With the New Year rapidly approaching, it’s time to start chilling champagne bottles, brainstorming resolutions, and reflecting on the past 12 months. The music community will likely remember 2016 as a year of staggering loss, but despite the unprecedented number of fallen heroes, incredible music was produced by an ever-evolving nation of global musicians. In this recap, we’ve ranked our 16 favorite albums of 2016 in an effort to focus on the sonic silver-lining of 2016. As a side note, although artists like Anderson .Paak and Tycho released remarkable albums this year, our list does not account for hip-hop, R&B, or electronic music. After putting thought and research into this feature, we can only hope 2017 yields a comparable crop of exceptional music, this time without the loss.
16. TAUK – Sir Nebula
Long Island instrumental band, TAUK, had a landmark year in 2016. In just the past month alone they’ve announced scheduled performances at two major festivals in 2017 – Florida’s Okeechobee Festival alongside the likes Kings of Leon and Usher, and Lockn’ Music Festival in Virginia with jam legends like Phil Lesh & Umphrey’s McGee. For the last leg of 2016, TAUK has been busy touring on their their third studio album, Sir Nebula, which was released in September and produced with Grammy-Award winning mixer/producer/engineer Robert Carranza (Jack Johnson, The Mars Volta). Sir Nebula showcases the superior instrumental storytelling abilities of Matt Jalbert (guitar) and A.C. Carter (keys), and tight rhythmic precision of Charlie Dolan (bass) and Isaac Teel (guitar). With this new record, TAUK sets a high bar for future instrumental records, and the success of Sir Nebula is starting to manifest itself with these early 2017 announcements.
15. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth
When nominations for the 2017 Grammy nominations were announced earlier this month, the only contender for “Album of Year” I could stomach was Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth. Released in March via Atlantic, this marked the third studio album by the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter and his first major-label release. The album features a unique rendition of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which Simpson called in an interview his “pure homage to Kurt Cobain.” Created as a concept album of a Navy sailor sending a letter home to his wife and newborn son, A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth boldly affirms Simpson as the pioneer and leader of the alt-country music movement.
14. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
After powerfully emerging onto the alternative rock scene in 2013 with their debut self-titled album, Manchester-rockers The 1975 spent the majority of 2015 recording and polishing their follow up album. When I Like it When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It was released in February, it became the band’s second number one album atop the UK Albums Chart, their first number one on the US Billboard 200, and set the record for longest title of a Billboard number-one album with 71 characters. In the studio release, The 1975 showcases highly ambitious rock anthems and sonic experimentation, paired with deeply introspective lyrics where the band embraces its new pop identity. With this boisterous new album, frontman Matt Healy establishes himself as an unabashed, bold rock icon for years to come.
13. Lotus – Eat the Light
In July, livetronica pioneers Lotus released their remarkable 13th studio album in the middle of a busy summer tour. Known in the jam community for their peerless ability to fuse dance and electronic elements with live instrumentation, it came as a surprise to Lotus fans that each song on the 10-track record featured vocals. “It is a pop record in the sense that the arrangements are purposely simplified and the melodies are catchy. We want people to be humming these songs days after hearing them,” explains Lotus bassist Jesse Miller. Purposefully poppy, Lotus made an intentional bold turn from previous studio projects with Eat the Light, and the result has been a gradual but steadfast acceptance of this new chapter in the band’s legendary multi-decade existence.
12. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
During his five-year studio hiatus, Justin Vernon, singer-songwriter and founder of indie-folk band, Bon Iver, founded the Eaux Claires Music Festival in his home state of Wisconsin, which is planning its third annual event in 2017. In addition, he helped co-produce and co-write parts of Kanye West’s Yeezus, and launched his indie label imprint, Chigliak, which is dedicated to albums with “limited commercial success.” Although busy since 2011’s hit album, Bon Iver, Vernon finally returned to his roots in 2016 with the September release of Bon Iver’s third studio album, titled 22, A Million. The band’s strangest and most experimental album to date, 22, A Million replaces the acoustic strums and whispered lyrics of For Emma, Forever Ago with electronic synths and existential vocals. This adventurous new sound opens several new doors for Bon Iver, and only time will tell which direction the indie-folk staple will take in 2017.
11. Vulfpeck – The Beautiful Game
Originally formed as a rhythm section at the University of Michigan, Vulfpeck’s second studio album displays the air-tight staccato and deep grooves that propelled them into the limelight since their inception in 2011. The album takes calculated risks when the band includes lyrics in the mix of their carefully balanced sound, and shines most when the percussive welding of different instrumental parts constructs a well-oiled rythmic machine. Debuting at Number 10 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Album chart, expect The Beautiful Game to be just the beginning of an accumulation of commercial success for this up-and-coming alternative funk outfit.
10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
In their remarkable 16th studio album, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds focus Skeleton Tree on a theme commonly explored throughout their discography: death. In July of 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur – one of his twin sons with wife Susie Brick – died after he accidentally fell off a cliff near their family home in Brighton, England. The band began writing and producing Skeleton Tree before the tragedy but completed the album in its aftermath. One More Time with Feeling, a documentary film about the impact of his son’s death and the recording of Skeleton Tree, accompanied the album’s release. When Cave delivers his lyrics he builds an intimate dialogue with his listener where he speaks his words with bare conviction and limited pageantry. This unique, minimalistic style perfectly suits the profound concepts explored in the album, and gives Skeleton Key a powerful method to explore philosophical messages. “I will miss you when you’re gone / I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever / Cause nothing really matters / I thought I knew better, so much better.”
9. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – Pleasure
Baltimore funk-rockers Pigeons Playing Ping Pong had another remarkable year in 2016. Coming off a massively successful co-billed tour with jam heavyweights Dopapod and with a huge New Year’s show with livetronica legends Lotus just around the corner, Pigeons are setting themselves up for a quick start in 2017. Arguably the band’s most notable success in 2016 was the release of Pleasure, their second full-length studio album. With Pleasure, the band redefines the definition of high-octane funk with their peerless energy and musical enthusiasm. Simply put, Pleasure is the diametric opposite to Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and the end result is an album you can play to squash any version of the rainy-day blues. According to the band’s lead guitarist, Jeremy Schon, Pigeons currently has a “drawing board of 100 new songs that are in all sorts of different forms,” so hopefully the new year will see a follow up to their 2016 hit album. (read our exclusive interview with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong here)
8. Wilco – Schmilco
With their 10th studio album, Chicago’s Wilco returns to its roots with their folkiest album since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. As refreshing as it is to follow a band as it experiments with new sounds and genres, there’s something so relieving and nostalgic to listen to a new album that reminds you of the music that got you hooked to a band in the first place. The album’s name is a nod to the Harry Nilsson album Nilsson Schmilsson, and features frontman Jeff Tweedy’s son on the drums. Fitting with the band’s family composition, Tweedy tells stories about himself, his family and his history throughout the record. The laid-back, bedrock style of Schmilco perfectly suits the Midwestern vibe that has defined Wilco for decades.
7. Metallica – Hardwired…to Self-Destruct
Released in late November through their independent label, Blackened Recordings, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, was a buzzer-beater that made our Top 16 list. The tenth studio album was the first record in eight years following Death Magnetic (2008), marking the longest gap between two studio albums during Metallica’s prolific history. Over the past 20 years, Metallica has struggled to retain and gain new fans after veering away from the hallmark version of metal that launched them into the limelight in the ’80s and early ’90s. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is certainly the best record the band has produced since 1991’s historic self-titled album, and finds the band having fun while revisiting the early days of Metallica that attracted crowds eclipsing 500,000 people. Debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 by selling 291,000 album-equivalent units in its first week of sales, we can only hope this is the beginning of a powerful resurgence for the kings of metal.
6. The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
When the Rolling Stones first formed in London in 1962, Jagger, Richards, and company were drawn together by their collective love of the Blues. When the British Invasion took over North America, The Stones helped pioneer the insurgence but veered away from their Bluesy roots to embrace the Rock & Roll sounds that defined the counter-culture. In Blue and Lonesome, The Rolling Stones return to their historic foundation to fully embrace the Blues while imparting decades of wisdom to fans and listeners. The album was actually made on impulse as a much-needed break during other studio work, which goes to show the band’s natural state lives in the Blues. It’s a treat to listen to an album where the band makes the music sound so easy to make, and it’s always a pleasure when Jagger’s virtuoso blues harmonica permeates a record.
5. Snarky Puppy – Culcha Vulcha
Brooklyn’s premier jazz ensemble, Snarky Puppy, has established itself as a regular part of the annual Grammy conversation, and this year was no exception. Announced on December 2nd, Culcha Vulcha was nominated for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony. If Snarky Puppy brings the Grammy home to Brooklyn on February 12th, this will mark the third Grammy Award in four years for the pioneers of jazz fusion. Further, if Culcha Vulcha wins the nomination, this will be the first award Snarky Puppy has won for a solo, full-length album. The project contains multiple different worldly influences, from Brazilian melodies in “Semente” to the New Orleans-inspired “Grown Folks,” that smoothly fuse into Snarky Puppy’s jazz foundation. All-in-all, Culcha Vulcha is a brilliantly constructed musical platform to showcase the gang of unique virtuosos who have launched Snarky Puppy into critically-affirmed stardom.
4. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, painter. Each of these titles can be used to describe the late Leonard Cohen, one of the several music icons who passed away in 2016. Best known for his distinct baritone voice and world-famous composition, “Hallelujah,” Cohen died on November 7th at the age of 82, but not before releasing a final “farewell” album, You Want it Darker, weeks before via Columbia Records. Cohen wrote the album while dying of cancer and focused the record on existential topics like religion, death, and devotion. “I wish there was a treaty we could sign / It’s over now, the water and the wine / We were broken then but now we’re borderline / And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine” – a bittersweet conclusion to a lifelong lyrical dialogue with God.
3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Like Snarky Puppy’s Culcha Vulcha, Radiohead’s ninth studio album was also recognized by the Grammys with nominations for “Best Alternative Music Album” and “Best Rock Song” for “Burn the Witch.” If the British rockers win this accolade it will mark their third Grammy for “Best Alternative Music Album,” joining Kid A and In Rainbows in the band’s historic track record of success. Several of the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool were written several years before its release, most notably “Ful Stop,” which was written by guitarist Johnny Greenwood and has since been adopted and performed by the renowned London Contemporary Orchestra. Reminiscent of Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Bool is brooding, lyrically profound, and powerfully symphonic. Pitchfork writer Jeremy Larson eloquently describes the album when he writes that it provides “a sense that beyond tectonic heartbreak there is an anaemic acceptance that is kind of beautiful if you don’t get too sad about it.” Radiohead has already set the stage for an epic 2017, with official sources confirming the band’s third headlining performance since 1997 at the United Kingdom’s Glastonbury Music Festival.
2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Released in May via Matador Records, Teens of Denial marks the remarkable 13th studio album released since its inception in 2010 by Virginia indie rock band, Car Seat Headrest. Riddled with introspective lyrics, clever analogies, and gritty minimalism, Teens of Denial is an incredible manifestation of teenage angst that confidently embraces nervous alienation. Frontman Will Toledo shows us with this record that his band can transition from the epic to the intimate with more class and subtly than most groups actively producing new music. Ironically, Car Seat Headrests’s most celebrated album was recalled a week before its official commercial release following the denial of permission to use lyrics from The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” in the song “Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed.” The recalled vinyl and box disc copies were then destroyed in Matador Records’ warehouse with a garbage truck compactor. Toledo then recorded a new version of the song, titled “Not What I Needed,” that revised the lyrics for a permissible commercial release. Thankfully so, as the finished product provided 2016 with one of the most critically acclaimed indie albums of the decade.
1. David Bowie – ★
The first major musical tragedy of 2016 came on January 10th when the late David Bowie passed away at the age of 69. His death seemed to set off a domino affect of fallen music icons, which continued all the way to George Michael’s recent departure on Christmas Day. Two days before his passing on January 8th, Bowie released ★ (pronounced and stylized as Blackstar) on his 69th birthday via Sony’s Columbia and RCA Records. Upon its release, ★ achieved immediate critical and commercial success, selling 146,000 copies in the UK and 181,000 in the US, making ★ Bowie’s only album amongst his 25 studio releases to top the Billboard 200 in the United States. It was posthumously announced by Bowie’s longtime co-producer Tony Visconti that Bowie had secretly battled liver cancer leading up to his passing, and that ★ was Bowie’s intended “swan song” and parting gift to the world. The record never fails to impress, and is arguably the most extreme album and adventurous deviation from pop in Bowie’s legendary career. Up against A Moon Shaped Pool to receive the Grammy for “Best Alternative Music Album” in 2017, I’m torn as to which record to root for.