Best Other Genres Album of 2016
Bent Knee - Say So
This avant-pop sextet caught my attention with this release. It’s their third album, and the first on Cuneiform after self-releasing the first two. The band blends pop, chamber, jazz, and prog together, not unlike the bands Carla Kilhstedt is known for (Charming Hostess, Tin Hat, or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum without the metal). The musicians are all graduates of the Berklee College of Music, and their virtuosity shines as they explore avant-garde avenues within pop structures. This is “prog” for people that liked The Beatles' pop experiments more so than the keyboard gymnastics of Emerson or Wakeman. It’s fresh, unique, and should pull audiences from a wide cross-section of musical tastes.
The Rest of the Best
Free Salamander Exhibit - Undestroyed
If the band’s name didn’t clue you in, this is a resurrection of sorts of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, featuring 4/5ths of that band’s members (all but Carla Kihlstedt, sadly). FSE had played live shows as early as 2013, but had not released any material until now, just squeezing into 2016 with this mid-December release. What’s here is a slightly paired down version of SGM. They continue to dwell at the intersection of metal, prog, and RIO avant-rock, albeit with a bit less of the pulling-instruments-out-of-every-orifice insanity of SGM. It’s been nearly 10 years since the final Sleepytime Gorilla Museum album, making this a welcome new chapter for that collective of musicians. Also a well timed one, as Sleepytime’s back catalog was re-issued this year on the Blood Music label.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead’s last full length, 2001’s The King of Limbs, didn’t really connect with me. It landed it in the same discard pile that Hail to the Thief ended up in, whereas I loved Kid A, Amnesiac, and In Rainbows. A Moon Shaped Pool fortunately finds itself joining the latter group. It is not Radiohead’s most boundary-pushing album. In fact, lyrically, it’s practically a break-up album, clearly informed by Thom Yorke’s split from his wife a year ago (who passed away from cancer this December). Those lyrics are delivered within perfectly executed hazy art rock, with each song like walking from one dream-state vignette to another.
Wadada Leo Smith - America’s National Parks
It trips me up so much to see such a highly lauded jazz album coming from Steve Feigenbaum’s Cuneiform Records label, one of the guys I used to chat with in prog-rock dork circles. I still associate Cuneiform really strongly with RIO avant-prog, so to see an album that was sandwiched in the release schedule between Richard Pinhas albums make it to the top of jazz end-of-year lists is just amusing. Can’t say that it’s not deserving, though.
Sioum - Yet Further
For those disappointed by last year’s Liturgy album, but love Greg Fox’s drumming, here’s your chance to hear him play what the album’s label calls “45 minutes of uninterrupted gritty and grinding cyborg thrash”. He’s joined by modular synth player Ryan Soper, and the two
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions - Until the Hunter
This is the third album from this duo, featuring the Mazzy Star lead singer and the drummer from My Bloody Valentine, coming 7 years after their last. In the interim, both groups reformed/resumed activity and released well-received new albums. And like the work of those groups, this is an album that is not in a hurry to get anywhere. The opening 9-minute track is a thick dream-pop fog. Other tracks invoke folk as well as Sandoval’s Mazzy Star work. It’s Sandoval’s ethereal voice and some varied instrumentation in the often minimalist accompaniment that elevates this above the run of the mill singer-songwriter-over-fingerpicked-guitar album.
Massive Attack - Ritual Spirit
It’s been 6 years (and counting) since the last Massive Attack full-length release. Back in 2010, “Daddy G” Marshall rejoined the group with a promise to “bring the black back to Massive Attack”. That didn’t fully manifest on that year’s album, Heligoland, but it does here, with each track featuring black rappers and producers, including former bandmember Tricky on the final track. As a result, it’s easily the “blackest” thing Massive Attack has done in nearly 20 years, and is all the better for it.