Today and for the rest of the week, we will be revealing our Favorite 50 Albums of 2016. This is not a “Best of” list since we did not listen to every album released this year (that would be, to quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride, “Inconceivable!”). So who makes our list this year? Are there any returnees from the past? If you’re curious, here are the lists from 2014 and 2015. But for this year, we begin the countdown with one of our favorites. As always, this is in alphabetical order.
American Wrestlers – Goodbye Terrible Youth (Fat Possum)
Watching a project transform from a one-person effort to a full band is a fascinating thing to witness, especially when the result is as spectacular as American Wrestlers‘ experience. When former Working for a Nuclear Free City member Gary McClure released his debut album, American Wrestlers, in 2015, the world took notice, including making it on our Favorite 50 Albums of 2015.
Now with his wife Bridgette Mahasavatta (keys/synth/second guitar), Josh Van Hoorebeke (drums), and Ian Reitz (bass) joining him, American Wrestlers is no longer a living project but a full-blown, indie-rock band. The fuller sound allowed McClure to be more ambitious in his songwriting. From the history lesson in “Vote Thatcher”, the blissful yet mournful “Someone Far Away”, the humane “Real People”, and the frighteningly real “Amazing Grace“ – which is undoubtedly one of the songs of the year – American Wrestlers created an album that was dynamic in its music and message. To steal a song title from their debut album, American Wrestlers can do no wrong. ~~ Ben
Angel Olsen – My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen is one of the most unique and hard-to-classify songwriters today. It doesn’t help that on every new release, Olsen completely reinvents her musical style. Her debut LP, Half-Way Home, was a laid-back affair. 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a brooding, dark record that would at times get a bit heavy and even punky. My Woman is another shift for Angel Olsen, who continues to deny classification.
From the opening notes of the synth-laden intro track, “Intern”, you can just hear that this record is different. But then Olsen channels some ’60s pop throughout the record on tracks like “You’ll Never Be Mine”. She created one the year’s most singable and chaotic tracks with “Shut Up Kiss Me” while “Not Gonna Kill You” is just an epic, drum-driven track with a bit of a sinister edge. The slow build of “Sister” is one of Olsen’s finest achievements on My Woman, especially on the way it melds into the next track, the jazz and R&B infused “Those Were The Days”. Then there’s the cinematic “Woman”, which lulls the listener in with its gorgeous synth and vocal intro. It builds and builds as Olsen adds more and more behind her voice and as more instruments join the fray. It’s a monster of a track that leads quite nicely into the beautiful closer “Pops”. 2016 marked another year in the evolution of Angel Olsen. The result was a masterpiece in My Woman. ~~ Rich
Augustines – This Is Your Life (Caroline International)
“Are we alive, or are we just kidding ourselves?” asks Augustines frontman Billy McCarthy at the start of this soul-stirring album. This Is Your Life begins with one of the most powerful two-song opening sequences in indie music, and the emotional connection it makes with the listener never wavers. “Are We Alive” is now a bittersweet song, as the trio of Billy McCarthy, Eric Sanderson, and Rob Allen played their final show Halloween night in Liverpool. In light of this, the second track, “When Things Apart”, seems prescient in its heartfelt advice. The lyrics – “We’ll go some place and get a new start / You’ve gotta move on when things fall apart” – still sound uplifting, because the trademark of this American/British band is their unrelenting heart.
No band in recent memory has shown the dogged determination of Augustines. Their incredible talent as purveyors of anthemic indie rock is surpassed only by their resilience. Fans of Augustines who have followed McCarthy and Sanderson since they were Pela a decade ago know the struggles they have overcome. Those experiences shape their lyrics and music, and listeners are the better for it. While the band’s unfortunate dissolution is just another painful sucker punch this unforgiving year has dealt us, the album is one hell of a poignant swan song. No matter how tinged with sorrow 2016 may be, having an album like This Is Your Life – one that urges us to live in the now, love hard, and keep fighting the good fight – will remain a timeless treasure. Hopefully this sunken ship will rise again. ~~ Hollie
Avers – Omega / Whatever (Egghunt Records)
Avers have been producing amazing tracks mostly under-the-radar for the past couple of years. This year, they delivered a stellar album with Omega / Whatever. The best thing about Avers is they truly are a collaborative band, as four of the five band members share in the songwriting and vocals. With each new track, they prove their diversity as they shift between psych undertones, anthemic rock and even Americana. Despite the variation, Omega / Whatever is masterfully crafted and extremely cohesive.
Back in July, we predicted their harmonious and outstanding record would be one of the year’s best, and it has withstood the test of time. Adrian Olsen told Billboard Magazine the album is about “the sure footing of adulthood in a shifting culture. These challenges mean different things to any individual, but the shared outcome is to move forward and carry on to try our best hoping for a good outcome.” So not only did we have foresight, but another listen of Omega / Whatever reveals its timeliness given the uncertainty before us.
The album tackles our role in society today and how certain relationships mold and change us. “Insects” could easily be on your local radio station and tackles living in a different cultural landscape. “Low”, “My Mistakes”, “Holding On” and “Vampires” covers relationship issues all the while keeping us completely enthralled with their mesmerizing rock formula. This is a band that consistently and constantly amazes us, and Omega / Whatever exceeded our expectations. ~~Wendy
Basia Bulat – Good Advice (Secret City Records)
The announcement of Basia Bulat‘s new album Good Advice was eagerly anticipated in these parts, as it promised something new and exciting. The end product was more than we could have imagined. Good Advice is a career-defining album that has Bulat turning the page as a musician, songwriter, and performer. Gone is the quirky and intimate folk of her earlier efforts, and in its place Bulat created an expansive, orchestral-pop record. Her songwriting also matured, as she deftly dealt with matters of a broken heart and tackled her past head on. “La La Lie” and “Long Goodbye”, for instance, are boisterous, even booming offerings about the end of a relationship while the dramatic “Infamous” reflects the pain of in one’s aching heart. Yet it is on the album’s finale where Bulat shines, as the gorgeous soulful hymn, “The Garden”, is reaffirming in its message.
Good Advice could easily be called a breakup album, but it is much more than that. It is Bulat sharing her soul with us, recalling the pain of what was and the hope of what is to come. Despite its grandeur approach, it still poses the elements that made Bulat Canada’s sweetheart: it is raw, true, and full of emotional beauty. ~~ Zac and Ben
Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
By the time it had been announced that Bon Iver would indeed be releasing another album, we all hoped it would be good enough to land on a list like this. Pessimists would have said that it would even if it wasn’t good. But for Bon Iver, it’s a question of a growing legend, not just of musical quality. After each of the previous two albums, Justin Vernon had teased at the dissolution of his flagship project. All of us who were gobsmacked by For Emma wept. Then Bon Iver appeared, more complex and cinematic than anyone expected. Then we gobbled up the side projects (Volcano Choir, Shouting Matches, Kanye, Fall Creek Boys Choir) madly. Then this year, complete with a press release, a long-form essay by Vernon’s childhood friend, musicologist Trever Hagen, a conference and listening party attended by music industry luminaries, and even a special instrument – The Messina – imagined solely for this album, 22, A million was born.
It’s difficult to pick out the musical elements of this dense, titanic piece that bring it here to our “Favorites” list. This album is meant to confound your ears, with purposeful blips and crackling bits of blank audio where you expect to hear sound, seemingly random harmonies weaving through space, and words that alternative between clear and impossible to understand. It’s a Bon Iver album but, like each one before it, grander, more unstable, and full of a deep sensual beauty. If you don’t like Bon Iver, this is not the place to start. If you do, you’ve spent hours swimming in it already. ~~ Nick
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador Records)
No artist had a breakout year like Car Seat Headrest did in 2016. In 2015, Will Toledo announced his band, Car Seat Headrest signed to Matador Records. In October of 2015, Toledo released Teens of Style, a fantastic compilation of music he recorded, which made our 2015 end of year list. However, relatively, Teens of Style flew under the radar. In May of this year, Car Seat Headrest released their first proper studio-recorded record, Teens of Denial.
Teens of Denial is a complex, smart, catchy record with some of the year’s best tracks on it. From the rockin’ leads of the infectious first track, “Fill In The Blank”, to the epic eleven-and-a-half minute “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”, Will Toledo’s vision is realized without compromise. Toledo can ramble a bit, both lyrically and in song titles like “(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School for) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” but that quirkiness is a big part of why Teens of Denial is one of the year’s most notable releases. He also recalls other artists, singing modified Dido “White Flag” lyrics on “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” and notably having the initial pressing of the record recalled because the use of lyrics from The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” on the obviously The Cars-influenced “Not What I Needed”. From start to finish, Teens of Denial is such a great ride, and smack in the middle is “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” which is seriously one of the year’s best tracks. This is a record that is deserving of all the acclaim, and an artist that is just scratching the surface of what they can do. ~~ Rich
Chairlift – Moth (Columbia Records)
Chairlift has long been known as a band trying to escape its initial success. For those who might not have been tuned in, that was their 2008 hit, “Bruises,” a peppy-on-the-surface, painful-on-the-inside lo-fi pop jam that landed in an Apple commercial (for the iPod Nano. Remember those?), which put them immediately on the indie-pop map. By the time Moth came out earlier this year, Chairlift had lost a band member, released an incredible sophomore record (2012’s Something), and became serious movers in the murky underworld of the avant-garde pop crossovers. They co-wrote “No Angel” with Beyoncé for her self-titled album in 2013.
Their latest album met all expectations. It is lush, full of complexity and variety but eminently re-listenable. The music videos, as if taking a cue from their camera-loving co-writer, are gorgeous and engrossing. Every song is written, performed and recorded as if it were the lead single, from the slithery “Polymorphing,” to “Crying in Public,” one of the greatest pop ballads written in the last few years. Patrick Wimberly and Caroline Polachek are a team who put impeccable work into their craft and then back it up with personality and style once the time comes to put down the final takes.
Recently at Brooklyn’s Good Room, after a show in which they performed a flawless, sprawling set, Polachek announced that Chairlift would be breaking up in 2017. A loss for music or just two immense talents lending even more of their individuality to the world? Hopefully the latter. Look out for solo projects from Polachek and for Wimberly to become a sought-after record producer. These two are geniuses, and their last opus is one that will stand the test of time. ~~ Nick
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love (Glassnote)
Just as we began to wonder whether R&B, funk, and soul would undergo a transformation, Donald Glover unleashed his third album as Child Gambino, Awaken, My Love. Without exaggeration, this was the record we have been waiting all year for – actually, maybe a decade. From start to finish, Awaken, My Love is a music-altering experience. “Me and Your Mamma” adds grit to old-school soul while “Boogieman” infuses Richard Swift-esque creepiness into funk. The creative “Zombies” is the epitome of songwriting genius. The trifecta of “Redbone”, “The Night Me and Your Mamma Met”, and “Stand Tall”, meanwhile, bring us back to the time when R&B and soul embraced us with its personal stories and intimate notes.
Sure, almost every major music outlet will have the sisters Beyoncé and Solange at the top of their lists. However, when we look back at 2016, we’ll remember Awaken, My Love as being the catalyst for the renaissance in R&B, funk, and soul. ~~ Ben
Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine (Because Music)
Christine and The Queens is somewhat of a delayed success story. The original album, Chaleur Humaine (which means Human Warmth), was originally released in 2014 but didn’t make a US version release until late in 2015 and the UK in 2016. Consequently, the LP landed on many best of lists for 2016. Chaleur Humaine was actually renamed Christine and the Queens in the United States.
Christine and The Queens is led by Héloïse Letissier, who studied theater in Paris and came along some London Soho Drag Queens that inspired her to become Christine and the Queens. She describes her style as “freakpop” but she has mesmerized many with her synth-inspired pop that includes performance art that you witness in her live performances. Her popular track “Titled” was reworked in English from the original French version and has captivated many fans with her low key synth and mesmerizing vocals. You also can’t help but want to learn more about Ms. Letissier whose live presence is somewhat of an enigma. We can all relate with the simplistic yet serious lyric “I’m actually good / Can’t help it if we’re tilted”.
If you haven’t heard yet of Christine and the Queens, that will probably change in 2017. With stellar live performances on Jools Holland, Jimmy Fallon, Graham Norton, BBC1, artists covering her songs (Biffy Clyro) and collaborations with Perfume Genius on “Jonathan”, this is only the start of Christine (aka Héloïse) taking the world by storm. She has also been featured in Rolling Stone and Time for her message on supporting gender fluidity and acceptance for all no matter what. Just another reason to admire Christine and the Queens. ~~Wendy
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