So here we have the upper half of the list. Beyond this point, expect nothing but absolute gushing and hyperbole, because these twenty picks represent my absolute favorite music of 2016.
20. Pup- The Dream is Over (Punk)
These are some damn angry Canadians. This is one of the most sour, sarcastic, contempt-filled records you will hear all year. The production is nasty, and the vocals are ragged and barely in tune most of the time. But the honesty here makes it all the more sickeningly compelling. The rage and energy that bursts out of the speakers on this doesn’t announce itself immediately; the first minute or so of the record builds up to a distorted shout that gets the whole thing rolling. And from that point on it never stops. But the fury contained in this album is tuneful and catchy in a way that most pop-punks bands would kill to achieve. It’s just wrapped in this loud, shouting, feedback riddled package. If this album doesn’t kill you, Pup will.
19. Blackberry Smoke- Like An Arrow (Country/Southern Rock)
This is the first Blackberry Smoke album that I’ve actually heard. I had heard of the band, mainly due to their seemingly incessant touring, but I never really though to actually check them out. I regret that decision, as this is some awesome feel good country rock. It’s big and loud, grandiose in a way that I don’t hear in a whole lot of country albums.
18. Thank You Scientist- Stranger Heads Prevail (Jazz Fusion/Progressive Rock)
These guys are ridiculous musicians, let’s get that out of the way. The amount of styles traversed on this record is staggering. But underneath all of the craziness is a great sense of songwriting and dynamics that keeps this from becoming boring like a lot of other prog rock bands. For every bizarre instrumental tangent these guys will go on, the songwriting shines through and the diversity of the musical texture keeps you guessing on where it will go next. When the funky “Jungle Boogie”-esque breakdown hits in the epic instrumental journey “Rube Goldberg Variations” it still gets me feeling to move every time. Can you dig?
17. Anaal Nathrakh- The Whole of the Law (Extreme Metal/Grindcore)
One of metal’s most psychopathic bands returns here with another set of tunes that will make you scared to ever meet these people in real life (although from interviews I’ve seen they seem like quite polite, articulate Brits). Industrial and symphonic textures ride overtop crusty blackened grindcore, and it never lets up for one moment. The atmospheric intro track gives enough time to set the oppressive mood and let you know what type of beating you’re in for, and after that, this record flies at Mach 10 for about 50 minutes straight, the squashed production only serving to make it even more of an exhausting listen. This is sickeningly heavy, and definitely not for the faint of heart.
16. The Dirty Nil- Higher Power (Punk)
No other record this year quite manages to capture the vibe of a really loud band playing in a really tiny room quite like newcomers The Dirty Nil have here. This goes for a similar type of intensity to the Pup album above, but this edges that album out by a smidge. Whereas the Pup album was cynical nasty as all hell, Higher Power is soaring and celebratory. Not to say that the album isn’t just as crushing. There’s almost no ambience here, just a huge wall of guitar, bass and, drums with barely an inch of auditory space separating them. The guitars feedback at any pause in the playing, and the vocals are distorted like a broken bullhorn. But the powerful songwriting and melodies shine through it all for one extremely powerful recording.
15. Swain- The Long Dark Blue (Grunge/Hardcore Punk)
This is one of the most knuckle-headed, club-fisted sounding albums you might hear this year, but it does contain a certain gentleness if you look deep enough. Swain are one of the few bands that can channel Nirvana without sounding like every other grunge wannabe band that has tried to do something similar. The songs are short (none of them break the four minute mark), and the whole record has a certain quirky melodic bent which to me sounds like an echo of sixties pop that sits oddly with the hardcore punk instrumentation, but it’s super compelling nonetheless.
14. Nails- You Will Never Be One of Us (Death Metal/Powerviolence)
When I think of people who really don’t like metal, this is pretty much what I imagine they think it all sounds like, an absolutely punishing wall of percussive noise and unintelligible sounds emanating from the throat of something that may or not be human. But this record, man. This makes me wanna flip tables n’ shit. It’ll get your blood pumping for sure. The songs here for the most part are under 2 minutes, and the record as a whole just barely cracks twenty minutes, and that’s the key to its overall strength. It’s a quick beating that I always masochistically come back for.
13. Swans- The Glowing Man (Experimental)
From the shortest record on this list to the longest at a whopping two hours long, Michael Gira and his cronies have pulled together another brilliant journey of sound. Instead of going forward with the sonic brutality of 2014’s To Be Kind, they’ve created a collection of pieces that draw more heavily on the industrial folk sounds of his Angels of Light project. There’s a lot more atmosphere and slow burn here, and the content is more melodic overall than the past two Swans releases. The record also features some of the longest compositions in the band’s catalogue with three of the eight songs here being over twenty minutes long. That may seem pretty excessive, but the payoff on these ridiculous crescendos are akin to a rollercoaster that goes up a mile-high incline before going over the edge.
12. Every Time I Die- Low Teens (Hardcore Punk/Metalcore)
There’s a moment on the first song on Every Time I Die’s Low Teens where the tempo ramps up considerably and Keith Buckley shrieks “Then I’ll crack that reaper safe with my bare hands!!!”, and goddamn does get me going. On this album, Every Time I Die supply so many moments that make me wanna stomp around and punch the walls that I probably shouldn’t listen to it as much as I have since it came out in September, for fear of collateral damage. Combine that with one of the most massive guitar tones in modern metal, and you have a real nail bomb of an album. In a part of the year when really good heavy releases were sort of drying up, these guys delivered an unexpected sucker punch to the jaw with Low Teens.
11. Weezer- Weezer (Power Pop/Alternative Rock)
Who would’ve thought that Weezer would return in 2016 with such a brilliant set of power pop anthems? No joke, this is their best album since Pinkerton. I think it’s better than the Green Album, and it’s certainly better than anything they’ve done since Maladroit. The effort to try and get back to what made Weezer great in the first place could be felt on their 2014 album Everything Will Be Alright In The End, but it comes to full fruition on this new self titled release. Instead of trying to go for some unattainable pop crossover by watering down their sound like they had been doing for the better part of fifteen years, they instead focus on what they do best: catchy melodies backed up by big fuck-off guitars. And it pays off eightfold here. “L.A. Girlz” in particular can hold its own with many of the tracks on the band’s debut self titled album in my opinion. I’m serious, the song is everything I want in a pop song and has one of the best guitar solos Rivers Cuomo has ever composed. The lyrics are corny-yet-sincere as ever, and the whole thing, despite ending on the oddly sour “Endless Bummer”, leaves you feeling really good about everything. Whenever next summer comes around, this record is definitely being played on loop just like it was this summer.
10. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Country/Soul)
Sturgill Simpson has become sort of notorious among country purists for injecting foreign elements into country music. Some people love his approach and cite it as a fresh perspective in a genre somewhat resistant to change, while some accuse him of losing the plot on the genre together. Whatever you think of Simpsons’s way of doing things, this record has him pushing those boundaries as far they could possibly stretch. If you remove his voice from the record, much of this may not even register as country to you. But in the end, it’s absolutely brilliant. The amount of musical diversity, playful genre-bending, and emotional yet clever lyrical ideas makes this one of the most distinctly creative releases I’ve heard this year. Jettisoning the psychedelic haze that cropped up at several points on 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, here he chooses to incorporate strings and a soul-inspired horn section to his backing band, and the deliciously old-school production really gives the horns a nice saturated sound, bringing about a much livelier sound this time around, and Simpson amazingly adapts himself to these different stylistic tangents. But the real showcase here is Sturgill Simpson’s amazing voice. This guy has a real case to be made for being my favorite singer.
9. Vektor- Terminal Redux (METAL)
Now this is some effin’ HEAVY METAL right here. This is a loud, pompous sci-fi rock opera delivered via blisteringly fast technical thrash metal. It is completely and utterly ridiculous in every way. The concept is totally out of the Spinal Tap playbook, and, frankly, I don’t think any other band in the world would be able to pull something like this off in the way that Vektor have done here. This album couldn’t possibly be more impeccably composed or arranged. I don’t know if I’ve heard a straight-ahead metal album this ambitious in years. I want this to be played by a the London Symphony Orchestra. It would be just as amazing. Album opener “Charging the Void” is the best metal song of the year, all nine epic minutes of it. It has everything. Insane technicality, epic scope, extended song structure, great balance of harsh and melodic stylings, a beautiful overall dynamic swell, and RIFFS UPON RIFFS UPON RIFFS. The rest of the record is great as well, but that first track is a microcosm of everything that great heavy metal should strive for.
8. Thee Oh Sees- A Weird Exits (Psychedelic Rock/Punk)
This is a record that has grown on me immensely since I first heard it back in August. What really makes this work so well is the combination of sixties style acid rock played at a punk rock intensity level. It’s almost like the proto-punk of Iggy and the Stooges twisted into a coil with the quirkiness of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Loud is definitely the aim here, with some of the guitar tones bordering on searing white noise at points. This garage rock sound also extends into the songwriting techniques. The band often eschews any chorus whatsoever, preferring to go from a verse directly to a mile-high soaring riff instead of any sort of vocal hook. The result is exhilarating. The quirky vocal stylings as well work to distinguish this record from the rest of the acid rock throwback that’s become popular to ape in the past couple of years, ranging from wispy falsettos to bizarre growling that feature on songs like “Gelatinous Cube” and “Ticklish Warrior”.
7. Darkher- Realms (Neo-Folk/Experimental)
Doom metal and neo-folk seem to go together really well for some reason. I’m hearing the combination of the two genres a lot lately and the fact that it works as well as it does is pretty interesting in and of itself. This record lives halfway between both genres, while never really fitting perfectly into either. Tethered by the ethereal voice of Jayn Wissenberg, this is the definitive slow burn album of 2016. I get the feeling this music isn’t made to make you tap your foot or hum along to. Rather, I think this really is made to haunt you. Don’t listen to this at night or you might have a small freakout at some of the more nightmarish parts of the album.
6. Danny Brown- Atrocity Exhibition (Hip Hop)
From the jarring opening notes and hard-to-place flow of album opener “Downward Spiral”, the keyword for this album is “disorienting”. After making some steps into more commercial territory, Danny Brown pulls the rug out from under all that to deliver one of the most fucked up records of the year. The guy’s voice may take some getting used to to new listeners, but stick with it and you’ll realize how versatile of a rapper Danny Brown is. The way he works his words into these rhythmically scattershot beats is impressive as all hell, especially that bizarre polyrhythmic beat on “Pneumonia”. But describing it in words doesn’t really help to demonstrate the genius of this bizarre masterpiece. You just have to listen to it.
5. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard- Nonagon Infinity (Lo-Fi/Psychedelic Rock)
King Gizzard originally caught my eye based solely on the crazy name alone, but this record really solidified this band as one of the best in the modern psychedelic rock scene. The record’s biggest notable feature is in the way it’s structured. The whole thing is basically constructed as one song, with no breaks between tracks. In addition if you have the album replay enabled on your music player, the end of the album syncs up perfectly with the beginning, creating a never ending loop of an album. But the album is much more than just its structural gimmick. The energy really never lets up on this one, and the production is delightfully murky. King Gizzard’s songs rocket forward with punky energy and lo-fi noise, and the peaks and valleys here are comparable to a rollercoaster, with massive hooks to boot.
4. Creeper- The Stranger (Pop Punk)
I know, I know, I mention Creeper in like every other review, but these guys just rule, all right? The fact that they got signed to Roadrunner off the back of only two EPs only goes to show their potential. Their third EP takes even more twists from their glam-rock inspired pop punk sound and makes it all even more bombastic. I remember listening to the “Black Mass” back in March on the first sunny day in almost three weeks, and it was freakin’ euphoric to say the least. To prevent this from going on way too long, I’m just gonna say that three or four of the five songs on this EP make it on my list of the top fifty songs of the year. Yeah, it’s that good. With an album coming in 2017, I’m real excited to see where this band goes.
3. PARTYBABY- The Golden Age of Bullshit (Alternative Rock)
Every once and awhile an album comes along that I feel is made exactly for my tastes. This is one of those records. Everything about The Golden Age of Bullshit feels tailored to the type of music that I want to hear in 2016. It’s extremely energetic, it’s got incredibly catchy melodies that would make Rivers Cuomo jealous, it’s quirky without ever feeling overly zany, the album is a perfect length, and it’s loud as hell and totally joyous. Even though the lyrics can be quite depressive, the feeling of the musical texture is anything but. Also like the Weezer album I mentioned earlier, this would have been perfect for the summer months, but unfortunately I caught it just as summer ended. Maybe that’s the reason this hit me in the sort of bittersweet way that it did. It was sort of like the last hurrah of the idyllic summer vibe before what has turned out to be quite a grueling semester for me. But even as I listen to this in the heart of December, it still sort of makes me yearn for that part of the year where I just don’t have to worry about things as much. “I Don’t Wanna Wait” indeed.
2. The Dillinger Escape Plan- Dissociation (Experimental Metal)
The Dillinger Escape Plan are soon to be no more and this is purportedly their last album, and I feel like they’ve really put everything they have into this. And for a group of musicians as intense as The Plan, that’s saying quite a lot. These guys play like their lives depend on it every single second of this record, and for an already experimental group, they really flex their musical muscles to outrageous extents on this. I couldn’t think of a better way to sum up the band’s career. There’s material on here that reaches the same crazy intensity of their 1999 debut Calculating Infinity, some of the glitchy electronic experiments that marked 2007’s Ire Works, and even more of the newfound sense of melody and songwriting woven into the chaos the band embraced on Option Paralysis and One Of Us Is The Killer. For every dissonant, hard-to-keep-up-with riff or rhythmic pattern they throw at us, they also dish out sweeping melodic movements and delicate jazz fusion tangents. But at the core of this is an unconventional songwriting engine so well understood by the people operating it that the bizarre structures never seem random. Put more simply, every change or break makes sense, and the result is one of the most dynamic records of the year.
1. David Bowie- Blackstar (Experimental/Jazz Fusion)
Ok, I’m gonna get serious for a moment here. I remember that something woke me at about 1 AM on the morning of January 11th. I don’t know what it was, but I jerked awake and then had trouble getting back to sleep, so out of reflex as a millennial I ended up checking my phone. And I saw the first headlines coming in that David Bowie had passed away. It freaked me out so much that I had woken up at that exact moment. If anyone could create a disturbance in the force like that, it would of course have to be Ziggy Stardust returning to his home planet. That fact had me in a funk for at least a week and a half. We lost a lot of great musicians in in late 2015 leading into the first half of 2016, but I think Bowie’s passing affected me the most because of the way it coincided with the release of his darkest, most experimental album to date. This is a far cry from Let’s Dance. And before you ask, no, I’m not one of the people putting this on the list because he died, I heard it three days before on the day it was released and thought it was brilliant then too. But in a way, his passing has to be talked about in relation to the album, mainly because that’s exactly the main lyrical theme for the whole record. Bowie has done something here that I don’t think has ever been done by any major artist before, in that he turned his own death into a sort of art project. The opening line to the lead single “Lazarus” has him exclaiming “Look up here, I’m in heaven”, how can you not draw the connection? While most of the narrative here is expressed through veiled metaphors and purposefully obtuse language, direct references to morbid and even occult topics pop up on almost every track. The album has a creepy vibe in general, as Bowie’s voice sounds really frail and weary over this electronics influenced fusion backing provided by a local New York jazz combo. The perspective of someone who knows they’re going to die soon is all over this record, and the result is a harrowing experience to say the least, but the emotion conveyed is relatable no matter who you are. This description is getting a bit long in the tooth, so I’ll end on this: Bowie has left us here with an amazing but difficult album. It’s not poppy at all and is quite intentionally bleak, but as an artistic statement, it’s one of the most striking he’s ever made, and I couldn’t think of a better final resting place for one of the most important musical careers in history. That’s why Blackstar is my favorite album of 2016.