Is anything even good anymore? This last year has been a real challenge for my assumptions about myself and the world, and my inner turmoil definitely affected my media consumption. The fact that we all pay so much more attention to the news now, and the news tending to be so bad, drove me to spending a lot of time with multimedia comfort food; lots of movies and TV and old video games I didn’t have to think about too much. But music doesn’t have that escapist quality, tending often to be more reflective, as both Colin and John can tell you, which made my search for a joyous sound all the harder. This wasn’t a great musical year for me, is what I’m saying. I think a lot of albums that others would have called “great” were just “good” to me.
That being said, I do have a few honorable mentions. As always, this is a list that reflects my favorite albums based on my listening habits this last year. There are more albums that I liked and better albums that I didn’t spend as much time with, this is stuff from 2016 that I liked most in 2016. Of the five that just barely missed the cut, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, that album from The Walkmen guy and the Vampire Weekend guy, is the one that makes me the most sad, since it would have been on all three of our lists. There are a couple Colin albums I’d like to listen to more, namely Pile by A Giant Dog and WORRY. by Jeff Rosenstock (which I foolishly ignored for too long). Where’d Your Weekend Go? by The Mowgli’s suits only nice weather listening, but “Spacin’ Out” is definitely 2016’s #1 summer jam. Speaking of jams, the title track from Big Thief’s Masterpiece is awesome. That surprise Childish Gambino release “Awaken My Love!” is cool too. Finally, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which deftly showed off how much Jonny Greenwood had learned doing movie soundtracks, was quite good as well.
case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
The Hotelier – Goodness
Mitski – Puberty 2
The Mowgli’s – Where’d Your Weekend Go?
Anohni may have first popped up in your feed earlier this year, when she publicly boycotted the Oscars for not inviting her to perform her Academy Award-nominated song for pretty flimsy reasons. In the midst of the #oscarssowhite, it was easy to guess why the Academy would choose not to feature a trans singer tackling environmental issues, and that’s just one more reason why that award show is bullshit. Hopefully, despite it’s title, Hopelessness makes Anohni undeniable. This album deals bluntly, and I mean very, very bluntly, with topics such as drone warfare, global climate change, and surveillance from a personal viewpoint. It’s mournful, angry pop, and I’ll be damned if “Drone Bomb Me” isn’t the most powerful song of 2016.
The short, peppy Album by Sweden’s The Sun Days was my pick-me-up of choice this year. I don’t know if there’s much more to say about this album except that it’s extremely optimistic, with most of its songs focusing on self-empowerment. The opening lines of the first track, “Don’t Need to Be Them”, says it plainly enough, “life is fine just not quite like on TV.” Colbert told us that we were spending too much time worrying about lives that were not our own and stories that are bigger than us, and he might be right. You don’t need to save the world to have a good life.
A counterpoint to Album could be Lucy Dacus’ No Burden, an album all about social discomfort. This album’s opening track is about its narrator’s dislike of her role in her friend group and desire to switch to another pre-written role. But don’t think this is punk or anything, No Burden is what Pitchfork calls an “uncommonly warm indie rock record.” And I can’t deny there’s something comforting about Dacus’ voice and gentle guitar, which sometimes reminded me on Explosions in the Sky. Plus, for an album that came out in February, the line “I thought you’d hit rock bottom, but I’m starting to think that it doesn’t exist, you’ve been falling for so long and you haven’t hit anything solid yet” is an apt summation of the year.
Another introspective gem is Chris Farren’s Can’t Die, the only album I bothered to do a requiem for this year. Straddling the usually quite thick line between punk and power pop, I wish I had been listening to this album longer. When Colin wrote about WORRY., I was surprised I already had that album in my library. It’s because I really liked Antarctigo Vespucci’s last EP, and its two members, Chris Farren and Jeff Rosenstock, both put out awesome solo albums this year. But I forgot all of that and slept on two really great albums. Can’t Die suits my taste more, and it really probably would have made my top five if I was better at this.
Oh man, you guys, I can’t find anything about Space Mountain on Google. I can tell you it’s the project of Cole Kinsler, a Boston musician, and that he’s put out an album every year since 2013. I’m thinking I must have seen this on Facebook or Twitter, since I don’t see reviews of Big Sky on my favorite music review sites. Anyway, it’s a really good, low-key rock album with some super catchy songs. Like, you’ll want to sing along, but you don’t know the lyrics so you just idiotically sing gibberish to the melody. It’s pretty cool. But shit, I can’t even find a picture of this dude and his band because it’s named after a part of Disney Land.
Bon Iver decided to go… weird… with 22, A Million his latest album. I say he, even though I know the name Justin Vernon and that Bon Iver is a band not an unusual stage name, because the previous Bon Iver albums have felt such a singular vision. I don’t know if that’s the case with 22, A Million, since it tries to create the vibe of previous Bon Iver albums, but totally electronically instead of with barebones voice and guitar sounds. I think it works, even though it took me some time to wrap my head around this album. And I still haven’t decoded the album’s title or its stylized song names. Maybe it is designed to look inhuman and unnatural, just like how the album sounds more mechanical and less naturalistic than the band previously did?
The story behind Tween was that Wye Oak took all the songs that didn’t make their last two albums and polished them up for a new album. That sounds like this would be some bullshit B-sides garbage, but their actually is some genuine cohesiveness to these eight tracks, and more Wye Oak is never going to be a bad thing. There are only a few bands making good music like this, Beach House being maybe the best example, and they too pushed out a second album last year that sounded like it might suck but actually rocked. This isn’t where I’d start with this group, but if you skipped this one because it wasn’t the next Civilian, let me introduce you to “If You Should See.”
Is it going to be a thing that every two years Angel Olsen puts out a much, much better album than the last? Colin said it took him a little bit to dig deep into My Woman, which makes me feel lucky that this absolutely clicked with me on the first listen, which was swiftly followed by a second, third, and many more. It didn’t happen a lot to me this year, but I was totally addicted to this album for a little while. The songs that rock really rock and the introspective, gentler stuff is absolutely the right kind of tender that you’ll want to listen to it again and again. Can’t wait to hear what she’s got in store for us in 2018.
What a pleasant surprise Teens of Denial was. Colin’s already said all there needs to be said about this album, so instead I’ll talk about the one thing that kind of pissed me off. “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” is, I say without looking it up, the lead single from Teens of Denial. When we saw Car Seat Headrest in late November, they didn’t play that song. Instead, they gave us the Roots arrangement of it that they were working on for their appearance on The Tonight Show the following week. Then they didn’t even play “(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends [But Says This Isn’t a Problem],” so I was getting ready to be all “WTF!” Then, for their encore, they did some Talking Heads covers and all was forgiven. Ce que j’ai fait, ce soir-là, was learn that it’s not over until it’s over.
The popular sentiment on social media after David Bowie died was an expression of gratitude that we all happened to be alive at the same time as the Thin White Duke. There was a 10 year gap between Reality and The Next Day, so when we got Blackstar so relatively soon, I was excited about another Bowie Renaissance. Instead, it quickly became clear that this was a fond farewell from an artist that never looked back. Bowie certainly new this would be his last album, but he doesn’t use that as an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. Supposedly Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the biggest influence on the album, and their was a deliberate effort to avoid sounding like rock at all. Beyond his frank dwellings on mortality, Blackstar deserves to be remembered as a final reminder that Bowie always lived on the cutting edge.
In the time we’ve been writing these top tens, several more iconic celebrities and entertainers have died. It’s desperate and futile to hope that the earth completing it’s rotation around the sun will change our dire reality; 2017 is going to be hard too. And so honestly, I’m just so grateful we got Blackstar. This wasn’t posthumously released, Bowie used the last of his strength to finish one more masterpiece and left us to figure it out. It kind of makes the album an intimidating thing to listen to, a harrowing reminder of all of our inevitable fates sitting there in our music libraries. But to not listen, to not ask those questions, to not face that horror at all – that would be a real mistake. “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief. Knowledge comes with death’s release.”