BY MIKE METTLER — DECEMBER 31, 2016
Whether you choose to digest your music via high-resolution audio downloads, 180-gram LPs, streaming services, and/or full-on 5.1 surround sound, this past year delivered a wonderfully wide spate of full-length aural goodness. In reverse order, here are The SoundBard’s Top 31 long-players of 2016.
31. MSTRKRFT: Operator. (Last Gang). Vintage Roland drum machines enable Operator to deftly walk the fine line of being both current and classic at the same time. From the whooshing, table-setting intro to “Wrong Glass Sir” to the sturm und clang of “Priceless” to the furious windup of the punk-electro clash of “Go On Without Me,” MSTRKRFT put on a MSTRCLSS of electronic wonderment. Read my interview with the Canadian MSTRKRFT DJ duo of Jesse F. Keeler and Al-P on Digital Trends.
30. Fly: Songs Inspired by the Film Eddie the Eagle. (UMC/Universal). Gary Barlow helms the perfect cross-pollination of 2016 sensibilities with 1980s verve and panache. Highlights include Howard Jones’ soaring “Eagle Will Fly Again,” Nik Kershaw’s uplifting sing-along “The Sky’s the Limit,” Go West’s synth-tastical “Determination,” and Heaven 17’s futuristic cloud-kissing “Pray.” Fly ascends with style and grace. Read. my interview with Gary Barlow on Digital Trends.
29. Santana: Santana IV. (Santana). A triumphant album that brings together musicians who haven’t played together for 45 years, percolating with the percussive bliss of “Anywhere You Want to Go,” the ethereal jamgasm of “Fillmore East,” which spotlights Carlos Santana’s guitar interplay telepathy with Neal Schon (who joined the band post-Woodstock when he was only 16), and “Forgiveness,” the soul-cleansing album closer, Santana IV shows age ain’t nothing but a number. Read my interview with members of the Santana IV band on Digital Trends — and view the four accompanying video interviews as well.
28. D Generation: Nothing Is Anywhere (D Generation). Power-punk garage rock at its finest, forged from the revived ‘n’ revitalized intersection of the downtown New York grit of Jesse Malin and Danny Sage. “21st Century Blues” and “Apocalypse Kids” unite! Nothing is actually quite something. My interview with Malin and Sage will be posting soon.
27. Van der Graaf Generator: Do Not Disturb (Esoteric Antenna). Uber-adventurous prog veterans continue pushing the compositional envelope, from the wafty uplifting/unfolding of “Aloft” to the outer snarl of “(Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes” to the foreboding final track/possible elegy, “Go.” Disturbing in all the right ways. In a recent interview, VdGG leader Peter Hammill told me, “We have always been reluctant to be pigoenholed in any way. The ‘progressive’ tag at least gave people some kind of clue as to where we fitted in, but calling our music ‘barely controlled chaos’ definitely fits as much as anything else!”
26. Ra Ra Riot: Need Your Light (Barsuk). Light contains all the right elements for Syracuse-bred indie band R^3 to connect with audiences both small and vast: Witness the percussive sing-with-me flow of lead track “Water” to the rubber-band low-end burble of “Foreign Lovers” to the eclectic, stacked vocals-meet-shredding synths of “Bouncy Castle.” Shine on. Read my interview with R^3 bassist Mathieu Santos on Digital Trends.
25. The Struts: Everybody Wants (FreeSolo/Interscope). British glam/garage-rockin’ punks re-energize the form, from the raucous lament of “Could Have Been Me” to the backed-up bluster of “Put Your Money on Me” to The Who-infested vibe of “She Makes Me Feel Like.” Everybody needs Wants. Read my interview with Struts frontman Luke Spiller on Digital Trends.
24. Rogue Wave: Delusions of Grand Fur (Easy Sound). Indie Bay Area band tackles quite the Grand sonic exploration, from the marriage of dreamy layered vocals with percussive-driven outro on “California Bride” to the synth-bass and drum-machine ’80s atmospherics of “What Is Left to Solve” to the acoustified whisper-to-a-scream building lament of the album closer, “Memento Mori.” Super-cool sonics Fur the new age. Read my interview with vocalist/guitrist/sometimes pianist Zach Wave on Digital Trends.
23. Gold Panda: Good Luck and Do Your Best (City Slang). British DJ Derwin Panda named this album after a loose translation of the Japanese phrase “ganbatte, kudasai,” with damn Good aural results. The electronic-driven song pallet floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, from the percussive thrill ride of “In My Car” to the warbling distorted piano chords in “Pink and Green” to the scratchy guitar strums and shredded vocal sweeps on “I Am Real Punk.” Better buy Best. Read my interview with Derwin Panda on Digital Trends.
22. The Monkees: Good Times! (Rhino). Produced and mixed by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains Of Wayne, Tinted Windows), Good Times! teems with vintage energy from all four Monkees — including the late Davy Jones, whose vocals appear on the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love.” From the folky shuffle of Peter Tork’s “Little Girl” to the wistfulness of Michael Nesmith’s “I Know What I Know” to the inherent cheerfulness of Micky Dolenz and Schlesinger’s “I Was There (and I’m Told I Had a Good Time),” Good Times! is the perfect soundtrack to accompany the band’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year. Hey hey, we’re The Impressees — impressed, that is. In a recent interview, Nesmith told me, “Monkees music certainly speaks to a kind of innocence, something that does endure. Those are spiritual qualities that don’t go away. You may lose your innocence, but you don’t lose your sense of innocence, is what that means. It’s a nice thing to revisit.”
21. Band of Skulls: By Default (BMG). Hell-raising British alt-rock power trio does some serious church-shedding — as in, they woodshedded their tails off in a church setting — to conjure up one holy-rolling ass-kicking collection. From the chug-along groove of the aptly named “Killer” to the infectious yet ominous warning of “Tropical Disease” to the hypnotic, Prince-ified drone of “Something,” By Default surges with an aura of holy energy. Read my interview with Skulls guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden on Digital Trends.
20. David Crosby: Lighthouse (Ground Up/Verve). Career soul-searching songwriter digs even deeper for this most intimate, stark, acoustic-oriented collection (which is also another sound-quality benchmark). From the deeper reality check of “Things We Do for Love” to the open-sky ethereality of “Drive Out to the Desert” to the eternal questioning of “What Makes It So,” Croz remains a shining beacon for our troubled times. David and I will be conducting a new interview in early 2017, but until then, see what he had to say about hi-res audio in our Digital Trends interview from 2014, which was posted in January 2015.
19. Stewart Lindsey: Spitballin’ (Stewart Entertainment/Membran). Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) knows vocal prowess when he hears it, and from the very moment he first heard Thomas Lindsey sing, he instantly knew they had to work together. Now it’s your turn to marvel at Thomas’ golden tones: From the grimy blues of “Leave This Town” to the slide-driven lament of “Friend Zone” to the gritty zeal of “Confidence,” this dynamic duo will have you singing a new heartfelt tune in no time flat. Read my interview with both Dave and Thomas — and watch an exclusive, jaw-dropping, a cappella hotel-room performance of “Another Lie” — on Digital Trends.
18. Enigma: The Fall of a Rebel Angel (Republic). The long-awaited return of an electronic innovator finds Romanian-born Michael Cretu at the top of his compositional game, veering from the insistent, stereo-challenging percussive drive of “The Omega Point” to the wide-open keyboard-wash palette of “Lost in Nothingness” to the sequel-of-sorts “Sadeness (Part II),” featuring international female superstar Anggun Cipta Sasmi on deeply impassioned vocals. Not necessarily sad(e), but Angelically beautiful. Read my interview with Enigma on Digital Trends.
17. Rachael Yamagata: Tightrope Walker (Frankenfish). Ultra-emotive singer/pianist Yamagata wears her heart’s blood on her sleeve, and it’s on full wrenching display here. Witness the soul stirring of “Let Me Be Your Girl,” the smoky guitar groove of “Break Apart,” and the endgame levity of “Nobody,” a song that also shows this perennial sonic tightrope walker wholly understands how to give the listener permission to breathe at the end of such a heavy track. Tread openly. Read my interview with Yamagata on Digital Trends.
16. Doyle Bramhall II: Rich Man (Rich Man/Concord). Powerhouse guitarist/vocalist/songwriter and noted A-list sideman Bramhall digs deep into his soul to emerge with a career album. The proof lies within: Dig his sweet falsetto blending beautifully with Lonnie Mack-inspired guitar tones on “The Veil,” the “Heroes” callback and gutbucket groove of “My People,” and the seductively intuitive band interplay on “Hands Up.” It’s a stunning aural achievement — and our ears are all the Richer for it. My interview with Doyle is coming soon.
15. Essaie pas: Demain est une autre nuit (DFA). This Montreal-based electronic duo, comprised of vocalist Marie Davidson and instrumentalist/producer Pierre Guerineau, creates one magnifique modern/retro-cool sonic hybrid, from the burbling siren charge of “Retox” to the “Vital Signs”-like synth pulse of “Le port du masque est de rigeuer” to the train station echoing in vain on “Facing the Music.” Though most of the accompanying lyrical content is either spoken or sung in French, you don’t need to speak the language to be in touch with the album’s underlying intent. Mais oui! Read my interview with Guerineau on Digital Trends.
14. Peter Wolf: A Cure for Loneliness (Concord). The fast-talkin’ onetime DJ and longtime J. Geils Band frontman is one badass Mamma Jamma Wolfa Goofa, as proven to the nth degree on his eighth solo album, which teems with honest energy and reflective grace, from the steadfast template-setting of the lead track “Rolling On” to the shuffle blues of “How Do You Know” to the live bluegrass-stomp reworking of the 1980 Geils hit “Love Stinks.” Wolf and I conducted earlier this year, he told me, “I have a sonic sensibility. I’m not saying it’s anything unique or special, but it’s like a painter. You try to make the painting as aesthetically pleasing to yourself as possible, and that’s why I try to use very gifted engineers to be a part of these projects, studios that have the right kind of equipment that are able to give me the sound I’m looking for, and people who mix with the sensibility I need.”
13. Garbage: Strange Little Birds (Stunvolume). Alt-rock envelope-p-p-p-pushers back-to-basics instincts clearly paid off with Birds, as witnessed by the piano-and-synth-strings dirge of opening track “Sometimes,” the 7-minute balls-out caterwauling of “Blackout,” the resigned grind of “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” and the repentant burble of closing track “Amends.” This is the one time where saying something sounds like absolute Garbage is actually one helluva compliment. Read my interview with Garbage bandmembers Butch Vig, Steve Marker, and Duke Erikson on Digital Trends.
12. The Mute Gods: Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me (Inside Out). Prog supertrio — bassist/Chapman Stick master/vocalist Nick Beggs (Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett), keyboardist/producer Roger King (Steve Hackett), and drummer Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani) — delivers the sonic goods on their debut disc, equal to the promise of their impeccable pedigree. From the harmonic, chiding lament of “Night School for Idiots” — which features one badass backwards solo in its back half — to the low-end crush and lush vocal stacking of “Your Dark Ideas” to the submersive sonic swirl of “Swimming Horses,” The Mute Gods rule their constituency with unyielding aural aplomb. Read my interview with Beggs and King in Issue 69 of Progression Magazine (you can get a slight taste of that story here, if you scroll down just a bit).
11. The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome (Interscope). B&L showcases Mick and the boys doing what they do best: the down ’n’ dirty blues. Jagger’s vocals and harmonica work are top-drawer, especially on the title track and “I Gotta Go.” Producer Don Was captures the live-off-the-floor vibe perfectly, as Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood set down the proper in-the-groove guitar-tandem bed, while Charlie Watts is the understated maestro of the backbeat. Somewhere, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker are all smilin’ with approval.
10. Santigold: 99¢ (Atlantic). Forward-thinking dance/electronic icon drops a diverse exploration of beats and the business-oriented music culture we live in, as witnessed by the percussive wail of “Banshee” to the fast echo ’n’ flow of “Chasing Shadows” to the punkish sneer of “Who I Thought You Were.” 99¢ is a priceless collection from an artist who refuses to sit still and be defined by anyone’s labels. Read my interview with Santigold on Digital Trends. Also, you can participate in her interactive video for “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” here.
9. Neil Young: Peace Trail (Reprise). “Well, I can’t stop workin ’cause I like to work when nothin’ else is goin’ on,” drawls Neil Young on the aptly titled “Can’t Stop (Workin),” a line soon followed with this further justification: “It’s good for the soul.” Well hello, Mr. Soul — you’ve dropped by to once again give us a reason to follow your every word and trailblazing guitar lick, from the janglefest of the title track to the off-center bludgeon riffola of “Texas Rangers” to the of-the-moment commentary of “My New Robot.” Neil remains as unyielding an artist as you’ll ever hear, not to mention his unwavering passion for high-resolution audio — a man clearly after my own heart and ears. Peace, love & hope.
8. Graham Nash: This Path Tonight (Blue Castle). This may very well be the most personally raw and direct album of the acclaimed singer/songwriter’s long career. Nash’s conversational vocal style dominates the album’s mix, as he and co-producer Shayne Fontayne endeavor to put you right next to the man himself in the studio so you can feel just what he feels as he explores new hope on “Myself at Last,” reasserts his mojo on “Fire Down Below,” and confronts his own mortality head on in the album’s chilling final two tracks, “Back Home” and “Encore.” The emperor Nash has no clothes — and it’s the perfect fit. Read my interview with Graham — and watch our intimate video Q&A — on Digital Trends.
7. Anderson/Stolt: Invention of Knowledge (Inside Out). Once and forever ex-Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson and The Flower Kings mastermind guitarist Roine Stolt share their respective Knowledge and concoct a progressive, far-reaching palette of sound on par with anything they’ve done separately. From the full-throttle movement of “Knowing” to the hopeful elan of “Everybody Heals,” there’s no limit to what these fathers of Invention could continue to achieve together. Read my interview with Jon Anderson over on Hi Res Audio Central.
6. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings). Perpetually adventurous alt-rock icons push the creative envelope yet again and continue to move the sonic goalposts. From the swirling piano-and-strings slowburn of “Daydreaming” to the plaintive acoustic pseudo-samba of “Present Tense” to the minimalist studio stamp on longtime live favorite “True Love Waits” (the emotive warble in Thom Yorke‘s vocal is simply, achingly beautiful), you’ll find continual Pool-diving reaps the rewards of repeat listening. Moon, turn the aural tides, gently, gently forward…
5. David Bowie: Blackstar (Columbia). Sound with vision, made all the more touchingly poignant by Bowie’s passing just one day after its January 9 release. Blackstar keeps on amazing the ears and the heart almost a full year later, from the chilling resurrection ruminations of “Lazarus” to the haunting electro-symphonics of the title track to the hold-back-the-tears uplift of the final song “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” It’s as elevating as a personal elegy could possibly be. David Bowie has bid us adieu, and there’s nothing we can do — except continue to celebrate, listen to, and marvel at his perpetually top-shelf aural legacy. Read my interview with early-era Bowie producer Ken Scott about mixing Ziggy Stardust in surround sound on Digital Trends.
4. Marillion: F E A R (Intact). Veteran British progressive band thrives in a world very much of their own making, from the ever-shifting whisper-to-a-scream tone of the opening opus “El Dorado” to the choral muscularity of “Living in Fear” to the royal, pulse-pounding majesty of “The New Kings.” F E A R (an acronym for a much more, shall we say, coarse impulse/impetus, Fuck Everyone and Run) displays a certain sonic sinew that every hungry new band could take a few notes from. A masterful, fully enveloping surround-sound mix on the limited-edition Blu-ray, done by producer Mike Hunter, adds even more depth to the proceedings, especially with the all-aswirl echoes of Pink Floyd‘s “Echoes” inherent in the “Vapour Trails in the Sky” segment of “The Leavers.” Living in F E A R has rarely been so rewarding. Read my interview with Marillion keyboard wizard Mark Kelly on Digital Trends.
3. The Shelters: The Shelters. (Warner Bros.). Refreshing, ass-kicking, all-out-rocking full-length debut from SoCal foursome co-produced by Tom Petty, whom you might say has an ear for this sort of thing. From the Rickenbacker jangle ‘n’ twang of the instantly catchy “Rebel Heart” to the seductive shrug of “Liar” to the sneaky lull into distortorama assault of “The “Ghost Is Gone” to the dreamy wish of “Fortune Teller,” The Shelters have created one helluva sonic storm that I never tire of spinning. Can’t wait to see (and hear) what they do next. You can find my video interview with Shelters co-founders Josh Jove and Chase Simpson within my DT10: Music feature on Digital Trends.
2. Gord Downie: Secret Path (Arts & Crafts). While the in-and-of-the-moment chronicling of their respective personal physical denouements by the late messrs David Bowie and Leonard Cohen have been nothing less than soul-stirring, my hero of this or another other orbit-cycle is Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip frontman who revealed earlier this year that he has terminal brain cancer. And while the subject of the secretly gestating Secret Path is centered on the short life and tragic death of Chanie Wenjack (brilliantly illustrated in the accompanying graphic novel by Jeff Lemire), it is hard not to attach deeper meaning to lines like “If this is the end/I want to go back” and “I’ve got lots of time/my whole life ahead.” The music that accompanies Downie’s singular brand of poetic justice paints the vividest of pictures, from the electronic propulsion of “Swing Set” to thundering percussion of “Haunt You, Haunt You, Haunt You” to the stark piano of “Here, Here and Here.” Ultimately, Secret Path serves multiple purposes — to not only inform us of terrible injustice and inspire us to act, but to empower us to reflect on and respond to an artist laser-focused on creating meaningful work in a time of peril, regardless of how many miles (or even millimeters) remain on his own path here on this Earth. Godspeed, dearest Gord. Downie and I discuss vinyl and other topics right here on The SoundBard.
1. The Tragically Hip: Man Machine Poem (Universal Canada). “I am a man/I do what I hate/and I don’t understand.” These literally distorted lyrics from Canadian poet laureate Gord Downie open what is most likely Das Hips’ final studio album, and it sets the tone for the most experimental yet accessible and brave album of their almost 30-year career. Gord’s impromptu “Woo!” in the middle of “Man” is as cathartic as anything on the album — signalling in just a mere blip that, even in the face of incredible, potentially soul-crushing odds, music is always the great healer and the great equalizer. (As I noted in my #2 entry on this list above, Downie revealed earlier this year he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.) The band is in pure sync all throughout, from the clear symmetry of “What Blue” and “Ocean Next” to Gord Sinclair’s supple bass lines on “In Sarnia” (a rhythm bed slightly reminiscent of Trouble at the Henhouse’s “Don’t Wake Daddy”) to drummer Johnny Fay’s clever stickwork on “Here, in the Dark” to the thrilling acoustic/electric guitar interplay between Paul Langlois and Rob Baker on “Tired as Fuck” (one of my favorite song titles ever). Seeing the band perform in Ottawa on August 18 (my 92nd Hip show overall) was one of the most moving live experiences of my life, and I thank the guys to a man for sharing their truths with us all these years. Man Machine Poem is as fitting an epitaph for the unbreakable bond of a five-man mind-melded music-making unit as you’ll ever hear, and if we are somehow graced too with more Hip music in the ensuing year(s) ahead, we all win.
The Top 10 version of this list appears on Hi Res Audio Central.