This year featured a lot of veteran artists pushing themselves outside of their boundaries to make records that in some cases, were career-bests. There was so much great music to sift through this year, almost any of these could be interchangeable on this list. A Spotify playlist with every album is at the bottom.
1. Sturgill Simpson – SOUND & FURY
Every record by Sturgill feels like a dare to his audience to follow him. Take the two albums that precede this one. The psych country of 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music evaporated in favor of 2016’s rock-soul hybrid A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. So, it’s no surprise that SOUND & FURY is a hard left turn. It’s a record full of scuzzy guitars and squelchy synths, each song crashes in to one another often without notice. Songs like the nervy, ass-shaking “A Good Look” slips right into the mechanical terror of “Make Art Not Friends”. Then you head into some seriously dystopian ZZ Top shit when you get to “Best Clockmaker on Mars”. That’s three of them in a row. The whole thing is a ride. Get on.
P.S. – Watch the accompanying anime film on Netflix if you want your brain bent just that much more.
2. Big Thief – Two Hands
What does it sound like when a band gets white-hot? Big Thief answered that twice over this year with two distinctly different records. Their first album of the year, May’s U.F.O.F. is full of dreamy, astral folk, including the instant classic “Cattails” and the album’s slippery title track. It’s a gorgeous collection that threatens to vanish in the ether, but always keeps its glow.
Surprisingly, the band released another, and ever better album in October. Two Hands feels firmly planted on the ground, the band playing both to and for each other. The killer “Forgotten Eyes” shuffles and stomps and lightly rocks, with Adrienne Lenker’s tense vocal lighting the way.
“Not” is simply one of the best songs of the year, and maybe the band’s best ever. Adrianne Lenker’s vocal performance on this song – a building, insistent vocal that eventually breaks briefly into a roar before the band kicks into a jam on a two minute long guitar solo that reaches out skyward. Briefly Crazy Horse in miniature, but then something totally of its own – breathing, vibrant, feral.
Two Hands and U.F.O.F. are staggering achievements – two career-defining albums, completely independent in their own sounds, released only months apart. Big Thief is a band that is operating at such a high level with impermeable intimacy that many bands work their whole careers for and may never find. How lucky we are to experience their band in this moment in time.
3. Bon Iver – i, i
Justin Vernon’s most famous project has had quite a decade putting together a gorgeous collection of records each representing a different season. First came his spring record – the soft rock thaw of Bon Iver, Bon Iver in 2011, then a five years wait before releasing the glitched out the digital ash of 22, A Million, a record he refers to as “our crazy energy summer record”.
This year, Bon Iver released the ‘autumn record’ in the cycle – i,i, – one that is both one of the brightest and best collections of songs he’s ever done. It’s difficult to describe a record so rooted in feeling – but when you hear things like the persistent digital heartbeat that connects the synths, orchestral swells and Vernon’s falsetto on “Hey, Ma” – you’ll then know the pure privilege of experiencing the alchemy of seemingly disparate sounds. Every listen unfolds some new element that doesn’t feel like it was there before.
4. The Hold Steady – Thrashing Thru The Passion
Brevity is important with this one – simply it’s a return to form. There was a time that another record with this band was not guaranteed, much less one with the six piece lineup. Thrashing is a joyous record that is full of human disasters, big riffs and life lessons. It’s the sound of a group having fun again, and after 17 years, that’s all you can ask for.
5. The National – I Am Easy To Find
Up until this year, The National had kind of been coasting on the dense, occasionally gorgeous sound they’d perfected with 2010’s High Violet. While subsequent records had plenty of bright spots, the returns diminished. They began to sound too tightly managed by their creators. The band could have made the same brand of moody, broody “The National ™” albums over and over again, but with I Am Easy to Find, they blew it all up to start over again.
It’s a record heavy on female vocalists – Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey. It leaves singer Matt Berninger a featured guest on his own band’s songs to thrilling effect.
With a runtime over an hour, it’s the band’s longest record, but it also has some of their highest highs – the gorgeous “Quiet Light”, the four-way vocal treat on the delicate “Hairpin Turns”. Then, of course, there’s the real treat for longtime fans of the band, “Rylan”, a song they’ve played live for almost a decade before it finally found a home on their last album of the ’10s. Just when you thought you had the answers with The National, they change the questions.
6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Grief is both impossible to quantify or adequately express. Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur died in 2015 when he fell from a cliff near the family’s home. Recording was underway for his 2016 album, Skeleton Tree at this time, an album not so much about the tragedy but still informed by it. It’s a staggering portrait of a man trying to come to terms with something that happened recently. It’s follow up, Ghosteen, examines that grief in greater detail. It’s a disservice to try to talk about any of these songs individually. Take time with it like you would if you were listening to anyone who has had to endure something unimaginable. It is a record of incredible beauty and intense sadness.
7. Oso Oso – Basking in the Glow
Leave it to Oso Oso to fill The Hotelier-sized hole in the hearts of emo fans. Somewhere in the past few years, emo has felt less-like a catch-all genre name/light insult to describe a full-hearted strain of indie rock and instead now is a bit of a badge of honor to describe lyrically intense, musically complex songs by quiet guys.
Basking in the Glow sounds like a record I may have loved somewhere in late 2004 early 2005, with none of the confusion or angst beset by band of the era. By nature Jade Lilitri’s songs feel a little more reflective and lighter on their feet. “The View” with that incredible hook – “My eyes lit up when I saw it/The view from where you sit/and apathy, I was in love with it” and the fluorescent brilliance of “A Morning Song” – “Living on my knees/Praying my sins crash into me/And now back up on my feet
I was so lost and alone/I was so far out and it shows”. Basking in the Glow is a big, bright record that has just the right amount of introspection in a genre that could always use more of it.
8. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten spent most of the early 10’s making enduring records like 2012’s Tramp and 2014’s classic Are We There. Then she took a break. In that time she had a child and planned a move from New York to Los Angeles. At the top of this year came her first record in five years, Remind Me Tomorrow -new songs that disassemble her guitar based singer-songwriter confessionals and reconstitute them in exhilarating ways.
The aptly named “Comeback Kid” is a fist pumping miasma of dry drum hits and thick organ while “Jupiter 4” is a theremin backed dystopian love song. Moments like this are plenty on Remind Me Tomorrow, but the album’s true gem is “Seventeen”.
In the song, 30-something Van Etten talks to her younger self about her time in New York City. “Sure of what I’ve lived and have known/I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown”. It hits right home for someone who spent the early years of this decade with those same romantic ideas of New York and survived to tell the tale about it in their 30’s.
9. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
After 2013’s staggering Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend parted ways with multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij. With losing a key element and member of their sound, it’d be easy to assume that may have been it for the group. Instead, they took some extra time and released the double album Father of the Bride in May. It’s a kaleidoscope of many styles – rock, folk, jazz, psych and soul – there’s also elements from jam bands and samples of ambient Japanese tracks. With almost a dozen collaborators and disparate sounds across the album’s 18 tracks, it’s be reasonable to think that a record this big with this many cooks in the kitchen would be a mess. Listen to “Harmony Hall” then “Sympathy”, then “Stranger” – all different, but all unmistakably Vampire Weekend.
10. Spielbergs – This Is Not The End
The Norwegian trio seemingly came out of nowhere – and have seemingly stayed there. This Is Not The End is a collection of crunchy punk/atmospheric power pop that that’s irresistible on the first listen and every subsequent one. Just play it.
11. Telethon – Hard Pop
12. Garcia Peoples – Natural Facts
13. Craig Finn – I Need A New War
14. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
15. Pkew Pkew Pkew – Optimal Lifestyles
16. PUP – Morbid Stuff
17. Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
18. Jeff Tweedy – Warmer
19. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
20. The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons