Saturday, January 7, 2017

Music Is All We Got: My Favorite 2016 Albums

The most surefire sign yet than I'm an Old -- in 2016, I listened to the least new music than I ever have. According to my Last.fm, only 29% of the music I listened to this year was from artists I wasn't already familiar with. I don't have the figures from years past, but I'm sure it was near 50% within the past couple years (and maybe as high as 75% 10 or so years ago). In fact, of my top 20 albums, only 3 are from "new" artists, and only 1 in my top 10 (and at #9, at that). It's not that there weren't new artists that I enjoyed -- I really dug albums by Anderson .Paak, Car Seat Headrest, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pinegrove, Wet, and a few others -- but they didn't get nearly as much play as albums by some of the old stalwarts in my top 20. (And I'd be hard-pressed to tell some of them apart if they came up on shuffle.) So it looks like this article that I linked to last year was right, and I'm another year close to becoming this guy. We'll see if this trend continues next year. Until then, here are the records I dug the most in 2016 (even if most of the names are familiar).

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order):
Against Me! – Shape Shift with Me
David Bowie – Blackstar (RIP)
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Kevin Gates – Islah
The Lonely Island – Popstar soundtrack
Mudcrutch – 2
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death
Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
White Lung – Paradise

10) Phantogram – Three
Best tracks: "Same Old Blues," "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," "Run Run Blood"

I usually listen to the local radio on my commute to work (once again, I'm an Old). When not listening to sports radio, one of the stations I listen to the most is the local "alternative" station. It plays 21 Pilots about 70% of the time (ugh), so I was very pleasantly surprised when "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" from this record started getting regular airplay. It's a great introduction to Phantogram if you've never heard them—a massive, fuzzed out hook from beatsman Josh Carter and hypnotic vocals from trip-hop chanteuse Sarah Barthel. While not quite as strong an effort as 2014's excellent Voices, it's nonetheless one one of the most dynamic releases of the year, with slick production, swaggering beats, and Barthel's sirenic voice holding it all together.

9) Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis
Best tracks: "Perfect Strangers," "How I Love You," "California," "Drivin'"

I had the pleasure of discovering Robert Ellis on Spotify in 2016. I was listening to the generally excellent "Pulse of Americana" playlist at work when "California" came out of nowhere and hit me like a fucking hammer. I didn't know I was listening to one of the best songs of the year when it opened with a bluesy tinkling of keys, followed soon by Ellis's Texas-tinged drawl, but I knew it instantly when the first chorus hit—"Maybe I'll move to California with the unbroken part of my heart I still have left." It might seem like a melodramatic line on paper, but Ellis delivers it with just the right amount of wistfulness and weariness. The rest of the record didn't quite live up to the lofty standard of that song, but it's a strong showcase for Ellis's mastery of both guitar and keys, as well as for his impressive songwriting. I look forward to delving into his older albums in 2017.

8) Childish Gambino – "Awaken, My Love!"
Best tracks: "Me and Your Mama," "Boogieman," "Zombies," "Redbone"

If had told me last year that Childish Gambino's new album would be in my 2016 top 10, I'd have said, "Well, duh." I've long been a fan of Donald Glover's pop-rap alter-ego—2011's Camp is one of my favorite non-Kanye or -Kendrick rap albums of the decade. So, yeah, it wouldn't be a surprise for his latest record to make my top 10. But if you had told me that the record would be a funk record, I'd have been like, "Wait, what?" But both things are true: the new Childish Gambino record is in my top 10, and it's a funk record. It's only been out for a couple weeks, so I'm still exploring it, but it's pretty clear that Glover can do anything he sets his mind to. Create and star in one of the best new TV shows of the year? Okay. Play an iconic Star Wars character? Sure, why not. Make a funk record? Well, duh. If you see my nodding my head and tapping my foot at my desk next year, chances are I'm listening to this record.

7) The Naked and Famous – Simple Forms
Best tracks: "Higher," "Last Forever," "Backslide," "Laid Low"

I didn't see a lot of live music in 2016. I don't think I even made it to 10 concerts, which is is incredibly low for me. [insert Lethal Weapon quote here.] But one of the shows I'm most bummed about missing is The Naked and Famous, who played the Marquee last month. I've seen them twice before and they're always a blast—you're always like "Fuck yeah, *this* song?!" at the first few notes of every song. I don't know many bands who can make every song sound as effortlessly anthemic as they do. That's especially true of their most recent record. I knew "Higher" was gonna be a jam when I first listened to the single on Spotify, and "Laid Low" might be the best song they've ever done. Just about everything on the album is masterfully calibrated: the female/male vocal interplay, the shifts in tempo and energy, and monster chorus after monster chorus. I don't think I would say the band showed much evolution on this record, but who needs to evolve when you've perfected your sound?

6) Blink-182 – California
Best tracks: "Cynical," "Los Angeles," "No Future," "Left Alone"

There is a song on this album called "Built This Pool." It is 17 seconds long. Here are the lyrics to that song, in their entirety: "I wanna see some naked dudes / That's why I built this pool." This album is my sixth-favorite album of the year. I'm not saying that these two things are related, but I'm not saying they're not either. Note that I said "sixth-favorite" rather than "sixth-best" -- there's no way this is the sixth-best record of the year, regardless of your criteria. But it's my sixth-favorite nonetheless, successfully mixing the wondrously juvenile antics of their early records with the more mature sound and worldview of their more recent stuff. Is it a bit overproduced? Yes. Is Alkaline Trio veteran Matt Skiba a more-than-adequate replacement for Tom DeLonge? Yes. Do I miss DeLonge's presence anyway? A little bit. (Always more of a Mark Hoppus guy.) Is this the album the most pleasantly nostalgic album on this list? Most definitely.

5) Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Best tracks: "untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.," "untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.," "untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016," "untitled 08 | 09.06.2014."

I'm not sure if it says more about 2016 or Kendrick that an album of castoffs from last year's #1 album is the fifth-best album of this year. (Note the switch to fifth-best—we're entering slightly less subjective territory here.) I'm also not sure if I'd rather Kendrick had just included the highlights from this release on To Pimp a Butterfly (see above, with the possible exception of "untitled 07" due it its length) and scrapped the rest, or fleshed this out into a proper follow-up. But what I do know is that this release is absolutely magnetic, even in it's unfinished state. I kept coming back to it every few weeks, and it seemed to get better and better with each listen. It's not quite as essential as Pimp or the other two rap albums on this list, but I found it impossible to put it any lower than #5. It's just that good, finished or not. There are very few artists than can pull that off. Kendrick is one—and another one is a little further up this list.

4) Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
Best tracks: "You With Me," "Sure and Certain," "Pretty Grids," "Pass the Baby"

I'm not sure why, but with every Jimmy Eat World record after Futures, I've been unable to form a distinct impression of it within the first few listens. Maybe it's because all Jimmy Eat World records tend to follow the same arc, stick to the same basic tempo/track length template, and explore the same emotional terrain. I think most Jimmy fans would admit there's a bit of a "samey" feel to their discography, and that can be hard to crack sometimes. But, with the exception of Damage, I've eventually ascertained the distinct shape and texture of each album. For Chase This Light, it was in buoyant danceability of "Here It Goes"—a dazzling ray of sunlight after the stormy Futures. On Invented, it was in the carefully crafted narrative of "Coffee and Cigarettes," as if it was plucked out of the pages of a short story collection. And now, with Integrity Blues, it was in trenchant guitar solo that comprises the last minute and a half of "Pass the Baby," like some primal feeling that's always been roiling beneath the surface of the albums finally breaking through to surface. (That it's also reminiscent of TDAGARIM-era Brand New doesn't hurt.) It is that fierceness, hints of which are present in just about every track (especially personal favorite "Pretty Grids"), that gives the album it's shape, and the texture is found, as always, in the emotional depth of the songs. It's every bit as good as Chase This Light and Invented—which is to say, it's as good as anything they've ever done.

3) Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Best tracks: "Ultralight Beam," "Famous," "Highlights," "No More Parties in LA," "Fade"

This was easily my most anticipated album of 2016. Yeezus was my favorite album (and the best album) of 2013, and I had no idea how he was going to follow up its abrasive, antipop aesthetic. Turns out, Kanye didn't either, as he "updated" the album no less than three times after it was released. It's the most Kanye thing possible, which means that this is the most Kanye album possible. It's not the best Kanye album (that would be My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy), my favorite Kanye album (probably also Fantasy), or the most influential Kanye album (808s and Heartbreak), but it's the purest distillation of the essence of Kanye. If Yeezus is Kanye's rampaging id in album form, then Pablo is all ego (I mean, just listen to "I Love Kanye"). Sonically, it also functions as somewhat of a career retrospective—the joyous "Highlights" could fit on any of his early albums, "Wolves" has the forlorn iciness of 808s, the opening salvo of "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands" hearken back to Fantasy, and one-time album closer "Fade" has the same dark maniacy of anything on Yeezus. It's an impressive album, and even more impressive live show (one of the few I saw in 2016, before he canceled the tour). Haters are gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), but keep doing you, Kanye.

2) Lydia Loveless – Real
Best tracks: "Same to You," "Longer," "Heaven," "Out on Love," "Midwestern Guys"

Lydia Loveless's follow up to 2014's Somewhere Else was also among my most anticipated 2016 releases. But I was also slightly apprehensive—I wasn't sure the new record would have the same balance of brashness and vulnerability, sarcasm and sincerity, boisterousness and coyness. I was happily proven wrong—Real runs the gamut and even ups the ante with much-improved production values. Album opener "Same To You" is a perfect example. The guitars sing, the hihats are crisp, the bassline is meticulous, and the vocals (both Loveless's and the male backing vocals) soar above it all perfectly. At times on Somewhere, the band felt more like a really good bar band (and they played live that way too); Real sees them becoming more comfortable in the studio. Loveless has matured as a songwriter as well—take album centerpiece (and song of the year contender) "Out on Love." There are no references to oral sex or poets, no namechecking country stars or '80s icons—just plainspoken language and plaintive longing, set to low, fuzzed-out guitar and hymn-like percussion. It's a slow-burning powder keg of heartbreak that never quite explodes. It's a song, and an album, that you can't quite shake. Nor do you want to.

1) Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Best tracks: "All We Got," "Blessings," "Same Drugs," "All Night"

Okay, 2016 was a no good, very bad, fucking dumpster fire of a year for a variety of reasons that we don't need to go into here. But if you're like me, pop culture helps you deal when the world throws a chunk of flaming shit at you. A number of books, TV shows, movies (future post), and, especially, albums helped me navigate 2016 without breaking something or just breaking down. And no album (okay, mixtape) helped like this one. Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book is, simply put, the best reminder that joy exists in the world and that better times are possible we could have asked for in 2016. From the beatific album cover and playful horns that open the "All We Got" to the (it must be said, Kanye-esque) choral backing vocals and each improvisational Chance squawk throughout, everything about this album lifts your spirits. There are even references to Hook in my personal favorite track, "Same Drugs"! (If Hook doesn't make you think happy thoughts, I just feel sorry for you. R.I.P., Robin.) When Coloring Book was released in May (before the worst of the year), I didn't know it was the album we would need most in 2016. But it was a touchstone I kept coming back to as the year got worse, and that makes it easier to face 2017 down. "Don't forget the happy thoughts / All you need is happy thoughts." Thanks for the reminder, Chance. I hope you all found an album, a movie, a show, that made you happy in 2016 as well.

Bonus: Songs of the Year (alphabetical order)
Chance The Rapper – "Same Drugs"
Jimmy Eat World – "Pretty Grids"
Kanye West – "Ultralight Beam"
Lydia Loveless – "Out on Love"
Robert Ellis – "California"

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