OK, so it's more than two weeks late, but that's the real world for you. This season in college basketball has been relentlessly fun and busy (plus, being a father to a toddler), so that caused a waylay to posting this. But now we're here, and 2016 is still fresh in mind. With that in mind, some thoughts on what I thought was a good-not-great year for music.
As prelude to the list, I feel compelled to mention that I still did not have time to listen to a number or records in full, if at all. So here are albums I don't discuss on the podcast, records that were either well-regarded on year-end lists or are LPs I'm personally still eager to listen to, but haven't found the time just yet:
-- Masterpiece, Big Thief
-- Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
-- Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional, The Dear Hunter
-- You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen
-- The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey
-- untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar
-- Patch the Sky, Bob Mould
-- Nice as Fuck, Nice as Fuck
-- More Rain, M. Ward
-- Big Boat, Phish
As for the albums I did listen to, I'm first going to just list out the ones that didn't make my favorites list. If you want reasons why those records are where they are, I get into it on the podcast. Same for the second section. As always, this is entirely from my perspective. That's what makes music so fun to talk about.
Critically praised records that I couldn’t connect with
- Lemonade, Beyonce
- 22, A Million, Bon Iver
- American Band, Drive By Truckers
- Puberty 2, Mitski
- My Woman, Angel Olsen
- The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
- Schmilco, Wilco
Disappointing or inconsistent or underwhelming releases
- Commontime, Field Music
- I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, The 1975
- Signs of Light, The Head and the Heart
- Blonde, Frank Ocean
- A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead. Burn the Witch is awesome.
- White Album, Weezer
Honorable mentions (Or: Albums I liked but didn’t love)
-- Spacedust & Ocean Views, Anders Osborne: Only got to this in the past two weeks. Some scanty sounds and mellow throughout, with the occasional passionate push. I haven't heard his other stuff, which is apparently more aggressive, but I'm going to dig in soon.
-- Painting With, Animal Collective: Delightfully weird. This band is constantly just throwing a bunch of aural color in the air and seeing what patterns come to be when they all land. Standouts: "FloriDada," "The Burglars," "Spilling Guts."
-- True Sadness, Avett Brothers: Within the first five seconds it sounds like a different album from any previous Avett Brothers record. Then track two, "Mama I Don't Believe," brings us back to familiar territory. Interesting ideas here, but I can't stay this ranks as a top-five Avetts effort. The Rick Rubin pairing didn't necessarily work, maybe?
-- Why Are You OK, Band of Horses: Not quite on the level of the first three tremendous records, but it's a big return after the confusing and forgettable Mirage Rock. Welcome back, BOH!
-- Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper: Gospel sounds, colorful feel. He has something to say. The Kanye influence undeniable. It's goood fun. There are parts of this album I only want to hear during the day ("Same Drugs") and others that work best around midnight ("Smoke Break"). Highlights: "All Night," and the instrumentation and production on "Finish Line/Down."
-- Peach, Culture Abuse: Took me by surprise, but some great, active guitar sounds, a drummer who knows what he's doing and a breeze of a listen. This LP barely cracks 30 minutes, like any punk record worth its salt, but I like what's going on here. I'm too old to love punk, but bands like this make me want to embrace it more. Also, when's the last time a punk band dropped a harmonica solo in one of their songs ("Yuckies")?
-- We're All Gonna Die, Dawes: Well, it's the best Dawes record I think I've ever listened to. I also get the sense I would have enjoyed this band a lot more when I was 20.
-- Every Now and Then, Jagwar Ma: Not as good as Howlin'. Feels like a grower. I have a strong sense I'm going to like this album a lot more on the 10th spin than I did on the first.
-- Junk, M83: Sounds from the '60s on, and some filler, but really cool experiements too. Best song featuring a harmonica in 2017 might be this album's closing track, "Sunday Night 1987."
-- A Weird Exits, The Oh Sees: A band whose catalog I want to dive deeper into. This has some good ideas. Sharp prog rock styles. The rhythms are great, but some of the songs are nice jams that drag a bit too long. On the whole, a lot of potential here. King Crimson, Yes, Genesis fans will find plenty to like
-- Cardinal, Pinegrove: Real garage sound, and a blend of the sensibilities of Dashboard Confessional and Ben Folds, among others. "Waveform" is the song that stood out to me. I need to spend more time with this record. Can't tell if it will have increasing or diminishing returns.
-- The Dream is Over, Pup: If I was 22, not 35, I'd have a better chance at really finding a connection with this music. But that doesn't mean I don't think it's quality. I'm not a punk rocker, but this has some blend of like ... if The Offspring was put in a blender with The Hold Steady and then dashed with Japandroids. It's fun, even when the content is angry.
-- The Getaway, Red Hot Chili Peppers: Here's the real talk: The title track from this album is also the lead track, and it's pretty damn good. There's a few tracks on this album ("Goodbye Angels") that would probably get more play if they weren't from an aging rock-funk band like the Peppers. Just their third album in 10 years, this is a pretty good output, all things considered. There's filler, but a song like "Encore" is a great deep cut on the back end.
-- Everybody Wants, The Struts: Ain't nothing wrong with some angular glam rock. This album actually came out in 2014, then, after The Struts caught traction in the States, was re-released in 2016 with some touch-ups and new cuts. Yes, the Freddie Mercury influence is overt. Yes, that's a good thing. This is a fun band, a group I'd like to see live relatively soon. "Put Your Money on Me," "She Makes Me Feel Like" and "These Times are Changing" are standouts.
-- Starboy, The Weeknd: This guy is becoming one of my favorite solo artists in modern pop music. This record isn't as good as 2015's Beauty Behind the Madness, but it's still pretty vital sounding. The only issue is it feels about 15 minutes too long. "Secrets," "Starboy," and "Sidewalks" are must-listen.
My favorite albums of 2016
15. Wolfmother's Victorious. Release date: Feb. 19. Grade: B.
Crunchy guitars, tasty songs, great riffs. Wolfmother's one of those bands I've only heard bits and pieces of over the years. This record made me chase down a big portion of their discography in the weeks after I heard it. Victorious isn't at the top, but it's still pretty nice and a good way to kick off my favorite LPs of 2016. "Pretty Peggy" and the title track are my go-tos. I wish there were more bands with this kind of sound who found stable success.
14. Umphrey’s McGee's Zonkey. Release date: Nov. 11. Grade: B.
Super-fun cover/mashup album. There aren't a lot of bands who could do something this ambitious and have it not be cheesy or short of hitting that delicate line between taking cover material and making it sound inferior by going for a true replication. This is a ranking of my 15 favorite studio records, regardless of covers or not. This one's way fun. Some recommendations: "Can't Rock My Dream Face," "Sweet Sunglasses," "Come As Your Kids."
13. Car Seat Headrest's Teens of Denial. Release date: May 20. Grade: B.
Obviously the band name is brutal. Maybe one of the five worst I’ve ever seen. Did founder/creator Will Toledo name it on a dare, and then had to keep it once success latched on to the name? Anyway, the music is what matters, and this feels like a band Kurt Cobain would’ve really embraced as a 50-year-old. What keeps this from cracking my top 10: it’s just way too long. The songs are solid but they’re not interesting enough instrumentally or dynamically to warrant cracking six minutes. That happens on five of the 12 tracks. The record’s 70 minutes long. “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” is the song that got a lot the attention, but my go-tos are “Fill in the Balnk” “Destroyed By Hippies” and “1937 State Park.” I do wonder if this album will have lasting value, or if we’ll look back in 2026 and be like “remember when Car Seat Headrest was a thing?”
12. Solange's A Seat at the Table. Release date: June 28. Grade: B.
Well, this is absolutely worthy of the praise. I went into this with measured expectations, and it exceeded those. Too many interludes, but on the whole I found this so much better than big sis' Lemonade. She's got a great voice, something to say, and the beats blend great with aggressive-still-laid-back vibe. I'm not going to fake it with you: female R&B albums are not exactly up my alley; they're most something I can't identify with. Even here, Solange is hitting on a lot of issues I've never dealt with. But she makes a compelling record, something that had me wanting to learn more. "Don't Wish Me Well" is hypnotic.
11. Blood Orange's Freetown Sound. Release date: June 28. Grade: B.
Not trying to explicitly and only compare one album style to another -- because they are different -- but let's compare this record to Blonde by Frank Ocean. For me, this one is just so much better. It has beats! Whereas Blonde ... doesn't. There are good grooves. Interesting lyrics and compelling subject matter that matches. "Best to You" was one of the smoothest duo pop songs of 2016. Then you've got a song like "E.V.P." which sounds like something out of ... 1990? Funky, but it fits. Not every track is a keeper, but almost every one has at least one interesting approach to it.
10. Frightened Rabbit's Painting of a Panic Attack. Release date: April 8. Grade: B.
Heck of a band. Earnest, but not to a fault, and a great blend of lyrics and music. "Little Drum" (there's an homage to Vince Guaraldi in there) and "Break" are standouts. Feels like Frightened Rabbit has the potential to be a band puts out 6-8 good to great records without ever truly breaking through the mainstream. That's OK, I guess, but I'm surprised these guys don't have a bigger following. Really feels like one of the best bands to come out of Scotland and find footing in America.
9. Run the Jewels' Run the Jewels 3. Release date: Dec. 24. Grade: B.
And this is why releasing best-of lists on Dec. 4 can be silly. Run the Jewels, which slates its in-store release date for January, technically releases its album in 2016. A free digital download. Glorious. I am interested in how RTJ seems to have build out a following of hardcore fans in their 30s. I ask college basketball players about Run the Jewels, and most don't know who they are. This record is still very fresh. I can't say it's on the level of Run the Jewels 2, but it feels better than the debut. "Talk To Me," "Legend Has It" and "Panther Like a Panther" are my three favorite ... for now. That's gonna change.
8. The Tragically Hip's Man Machine Poem. Release date: June 17. Grade: B+.
If this is going to be the band's last studio album, it's a fine way to end a tremendous career. For those who may not know, after this LP was recorded, lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with brain cancer, in December 2015. The subject matter of the record can be connected in an auxilliary way to that diagnosis, but the reality is all of the songs were written before that happened. "Here, in the Dark" is a favorite of me. "Tired as Fuck" has a drum part that's great to play along to -- and listen with headphones. This one was under-represented on year-end lists. Again, I'm not sure why. There are still booming rock records being made, and it feels like groupthink is pushing all but two or three rock records to the margins each year. And I highly recommend this piece by Bruce Arthur from the Olympics, which coincided with the final concert of The Hip.
7. Jim James's Eternally Even. Release date: Nov. 4. Grade: B+.
Underrated on many a year-end list. To me, one of the 20 most interesting albums released this year. I'm not sure why it's not more populated on top-50 lists. It's got maybe two tracks that feel like filler, but James is in his groove here. Songs like "True Nature" and the eponymous track, which closes the album, stand out. This isn't as good as his 2013 solo effort, Regions of Light and Sounds of God, but it's close. A very nougaty '70s vibe exists throughout the album, and with James you get the sense that's both affectionate and tongue-in-cheek; this feels like an homage without being recycled. It's a shame My Morning Jacket is so good, because James could make it on his own for a long time -- but MMJ is still making superior records.
6. Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth. Release date: April 15. Grade: B+.
Took me until a fourth listen, and then it hit me. Yeah, the album’s really good, and I say that as someone who doesn’t really like country all that much. This blurs the edges of the genre as aggressively as you could think. It’s not really even country. The fact Simpson’s been able to build a following and do this in the demeanor, style and on the time he wants is impressive. You’ll notice a number of albums listed among my favorites are fast listens. This one, too. It’s just nine songs and under 40 minutes. The joy that turns after the earnest start to “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” has a backing vocal that’s infectious. The “In Bloom” cover got a lot of run, and it’s a good twist on Nirvana, but my favorite song by far is “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”
5. David Bowie's ★. Release date: Jan. 8. Grade: B+.
You know, when I listened to some of this really good LP, I couldn't help but think, I wish Radiohead would make a late-career record in this style. It's pretty amazing Bowie could produce such a vivid piece of art so close to his death and so "late" in his life, relatively speaking. Plus, there's a track on here titled "'Tis a Pit She Was a Whore." "Lazarus" is one bad-ass track, and probably the best song on the record, though it gets a good fight from "Dollar Days." Bowie's final trick is creating an album with a no-nonsense running time (41:17) and making every moment count.
4. Anderson .Paak's Malibu. Release date: Jan. 15. Grade: A-.
This album came out at the start of the year and I didn't listen to it until Dec. 8. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME. "Put Me Thru" to "Am I Wrong" is a great transition. The album does a great job of overflowing with ideas and making those ideas connect. The bass on this record is TERRIFIC. Giving it such a high grade because it's so vibrant and feels fresh without completely reinventing anything. But the bass is lean and strong, and .Paak's got a distinct voice. He knows how to use it with the songwriting he's crafted. I found my head irresistibly bopping to this one. When it finished I wanted to listen to it again immediately from the start -- and did. "Your Prime" and "Come Down" sound like some Grade-A Kendrick Lamar stuff, too.
3. Kaleo's A/B. Release date: June 10. Grade: A-.
Disappointed by the current state of the Black Keys but want something in that general arena? Here's your answer. Terrific track 1, "No Good," makes you wat to get on your feet. That's an entrance. "Glass House" is a locomotive party tune. Imagining hearing that song in an club that fits 400 people and I'm trembling already. Then they turn around and lay down a gorgeous acoustic tune in "All the Pretty Girls." I had no idea who these guys were until a few people on Twitter mentioned them in early December. So yeah, one of the most surprising band discoveries of the year for me. One of my favorite album covers this year as well. They're from Iceland but seem to have developed a decent following in the States. The lead singer, JJ Julius Son, has one of the best young voices in rock.
2. Ray LaMontagne's Ouroboros. Release date: March 4. Grade: A-.
Knew it was a lock to be in my top 10 the first time I listened to it -- and by the time I was only halfway through it. Upon reflection, there's only one 2016 album that I find myself both wanting to listen to more and feel is a "better" LP. I love this record in part because it sounds like it was produced and written with the intention to be pressed to vinyl. Part One and Part Two are distinct. Part Two's "In My Own Way" is a lifting, satisfying way to continue the record-playing experience. "Hey, No Pressure" features maybe the best riff I heard this year. Jim James on production, by the way. Terrific atmosphere. And a great trick here: a running time under 40 minutes, yet it feels the better part of an hour -- in a good way. Not an easy feat to pull off. This is LaMontagne's best album of the six he's made.
1. A Tribe Called Quest's We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service. Release date: Nov. 11. Grade: A-.
What a great surprise. Not only does Tribe to what was truly never expected -- make one more album -- but it works, unquestionably, as a tremendous final statement for the group. The first time you heard the beat get moving on "The Space Program," you got excited. And then within 15 seconds of "We the People..." -- which is an instant classic -- it seemed liked this really might be on the heading toward being a good record. It's a smidge too long (60 minutes) but worth the wait. Q-Tip's touches are great. I've been most eager to keep going back to this record. The guest spots are great (Elton John?! It fits). RIP, Phife Dawg. This deserves a seat at the table with Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory.