At this point, the whole ‘2016 is the worst year ever’ thing is basically white noise. But it’s also 100% true.
Wednesday, the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, we walked down to the Arclight to see the new Star Wars movie and emerged to find out that Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, had died a day after her daughter. This in the same week Geroge Michael died suddenly; in the same year we lost Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Jones, Phife Dawg, and countless other iconic entertainers and public figures and waking up with New York Times alerts on your phone has become an anxiety-ridden death watch every morning. All of this on top of a political victory many of us naïvely considered unthinkable that seems to threaten many ideals we hold dear.
At best, this year shined a light on mortality and what’s truly important in our lives; at worst, it’s the end of the fucking world.
Let’s hope (and, hyperbole aside for a second, truly work) for the latter. Truly sorrowful losses aside, it has been a great year for record releases, with some huge names giving us what may prove to be seminal albums and many a great record from relative newcomers.
Below are our picks for the best records of 2016. Narrowing these down this busy year for music was a pretty harrowing task and, even as we type this, there are still a few in this top ten that we’re on the verge of swapping out with someone from our long list of runners up; chief among them, the beautiful new symphonic disco turn from Kishi Bashi, Sonderlust, Utopia Defeated, the debut LP from Australian singer-songwriter D.D Dumbo (AKA Oliver Perry), and Solange‘s sprawling, intimate-yet-far-reaching debut, A Seat at the Table. On top of those three, we also saw a subtly beautiful record from New York’s Hannah Epperson, a great sophomore release from Jessica Dobson’s band, Deep Sea Divers, a solid, straight up rock record from Brooklyn’s Bird of Youth, a great, glitchy album from Seattle’s Shaprece, a surprise for us in the form of a country album we loved from Nashville’s Margo Price (see her live if you get a chance), the new one from Sweden’s Little Children (who we interviewed last month), and more.
But on to our top ten, listed below in order of release date along with a playlist of some of our favorite songs from these favorite albums…and starting with the most heart-breaking of them all:
1. David Bowie . Blackstar . ISO Records/Columbia Records
As with many all over the world, the death of David Bowie hit us really fucking hard. It coming a mere three days before my own fortieth birthday was, personably, an especially sobering, rattling experience. We grew up with his music and, again, like many others, looked up to him as the creative genius he was. But to have gone out on this note, with an album that’s not only forward-looking and beautifully innovative but also one that’s peppered with themes that, now, in hindsight, speak eerily to his own imminent demise is such a graceful, truly stunning gift to us all. To this day, nearly a year after his death, thinking too much it or writing too much about it (like now) makes me tear up. But he left us with a wonderful album; honestly one of his best.
2. Anderson .Paak . Malibu . Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/EMPIRE
I’d written this back in march, when he blew up SXSW, but the way we first heard Anderson .Paak was through a Lyft driver we had in February, who just happened to be Paak’s keyboard player. Since, the talented multi-instrumentalist and southern Californian has enjoyed much-deserved praise—the songwriting on his debut album is clever, quick, and impossibly catchy and if the world has any sense (up for debate given recent events), he’ll be recognized for what he is: one of the best new musicians and songwriters of our time.
3. Eliot Sumner . Information . Island Records
After a string of singles and EPs, England’s Eliot Sumner finally graced us with a full length album. Yes, Sting’s is Sumner’s father and yes, Sumner and band sound like a timely, updated version of the Police, but only the latter should matter. We’ve been lucky enough to catch Eliot Sumner live twice in Los Angeles and highly recommend everyone do the same if they get a chance—they play an energetic, super-tight set and it’s a gift to see them in small venues while you can.
4. Liima . II . 4AD
One of my all-time favorite bands is Copenhagen’s Efterklang. I was first introduced to them by NYC’s Other Music (RIP and, again, fuck you 2016) and, since the band’s inception, they shifted and evolved their sound from choral glitch-electronica to symphonic pop to experimental field recordings and I’ve sincerely loved everything they’ve done. Now, the Danish trio have graduated to opera-writing and, as they employ that band name for the high art foray, they embarked on a more pop-centric (but still very experimental) project with percussionist Tatu Rönkkö under the monicker Liima. The album is sometimes tender, sometimes harsh, but always weird and beautiful.
5. Beyoncé . Lemonade . Parkwood Entertainment
At first, it struck us as really weird to include someone as huge as Beyoncé on our best of list, and not just because she chose to glorify the killing and skinning of animals for their fur on her album cover (not pictured here; couldn’t bring ourselves to show that on these pages in this context). But not only is the album full of excellent songs start-to-finish, it was also executed stunningly. As we’d written previously, Queen Bee partnered up with HBO to debut the limited release of her visual album—a stream of 12 videos for the 12 tracks on the album strung together by a continuous narrative—pairing it with a free preview weekend of HBO. Doing so, Beyoncé skillfully stepped out of the cultural white noise and grabbed our oh-so scattered attention in this attention deficit disorder digital age. We sat transfixed as the story of Lemonade unfurled before aurally and visually and it was wonderful, both in terms of art and marketing. And to not include it on this list just because it’s not indie would be a severe oversight in our opinion and change the nature of the list itself. After all, this isn’t the best of independent music, it’s the best albums in our opinion. We just happen to usually gravitate towards more independent, smaller bands and albums. But it’s not like bands like Radiohead, for instance, are really indie or ‘alternative’ anymore. Speaking of:
6. Radiohead . A Moon Shaped Pool . XL Recordings
I’ve loved Radiohead since the day I bought the cassette of OK Computer in a small record store in downtown Poznań, Poland (I only had an 80s-style tape-playing boom box at the time). Sure, the first two, more alt-rock albums were great and very of the times, but OK had the band boldly stepping out into weirdness, experimenting with their sound and setting them off on a path of individuality that they haven’t shied away form since. Now, with their ninth studio album, the band sounds just as relevant and ground-breaking as even. A Moon Shaped Pool moves from edgy to forlorn and back again with the artistry and grace only Radiohead could muster.
7. Local Natives . Sunlit Youth . Loma Vista
LA’s Local Natives first came on the scene back in 2009 with their debut, Gorilla Manor, a self-funded album named after the house the band-members all shared in the OC and where most of it was recorded. The record followed in the wake of bands like Fleet Foxes and the birth (or re-birth) of the folksy-dudes-making-folksy-melodies-together sound. And it was good. But not great. But with their sophomore release four years later, the band truly struck out on their own and found their sound, as they say, and it resulted in one of our favorite albums of that year. Likewise, this year, Sunlit Youth expands the band’s sound even more, making the album a solid pick for this year’s best of.
8. Boxed In . Melt . Boxed In/Nettwerk
With the last year’s debut from England’s Boxed In and frontman Oli Bayston, we were presented with what seems a near perfect album from a near perfect band. Described by Bayston as the analog, full-band manifestation of an electronic album, the songs are full of quick, highly active melodies and rhythms that are fully wrought in their presentation and thoughtful song-writing. The quick follow-up this year with their sophomore album is just as good if not better. Love this band and everything they touch.
9. Flock of Dimes . If You See Me, Say Yes . Partisan Records
I first saw Jenn Wasner’s band, Wye Oak, at small, sadly now defunct club on the Williamsburg waterfront that is now the headquarters of Vice Media (RIP Glasslands Gallery). I have no idea what Wasner’s plans are for Wye Oak’s future, but her new solo project, Flock of Dimes, picks up right where the band left off with their last proper studio album, 2014’s Shriek (this year’s Tween was an accumulation of pre-recorded tracks that didn’t make previous albums). When Wye Oak first started moving into the realm of more electronics, less analog guitar + drums, we weren’t immediate fans, but Shriek and, now, If You See Me, are beautifully, skillfully written records that don’t limit Wasner (and with Wye Oak, partner Andy Stack) to shallow electronic-based sounds that can’t provide the needed depth and strong base to support Wasner’s powerful voice. We’re excited to see what’s to come from the Baltimore native with this move to a new creative outlet and, with it, a physical move down to Durham, North Carolina (home to Sylvan Esso, a favorite of ours and friend of Wasner).
10. Bon Iver . 22, A Million . Jagjaguwar (9.30)
Finally, more beautiful weirdness, this time from Wisconsin darling Bon Iver (AKA Justin Vernon). Like most, our first exposure to Bon Iver was the breakout “Skinny Love,” a subtly magical song that was entrancing in its stripped away nakedness. Vernon’s sound on his first two albums largely followed suit in terms of style, focusing most often on acoustic guitar and the singer’s falsetto. This third album does anything but, taking that same falsetto, hacking it apart, and then stringing it all together again in bizarre digital and choral pulses of music. A lot of fans don’t like this turn, but we love it. As with the aforementioned OK Computer, 22, A Million is a bold step out into new territory for Vernon. Such a move can result in total garbage artistically, good intentions or not; in this case, it’s resulted in a weirdly bewitching musical masterpiece. Thematically, maybe it’s ravings of a borderline madman, maybe its a legitimate cry for help, maybe its just a songwriting stretch for new material, but, whatever it is, it’s Bon Iver’s best material to date and it has us excited for what’s to come.
In closing, thank you/fuck you, 2016.