Top 10 Albums
10. The Lemon Twigs, Do Hollywood (4AD)
If you know where to look, there has never been a drought of the fanciful, orchestrated, power pop of bands like 10cc and ELO. Sure, there are the Flaming Lips and Of Montreal, but go further and you’ll find Foxygen and now the Lemon Twigs, the latter being a brotherly duo actually mentored and recorded by the former. Do Hollywood is this saccharine micro-genre magnified. These kids obviously have great record collections, but the trick is being able to reflect said collection in your own skin. The Twigs do that with a glamorous maturity that was unrivaled this year.
9. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered (Aftermath Entertainment)
Dropped in the middle of the night and intended as simply an addendum to Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly, Untitled, Unmastered is not supposed to feel complete, but it certainly does stand on its own. Were it not for the revolution-psych of the Tribe’s comeback, Kendrick would have reigned over my hip-hop hierarchy for a second year. Then again, it’s Tribe to whom Kendrick owes his vision and politics, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim to whom he owes his talent, and a total disregard of the average hip-hop trajectory of his peers to which he owes his iconic status. These are in no way B-sides, but excursions that didn’t fit the massive Butterfly and just as vital.
8. Solange, A Seat at the Table (Saint Records/Columbia Records)
You can gladly have your Lemonade. Where Beyonce thrives on bombast and event-based entertainment, Solange is the true artist. A Seat at the Table is all about nuance and a narrative that deals with a reality more authentic than her sister. It’s a concept album with indelible hooks and a dramatic ebb and flow.
7. Bon Iver, 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
When 22, A Million was released, Bon Iver fans didn’t really know how to react. Justin Vernon has been viewed as a folk sage for our times, but that’s only half right. He has incredibly, in two albums very far apart, constructed an adventure hippie persona with a heart tableau for millennials to stoically gaze into, yet on 22, A Million he quietly smashes that image and retreats into technology. Sure the numerals and sigils could be seen as pretentious, but they actually fit the music, and Vernon uses stunning smoke and mirrors to create a new slang, a new way to sulk in the eclipse.
6. Archy Marshall, A New Place 2 Drown (True Panther Sounds)
Archy Marshall, a.k.a. King Krule, is a melancholy Brit who usually operates in bleak folk. On A New Place 2 Drown, he instead dabbles in wobbly beats, dank purple dub, Burial-esque riddims, and half-sung, half-spoken ghost moans. The dig is it’s immediately catchy and disorienting, with songs that stick like subconscious memories.
5. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings)
I consider myself a closet or contrarian Radiohead fan, privy to put on In Rainbows before most of the catalog. That’s not denying OK Computer still being the band’s masterpiece (that’s a given), and in a lot of ways A Moon Shaped Pool feels like that album’s spiritual sequel. It’s a simultaneously subtle and grandiose comedown that rewards the more one finds the tiny guitar excursions that exist outside of a verse-chorus-verse realm. As singular a band that Radiohead is, they truly shine when they are at their most mysterious.
4. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic Records)
Out of nowhere? It sure felt that way. Given Tribe’s coffin was built with a contentious documentary, I hadn’t given a care since the turn of the century. So the biggest surprise of the year was this grand finale, the most fun I’ve had with a hip-hop record perhaps since those raging late ’90s. But this is not a nostalgia trip, not in the slightest. It’s inarguably also the absolute best hip-hop album of the year—confident, brimming with hooks and memorable samples, ace features, and an invigoration you never thought you’d hear again. Dare I say this may even be Tribe’s best record?
3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador Records)
Will Toledo followed his “debut” (actually a re-recorded selection of past hits) with a sprawling re-imagining of the Car Seat Headrest brand as bolder, catchier, more literal, and more muscular even. (It’s still the worst name in indie rock, though.) Sometimes overly prolific basement popsters become diluted simply because they can’t stop writing songs, but Toledo continues to amaze with each new transition.
2. Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
With three stunning albums in quick succession, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has become a superstar of sorts without succumbing to any cornering identity. She’s the odd one out, capable of wearing multiple hats: the mystic folkie, the alt-country starlet, and the indie goddess with guitar chops that resemble Yo La Tengo in their ’90s buzzbin days. Though My Woman magnetizes with the pop immediacy of its irresistible first single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” it mesmerizes throughout with its sleight of hand and subtle graces. Olsen’s rich arrangements rarely shout, and most times, whisper. Whether the influence is a rough-hewn tribute to Neil Young or a metaphysical ode to Stevie Nicks (“Sister”), simplicity is at the absolute center. Olsen’s voice serves as the anchor, a confident siren song and the vulnerable sound of pure heartache. My Woman is a record that is various shades, but demands repeated listens to realize Olsen as a singular force in a sea of similar counters and less inspired peers (of which there are many).
1. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
Blackstar is my favorite record of the year, not because of some obligatory debt I feel is owed to this year’s first massive musical tragedy, but because in concept and context it is certainly one of Bowie’s finest moments, looking towards a sonic future and a spiritual beyond with equal aplomb. Sure, it doesn’t match Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, but it wasn’t intended to do so, as Bowie was never one to look backwards. He was facing encroaching death, and in this knowing, he left us a puzzle of an album (even the jacket was created with mysteries to unlock). There are touches of his Eno/Berlin-era doom updated in the title track and “Lazarus,” while modern psychedelic jazz tropes are interwoven throughout, as is Bowie’s curious proclivity for Kendrick Lamar and cinematic beats. (It’s easy to imagine a K-Dot verse on “Girl Loves Me.”) All this without mentioning that “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is one of Bowie’s finest pop songs in 30 years. Wanting to leave behind something dark, twisted, and encompassing, the icon knew it would take us at least this entire year to unravel the genius within.