In 2016, for the most part Splice Today music critics favored lighter albums, optimistic and un-weighted: these were great escapes in a year full of cultural and political turmoil and psychological shadowboxing. Reality was upended. Death came and won. This list starts out dark but gets remarkably light pretty quickly once Bowie and Kanye are out of the way: Deakin, Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Rosali, and Matmos all made albums you can zone out to or burrow in. Car Seat Headrest is thankfully nowhere to be found. The rest of the lot are somber reminders that life is fucking hard. Nuance got lost in the woods this year. Anything less than a mission statement, a cry for help, or death as performance piece was quickly forgotten by most everyone else, but we remembered those records that, in their joie de vivre, seemed totally out of step with daily life.
#1. David Bowie—Blackstar
On January 8th, I wrote: “Is David Bowie dead? Not even close: he’s shot out of a cannon. His latest album, Blackstar, out today, goes beyond all expectation and at last renders the superlative ‘his best since Scary Monsters’ irrelevant and obsolete. The question now 'Is it better than Blackstar?’” Whoops! Bowie began this year’s celebrity death march, and no one kicked it with as much purpose: Blackstar is singular in the pop music canon, the first time a major rock star has made their own death a work of art. There are countless posthumous albums that get a sympathy bump, but Bowie lived to see his last album acclaimed on its own terms, and I wasn’t the only one who thought it signaled the beginning of a twilight run of records well into his 70s. After listening to Blackstar over and over that weekend and in the weeks following Bowie’s death, I put it away for most of the year—it’s too much to bear. Most of the praise centered on the title track, and rightfully so, but the most thrilling song on here is “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” the last time Bowie rocks out. The darkness and urgency of that song stuck with me more than anything else on Blackstar this year. Bowie yelps, “WOO!” twice toward the end of “Tis a Pity,” and it’s a primal sound, unwilling to go through his death throes undocumented. For the rest of the year, and especially that week, Blackstar loomed over me like a phantom, Bowie’s body gone but his spirit more present than ever in his final work. —Nicky Smith
#2. Kanye West—The Life of Pablo
The media loves to hate Kanye West: he's a boisterous, brazen, brilliant black man confident in his genius, positive that he's the 21st century Andy Warhol, the new Steve Jobs, Shakespeare in the flesh—and he's right. Since 2004, he's reshaped hip-hop—and the entire music industry, really—with each one of his seven albums. He mutates like The Beatles, uncomfortable in already-explored sounds. He had redefined himself six times by 2013—with the soulful, chirpy conscious rap of The College Dropout, the cinematic scope of Late Registration, the stadium-level synths of Graduation, the auto-tuned mourning of 808s & Heartbreak, the nihilistic maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the nihilistic minimalism of Yeezus—I figured, what else could he do but repeat himself?
And that's exactly what he appeared to be doing after releasing the promotional singles "Real Friends" and "No More Parties in LA," two tracks that see Kanye more or less repeating himself, albeit beautifully. SWISH, as the album was then called, would’ve been his Let It Be, and that would’ve been fine—great, probably. But he made The Life of Pablo instead, a sprawling, intentionally unfinished masterpiece that revels in contradictions; in that regard, it might be his most personal album, constantly revealing the humanity behind a self-mythologized figure. Pablo both defies and exemplifies his notorious perfectionism: it was clearly a rush job—documented in real-time on Twitter—evident in the ever-shifting tracklist and general sonic messiness, but Kanye also labored over this album, changing lyrics and adding songs after it was released. He also shows how beauty and ugliness can exist simultaneously, juxtaposing the transcendent opening of "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" with cringe-inducing lines, "Now if I fucked this model/And she just bleached her asshole/And I get bleach on my tee-shirt/I'ma feel like an asshole." Although Picasso comparisons abound, I think Matisse's later work is a more accurate analogue: on Pablo, Kanye leaves pieces of the canvas unpainted, allowing crudeness to clash with beauty, stereotypes to be re-contextualized, begging the listener to ask themselves, "When is a piece of art 'finished'?" —Booker Smith
#3. Mannequin Pussy—Romantic
I like to imagine Romantic’s penultimate track, "Hey, Stephen," as the difficult younger sibling of Taylor Swift's country-pop song of the same name. Where the latter is pristine, cute, and just a little bit coy, the former rages with emotional honesty and a visceral, vulnerable intensity; the latter might be conventionally prettier, and easier to bring home to your parents, but the former's feel-it-in-your-gut sincerity will always be more captivating.
This sense of immediacy courses through the entire 17 minutes of Romantic, Mannequin Pussy's sophomore album. The album never loses momentum, even as frontwoman Marisa Dabice shifts from topic to topic, singing about the necessity of self-love and the paralyzing effects of depression with the same ferocity. The band navigates the tumult of hardcore and the sweet melodies of pop-punk, sometimes within the same song, like on album centerpiece "Pledge." This approach defies categorization and helps define their distinct appeal: they operate in a familiar setting, yet remain unpredictable. On first listen, Romantic sounds sloppily cathartic, but the adverb isn't necessary; in fact, it's downright inaccurate, as this album reveals itself to be one of the tightest, most deliberate projects of the year. —Booker Smith
#4. Matmos—Ultimate Care II
A cursory glance at Matmos' discography might lead one to dismiss the high-concept electronic duo as a novelty act: their 2001 album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, is composed of recordings from medical procedures? 1998's Quasi-Objects culls together noises from around their house? Okay. It seems like every album is designed to fit a narrative, to pop from headlines.
But that type of cynicism is antithetical to Matmos' ethos. They're an adventurous duo who work from the inside out, taking specific concepts and building them up into sprawling, labyrinthine songs; they create beauty from the mundane. This has never been more evident than on Ultimate Care II, which credits the eponymous Whirlpool washing machine as its only instrument. The one, 38-minute long song mirrors the length of a standard cycle of laundry. This isn't a coincidence; Matmos never try to hide the fact that they're playing a washing machine. The album opens with a knob twisting, water falling into the cylinder, sloshing around. Toward the end—before the pummeling percussions of the final four minutes—the duo give the washing machine its Jimmy Page moment, allowing it to solo during the rinse cycle. This results in the album's most viscerally tactile moment, the anxious splashes of rising water communicating a helplessness to the impending climax. —Booker Smith
#5. A Tribe Called Quest—We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
For the sixth and final LP from A Tribe Called Quest, liner notes, Genius.com, and close listening will serve you well as a listener. Why? Because advances in technology have rendered moot the idea of constructing hip-hop live, in-studio. Guest features are recorded, then emailed, then pasted into pre-determined sonic spaces; it’s a fundamentally antiseptic aesthetic that robs modern rap of the communal spirit from whence it originally sprang. By contrast, the great majority of We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was cut in Q-Tip’s basement studio in multiple sessions with the group and most contributors present, everyone’s enthusiasm feeding into an overall family-regrouped vibe.
Two or three rappers harmonize chants and choruses often enough that separating out individual verses, as they emerge, can be fraught; perhaps, though, that’s as it should be. Q-Tip, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the late Phife Dawg are joined by peer Busta Rhymes, and their ideological progeny—Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Talib Kweli, among others—for some playfully, clever political palaver that’s sumptuously jazzy. Indeed, there are moments where We Got It from Here… tumbles into pockets of soulquarian funk and sample-happy piles. If this isn’t strictly Tribe’s best album, it’s arguably their third or fourth best, but right now it feels quintessential: a potent, workshopped reminder that there is power in unity, and strength in numbers. —Raymond Cummings
#6. Young Thug—JEFFERY
Once recognized exclusively for his eccentricities, Young Thug has proven himself to be more than hip-hop's resident oddball—indeed, he was one of the most vital musicians of 2016, both sonically and outside of the studio. His evolutions were subtle in the beginning of the year—they can be heard in the mournful glimmer of "King TROUP," or the spazzed-out explosion of "Drippin'"—but August's JEFFERY represented the starkest pivot of his career. Visually, he expanded on past provocations at hip-hop's default heteronormativity by wearing a bespoke dress on the album cover. Later, in a Calvin Klein ad, he stated, "I feel like there's no such thing as gender."
The music matches these progressive views. Thug's ability to seamlessly fuse hip-hop and dancehall into a wholly unique genre must have Drake blowing up his phone for some ghostwriting. Unlike the 6 God—whom I love, but is, admittedly, more of a sonic cosplayer than visionary—Thug never sounds stilted on the mic, obligated to turn into a battle rapper, crooner, or international ambassador from track to track. He's fluid throughout the mixtape's 42 minutes, best exemplified by amorphous "Harambe," one of the year's best songs, where Thug yelps and pleads and hollers, offering the thesis of his Bowie-esque mindset: "Fuck it, I'm changing up on 'em!" Young Thug has no peers. —Booker Smith
#7. Rosali—Out of Love
With her sweet and low debut, Philadelphia singer/songwriter Rosali Middleman perfects that most undervalued of genre staples in contemporary times: the vaguely confessional guitar-centric LP. The title sets the table in terms of theme—yearning, adriftness, a post-romantic dolor—but I’d welcome Middleman channeling any emotion. Her voice rings sharp and clear, wearied warmth bubbling up within its contours; her every hook is true, and never quite over-exposed. If Out of Love has a shortcoming, it’s that there’s no hyperbole available to recommend it to turn your friends into fans beyond “This is an extraordinary, humane record that deserves to worm itself into your life.” Let’s give it a try, though: “Hangin’” is pure Fleetwood Mac; “Blind Bird” trumps anything in heavy rotation on country radio right now; “Good Life” sounds the way that Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting looks at the end of a trying day, when you’re at or near wit’s end, watching natural light slowly drain from the sky. —Raymond Cummings
#8. Animal Collective—Painting With
What to do with a beloved band that’s been around for nearly two decades approaching their 40s? Throw them in the refuse pile, apparently: Animal Collective’s 10th studio album Painting With wasn’t met with scorn like 2012’s Centipede Hz, it was just ignored. It’s a miracle that they survived the highs of the hype cycle for Merriweather Post Pavilion, the culmination of a decade’s worth of work that showed a band that could seemingly do anything and go anywhere. I saw them repeat themselves for the first time in 2010 with the visual album ODDSAC, and started to ignore what was once my favorite band, too burned out to keep up and spiritually bruised at the reality that all things must pass and there are no messiahs or angels on earth. Because for nine years, Animal Collective could do no wrong, and though their output has slowed, I’m so grateful they survived the inevitable fall from grace of the kind of cult they created. They’re still trying new things: for the first time ever, none of their new record was played live prior to release: Painting With was debuted in concert in Philadelphia the day the album came out.
The songs here are dry and concise, blueprints for their modular-heavy live show. I saw them twice this year and they’re just as amazing as, oh, pick your year… the AC has never really dipped in quality, sometimes it’s just too much of a good thing. I’ve listened to the two live recordings they released in May, along with dozens of other fan-made recordings, more than the album itself. These shows made me more psyched on the band than I’ve been in seven years. Knowing that anything can happen and enthusiasm dips, I feel so grateful to have the AC on the road with a new record that’s really great. But at this point in the press and the public, they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t: another record full of meandering transitions and buildups would’ve been rightfully dismissed as an out of character retread. The songwriting on here and the live calisthenics show that the AC are still wizards in a world of their own. —Nicky Smith
#9. Deakin—Sleep Cycle
Sleep Cycle is an album about trying in vain to fall asleep, knowing full well that you have failed, are failing, and will maybe always fail at something or everything. There was never any guarantee that these six songs would see release; Animal Collective member Josh “Deakin” Dibb composed and recorded them, in fits and starts, over a seven-year stretch. Here, despair emerges as the supreme motivational fuel for the ultimate in low-key autumnal psychedelic brooding. The field-recording brushed folk of “Golden Chords” finds Dibb delivering a pep talk into a mirror; “Just Am” leaps into the surrealistic ether with blueprint in hand; “Footy,” meanwhile, is probably the out-pop equivalent of what the titular character from Shade, The Changing Man experiences when shunting from one dimensional plane to another. And when Cycle goes full-on abstract, it grows stronger still, from the reedy, multi-tracked splendor that “Seed Song” taps to how fixedly interlude “Shadow Mine” composts and pitch-shifts mantras and motifs. In Dibb’s shaking hands, life’s sourest lemons become better lemonade than, well, Lemonade. Fans of the wider Animal Collective diaspora had all but given up on Cycle, but it does exist, and it’s a minor classic. —Raymond Cummings
#10. Deerhoof—The Magic
Another band that’s been around forever and has survived countless hype cycles; another band that the press doesn’t know what to do with. You can count on Deerhoof to put out a new record every couple of years, and they’ll be back at the Ottobar here in Baltimore in no time, I’m sure. But I find myself returning to The Magic more than anything since 2005’s The Runners Four, the consensus high-watermark for a band that is too often neglected and taken for granted, and will be sorely missed once they’re gone. Let’s enjoy them while they’re still here and enthusiastically making music.
This record gets off to a flying start with the song “The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue,” riff attack after riff attack, and it barrels through 15 enormously catchy and fun songs that show a band not coasting but comfortable, like skilled craftsmen having a particularly good day in the workshop. Three of the songs here are among Deerhoof’s best: the sassy single “Debut,” and the gorgeous and emotionally potent “Acceptance Speech” and “Criminals of the Dream.” The refrains of those last two—“We love to visit your towns” and “Dream, you can dream, you can dream / I know you can dream,” respectively—are the perfect credo for a workingman’s band like Deerhoof, still plugging away and making magic. Who cares if it’s compulsion or a sense of duty as long as it’s good? —Nicky Smith