Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

Top 50 Albums of 2016

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

20. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things (Volume 1 & 2)

stranger things volume twoWhen Netflix dropped the first season of Stranger Things way, way back in July, most viewers wondered, “Where can I get the score?” Almost overnight, analog synth gurus Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein became the two hottest electronic musicians in the nation, turning their Austin-based outfit S U R V I V E into a household name of sorts. The demand was extraordinary; after all, when was the last time anyone who couldn’t quote Escape From New York or The Thing would want to listen to moody, ambient synth music? Nevertheless, two addicting volumes of music were released, comforting the die-hard fans who yearned to be whisked away to Hawkins, Indiana. But you know what? The score stands apart from the series and goes much further than being a faithful homage to Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, Brad Fiedel, or Brian Eno. There are so many emotions within these two records — nostalgia (“Kids”), wistfulness (“First Kiss”), alarm (“Fresh Blood”), calm (“This Isn’t You”), melancholy (“Eleven”), et al. — that, after awhile, you start to forget all about Barb. And boy is that a fucking relief. –Michael Roffman

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Solange19. Solange – A Seat at the Table

Depending on who you talk to, racism has either been an undercurrent or a monsoon these past few years. Hate crimes happen more frequently because of increased awareness (thanks, social media), but also because our nation continues to divide itself over something that seems so obvious: equality. And yet people of color, in particular those who are black, continue to suffer the consequences for actions they never took nor provoked. That includes Solange and her family who were struck with trash when attending a Kraftwerk concert. In turn, she wrote an essay and then an album that fight back, wielding pride as a weapon.

A Seat at the Table preens on behalf of a whole group of people who were, and continue to be, wrongly condemned, routinely chastised, and talked over. Solange’s voice, glossy and full of air, delivers lines of justice with moving beauty on “Weary”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”, and “Mad”. Interludes about reverse racism and expectations create tension in an album of instrumentally soothing tones. But for all of its blended stratification (from indie superstar contributions to deeply rooted history references), A Seat at the Table earns its canonization not just because of its role in black artistry, but because, like the shrill note that closes “Cranes in the Sky”, it illustrates the ever-present climb of those who refuse to give up. —Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Car Seat Headrest18. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

2016 was a down year for indie rock and perhaps the start of a larger trend in which guitar music slouches meekly towards the graveyard. After all, we’re not far from the day when Pavement’s squiggly guitar leads squiggle their way onto classic rock radio, and one could argue that the cultural heft of a distorted tube amplifier may be stuck permanently in the pre-digital (that is, prehistoric) past. But for those who still can’t resist the siren song of a straight-up rock band, it didn’t get much better than Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial in 2016.

Teens of Denial followed hot on the heels of Car Seat Headrest’s Matador debut, the similarly titled Teens of Style, but the two were never meant to be sibling albums. Whereas Style functioned as a clearinghouse for Will Toledo’s fruitful Bandcamp career, Denial marks his entrance into a different class of songwriter. Its lead single, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, stretches on for just over six minutes and may go down as the indie rock song of the decade. Elsewhere, the album is filled with rousing choruses, superfluous alter egos, and other tropes that unabashed rock fans will take comfort in. The genre is in need of a standard bearer these days, and Toledo is more than up for the task. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Tim Hecker17. Tim Hecker – Love Streams

Even the most bitter people ache with genuine tenderness; you just need to catch them at the right moment. Electronic musician and sound artist Tim Hecker breaks out of his shell to place his heart on his sleeve for this year’s Love Streams. Over the course of 11 songs, Hecker blends melodies and, in turn, moods. But no matter which song he’s caught up in, a warmth pools at its core. “Up Red Bull Creek” feels remarkably emotional, especially compared to past releases, as does a song like “Castrati Stack”, even with its sharp glitching and static trips.

It all comes back to Hecker’s use of voices, a change-up in his usual musicmaking that he worked hard to integrate. Medieval choral music is translated to digital sighs. New choral parts appear with help from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s most viscerally felt during both parts of “Violent Monumental”, particularly on the second. Hecker turns inward towards what sounds to be oboe, looping notes until they begin to feel like an extension of the self, particularly an extension of thought via rumination in the style Philip Glass made famous. Electronica, even drone, has a stereotype of being cold. Love Streams is Hecker’s chance to correct that, offering a numbing sensation that gives life instead of stripping it. —Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Wilco16. Wilco – Schmilco

“I don’t think I’ve been afraid to show emotion,” Jeff Tweedy explained in our Wilco cover story this past summer. “But there are certain things I feel are just so silly and cliché to share as a singer-songwriter. And on this record, I think I just went, ‘Fuck it.’” No kidding. Despite playing the game for over two decades, the 49-year-old singer-songwriter has hardly ever sounded so intimate as he does on Schmilco, grappling with the never-ending angst of knowing that you never really can escape yourself. On album standout “If I Ever Was a Child”, he vividly paints this feeling, singing: “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take.” The Chicago rockers add some color to each of the album’s 12 tracks by stripping things down to its core essentials, peppering the proceedings with lush tapestries that speak to the hearty wisdom of each member. It’s the sister album to last year’s Star Wars, but the older and wiser sister, the one who cleans up the dishes after a raucous pizza party and spends the rest of the night wondering if life will always be like this. It’s a beauty. –Michael Roffman

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Schoolboy Q15. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP

What’s an artist to do when he’s equal parts raw talent and goofy commercialism? Instead of straddling the line between dark humor and the realism of gangsta rap once more, ScHoolboy Q dipped a hand in each this year and found he delivers some of his best songs to date in doing so. Blank Face entertains thanks to that balance.

“Groovy Tony”, a song driven by eerie backing vocalists and mischievous bass, tells a comic book-style revenge story — complete with the pew-pew of a raygun — that bears truths when not cranking on the cheese. That’s what ScHoolboy Q does best. Whereas other rappers get caught in the tangled web of their scarring backstories, Q gets busy coloring noir tales, bringing characters to life on “Overtime” and “Dope Dealer”. His delivery steps up from past lows — at times, Oxymoron’s delivery could be faulted by rote mirroring radio — to bear a ruthless sneer. With a reliable crew on board (Kanye West’s backwards yell on “THat Part” echos in your head for days), it upholds the structure of any good storybook without losing the grit of his early days. Forget about the bucket hat days. This is Schoolboy Q’s dark, twisted fantasy and, boy, is it a beauty. —Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Blood Orange14. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

Some blame album-equivalent units for the year’s glut of albums that burst at the seams with music. It may be what sank Drake’s Views from critical esteem and found some listeners losing patience with offerings from the likes of Frank Ocean, James Blake, and The Weeknd. The difference between an opus and a ploy for chart position feels slimmer than ever.

Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is just as guilty as any for walking that tightrope, but it never feels bloated or buried under its own weight. Dev Hynes took years preparing the record, trying out material live and working the collection into a coherent presentation. The songs flow into each other fluidly, at times representing more sonic collages than distinct tracks. Every moment on the record holds weight, be it appearances from the likes of Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Nelly Furtado, a spoken word poetry sample of Ashlee Haze reciting “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)”, or interview clips from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Vince Staples. In the hands of Hynes, sprawling is the only way to paint a portrait dedicated to those told they were “not black enough, too black, Too queer, not queer the right way.” Freetown Sound is the music of inclusion, and that’s a message that shouldn’t be truncated. –Philip Cosores

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

Radiohead13. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead has made a career out of tension, often reveling in the mismatch between Thom Yorke’s gorgeous voice and and the skittering anxiety of the music. A Moon Shaped Pool is unique among Radiohead’s nine albums because the tension has been released, and a band long-capable of making beautiful music has finally succumbed to loveliness. Jonny Greenwood’s experience as an orchestrator has allowed the band to play with a new palate of sounds, and the luscious strings of the London Symphony Orchestra mesh perfectly with the sparse pianos and electronic clicks that have long been a part of Radiohead’s repertoire. Not that the album is without drama: “Burn the Witch” is a scathing takedown of nationalism and xenophobia, and tracks like “True Love Waits” and “Ful Stop” have some of the band’s bitterest lyrics. But it’s the bitterness of strong dark chocolate, the kind that goes down sweet and leaves a smile on the lips.  –Wren Graves

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

A Tribe Called Quest12. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

If A Tribe Called Quest had left things where they did after the release of 1998’s The Love Movement, the legendary hip-hop crew’s trailblazing credentials would have been set in stone. Knowing that, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service doesn’t expand upon anything we didn’t already know, but it does reaffirm just how great Tribe was and still are. The Queens group’s latest is a dense, 16-track collection that’s still grounded by the jazzy, afrocentric sounds of its predecessors, but the formula has been upgraded for 2016. That applies not only to the group’s music, which today is packed with more samples, loops, and studio tricks than ever, but also the group’s mindset. Tribe have always operated with a deliberate social conscience, but tracks like “We the People” and album closer “Dis Generation” are as pointed and direct as anything the group has done. In a world sorely in need of healing, the return of one of the smartest, most forward-thinking acts in hip-hop couldn’t be more welcome. –Ryan Bray

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

__________________________________________________________

mitski puberty new album Top 50 Albums of 201611. Mitski – Puberty 2

Between the jokes about how 30 is the new 20 and “young adults” living at their parents’ houses for longer and longer, there are real trials and tribulations that come along with the altered timeline of adulthood in the modern era. On Puberty 2, Mitski takes on that anxiety and stress and explores what it means to truly grow up and try to find your own slice of happiness. Songs ache as though memoirs about how the crushing struggles of this life will sublimate into redemption when all the pain has collapsed. To illustrate that, Mitski Miyawaki produced “Happy”, a song that at once illustrates the heartbreak of a failed romance with a character named Happy and unveils her failed attempts to capture the feeling itself.

Mitski’s status as outsider to love and happiness aside, the singer-songwriter is also culturally other. Born in Japan and then having lived in countries from China to Turkey, she’s unlike any other artist — ironically displayed in the pitch-perfect indie rock epic “Your Best American Girl”. Throughout Puberty 2, Mitski looks at the extremes of happiness and sadness, of heaviness and dynamics that take textural and thematic chances, and attempts to split the difference based on the expectations of a modern American woman. She finds nothing quite sitting right. But in that struggle, Mitski discovers the ceiling of her symbolic voice and dares to dissect it, producing incredibly introspective, powerful art that digs at the struggle we all face trying to be the best adults we can.  –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

view all
69 comments