Tyler begins his journey cataloguing 2016’s Albums of the Year, opening with blurbs on releases by Frank Ocean, one of the Knowles Sisters, and Beach Slang.
Albums of the Year lists are always hard, because in creating one, a publication (or individual) attempts to define a strict rubric between importance, popularity, and greatness, for the benefit of promoting the albums that, really, they just liked the most.
Which is a flowery way of saying you’re probably going to disagree with these rankings. And that’s ok. One person’s list is more than likely going to deviate drastically from another’s. Our preferences often take over, which is why most places poll a bevy of writers to come away with a general consensus opinion about what’s the Best Music of the year. The only problem with that is, like The AV Club some years ago, some years return a general consensus Number One pick that was no one’s Best Album.
This year I endeavored to do something I’ve never done before but have always intended: put together a full, blurbed Top 100 Albums list by myself. I am an obsessive list maker; it’s not like I didn’t already know that Local Natives’ Sunlit Youth came in below the Top 100. But setting out to write at least 50 words about all of those records seemed a Herculean task. So I never did it.
Well, turns out it is a Herculean task. Over 30,000 words later (about 3,000 words longer than George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical novella Animal Farm), with many repeated listens to some albums that I had completely forgotten about (what is UP Sioux Falls?!), the task is accomplished.
Oh, and I put together a Top 100 Songs playlist that I’ll be sharing as well. No big deal.
Anyhoo, over the next two weeks I’ll be posting my list, in installments for easy reading and absorbing. Each will be Spotify or Bandcamp-linked, and all of them are worth your time. It has been a sincere pleasure to write about music this year. After this month and a half, I might never write about music again.
100. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Margo Price’s debut starts with an epic, swirling number that introduces any listener to a detailed account of her character – this is a woman with a grudge, working toward clawing her way back to a reality that has long since gone. “Hands of Time” is dutiful criticism of country music as deft introductory siren song. Price settles with a married man, loses children, takes crappy jobs, gets harassed by the industry professionals that will eventually decide she’s worthy. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, then, takes on a icy cold and brutal undercurrent – here is woman writing almost every song about grievance, and almost every grievance can be traced back to label industry bullshit. Women biding time with men who don’t appreciate her – sound familiar? It’s a bitter pill at times, if a sonically pleasing one. Luckily, the songs are so damned good it hardly matters. Price’s personality and so classic it’s almost cliche voice is immediately arresting, and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a clever play for the large spotlight.
99. The So So Glos – Kamikaze
So So Glos represents something more than their albums. Kamikaze and their debut Blowout have both been fine enough statements of punk purpose, yet So So Glos’ influence is more heavily felt in the Brooklyn punk scene they are insistently crafting through sheer force of will. Through their DIY music and art space Shea Stadium BK (which frequently serves as their crash pad), Glos have metastasized a supportive and vibrant punk scene where the increasing lazy beta-male bull crap of Real Estate was taking over. Yet, Kamikaze is a rough second record for the band who recorded one of the best punk anthems in “Son of an American.” “Dancing Industry” dances around what made them great, yet stuff like “Kings County II: The Ballad of The So So Glos” is misguided enough to derail a promising star turn. So So Glos are vitally important to the scene – without them Titus Andronicus might not be around anymore – yet Kamikaze doesn’t make them any more essential to the listener.
98. Brian Fallon – Painkillers
Brian Fallon always wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. The Gaslight Anthem, his jersey rowdy punk primary project, gradually wandered away from Bouncing Souls punk barroom sing-alongs to big ticket later generation E Street fare. Just so, Fallon’s first solo effort, Painkillers, follows The Boss down into folksier paths, trading in some hard-warn earnestness for The Lumineers-style handclaps (“Smoke”). Songs like “Rosemary” and “A Wonderful Life” are practically b-sides from later Springsteen albums. Fallon still has that 50s greaser narrative flair down, his broken nose gusto flowing through his gruff croon. Country-fried left turns like “Long Drives” and the bizarre “Mojo Hand” help to differentiate Painkillers from being a non-cover cover album, but even so, the imitation game Fallon is playing sort of works. For those who miss when Springsteen was really keyed into his lyrical personality, Painkillers is a great holdover.
97. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
As a traveling musician responsible for some pretty great noise-folk (Woods) and power country pop (The Babies), Kevin Morby has drifted in and out of the zeitgeist as something of a troubadour chameleon. His contemporaries – men like Tobias Jesso (yay!) and Christopher Owens (ugh) have had relatively large breakthroughs, yet Morby has been relegated to having one of his songs briefly appear on an episode of New Girl. Singing Saw is not the record to propel him forward in terms of popularity, but it is almost certainly Morby’s best solo work today. Based around a combination of Morby’s post-M. Ward folk-rock and the ever elusive instrument the singing saw, the album is a wistful puff of noisy smoke, capable of entrancing for moments and confounding the next. The nine songs take all manner of stylistic left turns (the title track is crazy as hell), but the moments when Morby chills himself out are his most sticky (“Ferris Wheel” and “Drunk on a Star”). Morby’s search for a defining sound may never end, but perhaps that’s for the best – he’s at his best when he’s in a new town.
96. The Avalanches – Wildflower
We’re running out of statement releases from bands that have been gone for a really long time, eh? It’s really just Neutral Milk Hotel that’s left. The Avalanches returned to a wave of fanfare that must be completely stupefying for fans of the band nearly fifteen years ago. Yet Wildflower deserves much of the praise that was levied on it in the immediate, very similar to Daft Punk’s seminal Random Access Memories. Behind the strength of immense, genre-bending and, more than anything, freakishly fun singles (Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” The Avalanches’ “Frankie Sinatra”), both records skate on summer festival breeziness. The rest of Wildflower is less successful, and might age as poorly as Random Access Memories. Yet it’s nice to have the propulsive Avalanches back, if for “Frankie Sinatra” alone.
95. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math
Bluesy and soulful, Emotions and Math is a direct descendant from The Alabama Shakes breakthrough status, Margaret Glaspy focusing her considerable songwriting chops into a debut that capitalizes on a bursting genre. The individualism and independence Glaspy displays on her narratives is similarly brave – a cutting lyricism and self-deprecation fleck her solemn blues treks. “Parental Guidance” rolls along, blasting youthful fatalism and loss with “it’s about time you tried a little harder, don’t you think?” as if it’s a dare. “Somebody to Anybody” flips the song’s title on its head, Glaspy remarking that “I don’t wanna be somebody to anybody, no / I’m good at no one,” again begging to be separated from her Southern gothic brethren cooing about their lovers. Add in Glaspy preternatural ability with a blues guitar, and Emotions and Math indicate toward a long career.
94. Free Cake For Every Creature – Talking Quietly of Anything With You
That name. The scant song lengths. It’s almost like Katie Bennett and company want to be pigeon-holed as a bedroom DIY pop band. For the most part, that pigeon-holing is appropriate. The bedroom DIY movement is bustling in the Acela corridor (Washington D.C. and points to the north east), and Free Cake slot directly into opening slots along with bands of their ilk like Adult Mom and Frankie Cosmos. The post-youthful disenchantment and attempts to make amends with being a millennial in this life pervades the proceedings of Talking Quietly of Anything With You, but the album is bolstered by Bennett’s yip-happy voice. She whispers as the guitars strum and drums plink behind her, yet there are more than a handful of magical moments when her voice jumps, early Joanna Newsom-style, and the listener is momentarily shocked out of the comfortable confines of knowing exactly who Free Cake is.
93. Case/Lang/Veirs – case/lang/veirs
The idea of folk all-stars Neko Case, k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs teaming up to make a collaborative album should be enough to send anyone into a tizzy. The three women have three of the most distinctive voices, both aurally and narratively, in the folk business; combining their forces seems like a recipe for something transcendent. How unfortunate, then, that case/lang/veirs largely sequesters the singers apart from each other, effectively pushing together their distinct albums into a sampler of each. Case and Veirs semi-regularly show up as backup singers on other songs, yet it doesn’t do enough to make the album seem like a full-fledged supergroup record. Still, though, songs like “Best Kept Secret,” “Behind the Armory” and “Song For Judee” are moments of triumph that come from smashing three like songwriters together.
92. Eric Bachmann – Eric Bachmann
In the intervening ten years between Eric Bachmann and his last solo record, To the Races, Eric Bachmann has joined the ranks of a half dozen or so good ol’ boys of 90s punk and grunge still plugging away at the musical dream, however muted they sound now. Matt McCaughan still rages in Superchunk and last year released his own, synthy solo record. Bob Mould still makes some of the best straight punk-rock in the world. Robert Pollard reignited Guided By Voices and has been prodigiously releasing music for almost the last five years straight. Just so, Bachmann has moved on from Archers of Loaf, as well as slightly moving away from his calmer folk-rock band Crooked Fingers, into something more languid, rooted in country stylings. His self-titled record bears out a worn gentleness to Bachmann, from the crooning “Belong to You” to the plinking and weird “Small Talk.” His musical heritage never allows the proceedings to stay normal for very long – “Separation Flight” is as weird a normal folk-rock song as I’ve heard in a long time – but Bachmann continues to put out consistent, revelatory music, almost 30 years into his career.
91. Craig Finn – Newmyer’s Roof EP
Finn, the main songwriter behind bar rock vets The Hold Steady, has steadily been walking away from the beer cans and wild nights of his former life and embracing a more gentile, thoughtful approach with his solo work. Newmyers Roof is a continuation off of a single from his last year effort, Faith in the Future, which resembles many of his former solo works. The rest of the EP, though, deviates from the formula. “They Know Where I Live” is a crooner’s lament, largely eschewing lead guitar for powerful plunks of piano, and “Screenwriter’s School” is a Postal Service on dramamine walk through a terrifying hostage situation, trying to decide what is a delusion and what’s real. Finn’s pen has always been most adept at drawing differences between reality and hallucination. Newmyer’s Roof EP does it’s best to blur those lines.
90. Mount Moriah – How To Dance
Miracle Temple, Mount Moriah’s 2013 LP, was one of the bigger surprises of that year. Taking their sound, mellowing it down a bit and highlighting singer Heather McEntire’s honey-sweet Southern delivery. Miracle Temple largely replicates the successes of that record, if a bit staling the formula without any further refinement. First single “Calvander” hints that zeideco might play a part by floating an alto-sax into the mix, yet the rest of the proceedings are largely the alt-country fare of Miracle Temple. Which is perfectly fine, considering that Mount Moriah are one of the only bands doing true alt-country in the Southern style. It would’ve been nice to see the band stretch their capabilities a bit more, yet How To Dance is still a satisfying return to a land most bands all too easily forget about. Don’t miss “Baby Blue” or “Davis Square.”
89. Wilco – Schmilco
Quiet in its execution, subtly devastating in places, Wilco’s 10th studio album brings them closer to the inconsistent output of Jeff Tweedy’s solo efforts. Wilco has relaxed from it’s late 2000s scatterbrained, Nels Cline led highs of Sky Blue Sky or the heady, experimental semi-failures of Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love, gravitating into a sort of post-Wings Paul McCartney role of playfully poking fun at their entire enterprise, while still producing a quality result. Sardonic and black comic in places (“North American Kids,” “Shrug and Destroy”) and achingly earnest in others (“Someone to Lose,” “Just Say Goodbye”), Schmilco is scattershot, yet definitely Wilco. Another album for fans, even moreso than the impeccably titled Star Wars.
88. Somos – First Day Back
Massachusetts three-piece Somos were one of the biggest surprises of the Northeast emo-punk explosion of the last few years, releasing one of the decade’s best rock albums a few years ago with Temple of Plenty. Its blend of mid-period Midtown, a deep voiced tenor to the vocal that dodges against over-emotive bands that swing for fences more often, Temple of Plenty was a revelation of easily enjoyable rock, free of introspective overanalyzing or extroverted arm-reaching. First Day Back, then, is quite a bit of a step back from the presumed star-making turn Somos could’ve made. More adventurous and challenging in most places, as well as far less anthemic and barre-chord heavy, First Day Back is a quieter move for the trio. While that can produce interesting stylistic moves that may hint at a band ready to take an alternate next step (“Bitter Medicine” is fantastic), the feeling that Somos missed an opportunity pervades their sophomore album.
87. Frank Ocean – blonde
Fortunately for Frank Ocean, who has always wanted to remain in the shadows, his two landmark releases, channel ORANGE and blonde, were released in years featuring colossal hip-hop LP quality. Where Kendrick Lamar suitably jacked Ocean’s swagger in 2012, Chance the Rapper, Beyonce, Kanye West and others have all suitably overshadowed Frank’s long-awaited return. In a way, blonde is meant to be overshadowed. It’s not a bad album, but it’s scared. Where channel ORANGE worked to bring Ocean out of his shell, exposing the singer’s sexual frustration and sensitivity to emotional circumstances. blonde is the opposite, swathing the vulnerability Ocean can’t help but express in a bevy of effects and genre experiments, often reaching a level of obfuscation that is nigh impossible to parse. Songs like “Nikes” and “Self Control” buoy the album’s sometimes awful, ill-advised forays into nothingness, and help translate Ocean’s message to the world. Still, this feels like Ocean crafting a “difficult” record because the world is craving “difficult” records. In the era of Genius, it’s never been easier to hop on the internet and decode the message. blonde, taken separately, is indecipherable, probably as Ocean intended it. Which makes it a mysterious, confusing token – interesting, frustrating and captivating in equal measure.
86. Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow
Being referenced on a list of the Greatest Shoegaze Albums of All Time not a full year into your release is a good indication of how masterfully Nothing capture the quintessential navel-gazing of Nothing’s new record, Tired of Tomorrow. Yet even in the face of years of Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive albums, Nothing manage to combine modern sonics into a formula that has nigh been perfected. “Eaten By Worms” is a heavily distorted version of a Whirr song, and for all of it’s My Bloody Valentine ripping, “Curse of the Sun” hides a pretty great straight mid-2000s rock song inside its fuzzy shell. They can’t top the grandiosity of jumping off the ledge of the first 40 seconds of the record (do not miss “Fever Queen”), but Nothing spend the running time of Tired of Tomorrow wandering around in shoegaze’s gorgeous framework, seeing what they can mess with.
85. Hazel English – Never Going Home EP
Never Going Home, the first EP from pop ingenue Hazel English, isn’t just personality. While bands like HAIM live and succeed merely on the pretense of their genre and personality being worthy of stardom, English exhibits a deft songwriting touch that will serve her well as she continues her pop future. The lush, autumnal and warm sonics on the EP layer synths, propulsive drums and spiraling skyward guitar melodies to shadow English’s evocative voice. Her emotive longing is carefully colored in Urban Outfitters-esque stylings, and the EP, if nothing else, seems perfectly curated. Still, English’s knack for putting together a great pop song (“I’m Fine”) shines through the glossy proceedings, indicating that the magic recipe of form and function might be at work with Hazel English.
84. Beyonce – Lemonade
Lemonade isn’t Beyonce, and in many it doesn’t have to be. Beyonce’s first surprise release, her self-titled, was in a way a commanding revival of the critical consensus of her career, establishing her further as the Queen Bey of the pop star pantheon – coincidentally, there hasn’t been a fitting follow up from anyone of her caliber since. So, too, Lemonade is a metered second surprise album that, with the exception of the magnificent, perfect “Formation,” is a arm-stretching effort that works in places and doesn’t in others. Her bluesy interludes with Jack White, or the revelatory “Daddy Lessons” reveal a different side of Beyonce that might be worth a full album, but seem out of place and throw off the rhythm of the album listened to without the companion visuals. Lemonade coined more catchphrases than Beyonce (what up, “boy, bye”) and conveniently started an internet frenzy over who “Becky with the good hair” was, but musically it didn’t live up to the stratospheric levels Beyonce had set for herself. Still, there aren’t many doing what Beyonce is doing, and none doing it as well.
83. Okkervil River – Away
Away is a departure, so much so that you could scarcely call Away an Okkervil River record. But for Will Sheff, the key songwriter and only perennial member of the Austin indie band, Away is probably the most Okkervil River LP ever. Thus is the contradiction of Away, which sounds like nothing fans of the band could ever expect, in blissful and frustrating ways. From the entrancing opening track “Okkervil River R.I.P.” (get it?) to the Gordon Lightfoot a.m. radio folk of “Call Yourself Renee,” here is a poet unable to fully deviate from his history, despite the potential new beginnings inherent. Still, Away is an inspired step in the light from an artist that could’ve easily disappeared. As they bring the album to an almost close on the swirling, anthemic “Frontman in Heaven,” Sheff seeks communion as he pushes forward into an uncertain future. If it’s anything like Away, Okkervil River’s future might be as bright as its ever been.
82. Big Eyes – Stake My Claim
Wistful nostalgia for ages gone by, whether they be genre-based or from individual longing, is a powerful drug, especially in music. Big Eyes trades in a brand of power pop and punk rock that has seemed out of favor for a very long time, yet feels lively in the era of playful rock revival nostalgia. Kate Eldridge’s delivery is snotty and brash, confident with a Debbie Harry snarl, backed up by huge power chords and wild riffs. It doesn’t hurt that none of the songs linger – album standout “Just Not Right” is under two minutes, and no song breaks the three minute mark. For those lamenting that The Hold Steady don’t rock as hard as they used to, or those that have been looking for a Cheap Trick-ish stand-in, you could do way worse than Big Eyes’ brash, chugging, and loud third record.
81. de la soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…
de la! Nearly a dozen years after their last record (no, I do not count First Serve), de la Soul reappears with a record as incisive and funky as though they had barely left. With a guest list just as eclectic as you’d expect from the trio’s world-encompassing POV (Nobody features Jill Scott, SNoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher and 2 Chainz, just to name a few). Fitting with a guest list as varied as this, Anonymous Nobody is a scattershot funpack of potential avenues for future de la projects. Doubtful that we’ll get it, it’s best then to appreciate the spare weirdo bump of “Whoodeeni,” complete with (another) amazing 2 Chainz verse, or the twinkling “Snoopies.” de la Soul have influenced much of the socially conscious hip-hop of this age, as well as providing an interesting counterpoint for some of Kanye West’s more egotistical urges. It’s fitting then that their return to have them feasting on a buffet table of collaborators to craft their best album this millennium.
80. Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feeling
Sigh. In the back of my head I always knew this was going to happen. Beach Slang’s debut, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, doesn’t feel repeatable in its full form. An expected blast of youthful energy, unconquerable rock n’ roll uninhibited by anything resembling criticism or genre signifiers. The Replacements by way of Japandroids. But Japandroids grew up. The Replacements got weird. Even The Gaslight Anthem, Beach Slang’s closest co-conspirators, evolved and grew into a different sound. Beach Slang, by artistic definition, seems designed to do exactly the opposite – pump out the same youthful jams until the car runs out of gas. A Wild Bash Of Teenage Feelings is worse in every way than Beach Slang’s debut. It’s very good rock n’ roll, but anyone who’s listened to the first record will come away feeling slightly cold. In an age when The Things We Do is only a click away from A Wild Bash, Beach Slang’s sophomore effort doesn’t hold the ear for long enough to make a distinctive statement.
79. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
78. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
The West Coast experimental hip-hop/soul emergence continued apace this year. With Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus leading the charge, artists like Kaytrananda, Kamasi Washington and others have taken the increased cache and moved with it. While Kaytrananda released the most high-profile album in this burgeoning genre, Anderson .Paak released the best, in two forms. A warm and wonky drive through yet another district in Los Angeles, this time Malibu. The soul moments drop in and out of a vibrant flow, and .Paak manages to find bliss within all of the repression (which he also tosses in. Stick around for the whole album to get to “Celebrate” the beautifully simple piano plinking exeunt of the record. “Put Me Thru” ain’t bad either. Yes Lawd!, on the other hand, is a hedonistic romp through sex-crazed soul beats, and displays Paak’s ability to craft a hilarious verse when he needs to.
77. Culture Abuse – Peach
There are some days where the only thing I wish was still around was raved up Southern California punk rock. Guys like Tim Armstrong pushing forward a consistent, steady rocking paces as his snarling voices spits verses. Upon first hearing Peach, the debut album from So-Cals Culture Abuse, I immediately heard Rancid and their spiked hair rebellion. To be fair, there’s more to the hard-rocked Culture Abuse – their deep-voiced post-punk deliveries can sometimes recall a band that Seth Cohen would’ve totally been obsessed with in the early days of The O.C.. Their half-hour of power rarely relents as it flies through punk-rock staples – early single “Dream On” and riffy “Don’t Worry” are standouts. Peach is escapist fantasy catnip for those looking to get away from the morass of some of this year’s more buttoned-up rock.
76. JANK – Awkward Pop Songs
Math-rock gets a bad rap, but that’s partly by design. The best known crossover is probably Minus the Bear, and that’s just because most of the people who listen to Minus the Bear don’t know they were members of Botch and Kill Sadie. Yet JANK are following in the Minus the Bear mold, only giving less over to the pop side of the math-rock equation than their more successful peers. With vocals that at points recall a more manic Cymbals Eat Guitars, the band dart through time signatures with remarkable ease. Their lyrical subjects are obtuse, rarely insightful and mostly used as backdrop for the impressive guitar/rhythm gymnastics on display. Most of these adventures are pleasant listens; it’s when JANK dive off the thematic deep end (“Loading Screen”) that the record falls apart. Still, many are doing math-rock as effectively as JANK.