The 20 Best Albums of 2016

By: Tim LaVoie

2016 seemed like the year that would never end. Musicians responded with dense, serious works reflecting the current environment. Importantly, these works also exhibited hope for the future. Winnowing around 350 new albums heard to just 20, while attempting to represent each major genre, is a difficult task. But it’s never been more gratifying. Despite what your grumpy friends say, there's never been a better time to be a fan. The range of the diversity of ideas and experimentation expands by the minute, to the extreme benefit of the curious listener. I hope with this 2016 list everyone finds something worth celebrating. TL

20. MONEY - Suicide Songs: On their second record, the Manchester trio swing big. MONEY’s unabashed ambition results in a sweeping, cinematic album. Suicide Songs has an Echo and the Bunnymen mets the Verve feel, showcasing an enormous sound enhanced by swirling strings and horns extending across every song. While Suicide Songs explores only melancholie themes, the exuberant instrumentation assures a record that lifts the listener into the clouds, rather than deserting them in the gutter. Essential tracks: “I’m Not Here”, “All My Life”

19. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS: It can be difficult for even quality electronic music to elevate above being just a soothing background. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s evocative production, and aquatic-sounding rush of analog synthesizers creates a soundscape built for the foreground. On the tracks with vocals, Smith channels the blurred warble of Silent Shout-era the Knife. EARS flutters around with shifting melodies and blissful wanderings that disorient and comfort in all the right ways. Essential tracks: “Wetlands”, “Rare Things Grow”

18. White Lung - Paradise: White Lung’s new melodic direction could be a purposeful attempt to expand their audience, or just the natural growth of a band challenging itself. Either way, this more polished version of punk resulted in the band’s best work. Though in softer packaging, aggression still makes up the record’s backbone. Fans both new and old should be excited about the band’s trajectory. Essential tracks: “Narcoleptic”, “Paradise”

17. Savages - Adore Life: The all female post-punk band took a massive, daring artistic step forward this year. Adore Life explores the power of open space and self-control. At times it sounds less like punk and more like classic Talk Talk or Joy Division. Meditative tracks “Adore” and “Mechanics” indicate the breadth of Savages’ ambition. Those songs surround burners with the breathing room necessary to make tracks like “The Answer” and “T.I.W.Y.G.” sound all the more punchy and urgent. Essential tracks: “Adore”, “T.I.W.Y.G.”

16. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service: ATCQ pulled off the impossible feat of re-introducing themselves after a 17 year hiatus, while crafting a fitting farewell to a legendary band. We Got It From Here harkens back to the 90’s hip-hop sound the band pioneered, but still sounds trailblazing, as they delve into the murky political waters of 2016. With Phife Dawg’s passing, this is the end for Tribe. Still, nothing here sounds like a reunion cash-in. We Got It From Here is a legit new Tribe record that adds to their legacy. Essential tracks: “We the People”, “Movin Backwards”

15. Pinegrove - Cardinal: That smart, indie rock bands pull elements from alt-country isn’t surprising; Band of Horses’ 2006 debut being the most obvious success story. New Jersey’s Pinegrove commit to the merger fully, enhancing the best qualities of each genre. Mature, literary songwriting helps Cardinal rise above being “emo with banjos” schtick - the words “labyrinthian” and “solipsistic” are both sung by the end of the first track. The record goes down like a soothing cocktail that’s equal parts Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World and Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo. Essential tracks: “Old Friends”, “Size of the Moon”

14. Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos: What makes one thing hip-hop and another thing “performance poetry” remains a mystery. Despite the insistence of many publications to put its review of Let Them Eat Chaos in their literature sections is an annoying example. For our purposes, if there’s a rhyme, a groove, and a beat, it’s rap. However defined, Let Them Eat Chaos is a vital, pulsating concept album detailing the struggles of four different residents of the same South London street. Tempest paints a bleak, post-gentrification, pre-Brexit, picture of her rapidly changing neighborhood. The characters across the record face challenges both global and hyper-local. Within single tracks Tempest seamlessly zips from “The water level’s rising / The animals, the polar bears, the elephants are dying”, to “Ghettoized children murdered in broad daylight by those employed to protect them.” In a year where everything was political, Let Them Eat Chaos stands apart as a poet’s manifesto against the powers that be. Essential tracks: “Europe Is Lost”, “Tunnel Vision”

13.  Margo Price - Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: Like most great country artists, Margo Price wears her influences on her sleeve. Each track on her excellent debut drips with the sass and smarts of classic Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. What Price lacks in sonic innovation, she gains in her daft, and oftentimes funny songwriting ability. Surrounded by wailing pedal steel and plunking saloon piano, her first-person tales of boozing, farming, doing jail time, and more boozing, certainly sound like they’re from another era. Sometimes tropes are tropes because they really work: “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams, when I found out you were never coming home.” Price’s genre purity is refreshing in an age that races to modernize everything. Essential tracks: “Hands of Time”, “Weekender”

12.  Hamilton Leithauser + Rotsdam - I Had a Dream That You Were Mine: As the frontman for the 2000s mainstay the Walkmen, Hamilton Leithauser developed the most recognizable voice in indie-rock. With his signature wine-soaked weeze, he could just exhale into a microphone and any blindfolded group of 30-somethings would know the Walkmen took the stage. After 14 years, 6 great albums, and nothing left to prove, the Walkmen split in 2013. Within months, Leithauser released his game solo debut, Black Hours. It had its moments, but its main accomplishment was making people wish the old band was back together. On I Had a Dream, he teams up with Vampire Weekend’s recently departed multi-instrumentalist/producer Rotsdam Batmanglij. Both sound rejuvenated and refocused. Leithauser’s raspy lounge singer act is as tight as ever, and Rotsdam’s jumpy mix of piano and organ provides the exact bounce Black Hours lacked. Leithauser wryly welcomes his fans back on “Sick as a Dog”, belting out“I use the same voice I always had!” Here’s to hoping this “Vampire Walkmen” mash-up lasts. Essential tracks: “A 1000 Times”, “When the Truth Is. . .” 

11. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial: Landing where the snark of Pavement and the crunchy rawness of Cloud Nothings intersect, Teens of Denial is a 70-minute rebuttal to anyone theorizing about the impending death of rock. Mostly about being terrible at adulthood, Will Toledo’s self-effacing lyrics are daft - “How was I supposed to know how to make dinner for myself? How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?” The brightest moment on an album full of them, is the cautionary drunk driving tale, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” Over jangling Pixies-esque guitar, Toledo confesses, “We are not a proud race / it’s not a race at all / We’re only trying, I’m only trying to get home / This is not a good thing / I don’t mean to rationalize, or try and explain it away / It’s not okay.” Teens of Denial is serious without being a drag, and fun without being silly. It’s a tight-rope act that should reinvigorate anyone’s fading belief in the charms of guitar-based music. Essential tracks: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”

10. Oathbreaker - Rheia: The blend of European black metal with elements of ambient shoegaze and slow guitars isn’t new. On their third record, Belgium’s Oathbreaker deconstruct the now-popular hybrid; presenting the vicious and comforting side by side, rather than fighting for the same space. Slabs of slow, churning guitars either build up to fits of bedlam, or collapse into minutes of mournful calm. Or, like on the punishing “Second Son of R.”, the two sides of Oathbreaker rattle back and forth, in an exhausting display of emotional and musical dexterity. Female-led bands tend to be taken less seriously in the hyper-masculine metal world. But Oathbreaker’s Caro Tanghe is not just to be respected - she is to be feared. Her screamed vocals match the shrieking hyena-intensity of Converge’s Jacob Bannon (whose label, Deathwish Inc, released Rheia). While her singing provides enough ghostly atmosphere to make the sections of Rheia that are just her voice over acoustic guitars even more terrifying than the frantic blasts of violence. Rheia exemplifies the idea that in any artform, unimpeded by outside naysayers, it’s in the extremes where the most interesting ideas materialize. Essential tracks: “Immortals”, “Second Son of R.”, “Where I Live”

9. James Blake - The Colour in Anything: In 2013, James Blake’s last record, Overgrown, won the vaunted Mercury Prize for Best British Album. Yet, at 17 tracks and 80 minutes, it’s James Blake’s enormous third record that shows the true breadth of his ambition. His signature sound that mixes South London dub-step with American soul hasn’t changed much over the course of the last 5 years. But the master producer has honed that sound into something so warm and well-rounded that even in a 17-track wallop it's soothing rather than tiresome. Blake’s growing strength as a songwriter is on full display. Tracks that are no more than his voice over piano, “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” and “The Colour in Anything”, are equally engrossing as tracks like “Noise Above Our Heads” and “I Need a Forest Fire” where he pulls out every sonic trick in his arsenal. Essential tracks: “Choose Me”, “The Colour in Anything”, “I Need a Forest Fire”

8. The Hotelier - Goodness: With their terrific 2014 record, Home, Like NoPlace Is There, the Hotelier played a seminal role in sparking the current revival of the late 90s tinged indie-rock sound. Two years later, the Worcester, Massachusetts, band return with a refined, layered set of mature tracks that turned out to be as essential a contribution to the year’s cultural milieu as any other release. What the Hotelier ceeded in volume and speed compared to Home, they gained in depth and sophistication. Singer/bassist Christian Holden’s personal recollections of lost chances form a vivid reminder not to let opportunity pass by. On album centerpiece, “Settle the Scar” his regret is tenable as he recalls over swelling guitars, “You said you see life in exploding color / like a flash of stars / or a New England autumn / I should have asked if you would stay / I should have found a way.” For all the artistic growth, Goodness is still a powerful, anthem-based rock record. Achieving that elusive balance is the band’s most impressive feat. Essential tracks: “Goodness, Pt. 2”, “Settle the Scar”, “Soft Animal”

7. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition: As hip-hop’s resident oddball, Danny Brown’s squawking, nasal voice remains the most divisive sound in rap since the death of the similarly whacked-out Old Dirty Bastard. Now a scene vet, it’s everything surrounding Danny’s voice that make his freak-show records so amazing. Beat-wise, his beyond weird selection creates a tense, grim, herky-jerky environment reminiscent of his 2011, album of the decade contender, XXX. The almost random trash can and bells beat on “Pneumonia” - a single - shows that he does not give two shits about mainstream success. Lyrically, Danny bounces from party tales of blush-inducing vulgarity, to hard-hitting verses about life in his abandoned Detroit. Oftentimes it takes a comedian to make the most serious points. Danny continues that tradition, as the visions of urban decay he depicts are reflections coming from a much more honest mirror than any the academic, “socially conscious” rappers have held up for years. On “When It Rains”, in a freewheeling, rapid-fire assault he spits, “And it don’t seem like shit gon’ change no time soon in the City of Boom / Doomed from the time we emerged from the womb / So to cope, drugs we consume.” Danny’s chemically-enhanced antics and his Alvin and the Chipmunks-delivery lead some to dismiss him as a token madman; but never underestimate a rapper who names an album after a Joy Division song. For all its quirks, Atrocity Exhibition provided the most honest portrayal of America in 2016. Essential tracks: “Ain’t It Funny”, “When It Rains”, “Really Doe”

6. ColdWorld - Autumn: Every year is a great year for metal. Just to survive, the genre must push boundaries and force listeners to challenge their preconceptions of what can be accomplished artistically along the outer fringes of extreme music. This year, inspiring records from Khemmis and Inter Arma showcased the heft and power of the sludgy, classic metal sound. The suddenly burgeoning black metal scene continues to slay, as excellent records from Yith, Oathbreaker, Vow of Thorns, and Gherzen displayed the sub-genre’s growing ability evelop elements of folk and atmospherics to enhance its inherent darkness. Yet Autumn, the stunning second album from Germany’s ColdWorld is the the best metal record of the year. It’s also one of the most moving metal records of the decade. Eight years in the making, Autumn is the brainchild of Georg Börner, the one-man band who is ColdWorld. With its gatling gun percussion, demonic vocals, and searing guitars, swaths of the record provide blistering examples of classic black metal. But Börner elevates each track with an unpreceded artist’s touch both delicate and powerful. On “Scars”, it’s violins that weep over the last 3 minutes of fury. “Void” showcases two minutes of teeth-grinding intensity before the track falls of a cliff and descends into a wash of rich, astral ambience - only for the entire thing to be carried back to life by soaring female vocals. Using only cleanly sung vocals, “Autumn shade” is so meticulously constructed it feels uplifting despite Börner lamenting how “rotten leaves cover the earth like a burial shroud.” Autumn is marked by the knowledge of impending frigidness and gloom, but the season’s fleeting counterbalance is its superlative beauty. Börner captures the essence of that seasonal duality on Autumn. He crafted a vicious, sorrowful record - and it's gorgeous. Essential tracks: “Womb of Emptiness”, “Autumn shade”, “Void”

5. Frank Ocean - Blonde: Blonde is a subtle, sneaky-great study in restraint. With money and awards flowing in after 2012’s world-conquering Channel Orange, everyone expected Frank to strike while the iron was hot and follow it up as soon as possible with a Weeknd-esque turn towards pop. Instead, he just disappeared. Four years passed; no tours, no interviews, no red carpets, no explanation. Turning down the mega-stardom that was his for the taking took some guts, but it also proved Frank to be a shrewd artist obsessed with control over his own music. Living up to the impossible hype, Blonde is a strange, brave foray into chorus-less, mostly percussion-less, R&B and soul. No other record this year revealed more with each listen. Whether it’s over nothing more than a simple guitar riff, “Self Control”, or only a quietly humming organ, “Solo”, Ocean’s voice commands each moment with his honest reflections on race, fame, and public pressure. While the instrumentation is sparse and uncluttered, Frank’s voice is modulated in some way on almost every track, giving the album a dizzying array of sounds and textures. Adding to the weight on his shoulders, as the nation’s most prominent gay African-American musician, his success means a lot to a lot of people he’ll never met. Frank even scored a personal invite to President Obama’s final State Dinner. He deals with the weight of this responsibility directly in the album closer, “Futura Fee”, urging “I’m just a guy, I’m not a god.” That Blonde is so great isn’t just a nice story, but an important one. (Blonde is an Apple exclusive, hence no YouTube clip. But we can all enjoy this picture of Frank and his mother at the White House.) Essential tracks: “White Ferrari”, “Nights”, “Self Control”

4. Touché Amoré - Stage Four: Melodic post-hardcore act Touché Amoré always wielded more substance than most of their peers. Introspective lyrics and a liberal use of clean guitars washed with reverb helped gain the L.A. band mass critical acceptance far beyond the confines of the hardcore scene that birthed them. On the career-defining Stage Four, singer Jeremy Bolm pushed his songwriting to new heights with his striking personal narratives and intense focus. A true concept album, Stage Four retells the deterioration and death of Bolm’s mother from cancer and the emotional wasteland of the aftermath. The vividness of Bolm’s lyrics paint a shocking, precise picture of his loss and the regrets that ensued. On “New Halloween” he berates himself for not being there at the end - “Now I just feel you everywhere / It coincides with the guilt of knowing I wasn’t there.” Stage Four is at its most powerful when Bolm delves into the acutely specific. The detail used on tracks like “Water Damage” - “That night when you took the wrong dose and weren't making any sense / Is a night that I often remember and one I wish I could forget” - makes the album and Bolm’s experiences relatable in a way that deep symbolism just couldn’t muster. While Stage Four is the autobiographical documentation of one vulnerable man falling apart, it’s also the sound of a band realizing all of its potential through a set of passion-filled, fist-pumping anthems.  Essential tracks: “Displacement”, “Eight Seconds”, “Water Damage”

3. David Bowie - Blackstar: David Bowie crafted his best record in 33 years while secretly battling cancer, then released that album two days before his death. Blackstar represents a final masterstroke of performance art by its singular commander. Bowie’s mortality hangs over Blackstar like an unmoving fog, as he alludes to death and resurrection throughout. “Lazarus” opens with the Thin White Duke demanding “Look up here / I’m in heaven.” In hindsight, it’s clear he delivered that line with a wink and a smirk. In “Dollar Days”, he alludes to his comfort with his fate and the legacy he cemented, signing“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me.” Surrounding the mysterious lyrics is a rattle of avant garde electro-jazz strung together by constant barrage of horns. The never-fading horn section adds an unnerving, jittery layer of waxing intensity. Knowing that this would be it, Bowie could have mailed in a nostalgia-soaked group of boomer-bating, three-minute singles and watch the cash pile up. Instead, he used his last artistic breath to lurch forward into the unknown, and made Blackstar a confounding, uneasy piece of experimentation. In doing so, he reiterated the entire point of his career. Never stop changing. Never stop exploring. Never stop growing. By raising so many more questions than it answers, Blackstar is the perfect send-off for the once-in-a-generation innovator. Essential tracks: “Lazarus”, “Girl Loves Me”, “Blackstar”

2. Solange - A Seat at the Table: Four years after her dance-centric True EP, history and circumstances forced Solange to switch gears and delve into throwback soul - resulting in the best neo-soul album since D’Angelo’s Voodoo. An empowering celebration of black history, culture, and music, A Seat at the Table is a battle-cry unfurled at the most necessary moment. When everything seen, heard, and read in 2016 bleed negativity, the younger Ms. Knowles replied with a rich bouquet of sound and inspiring lyricism that highlights all the beauty and pride of her her musical and cultural heritage. The songs snap with cracking snares, loose piano, and jumping bass, presenting a classic sound revived for the modern day. Spoken word interludes can be a death-knell for any album, but here, slices of life and history delivered by Masta P and Solange’s parents provide the perfect context for the music. The defiant “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a shimmering, glorious middle finger dressed up as a pop music. The record’s best song, “Don’t Wish Me Well”, is a tight, sensual burner demanding a delicate touch her mega-star sister could never pull off. A Seat at the Table was spurned by the ugliness Solange saw engulfing the country. She dealt with that ugliness head-on, in turn creating her magnum opus of superlative strength and beauty that gave us all something to celebrate. Essential tracks: “Don’t Wish Me Well”, “Mad”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree: Tremendous collective loss marked 2016 from end to end. We lost musical and cultural icons that were so big they seemed to belong to humanity as a whole rather than any particular fan base. Our collective feeling of safety disappeared as city names - Brussels, Lahore, Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, Aleppo, Oakland, Berlin - rolled across news tickers in a sick race to best exemplify human callousness. While the rest of the world reeled from these collective body blows, alt-rock luminary Nick Cave suffered a profound personal loss none of us will have to endure. His 15 year-old son Arthur was killed in an accidental cliff fall while hiking near their home in England. Writing and recording for Skeleton Tree had just begun at the time of Arthur’s death. Rather than hermit himself away, Cave continued working straight through his most raw moments of grief. The result is a brief, but monumental work of unparalleled weight. By sharing his loss, Cave’s immensely moving documentation of his own personal sorrow and hopelessness gave a blueprint for how to power forward in the face of the unthinkable. 

Skeleton Tree has none of the stomping, roccus guitar rambles Nick Cave provided over his almost forty-year career. Gone are the tales of old West gunslingers or other character-based epics that played more like screenplays than rock songs. These tracks are stripped to Cave’s piano and Warren Ellis’ haunting synths and violins. The record swings between very specific points of Cave’s grief and the more esoteric. Skeleton Tree begins with the droning “Jesus Alone”, and the opening line, “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field near the river Adur.” Bereft of any traditional song structure, “Girl in Amber” is a slow, wandering homage to his wife Susie and her strength. The song vividly conjures minor memories that mean everything now - “You kneel / lace up his shoes / your little blue-eyed boy”, before fading away with Cave mournfully repeating, “Don’t touch me.” 

The final third of Skeleton Tree transforms the record from something great, to something to of limitless value that tattoos an emotional experience in the listener’s conscience. Written and recorded immediately following Arthur’s death, “I Need You” is the album’s, and 2016’s best song. Peaking out over swirling ambience and lightly brushed drums, Cave’s quivering voice on the track is shockingly weak as he sings the nihilistic, “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” Cave gives us the image of his thinking he saw Arthur’s red-cloaked ghost at the supermarket, before bringing the listener back to reality - “A long black car is coming ‘round the bend / I will miss you when you’re gone / I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever / Because nothing really matters.” At times it seems up in the air if Cave’s shaky voice will make it through the song. As he approaches his breaking point and repeats “I need you” over and over, he’s saved by an unscripted reminder to self, “Just breathe, just breathe.” 

 

“Distant Sky” is an effective palate cleanser between the almost impossible weight of “I Need You” and album closing “Skeleton Tree.” Over not much more than a humming organ, Cave and soprano Else Torp alternate verses that change the feeling of the album from unflinching tragedy to inspiring acceptance - “Let us go now, my only companion / Set out for the distant skies.” The song “Skeleton Tree” balances the album’s first rays of hope with Cave’s idea that his loss is somehow a karmic penance. Whether it’s payback for all the good times with Arthur that maybe he didn’t appreciate enough, for his professional success, or something else is unclear. But ending every stanza of the song with a simple, resigned, “Nothing is for free”, provides a brutal reminder to enjoy every minute possible - “I called out / right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / Nothing is for free.” The catharsis of Cave’s realization that no matter the trauma, life keeps going, creeps into the track as the synths slowly open up, providing his long-time band the space to join him in the closing mantra, “And it’s alright now. . .” 

While the world tragedy-hopped through the year, a palpable, swelling feeling grew that everything was crashing down. It’s true, nothing is for free. 2016 will always be there to remind us of that. But through something as simple and ultimately inconsequential as an album, Nick Cave turned personal tragedy into public therapy, and finally artistic triumph. If he is able to reflect on this period and conclude, “it’s alright now,” we certainly can do the same.