50 Favorite Music Releases of 2016
Our generation seems to have agreed that 2016 sucked. But for those of us who survived, still navigating through the strange networks of reality and society, great music keeps pouring out. New music does not bury what came before it. It does not stack on top of it. It grows within it, expanding in every direction in a three dimensional axis. New music influenced by old music influenced by music older than it influenced by music newer than it.
Attempting to map musical history has become as complex as etymology. Words like “terrible” and “terrific” can mean something completely different even though they pull from the same root word. Just the same, music can take influences in completely different directions, contrasting interpretations and deepening the original listen.
As hard as I’ve tried to keep up with all new music that comes out, I’m still surprised by what I find. Music that came out 10 or 20 or 30 years ago I never heard of that sounds as if it could have been recorded today frequently comes into my ears. Some of them like Cornelius’s Fantasma from 1997 had been under my radar my entire life, seemingly sitting in a pocket of their own isolated genius. Studio’s Yearbook 1 from 2007 (a cool 10 years ago) had snuck under my nose since then but sounds as if it was a textbook for chillwave which would flourish just two years later. It’s understandable that things would go by unnoticed during pre-Internet eras, but this is the era of Spotify’s music recommendation algorithms, Bandcamp’s ease-of-publishing, Wikipedia’s endless editing, and Google’s data ubiquity. Somehow, despite all of this, it’s just as difficult to stay up-to-date. With enough time, I could just as easily have a List of 500 Favorite Albums of 2016.
Of course, time is the problem. Time is always the problem. The more tools we have to discover, the more overwhelmed we can become. This is both exhilarating and debilitating. But we still need more time. We never have enough time.
This is 2016. Retro has become a redundant word. Remix is part of any standard paint set. Revolutionary is commonplace. We often wonder what the future of music will sound like, and I think we now know: everything.
But I am biased. Anyone who says they like “all” music is either fooling their friends or fooling his or herself. My interests these days lead me to quirky pop hooks, entrancing soundscapes, gorgeous walls of sound, insatiable wit, ingenious creativity, and unbridled emotion. And the albums that tend to nail more than one of these things tend to be closer to the top of my list of favorites–which begins after the break.
- Nite Jewel – Liquid Cool
- Suzanne Kraft – What You Get for Being Young
- A Giant Dog – Pile
- The Avalanches – Wildflower
- Parquet Courts – Human Performance
- Wray – Hypatia
- The Radio Dept – Running Out of Love
- The Casket Girls – The Night Machines
- SHXCXCHCXSH – SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs
- Joasihno – Meshes
- Deakin – Sleep Cycle
- Hazy Mountains – Small Hours
- Crying – Beyond the Fleeting Gales
- NV – Binasu
- Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
- Frank Ocean – Blonde
- Public Memory – Wuthering Drum
- Entrance – Promises EP
- Secret Boyfriend – Memory Care Unit
- Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
- Tim Hecker – Love Streams
- Soda Fountain Rag – Extra Life
- Moderat – III
- Springtime Carnivore – Midnight Room
- Keep Shelly In Athens – In Love With Dusk
- Lone – Levitate
- Whyte Horses – Pop Or Not
- case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs
- Rival Consoles – Night Melody
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
- TV Girl – Who Really Cares
On Who Really Cares, TV Girl has brought blaxploitation soundtrack samples into indie pop in a way that combines The Go! Team’s rowdiness with indie pop melodies. Lyrically, it continues TV Girl’s tradition of a dating confessional diatribe. It’s a musical version of HBO’s Girls — showing sex and relationships in a completely unglorified way. The narrator himself is not immune from pointed fingers as they are often cast in every direction. Additional female vocals are often brought in to prove this point, serving as a counter perspective to what could be seen as one sided. But the album’s greatest strength is its unstoppable catchiness – melodies that infect nearly every song from start to end.
- Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
Cat’s Eyes’ Treasure House is a psychedelic pop slow coaster. Beautiful orchestral arrangements and vocal harmonies give the album a huge sound on “Drag,” but most of the album tones this down in favor of simple melodies and varied instrumentation. “Chameleon Queen” moves on from heartbreak through the bitter solace of indifference. “Be Careful Where You Park Your Car” is fueled by a youthful energy sparked by 60s pop. The album loses some steam in its last half, but if you know what you are getting into, it’s worth a listen. “Well Be Waiting” features organs in a wondrous key that sound less haunting and more pious. The album’s sendoff, “Teardrops” is a skittering yet angelic piano ballad that seats nicely on a cusp between tears of sorrow and tears of elation.
- David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie’s place in music is marked by a charm few others can take credit for. He served as a bridge between popular music, alternative music, space music, cinematic music, rock music, soul music. I think everyone has their own image of Bowie in their head because Bowie was a man of a million faces, both literally and thematically. This album became a self-referential dirge before passing. I don’t think that was how it was originally intended, but that’s what it became. And perhaps the tragedy most focused on isn’t his passing, but in how much he still wanted to say artistically. He still had future work in mind. While he may have passed, his unmistakably alive on this album.
On Blackstar, David Bowie fully embraces his iconoclast image, rolling over religious imagery with 17th century theater references. The saxophone use throughout this album connects the dots of despondency with its wallowing cries, saying the things Bowie isn’t able to utter. The album has no fear to be strange, calling upon Nadsat, the language used in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, to take us into yet another strange world in “Girl Loves Me.” But the album’s climax comes fittingly at its end with “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” It stands apart from the rest of the album with its prominent use of synth. It’s an ambiguous yet brooding last thought. Is there yet more to tell that he doesn’t have the time? Or are there pieces too personal or even for him to put onto record? I’m sure Bowie has left us many mysteries to solve on this album,
- Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen has found an incredible stride on MY WOMAN — one that was hard-earned. She made her music more accessible while preserving its power. It expands her sound while also bringing it back to its roots. She made her songs have stronger pop sensibilities while also being compositionally more complex. The album smartly begins accessible but becomes increasingly sprawling and intense as it continues. It is a remarkably smooth transition from the safe but reliable pop song of “Shut Up Kiss Me” to eventually the album’s eventually more compelling, vast “Sister” and “Woman.” The album’s themes of womanhood and the emotional labyrinth of love that ends in a place of independence is consistent, impassioned, and honest.
- Minor Victories – Minor Victories
I won’t lie–I was incredibly hyped for this project. A supergroup featuring Rachel Goswell of Slowdive as well as members from Mogwai and Editors seemed like a dream lineup. Based on its first few singles, I was prepared that this would be my #1 album of the year. While it did not reach my fullest expectations, it was still a fantastic album. Standout tracks remain “Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)” which is probably my most listened to song of the year as well as the slow boil “Folk Arp.” The former is a fiery dirge, the latter is a dreamy, emotional storm. While primarily a shoegazey, guitar-driven album, there is a scattering of strings and synthesizers to keep the instrumentation varied. “For You Always” is an interesting duet detour that features Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Rachel Goswell playing the parts of estranged lovers. It’s a good song on its own, but I’m not sure how well it fits into the entire web.
I’m not sure if Minor Victories is a one-off project or if we can expect more. I hope we’ll see more, because I think if this project tightens up its focus and finds more clear inspiration, it has the potential to be consistently spectacular instead of intermittently spectacular.
- Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos is perhaps the face of indie pop’s next generation. Harkening back to the nonchalance of indie pop grandfathers like Beat Happening, Next Thing has a similarly indifferent swagger on its surface. But upon further examination, it’s reluctantly affected by heartbreak, nervousness, hesitation, and naivete. For some, this might be annoying. But I suppose I’m in the album’s demographic. I appreciate quirky references and metaphors of everyday personal introspection. Instrumentally, the album is light and poppy. It does not ever surprise, but is fitting for the music and most importantly Kline’s vocals. I’m sure quirky New York-based singer songwriters putting out EPs on bandcamp are a dime a dozen, but it’s no mistake that Frankie Cosmos has risen out of the obscurity. Her music is delicate and simplistic, but that does not diminish its charm in the slightest.
- ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Anohni, formerly known as Antony Hegarty, is known for some of the most powerful vocal deliveries in music. Her voice was the centerpiece of her band, Antony and the Johnsons, whose music was fitting but took a far back seat to the voice. So, a genre shift to alternative R&B-style future beats is more than a superficial change. It was one perhaps inspired by her work with Hercules and Love Affair — a project for which she kept pace with production that begged for its own equal attention. On Hopelessness, the production sparks from electronic music geniuses Hudson Mohawke Oneohtrix Point Never, no less. And again, she not only keeps pace, but she further transforms the sound into pure passion. Lyrics fueled by sociopolitical anger and dismay fit perfectly with the record’s electronic dystopian backdrop. I had always wanted Anohni to make an album like this ever since I heard her initial foray into electronic music, and I’m pleased that this is everything I could have asked for and more.
- The Derevolutions – I Feel a Goo World
It’s unusual that an album so catchy, so quirky, and so blissfully wayward seems to go unappreciated. Like the rest of their discography, I Feel a Goo World is an album that few publications seem to have reviewed nor have noticed. But The Derevolutions deserve more credit than some obscure, unfocused bandcamp.com project. This album is genuinely interesting, well-written, and intricately produced, and sweetly performed. My fear when listening to this album was that it the first couple of tracks would be great, but the rest would be forgettable. In truth, the entire album is worth listening to. It’s consistently good. Perhaps it’s because twee and similarly coy indie is not in vogue. I don’t know. All I know is that I love this album.
- Ian William Craig – Centres
If electronic music is still the fastest growing genre, then ambient music was perhaps the fastest growing subgenre of 2016. I can’t count how many ambient albums I listened to, but I can’t consider myself an expert. Ambient is the musical form of abstract art, and it takes a similarly astute aficionado to delve into appreciations and comparisons. All I know is what sounds good to me.
Haunting, ghostly, brooding, dark. It almost doesn’t make any sense to call the music those words. It’s like trying to describe a color by only using its name. To expand instead, the music reminds me of the feeling I get looking at cities abandoned after Chernobyl. It is like William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops but with more focus and clarity, but equal degradation and dissonance.
Centres is primarily a work of ambient with some pop music influences – similar to the artist Grouper (but more on the side of ambient). This is apparent on “Arrive, Arrive” which is one of Craig’s few songs to feature vocals along with “Purpose (Is No Country)”. Further, “Contain – Cedar Version” evokes similarities to acoustic-ambient They escape in-between long stretches of ambience, making them whisper out like mouths trapped in static. Additionally, there are plenty of songs that hit the pop music sweet spot of the 2-4 minute mark. There is a thought given to composition which few other ambient producers give attention. It is perhaps a good introduction to ambient music while also not watering down ambient music.
Most ambient albums are a must to listen to from beginning-to-end, which is of course the most ideal way to experience Centres. But it’s one of the few rare ambient albums where you can start in medias res and still have an enjoyable experience. While some might find the music to be too eerie, others might find it to be calming. And so it does serve as an accessible retreat from the norm–a retreat with a firm foundation yet no discernable boundaries.
- M83 – Junk
This album was an utter disappointment for what seemed like the entire Internet. But not for me. I absolutely applaud M83’s departure on M83. Departure is a fitting word, because it’s got the flair of an ‘80s sci fi movie. I’ve been a fan of M83 since Dead Cities and this is the most excited I’ve been about the band since then. I wonder if people who are disappointed that M83 “changed their sound” with Junk haven’t been listening to the band since they started. They’ve changed their sound multiple times. I mean, when Saturdays=Youth came out, I thought, “oh, I guess they’re dream pop now?” People forget that Dead Cities was made up mostly of instrumental electronica tracks like Unrecorded, America, On a white lake near a green mountain, Noise, Cyborg, etc.
Anyway, suffice it to say, M83 has tweaked their sound a lot since then. I suppose the one consistent thing has been there has been their penchant for for cinematic-sounding music. Junk doesn’t break this. It just happens to be taking influence from an era of cinema of a bygone era, the 70s and 80s. Junk is a breath of fresh air because they finally are finally doing something that’s not trying to be the soundtrack of a supernova. They’re doing something fun, energetic, whimsical, and offbeat. “Walkaway Blues” is an addictive 80s pop trip down a memory lane we never knew existed.
Given songs like “Moon Crystal” they’re nailing all of those so well while also maintaining the 80s soundtrack vibe of the album. “Do It, Try It” and “Go!” are probably the most successful pieces of the whole journey from a standpoint of accessibility as well as pulling of this sound. They’re immediate, catchy, and fun. But they’re also full of style.
Yes, vaporwave exists and nostalgia for this era has been around for a while. But M83’s take is different. Vaporwave looks at the 80s/90s from a distance. You get a sense that vaporwave producers are aware of its cheesiness and wants to distance itself from that. It distances itself by throwing chopped up vocals and effects over the samples. It’s meant to sound weird because it’s trying to be weird. Junk doesn’t want to keep its distance. It wants to exist in that space of cheesiness because it’s an inherent part of the experience. They’ve updated the sound with their production techniques but for the most part pay much respect to the influences they are pulling from.
- Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation
Kero Kero Bonito is a service to humankind. In a year with so much that (much necessarily) aims to unravel the state of the world and the people in it, things can get a bit… depressing. Like The Derevolution’s I Feel a Goo World, Bonito Generation is album that’s fun and evokes childlike joy is rare, and it takes a bit of courage to be so coy and silly in a time when such things aren’t hip. But more than being fun, Bonito Generation is a treat of pop music. It is perfectly framed by catchy melodies and warm, spastic beats. There’s enough variation in texture to keep the album interesting. And while the mood is generally positive and upbeat, it still finds inspiration and a diversity of themes within that threshold. I believe we will need much more of Kero Kero Bonito over the next four years.
- A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The comeback album–when it come to fruition–is rarely satisfying. Usually it results in a failed attempt to recapture the old while failing to invent anything new. This album does the opposite. It not only builds upon its old with new ideas–it comes supercharged with ambition, vision, and composition — with enough to say to fit a double album. And it takes a double album to fit an all-star cast of features such as André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Elton John, Anderson Paak, and Talib Kweli.
One of the album’s most prominent theme is its congratulation of new artists who’ve taken the torch of hip-hop over the last decade. Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole are shouted out for their contributions. It gives the album much needed positivity as the rest of the album retains the musings over sociopolitical vexations that Tribe is known for. But the most striking feature of the album is how it sounds like a classic Tribe album while the production keeps it fresh and current. The production never feels dated, but the palette is quintessential late 80s/ early 90s hip-hop. I think this is the goal of every project that is revived — to keep things fresh while appealing to fans of the old. It always seems too evasive to achieve. But it’s done masterfully throughout the album. The urgency does well to keep it relevant, but it’s pure skill that holds it all together.
- Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Late in his career on his 7th LP, Aesop Rock shows no sign of slowing. In fact, he seems more on top of his game than ever. I’d have no doubt recommending this as an introductory album of his work. His lyricism is as absurd and entertaining as ever, but what really seals the deal for me are the beats, which were produced mainly by Aesop Rock himself. This isn’t his first attempt at sole production–he produced the entirety of 2012’s “Skelethon,” but he has improved substantially over the years.
His talent as both rapper and producer is one of the few to match El-P’s recent work, although Aesop Rock is more subdued where El-P is riotous. In Aesop’s case, it allows his persona to be even more evident, the entire work tailored like an auteur director’s vision. This is absolutely necessary for someone as introspective and cerebral as Aesop Rock, whose surreal wordplay requires a dictionary and a penchant for lucid dreaming to begin to understand. But even when his meaning is near incomprehensible to anyone but himself, he still manages to draw listeners in with his incredible flow. Fifteen tracks and no features of other rappers (with the exception of bonus track Syrup), Aesop is more than confident and capable enough to carry the album on his own. It serves the album well in its head-spinning trip down a Mario warp pipe into a world of poetics that will keep kids on RapGenius busy for the next decade deciphering his references to little league baseball, dendrochronology, Plinko, and whatever else popped into the dude’s mind.
- Ytamo – Mi Wo
Originally created as a companion piece for work of visual art, Mi Wo manages to stand on its own – or at least wobbly comfortably in its own subtle rhythm. Deeply rich in instrumentation, its branches softly sway effortlessly between naturalistic metal drums, bouncy retro organs, spacey synthesizers, creaky woodwinds, and jaunty vocal utterances. They are individual voices in an organic conversation that seems to flow with an enveloping cadence. Neither symmetric nor asymmetric, neither random nor calculated, this album’s movement somehow exists in a space that feels perfectly natural.
Though most would consider this album ambient or experimental, it’s somehow difficult for me to assign those words. It doesn’t feel experimental. It doesn’t feel improvised. Like painting a picture, it filled empty space with the externalization of mood. Primal is usually reserved for bursts of fiery emotion, but I don’t think that speaks for most of human history. There is a primal nature that is caring. There is a primal nature that is sensual and kind. This is the core of Mi Wo’s strength. It is delicate and intelligent. But its sounds are also always fleeting, which gives the album a touch of sadness and humility. It’s a little chirp in a sea of chaos that is our civilization, and that makes it a much needed respite.
- Yohuna – Patientness
I felt an immediate connection to Yohuna’s Patientness. I thought, “This is a language I’m fluent in.” Or rather, I felt that fluency. It was later that I found out the record’s production, engineering, and recorded was assisted by one of my favorite artists, Owen Pallett. Still, I don’t feel a lot of Owen in this music. Perhaps in technique, but the mood seems thoroughly driven by singer songwriter Johanne Swanson. It is a style-rich album, using a palette that stretches from 80s dream pop to 90s noise rock.
Yet as immediate as my connection was with this album, it’s not one that has universal appeal. In other words, this is not an album you’ll see high up on many other Best Of 2016 lists, if it’s even on them at all. There are admittedly other albums this year that were better written, better performed, better produced. But they didn’t speak to me like this album did. And as I don’t write for a publication, I’m free to allow bias. I love this album’s vibe. It is completely drenched in bittersweet. These are songs for driving alone late at night in search of introspection. This is an album that can make you happy when you are sad; it is an album that can make you sad when you are happy. It walks over my windpipe with soft footfalls. It is a kick in the gut and a kiss on the cheek.
- Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
“What’s this album about, Jenny?”
“It’s about vampires.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s about more things than that but a large theme of it is…”
“That’s so basic. It’s about vampires. Hahaha…”
Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch is a concept album in the broadest sense. More specifically, is a concept album about concepts. This makes its themes wayward and sporadic, ultimately not unlike a traditional album of without a core concept. It frequently comes full circles with self-awareness like in the exchange quoted above–its theatrical poise in essence broken like the fourth wall. This album is centered by its influences — everything from the Chris Klaus novel “I Love Dick” to the relevance of period blood as an image in feminism to black metal lyrics to capitalism to love as an abstraction of romance and Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (NSFW).
As rich this album is in theme and questions, it also gives much to impress aesthetically. Perhaps dream pop is fair enough, but at the risk of sounding like a grandiose hipster, I might call it post-witch house. It has transcended that genre in both sound and lyricism. It deconstructs the genre’s constituent parts, puts them out onto a table, and analyzes them honestly and wistfully and sometimes facetiously.
Rich with moody synthesizers, wheezing woodwinds, droning voices, random conversations, and a strange amalgamation of samples ranging from fires crackling to heavy breathing to pencils scribbling to news broadcasters. Some albums are dreamy through psychedelic sounds — this album manages to be dreamy through mundane sounds. I would call it an ADHD album if it also didn’t manage to pace itself gracefully.
It’s rare when such a concept heavy, genre-challenging album is such an easy listen. While it seamlessly sways between traditional and experimental songwriting, no sounds seem out of place even when they come out of nowhere. It is a poetic album, using metaphor as a way for the narrator to both self-reflect and engage the audience. It is highly listenable, but mysterious and unpredictable.
- Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
As much as we try to think about the past in a linear way, our memories don’t seem to work that way. We remember mashed bits of this and that in whatever order they pop up in. This album is like flipping randomly through someone’s personal photo album. It’s intimate; it’s naked. It’s got weird lighting; it’s got unexplained bruises.
The album’s origins are what perhaps give it its sad spark: a return back to rural home to visit a mother diagnosed with terminal cancer. Michelle Zauner–then a member of proper indie rock band Little Big Leagues–dug up her old solo material under the name Japanese Breakfast, which comes to serve as the foundation for most of this album. A couple of the songs (In Heaven and Heft, respectively) deal with the loss of her mother, which gives the album its carousel feel. It moves back and forwards in time – through darker and lighter moments, through isolation and friendship and sex and summer and hospital visits and breakfast and bed and lonesomeness and loss.
There’s an uncomfortable bear hug of nostalgia that both grounds the album and gives it wings. It’s an album that reminds me of my own returns to home. It’s almost like it’s already rewritten my memory of what returning home sounds like. The sparkling synthesizers of “Everybody Wants To Love You,” the beautiful mesh of strings and electronics on “In Heaven,” the adolescent angst of “Rugged Country,” they all bring me back to my twenties and discovering life, the universe, and everything. Some of that was new and shiny, and some of that was disappointing and profane. Yet it’s all connected and it’s all necessary.
Every year, there’s that album that sounds like something that has been done a million times before, yet executes it in a perfect way that makes it stand out from the million others. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart did so in 2009 with their debut album – a refreshing dream pop album that managed to make the subgenre sound both new and old at the same time. Here, Japanese Breakfast have done it again. Not imitating, but taking that instrumentation and lo-fi production to paint a new tone that can only come from a distinct human experience desperate to be heard and understood. Those of us lucky enough to hear it might not understand all of its meaning, but like a photo we don’t know the background of, we can appreciate it just as well and have the power to think of our own meaning, filling in the gaps with our own experiences.
- Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
My first thought when I turned on opening track “Downward Spiral” was, “God damn: Only Danny Brown would rap over a beat that sound like it was performed by Can in 1971.” I think there are a few other rappers out there who could pull it off, but he is one of the few bold and creative enough to put it on a main LP, especially on the opening song of the album.
But the track couldn’t prepare me for what was ahead of me. Foreshadowing is putting it lightly. Atrocity Exhibition takes its name from a Joy Division song, but that would only be a tiny thread of its dark influences. The album isn’t just a downward spiral; it’s a descent into madness. Danny Brown cannot protect himself from Danny Brown. It’s like each track looks behind the one that came before it and says, “You think that’s crazy? Nah bruh; this is crazy.”
“Rolling Stone” is an interesting titular callback to another project Danny Brown contributed to — Bob Dylan’s interactive video for “Like A Rolling Stone” (seen at http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html) While on the surface the artists might not seem to be similar, they both have unconventional voices and understand the importance of style in music. “Really Doe” seems to use up the album’s all star features all up at once with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt. It gives Danny Brown the freedom to explore his eccentricities elsewhere while also having one hell of a banger more reminiscent of 90s Wu-Tang or more likely Cypress Hill, one of Danny’s admitted influences.
On “Aint it Funny” – I don’t even know how to describe this beat. It’s like some kind of twisted funk carnival side show on LSD. And more, I don’t know how Danny managed to rap over it so well. “Golddust” shows how hastily he can throw down bars, seemingly speaking faster than I can think. “Pneumonia” is an aptly titled sick trap song that sounds like it could have been influenced by Tim Hecker’s darkest. But as much as the album can be boisterous and flamboyant, it can find quieter moments like the verses on “Today” which include a vocal crescendo that creeps up seemingly out of nowhere yet is very calculated.
These are just a few of the album’s trips. Yet as varied and eccentric as the album can be, there is absolutely a consistent feel between the songs: call it demented, psychopathic, maniacal, or just plain crazy. This is Danny Brown’s magnum opus so far in his career. It is unique because this is the album that only he could make. He has fully embraced his voice, his raunchiness, his grime, and most of all, his unending bedlam. This album sounds like 2016 felt like.
- Mitski – Puberty 2
Some years, there is a clear, immediate #1 album for me. This was not one of those years. There were countless albums I loved, but not one that stood out as an obvious pick. This pick took some reflection. A hard earned victory, not that anyone on or reading this list would care.
For dark singer songwriter albums alone, the competition was fierce. David Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, and Nick Cave’s Skeleton View were all feats from seasoned songwriters creating — in two of the cases — some of their final works. But Bowie in particular was so impassioned about new music. Working with artists like Arcade Fire and TV On the Radio, he expressed such a strong appreciation for their part in passing the torch of creativity and inspiration.
Mitski is one of those artists. Perhaps not directly, but certainly in spirit. Vulnerability in songwriting isn’t new, but it is still rare. And in those moments when someone spews their deepest guts in song form, it deserves recognition. Puberty 2 is true to its name. It is the sonic manifestation of adolescent despair, envy, self-pity, anger, wallowing, defeat, pride, and of course, a mountain of angst. This angst is caught in a vicious cycle between an apathetic environment and self-destruction. Yet angst alone does not a great album make. Puberty 2’s greatest strengths are in the risks that it takes, the influences it assuredly amalgams, and its economy of sound. These are eleven tracks that only once exceed the 4 minute mark, yet feel so complete and full. There are no disposable songs – each is unique both sonically and thematically. As much as I love the other albums on this list, I’m not sure I can make that statement about any more of them.
Mitski’s 2014 Bury Me At Makeout Creek was proof of her songwriting prowess, but it has bloomed into something even more incredible on Puberty 2. The album’s centerpiece and leading single “Your Best American Girl” is also one of the year’s greatest songs overall. A dreamy opening quickly finds its way into a crushing crescendo before it rips into a punk meltdown. The song’s sonic duality is reinforced in the lyrics. I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and although I understand the literal words, with every listen I peel off a another layer of comprehension. I’m not the songwriter, but for me, it is a long-fought acceptance over a rejection – although it probably wasn’t a complete rejection, nor a complete acceptance of that rejection. It was something caught in the middle of both, like most of life tends to be. Regarding the use of punk influences in the song, in an interview, Mitski commented “I wanted to use those white-American-guy stereotypes as a Japanese girl who can’t fit in, who can never be an American girl.”
These kind of identity and cultural windows are so important to understanding each other. I’m a white guy, and I can’t pretend to know what it is like to be a woman, or to be a minority in America, or to be both. All I can do is listen. And I do so thoroughly here – for both my enjoyment and my understanding. It’s not only a highly listenable song; it’s a compelling song.
Elsewhere, Mitski boasts admirable confidence which are obvious in the risks she takes. There are sonic risks as she tries so many different flavors of her music. “Happy” transforms a slow, mournful beginning into something triumphant (with brass, even); “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is an insatiably moody banger (never knew such a thing was possible); “Thursday Girl” is an airy dream pop gloomfest; “A Loving Feeling” is a short and bittersweet indie rock jam that I wish would go on forever, but is short-lived like many of life’s greatest things.
Lyrically, the reward payoff for the risks are even higher. “I Bet on Losing Dogs” comes borderlines self-loathing with its frank admissions of poor choice of lovers; “Fireworks” seems to describe bottled pain that occasionally seeps to the surface in everyday life; in “Crackbaby” happiness becomes a destructive drug. Lyrical content ranges from curiously ambiguous metaphors to surprisingly frank plainspeech.
I suppose Puberty 2’s only fault is a result of its double edged strengths. The risk she’s taken won’t appeal to everyone. That’s why they’re risks. What pulls one person in may push another person away. By this nature, it won’t be a universally loved album. But I do think it should be a universally respected album.
There isn’t one specific thing that makes the album incredible. It’s not an album that you can turn on and immediately appreciate all that it has to offer. The album rewards repeat listens with more depth in both its production and lyrics. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And god damn is that whole an amazing thing to behold.
0/WTF. Run The Jewels 3 – RTJ3
I’m not complaining that this album came out early. But damn did it make this list a bit more difficult. I’ve decided ultimately that I haven’t had enough time to spend with it yet, being that it came out on Christmas Eve. It’d obviously be in my Top 10, but it’s not fair to the albums I spent so much time with this year to throw it in ahead. So my full thoughts will be written in my 2017 Favorites List. 2017 already has some of the fiercest competition for the #1 spot. This is an insane album to begin what will surely be an insane year – in more ways than one. Let’s hope more good insane than bad insane.