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

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