Disastrous years, moments when the entire world threatens to unravel, produce the best music. The bumper crops of great albums arise in years like 1968, 1974, 1979, 1998, 2001, 2008, as if the one mercy we may be granted as life unspools is a good soundtrack.
And so it is that as the gang at Tulip Frenzy sat down to discuss the best records of 2016 — a year we all concluded may have been the worst one for our nation since 1862, or at least 1930 — we found more albums in contention for our heralded Top 10 List than in any 12-month cohort since we began formally compiling our lists earlier this century.
Here’s whose albums didn’t make the list, so you get a sense of the competitive sweepstakes: Angel Olsen, Parquet Courts, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Fleshtones, The Mekons, The Rolling Stones, Kevin Morby, Cheena, Black Mountain, Heavens Gateway Drugs, Feels, Wire, Ty Segall, and Capsula. Longtime readers of Tulip Frenzy will recognize several of these bands as among our very faves, and each produced remarkable recs we listened to over and over and over again. We considered Capsula’s glorious Santa Rosa — the most melodic punk album since their 2006 Songs & Circuits — literally until this morning, and in the end couldn’t make room for it. Kevin Morby’ s Singing Saw was the soundtrack to our springtime. And yet none of these records made the cut. Wow, so who did?
The #10 Album Of 2016: Morgan Delt’s Phase Zero
In August it was abundantly clear that Phase Zero by Morgan Delt was going to be our Psych Album of The Year, virtually guaranteeing its placement on the 2016 Top 10 List. We called it a “gorgeous, weird, melodic, inventive, soothing, trippy self-produced album in which he plays all the instruments.” It held up in the months since, and his show at DC9 revealed him to be a young beanpole hippy with flowing red locks and a kickass band. We suspect he’ll move up the list in the months and years ahead.
The #9 Album of 2016: David Bowie’s Blackstar
Like a great grey owl showing up on your fencepost, David Bowie’s death coming at the very beginning of the year was a portent of the disaster to come. That Blackstar was released literally the day before we got news of his untimely end was like a cruel joke, or the most brilliant performance-art piece of all time. At that time, we wrote, “That he finished with Blackstar is like the Beatles going out with Abbey Road: an amazing grace upon which to conclude one of the transcendent careers in contemporary music.” Some have put Blackstar at the top of their 2016 list. We think as a concept it definitely deserves that, but as music, it was merely great — especially the way Bowie’s coda brought him back to his teenage enthusiasm for the jazz of Gary Mulligan. But whereas 2013’s The Next Day was high on our list, we reduce Bowie’s finale to a few amazing songs, but not anywhere close to the best complete album of 2016.
The #8 Album of 2016: Quilt’s Plaza
We called Plaza Quilt’s masterpiece when it was released in February, and it has held up well against walk-off home runs, 50-yard field goals into the wind, and the hot streaks of others. “These guys are so much more than an art-school project,” we wrote then, referencing how they were formed in Boston a few years back. Plaza is to Quilt’s last album, Held In Splendor, as Revolver was to Rubber Soul: paradoxically more commercial and slick, and yet more experimental and ambitious. Anna Fox Rochinski’s voice is in a category with Syd Straw and Neko Case — yeah, I just wrote that — and when she is singing the 60% of the Quilt’s songs that joyfully get released, this Beatles-influenced band is transcendent.
The #7 Album of 2016: P.J. Harvey’s The Hope Six Demonstration Project
We had high hopes for Polly Jean’s album, which was mostly focused on her drive-by tour of the worst nabes in our hometown of D.C.. After all, in 2012, even though we ultimately gave Radiohead the top honors in Tulip Frenzy’s Top 10 List (c), her Let England Shake claimed runner-up honors, and we believe her Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea could well be the previous decade’s strongest work. But it was weird that, as powerful as this new record was, it seemed like a slight misstep. We said at the time, “when she creates an album this beautiful, and this powerful, she’s revealing, once again, that Polly Jean Harvey is one of the very few artists in 2016 using rock’n’roll to grapple with the world at this level.” Yet over the course of the year, we played it far less than we expected, given how much we adored the original song released from it, “The Wheel.” This is a powerful, serious work of art, but it’s placement in the back half of this list reveals it to be a little less enjoyable than we would have wished.
The #6 Album of 2016: Cosmonauts’ A-OK
We have long had a soft spot in our heart for the So-Cal psych-punk band Cosmonauts, and with A-OK they produced not only the summer’s soundtrack, they broke through as purveyors of catchy tunes thundering along with a power and pace that would make fellow Orange County natives Anton Newcombe and Ty Segall equally proud. A long time ago, when explaining why Elvis Costello got more airplay than the Clash, Joe Strummer said, “Well Elvis, maybe he sings a bit better than we do.” Singing is not Cosmonauts’ greatest strength, though it is serviceable enough. But the comparison to Strummer’s Clash, yeah, works.
The #5 Album of 2016: Tim Presley’s The Wink
Tim Presley has been at or near the top of our Top 10 list each year since his Darker My Love took top honors in 2010. We thought White Fence’s To The Recently Found Innocent was not only the best rec of 2014, it has secured a permanent place in the canon, possibly our favorite album of the past decade. We know that White Fence could rock hard live, even as Presley’s home recordings under that name could at times seem incomplete, low-fi psychedelic noodling. When his collaboration with Cate LeBon, under the name Drinks, came out in 2015, we feared the worst, for it seemed like a return to the bad habit of meandering, underpowered preciousness. But woo hoo, The Wink was a remarkable “solo album” from a guy whose White Fence recs are mostly made with just him, alone with his cat, and occasionally Ty Segall. In October we wrote, “The Wink is an astonishingly great album, the product of an eccentric genius with an oddball sensibility and a reverence for the artists he admires. The title track sounds like it was ripped from a master tape of Bowie’s The Lodger — an homage to a dead hero in which Presley took the time to reverse engineer the best songs from Bowie’s best album. A dozen bands before now have tried capturing the spare perfection of the first Gang of Four album, but on “Clue,” Presley’s the first artist I know of who has ever truly caught the interplay between Jon King’s vocals and Andy Gill’s guitar. But of course, the major artist that Presley channels best on his solo album is Tim Presley, for we hear throughout the 12 songs here chord progressions and melodies spanning his career…”
The #4 Album of 2016: Psychic Ills Inner Journey Out
We were really unprepared for what a great record Inner Journey Out was, writing upon its early summer release, “Inner Journey Out is for playing when heading on a road trip to Big Bend, to Marfa, on that long thin ribbon of highway wending toward the West as the shimmering heat makes the cactus liquid.” The fact that Tres Warren and Elisabeth Hart are transplanted Texans living in New York partially accounts for how their gritty, urban Velvets-inluenced sound also has one foot firmly planted in country blues. With Hope Sandoval singing marvelously on “I Don’t Mind,” it was easy to think of Inner Journey Out having a spiritual link to Mazzy Star, but the album this most reminded us of, in a strange way, was Exile On Main Street, an ambitious, sprawling work that never drifted far from classic American roots-music idioms. Every time we played this record, it brought a smile to our face, and from mid-summer on, we were chanting, “Top 5, baby. This one’s a contender.”
The #3 Album of 2016: Alejandro Escovedo’s Burn Something Beautiful
For more than 20 years, every Alejandro Escovedo album has been a source of solace, an inspiration. He is so perfectly placed to appeal to us: an Austin roots-rock hero cum occasional chamber rocker who played in the late ’70s San Francisco punk band The Nuns, and growing up loved Bowie and Mott The Hoople as much as we did. But after 2010’s great Street Songs of Love, which was the #2 album on our list that year, we wondered if Al would again be so inspired. What a joy it was to discover that in Burn Something Beautiful, he may have produced his best record of this century. We exulted when it came out, “anyone who has ever thrilled to hear how Alejandro assembles a classic rock’n’roll album based upon his experiences and unique vantage point will see this one for what it is: his best album in this late hard-rocking phase of an amazing career.” A big part of the joy this record inspired was the sound of his band, with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, mainstays of Robyn Hitchcock’s recent albums, at its core. The strength of Burn Something Beautiful was Al himself, whose great songwriting and, on this one, fantastic voice made this a record we will playing for as long as we’ve played With These Hands and Thirteen Years.
The #2 Album of 2016: Thee Oh Sees A Weird Exits
John Dwyer, it turns out, is an old fashioned band leader, a figure as much like Miles Davis as the punk and garage rocker he started out being. On A Weird Exits (and its shorter companion, An Odd Entrances, which came out last month), Dwyer cranks up the latest incarnation of Thee Oh Sees — a double-drum, bass + all Dwyer combo — to take us on a musical journey through psych, prog rock, jazz, and even blues. If you tuned in even as late as 2011’s Castlemania, you might never have predicted what this particular Oh Sees album would sound like. Of course, tucked way in the back of the latest issue of Uncut, we get a sense of Dwyer’s heterodox sensibility, for in a feature entitled, “My Life In Music,” the records he calls out as his favorites are by Can, Grand Funk Railroad, Robert Fripp, Hiragi Fukuda, Michael Yonkers, Uriah Heap, Eric Dolphy, and Henry Flynt & The Insurrections. What, you were expecting The Germs and Pere Ubu? I might have… But nah, this guy goes way deeper. As we noted in August when A Weird Exits came out, it’s time to take John Dwyer seriously. “In just a 30-minute snippet of time, such a short interlude in your life, John Dwyer has taken us from the most exciting garage rock of the epoch to deep, moving contemplation. The guy has it all, including originality. A Weird Exits, its title rendered ambiguous by the extra “s”, is not only the best Oh Sees album since Floating Coffin, it should be that album that makes audiences of all stripes sit up and notice. It’s time to take John Dwyer seriously.”
The #1 Album of 2016: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool
The only flaw on this album was the absence of a hyphen between “Moon” and “Shaped” in its title. By including concert staples such as “Identikit” and “True Love Waits,” A Moon Shaped Pool felt a lot like Radiohead finishing up old business before it could move on. With Jonny Greenwood’s orchestration of amazing songs like “Burn The Witch,” Radiohead came as close as can be to Steve Reich territory, which just confirms they’re playing at a different level from all contemporaries. We gave The King Of Limbs #1 honors in 2012, even as other critics exalted P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake and we still think we were right. With the addition this year, though, of In Rainbows Disk 2 — an unexpected release of companion songs from the 2007 original — Radiohead has spent more time in our earbuds than probably any band other than Bob Dylan, which fans o’ T Frenzy will recognize as a profound statement. We loved A Moon Shaped Pool, recognized it right away for what it is, a peerless, non-rock’n’roll album that added up to the best music of 2016.