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The A.V. Club’s 20 best albums of 2016

David Bowie, Blackstar
David Bowie, Blackstar

There’s no easy way to summarize the year in music given how much of it took us by surprise. High-profile albums would be announced with little warning, arriving on streaming services in a flash, and dominate the cultural conversation until the next one came along. Similarly, some of the most innovative names in music history were lost without any chance for fans to mentally prepare. Some of those artists would use new records as a way to write their final chapter, while others would leave lingering questions about what could have been. It’s this dichotomy that informed the year as a whole, showing that music has the power to bring washes of emotion in mere seconds, often when it’s least expected.

For The A.V. Club’s best-of list, we approached it in the most democratic way possible. Writers submitted a top-10 list—you can see individual ballots here—with each ranking given a specific number value (number 1 got 10 points, number 2 got 9, and so on), and then they were all tallied. What is found below are the 20 records—well, 21 technically—that moved us. While there are plenty of great records that didn’t make the cut—including some collected in our mid-year catch-up guide—these are The A.V. Club’s favorites of 2016.

20. (Tie) Martha, Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart

Martha is literally from a town called Pity Me. It’s an old mining town in northeast England. An ideal origin for a band of millennial punks, yeah? Martha isn’t nearly so simple. There’s nothing to pity about the punk band, which produced one of the year’s most joyful records with Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart, a collection of songs that celebrate the struggles of modern youth with flip, emphatic vocals, pinwheeling riffs, and nary a moment to catch your breath. Martha identifies as queer and anarchist, and its music doesn’t feel the need to extol its values so much as normalize them. Here, outcasts struggle with envy, Catholic kids wrestle with queer crushes, and gender-neutral bathrooms are a simple reality against guitars that channel the Exploding Hearts via “More Than A Feeling.” Martha isn’t from the United States, but disenfranchised youth under the Trump regime will no doubt find themselves blissfully lost in these 11 tracks. This is bubblegum, sure, but it’s bubblegum that’s damn good for you. [Randall Colburn]

20. (Tie) Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

The Walkmen were one of those rare bands that got better with time, easing into a sound and style while also maturing as songwriters. The band went on “extreme hiatus” starting in 2013, its members immediately scattering to solo projects. Singer Hamilton Leithauser put out a record almost immediately, and though Black Hours was solid, it suffered a bit by comparison to the final two Walkmen records. But Leithauser clearly caught a spark with one of his collaborators on that project, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, and the two teamed up fully for this year’s I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. It’s a logical, fantastic continuation of what Leithauser did with his old band, given flourish and pop polish (and perhaps pop permission) by Batmanglij. The songs themselves are some of Leithauser’s strongest ever, particularly the fantastic single “A 1000 Times,” which is his stickiest since “The Rat.” A solid half of I Had A Dream could’ve been a Walkmen record—not a complaint—but elsewhere the sonic stretching is more obvious, like on the doo-wop-influenced “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” and “Peaceful Morning,” a banjo-led trot that finds Leithauser in his most gentle form, with Rostam’s piano adding pretty color. It’s fantastic, like the rest of the record; hopefully this pairing decides to continue. [Josh Modell]

19. Car Seat Headrest, Teens Of Denial

After more than a half century of a million of us monkeys pounding away at a million Fenders, logically there shouldn’t be any way for another dude with a guitar to bowl us over. On the surface, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo definitely isn’t doing anything new—his fuzzy, wry, bash-pop aesthetics have touchstones dating back to the ’90s sounds of Guided By Voices and Pavement, and they’re echoed in contemporaries like Deerhunter and Courtney Barnett. And in fact, this year’s breakthrough Teens Of Denial was preceded by 11 other Car Seat Headrest albums of the same. But to paraphrase one of Toledo’s ancestors, a perfect sound is a perfect sound forever, and Denial found him honing it into his most cohesive, most endlessly replayable set yet. Intimate but self-involved, confessional yet caustic, and peppered with jokes and pop-geek references, Toledo’s songs can be emotional epics like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” or “1937 State Park” or punch-drunk ragers like “Drugs With Friends” and “Fill In The Blank,” but they all come together to explore what it means to be young and fucked up right now. And as long as you can successfully translate that into a rock song, as Denial proves, it’ll never go out of style. [Sean O’Neal]

18. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo

You know who had a rough year? Kanye had a rough year. But it started gloriously. The Life Of Pablo is Kanye’s messy masterpiece, his Sandinista!, his Pussy Cats, his Wowee Zowee. It’s an overwhelming surplus of ideas, an explosion of creativity after a long fallow period that might’ve ended his epochal dominance over pop music. For a decade, he has been hip-hop’s most visionary producer and one of its premier emcees, and after steering into a nihilistic dead-end on Yeezus, it was unclear where he’d go next. That’s still not clear, because The Life Of Pablo goes everywhere at once, an album of mellotrons and haunting synthpop and Madlib boom-bap and Swizz Beatz yelling “woo!” like a kid tearing ass on a go-kart. West takes long turns at the mic and then disappears for minutes at a time; some verses barely get off the ground before they’re over, and others are sprawling, self-conscious essays on par with his best. In lesser hands, this might seem muddled, but it’s the entire point of The Life Of Pablo. The tweaks kept coming because the album never got finished—it’s a snapshot of an artist sticking his hand right into the electric current of his inspiration. Hence that contentious outro on “30 Hours,” where Kanye takes a phone call in the booth after dropping a placeholder verse. He’s sketching things out in real time. It’s an album about life that’s as messy and wonderful as the real thing. [Clayton Purdom]

17. Touché Amoré, Stage Four

Modern politics may have played a dominant role in shaping the 2016 cultural landscape, but many of the year’s finest albums owe their frisson to a far more ancient muse, as old as humanity itself: grief. Nick Cave, Anohni, Angel Olsen, Radiohead—artists from every point on the stylistic spectrum stepped up to bare their hearts with powerful testaments to loss in all its forms, be it a tumultuous breakup with a lifelong partner, a parent forced to bury his own child, or in the case of Touché Amoré’s Stage Four, a son struggling to overcome his mother’s untimely death from cancer. Propelled by the crushing, no-holds-barred confessionals of frontman Jeremy Bolm, the California post-hardcore outfit’s latest stands as the most hard-hitting, transcendent concept album of its kind. They take one man’s misery and fashion it into a punk crucible by which all of us—even those lucky enough to celebrate Mother’s Day with the women who brought us into the world—may achieve catharsis. If that isn’t a labor of love, I don’t know what is. [Zoe Camp]

16. Nails, You Will Never Be One Of Us

Although the third full-length by the Oxnard, California, rage trio is not quite 22 minutes long—with destructive closer “They Come Crawling Back” swallowing eight of those minutes—it’s Nails’ most ambitious and multifaceted record to date (and by far its longest). The machine-gun blast-beats and boiling grindlike riffs are alive and well, but for once you are given occasional opportunities to gasp for air, during what some music theorists might consider to be a bridge. Still intimidating as fuck, frontman Todd Jones will rupture a track with some hot guitar squealing or lay out a stomping breakdown for several extra measures. And with an urgent hardcore band like Nails—which is painstakingly economical and ferocious in its hate—even the subtlest of tweaks end up sounding enormous. You Will Never Be One Of Us is pissed-off music executed at its very finest. [Kevin Warwick]

15. Lydia Loveless, Real

Lydia Loveless’ fourth album, Real, is a comforting reminder that nobody has life figured out. Melancholy songs such as “More Than Ever” and “Out On Love” speak about how uncertainty and insecurity can torpedo relationships, while the protagonist of the Fleetwood Mac-esque “Heaven” is crushed due to a toxic combination of emotional distance and faith disillusionment. “Midwestern Guys,” meanwhile, smartly tosses off clichés (e.g., a dude still listening to Def Leppard’s Pyromania) as a way to comment on the region’s complex relationship with gender roles and ambition. Musically, Real finds Loveless boldly building on her classic-rock-meets-alt-country grit to include vintage country, wiry indie-rock, and even ’80s disco-pop. Appropriately, the album ends with the title track, a cautiously optimistic song about how even the most hopeless cases (or independent wild child characters) can find love and redemption with the right person. At its core, Real is all about owning imperfections and making them work for, rather than against, you. [Annie Zaleski]

14. Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost

Let’s dispel with the notion once and for all that Modern Baseball is part of the “emo revival.” Like so many other bands bearing the oft-used label (The Hotelier, Sorority Noise, Tigers Jaw), Modern Baseball operates within the vanguard of modern rock. And when I say “modern,” I refer to the shifting attitudes of guitar music as a whole, a post-Y2K drift from the macho posturing and grungy groupthink of the past toward a scene defined by inclusivity, honesty, and most importantly, zero pretentiousness. With Holy Ghost, Modern Baseball solidifies its long-standing reputation as the flag-bearers of such a mentality, chronicling the sadistic realities of twentysomething-dom (nostalgic comforts, romantic disasters, quarter-life crises accompanied by glib self-loathing) by way of catchy hooks and witty wordplay. [Zoe Camp]

13. Solange, A Seat At The Table

In a year full of great R&B records—from the slinky electronic soul of Abra and Majid Jordan to the latest missive from Maxwell’s utopian soul suite—none reached as high as Solange’s A Seat At The Table. Her 2012 EP True, which anticipated a flood of moody, synth-heavy R&B, was defined by its steadiness, but A Seat At The Table is an album of crescendos: the fluttering majesty of “Cranes In The Sky,” the gradual, brassy groove of “Don’t Touch My Hair,” the delirious stomp of “F.U.B.U.” (not to mention, of course, Lil Wayne’s verse on “Mad,” easily his best in years). But it’s the moments between those highs that make the album and where Solange creates moments of low-key, hard-won beauty, as direct and honest as the photo that serves as the album’s cover. Solange has always been ambitious and omnivorous, taking cues from throughout pop and R&B history, so it’s not enough to say that A Seat At The Table is her best album. With D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, it is the best neo-soul album this decade. [Clayton Purdom]

12. Eric Bachmann, Eric Bachmann

As much as music can be comforting in devastating, stressful moments, there’s an easy tendency to grab what’s close and use it to ride out the storm. In 2016, Eric Bachmann’s latest solo record became the album to return to again and again when the outside world turned bleak. On the standout track “Mercy,” Bachmann sings, alongside the steady stomp of drums and the doo-wop backing vocals, about pain and rising above: “Take your idols and your fables / Trick your mind so you’ll be able / To deal with pain and death / And loss of those you love.” Bachmann is a songwriter and musician of three distinct voices, having guided Archers Of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, but it’s this second solo album that brings the wisdom that comes from accumulated experience. Eric Bachmann is a piano-driven record, mellow but lyrically forceful, with a direct and raw vulnerability that feels like shared commiseration. [Eric Swedlund]

11. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

Although it wasn’t explicitly billed as such upon release, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker was his wave goodbye. Less than a month after the album’s release, the Canadian bard died at the age of 82. Even without this melancholy asterisk, You Want It Darker is an astonishing record. Instead of tortured what-ifs, Cohen is clear-eyed and precise as he addresses missed opportunities, fleeting romances, and the ever-present dualities of faith and desire. Musically, You Want It Darker sticks to sparse instrumentation—funereal organ and synths, spidery guitar, hushed backing vocals, strident strings, and occasional rhythmic rustling—and space-filled arrangements. This approach places Cohen’s raspy voice high in the mix, which ensures You Want It Darker feels like a conspiratorial confession of his last dark secrets. Cohen’s not riddled with guilt over these admissions; he’s simply resigned to the unknown and at peace enough to even unleash the occasional rakish turn of phrase with a slight twinkle in his eye. You Want It Darker is a lovely farewell that’s both bittersweet and satisfying. [Annie Zaleski]

10. Joyce Manor, Cody

Joyce Manor’s fourth album, Cody, is one of those rare albums that one can sing along to the very first time through, a testament to frontman Barry Johnson’s gift for inserting John Updike-like colloquial turns of phrase into his songs. Tracks like “Fake I.D.,” “Eighteen,” and “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I” jump from the collective pop-punk subconscious to feel like they’ve always been around. Which is not to say Joyce Manor is simply trafficking in the tried-and-true: Cody is its first LP to feature an acoustic track (“Do You Really Want To Not Get Better?”) and song longer than four minutes (“Stairs”). In short, Cody is a snapshot of a generation in the midst of a quarter-life crisis: kids feeling “old” for the first time, drinking in the disappointment of not evolving into who they wanted to be, echoing the hymns of their youth, singing skewed variations of, “Well, I guess this is growing up.” [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

9. Frank Ocean, Blonde

As is often the case with feverishly anticipated follow-up albums, Frank Ocean’s Blonde couldn’t help but feel like a disappointment at first. Stripped of the dazzle and showmanship of Channel Orange, it’s a record founded on denial. Most of these songs don’t have drums, many don’t even have choruses, and even the album’s main draw—Ocean’s disarming, everyman falsetto—disappears for long stretches, submerged behind all manner of effects and distortions, some whimsical, others distressing. On first listen, Blonde feels like a Cracker Jack box with no toy in it. That emptiness is just a trickster’s illusion, though. Once the shock subsides over what isn’t on display, it’s easier to appreciate what is: Ocean’s bravado storytelling, humor, wisdom, hand-on-the-shoulder reassurances, and unparalleled gift for surprise—even after dozens of listens, these songs never quite seem to go where they’re supposed to. What initially seemed like one of the stingiest albums of 2016 eventually reveals itself to be one of the most generous. [Evan Rytlewski]

8. Mitski, Puberty 2

“Happiness fucks you,” Mitski Miyawaki said in the press notes for Puberty 2. She’s not wrong. First, there’s the linger from your childhood, the sepia-toned flicker that represents an unattainable innocence. Then there’s the scraps you grasp at in adulthood, when you inevitably realize that no matter how much you desire happiness, it will never desire you. That much is clear in jagged opener “Happy,” when Mitski compares it with a pretty boy who brings her cookies, comes inside of her, then bails when she’s in the bathroom. Happiness fucks you, all right.

Nothing is as it seems on Puberty 2. Songs built on Mitski’s guitar eventually give way to saxophones, skittering drum machines, and electronic flourishes, while her voice cycles between pop hookery, gasping cries, and ravenous barks, sometimes within seconds. Music’s appeal is often in its compartmentalization: Complicated emotions unfold in confessional lyrics and tight riffs suited for easy consumption. Puberty 2 isn’t that. Its songs sprawl, its lyrics dead-end, and consistency in tone or theme is a joke. But it compels regardless, for the rawness and struggle and all that goddamn feeling. It’s like your 20s in that way. [Randall Colburn]

7. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book

Summer 2016 was a glorious respite during a difficult year thanks to the May release of Coloring Book. As Evan Rytlewski put it in his review, Chance “takes us all to church” with his third solo mixtape. Driven by celestial horns and gospel melodies, Coloring Book is a testimony of abundance and gratitude, of pure joy. You can hear the smile on Chance’s face for half these verses as he reflects on the “angels all around” him and marvels at the love in his life. But rather than just boast about his good fortune, Chance wants to use it to lift others up—his family, his fans, his city. The album is a fitting centerpiece to what has been a banner year for Chicago hip-hop, one filled with pride and real talk about a complex, culturally rich city often reduced by outsiders to a “war-torn country.” Coloring Book is such an undeniable accomplishment that even the Grammys had to get on board and nominate its first streaming-only album ever. [Kelsey J. Waite]

6. White Lung, Paradise

From the opening guitar wail, White Lung’s fourth album, Paradise, continues to grow the wall-of-sound punk assault that has characterized the band since its inception, but something has changed: The group sounds stadium-ready. These high-speed anthems have not only grown more ambitious, both structurally and sonically (this is easily the most lush production the group’s music has ever received), but they’ve taken on a sheen of accessibility that fans who head-banged along to “Viva La Rat” probably never anticipated. Tracks like “Below” tease the kind of full-throated and emotional midtempo journeys White Lung is now capable of delivering—admittedly, to a speed that is merely “fast” rather than “even sentient cocaine couldn’t keep up,” but still. This band is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. [Alex McCown-Levy]

5. The Hotelier, Goodness

While 2014’s Home, Like Noplace Is There was a very good record, it would take another couple years for The Hotelier to make a truly great one. Goodness is unlike much of anything in the band’s catalog, or even the scene that bred it. Where the band previously purveyed in socially conscious pop-punk, Goodness is the band’s experimental art-rock record—though it’s still plenty poppy. Where Home was all barrel-chested sing-alongs, Goodness is restrained, both in vocalist-bassist Christian Holden’s vocal delivery and in the band’s approach to the songs. It’s an album that still features boisterous rock songs (“Settle The Scar,” “Piano Player”) but is content to sit in quiet spaces and let that inform the final product. On Goodness, The Hotelier doesn’t abandon explosive punk songs, but it discovers that closing the gap between goodness and greatness involves rumination and the willingness to put that on display. [David Anthony]

4. Pinegrove, Cardinal

It’s easy for Cardinal to sneak up on you. Prior to the album’s release, Pinegrove wasn’t much of a concern, with a few EPs streaming on Bandcamp and circulating on cassette tapes. But in the first seconds of Cardinal’s opener, “Old Friends,” bandleader Evan Stephens Hall grabs hold and pulls you into his world. In this space, Hall and the rest of Pinegrove blur lines between simple genre descriptors—depending on who is asked, the band is either emo or alt-country—but nothing Pinegrove does can be put in such simple terms. There are toe-tapping rockers (“Then Again”), aching ballads (“Aphasia”), and songs that split the difference (“Size Of The Moon”), each one showing the balance between Hall’s homespun songwriting and the band’s ability to make the most subtle changes feel dynamic. Cardinal is an emotional record that doesn’t get bogged down in melodrama. Instead, Pinegrove deconstructs the intangibles and spits them back out in the form of powerfully memorable songs. [David Anthony]

3. Angel Olsen, My Woman

It was only a matter of time before Angel Olsen’s smoldering folk became the full flame it is on My Woman. In September, Olsen gifted us a warm, luminous record of dreamy synths and woozy guitars as arresting and impossibly beautiful as a mirage on the desert horizon. My Woman somehow manages to feel modern and relevant while showcasing the vintage sheen of its many midcentury references, from ’50s girl groups to ’70s California rock. That the album succeeds with two distinct vibes—the biting first half, the introspective second—further proves Olsen’s expansive range as a performer and songwriter. Singing of love in all its tempestuousness, her vocals are pure emotion, at one point literally daring love to break her down “’Til I am nothing else but the feeling / Becoming true.” On My Woman, to be that vulnerable is to be free. [Kelsey J. Waite]

2. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

It’s hard to get accustomed to a Radiohead album that isn’t soaked in cynicism, but after a career of detailing various sophisticated laments, the band doesn’t use A Moon Shaped Pool to dwell on hopeless political, sociological, or cultural viewpoints. Instead, the record strives to connect with listeners on a personal level—yes, the group still has plenty of anxieties to air out, but it also has a fragile and romantic side to get to know (particularly after Thom Yorke split from his children’s mother after a 23-year relationship). And, as always, Radiohead has furiously inventive ways of expression; musically, A Moon Shaped Pool is unconstrained in its experiments, twisting crisp orchestration into agonizing arrangements and mending cracked melodies with layers of choral balm. Across nine albums, Radiohead has always come off as a collection of fundamentally lost people, but here that’s an internal struggle rather than a product of the flawed world around them. [Christopher Mincher]

1. David Bowie, Blackstar

It’s impossible to separate feelings about David Bowie’s final album from feelings about losing Bowie himself. The two became inextricably linked a mere 48 hours after its release, when Bowie, synonymous with reinvention, pulled off his final and greatest transformation by forcing us to think of him in the past tense (as impossible as that still is to comprehend). But Blackstar, which debuted on his 69th birthday, is far from a funeral dirge, even if its many lyrical allusions to death and resurrection will forever sound like a farewell note. Rather, it’s a lively, inventive, wryly accepting rage against the dying of the light, a grand finale that takes the experimentalism of his vaunted Berlin years, the avant-garde stateliness of Scott Walker, and some shuffled fragments of random, contemporary inspirations like Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, and Boards Of Canada, then filters them through a dizzying, electro-jazz sheen and explodes them, making for a sonically adventurous album that proves Bowie was always one step ahead—where he’ll now remain in perpetuity. Fittingly, Blackstar is also a mystery explicitly designed to be puzzled over for years after Bowie’s absence, with everything from the portentous lyrics of “Lazarus” to the sample of Low’s “A New Career In A New Town” hidden in the tear-jerking curtain call “I Can’t Give Everything Away” to the album cover art that continues to reveal new secrets long after he’s gone. David Bowie may be dead, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still surprise us. [Sean O’Neal]

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