Here we go children. Now is the time. The time when every place on the internet with even a tentative thought about anything pop cultural starts creating TOP TEN LISTS!!!!
So of course ya boi's getting in on it. With tunes.
But we ain't just doing an old school top ten list. I mean we are doing that, but not just that. Because where's the fun in simplicity?
So let's start with:
The Albums I Listened To And Liked That Aren't Top Ten Or Honorable Mention Or Another List Below
(in no particular order)
- "The Hamilton Mixtape" - Various Artists
- "Puberty 2" - Mitski
- "Revolution Radio" - Green Day
- "Painkillers" - Brian Fallon
- "Tentative Decisions" - Mikey Erg
- "Teens Of Denial" - Car Seat Headrest
- "You Want It Darker" - Leonard Cohen
- "A Sailor's Guide To Earth" - Sturgill Simpson
- "22, A Million" - Bon Iver
- "Skeleton Tree" - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
- "Anti" - Rihanna
- "Blackstar" - David Bowie
- "Views" - Drake
- "Holy Ghost" - Modern Baseball
- "The Dream Is Over" - PUP
- "Slugger" - Sad13
- "Stock Neon" - Also Also Also
- "Never Going Back" - Stick And Poke
- "No Burden" - Lucy Davis
- "Blindfaller" - Mandolin Orange
- "Real" - Lydia Loveless
- "HERO" - Maren Morris
- "Blood Bitch" - Jenny Hval
- "Hella Personal Film Festival" - Open Mike Eagle & Paul White
Most of these were pretty solid albums, but didn't quite crack the top. But give 'em a listen, and you'll probably find some stuff you dig. And almost all of these had at least a few songs I super super dug. So yay tunes!
The Whoops List
(Aka albums that tbh probably would've had a shot at the top ten if I'd either listened to them at all or listened to them more than once. Also in no real order, sorta.)
- "Blonde" - Frank Ocean^
- "A Seat At The Table" - Solange
- "Malibu" - Anderson .Paak^
- "Here" - Teenage Fanclub
- "Lady Wood" - Tove Lo
- "Midwest Farmer's Daughter" - Margo Price
- "All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend" - AURORA
- "Cardinal" - Pinegrove^
- "Paradise" - White Lung^
- "Chaleur Humaine" - Christine And The Queens
- "Instigator" - Kevin Devine
- "Worry" - Jeff Rosenstock
(^Albums I listened to once, but not enough enough to get a real sense of)
I'll be honest, "Blonde" is the reason for this list, probably with Solange, .Paak, Jeff Rosenstock, and Pinegrove rounding out a top five of the "Whoops" crew. I know I'm wrong. I'll regret it come 2017. Sry.
The Best Albums Of My Personal 2016 That Weren't Released In 2016
- "Under The Surface" - Marit Larsen (2006)
- "Putting The Days To Bed" - The Long Winters (2006)
- "Hamilton" - Original Broadway Cast Of Hamilton (2015)
- "Electra Heart" - Marina & The Diamonds (2013)
- "Taylor Swift" - Taylor Swift (2006)
Fuck me, I got down hard with ten years ago I guess. Anyway, these are the albums that I listened to over and over again this year, and specifically are the ones that sort of came into their own for me in 2016. That's why albums like "Welcome Interstate Managers," "Pure Heroine," "Sam's Town" (also a 2006-er fwiw), "1989," "Art Angels", "American Idiot," "The '59 Sound," and the masterpiece-to-end-all-masterpieces "E•MO•TION" aren't on this list; those are all my favorite albums ever, and I listen to them nonstop (and have for either a year, in the case of the 2015-ers, or 10+, for the old guards.)
Nah, these are the albums that popped up in 2016 for whatever reason, and absolutely hooked me, and are as much (if not more, tbh) a part of my mental musical picture of the year as anything that was released since January. I have stories for each of the ones listed, but like...nope. Again, sry.
Actually, that's an okay lead in for:
The Top Three Albums Of 2015 That I Liked More Than Anything Released In 2016
- "E•MO•TION" - Carly Rae Jepsen
- "Art Angels" - Grimes
- "To Pimp A Butterfly" - Kendrick Lamar
Okay, fight time now I suppose, but this was almost a... disappointing year musically when I look back on it? Disappointing is waaaay too strong a word for it I suppose, because there were lots of good and great music released... but that's kinda it. For me personally, there were tons of albums that in previous years would be around 3-10 on an end-of-year-top-ten. But there wasn't really anything that snagged that top slot. And that's demonstrated by the fact that I can't think of a single thing I listened to this year that had it been released in '15 would've knocked those three from their end-of-year top slot.
Now part of it is certainly personal taste, obvi. And part of it may be that I got weirdly into the albums from the "Weren't Released In 2016" list and that took over my listening habits. And it may just be that those three albums are freakishly fucking good and holding anything to that standard is cruel.
And of course, that doesn't mean the great albums of this year aren't great. Just maybe not "all-time faves" like the ones above.
Who knows. All I know is the weird truth that...yeah, I dig my top three of 2015 more than any of my top picks for 2016.
The Releases That Also Would Be At The Top Of My Top Ten List If They Were Full-Length LPs
- "E•MO•TION Side B" - Carly Rae Jepsen
- "The Poison I Keep" - Hannah Moroz
- "PC Music Vol. 2" - Various Artists
- "HANA" - HANA
- "Joni Was Right (Parts I & II) - Marit Larsen
I'm being arbitrarily purist in limiting my real top ten list to just full-length original LPs. Which ends up cutting out the five above for including 3 EPs, 1 compilation, and 1 collection of two EPs.
- If you want some soothing and kinda emo Americana from a Norwegian (who is doing Americana better than most Americans) check Marit Larsen's two "Joni Was Right" EPs.
- If you want some of the hookiest melodies in the fucking GAME go for HANA's debut EP.
- If you, like me, discovered in '16 that the weird mix of noise, glitter, roboticism, British accents, snark, schoolgirl crushes, and A+ pop beats produced by the PC Music collective is your jam, then check out their newest volume of tracks.
- If you want a new Sara Bereilles or Glen Hansard album and also want to cry for-fucking-ever listen to "The Poison I Keep" by (my fantastic friend) Hannah Moroz (seriously it's incredible not just saying it because she's my friend.)
- And if you are a person with TASTE who likes MUSIC then you gotta listen to anything Carly releases (but for real, it's rude of her to release an EP of rejects that has several songs better than most pop songs out there, including many on her original amazing record.)
Okay, finally we get through the gimmicky lists. It's time for the real deal. By which I mean:
The Honorable Mentions
(in no particular order)
- "California" - blink-182
- "Lemonade" - Beyoncé
- "Awaken My Love!" - Childish Gambino
Three very good albums that were originally in my top ten, but then got knocked to just below it. Ask me on a different day and any of these could find their way in.
...Though if we're being real, "California" has a few too many dumb joke songs to probably ever actually make the top ten. But gosh-darnit the rest of it is A+ skateboard pop-punk so Honorable Mention feels perfectly alright (and if they had cut the dumb joke songs it'd be like #6 easy.)
...Actually, while we're on the subject, if "California" is the honorable mention that tbh would never be in the top ten, "Lemonade" is the one that absolutely should be in it...if it was on Spotify. I realized literally like 2 weeks ago that I hadn't heard the album since it came out because I use Spotify and it ain't there! So it never made it into my music rotation! And a week or so of listening snagged it a place in the Honorable Mentions, so I gotta feeling given the months some of these other LPs had it would sneak its way up much farther.
But as is becoming a theme with this list, well... sry.
Anyway, for real though now, and this one is the first list that will be ordered (in reverse) ....
The Top Ten Albums Of 2016
10: "Shape Shift With Me" - Against Me!
Fuck yeah, Against Me! rules. I'll admit that I don't quite dig this new set of tunes as much as the immeasurably great "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" from a few years back (which I shamefully slept on until last year) but that doesn't mean this isn't a great collection of hard-biting, hard-rocking punk/bar rock music. The world needs more bands that are equally dedicated to breaking down social barriers as they are to sick-as-hell harmonies, but until that day comes Against Me! are our necessary standard bearers.
Also this was the year I realized that The Hold Steady, The Mountain Goats, Drive-By Truckers, and Against Me! are fundamentally all the same band but with difference in subject matter and musical style. And that's fucking great, because all four of those bands are among the best lyricists in the entire rock game by a MILE. The first verse of "12:03" was the moment that clicked for me, thinking "Oh hey, that's a John Darnielle-y type of phrase. Neat." Bless the 2010s for having such a stellar crew to guide us through.
9: "The Life Of Pablo" - Kanye West
There's lots that can and should be said about Kanye West. And lots of immensely justifiable reasons to not want to support, associate with, or even like him and his music. And for as much as I and others may lean into "death of the author" as an ideal, there's no way to genuinely remove context from art, especially when the art is being consumed as it comes out.
There is also an element to which being a popstar (or any sort of commercial entity) precludes folks from being given the same rhetorical and analytics treatment that other capital-A "Artists" get.
Make no mistake, Kanye is an Artist. And as an Artist who created a piece of Art called "The Life Of Pablo," it's fucking wild and fascinating. It's a mess that goes from impeccable pop in tunes like "Famous" or "Waves," to epics like "No More Parties In LA" or "Ultralight Beam," to clever nods to the past and plays with the hip-hop album form in the skits and intermissions. And for every off-putting act of narcissism, elitism, sexism, harrassment, etc, there's something self-aware like "I Love Kanye." It's enough to give those who require their musicians to be models the branch to reach for and say "Look, he gets it, so it's fine" but not enough to actually rectify his behavior. Which artistically makes it all the more interesting.
And course, it's not just that it's interesting and wrapped in turmoiled context: it is a genuinely pretty good album, which dives headfirst into depression, anxiety, darkness, paranoia, vitriol, revenge, and plenty of other dark sides of the psyche. And wraps it in interesting music.
It's a similar element to the play "Taming Of The Shrew." Because three things are true in regards to that play: it's really really masterfully funny in parts, really really sexist in parts, and Shakespeare wrote shitty plays. It's something that makes a Shakespeare fan like myself think "Gosh, why couldn't a shitty play like Merry Wives Of Windsor be the problematic sexist one, and let Taming Of The Shrew just be funny and excellent." But sadly no, there is the contradiction. Which makes it perhaps bad entertainment but interesting art. I'd argue something similar for "The Life Of Pablo."
8: "Emotions And Math" - Margaret Glaspy
This gal makes the grimiest roots rock y'all could find and I LOVE IT. She's got a voice that goes from a fluttery croon to a fucking GROWL and both are excellent and moving. Add to it a fearlessness to write songs about whatever she needs to talk about, fully unafraid to fill her songs with sex and anxiety. And it's underlaid with guitars that growl as good her voice and plodding drums that are heavy, crunched up, and reverbed a la modern-day Bonham. Take that, and you've got a sound that cuts through just about anything else you'd be listening to. Female-fronted country and Americana is in a great spot, with emo softies like Julian Baker and Marit Larsen holding down their end, popstars like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves killing the radio game, and firebrands like Brandi Carlile and Margaret Glaspy kicking ass and taking names. What a time to be alive y'all.
7: "Babes Never Die" - Honeyblood
A late entry that snuck it's way in at the last minute because GUYS POWER-POP IS SO MUCH GOSHDARN FUN. Honeyblood had one of my favorite songs of a few years ago in "Killer Bangs" and "Babes Never Die" is basically a full album of Killers-Bangs-es. Boppy, hooky, sweet 'n snarky, full of hand claps and fuzz guitars and hints of accents Honeyblood has filled my musical roster role of another Scottish Powerpop Icon perfectly.
6: "American Band" - Drive-By Truckers
There are lots of strong arguments to be made for "staying in your lane" and not trying to tell a story that isn't yours. Arguments that I wouldn't be surprised may be kicked up by this album from gods of neo-southern-rock Drive-By Truckers. Because this is an album that runs headfirst into tackling issues like bigotry, gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and others. But, at least for myself, "American Band" makes it work. And I think it's for two reasons:
- Drive-By Truckers makes really good music,
- They're directly addressing their own subculture and its role in the problem.
Songs like "What It Means" do feature a bunch of white southern guys singing about the problems of black teenagers, but they are talking about how white people and the culture of whiteness needs to reckon with this. Similarly they present songs like "Guns Of Umpqua" which takes the southern love of gun culture to its horrific modern conclusion. They point the finger, not just at the "bad" southerners, but at themselves. And this is all while still talking about the things that genuinely make aspects of southern culture great. It's a vulnerable and self-reflective album, and it wraps it all in some of the best southern rock you could ever find.
5: "We got it from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service" - A Tribe Called Quest
Look, if this album was just the song "We The People..." and 45 minutes of discordant shrieking, it'd still crack the top ten, because there are few musical moments of this past year that hit as hard as watching Tribe play this song on SNL four days after the nightmare of Nov 8. They managed to call the shot and make the perfect Trump-era album, directly tackling the racism, mysogyny, xenophobia, fear, and hatred represented by the Orange Man and his followers with incredible skill, wit, and bite.
But just politics would be one thing. This album becomes another because of the level of fun on display. "We The People..." is justifiably angry, yes, but it's also snarky and full of pride. "The Space Program" is painfully real, but also kind of silly. "Dis Generation" is pure slinky virtuousic bar-sharing and it's such a joy. And "Solid Wall Of Sound" has an Elton John sample. Tribe is defiant but so goddamn confident in their (accurate) skill and superiority that they just let it ride and are having fun with it.
This is also one of several either posthumous or final albums to come out this year, and all of them share something beautiful: defiance in the face of death. Where Bowie and Leonard Cohen knew they were dying and reckoned with it with either a glamourous middle finger or cold stare and a wry smile, this album was still being made after Phife Dawg's death. And so this album gets to be Q-Tip, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad crafting a glorious tribute their late brother. And just like Bowie and Cohen, they don't shy away the reality of the situation: by bringing Phife's lines front and center in so many tracks, by calling him out and reacting to his recorded lines in live performances, they are never backing down or hiding the fact that they're down one. They have no problem letting him be a central presence in this record, which is admirable and makes for great art.
There's gonna be a lot of political art over the next few years, and it will take a lot of different forms, and all of it will be necessary. But I'm glad that there are folks like A Tribe Called Quest (and some later down on this list...) willing to blend the personal with the political, the angry with the joyful, the mournful with the triumphant, the brilliant with the silly, and mash it all into one 2016-as-hell album.
4: "Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart" - Martha
There are many a school of pop-punk. One the one end you have your emo-tinted heartbroken shaggy-banged kids like All Time Low and Fall Out Boy, on the other the blissfully scrappy 'n snarky four-chord skateboarders like Chumped (RIP), The Ergs (also RIP), and FIDLAR. Somehwere in the middle you get your bands that pull from both sides, like your blink-182s and Green Days. Also ska is somewhere in there.
Martha is absolutely cut from The Ergs school of pop-punk and it's a JOY. This album is full of gleefully up-tempo garage tunes that make you want to smile as you awkwardly mosh and think about that one girl or guy or nonbinary person who got away. And every song is anchored by incredible hooks and laced with exactly the kind of progressive self-deprecating snark that really hits with the depressed-20-something-artsy-smartsy-kids-floundering-through-adulthood-question-mark? demographic. So I obviously have no idea why I like this album so much.
3: "My Woman" - Angel Olsen
I've had a peculiar type of love-hate relationship with Angel Olsen over the last three or so years, in that I had no idea if I loved her or hated her. It would genuinely fluctuate not only between songs, but sometimes between lines in a single listen of a single song. Part of it, best I could tell, was her voice never fully clicked for me.
That was, of course, until the first time I heard "Shut Up Kiss Me" and those screeching, overdriven wails. Rock 'n roll y'all. I'm a fan for life now.
This album scratches a lot of the same itches a La Luz album would, and that's meant entirely as a compliment (La Luz fucking rule.) I mention La Luz (an incredibly retro-throw-back surf rock band) because it's crazy how unabashedly traditional and old-school "My Woman" is. Many of the songs on this album from a compositional perspective wouldn't seem at all out of place playing on 1950s radio. And yet that feeling is a lot like a ghost; you only really notice it if you manage to catch the song in an off-angle glance from the corners of your ears. It feels so incredibly modern and incredibly now (partially because its production is the sort of modern-analog-love-child where if you said "Hey this is produced by Jack White and/or Patrick Carney from the Black Keys" you'd probably go "Yeah makes sense." It isn't produced by either of them, but aesthetically it fits.) The album feels now, but if you look at the songs it's simple early rock chords and boppy beats and Buddy Holly melodies.
Taken together it makes for an album that sounds like the present and the past simultaneously and becomes genuinely timeless in the weirdest way. It's not timeless because it could be from whenever, it's timeless because it can't be from anywhen. It's unsettling and destablizing and scary but then you hear the hooks on tunes like "Give It Up" and you say "Fuck it" and just get down with it anyway.
2: "Coloring Book" - Chance The Rapper
Last year I made a realization that all of my favorite albums of the year, despite being from wildly different genres, all shared a similar quality. They were experiential. They sounded like the inside of the head of the artist who made them. They were albums that you soaked in, and if you soaked properly there was no way they wouldn't put you in a particular headspace. This year there weren't as many albums like that, at least for me. But man oh man if "Coloring Book" doesn't put you in a headspace y'all.
This album, more so than many, really gets the craft of how to build an album from start to finish. The gospel comparison is done to death, but not only does Chance borrow some of the sounds of gospel music, he structures it like a good church service. Invocation into community into reflection into confession into forgiveness into celebration into benediction. The final song is literally called "Blessings" for fuck's sake.
Like with Kanye, Chance is convuluted and complicated and experiential. Like with Tribe, Chance is joyful but real. Like with both Chance puts on some of the best artists in the game to play with him. For whatever reason, the magic seems to catch me more with "Coloring Book" than with the other two. Part of it is certainly that where "Pablo" is negative and scary, "Coloring Book" is jubilant. And part of it is definitely that Chance is poppier than Tribe. But part of it is (and this is a major cop-out for someone trying to analyze music) ineffable to me. It's just goddamn MAGIC and I DON'T KNOW WHY and THAT UPSETS ME THAT I CAN'T FIGURE IT OUT OKAY.
1: "Adult Teen" - Lisa Prank
See, I get to keep my hipster cred. I'm giving the number one slot to a DIY artist out of my hometown of Seattle. To be fair, I'm giving it to her because "Adult Teen" is INCREDIBLE. Lisa Prank is a solo artist who makes the kind of bubbly pop-punk that would perfectly fit with the teen-fashion inspiration for her stage name. And as a solo artist she blends her crunchy-as-hell guitar, marvelously wobbly voice, and faux-blank-eyed snark with a drum machine, making one of the most genuinely unique sounds in the pop-punk game. I found her in 2015 because I was searching for artists who use drum machines in neat ways, and since then it's been a joy to see her blow up a bit in the DIY scene, blossoming under the welcome arms of fellow Seattle punk darlings TacocaT.
"Adult Teen" is her debut full-length, mixing beefed-up versions of songs from previous EPs with a bunch of new songs, and the result is a delirious dive via impeccable 2-to-3-minute pop songs into a world of glitter, booze, stickers, grimy guitars, posters of punk gods and boy bands on the wall in equal measure, humanly sloppy instrumentation over machined perfection of the artificial drums, deep sorrow hidden behind shallow smiles, and youth and all the brilliance and stupidity that entails. It's clearly inspired by a lineage of female rockers going from TacocaT to Sleater-Kinney to The Runaways to the Ronettes. At the same time, it's a sound unlike anything else in music. And it's all done by a gal doing this shit on her own (though with the help of a crew from the raddest musical scene in the country; the forever contradiction of "DIY" and "Independent Creators.") And every single song is perfect little pop gem. There's not a dud among 'em.
Listen to "Adult Teen." It's amazing, and at the very least hey you'll be helping out a cool indie artist. And you'll get to feel like someone who knows their shit, which yes is overrated but also kinda fun.
Check out "Starting Again," "Luv Is Dumb," "Jumper," and "Baby, Let Me Write Yr Lines" (and every other song on the album seriously trying to pick just four is damn near impossible the whole album is gold.)