From Loveland’s Favorite Albums of 2016

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Okay, I’ll just come out and say it: This is the best year for music in recent memory. Maybe not the best of my lifetime, but certainly the best since I’ve been old enough to discover music on my own. If you didn’t find two or three albums to fawn over in 2016, I don’t trust you.

I’ve made this list for the past four or five years. Every year, #1 is pretty obvious, and the top three or four albums fill themselves in. This year, the top five or six on the list were worthy Album of the Year candidates. Stacking up this list against years in the past, the top six or seven could’ve taken the crown in previous years, and there are albums down in the teens that could’ve garnered a Top 5 spot. There may have been fewer albums I enjoyed than in previous years, but the 20 on this list are outstanding. It was a really good year for music.

A weird element of 2016 was favorite artists completely underwhelming me. I won’t name names — because being negative about something as subjective as music is lame — but there were a few albums I greatly anticipated only to be let down. Fortunately, that paved the way for new artists to break onto my radar. These lists are always unpredictable, and it’s one of the reasons I still undertake the massive time commitment required to make them happen. I sit down and work through everything and it always manages to surprise me how it comes out.

I don’t pretend to be an authority on music. I won’t call these the best albums of the year, simply my favorites.

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20. Isaiah Rashad — The Sun’s Tirade

While not quite as tight and cozy as his 2014 Cilvia Demo debut, The Sun’s Tirade continues a lot of what drew listeners to Chattanooga’s Isaiah Rashad. It’s sleepy, cozy hip-hop that feels somehow both new and nostalgic. It sounds like the type of thing that should be oozing its way out of a dusty boombox in a romantic comedy set in ’90s Atlanta. “Free Lunch” is both a highlight and arguably the project’s most boisterous moment, while “4r Da Squaw” celebrates the simple pleasures in life, and may be Rashad’s best. “If I can pay my bills, I’m good…”The music video is fantastic, as well.

19. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

This is basically an indie music nerd’s dream team. Leithauser is the former frontman of The Walkmen and Rostam is a former member of Vampire Weekend — serving as the band’s producer for their first three albums. The matchup sounded wildly intriguing on paper, but collaborations can be hit-or-miss. I think the success of this one is a testament to the musical minds of the pair. Both have operated outside of the limelight while orchestrating fantastic music. The album feels natural and organic. “A 1000 Times” is a good starting point.

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18. Conor Oberst — Ruminations

While most have a romantic or nostalgic view of Conor Oberst because of his time in Bright Eyes, I was never a huge listener. I think “Lua” is fantastic, and “First Day of My Life” is pretty great, but it ends there for me. Thusly, I approached Ruminations essentially blind. I don’t know if that impacted my impression positively or negatively, but I can tell you I think the album is pretty great. It calls to mind two of my favorite albums from recent years: It’s a bit of a cross between John Mayer’s Born & Raised and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell.

17. Kevin Abstract — American Boyfriend

I waited for this album for a long time. It seems like every independent artist has a debut album as well as an album that serves as a real debut to the world. Sometimes those albums are one, and sometimes they aren’t. Kevin Abstract’s MTV1987 came out two years ago, mostly to an insular circle of internet kids and music blogs. American Boyfriend, on the other hand, felt like his time to shine. It might be the perfect snapshot of the music scene in 2016 and is proof of what happens when uber-creative kids are raised on the internet. It’s inventive, experimental, and all over the place — sometimes to its detriment. The highs are pretty high, and the lows are pretty low. That being said, I think it’s a step in the right direction and I think a lot of weaknesses can be attributed to inexperience. Kevin Abstract is just 20 years old. If he can keep this up, he’ll be around for a while. American Boyfriend showed heaps of promise.

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16. The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

I first crossed paths with The 1975 through their collaborations with Travis Scott. Knowing more about the band now than I did then, the match seems unusual. The 1975 is like Walk The Moon with some street cred and critical acclaim. I really do not like Walk The Moon, so I’m not sure what my general attraction is here. It’s dance-y pop rock, but something about its sprawling nature keeps me coming back. It’s well-written, produced even better, and packs enough different sounds into its absurd 74-minute runtime to hit a few notes for every listener.

15. Noname — Telefone

Noname has been around for a while. She made her first big splash on Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape way back in early 2013. Shortly thereafter, she announced her debut album. Three full years passed before we got Telefone on July 31st. I don’t know the reason for the delay, but it clearly must have paid off. Noname slipped back onto my radar, and this quaint masterpiece impressed me. Some of the production here is captivating. And — while the average female rapper follows her male counterpart in brash braggadocio — Noname runs more in Isaiah Rashad’s vein, playing Telefone on the reserved side. It’s a breath of fresh air.

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14. Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.

Every year there’s an album that arrives on my radar at the last minute, and this year it’s WORRY., the latest effort from Jeff Rosenstock. He’s the your-favorite-artists-favorite-artist type, and this album will show you why. It’s upbeat, energetic, and sounds like it was made by some people that really know what they’re doing. The band is a longtime proponent of the DIY movement, so the album was initially released online for pay-what-you-want, including free. I listened when it was released in October, and thought it was fine. I circled back a couple weeks ago and maybe it found me in a better mood, because it’s been in heavy rotation in my car ever since.

13. Joyce Manor — Cody

I was fortunate enough to see Joyce Manor in concert this year, opening for Modern Baseball (I’ll get to them in a bit). Knowing basically nothing about their discography — aside from the fact that “Constant Headache” is a phenomenal song — I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was treated to one of my favorite things in life, which is a very enjoyable performance from a band I knew little to nothing about. Cody followed suit, and even corrected one of my only issues with the band. It moved their needle slightly further towards the pop end of the spectrum, away from the fairly heavy punk influence that emanated their early work. I’d understand if this change alienated longtime fans, but it hit my sweet spot. Cody is pretty great.

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12. Wilco — Schmilco

Wilco is one of my favorite bands. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unequivocally my favorite album of all time, and other albums like Summerteeth and Sky Blue Sky are nearly as fantastic. That being said, the past few albums from the band have felt like a series of near misses for me. Schmilco, on the other hand, gets the job done. Jeff Tweedy keeps things moving, and the runtime is just 36 minutes, but stripped-back songs like “Normal American Kids” and “If I Ever Was A Child” feel like a long-awaited return to the Wilco wheelhouse. Plus, the album cover is fantastic.

11. Francis and the Lights — Farewell, Starlite!

32 minutes is impossibly short for a full-length album, but Farewell, Starlite! is still effortlessly cool, all the way down to the minimalist black and white album cover. Francis and the Lights is one of my most underrated favorite artists. Far too many slept on his It’ll Be Better project, but it seems like this one got a bit more attention with the help of a smash single featuring Bon Iver. At its best, Farewell, Starlite! is magical and inventive. At its worst, it’s at least interesting. I think that’s a standard most albums would aspire to.

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10. Anderson .Paak — Malibu

Prior to this album’s release, I knew the name Anderson .Paak and absolutely nothing else. I couldn’t have told you how he looked, what music he made, or what it sounded like. I’m willing to bet most people are on my side in this. After Malibu, a lot of us are on the Paak train.

Malibu is incredibly smooth and rich. In fact, its only true downfall is that it takes that strength to the extreme. At times, it becomes so glossy and shimmery that it’s too much of a good thing, like a mouthful of butter. Given its style, 61 minutes feels too cumbersome. It’s the one album on this list I actually wish were 15 minutes shorter.

At its best, it’s powerful, funky, soulful, and honest. “The Bird” tells of Paak’s childhood:

“I’m repping for the longest cycle.

My uncles had to pay the cost.

My sister used to sing to Whitney.

My mama caught the gambling bug.

We came up in a lonely castle.

My papa was behind them bars.

We never had to want for nothing.

Said all we ever need is love.”

The album is remarkably autobiographical. There isn’t much left to interpretation, as everything reads like chapters of a memoir. Given its length and personal nature, it feels a bit over-indulgent, although I think that plays well with the soulful style of the project.

If you’re a fan of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and pop, chances are you’ll love Malibu like so many others do.

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09. Lady Gaga — Joanne

I’ve been a Lady Gaga fan since day one, often telling anyone who would listen that she has an undeniable talent. Unfortunately, the world has only gotten to see that in short flashes, while the rest was buried under cheap production, outrageous lyrics, and attention-grabbing outfits. It wasn’t until Joanne that Lady Gaga was able to flex her muscles throughout a full project.

The album sees Gaga overhauling things for a more western Americana slant on her usual pop fare. Most of the songs on here just feel like classic Gaga tracks that have a country or folk shell on them. Nowhere is that more apparent than “Diamond Heart”, a high-flying pop anthem that just happens to include some guitars while talking about “young, wild Americans.” The project is littered with these kinds of tracks, to varying success.

The album takes its name from Gaga’s late aunt, who played a pivotal role in the singer’s life. The title track is written as a letter from niece to aunt that finds a deeper area than the one Gaga typically trods. “Million Reasons” is a soulful ballad that lets Gaga let her singing voice fly while she speaks about the power of perseverance. “Sinner’s Prayer” is a personal highlight that features Father John Misty. I never thought Gaga would release a song that should be square danced to, yet here we are. It’s in moments like these — where Gaga fully sells out to the Americana vibe — that we get the truly special moments.

There are enough high points and interesting moments for me to call the album a success. That being said, I’d love if the narrative were that she was courageous enough to abandon her pop roots entirely. Instead, what we’re left with is a good album by an artist who half-heartedly wants to be Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, or Elton John. I can’t blame her, because so do I.

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08. Beyoncé — Lemonade

Beyoncé in 2016 is an unstoppable, titanic force. Back when she was simply a member of Destiny’s Child, did anyone think by 2016 she could practically stop the earth from spinning by releasing a new album? Music aside, her career, especially in its current state, is a marvel. Lemonade is (evidently) a concept album about a woman who discovers her man is cheating. It runs the gamut from disbelief (“Hold Up”) to defiance (“Sorry”) to empowerment (“Formation”).

Lemonade was accompanied by a full visual album, a 65-minute string of music videos set to gorgeous cinematography with loaded messages.

The “Formation” video — which opens with Bey postured on top of a sunken New Orleans police cruiser — was released the day before her scheduled performance at Super Bowl 50, where her Blank Panther-themed delivery of the song further ruffled feathers.

On “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyoncé delivers a line about Malcolm X. On the visual album, the track pauses to play a clip from a May 1962 speech by the man himself:

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.

The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.

The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

By Malcom’s standards, Beyoncé beat all imaginable odds to become arguably the biggest artist in the world. To put that on the line on entertainment’s biggest stage — halftime of the Super Bowl — was something else.

I don’t see how Beyoncé can possibly reach much higher than this, but then again I would’ve said the same thing about her career two years ago. She doesn’t seem content with where she is, so I’d imagine she’ll continue to push boundaries and strive for more until something manages to stop her. I just can’t imagine what that would be.

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07. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost

Following two formative years in the growth of the band and its members, Modern Baseball collected themselves and returned in 2016 with Holy Ghost, their most mature project to date. Growing up sucks, but MoBo comes to grips with it on dazzling songs like “Hiding”, where Jake Ewald realizes he’s growing into himself when he finds that “the ideas that bring me rest are the ones that used to prod and pester and keep me up.”

Growing up doesn’t mean they’ve grown complacent. “Note To Self” speaks to their restlessness. “Where I want to be still seems a thousand miles away, but pretending we feel safe right here gets harder every day.”

The guys of Modern Baseball aren’t suddenly grown adults overnight, but they’re definitely headed that direction, and that’s something I can identify with.

As I’ve replayed this album over the past few months, I’ve found myself growing more in love with Ewald’s work on the opening half and less enthused with Lukens’ work on the closing half, although “Just Another Face” is a monster song for both Lukens and the band.

While I can acknowledge that Holy Ghost is easily the band’s most evolved project, I also think it’s the beginning of a slightly widening gulf between my tastes and their direction. I still really like this album (it’s #7 on my list for a reason) but, given a few months, it hasn’t thrown me head over heels like their past work. Regardless, the highs on this album are still incredibly high, and it’s definitely worth the listen.

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06. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

There may not be an album cover in 2016 that better suits the music it represents. 22, A Million is a brilliant, beautiful, experimental patchwork of sounds and ideas that draw from Justin Vernon’s past and present while pushing towards his future.

I wrote that it was Bon Iver’s Yeezus moment, and I think that statement holds up. Vernon and crew have essentially conquered their space, and seized the opportunity to operate outside the bounds of just about anything done by anyone besides them. It’s new and refreshing in a way than nothing else in 2016 was for me.

At moments, it’s gritty and distorted to the point of breaking. In others, it’s silky and airy in ways that are able to tickle parts of the brain rarely reached. Most importantly, it taught us never to take Bon Iver for granted. It sounded like Vernon was ready to pack it up after Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and I had resigned myself to never hearing new music from the band ever again. Instead, they popped back in for at least one more lap, and 2016 was better for it. Thanks, Justin.

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05. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

Kanye’s life and career seem to be picking up speed at an exponential rate, and it feels like a matter of time before he crashes. In 2016, he released The Life of Pablo, an album that’s frequently brilliant and just as frequently crass and baffling. Later in the year, he did a stint in a mental hospital following a bizarre rant in which he revealed that he thinks his close friend Jay Z is going to send someone to kill him.

Life in the spotlight is inherently unhealthy, and nobody comes out unscathed. As Kanye’s music becomes increasingly more and more eccentric, you have to wonder if the world is taking a toll on him. That being said, he’s still Kanye, so The Life of Pablo features more than a few moments that will stand the test of time.

“Ultralight Beam” is, believe it or not, a full-blown gospel rap song that’s finding a place on the podium of just about every year-end list. “Famous” boasts a rattling beat and inspired beef between Kim Kardashian West and Taylor Swift. “Feedback” feels like it’s been crammed through an ’80s sci-fi filter. “FML” is dark, ominous, paranoid, and seems to be most indicative of Kanye’s current place in the world. “Real Friends” and “No More Parties In LA” probably won’t earn Kanye any more fans but will serve as essential deep cuts for longtime listeners. “30 Hours” is my underrated song of the year, and “Saint Pablo”, which wasn’t even on the original TLOP release, is something I find myself returning to as much as any other track here.

Tossed in with all of that are moments and lyrics that I wish I could un-hear and several others that are simply awkward misfires. The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s ego getting the best of him as he unleashes every idea that comes to mind. This goes as well as you could imagine, but there are enough hits to cover the misses.

Regardless, it’s chaos. Questionable and often beautiful, but still chaos.

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04. Signals Midwest — At This Age

No album in 2016 hit me harder in my current place than Signals Midwest’s At This Age. It’s an exploration and a testimony of what happens when you’re done “growing up” but still can’t seem to quite figure out what the hell is going on. It’s the perfect album for twenty-somethings who are figuring things out, and it’s remarkably earnest and honest in the way it depicts that stage of life.

Like all Signals Midwest albums, it beautifully controls itself in quiet moments before building up and nearly bursting at the seams with energy in others. It also plays really, really well in a live setting.

At This Age can be summed up by the chorus of its title track: “This city’s bent out of shape, still treading water in the greatest lakes. Comparing notes on time and space and where we should be at this age.”

Lead singer Max Stern takes everything he’s learned in life and brings it back to his usual playground, exploring time, space, distance, life, and Cleveland, Ohio. If you enjoy any rock album on this list, I’m convinced At This Age has something you’ll like.

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03. The Hotelier — Goodness

The Hotelier already has a modern day emo classic on its resume with Home, Like Noplace Is There. In 2016, they made their long-awaited return with Goodness. While their debut follows more of a stereotypical path of depression, hopelessness, and anger, Goodness claws its way in the opposite direction, choosing a trajectory that’s remarkably and refreshingly optimistic, hopeful, and brave.

The uncensored album cover features a group of older people standing completely naked in a field. It’s attention-grabbing, but it also illustrates the theme of stripping things back to their innocent roots. “Withered down to our basic components, we are naked, at rest, and alone” sings Christian Holden on “Goodness Pt. 2.”

So much of this album begs to find in the world the very thing it’s named after: goodness. “Fawn, doe, light snow, spots on brown of white. Make me believe that there’s a God sometimes,” Holden pleads on “Soft Animal.”

I think it’s harder to pull off honest, careful, hopeful music than anything else, and that’s part of what makes Goodness so special to me. So much “uplifting” music comes off as incredibly fake, forced, and phony. Not this. The instrumentation is rousing and the lyrics are nothing short of masterful, resolving to push forward out of the same darkness that enveloped their previous work. This passage is a highlight of 2016:

When the floor was all littered with pictures

Like the flora was drenched in the thaw

I was grasping to stay in the present

But your negatives flipped what I saw

A little bird from the side of sidewalk

Sings me hymnals of comfort in pain

Said “Give me you all disarmed and uncertain

And I promise that I’ll do the same”

And it sounded like something you’d say

The most incredible concert I saw in 2016 took place in a tiny, crowded bar in Columbus when The Hotelier came to town. It was a night I’ll never forget, and it was soundtracked by this album.

In a year that seemed to center around so much darkness, I can’t give enough respect to a band that so earnestly seeks to find the light leaking through the cracks.

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02. Frank Ocean — Blonde

Frank Ocean returned from the fog with his most intensely personal project yet, which surprised me. Given the intimate nature of his music and his trademark tell-all letters, it’s easy to forget that he almost never writes from a personal perspective. Songs like “Thinkin Bout You” play things vague enough to apply to a wide audience while tracks like “Pyramids” and “Forrest Gump” put Frank in strangers’ shoes entirely.

Until Blonde, I’d never realized that Frank avoids being biographical. The most striking moment on the album and one of the best musical moments of the year comes at the end of “Nights”, when the beat switches and Frank gets nostalgic. Ocean, always the car buff, reminisces about his family’s childhood vehicle: “1998 my family had that Acura, oh, the Legend. Kept at least six discs in the changer.” He also sings about fleeing his native New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: “After ‘trina hit I had to transfer campus. Your apartment out in Houston’s where I waited.” He also recalls ’90s New Orleans legends like Master P rapping about their millions while his family could “only eat at Shoney’s on occasion.” These pointed personal memories stick out like a sore thumb in the landscape of Ocean’s albums.

An interesting factoid comes from “White Ferrari”, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney pick up a writing credit due to the minuscule reference to the “Here, There and Everywhere” that Ocean makes. It points to the song’s message and inspiration, which is basically just a 2016 existentialist version of the Beatles classic about a man searching desperately for love and hoping his significant other is always with him as he globe trots, or, in Frank’s case, transcends time and space: “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension. You say we’re small and not worth the mention.”

Much of Frank’s music is centered around the past, and this album is no different. However, there are also stains of the present and future. An interlude features a man talking about how an old girlfriend dumped him after he refused to add her on Facebook. “Good Guy” gripes about a blind date, saying “You text nothing like you look,” a sentiment that might not make sense to listeners over the age of 40.

Impossibly, the wait was worth it. This album is phenomenal, and in any other year it would be the runaway winner instead of fighting with two other albums for #1 on the list. Much like Channel Orange, we’ll all be listening to Blonde for years to come.

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01. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial

I don’t particularly care for classic rock, so I can’t really explain why my favorite album of the year apparently aspires to be that. The grand debut of Car Seat Headrest sounds nothing like 2016, so of course it manages to find its way to the top of my albums of the year list.

Teens of Denial is a 70-minute barrage of music that features lead singer Will Toledo talking to himself, largely. He spends time mentoring himself (“Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk”), criticizing himself (“You have no right to be depressed”), and questioning his own sadism (“I don’t need the complications, I’m just in it for the beating”).

Things get introspective to the point of being humorous. On “Drugs With Friends”, Toledo details a really bad experience with mushrooms, and on “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” he puts himself — for 11 minutes — in the shoes of the guy who wrecked that cruise ship on the Italian coast.

The most dazzling moment of the year comes on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, as Toledo pleads with himself. “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

Critics of the album will point out that Toledo isn’t a great singer, and they’re right. They’ll point out that he’s self-centered, and they’re right. They’ll point out that he’s whiney and emotional, and they’re right. Fortunately, I’m also all of those things, so this album is perfect.

Teens of Denial succeeds where other albums fail in that in perfectly walks the line between razor precision and complete chaos. Toledo manages to channel madness and brings things together at the right moments while allowing others just the right amount of recklessness. If you like classic or indie rock, this is for you. If you like phenomenal songwriting, this is for you. If you like music, this is for you.