My Five Favorite Albums of 2016

The funny thing about those once-in-a-generation type albums is that they seem to pop up more than once in a generation. So while I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing I listened to this year excited me as much as 2015’s best album To Pimp A Butterfly, I’m willing to admit my disappointment. That doesn’t mean there weren’t great albums, though, and I have some meaningless opinions about my favorites.

Honorable Mentions:

Blackstar – David Bowie

Beyond the Fleeting Gales – Crying

Metal Resistance – Babymetal

Singing Saw – Kevin Morby

Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

Wildflower – The Avalanches

5. The Life Of Pablo – Kanye West

Phooey to those who don’t think Kanye West had the mixtape of the year. You think Chance the Rapper’s was better? How could it have been when Chance’s best moment this year was on Kanye’s record? Same goes for Kendrick Lamar, whose collection of untitled B-sides pales to his two minutes on “No More Parties In LA.” And same for Ty Dolla $ign, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, The Weeknd, and Young Thug: all great artists with recent releases who were better on Pablo. Truth is, Kanye doesn’t really have to be good at music anymore when the entire chart can just do it for him.

You say you miss the old Kanye? So does Kanye, but that’s not going to stop him from making haphazard bangers like “Fade” or “Highlights,” or douchebag toasts like “Famous.” And sure, that means we’re going to have to slog through afterthoughts like “Feedback” or “Facts” to get to the good stuff, but you can’t tell me that “Ultralight Beam” isn’t worth all that hassle. It’s worth a Post Malone appearance just to get to that magnificent track again.

4. Sheer Mag III – Sheer Mag

The band is mostly unknown, but it only takes a few seconds into any Sheer Mag song before you realize how immediately familiar their songs are. Cock rock, meat-and-potatoes, Chevy music, whatever you want to call it, I guarantee you’ve heard it before if you own a radio in these United States.

It helps to have Tina Halladay, maybe the biggest and most badass singer in the land, yelp about her heartache and righteous anger like a stateside Poly Styrene. Her muffled pleas sound just about right on “Worth the Tears,” and she makes “Can’t Stop Fighting” sound more like an imperative than a suggestion. In punk’s dying age, she might be right.

The EP is only four songs long, but as it was on their first two releases, there isn’t a single wasted note on their latest project. I’ve never been so excited to listen to something I grew up hating: sounds from that same place on the radio dial where baby boomers lament about kids and their hippity-hop music. If more of it sounded like Sheer Mag, I might’ve agreed.

3. Awkward Pop Songs – JANK

How do you mourn a band that died less than a year after it was born? There are countless examples: The Modern Lovers, Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, even Harlem and Wu Lyf if you want contemporary proof. But the vast majority of one-album bands have already been forgotten. So is JANK worth the tears?

If rumors around their breakup are to be believed, then probably not. Emo is quietly in its golden age and there are a ton of snarky bands to turn to in their absence. But Awkward Pop Song’s mix of jangly guitar, unforced wit, and energy made it an evolution in the genre, if any band has the moxy to advance on the style.

Matt Diamond is a hell of a singer, and with lines like “when will I take Finland in this game of Risk?” or “this is a ripoff of a Title Fight song,” it’s easy to find the charm. There’s a song called “The Hat Store,” where two thirds of the band tell the story of shopping for “a motherfuckin’ hat.” And then there’s “Caitlyn,” the emotional centerpiece that finds Diamond pining over the titular imaginary dog. And somehow, you can’t help but feel sad. R.I.P. JANK 2016-2016.

2. Telephone – Noname

Noname has two overarching themes on her debut Telephone. One: her hometown Chicago is a beautiful city worthy of nostalgia and celebration. Two: being young and black in that city (or any city, really) can often be life threatening.

This is tough to deal with, but the young rapper does so with bells and toys and other childhood noises as the dressing to her jazzy instrumentals. “Reality Check” and “Forever” feature a kalimba and heavenly choruses that balance her heavy heart, while the marimbas steady her train of thought on “Freedom Interlude,” the best proof of her poetry yet. The message on these instrumentals is clear: childhood is innocence, and innocence is liberating.

Of course, you can’t fight urban blight and police brutality with nostalgia, so the sweet memories often come with a bitter pill. She finds herself checking Twitter “for something holier than Black death” on the opener “Yesterday” and singing a love song to her aborted fetus on “Bye Bye Baby,” and the juvenile sounds hit pretty hard on both. Most stirringly, she sings an ode to all of her vulnerable friends on “Casket Pretty,” hoping that her telephone doesn’t ring with the worst possible news.

Telephone is succinct, wonderful, and unique in a genre that prides itself on constant innovation. It’s also the best rap album of the year, coming from an outsider better served as a poet from a city with no shortage of hip hop history. It’s my hope that she joins that pantheon.

1. Who Really Cares – TV Girl

Songs about sex are supposed to make us horny, right? There probably isn’t a more sung about topic, and it’s generally in the yay-sex-positive direction. But Who Really Cares, an album where all the songs are about sex, is the best case for celibacy I’ve ever heard.

You get the sense that lead singer Brad Petering hates all the sexless stuff that comes with a relationship, but not enough to end everything and risk sleeping alone. He takes pride in an ex-girlfriend wearing his old rings because “they’re proof of my existence.” He tries to reason out why anyone would choose any man over him, finally concluding: “I guess it’s different ‘cause you love him.” But there’s always a catch: “But I’ve got an interactive, sick, and twisted imagination,” he continues, “and that’s gotta count for something.”

He’s right about his imagination. “(Do The) Act Like You Never Met Me” takes the most heartbreaking nightclub interaction and turns it into the winter’s hot new dance trend. “Safe Word” begs the necessity for interruption when daily routine becomes too painful (“and all the clamps and whips in Los Angeles couldn’t faze her/but if you really want to see her in pain, just wait until later”). And if you’ve ever worried about the emotional implications of futuristic fuck robots, “Loving Machine” gives you some needed perspective. The entire collection obsesses over sex only to come up with a million reasons not to even bother at all.

Sounds depressing? It is, but it’s also magnificent. The band’s lush orchestration feels grounded and natural, while their talent for sampling old movies has improved from their debut French Exit. Nowhere does this appear stronger than on “For You,” their most haunting ballad accompanied with an equally painful video. You might recognize that Petering isn’t a particularly impressive singer, but he doesn’t have to be when he lets Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor do it for him.

Heartbreaking disco is a difficult thing to pull off. Bowie did it, New Order did it, James Murphy is still doing it, and that’s reason enough why we count them among the best ever. TV Girl won’t ever get that recognition, but the immediacy of this album begs a examination of my priorities. On the finale “Heaven Is A Bedroom,” Petering sings: “I confess in thinking sex was my salvation.” Him and everyone else.

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