2016 Albums of The Year: 25 – 11

Tyler makes the final turn toward the end, covering those records that just barely missed the Top 10 Albums of the Year, featuring Radiohead and others.

Aw, the also rans. It’s such a bummer to watch the traffic on lists like this crater on these numbers (as they almost do). Hardly anybody cares about the albums that were almost Album of the Year.

Still, as is almost the case, records 25-11 in an Albums of the Year list tend to be the ones I come back to and listen the most. This is largely no exception; Car Seat Hearest, ROMP and John K Samson have all been in my proverbial six CD changer for the duration of them being out. Perhaps it’s soemthing about being a little more flawed than the best that makes these records more interesting. Maybe it’s just because, with no exception, the Best 25 albums of the year are all totally frickin’ awesome.

25. The Afterglows – The Afterglows

The arrival of Bandcamp as a viable method of release is possibly the greatest advancement of the ubiquity of streaming music, since it provides easy routes to discovering new acts in vibrant scenes that might otherwise go unnoticed as the third opener on a big tour. The Afterglows, a project between Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott and Michael Cantor from The Goodbye Party, is just such a band. Their self-titled first record, digitally only available by Bandcamp, is a deviation from the duo’s typical power-pop fare in many ways that might direct toward a brighter future for both bands and their scenes. Sedate when both tend to be manic and wordy, profoundly affecting and earnest in place of… well, yeah, they’re always pretty earnest, The Afterglows is a beautiful trinket from the fringes of a movement by two of its star members. Based off of a shared loved of “Everly Brothers-style harmonies,” songs like the missive to the iconic NYC flophouse “Angels in the Sunshine Hotel” shine a light on the songwriting chops of dudes who, in their day jobs, pound around (righteously) on barre chords. The DIY home aesthetic of the record, most clearly heard on “Slow Down,” serves this master as well; no one would ever mistake this for being a polished thing ready for the world. But Bandcamp has provided for many hidden gems over the past few years, and The Afterglows is certainly one of them. Whether Cook-Parrott or Cantor take the experiments they tried out here back to their day jobs is immaterial – the album is enough, a hidden gem for those willing to dig in the dirt to find it.

24. Jawbreaker Reunion – haha and then what 😉

Jawbreaker Reunion, nominative determinism aside considering it hasn’t come to pass, seemed poised to break out this year. Their first album, the incendiary Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club, was a sweet trinket of lo-fi pop-punk, evidence of the genre’s increasing hold over female fronted bands. With Haha, And then What 😉, Jawbreaker Reunion cements itself as the leader in the clubhouse of the highly energetic sub-genre. Sticking close to their roots (“Small Investments”) while successfully diving into richer, more heavily produced sonic pathways (album centerpiece “Cosmos”), Haha evinces both a well-worn caustic humor (“Your X”) and an unexpected sweetness (“Apple”), fleshing out the band’s sound that only exponentially increases their potential as crossover stars. Yet for now, Jawbreaker Reunion can be happy with an excellent, developmental sophomore album.

23. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

Retro, stately stylings don’t necessarily have to be passé, but more often than not, it takes expert songwriters like Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij to translate sonics decidedly out of favor with current indie rock to get it to work. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine fits decidedly into pleasant listening bourgeois indie rock, yet the burbling soul of artistic experimentalism always lingers beneath the surface. Leithauser operates “Sick as a Dog” like a drunk Britt Daniel from Spoon, lilting and cooing off the propulsive rhythm section as a plaintive acoustic guitar fills out the rest of the proceedings. Moments of I Had A Dream dive headlong into past tense genres – long past cowpoke folk morphing into a Wes Anderson waltz on “You Ain’t That Young Kid.” When faced with the prospect of tried methods, Batmanglij’s Vampire Weekend eye comes blaring in, continually throwing elements at Leithauser to see it his ghostly evocations and sweet Dylan voice can keep up. Without exemption, he does, and returns powerful, poignant moments of his own (“In a Blackout” is as if Win Butler wrote The Suburbs in a small town south of the border). Leithauser and Batmanglij set themselves up with a high degree of difficulty, and managed to release a record at simultaneous moments nostalgic and futuristic – a totem to not throwing away what worked in the past.

22. William Tyler – Modern Country

It’s almost a cliche to have William Tyler in this spot. He’s consistently produced evocative, moving, altogether cinematic pieces of electric guitar based instrumentation now for nearly a decade. At this point he should be fairly predictable. Yet Tyler’s consistent reinvention of his form, the playful jumpiness of his songcraft, all the while retaining the demure stateliness of instrumental rock is a sight to behold; Modern Country is no different. From the powerful first track “Highway Anxiety,” Tyler draws his influence in a tight shot – the twang and road-weary splendor of Americana country, in all it’s component forms. From there he goes to Appalachia (“I’m Gonna Live Forever If It Kills Me”), California folkie (“Sunken Garden”), arriving at a fuzzy, resounding finale not a moment too quickly or too soon. Modern Country is William Tyler’s best record… then again, they’ve all been his best record.

 

21. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost

Similar to the previously mentioned So So Glos, Modern Baseball’s influence on their scene may soon easily outpace and eventually outlast their musical output. While Holy Ghost is easily the best Modern Baseball record yet, revealing emotional depths to songwriting team Brandon Lukens and Jake Ewald heretofore unseen, the camaraderie the band has built with their fans in response to Lukens’ struggle with suicidal thoughts has been one of the most memorable and heartening stories to come out of the emo revival. Yet Holy Ghost, as a standalone piece of music, packs a wallop. From a first half that has Ewald exploring different perspectives from losing a grandparent (“The Wedding Singer”), wrapped up in the sonics of missed The Starting Line-era pop-punk, to Lukens’ heavier aggro sensibility running roughshod through side B and his emotional state, Holy Ghost is the culmination of years of hard work by a band that might’ve seemed like they’d never make it. They have.

20. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

And the winner for Record Who Snuck Up All Year Until It Revealed Itself to Be An Absolute Banger goes to Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest. While initial listens to the record can feel like a slog, somewhat akin to the way new listeners might not’ve been immediately attracted to the mammoth run time of Titus Andronicus’ masterpiece The Monitor, Teens of Denial reveals itself in moments of weary wit and cathartic anger. Toledo isn’t dealing in anything all that much different from Beach Slang’s output; he’s just putting drug-use, drunk driving and misplaced youth within the broader context of trying to figure out one’s place in the world. His vocal delivery can still a bit too closely recall Julian Casablancas’ stubborn early drawl, Toledo turns of phrase periodically more closely resemble Gareth Campesinos!’ masterful witticisms on Los Campesinos!’ similarly anthemic Hold On Now, Youngster. If Car Seat can turn their prodigious Bandcamp output into the kind of career the Campesinos! have had, Teens of Denial might rightly be held up as a thrilling example of mastery to come.

19. Pity Sex – White Hot Moon

Connection and sexuality are quality sometimes lost in modern fuzzed out punk-rock. Most often you get lyrical subjects that focus inward; it’s most of what modern emo has made so special about its revival. Yet connection and the desire for another, honest sexual desire, is what makes White Hot Moon such a special piece of emotive shoegaze-punk. Pity Sex have been circling a record this intimate and striking for a number of years; by the time “Burden You” has finished, it’s clear the band is working on another level from their already high peak. The shoegaze-esque fuzz is still right in place, if not given more of a stage. Pity Sex, for the first time in their still young career, feel like they’re utilizing the feedback to enhance the intimacy of their music. The vocal interplay between vocalists Brittany Drake and Brennan Greaves only serves this intimacy further – Greaves is the morose Morrissey figure, Drake the ingenue figure with dark secrets darting against the posturing of her partner. White Hot Moon is Pity Sex figuring out how great they can be.

18. Slaughter Beach, Dog – Welcome

Apparently not content to write the first (better) half of a phenomenal pop-punk record about saving the treasured moments of a relationship with someone passed on, Jake Ewald popped out a relatively surprising almost-concept album of his own this fall, cementing him as one of pop-punk’s most flexible voices. Dodging around perspectives as familiar as relationship angst (“Mallrat Semi-Annual”) and surprising as gender politics and family disintegration (the second half of the record), Welcome is a titan of a record exploring the reaches of the darker pop-punk mindset. Ewald, either by serendipity or design, wanders into potential developments for his genre, and provides a potential throughline and framework for creating records that break beyond a mold that, by the end of next year, might be beginning to play itself back into irrelevance. Welcome is a page from the Say Anything song book, only Ewald is more prodigiously talented at blending disparate genre elements into his formula than Max Bemis is (or probably ever was). Comparing Welcome and Holy Ghost is largely folly. Firstly, both are amazing. Second, Welcome is more about experimenting with the recipe, trying to figure a way to something revelatory musically, not only lyrically or personally. That Welcome largely succeeds is a testament to Jake Ewald, ascendant songwriter.

17. ROMP – Departure from Venus

Pop-punk does not belong to men. The past few years have pushed this idea with increasing insistency, with bands like All Dogs pushing forward the female perspective in a genre that has long been dominated by juvenile male id-iocy. Departure from Venus is as powerful a statement as has been made since All Dogs put out their amazing Kicking Every Day, filled with blistering drum fills, pulsing punk guitars and a powerful wail from singer Madison Klarer at the forefront. There are poppier moments (“Last Year,” a big anthemic chorus about being unsure of one’s place), and overtly hardcore tunes (the vicious “Get Off the Scale”). Yet after the massive “Come Undone,” Departure from Venus launches itself into a space where all of ROMPs disparate influences collide into a truly special whole. Klarer doesn’t lose the snotty wit of traditional pop-punk (learning how to pee outside), yet there’s an enlightened lightness to the proceedings as she refuses the advances of various probably frontmen of pop-punk bands (“Naner Manor”). If Departure From Venus is just a starting point, ROMP’s ceiling it apparently limitless. In under a half-hour, ROMP put the entire male pop-punk Industrial Complex on blast and nearly come away with the best pop-punk record of the year.

16. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat

It’s so hard, being alive. We are pressured on all fronts by depression, or causes of it. Presentations go terribly. Cats run away. Treatment doesn’t work. Concrete pours over grass. Mental illness leads to delusion, leads to seclusion, leads to death. And yet still, we live. Thus, we must wrestle with the challenges, the delusions of our mind, body, outward existence. That’s the apparent framework from which songwriter/poet John K. Samson draws Winter Wheat, his first collection of songs since 2012’s magnificent Provincial. Characters flicker in and out of existence on the album, providing small doses of wisdom through their delusions or their thought processes. Here, at Lucky Lou’s, is a man who believes that he can speak to people with his mind, sad, alone. Yet just two minutes later, there he is again, professing love for another, companionship in preparations for the aliens approach and conquest. Here’s the partner, hanging up FaceTime and putting away their phone as their other continues off on his world tour. Here’s the tech-addict, hitting control-A and pressing backspace on the menace of other people, wandering away to solitude. Here’s the ode to the Soviet spy outed by Margaret Thatcher. And there, again, in a final, devastating minute of emotional honesty, is Virtute, the supportive, literate and lost cat that haunted The Weakerthans’ discography with two tear-jerkingly beautiful songs. “Virtute at Rest” is aching, a somber elegy as confidence booster. Virtute isn’t even really present – “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” explains that, due in part to her curiosity, part to her owners alcoholism and depression, she’s long gone from his life. So we must assume that the Virtute of “at Rest” is delusional, a ghost of the character’s mind, reaffirming their commitment to the Twelve Steps. All the more heart-rending that Virtute is real, or was. “Virtute at Rest” recalls Virtute’s first appearance, when she reassured Samson that “I know you’re strong.” Perhaps the end of Winter Wheat is a similarly comforting delusion for Samson, now that Virtute is gone. Whatever the delusion, in whatever the song, Winter Wheat is a stark, beautiful and complex opus about how we connect, hoping, at the end, that we can find peace in the connection.

15. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

They were nearly gone. Then they were back. The most important rock band of the last two decades (sorry, Bono and Win Butler) stepped back into the spotlight after nearly a half a decade of intermittent touring and a decided lack of releasing. Thom Yorke had been lost in his own diminishing returns. Jonny Greenwood was recording haunting scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterworks. Yet by the time the book closes on the finally released “True Love Waits,” A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a Radiohead that never left us. I suspect this is largely because their ethos has infected American popular society. Peak Radiohead saw a dark technological future full of Big Brother and distrust; it’s difficult to say where they went wrong. So when A Moon Shaped Pool half confronts this new reality with alternating stuttering insistency (“Burn the Witch”) and languid beauty (“Daydreaming”), it’s a wonder we’ve gotten anywhere in processing our cultural disaffection without Yorke’s slithery voice. A Moon Shaped Pool is stylistically quite similar to Radiohead’s last truly Great album, In Rainbows, for the way it ping pongs around genre tropes of rock to accomplish the narrative of the next four to five minutes. This buffet table approach wears well, partially because a stridently focused Radiohead (2011s The King of Limbs) can sometimes trend toward boring. A Moon Shaped Pool is never boring – when Radiohead get moving on “Ful Stop,” it’s hard to imagine rock music more captivating. Perhaps the release of “True Love Waits” is a hint that the eventual end might be near for Radiohead (counterpoint – they just booked Glastonbury). If it is, one of the greatest rock bands of all time went out strong. If it’s not, then we are certainly in for a late career run the likes of which we might never have seen.

14. Joyce Manor – Cody

Making a conscious choice to go big and try to break out with your next album has got to be nerve wracking, especially for a band that heretofore has been known for their shouty, effervescent, short pop-punk song. So when Joyce Manor put out the Kanye West-name dropping “Fake I.D.,” the statement the band made about their future seemed, at least to the untrained eye, like a brash move toward the center. Just so, there are a few cameos from notable pop-punk crossover stars (Nate Reuss backs up “Angel In the Snow”), and the lyrical subjects can sometimes tread a little bit too populist (“Eighteen”). But Cody is far from a “sell out” record, whatever that means in the context of streaming music’s dominance on the national listening audience – Brock Johnson’s lyrics are still idiosyncratic and weird to add edge to the smoothed out guitars, and the band clearly wants their pop-punk engine to stay running in the face of the poppier moments. Frequently, then, what happens is a sometimes uncomfortable middle ground that doesn’t quite work (“Over Before it Began”), or inspiring, all-encompassing moments of serendipity so powerful its enough to make you think Joyce Manor might actually morph into this generation’s Weezer (the unbelievable “Last You Heard of Me”). The lyrics here have more autobiographical bite – Johnson lamenting the predetermined fatal tragedies of his relationships (“Last You Heard of Me” or “Over Before It Began”), embracing his most codependent behaviors in the name of being a functioning human (“Stairs”), or passing off elder statesman platitudes with a wistful heft of recency bias (“Eighteen”). The songs may be longer, smoother, and less specific, but Joyce Manor are managing their grand desires with the bratty pop-punk formula that got them here, and the results are moments of power-pop perfection the likes of which no one else has been able to reach for a while (“Fake I.D.”).

13. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

The year Kendrick Lamar had last year, he’d be forgiven for taking 2016 off, popping around on guest spots to show off his prodigious spoken word poetry all over others’ lesser beats. And, for the most part, he has done that. Before he could that, though, Lamar released Untitled Unmastered, a collection of reworked demos and b-sides that didn’t make it onto To Pimp A Butterfly. The record is disjointed, connected only by the unfortunate addenda to the end’s of songs where Lamar yells “pimp pimp” and a nameless crowd responds “hooray!” Yet Flying Lotus’ contemporary jazz pushes everything into a hazy sea of highly advanced musicianship, allowing Lamar to vacillate between all of his numerous characters (the smarmy collector, soul singer and even keeled rhyme spitter all at once on the TDE repping “Untitled 02 | 6.23.2014”). With the exception of the wonky, hilarious guitar experimentalism of the end of “Untitled 07 | 2014-2016,” Untitled is a breezy listen, almost standing as a decent primer for those listeners who have heard “Swimming Pools” or “Backseat Freestyle” into the Curtis Mayfield in the hood stylings of Lamar’s crew. It helps that this tossed off selection of musical experiments is anchored by Lamar’s iconic artistic direction, or else the whole thing might fall apart under the weight of its own ambition – “Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.” is so close to falling off a cliff until Lamar blasts forward with a shouty set of bars about the loneliness of trying to balance holiness with enjoying life. So far, Kendrick Lamar has yet to make a wrong step with his stratospheric rise, and if anything, Untitled Unmastered evinces a character that is less interested in jumping on Taylor Swift guest spots (yeah, he did that) that pushing hip-hop and atmo-jazz to the limits of its potential. Kendrick Lamar, as ever, walks the bleeding edge, telling us all about along the way.

12. Muncie Girls – From Caplan to Belsize

Lande Hekt, bassist and vocalist for Exeter, U.K. punk trio Muncie Girls, is not settling for a magnificent set of songs. The band have been ping-ponging around the English punk scene, supporting more moderate interests like Great Cynics, for more than five years, slowly building up a base of support and a clear-eyed recognition of where the band can make their greatest impact. From Caplan to Belsize is a profound statement of dissatisfaction and activity, punk ethos distilled into nervous energy and tight as hell songcraft. The weight of the world weighs on Hekt throughout the record – “Gone With the Wind” romanticizes the running away fantasy of all punks, only for Hekt to find herself drunk under a table, unable to make the propulsive first move. The nervousness of insecurity takes a backseat, frequently, to a powerful rage; on a track ironically called “Nervous,” Hekt blasts those who are suppressing voter turnout and keeping those who might promote progressivism out of the voting booth. Tracks from From Caplan To Belsize often read as screeds against specific, detailed issues Hekt feels deserves attention – this makes more sense when you learn that Hekt is the type of engaged punk working to get girls working in punk bands through a workshop called School of Frock. Muncie Girls eschew a sustainability that comes from understanding your own weaknesses as well as the righteousness of your cause. “I don’t think it through / just like everything I ever do” is a revelatory line from the band’s single “Gas Mark 4.” The song is ostensibly about protecting women, yet Hekt is still able to fleck the narrative with her own unique perspective. Muncie Girls are DIY to the core, and with their debut finally out, they can get down to the business of spreading their good, energetic, punk word.

11. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

While “Intern,” in all it’s warbling synth majesty, hints at an Angel Olsen that has yet to fully take over her psych-folk traditional sound, MY WOMAN is flecked with pop ideals all over the place, added further credence to Olsen’s songwriting chops further than Burn Your Fire For No Witness did two years ago. In place of mysterious, spectral forces inclining Olsen’s voice towards the ether, songs like “Never Be Mine” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” take liberally from doo-wop and early pop-rock traditions, leaving the guitars largely unadorned and Olsen’s voice in full “come hither” crooner mode. It helps that Olsen is able to cut the act with a knife’s blade sharp bite, never fully appearing as vulnerable as the genre may want her to be. All the better, since the dichotomy between cooing ingenue and certified individual badass is a world Olsen inhabits comfortably. MY WOMAN is neatly bifurcated between the newer, poppier Olsen and the more mysterious, psychedelic, held over from Bonnie “Price” Billy days Olsen, and the moment the record pivots is the captivating outro to “Not Gonna Kill You.” From there, Olsen’s effects pedals turn on and the record descends into a spectral mind-fuckery of the highest order. “Woman,” the record’s highlight other than the incomparable “Intern,” is as much a statement of feminine power as it is a showcase of Olsen’s magnificent work as a guitarist. MY WOMAN is yet another step forward for an emergent folk goddess, another stepping stone to Angel Olsen taking her rightful place at the head of the folk-rock world.

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