By Sean Titone
December 20, 2016
12. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
It’s been fun to watch singer-songwriter Kevin Morby come into his own as an artist over the last several years, first as a member of Brooklyn’s kick-ass jam bros Woods, then as the co-leader of the woefully underrated indie rock crew The Babies, and now as a solo artist. Singing Saw is his third effort under his given name and it takes his Dylan-esque tendencies to new, dizzying heights. Standout track, “I Have Been to the Mountain,” dedicated to and inspired by the death of Eric Garner, is melancholy, yet upbeat and employs a kitchen sink of instrumentation with mariachi horns, keyboards, female backup singers and a scene-stealing guitar solo midway through.
Favorite tracks: “I Have Been to the Mountain,” “Dorothy,” “Destroyer”
11. Andy Shauf – The Party
With shades of John Lennon, Elliott Smith and Harry Nilsson, Canadian songwriter Andy Shauf delivers a gorgeous album that at times plays like a sequel to Badly Drawn Boy’s classic The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Shauf comes across like a soft-spoken loner narrating from a distance, who just happens to have an innate knack for melody and arrangements. Woven in his tracks are small-scale yarns about interpersonal relationships, often taking place at, you guessed it, a party. This album grooves so hard in the mellowest way.
Favorite tracks: “The Magician,” “The Worst in You,” “Begin Again”
10. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Talk about delay of gratification. Ocean had us all waiting for years with bated breath for his follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange and we began to wonder if new music would ever come. With Blonde the wait was worth it. There are few artists in any genre as creatively fearless as Ocean and his muse proves to be as restless as ever with this trippy R&B kaleidoscopic gem that should age like a fine wine. More meditative than Channel Orange, Blonde finds Ocean reconciling the demons in his own life, as well as those in our society that continue to do their damndest to tear us apart.
Favorite tracks: “Nikes,” “Ivy, Pink + White”
9. Brent Cobb – Shine on Rainy Day
Shine on Rainy Day is a record for people that like country music AND for people that don’t like country music. Namely, it’s a massive crowd-pleaser that’s a Southern stew of Americana, country, folk, and blues rock, all buoyed by Cobb’s easy-going, real-deal Georgian drawl. The album is Cobb’s mission statement after nearly a decade of writing hit songs for other musicians (something he still currently does; he co-wrote “Good Ol’ Days” on Miranda Lambert’s critically acclaimed album The Weight of These Wings). Produced by his super-producer cousin Dave Cobb, Shine on Rainy Day goes down smooth and the simple production gives the feeling that you’re with the musicians as they play these timeless songs, creating an intimacy that is endearing and captivating all at once.
*Read our 2016 interview with Brent Cobb
Favorite tracks: “Diggin’ Holes,” “Shine on Rainy Day,” “Solving Problems”
8. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
God bless Chance for bringing joy and gospel back into hip-hop in such a vibrant and, ahem, colorful way. Coloring Book is a natural evolution of his game-changing verse on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” and it’s shot through with love and speaker-shaking hip-hop hymnals. Blessings did indeed fall into his lap this past year, and I’m sure there are many more to come.
Favorite tracks: “Blessings,” “All We Got,” “No Problem,” “Same Drugs”
7. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
For his third album, Sturgill Simpson decided to write a love letter to his young son to teach him about the ways of the world and how best to avoid some of the mistakes he made along the way. Pushing his country music boundaries further into the cosmos, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is full of Stax-inspired blue-eyed soul with horns courtesy of the Dap-Kings, angelic strings, and seafaring sound effects to honor Simpson’s time in the Navy that all combine to elevate the songs to a cinematic scale. To further mystify Music Row, he also took a Nirvana song, “In Bloom,” and wholly made it his own with a unique, deeply affecting take on the original. It’s a winning formula that garnered Simpson’s first Grammy nod for Album of the Year.
Favorite tracks: “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “In Bloom,” “Sea Stories,” “Call to Arms”
6. Angel Olsen – My Woman
With My Woman, Angel Olsen graduated from being one of the leaders of the low-fi indie folk movement to a sound altogether richer, more beguiling and stunningly intoxicating. Her heart is laid bare as she indulges a variety of musical influences from Laurel Canyon sheen to garage rock, and her songwriting is as sharp and biting as ever. Throughout, her magnificent voice shape shifts with hints of Ronnie Spector and Lucinda Williams, while toeing the line of vulnerability and assertiveness.
Favorite tracks: “Intern,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Sister”
5. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream that You Were Mine
The pedigree of this group is strong. Leithauser is the singer of (now defunct?) The Walkmen, and Rostam Batmanglij is the co-founder of Vampire Weekend. Needless to say, expectations were high when this project was announced. And, boy, did it deliver. These two titans of New York brought out the best of each other’s strengths: Rostam coerced Leithauser to resurrect his distinctive howl while he provided a music bed that shuffles and shimmies through nearly 50 years of disparate styles. Between this record and the most recent Eric Bachmann record, apparently doo-wop is back. Who knew? When Leithauser muses “I use the same voice I always have,” you realize that while that voice may have evolved some over the years, the emotion remains the same. As with many of my favorite albums this year, the specters of Dylan and Lennon haunt the proceedings, perhaps none more so than on the banjo-driven “Peaceful Morning.”
Favorite tracks: “A 1000 Times,” “Sick as a Dog,” “In a Black Out,” “Peaceful Morning”
4. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your service
After a particularly rough year, the return of Tribe was a damn near blinding beacon of light. Obviously, we all hoped it would be a return to their heyday, but you never know with these things. What a relief and joy it was to learn that their newest output ranks up there with The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders as one of their best albums. “We The People…” nearly jumps out of your speakers as one of the biggest bangers they’ve ever written, and its socially conscious lyrics are a direct reaction to the poisonous rhetoric that’s currently festering in this country. R.I.P. Phife Dawg. This is a beautiful tribute to him, and his verses are some of his finest work.
Favorite tracks: “The Space Program,” “We The People…,” “Movin Backwards,” “Ego,” “Conrad Tokyo”
3. Pinegrove – Cardinal
It only took eight songs for Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove to make a lasting impression that should blossom into a long, fruitful career. Alt-country and emo are the two categories most often tossed out to describe their sound, but there’s a certain mysterious quality to their sophomore album Cardinal that made it resonate with me. With each listen, Evan Stephens Hall’s literary lyrics forced me to look backward and inward in fits of nostalgia and my own self-induced anxiety. And isn’t that what we want from our art and music? To be moved mentally and emotionally? Call your parents when you think of them. Tell your friends when you love them. Thanks Evan, I most certainly will.
Favorite tracks: “Old Friends,” “Aphasia,” “New Friends”
2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Car Seat Headrest is a band led by 24-year-old musical mastermind Will Toledo and their album Teens of Denial arrived in 2016 to save rock and roll for the umpteenth time much like The Strokes did before them with Is This It.. Toledo is looking for fulfillment by any means necessary (spoiler alert: the drugs don’t work), and his lyrics plead and castigate over 12 songs that sprawl out like an indie rock encyclopedia from the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Favorite tracks: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “Vincent,” “Fill in the Blank,” “Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed”
1. Big Thief – Masterpiece
This one’s a bit of a sleeper pick for my favorite album of the year, but everything you need is right here in this incredible debut from Brooklyn’s Big Thief. Skyscraper-sized guitars, a one-of-a-kind voice from Adrianne Lenker that manages to whisper, boom and snarl with equal amounts of vigor, and melodies as strong as you’ll find on any record released in 2016 – these are the touchstones of Masterpiece. Expect big things from this band next year.
Favorite tracks: “Masterpiece,” “Paul,” “Real Love”
Honorable Mention: Wilco – Schmilco, Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds, Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, William Tyler – Modern Country, Jonny Fritz – Sweet Creep, Whitney – Light Upon the Lake, Miranda Lambert – The Weight Of These Wings, Anderson .Paak – Malibu, and The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood.
A playlist by Sean Titone:
In this article
- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
- a tribe called quest
- Andy Shauf
- angel olsen
- best album
- Big Thief
- brent cobb
- Car Seat Headrest
- chance the rapper
- frank ocean
- Hamilton Leithauser
- Kevin Morby
- sean titone
- Singing Saw
- sturgill simpson
- Teens of Denial
- The Party