The music of 2016 was magnetic, with a few upstarts making thrilling first impressions and some of my favorite go-to artists tuning their sound to a new frequency. As a result, here are the best albums of the year (according to a recovering music addict):
10) From Indian Lakes – Everything Feels Better Now
– Standout tracks: Happy Machines, The Monster, Blank Tapes, Come Back
– What it sounds like: imagine being kidnapped, locked inside a dark room all winter long and given only a few provisions to stay occupied—a lonely copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers to read, albums from Air/Radiohead to listen to, and a metronome to keep track of time. Later that Spring, you (Joey Vanunucchi) are unleashed back into the wild and record a stunning, intricate indie rock album (singing and playing every note).
– Why I love it: take the technicality of Death Cab for Cutie’s rhythm section, add in wispy vocals, and factor in a whole lot of heart—one haunted by the past but optimistic about the future. Vanunucchi has given us an album to put on after the storm when the air is crisp and “everything feels better now.”
9) The Japanese House – Swim Against the Tide EP
– Standout tracks: Swim Against the Tide, Face Like Thunder
– What it sounds like: electropop lullabies teetering on the edge of clarity, but with a cough syrup induced cloud hovering above. You’ll hear subversive beats, melodic guitars, mesmerizing lead vocals, and ethereal harmonies that serve as another instrument (a page taken from the book of Imogen Heap).
– Why I love it: like the rest of The Japanese House releases, this 4 song EP begs to either run much longer or at the very least, be played on repeat. The percussion tugs at your feet asking them to tap along while Amber’s androgenized vocal tone swims through your ears. This is a quick record—ideal for lazy days, long days, and days longing for love.
8) Civil Twilight – Story of an Immigrant (Acoustic)
– Standout tracks: Oh Daniel, River Child, All My Clothes, Let it Go
– What it sounds like: Story of an Immigrant (the non-acoustic version) was #4 on my list last year mostly because it was an album to “feel, not hear.” There’s even more emotion built into these stripped-down versions of those songs. Here we find a deconstructed recreation that’s naturally beautiful with simplified piano melodies and naked vocals.
– Why I love it: last year’s version made me feel alive. This year’s version is the soundtrack to being alive.
7) Kaytranada – 99.9%
– Standout tracks: TRACK UNO, GOT IT GOOD, ONE TOO MANY, WEIGHT OFF
– What it sounds like: multiple genres weaved together by a common thread (confidence). Think 90’s hip-hop beats, spiked with electronica, snapping with modern bass lines, and thriving from the addition of remarkable guest vocals.
– Why I love it: this album has helped me to see how the simple act of listening to a song with a beautiful beat can completely change the trajectory of your mood. Kaytranada has perfected the mix of sensible musicality combined with dance floor ready hip-hop, accompanied by some seriously versatile vocalists. This record grooves better than any other album produced in 2016, or at least 99.9% of them.
6) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
– Standout tracks: Burn the With, Daydreaming, Desert Island Disk, Identikit
– What it sounds like: It’s incredibly beautiful. It’s incredibly sad. It’s minimalistic. It’s Radiohead.
– Why I love it: when In Rainbows came out I couldn’t quite describe how it made me feel other than feeling transfixed in some sort of alt-rock/indie paradox. Now I’ve had years to figure out what that was—complete disorientated contentment. This record triggers similar responses. It’s claymation witch hunts, abandoned snow caves, and characters with glass eyes being viewed on a small black and white TV—all played at half speed with haunting background music. Discomfort turns into relief, sensibility is gone (but not forgotten), and now you’re destined to wander around lost until the album is over.
5) Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
– Standout tracks: It Matters, Pretty Girls, Through, Pol Roger
– What it sounds like: here’s the record Jimmy Eat World fans have been longing for since Futures. The production is impeccable and the performances are breathtaking.
– Why I love it: they’ve been important staples in my record collection since I started evolving beyond a 60s and mid-90s rock radioholic. These songs are ripe for late night drives where you just want to feel something, but instead end up feeling everything. This record has me unconsciously shouting Jim’s ardent phrases while unabashedly air-drumming (especially during the breakdown at the end of “Pass the Baby”). Jimmy Eat World mean a lot to a lot of people, and Integrity Blues are their Rushmore, Max.
4) Thrice – To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere
– Standout tracks: Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, Wake Up, Black Honey
– What it sounds like: prime cannon, load with powder, aim to proper elevation, and be ready to ignite at the at the officer’s command—this is the return fire. Once you start listening, you’ll experience an explosion of political dissatisfaction, conceived by empathy and unmitigated awareness. Heavy guitars react to hammering percussion, which are bound by thundering bass and eventually pushed through the cannon with the aid of Dustin Kensrue’s guttural vocals.
– Why I love it: Thrice foretold November’s outcome eloquently and without restriction on this album. The band, unbound by major record label influence, are able to examine gun law, confront the definition of repeated insanity, and attempt to wake up a country asleep at the proverbial wheel. History says that political turmoil has the potential to spawn great protest music and here’s our first case study of this election.
3) Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are
– Standout tracks: Cold to See Clear, Believe You’re Mine, Out of the Dark, Victory’s Yours
– What is sounds like: effortless indie rock that hits you right in the gut, right away. Nada Surf play music that sounds just as good being played on a hi-fi stereo at max volume or carefully whispered from a bar stool in an empty saloon.
– Why I love it: deliberate drumming leans into ringing guitars and melodic bass, all complimented by Matthew Caws’ airy and incomparable vocals. When listening to this album, I’m taken back to my kitchen table circa elementary school days, eating a bowl of my favorite cereal—reading the back of the box while waiting for the moment where the prize inside starts to surface for the taking. This is exactly how I want music to make me feel: first contemplative (tearing you down), then comforted (building you back up).
2) Bon Iver – 22, A Million
– Standout tracks: 22 (OVER S∞∞N),715 – CRΣΣKS, 33 “GOD”
– What it sounds like: dismantled singer-songwriting with moments of desolate solitude followed by stages of iridescent faith. Mr. Vernon sounds like he’s tired of being locked away in his father’s hunting cabin (this is exactly what he did to record his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago) and instead, is now out for the hunt.
– Why I love it: on first listen, I experienced early-onset confusion, caused by the fragmented track names and audio that sounded like it had been recorded in a moving armored truck. Choruses were unrecognizable and I couldn’t tell where the songs were heading.
Then I discovered the decoder ring in “715 – CRΣΣKS”: an a cappella vocoder experiment turned into a master work. These songs are full of endless, impacted vocals surrounded with frustrated beats and splintered melodies, all fused together with hidden elements of “traditional” Bon Iver (see, now it all makes sense). The division between verse and chorus is still unclear at times but this also means that these songs don’t necessarily have a clear ending, and good things shouldn’t come to an end.
1) Paper Route – Real Emotion
– Standout tracks: Untitled, Real Emotion, Mona Lisa, Zhivago, Chariots
– What it sounds like: electronic-infused indie rock—equal parts soul, emotion, atmosphere, and shear energy. Once known as the band who recorded their first release in a bedroom, Paper Route are now three albums in and couldn’t be further away from sleep. Uptempo songs like “Chariots” are just waiting to make you move while “Untitled” and the other more anthemic tracks grab your attention and make you stay put.
– Why I love it: I’ve experienced records like this only a handful of times before—those that successfully blend multiple genres, tones, styles, and feelings. Real Emotion is concurrently complex and simple, pairing Nashville talent with a New York state of mind, while sounding both bombastic and barren.
The color blue comes up many times throughout this album. (Un)fortunately for Paper Route, blue is the farthest emotion you’ll feel by the end.
Conor Oberst – Ruminations, Local Natives – Sunlit Youth, Phantogram – Three
About “The Best Albums of 2016” List:
The above list was developed to help readers find new music via the music service of their choice (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc.). I try to keep the commentary concise, only including the elements that I find most helpful when receiving a recommendation: brief list of my favorite songs, how each record compares to other artists/albums folks may know, and what’s unique (or what do I love) about these albums in particular.
– Kenny Bringelson