After posting my favorite songs of 2016, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from this unbelievably great year in new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.
20. Wild Nothing – Life on Pause (“To Know You”)
19. Cullen Omori – New Misery (“No Big Deal”)
18. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (“untitled 03 | 05.28.2013”)
17. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (“All Night”)
16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (“22 OVER S∞∞N”)
15. Lucy Dacus – No Burden (“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”)
14. Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony (“Come On”)
13. David Bowie – Blackstar (“Lazarus”)
12. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (“Burn the Witch”)
11. Solange – A Seat at the Table (“Don’t Touch My Hair”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2016.
Local Natives are the hardest-working band in the game these days. They tour constantly and all throughout the world. They did take a short break after finishing touring their second album, Hummingbird, but this year they returned with Sunlit Youth, which represented a departure from the more conventional sound of their first two records. They’ve gone in a slightly more electronic direction here, but the results are still outstanding. It starts with the synth-driven excellence of “Villainy” and then the best song here, “Past Lives”. Lyrically, Sunlit Youth is pretty political, with the already-dated “I have waited so long, Mrs. President” line in the frantic “Fountain of Youth” and the never-dated defense of feminism in “Masters”, an all-out rocker reminiscent of their best song, 2010’s “Wide Eyes”. The one song here that sounds generally like a classic Local Natives song is “Dark Days” which improbably features guest vocals from the lead singer of the Cardigans (remember them?). I always give bands extra points for trying new things, and the Natives deserve many for going down a bold new path with Sunlit Youth. I should mention here that I’ve had the chance to hang out with the guys in Local Natives a few times, including recently when they came to Providence and Boston, and I can’t say enough about how nice and generous they are to their fans. That makes their success all the more enjoyable.
These four Brooklyn dudes have come a long way in just a few years. Human Performance is Parquet Courts’ third full-length record and with each record they’ve progressed from their punkish roots to a well-rounded indie rock band. Without a doubt, Human Performance is their best effort to date, leaving behind some of their screamy and atonal vibes for a truly cohesive work making ample use of melody and different sounds beyond the thrash of Light Up Gold and Sunbathing Animal. From the jump, there’s a different feel. “Dust” is a more organized, straightforward opener with a really strong guitar line. The title track comes next, with lead singer Andrew Savage’s echoed choruses adding something dramatic to the tune about a breakup: “It never leaves me / Just visits less often.” I love the spaghetti western feel of “Berlin Got Blurry”, which really feels like a song to listen to on a long road trip. On the lengthy, winding road of “One Man No City” Austin Brown takes over lead vocals, seemingly focusing on the end of the world over bongo beats before the band jumps into a Velvet Underground-inspired maelstrom of guitar and drums. There is really no telling how high Parquet Courts will fly now that they’ve discovered this new polish to their sound. With Human Performance, there is no longer a ceiling on what they can be.
I was a bit late to Dev Hynes’ previous album as Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe, but was nonetheless enraptured by his ability write meaningful, soulful and funky R&B. These songs were deeply sexy but also brilliant examples of the form, textured with scintillating, jazzy beats, Nile Rodgers-like guitar work and vocals from Hynes and a variety of guests. Hynes keeps the beat going on Freetown Sound, another phenomenal exploration of all things R&B. There’ve been many excellent albums the last few years by black artists taking a focus on what it means to be black in today’s world, including Black Messiah, To Pimp a Butterfly and A Seat at the Table, and Freetown Sound joins that cadre with Hynes’ own experience as both a black man and an immigrant (he’s British and lives in Brooklyn). “All we ever wanted was a chance for ourselves,” he sings on “Chance.” Later, on the topically-titled “Hands Up”, Hynes describes the anxieties of the day for so many (“Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?”) Elsewhere, Hynes takes a backseat vocally to Empress Of on “Best to You”, a very different kind of love song but one that showcases her measured singing over a frenetic beat. There’s still time for fun on Freetown Sound outside the heaviness of subject matter, and that’s best heard on “E.V.P.”, which is far and away my favorite Blood Orange song to date. To say “E.V.P.” has a killer groove would be the understatement of 2016, a groove befitting the guest appearance here by new wave goddess Debbie Harry. Freetown Sound is an impressive collection from an impressive artist who continues to rise.
Zachary Cole Smith, the leader of melodic Brooklynites DIIV, has some issues. He’s been arrested for heroin violations, has various health problems, and pretty much every time I’ve seen DIIV in concert he’s acted like a dick. This year he introduced each song by name and then quickly said “We’re called DIIV!” before launching into them, asked people in the crowd for drugs and accused us of being boring and depressing. This isn’t exactly a great way to endear yourself to fans. But, musically, DIIV have ever been better than this year’s Is the Is Are, their sophomore LP. Smith is the dominant creative force here, and I appreciate someone with demons who isn’t afraid to confront them in their art. The ringing guitar work on Is the Is Are is perhaps its defining trait musically, with outstanding sounds on the gorgeous “Loose Ends” and the shimmering “Healthy Moon”. On “Dopamine”, Smith and company spin a bright melody while he sings candidly about fighting drugs. (“Would you give your 34th year / For a glimpse of heaven / Now and here?”) DIIV’s best track here, and probably their best to date, is the beautiful “Under the Sun”, which Smith said was about how love saved him. The melodious guitar riffs recall the late-’80s wonder of the Cure as Smith sings “Yes I’ll come back to you / No I won’t ask where you run / Under the sun” to his girlfriend, pop songstress Sky Ferreria. As a person, I hope Smith continues to heal himself and get better. I’d like to think Is the Is Are is a step in the right direction personally while also being the best step DIIV has taken creatively.
I adored Frank Ocean’s 2012 solo breakthrough Channel Orange. It was a lengthy treatise on the world Ocean saw, and it helped bring me back to R&B after years on the sidelines. The world waited over four years to hear something significant from Frank again. After several false starts, he finally released a visual album, Endless, and an audio album, Blonde (although he wrote it as blond on the record, which sounds about right for Frank’s style). While I could care less about the former album, the latter didn’t disappoint. Blonde is a portrait of an artist at a crossroads. Frank very easily could have made a 40-minute record with songs like “Pyramids” or “Thinkin Bout You” (the most conventional song on Blonde is “Pink + White”, which also happens to be the best song here). Instead he followed his muse and created an hour-long journey populated with diverse detours, some of which even push the boundaries of what qualifies as a song. Some of these songs are insanely sparse, only accompanied by one or two instruments. But what fills in the gaps are Frank’s otherworldly vocals. He’s seriously the best male singer in pop music and his voice carries otherwise spare tunes like “Solo”, “Self Control”, “Ivy”, and “White Ferrari”. On the incredible harmonic outro of “Self Control”, a bazillion Franks sing achingly about a lost love. Blonde is an intense journey and shows how separate and unique Frank’s many talents are. This was worth the wait, and if we get more records like Blonde, he can take as much time as he wants between releases.
This album is a mess. The Life of Pablo seemed to take forever to complete, went through several name changes, has songs that seem like half-finished thoughts, and once it finally was released in the early morning hours of a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day, Kanye West couldn’t help himself and tinkered with the damn thing over and over. Despite all those problems, and despite being an aforementioned mess, The Life of Pablo is a beautiful, exciting mess, and rightfully in Kanye’s pantheon of great accomplishments. Musically, TLOP is on par with anything he’s ever done. Like Blonde, there is often sparse instrumentation but Kanye is brilliant at picking and choosing his spots. Here’s an artist trying new things, pushing his boundaries as a writer, composer and producer while challenging us to push our own as listeners. The biggest problem with TLOP, however is…Kanye. The dude just can’t help himself. The music and beats are beyond superb on tracks like “Father Stretch My Hands”, “Famous”, “Feedback”, “Highlights” and “Waves” but they’re all brought down a notch by his borderline-juvenile rantings about such things as wishing he could affix a GoPro to his penis and hoping he still has a chance to fuck Taylor Swift. The biggest exception to this is the haunting, excruciatingly personal “Real Friends”, his most naked song in years. The best Kanye is vulnerable Kanye, and on “Real Friends” that’s his default mode. Other highlights include the explosive duet with Kendrick Lamar “No More Parties in LA” and the heavily spoken-word, written-in-the-moment jam of “30 Hours”. I’ve resigned myself to the fact Kanye will never again eclipse what he did on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But Kanye at 80 percent of his capabilities is better than almost every other artist on the planet, and that’s what we got on TLOP.
I wrote about what Jimmy Eat World means to me when Damage made my 2013 end-of-year list. To sum up: Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band of the last 15 years and I’ve marked the changing seasons of my life alongside their music. Dating back to Futures in 2004, however, even I’d argue the quality of their music has declined with each album. Every now and then a song like “Carry You” or “Stop” would emerge and remind me of their greatness. But they hadn’t really done it over the course of a whole album a long time. The wait is over. Integrity Blues is Jimmy Eat World’s best album since Futures, and I’m still leaving open the possibility it’s better than Futures (I may need 12 more years to determine that, however). The quality of the songwriting and music are amazing here, the vast majority hitting their signature sound with lyrical content focusing on heartbreak and picking up the pieces. Opener “You With Me” is an absolute revelation, a smashingly successful, huge-sounding table-setter. My favorite song of 2016 was album centerpiece “Sure and Certain”, a classic Jimmy Eat World song in the vein of all their best hits both musically and lyrically. The melodic beauty of “You Are Free” would fit on album they’ve ever done and features typically out-of-this-world drumming from Zach Lind. I love the bouncy guitar sound on “Through”, the quiet innovation of the title track, and the epicness of their traditional epic closer “Pol Roger.” There’s even some room for hard rock: the bone-crushing guitar outro of “Pass the Baby” is possibly the hardest these guys have ever rocked. I do wonder how much more music we’ll hear from Jimmy Eat World, as Jim Adkins said the guys asked themselves why they’d make another record before doing this one. I’d hope the experience of making Integrity Blues reinvigorated Jimmy Eat World. It has certainly reinvigorated longtime fans like me.
Imagine, for a moment, this alternative musical universe: after the mid-’90s dissolution of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy links up with Jimmy Eat World and starts a new band (Jimmy Eat Wilco?) that plays country-tinged pop punk. That’s roughly the sound I would ascribe to Pinegrove, who this year dropped their major label debut Cardinal. It’s a simple comparison, but Pinegrove deserve credit for sculpting a sound all their own in 2016. You’re just as likely to hear eardrum-rattling post-punk power chords on Cardinal as you are light touches of banjo and mandolin. In total, this quick half-hour is the most full-of-life and carpe diem-eqsue collection of songs I came across this year. Their sounds aren’t reminiscent, but Cardinal reminds me a great deal of Japandroids’ Celebration Rock: a record you can pump your fist to while taking on the world. And similar to Celebration Rock, Cardinal focuses more on the intimacy of friendships than romantic love. This is highly apparent in the album bookends of “Old Friends” at the outset and “New Friends” at the end. The latter reminds me of what it was like going off to college with that uneasy confidence you experience as a teenager. “I resolve to make new friends,” sings Evan Stephens Hall. “I liked my old ones / But I fucked up, so I’ll start again.” Hall’s voice warbles with emotion from the outset of the record, a voice feeling familiar yet distant. “Every outcome’s such a comedown,” Hall yelps on “Old Friends,” while later managing to include the word “solipsistic” in a rock song. “Then Again” bursts at the seams with energy and every kind of guitar shit-kicking riff you can imagine; “Aphasia” and “Visiting” are awesome explorations of Hall trying to find that confidence to be the person he wants to be; “Size of the Moon” is the thoughtful, building, dramatic penultimate marvel that hints at years of future success for these kids. In a year so difficult for so many, I’d imagine Cardinal provided a shot of life at the right time. And if you need it as 2016 comes to an end, I’d suggest giving Pinegrove a chance.
Two years ago, when Smith Westerns called it quits after just three albums, I worried the uber-talented Chicago kids wouldn’t find individual success. I’m happy to report those worries were unfounded. While frontman Cullen Omori put out a mostly-terrific yet overly-slick solo debut in March, lead guitarist Max Kakaceck and drummer Julian Ehrlich released their debut album as Whitney in June. With Light Upon the Lake, Ehrlich (who mans the vocals as well as the drums for Whitney) and Kakaceck have blazed their own trail in ‘60s-influenced guitar rock. While the soft touches of Smith Westerns remain in much of what’s here, it’s actually Ehrlich’s other previous band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, that provides most of the influence over the sound, feel and production of Light Upon the Lake. UMO has this incredible knack of making their records sound like they were actually recorded in 1968, and that’s a trick Whitney picked up, especially on the UMO-flavored short rocker “The Falls”. The filter on Ehrlich’s voice throughout the record also has this effect as well, a honey-flavored tone that teeters on falsetto from time to time, showcased on the horn-powered “Polly”, bouncy closer “Follow” and the crisp, string-backed opener “No Woman”. (Side note: when I saw Whitney this year, Ehrlich said “No Woman” was about not having a girlfriend and he seemed pretty down about it. Poor Julian…) My favorite song here is the acoustic-driven “Golden Days”, a lament for lost love that sounds huge with its singalong “na na nas” but maintains a simple beauty. And, overall, despite most of the songs being about the end of relationships, Light Upon the Lake has an unmistakable air of fun. This is no better found than on “No Matter Where We Go”, a rollicking and sweet song brimming with bright riffs and this whimsical chorus: “I can take you out / I wanna drive around / With you with the windows down / And we can run all night.” Smith Westerns may be dead, but Kakaceck and Ehrlich are soldiering on, brightly into the future, with Whitney as their vehicle for psychedelic wonderment.
In so many ways, 2016 was a disaster. But for new music, it simply was not. Most of our remaining pop/rock stars put out new material: Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Drake, the Weeknd, Radiohead, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, David Bowie. Several of my own favorite bands brought new tunes. And from newer artists, the volume of outstanding work was dizzying. In all, 2016 was quite possibly the best year of new music I’ve experienced in my 30 years. Yet with all that, the album standing above all others was the major-label debut of a lo-fi indie rock band with a stupid name led by a heretofore unknown Virginian millennial. Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial is the best rock album not named Lost in the Dream released this decade. Will Toledo’s band crafted 12 incredible songs touching a wide range of influences: the mostly-understated and occasionally-wild vocal style of Stephen Malkmus, the melodic guitar of the Strokes, the soft/loud dynamics of the Pixies and thoughtful lyrical overtures in the long line of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Tweedy and, more recently, Courtney Barnett. Toledo isn’t treading a ton of new ground here: he’s just perfecting it and coming across like a savvy veteran doing it. Teens of Denial has killer guitar work, like the klaxon call of opener “Fill in the Blank”, the bone-crushing power chords of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and “1937 State Park”, and the start/stop chops of “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”. But there’s room for more: “Drugs With Friends” sounds like a wayward Wilco song with Toledo lamenting that “I did not transcend / I felt like a walking piece of shit” after taking drugs. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is one of the best rock songs in years, hitting that loud/soft dynamic while Toledo sings starkly about his inner demons. And there are even epics like the 11.5-minute marvel “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” and “Cosmic Hero” which starts with plaintive horns and ends with wailing guitars and drums as Toledo screams: “I will go to heaven! / You won’t go to heaven! / I won’t see you there!” It’s the sound of a rock outfit leading the charge of a new generation, planting a flag in uncertain times. My three favorite albums this year are by young bands making either their major-label or full-length debuts. As difficult as 2016 was, bands like Car Seat Headrest give us one thing: hope. And man, do we need it.