2016: Personal, Political And Mournful

by Benjamin Ray

Boy, this was a hell of a year, wasn’t it?

I won’t recap what you already know about current events and high-profile deaths, but I will take another moment to acknowledge the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win in honor of Vault founder Christopher Thelen. Musically, a lot of what came out seemed to acknowledge the political rift within our nation, coupled with ruminations on life and death and a fiery passion that ran through it all.

2016 saw a lot of older singer-songwriters release acclaimed albums (Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and, uh, Iggy Pop) and a handful of ’80s and ’90s alternative acts do the same (PJ Harvey, Dinosaur Jr., Teenage Fanclub, The Cult, Bob Mould). There was a wealth of artists and good albums to choose from, so while I have outlined my personal Top Ten below, I have an extensive list that follows of other good albums and good songs from mediocre albums worth exploring. And, as always, a list of stuff to avoid rounds out this essay. Enjoy… and hang in there, dear reader. It will get better.


10. The Amazing – Ambulance 

This is about the only modern electro-dream-pop disc I liked. Recorded in a small studio with minimal rehearsal, the band writes sophisticated sunset anthems with intimate guitar work and intentional elegance, buffeted by the occasional nifty melodic trick that keeps the listener from getting settled.


9. Savages – Adore Life 

Loud, defiant, messy, and in your face, this blast of nervy adrenaline smacks you across the ears.


8. Soundtrack – Miles Ahead

The best Miles Davis compilation in forever isn’t really trying to be one, but much like the gonzo Don Cheadle movie of the same name, the soundtrack hits all points in Miles’ career by selecting the non-obvious choices. Other than “So What,” casual fans may not recognize many of these songs, and the smart edits of the longer pieces distill their vibes into digestible pieces. A handful of new songs at the end pay tribute to the man. Overall, this opens the doors into understanding Miles’ catalog in a way that hasn’t been attempted yet.


7. Bob Mould – Patch The Sky

This churning, affirmative record is Mould’s best in a long time, chock-full of great riffs and an energy that runs through the course of the Husker Du and Sugar frontman’s career.


6. Moby – These Systems Are Failing

Loud, defiant, messy and in your face, unlike anything Moby has done since at least the mid ‘90s.


5. The Raptor Trail – New World

The latest effort from this little-heard indie prog-rock trio deserves a wider audience. “Four Times” and “Time Slides Onward” are the catchiest tunes, but the rest is worthy as well. These guys can play. Time more people knew that.

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway

Integrating guitarist Josh Klinghoffer fully into the group automatically made this better than I’m With You and, at times, approached the best parts of Stadium Arcadium. There are moments of dark funk, callbacks to ‘70s rock and funk, and a swath of small but appreciated stylistic touches, showing that every few years these guys find new twists to their unique sound.

3. Metallica – Hardwired…To Self Destruct

The legends returned with a fantastic album, and though it suffers from a bit of excess and three too many songs, there is more than enough to put a smile on any classic Metallica fan’s face.


2. David Bowie – Blackstar

References to death and mortality abound in Blackstar, but nobody knew at the time it was Bowie’s final album, and suddenly it all took on a whole new meaning. Difficult and sad in many spots, hopeful and irreverent in others, the songs not only showcase yet another side to Bowie’s sound (electro-jazz-pop) but serve as the compelling capstone to a career. Granted, we’ll be treated to an onslaught of repackaged compilations and a bunch of rare/vault recordings, but this is how Bowie wanted to say goodbye, and he succeeded masterfully.


1. Joe Bonamassa – Blues Of Desperation

I expected this to be like Bonamassa’s other albums: a handful of very good blues-rock songs surrounded by several mediocre but proficient ones. But from the minute “This Train” roars out of the station, chugging like a T-Rex on speed and daring you to hang on, you know that he and his band have tapped in to something special this time. The disc moves through the winding title track, the hypnotic pounding heft of “Mountain Climbing,” the arresting “Drive,” the compelling journey of “Distant Lonesome Train” (a masterclass in building suspense), and “How Deep This River Runs,” which starts off unassuming but builds in drama before exploding with a heroic solo. Bonamassa hasn’t made an album this good or consistent in a long time, and although it faces some stiff competition, it winds up the best rock album of the year.


Parquet Courts – Human Performance

In which the band becomes the reincarnation of Talking Heads, in a good way.

Cure For Gravity – Cure For Gravity

This EP from an up-and-coming California band deserves a listen. Atmospheric, urgent, and engaging, “Sunspots” and “Black Metal” have their own fusion of prog, arena alt-rock and moody Depeche Mode-esque wonderings.

Jambinai – A Hermitage

This Korean trio combines heavy metal with traditional Korean instrumentation and almost no vocals. Far from gimmicky, this is groundbreaking, progressive and challenging…and pretty darn cool.

Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer

In keeping with the angry political theme of the year, Beck’s new disc (recorded with singer Rosie Bones) is modern punk buzzsaw intensity, a brief wallop of emotion, and scuzz you would not expect to come from a 72-year-old Brit.

Green Day – Revolution Radio

If you are at all familiar with 2003-and-before Green Day, the band’s political stances and can guess at what this album will sound like based on its title, you’ll get exactly what you expect here. The trio returns to form and to basics with a relevant, hard-hitting, and fun disc with no concepts, no characters, no questionable lyrics, and no posing. It’s good to have you guys back.

Yellowcard –

The album does little to distinguish itself from previous efforts or from similar bands in the light whiny pop-punk arena, but the difference maker is that the band called it quits on this disc and released a purposeful final statement geared toward the fans. In addressing mortality, fatherhood, the reasons why we do what we do, and relationships, the band hits a sweet spot that many of us can relate to at some point.

Beyoncé – Lemonade

I am obligated to put this here because every other critic did too, including Rolling Stone, who listed it at #1 just ahead of Blackstar.


“Already Dead,” Parquet Courts: The best song on the album wasn’t even on the physical disc but on the digital version only, and it is worth downloading or even listening to if you don’t know anything about these guys. Including it on the CD would have made it better.

“The Bridge,” Candlebox: Everyone’s favorite bandwagon grunge band dropped a mediocre disc that only the faithful will really enjoy, but this song stood above the rest to remind us why we liked them in the first place.

“Evil Woman,” Joy: There is no shortage of scuzzy Southern revival rock bands, and while Joy may not make a major dent in the market anytime soon, this song in particular is the best off their latest album. Give it a spin and then see how the rest of the record makes you feel.

“Liar,” The Shelters: Jason Warburg’s review of this disc explains the story behind it; I wasn’t as big a fan as he or Tom Petty was of these guys, but their retro sound and energy has an appeal, none more so for me than on this short track. I expect I’ll like this disc and this band with repeated listens, so maybe Jason just beat me to it.

“Turned A Light On” KT Tunstall: KIN may have been an intoxicating mess, but it was the album Tunstall needed to make at this point in her life, and this is the best song from the disc. A dreamy, early ‘90s alternative pop song with multi-tracked vocals and acoustic guitars all over, the already-good song shifts halfway through to a Who-esque bridge that could be a song in itself, then reprises that for the extended ghostly fadeout. It’s a hell of a song, the one that sticks with you more than all the rest.

“Chrysalis,” Opeth: A solid prog-metal effort, Sorceress yielded a handful of worthy additions to the genre, especially this intense seven-minute track that, yes, has a keyboard solo smack dab in the center. Longing for the days of Deep Purple, Dream Theater, or early Genesis? Check this one out.


Steven Tyler – We’re All Somebody From Somewhere

Aerosmith is pretty much a done deal, so Tyler goes solo with a mix of overproduced pop ballads, mundane country-lite, and sorta-sleazy arena rock, plus a soul-free remake of “Janie’s Got A Gun” to entice collectors. Nothing on this disc really needed to be made. 

Radiohead – A Moon-Shaped Pool

Most other critics will have this on their Top Ten list because it’s Radiohead, and you don’t speak ill of Radiohead, lest other critics look down on you. But with all the posing, I don’t think many people really gave this boring effort a second listen, because they all feel asleep. It’s sad that this is what Radiohead has turned into.

Neil Young & Promise Of The Real – Earth

The worst live album of the man’s long and storied career. Hey, let’s take some mediocre songs and add bird and animal sound effects in the middle of each one, then fade down the audience to listen to the wind rustling! No thanks.

Panic At The Disco – Death Of A Bachelor

Drink, get in trouble, have moment of reflection, then do it all again. Alienate your band while doing so, then compare yourself to Queen and Frank Sinatra. The band has become the equivalent of Las Vegas on this album: glitzy, substance-free, and very unattractive in the light of day.

White Denim – Stiff

I only include this because Corsicana Lemonade was a good album and this was such a letdown – no doubt due to a new guitarist and drummer, with the end result basically the band listening to 30 minutes of Pandora’s Classic Rock station and rewriting whatever came on. But if you consider this a debut by a new band, it’s a little more understandable, if still redundant.


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