Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top ten albums of 2016 (with extended prelude)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the time I went to Soundscapes on College St in October 2003.  I would soon be travelling to Berlin for an experiment for a few weeks (which turned into two months) and wanted to pick up some new releases on CD for the trip.  I bought "Closer" by Plastikman, "Waiting for the Moon" by Tindersticks, "Echoes" by The Rapture, and at least one other album that I can't recall but very likely was Polmo Polpo's "Like Hearts Swelling".  Dropping money on four new releases in a day was unusual for me, and I even surprised myself with my willingness to shell out so much money for four new albums that I mostly hadn't yet heard.  I was buying them based on the reliability and consistency of artists I'd been following for a decade (Plastikman, Tindersticks) and the relentless hype machine that had made certain acts very difficult to ignore in 2003 (The Rapture).

It was quite the haul of new music -- an historically great haul for me, actually.  I walked away with my #2 and #6 albums of the 00's, my #2 album of 2003, and an album by the Rapture (well, nobody's perfect, although some leading music publications would have disagreed at the time).  I'd been going to music stores and buying expensive CD's, many of them imports by my favourite UK bands, for nearly a decade.  I lived and worked within walking distance of eight or so music stores that I visited regularly, and hardly two or three days would pass without going to at least one of them.  This was how I kept abreast of new releases, bought music magazines, and generally absorbed nearly everything I was learning about music.  This was the way it was done, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.  And based on that amazing bunch of new CD's I'd just bought, which would soon be packed in my CD wallet and taken with me to Germany along with my indispensable CD walkman, this beautiful ritual of frequenting music shops would undoubtedly be with me for the foreseeable future.

But less than one year later, everything had changed in ways I never would have predicted.  Seemingly in the blink of an eye, my main source of music and music news shifted online.  Printed music magazines were replaced by online publications and message boards.  I'd been a Napster and then a Kazaa user for a few years, but still previewed and purchased nearly all my music from physical shops.  Soulseek tipped the scales in the other direction.  Suddenly I found myself keeping up with a LOT more new music -- several times as much give or take.  And I know I'm not alone in believing that 2003-4 was the tipping point for a grand shift towards the true explosion of music on the internet, that would in a short time lead toward streaming (Youtube, Pandora, Spotify, etc.), mp3 blogs, yousendit, a rapidly expanding array of other filesharing and downloading options, and the rapid decline of music stores.  That large purchase at Soundscapes was not only my best single haul of new releases, it was also my last, at least in Toronto.  2004 wasn't a great year for music, but it was transformative.  My top ten for the year was filled with artists that I hadn't even heard of one year earlier.

2016 is feeling like another transformative year for me.  I've more or less stopped following any music publication, physical or online, with any sort of consistency.  The same goes for message boards, twitter feeds, or other types of social media.  I still heard tons of new music this year -- a lot more than in most years -- but it's becoming increasingly random.  Most often, I feel like music finds me, rather than the other way around.  If I happen to be reading about something, I know enough about what I like and don't like to be able to decide whether I'm interested in hearing it or not.  But it also means that the days of obsessing over specific artists, and following every move in their careers, may be finally over.  As a consequence, I feel less attached to the music than I once did.  With each passing year, the should-be great albums (top 2-3 of the year) don't seem as great as they once did.

I still love MUSIC as much as ever, don't get me wrong.  I love hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years and surprising myself by still being able to sing along with the chorus.  It's one of the best feelings in the world.  I love reconnecting with old gems in my collections, especially through mixes.  I love commuting to work with music keeping me company the entire way -- I've been doing this for over 25 years (!) nearly without interruption, the routes and the music playing technologies have changed, but the experience is undiminished.  I love waking up to the radio every morning.  I loved driving through the US and Canada for hours this summer and sampling pop radio across different provinces and states -- sure, they all play the same Drake songs three times per hour, but that's a different issue, the point is that I still like plenty of chart pop. I still love reading a good interview or album review and appreciate good music writing more than ever.  It's in increasingly short supply these days.  And that's precisely my point, I love MUSIC, but largely don't enjoy FOLLOWING music anymore.

We live in difficult times, politically, or at least that's what music journalists have been telling me.  The music they value is expected to reflect the goings on in the world around them.  Except that it's not my world anymore.  I don't live in the US and their struggle isn't my struggle.  The Canada I used to know looks increasingly foreign from afar.  I can relate to the sentiments but there's no personal connection.  If music reflects politics, and I no longer have any direct stake in the politics, then I no longer have any stake in the music either.  But more importantly, I never wanted or expected political commentary from the music I like.  It's never been key to my listening experience.

In 2004, there was talk about how increased listening options via internet would create divisions between groups of fans and dilute consensus.  They said there would never be another monoculture, artists as transcendent as Michael Jackson would never come along ever again.  That turned out to not be true.  But the increased politicization of music has resulted in more consensus than I've ever seen in my adult life.  Every end-year list takes the same angle toward the exact same albums.  Even the token "electronic" albums, like Nicolas Jaar's snoozer "Sirens", are seemingly chosen because they're albums with an important message that we shouldn't ignore. 

I'm sure I'll catch hell for it, but the lionization of Beyonce is rockism on a scale just as bad as anything the former poptimists used to complain about.  People used to whine that the hippies grew up, moved to the suburbs, and became boring conservatives just like their parents.  Music journalism is now eating its tail too, as pop music criticism has gone the way of the stodgy boomer era rock music writing that they sought to replace.  Rockism was never about favouring rock music over other genres.  It was, and is about favouring authenticity over all other traits.  Playing your own instruments and writing your own music was considered authentic.  Not playing and writing music was less authentic and made you less of an artist.  Icons from the 60's and 70's released meaningful songs and lyrics that were more profound than any silly pop song you'd hear on the radio.  Fast forward to today, where Beyonce made her most socially conscious album and it was hailed as the consensus Album of the Year.  The same people who would decry "Rumours", "Tunnel of Love", and "Blood on the Tracks" as the self-centred ramblings of smug millionaires are falling over themselves to praise Beyonce's emotional honesty in songs like "Hold Up".

After that long intro, I don't think anyone wants to sit through another ten paragraphs about the year's best albums.  However, we still have a bunch of great albums to salute, so let's do this in haiku form.

Honourable mentions

Gunnar Haslam, Lebesgue Measure, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems)

Another clone of
Polygon Window, I can't 
get enough of them

The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (History Always Favours the Winners)

Like Lord of the Rings
Waiting to give out Oscar
For the last chapter

Matt Elliott, The Calm Before (Ici D'Ailleurs)

Not a great album
But words fail for opener
Crushing and Lonely


10.  Enitokwa, "2069" (non entertainment research)

Comeback album of
calming strangeness could only
Come from a recluse

9.  Hieroglyphic Being, "The Disco's of Imhotep" (Technicolour)

Compare with Actress
Less funky but more rooted
In roughened techno

8.  Marsen Jules, "Shadows in Time" (Oktaf)

Hundreds of versions
Exist, evaporated
To nameless disk drives

7.  Xiu Xiu, "Plays the Music of Twin Peaks" (Polyvinyl Record Company)

Never watched Twin Peaks
But was sucked into Xiu Xiu's
Strange unsettling world

6.  PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island Records)

Bluesy squawks, crooning
Choruses with PJ's best 
Ever ensemble

5. D. Glare, "68 Samples At 68 BPM For Phased Heads" (Opal Tapes)

Like assembling a
Great DJ mix from nothing
But screams, clanks, and whirs

4.  Autechre, "Elseq 1-5" (Warp Records)

Whirring with details
Gulping loops but who bet on 
Five hours worth of it?  

3.  Tape Loop Orchestra, "The Invisibles" (Other Ideas)

Dense and engulfing
Building to satisfying
Side long conclusions

2.  Eluvium, "False Readings On" (Temporary Residence Limited)

Dead souls crying out
Beyond the ambient fuzz
Head swimming again

1.  Moderat, "III" (Monkeytown Records)

Electronic pop
Rarely so smooth, soulful, or
This professional

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