In the words of Danny Baranowsky, composer of the chiptune soundtrack for rhythmic Rogue-like Crypt of the Necrodancer, “2016 was less than ideal in real life, but in fake life, so good!” Good and bad are pretty subjective; especially when it comes to me. I’m trying to optimistically remember 2016 as “surprising”. But indeed, in spite of the endless string of “surprises,” our fictional lives have been hugely enriched this year. Now, you may disagree. There’s no accounting for taste. Frankly I’m quite satisfied to be left confused, astonished, or weeping in a corner by the music and movies and games I enjoy. Anything that snaps me out of my mundane experience gets a gold star from me — at least, in 2016, where the only thing we can reasonably expect from real life in the next 5 days is more nasty surprises. That’s why EvadeGismo’s 2016 year-end lists are not for Best Blanks of the Year, but Most Surprising!! Let’s kick it off with music!
2016 MOST SURPRISING ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Sia - This is Acting
It’s not just that I wouldn’t have expected to be a “Sia person” in February; it’s more that I’m not the kind of guy who’d be into that whole style of music in the first place: that R&B’ish, operatic, victim-to-victory, chart-topper, lady-pop anthem stuff. Then “Bird Set Free” snuck onto a Spotify playlist and I found myself slipping the thumb of my latex glove (I was working prep at a kitchen) off and on, over and over again, to keep hearing that redemptive, swelling chorus over and over again. And so the fixation proceeded through every successive song on the album. It’s formulaic and radio-ready, but there’s skeletons and suffering and real fire inside that quirky timbre of hers. You cannot have the calculated redemptive thrust of these songs without a real emotional wound in there, too. It’s cheesy, but it’s raw. Leaving aside the wig-mask, the suicide attempt, and other assorted celebrity gossip, Sia is simply a pop-music genius.
She is also funny.
Lemon Demon - Spirit Phone
What must be the main reason I am blown away by Niel Cicierega’s latest album? Could it be that he’s the same guy who made Potter Puppet Pals and Ultimate Showdown? Could it be that his last album sounded like this? Or maybe it’s that my reaction to nearly every track has changed over time from “Dude, that’s catchy,” to “Dude, that’s hilarious!” to “Dude… that’s kind of dark,” to “Dude. That’s heavy.” It’s a kind of aesthetic calculus; standard pop structure, heavy synths, what I can only describe as a nerdy voice, and a deliberately unsettling lyrical fixation with the occult. Under the twisted logic of Spirit Phone, the bones of corpses leave behind coded messages (or, sometimes, marketable candy), video-game arcade machine quarters can keep a human heart alive for years, and the only thing between a boy and his love is a paradoxically unreal language. It may seem shrill at first; it may freak you out. But there are some boss-ass writing chops in Spirit Phone.
“Hey, look out!
We’re angry people!
Exploding in love!
We’re completely normal!
Throwing bottles at God!
You did this to us,
Why did you do this to us!?”
David Bowie - ★
My fiancee over at Art By Tuna has some interesting musical fixations. I mean, she can jam to pretty much anything, but given the choice, she’ll play one of three things: the entire genre of Vaporwave; the entire genre of Spacesynth; or the entire discography of Devo. That’s been her rotation for about two years now. Now me, I’m a Bowie fan. I’ve spent drunken nights with friends ranking his personas in order of drug-use (The Thin White Duke roosts firmly at the peak). And yet, before I had even really laid ears on it, after the tragic news of Bowie’s death literally two days after ★’s release, kicking off the 2016 deathstorm, my fiancee was shedding tears over this record. When, in pop music’s brief lifespan, have we ever had the opportunity to hear a shapeshifting genius almost literally sing himself off this mortal coil? ★ sings from inside of death itself, the singer’s own death, and how that wraps up in celebrity, in his image we’ve collectively inherited, in the ripples of the performing life, somewhere between utter ubiquity and ultimate solitude. Like everything else in David Bowie’s life, ★ is bombastic, articulate, and freaky as fuck. I don’t think any of us can have any higher hope than to go out in as much style as Ziggy did.
"You're too old to lose it,
Too young to choose it,
And the clock waits so patiently on your song,
You walk past the cafe,
But you don't eat when you live too long,
Oh, no, no no-
You're a Rock n' Roll suicide..."