Best Albums of 2016 | Mike Rengel

Wes Miles and Ra Ra Riot strike an impeccable equilibrium between Beta Love and The Orchard.

Let’s not mince words: 2016 was a crappy year. Dumpster fire as TIME “Person of the Year” terrible. This was a year when facts no longer seemed to matter, when inexperience, undisguised hatred and crass appeal to people’s fears meant more to half of the USA than experience, equality, and progression as a society. Plus, we lost a number of leading musical lights, including the massively saddening trio of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. Any one of those by themselves would have been depressing AF. But to lose them all, plus more, while the world seemingly burned around us? That’s heavy, and bitter, and tough to swallow.

Thankfully, 2016 was a year overflowing with inventive, fortifying, soul-stirring music. This was one of the best years for music I can remember, probably the best overall in my book since 2011, and this bounty went a long way toward helping to preserve my sanity amid the chaos. With that, I present my favorites albums of 2016. As always, I’m not claiming these are the objective best; that’s unknowable. Art is subjective; it’s like, my opinion, maaaaaan. But these are the records that kept my heart fires burning and my soul intact during an otherwise bleak, kick-to-the-crotch kind of year in the world.

(Before we begin, I’ve created a companion Spotify playlist full of selections from these albums, and much more. You can find it here.)

The Top 10 (in no specific order)

Ra Ra Riot | Need Your Light (Barsuk)

Teaming up with best bud, partner in crime, and it-guy/man with the magic touch Rostam Batmanglij, Wes Miles and Ra Ra Riot strike an impeccable equilibrium between the synth-pop immediacy and burnished sheen of Beta Love, and the finely wrought melodies and chamber pop inflections of The Orchard. Miles’ vocals are as supple as ever, elastic but not overwrought, and Batmanglij adds rhythmic complexity and production expertise to an already strong set of songs. Need Your Light is an affecting, exuberant and pensive, highly danceable record, the state of love and trust set to a violin-streaked electro beat.

Stream this: “Water” (and “I Need Your Light”)

Michael Kiwanuka | Love & Hate (Polydor)

An album full of socially conscious, emotionally intelligent, Pink Floyd–infused soul. Each song is a journey in miniature, moving and thoughtful. Kiwanuka doesn’t shy away from expansive arrangements, and the long songs dramatically unfold, and give the equally artful shorter songs even greater impact by contrast. Kiwanuka’s voice is rich and agile, tentatively confident and unexpectedly vulnerable. Love & Hate explores regret, but above all, disappointment: in society, in lovers, but most of all, in one’s own self.

Stream this: “Cold Little Heart”

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam | I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (Glassnote)

The collaboration between the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser and onetime Weekend Vampire Rostam Batmanglij (him again) is one of the most arresting things I heard all year. It incorporates elements of doo-wop, polyrhythmic synth/dance, Leonard Cohen, mid-’60s “Dylan in NYC” folk-jangle-shuffle, and the sort of popular song you might hear in a mid-1950s dive bar. Leithauser’s work on expanding and refashioning his vocal style pays off in a major way here. This is romantic, soul-searching, captivating, sonic–Edward-Hopper stuff, positively dripping with longing and late-night feels. Put this one on when you come home from the pub and you’re not even close to ready for bed.

Stream this: “When the Truth Is…”

Frank Ocean | Blonde (Def Jam)

Pitch-shifted gospel and clear-voiced diary entries. Rage and mourning at societal injustice. Lust and barely contained percolating love. Maturing but knowing you’re not finished doing so. Where Channel Orange was a feature film, Blonde is a series of vignettes, mostly eschewing centerpieces (the ones that are here, especially the amazing trio of “Nike,” “Nights,” and “Futura Free,” hit hard despite staying as low-key as most of the album as a whole) and focusing on snapshots. Blonde channels the spirit of conversations you have on late-night city drives: sometimes with confidants, sometimes with yourself. It’s small moments dressed in downtempo R&B, electronic experiments, treated guitars, and midnight whispers that add up to a remarkable big picture of doing what you have to do to survive, physically and emotionally; of sex and social conscience. And it hits hard by directing a little blame outward, but most of it inward. Ocean’s forthrightness and attempts at forging honest connections are audacious and refreshing.

Stream this: “Nights”

case/lang/veirs | case/lang/veirs (Anti-)

Let’s be honest here: I’d listen to Neko Case sing the phone book or a takeaway curry menu. She’s a force of nature, one of the most impressive voices and strongest spirits in music. Her teaming up with fellow cult favorites k.d. lang and Laura Veirs makes a great thing three times better. You can hear what each artist brings to the table: Veirs: lightly orchestrated indie folk/rock; Case: jangly country rock; lang: smoky torch songs. But it’s a shared spotlight, and ultimately all styles merge into a stunning whole. Taking turns on lead vocals, the soaring leads coexist with plentiful harmonies and choruses; it sounds like what you’d sing and want to listen to on a Pacific Northwest road trip/camping trip. There’s no ego or jostling for position here. case/lang/veirs is a testament to the joy and power of collaboration. It’s one of the most beautiful, affirming things I heard in a soul-trying year. Thanks to Ms. lang for bringing the team together.

Stream this: “Atomic Number” (and “Down I-5” too, go on, you’re worth it)

Leonard Cohen | You Want It Darker (Sony)

Cohen’s music has always been replete with grinning gallows humor, with the poetry of shafts of light punctuating inherent darkness. It’s always been part of his artistic DNA. But on You Want It Darker, you hear night setting in, thicker and more starless than ever before. Expertly produced by Patrick Leonard and Cohen’s son Adam, Darker quietly but emphatically tells the world that Cohen is “ready to go.” With this concise nine-song set, he makes the rounds, saying goodbye to family, friends, lovers, and the world. (“Treaty,” in particular, is a heartbreaking declaration of regret and affection amid dissolution.) The title track is a reckoning soundtracked by church organs played in the pitch black, illuminated only by a faint strand of creepy Halloween moonlight seeping in through a high window. “You want it darker/we kill the flame” is a sadly perfect lyric to sum up 2016’s myriad attacks on progress and enlightenment. The sighing finality of the album is balanced by its unflinching humanity and soul, making it the perfect farewell from an artist whose work was a 50-year-long font of spirit, humor, sex, and philosophy. It was song and it was such perfect poetry, steeped in the earthiness of the human condition and the wide-eyed pondering of the meaning of life, and it was all of that ’til the final breath.

Stream this: “You Want It Darker”

The Amazing | Ambulance (Partisan)

The Amazing are one of the most aptly named bands in existence. They blend stretched-out melancholy (think Disintegration and Wish–era Cure); gauzy, folky indie that reminds me of the “out for a late night walk” vibe of The Clientele; and a dynamic, delay-driven triple guitar setup that suggests prime Red House Painters. There’s piano, organ, and Mellotron for additional color, and the arrangements shift like spring weather—from gentle rains to thunderstorms, and then back to soft drops. Ambulance is atmospheric, melodic, and textured; it exudes the nervous, shot-through-with-smiles joys of a burgeoning relationship.

Stream this: “Ambulance”

David Bowie | Blackstar (ISO/Columbia)

Bowie’s 2013 comeback album The Next Day was an unexpected, welcome return but felt classicist. Blackstar also came out of nowhere, but sounded like nothing he’d ever done before. Bold, experimental jazz commingles with moody electronica reminiscent of his vastly underrated 1995 LP Outside. Blackstar is saturated with allusions to death, mortality, and decay, and is deeply, truly weird. But the passion poured into these songs means the album never becomes macabre. Instead, it pulses with artistic vigor even as the flesh degrades. Blackstar stands as not only a powerful swansong, but one of Bowie’s best records, period. This was Bowie pushing boundaries ’til the very end, and it is one hell of a way to say goodbye.

Stream this: “Blackstar”

Night Moves | Pennied Days (Domino)

Melody-drenched psychedelic pop with a fondness for 1970s soft rock and warmly produced classic rock. Think Todd Rundgren playing Mellotron and Neil Finn on electric piano, falling through a dimensional portal together and landing on The Band on the other side. There’s magic in the George Harrison slide guitars and John Pelant’s passionate, Northern Soul–inflected vocals. Pennied Days’ inherent warmth sounds extra special on vinyl, which only amplifies the album’s sewn-to-its-sleeve heart.

Stream this: “Carl Sagan”

Anderson .Paak | Malibu (Empire/OBE/Steel Wool/Art Club)

A spiritual successor to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Hip-hop, future funk, and crystalline, psychedelic R&B swim crisscrossing paths, speaking truth about fatherhood, family, love, social failings, and the idea that there’s a better way out/through: together. This is a record of both instant joys and remarkable depth, equally festival ready and worthy of headphone contemplation.

Stream this: “The Bird”

 

Honorable Mentions/The Best of the Rest

Marillion | F.E.A.R. (Intact)

This is far from light listening. Freed from expectation and looking to make a statement, the always-evolving, constantly searching veteran group delivers a sprawling set of multi-part suites that are equal parts lament, condemnation, and celebration. F.E.A.R. contains some of Marillion’s heaviest ever music (Steve Rothery’s spectacular, diverse guitar work gets more so every year) and some of their gentlest. The contrast between dissonant crunches, folky interludes, and spacy, soaring Floydian passages keeps the complex song structures compelling. Lyrically, this is philosophical stuff. “The Leavers” examines life on the road, those who stay behind, and the coming together of the two, both in terms of familial reunion, and touring band and fans coming out to meet them for a night at a show. “The New Kings” is a scathing indictment of capitalism run amok, oligarchy, and political systems that facilitate “every person for themselves” behavior. When Steve Hogarth sings, sotto voce (his gorgeous voice tempered by age but more nuanced than ever) “fuck everyone and run,” it’s not aggro vulgarity—it’s an elegy for a society no longer concerned with looking after all of its members. “Living in Fear” is XTC by way of Tears for Fears’ Sowing the Seeds of Love, a defiantly powerful argument for openness and vulnerability as a radical act, for not walling ourselves off from others (both physically and emotionally) in the face of threats, perceived and real. To rejecting fear as a driving force; to embracing empathy instead of digging deeper into detachment and greed. That there are spiritual, social, and political consequences to withdrawal and distrust. I can barely think of an album more germane to the year we have lived.

Stream this: “Living in Fear”

Kristin Kontrol | X-Communicate (Sub Pop)

Kristin Welchez (aka Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls) sets aside her indie-girl group-garage sound in favor of an electronic/New Wave, 1980s Bowie + Prince–inflected set. A clean, sympathetic, reverb-heavy 1980s production from former Pains of Being Pure at Heart drummer/Ice Choir mastermind Kurt Feldman gives these songs a spacious, moody atmosphere, heavy with late-night doubt, slow but steady self-discovery, and the reflection of sodium streetlights on still-wet pavement.

Stream this: “What is Love”

Daughter | Not to Disappear (Glassnote)

As crystalline as a walk on a frozen, snow swept, starlit night. Not to Disappear blends indie folk, spoken word, minimalistic electronica, and expansive, art-rock song structures into a fitting soundtrack for ruminations on solitude, insecurity, loss, and disappointment. It’s a record that’s often as arresting as looking into someone’s eyes and catching a fleeting glimpse of the accumulated weight of their life’s heartache and confusion. There’s an aching beauty to Elena Tonra’s hushed, yet emphatic vocals as they bounce around these high-ceilinged songs, transforming what would otherwise be empty space into a prism of emotion. Gothic, but stopping before it gets to goth.

Stream this: “Alone/With You”

The Anchoress | Confessions of a Romance Novelist (KScope)

Feminist polymath and totally stylin’ badass Catherine AD (that’s Dr. Catherine Anne Davies to you) teams up with former Mansun impresario Paul Draper for a series of literate and lushly orchestrated, art rock/prog–inflected short stories of politics, romance, and romantic politics. This is self-described “revenge pop,” Kate Bush and Tori Amos by way of David Bowie and the Manic Street Preachers, brimming with the despondency, fury, and drama borne of a new-ish beau suddenly ghosting on you, and having just read a thousand books in all your newfound free time.

Stream this: “One for Sorrow”

Kevin Morby | Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)

File under: records I loved in 2016, forgot about, and rediscovered while putting together this very end of the year best-of. Singing Saw removes the croon and overt twang from Nashville Skyline but keeps its spirit, throws in some mid-1970s Leonard Cohen, and takes it all on a pensive, yet illuminating walk through the Hollywood Hills.

Stream this: “I Have Been to the Mountain”

The Last Shadow Puppets | Everything You’ve Come to Expect (Domino)

Alex Turner slowly, steadily morphed into a hard-rocking, debonair teddy boy over in his day job in Arctic Monkeys. With the Last Shadow Puppets, he takes that suave persona on a side trip, with Miles Kane riding shotgun, into swirling spy movie soundtrack music, orchestrated old-school pop, and a past-life Vegas-sordid rakish appeal that’s at once sleazy and admittedly super hot.

Stream this: “Dracula Teeth”

Car Seat Headrest | Teens of Denial (Matador)

24-year-old Will Toldeo’s 10th (!) album is a burbling stew pot of anxiety, racing thoughts, depression, and words. All of the words! Teens of Denial = the Strokes + Death Cab for Cutie + an appointment with your psychologist. Heavy, wiry Television vibes combine with dense, stream-of-consciousness-poetic lyrics (think a more detached, wryly observant early Conor Oberst as bedroom Bright Eyes) to make music that’s extroverted and introverted, and oscillates between sprawling and concise.

Stream this: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

Modern Baseball | Holy Ghost (Run for Cover)

Melodic but jagged DIY/emo/pop-punk made by burgeoning grownup humans with real grownup human problems, that’ll make you ask (and subsequently not care about the answer to the question), “What year is this again?”

Stream this: “Wedding Singer”

Savages | Adore Life (Matador)

The women of Savages are a countermeasure to a year’s accumulated caustic, toxic masculinity. Adore Life is strikingly, beautifully dissonant, deftly adept at utilizing negative space, raw, passionate, emotional, and strong as eff. Austerity has never been so captivating.

Stream this: “Adore”

Bon Iver | 22, a Million (Jagjaguwar)

Justin Vernon’s latest missive is like tuning a radio in a smart cabin in an Upper Midwest forest. Amid the Autotune, glitches, and free-jazz squonks arrive moments of static-free clarity: transcendent melody, quiet, folky communions, banjo, and bits of soft rock/Bruce Hornsby (love when that “Beth/Rest” production style occasionally pops up again). Stick with this one; play it a bunch of times in a row. The first three songs are some of its most experimental material (shades of Peter Gabriel and latter-period Kanye), but it’s fascinatingly challenging, and the payoff once you get to the mix of techno-obfuscation and unfettered soul from “33 GOD” and beyond is downright beautiful, like coming to a partial clearing next to a river in that same dense Wisconsin forest.

Stream this: “666 (Upsidedowncross)”

Banks & Steelz | Anything But Words (Warner Bros.)

Unlikely partners Paul Banks (frontman of Interpol) and The RZA apparently bonded over the equally unlikely trio of tequila, noodles, and chess—and the result is a storming fusion of aggro hip-hop and slinky post-rock, one that feels like the natural result of mutual respect and interest. On paper, this has no real right to work. But in practice? It has the personality and chops to obliterate all comers.

Stream this: “Giant”

Angel Olsen | My Woman (Jagjaguwar)

Lo-fi torch songs, wickedly strong and intensely vulnerable.

Stream this: “Never Be Mine”

Butch Walker | Stay Gold (Dangerbird)

An homage to 1980s Springsteen mixed with a generous helping of dusty Ryan Adams country rock.

Stream this: “Ludlow Expectations”

Margo Price | Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)

Price has a compelling story, having endured poverty, abuse, drugs, and a stint in jail. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is littered with country mythos–appropriate backstory. Her songs, the true stars of this show, embody persistence forged in the crucible of consistent hardship, and exude a quiet, emotional confidence that sounds like it was honed by spending a decade as the house band in a ramshackle honky tonk. Old-school twang, seductive orchestration, and memorable melodies, coupled with Price’s rare combination of confidence and humility, makes this one of the best country albums you could hope to hear in this or any year.

Stream this: “How the Mighty Have Fallen”

Pet Shop Boys | Super (x2)

The second album in a planned trilogy of collaborations with producer Stuart Price, Super continues Tennant & Lowe’s late-career resurgence, infusing their newfound refocus on Disco-style dance music with effortless pop reminiscent of the outré joy of Very. This is veteran craft and experience served with a double shot of youthful vigor.

Stream this: “Undertow”

The Jayhawks | Paging Mr. Proust (Sham)

Even with Mark Olson back out of the mix, Gary Louris (aided by Peter Buck in the producer’s chair) delivers a Jayhawks album that evokes their classic Midwestern country rock, and then evolves it. It’s less Harvest Neil Young and more On the Beach combined with Re-ac-tor Neil Young. Edgier-than-usual textures and grooves abound with classic jangle and Americana vibes and harmonies to support it all.

Stream this: “Leaving the Monsters Behind” (also, “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces” is terrifically pretty; listen to that one, too)

Bleached | Welcome the Worms (Dead Oceans)

An amalgam of the Breeders’ 1990s rhythmic alt rock, interesting synthesizer touches, and a welcome, hearty dollop of the Go-Go’s that’s an irresistible combination of attitude and style.

Stream this: “Keep on Keepin’ On”

Låpsley | Long Way Home (Her Way/XL)

The debut LP from from 20-year-old English singer/songwriter Holly Lapsley Fletcher was one of my favorite little things of 2016. Long Way Home focuses on downtempo electro-R&B in the vein of Jessie Ware, and infuses it with trip-hop along with a Labrador Records–style Swedish pop sensibility that feels at once sweeping and intimate. Plus, she decided to put an “å” in her stage name ’cause it looked cool, which I fully understand and support.

Stream this: “Love Is Blind”

Green Day | Revolution Radio (Reprise)

I won’t front: I’ve been a Green Day fan for over 20 years, but I was starting to fall out of love with one of my favorite groups. 21st Century Breakdown was bloated and self-important, lacking the humor and spirit that made the similarly epic American Idiot one of the best rock records of the 2000s. And while ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! boasted some fine songs, they were easy to lose in the shuffle of so much new material coming out in such rapid succession. Between my reactions to those albums, Billie Joe Armstrong’s addiction issues, and Mike Dirnt dealing with his wife’s cancer diagnosis, I worried Green Day was over, or at least spent as a creative force I had a passion for. Thankfully, Revolution Radio is the Green Day album I was hoping they’d make again but was worried they never would. It’s focused, rousing, and occasionally incendiary. It’s reflective, angry yet mature, and, quite often, full of piss and vinegar in a way the band hasn’t been in over a decade. Welcome back, gents!

Stream this: “Bang Bang”

Lydia Loveless | Real (Bloodshot)

A little glossier this time, but still the same mix of hard-ass lip, self-effacing sadness, and tender heart that makes Ms. Loveless’s music so engaging and, well, real. Joan Jett via Loretta Lynn. Sounds like a show at Off Broadway feels.

Stream this: “Longer”

Wilco | Schmilco (DBPM)

Where its sister album Star Wars was buzzy, like a witty, laughy conversation going three directions at once at a beery house hang with good friends, Schmilco is quieter but incisive. It’s doubt’s darkness lit by hopes. It’s home alone with a glass of scotch, feeling the world’s weight but not being overcome by it. This is not the greatest Wilco record, but it’s home to plenty of small charms and insight.

Stream this: “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”

Blood Orange | Freetown Sound (Domino)

Major personal lesson/takeaway from 2016: Shut up and listen to voices struggling to be heard. Listen to Dev Hynes here. Listen hard. Freetown Sound was written for those who had been told they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” It’s personal and political, sad and defiant, all set to an engrossing mix of funk and icy synth–R&B with a predilection for 1980s Michael Jackson ballads.

Stream this: “Augustine”

A Tribe Called Quest | We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)

RIP Phife Dawg. If ever a year called for the return of A Tribe Called Quest, it was 2016. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad couldn’t have picked a better time to drop some surprise science. Its jazzy hip-hop shines a flashlight on racism and inequality, while trying to find a way to not merely survive, but transcend. This is music that artfully, soulfully articulates John Lydon’s declaration that “anger is an energy,” a record that speaks out against injustice and channels outrage and frustration at society’s failures into art that not only comforts, but attempts to offer solutions.

Stream this: The album opening one-two punch of “The Space Program” and “We the People…” is something every human should hear. | Mike Rengel

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