2016 was a tumultuous year for music and the music industry. The problem of streaming services complicating music releases continued, an issue that will undoubtedly change the landscape of music distribution in years to come. One of the fortunate aspects of this is that it only applies to a short list of ultra-popular artists. Streaming services don’t have any interest in signing contracts to secure the rights to an album that only ten thousand or even a hundred thousand people will listen to. There are probably less than 100 artists alive who possess the cultural clout to be offered or demand exclusive streaming rights. That being said, this list will actively try and avoid discussing the state of the music industry. The albums following were judged by their artistic merit, not the circumstances of their distribution or release.
While the aesthetic Regina Spektor’s music carries may have been claimed by the same type of person who either considers themselves a “manic pixie dream girl” or can’t help themselves from falling for one, she has been quietly releasing quality albums for 15 years. She may not be the most risky or progressive artist, but Regina Spektor is a master of her craft. Remember Us to Life is the seventh album by the Russian artist, and her songwriting is as strong as it has ever been. It’s nothing surprising and it certainly doesn’t push any boundaries, but that’s not what one should expect going into an album like this. She is continuing to make music within the style that she has found works for her. In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Spektor said “It doesn’t feel natural to me to write some diary-type song. I want to write a classic like ‘Yesterday,’ but weird songs about meatballs in refrigerators come into my head no matter what – I can’t help it.” Spektor knows what she is. She does not rewrite her style and format on Remember Us to Life but there is a tonal shift that creates a somber atmosphere unlike that of her previous work. If you enjoy her quirky, idiosyncratic style of pop song, you will enjoy this new installment in her catalog of solid music.
Glass Animals are experts at creating atmosphere. How To Be a Human Being is their second album, and it’s one of the best pop records of the year. The album was released in August of 2016, and it couldn’t have been released at a better time. The electronic beats and instrumentals here are fresh and exciting to listen to. This album is an interesting take on the pop music formula that shouldn’t be ignored. Not only are the beats interesting and unusual but How To Be a Human Being is a concept album as well. Each song is a description of a different character. The characters aren’t necessarily likable – instead the songs describe fictional characters the band have amalgamated from various stories they’ve heard while on tour. This is one of the most fun albums of 2016. The vocals are strong, the beats are lush, the lyrics are original and funny (if not always especially profound or refined). How To Be a Human Being offers a fresh, varied take on pop music that no one should ignore.
Pool is an exercise in teaching an old dog new tricks. It comes from a genre and community that offers an endless amount of disposable art. “Revival” movements are rarely pulled off properly, and if this isn’t 80s revival, I don’t know what is. The band takes influence from stylistic choices common decades ago to create an excellent, moody, interesting album that deftly avoids the pitfalls its fellow synthpop projects have such a hard time escaping. Porches do a lot with very little in terms of making their synths sound wonderful. They’ve made an effortless transition from their previous indie rock style as well. Some things that drag the record down include a lack of cohesiveness – Pool feels more like a proof of concept than a completed album; a weaker second half plagues it as well. The important, defining elements are all present throughout the album but the emotional intensity fizzles out as the album progresses. Pool is a promising album that falls short of “exceptional” status but shows that Porches have the potential to create a classic in the future given time to perfect their method.
Psychedelic rock has continued to defy definition for around 50 years, and you’ll find no shortage of it on this list. Heron Oblivion’s self titled debut is one of the best attempts we’ve heard in recent years at unifying the genre’s characteristics. The instrumentals are dense, the vocals are cryptic and mystical and Heron Oblivion creates atmosphere with ease, filling the silence between simple yet frenetic guitar riffs with ambient noise that makes this album a prime candidate for the yearly “album that sounds like its cover art” award. The vocalist takes strong influence from folk music – a style that was unexpected on a psychedelic rock album but a welcome addition nonetheless. The album as a whole is rather low on complex anything (the riffs are again, simple, lyrics unimportant and song structure is a bit muddy) but this works for what the band is trying to achieve – atmospheric head music that you can get lost in, and oh boy can you get lost in it. Listen to Heron Oblivion while sitting outside at night, you’ll have a good time.
Wild Nothing’s Life of Pause is another modernized take on an old style. Life of Pause is an introspective, thoughtful record with an outer layer of bubbly, dreamy pop music. The album opens with track “Reichpop” which features an ambient introduction that is later joined by an energetic xylophone, with the rest of the instruments falling into place not long after to create an upbeat dance tune. This style of high energy tunes is consistent and helps carry the albums somewhat longer than average 50 minute running time. The vocals here are almost perfect – more involved and less shallowly affectatious than fans of the psychpop/dream pop genre have come to expect, yet still removed and apathetic enough to suit the dreamy synths and drums. Life of Pause is a favorite album waiting to happen. The album is engaging enough for repeated listens yet it’s also versatile enough to fit into many situations or moods. Life of Pause is one of the best pop albums of the year and a must listen for people who enjoy nostalgic, enjoyable, atmospheric pop music.
Nonagon Infinity is a minor masterpiece. It’s a cohesive, gripping epic record that takes you on a journey from minute one and doesn’t let go. The amount of detail that went into the album is impressive and it’s a blast to listen to. Nonagon Infinity is undoubtedly one of the most fun albums that came out this year. It flows together through highs and lows with a whole lot of noise in between. There’s not a single moment of noticeable silence to be found; this fact is made all the more impressive when you realize that pretty much every song on the album is great on its own. The lyrical content here is fitting, like the guitar tone and vocal style the lyrics pay homage to something we have a fond sense of nostalgia for – they’re fantastical and summon distinct imagery reminiscent of video games from the era when games were frustratingly difficult 2D platformers that kept you on your toes. Nonagon Infinity is an enveloping listening experience that throws itself at you and demands attention from the second it begins to the second you decide to stop listening to it (the album loops perfectly). The album assaults your ears with its layered sound and you’ll have a hard time pulling yourself away. Nonagon Infinity one of the most immersive, energetic albums in recent memory and not one to miss.
If I had to use one word to describe both Renaissance as a whole and the element of the album that makes it so enjoyable, I would choose “effortless”. Right after that, “bliss”. The album is the band’s sophomore release and it could not have differed itself more from its progressive metal counterparts. Polyphia make themselves shockingly unique relative to other progressive metal acts by ditching vocals and taking loads of influence from hip-hop and pop music. At times Renaissance could almost be called an instrumental pop album, and you’ll find no shortage of prog metal connoisseurs online doing just that, though I’d consider that classification a gross misnomer. Polyphia advance metal and guitar based music into new territories and they’re doing a damn good job at it too. Renaissance is a blast, and as I mentioned before, it’s just so effortless. This is the perfect metal album for people that don’t like metal. It’s melodic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (but it’s consistent) and it’s diluted with various genres and concepts that help give it variety. Renaissance is a wonderful entry into the ever growing catalog of progressive metal classics.
Woods have found a remarkable aesthetic. I don’t know what sort of far off jungles they had to trek though or seedy, smoke filled bars they had to visit to find this album within them, but whatever they did, I’m seriously impressed. The atmospheric power of City Sun Eater is strong. Woods manage to synthesize reggae, jazz, blues and pop music into an incredible album with a transporting atmosphere that will leave you longing for more. The album moves along at an excellent pace; the arrangements are cool, light and textured and the guitar work is impeccably sharp. The band has recieved some criticism for their vocalists range but I personally found him to compliment their style well. All of the songs on the album are a joy to listen to. They’re varied in length and tone yet cohesive. The most enjoyable aspect of this album is how all of the influences they’ve taken from have come together to create an amazing atmosphere. The imagery that the band creates is unparalleled. City Sun Eater is a solid album that triumphs at creating atmosphere. Sit back and let this one play.
The Avalances are an infamous, mythologized plunderphonics group. Before 2016 they had only released one album, and their debut “Since I Left You” has become regarded as such a gargantuan achievement in its genre that it would be almost impossible for them to follow up on what they’ve created in the past. In my opinion, they do a great job at recreating the magic of what made them so irresistible in the first place 16 years ago. Wildflower is a collage of places, times and people. The album is deeply optimistic and paints its subject matter and sources in a positive, enjoyable light. Samples are taken from all manner of music featuring lines from several rappers and a number of spoken word passages. It’s hard to find a central theme or unifying element in music like this that draws from so many sources. What ties the world contained within Wildflower that transcends time and place together is the theme of optimism that the songs are coated in. The album just feels good to listen to. The Avalanches bring out the big guns on Wildflower to create a kaleidoscopic, emotional plunderphonics album that will conjure fond memories for any listener.
Disconnected is a great rock album. It excels at what it attempts to do, which is create an introspective guitar based album that discusses themes of love, alienation and loss. The guitar arrangements on Disconnected take obvious influence from David Gilmour’s guitar playing towards the end of Pink Floyd’s lifetime, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the bands past efforts have been more or less the same in terms of taking influence from prog rock. The vocals, lyrics and guitars are really what stand out most on Disconnected. Lead singer Asle Tostrup has the perfect voice for mellow rock music and the guitars are perfectly bluesy. They use their instruments in a way that compliments their lyricism and vocals better than almost any album on this list. The band clearly have a shared vision. Another strong suit of the album is its ability to not give everything away at first glance. Its often dark subject matter isn’t shoved in your face. The lyrics and vocal delivery, like the rest of the album, are especially refined. Disconnected is one of the best progressive rock albums in recent years. It’s emotional, the guitars sound great and you’ll get easily find yourself lost in Airbag’s world of anxiety and confusion.
Under the Sun is the most organic electronic/ambient album I’ve ever heard. It defies electronic music convention to create an atmosphere like no other. Guitars and wind instruments abound, as do numerous abstract vocal contributions that only add to the feeling that Pritchard wrote the album while sitting in the middle of an alien desert. The album as a whole is largely lacking in structure and flows together with almost dream-like continuity. The way Under the Sun blends electronic music and acoustic arrangements adds a timeless quality. The album creates a lot of atmosphere with very little structure. Listening to it is transportive. I remember reading the novel Blood Meridian earlier this year. The book itself is a masterpiece, but it was only when I decided to read while listening to Under the Sun that I could appreciate its aesthetic beauty. The magic of the album lies in its organic sound. The album holds a desolate beauty that can only be fully realized after multiple listens. It makes for excellent listening no matter what you’re doing. Its quiet, focused songs work their way into your mind with ease. Under the Sun is an earthy, distant work of beauty.
Where Have You Been All My Life? is full of sound. Countless ambient details fill its songs and this is what makes the album stand out from its folk counterparts that, like this record, feature primarily acoustic guitars or piano arrangements. Synth and mellotron undertones swirl around the acoustic guitar and vocals in the foreground, making this album an intimately emotional experience. The vocals on Where Have You Been are emotionally vulnerable yet strong. Conor O’Brien, the man behind Villagers, gives a performance unlike any other I’ve heard in his over saturated genre. Something I feel that’s important to mention is that Where Have You Been is a collection of re-recordings. There’s not an original song on the album. You would never know unless you were told this. The album flows effortlessly like a fully realized project. Where Have You Been All My Life is an understated high in The Villagers’ discography. It takes the best of his collected work and makes it even better than it was before.
Radiohead need no introduction. They’re one of the most important bands of the last 20 years. The age of disillusioned, postmodern music practically began with them. In the past, Radiohead have consistently delivered listeners with focused vitriol against society and ballads for the alienated. A Moon Shaped Pool sees the visionary rock band move in a different direction that sounds more like a calm ocean at night than a tempest. The context of this record is especially important to understanding why the change in style came about. About a year before the album was released, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke split up with his partner of 23 years. This sheds light on the tone of A Moon Shaped Pool. The songs on this album are no longer filled with the urgency and fear of past Radiohead projects. There’s no more great, shaking, tension. The tracks feel more like exhausted sighs than attempts to escape or fight the anxiety that pervades Radioheads music. A Moon Shaped Pool is the calmest record Radiohead has released to date. It’s also the most detached. The band puts everything on the table with A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s a shame there’s not much left.
22, A Million is unfamiliar. Bon Iver changing his style drastically is unfamiliar. The glitchy, abstract beats and wailing noises are unfamiliar. Justin Vernon’s distorted vocals are unfamiliar. The track titles are unfamiliar. Despite this, the album invites you to like it and feel at home in its fractured atmosphere. The music is confident and emotional. There’s a distinct originality here that impresses me. Vernon uses the same 12 notes as every other album on this list, but the effects and electronics are so strange and otherworldly that I can’t help but feel like Vernon created the entire thing from scratch. And in a way, he did. 22, A Million is pure Bon Iver. Familiar melodies and signature sounds are still here, but he’s largely ditched instruments as primary tools for songwriting and replaced them with deeply personal, distorted, electronic wailing and roaring. The album comes directly from his mind and uses the voice as its guiding force. It’s a masterpiece.
Ouroboros is consistent, emotional, cohesive and beautiful. It’s the best rock album to have come out in years, breathing life into a genre that’s been chasing its tail for decades now. Ouroboros draws from prog rock, psychedelia, blues and more. The songs drip with tone, featuring distorted, hard rock guitars, plodding, hard drumming and bluesy synths and organs that fade in and out of sight, adding some of the most memorable sections of the album. The underlying goal and driving force of the music, lyrics and vocals on Ouroboros is peace. The album features highs and lows, and amazing ones at that, but it discusses and aims for peace and calm. Lyrically, it’s LaMontagne’s manifesto for a good life. As the record progresses, it winds down and by the end of the album, LaMontagne softly sings “never gonna hear this song on the radio”, finally finding peace with his anger towards the music industry found on “While It Still Beats” earlier in the album. Ouroboros is true to its name, flowing somewhat like two long songs, with the first half being more emotionally charged with distorted guitars and crashing, aggressive riffs. The second half of the album finds a relaxed tone, culminating in a complete bliss that washes over the listener. As a whole, Ouroboros is the most honest record I’ve heard all year and it’ll undoubtedly enter the canon of essential albums in years to come.