The last few years I’ve ranked a number of albums equal to the last two digits of the year, so I should have been due for a top 16 albums list for 2016 … but I can’t do it. I just couldn’t find that many albums I could truly recommend as complete listens, records that were mostly good from start to finish, as opposed to albums that had three great songs (Jagwar Ma’s Every Now and Then) but had a lot of filler.
I’ve always slipped one metal album on to the list for fellow fans of the heavy stuff; the best metal record I heard this year was Kodama (amazon • iTunes) by French shoegaze-metalers Alcest, six songs, mostly long ones, that create a cohesive sound that carries over shifting tempos and movements and the occasional death growl. It was just a fair year in metal, I think, with a lot of well-known artists releasing albums that were pretty ho-hum (looking at you, Metallica and Megadeth). Other favorites of mine this year: Gojira’s Magma, Entombed AD’s Dead Dawn, Omnium Gatherum’s Grey Heavens, Animals As Leaders’ The Madness of Many, Dark Tranquility’s Atoma, and two I’ll suggest with reservations – Cobalt’s Slow Forever, which is brilliant musically but marred by screeched vocals a la Obituary; and Astronoid’s Air, kind of like shoegaze-death metal with clean, often harmonized vocals, but lacking much in the way of hooks.
You can see my ranking of the top 100 songs of 2016, which I posted last week and informs this list as well.
10. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (amazon • iTunes). I mean, it’s a Radiohead album, so it’s brilliant and intricate and slightly experimental, but it’s also on the ambient, ethereal side of things, which, as a fan of their first three albums, I find a bit disappointing. There are two standout tracks here, “Burn the Witch” and “Desert Island Disk,” but there are plenty of other worthwhile moments on the album (like the two-step drumbeat that underlies “Identikit”) and nothing truly unlistenable.
9. Wire – Nocturnal Koreans (amazon • iTunes). Barely an album at 26 minutes for eight songs, it’s essentially the discarded tracks from their 2015 self-titled album, but cleaned up with better production, and the result is a distillation of Wire’s best sounds, musically and technically.
8. The Coral – Distance Inbetween (amazon • iTunes). In a year when the Stone Roses dropped two singles in an unexpected comeback, their brand of blues-heavy psychedelic rock was done better on two albums that landed in my top ten, including this one. The Coral seemed on the verge of dissolution after losing two key members in the last few years, but this album sees them back to their mid-aughts heyday of driving, throwback rock, including tracks like “Fear Machine,” “Chasing the Tail of a Dream,” and the opening track “Connector.”
7. Lapcat – She’s Bad (amazon • iTunes). Experimental-ish electronic music, picking up where the xx’s first album left off (an album the xx themselves seem to have forgotten), led by Cate Coslor’s sultry vocals but powered by the sparse, atmospheric synth lines behind her. They’re apparently big Portishead fans and the influence is clear on “She’s Bad,” “Lavender,” and “Nebraska.”
6. SULK – No Illusions (amazon • iTunes). This is the other Stone Roses-influenced album here, this record opens with a three-song punch that will transport you right back to “She Bangs the Drums” and “I Wanna Be Adored,” although they’re missing Ian Brown’s swagger here. Even when the melody doesn’t click, they still evoke a time and feeling with guitar lines like the one behind “Love Can’t Save You Now.”
5. White Lung – Paradise (amazon • iTunes). This album was so hyped, and I bought into it completely, that I found myself a little disappointed when it came out and it was merely very good, a 60 rather than a 70. It’s smart punk, well-informed by decades of punk-pop fusions, but “Hungry” was the only single that I thought stood out on its own, although “Kiss Me When I Bleed” and “Below” are solid too.
4. School of Seven Bells – SVIIB (amazon • iTunes). I tried not to bow too much to sentiment here, as this is the farewell record from SVIIB, whose founding member, Ben Curtis, died three years ago this month of lymphoma at age 35. His bandmate and former partner Alejandra Deheza returned to the studio a year later and completed the record they’d begun, producing an album of two parts. The first seven songs are typical SVIIB fare, dreamy electronica given texture by Deheza’s smoky, low-register vocals, mixing upbeat tempos with a clear sense of loss in the lyrics to songs like “Open Your Eyes,” “Ablaze,” and “A Thousand Times More.” Then the album closes with two ballads to rip your heart right out of your chest.
3. Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere (amazon (for $5!) • iTunes). That’s Riley Breckenridge of the Productive Outs podcast and the band Puig Destroyer on drums for these post-hardcore stalwarts, whose latest album was their first in five years and something of a return to heavy rock after 2011’s Major/Minor. This hits a particular sweet spot for me, as I’ve always favored guitar-driven music, even to the point of listening to some extreme metal, but also am drawn to strong melodies and smart lyrics. “Blood on the Sand” and “Black Honey” made my top 100 but I’m also a fan of opener “Hurricane” and the angry “Death from Above.”
2. Wild Beasts – Boy King (amazon • iTunes). The best rock record of the year finds Wild Beasts coming down from their art-rock heights to produce their most accessible album to date, a disc devoted to the idea of toxic masculinity (“Now I’m all fucked up/And I can’t stand up/So I better suck it up/Like a tough guy would”). Their willingness to experiment is corraled here within normal song structures, and they’ve created hypnotic, twisted dance songs like “Alpha Female,” “Get My Bang,” and “He the Colossus” that fill out the record along with the slower but still catchy “Big Cat” and “Tough Guy.”
1. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (amazon • iTunes). Another record informed by loss – founding Tribe member Phife died in March, just as the quartet were finishing the album – this isn’t merely the best record of the year, it’s one of the best records of the century and my favorite rap album of the last twenty years. Where the Tribe were always pioneers of Afrocentric lyrics and infusing jazz and other traditionally black music into their songs, they were fundamentally about peace and personal, spiritual uplift. We Got it from Here, however, finds the Tribe seriously pissed off, and their lyrics and vocabulary reflect it – but Q-Tip, Phife, and the revenant Jarobi White are as energized as ever, dropping rhymes like they never quit, like The Love Movement never happened, like the state of Black America is more important than whatever personal feud kept them apart for almost two decades. Busta Rhymes hasn’t sounded this good since The Coming. Kendrick Lamar is here. Jack White is here. Elton Fucking John sings on this record. And there are hooks everywhere – on “The Space Program,” “We the People,” “Melatonin,” “Dis Generation,” “Ego,” and more. I didn’t see this album coming, and I don’t give any record extra points for coming from an artist I love or one that’s been gone a long time. The only flaw here was that, at sixteen songs, it probably could have been shorter, but with Phife gone, I’m happy to hear everything he recorded before he left. This is almost certainly the end of the Tribe as we knew them, but what a fucking way to go.
Others I considered that didn’t make the cut – and I listened to a LOT of albums this month to make sure I had enough of a sample to put together a list at all – included sad13’s Slugger, Bob Mould’s Patch the Sky, Jagwar Ma’s Every Now and Then, Broods’ Conscious, and Daughter’s Not to Disappear.