Haters mad for whatever reason.
15) Bon Iver – 22, A Million
For my money, the most compelling argument to be made against this album is also the reason it works so well; namely, Bon Iver spends the course of the record trying to mask, distort and otherwise render his soulful, powerful voice completely unrecognizable. In the process, he’s made a record that is both unintelligible and deeply human. You don’t have to make sense of the words to understand it. This is what the sex robots on Westworld would listen to before realizing they were alive.
14) Anderson Paak – Malibu
Point: Malibu is the next step in west coast G-funk, the point in which the slow cool of California’s hip-hop history gets pushed into a different, more delicate and explorative direction. Counter-point: Anderson Paak is Kendrick Lamar in a funny hat. As if striving to be like Kendrick Lamar was a bad thing.
13) Dyke Drama – Up Against the Bricks
Listening to Up Against the Bricks, I feel how I imagine rockers in Minneapolis felt when they first heard Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Sadie Switchblade is channeling the Replacements and launching 1,000 new folk-rock bands in the process.
12) Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
The “no label” boasting remains exceedingly dubious, considering the record’s distribution and corporate backing, but there’s no beating the exuberance and optimism (even in the face of murder and pill addiction) that Chance generated in 2016, Kit-Kat commercial aside.
11) White Lung – Paradise
Paradise is either the mark that hardcore has broken, or the mark that pop music is about to become much more acerbic.
Let me air this out here, too: White Lung is a decidedly feminist project. Lead singer Mish Way is on the record time and again as a forward-thinking champion for women’s rights and equality. I support those same causes. However, my favorite song on Paradise is “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” a song that is expressly about settling down with a man and having his babies. It is as straightforward and sincere as any other song in the band’s catalog. Without going to far into feminist theory about the content of the song, I do wonder what it says about me and my believes that my favorite song on the record is the one about subservience, romantic or otherwise.
Paradise is a good record, though.
10) Drive-By Truckers – American Band
For all the digital ink that get spilled talking about the death of rock music in the greater cultural conversation, not enough attention is paid to the perspective that rock music often takes and how that perspective has lead to its mainstream decline. In its heyday, rock music was used to express cultural outrage. In recent years, rock has moved into parodies of excess or navel-gazing ennui. Meanwhile, modern RnB artists are turning their talents to discussing real, violent, deadly things that are happening in the world, right now.
(If you’ve noticed that those important RnB records I’m talking about aren’t well represented here, well, I’ve noticed that, too. Something I need to reckon with.)
If rock music wants to survive, it will need to get some skin in the game. Leave it to the Drive-By Truckers to at least try and enter the conversation and not sound opportunistic or cloying. If you care about civil rights and guitar solos, this is a good place to start.
9) Pinegrove – Cardinal
That said, if you’re going to be an inward-looking, ennui-spewing rock band, you better fucking bring it. Cardinal is either the shape of emo to come or the first wave in a full-blown new ascension for alt-country as the dominating force in indie rock. Either way, it’s a powerful, rewarding record to spend time with.
8) Kvelertak – Nattesferd
DO YOU LIKE HEAVY CHUGGING GUITAR RIFFS? FUCK YEAH YOU DO, MOTHERFUCKER! WE’RE GOING TO DRINK SOME BUD HEAVY AND DO DONUTS IN MY BROTHER’S I-ROC AND BANG OUR HEADS AND LIVE FOREVER.
What a very good time this metal record is.
7) Joyce Manor – Cody
On the one hand, Cody is an ambitious expansion of Joyce Manor’s hardcord-by-way-of Blink 182 pop-punk hookiness, reaching for new elements and pushing the band in ways. On the other hand, the record is over 20 minutes long. SELLOUTS.
6) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Your tolerance for Teens of Denial will depend heavily on how long you can listen to a young man sing about himself and his young man problems. The good news is that even if the content gets old, the music acts like a survey course on every meaningful rock band from the last 30 years. Car Seat Headrest’s first proper release is long and involved, but it makes you want to spend the time.
5) Pup – The Dream is Over
What I keep coming back to with Pup is how aggressive their music sounds. That’s a misleading descriptor though, because it isn’t like The Dream is Over is abrasive or hard to listen to. If anything, it’s more melodic and catchy than the band’s first record. What Pup does so well though is imbue its music with a world-weary hardness that projects a mistrust of strangers and a fierce defense of those who share the band’s view point. It’s “No New Friends” punk that’ll throw an arm around you if it doesn’t bite your legs off. Pup sounds like a character in a Mountain Goats song; cornered, beaten, dangerous.
4) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
If Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son hadn’t fallen to his death in the process of making Skeleton Tree, it would still be a haunting, terrifying record about hopelessness and loss. Cave is capable of telling many different stories, but he does best with doom. He’s an impressive, emotional performer, but he sounds best when he’s lustily describing someone’s downfall. Skeletron Tree finds him hitting these modes, but it also presents an emotionally-destroyed man, trying to work through catastrophic and impossible situations. Death has brought a horrible specificity to what will go down as the most painful record in his catalog.
3) Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Ultimately, how you feel about The Life of Pablo comes down to how you feel about it in moments, not in the whole.
Does, for example, the lyrical brick that kicks off “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” undo the light-through-parting-clouds opening drop of the song? Does the giddiness of co-opting “Panda” for 20 seconds outdo a rambling Beyonce interlude? Can Swizz Beats doing Swizz Beats stuff wash out the bad taste of “Famous?” Does “Real Friends” balance out “Facts?” Does the first half of “30 Hours” forgive the second half of “30 Hours?
I can’t remember a high profile release being this wildly inconsistent. The whole thing never really stitches itself together, but it never bores, either. That’s something.
2) Beyonce – Lemonade
When “Formation” first came out before the 2016 Super Bowl (which feels like it was half a fucking decade ago), a lot was made of the song’s political overtones. Same for the Lemonade film, which was rolled out so expertly with its manufactured scarcity by HBO and team. Listening to Lemonade now, those political overtones are almost completely absent from the music at large (save for “Freedom,” which works as a stand-alone anthem for triumph over oppression, but feels very informed by the incidents of the last two years).
What remains, instead, is a record that makes (the subtext of) a deeply personal infidelity into a ballad about triumph and empowerment. Beyonce shouting out her blackness in songs like “Formation” turns that one-time marital weariness into a universal and ongoing tome about black female power and triumph. If this record is political, is its politics not as a time stamp, but as an extension of feminism and civil rights. I didn’t think Beyonce had it in her.
Plus, it make Jack White cool for, like, 30 seconds and exposed Beyonce’s love of blog-buzz era Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Maybe she and I have more in common that I realized.
1) The Hotelier – Goodness
Goodness isn’t an album; it is a puzzlebox, a keyless crossword to be endlessly pondered, never completed. It is a personal melodrama with some bad choices (all its spoken word interludes should fuck off on out of here) and some transcendent moments (the prolonged drums of “Goodness Pt 2,” the key shift at the end of “You in This Light”). Enjoyment of it depends on how much you allow yourself to become involved in its drama. In a way, it reminds me of Inception; people who love it cannot forget it, people who don’t wish that first group would shut up about it.
It was my shelter and my thinking spot when I had to consider or hide from a deeply turbulent year. It was an amplification of a dread felt but not yet experienced, a reflection and solace from an undertow that may not come, that will definitely come.
I don’t know that it is an important album outside of its genre. It will not sustain in history like Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Solange, even Kanye West will. It was, however, the record that I listened to the most this year, the record I wanted to spend the most time with when I was just listening for myself. That’s enough.