions that in my mind didn’t exist until Skott created it two years ago on Amor Fati.
All The Colours Of The Dust continues Jakob Skott’s spree of heady space jams and moves his synth/drum art to the next level.
7. Thug Entrancer : Arcology
To my ears Ryan McRyhew, aka Thug Entrancer, is taking electronic music to a new level. Sure, an album like Arcology falls under categories like house, techno, and EDM, but he’s curating worlds, ideas, and emotions within the grooves and rhythms. I picked up his album Death After Life last year and I thought it was a brilliant piece of electronic music. Arcology is a masterful follow up that has a narrative to follow. McRyhew pieces together an album through a patchwork of flawless production and engaging songs. “Curaga/Low-Life” is uplifting and bright in a chromed-out kind of way, while “Ronin” sweeps you up in its urgency. “Bronze” makes you feel like your falling through space, all the while still retaining the house/techno groove.
Arcology is an album that deserves more love.
6. Victims : Form Hell
Victims is a collaboration between film composer Timothy Fife and Video Nasties’ member Chris Livengood. It’s an album that came from out of nowhere and pretty much blew my mind. It’s two tracks laid out on a 10″ that I wish would never end every time I listen to it. A heady mixture of primo-era Tangerine Dream(think Phaedra and Rubycon as told through the imagination of two guys brought up on sleazy 80s horror.) Fife and Livengood aren’t a couple of hacks pretending to be a couple German synth Gods from the 70s and Walter Rizatti. No, they’ve got chops all their own and use them fully on this mini-LP. “Profecy” wavers and slithers like some new age serpent swallowing up your bad karma. Then “Cleonova” gets sickly sleazy in the best way possible. The synths are so thick and gooey you’d need a hot knife to cut through them. It sounds like a cross between the intro to some grimy Betamax copy of a Gorgon video release and the score to some long forgotten Abel Ferrara flick. There’s still plenty of space exploration to be had to this one as well.
Timothy Fife has his debut solo album coming out through Death Waltz Originals in early 2017. It’s called Black Carbon. Here’s to Victims putting out a full-length as well in 2017. Form Hell is a must for any synth geeks out there.
5. Videodrones : Mondo Ferox
Speaking of Betamax sleaze, Videodrones is a musical project dedicated to those late night flicks you’d watch when mom and dad went to bed. Those seedy backroom rentals(no, not those backrooms) that you weren’t sure if you should watch them or not. But someone gave you a list of “Video Nasties” and a bunch of those movies are there on the back wall to rent. So why not?
Okay, so Mondo Ferox is much more than sleazy synth. Imagine the Phase IV soundtrack mixed with Lucifer Rising and Walter Rizatti’s more somber tones. That’s a little of what you get on Videodrones debut. This Danish duo revel in the bubbly sounds of pure analog synth and it’s a glorious thing. “Main Titles” growls and sneers like some ancient creature emerging from the mist, while “Blood Brew” twinkles and bubbles like a dying star. “Theme From Mondo Ferox” has a Goblin feel, like something you might’ve heard in Dawn of the Dead. “Stalker State” sounds like you’re passing some great vessel in the blackest of space.
In a year when a show like Stranger Things has put classic synth scores back in our collective minds, Videodrones’ Mondo Ferox feels like an album that came from the era they’re trying to recreate. It feels like a time capsule album, dug out from muddied earth after 35 years in the soil.
4. Explosions In The Sky : The Wilderness
Explosions In The Sky didn’t exactly rebuild their sound from the ground up, but after 2011s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, the Texas band took a break from their wide-eyed, cinemascope song composing and scored a couple indie flicks. On their return to album making they’ve found a more direct sound. The Wilderness is more glitchy, electronic, and harsher in sound, but beautiful nonetheless.
“Wilderness” has a mechanical quality to it, like it’s an AI version of their more organic take on post-rock. It explodes into a rapturous conclusion. “Disintegration Anxiety” takes the Texas big sky sound and turns it into circuitry and urgency. “Logic of a Dream” is majestic in the overwhelming beauty it creates.
Explosions In The Sky have figured out how to take their already much beloved sound and revitalize it and make it sound new. The Wilderness is a breathtaking listen.
3. Preoccupations : Preoccupations
Preoccupations self-titled debut pulls you in at the very beginning and doesn’t let you go until the last song ends. It’s exhilarating and unapologetic in its darkness, but they somehow find a way to make anxiety into something uplifting. They took a year of bad juju and documented it in the Canadian wilderness and gave the results to us.
“Anxiety” quivers and quakes like Bauhaus on a bender. It’s a cavernous song that mixes the dark mood of goth with more radio-friendly world of 80s alternative. “Memory” is an epic trek through moss-covered guitar riffs and dreamy synths. The band get help from Handsome Furs/Divine Fits dude Dan Boeckner on some great vocals mid-way through the song. This song is what’s so great about Preoccupations; they let themselves indulge. They slink around in the darkness, pop out for some sunlight, then let the song dissipate in a sea of white noise all the while never allowing the song to feel tired. The album from start to finish is engaging, no matter how down in the doldrums it gets. “Degraded” is as close to a pop song as Preoccupations get, with pulsating bass and drums and bristling guitar notes.
A band that can survive a name change(Preoccupations was formerly Viet Cong) and come back even stronger than before gets my love. It helps that their album is pretty damn amazing.
2. SURVIVE : RR7349
So yes, without Netflix’ Stranger Things this record wouldn’t even be on this list. In fact, I’d probably still have no idea who the hell SURVIVE is. After devouring that entire show in two days I’d fallen deeply in love with the show’s score(and Winona Ryder of course…again.) My son even looked at me after we started up episode 5 or 6 and said “Too bad this soundtrack isn’t on vinyl.” Of course that soundtrack is on vinyl now(I own both volumes, natch.) Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein did an amazing job cobbling together this synth heavy score for the Duffer Bros Netflix hit, and thanks to the exposure the show gave these two they put out their band’s new album RR7349 with a new army of fans waiting to lap it up like kitties to a bowl of milk.
The album is darker than Stranger Things. It’s filled with more electronic vibes than just heavy synth splashes. Electronic beats collide with swaths of synthesizers and dark wave noise. “A.H.B.” starts in a sea of synthetic distortion before coming in like the theme from some mid-80s sci fi film. “Wardenclyffe” seems to be this whole other sound itself. Mixing equal parts Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and something completely original, the song is alien yet familiar. “Low Fog” sounds like old school Oneohtrix Point Never, all drone-y dissonance and calm dread.
Is this album everyone’s taste? No. But for those who have the palate, it’s an uncompromising meal.
This leads us to my favorite album of the year. From the first time I heard it back in the spring I knew it would be in my top 5. It had that “thing” about it. As the year went along it kept in my rotation regularly and never wavered. It’s just hands down an epic rock and roll album. Black Mountain’s IV is a barn burner of the highest order.
From the space-y, epic, and nearly 9 minute opener “Mothers Of The Sun” to the punky and fist pumping “Florian Saucer Attack” and the majestic pop beauty of “Crucify Me”, IV pretty much has it all. I don’t think anyone put out a rock and roll record nearly as good as this album this year, or last year for that matter. The thing about Black Mountain is that while they may wear their influences proudly on their sleeves they never imitate. They run those prog, punk, and classic rock influences through the Black Mountain machine and it comes out the other end completely and wholly it’s own thing. It took me a few years to completely embrace these Canadian rock and roll philistines. In fact, it took completely falling for Jeremy Schmidt’s Sinoia Caves back in 2014 to go back to revisit Black Mountain. Once I did it was all over. IV shows a band that has the juice to keep going for years. “Space to Bakersfield, are you listening?” I don’t know if Bakersfield is listening guys, but I sure am.
Despite it being a shit year, as always great music kept me going. Let’s hope for a less gnarly 2017, ehh? Merry Christmas, Happy New Years, Happy Holidays, etc, etc, etc…..