FEATURE: The Best Albums of 2016
by Chad Jewett
20.) Deer Leap – Impermanence
It was four long years between Impermenance, this year’s striking new album from New Hampshire emo quartet Deer Leap, and their previous album, 2012’s Here, Home. By all appearances, the band spent that time perfecting the spacious swoon of their post-rock sound while adding a renewed premium on songcraft, so that songs like the excellent “Go Big. Go Home” provide both headphone-worthy studio detail and moving melodies. Released by the always-great Broken World Media, Impermanence sounds like an arrival, a promising band putting it all together.
19.) Greys – Outer Heaven
Following the expansion of sound first broached with last year’s Repulsion 7” – which saw the Toronto noise rock quartet adding post-punk moodiness to their repertoire – Greys newest album, Outer Heaven, saw a further widening of the band’s aesthetic, drawing in a bit of slow-core drama (“Cruelty”, “Strange World”) and lo-fi shoegaze sprawl (“My Life As A Cloud”). But the best thing Outer Heaven had going for it was the way in which the album paired these more elliptical moments with the bilious post-hardcore upon which Greys cut their teeth, as seen in excoriating highlights like the aptly-named “Complaint Rock”.
18.) Puff Pieces – Bland In D.C.
Assembled under an album title that winks at a long history of brainy Washington D.C. art punk, Puff Pieces’ debut album Bland In D.C. is a tense, wiry 23 minutes of whittled-down post-punk. Songs like “Y” and the excellent “Wondrous Flowers” consist of little more than a spare beat, a steady-thumping bassline and a nagging two-note guitar riff, all coiling in antsy precision beneath the oddly spotless tenor of singer Mike Andre. The album, which is almost mathematically tight in its motorized ticking and is likely a lot harder to replicate than it might at first seem, is funky despite itself, a tour de force of wry punk minimalism.
17.) Milemarker – Overseas
Back from a ten-year hiatus that saw their particular brand of groove-focused post-hardcore grow entirely too scarce, dance-punk quartet Milemarker returned with an album that gratifyingly split its time between the band’s recognizable sound and a set of new ideas. Overseas – a title that reflects the band’s new home in Germany – is Milemarker’s most committedly electronic album, as seen on the terrific single “Conditional Love”, with digitally-processed vocals and crunching synthesizers layered over more traditional beds of distorted bass and analog drums. Post-hardcore’s circa-2000 class continues to reassemble, but Milemarker’s example is one to follow – a beloved cult band who put a premium on growing into a new decade.
16.) The Hotelier – Goodness
The compositions grew a bit more expansive, the concepts a bit more challenging, but at heart, The Hotelier continued to build on the warm, sun-worn sound that proved so compelling on 2014’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There. The echoes of The Weakerthans, Gin Blossoms, R.E.M., and Wood/Water-era Promise Ring remained, as did Christian Holden’s eye for details that blossom into humanist symbologies. But what remains most striking, and perennially impressive, is the band’s gift for marrying all of its subtleties and smarts into pop songs, as on album-highlight “Soft Animal”. The Hotelier remain fearless, and thus remain essential.
15.) Junior Boys – Big Black Coat
Occasionally dipping its toe into post-punk (“Big Black Coat”), at other times offering a loving reworking of an old Bobby Caldwell hit (“What You Won’t Do For Love”), Canadian indie-electro duo Junior Boys continued their undefeated streak — indeed, the band has yet to put out anything less than good since their 2004 debut, Last Exit – by opening up their sound ever so slightly, yielding this year’s great Big Black Coat. Moody yet danceable (Junior Boys have always put a premium on groove that a lot of other indie laptop craftsmen have not), Big Black Coat might just be the pair’s best since 2006’s high-water mark, So This Is Goodbye.
14.) Solange – A Seat At The Table
A subtle, immersive headphone album that rewards repeat listens as surely as it invites them, A Seat At The Table found Solange offering sparkling, airy melodies over beds of plush soul that are at once gorgeous and intrepidly experimental. Recalling the patient, painterly soul of slowed down masterpieces like Marvin Gaye’s I Want You (“Where Do We Go”, in particular, sounds like a modernized update of Motown’s Quiet Storm era) , A Seat At The Table stands as another recent highlight of exquisitely crafted avant-garde R&B, made even more compelling by Solange’s flexible, luminous voice – an instantly recognizable instrument seemingly custom-made for these kinds of left-field soundscapes.
13.) The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset
Thank god we have Kathleen Hanna back. Following a long road to recovery from Lyme disease – an illness which led to the initial hiatus of The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset sounds particularly joyful in its defiance, ecstatic in its refusal to be limited, contained, or slowed down. The album sounds like a gloriously hi-def melting pot of Hanna’s discography, be it the fizzy electro-pop rambunctiousness of Le Tigre (“Hit Reset”, “Mr. So and So”) or the shout-along garage-noise of Bikini Kill (“Planet You”), but with the added hooks of classic girl-group 45s (“Hello Trust No One”) and 70s power pop (“Let Me Go”), along with a certain mid-60s British Invasion stylishness (“Roses More Than Water”). The album is terrific, and likely the most compulsively re-listenable album of 2016, another masterwork from one of punk’s great communicators.
12.) Tancred – Out of the Garden
Contemporary pop-punk has yet to figure out the first half of its equation, and maintains a regressive masculinist streak. Emo is currently mired in a particularly aimless shoegaze phase. But luckily there is Tancred, the solo project of Now Now’s Jess Abbot, who is making terrific guitar-pop in an era when no one else seems to remember how. Out of The Garden, Tancred’s second album and first with the venerable Polyvinyl Records, clocks in at an athletic 32 minutes, and devotes just about all of that time to smart hooks and canny songcraft, echoing the witty guitar-driven melodicism of Pinkerton, My Aim Is True, The Colour and the Shape, and More Adventurous.
11.) The Mercury Program – New Myths
Endlessly difficult to define, ceaselessly spellbinding, The Mercury Program’s New Myths is a 26-minute oddity that splits its time between post-rock, emo, slowcore, free jazz, electro-pop, and krautrock. In some ways a throwback to an era when there was a lot more of these bands – June of 44, Pele, Aloah, and American Analog Set all come to mind – in others a striking reinvention of this particular sound (the warm techno sunburst of “Constant Static” is especially revelatory, somehow recalling glimpses of both Eric Dolphy and early Caribou), New Myths delivers exactly what its title promises – a collection of songs that sound both strikingly fresh and uncannily familiar.
10.) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Following the nervy, groove-oriented aesthetics of 2012’s King Of Limbs – an album that was frequently rumored to be the band’s last – Radiohead returned this year with something more somber, more subtle, more hard to define. At times defined by the post-modernist paranoia that is their signature key (“Burn The Witch”, “Identikit”), at others given over to a romantic sadness seen far less frequently in their most recent work (“Daydreaming”, “True Love Waits”), A Moon Shaped Pool will likely go down as the hardest Radiohead album to pin down, lacking the easy headlines of Kid A (nightmarish electro) or Hail To The Thief (sprawling post-9/11 return-to-form). But it also might be one of the band’s easiest records to fall in love with, a warm, gorgeously produced sigh of an album that keeps revealing hidden layers.
9.) Bon Iver – 22, A Million
No matter how comprehensively eccentric Justin Vernon’s work gets, it is never less than beautiful. And make no mistake, 22, A Million is an eccentric album. Song titles are rendered in hieroglyphs and Greek letters. Tracks rarely follow traditional A-B-C structures, instead spinning off into segues, codas, and new suites. Gone is the idyllic folk hush, replaced by electric piano and programmed drums. Yet Vernon’s voice – a poignant, effusive tenor that can burst into falsetto or become gorgeously alien with the aid of autotune and vocoder – keeps your attention and directs your ear, even on a song like “715 – CREEKS” where the entire track is devoted to Vernon’s mercurial melody, straining the digital filters that warp and bend it, a beacon of humanism breaking through a wiry cage of synthetic sizzle. Even at his most challenging, there’s little doubt what Justin Vernon is trying to say.
8.) Frank Ocean – Blond
With each week that passed between the release of 2012’s now-classic Channel Orange and the release of its hotly awaited follow-up, expectations rose, along with stakes. Such is the nature of anticipation. But Blond, self-released and handed over to the Internet all-of-a-sudden on a Saturday night in August, stood up to the impossible expectations, and did so by understanding the rules of what made Channel Orange great (personality, specificity, storytelling, hooks of the non-obvious but still captivating variety) and expanding on that skeleton from every possible angle. Thus for every effortlessly catchy, addictive hit like “Ivy” (who saw guitar-pop coming?) there was the free-form future soul of “Seigfried”. With Blond, Frank Ocean offered an album that rewarded its own challenges and spiked its own easy pleasures with more difficult provocations. Essentially, Frank gave us his “difficult sophomore follow-up” and his “even-bigger-sequel” all in one.
7.) American Football – American Football (LP2)
Where the Illinois trio’s first album was a ruminative song-cycle of post-adolescence, at once romantic and wry, American Football’s unexpected follow-up — also titled American Football and also making use of that totemic midwestern farmhouse in its art work – is something of an unconventional sequel, replacing those missives of collegiate self-doubt with equally nuanced stories of late-30s introspection. It’s actually quite a risk, this attempt to explore a more domestic, time-worn perspective within an aesthetic so utterly cemented to stories of early-20s wistfulness. Yet the band – Steve Lamos, Steve Holmes, Mike Kinsella, and now Nate Kinsella – manage to succeed by remaining committed to clever storytelling (“You’re so delicate / Admittedly, sometimes I forget / You’re made of wet paper” goes one particularly striking line in album-highlight “Give Me The Gun”) and by updating their pastoral emo sound with added groove (“Give Me The Gun”), energy (“Desire Gets In The Way”) and technical craft (“Born to Lose”).
6.) Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
A spare collection of ballads haunted with glitchy synthetic ghosts, Skeleton Tree found post-punk god Nick Cave further carving away at his once baroque sound (long-gone is the operatic blues-punk of Abbatoir Blues and Dig, Lazarus, Dig), lending more and more of his sonic field to negative space. The result is a work of haunting brilliance, all spare piano and Cave’s hushed baritone, haloed by synthesizers and corroded-sounding programming. Case in point is a song like “Magneto”, wherein a traditional piano ballad is made quietly terrifying by the sizzling echo of sampled digital noise, with Nick Cave’s voice laid bare atop all of it. A mournful collection of slow-songs that feels like a concept album, so absolute is its focus on funereal quietness and deliberate pace, Skeleton Tree is the Australian singer-songwriter’s best album in a decade, and certainly one of his most painfully poignant.
5.) Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
The latest in a run of essential garage-punk dispatches that runs back at least as far as 2009’s Help, A Weird Exits featured a more subtle, patient Thee Oh Sees, a version of the band that still roared right when you’d expect them to (“Dead Man’s Gun” bursts into full action just how you think it would, and right on schedule), but who also didn’t feel the need to always follow-up hushed moments with hectic freakouts (the gummy krautrock of “Jammed Entrance” just keeps cycling through its synth-dotted groove, never quite exploding). Perhaps even more impressive is “The Axis”, a six-minute encore whose psych-rock placidness is eventually interrupted with ear-splitting madness, but of a variety more akin to the acid-washed soloing of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” than the Stooges-inspired mania that we’re accustomed to hearing from John Dwyer and company. A Weird Exits is seemingly where Thee Oh Sees really committed to reworking their formula, mainly by seeing what happened when it all got melted together.
4.) Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
A worthy sequel to 2013’s essential Acid Rap – an instant classic that has only grown in stature in the intervening years – Coloring Book found Chicago’s Chance the Rapper further exploring and solidifying the sonic world created by his elastic, ecstatic voice and his nimble, sympathetic band, The Social Experiment. The album begins with Chance intoning “And we back,” offered with a sweetness that maintains through the record’s 58 minutes. Here, Chance’s sound – a swirling, candy-colored galaxy of gospel, R&B, Motown, indie-pop, electro, and Kanye-inflected FM hip-hop – has grown to something outsized and cinematic, seemingly designed to raise goosebumps. Once again free-to-stream and unaffiliated with any label, and once again doubling down on a message of dauntless positivity that stood out especially strikingly in an especially dire year, Coloring Book is as bright, inviting, and illuminating as its title implies. “Music is all we got,” the rapper-singer insists. Considering the revelatory urgency of Coloring Book, one can’t help but believe Chance’s sincerity.
3.) Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Such is the capacious imagination of Kendrick Lamar that even after the sweeping, comprehensive statement that was To Pimp A Butterfly (still the best hip-hop album of the last ten years) there was still so much left for Lamar to offer from that project. And so 2016 gave us untitled unmastered., a collection of 8 songs left off of Butterfly that, when taken together, offer whole other subplots, character arcs, and sonic motifs barely glimpsed on the album proper. The ghostly, post-apocalyptic soul of “untitled 02 l 06.23.2014.”; the post-bop banger that is “untitled 05 l 09.21.2014.”; the sprawling multi-suite “untitled 07 l 2014 – 2016”. All give us glimpses of just how seismic a project Lamar was undertaking when work began on To Pimp A Butterfly. Rare is the “demos-and-rarities” collection that both stands on its own as an album and offers new insight to the original work to which it serves as appendix. But then again, rarely is a talent as expansive as Lamar.
2.) Head Wound City – A New Wave Of Violence
Making good on the promise of their incendiary 2005 self-titled EP, noise punk all-star team Head Wound City finally reconvened in 2016 for a proper full-length. The results, like the 7-song teaser that preceded it 11 years ago, is a muscular, volcanic delight, a model of bruising punk craft that synthesizes the DNA strands of its component parts (the odd-ball riffs and lacerating screams of the Blood Brothers, the understatedly rhythmic stylishness of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the noisy eruptions and sheer density of The Locust) into compact flare-ups. Yet A New Wave of Violence also saw the quintet adding new wrinkles: a more polished, and thus more confidently bombastic sound courtesy of producer Ross Robinson, who did similar work turning post-hardcore into beautiful soundscapes on At The Drive In’s Relationship of Command; longer, more exploratory compositions; added nods to post-punk (“I Cast a Shadow for You”) and 80s hardcore (“Closed Casket”). Head Wound City found exactly enough room in their sound to make it all the more joyous every time they rocketed into something like “Born To Burn”.
1.) Beyoncé- Lemonade
Somehow even more sonically daring than 2015’s Beyoncé, more trenchantly political and proudly intersectional in its feminism, less interested in the old rules of pop and thus more interested in its new possibilities, Lemonade, the second and best visual album from Beyoncé proved the year’s best for all the ways that it operated as both high art and populist confection. A song like “Pray You Catch Me” might largely eschew any traditional beat or structure, but it’s also elevated by Beyoncé’s slinky, compelling melody. “Hold Up” is either post-modernist dancehall, a Yeah Yeah Yeahs remix, or a preview of what all pop will sound like in 2050. “Freedom” melts together 60s soul and 60s proto-punk in a way that roughly 10,000 modern day garage-revival bands truly wish they could. The thing that glues it all together? The force of Beyoncé’s fascinating, progressive personality and her ear for finding a hit in even the most avant-garade of surfaces. Lemonade proved so gratifying, so addicting, because you could hear both Beyoncé’s confidence in her own artistic instincts and her confidence in the elasticity of our ears and our imaginations. It feels like the country, perhaps even the world, took a step back at the end of 2016. But artists like Beyoncé might just prove to be our saving grace, because every time they put out a record like Lemonade, it feels like one giant step forward.