Best Albums of 2016
Since getting a record player last year, I haven’t been as interested in keeping up with everything new. I’d do a year-end rush and listen to a ton of different things from a ton of different lists and come up with mine. I did it this year too, of course - it’s a blast to discover a flood of new music. But I wasn’t feeling any pressure to include the releases on everyone else’s lists. If I didn’t really listen to it, it didn’t get on here. This one feels a little more completely me than past ones might have.
Every album has a Spotify link in the title. I picked 4 songs off each album, to have an even 100-song playlist for you to shuffle through. Key tracks are all gathered in a playlist at the bottom of the post. Hit shuffle and enjoy the year that was.
Andrew Bird strikes this weird balance between being very pretentious and very fun to listen to. A world-class musician, he’s also incredible to see live. I got to see him at the Wilma in Missoula, MT this summer, and it’s so fun to watch someone that could mail it in and know that everyone would leave happy, but doesn’t. He was engaged with the songs, playing around with the instrumentation and experimenting with whistles and loops and whatever else he had on stage. This one is his most direct effort lyrically, and comes on the heels of having a son, getting married, and suffering through his wife’s cancer scare. “Puma” goes into detail about that struggle, while “Valleys of the Young” delivers some of the most affecting and relevant young dad lines I’ve heard put to music.
Key tracks: “Roma Fade,” “Truth Lies Low,” “Puma”, “Valleys of the Young”
I just found out about Andy Shauf last year, when his Bearer of Bad News made my list. What I didn’t know was that that album was orginally released in 2012, so I was surprised and excited to see him come back with another strong effort so soon. Conceptually taking place at a party and writing songs from different attendees’ perspectives, this one gets better and better with every listen.
Key tracks: “The Magician,” “Twist Your Ankle,” “Quite Like You”, “Alexander All Alone”
Burn Your Fire for No Witness was a major oversight on my 2014 list, and this one predictably made nearly everyone’s list this year. Her amazing voice is front and center throughout the album, mixing sloppy, shouty garage rock vibes with hints of 50s doo-wop and alt-country.
Key Tracks: “Never Be Mine,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill You,” “Woman”
I was beginning to wonder if Justin Vernon would ever release another Bon Iver album. He seemed visibly frustrated by the box (cabin?) his classic first album put him in, and he pretty much maxed out the direction he was headed with Bon Iver, Bon Iver. After a few years of cameoing on Kanye albums, putting out one-offs like Gayngs and The Shouting Matches, it seems like all along he was experimenting with his new sounds the most in Volcano Choir. This is a beautiful album that keeps giving the more you listen - even the distortions of voice emote. It’s a drastic depature from previous work, but it still somehow manages to sound like Bon Iver. The full album package has some incredible art direction, as a bonus.
Key Tracks: “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “715 - CR∑∑KS,” “33”GOD”“,”___ 45 ____” (<-can’t quite format this one right)
For some reason I slept on this one for most of the year. His Teens of Style compliation last year barely fell off my list, but for whatever reason I never checked on this one. Too bad, because it’s awesome. He certainly wears his influences on his sleeve (Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Nada Surf and Neutral Milk Hotel, among many others), but the fun thing is that they’ll all show up in the same (7+ minute) song.
Key Tracks: “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “1937 State Park”, “Cosmic Hero”
Chris Staples is one of those songwriters that kind of lurk in the background of your life, popping up occasionally to deliver a knock-out album, only to fade away again. He’s been around for me since undergrad, traveling to Tuscaloosa to see him perform as Discover America, then solo. A fellow early-life Pensacolian, Staples’ new one is the poppiest he’s been since Discover America and hits that perfect laid-back-but-still-attention-grabbing vibe.
Key Tracks: “Golden Age,” “Missionary,” “Cheap Shades”, “Always on My Mind”
The final somewhat weird, somewhat psychadelic album in a trilogy he’s done with producer Richard Swift. If Swift is involved, odds are good I will enjoy it. Often feels like it’s being piped in from speakers from another dimension, in a very good way.
Key Tracks: “QACHINA,” “TAQOMA,” “Exit 353”, “Queen Anne”
Bazan’s Blanco is something of a “greatest hits” of the Bazan Monthly collections he’s put out over the last couple of years. He selected 10 songs from that output and re-recorded them with Yuuki Matthews (of The Shins and others). Some are just slightly cleaned up, while others are way more fleshed out than their Monthly versions. Regardless, I love it. He’s moving farther and farther away from his identity as “former Pedro the Lion singer who said fuck at Cornerstone and left the church,” and I can’t wait for his new one this year. I’ll be seeing him in Gainesville next week, and hopefully he’ll have some copies available. It’s coming out next month (and produced by Richard Swift, in a match made in my heaven).
As a bonus, check out the Christmas album he put out this year, Dark Sacred Night. As someone who really doesn’t like much Christmas music, it’s a welcome departure.
Key Tracks; “Both Hands”, “Kept Secrets,” “With You”, “Someone Else’s Bet”
A very important and deeply political album that has surely lost this Athens, GA band fans. It’s also gained them a few, including me, who thinks this is their best album since Jason Isbell left. “Guns of Umpqua” and “What It Means” in particular capture how many of us feel about politics nowadays, especially in the South. It was The Bitter Southerner’s and Dave O’Brien’s (sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) album of the year, and rightfully so.
Key Tracks: “Surrender Under Protest,” “Ramon Casiano,” “Guns of Umpqua,” “What It Means”
This album actually came out last year in the UK, but it only made it to the US this year. I loved Arc, and this improves and stretches the band’s sound in every direction. It was really hard to pick only four songs from this one. The backstory is that the lead singer binged on cable news and wrote it to try and capture the political environment in the Uk during the past year, with the rise of UKIP and the Brexit referendum. By extension, it captures the confusion, anger, and disorientation of our society as well. It moves from the strong cold rock open of “To the Blade” to dance, electronica, reggae, math rock, pop and most points in between. Their drummer, Michael Spearman, is one of my favorites.
Key Tracks: “To the Blade”, “Get to Heaven,” “The Wheel (Is Turning Now),” “No Reptiles”
It’s hard to express how much I love this band. Their music hits some kind of resonance within me - I never get tired of listening to it. MC Taylor is part of that Durham, NC group that continues to release some of my favorite music, and Phil Cook, who’s Southland Mission made my favorite list last year, is a major part of the sound. I had the key tracks queued up for this one a while ago, but then I saw them at Club Downunder a couple weeks ago (with like 30 other people - come on, Tallahassee!) and had to change that around.
Key Tracks: “Heart Like a Levee,” “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer,” “As the Crow Flies”, “Highland Grace”
This was a late year listening rush discovery, I’ll admit. I hadn’t ever listened to Rosenstock before, but I immediately latched onto it. He gleefully makes music I would have loved in high school, but pairs it with lyrics I love right now. Massive hooks, group sing-a-longs, screaming, marriage, ska (!), crappy drum loops, numbers in the song titles, gentrification, digital surveillance - I’m there.
Key Tracks: “We Begged 2 Explode,” “Festival Song,” “Staring Out the Window at Your Old Apartment”, “HELLLLHOOOOLE”
Despite putting Andrew Bryant’s This is the Life on my list last year, I didn’t realize his main gig was the drummer for Water Valley, Mississippi’s Water Liars. I discovered them while I was out in Montana this summer and immediately acquired all three of their albums. JPKS is the other half of the Water Liars, singing and playing guitar. This effort is more paired down than the full band, but his voice and lyrics are still outstanding.
Key Tracks: “Headed South,” “Laid Low,” “Brake Dust”, “The Dirt, The Bells and I”
Morby was previously the bassist for Woods, whose album also made my list this year. Seems like the parting was mutually beneficial. This is an exceptional album from start to finish. It’s folky, but not in the traditional sense - it feels like something new, something more sophisticated, but still easy. Even his vocals feel like you can’t really pin down where they’re from. “I Have Been to the Mountain” is one of the best songs of the year.
Key Tracks: “Cut Me Down,” “I Have Been to the Mountain,” “Destroyer,” “Black Flowers”
I’ve loved Local Natives since their first album, but this one was a grower. Hummingbird was a darker affair, but this one is full on bright lights, with a purposefully more positive vibe throughout. Another one of my favorite drummers here, and their vocal harmonies are a sound you can’t find just anywhere.
Key Tracks: “Past Lives,” “Fountain of Youth,” “Masters,” “Coins”
A simply beautiful bluegrass album. These songs feel like they were just breathed out of the band, especially “Wildfire.” This song captures the modern-day small-town Southern experience like few others do:
Civil war came, civil war went / Brother fought brother, the south was spent / But its true demise was hatred, passed down through the years
It should have been different, it could have been easy / But pride has a way of holding too firm to history / And it burns like wildfire
Key Tracks: “Hey Stranger,” “Wildfire,” “Lonesome Whistle”, “Gospel Shoes”
This one moved on and off my list more than any other, but ultimately I couldn’t around how freaking great the good songs were. “Your Best American Girl” has one of the highest emotionally-crushing lyrics/sonically-crushing chorus drop pairings in recorded music history.
Key Tracks: “Happy,” “Your Best American Girl,” “Crack Baby”, “A Burning Hill”
Once again, bands from Durham keep hooking my ears. Heather McEntire’s voice is what brings me into this album, almost like a young Dolly Parton. The spare, angular guitar lines and simple drumming separate them from similar-sounding bands, and stems from the members’ backgrounds in punk, metal and experimental jazz. Saw them in Savannah a few months ago, and look forward to seeing them again in about a month at the Word of South Festival here in Tallahassee.
Key Tracks: “Light Up,” “Stratosphere,” “Used To,” “Best Of Intentions”
These guys came out of nowhere, New Jersey to make what might be my most-played album of the year. All the songs just sort of shamble along, with the guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel and banjo weaving in and out of each other behind Evan Stephens Hall’s wordy lyrics and spot-on vocals. Haven’t gotten tired of it yet.
Key Tracks: “Old Friends,” “Cadmium,” “Aphasia”, “Waveform”
I haven’t really liked a full Radiohead album since There, There, if we’re being honest. In Rainbows had some great songs, but there was nothing for me in King of Limbs. This one, however, is truly great. It’s quiet and subtle, and rewards close listening with new details on every track. An extremely welcome change of pace.
Key Tracks: “1922,” “Great Tide,” “Belong,” “Anybody Else”
The last one to make the cut - I just couldn’t shake the hugeness of some of these songs. They’ve been lodged in my head since I first heard the album earlier this year. They sound monumental, if that’s a thing. The band’s resigned to the current state of the world, but hopeful at the same time.
Key Tracks: “Quiet Americans,” “Backchannels,” “Filaments”, “Glass Bones”
Took them long enough, but Sturgill finally got some mainstream acknowledgment with a Grammy a few weeks ago. He should have gotten one for Metamodern Sounds in Country Music too, but we all know the Grammys run about 3 years behind. Written to his young son, the lyrics obviously strike a chord with me, but it’s the Dap-Kings horns and decidedly un-country groove that keeps you coming back.
Key Tracks: “Keep It Between the Lines,” “In Bloom,” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” “All Around You”
The drummer for Pedro the Lion in a previous life, immortalized in the lyrics “I trust T William Walsh / And I’m not afraid to die”, he makes a solo breakthrough on this group of songs. If I had to pick an album of the year, this would be it, without question. It’s a perfect record, like a techno-folk Neil Young with a better voice, impossible to pick only 4 songs from. Every single song is strong as hell, and listenable an infinite number of times. I love everything about it, and I can’t recommend it enough. Check out the solo album previous to this, Songs of Pain and Leisure, and his band after Pedro broken up, The Soft Drugs. While your at it, go contribute to the Kickstarter for his new album coming this year too.
Key Tracks: “Young Rebels,” “Fundamental Ground,” “Counting Cards”, “The Glow”
If anyone made a truly timeless album this year, it’s these folks. Everything is perfect, catchy and warm. Was probably my go-to summer album, driving around Flathead Lake on my way to Kalispell or Glacier. Great places come to mind when listening to this one.
Key Tracks: “No Woman,” “Golden Days,” No Matter Where We Go“,”Polly”
The horns, the bass, the guitar lines - I kept coming back to this album more and more throughout the year. This band hadn’t really interested me that much in the past, but this effort sets them apart. More reggae and dub influences wear really well here.s
Key Tracks: “Sun City Creeps,” “Morning Light,” “Can’t See at All”, “I See in the Dark”