Now that we’re a month into 2017, this seems like the perfect time to finish looking back at my favorite music of 2016, right? Of course it does.
This will follow the same format used last year (2015 Albums over here), similar to the concept in the songs lists from both this year and last (click for 2015, or 2016). These are my personal favorite albums. I’m not picking or anointing the capital “b” Best music. I neither listen to everything, nor claim any cultural authority over all music, which leaves individual picks that clicked with me.
I hope that you find something interesting here, and thanks for reading! (And let me know what I missed, or what bands I should pay attention to in the future.)
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Music for Listening to Music To by La Sera, Views by Drake, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper, Painting With by Animal Collective.
10. Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Why I Like It: I enjoy guitar-based indie rock, so this seems designed to suit me. And for the most part, it succeeds! “Fill in the Blank” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” are some of my favorite rock songs of the year, a big reason why I enjoy Teens of Denial. But it’s a complicated enjoyment, with tracks like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” just lasting too long for me. Thankfully, the highs are enough to recommend.
09. Keep it Together by Lily & Madeleine
Why I Like It: I like the voices. The Jurkiewicz sisters blend and wrap their singing around each other. I also enjoy the instrumentation. This album is mid-tempo, pretty, dreamy music. While that may not seem a ringing endorsement, it shouldn’t be a negative. Sometimes you need pianos to sway with you, and Lily & Madeleine will be there when the need arises.
08. Blackstar by David Bowie
Why I Like It: I like the music, even when considered separate from the news. I enjoy the various saxophone phrases throughout the album, a sound that adds passion and texture to the performance. I love “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” which has fantastic visceral rock power. And I also buy into the death narrative baked into the album. I mean, how can you not? “Lazarus” is a great song, and it’s simply astounding in the context of Bowie’s death.
07. We Disappear by The Thermals
Why I Like It: I have previously enjoyed The Thermals. This is a simple reason, and undersells the value of We Disappear. It is, however, a good baseline idea. This is The Thermals. I still love The Body, the Blood, the Machine, and most of that structure is intact here. I adore Hutch Harris’ singing style, and the gobs of guitar riffs that populate the songs. I love the punk (or pop-punk) ethos. Songs are tidy. They punch in and leave before staying too long, and that’s good.
06. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Why I Like It: Sometimes I like to dive into the darkness. Skeleton Tree is not a good Anytime Record for me, particularly when the heavy ideas start to stew. “Jesus Alone,” “Girl in Amber,” “I Need You,” and “Distant Sky” come to mind immediately (which is half the record). In all four cases, I blame the combination of tone and tempo, references of death and solitude that linger with moderate pacing. But when I am in the mood (or willing to let the feelings wash over me), there’s no substitute for Skeleton Tree. If you’re able to carry through the sorrow, you’re treated to the other thing I like: the fascinating soundscapes. Pianos, electronic twitches, guitars, and drums all dance around Nick Cave’s distinct voice, and I like it. Just not all the time.
05. Cardinal by Pinegrove
Why I Like It: I like the Decemberists, and I like fuzzier punk. While neither description hits my reasoning perfectly, I’ve realized that I get similar feelings from the rock-with-country experience of Cardinal. Singer Evan Stephens Hall hits very specific lyrical notes in his songs. He describes “solipsistic moods,” relationships that “sublimate away,” a bout with aphasia, and a bloody incident with an avocado. It’s not theatrical like Colin Meloy, but it is curious and distinct, and that appeals to me. All the while, Pinegrove rocks. I love when the guitars kick in on “Old Friends,” the entire rolicking 2:39 of “Then Again,” and the intro strum of “New Friends.” It’s a fantastic ride.
04. Tween by Wye Oak
Why I Like It: I find it all so beautiful. I like the whooshing guitars, how they oscillate between REM-jangle and MBV-wall of sound. I like Jenn Wasner’s singing. I like the expansive sound of the entire album, the grand nature of it all. Most of all, I like the last two songs. They are probably my favorite one-two combo in music from 2016. “Trigger Finger” haunts with the echoing guitar that picks and meanders throughout the track. The moodiness hits me in all the right ways. And then “Watching the Waiting” soars upward to close out the experience. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year, and elevates an already-strong record.
03. My Woman by Angel Olsen
Why I Like It: I like My Woman because it is incredible rock music. The first half is full of quick, relatively pop-oriented songs, and they hook right in me. The series from “Never Be Mine” through “Not Gonna Kill You” puts Olsen on the same level as Courtney Barnett and Sleater-Kinney from last year. The guitar power, the catchy melodies, and the propulsive rhythms all make an immediate impact with me.
But what makes this album one of 2016’s true standouts? That voice. My Woman doesn’t have the same impact for me if Angel Olsen isn’t the one singing. I enjoy the range of emotion she shares, the higher-pitched strain in the closing lines of “Intern,” or the defiance in “Shut Up Kiss Me.” I also treasure the words, with Olsen delivering interesting personal poems. Penultimate track “Woman” balances questions of relationships and identity as she exclaims, exasperated, “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” It’s the capstone of an exploratory second half that I enjoy as a balance to the hook-loaded front section. In my mind, that makes for a complete, wonderful statement.
02. Human Performance by Parquet Courts
Why I Like It: I like indie rock, and this is solid indie rock. I like that the album is so consistent, and every song delivers a great genre experience.
Of course, now that I think about my initial description, the impact seems unremarkable. Human Performance isn’t breaking any new sonic ground. Why, then, is it ranked so highly?
It’s because of how it does everything so well. I like guitars with this blend of ring and distortion, so to get 13 songs of indie guitar is a treat. I like the thudding drums that help build songs from nothing. I like the energy and vocal delivery of Andrew Savage. He gives tracks a hybrid impact, hitting between theatrical and conversational.
I also like Human Performance because the album is both clever and anxious. The lyrical content helps sell the approach, and it’s especially present in the glorious title track. Savage explores the aftermath of an ended relationship, and regret stains even the pleasant memories. “Those pristine days I recall so fondly / So few are trials when a life isn’t lonely, and now if only.” I adore the rhythm of the words, and I can find empathy for the sighing delivery. I like the photo metaphor in “Berlin Got Blurry,” and the self-aware lyrical discussion in “Paraphrased.”
13 consecutive tracks of solid indie rock is not something to simply brush aside. It’s something to enjoy, something to celebrate, and it’s one of my favorite albums of 2016.
01. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
Why I Like It: I like Thom Yorke’s voice. I like the way he slithers from mid-tones to the highest notes of his falsetto. I like the tension in the strings toward the end of “Burn the Witch.” I like when the guitars pick up in “Decks Dark.” I like the anxious drone and drop of “Ful Stop.” I love Phil Selway’s precision skitter drumming.
I also like A Moon Shaped Pool for being such a relief. While that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s more reference to the band’s prior album being so lackluster. Here, Radiohead have returned. Granted, like all good Radiohead, “return” doesn’t mean the same as before. It’s not OK Computer, it’s not In Rainbows. Yet this album retains that same magic of the band’s best work. The sounds are spacey enough to feel exploratory and grounded in enough rock tradition to feel familiar.
What makes Pool distinct in the Radiohead catalog (and helps the push toward my favorite album of 2016) is the surprising raw emotion. Calling this a breakup record is somewhat reductive, but puts us in the right neighborhood. The distance and anxiety of old Radiohead is now made more specifically anxious and upset. The singer makes frequent reference to a relationship ending, to emotions being torn apart. “When you’ve had enough of me,” “Through an open doorway, across a street to another life,” “Why should I be good if you’re not,” “Broken hearts make it rain,” and the dagger to the chest in “True Love Waits.”
For the second year in a row, the album I “like” the most is enjoyable in a complicated way. I’ll point to mid-record orchestral rumination “Glass Eyes” as key to my experience. I relate to the sadness and isolation conveyed in the track, even if I haven’t experienced the specific events that drove the song’s composition. Simultaneously, I am awed by the swelling violins, violas, and cellos, the sparkling piano, and Thom Yorke’s cooing vocal.
A Moon Shaped Pool is my favorite album from 2016 because it is beautiful, it makes me feel something, and still retains the soul of Radiohead.