Best Albums of 2016

Every year, I do a rundown of my picks for the Best Albums of the Year. Sometimes I rank them. Sometimes I don’t. I do what I want.

In no particular order, here’s what kept my ears happy this year:

Freetown SoundBlood Orange – Freetown Sound
Blood Orange, aka the London-born New Yorker Dev Hynes, is no stranger to genre-bending. While Freetown Sound has a solid R&B foundation, it isn’t tethered there. With splashes of jazz, electronica and pop, the album unravels like a film score as instrumentals and ambient sounds carry us from one track to the next. It’s an aural, fluid progression that gives listeners an experience unlike any other I’ve heard this year. Hynes is a boundary pusher, enlisting Zuri Marley to reinterpret an Eddy Grant track, dabbling in crossover reggae just one cut after a trip through new wave with Debbie Harry, herself. The album stands as a statement against oppression and as a snapshot of today’s flawed society, one that is still struggling with equality. These are heavy issues to tackle in just under an hour and there’s so much more to dissect in such a personal and important body of work. That said, Hynes takes these seemingly dissonant musical and societal puzzle pieces and weaves them together to form the fabric of a story that’s both beautifully uplifting and oh, so tragic.

Garbage Strange Little BirdsGarbage – Strange Little Birds
Shirley Manson has never been one to shy away from expression. “I feel like the musical landscape of late has been incredibly happy and shiny and poppy. Everybody’s fronting all the time, dancing as fast as they can, smiling as hard as they can, working on their brand. Nobody ever says, ‘Actually, I’m lost and I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing with the rest of my life and I’m frightened,'” she said upon the release of Strange Little Birds, the band’s latest and sixth effort. Just over 20 years later, Garbage is still unafraid to be bold, daring, dark. The record has a vulnerability to it that is fresh, both musically and spiritually, but in the same breath, its very akin to who they are as artists. They don’t give a fuck—about what we think about them, about trying to get in the mainstream spotlight—and this freedom allowed them to put out one of their best records to date. SPIN wrote earlier this year that Garbage has “finally upgraded to Version 3.0,” and goddammit, I wish I had written that. Without major label pressures and deadlines, these once-caged birds are flying free.

Sturgill SimpsonSturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
It’s rare that a country artist makes it on TLW. Ain’t throwin’ shade, it’s just a reality. But Sturgill Simpson has consistently transcended the genre over the last decade and his third record, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, has continued that trend and more. Despite his Kentucky twang-filled vocals, Sturgill readily breaks down barriers, adding rock, soul, folk, and more to his Alt-Country smorgasbord. Like Blood Orange’s latest, Simpson’s disc flows seamlessly, with songs bleeding into each other surrounded by ambient sounds and gentle lullabies. The concept: a sailor’s letter to his family back home, which was inspired by real-life stories: the birth of Sturgill’s son, a letter his grandfather wrote to his family in World War II, and his own time spent in the Navy. It’s a deeply personal record for the singer-songwriter; one that’s expertly crafted, and could win over any well-rounded music fan.

by_defaultBand of Skulls – By Default
Vibrant, crushing guitars, vocals that alternate between harmonious and dueling, a swagger that’s been gradually building with every release. There’s a lot to like about Band of Skulls and all of that was on display with this year’s By Default. While the band once again flexes serious rock muscle, it’s well-versed and fearless in taking unexpected detours, dipping its toes in reverb-y garage rock, 80’s-style arena anthems, and at times, funky bass lines you can groove to. This sonic diversity gives the album texture and mystery, taking listeners on a ride through straight up headbangers, then dropping them smack dab in the middle of a killer pop hook before they know what hit them. From indie rock to garage rock, blues, and what have you, the band rejects labels and refuses to be confined. “We don’t think about it very much to be honest. We’ve been playing music together for a long time. We’re very different people who have very different taste. You get categorized all the time, but it’s just a natural thing that happens with the three of us,” drummer Matt Hayward told TLW earlier this year. That and more is evidence on By Default—a bold, deliberate effort from a seasoned band that knows exactly what the fuck it’s doing.

Coat hangersThe Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend
On their fifth studio album, the Atlanta-based trio delivers punk and garage rock tunes with a flair of drama and sense of urgency. There’s even a little bit of Riot Grrl mixed in (the Kathleen Hanna-esque “Squeeki Tiki”). No matter what path they take us down (and trust, it’s all welcomed), Nosebleed Weekend is a 38-minute party full of attitude and style—interestingly enough for a band who used to sing about twat-punching and Tonya Harding while shrieking into the microphone and not giving too much of a fuck. Here, The Coathangers add a little more structure and are a little more refined…at least as refined as they’ll ever be with all their surf riffs, loud-quiet-loud dynamics, and choppy power chords. Guitarist Julia Kugel, bassist Meredith Franco and drummer Stephanie Luke all share vocal duties, harmonizing when the time is right. They have the ability to explode into a cacophony of noise, and they do, but they never become noise-rock; they pull it together enough to make this Nosebleed one anyone can manage. It’s perhaps their best and most naturally flowing record without a throwaway track in the bunch.

ThreePhantogram – Three
Since 2007, Phantogram has been steadily building to this very moment—the year they would release the best album of their career thus far. Three studio albums and a shitload of EPs behind them (including a one-off with Outkast’s Big Boi), Three began its ascent with the release of “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” which shows just how perfected the duo’s electro-pop has become. On the single and the album, the beats are heavier and the lyrics are stronger, a result of a group whose confidence has skyrocketed. The album’s standout track, “Cruel World,” exemplifies all of this and more. Sarah Barthel sings: “So I’m saying my goodbyes, goodbye to my good side, it only ever got me hurt and I finally learned it’s a cruel, cruel world.” Savage. Three is a tight 10-track cocktail of empowering cool and bravado that is multifaceted enough to work as a Friday night party starter or a headphone session of quiet introspection. Casual fans: this is the Phantogram album to listen to start to finish. 

Charles BradleyCharles Bradley – Changes
I can’t get enough of Charles Bradley. He could release an album every single damn year, and I’d gobble it up, soaking in his wisdom and soul, wallowing in his messages of love, heartache and pain. On Changes, he covers Black Sabbath, croons about love and righteousness, and rocks that killer James Brown swag that he’s made his own. The record fits right in with the Daptone sound, but this time around, Bradley plays with gospel, cementing his larger-than-life presence as “The Screaming Eagle of Soul.” This man is the real deal and everything about him is authentic AF with his style, swagger and voice. See him live and feel all the feelings. He’s a sight—and sound—to behold.

My WomanAngel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen is an enigma. How can one vocalist be so vulnerable, yet so carnal at the same time? She can lull you instantly with her sweetness, and at the very next moment, rip the rug right out from under you, unleashing her fiery punk spirit. While MY WOMAN remains the poppiest of her discography, it’s the most diverse. Influenced by the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, The Shirelles, glam rock, country pop and grunge (be still, my heart), Olsen covers her bases, which sort of explains why she’s such a badass. Her trill on album opener “Intern”? Magic. Olsen takes these discordant elements and genres and fuses them into her own version of singer-songwriter bliss and misery. In the poignant eight-minute “Sister,” she croons, “All my life I thought I’d change,” with the conviction of Fiona Apple, and the confidence and autonomy of her elder predecessors. Stevie Nicks would be proud.

Iggy PopIggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Josh Homme is all over this record. Not like that alone makes it, but it certainly helps. Produced by Homme in Joshua Tree’s Rancho De La Luna, Post Pop Depression is Pop’s 17th studio album. It’s a dark, sassy garage rock record obsessed with sex and death. If its mellow surface-vibe throws you off, make no mistake—this is the Iggy you’ve always loved, with his smoked-too-much rasp and spur-of-the-moment vocal tweaks. On “In the Lobby” he sings: “My shadow is walking in front of me, the longer the night the shorter my leash, and it’s a long, long night, and I hope I’m not losing my life tonight.” Stylistically, Pop steps outside of his comfort zone throughout the album’s nine tracks, but he’s in safe hands with Homme, Dean Fertita and Matt Helders. Iggy’s a legend and make no mistake, he’s still got it.

BlackstarDavid Bowie – Blackstar
The late and great David Bowie has given us so much over the course of his 54 year career that it’s almost confusing when he tells us, “I can’t give everything away.” Understandable. But a lot of the lyrics on his last record ever (sad face) will have fans scratching their heads for decades to come. (“Seeing more and feeling less, Saying no but meaning yes, This is all I ever meant, That’s the message that I sent.”) Having passed away just two days after its release, Blackstar remains the artist’s final words to us ever. On “Lazarus,” when he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now,” it’s eerie and yet again, mysterious. We know what we know about the man…but he had so much more to give, accomplish and say. Every single lyric and melody on Blackstar will forever remain a post-mortem of one of the greatest artists to ever live. The album is sullen, and most likely was written while Bowie was literally dying, adding layer upon layer to his already cryptic messaging. It’s an amazing album worthy of capping off his storied legacy. RIP.

IVBlack Mountain – IV
Back for their fourth record, this Canadian psychedelic-rock outfit shows no signs of slowing. They’re building up and getting stronger. IV displays the best of what Black Mountain does—gut-bursting riffs, trippy electronics that tip hats to prog, and even a succulent pop melody or two. It’s the culmination of all their work up to this point…a celebration, if you will. And coming out of the gate with a track like “Mothers of the Sun”—what a way to kick it off. It’s an 8.5 minute behemoth that’s worth every single tempo-rising-and-falling second. “Florian Saucer Attack” follows right after, hiking up the energy and peacocking the record’s diversity. (“Peacocking” is totally a word, shut up.) Closer “Space to Bakersfield” is a nine-minute musical odyssey that would make any Pink Floyd fan happy. It’s eerie and poignant with riffs that could slice through the pot smoke at any arena or stadium. Black Mountain is a great fucking band. It’s that simple.

MatterSt. Lucia – Matter
Synthpop has taken over the universe. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but indie music has been dominated with retro homages full of drum machines, electronic sounds, and synths, synths, synths. St. Lucia, aka Jean-Philip Grobler, has perfected 80s-era pop in a way that is incredibly relevant, but more importantly, wildly authentic. On Matter, his second full-length, Grobler expanded his sound even further, creating music to dance to, vibe to, and fuck to. “Physical” makes you want to jump for nearly six minutes, “Game 4 U” begs you to re-evaluate relationships, and “Dancing On Glass” makes for a super chill vibing sesh bolstered by a grandiose synth arrangement. One of the slowest songs remains its best: “Love Somebody” has spacey keys that are transcended thanks to booming percussion and an artist’s bare-it-all confession:  “I wanna love someone, I wanna love somebody.” Don’t we all? Swirling synths, huge drums, catchy hooks: pop itself is redefined.

TribeA Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Seconds into “We the People,” it hits you: A Tribe Called Quest is back and they released an album this year. Phife Dawg sadly passed away several months prior to its release, but luckily for us and music history, his stamp remains on the album. “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” gets additional support from Elton John, Jack White, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Andre 3000, and more, which makes it an all-star effort from these already in-stone rap legends. The album retains its East Coast hip-hop sounds, but also mixes jazz and R&B into its cuts. While it loses steam somewhere in the latter half (my main issue with most rap discs – they’re too long!), “Ego” totally draws you back in with sinister guitars courtesy of White and verses chronicling the positives and dangers of an unbridled ego. “This is the last Tribe and our ego hopes that you felt us, and closing for our ego, we know only God can help us.” What a way to bow out.

JoanneLady Gaga – Joanne
Joanne is the record that Lady Gaga was destined to make. The one fans were waiting for, where she would strip back her fashionable leather and outlandish accessories, and sit down at her piano and just play. It’s a tribute to her late aunt that delves into to her post-Fame and post-fame selves as much as it does her family history. There are a few uppers, like the country-tinged, Hillary Lindsey helmed “A-Yo” and the alternative-pop romper “Perfect Illusion,” but a lot of the album is quieter and more reflective. Working with Mark Ronson, Josh Homme and Kevin Parker gives the album depth and perspective, in addition to a couple cool points. Don’t miss “Hey Girl,” the duet with the unstoppable pipes of Florence Welch, or second single “A Million Reasons,” which has prompted some of the best and most vulnerable performances we’ve ever seen from Gaga. While Joanne may not be the album radio is dying to play, it’s most definitely the one Gaga needed to make.