Whoa! All of that just breezed on by. It’s time to discuss my 10 favorite albums of 2016, 10 collections of songs that were much more than that to me during such an important year for me both personally and musically. I’ve wasted enough of your time with intros in these posts, so I’ll keep this passage brief. Listen to all of these. That seems good enough!
10. PUP: The Dream Is Over
The Dream Is Over is named after what PUP lead singer Stefan Babcock was told by his doctor after damaging his vocals chords, but that sure didn’t turn out to be the case. Perhaps spurred on by such a downer of a diagnosis, Babcock sounds like a man possessed across a half-hour of rabid pop-punk. These are songs bursting at the seams, songs with energy and fury to spare. Guitars unapologetically fire on all cylinders with little break in the action throughout, as Babcock gets advice to grow up on “DVP,” endures the nastiest of break-ups on “My Life Is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier,” and laments his fatigue on “Can’t Win.” There are even genre-bending moments to be found in the hardcore crush of “Old Wounds” and the eerie dynamics of album closer “Pine Point.” A lot goes on in such a short amount of time, but there is never a point where I felt like PUP’s dream was anything resembling “over.”
09. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
I really wish there was a hyphen connecting “moon” and “shaped,” but that’s about the only complaint I can muster when it comes to Radiohead’s latest. After the old man tendencies of King of Limbs and a five-year albumless streak, I’ll admit to being kind of floored that the renowned innovators had a record this exciting still left in them. All of the jam-out tendencies and electronic flourishes of later career Radiohead are still intact, but this time around we get honest-to-God density and emotional connection. Opener and lead single “Burn The Witch” is a revelation in its constant build and shifting tension. “Daydreaming” is downright gorgeous. “True Love Waits” has morphed into something more arresting than it ever was, and I would have never taken a bet on that. A Moon Shaped Pool makes an undeniable case that shoving Radiohead into the Boring Elder Statesmen bin was a rash and wildly premature decision on my part.
08. Pinegrove: Cardinal
Back near the beginning of 2016, in the dead of winter, I first heard Cardinal while tasked with some mindless data entry at work. The album instantly connected with me, as Pinegrove’s warm and personable blend of indie and alt-country was just the thing for the desolate landscape I was forced to look at each and every day. Here we are nearly a year later, and I still feel very close to Cardinal and its many stories. There’s a certain looseness in the production of the album (and specifically Evan Stephens Hall’s vocals) that emphasizes just how personal it feels; almost every song here features the direct name of a person or place. It’s this feel that makes so many moments on the album come alive and feel lived-in. Take the stretched-out singing on “Cadmium,” the nervous jangle of “Then Again,” or the unsolicited yelps on the big chorus of “New Friends” for example. Short as it may be, Cardinal is a great example of why the album format is still alive and well for music lovers.
07. Martha: Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
You won’t find a more joyously fun listen among 2016’s releases than this one from four determined English anarchists in love with guitar hooks. At no point is there any pretense of aiming for something more than writing the catchiest songs possible, a goal Martha know is still worth achieving. Blisters succeeds in making both the political and personal engaging, as the bouncy melodies of “Chekhov’s Hangnail” and “Goldman’s Detective Agency” are impossible to get out of your head. All four members of the band contribute vocals whenever possible, leading to some fantastic melodies and a sort of selflessness that does every song a favor. Even when the band calms down for a bit to deliver the plaintive beginning of “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” or “St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive),” the tunefulness and exuberance remains at the forefront, never threatening to overturn an ounce of momentum. I listened to this album a lot in 2016, many times back-to-back.
06. The Hotelier: Goodness
Emo has been a dirty genre term for a very long time now, long enough that sometimes it’s easy to forget all that it really means is emotionally-charged rock music. When pared down to a simple meaning, it becomes much more evident that some of the best guitar music of the past three decades falls under the emo umbrella, and that’s my way of saying that what The Hotelier are doing right now is really something else. I fell in love with the band’s last release, 2014’s Home, Like Noplace Is There, a blistering monument of torrential grief and recovery complete with throat-shredding vocals and moody chord progressions. It’s probably because of that love that I had difficulty embracing Goodness out of the gate, as the album is absolutely calmer and more measured in its execution. That doesn’t mean there isn’t that same fire, though; the howls on “Piano Player,” “Soft Animal,” and the stellar ending of “Sun” are evidence enough. No, The Hotelier haven’t abandoned their emo roots, they’ve just expanded them. Christian Holden remains a strong lyricist, he just holds back his outbursts for more concentrated moments of catharsis. Goodness has the feel and length of a concept album from a band far more ambitious than most of us ever thought, and aside from a groan-inducing spoken word intro track, it never misfires for a second.
Special Note: I haven’t done this before in my few years of making year-end lists, but I felt is especially appropriate when it comes to my 2016 year in music. No album took me over by itself as has happened in previous years. That isn’t because there wasn’t an album good enough. The next five albums on my list are perilously close to one another in terms of my love for them. They all made an astronomical impact on me as I went through life changes aplenty and began planning the next stages of what I wanted to be. I stand by the ordering below, but I felt it important to mention that there is virtually no gap between them. Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, it’s time to get grotesquely earnest!
05. Camp Cope: Camp Cope
Australia’s Camp Cope was once singer and guitarist Georgia Maq’s solo project, and you can tell. I don’t mean that in a negative way; these songs ache with personal details and the kind of sensitivity that comes from writing in a bedroom. Adding bass and drums to her creation was a smart move for Maq, as it’s hard to imagine something with this much emotional heft not having a rhythm section. The unflinching feminism of “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams,” the interpersonal malaise of “Lost (Season One),” and the frustration of “Flesh and Electricity” need a bit of thump for maximum effect. Maq knows when to pull back, though, as album ender “Song for Charlie” finds her alone with a clean electric guitar basically trying as hard as she can to make me cry. This is a truly excellent album, one that uses bass as lead guitar and views progression changes as optional if the vocals demand it. Rules don’t belong in art, right?
04. Modern Baseball: Holy Ghost
I always liked something about Modern Baseball, but the band never really connected for me until the outstanding Holy Ghost. Still in their early twenties, songwriters Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens have already achieved a lyrical maturity previous releases never fully forecasted, and this thing is extremely tight musically. At half an hour, Holy Ghost breezes by with memorable hooks and gut punches at every turn. The bouts of depression riddling Lukens are well documented, and his range of emotional outcomes is on full display during this album’s back half. The swift rage of “Breathing In Stereo” and “What If…” give way to the genuinely uplifting album closer “Just Another Face.” Ewald is no slouch either. The homesickness of “Mass” is dotted with the kind of careful detail that makes a song stick, while “Everyday” wagers its beauty against its sluggish narrator’s tendencies. Shortly before writing this, I read that Modern Baseball were taking a hiatus in large part thanks to a pursuit of mental health. I wish these guys the best, and I hope their next great album both happens and is a jubilant one.
03. Jeff Rosenstock: WORRY.
He’s not a household name, but Jeff Rosenstock has done a lot across his 20 years in music. He has always embodied the DIY aesthetic as steadfastly as anyone. He has honed his craft as a master songwriter without sacrificing raw energy or nods to generally derided genres. He developed a cult following with Bomb The Music Industry! and bucked the quiet trope of self-titled solo artists everywhere. He’s become a notable contributor and shows promise as a producer. And now, still just in his early thirties, he’s made his best album. WORRY. showcases Rosenstock’s restlessness and love of rock music in all its forms better than anything he’s done before, confidently essaying his passion and uncertainty. He still excels at effortlessly catchy pop-punk on songs like “Pash Rash,” “I Did Something Weird Last Night,” and “Wave Goodnight To Me,” but that’s just the main course. Starting with the jarring bounce and hyper-speed delivery of “Bang on the Door,” Rosenstock breathlessly runs through a medley of punk iterations until the jubilant howls that close out “Perfect Sound Forever.” It’s an attempt equal parts ambitious and audacious, a trick that wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser songwriter.
Lyrically, Rosenstock is also better than he’s ever been. He still tells us all about his youthful indiscretions and the bittersweet pangs of romance, but he also finds time to get into his feelings on gentrification, the sensation of feeling left behind, and the life of an aging musician who loves a genre that typically favors practitioners a decade younger. Perhaps most impressively, Rosenstock does all of this without succumbing to the urge to get softer so that his insight feels more introspective. Instead, he smartly understands that the heft of his guitar is a better way to emphasize his brain leak. Then again, as much as this guy loves loud music, was there really ever any choice?
02. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Pretty Years
I have loved each and every Cymbals Eat Guitars record. Why There Are Mountains mined the depths of ’90s indie without ever sounding truly derivative. Lenses Alien prog-sprawled its way to rewarding conclusions even if its impact was less immediate. LOSE opened up about grief and stalled hope while exhibiting a more concise style of songwriting than ever before. As for Pretty Years, all of the band’s old charms joined forces with more diverse instrumentation and bigger choruses. Interviews with the New York band reveal that using and horns and danceable bass lines were attempts at capturing an indie version of the more brash moments in Bruce Springsteen’s career, but when filtered through Cymbals Eat Guitars’ writing proclivities, Pretty Years becomes something else entirely.
The guitar wall of “Finally” is a celebratory explosion, while the smooth pop of “Have a Heart” and “Wish” show a swagger not present in the band’s discography until now. “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” wins the award for the catchiest song CEG has ever recorded, while album closer “Shrine” re-examines the death of a close friend that informed LOSE a few years back. In so many ways, Pretty Years is exactly what you want from one of your favorite bands as they become veterans of their scene. It encompasses all of the things Cymbals Eat Guitars have always done and adds new dimensions to keep things interesting. Four albums in, this is a band that expertly uses its work to explore new directions without turning their back on what made them special in the first place.
01. Car Seat Headrest: Teens Of Denial
Car Seat Headrest. What a terrible, terrible band name. Seriously, it just screams “generic indie guitar band!” from the mountaintops. When you really get down to it, Car Seat Headrest are burdened by a lot of aesthetic issues that could turn off music snobs everywhere. Songwriter and guitarist Will Toledo (yes, that’s a pseudonym) looks exactly like the singer of an indie band you’d hate. While developing as a songwriter, he haphazardly slapped virtually anything he could up on Bandcamp, an approach that leaves prospective fans with an unwieldy back catalog of hit-or-miss material that never truly feels like it came out of the oven. Toledo’s work always featured movements that suggested there was more in the tank, but it was difficult for me to see such a dramatic shift happening so soon.
Toledo’s move to Seattle was punctuated by the gigantic label Matador showing interest in his work, a stroke of fortune that had to sound quite appetizing to a 23-year-old who didn’t want to do anything other than write music. That’s how Car Seat Headrest came to garner more attention, but that’s not the end of the story. Matador liked the idea of capitalizing on the already-vast CSH discography, so Toledo holed up and refined some of his best songs from the previous five years until he had the solid Teens Of Style finished and ready to take the world by storm. Maybe it was the process of culling through his highlights that spurred Toledo to make Teens Of Denial the focused but loose document that it became.
You might be annoyed by the fake-out radio intro of album opener “Fill in the Blank,” but the cutesy flourishes end there, as the song itself is an excellent guitar rock single. “Vincent” then threatens to upend the momentum solely by being an eight-minute song that takes its time building and centers largely on the same stellar bass line, but Toledo uses the length of the song as a weapon of self-examination. At first glance, it seems like an odd choice for the second song on the album, but not after a few listens. Teens of Denial is over 70 minutes long. This is a carefully considered and pointedly written album that does what it wants when it wants. Toledo manages to be funny, heartbreaking, casual, and callous in equal parts, all the while exploring every facet of rock music he finds even the least bit interesting. He is a songwriter with instincts beyond his years and youthful fits he wisely chooses not to control.
Teens of Denial is just such an album. The obvious and freeing “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” tells us about Toledo’s path to his inevitable indie rock destiny, while “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends” joins “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” in wrapping self doubt and curious reflection with a sing-along ending. Then there are the proggy blowouts that seep into the album as it chugs along. “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” uses horns and palm muting to delay its gunshot of an ending, while “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” stretches past 11 minutes with more than enough gear shifts to keep things fascinating. There is real emotion in these songs, the kind that perhaps comes from achieving a dream and being overwhelmed by everything that came before that moment. Maybe the key to Toledo making such a great record is the emotion itself and his willingness to share every aspect of his personality. Teens of Denial doesn’t dwell on anything. Like a real person (and I would assume the man who wrote it and the band that performed the rest of it), the album doesn’t get stuck in one mode. It takes you on a trip of its choosing, and it sure as hell converted me along the way.