Every year seems to be jam-packed with innovative and distinct music of all genres. Well, between the four primary Fawkes contributors, I think we’ve got audiences of all types (except country) covered. Below are our favorite albums of the year.
NOTE: If the album appeared on our mid-year favorite albums list, in lieu of writeup, the albums title links back to our piece from July.
Cody – Joyce Manor
I am at the point to consider Joyce Manor one of the most important, if not the most important, band in modern punk. Never Hungover Again was probably my favorite album of 2014 and Joyce Manor continues to impress. Cody was a more grown up album than their 2014 masterpiece, however they did not lose any of the sheer punk fun. Joyce Manor does an incredible job of balancing the head banging fun that we are used to and sending out the struggles of post adolescent life.
The Dream is Over – PUP
A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings – Beach Slang
The craziest thing about Beach Slang is I wasn’t even over last years album yet. I was still jamming to “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” by the time I was able to listen to the near perfect punk song “Punks in A Disco Bar.” Beach Slang releasing these two quality albums so close to each other is very impressive.
Revolutionaries – You Won’t
Celebrate – Tiny Moving Parts
Okay so Tiny Moving Parts is absolutely a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re one of those bands that when people ask me what I am listening to I, in a state of panic, just go “uhh The Smiths!”. Nonetheless, if you are looking for a relatively harsh emo album to jam to when you’re sad, Celebrate is the album for you. This emo scream is oddly enjoyable and the guitar riffs are very impressive. Definitely worth the listen, just don’t tell anyone I told you to.
As a binge listener, I work through albums slowly, stretching my listens for months, until I know every word and note. At which point, I put it away and move forward. As it turns out, this methodic means of digesting music is helpful when trying to write Best Of reviews- as I have realistically only listened to my top albums, on repeat, through the duration of the year. In addition to my methodic listening strategies, I also name my playlists, each comprised of 2-4 albums along with a specially curated sprinkling of songs that flow, by the time period of my binge. For the year 2016, I had three such playlists. They are:
(Bon Iver copied that sporadic number naming from me.)
5/2016 ironically only features music that came out in 2015, with the exception of Cleopatra by The Lumineers – the first of my top albums of this year. I am an ardent defender of The Lumineers, who I feel have been continuously lumped in and underrated as another banjo loving whooping indie pop band. First, I think they were at the forefront of the sound. But that is not relevant for the why Cleopatra is one of the best albums of 2016. For those who are curious, the other albums on this playlist are Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Love Stuff from Elle King, and Beneath the Skin from Of Monsters and Men.
July2016 is a bunch of oldies, plus the new blink-182 album California, which I attempted to get into but couldn’t. Except the song “Bored to Death.” Sorry world, I still don’t like Blink-182.
9/29 is a boss list of Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s I Had a Dream that You Were Mine, Grouplove’s Welcome to Your Life, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and spritzes of my faves from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and old Wilco that serve to blend these three albums together.
I Had a Dream that You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + RostamAvid Fawkes Readers will know of my sheer delight at discovering Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s collaborative album by tracking that iPhone commercial. I stayed up all night listening to the album and woke up early the next day happy to be alive in a world with such a great album. I’ve since listened to it “A 1000 Times.” That’s some I Had a Dream That You Were Mine humor for those who have not yet toed the mystical waters of Hamilton + Rostam’s album. My favorite thing about the album is the way these two have woven together different genres and eras into a seamless album.
Songs to Listen to: “A 1000 Times,” “1959,” “The Morning Stars”
Big Mess – Grouplove
I have a lot of strong feelings about Grouplove’s 2016 album, Big Mess. I love Grouplove, as you will see from my coverage of the album when it first came out. Having proceeded to listen to through the year, I have only come to appreciate it more. This album solidified Grouplove as a real band in my mind. This album guaranteed their spot in pop rock and promised an expansive future for the band. Welcome to you Life is a simply tight album. It doesn’t waste a song or lull through the entire album. As I also complimented I Had a Dream that You Were Mine, Welcome to your Life moves cohesively despite invoking different sounds and testing the limits of the band- tests which they inarguably surpassed. The paradigm example is the song “Cannonball” which might be my favorite song of 2016. The song stood out at first listen, as a more punk sounding departure from the usual poppy anthems. This was the song I listened to as my last step of getting ready for work all year. It’s a song that’s a little pissed that you have to work, but you are still going to absolutely kill it that day. It wasn’t until I saw Grouplove perform the song that I realized Andrew Wessen, GROUPLOVE’s guitarist, was the one to sing it (Andrew also sang “Spun” from Never Trust a Happy Song. That made me all the more excited about it and about the inevitably successful trajectory of a band with so much talent and who is not afraid to use it in unexpected ways. This isn’t as lit as the version I saw live in DC, but check it out nonetheless: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XWBJgaSn0k.
Songs to Listen to: “Cannonball,” “Spinning,” “Good Morning”
22, A Million – Bon IverBon Iver’s album 22, A Million, which came out the day after I made this playlist, was the perfect final installment to 2016. It’s this album that has really hindered my ability to listen to anything else that has come out. When I first listened to the album, I was surprised to find the first few songs more akin Vernon’s work with Volcano Choir. The more experimental songs at the beginning demanded the full attention of the listener, especially those expecting an album of “Skinny Love,” “Holocene,” “Blood Bank,” and “Flume.” Those who answered this call to attention were given the gift of a musically stimulating, lyrically excellent album that encapsulated the range of human emotion. This sounds dramatic, but I cannot sufficiently express what this album means.
Songs to Listen to: “33 “GOD”,” “00000 Million,” “21 M00N WATER,” “666ʇ”
Disclosure: Wilco’s Schmilco and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool do not make my list of top albums of 2016, but are definitely worth a listen. I actually haven’t really moved on from this playlist, so anything that came out from October forth, will most likely be doomed to my March 2017 playlist, if I continue this trajectory.
Something I noticed as I put this together was a common motif of space, time, and the metaphysical. We have ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ (Radiohead), ‘21 Moon Water’ (Bon Iver), ‘Peaceful Morning’ (H+R), ‘The Morning Stars’ (H+R), ‘Standing in the Sun’ (GL), ‘Enlighten Me’ (GL), ‘Daydreaming’ (Radiohead), ‘In the Light’ (The Lumineers), ‘Gale Song’ (The Lumineers) etc.. A pervasive, encompassing sense of longing for something more, or something past categorizes the albums.
22, A Million – Bon Iver
When Justin Vernon retreated into the Wisconsin wilderness and crafted the songs that comprised Bon Iver’s early efforts, he found success mixing his distinct falsetto vocals with fairly straightforward folk stylings. It was clear early on, however, that the genre of folk could never contain Vernon’s vast tastes and experimentation. Immediately following the release of For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon released albums with The Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir, where he began experimenting in earnest with using auto-tunes in his songs.
Yet, I don’t know that anyone was prepared for the music that Vernon has released on 22, A Million in his return to Bon Iver. The sonic experimentation alone would make this one of the best efforts of not just this year, but the past decade. Vernon, with the help of friends Chris Messina, pushed the boundaries of auto-tune music even further by creating a new instrument called “the Messina,” an extension on the new Prismizer audio codec (a new, more advanced play on auto-tune) that helped to give 22, A Million its signature sound. The thing is though, the signature sound of 22, A Million – well its first half at least – is unlike anything in music ever.
Yet, even as Vernon released the most adventurous album of the past decade, his lyrics continued the yearning of past Bon Iver efforts. But while tracks For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver focused more intensively on human interaction, the lyrics of 22, A Million are more existential. Vernon openly worries on “22 (Over Soon)” that the world (or maybe just his world) may be coming to an end at any moment and that we’d have no way of knowing (but 2016 may have been that confirmation he’s looking for) and on “666 (upsidedowncross)” that he still does not know the right path. In the face of this unknown, then, Vernon seeks “dedicoding every daemon” that still remains throughout 22, A Million.
Even while contemplating religion on “33 “God,”” Vernon acknowledges that all there is sometimes is hoping that someone “will stay for tea.” It is an effort written on a grand scale that still manages to feel as personal as you’d expect from the writer of “Skinny Love.”
Songs to Listen To: “713 (Creeks),” “22 (Over Soon)”
WORRY. – Jeff Rosenstock
Last year, Jeff Rosenstock’s album We Cool? contemplated the terror of friends growing up and moving on, especially when you’re the one being left behind. It was an album of beautiful relatable power punk anthems with Rosenstock’s signature twinge of ska. It seemed an insurmountable task for the man to follow We Cool? – an album that crashed SideOneDummy’s website upon its release – with an album of even more gravitas and punk rock importance, but Rosenstock managed to do it with 2016’s WORRY..
Honestly, could an album released at the height of the presidential election could have carried a more meaningful and poignant title? Rosenstock’s classic stylings are still present, perhaps with an added urgency felt especially on the album’s final 9 songs that come in just a few ticks above eleven minutes (all told, Rosenstock manages to fit seventeens songs in under forty minutes). But, added to his customary blend of ska and punk are tracks that feature slow, brooding piano before exploding into anthemic punk like the album’s first track “We Begged 2 Explode.” Where WORRY. Really transcends Rosenstock’s previous efforts is in its subject matter that ranges from takedowns of the music scene (“Festival Song”) and a culture that can “ignore the reality of unarmed civilians executed publicly” (“To Be a Ghost;” “The Fuzz”) to the effects of gentrification and housing prices in New York City, something both personal to Rosenstock and felt by millions in NYC, as well as other cities pricing out long-time residents (I’m looking at you D.C.). All the while, Rosenstock manages to sneak a few feel-good love songs (“I Did Something Weird Last Night”) to balance out the album.
Songs to Listen To: “We Begged 2 Explode,” “I Did Something Weird Last Night,” “Festival Song”
Cleopatra – The Lumineers
If someone told me that between indie folk bands The Lumineers and The Head and the Heart, one would release one of the best albums of 2016 and the other would release a massive disappointment full of meaningless bubblegum pop, my bet would have been on THATH for the former and The Lumineers taking the place of the latter. Yet, here we are, with THATH’s third LP Signs of Light as one of the most disappointing albums of the year and The Lumineers’ 2nd album Cleopatra as a masterpiece.
On Cleopatra, the subject matter is more mature and the song-writing more advanced. The stripped-down indie folk of Cleopatra accentuates the sincerity of Wesley Schultz’s singing. The follow up to the band’s self-titled 2013 debut also features more adventurous songs: the album’s title track sees Schultz slip into the female perspective, while the driving piano on the lead single “Ophelia” is distinct to much of the other indie folk today. All in all, Cleopatra signifies a giant leap forward for The Lumineers on their 2nd LP.
Songs to Listen to: “Sleep on the Floor,” “My Eyes”
“Awaken, My Love!” – Childish Gambino
Has anyone had a better year than Donald Glover? The man created and starred in Atlanta, one of the best television shows of 2016 (more on that later), landed the role of Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars film, and then just before the bell sounded on 2016 he dropped his third studio under his stage name Childish Gambino. “Awaken, My Love” is a stark departure from the straight hip-hop of Childish Gambino’s earlier albums, fusing a powerful Funkadelic homage with subtle hints of Sly and the Family Stone. But the virtuoso P-Funk stylings of the music is only part of what makes Awaken special. Much of the tracks have an explanatory vibe to them, as if Glover is seeking to explain the world in its current state to his recently born son – an explanation that became increasingly difficult towards the end of 2016, especially for men and women of Color throughout the world.
Songs to Listen to: “Me and Your Momma,” “Boogieman,” “Zombies”
American Football (LP2) – American Football
Silence and music are often mutually exclusive things but that isn’t always the case. I would say especially so for math rockers American Football, who released their first LP since 1999 in 2016. The “silent” – and here by silence I mean the type of silence when conversations but often background noise remains – moments between Mike Kinsella’s soft coos frequently the most emotionally moving thanks to the intertwining guitar play of Kinsella’s & Steve Holmes and the feelings it elicits.While not matching the audacity and innovation of their first album, American Football musically and lyrically back every bit of the poignant punch as they did back in 1999.
Songs to Listen to: “My Instincts are the Enemy,” “Desire Gets in the Way”
Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
On Teens of Denial, Will Toledo constructed some of the most dynamic and intricate songs of 2016. A lot of the tracks stretch out past five minutes, but far from becoming redundant or self indulgent, he manages to veer off in interesting and exciting directions. Teens is steeped in the canon of lo-fi indie rock. But instead of treading the same territory of past acts, Toledo pushes forward, creating massive songs that surprise the listener. Lyrically, the album focuses on the inescapable feeling of being adrift in life, constantly failing, constantly fucking up, and the ways we distance ourselves from these mistakes. Take “Vincent,” where Toledo sings “I poured myself a drink / (I told myself a lie)” and “If I’m being honest with myself / I haven’t been honest with myself.” There’s a recognition of one’s denial, and an almost hopeless belief that one can change it. A lot of the writing surrounding the lyrical content of the album has focused on how it meditates on being lost as a young adult. While they may be directly, the emotions and feelings that Toledo taps into are universal.
This all comes to a head in “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” an 11 minute epic of self reflection in which Toledo uses the captain of the Costa Concordia, the Italian Cruise Ship that capsized in 2012, as an analogue to his own feelings of depression and listlessness in adult life. It’s a song that hauntingly smears the chorus to Dido’s “White Flag” as its emotional centerpiece. “I won’t go down with this shit / I will put my hands up and surrender,” he sings, before the song crescendos and explodes into its cathartic release. The song begins as a traditional ballad, slow and mournful, but after the crescendo, after Toledo’s stream of consciousness navigation of questioning his adulthood (“How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every / Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and- why not?- Sunday), the song’s pacing picks up like a Strokes’ song run through an LCD Soundsystem tempo. It would almost be a second song if it wasn’t so contingent on the ballad of the first part. The chorus of the latter half of the song, a simple, “I give up,” is a release of emotions, an apathetic catharsis, an acceptance of the inability to change, and be more than an “expensive mistake.”
Teens of Denial is a masterpiece, an opus of apathy. The emotional resonance of Toledo’s lyricism is given an epic treatment, through the musicianship and scope of the album’s sound and structure.
WORRY. – Jeff Rosenstock
Earlier this year, Ian Cohen called Jeff Rosenstock “one of the most important figures in modern punk,” on Pitchfork. It’s very hard to disagree with that sentiment. Fiercely DIY, Rosenstock has been making music with a variety of ska and punk bands since the mid-90’s. Since 2012 he has been releasing solo albums, the fourth being 2016’s WORRY. This effort is further evidence of Rosenstock’s talent as not only, a preeminent musician in pop-punk, but also as one of the genre’s foremost lyricists. His observations about everything from modern indie culture(“Festival Song”) to the general dismay of getting older and aging(too many songs to count) cut hard. “Laura said to me/ This decade’s gonna be fucked/ Friends will disappear after they fall in love,” is the sentiment in which Rosenstock begins the album. Worry. is obsessed with its title. It’s an album riddled with anxiety over not making rent, over the changes in an old lover’s apartment, over police violence, over losing all of your friends forever as you get old. But Worry.’s greatest trait is its ability to take these feelings and not allow them to be crippling. The music on the album is unflinchingly fun, and transforms these worries and anxieties into indelibly catchy and enjoyable songs.
Songs to Listen to: “Rainbow,” “To Be A Ghost…”
Blood Bitch – Jenny Hval
Blood Bitch sounds like nothing else that came out in 2016. It is an utterly distinct album about vampires, capitalism, and period blood. Hval has been making albums that live on the border between avant-garde art and pop music for a while now, and on Blood Bitch these two impulses come together in tandem. On “Female Vampire,” Hval’s supernatural voice loops against itself, in intricate harmonies against a droning ambient beat. Her voice circles in pop hooks, but against the driving beat, there is something off putting. It’s an eerie track on an eerie album. Blood Bitch is weird. Even on its poppiest track, “Conceptual Romance,” Hval sings about “A sexual holding pattern/ Stuck in erotic self-oscillation.” This song is conceptually a love song, and literally conceptual. While it is about erotic and romantic feelings, the singer seems more interested in analyzing their feelings, than showing them, as if the only way to come to terms with them is through deconstruction, rather than emotional outpouring. If “Conceptual Romance” ranges towards Hval’s pop impulses, the next track “Untamed Region,” instantly oscillates back to her avant garde ones. For the beginning of the song, Hval croons unintelligibly over a sample of “Oh Dearism II,” a documentary short about news cycles and politics. She then opens up in a confessional prose poem seemingly about her period, which sounds as if it is read through an analog recording. The entire time, her voice flows in the background. These songs are haunting, strange, and utterly different than anything that has been released in recent memory. It’s music from a different plane. It’s distinctly Jenny Hval.
Songs to Listen To: “Conceptual Romance,” “The Plague”
MY WOMAN – Angel Olsen
My Woman starts on a somber note, with its opening track “Intern.” Olsen’s voice is on full display on this song as she oscillates between wanting love and rejecting the idea of love. The song is atypical of Olsen, who sings over glittering synths rather than her typical lo-fi folk stylings. As this song fades quietly into the ether, the album picks up with “You’ll Never Be Mine,” a song that continues that sense of heartbreak hinted at in “Intern.” “Lord knows, I’ve been trying, I’m still trying,” she sings before her moment of reflection where she laments, “you’ll never be mine.” This heartbreak turns into anxious urgency on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a song that impulsively seeks to overcome those anxieties in the first two tracks. MY WOMAN is in a sense an album about love, or the deep anxieties and feelings that come from being attracted to or with someone. It is also pretty distinct sonically. Olsen plays a hybrid guitar that is not quite folk, but not quite traditional lo-fi rock. It is something of its own, and paired with her dynamic vibrating voice creates an album manages to be both beautiful and unique.
Songs to Listen To: “Not Gonna Kill You,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Sister”
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Sixteen years ago, when Radiohead released the seminal Kid A, they were already prepared for the end times. Their uncanny songs felt like they were recorded in the wake of catastrophe (probably why there is the Kid A-9/11 rumour). The capstone of this was, of course, “Idioteque,” in which Yorke sang of environmental collapse. This feeling of existential doom didn’t fade as the decade went on with, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. Well, 16 years, and a divorce later, here Thom Yorke is, stuck in a world that teeters on the precipice of apocalypse. The album is at its core a breakup album, but with Radiohead it’s never that simple. The entire band seems to be absolutely on top of their game sonically, playing with an urgency that has not been seen since at least In Rainbows. These songs take the simplicity of a breakup album and play it out on a far larger scale. Take “Ful Stop,” which ranges more towards a direct addressing of the demise of Yorke’s relationship. “When you take me back / Take me back again,” he sings. But the songs intro, a low pitched beat fighting against a flurry of squawking synths and guitar casts the song in eschatological sonics. For a band that’s over a quarter decade into their career, Radiohead still makes urgent, curious, and necessary music.
Songs to Listen To: “Identikit”
Wildflower – The Avalanches
The Avalanches returned after a sixteen year layoff since their last release, 2000’s Since I Left You. After years of rumours and false starts, their follow up did not disappoint. Wildflower showed that the band has not lost their ability to create all consuming, ethereal song collages. Wildflower almost seems to change the physical composition of the world around you, rendering it new and surreal. It changes the surrounding world. A simple walk to work is converted to something entirely different while listening to Wildfower. It feels like being submerged in a constantly flowing body of liquid. While it swallows you and surrounds you, it’s malleable and active. It flows like a body of water. Wildflower doesn’t drown you in its sonic vision, rather it draws you into it and allows you to experience the most mundane of things through its own unique vision.
Songs to Listen to: Honestly just listen to the album straight through
Goodness – The Hotelier
Let’s not understate the manner in which The Hotelier open their fourth album. On the first track, lead singer Christian Holden, meditates in the silence of nature, in a way that recalls the American Transcendental thinkers of the 1800s, who sought mutual spiritual connection through becoming one with the natural world. Here on “N 43° 59′ 38.927″ W 71° 23′ 45.27,” the coordinates of a summer camp in which Holden was a counselor, he does just that. “You in this light feels new, woven deep until the roots touch dryness against the fallen limb of oaken,” he sings. The album begins in silence in a place of relative peace. Until the second track, “Goodness Pt. 2,” which begins with Holden’s voice belting over a steady beat. Guitar enters the song strumming and echoing like church bells. Eventually, the song explodes at about the 2:00 minute mark. It’s the perfect setup to an album built on the contrast between huge hooks and feelings, and the silence between them. The composition on this album is that of a band confident and mature in their own sound. The Hotelier have every right to be. With Goodness, they’ve supplanted themselves as one of the, so called, “Emo Revival’s” most talented bands.
Songs to Listen to: “N 43° 33′ 55.676″ W 72° 45′ 11.914,” “Piano Player,”
RTJ3 – Run the Jewels
On Christmas Eve, Run the Jewels released their third album, RTJ3. The band retains the energy that has made the last two albums such blockbuster hits. Killer Mike and El-P trade bars verses, covering politics (“Hey Kids(Bumaye)”), loss (“Thursday Night in the Danger Room”), and everything in between. The two have a kinetic energy, a unique and rare chemistry. Their lines echo and complement each others. While the album sonically is a continuation of what the group has been doing on their last two albums, Mike and El-P are as invigorating as ever. “Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/ Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes,” Mike sings at the beginning of “Hey Kids(Bumaye)”. RTJ have always packed their political punches with a sense of urgency, and they continue to do so on RTJ3.
Songs to Listen to: “Legend Has It,” “Hey Kids(Bumaye),” “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”