Staff Lists: Steven Hyden’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2016

What is it about year-end albums lists that drives people to actually loathe music? Is it the numbing sameness of the lists? Is it the arrogance of declaring something “best” in a field as vast and impossible to traverse as popular music? Is it the reduction of art to sport or (worse) math?

The answers, of course, are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”

For my own list, I’d like to preface with some context: The only redeeming aspect of music list-making season is spotlighting albums that people might have missed earlier in the year. On my list, you’ll surely see albums that you’re familiar with, but hopefully you’ll also make a discovery or two that will brighten your day in these dark times.

Also: I don’t claim that these are the best albums, only my favorite albums of 2016. Perhaps this distinction will strike some as “nitpicky” or “purely semantic” or “flat-out weaselly.” But trust me: I’ve been doing this for a while, and I know that approximately one minute after this list posts, I’ll find five records that I like more than anything I’ve included here. And, while that’s always bad for my lists, it’s great for me, because I like discovering good stuff that I didn’t already know about, no matter the calendar year or my professional deadlines.

My point is, every list is just a snapshot of whatever the list-maker was able to put in his ears during the assigned period. Anyone claiming to be more definitive than that is either kidding themselves or a liar.

If you truly expect any list to accurately sum up the totality of the art produced in a calendar year, you are setting yourself up for outrage. If, however, you approach a list in the spirit it was created — as a celebration of good art — then the exercise suddenly becomes way more fun than looking at a list of records ought to be.

Anyway, here’s what I liked.

When you make a list, sometimes the albums in the lower reaches end up sounding better a year later, because you haven’t worn them out as much. So, it’s possible that my favorite album of 2016 five years from now could very well be one of these albums. (My bet is on Sat. Nite Duets’ Air Guitar, a slacker’s survey of indie-rock history that didn’t get nearly enough attention this year, or The Dirty Nil’s “Higher Power,” which spawned one of my favorite songs of 2016, “Zombie Eyed,” which reminds me a little of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy.”)

50. Hurry, Guided Meditation
49. Culture Abuse, Peach
48. Metallica, Hardwired … To Self-Destruct
47. Parquet Courts, Human Perfomance
46. Black Mountain, IV
45. Andy Schauf, The Party
44. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
43. Austin Lucas, Between the Moon and the Midwest
42. Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel
41. Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
40. Sat. Nite Duets, Air Guitar
39. Carter Tanton, Jettison the Valley
38. Nap Eyes, Thought Rock Fish Scale
37. The 1975, i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
36. The Dirty Nil, Higher Power
35. The Hotelier, Goodness
34. DIIV, Is This The Are
33. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service
32. William Tyler, Modern Country
31. David Bowie, Blackstar
30. Lucy Dacus, No Burden
29. Wilco, Schmilco
28. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
27. Pkew Pkew Pkew, Pkew Pkew Pkew
26. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

MY ALMOST TOP TEN (Nos. 11-25)
These albums were all very close to making my top 10. At various points, many of them actually were in my top 10. It’s possible that if I posted this list one week from today, a few might re-appear in my top 10. Ultimately, lists are fluid and arbitrary, but also an effective way to tell people about good albums. So, please take note of all of these titles!

25. Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost
24. Beach Slang, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
23. Frank Ocean, Blonde
22. Joyce Manor, Cody
21. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
20. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love
19. The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Monolith of Phobos
18. Steve Gunn, Eyes on the Lines
17. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pretty Years
16. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
15. Conor Oberst, Ruminations
14. Hard Working Americans, Rest in Chaos
13. Michael Kiwanaka, Love and Hate
12. Angel Olsen, My Woman
11. Pup, The Dream Is Over

In order for an album to make my top 10, it had to fulfill one requirement: I had to be obsessed with it for at least one week this year. That means I wanted to listen to nothing else, or talk about any other album with friends, during a particular period of my life in 2016. So, for me, these are the albums that marked time in the past 12 months. I’ll forever associate them with 2016, though I also expect to get more out of them in the years ahead.

10. Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Part of a bumper group of young, cerebral 21st century guitar heroes that also includes Steve Gunn and William Tyler, Chicago’s Ryley Walker is less concerned with showing off than exploring the symphonic possibilities of layering mellifluous guitar licks in a bed of melacholic bass lines, restless drums, and exploratory keyboards. Live, Walker ventures into Deadhead territory, but on record, his songs are as carefully composed as early ’70s masterworks by Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.

9. BadBadNotGood, IV
The long shadow of 2015’s defining LP, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, was felt this year mostly via the protest sentiments that permeated records by everyone from Beyonce to Drive-By Truckers. The jazzy hip-hop torch was also carried by Toronto quartet BadBadNotGood, whose atmospheric instrumentals and insinuating psych-soul songs epitomize what Stereolab referred to in the ’90s as “bachelor pad music.”

8. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
2016 was year of big, audacious albums in which major pop stars aspired to make serious artistic statements. Many of those records were easy to admire, though not always so easy to listen to. Too often, the media narrative simply overwhelmed the songs. The joy of Malibu, the second studio album by budding pop auteur Anderson .Paak, is how accessible and pleasurable the record is even as it embraces a heady R&B sprawl. Few artists worked harder this year — .Paak appeared on songs by Chance the Rapper, Schoolboy Q, and Mac Miller, and put out a second full-length record, Yes Lawd!, with his side project NxWorries. But on Malibu .Paak makes hard work sound breezy.

7. Jeff Rosenstock, Worry
A punk-rock lifer who looks like an IT guy gone to seed, Jeff Rosenstock channeled everyman angst in an age of political apocalypse better than just about anyone this year on Worry, a 17-song epic in which getting right with yourself is the first step toward changing the world. Even when Rosenstock is preoccupied with the inside-baseball worries of a touring musician — like in the industry-skewering “Festival Song” — he takes a refreshing stand against the greed, self-interest, and overall awfulness of modern American life. Musically, Rosenstock practices the ecumenical sermon he preaches, leavening his relentless basement-punk pummeling with Beatlesque power-pop and slinky ska grooves. Yes, this is a record so open-hearted that even ska is welcome, so check your prejudices at the door, snobs.

6. Sheer Mag, III
In the past two years, Philadelphia arena-rock punks Sheer Mag have put out three EPs elucidating the myriad ways in which Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” can be integrated into the Go Go’s “We Got The Beat” in order to create new wondrous rock and roll songs. Admittedly, Sheer Mag hasn’t been the most prolific band — though a full-length is supposedly on the way in 2017 — but creating 12 tunes this perfectly chunky and ripping is a lot harder than it sounds. On III. Sheer Mag didn’t quite top its best-ever song, 2015’s “Fan The Flames,” but the group did produce its most consistent EP, demonstrating new-found vulnerability on the kinda-ballad “Worth The Tears” to balance out the one that stomps like an S.O.B. (“Can’t Stop Fighting”), the one that swings like an S.O.B. (“Night Isn’t Bright”), and the one that swaggers like an S.O.B. (“Nobody’s Baby”).

5. Big Thief, Masterpiece
Now more than ever, the music media is obsessed with celebrity, novelty, and ephemeral trends. This puts a band like Brooklyn’s Big Thief at a disadvantage, as it is not famous, novel, or trendy. Fortunately, there are still things that matter more, like songs, a point of view, and the intangible feeling that’s conjured when musicians with chemistry assemble in a room and become something greater than the sum of their respective parts. The boldest part of Big Thief’s debut is the title – no, it’s not a masterpiece, though the title song might very well be an instant classic, spotlighting the subtle interplay between singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s winsome vocal, the stinging guitar work of Buck Meek, and a sympathetic rhythm section that holds it all together.

4. Pinegrove, Cardinal
Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall specializes in songs that feel like all-night conversations with an old friend. Which is to say, he’s never as articulate as characters in pop tunes tend to be. Sometimes the dialogue on Cardinal is so intimate and insular that you can’t quite decipher what Hall is getting at. (Like in “Waveform,” when he says he cut his finger on an avocado. Really? Is that a metaphor for fighting with your girlfriend?) But the mangled language feels authentic — Hall uses words in order to illustrate how inadequate mere words can be sometimes. Drawing on an unlikely amalgam of influences that include introspective punk, ’90s alternative rock, and ramshackle country, Hall somehow comes across as impossibly young and improbably wizened on songs such as “Aphasia,” a dreamy slow-burner named after a brain condition that inhibits speech. If only Hall were so lucky. (This record also topped our best rock albums list.)

3. Drive-By Truckers, American Band
When American Band was released in September, it felt like a rousing “get out the vote” rally for progressives from one of the finest rock bands this country has produced in the past 20 years. While songs such as “Surrender Under Protest” and “What It Means” seethed with righteous anger over police shootings and an economically ravaged middle class, the music hit with the nonchalant force of a well-oiled garage band running through its Exile on Main St. paces. After the election, however, American Band feels darker and uncertain, like a cautionary tale that wasn’t heeded and now is forced to play out into a future as foreboding as that gray cloudy sky on the album cover.

2. Mitski, Puberty 2
The year’s best “I’m miserable” emo album was made by a 26-year-old Japanese-American woman adept at packing jagged emotion inside noisy, discordant, oddly hooky, and ultimately stunning packages. On “Your Best American Girl” — even if the rest of Puberty 2 was terrible, the album would’ve made my list on the strength of this song alone — Mitski demonstrates a unique ability to musically convey the aching detachment of profound alienation, with surging synths, sputtering guitar, and a bassline borrowed from a thousand ’90s indie-rock songs playing off the slight remove of a beautiful, tortured vocal. Like all of the best records, Puberty 2 feels like living in someone else’s head for 30 minutes. (This record was also our pick for No. 2 album of 2016.)

1. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
The story has been oft-told — a kid spends years making music in obscurity, woodshedding, studying the classics, honing his craft. Finally, the kid gets a glimmer of attention right when his talent starts to blossom, and he’s writing some of the best songs of his life. That’s the backstory for Teens of Denial, the latest record from Car Seat Headrest, a project that the band’s wunderkind 24-year-old singer-songwriter Will Toledo started in his teens. Before Teens of Denial, Toledo posted 11 albums on Bandcamp exhibiting an impressive range — there were noisy experiments, intense autobiographical confessionals, lots of pure pop, and some of the sharpest indie-rock anthems to come out of this decade. For Denial, Toledo streamlined and simplified, though he didn’t sacrifice the idiosyncratic singularity that makes songs such as “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” sound so familiar and yet so strange. Imagine Leonard Cohen mumbling morose witticisms over Guided By Voices-style bedroom pop, before slowly building to a rousing arena-rock climax, and yet get a sense of how Toledo applies his encyclopedic rock knowledge to writing indelible, engaging songs that manage to sound so big and yet feel so personal. (This record was our No. 5 pick for best album of 2016.)