FLOOD’s Best Records of 2016

Great year for music, terrible year for everything else.

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5. Leonard CohenYou Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen knew that he was dying, but he did not know while working on You Want It Darker that it would be his last album. While it’s difficult not to hear it as one final thanatopsis from death’s finest lover, it’s nevertheless incorrect to do so, and besides, Cohen would never be so morbid; he had more style than that. Rather than being a clear-eyed examination of the life of the world to come, You Want It Darker is instead a nearly perfect re-examination of all of the themes Cohen visited in a lifetime of song. He greets each like an old friend—he seemed to greet everything like an old friend—and dances his familiar dance.

But as anyone who was fortunate enough to see Cohen perform knows, he was an old dog in love with new tricks. While his later work frequently found him using Christian imagery to make Buddhist observations from a Jewish perspective (truly; see 2012’s “Going Home”), here he sounds disappointed and burned out—though without losing his reverence. Romantic and spiritual love are conflated, as they often are for Cohen, but he has little to offer his subject other than a consuming and palpable sense of regret.

And yet, You Want It Darker never feels like a work of negation. Perhaps that’s owing to the production work of his son Adam, whose lush orchestration makes this the best-sounding album of Cohen’s late career. But it’s also because even when his songs are at their most bleak, they never feel like the product of malintentions; they are instead clear-eyed acknowledgments of limitations—his own first and foremost, though not solely—and a promise to search for a better way. — Marty Sartini Garner

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4. Angel OlsenMy Woman

By definition, typecasting is a problem associated with the film industry. But it’s arguably just as much of a problem—if not more so—in music, where confounding artists like Angel Olsen will sometimes go their entire careers without shaking the first impressions that they provided to the public.

For her part, Olsen arrived—on Half Way Home, her full-length debut—with a bare, confessional sound, and was quickly turned into a posterchild for heartbreak and confusion in exchange for her troubles. Two years later, on Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she dialed back the yodeling and dialed up the sense of humor, but her reputation remained largely unchanged. What would it take, then, for her to move forward in the public eye? What would it take for her to break the typecast? Well, what it took was My Woman.

Olsen’s third album is the long jump of the year—a near unbelievable product of artistic growth, instantly ushering her into the critical realm of some of the biggest names in music. Gone is any excuse for two-dimensional readings, and in its stead is a requirement to try to understand a figure bursting with depth not just as a songwriter and a singer, but as a bandleader as well. It’s The Everly Brothers filtered through the lens of someone who grew up singing along to Mariah Carey and Destiny’s Child, your first love remembered from the altar of your wedding. In essence, it’s complex. And whatever ends up being Angel Olsen’s next part, there will be no preconceptions. — Nate Rogers

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3. A Tribe Called QuestWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

They have little interest in movin’ backwards, one song tells us, but by then we hardly need persuading: this great, improbable, and final Tribe Called Quest album opens with a one-two punch of not-so-distant-future dystopias, the first one a madcap space colonization where there’s no room for the marginalized and the vulnerable, the second an authoritarian’s reimagining of the Bill of Rights. You know: flights of fancy! But the key line in those two songs is the most down-to-earth and sobering: “We’re stuck here.” So we are. Might as well make the most of it.

And they do. The gang is all here: Q-Tip as adventurous as ever, Phife rapping his ass off from beyond the grave, prodigal Jarobi exponentially multiplying his list of recorded Tribe appearances, Muhammad (my man) grounding Tip’s imagination in knotty funk, Busta Rhymes and Consequence tapping into the unmistakable vibe that’s going on here. This is a record that’s haunted by loss and braced against an uncertain future, even as it collides with a troubled past—but the damn thing just keeps moving forward. It’s the messiest Tribe album by a mile, teeming with joy, big ideas, and a will to make every word and every beat count.

It’s impossibly skillful in how it captures their spirit without recalling any Tribe album in particular. It’s their aesthetic updated and expanded, denser and grimier, swampy where their classic albums are crisp and airy. Every song offers profound pleasure and fearlessness. My favorite moments tend to be the tag-team raps, whether it’s Tip and André 3000 going back and forth on “Kids…” or the full gang holding a roundtable on “Dis Generation.” Yours may have more to do with the production: Jack White’s guitar squall, Elton John’s solid wall of sound, the samples, the grooves, the killer pacing and momentum. They knew they had to make this one count.

Of course, I don’t know that any record can avert the kind of crisis that the opening salvo predicts, but I do know that hearing Phife lay claim to the nickname “The Donald”—because the man once known as “Don Juice” can—gives me hope. We’re all in this together. And the hour is never too late for a left-field surprise, a masterpiece of love and inclusion, or a dance party at the world’s end. — Josh Hurst

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2. RadioheadA Moon Shaped Pool

Stanley Donwood’s artwork for A Moon Shaped Pool contains within it all the micro and macro dimensions that Radiohead’s music inhabits. Sitting there on the cover is the titular pool, cosmically swirling, suggesting a landscape of tremendous size—possibly alien. But there’s also a face, monstrous in proportion, intimidating in its vacancy—like a portrait of the astronaut cousin to the Dick Tracy villain The Blank. “A frightening place,” Thom Yorke sings on “Glass Eyes.” “The faces concrete grey.”

It’s a cold world out there, and it’s only getting colder—or hotter, as it were. And as we all continue to cook together on the global level, we still mill about on the personal one, because what else can we do? Since Radiohead’s ninth LP arrived in May, Brexit and Trump have shaken the Western world with the ramifications of a post-truth society, calling into question both the feeling of concern as well as the feeling of futility that tends to follow it. (In all of 2016, was there a more prescient line than “The numbers don’t decide / The system is a lie”?) It’s a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety, and for those afflicted, it will likely never totally dissipate.

Radiohead haven’t exactly been a beacon of hope and sunshine at any point in their career, but it feels as though they have now reached their darkest depths. Apart from the themes of a looming environmental catastrophe running throughout the album, there’s also the factor that this is the first Radiohead release since Yorke split with the mother of his two children, whom he had been with for nearly the entirety of the band’s existence. Knowing this, it’s often unclear as to whether his lyrics concern the world at large or his own individual world (again, the micro/macro), and as a complement, it’s also frequently unclear whether the tone of the band’s playing is meant to sound overtly somber or simply purposeful. Truly, the only thing that is clear in revisiting this set again and again is that A Moon Shaped Pool is the best Radiohead album since Kid A.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s video for “Daydreaming,” Yorke walks room to room, space to space, opening doors. He does so with increasing rapidity—like he’s growing frustrated, but also slightly frantic—until he ends up in a cave, collapsed next to a fire. The journey supplements a central issue of the album, which is that, despite all of our toiling, we never really do know what it is that we’re searching for. The only thing we know is: be it an ocean or a pool, we are all going back from whence we came. — Nate Rogers

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1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree

It feels fitting that the best album of 2016 is shadowed by artistic failure. Much of Skeleton Tree was written and recorded before the death of Nick Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur. According to director Andrew Dominik, whose film One More Time With Feeling follows Cave and The Bad Seeds in the weeks after that horrible event, the grief-stricken singer, who over his forty year career has never lacked the words to describe much of anything, was virtually unable to return to his desk. Only one of Skeleton Tree’s songs was written after Arthur fell from a cliff outside of Brighton, and when the band returned to the studio two weeks later, they eventually decided to focus on refining what they had already put together.

There’s no way of knowing which of the sounds on Skeleton Tree were recorded after Arthur’s death, and the opening line’s reference to someone crash-landing in a field near the River Adur (itself near Brighton) aside, Cave never mentions his son directly. The source of the album’s pervasive darkness, then, is necessarily unclear. At times it feels as though Cave is reluctantly drawing back the curtain shielding us from the heretofore unknown depths of horror that exist in the world every day, that he merely got there first. That is an incredibly attractive concept in a year so characterized by despair.

But to define Skeleton Tree entirely by the miasma that lurks in its every corner is to miss its foundation: love. Cave has spent his career circling the love song, drawing portraits saccharine, threatening, and doomed. For Cave, love has been a transaction, a way of asserting power or of being dominated, and a cause of desperation. Here, though, it’s life’s only source. He stumbles through the album, gasping for breath in an apparently loveless universe; grief, we see, is a kind of asphyxiation.

Love does not only exist here in absentia, though; it also comes in the form of support. The Bad Seeds’s cresting vocal harmonies lift him up in the chorus of “I Need You,” their soaring beauty temporarily drowning out the menacing synth pad that’s otherwise followed him throughout the song. On “Jesus Alone,” they gently clatter, giving their leader space until their individual sequences begin to sound like soft finales; it’s as if the individual Bad Seeds are trying out endings, each one doing their best to coax Cave away from the oscillating vacuum at the center of the song. Like Job’s friends, they bring comfort, however inadequate that comfort may be.

There is no easy solution—not for Nick Cave, and not for any of us. The light comes in somewhat naturally, if furtively and obscured. “They told us our gods would outlive us,” he sings in “Distant Sky,” “but they lied.” That he’s even able to make such a concrete statement after half an hour of abstract keening feels like a kind of victory, however bitter it may be. He sings of the sun rising in his beloved’s eyes as they set out for new territory, and this knowledge seems like enough to carry them for now.

When we speak of darkness, we imagine it ending, dawn breaking, and a new day rising to reveal a refreshed landscape eager for renewed cultivation. We imagine that we’ll go back to who we were. To be sure, dead wood and skeleton trees are the last stop on the cycle, with new life just a seedling away. But that’s the thing about new life: it only contains a kernel of the old life. To try to live any other way would be a failure. — Marty Sartini Garner

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