Favourite Albums 2016

My 25 favourite albums of the year (with some mentions for other stuff and a useful Spotify playlist)

Your (album-based) favourite end-of-the-year music list has arrived. Your (song-based) favourite end-of-the-year music list can be found here.

And we’re off.

Favourite EPs:

B-Grade University — Alex Lahey

Emotion (B Side) — Carly Rae Jepsen

iiiDrops — Joey Purp

It Kindly Stopped For Me — Sorority Noise

Prima Donna — Vince Staples

Hip-Hop/R&B Honourable Mentions:

Blank Face LP — Schoolboy Q

Cashmere — Swet Shop Boys

Malibu — Anderson .Paak

The Sun’s Tirade — Isaiah Rashad

Telefone — Noname

Indie Rock/Punk Honourable Mentions:

Babes Never Die — Honeyblood

Paradise — White Lung

Preoccupations— Preoccupations

Romantic — Mannequin Pussy

Worry — Jeff Rosenstein

Pop/Electronic Honourable Mentions:

Jessica Rabbit — Sleigh Bells

Moth — Chairlift

Painting With — Animal Collective

Psychopomp— Japanese Breakfast

Wildflower — The Avalanches

Folk/Alt Rock Honourable Mentions:

City Sun Eater in the River of Light — Woods

I Had A Dream That You Were Mine — Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam

It Hurts Until It Doesn’t — Mothers

Singing Saw — Kevin Morby

Skeleton Tree — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

25. Return To Love — LVL UP

If you could scientifically distil my divergent taste in rock music into a sweet, sugary mélange, Return to Love would be the end product. LVL UP shamelessly mimic the style and soul of 80s and 90s indie rock, calling out debts to some of my favourite ever bands; Pavement, The Replacements, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill (especially redolent in Mike Caridi’s maimed vocals) to name just a handful. Saying that, LVL UP have more than enough operational flair to surpass being ‘the sum of its parts’, continuing blithely to make diggable jams in their axiomatic lumberjack shirts and immaculately trimmed beards.

24. A Fistful Of Peril — CZARFACE

The first occurring of a duopoly of late-releasing, EOTY-list-messing hip hop albums, A Fistful of Peril is underground behemoth CZARFACE’s tightest, most consistently pounding release to date. A collaboration between the Boston-based 7L & Esoteric, and Wu-Tang MC Inspectah Deck, since their debut in 2013 CZARFACE have capitalised on MF Doom’s regularising liaisons between the abstruse geekdoms of hip hop and comic books of the last two decades, and curbstomped them into coalescence. Loosely progressing the narrative of the eponymous CZARFACE and his self-actualisation as the hero destined to save hip hop, the whole project’s more or less an excuse for haymaker punchlines, lasagne rhyme schemes, and elatedly malicious production; except on A Fistful, it really kicks up a gear.

23. Painting Of A Panic Attack — Frightened Rabbit

How do you transpose anxiety and existential dread into music? For Scott Hutchison, the answer is through painting a lyrical self-portrait. With The National’s producer Aaron Dessner as support, Hutchison’s meditations on insecurity, heartbreak, alcoholism and self-absorption descend into an even more intensive polemic. Lacking the graceful density of earlier verse, the exposed frankness of the lyrics pierces the gut rather than the heart, with Dessner’s smoky, sympathetic arrangements drives Hutchison on. Frightened Rabbit are still unravelling novel ways of cutting to the core of our shared vulnerability.

22. Honor Killed the Samurai — Ka

One of my deficiencies when writing on music is my overegged propensity to describe artists as “scholars” or “students” of their style, but understanding Ka within this framework is essential; when it comes to rap, he’s the academic head of department. His production work, prominently his 2013 masterpiece The Night’s Gambit, is rooted in 90s underground with traces of 80s gangsta, but focussing on his technical inspirations undercuts his poetic faculty. Few rappers exhibit such proficiency with harmonising elaborate, surprising rhyming schemes with substantive import. Addressing issues of racial divisions, economic fretting, and social alienation, with such casually lithe internal rhyming is astonishing.

21. Hopelessness — ANOHNI

Given any notion of political context has Frankensteined since Hopelessness’s release in May, vehemently denouncing Obama’s foreign policy might seem nit-picking, and it’s not subtle; but its unstoppable mendacity, and its unequivocally clear sense of purpose, overcome any absence of nuance or temporal deficiencies. Under her vindictive glare fall a surfeit of repugnant policies and ideologies: drone use: climate change denial: torture and capital punishment: fracking. It’s deviating and not entirely lucid — hopping without discernible course — but under the vicelike meticulousness of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never’s production, and elevated by ANOHNI’s predictably immaculate vocals riding the highways of inertia and outrage with corresponding grace, Hopelessness prospers. This is protest dance music, where you rave against the vacuum of ambivalence; ANOHNI’s voice a distant, rampaging glint.

20. Blisters in the Pit of My Heart — Martha

A munificent, hyper-liberal pop punk band from the provincial town I went to university should be a match made in heaven; yet it wasn’t until I saw them live in September this year at End Of The Road Festival that I first heard a Martha song. Needless to say, it was love at first sight. Blisters in the Pit of My Heart tightens their precise niche; those bursts of neat joy and all-inclusive accord, stories of menial, just-about-getting-by jobs, and fancying punk girls and guys, and nice trips to the beach. There’s a vitality and warmth and fun and safety in their music that you just don’t get anywhere else, a sense that you can jump and yell and dance and never feel more at home.

19. The Life of Pablo — Kanye West

Okay, I know that TLoF is indelibly contentious, and the reasons why are manifold; the convolution of its stunted release; the myopic theatrics of Kanye’s volleys of shade towards Tidal, Taylor and an ensemble of characters; and then the music itself provoked instantaneous and widespread hmmms. But go and listen to it now. Right now. It might not congeal perfectly but there’s certainly chemistry here, an overlay of beguiling Gospel-infused philosophising compounded by some of the most startling, inventive production brushes of the year. On TLoF Kanye discloses a precipitous chasm of human insecurity, the depths of which he briefly intimated towards on previous albums. Maybe he’ll have to settle for merely being a demi-god, omnipotent and immortal with his Achilles heel of the instinct to feel; a metaphor aptly symbolic of his lasting legacy as a iconoclastic oxymoron.

18. Pretty Years — Cymbals Eat Guitars

It’s about bloody time Cymbals Eat Guitars got their just desserts. The perennially undervalued — and I don’t mean in the pejorative, line-for-the-poster sense, I mean unequivocally trivialised — Staten Island indie rockers exert a sequel-of-sorts with Pretty Years, a life-positive, buoyant reply to the misanthropic diatribe that was the anguish-torn LOSE. Thematically they cover all the preconditions; that depression and grief can be coped with and conquered, and that life is worth living, and — especially when double-billed with LOSE — its triumphalism is invigorating. Their toolbox has expanded to accommodate their Springsteen-like descants, including reckless synths and a family of brass horns. It sounds as good as it feels. Really, it should be titled WIN.

17. Holy Ghost — Modern Baseball

It’s strange having my emo phase in my 20s, a peculiar shade of arrested development. As I wrote a few months ago, I think it’s aligned with emo’s sympathetic, intelligent convergence on mental health issues and punk music as coping mechanism; that, and driving guitar riffs. Holy Ghost has both in abundance. Its distinctly demarcated halves — Jake Ewald wrote the first six songs, Brendan Lukens the latter five — reflect on grief, and surviving with depression, respectively. Lacerated with esoteric observations, bleak humour and indentured pathos, its divergent themes congeal coherently without losing any sense of immediacy or vitality. Holy Ghost isn’t quite Modern Baseball’s The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me-like classic, but it intimately submits that such a beast is simmering impatiently inside them.

16. Atrocity Exhibition — Danny Brown

With Old appropriated by — for lack of a better phrase — absolute fuckboys (having seen Danny Brown a few weeks ago, I can attest to witnessing these creatures in their natural habitat) who jumped on that record’s Detroit EDM hedonism and bypassing Brown’s intoxicant escapism from his anxiety and angst. There can be no mistake on Atrocity Exhibition. It channels its namesakes — both JG Ballard novel and Joy Division song — in its literalness; this is a bare display of a fractured showman at ease with exposing himself. Collaborative producer Paul White levitates Brown’s language-drunk bars and elegiacally slurring flow with compositions which are maniacal like aural Burroughs short stories, evinced in the bleating duck-squeal horns on ‘Ain’t it Funny’ and the malignant gongs of ‘Pneumonia’. It’s mad, but also imbued with scholarly references and historical footnotes worth over-analysing obsessively. Ultimately, Atrocity Exhibition extends hope for the oddball, and affectionately — in its own depraved sense — suggests medicating through rap music is healthier than tonics of painkillers and absinthe.

15. Winter Wheat — John K Samson

“That hashtag wants me dead but I don’t mind/It’s just another way we grieve.” Without speaking reductively — an approach positively criminal pertaining to a record as condensed and provocative as Winter Wheat — Samson’s opening couplet couldn’t be a more perfect synecdoche; an adroit exploration of contemporary quirks that’s as witty as it is cynical, as prescriptive as it is sensitive. The Weakerthans frontman encompasses no-nonsense country-rock, hushed acoustic simplicity, and operatic folk, to raise a fractured mirror to ourselves. On one half of our face spirals a tear, the other half buffers an optimistic smile.

14. Freetown Sound — Blood Orange

Freetown Sound is a spiritual sequel to To Pimp a Butterfly and Black Messiah, in its convergence of composite stylistic influences and uncompromising reflection on racial ontology. The temporally shapeshifting ‘Augustine’ — and its waiflike, strutting production emulating the eponymous philosopher’s meditations on morality and humanitarianism — encapsulates Freetown’s account. Through the soaring ecstasy of Northern Soul; the withering melancholy of blues and oldschool R&B; and the lush pride of funk, Dev Hynes archives an ineradicably sad yet wildly hopeful document of the past, present and future.

13. 22, A Million — Bon Iver

You’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of records on this list about intimate nervousness and naked disclosures. Well few are as simultaneously sparse and maximalist as 22, A Million. Justin Vernon’s sustained refraction into the formally abstruse and the sonically robotic is tunefully opposed to his bombardment of detonating sympathy grenades. Headphones and cacophonic silence requisite.

12. The Impossible Kid — Aesop Rock

The website Polygraph quantitatively analysed the unique vocabularies of all mainstream rappers, and found Aesop Rock’s wordset (7392 across his discography) was so superior to his challengers’ he was quite literally off the scale. Rock is a phonetic mathematician, a rapping savant, and to bear witness at his peak on The Impossible Kid is special. Each verse is a composite compound of judiciously measured bars — consider reader the syntactic momentum of initiating verses monosyllabically, then gradually accruing syllables like a posturing avalanche — and foregrounded by malicious beats and ominous samples. It’s not all scientific practice though, there’s meaning here. He describes his isolated, disconsolate life in San Francisco on ‘Dorks’ and ‘Supercell,’ while ‘Kirby’ uses our contrary relationships with cats (subservient pets, Egyptian gods etc) as a conceit to denote the wealth of perceptive subjectivity. There’s madness to the method.

11. My Woman — Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen at KOKO in October was possibly my favourite gig of the year; her mild, amiable interactions with the crowd, the noirish, blunted glow of the lighting, and her voice; that earthquake vocal style that is unequivocally peerless in its range and power. Will Oldham of Bonne Prince Billy observes that “When something like that happens, I don’t know how to feel. It’s almost like I get hollowed out and then filled, but I don’t know what it’s with. It’s a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction at the same time.” Yeh, that. My Woman is Angel self-asserting, taking command of her sexuality, her direction, her identity. These are songs of immaculate strength, lucidity and certainty, either demanding what she deserves or accepting without reservation what cannot be. She’s a great songwriter to, so patient in elongating country sprawls to eight minutes or sublimating said country with graceful indie rock footnotes, adding that flourish of verve. In the end though, it’s that voice; that towering quaver that communicates so much charisma, so much tenacity, so much vulnerability, in a single note.

10. Cody — Joyce Manor

It’s the perennial question facing let’s-party-right-on pop punk bands. So you’ve made some records about sneaking in beers to a cinema and awkwardly having sex at a house party and just having a fucking good time, but how do you make music when you’re struck by the stark ephemerality of absolutely everything? Cody might not answer this question, but it voices some convincing theories. Eschewing the snack-sized filibuster of their discography, Cody deploys such bourgeois concepts as choruses and hooks to build a sad, melodic, eminently danceable album about growing old disgracefully. It’s an existential meditation, through the prism of thoughtfully smoking roll-ups outside bohemian nightclubs.

9. Cardinal — Pinegrove

When compared to some records on this list — colossi of theme, compositional scope, or zeitgeist sway — Cardinal is practically slight, a timid passenger on the hurtling express of the release calendar. But if you sat beside Pinegrove’s folk-y rock-y debut and got to know them — really know them — you’ll come away with a friend for life. And that’s what Cardinal purveys, a biography of friendships prevailing and extinct, blossoming and degenerating. Its openness is charming, and the vivid recreation of everyday, blue-collar details is both heart-warming and curiously painful, resurrecting some milestone of friendships immemorial from our subconscious. With instrumentation as cultured and unassuming as its subject, it’s one of the most poignantly reflective albums of the year.

8. Puberty 2 — Mitski

25 year old Mitski Miyawaki has never been entirely sure what constitutes a) happiness — or more specifically the tranquillity of contentment rather than the immediacy of joy — and b) adulthood. I mean, what comprises being a grown-up? A mortgage? She doesn’t know, and bloody hell she’s not the only one. Puberty 2 is unequivocally a response to this existential miasma, conveying the reality that your 20s are just as instructive and problematic as your teens, only the stakes are higher. With shrewd sardonicism Miyawaki flails about the frailty of sexual and materialist pleasures on ‘Happy’, while ‘Crack Baby’ parallels addiction withdrawal with withdrawal from happiness; “It’s been a long hard twenty-year summer vacation/All these twenty years trying to fill the void”. Her conviction that despondency intrinsically intersects with young adulthood is deeply unsettling, even more so since such a conceit is so credibly rendered. Thankfully ‘Your Best American Girl’ offers insubordination, if not optimism.

7. A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead

It’s difficult to be impartial when your favourite band of the last seven years releases something new and essential; though, interestingly, I’ve hardly revised myself since my first impressions back in May. ‘Burn the Witch’s’ aesthetic minimalism betrays its obvious complexity, an illusion symptomatic of the record. Whether it’s the chameleonic stratums of ‘Daydreaming,’ — the most Kid A-lite track — propelled by cryptic bleeps, acquiescent groans and an inveterate piano backbone, or the veritable tempest of conflicting, symphonic sound that is the centrepiece ‘Ful Stop,’ A Moon flourishes in its delicately layered sonispheres. Lyrically, they even sound… hopeful? Affirming? Yes, and no. The crooning sentiment of ‘Desert Island Disk’ is that “Different types of love/are possible,” while the assertive refrain of ‘The Numbers’ emphasises that “The future is in ourselves/it is nowhere else,” and that it’s our prerogative to “take back what is ours” and maintain our residual individualism, but is that a good thing? A Moon is a time capsule, elegiacally transient yet immutably enduring.

6. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service — A Tribe Called Quest

There’ve been bigger rap groups, at least cursorily — the revolutionary NWA, or the ubiquitous Wu-Tang — but there’s a material case to be made that none were as cohesive or as musically intriguing as A Tribe Called Quest. There’s always a concern with these decades-long, mythological careers that artists will either cling to the past, or attempt to clumsily ape the present. Thank You 4 sounds conspicuously oldschool, both in the stoically mid-tempo rhythms and conventionally centralised couplets, but never anachronistic. As Kendrick and D’Angelo reflexively attuned to quasi-jazz and funk sensibilities, they did so in the vein of Tribe in the early 90s, and their sound — and elapsed politicking — transpires as far more pertinent today than twenty years ago. A companionship between jazzy ease and serrated strokes, between damning social commentary and witty aphorisms, and between a rejuvenated Q Tip and Phife Dawg signing out at his peak, Tribe feel more necessary than ever before.

5. Goodness — The Hotelier

Corrective of 2014’s desolate — though magnificent — Home, Like Noplace Is There, Goodness illuminates an avenue of hope. Emo is currently enduring its fourth wave, its golden age, and The Hotelier are one if its doyens, their grasp of archetypal feel-sad and feel-better songwriting essentially peerless in melody, mood and timbre. What Goodness evinces better than before is Christian Holden’s astonishing aptitude for presenting introspective, sometimes solipsistic polemic in an entirely legible, agonisingly relatable vernacular. Corroborating ‘Piano Player’s’ instruction to “sustain”, Holden counsels second opinions on ‘Goodness Pt.2’; “When this began/this was a thing/that we could both share,” and ‘Sun’; “Will you lay with me where the sun hits right?” The consul is laid bare: to defeat the omnipresent spectres of depression and ennui, actively entreating emotional support from loved ones is critical. The record is an article that advises seeking the goodness of others to rejuvenate the goodness of yourself, because no matter the languor or self-loathing, believing in your own capacity for goodness is everything.

4. Stage Four — Touché Amoré

Albums about grief, ones which are starkly sober and challenging rather than divagating didacticisms, are reciprocal, blossoming catharsis for the artist while mirroring and articulating the often inexpressible anguish of the listener. Stage Four is one of the very best records about coping with death ever written; not only because of the spiralling, stream-of-turmoil instinct with which Jeremy Bolm purges himself — listening is an unmediated and consumptive experience — but because of Bolm’s collected sangfroid. It’s virulent and kinetic, iridescent with kerbed remorse and sorrow, but it’s so immaculately erected, like an ornate memorial, materialised in pristinely layered riffs and sturdy song structures. It always threatens to implode, but the clean, assertive production — and Bolm’s astounding verve — holds fast. Stage Four is emotionally wrought, and not infrequently debilitating, but you come out the other side a legitimately stronger person, and the records you can attribute such a claim to you can easily count on one hand.

3. Coloring Book — Chance The Rapper

Yes okay, Coloring Book is technically a mixtape rather than an official album release, but shut up. To not admit it to 2016’s pantheon would be heretical. In a swarm of inexorable horror that’s only accruing momentum for 2017, I’ve found myself retreating to Chance’s benevolent bark increasingly frequently. Precluding an atom of cynicism of society and human nature, Coloring Book is undiluted joy, innocence and heartfelt charity. Each track is triggered to detonate bursts of reassurance or delight you never realised you needed; from D.R.A.M., in his distinguished trampoline cadence, soothing that “you are very special” to the philanthropic comfort that there’s no need to worry on the steel drum-facilitated ‘Angels,’ to the unrepentantly decadent elation of ‘All Night.’ For this mission of enablement Chance appointed a taskforce of altruistic disciples, ranging from Rap’s New Wave embodied by Future and Young Thug, to the Northern Soul-sublimating soulfulness of Saba and BJ The Chicago Kid. The cosmopolitanism of personnel is deliberate; as you can infer, the mixtape is Christian, but its spirituality is humanitarian. 2016 has been geopolitical catastrophe; we’ve lost a lot of cool, influential people; and it’s been difficult for personal reasons, but it’s been hella great for pop music. When Kanye shuffles in at the end of ‘All We Got’ that “music is [indeed] all we got,” you nod sagely and just thank God, or fate, or sheer chance, for Chance.

2. Teens of Denial — Car Seat Headrest

My loving Teens of Denial is inexorable. It’s all there in the title; a cloying wink intimating a hoarse smart-arsery that’s made-to-measure for the discerning indie rock snob. Passé — though not unsympathetic — twirls around subjects of depression, debilitating guilt and social estrangement are alleviated by indomitably sardonic observations of hippies at house parties and specious relationship angsts, which are almost stand-up-comedic in their patient cadence. It’s not necessarily the bipolarity of the levity and the pathos that works, rather their awkward encounter; like meeting an ex on the street the day after the toxic break-up while openly holding three bottles of whisky and mumbling an excuse about board games night and that obviously it has nothing to do with them. Or something. The point is that the funniest lines are also the most uncomfortable, whether through their disquieting relatability, or their shrugging, alienating bleakness; “it wasn’t sex it was extreme empathy” and “drugs are better with friends/friends are better with drugs,” for example. The brazen intellectualism and dour self-awareness is polarising, but for a bloke in his 20s horrendously confused by everything about adulthood, it clicks. Will Toledo knows how to write rock songs though, with guitars and that. In a compound of folky tinges and bluesy lethargy and the fidgetiness that characterised the 80s Pacific NW ancestry, galvanised by a persevering idiosyncracy in instrumental manipulation, Toledo has fashioned sobering, drunken, shredding, introspective tunes that are frenziedly excited and exciting, hysterical and deeply meaningful. I managed to write all this without reusing the phrase ‘millenial rock,’ now isn’t that impressive? Well done me.

  1. Blond(e) — Frank Ocean

I’ve written a lot about the specialness of Blond(e) before, but perhaps like so many songs and records I’ve discussed it’s ascertained a prickly import since both its initial recording and its release. I don’t enjoy repeating myself — although that’s rudimentary when writing on fifty individual articles with obstinate overlap — but the socio-political implications of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, and yes, Trump’s victory, perpetuate a climate violently hostile towards the naked sensitivity and norm-defying malleability that Ocean so unassumingly personifies. Everything about the record murmurs modesty, with its hook-deprived, radio-unfriendly, stripped-of-skin composition foregrounding Ocean’s becalming laments and enigmatic storylines. Every device is intrinsic, a muted fragment of Ocean’s opera, whether that’s Alex G’s delicate guitar work, or Andre 3000’s self-effacing confessional on ‘Solo (Reprise)’. While this year has been defined by angry white men barking falsities and fallacies propagating prejudice, Ocean confides in the listener democratically and gently, aiding sincerity and kindness. Ocean’s chronicles — his lost loves, his wistful regrets, his transcendental aspirations — marshal a pincer move, challenging conservative notions of race, sexuality and personhood in a candid but pacifistic vocabulary, while crusading for the harmony of an entirely liberal world, where equity — not rhetorical equity, but categorical economic equality and complete social acceptance of multiculturalism — is everyday. This isn’t utopian; with poets as universally sympathetic as Ocean leading us, it’s realisable. But that dream is dying. In a period of disintegrating faith in Western society’s capacity for compassion and tolerance, Blond(e) nurtures nothing so forthright as a spooning clasp, but a tentative and fleeting smile; noncommittal but palliative, and in its sparse humility it’s breathtakingly beautiful. A reminder of what we’ve gained through embracing open-mindedness, and what we stand to lose succeeding its bastardisation.