Year in Review | Top Albums of 2016 Pt 1


Year in Review

Top Albums of 2016 | #10 – 20

by Joshua P. Ferguson

We're approaching our Top Albums round-up a bit differently than year's past. Nothing drastic, just an expansion of coverage and an expansion of our breadth of coverage. Both good things really, and much more indicative of what we we've been spending our time with in 2016—from techno to psychedelic to indie rock to jazz to bass music.

This is something we've gone back and forth on over the years. We're a lean staff without the bandwidth to feature everything, so do we forego writing about rock or jazz (which we love) because we can't give them their due? Or because we aren't as knowledgable in those realms as we are in the electronic music world? This may be the case in what we choose to post from January to November, but 2016 was an excellent year for music regardless of genre and that's the point we want to make with our next two posts.

We begin with the first 10 of our Top 20 LPs of 2016, a diverse start to a varied list, featuring cross-cultural techno greatness, tropical psychedelia, deep and dark UK electronic sounds and a pair of our favorite indie records of the past 12 months—if not longer. 

Borderland Transport — Tresor

In theory, putting two masters of their craft together in a room to create music should yield something greater than those two parts. Myriad mediocre 'all star' albums have proven this isn't necessarily the case. In Juan Atkins' and Moritz Von Oswald's Borderland project for Berlin's Tresor label, we have found a worthy exception. Here, the combined sum of the influence they've had over techno—literally since day one—flow together into a truly worthy outing. Sturdier in composition than their self-titled debut (our #3 LP of 2013), Transport exits the forest for the city. Drawing on techno's spiritual roots, Atkins and Oswald have created an LP that is both dense and spacious, a—forgive the obvious wordplay—driving record that is easy to get lost in because you know these two giants of the genre know exactly where they'e going.

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2814 Rain Temple — Dream Catalogue

Even in the tangled web of electronic music, it's not every day we stumble across a new sound that doesn't feel derivative. And while vaporwave does deserve a pause for reflection given general overuse of the 'wave' suffix, the Dream Catalogue camp and particularly its twin pillars Hong Kong Express (HKE) and Telepath テレパシー能力者 have established themselves with a distinct aesthetic and perspective. Together as 2814, they conjure elaborate dreamscapes that draw on '80s computer graphics, Japanese urban sprawl and dystopian futures to create immersive ambient and downbeat sounds that have only grown more captivating on Rain Temple. 

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Flamingods Majesty — Soundway

Setting up camp at the colorful crossroads of exotica and psychedelia, Flamingods' Majesty may be one of the most distinctive records we discovered this year. Released on Soundway Records, a longtime favorite of ours that's best known for archival releases spanning intercontinental funk, soul and world sounds, the record shares all those qualifiers save for archival. Instead Majesty is a contemporary concoction that draws from Asian and African sounds as well as vintage psych, folk and exotica for songs that are at turns celebratory and meditative. It's a wild record that's a departure from much of what we tend to feature and that's precisely what made it such an unforgettable part of our 2016 listening.

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Zomby Ultra — Hyperdub

A UK enigma that ranks up there with Hyperdub labelmate Burial for his idiosyncratic sound and shadowy origins, Zomby is an artist we traditionally like but never quite get enough of to love. We've taken to calling him bass music's Jay Dee, a producer whose output is as prolific as it is teasing. Songs can feel incomplete; these two-minute stems that are more musical idea than full-fledged composition. Ultra is the first time we haven't felt this way and it's often rewarding. Not every song is an out-and-out success. His collabo with Burial should be a showstopper—see our thoughts on all-star team-ups above—and while it bears the distinct marks of each talent, it's overlong and fails to deliver on its star power. But elsewhere, runs like "Her," "S.D.Y.F." and set closer "Thaw" see Zomby exploring both his beat making and the space between the beats. These reveal more of the man behind the mask, and that's precisely what we've been waiting for.

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Moderat III — Monkeytown

We've written so much about Moderat over the years—i.e. here, here and here, too—it doesn't feel like there's much more to say. We love their music endlessly, and yet their inclusion here gave us pause. Their sophomore effort, II, was such a hit for us that III initially felt like more of the same. Further thought helped us drill down to the immense fine-tuning that's on display. It's nuanced techno-soul and we never tire of it. From the more pop-oriented ("Eating Hooks," "Reminder") to the experimental ("Finder," "Animal Trails"), the trio of Modeselektor and Apparat have mastered the form. If you need further evidence, see them live. We had  the opportunity to do just that this summer, and it makes for one of the most thrilling electronic-music showcases to grace the stage in the last half decade. By a long shot. 

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Johann Johannsson Orphee — Deutsche Grammophon

Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson represents a first for Dialogue Inc. We've yet to include someone who'd generally be considered a classical musician on our blog. But Johann isn't exactly a typical artist in that respect. The go-to for director Denis Villeneuve's soundtracks—including this year's Arrival and next year's Bladerunner sequel—and a man who shares the experimental recording techniques of artists like Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds, Johansson's sound has a lot going on under the surface. And it's those hints of tape static, looping and distorted chatter that reeled us in to Orphee. It's calming and delicate and at the same time mysterious, grand and cinematic. The record draws inspiration from the Greek myth of Orpheus, the great musician. A lofty muse, sure, but in Johannson's hands it becomes the vehicle for an epic journey in musical storytelling.

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BADBADNOTGOOD IV — Innovative Leisure

Writing about Canadian quartet BADBADNOTGOOD for a music round-up earlier this year, we praised IV for it's "sharp and contemporary vision of jazz's reach, touching on modern R&B, soul and electronic sounds." Our esteem for this record only grows with each passing listen. With varied compositions that range from the biting jazz-funk of "Confessions Pt. II" to the casual Latin strut of "Chompy's Paradise" to the infectious lead single "Time Moves Slow," BADBADNOTGOOD's range is impressive and that doesn't even take into account their turn as Ghostface Killah's backing band. But on IV, they're the stars; talents that represent the next leg in the future of what jazz is and can be.

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Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool — XL

Even though A Moon Shaped Pool is already showing up on countless end-of-the-year lists, it surprises even us to see it here. Radiohead conjures stoned high school nights listening to OK Computer, not countless repeat listens to Thom Yorke and company in 2016. It's here nonetheless, precisely because Radiohead continues to push its sound and deliver confounding and complex songs that should not appeal to the utterly massive audience that this band commands. Songs like "Ful Stop" and "Identikit" don't exactly play nice with the latest from Coldplay, the ridiculously populist band to which Radiohead is most often compared. Despite the challenges Radiohead's music presents, fans flock to this band and with its latest we truly understand why. 

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Yeasayer Amen & Goodbye — Mute

A big part of the allure of Brooklyn's Yeasayer lies in their unpredictability. From 2007's All Hour Cymbals to this year's Amen & Goodbye, they've gone from pan-global folk to dance-pop to their current and varied psychedelic sounds. It's probably this last descriptor that's kept us coming back since seeing them at Pitchfork in 2008. Eight years and worn out copies of Odd Blood, Fragrant World and now Amen & Goodbye later and they're still one of our favorite bands: utterly weird, endlessly catchy and always willing to push in new directions, whether it's the wacky time signature of "Silly Me" or the wispy folk of "Half Asleep." 

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Kuedo Slow Knife — Planet Mu

Presenting a stark contrast to even the strangest sounds from Radiohead or Yeasayer, Kuedo's music is utterly otherworldly—and that's precisely why we're fascinated with it. Ever since 2011's Severant, we've turned to the leftfield sounds of this British producer to take us to the far reaches of our sci-fi addled imagination. Mixing low-slung UK bass, footwork and trap with futurist cinema scoring, the result is most often called out as Vangelis gone to the club. While that's not far off, Slow Knife is pure headphone music. Haunting, steely, slow and often unsettling, it's not a casual morning coffee listen. On songs like "Under the Surface" and "Approaching," more than just the titles paint imagery of mammoth alien creatures and impending doom. Kuedo knows how to strike a balance though, offsetting his darker moments with crystalline beauty in tracks like "In Your Sleep" and the ambiance of "Warmer Light." Taken together, Slow Knife isn't as easy to paint into the sum of its influences as Severant was and that's what makes it such an intriguing and challenging listen.

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Stories are what inspire us. We're an outlet devoted to music, media and culture seeking out people, personas and brands worth talking about. Devoted to interesting content and the written word, we share the things that excite us and hopefully excite you, too. Let the conversation begin. 

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