Time passes with no fear of being slowed down, and thus here I am ranking my 20 favorite albums for yet another year. We’re all dying one second at a time, so why not listen to some good music? That was enough doom and gloom that perhaps I can run for president one day!
These are the albums comprising the back half of my top 20, and I love them all. I highly recommend everything in this entry even if there were a few albums I wound up liking more once the dust had settled. Old favorites and newcomers alike show up here, once again proving that modern music is a heavy treasure chest that yields unknown riches when pried open. I say this every year, but 2016 was an excellent year for new music; narrowing my choices down felt nearly impossible. In the words of a group that would never grace a positive list I made, let’s get the party started in here or something.
20. Russian Circles: Guidance
Russian Circles have been pedaling a gripping and aggressive take on post-rock for over a decade, but they haven’t bothered to lose steam. Guidance is in the same conversation as the band’s best work, showing off extreme tonal shifts and impossibly brawny arrangements throughout the album. Produced by Kurt Ballou of Converge fame, Guidance is appropriately ferocious when it needs to be. The breakdown in “Vorel” is incredibly fun, while “Afrika” sounds downright hopeful. If you liked Russian Circles before this album, you’re going to pleased. If you don’t like Russian Circles, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.
19. Deftones: Gore
The comfort of a veteran band like Deftones is evident with each release, but that comfort zone just keeps expanding ever so slightly. Gore furthers the band’s interest in atmosphere, a pre-existing characteristic that helped enable them to stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries two decades ago. The full-on smash attack of previous Deftones albums may be absent in long form, but the venerable California band makes its freak outs count all the more by waiting until it’s time for maximum viscera. Instead, we get extra helpings of mood-altering passages, hopeful notes, and spacy aesthetics.
18. Look Mexico: Uniola
Uniola is the kind of album a restless indie rock band makes when they finally reach a distinct comfort zone. The band retained its Minus the Bear-esque song titling techniques for its 2016 release, but everything else feels a bit more somber and controlled. In Look Mexico’s case, that’s a good thing. The album is a workmanlike expression of what it means to grow older without abandoning the notion of being a musician for a living. “Ride Or Die, Remember?” sets up the following 10 tracks as well, introducing a world of jittery percussion and leads with the occasional burst of release. This is the kind of album you could put on while doing other things and then realize you really want to hear it again a couple of hours later, and I think a mature approach to song structure helps accomplish that.
17. Johnny Foreigner: Mono No Aware
Britain always has an eyebrow-raising glut of talented young bands, and the energetic Johnny Foreigner is no exception. Mono No Aware offers very little in the way of boundaries, which is a great thing for an album’s dynamics. “Mounts Everest” is a simple but beautiful way to usher in the eventual bombast of tracks like “Undevastator” and “If You Can’t Be Honest, Be Awesome.” A lot of these songs feel downright gleeful and incapable of being pinned down thanks to the band’s restless approach and clear reverence for just about any form of punk or emo music. If there’s one album I feel like I’ll regret not bumping up the list, it’s probably this one.
16. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
As I slowly get more into hip hop and rap, it’s dawning on me that there has always been a lot more to unpack in the genre than what I believed as a younger entity. Danny Brown has certainly played a role in my desire to dive deeper into his chosen genre, but part of that is because he has little regard for adhering to the sonic rules of his predecessors. Armed with his shamelessly nasal delivery and a shared interest in mayhem with producer Paul White, Brown makes Atrocity Exhibition his own demented circus. “Really Doe” thumps and creeps along just in time for the esteemed Kendrick Lamar to get in on the action, while “Ain’t It Funny” stands as one of the most interesting rap songs I heard all year from a sonic perspective. Brown has been very open about having extremely diverse musical tastes in interviews, and Atrocity Exhibition flaunts that eclecticism more thoroughly than any of his albums to date.
15. Wye Oak: Tween
Wye Oak has managed to be a number of things over their time together as a band. The reliable Jenn Wassner/Andy Stack duo have mastered Neil Young-inspired guitar sprawls, jaunty pop songs, synth-loaded dirges, synth-loaded summer fare, and more. With the appropriately titled Tween, the band smashes all of their inclinations together to somehow form a very cohesive album that demands repeat listens and avoids songs that feel out of place. “If You Should See” is dream pop gold, a song better at capturing Shriek‘s evident vibe than anything on Shriek was. “No Dreaming” follows suit in a more deliberate manner, while the ominous guitars of “Too Right” hearken back to an older Wye Oak. This is some good shit.
14. Oathbreaker: Rheia
Deafheaven opened up black metal for further interpretation in the mainstream(ish) eye a few years ago, a feat that probably helped make Rheia an album that caught my attention. I’m grateful for that, as Belgium’s Oathbreaker have their own heavy take on the genre worth investigating. First off, you’re going to hear the impressive voice of Caro Tanghe. She sets the tone with her beautiful and broken singing on album opener “10:56” before basically hyperventilating at the end of “Second Son of R.” and providing the driving force behind “Being Able to Feel Nothing.” Oathbreaker are less awash in sound than some of their peers, instead opting to hit hard and hit often, with lurching balladry filling in the gaps. This is the kind of album that leaves you feeling different once it’s finished, and it’s also the kind of album that hints at a masterpiece down the road.
13. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Quest formed over 30 years ago and played a massive role in defining the world of alternative hip hop. Tribe boasted multiple gifted rappers, sharp songwriting, and an intense musicality that kept them relevant even as the years passed. Hearing that the band intended to release a new album was a real head-scratcher, but intrigue quickly turned to fascination when We Got It From Here turned out to be impossibly good following a 20-year recording gap. Founding member Phife Dawg died before this album was produced, a tragedy that surely weighed heavily on the fire-breathing approach heard throughout this thing. Tribe’s acute political stances are also back in the fold, which isn’t surprising given the state of flux in America around the time of the album’s release. Songs like “The Donald” and “We The People…” make sure you aren’t missing the message even as you’re humming along. We Got It From Here also takes time to be fun. The slinky “Enough!!” and the throwback “Whateva Will Be” serve as brief respites in the context of an album that feels this socially important. I can safely say Tribe were correct to end their prolonged silence.
12. Alcest: Kodama
Alcest have been a big name in the black metal scene for a long time now, long enough to see fans sour on the band as inevitable sonic changes began to happen. While Alcest always found ways to italicize the beauty in their brutality, that tendency went a little too far for a lot of genre gatekeepers. If Kodama is any indication, Alcest’s push toward something more closely resembling post-rock was a means of getting to their best possible sound, as this is one of my favorite things the band has ever done. The line between post-rock and black metal is a thin one throughout Kodama, as the chiming album track that opens the album features nary a raised voice. Then there’s the outstanding “Eclosion,” a song that hearkens back to Alcest’s earlier work and shows exactly why Deafheaven drew so many comparisons to their French progenitors. “Je suis d’ailleurs” has hazed-out screams aplenty, while the dense and moody “Onyx” closes things out on a contemplative note. Maybe the answer for Alcest was always to make post-rock with tour de force bursts of passion, not the other way around.
11. Sioux Falls: Rot Forever
I spent a lot of time with Rot Forever in 2016. I toiled at my job six days a week as Sioux Falls (now Strange Ranger) shoved a drunken take on “Adam’s Song” straight into my ears in the form of “Dom.” I anxiously tried to sleep as I considered an upcoming move no less than 1,000 miles away while “McConaughey” worked its way through several movements in service of a dam eventually breaking. I took in the insistent sprawl of “Past Tense” as I drove to rent the U-Haul that would eventually deliver me and my belongings to another state. This is a young and hungry band, one that doesn’t always know when to move off a progression or allow a degree of brevity to enter the studio. Rot Forever is a ferocious debut packed with jaw dropping moments, unbridled passion, and a slew of flaws that only make me smile. I can’t wait for a refined version of this band to show up, but when it does I’m going to miss the one that made this emotional marathon.