AudioStream Reviewer's Choice: Top 3 Albums of 2016

Our reviewing team (I really enjoy typing that), Steve Plaskin, Ola Björling, John Darko, Jana Dagdagan, Alex Halberstadt, and moi, pick our favorite 3 from 2016. Enjoy!

Ola Björling's Top 3 Albums of 2016

Björk: Vulnicura Live (HDtracks)
While the super limited picture disc version technically came out in late 2015, I'll wedge it in here. I often feel Björk's studio recordings are mixed and mastered a little flat for someone so supremely expressive, but here all the elements are allowed to soar more freely while retaining a very distinct live sound. Her live performances on this tour provided some of the most profoundly touching concert experiences I've ever had, and this captures it as well as a recording ever could.

DIIV: Is The Is Are (Juno Download)
I'm guessing this isn't hitting a lot of year end lists because it's so similar to their 2012 debut, but for me this is perfect: I seemingly can't get enough of their catchy melodies, glimmering guitar tone, and ability to effortlessly combine a mix of The Cure, surf pop, garage rock and little bits of contrasting dissonance. All this blends into a cocktail of distilled Brooklyn summer nights, sprinkled with teenage energy and emotion. A guilty pleasure perhaps, but pleasure is pleasure.

Roly Porter: Third Law (Bleep)
Ominous and majestic, punishing and entrancing. There's a raw physicality to this that a lot of noisy music fails to convey, and from this emerges a sense of desperation, anxiety and menace that Roly Porter taps into with eerie precision. Between washes of cathartic violence are deep abysses of beautiful bass drone melancholy and contemplative ambiences, letting the listener recede into the darkness before exploding into the next fit of cleansing fury. Play loud in darkness for a fitting emotional summary of 2016.

Jana Dagdagan's Top 3 Albums of 2016

A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Tidal)
This album is meaningful for two major reasons: 1) A Tribe Called Quest hasn’t released an album in 18 years, and 2) its November 11 release served as an apt post-election present.

There are guest appearances from Elton John, Jack White, Talib Kweli, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, and (retrospectively/ironically) Kanye West. Beneath Tribe’s chill flow and witty sample pickings, their lyrics function as eerily poetic outcries to the injustices of the world.

Deadmau5: W:/2016ALBUM/ (Beatport)
Despite the methodic cleanliness and tight nature of EDM, Deadmau5 always reminds me that a true innovator can continually break down barriers and creatively push forward. Deadmau5 doesn’t seem too happy with W:/2016ALBUM/ (according to social media), but I sure am. And besides – you can never trust an artist who is content with their work.

Kaytranada: 99.9% (Tidal)
In his debut album, Soundcloud rise-to-famer Kaytranada exhibits complete control over the beat with his unpredictable rhythmic variety and knowledge of when to use space. Featuring Aluna George, Anderson .Paak, Little Dragon, and other impressive gems, 99.9% is a 15-track brew of feel-goods all around.

John Darko's Top 3 Albums of 2016

David Bowie: Blackstar (HDtracks)
An obvious choice but a good album is a good album.

By the time CES 2016 drew to a close, I had given Blackstar precisely three spins. "Dollar Days" played out as I traversed an empty parking lot at the upper end of the Vegas strip. The sun was all but down and I found myself in a reflective mood. I tried to imagine my reaction to hearing news of David Bowie's death. How would I feel and what would I do? 36 hours later, as I fired up my phone upon landing back in Sydney, that question was answered. At only 69 years old, Bowie was no more.

Not to make the big seven zero would seem like a raw deal for most people but have you even seen Alan Yentob's Cracked Actor? It's a miracle the man even made it out of the 1970s in one piece.

Only the laziest of fans would claim that every Bowie record is a peach. Tonight, Never Let Me Down and ...Hours had some great moments but were, on the whole, a little weak. On the other hand, I find Earthling and (especially) 1 Outside to be grossly underrated.

Blackstar falls far squarely in the camp of his best releases. Its jazz-soaked moodiness the distant cousin of Reality's "Bring Me The Disco King" or (especially) 1 Outside's "A Small Plot Of Land". 'Poor dunce'!

However, despite Donny McCaslin and his band's solid underpinning, the most consistent standout feature of Blackstar is the man's voice (and his lyrics)—collectively their most incisively dramatic since Heathen's "Sunday" or the semi-titular "Heathen (The Rays)". Few musicians manage to infuse their voice with such emotion whilst simultaneously creating a sense of emotional detachment for the listener.

And for the pig of a year 2016 was, emotional detachment was needed more than ever. Blackstar transcends any posthumous adoration (deservedly) heaped upon one of the greatest artists of the modern era.

Which brings us to...

To those who don't enjoy it, electronic music can seem alien and repetitive. They complain of its mindlessness. But is that not the point? Machine music that induces a hypnotic state in the listener for whom emotional detachment arrives as a pleasing byproduct.

Skudge: Balancing Point
Not all electronic music is designed for drugs and clubs. A good deal of techno, like that made by Swedish duo Skudge, works just as well in the lounge room as it might out on the floor of Berghain. Atop programmed percussion, motifs ebb and flow. Sometimes an acid burble has barely bloomed before it fades off into the background as quickly as it arrived.

Other times Skudge draw out the squelchy sounds and synth washes—see "Anode"—for more of that traveling without moving sensation.

For those hung up on genres, one might best describe Skudge's Balancing Point as the melodic nexus of techno and house with hints of dub and acid thrown in to thwart the would-be pigeon-holers. It is in turns moody, uplifting and introspective. Techno to be heard behind headphones as you walk the streets of your favourite city and, with shades of the early 90s Detroit sound appearing from time to time, this is an A1 choice for fans of Plastikman's EX or early Black Dog.

Skudge's Balancing Point is strangely missing from their Bandcamp page, Tidal and Spotify. Could it be a vinyl only release? If so, good luck finding one of the 500 copies pressed and released unto the wild.

DJ Kicks: Daniel Avery (Bandcamp)
Daniel Avery's entry into the DJ Kicks series bears scant resemblance to the John Tejada-esque elastic bounce of his own work, particularly that of his debut album Drone Logic. This is a far more straightforward proposition—a DJ mix that, by design, is built around the work of other producers; techno cuts stitched together with surgical precision for a continuous mix that rarely deviates from the mood set by its opening ten minutes.

We start with a beatless soundscape, which becomes a 4/4 pulse, then a throb which, over the course of an epic 80-minute runtime, moves to and from a thump. That's the album's backbone. The interesting stuff, that which holds our attention, is all that's weaved in-between and underneath: rhythmic clicks and pops and swirling synth washes. Avery's restraint in refusing to go all out with club bangers in the closing section gives the mix an even-handed feel from start to finish.

Interested? Buy your physical copy or download direct from Daniel Avery's Bandcamp page for quite a bit less than you'd pay in store. That said, my unmixed vinyl copy included the mixed CD as a bonus.

Alex Halberstadt's Top 3 Albums of 2016

David Bowie: Blackstar (HDtracks)
I really hated 2016. Some of the reasons were the deaths of Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and David Bowie. With their departures, the 20th century finally folded up the tent and put away the lawn chairs, leaving us to face whatever’s next. Cohen’s You Want It Darker is full of his usual gallows humor and grace, but the record I listened to over and over this year was Bowie’s. This "parting gift," as producer Tony Visconti called it, is decidedly short on valediction and bromides. Much has been written about Blackstar, but none of it prepared me for its juddering, seething unrest. Bowie rails at death while the New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet makes a scary racket behind him. Their weirdly textured crypto-jazz is neither depressing nor sorrowful, but instead sounds like an act of existential protest. Sometimes it brings my mind to a halt. As with most great records, every listen reveals something unnoticed. Blackstar is further proof that Bowie remains a permanent resident of the future, even now that he’s gone.

Mary Halvorson Octet: Away With You (Bandcamp)
Halvorson uses her guitar like a telescope. Her solos are messages from some planet where harmony follows different rules and where the denizens have more powerful brains and bigger ears. The most original bandleader in contemporary jazz, she juxtaposes the solos against her group’s more melodic themes, creating something that delights and startles almost continually. Throughout you can hear influences like La Monte Young, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and god only knows who else, but you wouldn’t confuse Halvorson’s joyously arcane music with anyone else’s. Listening to it is guaranteed to make you smarter.

Angel Olsen: My Woman (Bandcamp)
Something happens on Angel Olsen’s record I haven’t heard before. Her voice slows time. It’s like one of those movie scenes where a person walks down a street where everyone else is frozen. Listen to Olsen on "Sister" and see whether you can focus on the band’s playing. I never can. Her singing bends everything around it into itself like a black hole. Olsen sounds a little like Stevie Nicks and a lot like Hope Sandoval, and on "My Woman" she can be just as moving. Amanda Petrusich calls her voice "subaqueous." I imagine it coming out of a David Lynch roadhouse. Inside, bathed in blue light, Olsen sings to an empty room.

Michael Lavorgna's Top 3 Albums of 2016

Jeremy Bible: Music For Black Holes (Bandcamp)
7:59 of music to dream by all wrapped up in the perfect digital package. At one minute shy of 8 hours, Music For Black Holes is also unknowable in the song-sense, turning the workday time equivalent into a sensual journey inward and out. Recommended by a friend for that extra dose of warmthness.

Mannequin Pussy: Romantic (Bandcamp)
Mannequin Pussy kicked Beyoncé off my list with 17 minutes of howl 'n roll. Fresh, fresh, poppunk rolled up into one, big, ≈2 minute-per-song hook.

Sarathy Korwar: Day To Day (Bleep)
I loved Sarathy Korwar's story and I loved his music more. Day To Day " about how we individually and collectively live from day to day. The everyday rituals and tasks that bind us together, it’s a celebration of the trivial and mundane," says Korwar and my feeling is we are in desperate need of learning how to individually and collectively live from day to day.

Steve Plaskin's Top 3 Albums of 2016

David Crosby: Lighthouse (HDtracks)
David Crosby’s newest release at age 75 is a beautiful and well-recorded intimate album that will please his fans. The somewhat dreamy music found in his classic, If I Could Only Remember My Name, is presented with wonderful vocal harmonies.

David’s voice is recorded close-up with excellent focus. The studio effects present a large soundstage that compliments the music.

Rebecca Binnendyk: Some Fun Out Of Life (HDtracks)
This Canadian jazz/pop style singer and songwriter released a debut album of a varied collection of music ranging from Cole Porter to Joni Mitchell. The album is more pop than jazz with buoyant upbeat music. Nothing too introspective here, just pleasant easy-listening interpretations.

Lindsey Webster: Back To Your Heart (HDtracks)
Lindsey Webster’s new 2016 collection is a wonderful smooth jazz–pop style album. Lindsey has a sultry voice that is engaging and easy to listen to. The music in this album was more daring musically than the Rebecca Binnendyk’s release.

slim's picture

for this collection of non-obvious choices - will have to fit in some extra listening sessions between the years. Looking forward to audiostream 2017,

spivechild's picture

I'm already enjoying some new music, thanks! I was even lucky enough to find the Skudge Balancing Point LP!