My Top Albums of 2016
Everyone and their sister Solange dropped an album this year. I was never short on new music. In fact, it was a little much. Let’s try to spread it out in the future, if possible. My three favorite artists (Radiohead, Bon Iver and Kanye) all had new albums, and none of them disappointed. The quality at the top of my list is such that any of my four best albums would be a worthy #1 in most years. And then this year also had quantity. I have albums outside the top ten that will be in my rotation for years. 2016 was a brutal year in so many way… but at least there was good music.
- Bon Iver — 22, A Million
I listened to this album for the first time at 2am on the day of its release. It was my birthday, and I’ve never fallen in love with an album faster. It had me at “It might be over soon,” the first line of the first song. 22 (Over Soon) sounds a lot like Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father,” my favorite song of 2014. It sets the reflective mood that resonates throughout the entirety of this album. 22, A Million sounds like personal crisis and, ultimately, finding some kind of resolution. Each track is haunting, beautiful, and unique. The work of a master channeling and achieving things that few artists could dream of. This album is only 34 minutes long, but there are hours and hours worth of music to digest. Any more tracks and it would be overwhelming (in a Hail to the Thief kind of way). Justin Vernon is breaking new ground, personally and in the industry. He’s finding beauty in the most dire and unlikely moments. From beginning to end, I’m in love with this album. I’m in love with Bon Iver’s career progression. Reinventing to this extent is pretty much unheard of, and I have no idea how far they can go. The ceiling is already broken. If “it might be over soon,” there aren’t many more worthwhile ways to spend your time than listening to this album. I’ll be unwrapping this gift for years and years. Get it? Like, the metaphor is that it’s a present, because it came out on my birthday.
Favorites: 22 (Over Soon), 8 (circle), 29 #Strafford APTS
2. Frank Ocean — Blonde
To listen to this album is to enter a world of Frank Ocean’s design. A world of hope, confusion, nostalgia, the search for identity and need to make sense of this life. More so than his grandiose talent, I’m completely in awe of his sensibilities. You don’t just listen to this album, you experience it. You allow Ocean’s genius to, somehow, make you feel what he feels. Frank Ocean is touching on issues that are important — race, love, social media, success, etc. — but it isn’t just through his words. It feels like the music is saying just as much as the devastatingly poignant lyrics, which is an accomplishment. Good Guy and Facebook Story are each about a minute long, yet they pack a powerful punch. They feel so… human. Yes, there is fun. Self Control, White Ferrari and Godspeed are gorgeous melodies. This is a journey into Ocean’s world, and the more the listener can become enveloped by the experience, the more there is to take from it. By the time you reach the final track, Futura Free, you feel as if you have a better understanding of… something. At the very least, you feel. The final track, which features old recordings of interviews from a young Frank Ocean and presumably his friends, drives this point home. The faint keyboard, the static, and the honest interview answers give the sense that life is fleeting, these memories are grainy, and all that we have is now. Telling the perfect story in the perfect way has never been Ocean’s goal. This is unpolished and real. Like… life?
Favorites: Self Control, White Ferrari, Godspeed
3. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead is the Lebron James of music. They can beat you in so many ways, and it’s hardly a surprise when they do so. But consistent brilliance can dull deserved appreciation. I believe that A Moon Shaped Pool will go down as their most underrated album, and it’s difficult to identify why. The album is brilliant, from beginning to end. They break new ground, but not in an earth-shattering, Kid A-type of way. They do so in a subtle, Johnny Greenwood-composed string section-type of way. The album has tracks that feel like they could be on either OK Computer, Kid A or In Rainbows. It sounds like a greatest hits album, but all of the material is new (other than the heartbreaking True Love Waits). This is a confluence of the various sounds of their career. If A Moon Shaped Pool is their final full album, then they harkened back to their distinct and genre bending masterpieces, one after the other. Perhaps that is why an album full of tracks of this caliber can be so overlooked — it doesn’t encompass a grandiose statement of the future. Rather, it uses the sounds and techniques of past dominance to deliver a timely and potent message for the future. I’ll admit that this album didn’t feel quite as momentous as the previous records. It hasn’t captured my heart to that extent. But the quality is there, and I believe it will get better with age. The greatest band in the world just added a classic album to its discography.
Favorites: Identikit, True Love Waits, Present Tense
4. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
In a normal year, this would be far and away deserving of my top album. But this year was different. Rounding out my top 4 albums is Yeezy’s “Gospel Album.” These days music almost feels like a side project for Mr. West, but every. single. time. he drops an album, I’m reminded that he is on a level by himself. He has been ever since the college dropout trilogy concluded and he made the leap from crazy talented producer/rapper to genius who inspires “so many Kanyes.” If Yeezus was the confessional, get it out of your system-type album that people said it was, then Kanye never left the booth. He made a home there. This album is disgusting and offensive. It unabashedly gives voice to the worst aspects of humanity. He is a sinner to the highest degree, and he never let’s us forget it. I’ve been following him closely for 14 years now, as he loses his way, embarrasses himself and inspires a seemingly universal eye roll and headshake from the public. But, I never felt like he wasn’t trying. Trying to figure it out. Trying to find salvation. Trying to be as deeply and profoundly Kanye as he can be. In that, I see humanity. I also see humanity in our desire to love a genius who has disappointed us time and time again. If this is a gospel album, it’s about another attempt at salvation. These songs are for the most part beautiful and twisted in a way that only Kanye can do. Entirely original, entirely Kanye. When he gave Chance the Rapper the major verse of Ultralight Beam, the first and best song on the album, I felt proud of this mature Kanye who does what is best for the song. Everything he does is in service to the output. It’s just that sometimes we’re distracted by his humanity.
Favorites: Ultralight Beam, FML, Famous,
5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
You Want It Darker, released a few months before Leonard Cohen’s death, is a conversation with God and a statement of the highest sense. Cohen was ready to go. It was his time. He was “ready, my lord.” That he was in his 80s when he created these songs is beyond impressive. Cohen’s voice, deeper than in his early years, is perfect for the message. The strings harmonize and blend with understated melodies. This album is different than his others. Ironically, it seems completely unhurried. What you know you’ll always get with Cohen is poetry in the purest form. His confidence with words never leaves. This is a master, working at his craft and donating to the world one final flourish of genius. This album is tightly packed and, for all it’s darkness, there’s not a pessimistic note to be heard. A life well-lived. Travel light.
Favorites: You Want It Darker, Steer Your Way, Treaty
6. The 1975 — I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
The Ballad Of Me And My Brain was my most listened to song of the year. The lyrics are juvenile and corny. The song opens with “Well I think I’ve gone mad, isn’t that so sad?” (it rhymes!). This is the stuff of 7th grade garage bands. And yet… I couldn’t stop listening to it. The same is true for the album as a whole. It’s fun, happy and full of energy. The albums has its faults, namely that it lacks any sense of the cohesion you hope to find on a record. But again, I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was not a fan of the self-titled debut, but this less poppy and more synthy album does it for me. It feels almost tropical in its sound and carelessness. Who knows how these Brits tapped into that, but I’m glad they did.
Favorites: The Ballad Of Me And My Brain, A Change Of Heart, Paris
7. Brian Fallon — Painkillers
I loved The Gaslight Anthem’s 2015 album, Get Hurt, last year. It was fun in a Springsteen/Jersey Shore beach house kind of way, like it should be listened to while grilling outside, pregaming for a dive bar or drinking beers on the beach. I did not expect, however, Get Hurt to last in my regular rotation for as long as it did. I thought that this simplistic joy meant fleeting impact, and I was wrong. I feel the same way about the debut album of The Gaslight Anthem’s lead singer, Brian Fallon. Painkillers came out early in 2016 and was fun from the start. It had the Gaslight Anthem’s initial enjoyment, but also the lasting impact. This isn’t complicated or layered work, and that’s the point. It doesn’t feel like work at all. Obvious metaphors of heartbreak and thrill-seeking. Springsteen lite. If I need an album to make me feel the way Bruce’s music did for so long, now I have another record to Queue up along with The Gaslight Anthem collection.
Favorites: Smoke, Red Lights, Long Drives
8. Bat For Lashes — The Bride
A new personal rule for these rankings — if an album causes me to choke up on the first listen, it has to be in my top ten. Bat For Lashes’ latest is a concept album about a bride who’s husband-to-be dies in an accident on the way to the wedding (spoiler alert!). Left at the alter, she is forced to deal and process the unimaginable. Thus, the album moves from love and hope to heartbreak, despair, a recognition that she’d go through it all again if she had the choice, and then back to hope for the future. You don’t passively listen to these songs on the drive to the grocery store. It’s a story, and it pays to follow it from beginning to end. I was initially sucked in by two of my favorite songs of the year — If I Knew and I Will Love Again. These take place near the end of the story, during the sea change. It fits that the most beautiful part of the album is when she decides to keep living; to play another hand. Presenting an album in this form was a bold and gutsy undertaking. Because some tracks are taking place in a moment in time, the story as a whole is that much more powerful. There’s a depth to this arc that you don’t often find in an album. If you give it the attention and the intention that it deserves, this is a story worth hearing.
Favorites: If I Knew, I Will Love Again, Close Encounters
9. dvsn — SEPT 5th
I’m not an R&B guy, but throw in some heavy bass and some electronic… and it appears that I’m in. This album is about sex, plain and simple. But the beats and melodies can lift you up on your slowest or longest days. Gets me going! These guys know what they do well, and they do it well. Special shout out for the song Angela, which samples from an unlikely source — Elliott Smith. I’m still not entirely used to hearing the haunting “so glad to meet you Angela” line with heavy bass and a sexed-up voice, but SEPT 5th makes the list for its originality and a distinct sound that doesn’t seem to get old.
Favorites: With Me, Do It Well, Hallucinations
10. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen’s MY WOMAN is a complex and beautiful album about love and heartbreak (what else!?). I am partial to the second half of the album and its slower pace. The best song is Sister, a sprawling 8 minutes that features a guitar solo that was less than expected on the former folk singer, and therefore especially potent. Angel Olsen’s haunting voice is perfect for her new dream pop style. A style totally her own, Olsen has lines that lie in your consciousness for months. “Was it me you were thinking of all the time when you thought of me.” A simple question with profound implications. (the followup question “Or was it your mother?” has special meaning for Jewish boys and their moms). Or, my favorite line of the year: “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.” Sung in a frail, distorted voice on Pops, the album ends no less closer to solving the questions of the heart than it was at the beginning.
Favorites: Sister, Pops, Intern
The tragedy of 2016 and all of the amazing new music is that some deserving albums didn’t make Jonas’ Top 10. Sad for me, devastating for them. Top of the list, my 11th best album of the year was Frightened Rabbit’s “Painting of a Panic Attack.” This album shows serious growth from their pub playing days. Blood Under The Bridge was one of my most played songs of the year. Also just missing the cut was Sui Zhen’s Secretly Susan, a plastic sounding, futuristic album that I spent a lot of time with this year. Mitski’s Puberty 2 is bursting with a unique and special energy that would put it in the top 10 most years. The intro song, Happy, sets up the genre-bending album perfectly. Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love was completely unexpected. His move away from rap and into an entirely new genre, 70s Detroit soul/funk-ish type music paid off bigly. As with all of their albums, Explosions in the Sky’s new release caused explosions in my pants. Prinze George followed up their LP featuring Victor with a true album, a synth-tastic sound and a voice that is uniquely their’s. I stumbled upon Bear’s Den very late, and I’m glad I did. Chance the Rapper’s album was unique and fun, though the tracks in the second half trailed off bit. His flow and samples are much more interesting than his previous mixtape. And speaking of flow… Run the Jewels crushed it once again. Not quite RTJ2 level, but almost. That they are an arena act says a lot about the current vitality of hip-hop.
Finally, Francis and the Lights, David Bowie, Rihanna, Drive By Truckers, A Tribe Called Quest, Sasha’s Late Night Tales, and Blood Orange all deserve mentioning for the extensive time we spent together. ;)
Biggest Disappointments: M83, Miike Snow, The Naked and Famous, How to Dress Well, Dawes, Blink 182 and School of Seven Bells