Top 50 Albums of 2016

on November 28, 2016, 12:00am
view all
Next

Going into 2016, we never could’ve known exactly how much pain we were in store for. No matter where you stand politically, culturally, or musically, the year was dominated by division, conflict, and loss. As it always does, music reacted to that reality, at times offering comfort and escape, while finding an outlet for rage and frustration at others. Though no one will be asking to go through all of that again, the powerful music produced over the last 12 months worked as a powerful consolation.

(See: Top 50 Songs of 2016)

And that kind of experience will produce an incredibly personal connection to art. Because of that experience, the discussions that led to the production of this list were perhaps more impassioned than any other year, each writer giving a rousing speech for just how each album helped them through a difficult time. Though we can never quantify or rank the feelings engendered by 2016 or the albums produced in its span, lists like these will allow us all to capture the world as we so intensely felt it.

__________________________________________________________

Iggy Pop50. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

When you make music that sounds like you’re giving an acid bath to the tainted world around you — burning the pain in your own life while the outside world burns — it suggests a victory not over relative contentment but vile depression. On Post-Pop Depression, Iggy Pop deliberately uses the strength of his sound to summon something more than temporary wrath … for one last time. Whether announced or not, every legendary artist will have a final album. We learned that tragic lesson in real-time with David Bowie’s , the master’s impending death revealing itself upon repeat listens. Pop announced that finality himself upon the release of Post-Pop Depression, both in the press and in the album itself. Though still full of the characteristic Pop intensity (“When your love of life is an empty beach, don’t cry,” he muses on “Chocolate Drops”), the former Stooges frontman and Josh Homme teamed up to rage at the dying of the light, funneling the power of its members’ pedigrees and boasting a high-volume homage to Pop’s past. “To really make a real album, you really have to put everything into it,” Pop told Beats 1. He scrapes up every last bit of his power, infusing songs like the bone-dry “American Valhalla” and bruised sunset “Paraguay” with a timeless snarl. In a year when we lost so many legends, it’s good to hear “the last of the one and onlys” (as Homme put it) choosing how to go out — and going out on top at that. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Weaves49. Weaves – Weaves

There’s a humor at the heart of Weaves’ work that makes each song sound as if it’s smirking. But no matter how hard you search for it, that joke won’t reveal itself. On the Toronto outfit’s self-titled debut, they zip through 11 art-rock tracks, each more sporadic and jolting than the last. On “Candy” and “One More”, guitarist Morgan Waters and drummer Spencer Cole create a delightful cacophony akin to Deerhoof. They throw in slide guitar, skip downbeats, and zig zag around traditional rhythm structures, accenting the genius side of insanity, even when relatively in row on “Human”. At the front of it all is Jasmyn Burke, elongating words on “Birds & Bees” or “Coo Coo” to complement the plunging bass. The four-piece constantly sound like they’re on the verge of exploding, a dozen colors of confetti prepped to shoot from their cores in a way that even the most familiar listener won’t expect. Come the end of the record, you start to figure out what it is they, and their songs, are smiling about. It’s a shared sense of energy amid a lack of structure, a grin at the unknown, a smile before leaping off a cliff. Weaves are creating pop that distorts its own intentions — and they’re as surprised by the songs’ twists as you are. –Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Kanine

__________________________________________________________

White Lung48. White Lung – Paradise

“Punk,” as a label, can be liberating or paralyzing. As an example of the latter, White Lung frontperson Mish Barber-Way explained, “There’s this really stupid attitude that only punks have where it’s somehow uncool to become a better songwriter.” It’s that stubborn resistance to change that White Lung rail against on Paradise, pulling back some on the throttle and opening up on cuts like “Below”, “Hungry”, and “I Beg You” — power ballads that don’t require the band to sacrifice any of their scathing ferocity. But Paradise captures more than just a band expanding their sonic arsenal. Barber-Way’s vocals now soar to match her sneer, she steps outside herself to write from various perspectives, and she challenges modern conceptions of feminism, even her own. If evolving to create one of the best hard rock records of the year isn’t deemed “punk” enough, well, fuck punk. –Matt Melis

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Japanese Breakfast47. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

When Michelle Zauner’s mother passed away after a brief and painful battle with cancer in 2014, the singer-songwriter found herself doing the thing she’s instinctively best at: arranging and rearranging songs, trying to make the pieces of her shattered life fit by way of music. And then, one day, she ended up with an album, which she named Psychopomp after the mythological angel who directs souls to the afterlife. The remarkable thing about Psychopomp is not its sadness or its acute sense of tragedy, but rather its defiant celebration of life as something worth holding onto, warts and all. Album standout “Everybody Wants to Love You” says it all in its title — love is fragile but plentiful, painful but omnipresent. Zauner pairs such reflections with understated melodies that may take some time to grow on you but hit you like a ton of bricks when they finally do. Life can only be lived one time through, but this is an album that bears (demands, even) repeat listening. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Martha46. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

Martha is a group of young, anarchist punks from northeast England that make music that’s as infectiously hooky as it is progressive in its politics. “I’m a person, you’re a person, nothing else is really certain,” Martha sings on “Precarious (Supermarket Song)”, and there’s really no better summation of their inclusive approach, which results in songs about social outcasts and Catholic school queers struggling with the same shit as everyone else: crushes, day jobs, anxiety. Blisters is also just a goddamn great guitar record — there’s the sloppy abandon of Superchunk, the Exploding Hearts’ razor-sharp snottiness, and please god don’t overlook the “More Than a Feeling” homage on “The Awkward Ones”. Blisters is undoubtedly all killer and no filler, but standout “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” might provide the best glimpse into the band’s promising future. A melancholy, solitary intro seems primed for melancholic reflection (“This year I’ll spend November in the house”) but soon blooms into a celebratory sing-along that can’t help but shine a light on the saddest of seasons. “When all of the band members join together and sing ‘Blisters in the pit of my heart!’” we wrote in our review, “it’s hard to tell whether to be devastated or elated.” I’m both, but the elation will win out in the end. It usually does. –Randall Colburn

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Young Thug Jeffery45. Young Thug – JEFFERY

Unpredictability has always been Young Thug’s best quality, whether that meant being unable to predict whether he’d yelp out an explosive ad lib or growl out a nonsense couplet, or if it meant being unable to pin him down. The superb JEFFERY doubles down on that uncompromising complexity while also somehow revealing more of who he is in the process. In an era in which too many rappers lack a unique flow, Thug shows off nine of them on a single tape — the throat-scraped bark of “Harambe” and sing-songy glottal pops of “Kanye West” stand miles apart — and yet these tracks are all so undeniably Thug. From the photo of himself in a dress on the cover, to the tracks named after figures he’s inspired by, to the through-lines of identity and love for his partner, JEFFERY is a thrilling and surprisingly rounded exploration of the complexity of modern life, challenging binaries and expectations at every corner. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

__________________________________________________________

Lambchop FLOTUS44. Lambchop – FLOTUS

Today’s America isn’t the same place that birthed “Americana” as a genre. If anyone knows that, feels that in their bones, it’s Kurt Wagner, the always-evolving core of alt-country mainstays Lambchop. Throughout the act’s 30 years, he has consistently poked and prodded at the definitions of American music traditions, digging at the scabs to reveal the reality behind the facade. In 2016, that meant filtering the country through a vocoder and adding electronic elements for the sublime, haunting FLOTUS. The record unfolds like a drive down the highway, though now digital billboards stud the horizon, promising commercial cures for your blues. Wagner finds beauty even in the most desolate, corrupted moments, as when picking up trash in his backyard on the glittering “Harbor Country” or in the patchworked vocal samples of “Directions to the Can”. Lambchop always reveled in twisting traditions, but FLOTUS insists that they’ve also been honoring the twists along the way. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

The Hotelier43. The Hotelier – Goodness

The Hotelier’s breakthrough 2014 album, Home, Like Noplace Is There, may go down as the defining document of the emo revival. With its firecracker energy and relentless procession of anthems, the album idealized youth so fervently that it felt real and hollow all at once, as if it were madly chasing something it could never quite catch. For their third studio album, Goodness, the Massachusetts group took the inverse approach, turning their attention to the unknowns of the here-and-now and crafting a sprawling work of art that aims to capture life at its most mundane as well as its most thrilling. The result sounds like something that finally lives up to emo’s name because genuine emotion doesn’t always express itself at volumes dialed up to 11. Tracks like the gut-punching “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” take on the theme of death, and vocalist-bassist Christian Holden finds himself reflecting on what comes next with the same lyrical skill he once employed to look backwards in time. It may not be the band’s most rousing work to date, but it’s certainly their best and most engaging. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Kevin Gates42. Kevin Gates – Islah

During the few years immediately preceding Islah, the ever-impassioned Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates was making his versatility known, filling his free mixtapes with songs that appealed to different audiences. Here, on his debut album, he proves how far he can take those same abilities. As hooky as the album is, Gates didn’t have to water down his sound to make it more accessible. Instead, songs like “2 Phones”, “Pride”, and “Time for That” are evidence that, well, he’s just a really, really good melody-writer and won’t let that talent go to waste. Elsewhere, “The Truth” — where Gates opens up about the incident in Florida last year when he kicked a female fan at a concert — is the exact antithesis of the lighter, melody-driven moments on the album. It’s an intensely honest rhyme spree that’s like one long hook itself. “These tats on my face don’t mean nothin’/ I was locked up, that don’t mean nothin’,” Gates starts on “Ain’t Too Hard”, merely one spot on the album where he refuses to be easily summed up. Really, the entire LP is a triumph of multidimensionality. –Michael Madden

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Mothers41. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired

The long title of Mothers’ debut, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, is an appropriate fit; the album is a sprawling multi-instrumental landscape, shaped out of exhaustively experimental song structures. Each song follows its own erratic path, and even the most serene moments teeter on the edge of dissolution, about to give away to chaotic instrumental interludes. The album is therefore easy to disappear into, and lengthy, winding songs like “Nesting Behavior” and “Hold Your Own Hand” are the entryway. The submersing atmosphere is the work of the instrumentation, from the simple, frail sound of the plucked mandolin to the bigger orchestral arrangements. The release is an exploration of genre as well, pairing the deconstruction of math rock with the quiet moods of folk. The through-line of the album is Kristine Leschper’s voice, which trembles on the edge of breaking throughout. From this tension, the album draws vulnerability, and at the end of its emotional journey, it is a welcome weariness. –Mary Kate McGrath

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

view all
Next
51 comments