Alright, we all know 2016 was a pretty terrible year, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse here. Instead, I’d like to focus on some of the great music released these past twelve months. While 2015 gave us some impressive debuts and high-quality albums by bands that have yet to let us down, 2016 instead gave us some amazing albums by artists we hadn’t heard from in quite some time. It also gave us some outstanding music videos and great songs from albums not listed below.
Below are my top 10 albums of 2016. I listened to a total of 52 albums that came out this year, a new personal record, and listened to each of them all the way through at least ten times. Therefore, know that if your favorite album of this year didn’t make it, there’s a good chance that I didn’t actually listen to it.
10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
Genre: Folk, Americna
Although Conor Oberst got his start making fairly angsty music as the frontman of Bright Eyes, he’s since changed his tune considerably. Bright Eyes’ later music mellowed out, Oberst released an album with punk band Desaparecidos, and he released some really mature-sounding solo work under his own name. Ruminations keeps the maturity, but brings back the despair for what USA Today called “the feel-bad album of the fall.” There are lines like “I don’t wanna feel stuck baby/I just wanna get drunk before noon” and “closing my eyes, counting sheep/gun in my mouth, trying to sleep” that are just a sample of the downers, yet Oberst sings them with more newfound folk singer gravitas than adolescent desperation. Solidifying the folk singer persona is the addition of the harmonica to Oberst’s repertoire, an instrument seldom heard in his previous discography, which now graces nearly every track on Ruminations alongside acoustic guitar and piano. Oberst recorded the album in his hometown of Omaha in the span of just 48 hours, and it almost feels like a demo album in its simplicity—but this makes Ruminations all the more impressive when listening to the final result. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Tachycardia” “Barbary Coast (Later)” “Next of Kin”
9. Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)
Genre: Electronic, experimental, goth techno/witch house/haunted house (best subgenre name ever)
One of the more controversial entries on this list, Crystal Castles were assumed to be dead in the water when vocalist Alice Glass quit in 2014, leaving just synthesizer player and producer Ethan Kath in the band. Instead, Kath recruited a new vocalist, Edith Frances, and a rift seemed to emerge between the new Crystal Castles and the old. While their previous albums were titled Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (II), and III, this new album was to be called Amnesty (I), breaking with tradition. Despite this seeming rebirth, many fans noticed how much Amnesty (I) resembled previous Crystal Castles albums, right down to the common quality of Glass and Frances’ vocals. This potentially distracts from the fact that Amnesty (I) is good. Tracks like “Fleece” and “Enth” are some of the most intense work Kath has done, and the jarring synthesizers on “Char” combine with Frances’ airy tones to make it the best synthpop song I’ve heard all year. Though it is generally similar to previous Crystal Castles albums, Amnesty (I) does press in new directions with the trap beats of “Femen,” the experimental “Teach Her How to Hunt,” and the strangely accessible looped samples of “Kept.” It may not be as ambitious as any of their albums with Glass, but Amnesty (I) is better met with optimism than cynicism. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Fleece” “Char” “Kept”
8. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Genre: Lo-fi indie rock
To those who think there is a correlation between the quality of music and its production: Parquet Courts has consistently proven us wrong, releasing a series of great albums that each sound as raw as a live show. Human Performance is the latest line in this trend, delivering a series of stripped-down tracks that are highly varied and inventive for the band. There are echoes of the Velvet Underground on “Steady on my Mind” and “One Man, No City,” and hints of country in the twang of “Berlin Got Blurry” and “Pathos Praries.” It’s also an album of contrasts, with the band’s most personal lyrics to date (“Human Performance”) following a song that seems to literally be about dust (“Dust”). There are some unconventional tracks that are a bit of a mixed bag, but Human Performance is otherwise an exceptional demonstration of how a band can try something new, add minimal production, and still produce an excellent result. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Human Performance” “Berlin Got Blurry” “Pathos Prairies”
7. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Genre: R&B, soul
In case you hadn’t heard, Frank Ocean is a pretty elusive guy. He was seldom heard from after releasing Channel Orange in 2012, and hopes for a new album rose and faded with each year that passed. This is why the music world collectively shat itself when Frank Ocean’s website started playing a video of him in August. False alarm: this video was a promotion for his Apple Music-exclusive visual album Endless, essentially a red herring of a release meant to fulfill his recording contract with Def Jam. Immediately after, he independently released his real second studio album: Blonde. And just as the album’s rollout showed Ocean’s penchant for surprises, its content shocked many with its stark departure from Channel Orange’s sound.
There fewer samples, no jazzy backtracks, and no bangers like “Pyramids” – in fact, most tracks barely have a beat at all. Blonde is decidedly minimalist in this sense, with Ocean’s voice receiving minimal accompaniment; the instrumentation on the aptly-named “Solo” consists of a few repeated synthesizer notes, while “Ivy” and “Self Control” only receive some scattered guitar notes. This results in an album that’s more of a grower than one that will blow you away immediately, and it personally took me several repeat listens to really appreciate it – there are some unnecessary interludes throughout, and I still can’t get into the vocal distortions that bookend the album. But once you start to actively listen, you’ll start to notice how much brilliance is hidden within its minimalism, such as the dramatic shift toward the end of standout track “Nights” and the Elliott Smith lines referenced in the orchestra of “Seigfried.” Between this and Ocean’s introspective lyrics that oscillate between the candidly personal and the abstract, Blonde is the rare album where you’re likely to find a new favorite track with each listen.
Standout Tracks: “Ivy” “Solo” “Nights”
6. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Genre: Garage rock, lo-fi indie rock
Seemingly every music site has felt the need to write an obituary for traditional indie rock, and I’ll be honest: this hasn’t been the best year for your standard guitar-driven indie rock bands. Yet the reports of indie rock’s death are greatly exaggerated, as Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial proves that there are still ingenious releases even in a barren year. I’ll admit I totally jumped on the Car Seat Headrest bandwagon with this album, and therefore missed the previous eleven albums released on music hosting site Bandcamp. Apparently Teens of Denial marks a turning point, not only because it’s the first Car Seat Headrest album of new material on an actual label, but it’s also the first time you could call Car Seat Headrest “a band” instead of an alter ego of the now 24 year old Will Toledo. It’s his most heavily produced record to date, yet still falls firmly enough on the lo-fi side of things to elicit comparisons to Pavement or early Strokes. And while I used the words “traditional” and “standard” before, Teens of Denial still manages to be incredibly innovative for guitar-driven rock.
Not only are most songs on the longer side, so that they’re fully fleshed out (including the 11.5 minute “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”), there are subtle touches throughout the album that set it apart: the stop-and-go riffs of “Fill in the Blank,” the horns on “Vincent,” and the synthesizers on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” to name a few. The album’s title and some of the lyrics may get into the realm of teen angst, but for the most part Toledo’s self-deprecating lines are presented in a witty, neurotic, and oftentimes funny way reminiscent of Courtney Barnett (one highlight is “last Friday I took acid and mushrooms. I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit in a stupid looking jacket” on “Drugs with Friends”). It’s easily the best guitar-based album I’ve heard all year, and shows that there’s still a world of discovery left in indie rock.
Standout Tracks: “Vincent” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”
5. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Genre: Hip-hop, rap
We Got it From Here..Thank You 4 Your Service edged out one other entry on this list for the “album we least expected to actually hear” award. A Tribe Called Quest were one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 90s, but they split up after releasing their fifth album, The Love Movement, in 1998. With the exception of some hope generated by reunion shows that started in 2013, there were 18 years where it seemed unlikely we’d hear a new album, and the death of main member Phife Dawg in March only seemed to confirm this fact. But in late October, A Tribe Called Quest revealed their real final album had been in the works since 2015, and included key contributions from Phife. We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is partially Phife’s vision and partially a tribute to him, and melds the sounds of the group’s 90s heyday with more modern styles. For example, this was my train of thought listening to the incredible list of guests: “Oh wow, Busta Rhymes, hadn’t heard about him in a long time…man, they got some big names on here like Kanye West, André 3000, and Kendrick Lamar…that guitar, is that Jack White?…is …that Elton John on piano?”
Lyrically, this meeting of decades means plenty of group namechecking and call-and-response lines alongside some of their most political verses to date, including Q-Tip’s clear indictment of Trumpism on the chorus of “We the People.” Although founding member Jarobi White appears on the album, having only previously appeared on the group’s 1990 debut, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is unfortunately missing the group’s DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The production and backtracks are still solid though, fusing rock, jazz, and throwback hip-hop beats. A Tribe Called Quest could have made a final album that was just a tribute to their past successes, but instead they created an all-new and excellent album that shows no talent has been lost in that nearly two-decade gap.
Standout Tracks: “We the People” “Dis Generation” “Black Spasmodic”
4. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Genre: Kanye West
(This is not the official video, but is the better version)
This is probably the most divisive album on this list for a variety of reasons, not least of which is what a tumultuous year it’s been for Kanye West, so let’s just focus on the music. Kanye West has never really been a “typical” rapper or producer, and his previous albums have all seemed to transcend his hip-hop contemporaries. He never seems content doing the same thing twice, which might explain why his relatively experimental album Yeezus had the line “soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you.” The Life of Pablo continues this trend as an album of contrasts. There are more accessible tracks like “Famous,” “Waves,” and “Fade” that you could imagine being played at a club, and then there’s “Feedback” and “Wolves,” aptly-named songs with some of the most unconventional backtracks I’ve heard. It also juxtaposes the sacred and profane; there’s a slight gospel tinge to the album thanks to the sublime opener “Ultralight Beam” and the interlude “Low Lights,” and there’s also some of his lewdest lyrics yet, that listeners will find either funny or repulsive (a line about models and assholes comes to mind). The Life of Pablo also finds strength when it turns personal, particularly on “Real Friends” where West reflects on his strained ties with family and friends. It also helps that the sequence of this track into “Wolves” and then Frank Ocean’s outro (“Frank’s Track”) is the climax of the album. At 19 or 20 tracks long (depending on which version you have – long story) they’re not all going to be winners, but The Life of Pablo is an eclectic, unique album that shows Kanye still stands on his own tier.
Standout Tracks: “Ultralight Beam” “Real Friends” “Wolves”
3. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Genre: Folk, electronica…folktronica
Justin Vernon is probably never going to be able to shake off his designation as “that guy who exiled himself to a cabin in the woods for a winter with an acoustic guitar and came out with a groundbreaking indie folk album.” That first album released under the name “Bon Iver,” titled For Emma, Forever Ago, deserved all of its praise, yet Vernon has since shown he’s far more than a cabin-dwelling one-trick pony. He’s made blues rock with Shouting Matches, slightly experimental and vaguely ambient music with Volcano Choir, and even Bon Iver’s second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver introduced a full band and synthesizers to the mix. Therefore, 22, A Million’s move toward a more unconventional, electronic-based sound should not come as too much a surprise, particularly given that it retains Vernon’s trademark falsetto vocals and even the occasional acoustic-guitar based song. Yes, its tracklist requires you to whip out Microsoft’s character map to type , but buried beneath 22, A Milion’s cryptic symbols and various electronic glitch noises are some of Bon Iver’s best melodies to date, especially on the chorus of “33 “GOD” and the guitar line of “666 ʇ.” It also shows Vernon’s ability try something completely new (like the industrial “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”) while revisiting tried and true techniques (“29 #Strafford Apts,” “8 (circle)”) without their inclusion on the same album seeming unnatural. 22, A Million is truly a pioneering album that doesn’t fit neatly into any boxes, and is all the better for it. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” “33 “GOD” “666 ʇ”
2. The Avalanches – Wildflower
Genre: Electronic, psychedelic, hip-hop
Although a Tribe Called Quest had an 18 year gap between their fifth and sixth albums, the Avalanches certainly gave them a run for their money by making us wait 16 years for their second album. The frustration of this wait was exacerbated by the fact that the Avalanches’ first album Since I Left You is absolutely incredible, and we had heard “the second album is almost ready” multiple times since 2009. This is why there was a degree of cynicism when the Avalanches announced their second album Wildflower earlier this year, along with fears that it couldn’t possibly meet the high bar set by its predecessor. Fortunately, Wildflower is a fantastic album that paves its own course. Just like Since I Left You, it’s a musical collage formed by a plethora of samples (albeit slightly fewer this time around due to copyright restrictions), but Wildflower also includes original recordings by guests including Toro Y Moi, Camp Lo, Danny Brown, and Biz Markie. The result is that Wildflower has a bit of an alternative hip-hop feel, with strongly psychedelic-inspired instrumentals that harken back to the 1960s. The tracks flow together seamlessly to create one unified tapestry, and while some tracks are strong enough to stand on their own (“Because I’m Me” “Frankie Sinatra” “Stepkids”), this is an album best experienced as a whole. Wildflower may not reach the legendary status occupied by Since I Left You, but it’s still an excellent album that will make you hope you don’t have to wait 16 more years to hear from the Avalanches again. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Because I’m Me” “Frankie Sinatra” “Stepkids”
1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Genre: Alternative rock, electronic
When this album came out in May, I had a sneaking suspicion that it would top my year end countdown, and I was right. In my opinion, nothing that has come out since in 2016 has surpassed it. Radiohead have been a hugely influential band for at least two decades now, and A Moon Shaped Pool gives a glimpse as to why. It plays a bit like a compilation album, since almost half of its tracks have previously appeared at concerts and on live recordings (one is at least 20 years old), and its alphabetical tracklist makes one question if the track order has any actual meaning. Musically, this compilation effect results in a “best of” amalgamation of Radiohead’s varying styles over the years; there are hints of their earlier rock sound on “Ful Stop” and “Identikit,” along with continuations of their more electronic direction on “Daydreaming” and “Tinker Tailor Solider Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” However, the real star of the show is the album’s string arrangements, which were arranged by guitarist Johnny Greenwood and performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. They add a real sense of lushness to the album, whether they serve at the forefront of a song (“Burn the Witch,” “Glass Eyes”) or play a more subtle role (“Daydreaming,” “The Numbers”). This is to say nothing of the album’s lyrics, which frequently find singer Thom Yorke at his most confessional. He had recently separated from his partner of 23 years, and you can really sense his sorrow throughout the album, culminating in the crushing final track “True Love Waits.” A Moon Shaped Pool not only highlights the best of what Radiohead have to offer, but also feels entirely original for the band, and encouragingly demonstrates that they still have significant ambition after so many years of success. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Daydreaming” “Decks Dark” “Ful Stop”