Top 5 Albums of 2016: The Contenders

Yes, it’s time for this annual ritual.

While in most ways 2016 is a year I would gladly forget, it did produce some good music… amongst the deaths of countless legendary musicians, from David Bowie in January to Greg Lake in December and many more in between, including, of course, Prince.

So, yes, it was a tragic, awful, embarrassing and far too long year. But it sounded pretty good. Here are the new albums and EPs I purchased in 2016, my contenders for the top 5 list which will be coming next week. Maybe. But as usual, I’m jumping ahead and putting the likely winners in bold.

AZIZA • AZIZA
Brian Eno • The Ship
Com Truise • Silicon Tare [EP]
David Bowie • Blackstar
Field Music • Commontime
King Crimson • Live in Toronto
King Crimson • Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind
Monolake • C G and G M O [EPs]
New Sound Underground • Push
Radiohead • A Moon Shaped Pool
Room 34 • Elements (yes, it’s me)
Room 34 • Pocketwerks [EP] (yes, also me)
Solange • A Seat at the Table
Steven Wilson • 4 1/2 [EP]
The Bad Plus • It’s Hard
The Darcys • Centerfold
Tortoise • The Catastrophist
Tycho • Epoch
Umphrey’s McGee • ZONKEY

Honorable mention goes to Kamasi Washington for his outstanding triple album, appropriately titled The Epic, which was released in 2015 but I didn’t get into until this year. It would’ve been on last year’s list. Same goes for Khruangbin and their album The Universe Smiles Upon You.

Top 5 Albums of 2015: The Contenders

Yes… it’s that time again. Time for me to reveal how limited my (financial, at least) exposure to this year’s new music is by publishing my list of the contenders in my top albums of year list.

It has felt like this year, more than most, I have really not paid much attention to what’s going on in the world of current music. My biggest musical obsession of the year has been listening to and collecting vinyl, even. How out of touch!

Anyway… here are the albums and EPs released in 2015 that I have purchased, and that are therefore contenders for this year’s list.

Adele • 25
Ariel Pocock • Touchstone
The Bird and the Bee • Recreational Love
Bjork • Vulnicura
Joe Satriani • Shockwave Supernova
King Crimson • Live at The Orpheum (Los Angeles 2014)
Magma • Slag tanz
Maria Schneider • The Thompson Fields
Mark Ronson • Uptown Special
Monolake • Icarus Alto and D E C (EPs)
Room 34 • Half Life (yeah, that’s me)
Steven Wilson • Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Sufjan Stevens • Carrie & Lowell
The Decemberists • What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Toro Y Moi • What For?

Seriously, that’s it? Apparently. And what’s even more ludicrous, there are at least three albums in the list I haven’t listened to at all (Bjork, Magma, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists), and a couple more that I’ve only listened to once or twice (Adele, Ariel Pocock, Maria Schneider, Mark Ronson). With the Adele album I have an excuse — it’s only been out for 5 days. And Mark Ronson… well, I’ve only listened to the full album twice, I believe (back to back on the day I got it), but I’ve had second-hand exposure to “Uptown Funk” on an almost daily basis since early summer.

As usual I’ve highlighted in bold the five most likely to make the final, sad list.

Update, January 12, 2016: Well, 2015 came and went and I never actually created my final “top 5” list. At this point I don’t think I will bother, because: a) I’m not very enthusiastic about this list; b) no one reads this stuff anyway; and c) 2016 has already obliterated 2015 musically:

Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.

Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Contenders

For the first time in the at-least-a-decade since I started doing these top 5 lists, I almost completely forgot to do one this year. It wasn’t until I happened to be on my blog this morning and my “On This Day” widget reminded me that I realized it was time for the list again.

Maybe I’ve just been too busy. Maybe there hasn’t been much good music this year (at least, good to my jaded and picky ears). Maybe it’s because I turned 40 this year and I’m now officially too old for anyone to care about my opinion on anything. Whatever the case, this year’s list was almost an afterthought. Almost.

But now I’ve remembered to do it, and if time allows I might just give the final list the attention it deserves. For now, we start off as in every year, with the list of contenders: all of the new albums I’ve purchased in 2014. (As if you needed further evidence of how out of touch and irrelevant I am… I not only still care about albums… I still buy music.)

Since my list of full albums this year is so short, I’ve decided to include for consideration EPs — even one that’s a reissue of an EP from 1996 — and, for the first time, my own music.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Boards of Canada — Hi Scores 2014 Edition [EP]
Com Truise — Wave 1
The Darcys — Hymn for a Missing Girl [EP]
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
J. Law — The Phoenix
Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Magma — Rïah Sahïltaahk
Pink Floyd — The Endless River
Room 34 — Thru
Room 34 — 5mi
Röyksopp & Robyn — Do It Again
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
Umphrey’s McGee — Similar Skin
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Yes — Heaven and Earth
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Update (12 December 2014): I used a “smart playlist” in iTunes to find all of the music in my library that was released this year, but I discovered a couple of albums that I actually bought on CD (how quaint) were missing because Gracenote didn’t fill in the release year. And so we have the addition of Foo Fighters and Pink Floyd to the list. Wait, what year is it again? I also had to add in the new Yes album, which isn’t in my library anymore because it’s so awful I actually deleted it. (Spoiler: It’s not making the final list.)

Top 5 Albums of 2013

I’ve given it a lot of thought. OK, I’ve given it some thought. OK, I’m actually just making it up as I go. Whatever the case, here are my picks for the best, or at least my favorite, albums of 2013.

5. Phoenix — Bankrupt!
I really got into Phoenix right after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out in 2009 and had thoroughly explored their back catalog while eagerly waiting… And waiting… And waaaaaaaaiiiiiting for the follow-up. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say the album is a masterpiece; it leaves me wanting something. But it’s still fantastic, with some truly amazing musical moments and some compelling lyrics that reflect on the band’s struggles with its newfound fame… you know, when they got so big that even people like me knew about them.

4. Midlake — Antiphon
Remember what I said about a band being big enough that even I known about them? That probably goes double for Midlake, a band I just learned about last weekend, when the title track of this album played on The Current as I was driving to IKEA to buy a couch. (I wish I were making this up.) Two things immediately drew me in about Midlake: the incessantly burbling drums, and the amazing harmonic detours in the second half of the song.

As soon as I parked the car I went on iTunes on my phone and bought the whole album, which I then listened to twice through while assembling the couch. It’s all great, with several sections (especially those with acoustic guitar and flute) reminding me of Trespass-era Genesis. Except without the preposterous lyrics about anthropomorphized wolves. I’d probably rate this album higher, but I haven’t known it long enough to see how well it holds up.

3. Lusine — The Waiting Room
If the ranking criteria on this list were solely based on how many times I’ve listened to an album, this would undoubtedly take the top spot. I’ve had it on heavy rotation while I work over the past few months, because its low-key grooves are just right to keep me going without being too distracting. Which is not to say it’s background music. I’d describe it as a more listenable (i.e. less weird) Boards of Canada.

2. The Darcys — Warring
There’s only been one album this year that I’ve anticipated more than Phoenix’s Bankrupt! and that’s Warring by The Darcys. The Darcys are one of the few bands that I’ve ever heard that I think might make it big that I’ve known about and gotten into before that happened. I hope it happens for them, in the right way, because they’re really great.

Or to put it another way, they’re my second favorite Canadian band of all time.

I first learned about The Darcys because their second album, last year’s AJA, was something that could have come off as a cheesy stunt. Does that name sound familiar? That’s because it’s also the title of what is arguably Steely Dan’s best album, from 1977. The stunt? This is Steely Dan’s 1977 album, reinterpreted in its entirety in Darcys style. Which is to say, much darker. There is a bleak beauty in The Darcys’ vision that in some ways better suits the desperation in the album’s lyrics than Steely Dan’s original too-smooth-for-its-own-good style. (And I say that as a huge, unabashed Steely Dan fan.)

Anyway… The Darcys released both their self-titled debut and AJA for free on their website, which definitely helped build their audience and the anticipation for Warring, which is all original material, and is utterly fantastic. Unlike Midlake’s album, it didn’t blow me away on first listen, but it only took two or three repeats before the brilliance of the album unfolded and revealed itself. You really need to hear the album in its entirety, but if you only have the patience to check out one song, I’d recommend “Horses Fell.”

1. Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
There was some criticism for Trent Reznor’s decision to work with a major label for Hesitation Marks and even more for his blunt response to anyone who might complain about it. But that can’t change the fact that it’s a pretty brilliant album.

I was never much of a Nine Inch Nails fan in the earlier, noisier days. There was just too much adolescent angst in the lyrics, and, well, just too much noise. But that all changed for me when Year Zero was released, and I have since been absolutely blown away by the genius soundtrack work Reznor and Atticus Ross did for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, enough so that I actually pre-ordered this album on CD as soon as I knew it was coming.

I saw Nine Inch Nails in concert for the first time this fall on the opening night of their current tour. It was definitely the most intense concert I have ever experienced, and quite possibly the best. The music translated amazingly well to a live setting, and the light show and energy in the performance were like nothing I could even have imagined.

For the concert experience, as much as the music itself, I have to give this album my top ranking for the year. It’s definitely left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve encountered in the past twelve months.

And while we’re at it…

Although I would never elect any of it to my top 5 list, I actually recorded a ridiculous amount of original music this year, beginning with the January release of 8-Bit Time Machine, my semi-autobiographical sci-fi rock opera. (Yes, seriously.) That one was actually recorded in late 2012, but I followed it up with The Picture of Dorian Mode, composed and recorded entirely on my iPad over a single weekend in February. Then in April, when winter refused to go away, I recorded an EP called Soundtrack for an Endless Winter. In July I finally upgraded to Logic Pro and learned the ropes by recording another EP, cleverly (or maybe not) titled Amateur Logic. I followed that with the year’s biggest project, Falling, in September. For three weeks I sketched out at least one new song idea every day, and when I had nearly two dozen sketches, I refined the best of them into what I think may be my best work to date. (And this doesn’t even touch on the monthly “Figures” EPs I cranked out for the first half of the year.)