For as long as human beings have arbitrarily measured the Earth’s rotations around the Sun, there have been year-end lists. Best declarations of independence of 1776, best presidential assassinations of 1963, you get the idea. But, recently, musical publications have seen fit to arrange the year’s finest musical accomplishments in a hierarchical list format. I have been doing this since I was a youngling back in 2011, when 14-year-old me decided that Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light was the best record that year. In 2012, it was Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s brilliant comeback album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, and 2013 saw me giving the title to Danny Brown’s retrospectively underwhelming Old.
In 2014, I was singing the praises of Run the Jewels’ amazing second album, and last year it was Death Grips’ double-sided “reunion” record The Powers That B. For those years, I unveiled my favorite records on social media, one post at a time, for 50 awesome records. But, I’m doing things a bit differently this time around. With so much worthy material this year, and the overall hellish absurdity we’ve experienced as citizens of Earth, I’ve decided to go with the randomly selected and insignificant number 69 for this year’s list. Honestly, though, I could’ve easily done a Top 100, considering I listened to over 500 albums this year. The things I do for the lovely people who bother tuning into my lists year-after-year.
Anyway, without further ado, below is my definitive, laboriously crafted, and highly anticipated Top 69 Albums of 2016. Here’s a list of honorable mentions, after which you can find the favorite albums list, along with a short blurb about what makes each of these albums so amazing. Thank you for making 2016 a strange year, and I can only hope that we survive 2017.
69. Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife 2 (EarDrummers/Interscope)
Kicking off the list is an album that took me almost completely by surprise, and one of the very few instances of a sequel outperforming its predecessor. Atlanta-via-Mississippi rap duo Rae Sremmurd did very little for me on their early 2015 debut, SremmLife, which has a few memorable pop rap singles but little else worth mentioning. When SremmLife 2 came out, I almost immediately wrote it off as similarly schlocky radio crap that no one will remember or care about in a year.
Boy, was I wrong. SremmLife 2 succeeds where SremmLife fails, because not only did Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi step up their rapping, singing, and vocal performances all over this album, but resident producer Mike Will Made-It unleashed a gauntlet of diverse, melodic trap production. Mike Will is just as important to the success of this album as Swae and Jxmmi, making this group seem more like a trio than a duo.
I stand by my assertion that SremmLife 2 is one of the year’s best pop records, with Swae Lee’s sticky, infectious hooks (all of which are surprisingly well-sung) and his brother Slim Jxmmi’s unpredictable delivery. I would even go so far as to saying that some of the year’s best hip-hop vocal performances are on this album, from the buckwild “Start A Party” to the moody, ecstasy-laden “Look Alive.” Of this album’s 11 songs, there’s hardly a bad one in the bunch, which is quite the achievement for two kids I was quick to write off as cheap gimmickry.
This record is a diverse compilation of masterfully written pop rap songs, and there’s bound to be at least one song on here that you vibe with. Lyrically, it’s not the strongest album in the world, but it’s funny, memorable, and fulfills the mountainous task of making a pop rap album that is totally worth revisiting long after its initial release. Why do you think “Black Beatles” blew up months following the album’s release? These songs have staying power, whether they’re rapping about girls doing yoga or beaucoup bottles on the counter. This really is how you start a party.
Key tracks: “Black Beatles,” “Start A Party,” “By Chance”
68. Martyrdöd – List (Southern Lord)
Shouts out to Stereogum for doing a writeup on this album that inspired me to listen to it, because List, the seventh album by Swedish hardcore/death metal band Martyrdöd, is a blisteringly brilliant album. I can’t remember the last time I felt so invigorated by a new metal album, and it’s due in no small part to the band’s filthy crust punk roots.
Nearly every minute of this album is filled to the brim with a great riff, a slick guitar lead, or a viciously delivered lyric. I seriously have no fucking clue what the singer is saying on this album, or how he manages to create melody out of something so atonal and dissonant, but every possible factor of this record that could go wrong instead goes completely right.
Martyrdöd’s penchant for experimentation and unapologetic fusing of grimy, gritty crust punk, visceral hardcore punk, and monstrous death metal riffage results in one of the most exciting records I’ve heard this year. This band is by no means new, but it is new to me, and I look forward to keeping up with whatever album drops next.
In about 35 minutes, these Swedes manage to take everything that has always been great about the various Scandinavian death metal and hardcore scenes and infused an uplifting sense of purpose into it all. It’s a breath of air that is simultaneously fresh and rotten, and there’s not a note or cymbal-hit out of place. It’s purposeful, loud, brash, and an outstanding release in a year with some amazing loud rock records.
Key tracks: “List,” “Wipeout,” “Transmission”
67. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life (Sire)
Pop vocalist Regina Spektor is someone I’ve admittedly never really given proper appreciation. I mean, beyond her killer theme song for Netflix’s smash hit “Orange is the New Black,” I honestly never bothered to delve into her musical career. Then, after seeing a lot of the reception her latest album, Remember Us to Life, was getting, I figured why the hell not? And boy, am I glad I did.
This record is one of the more gorgeous, eccentric pop albums to come out this year. Regina’s vocals are pitch perfect, her musical arrangements are breathtaking, and the lyrics always contain keen social or artistic points. From the therapeutically personal opening cut, “Bleeding Heart,” to almost hip-hop inspired “Small Bill$,” all the way through my personal favorite song on the album, “The Trapper and the Furrier,” Regina Spektor spills her socially anxious guts out, hoping the listener to do the same. And she manages to do so without losing her ear for melody, turning a line like “What a strange world we live in/Those who don’t have, lose/Those who got, get given more, more, more” into a haunting hook.
I’m glad I enjoyed Remember Us to Life as much as I did, because I definitely feel inspired to visit Regina Spektor’s earlier material. Her lyrical voice is incomparable, the diversity of the sonic palate on this album is enviable, and it’s just an extremely solid set of tracks, none of which should be skipped.
Key tracks: “The Trapper and the Furrier,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Light”
66. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon – Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (Caldo Verde)
This is one of those collaborative albums that works way better than it should. Longtime fans of Justin Broadrick (Jesu) and Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) know what to expect from both artists separately, but together? Preposterous.
Well, actually not. For 80 minutes, Kozelek delivers heartfelt, heartbroken sad-dude poetry over Broadrick’s diverse, uncategorizable instrumentation. This record treads some similar terrain for both artists, but when combined results in a complete, breathtaking experience.
Whether he’s supplying beautiful ambient passages or delivering sludgy, atmospheric riffs, Justin Broadrick serves as an excellent supplement to Koz’s rambly, confessional style of songwriting. If you thought Sun Kil Moon’s slightly controversial 2015 album Universal Themes was difficult and messy, there’s a chance you might not care much for this collaboration, but I guarantee that Mark Kozelek doesn’t give a fuck if you like it or not. In fact, he’s probably already written three albums about how much he couldn’t possibly give a fuck if you like his musical direction or not.
Thankfully, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is executed more successfully than Universal Themes, with Kozelek waxing personal about everything from the love he has for his significant other to the untimely death of Nick Cave’s son a while back. It even includes two extremely heartfelt fan letters from people who have been personally affected in a positive manner by Mark Kozelek’s music, live show, and personality (which isn’t as edgy as Pitchfork might have you believe).
So yes, this album is extremely long, dense, personal, and difficult to make full sense of without a lyric sheet in front of you. However, it’s impossible to be unaffected by what lies within. Mark Kozelek, as one of his fans suggests on the album, is one of the best songwriters of our time, and his wealth of life experience makes for an album that is an emotional roller coaster, with its expressions of enthusiastic love (“A Song of Shadows”) and solemn acknowledgement of bereaved parents (“Exodus”). Perfect in its imperfection, and merely a sneak preview of what’s to come – a second collaborative album between the two arrives in May 2017 – Jesu/Sun Kil Moon is an emotional experience that, if cleaned up a bit, rivals some of Mark and Justin’s best output.
Key tracks: “Exodus,” “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek,” “Beautiful You”
65. Moonsorrow – Jumalten Aika (Century Media)
This record right here is another new discovery that took me on an unexpected journey into psychedelic folk/black metal mayhem. Finnish group Moonsorrow is by no means a newcomer; Jumalten Aika is the band’s seventh album in two prolific decades. Regardless, the band takes pagan folk metal to new, unforeseen heights. While a lot of the bands in this genre tend to be really cringey, Moonsorrow brings a level of experimentation to this album that I don’t typically hear from similar artists.
The five songs on this album bring Jumalten Aika to an intimidating 67 minutes in length, but no two moments on this album are alike. Each 15-minute monolith of a song is broken up into brilliantly sequenced movements, and the swath of instrumentation across this record results in a constantly interesting palate of sounds.
This record is an unbreaking thrill ride, with visceral vocal performances and some of the most unique musical ideas I’ve ever heard on a metal album. It takes a certain kind of ear to appreciate what these extreme Finnish oddballs are doing on this record, but people already tuned into the frequencies of Scandinavian loud rock already know what I’m on about.
The title of this album directly translates to “The Age of Gods,” and the transcendental intensity of the music within certainly does that title justice. If you’re looking for a black metal experience unlike any other in 2016, Jumalten Aika is one of the brightest spots in the genre’s current iteration. And all it had to do was inject some humanity into the sometimes dull symphonic black metal sub-genre. Who’d’ve thought?
Key tracks: “Ihmisen aika (Kumarrus pimeyteen),” “Suden tunti,” “Jumalten aika”
64. Astronoid – Air (Blood Music)
The first time I listened to this album, I was probably just as surprised as every other person who gave Boston five-piece Astronoid’s debut album a spin. At first, I took this for yet another post-rock/black metal record that stands no chance of being memorable in a post-Sunbather world. Then, the vocals kicked in.
Astronoid borrows from the instrumental qualities of dreamy, shoegaze-y, contemporary black metal acts while incorporating clean, almost poppy vocals. Melodies and hooks soar, making this sound more inspired by a band like Circa Survive than Deafheaven or Wolves in the Throne Room. This is a formula that has no right working as successfully as it does, and thankfully Astronoid manages to pull together a fantastic debut album that is far more than the sum of its easily pinpointed parts.
Does this album wear its influences on its sleeves too much? Maybe a bit. But what results is an album that would probably be complete shit if it was attempted by anyone else, especially an already-established band. This record is catchy, beautifully produced, and heavy enough to please any riff-and-solo worshippers out there.
I love the musicianship on this album, I love the soaring, life-affirming vocals, and I love the textured songwriting. Air is a debut album gone horribly right by a band who, I hope, will continue to experiment, surprise, and wow us for years to come. I can already see this as a cult classic in the making, and people will be singing its praises for long after its quiet summer 2016 release.
Key tracks: “Incandescent,” “Up and Atom,” “Tin Foil Hats”
63. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits/An Odd Entrances (Castle Face)
Insanely prolific garage rock act Thee Oh Sees is a group I’ve never fully gotten into, unfortunately. They’ve just always been one of those bands who spread themselves too thin by releasing some truly bland rock records amidst their older, better recordings. Then, they hit 2015 with the surprisingly decent Mutilator Defeated at Last, a foray into the world of the strange.
If Mutilator was a foray, then A Weird Exits/An Odd Entrances is the band frolicking through the sunshine meadows of weirdness and absurdity. While these are technically two albums, they are inextricably connected beyond the similar titles. In fact, if you play An Odd Entrances followed by A Weird Exits as one complete project, it actually works surprisingly well, with both records reinforcing each other. The result is a cerebral headfuck of a mess-terpiece, with some masterful musicianship and loose, bizarre songwriting.
Moreover, these two albums are hilarious. I find the whole California garage rock/psych rock scene to be way more interesting and memorable when the band is having fun and getting creative with it, and that’s exactly what John Dwyer and his band are doing on here. With two drummers in tow and some unstoppable grooves, Thee Oh Sees manage to do a hell of a lot with a little, resulting in a 14-track, hour-long journey into classic rock mayhem.
The lyrics on this thing are hilarious, especially on AWE’s closing track, and the songwriting is diverse enough to warrant many repeat listens. Dwyer delivers some funny vocal performances atop blissful riffs, jammy synthesizers, and tight drum fills. Playing these two records in succession is never boring, and I think this could be some of the band’s best work in many, many years. It succeeds where many rock records fail in that it plays to an older sound while still sounding modern, memorable, and unique.
Key tracks: “Unwrap the Fiend, Pt. 1,” “Jammed Entrance,” “The Axis”
62. Wreck and Reference – Indifferent Rivers Romance End (The Flenser)
I’ve been conscious of experimental metal duo Wreck and Reference for quite some time, thanks to their unique, unforgettable sound and the fact that they’re signed to The Flenser, one of my favorite go-to record labels for terrifying music. However, it wasn’t until the summer release of the band’s third album, Indifferent Rivers Romance End, that I felt truly captivated. Now, I’m all in.
This album is unlike any other experience I’ve had this year, with its demented vocals, slick drumming, and the band’s choice to replace all guitar sounds with samples, synths, and ambient noise. But, that’s been the band’s M.O. since the beginning. What truly gripped me about Indifferent Rivers Romance End was the lyrical content and the songwriting, both of which are top notch on this record.
If there’s ever been a case of a band adopting an original sound and smartly progressing on that sound over time, it’s Wreck and Reference, and this is the best album the band has put out to date. I haven’t totally deconstructed its gruesome poetry, but it seems to be about a relationship ending in ugliness. Themes of death, mental illness, suicide, and body horror pervade this album, yet it somehow manages to never quite escape my mind. I want to be disturbed by W&R’s wicked formula time and time again, which is the testament of true art. It’s sonic horror with replay value.
The vocal performances get a bit too theatrical and the lyrics a bit too obtuse at times, so there is definitely room for improvement. But, if this is Wreck and Reference still honing their craft and they’ve not reached their artistic peak, I am anticipating their next full-length with bated breath and a masochist’s love of nightmarish metal music.
Key tracks: “Liver,” “Languish,” “Ascend”
61. D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M. (Atlantic/Empire)
Initially thought of as hardly more than a gimmick with his Drake-inspiring smash single “Cha Cha,” Shelley Massenburg-Smith proved with this album that he really does real ass music. Hence, his alias: D.R.A.M. (pronounced like the first syllable of “drama”). This record is far better than it should be, holding down hit singles like “Broccoli” and “Cash Machine” with equally catchy and unique tracks like “Misunderstood” and “In a Minute / In House.”
This record can’t be tied down to a specific genre, because D.R.A.M. plays around with rap, pop, soul, R&B, and rock all over this thing. Big Baby D.R.A.M. is an apt enough title; just look at that cover and tell me you don’t wanna cuddle that smiley motherfucker and his adorable dog. And, much to my surprise, he delivers on a record that is consistent, memorable, and proof positive of D.R.A.M.’s staying power.
There’s not much else to say at this point, except that Big Baby D.R.A.M. is a deceptively simple album that proves he is much more than an acronym with some strong singles under his belt. He’s a fiend on the mic as well, with an infectiously radiant singing voice that is far more human than most pop vocalists out there right now. He directly defies the “mumble rap” stereotypes by coming through loud and clear, full of bombast and energy.
This album is brimming with joy, and it exudes D.R.A.M.’s ability to play around with different musical styles without his album sounding like a confused mess. This record works because of the many styles he successfully tries. It’s a success because D.R.A.M. is confident, self-aware, and damn good at writing hooks and melodies. Whether he’s trading verses with Young Thug or Erykah Badu, D.R.A.M. can do it all, and he does it way better than the average industry plan shmo.
Key tracks: “Misunderstood,” “Cash Machine,” “Cute”
60. NxWorries – Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw)
So, there’s a chance you’ve heard of ultra-mega-underground musical artist Anderson .Paak. If you haven’t, that’s fine, but there’s a small chance that you have. And, if you’ve heard of him, you know he dropped his highly praised studio album Malibu at the beginning of 2016 to much acclaim. Well, I enjoyed that record quite a bit, just not enough to appear on this list. Sorry!
What I did enjoy even more, however, is the less-loved collaborative record Paak put out with Knxwledge, who Beezy from Dead End Hip Hop called “the James Brown of Bandcamp beat tapes.” Throw those two dudes into Stones Throw Records’ legendary vault of samples, and what you end up with is NxWorries and their fantastic debut, Yes Lawd!, which is titled after Paak’s now-famous ad lib.
Across about 20 songs at about 40 minutes in length, Paak steps into his pimp role, penning songs about sex, romance, and decidedly unromantic sex. This thing is raunchy, catchy, and hilarious, and it nicely highlights Paak’s vocal versatility.
Meanwhile, the glue holding it all together is Knxwledge, who comes through with his typically spacey, old school production. It’s like if Madlib channeled the ghost of J Dilla to help him produce beats for an experimental-R&B album. It’s rooted in alternative hip-hop and cemented by Paak’s buttery vocals and seductive lyrics. I can see why a lot of people enjoy Malibu more, and I’m completely on board the Anderson .Paak hype train, but for me, Yes Lawd! is where it’s at.
And mega props to Knxwledge for that choice “Rick and Morty” sample.
Key tracks: “Lyk Dis,” “Link Up,” “H.A.N.”
59. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP (Top Dawg Entertainment/Interscope)
ScHoolboy Q is definitely the second most successful rapper on the Top Dawg Entertainment roster, behind Kendrick Lamar of course. He’s already hit us with two masterful records, and now he’s gone and hit us with Blank Face LP, an excellent, messy, unapologetically mad album. From the wall-of-sound banger that is its opening track to the gritty fuck-you of its closing track, Blank Face LP is 2016’s much-needed kick in the teeth.
ScHoolboy goes full Ol’ Dirty Bastard on this album, bringing gangsta rap to a logical extreme I didn’t know was possible. Now, Blank Face LP would be way higher on this list if two or three of its worst songs were removed, but as it stands, this record is super catchy and well-executed. At an intimidating 72 minutes in length, Blank Face LP shits all over pretty much every other TDE album that dropped this year.
All across the board, this album come through in spades. Working with a diverse set of producers (Swizz Beats, Metro Boomin, Tyler, the Creator, The Alchemist, DJ Dahi, Sounwave) and vocal guests (Anderson .Paak, E-40, Vince Staples, Jadakiss, SZA, Miguel), ScHoolboy crafts a hip-hop masterpiece that you won’t hear from anyone else. The bars will gut you, the vocals will choke you, the beats will leave you to rot away in a back-alley in Nowhere, California, and you will LOVE it.
Key tracks: “TorcH,” “Dope Dealer,” “JoHn Muir”
58. Mannequin Pussy – Romantic (Tiny Engines)
I was thrilled when I discovered this album last month, with its 17 glorious minutes of hardcore punk, indie rock, pop-punk, and all the other genres Philadelphia’s Mannequin Pussy (great fucking name) manages to fit on Romantic. This album is a diverse set of punk songs that are all catchy, impressive, and indicative of the band’s ability to do pretty much anything in the realm of both loud and soft rock music.
This group can do in two minutes what it takes many rock bands four or five minutes to do, and even then Mannequin Pussy does it with an immense level of hooky, raucous success. Whether they’re unleashing mosh-worthy mayhem or shoegaze-esque indie rock, this band finds beauty in miniature moments. They manage to absorb all the best qualities of groups like White Lung, At the Drive-In, and Bikini Kill and they distill them into a lightning speed voyage through the spectrum of human emotion.
I’m extremely glad I listened to this album, because it is truly brilliant. Mannequin Pussy does in less than 20 minutes what a lot of their contemporaries fail to do, and that’s produce an album that is as catchy as it is an emotional fucking wreck. The band leaps from kick-ass post-hardcore to jazzy dreamscapes to garage rock crescendos in the amount of time it takes the average person to brush their teeth. You won’t hear a punk album quite like this, and it’s shorter than an episode of “Bob’s Burgers,” so even if you don’t like it, hardly any time has been wasted.
Key tracks: “Romantic,” “Emotional High,” “Anything”
57. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite – Until the Horror Goes (Fat Possum)
When he isn’t busy producing albums for groups like Swans, AJJ, Explosions in the Sky, St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and Xiu Xiu, Grammy-winner John Congleton occasionally makes music of his own. He used to front a fantastic experimental rock band called The Paper Chase, but that band called it quits several years ago. Thankfully, Congleton has put together this amazing solo project that picks up right where that band left off.
Fusing the weirdo alt-rock of artists like They Might Be Giants and The Mountain Goats with electronically synthesized noise and grotesque, sometimes downright perverted lyrics, John Congleton and the Nighty Nite are here to bring you sweet nightmares. I mean, who else can turn the lyric “I will love you like a lion loves its kill/I will touch you like a doctor, just lay still/Let the implements molest you, make you see you belong to me/You’ll be mine, all mine/We’ve got you surrounded” into a straight-up pop hook?
The 10 songs on this album are catchy, creative, and they present a slightly more accessible interpretation of the gritty, terrifying music of his previous band. Until the Horror Goes is another case of an album that is frightening and dark in subject matter, but strangely fun to listen to. It’s the ultimate irony, which I’m sure is the point. I mean, just look at that album art. This record is like a haunted public access children’s show that teaches you the history of human cruelty without necessarily chastising that very cruelty.
I believe this to be one of the year’s most underrated records, and I hope to be able to catch John Congleton on tour next year if he brings this sick, demented album’s live performance to my neck of the woods. He turns songs about corpses, torture, and nihilism into bona fide alt-rock bangers, and it’s a damn shame this record didn’t get as much press as it deserves. But, that’s what I’m here for, and hopefully I convince a handful of people to check out this record before year’s end.
Key tracks: “Just Lay Still,” “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” “Put Your Teeth In”
56. Babyfather – “BBF” Hosted by DJ Escrow (Hyperdub)
English underground musician Dean Blunt is not known for making music that’s easy on the ears. This isn’t to say he’s some harsh noise sadist, but his calm, obtuse songs can be frustratingly repetitive, or perhaps not repetitive enough. Such is the case on the debut album from his latest musical endeavor, Babyfather.
“BBF” is a strange beast, because while the experience Blunt and his mysterious cohorts managed to craft is undeniably masterful, the music itself can be very difficult to listen to. Whether he’s hitting you with static noise blasts, the bizarre rants of fictional(?) pirate radio host DJ Escrow, or five straight minutes of Craig David saying “This makes me proud to be British,” Blunt is giving you something to pay attention to. And, if you pay proper attention, you will easily start to pick out the social and political points this album is making about gentrification, capitalism, racism, and the oblivious divide between the upper-crust political social elite and London’s impoverished proletariat.
In a time of political strife in England as well as in other contemporary liberal democracies, “BBF” is a fucking revelation of an album. It’s subtle, experimental, and just as critical of hip-hop and grime sell-outs as it is of the establishment to which culture vultures sell out in the first place. Again, this album is not catchy, it’s not easy to listen to, and it could very well be Dean Blunt’s least accessible project to date (which is definitely saying something). However, it so brilliantly captures the political turbulence we are seeing all over the Global North, that its mission statement alone usurps any moments of musical agony. And, once you let the album’s atmosphere wash over you, you start to really enjoy the musical choices that were made on this album, from Dean Blunt’s hazy, lazy gangsta rapping to the dissonant atonality at the heart of its semantically satiated mantra.
This album will make you question everything you think you know about identity and how it can be derived from nationality and country of origin. If the corporatized, expensive 2012 Olympics make Mr. David proud to be British, then what is there about being British for the exploited working class to be proud of? The album’s message is a universal one, and its music is truly excellent once you let it penetrate your soft mind.
Key tracks: “Meditation,” “Motivation,” “Deep”
55. Denzel Curry – Imperial (PH/Loma Vista)
I was hesitant to hop on board the Denzel Curry hype train around the time he was first blowing up. I found projects like Nostalgia 64 and 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms to be a bit derivative, and it was obvious Denzel Curry was still trying to crawl out of the shadow of fellow Floridian (and current hip-hop has-been) SpaceGhostPurrp.
Imperial, though? Ooof. Step aside, Varg Vikernes, there’s a new black metal terrorist in town and his name is Denzel Curry. Whether you listen to the original SoundCloud version of this album or the deluxe version he put on Spotify a couple months back, you’re in for an intense, dark hip-hop experience. Denzel raps about the harmful medical and social effects of drug use, even saying he doesn’t drink lean because that’s what ultimately resulted in the untimely death of A$AP Yams.
The production on this album is amazing, Denzel’s rapping is pure fucking spitfire, and the project comes together nicely with its sub-40-minute runtime. He very nicely takes the energy of trap rappers like Waka Flocka Flame and fuses them with the heady, solemn awareness of Joey Bada$$, resulting in a record that is full of energy and substantial in content.
Of all the XXL freshmen, Denzel Curry is the one I’m banking hardest for. He’s a very gifted rapper, his ear for production has proved impeccable, and he came through with one of the year’s most underrated hip-hop mixtapes. Imperialism may be a harmful ideology, but Imperial is a record that is scientifically proven to be good for your health. Seriously, throw on the first track of this album and tell me you don’t feel like getting up and hitting the gym. This shit is set-your-enemies-on-fire type of music. It’ll chew you up, spit you out, and leave you feeling all the better for it.
Key tracks: “ULT,” “Knotty Head,” “Zenith”
54. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires (Neurot)
Sludge metal band Neurosis has been around for 30 years now, and it seems like they only get better with age. Fires Within Fires, which was entirely produced by loud rock legend Steve Albini, is a victory lap for a band who only seems to get better. With five songs that stretch out to a compact 40 minutes (trust me, that’s short for a Neurosis album), the band manages to stitch together the best aspects of the genre they’re credited with inventing. Once again, Neurosis proves that there really is no one out there doing it better than them, and they totally redeemed themselves from 2012’s less memorable Honor Found in Decay.
The winding song structures feature a nice mix between sludgy, heavy guitars, nicely sequenced synth passages, and the guttural vocal stylings of Scott Kelly. Neurosis’ style is easily described but truly inimitable, and Fires Within Fires is an album that manages to succeed way more than it probably should.
This is a metal album to space out to. It’s slow, but the band keeps it captivating for the album’s runtime. There’s hardly a dull moment on Fires Within Fires, and it’s nice to hear a legacy act rediscover its passion for making atmospheric, ugly metal music. If the term “post-metal” could ever be used accurately for any one band, Neurosis would be that band. They’re one of the few older acts that is pushing the limits and sonic boundaries of sludge metal, and the few moments of true beauty the band manages to grind together are nicely supplemented by the harsh fury of classic Neurosis.
Key tracks: “Reach,” “Bending Light,” “Broken Ground”
53. Conor Oberst – Ruminations (Nonesuch)
Omaha-based singer/songwriter Conor Oberst is a man of many musical styles. There’s the dense, emotional wreck that is his Bright Eyes project (which has been defunct since 2011), the poppy post-hardcore of his hugely underrated band Desaparecidos, and then the instrumentally bountiful music of his mixed solo career. Oberst’s post-Bright Eyes material has been fairly forgettable, besides Desaparecidos’ 2015 reunion album, Payola, so I almost didn’t even bother giving Ruminations a spin.
But, I am really, really glad I gave this album a chance. Ditching the superfluous instrumentation that tends to water down and weaken his music, Oberst put out an album that is truly a solo album. Voice, piano, acoustic guitar, and a little bit of harmonica. This is a folk album in the spirit of the best revolutionary folk artists of the 1960s and 1970s. With his unmistakable voice, firebrand leftist lyricism, and simplistic songwriting, Conor Oberst strips down his style and makes his most remarkable album since 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
Across this album there will be moments that make you laugh, like his balanced, poetic commentary on Ronald Reagan, and moments that make you cry, like when he sings about the self-pity he felt when recently dealing with a serious medical issue. This record is brief, but it is not forgettable or emotionless. It’s simple, but the feelings it conveys are certainly not.
Personally, I believe Conor Oberst will go down in history as one of the greats, especially if he continues putting out material like this. He’s an excellent songwriter and lyricist, and his shaky, fragile voice puts what could’ve been another unremarkable album into the echelon of one of the year’s greatest acoustic folk recordings. Conor Oberst could’ve stopped making music ten years ago and he would still have secured his spot as one of the best contemporary indie folk artists, and people who enjoy the personal, beautiful music of someone like Elliott Smith will certainly enjoy Conor’s ruminations on his life, the country, and the universe at large.
Key tracks: “A Little Uncanny,” “Gossamer Thin,” “Barbary Coast (Later)”
52. Pop. 1280 – Paradise (Sacred Bones)
And the award for least apt album title of the year goes to this fourth record from industrial/noise quartet Pop. 1280, because there is absolutely no paradise to be found here. That is, unless your idea of paradise is being intimidated by pounding drums, squelching synthesizers, and vocals that would give Marilyn Manson a run for his money. From the visceral opening cut, “Pyramids on Mars,” all the way to the bitter end, this album is a punishing experience.
I also feel like this is a style of music that can be done correctly and incorrectly. Pop. 1280 seems to take a lot of influence from late ‘80s through mid ‘90s industrial metal/rock groups like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, and they also don’t fail to ignore the stylistic predecessors to those groups, like Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse.
If you’re looking for a terrifying musical experience that isn’t afraid to (sometimes) have a bit of fun with the genres it pulls from, look no further than Paradise. You know what, now that I think about it, maybe the album’s title is apt after all.
Key tracks: “Pyramids on Mars,” “USS ISS,” “In Silico”
51. Show Me The Body – Body War (Loma Vista)
One of my favorite debut albums to drop this year is Body War, a 10-track noise punk affair from New York trio Show Me The Body, who you might remember from my list of my favorite live acts of the year. Well, it’s really hard to be a great live band without having some great music to perform first, and Body War is some great fucking music.
With the unorthodox combination of drums, bass, banjo, and sampler, Body War packs years of urban frustration into 30 minutes of sheer intensity. Borrowing from the city’s history of gritty, harsh music, in a similar vein as friends and occasional tourmates Ratking, SMTB provides a mission statement that never lets up. Lead vocalist Julian Cashwan Pratt sings sardonically about police brutality, urban development, and violence, bashing the audience over the head with some of the most confrontational post-punk you’ll hear all year.
I love virtually everything about this record, from its cryptic lyrics, pained and unique vocals, and the virtuosic, heavy bass playing. Show Me The Body is a truly original group, and they bring a certain atmosphere to their music that scares me as much as it invigorates me. Show Me The Body works in a similar vein as legendary revolutionary punk acts like Black Flag and Fugazi, and if the group continues to improve on this sound, they will go down as one of the best punk acts out right now.
Key tracks: “Death Sounds 2,” “Metallica Taste,” “Body War”
50. Preoccupations – Preoccupations (Jagjaguwar)
Canadian post-punk group Preoccupations are unfortunately more associated with their highly publicized name change than they are associated with releasing two completely brilliant records in two back-to-back years. When they were known as Viet Cong, they released a great self-titled record that landed on my Best of 2015 list. And now, as Preoccupations (which is a much better name, in my opinion), they’re back with an equally great self-titled album.
They’ve toned down the experimental noise that graced their debut in favor of a slightly more classic post-punk sound, with some definite Joy Division influence coming through on the vocals. Bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel takes a gritty, gruff tone with his voice that is as haunting as it is captivating. This record is psychedelic, strange, and indicative of the band’s ability to make post-punk music that captures the spirit of the late ‘70s through mid ‘80s goth shit like Bauhaus and Christian Death.
The lyrics are also particularly pained, and the buzzing, drone-y atmosphere fits the anxiety- and depression-laden verses like a pair of clean, warm boxer briefs. I mean, the first track on this record begins with the line “With a sense of urgency and unease/Second guessing just about everything/Recollections of a nightmare/So cryptic and incomprehensible/Encompassing anxiety,” and it’s actually kind of fucking catchy.
I love this album because it’s not just a great post-punk record on its own, but it serves as a progressive follow-up to its predecessor. I love the vicious drone on 11-minute track “Memory,” and even the bizarre half-song “Forbidden” makes its case in the tracklisting. I didn’t expect to be as blown away with this project as I was, and I hope Preoccupations continue to make dark, depressive experimental rock music for years to come, even if they find themselves needing to change their name once again.
Key tracks: “Anxiety,” “Memory,” “Zodiac”
49. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Rough Trade)
It’s no secret that I’ve been a Parquet Courts fan for many years. Their previous album, Sunbathing Animal, topped my year-end list in 2014, and the Content Nausea record they put out that same year was also brilliant. Cleaning up their sound a bit, Parquet Courts are making the most pleasant music of their career, even when they’re singing about descents into depression-based loneliness and trying not to feel lost in the fast-paced and heavily gentrified cities they’ve grown up in. Human Performance is a sad album that presents some of the band’s best hooks, melodies, and songwriting yet.
And this bait-and-switch is something the band consistently pulls off really well, whether it’s on the short, sweet “Outside” or the mid-paced eponymous track. Depressing-ass lyrics frequently accompany catchy-ass choruses and brilliantly strange chord progressions. As Parquet Courts goes further inward, they somehow manage to become more weird and more accessible simultaneously. I love the off-kilter post-punk of the track “I Was Just Here,” which captures this genius duality very well.
I think that Parquet Courts are a vital addition to the current indie rock scene, and the dual-songwriting prowess of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown makes for one of the most provocative, remarkable listening experiences of the year every time the band puts something out. They even manage to write a song about something as simple as dust and have it go over well.
Go ahead and kiss those Pavement comparisons goodbye, because Human Performance sees the band truly come into its own as one of the most recognizably intriguing rock acts out there right now, lyrically and sonically. I mean, how do you even beat a song like “Berlin Got Blurry,” one of the year’s most unexpectedly heartfelt? This record can seem a bit obtuse and difficult to process at first, but it warrants, deserves, and rewards listeners with repeated listens.
Key tracks: “Berlin Got Blurry,” “Outside,” “Human Performance”
48. The I.L.Y’s – Scum With Boundaries (Third Worlds)
This Death Grips side-project appeared out of nowhere in summer 2015 with the release of its debut album, I’ve Always Been Good at True Love. While that record was an interesting bit of noisy, psychedelic rock from Zach Hill and Andy Morin, it was truly surpassed by the all-out skronk-fest that is Scum With Boundaries. This record is more memorable, interesting, and hilarious, with song titles like “I’m Gonna Have Sex” and “Stop Yelling In the Museum,” both of which are excellent, intense songs.
For a project that at first seem like a total garage rock throwaway with some interesting material, The I.L.Y’s is proving to be a side-project that is totally worth listening to. If we can start looking forward to a brilliant new piece of weirdo-rock from Zach and Andy every summer, then consider me stoked for whatever they cook up in 2017, beyond a possible Death Grips record (which I certainly hope will happen).
I love the bizarre mix of noise rock, garage rock, and synthesized electronics on this record, and the eponymous song sounds like a jingle for some fucked-up commercial that would air at 3 a.m. in 1994. This is an unusual album that injects humor into rock music in ways that Death Grips decidedly does not. It serves as a nice foil to that band, and I hope the Third Worlds label continues to churn out killer experimental music that turns heads and knocks skulls.
Overall, this is another bright spot in Zach Hill’s varied, immense discography. It’s catchy, hilarious, and sexualized to the point of confusion. “Why does it suck on me/Your pussy is my hoodie” sounds like some shit Danny Brown would say in 2010, but it ends up being the set-up to a brilliant punchline on this record, proving that these two are capable of making music that really does make them seem like soap-scum with some boundaries.
47. Swain – The Long Dark Blue (End Hits)
I first came across Dutch post-hardcore band Swain back when they were called This Routine Is Hell and they were making the sort of ferocious metalcore that won them the praise (and production) of Converge axeman Kurt Ballou. Then, they decided to undergo a name and genre change. As Swain, they debuted in early 2015 with the excellent, albeit criminally short, Heavy Dancing EP, one of my favorite EPs of that year. Now, Swain is back with a proper full-length album that makes good on the grungy, heavy promises their previous EP made.
While I wasn’t totally sure about this record at first, it slowly grew on me. Its downer ‘90s rock worship and creative punk-rock totally crept up on me, and when it finally clicked I was in love. This record is brilliant, and Swain very nicely mixes the heavy post-hardcore they are more well known for doing with melodic, slow rock music that shouldn’t work, but totally does. They turn a song about not cleaning your room into a bona fide depression jam that would give a lot of American lo-fi rock groups a run for their paltry savings accounts.
I don’t think I could possibly recommend Swain highly enough, because they’ve been proving their worth for many years at this point. This record is smart, catchy, lyrically brilliant, and a versatile punk-rock thrill ride that has me really hoping these Dutch punks can finance a full US tour next year.
Key tracks: “Never Clean My Room,” “Punk Rock Messed You Up, Kid,” “Kiss Me Hard”
46. PUP – The Dream Is Over (SideOneDummy)
One of my favorite surprises of 2014 was when I discovered Canadian punk band PUP’s self-titled debut album, a record as full of soaring gang vocal hooks as it was full of depressing, witty lyrics. While it didn’t manage to crack my best-of list that year, it certainly had me hyped for whatever the band would do next, and I am really glad I kept up with the group. The Dream Is Over, the band’s sophomore album, improves on everything PUP was doing on their debut.
The album is named for a paraphrased remark from vocalist Stefan Babcock’s doctor after he shredded his vocal cords, and thank fucking goodness the band pressed on despite the injury. Because this record is hilarious, sad, and extremely catchy for its entirety. “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” is one of the year’s best opening albums, and the way it segues so nicely into the following cut, “DVP,” is legendary.
The Dream Is Over doesn’t let up for its 30 minute run time, and the group manages to turn sardonic songs of self-loathing into life-affirming barn-burners, which is especially obvious when you see the band perform live. I hope PUP continues to blow us away with more excellent loud rock music with killer melodies and fantastic musicianship.
This record is truly a blessing in a sea of pop-punk knockoffs that feel content to phone it in continuously. PUP could easily do that if they wanted to and achieve success, but instead they put out mini masterpieces that set them far apart from their contemporaries. That’s the mark of an awesome band, and this is an awesome album.
Key tracks: “Old Wounds,” “Pine Point,” “Sleep in the Heat”
45. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)
One of the most hyped albums of the year came from Mr. Will Toledo, an artist whose residence in Seattle is no secret to me. I’ve been conscious of this dude for a couple years now, and his earlier Bandcamp projects are absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t heard them. After signing to Matador Records, he re-recorded some of his favorite songs on his older albums for the Teens of Style compilation, which I definitely recommend.
But Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s proper debut full-length for Matador, is a fucking revelation in comparison to its predecessor. This 70-minute indie rock opus gives the world everything that was always great about Car Seat in the form of a fuzzed out, lo-fi garage panic attack. This quarter-life-crisis-committed-to-tape became one of the most highly reviewed rock records of the year, and for very good reason. As is usual for Car Seat, what you get here is a brilliant combination of notable hooks, fantastic lyrical content, and musical prowess.
From the groovy opening moments of “Fill in the Blank” to its somber closing track, Teens of Denial proves that Car Seat Headrest is here to stay, and that this music industry rookie is more than just a Bandcamp kid with Garage Band downloaded on his iPhone. He’s a truly gifted artist, and if you’ve been paying any attention to the indie rock hype machine this year, you’re surely aware of this record by now. And if not, what are you doing reading this stupid list? Go listen to Teens of Denial, especially if you’re looking to be affected by a rock an album in the same way that groups like Pavement, Built to Spill, and Guided by Voices have affected you in the past. Well, finish reading this list, share it with your friends, THEN go listen to Teens of Denial.
Key tracks: “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” “Vincent,” “Not What I Needed”
44. Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache)
After a five year album hiatus, thrash metal exploders Vektor are back with their best album yet, Terminal Redux. This is a creative-ass space concept album with wretched vocals, incredible riffs, and some of the most fascinating songwriting I’ve heard from a thrash metal band in many years. Complete with a bizarre storyline that rivals some of the best sci-fi of the decade, Terminal Redux is a mindfuck of an album with its elongated song structures, laser fast solos, and moments of beauty.
While this record stretches past an hour in length, it manages to never be boring. I’ve heard some complaints online about the vocal performances, but I personally love the way they chose to do the vocals on this record. This is a harsh, hallucinogenic experience that I enjoy more and more every time I listen to it. It’s difficult to dive right into, especially considering its concept is vital to the overall experience and enjoyment, but it’s a totally worthwhile endeavor for metal fans everywhere.
If you thought that thrash metal died when Metallica started putting out mid-tempo hard rock garbage, worry no more. Vektor has been here for several years as is, and with Terminal Redux they prove themselves to be the preeminent force at the vanguard of progressive thrash metal music. Don’t let this one slip you by if you’re looking for a transcendental experience with a discernible storyline that doesn’t usurp the musical, lyrical, and songwriting quality. Seriously, this shit could be a novel or a hard-sci-fi film. If you want to be transported to where no person has gone before, boldly stream this new Vektor album. You will not be disappointed.
Key tracks: “Charging the Void,” “LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease),” “Pteropticon”
43. Big Ups – Before a Million Universes (Exploding in Sound)
I first caught wind of New York experimental rock group Big Ups when they debuted in 2014 with the excellent Eighteen Hours of Static, an album of brittle, memorable post-hardcore that sticks with me to this day. When they returned earlier this year with Before a Million Universes, I was slightly concerned they wouldn’t be able to re-ignite the lightning-in-a-bottle vibe I got from their debut. Thankfully, I was wrong.
By branching out and experimenting even further, Big Ups returned with an album that is even more strange and creative than its predecessor. Before a Million Universes is a cerebral journey into the world of early post-rock and avant-garde indie rock type music, with a lot of songs akin to the stylings of groups like Shellac, Slint, and Bark Psychosis.
Big Ups nicely toes the line between soft and loud music, with eerie vocal performances, daring guitar riffs, and super-tight drumming. At times veering on frightening, Before a Million Universes is an existential crisis in sonic form, and it harkens back to an age of bizarre experimental post-hardcore music that I would love to hear more of in the 21st century.
Key tracks: “Yawp,” “Capitalized,” “Proximity Effect”
42. Touché Amoré – Stage Four (Epitaph)
Whenever there’s a post-hardcore band I like, I always expect them to eventually run out of juice and release a not-great album. And, after seemingly hitting their peak in 2013 with the fantastic Is Survived By, I was fully anticipating a dud from California band Touché Amoré. Thankfully, the band absolutely did not disappoint with Stage Four, one of the year’s most devastating emotional wrecks. Inspired entirely by the unfortunate 2014 passing of vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mother to cancer (hence the name), this record will probably make you cry at least once.
While this band has never really left much room in the mix for Bolm’s screamed lyrics to be entirely clear, that is not the case on this album. On Stage Four, you get every single syllable, and it’s all the better for it. With extremely vivid portrayals of heartbreak, depression, and losing faith in a higher power pervading this record, it is truly an experience not to be missed.
Every time I listen to this album, a different moment breaks me. There’s a particular moment on this record where Bolm mentions he still hasn’t found the strength to listen to his mother’s last telephone message to him, which fucked me up. There’s another moment where he says he can no longer listen to songs like Sun Kil Moon’s “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “What Sarah Said,” which totally wrecked me. And, of course, there’s the moment where Bolm feels his mother’s protection when he walks away from a car crash completely unscathed. My eyes are welling up just thinking about it.
I don’t wanna spoil every moment of emotional substance to be found here, because it would probably be a 2000-word essay, so go and check out Stage Four for yourself. It’s probably the most touching screamo album you’ll ever hear, and it contains a surprisingly amount of replay value for an album that is as completely depressing as it is.
Key tracks: “New Halloween,” “Rapture,” “Posing Holy”
41. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
New country superstar Sturgill Simpson turned some heads on his 2014 record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, not only for its beautiful When In Rome cover or the immaculate Brent Cobb production, but also because Sturgill Simpson is writing about things that country musicians haven’t properly attempted in what seems like decades. While not quite outlaw country, per se, Sturgill was making music that was edgy, smart, and original. He made a lot of people feel good about country music again, and he’s only improved his formula on his self-produced concept album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
And how does he do this? By experimenting with sounds and styles that country music artists never fucking touch, like proggy synths, soulful horns, and an excellently executed Nirvana cover. Basically, by branching far out from country music’s typical boundaries. And, well, obviously it works extremely fucking well. From the opening seconds, this sub-40-minute message to Sturgill’s newborn son is a thing of pure beauty.
Sturgill Simpson is living proof that the best, most heartfelt country music isn’t coming from the new guard of hollow “pop country” shells. The dude is nearly 40 years old and proving that it takes attention to artistic detail to make beautiful music, and I hope he continues to prove the “everything-but-rap-and-country” crowd wrong. This is the best country music album in a year with a handful of great country music albums, and it accomplishes this by embracing experimentation as a superpower rather than a crutch.
Key tracks: “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Call to Arms”
40. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä (20 Buck Spin)
I’ve been conscious of the psychedelic kooks of Finnish black metal band Oranssi Pazuzu for a couple years now, and I’ve been patiently waiting for them to really impress me with an album. Thankfully, that time has come with the extreme, incredible Värähtelijä, which I have no idea how to pronounce. For over an hour of experimental brutality, Oranssi Pazuzu punish with music inspired equally by black metal, sludge metal, krautrock, and psychedelic rock.
This can be a difficult album to enjoy, but I found myself coming back to this thing time and time again. The musical interplay on this thing is excellent, and I love the way they combine the spooky atmosphere of Swans’ latest albums with the chaotic disarray of ‘90s Scandinavian black metal. Much like fellow Finnish act Moonsorrow, who you remember from earlier in the list, Oranssi Pazuzu takes a musical style that has been done to death and brings a level of uniqueness to it I haven’t heard from another band all year long.
These guys manage to stretch this record’s seven songs out to 70 minutes of aural insanity, resulting in an album that plays like the soundtrack to a demon possession in space. It’s a frightening experience that packs a lot of raw energy into its duration, and I hope to hear the band only improve their original sound from here.
Key tracks: “Saturaatio,” “Havuluu,” “Värähtelijä”
39. Tanya Tagaq – Retribution (Six Shooter)
Tanya Tagaq is an established throat singer from Canada who you may have already heard, either from her highly acclaimed, award-winning solo material or her collaborations with Icelandic avant-songstress Björk over a decade ago. Regardless, she’s back with her scariest album yet, a concept album that deals in themes of indigeneity, environmentalism, and protest.
The aptly titled Retribution is no peaceful beast, with Tagaq’s versatile vocal performance taking center stage amidst heavy drums, ominous ambience, and even a killer rap verse from fellow Canadian artist Shad. Yes, there’s a legit rap song on this album, and it’s fucking great.
While I haven’t really gotten into Tagaq’s previous material a whole bunch, I am enjoying the hell out of Retribution, because it brings me a style I don’t often listen to in a manner that appeals to my masochistic musical sensibilities. And, much like Sturgill Simpson did back in spring, Tanya Tagaq comes through with an amazing new take on a Nirvana classic. She turns the 1993 cut “Rape Me” into a song that fits in with her themes of imperialism and Native sovereignty. In a time where there’s more of a spotlight on Native peoples and their struggle than ever before, this feels like an appropriate jab at governments that feel they can get away with destroying sacred land and continuing to destroy the planet.
Key tracks: “Retribution,” “Nacreous,” “Summoning”
38. Crying – Beyond the Fleeting Gales (Run For Cover)
This debut record from New York indie rock/chiptune trio Crying is something I didn’t even know that I wanted. I don’t tend to be into that style of music a whole lot, but the band decided to change it up from their earlier EPs by ditching the Gameboys in favor of ‘80s guitar inflections, prog-rock drums, and actual synthesizers. Borrowing heavily from groups like Rush, Van Halen, and other popular AOR music, Crying creates a record that finds coolness in obscure nerdy shit.
Plus, it’s catchy as hell! Elaiza Santos’ vocals are saccharine-sweet in conjunction with the undeniable riffs on Beyond the Fleeting Gales, and it results in a sensation I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from a current album. This 30-minute masterpiece plays like a voyage through some old-school video game realm where there are bridges, doors, and endless winding roads. It’s a fantasy novel without warlocks and elves, because instead there are realistic personal stories and emotions to connect with.
These guys effortlessly fuse twee pop with the sort of arena rock that has been decidedly out of style since far before Y2K, and they modernize it for an age where young people are way more interested in the exact opposite of that stuff. Santos, for example, also participates as a touring member of Told Slant, who is in turn inextricably tied to NY art collective The Epoch (Frankie Cosmos, Porches, Bellows, Eskimeaux, Florist, etc). And drummer Nick Corbo sings and plays bass for experimental rock quartet LVL UP, who I’ll be getting to later in the list.
This album soars, venturing where very few young artists dare trek. Listening to this is like absorbing some fantastical anime series in a candy-coated, weed-soaked binge-watch session. It’s fun, catchy, poppy, and majestic. It’s experimental music like this that has me looking forward to doing these lists every year, and I hope to see Crying continue to blow up for this super underrated record.
37. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity (Flightless/ATO)
Australian cult favorite King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard saw an exponential increase in fanbase this year with the release of their eighth album in half as many years, Nonagon Infinity. As you might be able to guess from the title or the countless rave reviews this album got, there are nine songs on this album that not only seamlessly transition into each other, but the last song also transitions seamlessly into the first song. So, you could listen to this album on repeat and this record will lose all perceptions of a beginning and an end, truly becoming a nonagon infinity.
Not only does this record’s gimmick work extremely well, but the songs on this album are all catchy, flawless, and hard-rocking. The musicianship here is brilliant, with time-signature-defying riffs to coalesce with the ridiculous, epic lyrics. This record paints a landscape full of wasps, beats, death rolls, and invisible faces. If ever there was an album in 2016 that was truly a journey, it is this record.
The guitar solos rip, the drum solos maneuver unforeseen tempo shifts, and the nearly robotic vocal performance of Stu Mackenzie. This band manages to pack a punch unrivaled, with a menage of jazz, experimental rock, and garage rock pummeling you at every turn. Think Ty Segall meets Devo meets Jimi Hendrix. The ever-prolific King Gizzard once again proves themselves to be the hardest working band in showbiz right now, and that music can be both high in quantity and high in quality. With five albums planned for release in 2017 (the first of which drops in February), King Gizzard shows no signs of stopping, and all signs are pointing to even more excellence coming soon.
Key tracks: “Robot Stop,” “Wah Wah,” “Gamma Knife”
36. Young Thug – JEFFERY (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
2016 was the year Young Thug went from rap’s best Lil Wayne disciple to a truly unique artist all his own. With the underwhelming I’m Up and very good Slime Season 3 giving us more of the same Thugger, JEFFERY was the turning point. From the opening upward-strummed reggae chords of aptly titled “Wyclef Jean,” I knew I was finally going to be in for something different. The result is the best thing Young Thug has ever put out.
All of the songs on this record are named after his idols, but they aren’t just randomly selected. “Future Swag” sounds like the best song its namesake has never recorded, and “RiRi” balances Thugger’s off-kilter dolphin impression with a winking reference to Rihanna’s hit song “Work.” Need I even mention “Harambe,” the tribute to the late gorilla that sees the rapper go absolutely ape-shit? I mean, who else in Atlanta could impersonate a demon-possessed Louis Armstrong and have it go well?
And that fucking album art? I don’t mean to bombard you with rhetorical questions, I just have absolutely no answers. JEFFERY isn’t just an amazing album, it’s a truly spellbounding hip-hop release. He defies those “mumble rap” labels by coming through as clear as ever. And not only is Thugger coming through clear, but he rides the consistently great production with an immense level of charisma. Additionally, the lyrics are hilarious and memorable throughout.
If you haven’t heard this album by now, and that would be hard to believe since it’s one of the most talked-about releases of the year, then you’re seriously missing out on the most original trap record of 2016. I guess I should’ve known it would take the only ATL rapper calling out the social construction of the gender binary to totally blur the line between masculine and feminine on a successful, catchy rap record. It’s just that good.
Key tracks: “Wyclef Jean,” “Harambe,” “Future Swag”
35. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost (Run For Cover)
I was as excited for this album to be released as I was dreading it. Modern Baseball, the beloved pop-punk quartet from Philly, hit their stride in 2014 with the amazing You’re Gonna Miss It All. But, all good things must end, and I was worried it would only be downhill from that album. I was scared Holy Ghost would be the album where I would outgrow MoBo like I’ve outgrown so many other pop-punk bands once they usurp their former glory with mediocre releases.
Nope!!! Not at all, man. Holy Ghost manages to surpass its predecessor by embracing more mature variations on previously explored themes. This record is split into two sides, representing the two principal songwriters and vocalists, Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens. Ewald tackles songs about relationships, death, and traveling, whereas Lukens’ side deals more in substance abuse, depression, and self-worth. There’s not a bad song on this album; in fact, every song on this album is fucking incredible.
There are few groups out there who so effortlessly fuse intelligent, witty lyrics with killer melodies and songwriting, especially in the genre of which MoBo belongs. This record barely hits the 30-minute mark, yet it packs as much an emotional punch as your favorite rock band’s latest 50-minute album. Additionally, it’s a grower that worms its way into your brain more and more with each listen. Some of the band’s best songs yet are on this album, and I hope they continue to progress and release excellent material as the years go by. I know all this is temporary and nothing matters, but Modern Baseball’s new album makes me feel like that just might not be the case.
Key tracks: “Mass,” “Just Another Face,” “Hiding”
34. Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger (Drag City)
It was only a matter of time before beloved rock artist Ty Segall blew me away. I’ve been a moderate fan of his since he started achieving nationwide acclaim in 2012, but it wasn’t until he dropped Emotional Mugger after a relatively silent 2015 that he achieved his full potential. This record is weird, nasty, and kooky enough to make you squirm. Tackling themes of addiction and technology through the lens of a fictional, horrifically Oedipal frontman, Segall and his musical collaborators (Mikal Cronin, King Tuff, Emmett Kelly) came through with his most instantly amazing project yet.
If this were on some sort of streaming platform (curse you, Drag City) I would’ve listened to this way more this year, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember how impressive this thing is. The lyrics are bizarre as hell, the production is multifaceted and intense, and the album itself is consistent in theme and sonic bipolarity. It’s as fucking hilarious as it is filthy and grimy, and that is definitely where Segall thrives as an artist.
It’s a shame I haven’t seen more love for Emotional Mugger this year, because I guess that’s just the risk you take when you put an album out in January, but that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to remind you that Ty Segall put out his best album yet nearly a year ago, and I’m hoping his upcoming self-titled album next month will be similarly brilliant, even if it’s less weird.
Key tracks: “Squealer,” “Breakfast Eggs,” “Diversion”
33. Xiu Xiu – Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (Polyvinyl)
Most bands should never release covers albums, but Xiu Xiu isn’t most bands. Following their surprisingly excellent and experimental set of Nina Simone covers back in 2013, this noise pop group put out their most ambitious project to date. This is the case because the source material, Angelo Badalamenti’s legendary soundtrack to cult classic TV show “Twin Peaks,” is fucking untouchable. Thankfully, Xiu Xiu brought the same hunger to this covers album that they’ve brought to their best, most uncompromising work.
This album is a thing of beauty, with Jamie Stewart’s pained, theatrical vocals serving as the perfect backing to the psychedelic, shoegazey re-telling of Badalamenti’s original work. While the original soundtrack is ominous, it doesn’t quite hit the apex of frighteningly nightmarish terror like Xiu Xiu’s version does. For over an hour, the band pummels its way through noisy drones, ambient synths, and freakishly sexual diatribes. It brilliantly captures the essence of the television program without being too direct of a covers album.
Plays the Music of Twin Peaks is an uncomfortable experience with multiple jump scares, but it is not without its beautiful moments. The band’s interpretation of the song “Falling” for example, is a thing to behold, as is Stewart’s showstopping version of the “Mares eat oats and does eat oats” diddy at the tail end of the record. From beginning to end, this album just works, and it would be extremely interesting to hear if David Lynch and Mark Frost use any of it for the upcoming “Twin Peaks” reboot.
Key tracks: “Blue Frank/Pink Room,” “Falling,” “Josie’s Past”
32. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation (Party Smasher Inc)
We saw a lot of final albums this year. Some because the artist passed away following the album’s release, and others because that band decided to call it quits. This is a truly unfortunate case of the latter, with New Jersey mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan going out on a high note. Following 2013’s fantastic One Of Us Is the Killer, which was one of my favorite albums of that year, Dillinger returns with Dissociation, a fantastic meld of aggressive metalcore, dizzying blastbeats, and swirling electronics.
The opening moments of “Limerent Death” prove that Dillinger is truly interested in hitting an apex with their aggressive, memorable sound, and nearly every track on this project hits those levels of ferocious intensity. It’s a thing to behold, honestly, because very rarely is a band able to go out on their own terms. Vocalist Greg Puciato sounds as rough and rugged as ever, with guitarist Ben Weinman coming through with his heaviest, craziest riffs to date. These dudes very nicely balance melody and mayhem, even moreso on Dissociation than they did on One Of Us Is the Killer.
Every second of this album’s 50-minute duration is filled to the brim with creative energy and fast-paced metallic noise, and it can’t be overstated how truly fantastic these guys are at crafting time-warping musical moments. They could easily coast, like many similar bands do, but that’s not how these guys roll. I’m sad to hear them go, but I’m so happy that they went out with what might be the band’s finest release since their beloved late ‘90s debut. This thing is a frustrated, teeth-gnashing, rabid beast of an album that ends up being one of my favorite metal projects not just in 2016, but this decade.
Key tracks: “Limerent Death,” “Surrogate,” “Apologies Not Included”
31. Noname – Telefone (Independent release)
I’ve been waiting for this project since Chicago rapper Noname started making waves on pre-fame projects by fellow Chicagoans Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins. And now Noname is outshining her peers by a long mile by taking her time and scaling down. Telefone, Noname’s debut mixtape, shines all over, indicating her history of spoken-word poetry. Her flows are effortless and chock-full of memorable soundbites and important life lessons.
Smart beyond her years, Noname is fulfilling the musical prophecy she wrote for herself those many years ago when she started popping up on other people’s shit. This tape is full of catchy choruses, depressing moments, and incredible production. It’s the textbook definition of a chill rap record that is far more engaging than some of the stuff her contemporaries are doing. Jazz rap? Yeah, I guess, but this goes far beyond clever trumpets and live drums. This is revolution rap without taking on the establishment. It’s a moment of musical and artistic simplicity that packs far more of a punch the tenth time than it does the first time.
I sincerely hope to hear more from Noname, and her sold out solo tour will surely inspire her to keep writing and producing more music. The music she creates on this project sounds effortless with how cool and catchy it is, and the fact that it’s so compact only serves my hypothesis that Noname will go down as one of the best hip-hop artists of this current age of hip-hop. She’s lyrical, she’s funny, she’s sad, and she has a lot to say, without wearing down the listener too much with extremely obvious and repetitive hooks and bars.
Key tracks: “Yesterday,” “Diddy Bop,” “Bye Bye Baby”
30. LVL UP – Return to Love (Sub Pop)
New York rock quartet LVL UP came out with a fairly decent record a couple years back called Hoodwink’d, which didn’t have much of an impression on me and didn’t leave me hungry for their future output. Well, that’s all changed, because they’ve turned their very obvious love for ‘90s alternative and indie rock music into one of the most exciting, memorable rock releases of the year. Return to Love, the band’s first record for Sub Pop, decides to bypass the grunge revival entirely and take a left turn down Indie Folk Boulevard. All over this record you’ll hear winking musical tributes to Neutral Milk Hotel, The Microphones, Daniel Johnston, and Dinosaur Jr., among many others. And, even better, LVL UP manages to do so without being extremely fucking boring about it.
This 40-minute album goes from catchy, acoustic-driven rock songs about spirituality and love to groovy pop-rock songs about depression and death. It all comes together for the epic 7-minute drone-folk anthem, “Naked in the River with the Creator,” one of the most beautiful musical experiences of the year. I love the epic drums and heavy guitar playing on this track, as well as the evocative, picturesque lyrics. I swear, if you go out into the desert and play this track on a speaker you’ll summon some sort of spiritual deity, it’s that good.
Lyrically, musically, and melodically, Return to Love far outshines its predecessor, and I really look forward to the day I catch LVL UP play these songs live. Some of my favorite indie rock songs of 2016 are on this thing, and I think what the band does here with ‘90s nostalgia is really interesting and unique. The band took the members’ distinct styles and honed them into an album that is cohesively brilliant and a truly cerebral, almost religious experience. I love this album, and I hope LVL UP takes this style and runs with it on their next LP.
Key tracks: “Spirit Was,” “Five Men on the Ridge,” “Naked in the River with the Creator”
29. Injury Reserve – Floss (Las Fuegas)
This rap trio first caught my attention on their fantastic and underappreciated 2015 debut mixtape, Live from the Dentist Office. Hailing from Arizona, Injury Reserve excellently combines ‘90s jazz rap with contemporary rap production and hooks, turning maligned facets of the genre into the most exciting rising group in hip-hop since The Cool Kids. Rappers Ritchie With a T and Stepa J. Groggs exchange humorous, pop-culture-referencing, and occasionally sad bars through mind-blowingly good hooks over Parker Corey’s terrific production.
It’s a shame that Floss, the next step up for Injury Reserve, has gotten pretty much zero appreciation from rap fans and rap blogs, because it’s one of the best projects this year. It doesn’t help that the dudes chose to drop it within the last two weeks of an already stacked musical year, but that doesn’t matter to independent music media like Rainy Dawg. We give all music equal opportunity, even if it drops after Rolling Stone, Stereogum, and Pitchfork drop their lists.
Kicking off with the amazingly catchy and humorous “All This Money,” Injury Reserve circle around the styles they do best, which amounts to virtually all possible forms of hip-hop. Between incredible features from Cakes da Killa and Vic Mensa, it causes me physical pain that Injury Reserve is receiving virtually no press. There’s not a bad verse or hook on this project, and they’re not afraid to address issues of social commentary as well, which is especially the case on the lighthearted “2016 Interlude.” I love this thing, and I can’t wait to hear Injury Reserve continue to progress and bring us another diverse collection of unforgettable hip-hop.
Key tracks: “Oh Shit!!!,” “What’s Goodie,” “Keep on Slippin’”
28. Solange – A Seat at the Table (Columbia)
There are many critics who named Solange Knowles’ latest album A Seat at the Table the best album of the year, and I would be there right along with them if it weren’t for one fatal error: the interludes. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the purpose of the album’s many interludes, but of the 21 songs on this project, a whopping 9 of them aren’t actually songs. That’s 13% of this album’s runtime that isn’t actually music, and it tends to distract from this record’s overall flow.
Thankfully, the 87% of this album that is music is freaking amazing, with Solange coming with some personal, provocative lyrics about racism, paranoia, and self-care. It’s a bombastically confident album from a person whose entire life has been spent living in the shadows of her far more famous sister, who also came through with an amazing release this year.
If A Seat at the Table was just its core 12 songs, though, it would be far higher on this list, because each track here is well-composed, well-written, and totally effective in their goals. It’s a political pop album that achieves its ends through heavily soul- and R&B-inspired means, and every listen rewards with more insight into Solange’s life. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this heavily popular and hyped album is amazing, but here I am reassuring you once again that Solange’s latest record is not only her best project yet, but one of the best R&B albums this year by a longshot, whether it has 9 interludes or none.
Key tracks: “Weary,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “Borderline: An Ode to Self-Care”
27. Xenia Rubinos – Black Terry Cat (Anti)
Another excruciatingly underrated album, this time coming from experimental New York artist Xenia Rubinos. It’s not easy to make off-kilter math-rock/indie-soul music that has a lot of pop sensibility and swagger to it, yet Rubinos does just that on her bass-heavy new album. Black Terry Cat is a fiercely listenable record that never lets up on the great choruses, thoughtful lyricism, and insanely versatile vocal performances.
With her trusty band in tow, Rubinos comes through with a handful of amazing songs about Latinx identity, police brutality, and consumerism over kooky synths and calculably tight drumming. This thing is unstoppably groovy and catchy, and Rubinos’ vocals are consistently gorgeous.
With inspiration from math-rock, jazz, soul, R&B, and a myriad of undeniably Black genres and music, Xenia Rubinos creates one of the most spacey, heady musical experiences of the year. Strange, yowling vocals, killer bass guitar riffs, and some of the best drumming I’ve heard on any project this year. I love her commentary on America’s history of denying rights to the very people who’ve been so instrumental to our Melting Pot culture, and overall I’m just endlessly floored with how awesome this thing is. Xenia, next time you come to Seattle, please play an all-ages venue. That’s all I’ve got to say.
Key tracks: “Mexican Chef,” “Black Stars,” “Laugh Clown”
26. Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us (Nuclear Blast)
Fuck what people are saying about California powerviolence trio Nails and their goddamn amazing new album, because this thing is 20 minutes of pure metallic filth. In a year of surprisingly minimal political outspokenness, Nails come through with the easiest political statement one could possibly make, which is “FUCK YOU.” This thing is not only a catchy metal record, but it’s also punk-as-fuck, and vocalist Todd Jones comes through guns blazing with amazing riffs, ear-grabbing lyrics, and guitar solos that rival Slayer’s noisiest and most brutal.
You Will Never Be One Of Us is truly Nails’ best record, because it takes the catchiness and heaviness of the band’s previous two and takes them up to the next level in terms of ambition and experimentation. 8-minute closer “They Come Crawling Back,” which is about ⅓ of this album’s duration, is the heaviest, sludgiest track Nails has ever written, and it proves that there is a way forward for a band that many have already counted out as having either broken up (they haven’t) or worn out their welcome in the scene (they definitely haven’t).
If anything, this record is proof that Nails is here to say and continue blowing minds with their excellently noisy music. As their albums get longer and they branch further away from the hardcore powerviolence/grindcore sound, Nails only continues to improve. This album makes me feel like a person who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and as the world seems to get worse and worse, I can feel myself turning into the person whose perspective is Nails’ perspective. This is nihilistic, hateful, yet somehow uplifting music that puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.
Key tracks: “You Will Never Be One Of Us,” “Friend to All,” “Life is a Death Sentence”
25. YG – Still Brazy (Def Jam)
I found myself to be bored and underwhelmed by YG’s 2014 debut album, My Krazy Life, which featured some major hits and a heap of decent production from DJ Mustard. Since falling out with Mustard, though, YG has started making his greatest music yet, specifically on his amazing Still Brazy. He does an amazing job about writing with specificity and purpose, with less of a focus on writing hits. YG also comes through with the only anti-Trump song that needed to happen, while also closing his record out with songs about Latinx solidarity and how the police get away with murder.
This is a catchy G-funk album that could only have come from the mean streets of California’s harshest districts. Whether YG is twisting his fingers or he’s wondering who would dare fire their weapon into his hip, nearly threatening his ability to finish recording the music that would end up on Still Brazy, YG comes through with prescient, personal bars and hooks.
Still Brazy is an album with songs that are hilarious (“Gimmie Got Shot,” “She Wish She Was”) and songs that are decidedly not hilarious (“Who Shot Me?,” “Police Get Away with Murder”), and YG’s ability to balance these two sides of his musical ability are admirable, especially when I doubt anyone expected him to release something so incredible. With production from Terrace Martin, Hit-Boy, and Ty Dolla $ign on this record, this thing is a consistently fiery, emotionally-packed hip-hop album that has me highly anticipating YG’s next move, so long as no one shoots him this time.
Key tracks: “Gimmie Got Shot,” “Bool, Balm, and Bollective,” “I Got a Question”
24. Weezer – Weezer (White Album) (Crush Music/Atlantic)
When Weezer returned after a brief recording hiatus in 2014 with the surprisingly great Everything Will Be Alright in the End, I was so happy to finally have the Old Weezer back. The Weezer that wrote honest, funny material that was catchy, cutesy, and enjoyable was back in action with the best thing they’d put out since Pinkerton. But would everything actually be alright in the end? Could they put out another good album, or would it all come crashing down due to hubris?
Well, what do you think? Because you know what I think. Weezer’s fourth self-titled album is a beautifully written and pleasantly produced surprised with the band’s best pop-rock moments since they fuckin’ formed. Every moment on this album includes a great riff, interesting chord progression, or amazing set of lyrics from frontman Rivers Cuomo, who remains one of the most interesting figureheads in alt-rock history.
This is sentimental candy, and it doesn’t let up on the shiny Cali-pop hooks from its first second to its last. If Weezer broke up today, they would’ve gone out completely making up for the swath of not-so-good albums they put out throughout the 2000s by cementing their legacy with the best White Album to be released this century. I know it’s not cool to like Weezer, but don’t count them out because of their embarrassing radio singles. This shit bangs, and I’m unashamed of my love for this amazing band and this amazing album. The year was 2016, and Weezer released a near-perfect rock album, and peace was wrought unto this world for a brief, glorious moment.
23. Beyoncé – Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia)
As the year ends, I’ve noticed that it’s becoming a cool thing on the Internet to pretend that Lemonade isn’t nearly as good as it is. While I disagree with any critic naming it AOTY, I can certainly understand why. This is Beyoncé’s most diverse set of songs in her nearly two decades of being an inescapable popstar, with songs that could be described as rock, hip-hop, country, and alt-R&B taking centerstage on this beautiful concept album.
Now, I don’t really subscribe to the belief that this album is about Jay-Z, because Bey has had relationships other than the one she’s currently in, and I think it’s a little precocious to assume that two people who seem to have the healthiest relationship in popular culture would ever suffer from infidelity. Instead, I think Bey draws from pre-Jay experience, using infidelity as a metaphor for racial history in the United States.
People of color have fought, died, and been enslaved for this country, whether it’s in private prisons or on plantations, yet our politicians have the audacity to call this a land of opportunity, where all are welcome and all are equal. The relationship between the state and minority groups in this country is not dissimilar to the relationship one might have with a person that keeps doing them wrong, expecting them to just come back. It’s state-sanctioned, institutionalized Stockholm Syndrome, except sometimes you don’t get to choose to sympathize with your abuser. Sometimes, it’s what you have to do to survive.
Lemonade is an album about surviving, about taking the history of horrible shit that has been and continues to be inflicted upon minority groups foreign and domestic in America, and finding the small drops of lemonade among the bitter, sour lemons anyway. Because, what else can you do? As class struggles and income inequality continue to divide us, who really has the privilege to say “Fuck this, I’m done”? Sure, Beyoncé is rich and she could up-and-leave and be just fine, but this album isn’t about Beyoncé, it’s about the plight of the African-American woman, trying to find reasons to stay when you don’t have a choice.
Key tracks: “Sandcastles,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Formation”
22. Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
Experimental electronic duo Matmos has always made its goals clear: Sample bizarre objects and create beautiful music. Whether they’re sampling insect noises, medical procedures, or in the case of Ultimate Care II, a washing machine, Matmos is always doing something interesting and producing worthwhile music. This record runs as a continuous, 38-minute song that ostensibly seems like a clever gimmick, but works in practice as a solid, gorgeous piece of music.
With bleeps, bloops, and bits of high- and low-energy, Matmos turn the many strange sounds of the average washing machine, in this case the album’s namesake, into an album that sounds like the ambient-IDM of someone like Aphex Twin at certain times and the glitchy, percussive music of an Animal Collective record at other times. Strangely, Drew and M.C. are able to evoke some seriously emotional shit out of this damn washing machine, with climaxes and valleys galore.
Unlock the secrets of Ultimate Care II, and play my new favorite game where you throw this song on at your next kickback and see if anyone recognizes these sounds from their local laundromat. Chances are they won’t, because Matmos manages to take all these sounds and repurpose them into something much more beautiful and exciting than washing clothes.
Key tracks: “Excerpt 5,” “Excerpt 2,” “Excerpt 9”
21. Street Sects – End Position (The Flenser)
I thought I knew what it felt like to be blind-sided in a violent assault by an album, but that was before I listened to Austin, TX duo Street Sects, whose debut album End Position is the most ugly, sadistically violent, hatefully sad album of the year without a doubt. The machinelike drum sounds combined with the creative sampling and pained screams that fill this album result in a hellish combo, one that I find myself coming back to time and time again.
With songs about income insecurity, poverty, and mental illness, this record takes the political and makes it unflinchingly, uncomfortably personal. Street Sects combines elements of noise music, industrial, and black metal for one of the most blissfully anti-everything record to drop this year. It’s obvious that these two guys have been honing this sound carefully for a period of years, and they bring that level of horror film-esque terror that one can expect from an album released on The Flenser.
These guys win the award for my favorite new band of the year with this thing, because this is a confidently ferocious record. It’s desperate with its pain, and it operates in a world of disease, death, and famine. There is nothing happy about this album, except for how happy I am to be fully disturbed by its contents, and fans of terrifying noise music will find a lot of love in their black hearts for this hate-fueled festival of turbulent night terrors. When Thom Yorke sang about a low-flying panic attack on the new Radiohead album, I think he was talking about this album, because that’s what it sounds like to me.
Key tracks: “And I Turned Into Ribbons,” “Our Lesions,” “Victims of Nostalgia”
20. ANOHNI – HOPELESSNESS (Secretly Canadian)
I love when a supergroup comes together well. Featuring fantastic, outspoken vocalist Antony Hegarty and the dual electronic conjurings of Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, ANOHNI has come through with the year’s best politically charged record. HOPELESSNESS is one of the few albums this year to directly take on the political establishment’s penchant for war and destruction, with biting songs about drone warfare, climate change, and the multitude of negative effects of neoliberal capitalism on the world at large.
Not only that, but Antony takes her politically charged lyrics and delivers them through pop-centric melodies, with lines like “Drone bomb me/Blow my head off” and “I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea” becoming sonic earworms that will remain in your head long after you first hear them. Repetitive? Sure, it’s a little bit of that, and the lyrics are definitely on the nose, but when you’re taking on an entire worldwide system of corruption and death, how vague are you supposed to be?
Key tracks: “Drone Bomb Me,” “Obama,” “Watch Me”
19. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers)
Underground rap vet Aesop Rock has been putting out great material for a long time, but his lyrics have often been too puzzling and strange for me to fully grasp what he’s going for. He recognizes this, and decided to put out his most inward, reflective album yet. The Impossible Kid is not only a victory lap for Aes’ two decades of work in the field, but it also includes some of his most clear, accessible storytelling.
Produced entirely by Aes and with zero guest features, this is a head-turning experience that is as much a confessional therapy session as his uncomfortable, aggressive actual therapy sessions, which he explores on songs like “Shrunk” and “Kirby.” Lyrically, this thing is immaculate, with his usual brand of slightly-off storytelling resulting in some of his most emotionally affective work.
The production, too, is excellent, with heavy synths, guitar riffs, rickety drums, and some epic DJ scratching pervading this album’s consistently inconsistent sound. You could sit and dissect every syllable on this album, and his delivery is truly perfect on this thing. It’s a puzzle that he puts together for you, unlike his previous albums where he gives the listener a lot more legwork. With great hooks and verses, Aesop Rock once again proves himself to be one of the best MCs alive, and he spits in the face of all his detractors who say his music is too confusing and obtuse. The Impossible Kid is direct evidence that Aesop Rock can ditch the confusing shtick and still rap circles around pretty much everyone else in the game right now.
Key tracks: “Dorks,” “Blood Sandwich,” “Lotta Years”
18. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Another of the year’s many extremely popular hyped releases is the latest from English band Radiohead, who released what many found to be their most underwhelming album yet in 2011 with The King of Limbs. Thankfully, Radiohead exceeded expectations for the follow-up, a mild-mannered, subtle compilation of songs, some of which date back to the mid-90s like somber closing track (and fitting tribute to Thom Yorke’s recently passed ex-partner of 20 years) “True Love Waits.”
While still not quite living up to Radiohead’s three perfect albums, it serves as a serious contender for one of the best the band has ever put out. In many ways, it is the essential Radiohead album. It’s not overly complex or kooky, and the lyrics are often plain and plaintive. Jonny Greenwood comes through hardcore on this thing, especially with some of the gorgeous string arrangements.
A Moon Shaped Pool may not be Radiohead at its most forward-thinking, but it is Radiohead at its most human. As always, the band takes on political fascism as well as emotional fascism, otherwise known as depression. This album’s intricacies don’t make themselves clear at first, but it’s such a rewarding release that I find myself loving it more and more each and every time I get around to listening to it. Guys, you blew me away with this one, and if it ends up being the final Radiohead album, I can at least say it’s outshined Thom Yorke’s recent solo output by a long, long stretch.
Key tracks: “Desert Island Disk,” “True Love Waits,” “Ful Stop”
17. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from here… Thank You 4 Your service (Epic)
In a year of many comebacks and sensations of finality, legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest had no business releasing such a fantastic record. And yet, that’s what this is. Taking their timeless jazz rap sound to the next level, Jarobi, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the late, great Phife Dawg all come through with some prescient, relevant bars and production all across this fantastic album. And with the help of frequent collaborators like Consequence and Busta Rhymes in addition to MCs that ATCQ undoubtedly inspired, like Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson .Paak, We got it from here becomes the stuff of legend.
In terms of rap albums in 2016, it’s hard to find something that sounds so effortless, which is especially impressive since Tribe haven’t put out an album in nearly 20 years. Yet, Tip, Jarobi, and Phife (RIP) all exchange incredible bars about the same things the group have always tackled, namely racial discrimination and other social issues. Atop modernized jazz rap production and with additionally assistance from Jack White, Tribe soars and succeeds where other older MCs tend to crash and burn.
I probably don’t need to go into more detail about how good this album is, because of its high profile nature, but seriously, don’t doubt Tribe just because of how long they were absent for. These guys are the reason that many lament the days of old-school “golden age” rap, and the fact that they’ve revitalized it for the present day is a testament to how important they are and always were. Everything that was great about classic albums like Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory crops up on here, just with a bit more experience, contemporary production, and the wisdom of old age.
Key tracks: “Melatonin,” “We the People,” “Kids”
16. Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation (Double Denim)
This English trio caught my ear a couple years back on a mixtape they dropped, but I don’t think Kero Kero Bonito truly came into their own until the release of their proper debut, Bonito Generation. Holding fast to the explosive anti-pop of PC Music signee Kane West, half of KKB’s production duo, these guys come through with some of the most colorful, out-there pop music this year.
With vocalist Sarah Perry singing in both English and Japanese, this trio flawlessly combines J-pop, hip-hop, quirky electronic music, and even dream pop with an album I will happily come back to any time of the day. There’s not a bad moment on this album, and it’s impossible to listen to Bonito Generation without cracking a smile.
Sure, the song’s topics are simple. I understand not everyone wants to hear tracks about trampolines, taking photographs, and waking up in the morning, but the personable nature of this album makes it feel approachable. It’s like a friend that’s always there for you, with its squelching synth leads, intricately placed drum samples, and Perry’s voice, which sounds like a mix between Siri (on “English accent” setting) and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. It’s accessible, but not at all derivative, and if you don’t have a shit-ton of fun listening to this album, I will seriously begin to think that something’s horribly wrong with you.
Key tracks: “Waking Up,” “Lipslap,” “Picture This”
15. Open Mike Eagle and Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group)
Perhaps the most relevant lyric of 2016 is “I looked up what Lena Dunham said/And I shouldn’t haaaaave,” one of the many #thoughtful bars that Chicago native Open Mike Eagle spits on this fantastically produced album, Hella Personal Film Festival. This record, which is a collaboration with extremely underrated English producer Paul White (he frequently works with Danny Brown), is one of the best pieces of work Mike has put out, turning raps about checking your phone and being a dad into some of the most relatable verses ever recorded in the booth.
This album is also consistently hilarious, as Mike continues to perfect his lyrical voice and make the transition from rapper to stand-up comedian. Each track seems to focus on a different real-life or metaphorical concept, enhancing the album’s title by making each track really seem like its own hella personal short film. No one raps about social anxiety and awkwardness quite like Open Mike does, and each song here is catchy and relevant.
Key tracks: “I Went Outside Today,” “Insecurity,” “Protectors of the Heat”
14. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
Well, let me just say it was about fucking time that grime saw some play in the United States. The overtly British sub-genre of hip-hop and electronic music that has been making waves across the United Kingdom since the late ‘90s saw its first expansion in the early 2000s with artists like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets getting significant critical acclaim in US music media outlets. And while it never dissipated or went away in its home country, it has its phases of mild popularity and relative obscurity on this side of the pond.
And with Skepta’s brilliant comeback album, Konnichiwa, his first in five years, it is clear that he is the man who will take his independent brand of funny, angry grime music worldwide. This album does what few grime albums tend to do for me, which is provide a consistent listening experience. Skepta doesn’t care about pop sensibilities, nor does he need to have cleanly sung hooks and dramatic, personal stories. What he does with the genre isn’t dissimilar to what NY rappers like Nas and Wu-Tang Clan were doing in their heyday, which is bringing memorable, yet rough hooks to songs that are nonstop bars with amazing production.
Sure, I can see people looking at songs like “Ladies’ Hit Squad,” “Numbers” with Pharrell Williams, and “Text Me Back” as examples of somewhat kitschy, cheesy grime, but make not mistake, even on these tracks Skepta is out for blood. This record is a reclaiming of a space that the average music-loving American probably won’t even know Skepta’s been occupying for over a decade now. He’s a legend back home, but with the fantastic and almost entirely self-produced Konnichiwa, Skepta is on his way to achieving legendary status here in the U.S.
I fucking love this album, and it’s probably the only recent grime record I can put on and listen to front-to-back without feeling like any of it is skippable. The braggadocio and self-assurance is tantamount to the very best American rappers, and Skepta can spit toe-to-toe with all of them. These songs are so good, that even old tracks like “That’s Not Me” and “Shutdown,” the former of which came out a full two years before Konnichiwa was released, sound fresh and new, brimming with brilliant energy. If there was ever an album that I’d call the “grime starter pack,” it’s Konnichiwa, and it lives up to the standard of the early 2000s classics that have captured the attention of so many.
Key tracks: “It Ain’t Safe,” “Corn on the Curb,” “Man”
13. Will Wood and the Tapeworms – Self-Ish (Independent release)
The award for my favorite indie discovery of 2016 goes to New Jersey-based experimental rock troupe Will Wood and the Tapeworms. These guys run the gamut of all the weird shit in the ‘90s that somehow managed to make it big, with some obvious influences from artists like Primus, Ben Folds Five, and Squirrel Nut Zippers, in addition to the lesser known weirdos who inspired those acts. Vocalist Will Wood can manipulate his voice in amazing ways, sometimes sounding like a tipsy Tom Waits on a pirate ship and other times sounding like punk-rock “Weird” Al Yankovic.
And the voice is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This 30-minute beast is a concept album that tackles the Buddhist perspective of self in connection to the universe, and the band does this by taking these concepts and making them personal. With epic horns, intricate drumming, and the most killer songwriting and instrumentation I’ve heard this year, this is a blast from the past that stands up to scrutiny.
If you’re looking for a unique musical experience from an exciting young band on the cusp of blowing up, it doesn’t get much better than the Tapeworms’ sophomore record, Self-Ish. It’s extremely catchy, to the point where listening to it ten times a day isn’t even enough to satisfy. It’s a theatrical performance that’s shorter and far more interesting than the best episode of “Lost.” Self-Ish is a nihilistic existential crisis concocted from the mind of my favorite new songwriter of the year and his extremely gifted band of tight, telepathically-connected musicians.
Key tracks: “2012,” “Hand Me My Shovel, I’m Going In!,” “The Song With Five Names”
12. Lemon Demon – Spirit Phone (Independent release)
Neil Cicierega has been making goofy shit on the Internet since I was in middle school, with silly songs like “Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny” and the beloved Potter Puppet Pals sketches. His popularity saw an Internet resurgence in the summer of 2014 when he dropped two hellishly hilarious mashup albums, Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, which effectively ruined famous pop songs by putting them together in ways that worked too well.
When he’s making (slightly) more serious music, though, he puts it out under the Lemon Demon alias, and he’s been dropping albums under this name fairly consistently for several years. So, when I found out he’d put out an album early in the year under this name, I had to check it out, and holy shit am I glad. Spirit Phone is a sonic voyage through the synth-y new wave sound of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with an extra emphasis on nerdier artists like The Feelies, They Might Be Giants, and Talking Heads.
The result is an album of songs that are all extremely catchy and lyrically disturbing. “Sweet Bod” is a charming track about cannibalism, and “Cabinet Man” tackles the ever-pressing issue of people who get magically sucked into arcade games and become some miserable, sentient cyborg. Nearly every track on this record is a horror story that could be a season of “Stranger Things,” or perhaps the next film from whoever directed “It Follows.”
There are few records that make me smile as instantly as this one does, with its punchy drums, intense and intricately produced keyboards and guitars, and the brilliantly bizarre lyrics Cicierega brings to the fold. He even turns a song about the disastrous policies of Ronald Reagan into a fun pop tune that sounds like it could’ve been Loverboy’s post-”Working for the Weekend” chart-topping single. Spirit Phone is an excellent and supremely underappreciated album that should have ‘80s pop nerds going crazy, and I will definitely be spinning this long into the new year.
Key tracks: “Touch Tone Telephone,” “Reaganomics,” “Eighth Wonder”
11. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai (Iron Works)
When I first listened to underground New York MC Ka back in 2013, I didn’t know what to think. His lyrics were dense, his production slow, and his voice was an aching monotone. I didn’t quite get it then, but after a while it started to hit me what made Ka such an important rapper. Now, with the release of Honor Killed the Samurai following last year’s somewhat underwhelming Dr. Yen Lo record, I’m proud to say that I finally understand why Ka is so beloved and has achieved such a cult status.
When he isn’t busy at his day job, which is a chief with FDNY, Ka is putting out the most lyrically dense and sonically experimental rap coming out of New York right now. When Ka raps about money, it’s not so he can buy fancy cars and jewelry, it’s so he can take care of his friends and family, many of whom are still suffering in the poverty-stricken areas of Brownsville and other less populous neighborhoods in New York City. When he raps about street life, he does it from the standpoint of an obligated samurai (hence the title and concept), not from the standpoint of someone who seeks violence or strikes first.
With production that is largely without percussion, Ka carefully delivers bars that are equally reliant on clever wordplay and the concept that street life isn’t about glory or fame, it’s about making do with your situation to take care of your own. This is a smart hip-hop record that is as captivating and attention grabbing as something more bombastic and loud like Blank Face LP or Still Brazy, without being too gaudy. And yet, it packs an even bigger emotional punch than those albums, especially in the few moments where Ka lets some emotional grit color his delivery.
This won’t be for everyone, but I do think it is Ka’s best release to date. He samples audiobooks about samurai, indicating the actual research he put into this thing. With the cultural dedication of GZA and the blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay of DOOM, Ka put out one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, and I sincerely hope he continues pushing boundaries and making the audience do the thinking.
Key tracks: “Mourn at Night,” “Just,” “$”
10. Swans – The Glowing Man (Young God)
The experimental rock group Swans have achieved the unthinkable when it comes to older bands. Even though they formed in the early ‘80s and initially broke up in the late ‘90s, the reunited incarnation of Swans has perhaps achieved more critical acclaim and relevancy in their latter years than they ever did in their (still sharp and ambitious) earlier years. Having made the transition from noisy no-wave to neofolk to post-rock to whatever the hell you’d call their genre now, the band has put out one of the finest musical album trilogies of the millennium, beginning in 2012 with The Seer.
Now, closing out that trilogy of 2-hour-long epic opuses is The Glowing Man, which brings similar levels of musical intensity as its predecessors without hitting you over the head with monstrous riffs and scary vocal performances. Don’t get me wrong, this thing still comes through with great instrumentation, and bandleader Michael Gira can still sound scary on this record, but it’s much less of a punch-in-the-gut as The Seer and its 2014 follow-up, To Be Kind.
Across its eight songs, The Glowing Man comes through with songs about spirituality and the human condition, power and abuse. Typical territory for Swans, sure, and people familiar with the group probably won’t be too surprised by the album’s sounds, but goddamn is The Glowing Man just a great fucking experience. The moments of ambient quiet and eerie drones suit the band nicely, and they set themselves up for success by supplementing those moments with epic rock freakouts.
Additionally, they balance these intense 20-minute songs with a handful of melodic, dare-I-say catchy shorter songs, like the paganistic closing track, or the song “When Will I Return?” which is sung my Gira’s wife Jennifer, wherein she details a past experience of sexual assault in grim detail. If Swans continues after this, hopefully their next iteration is making albums that are just as essential as ones like The Glowing Man.
Key tracks: “Frankie M.,” “The Glowing Man,” “Cloud of Forgetting”
9. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote)
For a year full of such great music, my jaw didn’t literally drop that much. I mean, let’s face it, it’s an extreme reaction that it would take some sort of serious shock to induce. And the one who provided that shock for me was Childish Gambino, who, last I heard, was making summery hip-hop and R&B on 2014’s decent but underwhelming STN MTN/Kauai release. Since then, he’s been busy acting and working on his highly acclaimed TV series “Atlanta” (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), as well as working on a musical comeback.
Now, I’ve been a fan of Donald Glover’s rapping since he dropped CAMP in 2011, an album that saw bad reviews in the musical press. But, I was in high school when it came out, and it spoke to my teen angst on a personal level, and goddamn it I still think CAMP is underrated. Then when he put out Because the Internet in 2013, I thought we’d reached peak Gambino. That record is catchy, interesting, and actually kind of #deep.
And then he dropped the first single from his latest record, the intense, soulful “Me and Your Mama,” a 6-minute psych-rock freakout track that is unlike anything Childish Gambino has ever released. Not only that, but he was doing things with his voice on his song that no one knew he could do. I knew the man could sing and that was talented, but holy fuck, how does he sound like that?
And the rest of the album certainly doesn’t disappoint, with Gambino putting on all sorts of affectations on his voice to inject some strangeness into this bizarre, beautiful masterpiece. I sense a lot of inspiration (and many critics have pointed this out) from artists like George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Sly and the Family Stone. Gambino pulls from that funk and soul sound and infuses some contemporary sonic play into it, whether he goes full Ween — like on the lesser beloved song “California” — or he’s including synthetically manipulated synth sounds.
I love this album and the message it carries, which is a message of strength in the face of an unkind world to his newborn son. This is a feel-good album that will be nostalgic to some and an entirely new experience to others. In the spirit of recent R&B figureheads D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino takes older sounds and pushes them in a new direction, even as he’s straight-borrowing from the playbook. Some might call it derivative, I’m too impressed with the accuracy and amazing songwriting to care. Awaken, My Love! is the best thing Gambino has put out to date, and I’d love to hear him continue to push boundaries and progress, perhaps with something a bit more ambitious next time.
Key tracks: “Boogieman,” “Me and Your Mama,” “Stand Tall”
8. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY. (SideOneDummy/Quote Unquote)
Last year, New York veteran Jeff Rosenstock blew my mind with his depressing and catchy We Cool?, an album that seemed to take the musical world by storm in the small pockets of the Internet it affected. While that album plays like a compilation of awesome songs, it doesn’t bear the sense of cohesion and transition that can be found on its just-as-good followup, WORRY.
This is an album about love that modernizes its context, making some of the most poignant political commentary of the year. Jeff is the master of writing hooks and melodies so catchy you almost forget you’re listening to lyrics about homelessness, depression, and income-influenced anxiety. He kicks the album off with a piano ballad that turns into an explosion of gang-vocal mayhem, and the first half of the record continues with some reliably fantastic pop-punk songs, like “Festival Song” and “Wave Goodnight to Me.”
Then, he kicks things into 8th gear, with a series of short songs that sequence directly into each other seamlessly. It sounds like they were recorded back-to-back with no breaks, giving the impression that these songs are just one long song, not unlike NOFX’s “The Decline.” He speeds through genres he hasn’t touched in years, like the legit-ska song “Rainbow” or the classic hardcore anthem “Planet Luxury.”
Jeff, if for some reason you’re reading this dumb thing, please keep doing what you’re doing, man. This sort of experimental, ambitious pop-punk with a message is what the world needs, and WORRY. is affirmative proof that you can make a comment on police brutality without preaching to the choir. You can be politically savvy and worried while also writing songs that affirm the positive aspects of humanity, and this album does just that.
Key tracks: “Festival Song,” “Pash Rash,” “To Be a Ghost…”
7. clipping. – Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop)
I’ve been a huge fan of experimental hip-hop trio clipping. since they debuted in 2013 with the harsh noise/rap mixtape that was Midcity. Rapper Daveed Diggs (who would later go on to co-star in a little musical called “Hamilton”) brought some intense and intelligently written rhymes to the Merzbow-worship production of Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson. They signed to Sub Pop and tweaked their sound, even bringing some ground rules into the fold. Rule #1: Only use sounds that they sample from everyday objects, like alarm clocks and metal thermoses. Rule #2: Daveed isn’t allowed to rap in first person or use the word “I” at all.
The self-titled album that followed was fantastic and hugely underrated, but it’s not as fascinating to me as the group’s latest studio effort, an Afrofuturist sci-fi concept album about a lone fugitive slave who befriends the space ship holding him captive. With rhymes from the perspective of both the ship and the slave, clipping. excellently produces sounds that seem like they would happen on and within the electrical workings of a space ship.
Splendor & Misery is a fantastic album with a great narrative, awesome production, and the typically lightning-speed bars that Diggs supplies. As clipping. continues to progress and change their sound, they are bringing and executing musical ideas that no rap artist would dare touch. This is an intense, tightly woven story with great segues between tracks and it interestingly parallels America’s history of chattel slavery by borrowing heavily from actual slave songs from the 19th century.
As the protagonist pilots his sentient ship into the random void of space, hoping to find a better place to be somebody else, the album leaves the listener with a sense of openness as well as completion. The story’s arc is done in less than 40 minutes, making it one of the briefest concept albums out there, and it even has some cryptic, hidden ties to some of the songs in their previous records (clipping. fans should definitely look into the “Amy Clark” theories out there on the Internet). I’m as floored with this album as I’ve ever been with a clipping. album, and I can’t wait to hear what the group has for us next.
Key tracks: “A Better Place,” “Break the Glass,” “All Black”
6. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
It took four goddamn years, but Frank Ocean finally blessed us with his nearly immaculate second studio album, Blonde, an ambient, experimental R&B experience with some of my favorite lyrics of the year. Once again, Frank blows the world away with beautiful, at times cryptic lyrics that delve further into his bisexuality and personal life while also keeping the audience at a respectable distance.
Not only that, but he ups the ambition on this thing, big time. He veers away from the glossy synths and modern production on his previous album, Channel Orange, in favor of something far more subtle and strange. In many ways, it reminds me of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, except more abrasive. Those screams at the end of “Ivy”? The glitchy home recording that closes out the album? Whatever the hell is going on with “Pretty Sweet”? There are plenty of loud, raucous moments that depict a man who is frustrated, confused, and trying to find himself in a world where people won’t stop asking “Hey man, where’s the album?”
Thankfully, Blonde manages to be even better than Channel Orange. Frank samples Gang of Four, interpolates Elliott Smith, and gets Beyoncé to sing some extremely soft background vocals. He embraces the noise of Kanye West’s recent music while he impersonates Justin Vernon (to the point where I actually thought Justin was singing on this album), and he brings his buddy James Blake along to co-produce a track that features one of Andre 3000’s best rap verses in years.
But, it all circles back to Frank, who is very much the mastermind and center of Blonde. This is an album of duality, toying with the socially constructed line people draw between masculinity and femininity. Blonde embraces the crazy, radical notion that perhaps someone can be both masculine and feminine, rather than just one or the other. And, of course, he has no problem calling out religious hypocrisy, mentioning reverends and ministers who preach “self-made millionaire status/When we could only eat at Shoney’s on occasion.” Through and through, this album is fucking fantastic, and it will never fail to give me goosebumps. If it takes four years to make something this good, I don’t mind waiting until 2020 for the next one, Frank. You take your time, bro.
Key tracks: “Self Control,” “Nights,” “White Ferrari”
5. The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free (Tropical Fuck Storm)
Underground Australian rock band The Drones has been at it for years, most notably with 2013’s acclaimed (but still underappreciated outside of Aus) I See Seaweed, which quickly converted me into a fan. I immediately grasped onto Gareth Liddiard’s politically charged lyrics and unmistakable voice, and when I found out they had put out another album earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to get my ears on it.
Feelin Kinda Free winds up being even better than I See Seaweed, with more sonic experimentation and firebrand politics working their way into The Drones’ ever-changing formula. The band writes songs that are catchy and bouncy, but that also carry an important message about immigration and racism that you won’t hardly find anywhere else. The musical passages of ambient guitars and glitchy synthesizers nicely complement Liddiard’s top-notch vocal performance.
I also love how the band has started incorporating bassist Fiona Kitschin into the vocal fold, with her voice on songs like “Then They Came For Me” and “Boredom” serving as an excellent foil to Liddiard’s voice. This is an angry album and one that I’m sure will convert many people into fans of The Drones, if only the music media actually took the time to expose lesser known, but established artists.
Oh well, enough of my complaining. This album is absolutely amazing, and it’s my fifth favorite of 2016. The Drones crack the Top 5 because they are a hardworking band who deserve it. Each record sees them progress further into the void of bitter disillusionment, and if I’m the only one in the venue when they eventually make their way to the United States for a tour, so be it. I don’t mind being the only one who’s right.
Key tracks: “Shut Down SETI,” “Taman Shud,” “Private Execution”
4. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd)
Fourth on the list is another Australian rock act who’ve been at it for ages. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds brought us Skeleton Tree in the fall, and my year hasn’t been the same since. This album will never be able to be stripped from its extremely unfortunate context, as Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, passed away during the album’s writing and recording. Naturally, all the pained, intense performances on this album are informed by that experience, even though most of it was composed and some of it recorded before the event in question.
What we end up with is a dreary, sad record. The instrumentation is present, but soft, seeming to take a lot of inspiration from ambient and drone music. There’s very little in the way of percussion and climax on Skeleton Tree like there was on 2013’s Push the Sky Away, and it leaves room for Cave’s poetically sad lyrics to ring through like a fucking bell. Not to mention his vocal performance, which is as unhinged as it is in control of itself.
If you’re in a good mood, Skeleton Tree will take it away, because that’s what life does. Only in its final moments does it present a hint of positivity, a way forward past the experiencing of utmost tragedy. But by then, the abject beauty of “Distant Sky” will move you to such uncontrollable tears you won’t be able to appreciate the positive message within. Skeleton Tree will ruin you, but once the shock of the emotional performances here have worn off, you can revisit it and truly appreciate the beauty, ambition, and experimentation that went into this glacially slow-paced masterpiece of modern experimental music.
Key tracks: “Girl in Amber,” “I Need You,” “Magneto”
3. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
Detroit’s Danny Brown is one of the best rappers doing it right now, and this was clear when he blew up in 2011 with his modern classic concept album, XXX. He followed that up with the similarly two-sided Old, but I think even Danny Brown will admit that that record leaned too heavily toward the festival-crowd-EDM-rap than he might have liked.
So, he decided to go complete 180 and put out Atrocity Exhibition, an album completely devoid of “bangers.” The record kicks off with “Downward Spiral,” which sounds like it was produced in the same recording sessions as Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. And each of the songs that follow sound completely different from the previous one. In this case, that’s a great thing.
Danny Brown could rap over a recording of diarrhea fart sounds and it’d be incredible, but what he does here is even more impressive. The abrasive, quirky “Ain’t It Funny” is an intense, psychedelic experience, as are songs like “Dance in the Water” and “When It Rain.” He delivers his most passionate vocal performances ever over the best production on any rap album this year, even going so far as to sample the Joy Division song the album’s named for.
Whether he is unleashing a brutal posse cut, collaborating with a famous weed rapper, or promising his haters hell for doubting him, Danny Brown has put out his true masterpiece. This album is mature, depraved, and depressing, and it’s a shame that he has to cling to that festival crowd to sell tickets to his live shows. When I saw him, he only played 3 or 4 songs from this album, all of them tacked on to the end of his set, and they didn’t really get much attention from the audience. Danny has proven once again that he is far, far ahead of the curve when it comes to experimental hip-hop, and I hope he continues with this trend for years to come.
Key tracks: “Really Doe,” “Pneumonia,” “Ain’t It Funny”
2. David Bowie – Blackstar (ISO/Columbia)
Oh, man. What a fucking trip. Two days before leaving our shitty planet for the sweet, sweet embrace of eternal unconsciousness, David Bowie dropped his best album in decades. Blackstar is a jazzy, glammy freakout that serves as an excellent reminder that David Bowie was about experimenting all the way to the bitter end. Naturally, a lot of these songs express themes of death and finality, with eerie saxophones and immaculate drum work pervading the sonic gift that is this record.
I love listening to Blackstar. It fills me with a sense of knowing dread. It almost seems prophetic, not just about Bowie’s death but about the world at large. It’s an angry beast that features some of Bowie’s most animated vocal performances since he was Ziggy Stardust, and the fact that he specifically named Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips as two influences on this sound make it all the more exciting. This is a very contemporary record, even if it was written by a man in his 60s and was largely jazzy. This is the most accessible version of the avant-garde imaginable, and if anyone this year went out with a celestial bang, it’s none other than David Bowie.
Key tracks: “Blackstar,” “Girl Loves Me,” “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
1. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit (Third Worlds/Harvest)
And finally, my album of the year, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me. I’ve made it no secret that Death Grips has been my favorite band ever since I discovered them in early 2012. Last year, their highly anticipated “reunion” album The Powers That B topped my list, and this time it’s their noisy, abrasive, catchy victory lap album, Bottomless Pit.
This record has it all: The vocal prowess Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett displayed on Exmilitary; the pop-esque song structures of The Money Store; the industrial, bone-chilling synths of No Love Deep Web; the ferocious electronics and drumming of Government Plates; and of course the guitar-laden punk-rock speed-metal energy of The Powers That B. On this record, Death Grips take on the music industry, the housing crisis, and even their own fans. Death Grips is the true “fuck you” band, putting out music at a crazily prolific speed with zero explanation.
With black metal-inspired walls of blastbeat sound, electro-pop synth grooves, and Ride composing some of his most melodic hooks yet, Death Grips continue to excel where a lot of punk bands crash and burn. In 40 minutes, the band puts out the most thrilling, epic, intense music of their career, with Ride’s lyrics continuing to improve and terrify.
I don’t say this just because I’m a major Death Grips fanboy, I just legitimately believe that this band is extremely underrated by the musical press. Maybe that’s because Death Grips so openly despises everything about the music journalists that some would say made them popular in the first place. They’re releasing their best music to date, yet it doesn’t seem like anyone’s paying attention. No matter, because the people who are paying attention are being rewarded for their patience. Zach Hill’s drumming is as tightly wound as ever on here, and Andy “Flatlander” Morin continues to blow my mind with his complex, forward-thinking production. I can’t say enough good things about Bottomless Pit, so I’ll just leave it at that. My album of the year for 2016 is this new Death Grips album, which means they win the award two years in a row. As they continue scheduling tour dates through 2017, I can only hope that they give us another fantastic change-of-pace to continue cementing their place as the best band of this current era of music, and certainly the punkest shit out there. Fuck if they’ll ever let a bitch get used to them, after all, as these guys always have new production and songwriting tricks up their sleeves. Death Grips, thank you for continuing to put out high quality music for the people who bother to take the time to dissect it, and thank you, people of Earth, for bothering to read this extremely long thinkpiece on music in 2016.
Key tracks: “Hot Head,” “Warping,” “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood”
Jakob Ross is the 2016-2017 Music Director for Rainy Dawg. You can find him on Twitter @jakobsross.
Author’s note: This list was finalized weeks before Run the Jewels 3 dropped, so it will be in the running for my Best of 2017 list a year for now.
Enjoy the rest of your winter break, and happy new year!