The cream of the crop. Top of the Pops. Tyler reveals his Albums of the Year, featuring an ascendent, joyous rapper, and a bunch’a emo bands.
Hey look, it’s Part 5! The part of an Albums of the Year list that everybody reads! Finally, after months of speculating, the Best Record of 2016 appears.
This was a buggy year. We had statement releases from what felt like every major star in pop (Kanye West, Drake, Young Thug, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, Danny Brown, Anohni, Solange), returns to form from a bevy of oft dismissed as defunct artists (Tribe Called Quest, de la Soul, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and goodbyes from some of the greatest artists to ever live (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and a moment of grieving, if not a goodbye album, from Prince).
And yet, the undercurrent boiling over 2016 was one of discontent with popular structures. That manifested itself in pleasing and decidedly displeasing ways, but it also affected a change in the quality and the relevance of many under-the-radar album releases this year.
Which is fascinating given that the current underground independent rock scene is dominated by emo bands, or emo-adjacent bands. Bands from the emo framework endeavored mightily to follow up statement releases from The World Is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die and The Hotelier is statement releases of their own, attempting to carve out their own space in a genre bursting with unfulfilled potential and a massive audience waiting for quality.
What resulted from 2016’s undercurrent of discontent was probably the strongest year for indie rock and emo in a very long time. While quite short on defining, transcendent releases that will be remembered when we inevitably Snapchat our Best of the 2010s list in 2019, 2016 remained remarkably consistent in producing quality records through a year that sorely needed them as salve for the outside world.
As an aside, I’d just like to say thanks for reading, those who did. I admit to being not the most intelligencia-based music writer. My CV has been turned down by Pitchfork on a number of occasions. And in the past few years I’ve been very comfortable accepting that not many people want to read my music writing.
So it’s heartening to know that there might be some people out there who do. I don’t know if I’ll continue this journey into next year. This project has certainly drained a lot of words out of me. But whether it is just 2016 or if I continue doing this for the rest of eternity, shackled to my computer and headphones like some Sisyphusian Lester Bangs, it will be because I want to share some music with you.
I hope you enjoyed, and maybe I’ll see you in the pit when Martha comes to town. (Spoilers).
10. Mitski – Puberty 2
Brutal, youthful fatalism slithers all over Puberty 2 in disquieting and immediately captivating ways. Mitski Miyawaki’s fourth record in five years is one of those beautifully creepy images that you can’t look away from – “I Bet On Losing Dogs” is such a sweet, romantic ode until you realize that Miyawaki is talking about staring into the eyes of a dying dog in a fighting pit as a metaphor for this relationship she’s starting. “Your Best American Girl” is all depressive aspirationalism cloaking a clever dig about monochromatic American Girl dolls. Hell, the idea of “Happy” comes inside Miyawaki within the first minute of the record.
Puberty 2 is barely in control of its faculties as it spins wildly on the emotional outbursts and introspective comedowns Miyawaki’s lyrical verse uses as its fulcrum (the swap from “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” to “Thursday Girl” is serious whiplash), yet part of the majesty of such brash unpredictability is that it closely mirrors Miyawaki’s lyrical subjects. Teenagerdom lingers over Puberty 2 like a specter – less than fully formed personalities wrestling with ideas only fully formed brains could possibly hope to navigate (“Crack Baby” as metaphor!). Mitski has always traded in this sort of HBO-ification of teenage feelings of romanticism and doom – Puberty 2 just happens to be the best evocation of this thesis by a country mile. There’s no escaping being exposed, being humiliated, being used. Perhaps the only way to process these angsty realizations is to excise them through songs – that Miyawaki, removed from puberty herself, is able to accomplish this processing is as high praise as the magnificent Puberty 2 could get.
9. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Every year, hip-hop gets owned by a singular force. 2015: Kendrick’s “Alright.” 2014: Run the Jewels’ incendiary Run the Jewels 2. 2013: Beyonce’s unbelievable Beyonce. 2012: Frank Ocean for the sensitive, sweet Channel ORANGE. 2011: Tyler, The Creator’s disturbing, evocative “Yonkers.” 2010: Kanye’s last masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. 2016, with some stiff competition from Frank, Kendrick, Beyonce and other lesser artists (West, Drake, Young Thug, D.R.A.M.), Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book ran away with the title. In a year of such violence, turbulence, difficulty and lack of movement toward a more equal society, Coloring Book is a celebration. A celebration of music, of community and of those closest to us.
Replicating and building from Kanye West’s oft-forgotten masterpiece Late Registration, Chance builds from a framework of soul and pop, discovering evocative and ebullient sounds to bounce his wonky, sidestepping verses into the hearts and minds of his listeners. A song like “Same Drugs” might seem easy to accomplish, with it’s plinking piano accented by a gospel choir, but every little tic Chance adds to the mix adds personality, and his verses arrive as emotional and realist wallops in the face of today’s hedonistic rap malaise. Chance could’ve been one of them – he engages with them on the woozy “Mixtape.” But minutes later he’s clear-headed, rapping about how unbelievable his sector of Chicago is, sharing his gospel with those people have insisted that he’s beefing with (sup, Keef!), and how he might’ve gotten messed up on Xanax for a while, but he’s back now.
Coloring Book is so laser-focused on Chance’s thesis that music is solution to almost every problem that he allows messengers who might completely fuck up the voice onto his tracks… and they just add on to his power. Bieber and Towkio play sleazy club singers as Chance skates around them. Kanye West, thankfully, doesn’t interject himself further than the opening entrance music. Future somehow manages to only smoke weed on his guest spot. It’s the true power of Chance’s unstoppable voice, commanding every part of his scene until it’s impossible to extricate 2016 from Coloring Book. 2017 will be a new year, and expecting Chance to follow up Coloring Book with something equally monumental in a year is probably outsized. So, for the moment, lil Chano from the 79 owns 2016, repping, above all else, music as the savior, music as the clear-headed mistress from every other distraction along the way. Coloring Book is about the healing power of music, even if those wounds will never fully heal. “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood / make you remember how to smile good.” Indeed, Chancellor. Indeed.
8. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Ryan Adams is a weird touchstone to jump from in 2016. The folk-rock uber-star hasn’t been qualitatively relevant for many years, his output reduced to hardcore love letters and bizarre full album covers of Taylor Swift. Yet there’s Evan Hall, Montclair’s finest and the baby-faced singer-songwriter for Pinegrove, bringing the breadth of his pop alt-country knowledge to bear on Cardinal, one of the most surprisingly effective releases of the year. At a scant eight tracks, it’s a wonder Cardinal has any time to go anywhere interesting with the form. Yet Hall, even at his young age (still in college, damn I’m old) is mature enough to manage his references and blend alt-country with emotive longing and growing up into a tonic altogether original and revelatory in a scene increasingly moving out toward the light of big tent indie-rock.
The songs autobiographically catalog Hall’s struggles with meeting people (“Aphasia”), his over-anxiety traveling anywhere (“Then Again”), or speaking with anyone he remotely has feelings for (“Waveform”). All bracketed by a couplet of songs about friends, old and new, Hall makes a point of drawing the listener inward with his folksy charm. After a cathartic moment on “Size of the Moon,” he lets the song hang silent for a bit before cooing – “now would you like that drink.” It’s a startling moment of confidence from an artist just starting out in a genre crowded with anxious men. The album also balances Hall’s anxiety with sprightly alt-country twang – old school Pinegrove holdover “New Friends” makes a welcome cameo at the end of the album to close on a strong note, but the choral affectations on “Waveform,” the bluesy solo-ing on “Aphasia” or the careening out of control bridge of “Visiting” keep the narrative throughlines from feeling too bogged down. Cardinal is a star-making turn in a niche of a genre that has gone painfully unaccented for too long. Evan Hall may have grander designs on his musical career than Ryan Adams, but for now just being mentioned in the conversation with Heartbreaker should be enough to satiate the budding icon.
7. Camp Cope – Camp Cope
Georgia Maq’s songs are messes. Sometimes they’re off her own creation – the disappearance of her ability to see humans as anything more than bags of meat generating electricity. Sometimes they’re the result of institutional pressures – the cops and pedestrians constantly cat-calling Maq as she walks down the street, her powerless to do anything about it. Regardless, her songs make a mess for themselves that Maq frequently doesn’t dig herself out of, instead preferring to meander inside the complicated feelings of betrayal, insecurity, nostalgia and grief that permeate through Camp Cope’s excellent debut album. The Woke-ness of a track like “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams” is over-layed with righteous anger at the oppression generation after generation of men have placed upon Maq’s physical presence and intellectual ability; when she rages about the common 9/11 conspiracy, it’s from the position of Zach de la Rocha “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” The smoky barroom dirge of “West Side Story” devolves into a wrathful excoriation of gentrification pushing Maq out of the places she used to feel safe.
There’s a bevy of wistful relationship malaise, present in the self-deprecating humor of “Lost (Season One)” or the anxiety of trying to be honest and kind in “Trepidation,” recognizing that might make Maq alone. Camp Cope is the sound of a powerful woman turning her talent into a weapon of defiance, striking back at nearly everything that could potentially hurt her. All the more affecting, then, is the closer, “Song for Charlie,” addressed to her brother on the day of a funeral of a close family member. When anger might gel better with Camp Cope’s ethos, “Song for Charlie” displays powerful emotional maturity, only strengthening the mottos of the previous seven tracks, a powerful moment in the life of an incisive songwriter.
6. Touche Amore – Stage Four
“It was time this whole time.” Among the many devastating lines of Touche Amore’s Stage Four, this little tossed off one in the bridge of “Flowers and You” hits the hardest. Inspired by lead singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother dying of cancer, Stage Four is a relentless reckoning with grief, disastrous in places and uncomfortable in others, rarely allowing the listener to feel at peace until Julien Baker walks in to exit the album out on the graceful “Skyscraper.”
Yet as hard to listen to emotionally as Stage Four often is, I keep coming back to that little line in the opening song, and realizing that while the record is already cemented as Touche Amore’s best ever, the embrace of discomfort so willingly by Bolm shines a light on our own personal relationships. Having been a party to probably too many tragedies on the level Bolm talks about in my life, one of the first cliched axioms that gets tossed around is the necessity to appreciate those in your life while they still are. Not to say that isn’t true, but as the axiom dulls more and more, comfortably able to be Hallmark’d, it’s worth looking into exactly what it means, and the obvious darkness such a cliche dives into. Any of us could die, at any moment. For Bolm, that any moment was as he was on stage in Florida, performing as his mother died thousands of miles away, chronicled in the most devastating track on the album “Eight Seconds.”
Thus, if the possibility of death lingers around every corner of every moment, it would be improper to dismiss our loved ones leaving us as it “not being time” yet. Because it is time, or it could be. Stage Four frequently plumbs the dark depths of this realization, arriving at not an inconsiderable amount of personal angst from it. If we take Stage Four as prescriptive, then, we can learn from Bolm’s tragedy, and move into a healthier, more appreciative space with those we love. Rarely can an album provoke such sea change emotional responses, almost completely devoid of expected context. Yet that is the power of Stage Four, Touche Amore’s latest masterpiece.
5. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years
Cymbals Eat Guitars can’t help themselves: they just can’t make a breakthrough album. LOSE was their closest try, and “Warning” definitely had potential as a mid-Aughts radio rock single. Yet when it didn’t hit, the band went back into the studio with the producer for the breakthrough Philly rockers War On Drugs… and came out with Pretty Years, an album that sounds like it’s defiantly trying to break through to the mainstream, but CEG’s nagging penchant for expressive, wonky experimentation keeps getting in the way. Listen to “Well” – every time the band comes close to a big anthemic section, there’s skronking weirdness right around the corner. Yet, Pretty Years is by far the best Cymbals Eat Guitars record ever, a grand move toward establishing the band as a full-fledged indie-rock powerhouse, numbers or no. Emotionally devastating, sonically adventurous, indicative of all that made them great before and hinting at elements that might indicate at a bright future for a band already shining brightly.
Songs like “Well” and “Close” and “Have a Heart,” along with the tectonic closer “Shrine” evince a deep humanity within singer/songwriter Joseph D’Agostino, a humanity that is able to come to terms with his age and detriments and yet push toward a brighter future. Harrowing stories like “4th of July, Philadelphia (Sandy)” bring him to this point, and for the first time the band’s blend of experimental emo and rock n’ roll constructivism blend together to shine a light on a conflicted soul. Many other bands do better at expressing one specific emotion – a desire to be better, an embrace of the darker side of personality, lust, hate. Cymbals Eat Guitars discovered on Pretty Years the serendipity of mixing all of those emotions together and ending up somewhere in the middle. Theirs is not a path without its drama – most of Pretty Years trades on some serious anthems. But, unlike almost any other album this year, Cymbals Eat Guitars took an expressive approach to their songwriting, and came away with the best record of their career.
4. PUP – The Dream is Over
Context is important, whether it should be or not. If Beyonce’s Lemonade can heavily lean on the perhaps autobiographical nature of Queen Bey’s fraught relationship with her husband, Sean Carter, then it’s all more right to consider the making of context of an album when evaluating its success or failure. All this to say that what PUP must have gone through to come out with a record as unrelenting, hyper-aggressive, destructive and magnificent as The Dream Is Over, I shudder to think. With the lone salve of the disappointing closer “Pine Point,” Dream is an album that takes you by the throat and doesn’t let up – intra-band murderous feelings, infidelity, joblessness, hopelessness and medical incapacity all get the furious run around.
PUP’s first, self-titled record was a decent marker for where the band could stake their claim; Dream is a fucking series of napalm attacks scorching the earth where PUP will presumably remain. Whatever happiness Dream imparts is fleeting, and the moments of dread or outright nihilism only invade further from the opening title line if “If this Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will.” “The Coast” is a welcome left turn to the dread, weaving in horror movie quality lore and myth into the most of the time autobiographical half hour of self-destruction. With such blinding negativity, the true majesty of PUP’s latest work is that it’s so damn easy to come back to.
Consider it a fitting, and perhaps better, follow up to a record like Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends, only with the emotive sexism turned down several hundred notches. All of Dream, again with the exception of the unfortunate ending track, is as easy to slip back into as any vibe-y chillwave bullshit, and it feels as though, with their particular brand of anger, PUP has stumbled upon something really special. The expressive self-flaggelation of The Dream Is Over ends up in an almost joyous place; Andrew W.K. setting himself on fire at a party on a dare. The Dream Is Over is an entirely unique punk record, with pleasures and pains in equal measure, and frequently in exactly the same place. It is the manic, enraged id of anyone who has felt suspended by outside circumstances, as PUP has over the last year.
3. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Since his break from DeYarmond Edison and his underrated set of demos recorded under his own name, Justin Vernon has crafted a career from impressionistic verse, never contenting himself with cogent, easily understandable narratives. His lyrics are pops of color, little secrets shared between his people and him, or just emphatic yawps in the studio as he evinces an unhidden emotion. The interpretability of his verse lends mystery to Bon Iver, his most famous project, even as the band’s exposure has supernova’d into full on superstardom. Anchored by unforgettable performances on Jimmy Fallon’s various late night shows, Vernon has built a foundation of communally special live shows, capable of rendering emotions from guitar tone, twinkling percussion, dynamic combinations of synthesized and live drums, or even the occasional horn (saxophone, trumpet).
22, A Million shows no more cards than Vernon’s modern masterpiece (2011s Bon Iver, Bon Iver), and at times seems to dodge away from Bon Iver’s legacy, supplanting the frequently crisp indie-rock with more electronic experimentalism, more reminiscent of Vernon’s contribution to Kanye West’s latest records, or even his piece of the puzzle that is Volcano Choir. The first tracks shout and dart away, not content to fully flesh out what melodies Vernon sees in each little stolen moment. 22, A Million feels like a hermit reluctantly peddling his wares for indiscernible purpose beyond their own presence – a tautological call into existence. Yet as the record progresses, Vernon’s mindset codifies, and 22, A Million appears as a gentle, shy flower, terrified of further exposure than a listener might give it listening on their bedroom floor on the second of a series of late nights. Vernon references his own history (“29 #Strafford APTS”) minutes after vocally elegizing Prince (the spoken word chip-tune in the middle of “33 “God””), a catalog of a night lost in the woods, reckoning with ones influences and deficiencies.
As impressionistic as 22, A Million appears to be, the sonic progression of the record, from chirped soul to distressed folk to a Vernon classic (Bruce Hornsby keyboards and horns on “8 (Circle)”), is as close to the true Vernon of the moment as we are likely to get. “It might be over soon” is the first lyric heard on the record, a mysterious hint toward the oft-heralded-but-not-yet-here end of Bon Iver. If it is to be true this time, 22, A Million is a fitting sendoff- gorgeous, glacial and technologically transfixing (hell, Vernon and collaborator S Carey invented a whole new instrument for 22, A Million). But 22, A Million might just be another stopping point, a ribbon tied around a tree marking the direction in which Vernon is running, left there for us to find as we continue to chase him. Perhaps Vernon would like if we stopped chasing… but if he continues to bloom music like “___45___” from his distant tenor, that may be impossible.
2. The Hotelier – Goodness
Goodness pushes toward calm, even in the hands of one of emo’s greatest contemporary flag-bearers. As a follow-up to the cathartic, magnificent Home, Like Noplace Is There, The Hotelier’s third record is something of an odd duck. It doesn’t attempt to change the basic mis-en-scene of a Hotelier record – there are still plenty of cathartic, emo-punk moments, like in the giant chorus to “Settle the Scar” – yet it does feel like a third limb trying to grow out of a band’s fully formed body. At times this can feel uncomfortable, like the semi-unfortunate half-skits that break up the album’s component parts. But that discomfort never feels out of step with the change The Hotelier are trying to affect with Goodness. Just look at the album cover and tell me some or all of that discomfort is not intentional.
Yet discomfort, intentional or not, doesn’t automatically make a work of art “important.” No, what makes Goodness’ disquieting pathos is its emotional core, built from singer Christian Holden’s evocative and piercing verse. Songs like “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” and “Soft Animal” crackle with a narrative verve not seen from anyone in the rock, let alone emo, genre. Holden’s laser focus on small moments, the small specifics of each encounter magnified to mean something greater, leave the listener involved and enveloped in his world, where The Hotelier are just trying to be more level. Meanwhile Goodness’ sonics take a decisive step toward math and pop-emo tendencies, toning down the enraged screamo that sometimes capped off blistering tempos in Noplace. “You In this Light,” despite Holden’s howls, could be mistaken for an American Football song, and “End of Reel” is most closely related to something by early REM. Finally, in a resigned sigh of a line, repeated as the album makes its calm exit, Holden sums up the quixotic existence Goodness has tried to push back against – “I don’t know what I want / what I want’s where I’ve been.”
Goodness is a meditation on trying to find a center, attempting to contextualize everything happening around one of the most breaking in bands in this generation into a cohesive whole that will somehow allow Christian Holden not to fall apart into diminishing returns or, worse, depression. That he doesn’t find this centeredness by the end of the record is only proof of life for The Hotelier. Holden may spend his entire career chasing a demon; Goodness is a beautiful, at times blissful, at others cathartic, wander through the life of emo superstars The Hotelier, poised to become one of the most important figures in rock music today.
1. Martha – Blisters In the Pit Of My Heart
“When it rains, well it really fucking pours” is as good a descriptor of 2016 as I can think of. It’s been a really hard year, for reasons that we don’t need to get into. The most instantly relatable meme about this year is that of a giant blue dumpster being engulfed in flames – we lost Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen… an orange toad is President. We got terrific albums from Cymbals Eat Guitars, The Hotelier, PUP, Camp Cope, Touche Amore and others about dealing with the deafening reality of dealing with ones own faults and emotions. 2016 was a year of reckoning. Yet, how fitting that the album of the year, the defining moment from a year of “Big Releases” and “Big Sh*t” going down, would be an initially simple, half-hour romp through punk-rock past and present, a totem to keeping one’s head up in the face of unspeakable atrocity.
An album about romance among the punk set (“Precarious (Supermarket Song)”), about raucous, DIY remembrance of friends past (“Christine,” “Curly & Raquel”), and lastly of honorific spitting towards our idols (“St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive)”), Martha’s Blisters In the Pit Of My Heart is a white hot blast of punk-rock, tight-fisted and smiling in the circle pit with unrelenting ecstasy. An effortless leap forward from their already magnificent debut Courting Strong, Blisters broadens the band’s sound to include softcore sweetness (“Ice Cream and Sunscreen”) and gigantic, stadium rocking anthems (“Do Nothing”), all the while maintaining a chokehold over the absolute best guitar tone in the genre. Next to only Titus Andronicus in their overt worship of The Replacements, Martha is perhaps most worthy of the references, unrelenting in their romanticism at the seeming apocalypse (“when the bombs begin to drop / when my skin is dripping off / I’ll remember you in all your glory”) or lust in the face of corporate malaise (“walking down the aisle / took some cheap enjoyment / lamenting neoliberal / precarious employment”).
Martha’s jagged edge never dulls, yet that doesn’t mean that the band needs to fully throttle the listener with their overwrought purpose – Blisters is, by every measure, the most listenable album about dismantling the government since Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Yet even more than that record, Martha evinces a powerful ability to manage personal narrative alongside DIY punk barking, all wrapped up inside gigantic hooks. “Do Nothing” perhaps sums this up best – in a song overtly about the relentless pounding of society-sponsored depression, a little coda brings Martha back to their dramatic purpose – “I won’t ever claim to have an answer / I’m just hoping there’s a chance that / When the darkness gets around to leaving / We could get together for an evening.” Society’s problems are awesome, a series of giant millstones hanging over those who would choose to challenge them. 2016 certainly gave many the means and malaise to do so.
However, this year’s album of the year most clearly shows that, while it’s important to acknowledge and push back against engendered forms of darkness… it’s also important to look around and see the person next to you. Perhaps as a savior, perhaps someone to be saved, but always as a person in the same space as you, carrying the same millstones around their neck. A friend, companion, compatriot, or simply someone rocking out in the pit at a Martha show with you.