In many ways, 2016 has been a tough year—hell, we could just say that it really sucked—but as always, we’ve had music to help us get through. Here are my 40 favorite albums of the year, based as always on my personal critical criteria: These are the sounds I couldn’t and can’t live without.
1. Savages, Adore Life (Matador)
Be here now. Live in the moment. Carpe diem. However you want to phrase it, this is the message of all great rock ’n’ roll—explicit in the lyrics, implied in the music, or in the case of Savages, both. If there is a better band in rock today, live or on its second album, I haven’t heard it. Here are my review of the album and the band’s live set at Metro in April for this blog, and here are the album review and a live performance and interview for Sound Opinions.
2. Teen, Love Yes (Carpark)
I’ve long agreed with musical philosopher Brian Eno that popular music already has produced so many love songs that no one ever needs to write another. But Love Yes, the third album from the Brooklyn-based shoegazer-funk, space-prog, synth-pop quartet Teen, is strong enough to make anyone reconsider that hard line. Here is my review for this blog, and here is our review from Sound Opinions.
3. La Femme, Mystère (Born Bad)
Slightly naughty, space-age seductive, effervescent pop giddiness fueled by unforgettable hooks and guaranteed to transport you to a quiet moonlit moment sipping Pernod with an amour on the left bank of the Seine. And, really, what could be better than that? Here is my review for this blog, and here I am waxing rhapsodic about the group as a Buried Treasure on Sound Opinions.
4. Sneaks, Gymnastics (Merge)
To call the stark, simple, but superb 10-songs-in-14-minutes debut by Sneaks minimalist is an understatement that ranks with describing the Grand Canyon as a big hole in the ground. Rarely in the history of electronic pop or rock has anyone done as much with as little as Washington, D.C.’s young multi-ethnic auteur Eva Moolchan. Here is my review for this blog, and here I am lauding the album as a Buried Treasure on Sound Opinions.
5. The Gotobeds, Blood//Sugar//Secs//Traffic (Sub Pop)
Graduating to Sub Pop for their second album, the Pittsburgh foursome split the difference between angular art-punk and early Replacements chaos on another energizing thrill ride with anger leavened by humor and noise sweetened with melody. Here is my review for this blog, and listen for a performance by and interview with the band on an upcoming episode of Sound Opinions.
6. Honeyblood, Babes Never Die (FatCat)
Wonderfully witchy and full of foggy-night-on-the-bog atmospherics, the Scottish duo’s second album belies its many goth song titles with a relentless rhythmic drive, massive singalong choruses, and some of the most ferocious drumming since Dave Grohl powered Nirvana. Here is my review for this blog, here I am talking about the album on Sound Opinions, and listen to the show for an upcoming live performance and interview.
7. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones)
Norwegian musician Jenny Hval has called her sixth album “an investigation of the purest and most powerful yet most trivial and most terrifying blood.” The avant-pop artist long has been obsessed with bodily effluvia, but she’s never been quite so funny or vampire-creepy in her lyrics, while musically channeling influences raning from Kate Bush to Bjork, and Laurie Anderson to the Nordic death metal she loved in her teens. Here is my review for this blog, and here I am highlighting one of the album’s creepiest moments for Halloween on Sound Opinions.
8. Drive-By Truckers, American Band (ATO)
As vital today as they were when they debuted in 1998, these postmodern Southern rockers offer a powerful and empathetic examination for the anger roiling in much of middle America today, paired with music as potent as Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the height of their powers. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
9. The Handsome Family, Unseen (Milk & Scissors)
The long-running husband-and-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks continue to write screenplays for Quentin Tarantino that wind up getting filmed by Wes Anderson and set to the sounds of “the old, weird America.” And the familiar mix has never sounded so fresh or vital. Here is my review for this blog, and here is a performance and interview with the band on Sound Opinions.
10. Beach Slang, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (Polyvinyl)
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe that rock ’n’ roll can save our lives, and those who consider it mere entertainment. James Alex proudly stands among the latter, and the second album from his Philadelphia group gives plenty of reasons to believe he’s right. Here is my review for this blog, and here is a performance and interview with Alex on Sound Opinions.
11. Solange, A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia)
Always more experiment than her big sis, Solange takes a turn toward neo-soul with producer Raphael Saadiq on her third album, a quieter, more introspective set, but one that is no less furious in its politics than Lemonade. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
12. Jamila Woods, HEAVN (Closed Sessions)
Leaping from prized backing vocalist to center stage with her debut album, the Chicago singer effortlessly blends soul, R&B, and hip hop with lyrics that paint a full and complicated picture of life as an African-American woman in 2016. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
13. Beyonce, Lemonade (Columbia)
A surprise release in every sense of the term, this is the masterpiece we’d begun to doubt Queen Bey could produce, paring down the superstar pop productions of the past to a sound that’s more raw and real, with lyrics to match as she surveys both the complications of a struggling relationship and the battles of Black Lives Matter. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
14. The Coathangers, Nosebleed Weekend (Suicide Squeeze)
Five albums into a career that began as a joke in 2006, the Coathangers get serious about song craft and deliver 13 primo ditties that lack none of the old garage-rock fire but emerge even strong for a new devotion to melody. Here is my review for this blog, and here I am talking about the band on Sound Opinions.
15. Parquet Courts, Human Performance (Rough Trade)
The fifth album from New York-via-Texas art-rockers Parquet Court doesn’t fundamentally alter the sound they first introduced on a D.I.Y. cassette in 2011; there’s some jaunty piano and droning organ this time around, but we still get the propulsive subway-train rhythms, laidback-to-falling over vocals about the mundanities of everyday life, and most of all the snaking, intertwining, ever-insinuating dual guitars of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown, who solidify themselves as convincing heirs to the Verlaine/Lloyd Television tradition. Here is my review for this blog, and here is our review from Sound Opinions.
16. Tacocat, Lost Time (Sub Pop)
The Seattle quartet with a fondness for pop culture-silliness, palindromes, and delightfully effervescent melodies is absolutely irresistible on its third album of loving odes to strong women paired with bubblegum pop-meets-Nuggets garage rock. Here is my review for this blog.
17. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)
Far wiser than his 23 years merit, Chicago’s Chancellor Bennett once again surveys the tragic sadness of the violence that grips our city, but this time he pegs the solutions: church and community. Riding the smooth rhythms of frequent collaborators Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Chance takes us to church, reveling musically in Chicago’s rich gospel tradition with touches of jazz and house while testifying like an activist preacher. Here is my review for this blog, and here is our review from Sound Opinions.
18. Mick Jenkins, The Healing Component (Cinematic)
Another key player in the Chicago hip-hop scene makes his official debut after a series of highly praised mixtapes, delivering a brilliant message of love paired with righteous anger about the perils to black lives in the Windy City. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
19. Frank Ocean, Blond (Boys Don’t Cry)
The second biggest surprise “visual” album of 2016, Frank Ocean’s latest is low-key and moody as it surveys issues of gender-fluidity and disconnection in the digital age—more A Seat at the Table than Lemonade—with a heavy dose of Black Mirror dystopian paranoia leavened by the suggestion of an answer we’ve heard from several strong records this year: Love is the way to prevail. Here is our review from Sound Opinions.
20. The Album Leaf, Between Waves (Relapse)
The best ambient musicians create gorgeous, seductive soundscapes that seem as if they have been playing forever, long before you tuned in, and continuing long after you hit “next.” So it is with Jimmy LaValle on his sixth release as the Album Leaf, as deep and rewarding a tonic for troubled times as I heard in a year that very much required them. Here is my review for this blog, and listen for an upcoming interview and live performance on Sound Opinions.
And, rounding out the Top 40 with the next 20:
21. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (Epic)
Listen for an upcoming review on Sound Opinions.
22. Lydia Loveless, Real (Bloodshot)
23. Against Me!, Shape Shift with Me (Total Treble/Xtra Mile)
24. Common, Black America Again (Def Jam)
25. Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate (Interscope)
26. Avalanches, Wildflower (Astralwerks)
27. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered (Interscope)
28. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge)
29. Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
30. Wilco, Schmilco (Anti/Epitaph)
31. Maxwell, BlackSUMMERS’night (Columbia)
32. Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20)
33. Mavis Staples, Livin’ on a High Note (Anti-/Epitaph)
34. DJ Shadow, The Mountain Will Fall (Mass Appeal)
35. Emile Sandé, Long Live the Angels (Capitol)
36. Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy)
37. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia)
Here is our review from Sound Opinions and here is our tribute to the artist upon the news of his death at the age of 82.
38. case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs (Anti/Epitaph)
39. PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island/Vagrant)
40. The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome (Interscope)