2016 is one of those years that will live on in our memory like a lingering bruise. Blueish and purple feelings dominated a year that exposed some of the worst tendencies in our communities, our friends and family members, and yes, even ourselves. 2016 was the year I looked myself in the mirror and realized that I wasn’t sh*t, realized that the tiny amount of good I prided myself on bringing into the world is constantly overpowered by an immense darkness that I can do nothing about. It seems like I wasn’t the only one, either. The records that dominated this year were ones about inner struggle, self-worth, failure, death, grief, racism, sexism, betrayal, or ferocious outpourings against these elements.
Music in 2016 spoke a language of pain, and we all sang along. But, there is power in that chorus. Expressions of pain are not always about perpetuating sadness as much as they are overcoming it. Naming your oppressor — whatever shape that takes in your life — is not only an expression of pain, it is an expression of power. While the bruise still aches, here are the albums that pressed it the hardest, demanding we recognize what is hurting us, what is holding us back, and forcing us, by exacerbating the pain, to push toward healing.
20. The Hotelier, Goodness
Most bands might employ the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ideology after finding nearly universal critical acclaim and success in the punk/emo community. The Hotelier are not most bands. With their third full-length effort Goodness, the took all of the momentum that had been achieved with their breakthrough album Home, Like NoPlace Is There and made a straight-up art rock record. Before hearing any music, listeners were affronted by a cover featuring several elderly nude models, which should be indication enough that Goodness is a conscious attempt to move the band in an entirely new direction.
The record sees Christian Holden’s songwriting move from autobiographically poignant to illustrative and metaphorical. Imagery of calming silences and a fawn doe shrouded in white snow fill the Goodness with a hopeful light, where Home was cloaked tragically in dark. It’s a logical continuation from Home, serving as a the clarity and light at the end of the tunnel after dealing with some heavy sh*t. Thus, we have Goodness, an incredibly expansive album that leaves listeners feeling awakened and empowered, ready to immerse themselves in a world filled with beauty, even though they might not see or appreciate it every day. —Zac Gelfand
19. Kaytranada, 99.9%
The first single released off Kaytranada’s debut album 99.9% was “Bus Ride.” It came out back in March, and even for those who hadn’t watched the young Haitian/Canadian producer born Kevin Celestin rack up Soundcloud plays like they were Mario coins, the song was a tipping point. First of all, it was gentle instead of jittery, incorporating strings and synth samples while still building throughout to a footwork-esque peak at the end. Secondly it featured both River Tiber and Karriem Riggins, and came paired with a tracklist that included host of other high-profile collaborators ranging from Anderson .Paak to Vic Mensa to Little Dragon.
As those early signs indicated, 99.9% was shaping up to be an album that fully encompassed the sound of 2016 while also establishing Kaytranada’s oeuvre. The record slips effortlessly into the strange and wonderful place where hip-hop, pop and electronic music dovetail into a brand new hybrid, marked in part by the mainstream’s increased ability to ingest traditionally “electronic” more complicated and difficult production. That literacy has increased within the world at large to the point that the Montreal producer was honored with Canada’s foremost award, the Polaris Prize, a worthy trophy for the city that, along with Detroit, helped foster the development of a viable electronic music scene in North America.
For all its historic momentum, the real reason to celebrate 99.9% is still the quality of the songs. They’re syrupy and scalding in turns, flowing in and out of one another like an endless DJ set made for a dancefloor where the ugly lights never come on. If Kevin Celestin has anything to do with it, they never will.—Caitlin White
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree isn’t easy to listen to, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds spent two years recording the album, and during that time, Cave’s 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. Much of the synthesizer and loop-heavy Skeleton Tree had already been written by that point, but it’s hard not to read into lyrics like, “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field, near the river Adur,” which are literally the first words on the album. The same is true of “I Need You,” which is sung to a woman in red dress, but the powerfully evocative “nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone” stirs up unsettling imagery. Grief looms large over Skeleton Tree, as it does with everything it touches. It hangs heavy in the spaces between Cave’s breathy vocals, and lingers in every tap of the piano. The Bad Seeds are present, but it’s Cave’s journey we’re following. He’s in the spotlight, one that’s bathed in a dark shade of sorrow. But there is hope. The album begins with death, and ends on, “And it’s alright now.” Skeleton Tree is better than alright — it’s belongs near the top of Bad Seeds’ discography. —Josh Kurp
17. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
There’s nothing like dedicating a work of art to your newborn child to put the pressure on, right? Not that Sturgill Simpson isn’t already familiar with pressure, after the entirety of the country music community, and any indie music writer who learned that liking “outlaw” country made them edgy, crowned him the second coming of the genre. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is the first album Simpson has put out since his 2014 record Metamodern Sounds In Country Music received the kind of universal acclaim that makes even diehard fans — and hell, maybe even the artist himself — cringe in response. Which could explain why his followup is a big, brassy and bombastic signpost devoted to the guy’s kid that shares little to no DNA with the sound that catapulted him to fame.
Sailor’s Guide includes a Nirvana cover of “In Bloom” that makes me wish Kurt Cobain had been the tiniest bit more into country, because steel guitar and a drawl lends this song a dead-on level of humanization that never came through in a Cobain whine. Sailor’s Guide includes a years-old love song that’s an ode to Simpson’s wife, it includes a lullaby called “Breakers Roar,” and a stately country waltz called “All Around You.” Best of all, it includes the Merle-channeling “Keep It Between The Lines,” a grinning, joyous commandment to his son that demands a little bit of rebellion even while it preaches the importance of studying.
So basically, it includes none of the things that drew a weirdly disparate audience to crown Sturgill as the second-coming of God-knows-what, restoring him to the outsider status that won them, and old diehards, over in the first place. I wouldn’t say its a purposefully ornery album, because it seems to be exactly what Sturgill wanted to make, but then again, I wouldn’t say it isn’t. Whatever achievements may have been on his agenda for this record getting nominated for a Grammy for Album Of The Year probably wasn’t one of them, so the joke’s on him after all.
Turns out doing whatever you want is still a better artistic strategy than succumbing to the roar of critical pressure. And hell, there ain’t nothing more country than that. Here’s hoping this soulful, rootsy middle finger of an album takes that trophy all the way back home, and Sturgill gets right back into the studio to make something else completely alien. More than anything, though, I can’t wait till his son finds out about all of this.—C.W.
16. Pup, The Dream Is Over
As it would turn out, when the doctor told PUP frontman Stefan Babcock “the dream is over” after discovering a cyst in his vocal chords, it was really only just the beginning. Babcock screams even harder on The Dream Is Over than he did on the band’s self-titled debut, and it pays off. The result is a thrashing summer soundtrack like no other, filled with sing-along melodies and group vocals that would send the band around the world and back multiple times over before the end of 2016.
The seamless transition between album opener “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” and “DVP” immediately sells Dream as one of the best punk records in recent memory. “Old Wounds” marks the record’s midway point, bringing with it the opening of a mosh pit in your head within the track’s first few seconds, and coming to a cathartic close as Babcock screams, “you know I’ve never been good at anything except for f*cking up and ruining everything, and I’m sick of it!” Perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the penultimate “Familiar Patterns” when the instrumental builds up as Babcock’s audibly frustrated vocals yelp, “they used to say don’t quit your job, but guess what? I never had one!” There is something to be said about the “all killer, no filler” approach to making a record, and there are no weak tracks across Dream’s ten, each subsequent song packing a bigger punch than the preceding.—Z.G.