The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a horrible year for many reasons but I'd argue that the world itself is just reflecting everything back at us more clearly and intensely than ever before. Regardless, some amazing music was released over the past 12 months. I've compiled this list of the albums, EP's, and soundtracks that resonated with me the most, in no particular order. (except maybe that Bon Iver is first because of how completely I connected with every aspect of 22, A Million) This is not a "best of 2016" list but a highly subjective presentation of the sounds I chose as the soundtrack to another year of my life on this beautiful and strange plane of existence.
Bon Iver - "22, A Million"
Justin Vernon reemerged this year with an album I can only describe as glitch-folk music. He's touched on a lot of these themes and sounds in past releases but this is the first time that it's all made perfect sense to me. Powerful, succinct, moving, and experimental.
Favorite Track: "22 (OVER S∞∞N)"
David Bowie - "Blackstar"
Nothing I write about this one can truly touch the reality of it. All that needs to be said is that Bowie ceremoniously closed the book on his life with this record and the world is a better place because of its existence (and his).
Favorite Track: "Lazarus"
Radiohead - "A Moon Shaped Pool"
I enjoy every new modulation of their broad and ever-evolving sound. This album goes even darker and deeper than before and even though most of the songs are apparently older unreleased tracks, it all fits together in such strange ways. You have to appreciate their ability to continue finding new ground to explore and, even if it's cliché to say at this point, Thom Yorke is a songwriting genius.
Favorite Track: "Decks Dark"
But the video for "Daydreaming" was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and is amazing:
Emma Ruth Rundle - "Marked For Death"
I've been getting heavily into her music for about a year now through her releases with one of my favorite labels, Sargent House. This album is a natural progression and a really solid display of ERR's unique and moving style.
Favorite Track: "Real Big Sky"
Alcest - "Kodama"
This is one of the most beautiful "metal" albums I've ever heard. It relies mostly on atmosphere and harmony to drive visceral emotions. After going a little too light and gazey on their last album "Shelter," Alcest have stepped up their blackened heaviness here in a strong way.
Favorite Track: "Je Suis D'ailleurs"
Danny Brown - "Atrocity Exhibition"
There's something raw about Danny that just keeps me immersed. He has such a uniquely energetic flow that I can stick with him even when he touches on subjects I don't resonate with. And the production is unlike much else out there.
Favorite Track: "Really Doe" (ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt)
Eluvium - "False Readings On"
Matthew Cooper is one of my favorite ambient artists after Brian Eno. His 2010 album "Similes" proved to me that you can successfully create pop ambient music with vocals. This album is another welcome addition to his vast discography that will surely continue to unfold with many more years of listening.
Favorite Track: "Fugue State"
Analecta - "aes sidhe"
I had the pleasure of touring with these guys for 4 nights through the midwest this past summer and I became an instant fan. There's something so impressive to me about a heavy post-rock duo who can successfully recreate such lush compositions with live layering. I also appreciate the little nuances which separate it from your standard post-rock affair.
Favorite Track: "Our Feet Like Anchors"
Zach Cooper - "The Sentence"
Zach is one of my sonic gurus. He is always able to weave an interesting compositional journey no matter which project or genre he is exploring. In my opinion, "The Sentence" is a conceptual masterwork of experimental collage music.
Favorite Track - "Minds"
Russian Circles - "Guidance"
I think I will always be a Russian Circles fan, another act from Sargent House. I don't believe there is a band who is this consistent with new material while still evolving steadily. What I enjoy about them is that each new record has an air of focus about it. But most importantly, no matter how different a song may sound, it always feels like Russian Circles.
Favorite Track: "Afrika"
Kendrick Lamar - "untitled unmastered."
I was half expecting this album to be a throwaway release as a quick follow-up to last year's "To Pimp A Butterfly." While it does share some of the same energies, I was able to connect with this one in a different way. I think some of the mystique of its release, with exclusive debut TV performances really added to my experience of it.
Favorite Track: "untitled 03 | 05.28.2013."
Mandala Eyes - "warmth"
Alex Alexander has become a cherished internet friend of mine and I've enjoyed their music as Mandala Eyes in all forms since my first listen. Warm is such an obvious but perfect word to describe the guitar journeys contained in this album. Alex seems to be an endless well of catchy and thoughtful riffs, intuitively layering harmonies and blending them all together with washy filters and distinctly intimate production.
Favorite Track: "dust & steam"
The Album Leaf - "Between Waves"
I can always count on Jimmy LaValle for some solid introspective electronic music mixed with real instrumentation. "Between Waves" is another extremely listenable collection of what I've come to expect from him. The Album Leaf is a rare instance of this type of music where I actually like the songs with vocals more than the instrumentals.
Favorite Track: "Between Waves"
Gojira - "Magma"
At this point, Gojira have pretty much mastered their sound. When I first heard their second LP "From Mars To Sirius," I was instantly hooked although I don't feel that they have been able to top that one, until now. The last few records have all been good in their own right but this one is their most confident (and open) work yet.
Favorite Track: "Low Lands"
Datach'i - "System"
I'm completely new to the deep glitchy analog sounds of Datach'i but something pulled me in and I'm so glad. After getting way into "System," I decided to go back and listen to his older stuff and discovered that the brooklyn-based producer hadn't released anything since 2006(!) so maybe this album was even more momentous than I first realized.
Favorite Track: "Sick Face"
S U R V I V E - "RR7349"
Like many, I was turned on to S U R V I V E through their connection to the Stranger Things soundtrack. At first I was a little closed to this album because I was stubbornly convinced that Zombi had already done this type of prog-throwback synth music. To my surprise though, S U R V I V E brings their own depth and twist on the nostalgic sound of a similar vein.
Favorite Track: "Copter"
Astronoid - "Air"
This is such a great example of "metal" that manages to be triumphant and catchy while not being entirely corny. There's a clear abundance of energy present on this album. I love music that can be heavy without being angry or overly-aggressive.
Favorite Track: "Up and Atom"
Frank Ocean - "Blonde"
Frank captures longing in such uniquely modern way. I love the embrace of more electronically-manipulated vocal effects. The vagueness of the release strategy has become such a part of his mystique. With this record, I think he has solidified himself as one of the most enigmatic figures in mainstream music.
Favorite Track: "Seigfried" (no easily-embeddable audio source, thanks Apple!)
SAMURAI SHOTGUN - "Riptide"
In their live sets, Samurai Shotgun conjures an indescribable energy. The tight instrumentals maintain a sort of living flow that serves as the perfect foundation for frontman Prince Golden to freely articulate. The release of this album seems to have been an important checkpoint in their rise, following a notable and much-deserved victory in Afropunk's 2015 Battle of the Bands.
Favorite Track: "Sabretooth"
RANGES - "The Gods Of The Copybook Headings"
RANGES is an instrumental post-rock band from Montana. I wasn't quite taken with this album until after the second listen or so when its beautiful subtlety finally began to dawn on me. This band exudes a patience and depth that I'm sure somehow reflects their geographic location.
Favorite Track: "All is Not Gold that Glitters"
Polyphia - "Renaissance"
Polyphia's progressive instrumental compositions have clear level of virtuosity about them. The guitar leads double as super catchy and emotive "lyrics" that serve to uplift each song. With each new album, they add a bit more electronic influence and polished-ness but I feel it's an integral part of what makes them a remarkable band.
Favorite Track: "Nightmare"
PLEASURES - "Fucked Up Dreams Come True"
I love PLEASURES and their masterful, synth-infused take on psychedelic doom. Greg and Morgan's dueling noise stations are the perfect complement for Katherine's mesmerizing and electronically-affected vocal work. The visual aspect of their presence is something best experienced directly so if you see them in your town, please be sure to catch it (they do tour a lot).
Favorite Track: "Tryna Get The Honey From The Pot"
Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!"
I've always loved Donald Glover and pretty much everything he creates but he seems to be reaching new levels of confidence in his work that I can't help but appreciate. The sheer audacity of releasing this record as a follow-up to his last full-length "Because The Internet" is mind-blowing. It sounds like it could have been lifted from another decade while still somehow feeling modern.
Favorite Track: "Redbone"
Chance The Rapper - "Coloring Book"
Chance is rightfully making hype waves with his undeniable talent. His flow on this album occasionally reaches this perfect balance of humble introspection and likable confidence. While I'm not crazy about some of the overly-gospel moments, I can appreciate the project as a whole for being an important breakthrough release for a young artist.
Favorite Track: "Summer Friends"
The Weeknd - "Starboy"
This album is simultaneously The Weeknd's best and worst release. It contains some of his most memorable songs but also some of his most forgettable. Of the 18 tracks, I would say 6 or 7 of them could be left out and it would be a much more succinct and classic record. Both Daft Punk-produced songs act as the perfect bookends to ground such an ambitious project. All in all, the album's production value along with its marketing strategy cannot be denied as pretty much the top of the line for mainstream music.
Favorite Track: "Sidewalks (feat. Kendrick Lamar)"
("M A N I A" is a short film which contains multiple tracks from the album including the first half of "Sidewalks")
Polyenso - "Pure in the Plastic"
Polyenso are creating seriously high quality music and getting some much-deserved recognition for it. Their lush and tasteful progressive pop is both deeply-intricate and accessible to all palettes. I've witnessed their live set multiple times and it only served to solidify my appreciation for the confidence and conviction that they exude on "Pure in the Plastic."
Favorite Track - "17 New Years"
Kid Cudi - "Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin'"
You do not understand how happy I am that Kid Cudi has finally released another great album after quite a few disappointments since "Man on the Moon" (Pt. 1 and 2). "Soundtrack 2 My Life" from his first LP is literally the only song I've ever covered. Keeping in mind his public struggle with depression, I love hearing him transmute those challenges into oddly uplifting and smooth music. I'm sure not everyone will vibe with it but, being that I had pretty much given up any expectations of a return to form, I'm all in. The beats are weirdly brilliant, the trademark Cudi humming has reached new levels of catchy, and the obtuse flow that got him here is stronger than ever.
Favorite Track: "By Design" (Feat. Andre Benjamin)
Ab-Soul - "Do What Thou Wilt."
I'd call this the most forward-thinking hip hop album of the year, hands down. (TLoP could have been that with a little more cohesion and a little less mania) DWTW's production approach of twisting and processing at every turn is reminiscent of Mac Miller's "Watching Movies With The Sound Off." But Ab-Soul has a beautiful way of finding the balancing point in every contradiction he spits and fully embodying both extremes. He calls himself the Abstract Asshole and constantly references Aleister Crowley and I think his genuine interest in the occult and mysticism is what separates him from most of his peers right now.
Favorite Track: "RAW (backwards)"
Oathbreaker - "Rheia"
This was the most recent album I've gotten way into on this list. I had heard about this band for months and managed to stumble onto their Audio Tree session which instantly intrigued me. Then by the time I saw the brilliance of their videos, I had fallen in love. It's clear that this band is deeply-invested in every detail surrounding their art. It must be mentioned that their frontwoman, Caro Tanghe, is a force of nature, conjuring powerful screams, delicate melodies, and even channeling freeform movement that expresses raw, cathartic energy.
Favorite Track: "Immortals"
Must Be The Holy Ghost - "Overflow"
From North Carolina, MBTHG feels like music I wish I was making. The act consists of Jared Draughon who masterfully loops heartfelt guitar and vocal layers along with Evan Hawkins, who mixes liquids live on an old-style projector to create realtime psychedelic visuals to accompany the expansive music. I was blown away by their live set but was even happier to get home and find that the recordings reflect that experience just as well.
Favorite Track: "Might Crack"
Redfeather - "Moon"
I've truly enjoyed watching my friends in Redfeather evolve their sound over the past 4 years or so. With each new song they seem to become clearer in their focus and this EP represents another small step toward a bright future. Their live set is constantly refining and it's apparent that they are connecting with countless new hearts and minds each time they play.
Favorite Track: "3, 6, & 9"
Aphex Twin - "Cheetah"
I'm glad Aphex Twin seems to be so active lately and I really enjoyed this little EP. It's the type of music that I can clean my house to and feel like I'm actually just dancing.
Favorite Track: "Cirklon3 (Kolkhoznaya mix)"
[Shameless Self Plug]
Infinite Third - "Ambientself"
Yes, I do enjoy my own music and yes I released an album this year from my cathartic ambient guitar project, Infinite Third. I'm particularly proud of this release because I feel like it sums up a lot of the ambient/drone work I've done over the past 7 years and represents a succinct collection of the sonic palette I've been developing. It is also poised to be the predecessor to my next full-length instrumental album "Channel(s)," which I've been envisioning for about 2 years and with which I plan to re-launch the project into a fairly new direction.
Favorite Track: "Search Engine"
Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross / Mogwai - "Before The Flood"
Mogwai - "Atomic"
Johann Johannssonn - "Arrival"
S U R V I V E - "Stranger Things"
Ramin Djawadi - "Westworld"
So what do you think? Did you dig any of these? What did your 2016 sound like?
Let us know in the comments.