I’m aware that I’m a bit late to the party, but better late than never. It’s time for my favourite albums of 2016.
As in previous years, I’m maintaining my “no EPs, no compilations of old material, no live albums” rule. Only full-lengths of original studio material are considered.
You can find my full ranking of 105 albums here.
Without further ado, let’s jump in to my top 20!
20. Mat Kerekes – Luna & the Wild Blue Everything
You can’t say that Citizen frontman Mat Kerekes doesn’t keep busy. He has put out an album of original studio material every year since 2013, with 2015’s Everybody Is Going to Heaven sending his main project in a grungier direction. His 2016 solo album, Luna & the Wild Blue Everything brings some pop sensibility back into Kerekes’s music. These songs have their fair share of acoustic guitar, but Kerekes doesn’t shy away from using some subtle distortion on occasion, like on the gorgeous “Riding in Your Car” and “From None.” Aside from the lively opener “The Clubs / The People’s Attention,” Luna is a subdued affair, and that’s just fine; Kerekes is at his best when he’s letting the music carry him away.
Best tracks: “The Clubs / The People’s Attention”, “Direction”, “From None”
19. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
One wonders if Killer Mike and El-P are ever going to show any signs of slowing down. They’ve only been operating together since 2013, so far having released three albums – four if you count the bizarre Meow the Jewels remix album. Their most recent full-length, titled Run the Jewels 3, is very much in the vein of their previous releases, with heavy electronic production that contrasts with the jazz-, funk-, and soul-inspired production common in hip-hop today. Not every experiment works – “Call Ticketron” sounds unfinished, for instance – but for making as much music as they do, Mike and El-P are remarkably consistent, and frankly, consistency is undervalued in music.
Best tracks: “Down”, “Talk to Me”, “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”
18. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
Emma Ruth Rundle’s recent solo work is a slightly less heavy version of the post-rock-meets-art-rock work she puts out with her band, Marriages. Still, it’s just as dark, brooding, and contemplative as Rundle’s full-band work. Droning guitars surge and recede like waves on a stormy ocean. The drum patterns are heavy on the toms, giving the album a primal, almost tribal vibe. But the real highlight of the album is a track with no drums at all, the album’s closer, “Real Big Sky.” Rundle says that the album was about “love and loss,” and that’s nowhere more apparent than on the final track, consisting of nothing but an amplified guitar and Rundle’s lyrics about the pain of a miscarriage or a baby’s death. It’s a powerful way to end an album, and it works incredibly well.
Best tracks: “Marked for Death”, “Furious Angel”, “Real Big Sky”
17. Garbage – Strange Little Birds
’90s pop-rock acts don’t have the best track record when it comes to remaining relevant in the ’10s. I mean, did anyone really care about No Doubt’s lacklustre Push and Shove? But on Strange Little Birds, Garbage shows that they have staying power far beyond their initial hits. They’re not reinventing the wheel here; this is the same electro-infused alt-rock you’ve come to expect from the quartet. But Garbage executes it with a level of confidence and precision that most bands can’t match. Whether it’s creative fretwork (like the main riff of “Empty”) or Shirley Manson’s powerful vocals, Garbage proves they’ve still got it.
Best tracks: “Empty”, “Blackout”, “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”
16. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
I’ve made no secret about the fact that I didn’t like Lamar’s 2015 “masterpiece,” To Pimp a Butterfly. Butterfly at times felt like it was trying way too hard to be an Important Album™, one with a singular vision and thesis statement. As a result, the individual songs suffered. On untitled unmastered., Lamar isn’t forcing himself to have a single grand message. There’s still a sense of cohesion on the album – the music is drenched in jazz and funk, and Lamar still raps about important social issues such as race – but the individual songs stand out better. The result is a record that sounds both serious and fun. Pulling that off is a mighty fine accomplishment
Best tracks: “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.”, “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.”, “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.”
15. Solange – A Seat at the Table
I know it must seem weird to go from critiquing the concept of the Important Album™ to praising possibly the most Important Album™ of 2016, but here we are. Solange’s A Seat at the Table is really damn good. There’s an argument to be made that moving away from the lush psychedelic soul of Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams and the synth-heavy retro-dance of True doesn’t play to Solange’s strengths, but minimalist R&B actually suits her just fine. In fact, she manages to imbue it with a warmth that you don’t typically hear in the genre. (Frank Ocean, take note!) I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on Seat’s subject matter. Many of the album’s songs are about the experience of growing up black in the United States; there are several interludes consisting of recorded interviews that also touch on that subject. In fact, A Seat at the Table is unapologetically about the black experience. In an era of ongoing social upheaval, an album like that couldn’t be more welcome.
Best tracks: “Cranes in the Sky”, “Junie”, “Don’t Wish Me Well”
14. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
At this stage, it’s practically inevitable that a Radiohead album will make a large portion of critics’ year-end lists, and with good reason; aside from Amnesiac, there’s not a single dud in the band’s catalogue. (And just by saying that I’ve no doubt angered some passionate Radiohead fans.) Like most of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work, A Moon Shaped Pool is awash in effects and synthesizers. Pool can feel almost lethargic at times, especially after the hard-driving (and excellent) opener “Burn the Witch.” But the band keeps the energy up with “Ful Stop” and displays a kind of quiet intensity in their other tracks, like “Present Tense” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” Pool isn’t about loud/soft dynamics or massive surprises. Instead, it’s about making slightly off-kilter music that keeps listeners on their toes.
Best tracks: “Burn the Witch”, “Ful Stop”, “Present Tense”
13. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
I’m just as surprised as you are to see a Jimmy Eat World album this high up on the list, but I really liked Integrity Blues when I first heard it, and it’s only grown on me since then. It took 12 years, but JEW fans finally got the follow-up to Futures that they’ve wanted for so long. After the lacklustre and creatively moribund Damage, I feared that the band no longer had the spark that led to some of the best emo-inflected alt-rock of the ’90s and aughts. But it turns out that working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen was just what they needed to create an emotional, mature, musically interesting record. The production uses subtle reverb throughout, giving the songs a nostalgic, almost wistful feel. Unlike its predecessor, Blues isn’t about fictional heartbreak, but about dealing with issues in an adult relationship. It recognizes that the titular “integrity” comes from accepting one’s role in a relationship. How nice it is to hear an album driven by personal responsibility instead of blame.
Best tracks: “You with Me”, “Pretty Grids”, “Through”
12. カラスは真っ白 (A crow is white) – バックトゥザフューチャー (Back to the Future)
Lying somewhere at the intersection of funk, jazz, noise rock, and video game music, A crow is white’s second album can be somewhat of a bizarre listen. Filled with highly technical, finger-bleeding fretwork, Back to the Future can occasionally feel dizzying and disorienting. But this isn’t the constant sonic assault of their previous work. Future tones things down with some more traditional jazz-funk tunes, like “魔法陣より愛を込めて ※リード曲” (“Mahoujin Yori Ai Wo Komete,” which Google Translate tells me means “From the Magic Team with Love”) and “Oh My Sugar.” The band even tries a swing-band jazz tune with “カーネーション” (“Carnation”). A crow is white might be all over the sonic map, but there’s never a dull moment with them.
Best tracks: “浮気DISCO” (“Uwaki Disco”), “Let it die～You shall die～ ※PS4『LET IT DIE』公式参加ソング” (“Let It Die-You Shall Die-“), “サヨナラ！フラッシュバック！～hard mode ver. ～” (“Sayonara Flashback (Hard Mode Version)”)
11. Bat For Lashes – The Bride
How do you deal with a tragic, life-changing loss? Bat For Lashes explores that question on her fourth studio album, The Bride, a concept album about a woman left waiting at the altar when her fiancé is killed in a car accident. As a result, most of the music is atmospheric soundscapes laden with sorrow. It can feel like the individual tracks blend together, especially since the music is so sparse to begin to with, but in this case, it contributes to the album’s cohesiveness. In any case, on tracks like “In God’s House” and “Sunday Love,” Bat For Lashes proves she can still bring the intensity when required.
Best tracks: “Joe’s Dream”, “In God’s House”, “Sunday Love”
10. White Lung – Paradise
I’ll be honest: White Lung never really did it for me until now. But on their fourth record, by sanding off the unnecessary rough edges, they deliver their finest work yet. Paradise is a fine slice of punk rock with a tinge of goth-horror calling to mind The Art of Drowning-era AFI. “Below” even dives into Cure-esque goth-pop. This is an album that pokes and prods at the boundaries of punk, almost entirely eschewing the genre’s typical political subject matter, but still maintaining its ethos and courting controversy at every turn. Songs like “Sister” (written from the perspective of serial killer Karla Homolka) or “Kiss Me When I Bleed” (a love song about how lead singer Mish Way married someone whom others believe to fit a “trailer trash” stereotype) seem surgically designed to be middle fingers towards the modern musical intelligentsia. But Way doesn’t give a shit if you think she’s “problematic,” and I think that’s punk as fuck.
Best tracks: “Below”, “Kiss Me When I Bleed”, “Hungry”
9. Wye Oak – Tween
Surprise albums are hard to do in this day and age, but Wye Oak pulled it off with the surprisingly excellent Tween. Usually an album of cast-offs and b-sides sounds inessential, but Tween feels like an important part of the band’s catalogue. It’s very much in the vein of their previous album, Shriek, but even more bizarre and atmospheric. Tween is all synth-and-guitar-driven, reverb-drenched soundscapes and mostly unintelligible vocals. As always, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack acquit themselves as highly-skilled musicians, with Stack’s drum work on “If You Should See” a highlight.
Best tracks: “If You Should See”, “On Luxury”, “Watching the Waiting”
8. Battle Lines – Primal
Ever since Battle Lines released the sublime single “Colonies” back in 2014, fans have been waiting for them to release a full-length. Late in 2016, they finally released Primal, and it was worth the wait. In some ways, Primal is exactly what I expected out of the band: a collection of competently performed nü-gazey dream pop tracks. But in its subject matter, Primal surprises. In telling the story of an abusive relationship, the band pulls no punches. This is not a lighthearted record; it’s a tough, emotionally-taxing listen. But it does end on a hopeful note with “Riot,” whose bright melody signals better days to come.
Best tracks: “Primal”, “Warfare”, “Skull”
7. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years
There’s not much to say here. If you’ve previously enjoyed Cymbals Eat Guitars’ brand of lo-fi indie rock, then you’re going to love Pretty Years. On this record, CEG doesn’t stray far from what worked on LOSE, though the songs seem less meandering and more focused this time around. Frontman Joseph D’Agostino’s highly-detailed storytelling is still intact. That’s not to say that there are no risks whatsoever – the somewhat funky “Wish” experiments with a horn section – but for the most part, this is a typical Cymbals Eat Guitars record through and through, and I really enjoy it.
Best tracks: “Have a Heart”, “Wish”, “WELL”
6. Gord Downie – Secret Path
Speaking of storytelling, this year marked the latest – and possibly final – release from a great Canadian storyteller. Early in 2016, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. But somehow, that didn’t slow him down. The Tragically Hip released the very good Man Machine Poem in June, and Downie released his latest solo album, Secret Path, in October. It is a concept album based on the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died after escaping from a residential school. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read up on the history of Indian residential schools; it’s a dark chapter in Canadian history.) Whereas Downie has evinced a predilection for poetic, cryptic lyrics in his previous work, he opts for a more straightforward approach this time around. He aims to put Wenjack’s tale at the centre of this tale, not his own lyricism. Improving the lives of Canada’s indigenous people has long been a cause near and dear to Downie’s heart, so if this is his last musical statement to the world, then I can think of no more fitting note for him to go out on.
Best tracks: “The Stranger”, “Swing Set”, “I Will Not Be Struck”
5. Heavy English – Pop Wasteland
Heavy English spent a long time incubating Pop Wasteland before finally releasing it to the world in 2016. (Lead single “21 Flights” had been floating around since at least 2013.) Formed from the ashes of emo/post-hardcore act Envy on the Coast, the members of Heavy English opted for a very different vibe for this project, mixing blues, R&B, and hard rock to create a sound almost devoid of the punk rock on which they cut their teeth. But surprisingly, they sound totally at home here, churning out sly, funky grooves like they’ve been making this kind of music their entire lives. (Seriously, if “Higher than You” and “Shake” don’t want to make you dance, then you’re not human.) The fact that they’re just a three-piece makes it all the more impressive.
Best tracks: “Higher than You”, “21 Flights”, “Shake”
4. From Indian Lakes – Everything Feels Better Now
Everything Feels Better Now sees Joey Vannucchi’s From Indian Lakes project completing the transition from post-hardcore to dream pop. But softer doesn’t mean less exciting or lower in quality. In fact, this is probably his most cohesive set of songs yet, and each one is polished to perfection. As usual, the musicianship is impressive, with Vannucchi negotiating shifting metres, weird drum patterns, and strange riffs with an ease that makes them sound completely natural. From Indian Lakes is turning out to be one of the most consistently excellent acts in the indie rock scene, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
Best tracks: “Happy Machines”, “Blank Tapes”, “Sunlight”
3. Minor Victories – Minor Victories
Supergroups rarely live up to their promise. Maybe it’s because egos get in the way, or perhaps their members try to combine too many disparate musical styles. Whatever the explanation, it’s always a pleasant surprise when a supergroup actually manages to put out a really good album. Minor Victories’ self-titled debut is such an album. With members of Slowdive, Mogwai, and Editors all in the same band together, one might expect a bit of a mess, but it turns out that shoegaze, post-rock, and post-punk complement each other nicely. One might also expect that a combination of those genres would make for a gloomy listen, but Minor Victories is surprisingly bright and upbeat, with “Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard),” “Cogs,” and “Higher Hopes” sounding downright celebratory. It’s a nice twist on well-worn genres that makes for one of the best records of the year, as well as a new shoegaze classic.
Best tracks: “Give up the Ghost”, “Cogs”, “The Thief”
2. David Bowie – Blackstar
How does one even begin to evaluate an album like Blackstar? It will no doubt take on somewhat of a mythic position in years to come, having been released just two days before David Bowie’s passing. This is Bowie’s final message to the world, made with the full knowledge of his impending death. Songs such as such closing track “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and best song of 2016 “Lazarus” don’t shy away from this fact. In fact, Bowie seemed ready to confront his own mortality – so much so, that even in death, Blackstar still felt like a performance; Bowie somehow managed to make his own passing feel like a work of art. But to speak highly of Blackstar simply because of its timing and resultant cultural relevance is to damn it with faint praise. Blackstar is a phenomenal record, one that I’m sure is topping many 2016 “best of” lists. In fact, I dare say that this is Bowie’s best work. With a unique blend of experimental rock and alternative jazz, Blackstar sounds like a thoroughly modern record; Bowie was an innovator to the end. He couldn’t have given us a better parting gift.
Best tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “Dollar Days”
1. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
A psychopomp is a spirit whose duty is to provide deceased souls with passage to the afterlife. It’s a fitting name for Michelle Zauner’s debut solo album (performed under the moniker Japanese Breakfast), seeing as it was written after Zauner had returned home to take care of her dying mother. Psychopomp could be seen as a way of musically guiding her mother toward the afterlife. Songs like “In Heaven” and “Heft” confront her death head-on. On the former, Zauner sings, “I came here for the long haul / Now I leave here just an empty God damn hole.” Zauner might be numb and despairing, but she also has enough clarity to inquire about the afterlife: “Oh do you believe in heaven? / Like you believed in me / Oh it could be such heaven / If you believed it was real.” Elsewhere, Zauner touches on other subjects, such as teenage violence (“Rugged Country”) and romance (“Everybody Wants to Love You”), but these digressions don’t feel out of place. If anything, they’re a reminder that life continues even when others pass on.
Best tracks: “In Heaven”, “Jane Cum”, “Heft”
So that does it for my favourite albums of the year. Expect blog posts about 2016’s biggest pop culture disappointments, what I’m looking forward to in 2017, and my favourite songs of 2016 in the coming weeks. (Sorry for the delay. Early January travel really threw off my blogging schedule!) Please feel free to discuss your favourite albums of the year in the comments below.