Home / General / Best Albums of 2016

Best Albums of 2016



As I have done for at least the last couple of years, here is my best albums of 2016 list. Of course, I can’t listen to everything so take it for what it’s worth. And each year this gets slightly harder to do because I have a huge list of albums from the last couple of years that I want to listen to and haven’t had time to yet (159 at this moment) and so all the new albums from 2016 go there first unless it’s one of my favorite bands. 2017 won’t be any easier. Anyway, here we go.

1) Darcy James Argue, Real Enemies

As the majority of jazz albums don’t have lyrics, the number of them that have really come to represent the poltiics and society of a particular moment are relatively few. Some of the standouts are Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s We Insist! Real Enemies is in this fine class. Taking as its theme the conspiracy theories that have become so prevalent in American life, this incredibly compelling album combines Argue’s great big band compositions with political speeches and recordings of conspiracy theorists over the past half-century or so. Of course, when he set out to write this album, he could not have known that its subject would become the theme of 2016.

Darcy is a long-time friend of the blog, but this rating would be the same if I had never heard of him before. This is an astounding album and I hope it wins the Grammy it is nominated for.

2) Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

The best country album made in some time, Price has a great voice, is a compelling performer, and writes very honest lyrics. She’s well within the traditional country vision, but also rejects all the gross Nashville bullshit in favor of a musical palette that combines what is great about the country tradition with a vision of directness in writing and music. She also put on the best show I saw in 2016, right after the election in Boston when her and the band were suffering as much as the rest of us. Just a fantastic record.

3) Drive-By Truckers, American Band

Now that it’s happened, it seems inevitable that DBT would go full protest band as Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley enter middle-age. This is the most stripped down DBT album in a long time and also the best. Taking on the NRA and the Confederate flag, supporting Black Lives Matter, writing songs about the massacre of students in Oregon and the meaning of southernness, and closing with a lament for the death of Robin Williams, this is a consummate album of 2016. And a great one.

4) Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos

Another masterful album from the British poet and rapper, who imagines a world of insomniacs and their struggles. And if the other albums on this list have strong connotations with 2016 in the United States, “Europe is Lost” is the Brexit version of this.

5) Mount Moriah, How to Dance

The North Carolina Americana group created its most sophisticated album to date, with more of a band feel that allows Heather McEntire’s incredible vocals to flourish in a collaborative setting. “Baby Blue” is also my favorite song of 2016.

6) Lydia Loveless, Real

The country-punk songwriter adds a serious shot of pop music to her repertoire for her latest album, which complicates the music usefully and shows an artist still growing while not compromising on her songwriting. Very enjoyable music.

7) Rhianna, Anti

This is an album of liberation through sex and marijuana, which might seem pretty cliched and maybe in some ways it is, but the vocals are great and at some point in this horrible, don’t we need an album of simple liberation, especially from someone who has legitimately been through a lot of terrible things?

8) Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories

Fulks’ best album since Georgia Hard. He is still using the folk/bluegrass instrumentation of his last, slightly disappointing album, and that’s always worrying for a fan of country music given that a move to bluegrass-influenced folk is so often a sign of an artist without all that much left to say. But Upland Stories is a pretty great set of songs, some with the humor Fulks is known for (although not with his more offensive side which he has tamed more in the last decade) and some in the very serious and dark mode in which he often writes.

9) Blood Orange, Freetown Sound

This British artist has plenty to say about the racism toward black people that never ever went away but has had a disturbing resurgence around the world in the last few years. With songs directly referencing the murder of Trayvon Martin and other racial issues across the pond. Blood Orange has plenty to say to us.

10) Parquet Courts, Human Performance

Another fine album from this Brooklyn rock band, combining longer and profound songs with short one-offs that provide a lot of variation on a very interesting work.

Other good albums from 2016, in a vague order of how much I like them

11) Case/lang/Viers

Always skeptical of supergroups, but Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Viers sound great together.

12) Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny

I’m not a fan of Pat Metheny generally. His work always seemed uninteresting and geared toward more of an audience not too excited new sounds. But the trumpeter Cuong Vu has made some really interesting albums since leaving Metheny’s band. And this reunion works very well, with Metheny doing his best work in years. This pushes the envelope with the rest of the trio, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Ted Poor on drums, into some really interesting places. Metheny is of course a great guitar player so to hear him push himself into new sonic territory is refreshing. Really solid album.

13) Wussy, Forever Sounds

The noise is great. The songs are disappointing for a band with such a great pedigree of writing fantastic songs.

14) Laura Gibson, Empire Builder

Solid set of songs about traveling the nation and discovering oneself.

15) Joanna Newsom, Divers

There’s no point arguing about Joanna Newsom. You either like her or despise her. I tend toward the former. But after an overwrought triple album a few years ago, her comeback is solid and relatively tight for her.

16) Taylor Ho Bynum, Enter the Plustet

I love a big sound on a jazz album and this huge band provides it. Highlights include Bynum’s frequent collaboration Mary Halvorson; both had great years on the many albums they appeared on.

17) Chvrches, Every Open Eye

This is a confident sophomore album from the indie pop band. It has an optimism in the lyrics that I really need right now and is catchy and hooky as can be. And while I will never truly love this level of synth, the overall quality of the album makes it more palatable than it usually is for me. I don’t love this, but I can see listening to it every now and then when I need something a little more upbeat than my usual fare.

18) Freakwater, Scheherazade

Any new Freakwater album is welcome and after a long time off, this is a solid attention to a solid catalog.

19) Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

A beautiful set of compositions by this harpist.

Finally, a few albums by great artists that really disappointed:

Frank Ocean, Blonde

This did almost nothing for me, a significant step down from Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. The best part of the album is his mom leaving him a phone message to stay off the weed. Not a bad idea really, maybe more sobriety would lead to more happening.

Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Life

Overwrought and overproduced without very many good songs. Even seeing him live, a good show for sure, was a bring down because he basically played his catalog in order and the last 1/3 of the show did not hold up to the first 2/3, i.e., once he played the new album.

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

It’s not a bad album per se, but as a cut-rate version of Let England Shake, it does not hold up to her best work.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Scott Mc

    I see links to Amazon on the right so I assume you have an account. Link these, dammit. I know you’re a socialist, but c’mon.

  • Nobdy

    It only dropped on Christmas so I think people may have not had time to hear it yet, but I was legitimately starting to wonder if I was losing my ability to connect with new music until Run the Jewels 3 came out and INSTANTLY became a favorite. Hard to know if it will stand the test of time, but for now I’m willing to say it’s definitely my favorite of 2016 and I bet I will still be listening to it in 2026 (assuming I survive the Trumpocalpyse.)

    The closer A Report to the Shareholders/Kill your Masters is my favorite cut (or pair of cuts on one track) but Panther Like a Panther is just a ton of fun and probably more accessible with a great hook in its chorus.

    I know that Run the Jewels has been overhyped in recent years but they really have had an amazing run of albums in just 3 years. It’s rare for any musical group to form from middle aged performers and blow up both critically and commercially like they have, but for it to happen in rap is just extraordinary. A case of two talents coming together and just complimenting each other perfectly. Can they keep up this pace and quality? Who knows, but I hope so.

    Perfect music for the moment too.

    It’s available for download for free too, which is pretty sweet.

  • kg

    Tortoise put out a great album this year. Also, regarding that Wussy album, I agree it’s not as good as previous but Hello I’m a Ghost is one helluva song.

    • Agreed. That’s an excellent song

      • Mark Jeffery

        Yep, my favourite song on the album. Although the record as a whole was underwhelming at first, I’ve found that familiarity breeds, in this case, more fondness than contempt.

  • Johnnie

    I just got around to listening to FLOTUS by Lambchop this week, and damn if it isn’t an amazing record.

    • BGinCHI

      2nd that.

  • Ernie

    I’m pleased to see Chvrches’ Every Open Eye made your list, Erik. For a snythpop fan like me, it’s pure gold. I won’t claim to stay all that current, but I’ve found a several contemporary synthpop-type bands that I enjoy (Metric, M83, Purity Ring, and Future Islands, for example). Finding Chrvches, though, was like discovering the Pet Shop Boys or Erasure for the first time. For me, they’re that good.

    • Philip

      +1. I adore CHURCHES, and I loved Every Open Eye, although except for maybe Clearest Blue nothing on it quite matched the high points of Bones of What You Believe In for me. But to be fair, matching The Mother We Share is tough.

      • Ernie

        Oddly enough, I was slow to really warm up to The Mother We Share, especially since I instantly loved just about every other track on The Bones of What You Believe. Both albums are phenomenal, though, and I really appreciate both the differences and the continuities. Bones is a little darker, more brooding and moody. Every Open Eye is just pure crystalline joy. I feel a little silly writing that, but that’s what is for me, with Clearest Blue being the pinnacle.

        Another album that really grabbed my attention this year is Haelos’ Full Circle. This KEXP performance hooked me instantly.

  • Tom in BK

    :: CTRL+F: lemonade ::

    :: 0/0 ::

    :: disregards list ::

    Parquet Courts is good, though.

  • solidcitizen

    Love that Margo Price record.

  • pianomover

    Angel Olsen
    The Avalanches
    Japanese Breakfast

    • Angel Olsen was my favorite album this year, and I loved Japanese Breakfast as well – got to see her in Birmingham w Mitski & Jay Som.

      (Puberty 2 was a good album, but didn’t blow me away like Mitski’s first, or Olsen’s My Woman.)

      Thanks for the list, Erik! Will check out Loveless & Price, being innocent of them both.

      • pianomover

        I don’t get Mitski. Keep trying but no cigar.

  • howard

    so first, i should confess that you’ve credited me inaccurately: i didn’t give you the loren eisely (or the albert murray, although i wrote up my experiences with murray) – i gave you boulez conducts bartok!

    as for keeping up, my jazz 2016 playlist has 34 albums on it, of which 24 made the npr jazz critics toip 50 poll, which just demonstrates how hard keeping up is. some notes on my listening:

    1. this was, in my book, guitarist mary halvorson’s year: she maintained her extraordinary productivity (according to her discography, she was on 7 releases this year, and that’s not counting the young philadelphians with mark ribot, which i thought came out this year as well but which her discography says came out in 2015), of which the best were her octet (nate chinen’s choice as album of the year), her cooperative trio thumbscrew, and her work with the young philadelphians. in my listening, it was a good year for guitarists in general – bill frisell is an important part of andrew cyrille’s “declaration of musical independence”(cyrille also released a probing set of duets with bill mchenry on tenor), pat metheny played sideman to perfection on logan richardson’s “shift,” ben monder plays a cool offset to tony malaby’s sax on malaby’s “incantation suite,” lionel loueke contributes mightily to dave holland’s “aziza,” and more.

    2. having spent time on a 31-year-old guitarist and her peers, let’s move up the age ladder to 41-year-old pianist jason moran: he put out an exquisite solo recital, “the armory concert,” plays an important role on henry threadgill’s release, which i’ll get to in a moment, joined metheny on richardson’s “shift,” and in general continued to demonstrate why he’s my favorite jazz musician under 50. other interesting piano work this year included myra melford (duets with ben goldberg and as part of allison miller’s “otis was a polar bear”), kris davis (whose “duology” is a fascination set of duets), fred hersch continues to be as good as mainstream piano gets with his “sunday night at the vanguard,” vijay iyer is wadada leo smith’s able partner on “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke” (more on this to come), cuban pianist aruan ortiz demonstrates that there is plenty of new work to be mined from jelly roll morton’s “latin tinge” on “hidden voices,” and geri allen kicks butt on “perfection,” a trio date with david murray and terri lyne carrington.

    3. as for the seniors, well, last year was the 50th anniversary of the aacm and it seems to have served to refresh some of the grand old=timers. henry threadgill demonstrated (again) why he really belongs in the pantheon of jazz immortals on his largely through-composed “old locks and irregular verbs,” the unbelievable wadada leo smith continues to produce trumpet-playing at a level no other 75-year-old has ever been recorded at in jazz: his duet with vijay iyer, mentioned above, is thoughtful and serene, while his latest piece of program music, “america’s national parks,” is spectacular, and amina claudine meyers produced a deeply considered re-examination of her gospel roots on “sama rou.”

    4. i’ll just second erik’s commendation of darcy james argue’s “real enemies,” the best big-band release (and one of the best jazz releases) of the year, and boy do i wish i could see the staged version. other interesting work in the big band arena came from taylor ho bynum, michael formanek, and matt wilson (halvorson appears on both the bynum and formanek).

    5. i don’t keep up with rock/hiphop well enough to really have much in the way of meaningful comments, but i did like the foxymorons, tacocat, and parquet courts efforts this year, and who couldn’t like the drive-by truckers?

  • I don’t listen to a lot of new albums, but David Bowie’s Blackstar knocked my socks off. Up there with the Berlin albums for me.

  • vic rattlehead

    Bowie’s final album (RIP) was pretty good.

  • pianomover

    My favorite. Car seat Headrest.
    Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam

    And I listen to Astral Weeks pretty much everyday. It’s new to me everytime

    • howard

      Like lester bangs, I pick astral weeks as my desert island disc: sheer genius.

  • BGinCHI

    I’d add Hayes Carll’s “Lovers and Leavers.”

    Agree on the Sturgill Simpson. I love his music but I can’t get into that new one.

    Been a Mount Moriah fan since their inception. Erik, have you listened to their little outing as Un Deux Trois? The Ep is called “Lovers.” Really good.

  • petesh

    Lenny Cohen’s envoi was remarkable. Bowie’s was, too. And the album I have played most is Blue & Lonesome by The Rolling Stones. It takes me back to my first paying job (packing tomatoes), and the Saturday shift at which I heard their first album — it doesn’t sound the same, but it’s clearly made by the same band, more than 50 years later. Play it loud.

  • dauwhe

    My theory is there is one transcendentally great track on every Darcy James Argue album: “Obsidian Flow” on Infernal Machines, “The Neighborhood” on Brooklyn Babylon, and “Best Friends Forever” on Real Enemies.

    I’m less interested in ten best lists… I’ll say that two Jazz albums this year have joined the pantheon of music I love, that will always be a part of me, that I listen to again and again. Allison Miller’s “Otis Was A Polar Bear” is a huge step forward for her as a composer, and any ensemble with Myra Melford is worth loving. And Guillermo Klein’s “Los Gauchos V” is rhythmic and harmonic genius, perfectly balanced and deeply satisfying.

    • howard

      i should have mentioned guillermo klein’s earlier as well, and agree with you that myra melford should always be heard.

  • pianomover
  • Kurzleg

    Lately my tastes lean to the harder end of music spectrum, so for me Gojira’s “Magma” and Meshuggah’s “The Violent Sleep of Reason” were the best of what I purchased this year. “Magma” in particular.

    And nice to see Blood Orange on this list. I bought “Coastal Grooves” way back when and really enjoyed it. I’ll have to check it this latest work.

  • Pingback: Open Thread: Best Books You Read in 2016 | s-usih.org()

  • MJFun

    Blood Orange he really grew from his first album. Freetown Sound one of the best albums I listened to lately, memorable lyrics.

It is main inner container footer text