For me, this list is the most important thing I write all year. While I enjoy all the various writing avenues I take, the “Top Albums” list is really the end-all-be-all. I’d be beating a dead horse if I discussed what a disappointing year 2016 has been, but instead, I want to focus on some of the great music released. Once again, I’ve compiled a list of some incredible albums that hail from a wide range of genres. Give the first 20 a read through and a listen, and I’m sure you’ll find something that strayed beyond your listening peripheral in 2016.
The Avalanches, Wildflower
Bat For Lashes, The Bride
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Steve Gunn, Eyes On the Lines
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Russian Circles, Guidance
Weyes Blood, Front Row Seats to Earth
Yoni & Geti, Testarossa
40. Swet Shop Boys
It is officially time to start wetting our pants – Donald Trump will be the President of the United States in 2017. The thought of that orange faced, mentally ill galoot running the most powerful country in the world is reason enough to be nervous, but his hateful rhetoric of bigotry and oppression has been even more appalling. Enemy #1 seems to be anyone of Muslim descent. Threats of a Muslim registry and even internment camps have already been floated by the Trump camp, and one can’t help but feel helpless to a Republican majority that might just appease the mad man’s wishes. Swet Shop Boys, a hip-hop duo comprised of Heems and Riz MC (both of Muslim descent), might just be the soundtrack of angst and hope that we have all been looking for in these trying times.
Heems, formerly of Das Racist, teamed up with actor and MC, Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of” and “Star Wars: Rogue One”) to create Cashmere, an album with an even measured dose of angst and hilarity. There’s a lot of reason for an angsty album from the subjugated pair, but instead of playing into the angry Muslim stereotype, the goofballs playfully mock the absurdity of the threats being waged on their people. Even when the lyrics delve into darker themes, Producer Redinho lifts the mood with lively samples from South Asian and Eastern cultures. Cashmere was released a month before election night, but it feels like a direct response to threats waged on an entire group of people. Instead of responding to the imminent future of oppression with aggression, Heems and Rez MC show us all how we should be dealing with our fear: with humor, intelligence, and a positive energy to fight for the rights of all our brothers and sisters.
39. Field Music
[Memphis Industries; 2016]
Throughout the history of rock and roll, the arrival of parenthood has often marked a decline in an artist’s creativity and output. We sometimes get gems like Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and David Bowie’s “Kooks” as a result, but the schmaltzy, lackluster content that most post-parenthood artists churn out far outweighs the memorable material. Field Music has bucked this tradition with their recent release, Commontime.
While past efforts often felt muddled by excess, the brothers’ 2016 album is an easy-going, serene listen. The songs, for the most part, have an amiable spirit and borrow heavily from familiar 80s touchstones. “Disappointed” could sit easily next to Kenny Loggin’s catalog, “It’s a Good Thing” is unapologetic Billy Ocean style R&B, and album opener “The Noisy Days are Over” is a jumpy funk number reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Some of the funniest moments on the album are when the lyrics focus on the experience of being a new father. “I’m Glad” questions the choice of becoming a parent (“If someone had told me/ how this would be/ Well, I’m glad I never knew”), “It’s a Good Thing” is an acceptance of the more boring yet fulfilling aspects of parenthood, and “Stay Awake” might be the greatest love song ever written about offering to stay awake for your exhausted wife. By becoming parents it seems that the Brewis brothers have less time to tinker and more time to get down to simply writing great songs.
“The Noisy Days Are Over”:
Trans Day of Revenge
[Amoeba Music; 2016]
Whatever happened to teenage angst? When I was an adolescent, teens who were frustrated with the state of the world found their battle cry in the music of bands like Propaghandi, Pennywise, and Good Riddance. The generation before me fought the reign of Reagan through bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag, and yes, Reagan Youth. But what do the frustrated youth of today turn to when upset? A snarky tweet with an @ mention? Holding up a hash-tagged sign in an Instagram photo? An ineffectual Change.org petition?
I know I’m probably coming off a bit a curmudgeonly, but I think now is a better time than any to get angry. Not hide behind a Twitter Egg angry, but angry like the hardcore punks of yore who lived and breathed antagonism. Thank God for the arrival of the transgender punk band G.L.O.S.S. They accomplish more in their five song, seven minute EP Trans Day of Revenge than anything else released in 2016 (and any peaceful protest). It’s blunt. It’s brash. It’s brutal. G.L.O.S.S. (which stands for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit), released their 2016 EP the day after the mass shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. On a day filled with the tried and true soundbite “thoughts and prayers,” Trans Day of Revenge arrived with a very different message of violence and vitriol. Singer Sadie Smith’s petulance permeates in each pummeling scream, yelling out lyrics that eviscerate any small-minded ethos that gets in their way. With Trans Day of Revenge, G.L.O.S.S. has provided a fight song for a generation taught to always play nice.
“Give Violence a Chance”:
37. Conor Oberst
It has been a while since Conor Oberst has released any music worth noting (2002’s Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, to be exact), which made his 2016 solo release Ruminations a bit of a comeback album for the one time darling of early 2000s emo kids. A major element in this return is his back to basics approach to the recording process. The sessions were originally intended for a demo, but when the label heard the intimate ambience of the live takes and the emotional wavering in his voice, they insisted he release it as is.
The emotive quality to Conor’s vocals are due in large part to the autobiographical nature of the lyrics. Album opener “Tachycardia” details a nightmarish trip to the courtroom, loosely based on rape allegations he faced in 2013 (the accuser would later release a statement saying she’d made the story up for attention). “Gossamer Thin” and “Next of Kin” reveal his struggles with fame and the resulting loss of the sincerity that marked his poignant early work, but on Ruminations, that earnestness has returned in a painful reprise. “Counting Sheep” might be the album’s darkest moment, Conor reflecting on his recent discovery that he has a brain tumor. He also sums up the double-edged outlook that makes Ruminations and those classic Bright Eyes albums so heart wrenching: “Tomorrow is shining like a razorblade.”
36. The Body
No One Deserves Happiness
[Thrill Jockey; 2016]
There was a time when I felt EPs didn’t belong on “top albums” lists due to their brevity, but that all changed in 2013 with The Body’s Master, We Perish, a four track EP that was so crushing and enraged that it would have been too overwhelming if stretched out over the course of a full length album. My point would be proven on their next effort, Christs, Redeemers, an LP that is unbearably brutal. In 2016, The Body took another stab at a full-length album with No One Deserves Happiness and have succeeded at creating a harshness that is still palatable.
A major element in this transformation is the voice of Chrissy Wolpert. She has worked with the band in the past, but on No One Deserves Happiness, her vocals are up front and center, singing with a chamber voice that is peaceful and unmoved by the bedlam behind her. Rather than softening their assault, Chip King and Lee Buford built an even more strident and terrifying tapestry to loom over the proceedings. King’s voice has never sounded so petrifying, shrill and unrestrained. Buford’s drums pound down furiously, like a claw hammer into the skull of an unsuspecting bystander. The dominant duo may be whipping up a dreadful storm throughout, but Wolpert brings serenity to the unavoidable tragedy.
35. Aesop Rock
The Impossible Kid
Over the course of his 20-year career, Aesop Rock has gained a following built on his fun wordplay, his extensive vocabulary (named the largest in hip-hop by a study), and his ability to create complex puzzle pieces that the listener must assemble through repeated listens. His 2016 release, Impossible Kid, is just as bookish and playful, but his word tapestries are much more candid and confessional.
As a 40-year old MC, Aesop Rock focuses in large part on the perils of growing old. “Lotta Years” takes on millennials from the perspective of an elder generation X-er, humorously questioning a time of artificial edge found in meaningless tattoos and artificial dreads. Other tracks take on memories from childhood, whether they be humorous anecdotes of his brothers on “Blood Sandwich” or a regretful rumination on his one time love of art as a child on “Rings”. When not revisiting his past, Aesop deals with current realities – the death of a friend on “Get Out of the Car” and his own struggles with depression on “Dorks”. Impossible Kid is a traditional Aesop Rock effort, but this time around, a beating heart can be found beneath all of his intricate, interlocking lyrics.
34. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
A Man Alive
[Ribbon Music; 2016]
A Man Alive is an album that shows how two minds are greater than one. For years, Thao Nguyen has been struggling to break through with a series of soulful albums that showed promise but lacked the distinctiveness to set it apart from the rest of the musical landscape. Meanwhile, Merrill Garbus was turning heads with an outlandish, boisterous blend of songwriting with her band tUnE-yArDs. However, once you got past the unexpected nature of her songs, there wasn’t much of a soul to grasp on to.
The two songstresses have joined forces for Thao’s latest effort with Garbus adding flourishes to Nguyen’s funky style. The result is an album that is as soulful as ever, yet lively and bizarre at times. Garbus’s production work definitely stands out, but Nguyen’s personal lyrics provide an anchor to the auditory fiesta. On “Departure” she explores the resentment she still holds toward her father who abandoned her family, and on “Endless Love” she opens her soul in order to discuss her struggle to stay strong and positive in the face of heartbreak. The combination of Nguyen’s darkness and Garbus’s light results in a listening experience unlike anything the two have created on their own.
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
The purpose of electronic dance music is to make you happy. If it makes you feel any other emotion, it is usually placed into a different sub-genre (drone, ambient, industrial, dub step). As a result, I often struggle to connect with a music style that has the sole intent of making me get up and dance. Underworld’s Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future hits the EDM sweet spot, activating the brain and the heart while still getting your toe to tap.
Underworld have been creating electronic music for over 25 years. Over that time, they’ve explored every nook and cranny of the genre, which is evident on Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future. “I Exale” stirs up Gary Numan nostalgia, the ambient “Santiago Cuantro” is likely a result of Karl Hyde’s time spent working with Brian Eno, and “Nylon String” provides a modern pop-song take on Kraftwerk. But Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is so much more than just a trip down Electronica Avenue. Instead of the tried and true lyrical content of “get up and dance,” Underworld provide a more thoughtful means of raising the listeners’ spirits, often sounding more like a motivational speaker than a dance song. On “Motorhome” Hyde sings the cyclical mantra of “Don’t let life drag you down/ Keep away from the dark side,” and on “Ova Nova” he talks the listener off a ledge, softly singing, “Change your mind.” Instead of trying to bring complexity to their lyrics, Underworld keep it simple yet powerful. This is best seen on album closer “Nylon Strung” where the feeling of love is beautifully captured in the repeated line “Open me up/ I want to hold you, laughing.” Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is an album for those of us who want to feel the joy and jubilation of dancing while sitting in a psychiatrist chair.
32. Big Ups
Before a Million Universes
[Tough Love/Exploding in Sound/Brace Yourself; 2016]
Hardcore punk is rooted in aggressive masculinity, which makes what Big Ups create on Before a Million Universes all the more intriguing. Unlike the traditional hardcore line-up of disaffected youth, Big Ups is comprised of four NYU students who met while taking a technology class. The foursome look more like the cast of Silicon Valley than the customary tatted skinheads of hardcore yore. On their debut, Big Ups attempted to follow in the footsteps of tradition with mixed results, but on Before a Million Universes, they’ve embraced the fact that they are not your quintessential hardcore band.
Free from constraints, the band brings in elements of 90s stalwarts like Fugazi, Shellac, and most notably, Slint. It’s surprising more bands haven’t mimicked the whisper to whiplash nature of classic Slint album’s Tweez and Spiderland, but Big Ups are up to the task with an album that hearkens back to the height of post-hardcore. Big Ups use these volatile dynamics to create tension and release, building off of lyrics that express disappointment and frustration with a capitalistic society. But this isn’t simply an album of anger – the band is striving for more respect for humanity, which makes the album title’s reference to Walt Whitman all the more fitting. On Before a Million Universes, Big Ups bring introspection to a genre that often doesn’t think before it acts.
31. Nap Eyes
Thought Rock Fish Scale
[Pardise of Bachelors; 2016]
One might argue that technological advances over the past 20 years have made our lives easier and more fulfilling. Social media keeps us connected and informed, advancements in software have given more control to the people, and the availability of content (music, video, information) is literally at our fingertips. However, I think we can all agree that something has been left behind this runaway train of advancement.
Nap Eyes Thought Rock Fish Scale stands in stark contrast to this age of distraction. While most musicians utilize digital recording software to create convoluted productions, Nap Eyes opted to record their entire album the old school way: four guys in a room with a tape recorder, capturing the songs in one take. There’s no post-production magic – Nigel Chapman’s voice sometimes slips off-key, the guitars periodically ring a little too loudly, the drums occasionally falter offbeat for a moment. But these imperfections give the album’s tranquility even more intimacy and credence. These songs probably won’t jump out at you from a Spotify playlist nor will you find the album very interesting as background music to an inundated evening of multi-tasking. But if you sit down in a dark room, place a needle on Side A of Thought Rock Fish Scale, and allow yourself a moment of introspection, you might just realize that some answers can’t be found on Google.
Honor Killed the Samurai
[Iron Works; 2016]
Earlier this year, the New York Post ran a front-page story about New York Fire Department Captain Kaseem Ryan, revealing that he is also the underground hip-hop artist known as Ka. In what would seem to be a celebration of a protector moonlighting as a starving artist, the Post instead opted to highlight his lyrics out of context and boil them down to simplistic nonsense “peppered with the N-word, drugs, violence and anti-cop lyrics.”
What the misguided article failed to mention were the lyrics of wisdom and hope found on Honor Killed the Samurai, a Wu-Tang inspired slow-burner that came out just days before the Post’s hatchet job. Instead of violence, his low, raspy voice delivers lines of positivity like “Watch me blueprint rec centers” or “I need money, not to bling, self-boast or greed reasons/but to bring health to the most diseased regions.” When the songs do veer into grittier terrain, they are not glorifying street life, rather they are cautionary tales. These raw revelations are paired throughout the album with snippets of audio, paralleling the hardships of the samurai with the stories woven in Ka’s tracks. Ka’s cerebral, low-key approach isn’t for everyone – clearly it requires more focus and attention than the New York Post has time to offer.
“Mourn at Night”:
29. Hamilton + Rostam
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
Rostam’s work with the band Vampire Weekend is some of the most distinctive production of the past decade, and Hamilton Leithauser’s vocals with the band The Walkman stands out as one of the most distinct and powerful in that same time frame. In the past two years, these two artists that defined indie rock in the 2000s left their successful bands to pursue solo work. They’ve both taken stabs at albums on their own, but their best work since leaving their respective bands happens to be a collaboration between the two.
The combination of two idiosyncratic musical voices could have made for a combustible, stilted mix, but the duo were able to merge their unique skills on I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. The signature elements of Rostam’s past work makes up the thrilling production – the calypso beats, the baroque string arrangements, and the watery piano – and Leithauser’s croon to howl vocal prowess remains one of the best voices in music. The resulting album is an adventurous listen filled with lively, vivid standards for the 21st Century.
“Sick As a Dog”:
Black metal has gone through many iterations over the past decade, ranging from ambient to prog to blackgaze, but Kvelertak’s take on the genre on their latest, Nattesferd, makes for an unexpected venture. Other bands have attempted to play off the serious nature of black metal; Kvelertak, on the other hand, opted to go with the more upbeat, speed metal stylings of 80s bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Instead of simply mimicking the classic metal of old, Kvelertak dust off the old sounds, ranging from Van Halen to Thin Lizzy, and add their own audacious flourishes of breakneck drums and screeching vocals to the mix. Nattesferd is the ultimate party album for the corpse paint community, providing anthems that will have you pumping your fist and screaming along to the lyrics (note: you might want to brush up on your Norwegian).
27. Heron Oblivion
Heron Oblivion are a bit of a psych-rock supergroup: Comets On Fire guitarist Ethan Miller and drummer Noel Von Harmonson are half of the brain-trust; singer Meg Baird has a similar pysch-rock track record with her past work in the band Espers; and guitarist Charlie Saufley played in the stoner rock outfit Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. Their debut album, a seven song, 44-minute LP, swirls by in an intoxicating haze, one gauzy, mystical melody after another. Baird’s placid voice brings a calm to the animated guitar swells. Sometimes Miller and Saufley’s guitars change course, bouncing off each other like bubbles in the wind, aimlessly floating out across the pastoral sprawl. On slower songs, Baird’s vocals are ethereal and composed, but on the heavier tracks her calm voice will quickly dive into off-key tongues that, in combination with the dissonant guitars, are reminiscent of Kim Gordon’s legendary rants (think Dirty).
Heron Oblivion may be this collection of musicians’ first effort together, but these space travelers have made similar journeys before. Fortunately, they still have uncharted galaxies left to explore.
[Def Jam; 2016]
Listening to YG’s 2016 release, Still Brazy, it’s easy to be reminded of Tupac Shakur with its classic g-funk grooves and his aggressive delivery, but the similarities with the legend go beyond just the album’s obvious nod. Much in the same way Shakur used his real life drama to guide his lyrics, YG has used tragedy to add depth and realism to his 2016 effort.
Last year, YG was shot at his Los Angeles recording studio by an unknown assailant. Instead of nursing his wounds and going into hiding, he left the hospital that night and returned to the studio the next day, reinvigorated and inspired to tell his rags to riches story (along with all the drama that has come with it). The album opens with “Don’t Come to LA”, a song warning of the dangers found in YG’s hometown, followed by “Who Shot Me”, a track that introduces the protagonist and the events that led to the album’s ensuing narrative. The remainder of the album is a mix of anger, paranoia, fear, and chest thumping. On his last effort, YG seemed to be in the rap game for a good time, but most of Still Brazy is serious business, even venturing into politically charged songs like “Blacks & Browns”, “Police Get Away With Murder”, and the protest song of 2016 “FDT” (ie: fuck Donald Trump). They say that facing death can change a man, and based of Still Brazy, YG’s brush with death has focused his verbal assaults on targets worthy of his disdain.
“Who Shot Me”:
25. A Tribe Called Red
We Are the Halluci Nation
The year 2016 was filled with disappointments, but perhaps one of the biggest was the disrespect and mistreatment of The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their protest of the North Dakota pipeline. Really, it isn’t that surprising. For over 400 years, Native Americans have been treated as second class citizens, their cause often ignored or quickly dismissed. With We Are the Halluci Nation, the Canadian DJ trio called A Tribe Called Red are unwilling to sit idly by while the injustices of colonization continue to wreak havoc on indigenous people of North America.
The three members of the group, Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau (of the Nipssing First Nation), Tim “2oolman” Hill (of the Six Nations of the Grand River), and Bear Witness (of the Cayuga First Nation) met in Ottawa in 2008 and quickly formed a musical bond. Their experimentations eventually evolved into what they refer to as “Pow-Wow Step,” a blending of hip hop, dubstep, and First Nation musical aesthetics. The album truly is an evolution, not only of traditional tribal music, but dance music as a whole, the constant pounding drums and captivating chants bringing more life to traditional EDM tropes. This innovative mixture results in an album of songs that can re-invigorate the youth of a nation that has been held back and ignored for way too long.
“We Are the Halluci Nation”:
[My Animal House; 2016]
Animal Collective’s 2016 release Painting With feels a bit like a final effort for the band. It’s a satisfactory album but lacks the spirit of adventure found in early AC works. Much like The Beatle’s near the end of their run, AC seem more comfortable and willing to take risks as solo artists. Panda Bear and Avey Tare have both found success on solo efforts over the past 10 years, but in 2016, the underappreciated and mysterious Deakin has emerged as AC’s biggest secret with his first solo album, Sleep Cycle.
In the same way George Harrison emerged from the Fab Four’s shadow back in 1970 with All Things Must Pass, Deakin’s Sleep Cycle arrived in 2016 with a six song track list that is the most authentic and compassionate music to come out of the Collective in a long time. While his self-assured bandmates have continued rolling out new music every year, Deakin has spent the past seven years struggling with anxiety and a lack of confidence in his work as a solo artist. This melancholy timidity is at the heart of Sleep Cycle and these same endearing qualities often remind me of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, another undervalued artist who finally made his mark after years of trying to find his voice. The lyrics often resemble that of a journal found left behind at a rehabilitation center, a message of having faith in the midst of despair. “Seed Song” and “Good House” end the album on a tranquil note, bringing calm back to raging waters. Synths bubble around his voice and wisps of a hollow air resonate peacefully up toward the surface. By the end of “Good House”, Deakin seems fully submerged, his voice tumbling calmly to the bottom of his ocean of sound. No longer does he seem scared or worried or uncertain – rather, he seems at peace with the world around him, even when he feels like a sinking ship.
23. Death Grips
[Caroline International/Death Grips; 2016]
In Kevin Smith’s 2001 film “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”, Ben Affleck gives Matt Damon acting advice, telling his friend, “First you gotta do the safe picture. Then you do the art picture.” It seems the noise hip-hop trio Death Grips share this same sentiment when it comes to their music. Looking at the band’s five year discography and you can see a pattern, moving back and forth from noisy art projects to more straight-forward presentations of their unique blend of chaos.
For the uninitiated, anything released by Death Grips is pretty overwhelming, but Bottomless Pit might be their most accessible album since 2011’s Ex-Millitary. The group’s nihilism is still on full display but presented through a lens that doesn’t completely bull you over like their last effort, Jenny Death. Over the span of the past five years, the drum work of Zach Hill has taken a back seat to more digital rhythms, but Bottomless Pit is a return to his off-kilter, frantic brand of drumming. Similarly, MC Ride’s confrontational lyrics have become more and more incomprehensible over the years; in 2016 they are up front and center, helping provide an angry voice to the digital onslaught. The band’s experimental elements are still prominent, but they’ve sanded down the edges and sharpened their attack for what is the band’s best album in years.
“Ring a Bell”:
22. Angel Olsen
Around five years ago, a batch of young female singer/songwriters released debut albums filled with sweet melodies, intimate production, and heartbreaking tales. Since those promising early releases, some of these artists have remained buoyed to this simple approach, stagnating a bit. Angel Olsen, on the other hand, has continued pushing the boundaries of her sound and her 2016 effort, My Woman, is her reaching the pinnacle of this exploration.
The one-time acoustic songstress who sounded like she was singing from the corner of a barn has emerged from her rustic past with a fully realized sound, complete with electric guitars, atmospheric synthesizers, and vibrant arrangements. It’s a marvel that such a lush, varied album was recorded live to tape by her five-piece band. Angel may have bulked up her sound, but her extraordinary songwriting remains the main course. The album also features her first attempt at a concept album, loosely basing the narrative around a doomed relationship. In the past she revealed her heartbreak in a breathy whisper; now her throaty vocals burst from each track, evidence that Olsen is confident and proud, even in her sadness.
“Not Gonna Kill You”:
21. Adam Torres
Pearls to Swine
[Fat Possum; 2016]
In 2006, a 20-year-old Adam Torres self-released his first solo album, Nostra Nova, to little fanfare. Unexpectedly, the album would slowly build a cult following of fans over the next 10-years. Meanwhile, Torre’s was exploring other interests – volunteering in Ecuador for a year, a stint at the University of Texas where he earned graduate degree in Latin American Studies, followed by time spent trying to improve the water quality of the Rio Grande. Despite what seems like an abandonment of his musical interests, Torre’s continued writing songs over the span of the ten-year absence as evidenced by his 2016 release, Pearls to Swine.
The result is an album that is dense with serene melodies and finely constructed songs. His voice is as beautiful as ever, hovering above the soft finger-picking and haunting violins. The songs abstractly relay his experiences over the past ten years. “Juniper Arms” and “Mountain River” explore the idea of home from the perspective of a nomad, while “High Lonesome” and “City Limits” meditate on the feelings of loneliness that come with life on the road. Pearls to Swine is a ghostly album of the fatigued traveler, returning from his journey, weather worn and exhausted. Welcome this weary album into your home and listen to its tales, rich with wisdom and soul.