It’s December, and that means it’s time for me to start counting down my favourite albums of the year again. This time around I’m a bit more prepared and already have a bulk of the reviews written up, so I should be able to keep to a schedule of one review a day leading up to Christmas. That’s assuming I can access a computer, of course, now that I’m living the backpacker life down under…
Before counting down, I want to take a quick look back over the past 12 months and get down some thoughts about everything that has happened and all the great music that has been released. I think one trend above all will dominate most people’s retrospectives of 2016, and that was the death of a number of legendary musicians throughout the course of the year. A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen all passed away in 2016, and three of the four released fantastic late-period albums right before, or in the wake of, their death.
It stands as a testament to the raw talent of these legendary musicians that they could still be creating some of their best music long past their prime, facing down their own death. And while their passing was mourned by many, it also provided an opportunity for us to celebrate the fantastic music each artist has created throughout their lives. I think for a lot of people, too, the death of Bowie and Cohen felt like something of a generational shift: the pair were two of the last living relics from the golden era of 60s/70s rock and folk. It makes me wonder: where is rock music going in 2016?
Well, without spoiling anything on the list, I’ll just say that rock music is most certainly alive and kicking in the current music world. There is still a strong crop of artists pushing the music into new and strange directions with albums that will (hopefully) stand as the classics for future generations. And alongside them there continues to be a huge amount of innovation going on in the hip-hop world, which saw more than a few fantastic, boundary-pushing records.
One trend which I’d like to briefly mention was the surprising number of country albums I found myself loving in 2016. Some of them will be popping up in the honourable mentions list at the bottom of this post, having been sadly pushed down by albums released throughout the year, but others will be making an appearance in my top 20 list. Country isn’t a genre I’ve explored a whole lot, but a handful of great 2016 albums have convinced me I need to go back and dive into it a bit deeper.
And 2016 was also a great year for R&B – while alternative R&B continues to rise in popularity and saturates further and further into the mainstream thanks to artists like The Weeknd, there were also a number of great albums from artists both new and old working in all different facets of the genre.
And with that, it’s time to start the list. Before going into the top 20, I’m going to list off some honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut. Every album listed below, though, was one that I loved and would thoroughly recommend – if I had the time or the dedication to write 40 album reviews I would include all of the releases below. But since it’s just me writing these and I obviously have other stuff to be doing, I have to draw the line somewhere.
OH and one more thing. If you care enough and want to see my obsessively catalogued opinions on various kinds of music, go check out my rateyourmusic account over at https://rateyourmusic.com/~Stoo99. Type in 2016 then select ‘release year’ from the search engine in the middle to get a list of everything I listened to and rated throughout the year. Or don’t. That’s cool too. Let’s begin!
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree. A haunting and minimal slice of grief from Nick Cave following the death of his teenage son in a car crash. Skeleton Tree was probably the year’s saddest record, but also one of its most beautiful. Cutting this one out of my list feels particularly brutal, but I can only write so many reviews…
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead made a quiet return in 2016 with A Moon Shaped Pool, an introspective and tender record that contained sprinklings of Kid A and Ok Computer served on top of a healthy dose of melancholy and social anxiety. A return to form after the somewhat disappointing King of Limbs.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. A grand and sweeping modern country album in which Sturgill Simpson composed a suite of songs all addressed to his infant child. The result was heartwarming, honest and occasionally so goddamn sweet it could bring a tear to your eye. “Hello, my son. Welcome to Earth.”
Touche Amore – Stage Four. A raw, heavy and confessional post-hardcore/screamo album all about the death of frontman Jeremy Bolm’s mother to cancer. Stage Four was a visceral and gut-wrenching listen that will resonate with anyone who has suffered the death of a friend or family member.
Drive-By Truckers – American Band. Another great country album, this one more in the vein of alt-country and with a heavier rock sound. American Band was a drawling, down-South meditation on the state of America in 2016, touching upon racism and gun violence but always remaining as bright and clear as the sun across a Texan plain.
Gorguts – Pleaides Dust. A lengthy EP from death metal legends Gorguts that was supposedly about the destruction of the Baghdadian House of Wisdom, a famous historical library in the capital of Iraq. Although the lyrics are pretty undiscernible, you can hear the destruction in the music: listening to this EP is like standing in the centre of a huge, crumbling ruin being blown to pieces by absolutely manic drums and churning guitars.
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Warm, sun-soaked country music from newcomer Margo Price. This one released just in time for Spring, being full of gorgeous, sunny country melodies and tales of the road, the farm, and livin’ off the land.
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. A collection of unreleased material from the sessions of To Pimp a Butterfly, my favourite album of 2015. Everyone else has said it, but it remains true: even Kendrick’s B-sides put a slew of other rappers to shame. The songs here didn’t have the polish of TPAB, but they had the same restless creativity and confidence of the album proper.
Weezer – The White Album. Possibly Weezer’s best album for 20 years, The White Album made it sound like it was like the late 90s and no time at all had passed since the days of Buddy Holly and The Sweater Song. Full of great rock/power-pop anthems like ‘King of the World’ and ‘Thank God for Girls’ that might not be winning any awards for lyrical poetry but were so much fun to listen to.
Neurosis – Fires Within Fires. A solid and consistent effort from sludge metal legends Neurosis. Heavy sludge riffs combine with a thick and dense rock sound to create an album that provided a great entry point for me into a group who’ve now become one of favourite metal bands of any kind.
Tim Hecker – Love Streams. The crown prince of drone music came out with another strong effort early in the year. Love Streams was no less spiritual or cinematic than 2013’s classic Virgins, but considerably more colourful – this was the musical equivalent of light refracting through stained glass windows. Warm and ethereal, but also slightly alien…
Mitski – Puberty 2. 2016s best-titled album was a raw and anthemic indie rock release from Japanese-American songstress Mitski that channelled the Pixies but had the energy and attitude of punk.
Bwana – Capsule’s Pride. A techno reimagining of the soundtrack to anime classic Akira, Capsule’s Pride was a pulsating and futuristic techno release that I found myself revisiting often while running in 2016.
Denzel Curry – Imperial. A strong release from Southern rapper Denzel Curry with a heavy, boom-bap flavour. ‘Zenith’ was one of my absolute favourite hip-hop songs of the year: nothing but hydroponic, head-bobbing bliss.