Favorite Albums of 2016

The Avalanches – Wildflower: The previous (and only) Avalanches album was released waaaay back in 2000 and was inarguably one of the most influential of the decade, so there were a lot of expectations to live up to with this sophomore effort. It largely does this work, even if the album isn’t as consistent as their now classic outing. “Frankie Sinatra” and “Subway” are two standout tracks, and the sequencing/layering of samples throughout will make your head spin in all the right ways.

Bon Iver – 22, A Million: Vernon and company put together an album that is what I imagine digital decay must sound like. By offering a fascinating glitchy electronic riff on their typically more ethereal harmonies and a deliberately stunted approach to their standard swelling instrumentation, this album felt both familiar and fresh.

David Bowie – Blackstar: Even if you can put aside the fact of Bowie’s death shortly after this album’s release and even if you had no idea that he wrote and recorded it as a kind of final reflection on life whilst staring down death, it would still be one of the more intriguing records of a storied career. It is marked, importantly, by a production style that from track to track somehow manages to draw your attention to everything you might have ever loved about a Bowie song all at once – the jazzy sax bits, the sonic ambient bits, the haunting vocals, the punchy poppy percussion bits, the anthemic rock bits, the lyrical playfulness. Some of the best tracks (“Lazarus”, “Blackstar”) manage to bring a lot of these together in a single expression, and the result can be hypnotic. Had I put this list together in ranked order, this one would have been a strong contender for the top spot.

Carseat Headrest – Teens of Denial: Every year I seem to find some album that makes me really want to check out an artist’s back catalog, and this was that album for me this year. There’s a lot of raw “garage” style production on “Teens of Denial” that remind me of some of the best underground/indie rock albums that I love from the 1980s/1990s, yet its lyrical themes and musical sensibilities very much reside in the here and now. I have no idea if this band is any good live, but the album sells me on the idea that they probably would be great to see in a packed and sweaty room in a small club in a college town.

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book: I know this one has gained a lot of acclaim, and with its star-studded roster and its playfulness with a range of styles it is easy to see why it has quickly become one of the year’s critical darlings. I certainly think there’s enough going on here to warrant its inclusion on the list (“Blessings,” “No Problem”, “Angels,” “All Night”) but there’s also a lot that – for me – felt like bloat (“How Great”, “Luke Jam”). Ultimately, the album strikes me as inconsistent enough to be a near-miss for this list yet full of enough interesting, masterful song creation that to leave it off altogether would be a crime. I will say this about the album: compared to even many other records on this list, this one benefits from a quality listening experience (good speakers, nice headphones, etc.) more than most.

Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker: As if one great album meditating on death (and released shortly before its creator died) wasn’t enough this year, Cohen gives Bowie a good run for the money in that particularly morbid category. Unlike with Bowie’s record, I really can’t separate this one from Cohen’s passing: something about the intimacy present in the texture of his vocals, the sparseness of the production, and the oft-apocalyptic lyrics sometimes make it sound like you can literally hear him fading away, at moments kicking and screaming and at moments with whatever a “resigned dignity” might sound like.

Angel Olsen - My Woman: This is one of those albums that I’d not have sought out on my own, but I started seeing it pop up across enough “best of the year” lists over the past month or so that I decided to give it a spin – and then another, then another, then another, etc. This is a great rock n’ roll record that blends both pop sensibility and Floydian-esque space-age noodling/atmospheric rock in a way that is especially compelling. Put that combo together with Olsen’s vocal range and some occasional lo-fi intensity, and you end up with a special record that sounds like a kind of tour-de-force of the past decade or so of whatever a moniker like “indie rock” has come to mean.

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3: If there’s any duo in hip hop that has a better flow between them right now, I’ve not yet heard them. This album is full of the same kind of “stand up and pay attention” display of clever and competing wordplay draped over indelibly well-crafted beats and prudent sampling that defined the first two RTJ releases. Here everything just sounds tighter and somehow even more immediate than in their previous outings: each song serves as an intense meditation on a particular idea, often offering both political critique and encouragement of agitation towards further engagement with the injustices of the world. There are a few tracks that are just typical RTJ-style fun, too. This was a very nice way to end the year.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool: For more than twenty years now I’ve considered Radiohead one of three or four bands that regularly vie for the title of my own “favorite band,” and this album is a very solid argument that they deserve – for the time being – that top spot. “A Moon Shaped Pool” is unquestionably their best album since 2007 (“In Rainbows”) and, arguably, their best since 2000 (“Kid A”). What’s surprising, in a way, is how straightforward and relatively low-key this album is compared to both some of their more recent outings and to the more wide-ranging stuff that makes up much of my own year-end list. What sells me on this album is the way that each track really feels a piece of a whole: there’s a considered sequence of music here wherein each track seems to feed into and off of one another, the production showcases each band member’s specific (and well-refined) artistic strengths throughout, and like the best Radiohead albums it begs repeated listening to unpack it all. I think there’s a kind of shared production philosophy between this album and Bowie’s “Blackstar”, which is probably why they are my favorite two records this year. (Or maybe I just have a thing for old British dudes.)

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service: A recurring theme across the this list is some artist releasing poignant and/or evolutionary work many, many years since they last put out a record. Tribe hasn’t put out anything that I’ve paid attention to in almost 25 years, and I had (wrongfully) assumed that they’d just parted ways and/or slipped into some realm of mediocrity over the past few decades. Nope: they were incubating this amazing statement. Just as they always did, Tribe sounds both young and wise at the same time. Here their years of experience serve to add some gravity to their perspective and some inventiveness to their production that only comes from having spent through decades listening, writing, and performing. Like the Chance record above, this one features a ton of guest spots; unlike on that record they rarely feel gimmicky or shoehorned - everything fits together and seems considered, slowly worked and refined, and intriguingly nuanced. Its funky, jazzy, poppy, trippy and fun – easily one of the nicest surprises of a year.

Honorable Mentions:

I liked these a little less than the ones above, but they were still excellent records in their own right:

Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitiled Unmastered”, Explosions in the Sky’s “The Wilderness”, Aphex Twin’s “Cheetah EP” and Wilco’s “Schmilco”.