TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2016:
50. Glenn Hughes- Resonate
Although it may serve as a placeholder for the impending return of Black Country Communion in 2017 Glenn Hughes’ solo effort Resonate is uncompromising in its cocksure classic rock approach. It’s a collection of sturdy always reliable songs from Hughes and his continuously stunning vocals that belie his age.
49. Pinegrove- Cardinal
Pinegrove’s Cardinal is one of the better debut albums of 2016. With warm rustic melodies and singer Evan Stephens Hall’s creaking tenor they recall elements of The Shins albeit with a more rural roots sound to them. Looking to the future perhaps the best part of Cardinal is the subtle restraint that shows bigger and better things could be coming from Pinegrove.
48. Neil Young- Peace Trail
One thing you can’t accuse Neil Young of is resting on past accolades and glories. Peace Trail is his ninth (!) studio album of original material in the past 12 years and that doesn’t even include the myriad of live sets, covers albums, and archived releases. These albums have been wildly uneven in quality and while Peace Trail has its diamonds in the rough (The title track, “Indian Givers,” “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) perhaps Neil would be better served to take 2017 off (Maybe 2018 too) to recharge the batteries. That and getting back together with Crazy Horse.
47. St. Paul & The Broken Bones- Sea Of Noise
St. Paul & The Broken Bones have grabbed the baton for the neo-soul scene with Sea Of Noise. It’s a passionately retro spiritual shakedown sounding like a heated southern tent revival with a democratic tilt. Sea Of Noise finds a way to be sultry and socially poignant at the same time.
46. Jeff The Brotherhood- Zone
Jeff The Brotherhood achieved a significant breakthrough in 2015 with the superb Wasted On The Dream. An album palpable enough to enjoy even without using the enhanced assistance of herbal supplements (Although everyone probably still did). They retreat to their roots a bit with Zone, shrouded in narcotic clouds and dripping with murky bong water. While its admirable that they are more interested in identity than fame it may do them some good in finding a balance between fidelity and hazy experimentation.
45. Angel Olsen- My Woman
Angel Olsen continues the linear career arc of bolstering her sound on My Woman. After the organic augmentation of 2014’s critically lauded Burn Your Fire For No Witness Olsen pushes the boundaries even further here with several arrangements consisting of electric guitar and a full band. Olsen still retains her razor-sharp songwriting wit while sounding perfectly at home in the realm of indie-pop.
44. Pete Yorn- Arranging Time
After a six-year hiatus Pete Yorn returns with Arranging Time. While its ethos is bathed in the melancholia of Yorn’s lyrics it’s the opulent production that leaves the most resounding impression. Yorn seems like he’s coming out of the wilderness, rejuvenated to recapture some of his turn of the century stardust and making up for lost time.
43. The Wild Feathers- Lonely Is A Lifetime
After The Wild Feathers 2013’s noteworthy self-titled debut it sounded like they were bound to be part in a southern rock revival. With Lonely Is A Lifetime however one look no further than the album cover itself as the template for their evolving sound. Although they still empower guitar-driven rock they trade in the grittiness for wide-eyed wonder aiming for the heavens.
42. The Jayhawks- Paging Mr. Proust
The Jayhawks have been an institution on the alternative country scene in a career that has now spanned over three decades and founding member Gary Louris leads the band back to the promised land in Paging Mr. Proust, their best outing since 2003’s Rainy Day Music. Proust has all of the classic hallmarks of The Jayhawks: Jangling guitars, saccharin harmonies, and Louris’ unmistakable world-weary warble. Louris and company still sound energized 31 years and counting.
41. Rival Sons- Hollow Bones
Rival Sons are unapologetic classic rock throwbacks hearkening back to a time when bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath roamed the earth in their heyday. Great Western Valkyrie saw them achieve a Valhalla apex and they build off of that momentum with Hollow Bones. The slow-burning intensity of cuts like “Fade Out” display Scott Holiday and Jay Buchanan’s Page/Plant –like alchemy that sounds most importantly authentic and not like imitation.
40. The Lumineers- Cleopatra
While it’s not a sophomore slump by any means The Lumineers’ Cleopatra feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Their excellent 2012 self-titled debut seemed like America’s answer to Mumford & Sons. While the irresistible indie-pop/folk-rock hooks are here for the first half of Cleopatra (“Sleep On The Floor,” “Ophelia,” “Cleopatra,” “Gun Song,” “Angela”) they seem to let their foot off the gas for the back half. This more than anything is a learning curve for a band that shows they possess the songwriting chops to create something great again.
39. The Felice Brothers- Life In The Dark
After their rather pedestrian effort of Favorite Waitress The Felice Brothers return to form with Life In The Dark. The band’s organic sound recalls ‘70s-era Bob Dylan; not only because of Ian Felice’s uncanny nasally croon that mimics Dylan but the band itself has a ramshackle quality to it. The spaghetti western murder ballad “Diamond Bell” sounds like something that could’ve easily been on Dylan’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack or even his masterpiece Desire.
38. Pixies- Head Carrier
After the uneven Indie Cindy legendary indie-rock group Pixies restore the faith with Head Carrier. Although it’s not as lofty as their late ’80s career peak it does have the vibe of a band dusting off the cobwebs and sharpening their focus. “Classic Masher,” “Talent,” “Bel Esprit,” and “All I Think About Now” show that Black Francis’ crew still have the prowess to create memorable hooks.
37. Jake Bugg- On My One
Jake Bugg had praise heaped on him after his first two albums, anointed as “The chosen one” and rock’s next great lyricist/poet. Then some of the air was let out of his balloon when it was discovered he used co-writers on most of his songs. A determined Bugg shows he doesn’t want any crutches on the aptly titled On My One where he takes the songwriting and producing (Mostly) reigns by himself. Results however vary as Bugg shows glimpses of solo promise in “Put Out The Fire” and “Bitter Salt” while there are moments where he could’ve used guidance in restraint. We did not need to hear the clunker “rap” song “Ain’t No Rhyme.”
36. The Head And The Heart- Signs Of Light
The Head And The Heart have continually grown and shifted their sounds gradually in their early career. With Signs Of Light they aim big and trade in their more acoustic Americana moments for a sun-kissed radio-friendly sound. Their strength has always been in their harmonies and with Signs Of Light they go all in for the sing-a-longs.
35. Andrew Leahey & The Homestead- Skyline In Central Time
After a brain tumor nearly derailed his entire career (And life) Andrew Leahey may be the best comeback story of 2016. The health scare seems to have sharpened and invigorated Leahey’s music as he pulls from the best sentimentality of Jackson Browne and dusty songwriting akin to that of Tom Petty’s rural side. Skyline In Central Time is the sound of life-affirmation, after conquering a hurdle like a brain tumor the sky(line) is the limit for Leahey.
34. Public Access TV- Never Enough
After a lengthy build-up of hype Public Access TV’s official debut Never Enough does not disappoint. Their sharp guitars and spiraling hints of danger recall their New York City brethren The Strokes, albeit on a more jovial level. It’s hard telling what the agenda is for The Strokes, but Public Access TV sound like they’re more than ready to pick up the torch for NYC guitar rock.
33. The Bones Of J.R. Jones- Spirit’s Furnace
Johnathon Linaberry (aka The Bones Of J.R. Jones) has become a force to be reckoned with on Spirit’s Furnace. The bluesy soul of the multi-instrumentalist is brisk just barely eclipsing the 30-minute mark but that stoutness is actually a strength for Linaberry as he whittles things down to the essentials like a fine craftsman. One moment he’s sounding like The Black Keys caught in a chain gang (“The Heat,” “Hammers and Nails”) the next he’s creating beautiful lilting tearjerkers in the vein of Iron & Wine (“Wedding Song,” “I’m Your Broken Dog”).
32. Wolfmother- Victorious
While Wolfmother seems to have continuous roster changing two things remain the same: 1.) Chairman of the Wolfmother board Andrew Stockdale remains its most paramount member 2.) They will always churn out a riff-fueled unadulterated slab of primal rock. With Victorious it feels like Stockdale has earned tenure in Valhalla.
31. Okkervil River- Away
Okkervil River’s mastermind Will Sheff continues with his elaborate narratives on Away. Sheff takes us to the deep end with a somber yet ardent collection of mostly ballads. Six of the nine songs wind and weave for over six minutes to give the listener proper digestion time, even occasionally unfolding to reveal layers as serene as the album cover.
30. Local Natives- Sunlit Youth
After stumbling a bit on their sophomore effort Hummingbird Local Natives return with their third album Sunlit Youth and also re-calibrate their vision closer to their outstanding debut of Gorilla Manor. Disarming harmonies and delectable shifting dance floor rhythms and melodies populate Sunlit Youth and remind us all why we fell in love with Local Natives in the first place.
29. Ryley Walker- Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Ryley Walker is a pub poet that can find enlightenment in some of the most mundane situations and occurrences. On Golden Sings That Have Been Sung Walker’s precision finger-picking bathe his meditations on blurred nights and hazy mornings. Its centerpiece is “The Roundabout,” a hymn for all of our favorite rundown watering holes on the outskirts of downtown. A place where the older, grayer, balder crowd can share a cigarette, self-diagnose health issues, and reminisce about the golden years while ripping on the youth.
28. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
There’s a new group of Highwaymen on the country scene. Outcasts making outlaw country that goes against the grain of the plop/bro country sewage that’s being churned out. Names like Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Ryan Bingham, Robert Ellis, and perhaps their champion in Sturgill Simpson. With A Sailor’s Guide To Earth Simpson eclipses new peaks adding his rich timbre to scenic storytelling and swells of Motown brass provide a swagger to make Nashville undulate. To say this is strictly a country album may be a disservice considering its inclusion of so many genres.
27. The Shelters- The Shelters
The Shelters no doubt got a great jump-start to their careers thanks to a famous fan you may know by the name of Tom Petty. But hype and connections only get you so far. With their self-titled debut (Also produced by Petty) The Shelters sound like seasoned veterans effortlessly creating ‘60s pop and garage rock nuggets with a modern sheen.
26. Dinosaur Jr.- Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not
Dinosaur Jr. continue their distinguished latter-day run with Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. The grunge rock pioneers play to their strengths of tunes that veer between driving grit and sludgy distortion without ever feeling too calculated. J Mascis leads the charge with unorthodox vocals and his tasteful yet blistering solos.
25. Frightened Rabbit- Painting Of A Panic Attack
Frightened Rabbit are probably not the band you turn to for a Friday or Saturday out. Painting Of A Panic Attack continues their holding pattern of bleak despondency contrasted by elegant production. There is beauty to be found in the darkness here, none better than album closer “Die Like A Rich Boy.”
24. Shovels & Rope- Little Seeds
Shovels & Rope married couple Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have found a way to continue their winning streak with Little Seeds. Their ability to integrate forms of Americana, folk, and rock into single songs and the natural chemistry found in their infectious harmonies place them in a territory with few peers. Whether it’s taking a song called “Botched Execution” and making it sound like a Top 40 pop gem or tackling the racial uneasiness in America with “BWYR” nothing is off limits for this dynamic duo.
23. Conor Oberst- Ruminations
Conor Oberst’s Ruminations is the sound of isolation and introspection synthesized down to the basics with just acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. It’s no surprise that this was recorded while he was holed up during an Omaha winter as most of the subject matter is sparse and bleak but Oberst’s nearly peerless songwriting is triumphantly pushed to the forefront.
22. Cheap Trick- Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello
Let’s get the one negative thing out of the way right now about Cheap Trick’s latest album: Yes, the name is terrible. But you would be wrong to dismiss it simply on the title because Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello is Cheap Trick’s best album in a decade. The godfathers of power pop pull off songs as only they can with heavy riffs, delicious guitar solos, and catchy sweeping hooks that sound like a match made in heaven (tonight).
21. Wilco- Schmilco
Wilco’s 10th studio album, the tongue-in-cheek nod to Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson finds Wilco at their most comfortable. Like, slippers by a fireplace dad-rock comfortable, at least musically. Although it’s their least engaging and boldly adventurous album since their debut AM, Schmilco is less concerned with preconceived expectations than just creating an enjoyable thoroughfare.
20. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- Skeleton Tree
Only Nick Cave can take the darkness of the worst situations, like tragically losing a child and turning it into something enduring and a testament to the human condition. Out of that despair with The Bad Seeds he concocts Skeleton Tree, a frosted landscape of icy synths and Cave’s rueful baritone blanketing the horizons like a billowing cumulonimbus. Though some losses are irreplaceable Cave is able to escape into his art and is gracious enough to at least let us peer into the window of his complex mind.
19. Dawes- We’re All Gonna Die
Dawes have built a career of honest and earnest music and their “Good guy” reputations. So they naturally decide to throw a bit of a curveball with an album titled We’re All Gonna Die with an ominous tornado in the distance. The curveball however is not in theme as this may be their most vibrant album yet but rather expanding their palates beyond some of their Americana banalities. They incorporate drum machines, orchestral flourishes, fuzzed-out guitars, and back-up female singers cordially into their blueprint suggesting to never underestimate what they are capable of.
18. Parker Millsap- The Very Last Day
Parker Millsap is a fresh-faced singer/songwriter from Oklahoma with songwriting chops and wit that defy his youth. His latest album The Very Last Day finds Millsap operating on a new level hitting on all forms of early American music whether it be blues, rockabilly, folk, or gospel. Visions of the apocalypse never sounded so sublime.
17. Drive-By Truckers- American Band
In terms of civil unrest and social divides no one had their finger on the pulse of America more firmly or astutely than the Drive-By Truckers. American Band is one of their best albums yet but personal achievements take a backseat to the ultimate message the band is trying to convey. Specifically poignant topical and political songs find a balance between their standard rowdy southern rockers and the meditative slow-burners contemplating the darker labyrinths of American culture and conscience.
16. Mudcrutch- 2
With his main act with The Heartbreakers on hiatus from recording Tom Petty choose to revive his side project and original band he broke into the business with Mudcrutch. It’s no surprise that on the aptly titled 2 that most of the strongest songs are Petty’s (“Trailer,” “Dreams Of Flying,” “Beautiful Blue,” “Save You Water,” “Hungry No More”) but there are also surprisingly vibrant contributions from the unassuming duo of guitarist Tom Leadon (“The Other Side Of The Mountain”) and drummer Randall Marsh (“Beautiful World”) that suggest Petty is more than willing to share the load creatively with Mudcrutch while maintaining his ringleader status with The Heartbreakers.
15. Joe Bonamassa- Blues Of Desperation
Joe Bonamassa is a blues purist at heart and it’s a genre he’s willing to fight for and maintain at all costs. Blues Of Desperation is an expansive piece of work the best electrified blues album to come around in years with top-shelf production, cranked up amplifiers, and the symbiosis between Bonamassa and his guitar at times achieves levels of blistering transcendence. The deluxe monster “No Good Place For The Lonely” with its nearly three-minute scalding outro solo channels the ghosts of some of his fore-bearers from his mentor B.B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
14. Band Of Horses- Why Are You OK
Band Of Horses have been carving out an alcove of music for themselves that’s so celestial and sparkling it may as well be called champagne rock. Their latest output Why Are You OK continues along that seraphic trajectory with big sky ballads and chiming dreamscapes all swathed in front-man Ben Bridwell’s tender creaking croon. As long as Band Of Horses continue to release albums so elemental and astral they can do no wrong.
13. Butch Walker- Stay Gold
Butch Walker had the surprise hit of the summer with Stay Gold in 2016 as it plays like a lost southern-fried Bruce Springsteen album from the Bible Belt. “Irish Exit” is like a distant cousin to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” while other standouts like “East Coast Girl,” “Wilder In The Heart,” “Ludlow Expectations,” and “Record Store” intersect with The Boss and the grungy yet well-intentioned heart-on-sleeve of The Gaslight Anthem. Though its creator hails from Georgia Stay Gold with its blue-collared narratives is a heartland rock knockout.
12. Brian Fallon- Painkillers
While The Gaslight Anthem lay low for a while front-man Brian Fallon decided to occupy the time with his debut solo album Painkillers. While there are still the undeniable piston-firing Gaslight Anthem archetypes (“A Wonderful Life,” “Rosemary”) it’s his forays into alt-country and cinematic storytelling that shine brightest. If the curtain ever does close on The Gaslight Anthem for good Fallon shows that he’ll always have a 2nd act life in a solo career.
11. Kyle Craft- Dolls Of Highland
Kyle Craft’s Dolls Of Highland is the best proper debut album of 2016. Craft finds a singing style somewhere near the compartmentalization of feelings from Ryan Adams with some of the wild thin mercury imagery of Bob Dylan. Seemingly conjured from the bayous of his native Louisiana it’s like a glam rock version of Blonde On Blonde drunk on bourbon and full of gumbo Dolls Of Highland sounds like it’s out of step with other contemporary albums and that’s part of what makes it so alluring.
10. Iggy Pop- Post Pop Depression
Iggy Pop and David Bowie have been linked together since the early ‘70s both as creative pioneers and friends. And in an incredibly cosmic way both of their recording careers seemingly came to a close in 2016. Bowie tragically passed away and Pop stated, “I feel like I’m closing up after this. That’s what I feel. It’s my gut instinct.” While Bowie opts to go to back into the nebulas of outer space for his final journey Pop instead decides on a sabbatical into the desert with fellow waste-lander and Queens Of The Stone Age front-man Josh Homme to find his spirit animal. Post Pop Depression is as dilapidated as it is sensual and provocative. Iggy’s disheveled baritone snarls while Homme’s backing vocals add a ghostly augmentation over guitars sharp and biting. The centerpieces are “Sunday” with its vamping strut before giving way unexpectedly to sweeping strings and the finale of “Paraguay” with a rant/meltdown from Pop for the ages (“You take your motherfucking laptop/ And just shove it into your goddamn foul mouth/ And down your shit heel gizzard/ You fucking phony two faced three timing piece of turd”). There have been a lot of great albums made out at the famous Rancho De La Luna studio and now Post Pop Depression is added to that list. If this is Pop bowing out then bravo but it still sounds like he has plenty left in the tank.
9. Green Day- Revolution Radio
When Green Day dropped their landmark album American Idiot in 2004 they afforded themselves a career renaissance that few bands get to enjoy. The band enjoyed a popular resurgence until they crumbled under their own bombast and ambition in 2012 when they literally and figuratively exhausted themselves. Not only did they release three (!) albums that year (¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!) but front-man Billie Joe Armstrong had a very public onstage meltdown at a music festival and later checked into rehab for abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. Four years later they return with Revolution Radio and their attempt at regaining their prominent relevancy. Though it’s not really a comeback album it is a return to form pulling from all of the strongest points of their career. Combinations of the politically-charged tension from American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown with the youthful rough ‘n’ tumble angst of Dookie and Insomniac. They tackle America’s problematic infatuation with guns and sensationalizing mass shootings with the relentless thrasher “Bang Bang” while the militant timpani-style romp of “Say Goodbye” is a kiss-off for an increasingly violent society. They balance out the harsher moments with songs like “Youngblood” a snotty but affectionate ode to Armstrong’s wife and the sparse acoustic closer “Ordinary World” is as close as Green Day has ever come to a lullaby. Green Day prove they can still be a galvanizing force and like American Idiot with the Bush administration we will definitely need more albums like Revolution Radio for the Trump administration.
8. David Bowie- ★
Davie Bowie’s ★ may not top this list but it may end up having the longest lasting prestige due to the circumstances surrounding it. Bowie had been concealing his battle with liver cancer for 18 months from the public and two days after his 69th birthday and the release of ★ Bowie tragically passed away. As if an exercise in spectral macabre theater ★ seems to serve as an epitaph of sorts by Bowie to himself. It stands as an astounding achievement for Bowie and one of his best albums in decades, brooding with intergalactic noir and frigid alien soundscapes. Bowie experiments with off-kilter forms of jazz, electronica, and avant-garde rock. The title track itself is a monumental testament, a nearly 10-minute monolithic spiritual obelisk. It’s almost an album within itself rife with tempo changes, fluctuating vocal stylings, and shifting timbre. “Lazarus” is easily the most haunting song sounding as if Bowie wrote it like a shaman forecasting his demise would intersect with the album’s release (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.”). There is a euphonious comfort in the velvet orbit melancholy of “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” that suggest Bowie is finally at peace in the ether. Released deep in the doldrums of winter pontificating on mortality ★ is a morbidly perfect match with Bowie’s untimely death.
7. Radiohead- A Moon Shaped Pool
It is not hyperbole to say that A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s best album since Kid A. Although they’ve had some great releases since 2000 this still beats them, it was definitely easy to surpass its immediate predecessor 2011’s The King Of Limbs which was abysmally bad. Luckily A Moon Shaped Pool is in a completely different stratosphere and Radiohead get back to what they do best. While there are still electronic pulses and android hisses percolating throughout the album this is perhaps the most organic and instantly accessible the band has sounded since OK Computer. The real experimentation comes in the form of orchestral arrangements informed by guitarist Jonny Greenwood and his exceptional and jarring scores of multiple Paul Thomas Anderson films. The impact is immediate with opener “Burn The Witch” and its agitated, frantic strings in a col legno battuto style set the backdrop sounding like a paranoid air raid befitting of its lyrics which are a scathing indictment of religious sects and condemnation of authoritarian figures and parties. “Daydreaming” has a sterile metallic drone that pluviophiles could warm up to as “Decks Dark” huddles in the closet from an extraterrestrial invasion. There are divergent paths to placidity (“Desert Island Disk,” “Glass Eyes”) to turbulent palpitations (“Ful Stop,” “Identikit”) and the sweeping “The Numbers” tackling a topic as weighty as global warming. “True Love Waits” is a gorgeously portentous closer more than 20 years in the making. Though it has been performed and arranged differently in live incarnations throughout the years it finally gets studio treatment as a sparse piano ballad accompanied by Thom Yorke’s lonesome and longing lament attempting to salvage a disintegrating relationship. Radiohead continue pushing boundaries while being lauded critically for over two decades now, something that is nearly impossible to do.
6. Kings Of Leon- WALLS
Kings Of Leon have had a lot heaped on their plate in their nearly 15-year career. They will perhaps always have a fan base divided that will choose to create a fault line between Because Of The Times and Only By The Night. Some of the older stalwarts siding with Because Of The Times and everything that came before while newer fans may side with their commercial breakout Only By The Night and everything that proceeded it. There’s even a third contingent that recognizes them for what they really are: A consistently great band that has given the middle finger to expectations and pretensions. With their seventh album WALLS (An acronym for We Are Like Love Songs) the attack is still set to maximum impact for the biggest stages but it has less bloat then some of their previous efforts. There’s a lean yet muscular sound, cut to kill. Some of the credit goes to new producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) for taking core elements from Kings Of Leon’s previous six albums and incorporating them into the double helix of WALLS. Look no further than opener and first single “Waste A Moment” complete with meteor shower guitars, Caleb Followill’s longing howl (Only his drawl could sound as good on a line like, “All the way from Waco to WE-HO with a rabbit on her chain”), and cavernous WHOA-OH’s. “Reverend,” “Find Me,” “Over,” and “Eyes On You” all have high drama aura as guitars glide, collide, and jangle about with cinematic expanse. More than anything there is room to breathe sonically you can hear all of the distinct parts from all four members of the Followill clan working in familial synergy. The nocturnal dulcet ballads (“Muchacho,” “Conversation Piece,” and the title track) showcase a growing plaintive maturity that they may not have even dared in their early 20’s. At one point they were christened as the “Southern Strokes” but Kings Of Leon were never content with solely being scruffy swashbuckling rockers. The hard-charging snarling angst will always be there in some form but they’ve allowed the vulnerability that naturally comes with aging to alloy with that testosterone. They’re not interested in burning out or fading away.
5. Leonard Cohen- You Want It Darker
The year 2016 began with the devastating death of David Bowie and ended with the catastrophic loss of Leonard Cohen. Like Bowie, Cohen seemed to have an empyrean sense of his mortality and where its finite conclusion would be drawn. Cohen doesn’t pull any punches here and there’s no easing into it, You Want It Darker delivers on all of its intentions. Due to his ailments Cohen was confined to recording the album in his home with the assistance of his son Adam. Although Cohen’s antiquated baritone has corroded over the years it still carries a distinguished resonance that few others can match. There are orchestral accents but the overall sound is sparse in comparison to some of Cohen’s other work. The title track itself is an arraignment of the unbecoming conduct in humanity’s bleakest moments (“They’re lining up the prisoners/ The guards are taking aim/ I struggled with some demons/ They were middle-class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission/ To murder and to maim/ You want it darker.”) that sets the tone for the rest of the journey. Pain and regret pour out in palpable poetry as Cohen carries himself like a regal Prospero with his past, present, and future suddenly tangible in his immediate periphery. There are moments in this austere affair of sincere beauty and delicacy that seem defiant, much like the man crafting it. “Traveling Light” and “Steer You Way” navigate through the mire with a perseverance and resilience that is extremely admirable for a man so restricted physically but was undeterred and completely impassioned mentally. While You Want It Darker is a stark eulogy for Cohen’s career and life it will be remembered most as a stunning landmark in his already legendary oeuvre.
4. Black Pistol Fire- Don’t Wake The Riot
Rock & Roll can become quite a complex and contrarian beast in 2016, so much so that if can be difficult to define. What is considered rock music these days? The lines are blurred more than ever and show no signs of an oncoming clarity in the future. Then a band like Black Pistol Fire comes along and releases and album like Don’t Wake The Riot. It reminds us of the raw visceral power of Rock & Roll; the gristle, the sultry heat, voracity, volume, and uncompromising fortitude. Fans of The Black Keys need to absolutely get into this band and get this album immediately. As The Black Keys have moved away (Slightly) from their blues-based rock Black Pistol Fire are doing early bluesy Black Keys better than themselves. The Canadian duo by way of Austin, Texas of Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen are the engine powering this high-octane machine and they fit all of the muscle and might possible into this stout 37-minute haymaker. There are no standouts because every track is a can’t-miss fist-pumper, 11 stone-cold killers, leanly cut and ready to rumble. McKeown’s whiskey-soaked midnight-howl, savage riffs, and deep-fried licks are fueled and surge on the roadhouse back-beat of Owen’s while his cymbal and snare assault crash and batter like a torrential downpour. Only in the final moments do listeners get a bit of respite to catch their breath with closer “Blue Blazes.” A blue flame slow-burner that incites a tender comedown from the sweaty catharsis that came before as McKeown softly croons “Stumble through dark with these old heavy hearts/ Lights are fading but we’re still making sparks/ Burning tears of rage they slowly wash away with/ The rising tide if we don’t rock the boat.” A little bit of a personal editorial here and fourth-wall breaking but I was significantly disappointed in the lack of coverage by really any music publication or year-end best-of lists for Don’t Wake The Riot. It’s a back-pocket masterpiece, compact and concise but undeniably potent and it received pretty much zero fanfare. I’ve started adding a “Dark Horse” album winner to my year-end lists and this is the very definition of a dark horse, deservedly so. Black Pistol Fire is such a talented, gifted act and I wish these guys nothing but success and a lengthy career. We’d all be better off with more of their music in the future.
3. Red Hot Chili Peppers- The Getaway
Over their 30+ year career the Red Hot Chili Peppers have become one of the biggest and most popular bands in the world. They’ve endured through the classic Rock & Roll pitfalls over the decades: Band member deaths, band members departing (Multiple times), addiction, and the inevitable pressure of father time. That last one may be the most pressing for the Chili Peppers who’ve built their brand off of a decidedly youthful distillation of rock, punk, hip-hop, and funk to make something uniquely authentic. They’ve certainly slowed their output in the 21st century, just four albums in 16 years and 2006’s bombastic and fully-loaded double album Stadium Arcadium felt like the culmination of something. It was to be the last with guitarist and creative enigma John Frusciante and it took five years for a follow-up, 2011’s I’m With You. Although another solid entry for their back catalog it felt slightly under-baked and uninspired. While 2016’s The Getaway isn’t quite considered a comeback it’s a reintroduction to how great RHCP can be when they’re truly reinvigorated. While all of their hallmarks are still here they’re given some modern ornamentation with producing wiz Danger Mouse at the helm. Indeed The Getaway provides some of the strongest melodies and choruses since their peak of Californication and By The Way. Songs like “Dark Necessities,” “We Turn Red,” “Feasting On The Flowers,” and “This Ticonderoga” display their ability to shift expertly and seamlessly from crunching heaviness to floating-feather nimbleness with all of the soaring sing-a-longs included. They get gritty in the garage rock tribute to the motor city in “Detroit” and sound irresistibly catchy and primed to dry-hump an android on the dancefloor in “Go Robot.” They still make love geographically to their golden state home, “The Longest Wave” sounds like it was written on the cresting swell of the Pacific Ocean and “Encore” rivals “Scar Tissue” as their best California road trip jam. Closer “Dreams Of A Samurai” lumbers along like a colossus, Flea’s bass rumbling along like massive footsteps while Anthony Kiedis spits surrealistic images in vintage RHCP form (“A peaceful storm is never hectic,” “Paint your face cause I’m a black foot,” “Taking acid in the graveyard,” “Slowly turning into driftwood”). The Chili Peppers may always be young at heart no matter their age, The Getaway is the sound of that and now the quartet may have also finally found stable footing in this incarnation.
2. Car Seat Headrest- Teens Of Denial
Although he released several albums via Bandcamp in true DIY fashion before this, Will Toledo’s (aka Car Seat Headrest) Teens Of Denial is the equivalent to becoming an instant Phenom after leap-frogging from rookie ball all the way to the major leagues. There hasn’t been a coming-of-age album this bold in scope in years it’s the most self-aware, self-deprecating, sardonic project since Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. The immediacy of Teens Of Denial is intrinsic the sinewy electric guitar onslaught shows Toledo unrelenting and steadfast at his affection for ‘90s alt-rock bands. The breadth of Toledo’s genius is evident he makes something as daunting as a 70-minute debut opus feel intuitive. In some ways it is absolutely perverse that Toledo makes this feel like a greatest album and he’s just getting started. Great songs, the kind that withstand the test of time are able to engage its audience on a visceral level both musically and lyrically. Toledo’s hyper-literate 21st century millennial lamentations are on full display with satirical modernity, even name-dropping Wikipedia on “Vincent” (“They got a portrait by Van Gogh/ On the Wikipedia page/ For clinical depression/ Well, it helps to describe it”). The thundering “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” sounds like Pixies by way of Crazy Horse at their heaviest while “(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)” is as witty and articulate as it is hilarious (“Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/ I did not transcend/ I felt like a walking piece of shit/ In stupid looking jacket”). “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a tale of despair and debauchery and seems to be careening for the cliff until the life-affirming cloud-kissing chorus comes barreling in as Toledo yelps, “It doesn’t have to be like this/ Killer whales.” Bob Dylan drew from extremely specific contemporary events for some of his earliest subject matter and like Dylan Toledo chooses a cruise liner wreck from 2012 in “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia” as a metaphor for life on the rocks. In a way this is his “Desolation Row” as it eclipses the 11-minute mark while it morphs from a dreary dirge to a caffeinated buzz saw and a crystalized manifesto forms in the middle section as Toledo attempts to shrug off the numerous platitudes and responsibilities of life (“How was I supposed to know how to use a tube amp?” “How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?” “How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and- why not Sunday?” “How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”). This is an album for anyone pining and searching for something, but if you’re young enough it’s best to listen to it in the decade of your roaring ‘20s. It’s a fever dream for a decade that encapsulates both exhilarating emancipation and terrifying uncertainty of your future. The excessive alcohol-aided (And drug? Not judging) highs and self-conscious, maybe even self-imposed crushing lows. Toledo’s Teens Of Denial is a shoulder to lean on for anyone trying to bridge the gap from youth to adulthood. Life can be a drag but even in its darkest corners there are small victories that can feel divine.
1. Metallica- Hardwired… To Self-Destruct
The early years of the 21st century were not kind to Metallica. The once-thought invincible metal legends were dealt a series of ruthless concussive blows that usually spell certain doom for most groups. The first major issue being their unceremonious torch-bearing war against Napster and illegal file sharing (A war that they were and still are right about) which caused a contingent of fans to ostracize their once favorite band and vilifying them for wanting money for their music (How ludicrous!). What followed was a departure from long-time bassist Jason Newsted in 2001 after clashing with James Hetfield and never quite being able to handle all of the baggage saddled on him by having to replace original bassist Cliff Burton. There was then the public and very messy near-dissolution of the remaining members documented in the film Some Kind Of Monster. This was all supposed to culminate in Metallica’s redemption and return to glory with the release of St. Anger… which landed with a resounding thud. By far Metallica’s worst album, it was horribly produced; Lars Ulrich sounded like his drums were recorded inside of a water-tower with a tinny echo and there were no guitar solos to be found anywhere as Lars and producer Bob Rock felt they were “Dated.” Oh yeah, and Bob Rock played bass on it… rotten. Though their popularity never really waned critically and personally they were at a nadir. Five years later they finally reclaimed the throne as greatest metal band ever with the modern thrash masterpiece Death Magnetic. But could they keep their momentum and creative rebirth rolling after that? Well, sort of. They had several side projects sandwiched in between but a full eight years after Death Magnetic Metallica finally return with a proper studio album and worthy successor Hardwired… To Self-Destruct.
Naturally the title could be much better (If it were simply called Hardwired it would’ve been so much less cringe-worthy) but the album’s name is where anything bad about it ends. At its core Hardwired… is a loose concept album revolving around a future fueled by the paranoia of man vs. machine. The impending inferiority of humankind against the rapidly advancing precision of technology nipping at our heels is a prevailing theme throughout. Metallica are better than anyone at crafting albums that deal with dystopian ruin both personally and worldly; the decaying blood of the land with the force of a Tsar Bomba. There is no reprieve here, Hardwired… is relentless and is at your jugular for nearly 80 minutes. There are no ballads. No “Nothing Else Matters,” no “Unforgiven,” no “Hero Of The Day” (Although all of those songs had their heavy moments too) to allow you to catch your breath. It’s a relentlessly pummeling behemoth. Opener “Hardwired” is pure thrash at just over three-minutes long with no frills snarling and snorting attitude, recalling the brash seek and destroy basics of Kill ‘Em All. “Atlas, Rise!” is an exercise in prog-metal muscle flexing that could stand with anything on …And Justice For All. Hetfield’s rasp has never sounded better as he howls lines, “How does it feel on your own?/ Bound by the world all alone/ Crushed under heavy skies/ Atlas, Rise!” Kirk Hammett’s spontaneous (Literally, he lost all of his ideas for this album when he lost an iPhone he had) and impassioned volcanic guitar bursts and lightning quick iron-melting solos prove that Lars and Bob Rock were gravelly wrong about them being dated. “Now That We’re Dead” has a stadium-size swagger reminiscent of Metallica/“The Black Album” that relies less on tempo and more on seismic brute force rumbling free tectonic plates. “Moth Into Flame” attacks with a frenzied bludgeoning riff as the subject matter tackles the more malevolent side of social media and celebrity as Hetfield pontificates, “Guarantee your name, you go and kill yourself/ The vultures feast around you still/ Overdose on shame and insecurity/ If one won’t do that fistful will” before giving way to a spiraling torrent of Hammett’s wah-wah wizardry. “Dream No More” is a hypnotic nightmare paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu (Again) that falls somewhere between “Until It Sleeps” and “Where The Wild Things Are.” The first act closes with the epic centerpiece “Halo On Fire,” at eight minutes it feels more like four. The hulking leviathan morphs into a galloping volitant outro worthy of Black Sabbath’s “Wheels Of Confusion/ The Straightener” or their own “Fade To Black” as Hetfield and Hammett’s guitars intertwine in blazing alchemy. “Confusion” stomps with combative indifference while “ManUNkind” showcases Rob Trujillo’s dexterous and surprisingly lithe bass playing in the intro. “Here Comes Revenge” and “Am I Savage” are predatory marauders and “Murder One” is an ode to late metal icon Lemmy Kilmister. Being the consummate showmen they are however, Metallica save the best for last with “Spit Out The Bone.” A hard-boiled hellscape surging with speed demon riffs worthy of Master Of Puppets that sees humanity pushed to the brink by their own inventions, being hunted into extinction. In this cold and callous world Hammett keeps us febrile with his conflagrating solos as Hetfield delivers his eschatological proclamation, “Long live machine/ The future supreme/ Man overthrown/ Spit out the bone.”
Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is the best composite portrait of their career they’ve ever produced. They never settle in one area for too long whether it’s the blitzkrieg ascension of their ‘80s period, the global-conquering hooks of the black album, or the brawny grooves of the Load and Reload era. These are all fused with the modern aplomb of a band that now seemingly knows it’s in the middle of career revitalization. Metallica nearly completely derailed themselves at the turn of the century, now with back-to-back latter-day classics in Death Magnetic and Hardwired… To Self-Destruct the greatest metal band of all-time is once again acting like it.