I have been in love with music for more than two decades at this point, and it’s led me to believe in a few essential truths.
The first is that the best music is cathartic. It speaks to a longing from deep within, a fix that feels physical: seams in your heart that need restitching; buried anxiety that needs to be let out through your lungs; an involuntary shuffle across the dancefloor. When done right, it can release a pheromone rush that sends your mood spiraling in any direction.
The second thing I believe is that the best music creates understanding. Music is the sound of an artist showing you their take on the world, whether it be a specifically arranged sonic journey or a story unfolding in poetic time. But you respond to it too; it’s almost like bringing your perspective and the artist’s into the same space can somehow resolve them. Music helps you uncover an empathy that connects and binds you to the artist in a very real way.
The final truth that I’d like to propose is that the best music feels vital. It feels of the moment, like it has to exist in that very second when the sound is vibrating in the air. Sometimes there’s a political context or an emotional one, sometimes the energy is just right in the room or you’re thinking about how far the artist you’re listening to has come. But the thing that doesn’t change is how right it all feels, like everything in the universe has clicked into place.
I finally finished writing about my ten favorite albums from 2016. Each of these blends different forms of catharsis, empathy, and an absolute necessity to exist in ways that moved me this year. Hopefully you’ll find something that moves you too.
10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
In which one of my songwriting idols finds a brink and makes his loneliest record. I’ve been listening to Conor Oberst’s impassioned yawp since I was 10 or 11 years old, tracking my emo(tional) development through the stutter and pitch of both his Bright Eyes opuses and his other musical excursions. After the relative complacency of Upside Down Mountain, it felt like he was settling into another folk groove; I wasn’t prepared for this back-to-basics affair that recalled his very earliest work, recorded in a few days of Omaha winter as Oberst dealt with a cyst in his brain. On listen after listen during grey days, I became enraptured by the fragility in his voice and the sparse piano and harmonica accompaniment to his always-piercing lyrics.
In a year with death-obsessed albums by David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, this shambling suite of songs from one of my favorites hit me harder than anything else, almost like his sound was coming full circle just in time for the end. It’s an extremely welcome feeling as a fan to know that everything’s alright with Conor’s health now, as his Ruminations are a riveting document to those days when it felt like everything was going to end, simply because everything has to. But not yet.
9. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
This ish is silly. Honestly, how am I supposed to describe beats like “Ain’t It Funny” and “When It Rain”, which sound more like self-destructing traffic jams than a cohesive hip hop track? No one in their right mind should be able to rhyme coherent sentences over these beats, but fortunately, Danny Brown isn’t in his right mind. Atrocity Exhibition is the Detroit rapper’s most ambitious album yet, a nihilistic fever dream where drugs and violence take center stage over hard raps. It shouldn’t work, but somehow he manages to make it all feel cohesive through his uncompromising nasal voice, the one that has driven so many rap fans from listening long enough to hail Brown as THE most experimental mainstream rapper.
And yeah, every word of what I just wrote about his ambitious sound is true, but Atrocity Exhibition is also on this list because it bangs. Hard-as-granite tracks like “Tell Me What I Don’t Know”, “Lost”, and the instant-classic posse cut “Really Doe” (that sneering Earl verse… ugh. Just when you thought no one could out-rap Kendrick) all forced me into Brown’s agitated headspace without any chance of getting out unscathed. Bump this album yourself and see what happens.
8. Touché Amoré – Stage Four
Touché Amoré’s staggering Stage Four is the only album from this past year that is physically hard for me to listen to. The record directly addresses the death of frontman Jeremy Bolm’s mother from cancer while he was out on the road, taking the listener through the guilt and pain that comes with her absence. It’s musical catharsis at its highest level.
I’d never given Touché Amoré a chance before. Despite my come-up on pop punk and emo music, their brand of melodic hardcore and screamed vocals never particularly appealed to me. I was immediately sold on Stage Four after hearing the first song released from the record (“Palm Dreams”), enraptured by the full-throated passion and hyper-specific lyrics that wonder in vain about a story he’d never asked his mom about: “It’s the questions that went unasked, that appear when time has passed. / It felt like many years, taking apart our home. / I dug through forty years all alone.” Across 11 songs and 34 minutes, Bolm’s voice and the incredible power of his band create a maelstrom perfectly suited to a suite of songs that pull apart the things left unsaid and undone.
It hardly feels sustainable, and the brilliance of this album is how the band manages to hold everything together to tell a story of loss, absence, depression, grappled faith, and even a note of closure. The full weight of it is best encapsulated in the final strains of “Skyscraper”, the album’s pinnacle, as the last strains of guitar fade away into a mundane voice message that becomes heartbreaking in the context of all that came before it. It’s a journey best made alone, the sound of someone rending himself apart and translating his pain into something transcendent.
7. Young in the City – II
I defy anyone to find four songs that do more to fill you with possibility. With their second EP, Young in the City moves from being Noah Gundersen’s Springsteen-indebted side project to something entirely greater. This is windows-down music, with the year’s best soaring chorus on “Wayhome” and a slow burner for the ages in “Annie” (complete with a sax solo!). If you’re familiar with my taste in music, you’ll know that Noah’s solo material occupies a special place in my heart. But I truly mean it when I say that I’d take a III EP and another 17 minutes of heartland rock first.
6. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
What a beautiful mess. 2016 has been the hardest year yet to be a Kanye fan, but seven albums in, Mr. West is still making incredibly vital music. The madcap rollout seems inconsequential in retrospect, and with all due respect to Beyoncé, I’d challenge anyone in pop to create capital-M Moments in their music like Ye did: the way the sky opens on “Father Stretch My Hands”, or Frank Ocean peeking his head in the door for a quick psalm, or That Chance Verse. Pablo‘s constant shuffle creates a jagged push-and-pull, shoving hooks and grooves against each other in a way that eschews traditional songwriting but mimics and anticipates how people listen to music in the age of streaming. With plenty of flaws (intentional and not) Pablo is quite possibly my least favorite Kanye West album; that it remains one of my favorite albums of the year says a lot about what level he’s working on.
5. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
“I had a dream that you were mine. / I had that dream a thousand times…” From the first seconds of Hamilton Leithauser’s latest project–a collaborative album with Vampire Weekend’s multi-instrumentalist producer Rostam–you’re immediately transported into a 50’s dreamscape filled with blue-eyed soul, country, doo-wop, and early rock and roll. Across ten songs, the unlikely duo creates a heartfelt ode to nostalgia that shows decades of musical passions that have never been fully explored in their main bands. And the thing is: this shouldn’t work. All these sounds shouldn’t feel so alive together. But it holds true, because Rostam and Leithauser seem to care less about mining the sound of years gone by and more focused on excavating an echo that stands out of time, entirely on its own.
Moreso than any other album on this list, the actual music here is immaculate. This is more intricate and varied work than any Vampire Weekend record thus far, and anyone who thinks of himself or herself as a “deep listener” should sit in a dark room with this on for a few hours and marvel. I’m still not sure how the collaborators figured out when to keep the music sparse enough to leave room for Leithauser’s incredible yelp (one of rock music’s great strained voices) to ring out and other times doubling his melodies with left-field instruments and production flourishes. Rostam uses every trick in his arsenal, from saxophones and bell chimes to backwards vocals and drum programming, to tease out surprising and pleasant hooks from what would otherwise be spare musical moments. You can hear it in the flamenco guitar and horseshoe clop of “In a Black Out”, in the loping beat and shooby doo-wop swing of “When The Truth Is…”, in the stop-start spoken word carnival of “You Ain’t That Young Kid”.
But it’s that voice that brings it all back home. Leithauser does career-best work on these ten songs, often setting the scene with a soft coo and building to something truly primal. I had the privilege of seeing this duo’s first live show, and I was astounded by how completely he gave himself over to vocalizing these songs. No quarter given, the show crescendoed with the breakout hit “A 1000 Times”. Over and over, Leithauser shred his voice to the point of rupture, finding the raw nerve of unrequited love. When it was over, we could only stare and applaud.
We’ll see how history remembers this project, but to me it sounds timeless.
4. Frank Ocean – Blonde / Endless
I hope I never forget the feeling of waking up and realizing that Blonde existed. It was the morning after a drunken night in Atlantic City. I’d woken in a haze before anyone else, strangely sleepless in the early morning light. I checked my phone, saw the release, and my head swam with happenstance and possibility. As “Nikes” started playing, I left the house. I needed to be gone from anything familiar. I walked alone, down to the Brigantine beach, taking off my shoes and leaving them in the sand as I took in the hushed poetry of songs like “Solo” and “White Ferrari”. The music washed over me like alien waves, sparse and pitched and off-tempo, directed from a place that seemed like it was straight out of the ether.
Look, I’m fully aware that some upper-middle class white dude walking quietly with a Frank Ocean album playing in the aftermath of a bachelor party is ridiculous. And this might’ve been a dumb way to talk about it. In a lot of ways, my experience is probably antithetical to the frame of mind that Frank was hoping his listeners would have, if he even cares about things like that. But the defining quality of Frank’s music is empathy–the idea that one’s specific, personal experience can resonate across a large dissimilar group. I hear it when Frank says he’s trying to be “less morose, and more present”, something I struggle with a lot myself and deal with by code-switching and putting on an extraverted act at times. Not a lot of people can resonate like that. Frank Ocean isn’t on your schedule, but when he comes through, his music can color life a whole new shade.
3. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Simply put, Pinegrove put out the most impressive debut of the year. On their first full-length, the Montclair rock band formed a support group for fans of Whiskeytown and the Get Up Kids alike, divining a sound that flirts with alt-country and late 90’s emo in equal measure while somehow staking their own sonic territory. This is harder than it sounds, and the band infuses every hook and lyric with a wistful purpose that feels beyond their years. These are jams, song after song of great melodies and heartfelt sing-a-longs that entranced me from the moment I heard them, delivered by lead singer Evan Stephens Hall in an endearing local-boy-makes-good way that makes you want to root for them.
What makes Cardinal such a great album is that the band didn’t settle for simply writing hooky songs. It’s lyrically ambitious, exploring complex topics like the fear of being unable to properly express one’s self to others (“Aphasia”), the responsibility to overcome a fear of failure (“Size of the Moon”), and what it means to make lasting friendships (“New Friends”) across a scant eight tracks and 31 minutes. Sometimes it’s a single line that turns on a dime, turning a moment of cast-off wistfulness or awkwardness into something more emotionally bruising: “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago./ I saw some old friends at her funeral.” Or there’s a willingness to dig deeper beneath the surface of heartbreak: “One day I won’t need your love./ One day I won’t define myself by who I’m thinking of.” It’s the most assured album I’ve ever heard about not knowing how to find the right direction, an affirming testament to what talented songwriters can do when they set out to speak their truth.
2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Oh, how far we’ve come from cold campfire songs. Justin Vernon began his career alone in the woods, singing quiet hymns in an otherworldly voice. Nine years and two albums later, he’s abandoned the concept of “place” altogether, as if he’s found heaven within a laptop circuit board. 22, A Million dives even further into Vernon’s impressionistic obsessions, with lyrics that read like tone poems and artwork that relies on numerology to hint at its themes. Everything is fluid; instruments may sound like crate-digging samples in one moment and computerized thunder in the next. Vernon manipulates his voice in ways that alternate between burying it in endless layers of reverb and completely tearing it into thin, frayed pieces. And despite this–because of this–it’s filled with a wonder and beauty and mystique and sometimes solace that fills my whole body with warmth. It’s a one-of-a-kind record that doesn’t bother to ground itself in anything familiar. It prefers to lift you up into something new. My life is better for it.
1. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
If a truly great album is a document of its time, then The 1975’s sophomore effort deserves a lasting place in my collection. This record is brimming with ideas, finding meaning in every moment that its creators lived and translated to (digital) tape.
One of my favorite things about The 1975 is their sense of history: everything from the lyrical callbacks to previous albums to the three-act structures within their tracklistings to the carefully cultivated aesthetic in their live shows are all geared to serve a central creative vision. And that’s a great thing! It makes you feel like every measure of these 17 songs is real–like they mean it, like this is the story of their lives tracked and told in the most honest way possible, finding equal time for a 3-minute ditty about dancing while on coke and a romantic ballad about standing alone on a stage in Paris afraid that you’re too fucked up inside to make a lasting connection with someone else.
The band delivers it all with a confidence far beyond their years (and peers), swirling together 80s wave, synth-drenched pop, gospel choirs, fuzzy electronics, and more into a collection of music that isn’t afraid to digress for 5 minutes or so before coming back to stadium-worthy hook. Lead singer Matt Healy’s lyrics stagger (swagger?) back and forth between overly clever wordplay and pure openhearted cheese, never surrendering his British colloquialisms in his quest to communicate plainly. If you’re not used to Healy’s mannerisms and confident in his ultimate intent, he can honestly come off as divisive. But the point is that once you peel back his defense mechanisms–the layers of pop philosophy, drugged haze, and meta lampshading–there’s nothing left to hide behind. You’re naked, with nothing separating you from communicating with someone else. It’s just like the album’s title: easily mockable and intensely sincere in equal measure.
Maybe a little sincerity isn’t so bad. If there was one common theme in 2016, it’s in everyone talking about how the year was a horrible one. Between musical icons like Prince, Bowie, and Leonard Cohen passing away; police violence; Zika; mass shootings; and the ever-darkening geopolitical landscape, it’s been a difficult time to be alive. The world seems determined to leave its marks on history and, by extension, on everyone in it.
But my life isn’t solely defined by the world’s marks on me. Here are some other things that happened in 2016: I fell in love. My dzadzi passed away. I got more involved in politics. I learned to amplify unheard voices. I grappled with my faith. I rediscovered how much I love reading. I danced by candlelight. I questioned my career. I learned how to backflip. I cared more about someone else’s happiness than my own. There are so many reasons why this year left a personal mark, and every one of these memories is etched into me like a wordless groove, often soundtracked by songs from this project.
There’s no album that can explain the world to you. Yet there’s something to be said for trying — for packing romance and hysteria and loss and triumph into 74 minutes of music that grasps at everything life can offer, often at the same time. The 1975 do that on their sophomore album, and it was the perfect soundtrack for a year of my life that felt like it could be the start of something new, something vital. Maybe it can do that for you too.
Brian Fallon – Painkillers
For definitely proving that the lead singer of the Gaslight Anthem can write full albums of Americana songs in his sleep. If “Open All Night” is any indication, he should try his hand at crafting some Nashville country next.
Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster – Constant Stranger
For writing simply and purely about mortality, religion, and serenity… often in the same song (“The Dirt, The Bells, And I”).
Solange – A Seat At The Table
For creating far and away the year’s best protest album in a year full of great choices, with songs that balance quiet confidence and of-the-moment lyrical manifestos with bright, tuneful textures and airy melodies. Plus getting the best Lil Wayne verse in the last three to five years (“Mad”).
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
For making yet another masterpiece that takes around 20 listens to appreciate. It’s not as immediately compelling as In Rainbows or as obviously groundbreaking as some of their earlier classics, but the existential dread of songs like “Glass Eyes” will forever be prescient.
Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
For swinging really, really hard when he could have played it safe. I’m still not sure whether he succeeded at striking a middle ground between George Clinton and D’Angelo, but “California” is an unequivocal jam.
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
For throwing every genre into a blender and somehow extracting his own liquid sound. A song like “Am I Wrong” only works as well as it does because of .Paak’s unique voice.
The Hotelier – Goodness
For following up a straightforward, heartrending emo masterpiece with a challenging, transcendental suite of songs about reaching beyond what you’re capable of (“End of Reel”).
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
For bottling the sound of summer in New York City and never forgetting to be true to himself. Look no further than “Augustine” and “Best to You”.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
For creating great music when no one expected how good Tribe could still be or could comprehend how badly we’d need to hear from them. Songs like “The Space Program” and “Dis Generation” are a literal godsend.
Hamilton – Original Cast Recording
For effortlessly balancing the stories and accompanying themes of 8 different American revolutionaries while never forgetting to be compelling music. This whole soundtrack is a movie, kick back and be taken away.
Steve Gunn – Eyes on the Lines
For showing listeners that dreamy guitar jams like “Ancient Jules” can still carry you away in 2016.
Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
For making 70s/80s pastiche (“Perm”, “That’s What I Like”) sound simply irresistible and following the #1 rule of pop music: Make ‘Em Dance.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
For packing melodic soul, racial unease, and unrequited love into masterful songs like “Cold Little Heart” and “Place I Belong”.
The 2015 Re-Rank
Last year I highlighted some albums that I thought were overlooked. Thought it might be nice to do a proper rank.
- Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
- Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
- Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
- Noah Gundersen – Carry The Ghost
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
- Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
- Chris Stapleton – Traveller
- Childish Gambino – KAUAI
- The Staves – If I Was
- Butch Walker – Afraid of Ghosts
The 2006 Re-Rank
One of my favorite music writers, Chorus.fm’s Craig Manning (whose own EOTY list is a beast and full of awesome records that are off the beaten path…definitely check it out), re-ranks his list from a decade ago every year. Thought it would be a fun thing to do as well.
- Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
- John Mayer – Continuum
- Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury
- Cold War Kids – Robbers & Cowards
- Taking Back Sunday – Louder Now
- Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor
- The Killers – Sam’s Town
- Thursday – A City By The Light Divided
- Outkast – ATLiens
- (TIE) My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade
(TIE) Red Hot Chili Peppers – Stadium Arcadium
If you know me well, you know Brand New means more to me than any other band, so TDAG wasn’t moving. The first four albums on this list are the only ones I revisit with any regularity (5-10+ times a year), but damn if 2006 wasn’t a stacked year of music.
2017 Most Anticipated Albums
- Brand New
- Japandroids – Near to the Wild Hear of Life (Jan 27)
- Julien Baker
- John Mayer – The Search for Everything (Jan 20, 4 New Songs Every Month)
- The Menzingers – After the Party (Feb 3)
- Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Jan 27)
- Kanye West
- The 1975
- Chris Stapleton
- Noah Gundersen
- St. Vincent
- Taylor Swift
- Vampire Weekend
- Fleet Foxes – Ylajali
- Strand of Oaks – Hard Love (Feb 10)
- Father John Misty
- The Wrens
- Brian Fallon
- Justin Timberlake
- Jason Isbell
Most of these are rumors (such as my perenniel #1), some have confirmed dates. I’m extremely pumped for what 2017 could be for music.
Thanks so much to anyone who read this far (if there’s anyone left besides me at this point). I love music and I love writing about it, to the point where I’m at around 4000 words here and it’s already March 2017 as I finish my 2016 EOTY Write-Up. I hope if you find anything you like from this list, that you’ll please reach out and let me know!
Peace and love in 2017 and beyond.