My Top 16 Albums of 2016
Nostalgia alert: Apparently, when it comes to “new” music, I’ve got a fever for the 70s and 80s that just won’t quit.
Here’s my annual list. (I’ve been doing this for a few years now, so if you’re interested in my favorites going back to 2000, here they are.)
While 2016 was a shit year in terms of saying goodbye to cultural icons (including, quite possibly, the American Experiment…and, yes, I hope that’s hyperbole), it was a pretty great year for music. So I’m expanding my top 10 to 16 this year, plus a bunch of honorable mentions.
Most of the titles that are going to appear on everybody’s year-end ranking (Beyonce, Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Solange, etc.) are not on mine. That may call my whole list into question, but a.) none of those albums need one more person saying nice things about them and b.) I liked these 16 better.
Do I even need to lay down my traditional it’s-just-one-man’s-opinion-and-I’m-sure-I-missed-a-lot-of-great-stuff rap?
Put these in your earholes, peoples:
1. The Party — Andy Shauf
My favorite discovery of the year, I feel deeper in love with this album with each listen. Shauf harkens back to the great singer-songwriters of the 70s and the lush arrangements (hello strings!) remind me of both Steely Dan and Sufjan Stevens, feeling cinematic and intimate at the same time. Lyrically, each song is a gorgeously-crafted little story about a different guest at the “party” of the album’s title. Yes, it’s a little concept-y, but he pulls it off and I find something new in every listen.
2. How to Be a Human Being — Glass Animals
A bouncy, ambitious, sonic romp through, well…God only knows as the word-salad lyrics paint a million different pictures. Impecably produced, each song feels like a mini-movie score for a hell of a funky flick.
3. iii — Miike Snow
I’m old as balls and don’t go to “the club” anymore, but I imagine that if I did go to “the club” that this is what I’d love to hear pumpin’ out of the speakers at said club. Slithery Swedish synth-pop that I listened to over and over again in 2016. “Back of the Car” gets my vote for hookiest-use of toy piano in the history of toy piano and the video for “Genghis Khan” (which came out all the way back in January) is still one of my favorites of the year.
4. case/lang/veirs — case/lang/veirs
“Female folkie supergroup” feels dismissive, but I say it with the utmost respect. (Also, it’s not really all that accurate for this collection, which includes influences from country to rock.) Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs collaborate here in a way that allows space for each of their individual styles, but brings them together to create gorgeous harmonies.
5. Man About Town — Mayer Hawthorne
It feels like a great undiscovered collaboration between Hall & Oates and Donald Fagen. (God, i just re-read that sentence and realized how old I am. But take my word for it, kids, those guys are the gold standard of late 70s/early 8os silky smooth blue-eyed soul.) But singer-songwriter Hawthorne makes it his own.
6. Farewell, Starlite! — Francis and the Lights
Like early solo Peter Gabriel, if Peter Gabriel fell in love with auto-tune. (And that’s not a dis; it sounds pretty great to me.) In some ways, this album feels like a companion to the next one on my list, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (and Bon Iver makes an guest appearance here on the simple, catchy “Friends” track.) But the unapologetic funk of this collection (I hear nods to Prince and Cameo) make this one a more satisfying repeat listen.
7. 22, A Million — Bon Iver
Justin Vernon goes electronic folk. It took me a few listens to really appreciate it; I know others that loved his earlier work have said the same. More than one critic mentioned a sonic link to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” so I’m waiting for Bon Iver to team up with Francis and the Lights to form “New Genesis” and just get it over with.
8. Ology — Gallant
This cat has got one of the most flexible, funky falsettos in the game. “Weight in Gold” may be the song of the year, in my book. And the rest of this silky, slinky R&B collection rewarded repeat listens.
9. Love You to Death — Tegan and Sara
The Canadian twins put out another collection of well-crafted, smart pop, coated with 80s shimmer. So crisp and clean, it’s easy to take for granted, but crankin’ out this many 3-minute-gem jams in one album is quite the trick. (And you didn’t think that I’d go a whole end-of-year recap without mentioning my producer-crush Greg Kurstin at least once, did you? Of COURSE he produced this thing.)
Forget 1975, this one is rooted firmly in the 80s. Musically, it’s INXS meets Tangerine Dream meets Level 42 meets Go West with a little Matthew Wilder (ala “Break My Stride”) mixed in there. Lyrically, it’s more witty and modern. With 17 tracks spanning a variety of styles, this is a big ambitious album and there’s a bit of an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink feeling, but it’s a damn pretty sink.
11. Sea of Noise — St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Retro soul that’s good for the soul. Horns and the honeyed pipes of Paul Janeway — what more could you want?
12. Good Grief — Lucius
The sophomore album is a little bit all over the place, like they’re trying to figure out who they want to be, but there are still plenty of ear-catching, hook-y songs, with terrific instrumentation. I miss the some of the folkier 60s girl-group influences from Wildewoman, their previous album, but this detour into 80s synth-pop is super satisfying.
13. Junk — M83
People have strong reactions to “Junk,” and I totally get why. (EW named it one of the worst albums of the year!) It feels like they decided to make an album based on TV sitcom theme songs from the 70s and 80s. It’s cheesy and kitschy and it sort of works. Or maybe it totally doesn’t, but I kept going back to listen again and again to try and figure it out.
14. Out of the Garden — Tancred
The dream of the 90s is alive! Jess Abbott rocks out in this Liz-Phair-meets-Belly-esque collection.
15. Lunacy — Moondrunk
OK, so I’ve known Andrew Bancroft for more than a decade and reviews of your friend’s albums should be suspect. But I legitimately loved this debut collection. “Unconditional” was one of my favorite songs of the year and singer Ashley Pérez Flanagan is a star-to-be.
16. Wild World — Bastille
You can almost hear the desire to fill up a stadium tour on every track, but why knock a band for ambition. With more than an hour’s worth of big, emotional songs, it was my go-to headphone soundtrack for John-I-need-ten-scripts-before-the-end-of-the-day writing sessions this year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Moth by Chairlift, Utopia Defeated by D.D Dumbo, Dnce by DNCE, This Album Does Not Exist by DREAMERS, Together by The Explorers Club, Fitz and the Tantrums by Fitz and the Tantrums, Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet by Greg Laswell, The Colour in Anything by James Blake, Building a Beginning by Jamie Lidell, Leo Rising by Karmin, WALLS by Kings of Leon, Side Pony by Lake Street Dive, Sunlit Youth by Local Natives, Act One by Marian Hill, Nice as Fuck by Nice as Fuck, Death of a Bachelor by Panic! At the Disco, Pool by Porches, Roosevelt by Roosevelt, Matter by St. Lucia, Gameshow by Two Door Cinema Club, Weezer (White Album) by Weezer (and yes…those albums from the Knowles sisters were both pretty damn good.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco. If you hire him, he’ll obsess over which track to put on your project (and then quietly gnash his teeth when the client decides to use “that song that the DJ played at my wedding” instead.)