Most years, I have a difficult time even filling up my favorite albums list. This year, however, I had trouble keeping it down to only ten albums, and I have quite a few honorable mentions:
This album was my surprise of 2016. While at times the lyrics are surface level and laughably hedonistic, the strong melodies and production make up for any shortcomings. There are also a few moments where Abel Tesfaye dares to go a little deeper. “Reminder,” for instance: “I just won a new award for a kids’ show/ talking ‘bout a face coming off a bag of blow.” It’s almost a dangerous stance to take; to alienate a large portion of the fans he earned with “Can’t Feel My Face.” But instead, he offers it merely as a sarcastic observation and invites the listener to laugh at the facts with him. At 16 tracks, the album could afford some trimming, but Starboy has me keeping my eye out for whatever the Weeknd does next.
An unabashedly candid alt-country album, Stay Gold is a lean ten tracks, perfectly sequenced. As always, Butch Walker is a master of dropping the listener into a relatable story, and fan favorite “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night,” is an effective portrait of two friends who “kinda crossed that blurry line.” Alternating between party rock (“Irish Exit,” “Mexican Coke”), and poignant folk anthems (“Spark:Lost,” “Wilder In the Heart”), Stay Gold is yet another fantastic album to add to the Butch Walker canon.
Already an iconic album for so many people (in part due to the great visual album), Lemonade is a musical snapshot of 2016 in all of its mess-ups and glory. Beyoncé wisely mixes incredibly personal songs with a broad outlook so that they appeal to literally every person on planet Earth. Songs like “Sorry,” and “Hold Up,” are not only great pop songs, but act as anthems for people across America, no matter the age. Likewise, both “Freedom,” and “Formation,” deal with sensitive and specific topics, but through an accessible lens. It’s brilliant and ensured that the messages of Lemonade were heard by all.
An emo fan’s emo record, Goodness had the unenviable task of following up The Hotelier’s previous record: Home, Like No Place is There. But the band did not wary and delivered a powerful, if incredibly dense, album. However, the band loads the front of the album with their most accessible songs to date. Both “Piano Player,” and “Two Deliverances,” ushered me in to the Hotelier’s world, and by the time the album ends with the cathartic “End of Reel,” it seems like no time has passed at all. While I liked the album before I saw the band play, it was their live performance that truly cemented a place in my heart for Goodness.
After losing fans’ graces with 2013’s Collapsible Lung (still my ex-girlfriend’s favorite Relient K album), Relient K took some well-earned time off and returned with a near masterpiece. The ingredient that makes Air For Free such a strong collection is the willingness for the band to push into new territory. “Local Construction,” “Man,” and “Empty House,” all offer successful tweaks on the Relient K formula. A contender in my favorite songs of the year, “Empty House,” features a sparse piano arrangement under tastefully auto-tuned vocals. It isn’t a song anyone would have dreamed of Relient K attempting, but they did, and the results are magnificent. Though the album is overlong in a few spots, Relient K made a strong comeback with Air For Free.
Jimmy Eat World is the least disappointing band in the world. Since the late 90s, the band has released solid album after solid album. Sure, a few are lesser than the others, but even those ones dip from perfect into greatness. Integrity Blues is a snapshot of where the band is at in 2016. It’s dark, it’s atmospheric, but at times it’s fun. Ever the earnest lyricist, Jim Adkins is at his most bare and blunt in the chorus of “The End Is Beautiful:” “It doesn’t have to hurt anymore.” This, just a few songs after the experimental “Pass the Baby,” which begins with minimal electro drums and ends with nearly the hardest riffing we’ve heard from the band. I hesitate to say that Jimmy Eat World can do no wrong, because anything is possible, but as of Integrity Blues, Jimmy Eat World has done no wrong… yet.
Their first album in 12 years, Hypercaffium Spazzinate benefits from the time the band spent making it. Though the longest song clocks in just barely over three minutes, it is clear that Descendents never stop writing, and only the best material makes the album. Bassist Karl Alvarez offers some of the strongest work, not only with his songs (“Feel This,” “On Paper,”), but also with his bass walking on other songs. Descendents are getting old, but they haven’t missed a beat. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 12 years for the next album.
Before 2016, I only knew Kanye as a public figure, not by his music, and in fact, it took Chance the Rapper’s amazing verse on “Ultralight Beam,” to convince me that Ye was worth listening to. And he absolutely is. Not only are his other albums great, but The Life of Pablo also succeeds, despite its messy rollout. “Highlights,” and “FML,” find West pushing his formula into new territory while offering some of the better verses on the album, and “Real Friends,” is a triumphant blend of the old and new. Like every Kanye album, there are some self-indulgent parts like “Freestyle 4,” but a quick look at the extensive writing credits for the album shows that Kanye assembled some of the best in the business to be on his team.
A good friend turned me on to Chance, but it wasn’t until he took the SNL stage late last year that I really began to give him deserved time. But man, Coloring Book entered this year like a freight train. Most of the album is happy, which is a marked difference from most musical material. But it is a damn delight to listen to, especially in opener All We Got: “Man I swear my life is perfect, I could merch it/If I die I’ll probably cry at my own service.” Chance is no dummy, and the album contains some great features from Lil’ Wayne, Justin Beiber, Future, and more. It’s heartening to see songs like “No Problem,” become as big as they deserve to be; there’s a charismatic quality to every song on this album. Plus, Chance seems grateful for the attention he’s been given. How long has it been since we’ve had an artist embrace the spotlight and use it for good? I hope that Chance continues to not only make great music, but also continues to be a good person.
From the opening organ chords of “If I Believe You,” it’s easy to tell that The 1975 raised multiple levels between their debut and this record. The album is 17 tracks long, but not a moment is wasted: the instrumental tracks are poignant and well-produced, the grandiose pop tracks offer both insight and earworms, and the somber tracks that end the album are as effective as any ballad the band has written thus far. Without a doubt the most successful song here is “Somebody Else,” a dreamy pop ode to harboring feelings for a lost love. It’s hard not to feel for front man Matt Healy; over the course of 17 tracks he ponders faith and existence (“If I Believe You”), laments the loss of his brain (“The Ballad of Me and My Brain”), and encapsulates his grief over the death of his mother into the heart wrenching final act song “Nana.” The 1975 rarely take time off, but between this album and the next, I hope they get some rest, because if the next album can somehow best this one, it will be even more of a game-changer.