Year in Review: The 10 Best Albums of 2016

Even though we seem to say this every year, the sheer quality of music that was released these past twelve months has been absolutely stunning. So many deeply personal stories were shared in the form of pained, honeyed voices and passionate instrumentals, through thoughtful lyrics and complex, ambitious compositions. There were hopeless romantics and stoic cynics, expressing their desire for love as well as their disgust for its intricacies. While it was impossible to keep up with all the albums (and EPs!) released this year, the ten listed here were chosen based on their emotional dispositions, meaning that they were honest, raw, and unapologetic, never shying away from vulnerability and sensitivity, whether that meant sharing soft, sweeping ballads, nostalgia-tinged odes, or desperate shouts into the void, surrounded by aggressive guitars and shards of synth (and even though they’re numbered, many of these could easily be swapped around; I know I never had one set emotion this past year). Even though 2016 was not the best of years socially or politically, it was a beautiful one for music; unforgiving pressure makes for the most magnificent diamonds.

10. Ice Choir – Designs in Rhythm

Kurt Feldman’s newest release as Ice Choir was a gorgeous journey into a sugar-soaked digital world, where he brilliantly toyed with 80’s electronica, glittering synth, and even a little bit of the humorously controversial vaporwave genre. Though the genre is has the nature to be cold and standoffish, Designs in Rhythm was the exact opposite, as tracks like “Windsurf” and “Unprepared” were far too whimsical to be considered anything but warm and euphoric. Feldman’s voice is soft and lush, and he controls it well within the context of his instrumentals, perhaps due to his past work in sound design. It’s an album that lets you make what you want of it, though we doubt it will be anything other than pure joy.

photo by Ebru Yildiz

9. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat To Earth

When Natalie Mering’s third full-length album as Weyes Blood was released, I remember listening to it in full over coffee, then immediately going to purchase a physical copy at the record store across the street. The vocals were so gorgeously haunting that I couldn’t get either “Used to Be” or “Do You Need My Love” out of my head for the next few days. Her voice is so potent and emotionally arresting that it almost exists as a physical entity, reverberating freely in the hollows and spaces that the instrumentals repeatedly create. The push and pull between loneliness, isolation, love, and desire made for nine absolutely breathtaking tracks, existing somewhere between the past and the present.

photo by Katie Miller/via npr

8. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Psychopomp was an album fueled by heartbreak and mourning, yet somehow seemed to have a tinge of hope nestled somewhere underneath the sadness. Michelle Zauner devoted her debut album as Japanese Breakfast to her mother – who recently passed away from cancer – and her presence is everywhere, from the somber “In Heaven,” detailing the grief and frustration she (and her dog) felt days after her mother’s death, and even to “Everybody Wants to Love You,” the bright, sunshine streaked blaze of joy. “Triple 7” showed off Zauner’s poetic songwriting, and the line “call out my name/ like something from a bottom of a well” stayed with me long after the album was over. Sure, it’s an album soaked in grief, but there are moments where the celebration of life was emphasized more than anything else, and that devotion was beautiful.

photo by Phobymo

7. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Blonde is an incredibly important album is because of its complete and utter devotion to emotion, how it refuses to shy away from vulnerability and refuses to suppress sensitivity in its correlation to Ocean’s “boys don’t cry” aesthetic. As a result, the album sounds gorgeously intimate in its muted, muffled instrumentals and deeply poetic in its lyrics, with Ocean voicing his deepest desires in love in tracks like the fantastical “Seigfried” and the nostalgic, heartfelt “Ivy.” Even in the most upbeat tracks like “Nights” and “Solo,” there’s no mistaking the intense feeling put into the creation of this album, nor the passion of Ocean himself, who sounds as if he is breaking into tiny pieces as he pours out his soul. He seems to understand the importance of feeling everything in this world so deeply and intensely – even the little things – and the way he manipulates various emotions throughout Blonde is nothing short of brilliant.

photo courtesy of artist/npr

6. Mitski – Puberty 2

Happiness and sadness have reoccurring roles during adolescence and young adult life, often times occurring far too frequently and haphazardly to live normally. In Mitski Miyawaki’s fourth and most personal album to date, she battles depression, anxiety, and other insecurities bravely and succinctly, with her lyrics acting both as shouts into the void (“A Burning Hill,” “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”) as well as a fiery balm to soothe her wounds (“Fireworks”). She also discusses love and the lack thereof, with “Happy” and “Your Best American Girl” being the two most stunning tracks in her entire career due to their intense, raw instrumentals and subtle, soft vocals. Although you have to search for it, Puberty 2 does have moments where both happiness and sadness coexist almost harmoniously, to the point where it no longer becomes a place for Mitski herself to voice her frustrations, but also something in which the listener can relate with as well.

photo by Ebru Yildiz

5. Von Sell – Von Sell EP

Though this is technically not an album, Von Sell’s debut EP has enough finesse and feeling to be mistaken for one, chock full of complex, intricate compositions and eccentric lyrics. It’s mixed thoughtfully and masterfully, a quality incredibly important in crafting a successful electronic pop album, where aspects like vocals and vocal effects can become distorted and murky. Here, his vocals are powerful and vibrant, sounding commanding and striking in “Names,” and soft and gentle in “Miss Me.” He even plays around with his own creations; “Ivan (Revisited)” is a gorgeous retake of the original, adding in a jangly guitar riff to keep things loose and carefree. At its core, Von Sell is an album conveying differing aspects of the human condition, and its simply gorgeous.

photo via impose magazine

4. Night Moves – Pennied Days

Night Moves’ sophomore album Pennied Days is an absolutely wonderful example of the eccentric country-psych genre, consisting of pained, honeyed voices and bold, sweeping instrumentals, where heavy themes of desire and passion are expressed without restraint. Frontman John Pelant has the kind of magical voice that can change in tone with a flick of the wrist to soak rapidly into its surrounding instrumentals – it’s energetic and elastic in “Staurolite Stroll,” focused in “Border on Border,” and soft in “Kind Luck.” The theatric, atmospheric “Carl Sagan” also had one of the most stunning music videos released this year. As far as their instrumentals go, they go all out; there’s rarely a lull in the album or a spot where there could be more girth. There’s always some sort of gorgeous riff, or a vocal harmony, or a deep rooted drum beat filling the space, but it still manages to sound transcendental, a living thing succumbed to passion.

photo courtesy of domino

3. Pillar Point – Marble Mouth

Scott Reitherman’s self-titled debut as Pillar Point is one of our absolute favorite albums to listen to in the colder months, due to its moody, complex synth as well as the warmth of the vocals (“Touch” has been on the top of our playlist since October). However, it can sound restrained at times, timid in its construction, not wanting to overstep its bounds. Marble Mouth is the result of Reitherman overcoming that fear, and it sounds vibrant, euphoric, yet still conveying his intense skill as a producer. “Strange Brush” is quirky and bold, its vocal effects puncturing and dissolving into the underlying beat like watercolor paint, while the synth in “Black Fly on a White Wall” wobbles and whines like something alive and kicking. “Underground” and “Dove” revisit that moody past persona, showing that Reitherman still values emotion and feeling above all else, regardless of how much color reflects off his work.

photo courtesy of artist

2. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Drummer and vocalist Julian Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek have created a truly beautiful masterpiece in the formation of Whitney, a band vintage in sound but modern in feeling. Their mellow, 60’s and 70’s inspired sounds combine aspects of psych, americana, and pure guitar pop, with Ehrlich’s gorgeously shrill voice and Kakacek’s nimble fingers at the reign. The title track is muted and shadowed, and despite being a seven member band, shows off their delicacy and intricacy, as well as their restraint and respect for past musical styles. The theme of the amalgamation of love and loss exists not as something somber, but something in which to derive beauty – “No Woman” and “Dave’s Song” show that as well as meticulous instrumentation. It’s more than a mere “heartbreak” album – to call it that would be selling it short – it’s something otherworldly and rife with feeling, from a band that know the meaning of closeness.

photo by Laura Harvey

1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Will Toledo is the personification of succumbing to your emotions. There’s never a moment on Teens of Denial where he’s not clawing deep into his heart or gouging out his soul; though it’s painful and uncomfortable, these are the things you need to do in order to conjure up something pure and honest. It’s an album fueled by depression and anxiety, yet it never sounds crude or self-indulgent; rather, the fact that Toledo can operate within the vicious, isolated world of depression (“Fill in the Blank”) as well as provide dense, sprawling narratives and stunning, meticulous guitar melodies to intelligently express that depression shows his immense talent as an artist as well as his nature as a human being. His lyrics are direct, simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by society, showing what it means to be a cynical, yet fearful twenty-something teetering on the edge of life. “Vincent” is piercing and volatile in its phrasing, “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” is milder and more concerned with relationships, and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is the definition of dense, its eleven minute duration full of references and the most honest expression of fear of being an adult in a world that never bothered to teach you how to be one. It sounds like the beautiful expulsion of ideas kept in the mind and soul for far too long, the result of emotions finally being set free. It’s ambitious, intelligent, and often too much too fast, but it’s still human, through and through. And it all began in the backseat of a car.

photo by Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi

P

Year in Review: The 10 Best Songs of 2016

This year was an emotional one, and music seemed like the only place to truly express that emotion.  Artists and songwriters were brave, bold, and brash, choosing not to limit themselves in passion or tenacity, placing importance in honesty and vulnerability rather than wasting energy trying to suppress it. For 2016, we chose our list of tracks, as well as our list of albums, based on the idea that indulging in your heart is often times more rewarding than solely listening to the thoughts in your mind.

10. Men I Trust – “Lauren”

The simple, yet mesmerizing bassline that introduces “Lauren,” the gorgeous single from Quebec quartet Men I Trust, is the element that secured it a sure spot on our list. It repeats itself and reverberates throughout the track, providing a thick backbone to the contrasting voices of Odile and Emma, vocalists found by founding members Jessy Caron and Dragos Chiriac. The result is a nostalgic, hauntingly beautiful sound, one that we’re hoping will expand into a full length album in 2017.

photo courtesy of artist

9. Von Sell – “Names”

Back in October, Brooklyn artist David Von Sell released his absolutely stunning self-titled debut EP (which, consequently, will also be on our list for the best albums of the year). Most of the seven tracks that appear on the EP were shared beforehand as singles, with “Names” being the last before the full release. “Names” follows the same aesthetic as the other tracks, including the use of strong, shuddering synth and bold, complex instrumentals. However, it was the pre-chorus of the track that had us coming back, where Von Sell’s crystal clear voice floats on top of a meticulous piano melody. It’s a breathtaking moment in the song as well as the entire EP, and solidified, at least for us, Von Sell’s intense skill and finesse as an electronic artist.

photo by Jen Maler

8. Japanese Breakfast – “Everybody Wants to Love You”

Michelle Zauner’s newest release as Japanese Breakfast was the highly emotional album Psychopomp, dedicated to her late mother. “Everybody Wants to Love You,” one of the early singles from the album, feels out of place at first listen, due to its jaunty, upbeat nature as well as Zauner’s bright vocals. However, when listening to the track again with a more focused ear, it further represents Psychopomp’s major themes of both grief and elation; especially when paired with the video, which has Zauner enjoying a day out on the town while wearing her mother’s hanbok, which she wore to her wedding. With the colorful guitar riffs and quirky lyrics that make up this beautiful song, its clear Zauner wanted to celebrate her mother’s life rather than mourn her death, and, given its short duration, becomes a moment of pure sunshine in the album.

photo by Phobymo

7. Mitski – “Fireworks”

Mitski’s deeply personal album Puberty 2 explored the natures of happiness and sadness both individually and simultaneously, further analyzing what it means for them to exist in almost perfect harmony. The songwriting was like a knife to the gut, but also felt completely necessary, as Mitski’s soft voice soothed and healed the wound. “Fireworks” was one of the most raw and passionate tracks from the album – with Mitski giving one of the most beautiful vocal performances in the entirety of the album – with the lyrics unapologetic in the way they deal with the natures of depression and insecurity. The track, narrating the life of someone so depressed they forget how to feel, contains some of the most somber lyrics, but yet the song sounds commanding and powerful in its instrumentals, communicating the moment its time to deal with your past.

photo by Ebru Yildiz

6. Porches – “Car”

Every time we come across this single from Pool, Aaron Maine’s debut album as Porches, we are charmed by the subtle way it builds from a simple, glittering guitar riff to a multi-faceted masterpiece in a mere two and a half minutes. True to the album’s name, the track comes in waves, simulating the feeling of being submerged by sound. Maine and his band add their parts as the song rolls on, including sparse drums, ethereal vocal backing, and layers of subtle, yet arresting synth. Maine’s voice also builds in strength up to the end of the chorus, where he slowly and delicately exhales the last few notes in a gorgeous release of pressure.

photo by Jessica Lehrman

5. Pillar Point – “Dove”

“Dove” might be one of the most stunning songs to exist in Scott Reitherman’s career as Pillar Point, mainly due to its simultaneous power and intricacy. His masterful manipulation of synth is heard throughout the entirety of his brilliant sophomore album Marble Mouth, and it’s especially impressive and elastic in the house track “Dove,” as it swells and shrinks, oscillating freely between elation and melancholy. Reitherman’s voice is an omniscient entity in the track, swerving beautifully through his complex instrumentals, whether it exists as the main narrative voice or part of the underlying rhythm. The lyrics are equally stunning, with Reitherman delicately reminding us that “without love/ you’re just a stupefied dove.”

photo courtesy of artist

4. Night Moves – “Alabama”

John Pelant’s voice is absolutely magical, and no other track made us realize that more than Night Moves’ fervent ballad “Alabama,” taken from their sophomore album Pennied Days. Pelant switches seamlessly from a gorgeously shrill falsetto to a thick, brooding drawl without so much as a breath, and then switches back to falsetto again, all while surrounded on every side by shimmering country-psych instrumentals. He compares himself to an animal in a cage, and the one he loves as his tamer, commenting on her unparalleled beauty and his inability to process anything other than his desire for her. The raw energy and unrelenting passion that exists in this track is so potent and animated that it’s almost tangible, and the story Pelant conveys through his lyrics makes it a love song for the ages.

photo courtesy of domino records

3. Frank Ocean – “Ivy”

I bought the entirety of Frank Ocean’s third full-length album Blonde solely based on the first few seconds of “Ivy,” hoping to experience the last five years of obsession and anguish devoted fans went through for myself in a mere five days. After finishing the album, I kept coming back to “Ivy” due to the delicate subtlety I heard in Ocean’s somber, pained voice, as well as the nostalgic feeling for a life I never had. Deeply weathered by the frustrations of love and desire, but refusing to fail, Ocean paints a sheer coat on top of an already broken, chipped foundation, heard in the track as the eerily bouncy, wavering guitar plucks. It embraces Ocean’s “boys don’t cry” theme of Blonde, as it doesn’t shy away from emotion and sensitivity, and he apologizes, yearns, and screams that he and his beloved aren’t “kids no more,” and should have learned how to deal with heartbreak by now.

photo courtesy of artist/npr

2. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

Will Toledo’s brilliant songwriting is seen and heard throughout the entirety of Teens of Denial, his first record for Matador under the title Car Seat Headrest. He’s a storyteller more than anything else, with each of his emotional, deeply personal songs coming from a place of extreme honesty. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is the stand out track from the album due to its mercurial nature; including everything from a falsetto drenched introduction, pained, soul baring interludes, and aggressive instrumentals pierced with pleading, yearning vocals claiming that “it doesn’t have to be like this.” Much like the rest of Teens of Denial, it’s incredibly self-aware, and completely indicative of Toledo’s intense talent as an artist.

photo by Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi

1. Whitney – “No Woman”

When I visited Canada this past summer, “No Woman” was, by far, the one song I indulged in the most while I was there. I blasted it through my headphones on the plane, played it in the car for my relatives in the early mornings while driving through thick, melancholy fog and majestic emerald green pines, and listened to it in my room at our little rental house while prepping myself to go out for the afternoon to the little shops and restaurants that lined the waterfront. However, it was during a car ride one evening while we were there that I finally broke down, due to the simultaneous beauty of what I was listening to as well as what was right in front of my eyes. The introductory swell of piano and soft, nostalgic guitar strums provide cushion for Julian Ehrlich’s beautifully shrill, piercing voice, and the layers of drums, violins, and brass instrumentals all build on top of each other with divine timing, ending with a crescendo of absolute power. However, it was Max Kakacek’s absolutely stunning guitar solo that caused so much emotion, as I felt it along with the accompanying lyrics narrating the journey to embrace the unknown.  Not only does Whitney encourage you to find beauty in melancholy, but ultimately, allows you to  feel secure in your own loneliness, even when surrounded by mountains and trees.

photo by Laura Harvey

P