10. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
“I’ve got no right to be depressed,” whines Will Toledo on Teens of Denial‘s cerebral and prescient opener, “Fill in the Blank”. In it, he complains about nothing in particular, lamenting nothing whilst refusing to form an intelligent or informed opinion on anything. In many ways, he’s symptomatic of white, liberal, twenty-something naval-gazing, always finding problems but never caring to see if there’s solutions. But, in denying the illegitimacy of his malaise, and proclaiming with a sort of disenfranchised aplomb that he indeed ‘has a right to be depressed,’ Toledo flips the narrative; he welcomes introversion and entertains its possibilities. It becomes the central thesis of Teens of Denial, kicking against the little things with a sincerely sarcastic bent. Toledo writes bedroom pop songs around knotty compositions, exercising guitar theatrics whilst never emerging from his humbled performance style. In effect, he’s living a maladaptive daydream, wherein his lonely nights become cathartic rock concerts, celebrating his emotional fragility whilst having at least one foot on the distortion pedal. If you’ve ever spent a Saturday night at home, then you’ll recognize the sound. –Elliott
9. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry.
Worry. is essentially one of the most fun and upbeat albums of the year. It is a collection of songs about growing up being complete ass, yet it simultaneously serves as a sendoff to youth in saying that the best has yet to come. From the glorious ending chorus of “We Begged 2 Explode” to the sublime closing set of tracks, Rosenstock is able to write some of the most upbeat and triumphant music while writing lyrical content that most people would find utterly depressing. It is an album about an existential crisis that feels real, and gives a great message while at it: to live life to the fullest no matter your age, and to look forward to what is to come next. –Hogan
8. Every Time I Die – Low Teens
Twenty years is a long time for a band to remain relevant, what with fears of stagnation or repetitiveness, but who better to prove the rewards of honing your abilities over a long period of time than Every Time I Die? Pumping out classic after classic, this year’s Low Teens proved to be the crowning achievement in a discography full of beautiful chaos. With a heavier focus on lyricism and backed by an ever-consistent vocal and full-band performance, the album rarely lets up, providing some of the best songs the band have ever coordinated, whether it be the crushing “Petal” or the Brandon Urie-led “It Remembers”. The five-piece continue to outdo themselves and prove that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep chaos under wraps. –Drubbi
7. The Hotelier – Goodness
Goodness shouldn’t work; on paper, it has everything going against it. For starters, it has to follow The Hotelier’s breakout record Home, Like NoPlace Is There, one of the most emotional and hard-hitting albums of the last few years. Unlike NoPlace’s concise nine tracks, Goodness is bloated up to thirteen, complete with instrumental interludes and a fucking poem — surefire ways to derail an album’s momentum. It’s also much more subdued and restrained than NoPlace in every regard. The production is wide open, airy, less punchy, the guitars are quieter and soft. The lyrics are less obvious, more poetic, and since the subject matter isn’t suicide and completely depressing, the lyrics are less immediate in an emotional sense, but somehow, it all works. The open production allows the music to feel lived in, the tender guitars hit hard, the cryptic lyrics break through – Goodness is an overwhelmingly powerful record. Even the interludes and the simple poem fuel the fire, set the fury, and build up to the release of the pure catharsis contained within Goodness.
Goodness is a patient record more than anything. Songs are less about what’s going on in the short term, and more about things being laid out over time. The first track after the opening poem, “Goodness Pt. 2” begins with only drums, then the vocals come in, then a single guitar. The first half of the track feels strange, naked at first, but after awhile it begins to feel lived in, it begins to make sense — but then the rest of the instrumentation enters, off kilter and unexpected, disrupting things again before dropping out as quickly as it came in. The Hotelier leave the listener with a few measures of just drums and vocals before the rest of the instrumentation comes roaring back in, this time in sequence and harmony, and the big picture is revealed. Flourishes and contrivances like this are littered throughout Goodness, making for an engaging and intense listen.
Goodness is not immediate, but once it’s cracked, it becomes a completely visceral experience. The Hotelier’s brand of indie rock works for the 48 minute runtime, with all the bells and whistles, and it works exceedingly well. Goodness is a deceptively challenging listen, but if one is willing to embark on the demanding journey The Hotelier have laid out, it’s beyond rewarding, it’s something special that feels more complete with every listen, and it’s the most dynamic and emotional record of the year. –Robert Lowe
6. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
As well executed as Old and XXX were, Danny Brown could never overcome the central conceit of dividing his records into two distinct sides. There was the partying side of Brown, dippin’ and dying like a rockstar, and then there was the pensive Brown, getting stomped for his Wonderbread. The concept of these albums – and ostensibly, himself – was the lack of reconciliation of his personas. One was proudly ignorant, the other ashamed in reflection. On Old, Brown used Side B to indulge in his worst tendencies. When he bragged about those songs being his last dope songs (but not his last dope songs), it seemed laughable; surely this duality would become his shtick? That these two sides of Brown come together so easily on Atrocity Exhibition isn’t just a relief, it’s a move towards greatness. Instead of sliding towards a middling standard, Brown’s refined his craft and exceeded expectations.
Cribbing its title from JG Ballard’s obtuse musings on voyeurism, Brown finally resolves his opposing styles into a dynamic whole. It’s claustrophobic, lyrically insular and rhythmically intense: the bangers are unnerving and the unnerving songs are bangers. At times it recalls the work of Arthur Lee and his band Love, specifically in the ability to capture the broader psychedelic experience as something that is frightening, if not awe-inspiring. That also extends to the beat-making of Paul White, transforming Brown’s raps into full-blown freakouts, evident in the sputtering pace of “When it Rain”, which gives room to Brown’s gnashing and snarling whilst still feeling anxious and angular. In that regard, references to post-punk and Talking Heads are not inappropriate, as Brown raps with all the furious bluster of a punk rocker whilst keeping things tense and sparing. Features are fleeting; ScHoolboy Q’s nattering ad-libs barely register on “Pneumonia”, and Earl Sweatshirt’s roiling one-liners steal the attention of album highlight “Really Doe” (“I was a liar as a kid so now I’m honest as fuck“; “I broke up with my bitch ‘cos we don’t argue enough“). For the first time, though, Brown sounds singular: he has defied the banality of celebrity and let us pay to see inside. For entertainment, we watch his body twist. –Elliott
5. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation
So much has been written about Dillinger’s swansong by now that I feel anything I write will be redundant. They are after all the mathcore band, their departure prompting a plethora of rosy-eyed musings on Dissociation‘s place in their legendary discography. They’re the one that started it all: a band that spawned the most part of a genre, mathcore forever indebted to their trailblazing career. But strangely enough it’s not Dissociation‘s mathcore-focused tracks that impress me most, with a lot of the more chaotic pieces sounding like old news at this point. No, it’s the band’s willingness to continue to push their boundaries that gives this a special place in their discography. The groove that kicks off “Limerent Death” (and Dissociation itself) is indicative of Dillinger’s ability to channel their dizzying knack for aggression into something artfully controlled, although there’s still that exhilarating feel of the uncontrollable lurking beneath the whole thing, waiting for the chains to come loose. They still do the total opposite of their trademark style beautifully too, the title track and closer being a wonderfully delicate affair, totally at odds with their knuckleheaded freight train approach to metal. Greg Puciato’s vocals are almost naked against the bare percussion and terse strings, his forlorn statements drifting precariously towards nothingness. It’s a fitting way for The Dillinger Escape Plan to end their career – not with a bang but with a graceful bow – because ending it all in chaos would’ve been spectacularly underwhelming. –Mort.
4. Vektor – Terminal Redux
Despite being an attempt to breathe life back into a beloved style of music, the New Wave of Thrash Metal movement always felt more like beating a dead horse. Out of every band to emerge in recent years from the New Wave of Thrash Metal’s origins, few have justified their existence better than Vektor. Despite their position of being, arguably, the biggest name in their respective genre right now, Vektor have made an entire career out of defying what it means to be a thrash metal band in the 21st century. As a result, Vektor’s Terminal Redux is the first time that the New Wave of Thrash Metal movement has felt like a meaningful, fully-realized revival rather than a rehash. By capturing the sound of thrash metal’s past, present, and future, and bundling it up into a cohesive whole with mind-blowing riffs and an ambitious lyrical narrative, Vektor have managed to deliver something that is timeless by every sense of the word. As time goes on, it will become increasingly obvious that the thrash metal ‘revival’ we were all so hyped for never actually happened; that is, not until Vektor made it happen with Terminal Redux. –Nash
3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
There’s something at the core of a Radiohead album that keeps us coming back to listen time and time again. It’s not Jonny Greenwood’s guitar (or in this case, string section) wizardry, nor Nigel Godrich’s lush production, nor the thirty seconds each album where we can actually hear Ed. It’s not even Thom’s trademark, peerless voice. No, somewhere below their experimentation and constant reinvention, I think what keeps us coming back is that we can’t shake the feeling that, for these past 23 years, all we’ve been hearing is five ordinary guys soundtracking their lives in the most honest way they can.
Sure, not every song is literally a slice of Thom Yorke’s life, but Radiohead’s best moments have always been the ones where the oblique, Stipe-esque lyrics fall away to be replaced by frank honesty. For what it’s worth, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like an album full of “Videotape”s or “Codex”es, which somewhat robs the emotion of its ‘this is a very special moment’ appeal, and instead lets it stand on the strength of the band’s conviction — which, in this case, is more than strong enough. A Moon Shaped Pool is basically a break-up record, and like every break-up record, it gives us the bitterness and cynicism (“Ful Stop”), the depression and loneliness (“Glass Eyes”, “Daydreaming”) and the philosophical abstractions (“Identikit”, “Tinker Tailor”), just not necessarily in that order. The King of Limbs felt very much like a band record, with Yorke almost lost at times between the cryptic, interlocking grooves. A Moon Shaped Pool, in contrast, keeps Thom front and centre; his raw emotion keeps the record driving even when his bandmates are drowned out by the pretty string bits. And I think the legacy it will leave behind, even more than finally pinning “True Love Waits” to a concrete studio version, will be that it showed us all that behind the enigmatic mask of genre-jumping and envelope-pushing, Radiohead are just a bunch of human dudes who feel heartbreak like the rest of us do. –Rowan
2. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave’s sixteenth, and possibly best, album is impossible to separate from the context of its release. Although half the album is said to have been written before Arthur Cave’s death in July 2015, Skeleton Tree is so uniformly melancholic that all of it could believably have been written in the wake of the tragedy. Even though few lyrics address it directly, Arthur’s death by sea hangs over the album entire, from the bone-chilling siren screeches courtesy of Warren Ellis on “Jesus Alone”, to “Distant Sky”‘s horizon-gazing wanderlust, to the tense, electrical storm atmosphere of “Magneto”. On two occasions Cave cuts loose from his tuneless, pale spoken word. The first, “I Need You”, is arguably one of his greatest vocal performances ever, trembling between sentimental croons and heartfelt declarations spoken in a whisper. The second, “Skeleton Tree”, is the most Push the Sky Away-type song here, breaking through the album’s dejection with an acoustic guitar strum and a heavenly vocal as a backing chorus – only for the brutal non-ending to snatch away any sense of catharsis. Skeleton Tree is not about closure, or God, or finding an answer. It barely even manages to formulate a question. It’s just the moment after the strong emotions have started to fade and everything inside you is numb. –Rowan
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie died and we all felt sad about it. The celebrities felt sad about it. The critics felt sad about it. The listeners felt sad about it. Nobody felt sadder about it, though, than Bowie’s most dedicated, the sort of fans who scoff at the ubiquity of “Life on Mars?” and count Station to Station, Thomas Jerome Newtown-era Bowie as the best Bowie. They’re the sort of fans who, when confronted with a public outpouring – as was the case with Bowie’s death – recoil, horrified at the simplicity of the dedications. Understandably, they made themselves known throughout 2016, objecting to everyone who attempted to cynically pin adulation to the memory of Bowie for the sake of a ‘hit.’ They didn’t want his death made a commodity, and it’s understandable. The irony, however, is in the detail. The pedantic among us might deny the overtures of major music publications, rightfully labeling it short-sighted and insincere. But Bowie, and Blackstar specifically, have consumed 2016 entirely: every conversation, every article, every second-opinion left with the nagging question: ‘But what about Blackstar?’
And so a year on, here we are. Having endured a year where critics made impressive about-faces, writing inexplicable plaudits to Blackstar as quickly as they had originally shown it indifference, listeners and writers alike are still enthralled with Blackstar. Surely, it is a sign that, if nothing else, Bowie has made the best album of 2016. Even as his legacy becomes permanently entangled in the Blackstar narrative, there’s still something undeniable about its basic musicality. The way the saxophones, synths, and guitars peak on “Lazarus” in a frenzied passion, only to collapse back into a stated, jazzy rhythm. Or the self-proclaimed Vorticist rock of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”. Or the surreal, Lynch-ian drama of the title track. Yes, Blackstar will inevitably be read as an epitaph, and its fiercest supporters will be considered mercurial, fickle, or at best, basic. But the reflectiveness and urgency summoned by his death has brought us something more than just the bandwagoners: it’s given us the best Bowie album in years.
In the final moments of “Lazarus”, Bowie, contemplating his inevitable demise, muses, “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird … ain’t that just like me?” You’re a freak, Bowie. I like freaks. And that’s why I like you. –Elliott
List of contributing writers by username (alphabetical order): AngelofDeath, Arcade, Curse., danielcardoso, Drubbi, ExplosiveOranges, Gameofmetal, hogan900, Insurrection, Judio!, LordePots, manosg, Mongi123, Mort., PistolPete, RogueNine, Rowan5215, TheSpirit, Toondude10, Trebor., Urinetrouble
Honorable mentions for LPs:
51. Cobalt – Slow Forever
52. Yndi Halda – Under Summer
53. Haken – Affinity
54. The Jezabels – Synthia
55. Oathbreaker – Rheia
56. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
57. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
58 (tie). Deakin – Sleep Cycle
58 (tie). The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free
60. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Honorable mentions for EPs:
11. Melanie de Biasio – Blackened Cities
12. Sheer Mag – Sheer Mag III
13. Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom
14 (tie). Toy Mountains – I Swore I’d Never Speak of This Again
14 (tie). Cadaveric Fumes – Dimensions Obscure
14 (tie). Disillusion – Alea