The Top 30 Albums of 2016

2016 was an all-around rotten year in so many ways. Beloved celebrity deaths, worldwide geopolitical turmoil, the Pirates were terrible while the @#$%! Cubs won the World Series. To top it all off, it was such a difficult year for me on a personal level that it forced me to delay putting together this list of the year’s best albums, one of my new favorite December traditions.

So, at least there was some good music in 2016 to take the edge off of some of 2016’s harsher moments, right? Well… yeah, I guess. But from my perspective, 2016 was perhaps the worst year for music since I’ve been compiling year-end lists. I saw one commentator sum up the critical consensus, saying that the year’s top albums were David Bowie’s seventh best album, Beyonce’s fourth best album and Radiohead’s seventh best album. Not a rousing endorsement!

And yeah, there were lots of albums from big pop stars that generated lots of excitement when they dropped with little-to-no advance warning. But those were almost entirely records that weren’t really going to garner much interest from me. As I look over some of the compiled year-end list aggregations, there’s not much that they have in common with my list below.

Now it’s possible that some of my particular circumstances made it difficult for me to appreciate some of these albums as I didn’t have time to spend to really appreciate them or I wasn’t in the mindset to do so. But I did find a few albums out there that worked for me and there were some that were really quite good. And since 2016 was a year that upended so much that we thought we knew about the way the world worked, I’m changing the rules for this year’s list: I slipped in a couple of EPs and a compilation album that I would not have considered for the list in other years. Also, I decided that 2016 couldn’t make me choose between the two albums that were competing for the top spot for many months, so I called a tie in the race for #1. Take that, 2016!

Before we get to the top 30, here’s a quick rundown of ten honorable mentions that, on a different day, might have made the list, roughly in order, #40-31: Bent Shapes – Wolves of Want, Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp, Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years, Golden Dawn Arkestra – Stargazer, Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool, Classixx – Faraway Reach, Shura – Nothing’s Real, King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard – Nonagon Infinity, Bleached – Welcome the Worms, Angel Olsen – My Woman. Anyway, here’s the very belated list of 2016’s finer albums, with blurbs courtesy of folks who get paid to write about music…

30. Holy Ghost! – Crime Cutz
“Crime Cutz doesn’t draw only from disco, however. There’s a distinct ’80s-pop aura permeating the record, courtesy of over-the-top pop arrangements and frontman Alex Frankel’s earnest blue-eyed R&B vocal style.” – Pitchfork | Crime Cutz on AotY
29. William Tyler – Modern Coutry
“Out of all of Tyler’s releases, Modern Country is the least sonically bound to that old spirit of the American Primitive, freely taking on a more urban, full-band approach that lifts some of the pressure off Tyler’s dexterous, roaming fingerpicking technique. And yet that isolation spelled out so celestially by John Fahey all those years ago still informs these songs, their wordless cascade of tensing and resolving chords beckoning to every single piece of music we’ve ever heard in our lives, distilled now into a calm, cleansing breeze” – Tiny Mix Tapes | Modern Country on AotY
28. Oddisee – The Odd Tape
“A concept beat tape that chronicles a day in the life of Oddisee, foregoing his critically acclaimed lyricism in place of equally outstanding production, The Odd Tape is a mix of instrumental work – a throwback to the samples of ‘90s – and new age electronic work. The result is a showcase in the musical prowess of the producer, who has created an album that can be enjoyed at coffee shops and Hip Hop shows alike.” – HipHopDX | The Odd Tape on AotY
27. Various Artists – Day of the Dead
“Curated by Brooklyn indie-rock luminaries the National, it conspicuously slights the Dead’s jam-band progeny to stake out more interesting claims and find richer connections – like 67 year-soul man Charles Bradley teaming up with retro-soul horn crew Menahan Street Band to find the funk in “Cumberland Blues,” or Aussie psych-pop outfit Unknown Mortal Ochestra blippily blissing out on the disco-era “Shakedown Street” or arty pop duo Lucius lovingly turning the eternal set-a-spell strum-along “Uncle John’s Band” into pretty synth-pop, etc. etc. etc. Listening to it all you can’t help but be amazed that there was a time not long ago when people who didn’t know better still derisively associated the Grateful Dead with a specific Sixties-holdover hippie culture. A set like this helps lay that cliché even deeper under the peat.” – Rolling Stone | Day of the Dead on AotY
26. Cian Nugent – Night Fiction
“Night Fiction’s meditations don’t have tidy beginnings and endings, and achieve an impressive synergy between philosophy and sound. It’s an album of pensive, measured statements with matching classicist folk rock arrangements that swell, swerve, and appear to finally resolve themselves, only to propose another sonic riddle. ” – Under The Radar | Night Fiction on AotY
25. The Kills – Ash & Ice
“This is the most layered The Kills have ever been but at no point does the album feel over-produced. Each part of every song is clearly defined and fits together beautifully.” – God is in the TV | Ash & Ice on AotY
24. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
“Whether by Simpson’s own design or in spite of it, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is ahead of its time. Perhaps it’s due to his insistence on playing the game by his own rules, but at least compared to the industry standard, A Sailor’s Guide feels at least five years too early. Artists spend decades working up to the level of instrumental variety and emotional awareness that Simpson seems to comprehend at his core, so it feels inherently wrong to be experiencing something so tender and well-rounded this early in his career. But it’s not wrong. It’s incredibly right, because A Sailor’s Guide is an incredible album.” – Pretty Much Amazing | A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on AotY
23. LUH – Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
“The record, undeniably, sounds colossal. Its sonic size, musculature and power are evident from the very onset. Drums drenched in reverb; Roberts’ raw, primal howl; and layers of dense production … act as the Herculean appendages of their daunting, neo-industrial creation. Yet on closer examination of their beast, there is also sheer beauty to be found.” – Line of Best Fit | Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing on AotY
22. Porches – Pool
“There is almost always an underlying inorganic sound that’s either ominous, nauseous, or both, and it’s the only thing that guarantees that none of the slower tracks will unknowingly be embraced in dentists’ waiting rooms next to classic soft rock.” – Spin | Pool on AotY
21. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
” The band feels right at home as it tests different approaches – at times dabbling in electronics while during other moments bending its sonic prowess to concoct mesmerizing ambient soundscapes. Instead of feeling boxed in and tied to the earth by its brevity, the The Wilderness seems liberated and poised to take flight.” – Sputnik Music | The Wilderness on AotY
20. M83 – Junk
“Through examples of sappy balladry, daytime TV and B-movie theme music, and bubblegum pop disco recreations, Gonzalez indulges in an oft-disavowed musical zeitgeist, imbuing it with the substance it always seemed to be missing.” – Under the Radar | Junk on AotY
19. Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
“Indeed, for all Tegan and Sara’s adoption by the queens of teen pop, Love You to Death feels like a distinctly grownup album, unafraid to explore nuanced, mature themes.” – The Guardian | Love You To Death on AotY
18. Russian Circles – Guidance
“Throughout the exactly 41-minute runtime of Guidance, Russian Circles masterfully crafts an enormous array of soundscapes, from soft and gentle melodies to massive walls of sound, transitioning from one to the next seamlessly.” – The 405 | Guidance on AotY
17. Fat White Family – Songs for Our Mothers
“[D]escribed by the band themselves as “an invitation sent by misery to dance to the beat of human hatred”, Songs for Our Mothers pulls no punches. Tackling themes such as murder, sexual torment, domestic violence, heroin abuse and the last days of Hitler among others, this is as far from the middle-of-the-road aural treat its title suggests as one could possibly imagine.” – Drowned in Sound | Songs for Our Mothers on AotY
16. Nap Eyes – Thought Rock Fish Scale
“That lonely-in-a-crowd feeling permeates the entirety of Thought Rock Fish Scale, but rather than communicate feelings of disillusionment and alienation, Chapman seems remarkably calm and content—because, in this case, social isolation is the first step toward self-actualization.” – Pitchfork | Thought Rock Fish Scale on AotY
15. Gordi – Clever Disguise
“Her songs, at least on the surface, are simple acoustic guitar compositions and piano ballads in the mould of modern folk artists like Laura Marling. But as a recent cover of ‘Avant Gardener’ by fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett showed, there was a little more going on with Gordi’s work. Payten took the slacker-rock groove and Barnett’s signature wry, semi-spoken vocals and completely transformed it into a spine-tingling, cathartic four minutes.” – God is in the TV | Clever Disguise on AotY
14. Chairlift- Moth
“This chameleonic approach obscures the fact that at its heart, much of Moth is just naggingly catchy schoolyard pop. Someone just needs to find a schoolyard this inherently cool. ” – Pretty Much Amazing | Moth on AotY
13. Nonkeen – Oddments of the Gamble
“[T]here’s youthful playfulness at hand on Oddments. There’s also a kind of majesty, one borne out by an affinity for subtly grand melodies, which works in juxtaposition to the album’s brief, jewel-like cuts” – XLR8R | Oddments of the Gamble on AotY
12. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
“Shifting modes from calming, spiritual ambience to corrosive, industrial-inflected dance music, Jaar mirrors the elemental uneasiness that many of us are feeling this year.” – PopMatters | Sirens on AotY
11. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
“As much as they represented the Native Tongues collective and Afrocentrism, Tribe never got carried away with their intellectual tendencies, leaving plenty of room for shit talk and technical showmanship. We got it… is a well-executed balance of that, too. The flows are consistently dazzling, whether they’re coming from a Tribe member, longtime collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence, or the various other rappers (like Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, and Kendrick).” – Consequence of Sound | We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service on AotY
10. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
“As Dwyer insists, the album still has plenty of “face-fuckers”, though these are front-loaded to the first half of the album. They include fuzzy, demonic garage rockers like the feral “Gelatinous Cube”, with ear-burning guitar and Dwyer’s vocals at their most sinister, or the single “Plastic Plant”, taut and freaky, with all the changes of pace and grotesque architectural flourishes of a typical Oh Sees song, albeit now with the twin drummers giving the guitars as good as they get.” – Uncut | A Weird Exits on AotY
9. Holy Fuck – Congrats
“For all their weirdo mangled machine noise, it feels like they’ve reached a beautiful plateau – a perfect crossroads between all their disparate elements, finely tuned and full of vigour.” – Drowned in Sound | Congrats on AotY
8. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
“What sets this record apart from others is its ability to be dynamic in composition and concise in lyrics. Everything is purposeful. … In an age where the studio lets you make sounds and layer like never before, artists often mistake abundance for quality. And in turn, that is what makes Are You Serious so compelling.” – The 405 | Are You Serious on AotY
7. Operators – Blue Wave
“At our juncture in modern history, what object could better describe the intersection of old and new than the analog synthesizer? It is, technically speaking, both. Whatever the historical discourse outlined, though, Blue Wave overflows with Boeckner’s unique knack for melody. Its timelessness — and this is maybe a helpful term for wrestling with Blue Wave — is attributable, in no small measure, to Boeckner’s strength as a songwriter. ” – Consequence of Sound | Blue Wave on AotY
6. Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
“There are many contradictory descriptors that could be used to accurately portray the sound of Brooklyn’s Woods. Ominous but welcoming is perhaps one of the most fitting ways to describe their blend of indie-folk and psychedelic rock; seductive yet restrained is another. Therein lies the appeal of the band’s music – it’s not too firmly grounded in a specific influence or idea to risk branching out, but when it does, it does so gracefully and with flair.” – Sputnik Music | City Sun Eater in the River of Light on AotY
5. Cavern of Anti-Matter – void beats/invocation trex
“It was sometimes unclear when Stereolab’s mid-century references were meant as kitsch, but here, Gane & co.’s retro-futurist flashback feels optimistic, as though convinced that the key to fulfilling the promise of a new era were just one perfect rhythm away.” – Pitchfork | void beats/invocation trex on AotY
4. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
“[It is masterful in its craft yet as free-spirited and imaginative as you’ll find in today’s era of new-wave, commercial folk. In fact, Singing Saw is the opposite of that scene – it’s rich and scenic in its imagery, and every lyric feels intimate. Each individual track has something about it to make it seem entirely unique and worthwhile, which is even more impressive when you consider that the album is stronger as a cohesive unit. I’d equate the entire experience to camping out under the stars, letting the most beautiful folk music serenade you while you ponder life and its implications. – Sputnik Music | Singing Saw on AotY
3. Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust
“On Sonderlust, Ishibashi has broadened his range, tapping into a rawer songwriting vein. He doesn’t entirely abandon his violin or penchant for string arrangements, but they only play a complementary role here, with disco, R&B, prog rock, and synthwave serving as a sumptuous vehicle for his foray into the darker side of romantic relationships.” – Slant | Sonderlust on AotY
1b. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
“Indie rock may not be dying, but it’ll be hard for people to make it sound as alive as Toledo does on Teens of Denial. This is the sort of record where you wish like hell you could hear it again for the first time and that’ll keep rewarding return visits for years to come.” – Paste | Teens of Denial on AotY
1a. Black Mountain – IV
“What Black Mountain has long been able to convey that many of its contemporaries and predecessors have not is a sense of sex. No one turns to a Yes or Genesis album when it comes time to make out but there’s something seductive here, something behind the hushed, wee hour frequencies of “Defector” and “Cemetery Breeding” that arouses the primal instincts in a way that few others can. That songs that reference strange, flying machines and, maybe, some sort of dystopian present or future, can kind of turn you on proves even more impressive.” – Pop Matters | IV on AotY
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