I always find it slightly problematic to pick out the top ten albums of the year and then to rank them against each other. For one, there’s no earthly way of having listened to every album this year. There’s albums I will almost definitely have overlooked, albums I will find years down the line and love, albums that I may never even discover that could have made it on this list. To then place them in order is brutal as many of the albums vary wildly in style and genre and don’t feel comparable, and that’s before we even get to the excessively vast list of albums that didn’t make it. 2016 was a bit of a shitter, that’s for sure, but let’s not dwell on the negatives. Let’s have some positives. Here it is then: the absolute definitive top ten albums of the year.
10. Psychopomp – Japanese Breakfast
A glistening and immensely personal album from Little Big League’s Michelle Zauna, Psychopomp deals, in part, with the diagnosis and subsequent loss of Zauna’s mother to cancer. Pairing rich indie rock, shoegaze and even elements of pop with an unreserved lyricism, Psychopomp finds a sweet spot between sprawling fleshed out instrumentals, powerful vocals and emotional catharsis.
9. 22, A Million – Bon Iver
After years of anticipation, it seemed that the new Bon Iver album would either buckle or thrive from the pressure of anticipation and expectation. In reality, it seemed to do neither. Premiered in full at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival, 22, A Million boasts a left field approach to the Vernon approach previously reserved for collaborations. The result, surprisingly, doesn’t alter the Bon Iver aesthetic: soft vocals still permeate floating folk guitars with the forlorn you’d come to expect from the Bon Iver project and certainly maintains it more than the singles would have you believe. Not quite the seminal opus many hoped for, but neither the cataclysmic failure many prophesised, 22, A Million easily holds a place in the Bon Iver discography despite the bizarre hieroglyphic thematic.
8. The Colour in Anything – James Blake
James Blake finally delivered an album of worth after years of teasing potential with The Colour in Anything. Whilst his singles have always been proficient, his post-dubstep experimental EPs even more so, Blake’s albums have lacked a cohesiveness to compliment his talents. The Colour in Anything, whilst boasting a mammoth run time, possessed everything we have come to associate with the lovable cherub: glitched out 1-800 mixes, grating electronics, tender falsetto, the revival of Fall Creek Boys Choir , but above all succeeds in creating a contained, sublime and introspective album that far surpasses his prior two albums. But you already knew my thoughts, right?
7. Singing Saw – Kevin Morby
Singing Saw sounds and feels effortless. Lyrics of flowers dying in his garden and serenades to his own guitar in such a manner almost disguise some of the weight of Singing Saw: lead single I Have Been To The Mountain was born from the death of Eric Garner and Black Flowers examines the death of a relationship akin to the circle of life. The ease in which Kevin Morby finds magnificence in the sublime is Singing Saw’s greatest appeal, listing off earthly things in all their beauty whilst never overcomplicating song progression or content. The additional accompaniment from a fleshed out backing band lend to this ease, filling out Morby’s lyrics and guitar with flutes, horns and strings that prevent any space from feeling anything less than grandiose.
6. The Wilderness – Explosions in the Sky
After 5 years of soundtrack work, the post-rock veterans returned with an album that not only cemented their capabilities, but explored a harsher, coarser tone. That’s not to say that the crescendos and drone almost ubiquitous to the genre had vanished entirely- both still exist in surplus but are used more sparingly. The Wilderness shifts the warm guitar driven riffs of their most revered work and replaces it with a more sequenced electronic accompaniment to better suit the tone of a wilderness. Space- both in absence of music and the ethereal wilderness we observe in the night sky- permeates the album and this more considered and precise approach ultimately lends itself to the fleeting moments of beauty and hope. The Wilderness explores the highs and lows of a vast emptiness in fluidity, applying the now-honed skills of soundtrack work to map and chart the reaches of a journey through emptiness, capturing both beauty and a jagged fear without losing pace.
5. Puberty 2 – Mitski
By all definitions, Puberty 2 should be an absolutely exhausting listen. What is happiness? I mean, if I told you album opener Happy was a metaphor for trying to find happiness in lovers by alluding to a boy who gives you cookies, comes in you and then fucks off whilst you are in the bathroom, you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘No thank you Tom, that sounds absolutely exhausting and I don’t think I’m at the stage of my life where I want to think about such things for fear of them being real and my life really being one big meaningless struggle against the ever expanding chasm of emptiness, it’s just a bit too much for me to handle tonight.’ But Puberty 2 doesn’t wallow in despair, it takes and complicates emotion and structure and skews familiarity in every twist and turn. Occasionally I will have a brief moment of association, only to find the link I was trying to make has vanished before I can make the link. It is because of this that Puberty 2 works so well in winning you over. It is in equal parts familiar and challenging, creating something unique in its own right and, at times, complex whilst masquerading as simple. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom though. Puberty 2 ends with a sense of accomplishment, acknowledging that whilst it’s normal to feel like you should be feeling more, maybe it’s okay to love all the little things as well.
4. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
It feels almost like a fitting Hollywood sentiment to compliment Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo the year he pretty much got sectioned. Maybe genius really does go hand in hand with tribulation, or as Ye puts it: ‘name one genius that ain’t crazy.’ At this point in time it feels draining to further dissect The Life of Pablo, or ‘TLOP’ if you genuinely and truly believe that this is an easier and better alternative (both are dreadful, let’s be honest). Much fanfare and critique has been made of the man and the album in equal parts: is Kanye losing his mind? What does this new approach of an evolving album mean for the future? Why is Kanye supporting trump? et cetera, but the fact remains that The Life of Pablo is a brilliant album. The Chance championing Ultralight Beam is an unusually sparse opener that puts someone other than Kanye in the spotlight (who knew that was possible?) and continues a trend of experimental ambition despite some absolutely god awful lyricisms. Bleach. Asshole. Fridges left open. Sandwiches being stolen. You get the idea. It can feel, at times, like a hydra that keeps spawning new heads when you thought it was dead with new unnecessary instrumental fluctuations and the addition and removal of songs to the album, but despite this, The Life of Pablo has more creative moments in one album than most have in a career. It may not be in the same league as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it lacks any of the spark or megalomaniac CEO production technique that rewards Kanye albums so greatly.
3. Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown
Atrocity Exhibition does not borrow the Joy Division song title in vain. A sonic exploration of numerous genres that delves and revels in Danny Brown’s own demons, it’s hard not to remember the Ian Curtis lyric, ‘for entertainment they watched his body twist.’ Opening with a fatalist outlook amidst a threesome, Atrocity Exhibition lurches from one dark hole of despair to another, spilling his pain unreservedly to a listener. Sonically discordant and not without remnants of mania, Atrocity Exhbition utilises blaring, chomping horns, avant instrumental samples, shuffling drums, trap beats and everything ominous and threatening in between. Danny Brown has created a macabre exhibition for all to see no matter how dark, depraved and contorted the subject matter may be, forcing his talent in lyricism to the foreground with a soundtrack of despair to compliment the show.
2. 25 25 – Factory Floor
2016 was the year that, for better or for worse, it dawned on me that after years of exposure, I was quite partial to techno. Now, if you ask me, dance music genres don’t particularly lend themselves to the album format- just listen to that horrible Dusky album amongst countless others- and many have argued that the stark minimalist brutality of 25 25 is just too abrasive to enjoy as an album. They are wrong. Factory Floor, now a duo following the departure of Dominic Butler, strip their sound right down to modular components and the sound oozes of industrial Detroit techno. Album opener, Meet Me at the End, sets the tone for things to come: simple acid analogue sounds that swirl and layer into a sweaty evolving hybrid, not dissimilar to a minimalist version of the hella good Holden remix of Nathan Fake’s The Sky was Pink in terms of progression. Low, stark basslines permeate the album that could seemingly be interchanged at any moment, in fact, they did exactly this when I saw them live. The true crowning beauty of 25 25 is the simple funk of an analogue acid bassline: a few notes repeated throughout seven minutes becomes an infectious catalyst for evolution with stark high hats, bells and hand claps dropping in at will whilst never over complicated. The album functions as a self-contained work, replacing drops with precision and keeping it all afloat with catchy, abrasive, funky basslines that keep it as regimented and energetic as can be.
1. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
It takes half a song for you to realise what it is exactly that you’re getting in for. Album opener Fill in The Blank chugs with distorted rock chords akin to any other, until Will Toledo affirms, ‘You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.’ A running theme of this list of mine is perhaps that of emotional integrity and pain displayed for all the world to see, yet none do it with quite so much wit, humour and honesty as is displayed in Teens of Denial. Some choice lyrics include: ‘What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys?/ What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses’, ‘this isn’t sex, I don’t think, it’s just extreme empathy.’ Or maybe: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/ I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit in a stupid looking jacket’, or even the lyric that perhaps bought my early (whole?) life into perspective, ‘I have become such a negative person/ it was all just an act, it was all so easily stripped away.’ My point is that wherever you look on the album you can be sure to be find brutally confessional lyricism in a humorous matter-of-fact way that subverts how you are supposed to present yourself in society and is actually achingly true. Despite all these number of witty, honest observations, lyricism alone does not make an album. Teens of Denial couples these aforementioned lyrics with meandering song structure that seems to purposefully avoid verse-chorus-verse, leading to innovative and rewarding structures that both surprise and excite. You’d be forgiven for thinking Teens of Denial sounds like an absolute fucking wallowfest of self-depreciating pity that renders the album unlistenable, like Crywank’s Tomorrow is Nearly Yesterday and Everyday is Stupid, but listening beyond one song instantly dismisses such a notion. Indie rock, defiant riffs, cathartic crescendos all filled out with the addition of a fully-fledged backing band sound as joyous and fun as can be. Teens of Denial sounds like a straightforward indie-rock album, sure, but it accomplishes more in an album and surpasses its peers in almost every aspect. The evolution of Car Seat Headrest is palpable and Teens of Denial firmly cements Will Toledo as deserving of a place in the forefront of the industry. Even after 12 albums, the Car Seat Headrest vehicle seems to be promising an even more exciting future full of further potential.
Top 10 Singles 2016
- White Ferrari – Frank Ocean
- XLB – Pearson Sound
- Your Best American Girl – Mitski
- Dial me In – Factory Floor
- Adore – Savages
- Really Doe – Danny Brown ft. Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar & Earl Sweatshirt
- Good House – Deakin
- Kerala – Bonobo
- Broccoli – R.A.M ft. Lil Yachty,
- Shut up and Kiss Me – Angel Olsen
Images: Yellow K Records; Jagjaguwar; Polydor; Dead Oceans; Temporary Residence Limited; G.O.O.D. Music; Warp Records; DFA; Matador