The best albums of 2016 is an even harder list to compile than the last few years. Lots has been written about the crappiness of 2016, but in terms of music, what Steve Albini said in 2014 applies even more today:
I see more bands and I hear more music than ever before in my life. There are more gigs, more songs available than ever before, bands are being treated with more respect, and are more in control of their careers and destinies.
That is reflected in my long list for best albums of the year that runs to nearly 100 songs, and that’s after culling quite a few that haven’t stood up to repeated listens.
David Bowie and Leonard Cohen’s albums both obviously require special mention, not only because of the excellent music, but also because we sadly lost them this year. They would have made the cut along with Radiohead, but to an extent the idea of this list is to celebrate some of the less mainstream artists.
So, enough preamble, this is about music not prattling on, so I’ll keep this short and… well, let’s just aim for short. One final comment, platforms have once again shifted this year, with Spotify becoming more ubiquitous throughout the year, so preference is given to playlists on their platform this year.
1. Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine (Glassnote)
Ex-The Walkmen and ex-Vampire Weekend personnel team up on this fantastic release. Leithauser’s voice flicks seamlessly between crooning and soaring, and Rostam’s instrumentation and production adequately fill in for their respective full bands. If you haven’t heard this track yet, it is an instant classic, so hit play!
2. Damien Jurado – Visions Of Us On The Land (Secretly Canadian)
Similar to the above insomuch as the album combines the feeling of a classic uncovered from another era, with modern instrumentation and gleeful experimentation. Both are exceptional achievements that I’m convinced will be just as exciting in five or ten years time.
3. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)
As with Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam, Kevin Morby is another escapee from a band doing incredible solo work. The band in this case is the excellent Woods, who also had an astounding album out this year.
His tracks Parade and Harlem River were standout tracks in previous years, picked up by ‘cool hunters’ for TV shows like Master Of None. But Singing Saw takes all the promise of those previous albums and sets it into one of the finest albums of the year. I also love the basslines, but as a bassist, I’m biased…
4. Teen Suicide – It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot (Run For Cover Records)
This album is fairly out of leftfield. It’s a multi-layered Meat-Puppets-do-math-rock type of affair. Hard to categorise it better than that really. It has the mathy feeling of a thousand ideas crammed into one song, but combines a gentler touch a la more subtle classic indie records, and some orchestration to set the mood. I don’t know much about Teen Suicide (other than that they have appalling taste in band names) but they’ve created a very dense and interesting album here, well worth repeated plays.
5. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)
Car Seat Headrest seems to largely be a vehicle for the songwriting of Will Toledo. There’s a tinge of early Weezer to the record, and the stamp of an auteur writing confessional indie rock in the tradition of the best college rock, or even grunge in places.
The lyrics are personal and moving, however the music is unlikely win awards for innovation and wears obvious influences on its sleeve. It is an excellent and coherent record though, so well worth a play from start to finish.
6. Mike Adams At His Honest Weight – Casino Drone (Joyful Noise Recordings)
With his now characteristic Phil Spector-esque wall of sound, lush production values, Adams has recorded another slice of golden summer indie. Equal parts wistful and uplifting, his sound is reminiscent of that classic Dinosaur Jr (who also had a solid album out) 60s-style track, Take A Run At The Sun, but turned into an entire stage act, with better harmonies.
7. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Vagrant)
When PJ Harvey did Let England Shake I was struggling to see how she could make a better record. It was innovative, political, personal and combined the catchy with the experimental. The Hope Six Demolition Project does the same trick, possibly even better.
8. Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (Anti Records)
This seems like a funny mish-mash of psychedelia, reggae, indie pop, and funk influenced grooves from McCombs, but it really works as an album. Somehow, the variety combines with the consistent quality making for a really strong coherent album.
9. Brendan Canning – Home Wrecking Years (Arts & Crafts)
Another artist that’s split away from the band that made their name, Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene fame delivers an excellent and oddly chirpy album. It’s a consistently strong album, with many layers and influences.
10. Aloha – Little Windows Cut Right Through (Polyvinyl)
Despite Aloha being a band that all live in different cities as of 2010, and not having put out a record since then, Little Windows Cut Right Through is superb. It captures a magical flavour of eighties pop, mixed up with some post-rock influences. This album builds on their last, Home Acres, and progresses their sound. Most importantly the album works as a whole perfectly.
11. Yorkston Thorne Khan – Everything Sacred (Domino)
This is a great album in parts, but not quite as consistent as some of the above. When it’s good, it is very very good though… for instance:
12. Klaus Johann Grobe – Spagat Der Liebe (Trouble In Mind)
This Swiss DJ duo are enlivening krautrock and pulling together some great grooves.
Beyond Bowie, Cohen and Radiohead mentioned above, here are a few that were incredibly close to making the list and are also definitely worth checking out.
Other bests from indie and pop
I’m painfully aware there are few female musicians on the list this year, which is a shame as both Alex Lahey and Lucy Dacus released great songs this year, but the albums didn’t have quite the consistency of quality.
Also, Jenny Hval was absolutely robbed not to be in the top ten. Blood Bitch was as unusual as it was exciting. I suspect it may even have more staying power than some in the top ten, so definitely give it a listen!
Teleman and The Kills produced two of the best pop records of the year. Catchy tunes throughout and above average lyrics on both albums.
Sonny And The Sunsets produced another Jonathan-Richman-esque piece of pop beauty this year.
Similarly wistful was Whitney’s debut Light Upon The Lake. Another album from ‘escapees’, with former Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns pair, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, creating a sublime album that’s deceptively easy-listening.
Man & The Echo and Meilyr Jones were both on good form channelling the spirit of Scott Walker, David Bowie and The Divine Comedy.
Eleanor Friedberger, of Fiery Furnaces fame, has thoroughly put behind those experimental days, and produced a confident, strong album with acerbically witty lyrics. Despite the complete musical about-face from Fiery Furnaces (whom I love) she remains one of my favourite musicians, and I hope she continues to find new audiences with her apparently towering genius. Friedberger’s New View and Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch were both exceptional albums hitting the sweet spot of pop and experimental.
Wilco had a new album that was good, but they continue to live under the monolithic shadow of their best record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Field Music, Nap Eyes, Okkervil River, Lionlimb, and Forest Falls all had excellent albums as well.
And at the rockier end of the room, White Denim, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (ugh, such a bad name!) and Black Mountain all put out great records with plentiful nods to 70s blues rock and Led Zep in particular.
Other bests from singer-songwriter types
Sam Coomes of Quasi, Elliot Smith and Built To Spill fame, put out a quaint record in the vein of Jason Collett or John Vanderslice, while keeping it real with the lyrics.
Ed Harcourt’s Furnaces could easily have made the list on another day. It’s got some great tracks, and actually does work well together as an album. Same goes for Bon Iver who fearlessly stepped further into the world of electronic music and produced a stunning album.
Ryley Walker. Another excellent album, and well worth a listen.
Former frontman of Man Man, Honus Honus (or Ryan Kattner to give him his birth name), produced a curiously upbeat album that’s well worth a listen.
Beth Orton had a return to good form with Kidsticks, some beautiful music off-setting her voice well in lush arrangements.
The enigmatic Kishi Bashi released another beautiful stadium-quirk (might have made that genre up) album called Sonderlust. His tape-loop style ends up sounding like a cousin to the best moments of Tunng, but also surpasses them with the rollercoaster of emotions he conveys in misleadingly simple sounding songs.
Owen (one of my favourite Kinsella brothers!) also put out a highly respectable album that will likely keep delivering the goods with each listen.
Other bests from instrumental and experimental
Jeff Parker of Tortoise fame released The New Breed this year which was excellent.
Ensemble Dal Niente teamed up with Deerhoof for the wonderfully surreal New Amsterdam. Avant-rockers colliding with an elite contemporary classical outfit rendered the results you might expect. If indeed it’s possible to have expectations of it!
There were a few other notable post-rock / instrumental albums, including Minor Victories, Suuns, The Drones, 65daysofstatic, Explosions In The Sky and Cavern Of Anti-Matter. Venetian Snares also dropped a new album which while compelling, wasn’t quite as strong as the legendary classical drill’n’bass of Rossz Csillag Alatt Szuletett.
Other best of other styles that I don’t follow as much…
Some great rap albums out this year including Yoni & Geti, Chance The Rapper, Saul Williams and Magna Carda.
Good singles, no album 🙁
Father John Misty whose I Love You, Honeybear set a high standard last year, brought out Real Love Baby which would have sat well with the Honeybear record, but sadly had no accompanying album release this year.
Dirty Projectors who have been quiet (or rather busy on side-projects since Swing Lo Magellan) brought out the excellent Keep Your Name single prompting much excitement (mostly from me) that there may be an album on the way, but nothing so far. Just this little beauty: