Tuesday, December 20, 2016

My Favorite Albums of 2016

The back bit of 2016 is usually when I do most of my music consumption these days. I have my favorite records I carry through the first 9 months of the year, and spend the last three frantically trying to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But given that 2016 ended up being one of the worst years in recent memory, there was little time or drive to engage. Mind you, I was DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER in 2015 and underwent a surgery where I had my throat slit ear to ear and 2016 was still more emotionally exhausting and stressful.

I can’t tell if 2016’s gloom and doom shaded my usual enthusiasm or if it was just a down year records-wise. From January on it felt like every record I was looking forward to didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It’s not that they were particularly lofty, it’s just that in almost all cases the ones I wanted the most weren’t as good as their predecessors. That’s entirely subjective, but it still seemed weird, and most of those albums made the list.

Which is to say, this list feels diminished, and it feels diminished because I feel diminished and I just couldn’t get my head in the right place to listen to music. I feel like my heart’s not in it. Even when I was enjoying music, there were only a couple records this year that took over my life. The periods of takeover were shorter than usual, but it’s still a miracle to find ANY album that has that power. I think a lot of this detachment can be chalked up to my attention span, which was very bad this year, and especially after the election. You try to have hope, but then reality avalanches its way back into your headspace and you just play videogames or listen to Fantasy Football podcasts until the bad thoughts are abated.

The silver lining of the broken attention span led to a list of Favorite Songs of 2016 that is as long as my arm. I am and have always been an Album person, but this is one of those rare years where my Favorite Songs list feels like a more accurate picture of my listening habits in 2016. The other elephant in the room is that I spent the first five months of the year listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat and it jacked up the Album of the Year picture pretty immensely. Since Hamilton was released in 2015 it is disqualified from entry, so what to do? Here are the 15 albums I listened to the most this year. While I didn’t love all of them, I did like them enough to listen to them dozens of times.

Honorable Mention Division
15. Rooftop Vigilantes - Let it Be
(High Dive)
This was the only record I bought in 2016 because I love these guys and seeing them live at the Replay on what feels like a weekly basis when I was still living in Lawrence was a great privilege and pleasure. That this band never really got their due despite writing some of the best songs I have ever heard is one of those things that breaks my heart if I think about it for too long. This one's another winner, and only on the honorable mention list because there is a huge toy princess castle blocking the LP collection.

14. Modern Baseball - Holy Ghost
(Run For Cover)
Though I’m a geek for bands with two singers/songwriters splitting an album in half, Holy Ghost ended up feeling top heavy. I just much preferred Jake Ewald’s songs to Brendan Lukens’ and I think the even split (read: the first half of the album is Ewald, the second is Lukens) makes the album feel uneven whereas interspersing them would make for a more satisfying listen. It’s like Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, where the A Side is all the hits I love and the B Side is a bunch of weird stuff that I never listen to. And while I prefer Ewald’s more idiosyncratic songwriting, Lukens’ “Just Another Face” is probably the best song on the album. Despite not living up to You’re Gonna Miss it All, Holy Ghost is a better record. That doesn’t make any sense, I know, but I always evaluate but  Modern Baseball continued maturing their sound and their stock is still very high in the little personal bubble where I live and evaluate the hard work of people far more talented than I.

13. The Hotelier - Goodness
(Tiny Engines)
The Hotelier’s breakout 2014 record Home, Like Noplace is There was my second favorite album of that year, and the one I still listen to the most from that terrific 2014 class. Needless to say, hopes were very high for this one, and I listened to it a ton, and it never quite lived up to my (probably outlandish) expectations. Goodness has an entirely different energy than its predecessor, and I never quite locked into it despite listening to it a ton on nightly runs during the summer. I kept hoping things would click and they never quite did. That’s not to say I think it’s a bad record, I mean, obviously it’s not, considering it’s here on this list. It’s a contender for the Retroactive Best of 2016 list I mentally compile when I realize I find that I’m listening to records from the previous year with much more gusto than I did upon their release. One thing I did love about this record is Christian Holden’s songwriting, which is as strong as ever.

12. Kevin Devine - Instigator
(Procrastinate! Music Traitors)
My goodness does Kevin Devine know how to churn out blissful power pop. His name has floated around my orbit a little bit for the last ten years or so but I don’t think I’d ever listened to one of his albums until this one--thanks to its excellent album cover, which easily garners the Album (Art) of the Year award, if only because it so vividly resembles my own childhood--and goddamn. Just goddamn, Kevin. A fistful of earworms and emotions. Outstanding work.

11. Mitski - Puberty 2
(Dead Oceans)

There was a moment at the end of the summer where I listened to “Your Best American Girl” for the first time and the second that chorus crashed in, I said “album of the year” under my breath. While that didn’t exactly end up being the case, it’s still an excellent album anchored by Mitski Miyawaki’s outstanding songwriting and emotive and perpetually heartbroken vocals. Musically I couldn’t get around how much the lead off track “Happy” reminded me of the lead-off track from the last St. Vincent record and that shaded the rest of the album upon repeat listens. The most important takeaway was discovering that Miyawaki is as an absolute force to be reckoned and wrote some of the most incisive, fearless, and powerful lyrics of the year.

Top 10 Division

10. Tancred - Out of the Garden
This one came out of nowhere when I randomly saw the video for “Pens” and latched onto the track’s fierce late 90s Kill Rock Stars vibe. The rest of the album bears all of the hallmarks of that era’s golden age (with debts owed to Sleater-Kinney, Julie Ruin, and Kathleen Hanna) but never feels like a tribute act. Instead, Jess Abbott gleefully blends crunchy post-grunge guitars with a sturdy pop sensibility to craft these muscular little earworms. I only listened to this album a few times in one marathon session and that was enough to warrant a spot on the list, which is really a testament to this record’s solidness.

9. PUP- The Dream is Over
PUP’s approach to pop-punk is a weird roundabout one that has the energy of the angst and power chords stuff I grew up on but a tendency to slow it down, get weird, and absolutely bury songs in euphoric sing-a-long chants, choruses, and whoa-a-ohs. But then there’s “The Coast,” a creepy retelling of an Inuit story about a girl pulled into a frozen lake by monsters and the versatile closer “Pine Point” is a murky rumination on a Yukon ghost town. These two songs break up the hyperactive energy and make for a surprisingly well-rounded record (by traditional pop-punk standards) that I was able to return to again and again this year whenever I needed a solid kick in the pants.

8. Crying - Beyond the Fleeting Gales
(Run for Cover)
Crying’s sophomore effort might be the most remarkable album of the year, if only because of the stylisic chasm that divides it from its predecessor. Crying’s debut--2013’s Get Olde--was Nintendo-heavy chiptune with some vocals laid in to get drowned out. A novel concept--a chiptune band with a singer! These almost sound like pop songs!!--but short on execution. Beyond the Fleeting Gales sounds like a different band. The Nintendo synths have been mellowed into an idiosyncratic digital orchestra, and as fun as chiptune can be, it’s never a genre that would be mistaken for beautiful. And here’s Crying, building something ecstatic and weird and retro and totally fresh. And that’s before I even get into Elaiza Santos’ vocals, which burrow deep into the core of my bitter, blackened heart and unleash the fervent love for twee pop I buried there ten years ago.
7. AJJ - The Bible 2
The Bible 2’s predecessor--my Favorite Record of 2014, Christmas Island--set the bar pretty high, and while I didn’t think it quite surpassed that record’s insane, ramshackle majesty, it’s still pretty goddamn great. I didn’t immediately take to it as I did Christmas Island, which seems to be a trend with AJJ records (I was cool on Knife Man after being all in on Can’t Maintain). Uncovering the album’s overarching concept was key to my engagement. That, and how Sean Bonnette can break your heart by making reference to a Milky Way Lite and calling back to it five songs later. It’s another forward step for a band that keeps making them and I reserve the right to retroactively bump this one up a couple spots when I REALLY get into it. The Bible 2 is Rosie’s pick for Album of the Year. That’s cheating, because this was the one that was always on in the car. It has been the CD occupying my CD player since its release, as I usually keep one in there when I don’t want to go through the trouble of plugging in my phone. As a result, I was treated to my 2 year old daughter singing along to lines like, “I love you cuz I love you cuz I can” and “I saw white worms I saw white worms” and saying things like, “I LOVE THIS MUSIC!” That’s all a proud papa can hope for when he’s introducing his progeny to “the good shit.”
6. Big Thief - Masterpiece
(Saddle Creek)
Man oh man does this record have a big heart. It feels like you’re right there with the band, sitting on the floor of someone’s living room, watching them tell you these beautiful little stories. The record is unassuming and loose, at times haunted, at times broken hearted, but always pulsing with this sense of the deep truths being revealed in plain sight. It's a small marvel, and the title track is one of the songs of the decade.

5. Pinegrove - Cardinal
(Run for Cover)
After a few cursory listens I filed this one under “I bet I’ll be super into this next year.” Then I listened to the album while driving home from work in a snowstorm and it clicked so hard it vaulted into the Top 10. Those records always end up being my favorites. Well, not always, but sometimes you can just spot something special but can’t quite comprehend it and you know it’s good and you know it’s gonna click and when it does it’s gonna be a lifer. And Cardinal definitely feels like a lifer. It’s a tremendous testament to distance and displacement, with equal footing in alt-country and emo revivalism. And now that I have wrapped my brain around it, I can almost guarantee I’ll be kicking myself for not placing it higher on the list in a few months.

4. Joyce Manor - Cody
Joyce Manor’s placement has a lot to do with their 2014 album Never Hungover Again, which, if you stripped out the pesky “Best Album of 2016 Must Have Been Released in 2016” caveat to this list, would be my album of the year. I listened to that album obsessively, and when the new one came out, I listened to that one obsessively too. I just can’t tell you enough how much I love sub-two minute songs and how amazing Joyce Manor are at making 20 minute LPs you can listen to over and over and over and over and over and over again.

3. Conor Oberst - Ruminations
Conor Oberst takes a break from his band to make a quick record of stripped down tunes and goddamn is it good. It’s basically his version of Springsteen’s Nebraska with way more harmonica. I did not expect to love this record as much as I did, but there I was this fall, looking for something to listen to and using Ruminations as my default album to put on for every occasion. It’s raw and messy and real and really damn good stuff. Ten or so years ago, right after the release of Cassadaga, I bought an original pressing of Letting off the Happiness at the Lawrence Antique Mall for $30 with the intent of flipping it since it was currently going for around $300 on eBay. “This is probably peak Conor Oberst, right?” I thought. I hung onto it, and it survived the Cancer Cull because it’s a monument to how wrong I was.

2. Martha - Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
Martha have filled that void in my heart left by Daniel Blumberg when he left Yuck. That’s not to say Martha crib the heavy 90s alt rock influences from Yuck’s first record, but there’s something in that British vocal delivery and the ramshackle pop songs that scratches that same itch. Martha operate in vintage twee pop territory filtered through the lens of brash pop punk power chords. The singer can’t sing, but that’s how I like my singers, so of course this is one of my favorite records of the year. And of course this thing has hooks that a bunch of proper singers would kill for. This one is distilled joy from end to end.

1. John K Samson - Winter Wheat
My fierce love and loyalty to the songs of John K Samson barely needs an introduction. The Weakerthans were the key to transforming me from a young, angry punk rocker into a more sensitive, musically adventurous young man, and he’s my favorite songwriter of all time. Without question. John Darnielle, Craig Finn, and Dan Bejar are all up there, but Samson speaks directly to my soul. His songs have been there for all of the major moments in my life, because I always found a way to tie the major moments in my life to one of his songs. When Jenny and I started dating I had “The Reasons.” When we were driving to the hospital to deliver Rosie, we listened to Samson’s debut solo record Provincial as we radiated with excitement and fear and the prospect of our world being totally upended in a matter of hours. I also listened to that record a lot when I was in the hospital recovering from my thyroidectomy and modified neck dissection in 2015, notably “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” when my guests had gone home. His songs have always given me hope, and I question as a hardline cynic whether or not I would have any had I never heard “Aside” for the first time when I was venturing out from Propagandhi and felt my sonic world seismically shift. Winter Wheat is another masterpiece in a catalog littered with them. Generous, deeply gratifying, a gift. 2016 was full of emotional exhaustion and political anguish, but the quiet activism of Samson’s songs makes for a perfect soundtrack for terrible times.