Best Albums of 2016

Posted: December 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

20. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
19. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
18. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
17. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
15. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee
14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
13. Solange – A Seat at the Table
12. PUP – The Dream Is Over
11. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
If you like sad albums, this is a very good one. Sad songs are nothing new for Oberst — plenty of the stuff he did with Bright Eyes was sad, including much of their best album (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning) — but Ruminations is notable for being even more personal, and especially for being so sparse. Oberst wrote it after having to cancel a tour when he was hospitalized for “laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion,” and that struggle and his loneliness is reflected in his typically great lyrics. The music is him alone on guitar, piano and harmonica, and piano-based songs like “Tachycardia,” “Gossamer Thin” and “Next of Kin” stand out as some of the best here. “A Little Uncanny,” the only song where the pace picks up a little, is also great.

9. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

Kevin Morby lists The Band, Bob Dylan and Neil Young among his favorite artists, and it’s easy to see their influence on his work. There’s a lot of Americana here and Morby shows that he’s a pretty damn good singer/songwriter himself. “I Have Been to the Mountain” and “Dorothy” (which features awesome fuzz bass and some great piano breaks) are a pair of rockers that stand out as highlights, but slower songs like opener “Cut Me Down,” “Singing Saw” (which includes an actual singing saw) and “Black Flowers” are great too, as is “Water,” which builds into a classic upbeat folk song to close the album.

8. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

Much like David Bowie’s final album wasn’t just a nostalgic goodbye (more on that shortly), neither is A Tribe Called Quest’s first studio album in 18 years, which came out nearly eight months after Phife Dawg’s death. Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi still sound great and the songs still take on the world around them, including the presidential election, just like they did in the group’s heyday. Frequent Tribe guests Consequence and Busta Rhymes each appear on multiple tracks, while Andre 3000 on “Kids…,” Anderson .Paak on “Movin Backwards” and Kendrick Lamar on “Conrad Tokyo” all shine in feature roles as well.

7. Mitski – Puberty 2

Puberty 2 doesn’t refer to any second wave of physical changes, but rather the emotions and confusion Mitski Miyawaki experiences as someone in her mid-20s who has lived in a dozen or so different countries and is struggling with everything from her identity to relationships to paying rent. “Happy,” about falling for a guy who winds up just using her for sex, is an excellent opener that showcases both her great voice and the great production on this album, including a cool saxophone part. “Fireworks” (about depression), “Your Best American Girl” (about trying to impress an all-American boy) and “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” (the angriest, most furiously-paced song here) all stand out as well.

6. David Bowie – Blackstar

Two days before he died, Bowie left his fans a pretty great parting gift. Blackstar could’ve just followed in the steps of 2013’s The Next Day, a solid comeback album that was more an updating of previously explored sounds than anything new. Instead, Bowie pushed himself forward and made something that sounds completely original, not just for him but for music in general (and Bowie reportedly being inspired by Kendrick Lamar shows just how up-to-date he was right to the end). Jazz and experimental music aren’t new for Bowie, but he goes further down that path here than I think he ever has, including having a full jazz band backing him. A lot of the songs here deal with death (namely the title track, “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”), and it’s clear that Bowie had his own death in mind as he was making this album, even if most of us didn’t see it coming — he had been diagnosed with liver cancer 18 months before his death, but that battle wasn’t made public until after he passed.

5. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen had something of a breakthrough with 2014’s stellar Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but she takes a significant step forward on My Woman. The music is more diverse — opener “Intern” is dreamy synthpop, “Never Be Mine” is jangly folk pop with some Spanish-sounding guitar, “Shut Up Kiss Me” is an addictively fun rocker, “Give It Up” is pretty much grunge, “Sister” is a nearly eight-minute epic that builds to a Television-esque guitar solo, and closer “Pops” is a devastating piano ballad. And yet the album is more cohesive as a whole than any previous Olsen album, as it loosely traces a failed relationship, from skepticism to excitement to insecurity and finally heartbreak. Standing out through it all is Olsen’s excellent voice.

4. Beyonce – Lemonade

For the purposes of this list, I’m taking into account only the music and not the HBO visual special that accompanied Lemonade, although that is also great. Beyonce took a big step forward in terms of making a complete album with her 2013 self-titled effort, and she takes another big step forward with Lemonade. It’s her most diverse album musically, as she works in pop, R&B, hip-hop, soul, rock and even a little country on “Daddy Lessons.” Her anger at her lover’s infidelity and pride in who she is lead to some great vocal performances as well, especially on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sandcastles” and “Freedom,” the last of which may be my favorite song of 2016. “Hold Up,” “6 Inch” and “Formation” (which was somehow the only top 10 hit from this album) also stand out. (Note: No video for this one because Beyonce is too cool to make anything available publicly.)

3. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Anderson .Paak is a talented songwriter, talented singer and talented drummer, and he has a host of talented musicians backing him on Malibu. There are great guitar parts (“Put Me Thru”), great basslines (“Come Down”), great piano and horns (both featured on “The Bird”), and great drumming from .Paak himself (“Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”) — and most importantly, it sounds great all put together. .Paak’s music doesn’t fit into any one genre — there’s hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, rock, rap and probably more — which is part of what makes him so good. As far as the theme of Malibu, it’s a lot about him growing up and his surroundings — in opener “The Bird” he tells us “mama caught the gambling bug” and “papa was behind them bars,” and closer “The Dreamer” contains the chorus “And who cares your daddy couldn’t be here/Mama always kept the cable on/I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch/Living room watching old reruns.”

2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

I’m always skeptical of albums that are longer than an hour because so few warrant being that long, but Car Seat Headrest justify all 70 minutes of Teens of Denial. Will Toledo is a terrific songwriter, both in terms of music that rises and falls and constantly surprises and in terms of meaningful, emotional lyrics, many of which focus on depression. The table-setter is “Fill in the Blank,” a kick-ass rocker whose chorus evolves from the narrator being told, “You have no right to be depressed,” to the declaration that, “I’ve got a right to be depressed.” Some of the best songs here are the longest ones — “Vincent,” “Cosmic Hero” and especially the 11 1/2-minute “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” which features a great semi-spoken word section with all kinds of questions about life that builds to a climactic yell of, “I give up!” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “1937 State Park” are other personal favorites.

1. Pinegrove – Cardinal

My first reaction to Cardinal when I listened to it was, “This is pretty good.” Then I found myself liking it more and more with each listen, transforming my opinion of it to, “This is amazing,” and making it the album I listened to more than any other this year. Pinegrove is indie rock, but there’s some Americana there, complete with touches of banjo and pedal steel guitar, that helps separate them. The other thing that helps separate them is Evan Stephens Hall’s songwriting, which is great throughout eight songs that run just over 30 minutes. “Old Friends” and “New Friends” make for natural bookends to the album and tie together its friendship theme with a pair of gut-punch lines. On the opener it’s, “I should call my parents when I think of them/Should tell my friends when I love them.” On the closer, “I resolve to make new friends/I liked my old ones/But I fucked up so I’ll start again.” Everything between those songs is great too, with “Then Again,” “Aphasia” and “Size of the Moon” ranking as personal favorites.


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