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RVA Magazine's Best Music Of 2016: Top 25 Records #1 - #5

Posted by: Amy – Dec 30, 2016

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We've reached the end of our countdown for the best music of 2016. Before we unveil our top five records of the year, let us again point you in the direction of the other sections of our lookback this past year: our Introduction and Honorable Mentions, our ten favorite Richmond Releases, our favorite songs, and numbers #16-25 and #6-15 of our countdown.

With that said, here are our picks for the Top 5 Records Of 2016:

5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

From cryptic lyrics to album art that begs to be deciphered, Radiohead has -- in their own anxiety-ridden way -- embodied the old showbiz axiom of “Always leave them wanting more.” It seems so appropriate then that they’d name an album A Moon Shaped Pool, given how apt a metaphor a pool is for art that offers increasing depth depending on how serious you are about pursuing it. (Even the lack of a hyphen between “Moon” and “Shaped” in the title feels worthy of investigation.) If you just skimmed the surface of the album’s sound, you'd be rewarded -- from the nervous energy of “Burn The Witch” and the naked virtuosity of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar in “Identikit” to the round, aching tones of the long-awaited definitive version of “True Love Waits.” But the real power of A Moon Shaped Pool lurks below the surface. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video for “Daydreaming” is a great place to dive in, with its heavy symbolism -- so heavy that someone made a 14-minute analysis video. That analysis hinges on Thom Yorke’s 2015 breakup with Rachel Owen, the mother of his two children, an event that lends loads of meaning to a lyric like “Just don’t leave.” “True Love Waits” was actually written more than 20 years ago, but Owen died of cancer earlier in December, and regardless of whether Yorke had her illness in mind when he was singing that phrase in the studio, those words now seem fathomless. --Davy Jones

4. Lucy Dacus - No Burden

How quickly things can change in a year. Early last November, I ventured over to J Kogi on a Wednesday evening to chat with an emerging local musician named Lucy Dacus. She had been building substantial buzz around her captivating live shows and the quiet Bandcamp release of her single, "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore," earlier that year was stunning anyone and everyone who heard its affecting profession. "This is my first real interview I think," she remarked moments into our chat for an article that would come out in RVA #23 the next month. Five blocks away sat The National, something that surely seemed like a lifetime away for the musician but would become a reality in October 2016 when she headlined a show there. In fact, it wouldn't take her long into 2016 to become one of the most discussed and lauded new artists, a reputation that continues to grow even now as music publications look back on 2016 (with NPR's legendary Bob Boilen listing it as one of the top records of the year).

We've written so much this past year about Dacus' glorious record No Burden and her timeless sound, as have many other extremely talented writers and esteemed publications, so words about the record just feel flat right about now. Instead, I just think back to that first interview back in November, weeks before "I Don't Wanna..." had its official release on Stereogum. It was a time when news of her debut release was limited to word of mouth, with most expecting big things from the young musician with a humbling sound. Ahead of me sat a true artist who candidly discussed her new record, while also gushing about Bernie Sanders, travelling, and, of course, Richmond. In fact, of our hour long discussion back in November of 2015, Dacus spent considerably more time discussing Richmond music than her own music with her face nearly blushing while expressing her admiration for sharing a stage with bands like Lobo Marino and My Darling Fury. Several months later, deep into the biggest year of her life, Dacus would continue this trend sipping out of a Virginia Is For Lovers coffee mug with a matching shirt on countless stages and appearances while telling her growing fanbase "to keep your eyes peeled for" for Spooky Cool. She'd find time to play in Richmond in the few gaps in her crazy schedule, even performing in the alleyway next to Deep Groove almost a year to the date after her Stereogum single premier. "Richmond shows are always the most special," she said then with stalwarts of the local scene looking on, each marveling just how far she had come in 2016 yet also how much she had remained unchanged. Things can change quickly in a year, but not when it comes to the connection Dacus shares with Richmond, a connection the city clearly reciprocates. --Doug Nunnally

3. Beyoncé - Lemonade

Beyoncé's Lemonade is one of the most written-about records of the year both because each song is amazing, but also because of the fascinating story she shares about womanhood. The album is carefully crafted to tell a very specific story, from being in love (“Hold Up”) to a lover’s deceit (“Sorry”) to forgiveness (“Sandcastles,” which never fails to make me cry when her voice breaks during "What it is about you...") to letting go (“Freedom”) to being in love again (“All Night”). Threaded into that story are references to the Black American experience, feminism, and family. This very beautiful and masterful record should have been called a concept album from the start by critics and music fans, but because of Beyoncé’s celebrity status, there was a barrage of stories questioning her marriage and wondering who “Becky with the good hair” was. This is something that is largely assigned to women -- someone paid a lot of money to find out who Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” was written about -- because their music must always be personal. I saw Beyoncé in Baltimore in June and, I know this sounds crazy, but my life has not been the same since. Her electric TV performances similarly changed audiences, but there was something about seeing her transformation from pop star to artist in person that really connected for me. Finally, I implore you to watch The Color Purple’s Tony Award-winning Cynthia Erivo performing “Sandcastles” as part of Ham4Ham -- it is so moving. --Melissa Koch

2. Angel Olsen - My Woman

The tracks included on My Woman are varied, displaying more of Olsen’s capabilities as an artist. The album opens with ethereal synth, which musically is a divergence from her last album. Overall, there is more of a variation of instruments in this release, and less of a country twang. Other songs, like the single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” sound like a more poppy and upbeat version of Best Coast’s “Crazy for You.” Then you have “Not Gonna Kill You,” which contains some of the same elements as psychedelic songs from the 1960s. There is still sparse evidence on the album of country and folk leanings, which seems to be Olsen’s trademark. While the songs on the album may be stylistically varied, Olsen’s overarching tone creates cohesion. There is a sombreness to the album as a whole. Lyrics of “Give It Up” read: “I tell myself I’ll never have this feeling with another / Oh, you’re in my heart forever.” Other songs on the album are also about heartbreak. In the video for “Shut Up Kiss Me” (which Olsen directed herself) Olsen twists her face in agony while heatedly compelling a lost lover to essentially forget everything and jump back into the closeness they had. The album is an interesting journey into what seems to be Olsen’s experimentation with not only sound but also varying influences. --Laura Bitner

1. David Bowie - Blackstar

2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.

It terms of sound, it transcends genre, as evidenced by the fact that it's being included on jazz and rock year-end lists alike. The Donny McCaslin-led combo behind Bowie sets a heavy tone, with plenty of dissonance, but there’s also room for expressive improvisation. As a group, they sound free -- incredible, given the weight of the subject matter they’re shouldering. (According to this Guardian article, Bowie told McCaslin “Whatever you hear, I want you to go with it.”)

Girl Loves Me” is the first song that really grabbed me. It felt strangely and intensely appropriate, given the swell of the album’s positive reception and the crushing news, just days later, that Bowie had passed. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” pretty much nailed it. But Bowie laced all of Blackstar with prophecy, starting with the epic title track, which was released alongside a video in which Bowie is surrounded by death in the form of apocalyptic, cultist imagery. It’s terrifying, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to act that part in his final hours. But even poppier songs carry through the prophecy -- closing track “I Can’t Give Everything Away” affirms Bowie’s claim to starry mystery, and it hints at a very real mystery contained in vinyl pressings of Blackstar. Almost a year later, people are still unearthing the Easter eggs enshrined in its album art.

2016 may have been bad, but David Bowie left us a message -- you can take control, even when facing the absolute worst. --Davy Jones

So concludes our look back on the best music of 2016, a crazy year indeed even for music. Here's to 2017 and the hope that the music continues to be amazing despite everything else on the horizon.

Concept By Doug Nunnally

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