The 20 Albums That Rocked Our Turntables In 2016
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 16, 2016 7:00PM
Photo by Travis Wiens
What a year, huh? 2016 will go down in the books as memorable for a whole host of reasons, many of them that are still pretty hard to grapple with. And this uncertainty carried over into the music scene, creating some pretty unique situations throughout the year.
2016 was the year without a Summer Jam.™ That in itself speaks volumes about the current state of the music industry. Music is becoming ever more fragmented when it comes to grabbing an audience because there are now countless avenues for songs to find their way to the public’s ears. For smaller artists that means carving out a financially stable place for yourself is harder than ever, but the silver lining is that if you’re creating music to simply celebrate the art itself it’s never been easier to get your work out there. But the days of the universal hit as dictated by the major labels seem to be drawing to a close.
It was also a year in which superstars repositioned their output to be more focused on being cohesive albums rather than collections of potential singles balanced by filler. I think it was this trend that interested me the most—Beyoncé’s Lemonade has its flaws, but it’s also a fascinating statement by a solo artist creating her own rules. Even Rihanna’s ANTI felt like a bold move forward, seemingly more intent on creating a certain vibe than a hit song. Neither of those albums made it onto my list this year, but I found them fascinating nonetheless.
I listened to over 500 full new releases in 2016. And as 2016 grew more and more screwed up, my personal tastes veered away from the more experimental work and closer to what I would call aural comfort food. This isn’t wholly unusual, but I was surprised to see so much darker, guitar-driven work slink in to the list alongside a few truly joyful explosions of exuberant noise.
As in years past, this list is not meant to be a statement defining the “best” music of the year. This is a list of albums that I found myself returning to time and time again, with no waning excitement and, often, new discoveries with each listen.
David Bowie - Blackstar
2016 kicked off with an excellent new album from Bowie, and on the Friday it was released I remember feeling that it was a good sign of things to come. Little did I know how right I was, as my joy listening to it turned to mourning when Bowie passed away a few days later and it became obvious that Blackstar was an intentional statement from a unique artist; the goodbye no one knew was coming except for him. Bowie’s final release paired his rock and pop sensibilities with a jazz backing band, causing all parties involved to create new musical discussions that often blur genres. This list has been constructed in no particular order save this entry—personally, Blackstar was the most important album of 2016.
Against Me! - Shape Shift With Me
Laura Jane Grace continues to fearlessly lead Against Me! Through artistic statements that are as memorable as they can be challenging. Shape Shift With Me sees the band cleaning up the production values a bit, but that doesn’t blunt the LP’s aggression and the power of Grace’s continued lyrical explorations into challenging, emotional territories.
Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!
This was perhaps the most shocking release of 2016 when it came to blowing the doors off of preconceptions. While Donald Glover grew to fame as an actor and comedian, his Childish Gambino persona allowed him to venture convincingly into backpack rap territory. In 2016 Glover upended expectations with his unusually subtle TV series Atlanta, and then completely rethought the Childish Gambino persona, resetting his musical vision with the kaleidoscope of Funkadelic-inspired songs that make up Awaken, My Love! Glover displays immense sophistication the allows him to push boundaries while still keeping things groovy and so inherently listenable the songs will infect your mind. And once the music has made its way in, you’ll be surprised at the sincerity of the messages Glover is trying to deliver in this lovely stew of soul.
Direct Hit - Wasted Mind
A punk rock opera based around inebriating influences? Yeah, when I read the press release accompanying Wasted Mind I too was suspicious. But once I started playing this collection for the Milwaukee-based Direct Hit I couldn’t stop listening to it.
The Struts - Everybody Wants
This is perhaps the most fun album of the year. I’ve raved about this band over and over again, and never tire of trying to convert new listeners to their mixture of arena glam powered by a sincere love of over-the-top showmanship a la Freddy Mercury and Queen. There isn’t a rock and roll cliche that The Struts aren’t comfortable embracing without a hint of irony. Jukeboxes across Chicago were choked with songs from Everybody Wants whenever I was in the room, and I loved watching peoples expressions as they became converts.
Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
2016 was clearly the Year of Chance, and coloring book only served as proof that as his star continues to rise, his music is actually getting better and becoming ever more spiritually fulfilling. Most artists would be moving in the opposite direction, battling the pressures of growing fame, but Chance continues to pull off the near impossible act of remaining grounded while still capable of creating great music.
Peter Bjorn & John - Breakin' Point
This Swedish trio has yet to disappoint, and Breakin’ Point continued their run of writing ridiculously catchy is sometimes slyly subversive music. The message behind the songs is rarely as brightly smiling as the music would suggest, but give in
The Weeknd - Starboy
Abél Tesfaye is still singing about late night clubs, stealing other people's girls and the loneliness of searching for love in a broken world. But the sonic variety keeps things interesting and Tesfaye's vocals swoop and dip more often, instead of staying in his signature more monochromatic stratospheric tightrope walk. Modern sounds mix with the ‘70s, and his collaborations with Daft Punk additions really help kick the album into gear, like little islands of spice in an already tasty sea of music. Throw in some goodness from Cashmere Cat and the return of Max Martin and you have a winner.
Dinosaur Jr - Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
It's absolutely insane that Dinosaur Jr has released a trio of albums in the last few years that challenges their classic work from the '80s and feel just as satisfying while avoiding sentimentality. Plus, J Mascis' guitar is so loud I want to physically submerge myself in it like a cocoon.
The Thermals - We Disappear
The Thermals are still angry, and they’re still writing invigorating three-chord punk rock anthems. This was definitely sonic comfort food. In fact my only notes about the album, verbatim, were “Reliably catchy. Reliably pogo inducing. Another really great album.”
Cardinknox - Portrait
In a year that didn’t give us a new full length form Carly Rae Jepsen, Cardiknox took up the mantle and tried to fill the void with this bright and bubbly collection of dance pop. In a dark year this was a bright beacon of simple and good fun I latched onto more than a few times.
The By Gods - Get On Feelings
There’s just something so winning about The By Gods’ energetic take on loud indie pop that feels, well, different than most of their contemporaries. Bassist Natalie Natalie Pauley and drummer Tye Hammonds are in lockstep to create buoyant rhythmic beds for guitarist and singer George Pauley to lay big ‘ol power chords over. And George’s vocals have this raspy throatiness that makes it feel like he’s feeling what he’s saying and not just over-emoting for theatrical effect. It’s refreshing. I love these cats.
Pity Sex - White Hot Moon
I admit, that the name of this band led me to expect some sort of garage punk explosion, so I couldn’t have been more surprised by this fuzzy, catchy and energetic collection that skirts the border of shoe gaze and power-pop at times.
Diarrhea Planet - Turn To Gold
Still one of the worst named yet simultaneously best live bands on the planet. Turn To Gold didn’t break any new ground, but by this points Diarrhea Planet’s multi-guitar anthems don’t need to. I still have dreams of these folks one day just becoming Andrew WK's backing band, leading to the planet exploding in an aural atomic bomb of power chords and snaking guitar leads.
Bon Iver - 22, A Million
I know, I am just as surprised a Bon Iver album is on this list as you are. But Justin Vernon confounded all my expectations and released an album I found both challenging and fulfilling. He threw out much of his more vanilla folksy inclinations in favor of studio manipulations, and to these ears this resulted in what feels like his most honest, human album yet.
Dungen - Häxan
This soundtrack swims in very familiar waters, previously occupied by Pink Floyd during their foray into scoring films in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Dungen has always felt comfortable creating challenging psychedelia, but Häxan allows them to channel it in a way tat feels more compelling and focused than some of their more sprawling earlier work. This is a total light some candles and put on some headphones kind of record; something you may find to be a salve from time to time.
Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
Is this album even finished yet? I’m still not sure. But in a year where West’s celebrity threatened to overshadow his artistry, The Life Of Pablo proved the still has a whole lot to say through his music. At its core The Life Of Pablo feels more like a gospel album, and is a perfect backdrop for West to both celebrate his past and his influences while still carving out his own vision of the future. The album’s odd rollout dominated much of the conversation earlier this year, but I think the music will be the conversation people remember in the years to come.
Beach Slang - A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
The best Replacement band since The Replacements produced one of the rawest, most life-affirming albums of the year. The album title tells you all you need to know about the content of the songs. I caught a surprise late night set from the band at Liar’s Club a few months ago, and while I love the album, that live show made me a fan for life. Sometimes we need to be reminded that sharp punk rock shaved off at the edges with just the right amount of slop is a nigh perfect equation.
Foxes - All I Need
Foxes kind of reminds me of Lady Gaga with less weird tics and—at this point—more solid songwriting chops. All I Need snuck up on me, and was one of those albums I listened to initially out of a sense of duty that then found its way onto my car stereo for multiple driving sessions. In a year that felt a little weak on the pop side things, this was an unexpected bright spot.
Jacuzzi Boys - Ping Pong
This collection of buzzing power pop flirts with a touch of glam and a tinge of Britpop. It's too bad summer wound down before this LP came out since it is chock full of tunes fit for a bonfire beach party powered by a few barrels of whiskey. In a year that largely sucked, something mindlessly bouncy like this may be just the thing that gets me through the winter.
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