Ten Albums That Mattered In 2016

A Moon Shaped Pool • Radiohead -

2011's King of Limbs album felt like Son of Eraser (too much minimal techno beats, not enough gravitas) - in other words, a solo Yorke disc, accompanied by the rest of the band. Luckily, what transpired in the interim was drummer Philip Selway's extraordinary Weatherhouse (which ended up on my Ten Albums That Mattered list in 2014) and much of that record's stately, baroque beauty informs A Moon Shaped Pool. Jonny Greenwood's nuanced orchestrations unveil the affectivity lost from Limbs, the guitars shimmer and strum, their sounds augmenting other instruments, imbued with sonic detritus that instead of overwhelming the songwriting, seasons the overall mortality-gazing angst of Thom Yorke, who was in high Sea Change mode following the dissolution of his longtime relationship. And yet, A Moon Shaped Pool transcends its "breakup album" pathos to become a larger meditation on the fragility of life, ambiguity, regret and consolation. "Dreamers, they never learn/Beyond the point of no return/And it's too late, the damage is done/This goes beyond me/Beyond you" Yorke laments on the cinematically-informed "Daydreaming" before proclaiming "We are just happy to serve..........you." That's Radiohead - the band that keeps on giving, even when all seems hopeless.

Talk • Daniel Johns -

This album earns the trophy for Most Unexpected Career U-Turn. The former lead singer/guitarist for Aussie grunge-pop turned alt-rock auteurs Silverchair delivers an impassioned, soulful debut that not only deserves inclusion on any playlist featuring Frank Ocean, John Legend and Justin Timberlake, but contains a singularity of vision and sentiment to make even the most Silverchair-hating critic sit up and take notice. From opening track "Aerial Love" (the consummate, finger snapping R'n'B slow jam) to John's wispy falsetto on "We Are Golden" and the piano-driven hip hop ballad "Preach" ("I find it hard to breathe the truth/I don't want a broken heart, I admit I'm living just inside my home...") and the electro-pop trappings on "Dissolve" and "Too Many", John bares his demons and desires with a voice that is by turns, angelic, seductive, weary yet cautiously optimistic "We are here with open arms..../you dangerous boy, we don't wanna feel 'cause we don't wanna hurt anymore." While part of me longs for a return to the Brian Wilsoneque trappings of Young Modern (and I hope this solo disc is just a momentary genre detour), Talk is an introspective odyssey of one man's very personal struggle with fame, addiction and recovery.

Blackstar • David Bowie -

If there's one thing we critics get off on, it's when an artist releases a swan song of an album, then suddenly dies days later. Heck, Ziggy - we didn't even know you were sick. Apparently you did, which is what adds to the mythology of Blackstar: the album is no subtle meditation on mortality: "I'm up here in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen" are the opening lines on "Lazarus", the accompanying video a David Lynch-like cinema verité showing Bowie slowly wasting away in a hospital bed, with buttons taped to his face bandage, suggesting he's merely a dead man walking. Similarly, the title track can't be taken as anything less than a self assessment/critique of a long and storied musical career: "I'm a blackstar, I've got game/I want eagles in my daydreams...I'm not a pop star, I'm not a gangstar." Accompanied by Donny McCaslin's acid-jazz ensemble, there's a marvelous amalgamation of genres ("Blackstar" could easily have been a page from the Dead Can Dance playbook), mirroring the aural chameleon David Bowie has always been. But even in a work of this magnitude, the most heartfelt moment comes by way of the smooth jazz ballad "Dollar Days", which speaks of "cash girls" (read: hookers) "survivor sex" (read: post-HIV America), oligarchs and Social Security, while Bowie pretends not to miss "the English evergreens I'm running to" and the loaded refrain "I'm dying to......I'm dying, too" takes on an added poignancy.

Good Times! • The Monkees -

For going on 50 years now, The Monkees have been better than music critics give them credit for, and better than a pop-rock combo needed to be, and yet, driven by a hunger to prove something, they have given us some of the 60's best music - something even the hypocrites who deify Madonna at the RNRHOF can't take away from them. In commemoration of their Golden anniversary (are you really up to prognosticating where Madge will be 30+ years from now? I didn't think so), surviving members Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith get high with a little help from their newfound friends in Weezer, XTC, The Jam and Fountains of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger serves as producer), and the result is as much a love letter to the band, as it is to their fans. Unreleased sessions from their heyday are combined with new tunes written by Andy Partridge ("You Bring The Summer"), Rivers Cuomo ("She Makes Me Laugh"), and Ben Gibbard ("Me And Magdalena"), a strategy evocative of 1967's watershed Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. Sunny harmonies (Dolenz's voice has lost none of its luster or charm), chiming guitars, singalong choruses and good vibrations abound - even on the dark, cryptic "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" (which cross-pollinates "Writing Wrongs" with Pink Floyd's "Mathilde Mother") where Nesmith confesses, "Old friends say, "Oh, he's lost his way"/But they don't see what I can see/No, I'll never come back." Wrong, Nez - this is the comeback.

Monolith of Phobos • The Claypool/Lennon Delirium -

Now, this is what cross-generational protest rock should be all about: Cibo Matto lynchpin Sean Lennon teams up with Primus's Les Claypool, and the result is a brilliant debut, filled with musical ideas, lyrical heft, entrancing vocals and a playful dose of pop-sike experimentation that would make mentors like the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band proud. Lennon's sincere appreciation for one of the 60's most dismally overlooked outfits comes across in both the musical eclecticism and weary world-view expressed in Sean's takes on prescription addiction ("Oxycontin Girl"), the perversions of fame ("Bubbles Burst"), and life's existential questions (the title track.) Few folks would dare subvert Paul McCartney's walking bass line from "Taxman" (Claypool) into the tale of a peeping-Tom landlord electronically spying on his young tenant ("Mister Wright"), or create a Zappa-informed waltz vilifying our dystopian society, but Claypool/Lennon dare to go where even so-called hipster alt-rockers fear to tread. "We're reading your mail, and tapping your phone/If you don't like it, we'll send in the drones!" Sean warns on the acerbic "Ohmerica", "Oh say, can you see the twilight's last gleam?/The land of the free, the home of the naïve...." Fans of Beck and the Flaming Lips, run, don't walk to your nearest music outlet and pick this up, stat.

Stranger To Stranger • Paul Simon -

Leave it to the venerable Mr. Simon to deliver an album whose title is not only a thought-provoking double-entendre, but whose sonic trappings continue his appropriation-as-inspiration modus operandi. Here, the 'inspiration' comes by way of abstract composer/musician Harry Partch (Simon can actually be heard performing on several of Partch's innovative instruments), as well as electro-flamenco trappings courtesy of Christiano Crisci, aka: Clap!Clap! The latter's handiwork enhances the metaphorical "Wristband" (a song about exclusion, written apparently about a true incident where a bouncer at a club had the audacity not to recognize Simon for the star that he is), while echoes of the Chromelodeon and cloud chamber bowls mingle with Peruvian drums and gopichan on tracks like the impressionistic, Rhythm of the Saints-ish "Proof Of Love" (which reveals in five minutes precisely everything Simon gleaned from Sting during their On Stage Together tour).  Those quibbles aside, there is no mistaking that Simon's voice has never sounded as haunting, evocative or searching since ROTS, and it is nice to know he can still turn a phrase like "the riots started slowly, with the homeless and the lowly" with the matter-of-factness one would expect from an investigative journalist. Subversively political in its own way, Stranger To Stranger offers a much needed dose of social critique that goes down that much easier amidst a one-world beat manifesto.

American Band • Drive By Truckers -

I think it no cosmic coincidence that the eleventh studio album by Southern-rock saviors Drive By Truckers shares its name with a tune by Grand Funk Railroad - the anthemic, arena-rock aesthetic is one these guys have not only embraced, but perfected. And yet, whereas folks like Tom Petty merely allude to sociopolitical subtext, American Band finds DBT holding a mirror up to contemporary America - and they're not necessarily digging what they're seeing. "Ramon Casiano" wastes no time exposing the seedy underbelly of illegal immigration policy - "He became a border agent, and supplemented what he made with 'creative deportation'" Patterson Hood sings with an anguished drawl that occasionally hearkens to that Athens, GA boy, Michael Stipe. Indeed, on a purely musical level, this could be viewed as a feel-good, Southern tailgate party of an album - and that is what makes the lyrical zingers almost breeze past, if not for how Hood wears an egalitarian heart on his sleeve in tunes like "Surrender Under Protest" ("To the lonely, fragile minds of angry youths"), "Kinky Hypocrite" ("Hot-blooded, bible-thumping, cash on the barrel, honey") and the wrenching ballad "What It Means" (which unlike Springsteen's earnest-but-preachy "American Skin" plaintively inquires why cops who kill unarmed black men walk free: "There's just two sides calling names out of anger and fear/If you say it wasn't racial, I guess that means you aint black." Ouch!) And seeing as how this gem of an album was passed over for even a Grammy nod next month,  I guess even the liberal-minded members of NARAS can't handle the truth, either.

Acoustic • Simple Minds -

Hearing the sheer magic of Jim Kerr dueting with KT Turnstall on Simple Minds' 80's new-wave club hit "Promised You A Miracle" is enough to put this album on my list: their harmonies and interplay, along with her signature acoustic guitar filigrees is what all updated cover versions should aspire to, and is a refreshing aural update on the original. Of course, the fact that this is not a strictly acoustic affair is also enough to make my fellow music critics (who fall into two camps: latchkey kids stuck in a timewarp, and just plain haters) pooh-pooh the supposed lack of effort to reimagine hits from a catalogue by a band whose least imaginative chart-topper ("Don't You Forget About Me") I still blame for their general lack of acknowledgment and respect. But if you listen without any awareness of the band and their MTV/Breakfast Club-backstory, you can truly appreciate the labor of love that is on display. Simple Minds was always a guitar-driven band (go listen to Sparkle In The Rain's "Book of Brilliant Things", and tell me U2 don't owe them a debt of gratitude) - but without the arena bombast, the songs come across in a more lilting and delicate manner, and without belting, Jim Kerr still knows how to sell a tune as a singer. On "See The Lights" and "New Gold Dream", the shimmering acoustic guitars propel Kerr's vocals to heights that, while not aiming for the cheap seats, pour every ounce of emotion from each lyric, accentuated by gentle female support vocals that chime in like some angelic chorus. And while I would certainly like to forget about "Don't You Forget About Me", the simple, low-key arrangement here nearly redeems it, and reminds me that the onus should be placed at the feet of songwriters Keith Forsey and Schiff - I mean, the fact that Billy Idol, Bryan Ferry and Cy Curnin of The Fixx all passed when the tune was initially offered to them was a big-ass red flag waving.

4 ½ • Steven Wilson -

February 2015 saw the release of Wilson's highly-conceptual Hand. Cannot. Erase CD, inspired by none other than my heroine and yours, Kate Bush: taking its cues from Bush's long-misunderstood The Dreaming, the entire disc is written and sung from the perspective of a beautiful, popular young woman who dies alone in her apartment, but is essentially considered MIA by her family and friends for an astonishing three year period....yep, that would totally be up Kate's street, as we say in the UK. Gentle, piano-driven melodies and ethereal background vocals transform the journalizing detailed in "Routine" into a thing of Ninth-Wave beauty, while the stately "Transience" frames Wilson's tenor against a lilting acoustic guitar and an ominous-sounding synth line ("Save The Life Of My Child" perhaps?) So how do you top an album like that? Maybe the strategy should be to complement, rather than eclipse that artistic watermark, and Wilson certain achieves that on . Recorded between the sessions of Hand and his as-of-yet untitled album proper (which should see release sometime this year), Wilson nonetheless can't help but put a conceptual spin on his song-cycles, and while I would be hard pressed to expound on the narrative here, there is no denying an ebb-and-flow and lyrical foundation that make tracks like the prog-infused "My Book Of Regrets" (with a sly musical nod to Neil Young's "Down By The River") and the poppish but no less caustic "Happiness III" ("Tired of burning up the time on my PC/I only end up downloading the same old pornography....") blend into a cohesive whole. Forgive the analogy, but if Hand. Cannot. Erase is Wilson's Kid A, then is certainly his Amnesiac - in other words, a compilation every bit as conceptual as its predecessor, and equally engaging.

Toy • Yello -

You know, I'm really starting to think that product placement in a John Hughes film is the kiss of death for any artist seeking aesthetic validation - first we have the Simple Minds/Breakfast Club debacle, and now, reflecting on the career of Swiss electropop wunderkinds Yello, I realize their so-so 80's novelty "Oh Yeah" would have quietly creeped off into the corner, if not for Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And that's a shame, because in the thirty or so years that followed, Boris Blank and Dieter Meier have consistently recorded an admirable body of work, but with the exception of die hard fans (and maybe a handful of critics) the fruits of their labors have gone mostly unnoticed. Here's hoping these guys are just one A-list DJ remix away from having Toy become a much-heralded comeback, because this album is like, totally awesome. The instrumental opening "Frautonium Intro" instantly affirms how forward-thinking Blank/Meier were from Day One, not to mention the plethora of artists who they have clearly inspired. Then they launch into the lovely Euro-tech vibes of "Limbo", and its as if time had literally stood still - or more accurately, details how everything 'new' is really old again. The advancement of technology at the possible expense of human interaction is the overarching theme on Toy, as if to suggest all the gadgets we have come to rely on for our amusement might turn on us sooner than we realize. Meier's baritone growl has grown sexier over the years, and when he plays that against equally sexy female support vocals, it's hardons on the dancefloor time. Special props go to the simply irresistible "Blue Biscuit"- a fantastic amalgam of technopop and pop-sike that deserves immediate video promotion and could become the "Let Forever Be" of the new millennium.

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