Here are a few highly recommended albums from a person whose taste in music is questionable at best. I am by no means an expert, but I did listen to enough new records this year to form a useless opinion. ‘Tis the season for lists after all, so let’s do this.
10.) Weezer White Album
California alt-rockers Weezer returned to the scene this year with their self-titled White Album. The follow-up to 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End wasn’t as personal or experimental as its predecessor, but it was probably more consistent. Featuring ten fast-paced tracks, the White Album exudes confidence and drips fun with its familiar melodies and Cuomo’s signature wail. For enduring fans, it’s another encouraging release that captures the pop-rock brilliance of the Green Album with a little bit of Pinkerton’s weirdness and vulnerability thrown in for good measure. It’s a vibrant collection of songs worthy of the comparisons made to the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. The summer album of the year.
9.) Beyoncé Lemonade
An album everyone has likely listened to by now, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was rowdy, unapologetic, and featured a ton of range. Bouncing from pop to rock to rap to country elegantly, Beyoncé found a way to incorporate many different musical styles while still making them her own. Featuring collaborations with Jack White, The Weeknd, James Blake, and Kendrick Lamar there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. Never has a record largely revolving around marital infidelity sounded so fierce and empowering. Completely worth of all its praise, Queen B did indeed turn lemons into Lemonade in 2016.
8.) Deftones Gore
One of the few alternative metal groups to stay relevant past the late ‘90s early ‘00s, the Deftones delivered yet another richly atmospheric album with Gore. Despite the heavier riffs and Chino Moreno’s anguished screams on some tracks, Gore always manages to trace itself back to a breathy flow, like 2012’s Koi No Yokan. Songs such as “Prayers/Triangles” and “Hearts/Wires” exemplify how an artist with such a heavy sound can evolve into something greater than its nu-metal trappings and move into deeply affecting territory. It’s something the band has done repeatedly over the years, but is no less surprising with their latest release.
7.) A Tribe Called Quest We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service
Tribe returned in 2016 after nearly two decades to deliver their final gift to hip-hop. Thank You For Your Service features a lot of the same sounds that proved to be influential to the genres current heavy-hitters, which only underscores just how ahead of their time Tribe was during the ‘90s. With crisp beats and some of the most witty and poignant lyrics of a tumultuous year, this is the rap album 2016 needed. What an incredible way to go out, on top.
6.) Mitski Puberty 2
Mitski was a bit of a revelation in 2016. With a smooth voice accompanied by sharp lyrics, the young indie rocker took a lot of listeners by surprise. It’s hard to mistake her sound, which can alternate between despondent and vexing given the content of a particular song. Musically, songs move from softer acoustic guitars to thunderous choruses on a track-by-track basis. The entire album is off-kilter, mixing excitement and melancholy in a way that no other release did this year.
5.) Jeff Rosenstock Worry
Continuing to assume the mantle of punk-rock this year was Jeff Rosenstock with his follow-up to last year’s We Cool? Worry is bigger, louder, and more unwieldy than its predecessor, and deliberately so. It sounds like it was recorded as one long take in the studio, which adds an extra rawness to Rosenstock’s voice and an intangible energy that will spread outward to your limbs. It’s the closest you’ll get to a concert by way of listening to a record. Well, outside of a live album. Many tracks feel like asides, abridged versions of longer tracks given their short runtimes. That’s not a slight, but more of a testament to Rosenstock’s refusal to include any filler. He’s not afraid to end a track and bridge it into a new song without you realizing it. Worry is relentless, and Rosenstock’s lyrical cleverness remains as lively as it is tout, like a maniacal ringleader with the most endearing form of ADD.
4.) Bon Iver 22, A Million
22, A Million was a bit puzzling upon first listen. Bon Iver’s transition to a more electronic sound — well, it didn’t sound much like Bon Iver, initially. It’s jarring to think that this is the same bearded lumberjack who wrote songs in his father’s hunting cabin once upon a time. However, Vernon’s new style will likely grow on fans who give 22, A Million a chance, and rightfully so. The best comparison that I’ve seen made was by Peter Tabakis at Pretty Much Amazing, who compared Bon Iver’s latest to Radiohead’s Kid A, which sort of says it all. It’s an album that will eventually win over listeners by taking its alienated, cold, and robotic sounds and somehow making them radiate vulnerability and grace. It’s still perplexing how Vernon was able to assemble this jigsaw puzzle, turning the stark and oblique into something so heartfelt, but nonetheless it’s a wonderful accomplishment.
3.) Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree
And now we fully immerse ourselves in the moroseness that was 2016 with Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. This is an achingly sad album following the death of Cave’s son. As such, the lyrics deal with grief, loss, and faith, among other things. Cave’s voice is even more harrowing than its normal, stiff baritone. It quivers and strains. The accompanying music is sparse, dark, and foreboding adding extra weight to Cave’s singing. This is not an easy listen. It isn’t a fun listen. It’s the type of album you put on when there are grey clouds outside, when rain is cascading down your window and you need a bit of catharsis. This is deeply affecting music that few artists can explore with the same amount of emotional depth and nuance as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Powerful in its powerlessness, even if it’s not your style it’s hard not to commend.
1.a.) David Bowie Blackstar
Interchangeable with my next pick for my favorite album of the year, David Bowie went out with an unprecedented bang of creativity. Blackstar isn’t just an album that picks up traction merely because it is the last contribution of a legendary musician, but because it ranks amongst Bowie’s best. He spends the majority of Blackstar staring at his mortality in its dark, empty face, contemplating what comes next and what he will leave behind. There are some incredible flourishes that accompany these rather haunting themes — a favorite of mine being the saxophone on “Lazarus.” This is all in addition to the patented Bowie flamboyance that bursts through on the title track and “Dollar Days.” This one hurts, but it’s hard to imagine an icon departing in any grander fashion. An unprecedented album encapsulating the death of a pioneer. God speed, Ziggy Stardust.
1.b.) Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool
If the loss of Bowie set the tone for 2016, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool defined it. “Burn the Witch” is perhaps the most fitting single of the year, and the rest of the album pushes further into a gloomy despair like only Thom Yorke can. Featuring several studio versions of tracks that diehards have been listening to for years if not decades, AMSP is rock’s most critically acclaimed act continuing to challenge themselves. Jonny Greenwood’s strings are all over this record, taking the aforementioned “Burn the Witch” and other songs like “The Numbers” into awe-inspiring territory. Meanwhile, Yorke continues to hone his songwriting technique, achieving the pinnacles of his career on the tracks “Decks Dark” and “Present Tense.” Every song on here is impressive; capable of anchoring its own record. Yet, AMSP still manages to include studio versions of “Identikit” and “True Love Waits,” which feels like an extra bit of fan service on top of 2016’s most complete experience. It ranks right up there with the band’s best, unraveling itself a bit more with each listen. Proof that Radiohead will only cease to evolve as artists if and only if they stop writing music.