Year End Music

Top 10 Albums of 2016

S​teven Casimer Kowalski and Neal Christyson
​Good day, reader!  Neal and I are sorry this is late. We really are. But listen, we wanted to gnaw on all that 2016 had to offer before we declared what truly was best. So here it is, almost 2 weeks after we’d hoped you’d have it. But hey, this list is still full of great stuff. We are once again proud to share a list of records that feels uniquely ours. One that shares traits with but does not mimic the other year-end wrap ups of the world. As always, you can listen to the entire thing on Spotify HERE. Also, you can check out our previous lists too; 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

1. Hamilton Leithauser + Rotsam - I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

​Neal:  2016 was a year of self-exploration.  Despite the inevitable discussion about all the bad things that happened, personally I have to chalk it up as a good year.  A major event for me was being forced to accept and embrace that I am just a big fan of Hamilton Leithauser.  I spent actual years pretending to be surprised by how much I liked the latest Walkmen album. So here I am, again surprised by his work.  The album opens with Leithauser’s strained crooning delivering the line “I had a dream that you were mine, I had that dream a thousand times.”  The man’s voice just oozes sentimentality and nostalgia.  It will come as no surprise that I am a person who tends to fixate on and fall into the wonderful traps of those two words.  The songs on this album creak and swoon, it all just comes together so wonderfully.  There is some twang and shoo whop’s on “Rough Going”.  “In A Black Out” screams of a lonely walk home at the end of a long night, and is a favorite song as a result.  “You Ain’t That Young Kid” starts out sounding like The Band and gets practically loungey.  Here’s a take for the future: Lounge Music is back.  This is an album swimming in the past and predicting the future.  It’s the best album of 2016.

Steve: THIS DUDE IS FROM THE WALKMEN THAT EXPLAINS SO MUCH. Pitchfork gave this album an 8.3 and "Best New Album" back in September and I could not for the life of me figure out why. Not to say this isn’t a good album. It is a good album. But when the three subsequent albums to carry the honor are by Nicholas Jaar, Bon Iver, and Danny Brown, Hamilton’s effort felt weird. How weird? Well, others albums on that list were by Frank Ocean, Young Thug, Angel Olsen, and Nick Cave. So there Hamilton is, sandwiched between 7 of the most important records of the year. I thought he was just some dude and just some dude doesn’t get that slot from the Fork. But ahh, yes, of course, he is the former frontperson of seminal Strokes also ran the Walkmen. “Rough Going(I Won’t Let Up)” has that uneasy juke of Exile on Main Street and I love it. There are other moments that stand tall as well. Perhaps none more than when Hamilton sings with minimal accompaniment. His voice isn’t great but I don’t care. He goes for it. I like when people do that.

2. ​White Lung - Paradise

​Steve: This was one of those super easy picks. I heard track one in April and added the record to my ‘best of’ list immediately. Those don’t come around often. And it felt that much rarer in 2016 which, overall, was a year without clear winners. White Lung is my only album in 2016 that felt impossibly great. That isn’t taking away from the rest of your selections or mine. Everything on this list is worthy and challenging and cool. But I play this record and I feel that feeling which is exclusively reserved for when my jam comes on. I remain all the more impressed by White Lung because while once upon a time heavy music was my main course, now it occupies increasingly small portions of my plate. White Lung made such a succinct, aggressive, well written album that I found myself back into good shit that just rips. 2016 was a strange and often challenging year. I think our picks reflect the troubles we felt trying to navigate it. And maybe my pick at #2 is a return to my roots, to guitars, and to getting pissed off again.

Neal: There is not an album I tried to like more in 2016 than this album.  It felt like everyone whose taste I trust liked this album and I just don’t get it.  Yes, they are obviously talented. And sure, I suppose I can see the theoretical quality of the song writing.  Sonically, there is just something about it that doesn’t sound right.  It’s sounds so trite but it’s all too clean, and the vocals are weirdly too high, but also flat.  Did they just copy their guitar tone from “Plowed” by Sponge? The song “Demented” sure sounds like they did.  I don’t know.  I could be happy an album like this gets picked because it reinforces the beauty of individual taste and the idea that everyone’s opinion is valid.  But like, I also could use it as a way to reinforce my frequent mental place of “I’m the only one who gets it and I can’t understand how these people don’t see how wrong they are.” Which is a world I have cultivated and been very happy in for a long time.  

​3. Femme - Debutante

​Neal: It turns out there is a recipe for pop music success.  Call the first track on your album something silly and fun, something like “Your Poptarts Are Ready.” Follow that up with a song like “Fever Boy,” which is equal parts Le Tigre and The Shirelles, and you’re sailing.  Femme is Laura Bettinson, a woman totally at home when exploring warm, fuzzy, jagged, dancey, synth-pop.  All words which, in combination will get my attention.  Curious about who is going to be all over the songwriting credits for the next Beyonce album you are not yet obsessed with?  Femme is a real solid bet.  A certified bedroom dance party album if ever there was one.  

Steve: While I find your prediction that she’ll one day write for Beyonce a stretch I think you might be onto something with the idea that we’re only now starting to see Femme pick up steam. “Fever Boy” is a throwback to 2006 which is weird because that wasn’t so long ago. Then again, plenty of Blog House kids are still around trying to reconnect with a long lost year or two. Another favorite on here for me is “Dumb Blonde” which feels mad and sad. My final point is only semi-related. The earrings she wears on the album cover are terrific.

​4. De La Soul - and the Anonymous Nobody...

​Steve: 2016 was a big year to be You. I mean, it was a great year to point two thumbs at yourself and scream ME. Kanye West’s 2013 rebranding as Yeezus, an almost portmanteau of his monicker Yeezy and Jesus, is a great example of the push toward evermore specific self expression and self gratification. I’m not saying he started the trend. I’m just saying there he is. So like, I was pretty stoked after my first few listens to De La Soul’s and the Anonymous Nobody… that De La Soul appear on the album almost as an afterthought. Guests like Jill Scott, Snoop Dog, David Byrne and 2 Chainz tend to feature while the De La core backs them up. And when neither guests nor the group are the focus the album allows time for expansion and quiet and groove. My favorite track is “Drawn,” a 5 minute plus drift that would be just as at home on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as it is here. I don’t even think a member of De La shows up on the track until the last 30 seconds. Restraining your own voice feels like a radical act in 2016. It ensures that what you do say has significance but also runs the risk of your limited statement being overrun by the news cycle. I applaud every choice De La Soul made on this record. It is mature artistry at its absolute best.

Neal: This is one of those albums I hadn’t listened to before you picked it. It was that token legacy album I am always a little afraid to listen to.  De La Soul represents such a specific time and place in my life.  My brother and I would listen to 3 Feet High and Rising pretty much every morning while he drove me to school.  At a time when we were teenagers and not getting along very well in the way that brothers who have to spend too much time in close quarters do, songs like” Me, Myself, and I,” and “Plug Tunin” filled in the gaps for us.  It turns out De La released the exact type of album you want an artist of their stature to release.  It plays on and with your expectations and expands on them in such a wonderful way.  It ebbs and flows and represents growing up and accepting a former adversary as one of your favorite people.  The David Byrne collaboration, “Snoopies” is the type of song that would be playing at a party where halfway through the host brings out a giant reptile to show everyone.  Which is a real thing that happened at a party my brother took me to.

​5. Japanese Breakfast - Psychopomp

​Neal:  Every once in a while you listen to an album and it just clicks.  It immediately conjures that sense of precise time and place and you relate. Psychopomp was like that for me.  From the first listen it became the go-to album to put on when I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted to listen to.  Dishes...Psychopomp.  Laundry...Psychopomp.  Late at night and you don’t want to go to sleep... Psychopomp.  Reluctant morning commute the next day...Psychopomp.  It almost doesn’t even have any standout songs because it all just work so well as a unit.  However, if you are inclined to jump, “Heft” drives and drones from the first note and never really stops.  “Everybody Wants to Love You” exists in that wonderful world of jangly earnestness.  “The Woman That Loves You” goes all rock 'n roll hazy and shows off what a wonderful voice lead singer Michelle Zauner has.

Steve: What a great surprise this album is. And you’re right, I don’t see much here that stands out and yet I played it over and over and over again. It might have something to do with only one song hitting the four minute mark while the rest are sub three minutes. The songs move passed you before you have time to really sink your teeth in. Japanese Breakfast writes great songs but they don’t give you much time to remember the hook. As soon as I had one figured out I was on to the next one and once I had that one I was two songs beyond that. What’s a listener to do but put it on when he does the dishes? I think I’ll take “Everybody Wants to Love You” as my standout. It has a rad little guitar solo right before the chorus kicks back in.

​6. Apollo Brown and Skyzoo - The Easy Truth

​Steve: I was surprised by how much hip-hop I loved once I started to reflect on 2016. Until I started to take stock I just didn’t see how much stand out rap I’d enjoyed. So consider The Easy Truth a catch-all for many of the albums, tracks and beats that took me to and from work in 2016. From “Minnesota” by Lil Yachty to “Pick Up the Phone” by Young Thug to “Panda” by Desiigner to De La, Skyzoo, Danny Brown, Vince Staples, Chance and that surprisingly great DRAM album 2016, was packed with incredible music. Apollo Brown and Skyzoo’s The Easy Truth sounds like many, many records that came before it. But that classic east coast style is still the one that resonates with me most. I appreciate all that new stuff and the thousands of new words for weed I learned, but ultimately, this is the stuff that resonates best for me. Additionally and tangentially on topic, my beat of the year award goes to Honorable C.N.O.T.E. for ASAP Ferg’s “New Level,” an absolutely pummeling hammer-on-nail track I never tire of.

Neal:  I think this year, more than any other, has the most albums you chose which I had never listened to.  It’s wonderful when that happens, especially when I end up liking an album as much as I like The Easy Truth.  This album is goddamn spectacular.  Ignore what I said about White Lung, you have unimpeachable taste, sir.  It hits all the notes of the hip-hop that originally won me over.  The stuff where Mos Def would tell you he wasn’t a rapper, he was an emcee.  And KRS-One would tell you that rapping was something you did, hip-hop was something you lived.  All that silly stuff that made 16 year old Neal swoon.  “Basquiat on the Draw” is my favorite for pretty obvious reasons, not least of which is the Toni Kukoc reference.  And yeah, you can’t talk about the state of rap in 2016 without making a mention of Lil Yachty because he was the most fun.

​7. Fear of Men - Fall Forever

​Neal: Let’s talk about what a great album cover can do.  Fall Forever has a cover which is sexy, and weird, and somewhat futuristic, but uses a font and layout that also greatly echoes post-punk Manchester.  Turns out that puts you right in the perfect headspace for this album.  The first actual song, “Undine,” which as it turns out is a mythical water nymph, strains and staggers with machine gun drums and what sounds like a blown out and clipped slide guitar.  Singer/Guitarist Jess Weiss has a voice which sounds like a slightly more ethereal Dolores O’Riordan.  Let’s just double back on the adjectives used so far: sexy, weird, somewhat futuristic, post-punk, mythical water nymph, strains and staggers, blown out, clipped, ethereal.  Take those words and add them to that album cover and I think we are creating a great capsule here.  You have a great image and idea but then halfway through the album a song like “Ruins” which is a beautiful monster that simultaneously destroys and reinforces that image.  That is why I love this album and keep going back to it.  

Steve: I’ve always respected Fear of Men for staying on brand. All of their LP covers to date have a similar aesthetic and while their sound has evolved I appreciate thier keeping the visual aspect of their albums consistent. Of course, the first thing I start to think about when things like this happen is when the streak will break. Hot Water Music broke their streak in 2004 and only this year, Drive by Truckers changed their album aesthetic for the first time in fifteen years and something like nine albums. I don’t mind telling you I don’t like it!  I think keeping one choice consistent across all your records is a great idea. And I understand and am sympathetic to stagnation and freedom but for real I just like the symmetry.

​8. Ari Lennox - Pho EP

​Steve: I’ll keep in brief because I don’t listen to much R&B and the more I talk about it the worse I’ll sound. Ari’s Pho EP is her second. She is 25 and my pick for someone who stands to blow up big in 2017. I don’t know if she’ll guest somewhere and ride that wave or simply drop a single that is somehow superior to the 7 songs on this EP. I’ve been right about these things before. Let’s hear it for a big new voice.

Neal:  You may be, sort of, broke an unspoken rule of picking an EP for this list.  But at least you had the gumption to pick one that is so brazenly, simply titled EP.  Can we also take a moment to note how an R&B album has been prominently featured on each of our lists for the past few years, often accompanied with us talking about how it is possibly poised to break big again.  Maybe it’s not though.  Maybe it’s sitting in this wonderful niche space where people like Ari Lennox can comfortably make the exact songs they want.  But you’re probably right about her blowing up in 2017.  And while I write this, “Night Drive” comes on, (in which she talks about listening to Herbie Hancock and buying Skittles and Crown Royal), and reminds me to stop overthinking it and just groove.

​9. Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing

​Neal: At first I was convinced that the song “O Dreaded C Town” was a dig at one of the two cities you I have lived in and loved.  But it’s ok because Frankie Cosmos seems so damn cool.  And I feel like I’m 15 so I write “Yeah Man, C Town Is The Worst” in my journal.  Then someone asks me why I have such a gripe with a grocery store, and it all makes sense.  You see, Frankie Cosmos appears to the be the type of artist we will likely just be following behind.  And it’s ok, because if she keeps putting out albums like Next Thing I will happily play catch up.

Steve: Fun fact, Frankie Cosmos is the daughter of actor Kevin Kline and actress Phoebe Cates. Which means if I want to, I can write thoughtfully about how her brand of neu-surf draws a direct connection to the laid back Cali characters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I won’t do that. Nor will I write how her father’s performance in Dave is super underrated or how Gremlins is so great. What I will say is I am sorry for assuming she was one of the members of Vivian Girls and well, kinda writing her off for my mistaken attribution. This is great album of sadly fun pop songs and I should have spent more time with it in 2016. Gonna have to play catch up with it.

​10. Jagwar Ma - Every Now & Then

​Steve: This spot is catch all for the renewed love of music from the 1980s I found in 2016. So this was either going to be Jagwar Ma’s take on 80s pop with Every Now & Then or Cut Copy’s Tangerine Dream styled January Tape. Jagwar Ma eventually won out because Cut Copy didn’t have anything nearly as good as “Give Me a Reason”. It’s a great mix of nostalgia throughout with influences ranging from The Happy Mondays to New Order to Talk Talk mixing together into interesting if not entirely new results. I still feel like 2016 had some new tricks to show me but I am waiting for that first year where I can trace an antecedent back to another artist for just about everything I hear. It is coming for me as it comes for all of us.

Neal: Somewhat surprisingly, 2016 was a big year for 80s throwbacks.  I would also like to put Merchandise’s A Corpse Wired For Sound, and also Savages Adore Life.  A lot of these scratched a nostalgia itch in the same way that LVL Up’s Return to Love did for me.  And yeah, I am just using this spot to mention a lot of albums which were near misses to this list because it’s half my list and I can do whatever I want.  You’re totally right that Jagwar Ma beats them out for the spot, and so so much of it has to do with the Happy Mondays vibe they are fully embracing.  Because they do it so well.  

Honorable Mentions

​1. Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love
Instead of a cute rap album Donald Glover made a full throated funk wonder. The album is uneven, so in the honorable mentions it goes. But the brilliance of the first six or so tracks ranks with anything I heard this year. And album opener “Me and Your Mama” dredges up Funkadelic without try to innovate away the fun.

2. Bent Shapes - Wolves of Want
Pro Tip: Just pay attention to whatever drummer Andrew Sadoway is involved with.  Good music always follows.

3. Wolf People - Ruins
Psychedelic hard rock drawn from a less self-indulgent Jethro Tull framework. I love this album so much. It is down here in the mentions because I recognize that maybe not everyone wants to hear early Floyd jams played by four English boys who look like substitute biology teachers.

4. The Range - Potential
This has all the buzzwords (Brooklyn, Producer, YouTube Samples) which should immediately make it entirely too self indulgent.  But it works.  And it’s beautiful.

5. Sammus - Pieces in Space
Sammus singing about imposter syndrome in graduate school and playing videogames hit me at 35 like Green Day singing about masturbation hit me when I was 13. I could've made a good case for "1080p" being the defining single of 2016. Listen to it.

6. PUP - The Dream Is Over
Not since Trick Daddy’s “I’m a Thug” has there been a lyric I identified with as much as “three beers and I’m so messed up, get drunk and I can’t shut up.”