Music

The Best Rock Albums Of 2016


Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

20. Descendents, Hypercaffium Spazzinate
A new Descendents album after fourteen years should not have been good. But somehow, Hypercaffium Spazzinate exceeded all expectations. The band is tighter than ever, frontman Milo Aukerman perfectly delivering vocals so raw that they should not be allowed for a 53-year-old scientist. That said, the band is no longer comprised of four kids, and they know that. There are no songs about farts, replaced instead with heartbreaking tales of parental struggles and the plague that is unrequited love, which apparently doesn’t just disappear with adulthood.

Over the nearly 35(!) years that Descendents have been kicking, they have undergone several sonic overhauls. Hypercaffium Spazzinate captures the best of all those sounds, with songs like “Limiter” and “We Got Defeat” having a sound closer to hardcore punk that they perfected on 1982’s Milo Goes To College, while “Without Love” and “Beyond The Music” embracing the more melodic overtones found on 2004’s Cool To Be You. The result is a record that will have something for fans of every era of Descendents, making Hypercaffium Spazzinate an overwhelmingly successful comeback album for the legendary California punks.—Zac Gelfand

19. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pretty Years
If you’re going to use a Lou Reed quote to name your band, you better live up to the hype. Luckily, this Staten Island quartet does more than that — their music actually manages to sound like the act they’re claiming. Pretty Years is full of shimmering, dreamy guitars and squalling vocals, making it the perfect representation New York’s endlessly beautiful and gruesome dichotomy. When the percussion swallows the melody on “Mallwalking” or album opener “Finally,” remember, they already warned you. Which doesn’t mean they’re opposed to slowing things down either, like on “Dancing Days,” where lead singer Joseph D’Agostino’s falsetto borders on downright Springsteen and the chorus erupts in a firework of synth explosions.

D’Agostino, who went to high school in Manhattan, is also the band founder, forming the group back in 2007 with his high school friend (and drummer) Matthew Miller. But D’Agostino is currently the only member of the group who has been there while the band’s lineup changed around him. Still, Cymbals Eat Guitars never sounds like a soloist backed by a random assortment of musicians, but a group dedicated to creating smeary, spaced-out scuzz rock that builds on New York’s post-punk legacy from the outskirts of its most isolated and suburban island. With John Congleton’s production, Pretty Years sounds streamlined even when it veers off the map, reminding 2016 that New York rock hasn’t gone anywhere.—Caitlin White

18. Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression
In one of the most unlikely rock collaborations of the year, Iggy Pop teamed up with Josh Homme and the Queens Of The Stone Age to return to his brutal, bitter proto punk roots. Post Pop Depression sounds like the work of someone who has seen his fair share of sh*t, and while it isn’t downright depressing, it taps into the darker, brooding thoughts of a 69-year-old aging rockstar.

The former Stooges frontman has put out his fair share of albums, and has even done a collaborative album before, but what is fascinating about listening to Post Pop Depression is the way Homme, Stone Age’s Dean Fertita and Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders came together to help Iggy deliver his menacing 2016 pop vision. Despite the formidable resumes of his younger collaborators, Pop’s vision is the one that comes through loud and clear here, and he has even cited working on the record as playing a role in how he coped with the Bataclan attacks in 2015.

Homme and Pop self-financed the album, recording most of it in Joshua Tree, and working on it in secret prior to the world tour they began this spring. But, unlike plenty of albums about grief, aging, or death, Pop refuses to be sentimental. Instead he’s a sneering, sharp narrator as ever, steering punk, soul, and rock along the careening cliff of aging with the kind of braggadocio that will makes him live forever. On Post Pop Depression Iggy Pop reminded a whole new generation that he’s immortal. In a year where we lost a lot of legends, it is a salve to hear from one who is still creating on this level so late in the game.—C.W.

17. Hamilton Leithauser / Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
I swear to God there’s no one who can bellow as elegantly as Hamilton Leithauser. If you’re a New Yorker, it’s practically a crime to not appreciate the work that Leithauser did with his primary project, The Walkmen, and so many times in the last decade or so, it’s been a howl from Hamilton that felt like it gave voice to my own pain, whether it be a breakup, a death, or a really, really bad day at work, he was there. The guy can just make anything from a pristine lyric to a wordless bellow sound like a clamor of feeling, and he does that again and again on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, this year’s collaboration with beloved former Vampire Week member Rostam.

Rostam’s contributions are apparent in slight tweaks and shimmering, synth-pop warps that aren’t usually present in The Walkmen’s more straightforward rock arsenal, but the jangled, cloudy funk helps Leithauser get even louder. “I use the same voice I always had!” he shout-sings on “Sick As A Dog,” and he’s right, only this time, his appeal is wider than ever. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is full of all the longing and unrequited desire that dreams of love bring, the de facto title track “1000 Times” is as hungry and devastated a track Leithauser has ever wailed. But it, and the album itself, is also full of hope — as long as sadness has Hamilton for a voice, the rest of us can sing along, and find solidarity inside his loneliness. Dreams, and the songs that fuel them, are sometimes better company than desire fulfilled. I’m guessing Hamilton knew that all along.—C.W.

16. Martha, Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart
The album title alone should win you over, you don’t even need me on this one. Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart is the second album from Martha, a punk band who self-describe as anarchist queer vegans, and hail from a tiny town — excuse me, village — in England called County Durham. If you’re not intrigued yet, throw on “St. Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive),” the band’s ode to Paul Westerberg and the Replacements, who the band cite as one of their biggest influences.

JC Cairns and Daniel Ellis play guitar for the band, Naomi Griffin is their bassist and Nathan Stephens-Griffin helms percussion, but all four contribute harmonies and help write lyrics, making Martha one of the most comprehensive band-bands to emerge in a year full of solo artists and rekindled nostalgia acts. Though nihilism and detachment have been pervasive themes in rock music in the last decade or so, Martha are so unabashedly emotional and openhearted that it almost hurts.

They celebrate their shortcomings, bemoan hangnails and defeated crushes, and dismantle corrupt government structures all in the span of one album. But if you really want to feel what Martha is about, put on “Ice Cream And Sunscreen,” and hear all four of them sing about watching a loved one’s sunburnt skin peel and cry “blisters in the pit of my heart!” It’s the kind of pop-punk pathos that’s been saving lives for centuries, and one of the most cathartic things a lovestruck, politically-minded rock lover could latch onto in 2016. Twee as f*ck, and anarchist to boot? Hell, after the year we’ve had, that unlikely combination has begun to make perfect sense.—C.W.

15. Chris Farren, Can’t Die
Chris Farren picked the perfect title for his latest album. Can’t Die traffics in a style that will never fully go away: blown out pop-punk tunes about heightened emotions and lowered expectations.

That Farren is really, really good at selling the emotions of an aging f*ck-up should come as no surprise. He spent time with king-of-the-genre (and fellow standout on this very list) Jeff Rosenstock in their band Antarctigo Vespucci. But where Farren distinguishes himself from his peers, bandmates and forebears is his voice.

To say pop-punk has never been renowned for its vocalists is putting it lightly. Even a band like Green Day — that had enough to break out of the pop-punk ghetto and become mainstream stars — weren’t getting there on chops. But Farren can absolutely blow the roof off with just a belted chorus. If you listened to Worry and found a song like “Wave Goodnight To Me” a little too raspy, then give “Say U Want Me” or “Human Being” a spin. You won’t regret it.

These massive tunes probably won’t be turned into a Broadway musical a la Billie Joe and the boys, but it’s nice to know that Farren could probably take the lead if they did.—Alex Galbraith

14. American Football, American Football (LP2)
American Football’s legend has the air of a ghost story to it. Fans spoke of the band’s single, self-titled LP with the kind of hushed respect we usually reserve for museums or otherwise grave circumstances. That’s partially because the band’s legacy snowballed long after they were active, and the lack of something always makes it seem more intriguing, but it’s also partially because the Illinois math-rock band are really f*cking good at what they do. After a seventeen year hiatus, Mike Kinsella and his crew finally began to believe their own hype, and decided to release a follow-up to their much-celebrated debut.

The result is American Football, LP2, a record of mesmerizing, thoughtful slow rock songs that smolder more than they burn, and never sacrifice intricate, strung-out melodies for major rock moments. While some may have expected the band to come back bigger or louder, they came back almost exactly intact, with Kinsella quietly musing over clockwork guitar lines and repetitive percussion. Maybe the band finally decided to reward their fans with new material, but the quietly interlocking tracks on LP2 that they’re the same as they’ve always been, even if it’s been almost two decades. And there’s something to be said for that devotion to consistency.—C.W.

13. Preoccupations, Preoccupations
What’s in a name? Well, if you’re Preoccupations, everything and nothing. The band formerly known as Viet Cong found themselves in a crisis when the cry went up that their band name was decidedly uncool and more than a little offensive. After several months, they re-emerged as Preoccupations but the tense and brutal post-punk that they’d made under their former moniker remained and may have even improved.

Preoccupations still sounds like a band pulling itself apart. It’s full of herky-jerky guitars, industrial-grade drum beats and dour vocals. But where their work as Viet Cong was murky, this self-titled is clean-sounding giving the mania a much sharper edge. Perhaps no song best exemplifies this as Preoccupations — and by extension the band’s — best song “Memory.”

There’s all the mechanical clang you come to this band for, but around the halfway point the song clears out for an uplifting piano and a soaring vocal that’s almost U2-like in its grandeur. It’s almost –dare we say it? — pretty. It’s exactly the sort of thing that couldn’t have come from a band that named itself after a brutal army. Except, of course, it kind of did.—A.G.

12. Crying, Beyond The Fleeting Gales
Crying is the perfect name for a singlehandedly trying to make power pop cool again. Their songs are so good that it has me doing some quick revisionist history in my head, was power pop always good? The New York trio broke out in a big way this year with their debut full-length album Beyond The Fleeting Gales, an enormous, fuzzed-out collection of power pop songs that swings for the fences, and don’t even care if they miss.

Luckily, they connect, driven largely by the of crafty soprano of lead vocalist Elaiza Santos, who manages to sound like Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries without the endless yearning. Instead, Santos sounds triumphant even when she’s slightly detached, letting her bandmates, guitarist Ryan Galloway and drummer Nick Corbor, recreate video game blinks and hooks into wailing ‘80s tributes that, at times, surpass the originals they’re cherrypicking from. Put on “Patriot” or “Revive” to get a sense of the engine-revving, technicolor sh*t this band of capable of creating.

This is escapist post-pop from three kids who refuse to give into the dead-eyed sneer of punk rock, and insist on finding optimism in the grinning cheese of the ‘80s. Beyond the fleeting gales, yes, but also way beyond those who foolishly wrote off the sound of an entire decade as deeply uncool. All that’s left to do now is to try catching up with Crying.—C.W.

11. Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.
When you tell yourself you’ll never forget a moment, the details quickly become fuzzy, no matter how special. Jeff Rosenstock is no stranger to this harsh reality, with the opening of his opus WORRY. seeing him exuding the mantra “all these magic moments are forgotten once the magic is gone.” Some might call this a pessimistic approach; I call it realistic. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work to maintain the beauty of a moment, something seemingly inconsequential can unravel the entire scene.

WORRY. is rooted in an anxiety created by the world in which we live, an existence defined by virtual reality and capitalistic impulses. For me, the highlight of the record comes with the 30-second hardcore explosion that is “Planet Luxury,” which to me is the thesis of WORRY. The lyrics are almost indiscernible with the speech at which they are delivered, describing the American dream built on guarantees of luxury and promises that take before they give, “so you always want more.” To make a long story short, we live in a very destructive and confusing time, but luckily we have Jeff Rosenstock to serve as a beacon of sanity in the sometimes overwhelming shroud of darkness.—Z.G.

10. Joyce Manor, Cody
Pop-punk exists in a state of permanent adolescence. Go listen to any NOFX album and try to remember that these guys are all pushing 50. It’s damn near impossible.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The world will always need songs about parties, sexual mishaps and general left-wing aggression for as long as their are disaffected suburban teenagers. But Joyce Manor may have shown us a new way forward on Cody. One that allows bands to become adults without losing sight of their whiny, bouncy roots.

Following up the new classic Never Hungover Again, the band have found a bridge between the drunk kids they were and the drunker adults they’ve become. Namely, that they’re still pretty sad a lot of the time. Sure, a track like “Fake I.D.” features a teenage pizza parlor conversation for its most memorable moment (“What do you think about Kanye West? I think that he’s cool, I think he’s the best”) but closes with a reflection on the death of Teenage Bottlerocket’s Brandon Carlisle.

The band manages to keep this balancing act up throughout, singing about living with their parents and feeling like dirt in a way that sounds decidedly older than their counterparts — which makes it all the more sad that they still feel this way. And while the band are grappling with some big adult ideas, they don’t let those ideas bloat the album It blasts past in a youthful and vibrant 25 minutes that any Fat Wreck Chords head can love.—A.G.

9. LVL Up, Return To Love
Every year has its ‘90s-indebted indie-rock fuzzfest that manages to break through the noise by virtue of being excellent. LVL UP didn’t get top slot on this list, but they absolutely won 2016’s iteration of that prize.

But unlike previous winners, LVL UP didn’t tap the songwriting well of that decade for Return To Love. These guys are bummed about bigger-picture things than relationships and drug abuse. This is an album about God and aging and… yeah, relationships. I guess that’s kind of unavoidable. At least they’re trying.

The result is like Pavement after a particularly meaningful meditation session: Down, for sure, but with full awareness of how little their own sadness and ennui matters. That’s not to say that the album is a downer, though. Layered under the requisite reverb and crunch are some seriously catchy melodies and even a synthesizer or two.

This band will make you sing a hook you have no idea how to explain. Do I know what “God is peeking/softly speaking/f*cking everything/Until I slowly do see” means? Absolutely not. But that hasn’t stopped me from singing while making breakfast every morning since I first heard the album.—A.G.

8. PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
So much other weird shit happened this year that I almost overlooked the fact that living legend PJ Harvey released her first new album in five years. The Hope Six Demolition Project is Polly Jean’s ninth album, following up 2011’s Let England Shake, a widely-praised record that took home the Mercury Prize that year. Hope is full of the same towering magnificence that has become synonymous with PJ Harvey, this time directed specifically at the HOPE VI plan, a US housing initiative that attempts to rehabilitate and revitalize public housing, often by demolishing it first. However, it’s been widely criticized for displacing residents of the old, dilapidated buildings, and that’s the heart of what drove Harvey’s focus on the matter. And though her drive-by criticism of the community has been widely-criticized for lacking depth, it’s still the most attention that’s been paid to this issue in years, possibly ever.

Speaking of attention, much of this album was recorded in public, as part of an art installation at Somerset House in London surprisingly called Recording in Progress. For about a month at the beginning of last year, viewers could come watch Harvey and her collaborators Flood and John Parish work for forty-five minutes at a time. Turns out neither international controversy nor the prying eyes of fans can derail one Polly Jean Harvey. The Hope Six Demolition Project is as stormy and gorgeous as any of her early albums, as refined as her last, highly-decorated work, and an assertion that she’ll never stop speaking truth to power. Is there anything more rock and roll than that?—C.W.

7. Beach Slang, A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings
Bands that make a lot of albums that sound the same often catch a lot of flak for it. And yeah, it’s true that if you’ve heard a Beach Slang song, you’ve come pretty close to hearing all Beach Slang songs. But A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings reminds us that it’s a great song.

Over the course of 10 songs, James Alex Snyder never moves away from that Replacements-in-art-school vibe that the band perfected on previous releases Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? and The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us. But standout tracks like “Future Mixtape For The Art Kids” and “Punks In A Disco Bar” show why Snyder felt the need to make this album. Yes, ten more of these songs were absolutely necessary. And anyone who has ever been the type of kid who would consider getting a line like “We’re not lost, we are dying in style” tattooed on their body will fully understand why Bash needs to exist.

Before you knock them for not moving forward, give the album a listen. If it doesn’t move you, play that one Bruce Springsteen song about a crumbling small town.—A.G.

6. Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost
Modern Baseball made a name for themselves in the indie/punk community almost five years ago with their debut full-length Sports, and have been on a steady upward trajectory since. The songwriting on their third LP Holy Ghost is split down the middle, with Jake Ewald taking the first half, Brendan Lukens the second. Given the dual perspectives, Holy Ghost covers a lot of ground thematically, much of Ewald’s side dealing with moving forward in the aftermath of loss, while Lukens focuses his writing on his struggling with mental health.

Some might think that the themes that weigh down Holy Ghost, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. More than ever before, MoBo have crafted a concise selection of tracks with catchy melodies that encourage headbangs and sing-alongs, rather than brooding. This is perfectly executed in the trudging closing number “Just Another Face,” where Lukens repeats lines accusing himself of being a “waste of time and space,” before the album comes to a close in an uplifting cacophony that has had audiences in clubs and stadiums across the country bouncing and screaming the words back at the band that just a few years ago was still playing in basements.—Z.G.

5. Mannequin Pussy, Romantic
I have a thing about band names. If you have a sh*tty band name, I will have a problem listening to your music. Full stop. It interferes with my ability to view a band as creative, influential, and worthwhile, if they can’t even properly self-described. (See Preoccupations, above.) So even if Mannequin Pussy completely sucked, I would probably give this record four thousand chances because of how perfectly coy and sweetly aggressive their band name is. That wasn’t even necessary, though. I gave Romantic a single spin and knew I had just heard something that was going to be talked about for most of 2017. Their brief, choppy album came out toward the end of 2016, right before Halloween, and thus has not received the blistering, hot-headed worship that it deserves. Get on that, would you?

Marisa Dabice literally turns panic attacks into punk rock, excavating her own brain for a spiraling two minute thrasher like “Anything,” or the even shorter “Ten.” On their sophomore effort, the Philly prove that when you have something important to say, you don’t even need a long time to get it out. In the space of 20 minutes they contributed more to the rock world than plenty of the belaboring, bloated indie rock big names did. Remember, there is nothing more romantic than face-melting guitar solos. Nothing.—C.W.

4. White Lung, Paradise
From the opening glower, Paradise is the of a sleeker, streamlined and more forceful White Lung. Mish Way — now Barber-Way after her recent marriage (cake? eaten and had), has been a staple in the Vancouver underground punk scene for so long it’s hard to believe Paradise is only her fourth album fronting the band, which has cycled through a number of iterations in the meantime. But Barber-Way’s devotion to thrasher dream-punk has carried them all the way to a Polaris Prize nomination, widespread critical acclaim, and a spot on storied indie label Domino Records.

Though their debut for the label was 2014’s Deep Fantasy, this year’s release has cemented White Lung as one of the few heavy rock bands with a female lead singer who have achieved recognition and praise for their huge hooks and uncompromising political intentions. “Below,” “Kiss Me When I Bleed” and “Sister” all speak directly to women, subverting the traditionally envisioned male rock audience without batting an eye. This is Paradise: That working as hard as you f*cking can does make a difference. Can’t recommend this album enough as an inspiration for women on the verge of quitting their dreams — listening to it has pulled me back from the ledge a handful of times in 2016.—C.W.

3. Wye Oak, Tween
What would it sound like if one of the best indie rock bands out collected all of the songs that got left behind, polished them up after what was sometimes years of perspective, and release the entire collection unannounced? That would sound like Tween, the surprising jolt of new material from Wye Oak that came without fanfare this summer from the duo with deep Baltimore roots. After almost a decade of making music together, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have both left Baltimore. Stack lives in Marfa Texas, a community that behooves his frequent collaborations and various artistic side projects, and Wasner relocated to North Carolina to hone her first incredible synth-pop solo album in solitude.

In some ways, Tween feels like an ode to the end of an era, the first decade of Wye Oak and the dreamy, sharp indie rock these two have created together for most of their adult lives. It’s also a bit of a flex — like Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered, these are Wye Oak songs that never made it onto 2011’s Civilian or 2014’s Shriek, and yet they still easily eclipse most of their competition in the rock field this year. Put this record on for waves of pummeling synth and guitar that never leave a bruise, and make sure to pay special attention to the shimmering gasp of “No Dreaming,” a leading contender for my most-played track of the year.—C.W.

2. Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp
Michelle Zeuner uses the surreal like it’s just another instrument in her repertoire. After collaborating in Philly with indie quartet Little Big League for years, personal tragedy drove Zeuner to the green confines of Eugene, Oregon while her mother battled with cancer. Fueled by unfamiliarity, mortality and grief, Psychopomp came together initially as a series of demos that Zeuner released on Bandcamp, then later collected and refined with producer Ned Eisenberg.

Though the record is cohesive, Zeuner’s scope as a songwriter is immediately clear. On “Everybody Wants To Love You” she imagines an entire love story out of nothing, even managing to revolve the entire world around her lover, and album opener “In Heaven” swirls visions of paradise with impatient synths and echoing drums. The most portent song here, though, may be the dark, mournful “Jane Cum,” a lament punctuated by foreboding piano and sexual undertones.

Aside from that song, most of Psychopomp is blissfully upbeat, and after the dreamy and surreal collection of tracks was released on a small indie record called Yellow K Records, it quickly drew an immense amount of acclaim. Within mere months indie powerhouse Dead Oceans had signed the band and opted to release Psychopomp internationally. Despite the circumstances, the record is anything but bleak, finding jittery, wide-eyed hope in buoyant guitars, gauzy synths, and Zeuner’s own crystal clear alto, describing her world in loving, liminal terms. —C.W.

1. Pinegrove, Cardinal
“If I did what I wanted, then why do I feel so bad?” is a question we’ve all entertained. When you still don’t feel fulfilled after you’ve worked so hard to achieve what you thought was your goal, how can you move forward? This is just one of many questions that Evan Stephens Hall wrestles with on Pinegrove’s debut full-length effort Cardinal. No album in recent memory has stuck with me quite like Cardinal, and Hall’s falsetto as he yelps “say what it is, it’s so impossible” on “Cadmium,” the album’s second offering, has been stuck in my head since the its February release.

Cardinal is short, clocking in at just under thirty minutes across its eight tracks. But its length doesn’t restrict the album’s ability to speak volumes. Within its confines, Cardinal showcases Hall’s grasp on – and confidence with – the intricacies of songwriting (I mean, how often do you hear the word “solipsistic” in a song?) to tell a selection of eight stories; stories of tragically losing old friends, and seven songs later finding new ones in a place that you were sure they couldn’t exist.

Although Hall has declared that his songs are rooted in fiction, over the last year listeners across the world have found themselves relating to the words, which, together with an onslaught of striking vocal melodies and harmonies, quickly lodge themselves into your brain and refuse to vacate. Pinegrove’s sound is one that’s hard to classify, some labeling it emo-country, other labeling it as classic indie rock. Regardless of what genre the music falls into, Cardinal is immediately a force to be reckoned with, a powerful and resonant collection of tracks that encourage a casual listener to quickly become an obsessive fanatic.—Z.G.

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