Here are my favorite albums of 2016 in order, with a lot of honorable mentions at the end. I didn’t get through all the records I wanted to this year (I never do) so I’ll probably do a revision in a year maybe. The first 3 records are very very close for me, and the reviews will definitely reflect that. Here they are:
1. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
This album is brilliant. It might even be my favorite indie rock record ever. I have a feeling that it could even beat out “Bug” by Dinosaur Jr., and that says something. It says a whole fucking lot. This album is summer to me. It’s the feeling of catharsis I got when walking down the same road in my small small town every day on my way to and from work over the summer. It’s a record that’s pained but hopeful and that fills my veins with elation. It’s somehow inspiring (it’s a happily sad record) and for some reason it gives me indie rockstar dreams. It makes me want to tear my own heart out of my chest but in a good way somehow.
This is an indie rock album (a la Stephen Malkmus) with some classic rock pretensions that make the album feel larger in scope. If that’s not your cup of tea, fine, but to me it’s a mug of green tea with mint. It doesn’t feel like the 90’s worship that so many are calling it. It feels new. It has the confessional feel of a good emo album, but it presents it by way of purely uplifting rock music. Structurally and instrumentally, it’s not a standard indie rock album. It has multiple songs over 6 minutes, with instrumentation that deviates from the standard bass-drums-guitar-vox lineup. Featured on this album is slide guitar, horns, organ, piano, keyboard (there’s even a bass solo on “Connect the Dots”), but none of it is presented in a way that feels gimmicky or annoying. It’s used perfectly to accent songs where they needed it, like the slide guitar on “Drugs With Friends” and the organ near the end of “Cosmic Hero.
Despite the songs having such unique structures, this record has choruses that are so catchy it would make Bob Mould proud (namely on Connect the Dots and 1937 State Park). The lyrics are both angry and empowering, pained and nostalgic. When I first heard frontman/songwriter Will Toledo yell “I’ve got a right to be depressed/I’ve given every inch I had to fight it” at the end of opener “Fill in the Blank” I fucking believed him. Records don’t usually make me hugely emotional, but the line “I didn’t want you to hear/that shake in my voice/my pain is my own” in “1937 State Park” has made me choke up multiple times. Many of the songs on this album are lyrically focused on “teens of denial/style”, a term Toledo uses to refer to a generation of hipster twenty somethings that are desperately trying to figure themselves out. He seems to consider himself a part of them while also rejecting them. Songs like “Connect the Dots” and “Drugs with Friends” reflect this especially, as he comes to term with himself and the aforementioned “teens of denial”. As a confused teenager myself, this album hits home with this theme, confronting topics of drug use, relationships, dreams, and suffering all under one theme. The album is depressing but hopeful for what lies in the future. It’s that overall attitude across the album, combined with great lyrics, great songwriting, and brilliant hooks that make this the best (and almost catchiest) album of 2016.
Favorite Tracks: Connect the Dots, Fill in the Blank, 1937 State Park, Drugs with Friends. Least Fav Tracks: Vincent (it’s just kind of annoying)
2. Kodama – Alcest
This album is criminally underlooked in most of the year end reviews, which is honestly surprising to me . Despite it being an atmospheric black metal record (I guess “Blackgaze” but it’s really closer to post rock most of the time), Alcest have gotten a lot of press over the years, and the Deafheaven crossover certainly helped give more exposure to the genre. It seemed to me now more than ever they would be talked about, but that wasn’t so much the case. For me, this was a huge record. It’s absolutely fucking beautiful, definitely best metal album of the year, and possibly album of the year. This is the first record of theirs that I’ve really gotten into, and it’s incredible. For the uninitiated, Alcest is a french band well known for kicking off the first wave of shoegaze inspired black metal in the 2000’s, and their discography extends back a decade or so. Their last record “Shelter” was essentially when they went full dreampop/gaze (they even had Neil Halstead on that record), but on this one they go back stylistically to where they were on “Eccailles de Lune”. But this is by no means a step back in their evolution. This is the best record they’ve ever released hands down.
The band borrows a lot from post rock on this record, but it never feels contrived (cough cough EITS cough cough). It feels less minimalist than a lot of post rock, as every melody and riff is filled and washed out in ethereal guitar (hence the shoegaze). It’s never boring, and unlike a lot of atmospheric black metal and post rock records, it doesn’t get lost. It doesn’t lose direction during its quiet and melodic parts, and it remains driving throughout. The melodic vocals on this record never feel cheesy or overdramatic by fitting in completely with the vibe of the record (as the clean vocals on “I Troldskog Faren Vild” by Ulver do). When the band finally breaks through after building up in songs like “Je suis d’ailleurs”, the result is overwhelming. Neige’s screams combined with the absolutely incredible blastbeats from Winterhalter bring the band back to their black metal roots for these sections, unleashing a pure wave of catharsis. The drumming on this album is amazing, and you can tell the group is a duo based on how much space the drums fill and how much of a role they play in the record. The guitars on this record are lush and melodic, leaving the heaviness to the drums and vocals, filling out the record rather than playing a leading role. The chords and tremolo picked lead lines are filled with emotion and are rip my own heart out of my chest worthy.
I don’t understand the lyrics on this album and haven’t checked because they’re probably in french, but it’s not really that important to me. I know this record is supposed to be based on the Hayao Miyazaki movie Princess Mononoke, I only really get that vibe on the first track “Kodama”. Otherwise I don’t see it, but whatever. It’s a fucking beautiful record that deserves a full listen through. Fav Tracks: Je suis d’ailleurs, Eclosion. Least Fav Tracks: None
3. Meta – Thy Catafalque
best album cover of 2016
This album is entirely different from any other metal album I’d ever heard before, and really from any other album I’d ever heard. It’s unique as hell. It’s often labeled as black metal by a lot of other sites, but it’s really more than that. Songwriter and mastermind behind the project Tamas Katai labels the band as “Avant-Garde” metal, which is fairly accurate, but implies a looser feel than there actually is on the record. As much as I hate most everything labeled “progressive” metal, this album to me is what progressive metal should be. There are elements of black metal on this record (namely the vocals), but there are elements of death metal, progressive rock, krautrock, electronica, and folk. It’s an incredibly diverse album in terms of range of sound. So many metal bands right now being called diverse in terms of sound simply go from one style to another (post rock to black metal, folk to metal) and do little to blend the two. This band takes a multitude of genres (and even influences from art, I’ll do another post later about the “sound” of physical art) and almost seamlessly combines them together to create one of the densest and most experimental records I’ve ever heard.
Everything on this album is tight. It feels like the strictest album ever recorded. This is in part due to the fact that the drums on this album are programmed, something which I didn’t notice until I read that they were. That would have turned me off at first, but it doesn’t detract from the music at all. The recording of this album is also fascinating to read about, because a lot of it was recorded separately, by people from different countries, who would record their tracks separately and then send them in to Tamas for editing. While it may be Tamas’s solo project, the amount of collaboration on this record is incredible. There are multiple vocalists on this record, and they all bring something new. The cello melody (played by Judit Csere) on “Siraly” is followed and copied by haunting layered female vocals sung by Agnes Toth. Her soprano in conjunction with the cello make the song feel haunting and honestly medieval. I usually hate metal that feels that way (most of it tends to feel too piratey and thus cheesy) but here it’s done exceptionally. The clean male vocals done by Gyula Vasvari on “Vonatút az éjszakában” are a nice touch as well. The growled vocals on this record are also supplied by numerous people, my favorite of which come from Zoltan Konya on the 20 minute epic “Malmok Jarnak”. At the start of the song, the vocals are a little distant, but at about the two minute they come in full force and are absolutely brutal. It’s a style of screaming in which you can still make out the words being said, and it’s truly amazing. Granted, the lyrics are in Hungarian (Tamas is Hungarian and is currently living in Scotland) so I can’t understand them, but that doesn’t matter to me so much. It’s the feeling that’s important, and this album feels a lot.
Songs like 10^20 Angstrom are absolutely pummeling with flurrying double bass drum kicks and layered guitars, while other tracks like “Ozzel Othon” lay on atmosphere. This record is an experience, it’s truly amazing. Songs like “Malmok Jarnak” will move from sludgey brutality to ambient electronics to folk. The record does suffer at points, with Malmok Jarnak being about 5 minutes too long, and “Vonatút az éjszakában” being a little boring. However, it’s still an incredible listen all the way through. I’m a proud owner of record number 117 of the limited 300 vinyl run since Christmas (thanks mom!) and it’s absolutely beautiful. A good album to me is cohesive and has a consistent feeling throughout, and this album does that amazingly. Fav Tracks: 10^20 Angstrom, Siraly, Urania Least Fav Tracks: Vonatút az éjszakában,
4. I Wanna Meet Richard Dreyfuss – Gabriel Gundacker
I know this is a joke album. I know it’s written and record by a guy who’s a vine celebrity or something. It’s a pop record about Gabriel Gundacker really really wanting to meet actor/director Richard Dreyfuss. On paper this should be really fucking bad. But it’s really not. It’s actually really really good. Throughout the course of this very short album (it’s only 20 minutes long), we follow Gabe as he obsesses over Dreyfuss, tries to get over him, finally meets him, and the aftermath as Gabe deals with having just met his hero. This album is hilarious and it’s catchy as all hell. This album contains 10 songs that vary from soul to hip hop, funk to even disco, and every one of them is infectious. Gundacker’s voice is incredible, he has insane range and he uses it to great effect, layering and harmonizing with himself. The lyrics are witty, the instrumentals are catchy, and songwriting is surprisingly complex at points (It even sounds like Return to Forever for a bit on “I’m Sorry, Richard Dreyfuss”). It’s the catchiest album of 2016 easily, and it’s short runtime makes it easy to become familiar with all the songs on the record. It’s extremely fun. Listen to it. Fav Tracks: I Wanna Meet Richard Dreyfuss,, I’m Sorry, Richard Dreyfuss,, I’m Moving on, Richard Dreyfuss Least Fav Tracks: None
5. Blackstar – David Bowie
I’m not gonna be able to do this record any justice in this review, so I’ll keep it super short. I just feel unable to write about this album even though I really want to. There’s nothing else like it that I’ve ever heard, it’s the final step in Bowie’s career. It’s theatrical, jazzy, progressive, electronic. It’s a last release of emotion for him, written of course as he knew his death was soon approaching. It’s heartbreaking yet hopeful, it’s astoundingly inventive. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s Bowie, it’s brilliant.
These are albums that I liked, but either haven’t listened to enough or didn’t do enough for me to deserve a real writeup.
No One Deserves Happiness – The Body: A really good industrial/metal/power electronics record that is dark but also really catchy somehow.
Malibu – Anderson .Paak: A record I haven’t spent too much time with but is super catchy and worth your time if you’re into old school soul/r&b with a modern feel.
Mystical Future – Wildernessking: Actually really good atmospheric black metal. It’s super interesting.
Voices – Wormrot: It’s grindcore that’s also kind of catchy in parts. Give it a shot.
Stage IV – Touche Amore: A super sad post hardcore record, check it out.
In Passing, You Too Faded – Fox Wound: A good emo album that I haven’t spent enough time with.
Before A Million Universes- Big Ups: A pretty good post hardcore record that sounds kinda like a more straightforward Slint at times.
Rheia – Oathbreaker: An atmospheric black metal record from that’s notable only really for the vocals, which range from hauntingly clean vocals to tortured retches.