Let’s get one thing out of the way: 2016 was a garbage fire of a year. Between pop culture icons dying, the gradual uptick in police brutality, Brexit, and a tumultuous presidential campaign in the United States leaving a country divided and cruising full speed ahead toward a fascist kleptocracy, it’s easy to forget what good came out of this entire year.
At the very least, I had a good year when it came to music. I watched as some long-dormant artists emerged from their slumber to release unexpectedly good records, some of which unfortunately laden with tragedy, and I found a few new favorites along the way.
Enough of this, how about we talk about some records?
15. Tegan and Sara Love You to Death
Tegan and Sara are not a group I regularly indulge in, but I’ve always admired liked what they do, and I’m regularly surprised whenever I check in with them every couple of years. Love You to Death caught my, and many others attention, with the track “Boyfriend”. It was pristine modern pop music, shined to perfection, but somehow managing to maintain its personality. Most artists lose part of that “something” whenever they start making more commercially viable music, but throughout Love You to Death, I never got this impression. Tegan and Sara’s take on ‘80s pop revivalism made for a fun record I got a lot of life out of.
Recommended Tracks: “Boyfriend”, “Stop Desire”
14. Deftones Gore
The way I see it, there are two types of Deftones records: the more Chino Moreno-influenced variety, which tend to draw from spacier, more melodic sounds, and then there’s the record led by guitarist Stephen Carpenter, typically built around pummeling riffs into the ground. While their records over the last decade have struck a fairly good balance with this dynamic, it is easy to see that Gore is a Moreno record. These are the records I prefer, so I’m not upset at Deftones letting their space rock and shoegaze influences out to play. There are always the people wishing they would go back and play music like they did 20 years ago, so unlike many bands that end up going back to that well, I’m always relieved they really never went for the low-hanging fruit. Heavier, (popular) rock music is in a sort of bad way right now, most of it still trying to squeeze blood out of the stone of ‘90s alt-grunge, so I’m always excited for a new Deftones record, because somehow they’ve struck that balance of commercial viability with a sense of artistic progression, even if their records don’t evolve all that much in the short term.
Recommended Tracks: “Gore”, “Prayers / Triangles”
13. Joyce Manor Cody
Cody is the record where I finally understood Joyce Manor, and while I hate to compare records to other records, especially when it comes to making sense of them, this really got me thinking of ‘90s emo darlings, The Promise Ring, specifically their record, Very Emergency. The songs are short, never overstay their welcome, and are fun to listen to even as vocalist Barry Johnson sings songs about the struggles of mental illness and everyday life. I’ve been particularly thrilled by this ’90s emo revival sound that many bands have picked up on, and Joyce Manor is another entry in the new emo canon. Even as guitar-based music has faded out of the mainstream, I feel bands like Joyce Manor are putting out some of the best pop music around. I don’t even mind that their records are over almost as soon as they begin. It’s just another excuse to press replay.
Recommended Tracks: “Stairs”, “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?”
12. Bruno Mars 24k Magic
I hesitated including this record at all, but since release, I’ve had at least a couple of tracks from 24k Magic on near-constant repeat. I’ve learned not to expect anything new or overly groundbreaking from Bruno Mars, and I always feel that his music does little more than gives lip-services to shelved or discarded pop conventions for a modern radio audience. This record is haunted by the ghost of ‘80s Michael Jackson, and I can’t help but feel like Mars owes Bobby Brown some royalties for “Finesse”, but that’s not a knock against it. 24k Magic is a fun, retro pop record, and even if Bruno Mars doesn’t ever really develop his own musical voice or personality, I’m not against him making more records in this vein. He’s got a hell of a voice, and if he wants to lead the new jack swing revival, let him do lead. We’re due for proper ‘90s revivalism any day now.
Recommended Tracks: “Finesse”, “Versace on the Floor”
11. The Hotelier Goodness
So I missed this record when it released in May, and only fell into it within the last couple of months, but I feel like had I spent the majority of the year listening to it, it would rank higher. The vocals and tempos trend toward ‘90s indie rock and emo, but whereas a band like Joyce Manor pushes brevity, The Hotelier let their songs breathe. When they finally unfold, there’s a big chorus or a fun musical passage to rally around. I’ve yet to dive into their earlier records, but when I gave Goodness the time of day, I was more than pleased with what I found.
Recommended Tracks: “Settle the Scar”, “Piano Player”
10. Weezer Weezer (The White Album)
Ten records in, and I’m glad Weezer are finally starting to run out of obvious colors for their self-titled albums. 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End was widely considered a true return to form for Rivers Cuomo and company, and I largely agreed. However, I think The White Album takes ideas established there and builds on them, while simultaneously giving more than a passing glance to the sound they established themselves with in the 1990s (seriously, “LA Girlz” has The Blue Album written all over it.) In addition, this record actually has some pretty solid b-side leftovers that help to reinforce that after a good ten or so years of aimless meandering, Weezer finally got their shit together and are making (mostly) quality pop rock records again. It’s not perfect by any means, but unlike much of their ‘00s output, it hits more than it misses.
Recommended tracks: “LA Girlz”, “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing)”
09. David Bowie ★
Of the celebrity deaths in 2016, it was a tossup between Bowie and Prince for which one hit me the hardest. With that in mind, hats off to David Robert Jones for turning his own death into a goddamn piece of art, one that stands proudly with the best moments of his storied career. 2013’s The Next Day was a largely straightforward pop-rock record, and while I enjoyed it, I guess I wanted to hear Bowie challenge himself one more time. For better or worse, I got my wish. I shelved this record for months upon release, and when I finally returned to it, his death was no longer fresh in the headlines. This record is forever mired in the cryptic hints and references to his own mortality, and I will never share that three days worth of living context for it, unlike those who indulged on release. Instead I stand with the multitudes who arrived late to the (dead man’s) party. Going all in on weird jazz and crazy art rock, and ending on the record’s lone pop song was a smooth move. The world is worse without Bowie in it.
Recommended Tracks: “Lazarus”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
08. Jimmy Eat World Integrity Blues
I have a hard time connecting to a lot of newer records released by bands and artists I loved when I was a teenager. And the last three or so Jimmy Eat World records I haven’t gotten a lot out of, so going into Integrity Blues I really wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. What I got was easily their strongest record since 2004’s Futures, a record released several months after I graduated from high school. I’m 30 now. I feel as though I barely resemble the young adult fiendishly devouring that record, and singer Jim Adkins still looks exactly the fucking same. Jimmy Eat World found themselves again with Integrity Blues, and even if the tracks hit some of the same songwriting beats they hit 12–15 years ago, there’s still surprises littered across the record that threw me off and kept me on my toes (check that riff in “Pass the Baby”. Holy shit!) Integrity Blues is full of great pop rock songs that stand proudly with the best of their back catalog.
Recommended Tracks: “Pass the Baby”, “It Matters”
07. White Lung Paradise
White Lung rank as one of my favorite in the new guard of punk bands for several years now, and I’ve listened as they started writing more structured, more melodic material. I know a lot of fans were upset by this, but the poppier melodies really provide a counterpoint to the frenzied guitar riffs strewn across Paradise. I actually filed this record away during the last couple months or so after listening to it heavily over the summer. The drums still hit hard, the guitar sounds weird as hell, and now there’s keyboards to fill out the mix further. It still sounds like White Lung. Mish Way’s vocals still soar over it all and it still feels like a punch in the gut, even if the tempos are a little slower, and the production a little cleaner. Paradise is a further refinement of an already solid band. If they keep making records like this, I’ll keep listening. And if they want to go back to something a little heavier and faster, I’ll enjoy that too.
Recommended Tracks: “Below”, “Demented”
06. Modern Baseball Holy Ghost
I really miss The Weakerthans, you guys. And even though John K. Samson put out a record this year, it just wasn’t really what I wanted, and I didn’t get a lot out of it. Thankfully, Modern Baseball picked up that slack and put out an incredibly strong indie rock record, divided in half between vocalists Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens. While I prefer Ewald’s contributions on the first half, Lukens provided a strong showing on the back five songs, opening up about his struggles with depression and mental illness. Like Joyce Manor, Modern Baseball is another band focused around brevity, and there were days where I hit the replay button more than once with Holy Ghost.
Recommended Tracks: “Wedding Singer”, “What If…”
05. Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 3
I’ll get to the point: I’m pretty fucking angry about this record. I had this list mostly prepared, and then Run the Jewels decided to drop this on Christmas day. After several listens, it quickly rose up the ranks and I had to start figuring out where it sat with the rest of my favorite 2016 releases. Run the Jewels 3 is Killer Mike and El-P doing more of what they did on the last two records, but their chemistry knows no bounds, and they keep getting better. It’s decidedly more political, but it’s also surprisingly poppier without pulling any punches. Even though it released earlier than originally, Run the Jewels 3 is 2017’s first great hip-hop record, continuing to push the genre forward. Run the Jewels 4 when?
Recommended Tracks: “2100”, “Thursday in the Danger Room”
04. PUP The Dream is Over
As I get older my interest in the kind of punk rock I enjoyed as a teenager gets harder to really find any connection with, and over the last few years I’ve found solace in bands like PUP. Their sophomore full-length, The Dream is Over is the best thing they’ve made thus far. It barely clocks in at the half-hour mark, and it never really lets up from beginning to end. Walls of guitars and gang vocals fill out the album, and no matter how old I get, I‘m not tired of it the way I am the Fat Wreck Chords sound I loved as a kid. It’s loud, it’s fun, it’s self deprecating! And at the very least, it’s doing a suitable job of holding me over until I get a new Japandroids record in my hands.
Recommended Tracks: “Doubts”, “Can’t Win”
03. A Tribe Called Quest We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
I always seem to forget that A Tribe Called Quest called it quits in the late ‘90s when all of the members were still in their late twenties. 1998’s The Love Movement wasn’t an amazing record — certainly not a suitable career finale — but it was solid in its own right, highlighted by a restrained, minimal production style. It had J Dilla drum grooves for days, and I spent a lot of time this summer getting reacquainted with that record I had mostly written off, solely because it wasn’t The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. We Got It from Here… doesn’t really sound like any of those records, and that’s for the best. The shadow of Phife Dawg’s death blankets this record, forever dooming it to questions of “what if?”, but aside from an abundance of stellar guest verses (Andre 3000! Busta Rhymes! Kendrick Lamar!) and contributions (check that uncredited, surprisingly low-key Kanye West feature on “The Killing Season”), it never feels patched together or half-assed. That energy and competitive spirit between Phife and Q-Tip is back and on full display, and as an (unfortunate) farewell record, A Tribe Called Quest delivered. With the kind of year we had, Tribe gave us the hip-hop record 2016 needed.
Recommended Tracks: “We the People”, “The Killing Season”
02. Jeff Rosenstock Worry.
Jeff Rosenstock is getting older. And he’s kind of bummed out about it. I turned 30 in 2016, and I feel it too. While 2015’s We Cool? covered those themes to polished pop-rock perfection, Worry. is a looser record both in concept and execution. Everything sounds a little rougher around the edges, and the back half of the record is Rosenstock’s attempt at something resembling an Abbey Road medley of short tracks stitched together. Nearly every Jeff Rosenstock trick and trope is in attendance, with frantic glimpses of his Bomb the Music Industry! past, along with his continuing ascent as one of America’s great songwriters. Jeff still writes noisy, punk-inspired pop music, and it’s still really enjoyable. We Cool? was one of, if not my favorite record of 2015, and I’m really happy a follow-up came so soon.
Recommended Tracks: “Wave Goodnight to Me”, “Blast Damage Days”
01. The Avalanches Wildflower
Let me list some of the things that have happened since the last time The Avalanches released a record: 9/11, the Iraq War, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Lost, Breaking Bad, T-Pain, Michael Jackson’s death, and that “Happy” song by Pharrell Williams overstaying its welcome. A lot has happened since the year 2000 when Since I Left You was released. The entire music industry landscape changed entirely, and The Avalanches were (mostly) silent for almost all of it. No one ever really expected them to release another album. I wouldn’t have blamed them had they called it a day. Since I Left You is an incredible record, still groundbreaking and unique to this day with its sunny mixture of hip-hop, low-key disco and bizarre samples plundered from the deepest of record bins. They’ve been saying a second record was coming for years. And it never did. And many of us just gave up hope. Then a trailer for a documentary called Since They Left Us appeared this summer, raising suspicion that maybe there was going to be a second album after all. The documentary was a ruse, but The Avalanches returned, premiering new track “Frankie Sinatra” on Australia’s Triple J radio. I stayed up late that night listening to the premier in bed from my phone, wondering what The Avalanches might sound like in 2016. I still listen to Since I Left You about once a week. If I had to make a top 10 of my favorite records ever, it would easily make the cut. Did they really have another Since I Left You in them after 16 years?
The short answer is no. Wildflower stands both on its own, but also as somewhat of a companion piece to its older brother. The hip-hop and disco party vibes are still there, though portrayed in somewhat of a different fashion. There’s more straightforward “songs” this time around, led by a myriad of guest vocalists. Among the ranks are Danny Brown, Tame Impala vocalist Kevin Parker, Father John Misty, and even Biz Markie showed up to the party. Tracks still segue into one another, and like Since I Left You, leaves it feeling like a well-crafted mixtape, though this time the overarching focus is on 60s psychedelic pop. I’ve been spamming this record at my friends for nearly half a year now, and I know some of them are probably sick of hearing me talk about it (but I made believers of at least a couple of them!) It’s a record I never thought was going to happen, and I have considered that I ranked it as high as I did because of my strong feelings for Since I Left You, but Wildflower is a solid record that stands well on its own two feet. I just hope I don’t have to wait until I’m 45 for the next one.
Recommended Tracks: “If I Was a Folkstar”, “Sunshine”