Welcome to day three of our Albums of the Year list. Today we begin our top ten, and what a top ten it is. If the last twenty albums haven’t convinced you how much important, innovative, and excellent music came out in 2016, maybe these five albums will do the job? You can check out part one of this feature here, and part two over here.
In 2014, I played a show with Mitski where she went full tilt in her performance—just completely turned her emotional world inside out—for a room of no more than like twenty people. I hadn’t heard of her then, but I knew she was on the verge of making a real impact in the world. Her last record, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, did just that; and this next one, Puberty 2, is even more moving and more accomplished. Sonically, it jumps from beautifully arranged ballads (“Once More to See You”) to straight wall-of-noise (“My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”) and covers a lot of ground in between. What brings it all together, of course, is Mitski’s impeccable ear for melody and her bravely sincere songwriting. –Eric Wallgren
On Teens of Denial, Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest dig deep for a fistful of the raw and loose, off-the-cuff bravado that has girded the finer moments of the band’s earlier releases. The result is an infectious and thrilling rock album, the rare guitar album that feels like it matters, anymore. From rollicking opener “Fill in the Blank” to sloppy drug-ballad “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” to discontent but optimistic pop anthem “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” Car Seat Headrest refuse to let up, forging out of sheer will an album of indie rock for the generation that missed out on Pavement, peak Guided By Voices and, I don’t know, Slint, or something, and now wants its own firsthand taste. Here’s the thing: Toledo’s synthesis of guitar indie’s celebrated past is easily as exciting as the past itself. For the doubters, we need look no further than the back-to-back epics—the slow-burn, slower-building, eight minute “Cosmic Hero,” and the wildly constructed, gloriously ambitious, eleven minute “The Ballad of Costa Concordia.” These are some of the most ambitious and rawly emotional indie rock songs in years and they earn every second of their exorbitant run times. If listeners had previous doubts that Car Seat Headrest were the real deal, Teens of Denial put those doubts to rest. –James Brubaker
The vocoder robot pop of “Woods” off 2009’s Blood Bank EP signaled a sea change in Bon Iver’s music, as the titanic self-titled follow-up combined that fractured, processed sound with traditional pop-rock instrumentation. Justin Vernon again goes back to the pivot point of “Woods” and swings out into a pixelated wilderness that abandons nearly every part of traditional songwriting structure for tracks that flow as heavily processed tone poems. Vocals hum like hymns as they play off old gospel samples, jarring percussion, electronic noise, and slivers of the slippery saxophone that remain as one of the few holdouts from the palette of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The words themselves still don’t make much sense, though the ebb and flow of belief and spirituality pushes the concept into explicitly Christian themes that detail an inner struggle with the meaning of the world. After filtering life through naked acoustic confessionals and bombastic arena folk, maybe fitting the world into ones and zeros will bring a clarity previously hidden. –Matt Austin
For many, 2016 has been a 12-month “low flying panic attack,” persisting from one grim headline to the next. “Burn the Witch,” the first single off A Moon Shaped Pool, caught us all off guard on May 3: It had been less than two weeks since Prince died, it was the day Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican candidate for President, and day seven of a fifteen-day rain streak in Washington D.C. The song opens the album with a racing heartbeat, a pulse that quickens and slows throughout the rest of the tracks across a glistening emotional landscape. The anxiety is palpable, and the anxiety is productive. Broken hearts make it rain.
A Moon Shaped Pool welcomes home a collective of lapsed Radiohead fans disappointed with everything post-Kid A. Most of the standouts were written during sessions for other albums—“Burn the Witch” was first conceived in 2000, “True Love Waits” in 1995. A Moon Shaped Pool doesn’t move band forward; it reinforces that fact that Radiohead never had a linear narrative anyway. —Susannah Clark
Ten months after its initial release, The Life of Pablo was finally completed on November 22, 2016, although this update was nothing like the previous ones. The final mix was the one that played in our heads upon learning Kanye West had been admitted to the hospital for “temporary psychosis,” where he would remain through the Thanksgiving holiday. His lyrics are now symptoms, and it’s hard to listen to the album now without considering that artistic vision and mental illness might be synonymous. Name one genius that ain’t crazy.