Sunday, January 01, 2017

I Can't Give Everything Away: My Favorite Albums of 2016

Editor's note: You can hear esteemed indie rock impresario Jay Breitling and I go on at length about our favorite music of 2016 on CompCon (here's part 1; parts 2 and 3 are forthcoming in the next two weeks).

You're probably swimming in a sea of thinkpieces about how 2016 was the worst year in history, and you're not going to get much of an argument from me on that front. But in the face of all the crappiness and divisiveness and death (particularly in the music world), it was a terrific year for new music. So much so that, when compiling my best of '016 playlist for Stuck In Thee Garage, I had picked so many songs that I decided to make it a two-parter (that's four hours of music!). As always, there were albums that I didn't get to hear or only picked up late in the year. But here's my top 15 and some honorable mentions from a bountiful year. There was plenty of ear candy to distract from the awfulness.

15. Beach Slang - A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
It's been a productive and somewhat tumultuous 15 months for Beach Slang. The Philly act led by singer-guitarist James Alex (ex-Weston, Cordova Academy Glee Club) released two well-received full lengths (The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us in October 2015 and this album in September this year). But there was plenty of turmoil. The band seemingly broke up onstage in April, then parted ways with drummer/band founder JP Flexner a month later. Then in October, right after I saw the band play a blistering set opening for the Descendents at the Royale in Boston, Beach Slang parted ways with guitarist Ruben Gallego as a result of sexual assault allegations from 2012 coming to light. The band has since replaced Flexner and Gallego and is continuing to tour. All that aside, A Loud Bash is an excellent collection of Replacements-inspired punk pop that is a whole helluva lot of fun. Hopefully the band can stabilize and continue releasing hot rock on the regular.

14. Split Single - Metal Frames
Jason Narducy has quietly built a reputation as one of indie rock's finest sidemen over the last decade, playing bass for the likes of Bob Mould, Superchunk, Robert Pollard and Telekinesis. But he's also released music under the name Split Single, with 2014's Fragmented World (featuring Britt Daniel of Spoon and drummer extraordinaire Jon Wurster) and this year's Metal Frames, with Wurster and John Stirratt of Wilco). With his Split Single material, Narducy displays a propensity for power pop with a strong sense of melody. Richly deserving of much more attention than he gets.

13. Dinosaur Jr. - Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
It's been more than a decade since the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited and the results have been fruitful indeed. J. Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph released their fourth "reunion album," one more than the trio released on their first go-round. The hallmarks of the Dino Jr. sound are all here: Mascis' roaring riffs and expressive solos, Barlow's monster bass and Murph pounding away on drums. The two Barlow contributions--"Love Is" and "Left/Right"--are particularly good. While they don't break any new ground, Dino Jr. in 2016 is still as vital as ever.

12. Savages - Adore Life
On its debut album, 2013's Silence Yourself, Savages made a splash with an explosive collection of angular songs that were about anything but love. This time around, the quartet dive headfirst into writing love songs, but they're hardly typical. An electrifying live act, Savages isn't content to write sappy odes to romance. Instead, singer Jehnny Beth leads the band through explorations of the thornier sides of love, whether it be flirtation, lust or infatuation. Guitarist Gemma Thompson wields feedback like a weapon. Musically, the band's post-punk influences aren't quite as on-the-nose as on their debut, but you can still hear them: Joy Division, Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Whether it's the slow build of "Adore" or the all-out riffage of "The Answer" and "I Need Something New,"  Savages provide another impressive tour de force example of the possibilities of rock.

11. A Giant Dog - Pile
On its third album, the Austin band forged a potent combination of hard rock riffage and punk energy. Spoon's Britt Daniel helped the band score a deal with Merge Records, and also lends vocals to "Get With You and Get High." Singers Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen lead AGD through a careening set of rockers. The band captures the excitement of garage rock with Ellis and Cashen providing the male-female vocal dynamic that recalls the glory days of X. The mood remains rollicking throughout even as the band explores the darker side of love, sex, drugs and whatever else they feel like singing about. Names are taken, asses are kicked.

10. The Tragically Hip - Man Machine Poem
The first part of 2016 seemed like a typical year for the Hip, with expectations of a new record and tour coming in the second half of the year. In April, the band released the album's first single, "In a World Possessed by the Human Mind," which sounded like a logical extension of the sound of 2012's Now for Plan A. Then the hammer dropped in May with the announcement that frontman Gord Downie had been diagnosed in December 2015 with incurable brain cancer. The new album had already been recorded before the diagnosis, but it became clear that this was likely the last Hip record. All that said, Man Machine Poem sounds like no other Hip release. Producers Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin (Broken Social Scene, The Stills) brought an indie rock feel to a well-established rock act and the results are glorious. It still sounds like the Hip, with Downie's unmistakable vocals and lyrical twists and turns, but the instrumentation has been turned on its head. Johnny Fay's drums and percussion are almost the lead instrument as the band tones down its riffier elements (with the exception of "Here, In the Dark") and focuses on lower-key themes of angst and despair and aging on standout tracks "Hot Mic," "Great Soul," "Tired as Fuck" and "Ocean Next." The opening and closing songs, "Man" and "Machine," have a bit of a Kid A feel as Downie ruminates on the theme of man as machine and ends on an optimistic note. If this is the last Tragically Hip album, it's a hell of a way to go out.

9. PUP - The Dream is Over
PUP came out of the gate strong a few years back with their self-titled debut of punk blasters. On their second release, the Toronto act doubles down with a powerful yet mature collection that doesn't hold back on the rock riffs and group chants, but leavens it with a world-weary outlook forged by endless touring and hard living. There's no wasted space on The Dream Is Over. The album opens with the killer one-two punch of "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" and "DVP"; the former is a sardonic sea chanty of a song about the animus built after playing 400-some-odd shows while the latter is a high-speed lament over being a drunken loser. PUP has definite echoes of Titus Andronicus and the Henry Clay People, which are two of the finer acts to emerge over the last decade or so. It's a testament to the band's energy that songs that chronicle such hard times are so goddamn exhilarating.

8. Car Seat Headrest - Teens in Denial
At the ripe old age of 24, Car Seat Headrest frontman/chief bottle washer Will Toledo has been very busy over the last several years. From 2010-2015, he released 12 CSH albums via Bandcamp and a compilation called Teens of Style on Matador. His first full-length for Matador, Teens of Denial, is a tour de force of indie rock, combining the lo-fi sounds of Pavement and Guided by Voices with more expansive ideas. This results in some decidedly un-GBV-esque song lengths, with eight of the album's 12 songs clocking in at over 5 minutes, including "The Ballad of the Costa Concordia" at 11:31, "Vincent" at 7:45 and "Cosmic Hero" at 8:32. Toledo explores depression, drug use and millennial angst throughout, working in hot shit Malkmus-y guitar solos and unconventional choruses. The album got some unwanted publicity when the song "Just What I Wanted/Not Just What I Needed" had to removed because Ric Ocasek put the kibosh on Toledo's reinterpretation of the Cars classic "Just What I Needed." Matador had to recall and destroy the original pressings of the album; Toledo reworked the song as "Not Just What I Needed," removing the Cars references. Nevertheless, the record is terrific and it should be fun to see how Toledo follows it up.

7. Bob Mould - Patch the Sky
Bob Mould is a living rock legend. He could coast on his former glories, or play greatest hits shows, or release endless compilations of "the good stuff." But he's not doing that. After a decade of experimentation with electronic sounds, Mould started embracing his rock god status on 2012's Silver Age, teaming with bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster to form a powerful trio on par with his old bands Husker Du and Sugar. He released a celebrated memoir and then followed with 2014's Beauty & Ruin and couple of triumphant tours (even rattling the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theater on a Letterman performance). Now he's back with a third record of loud rockers that belie his age and standing. "Voices in My Head" is an anthemic opener, followed by the thunderous "The End of Things." Mould explores the recent death of his parents on "Daddy's Favorite" and album closer "Monuments," while "Hold On" is a rumination about hitting middle age and "Pray for Rain" and "Hands are Tied" are explosive punk-fueled numbers. Live, Mould and his band were energetic and clearly having a blast. Mould is putting on a master class on how to age the right way.

6. Parquet Courts - Human Performance
It's been a lot of fun watching the evolution of Parquet Courts. Every release over the last five years has had interesting new touches or nuances as the band stretched out its sound. The Pavement comparisons have always been there, but there are also nods to the Velvet Underground, Television and the Modern Lovers in their sound. Co-singers/songwriters Andrew Savage and Austin Brown both have that detached vocal delivery the indie rock kids love, but there's so much more to this band. There's plenty of experimentation on Human Performance: the twangy riff on "Berlin Got Blurry," the rapped passages of "Captive of the Sun" (fleshed out by hip hog legend Bun B on a Colbert performance), the congas and psychedelic guitar of "One Man No City." Can't wait for the next album.

Parquet Courts - Captive of the Sun (feat... by eidurrasmussen

5. Black Mountain - IV
It's not just any band that will open an album with an 8-minute stoner-prog epic, but Black Mountain isn't just any band. On their fourth album, the Vancouver hard rockers do just that with "Mothers of the Sun," which lays out all the stuff that's great about the band: monster riffs as thick as frontman Stephen McBean; space synths galore from Jeremy Schmidt; the vocal interplay of McBean and Amber Webber; and a thundering rhythm section. On IV, the synths are given more time to shine alongside McBean's solos, especially on songs like "Florian Saucer Attack," "Defector" and "(Over and Over) The Chain," which has a long, spacey intro suited to the soundtrack of season 2 of Stranger Things. Then there's the crunchy goodness of "Constellations," the spooky graveyard lament of "Cemetery Breeding" and shimmering vocal harmonies on "Crucify Me." IV is chock full of rock delights.

4. Drive-By Truckers - American Band 
A familiar refrain when assessing the state of music in 2016 has been wondering where all the protest songs went. And that was fairly accurate, but not when considering American Band by the Drive-By Truckers. The band is no stranger to making pointed statements; hell, they did a double concept album about the duality of Southern rock (2001's Southern Rock Opera). Songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have always painted painfully accurate portrayals of their protagonists, not content to smooth over the rough edges. American Band comes out at an interesting time in American history: race relations are in tough shape, gun violence is way up, the economy is good for some and bad for others and an undercurrent of dissatisfaction had a huge impact on the presidential election. Hood and Cooley found themselves with songs that reflected these issues: "Surrender Under Protest" looks at the Confederate flag controversy, "What It Means" takes on the shootings of unarmed black men, Hood's "Guns of Umpqua" and "Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn" examine recent mass shootings. DBT combine this lyrical awareness with Stonesy guitar riffage and their typical tight musicianship. The band's got a lot to say and they're not afraid of who they'll piss off; when Hood posted the lyrics to "What It Means" on his Facebook page, it provoked a firestorm of negative comments from pissed off non-liberal fans. In times like these, we need DBT more than ever.

3. Jeff Rosenstock - WORRY.
Jeff Rosenstock's last album, We Cool?, was my #1 album of 2015. The only reason he's not #1 again this year is because two rock legends released their best albums in decades. There's nothing complicated about Rosenstock's music. It's catchy-as-fuck punk pop with gang shouted choruses, big riffs and clever lyrics about personal and societal angst. And it's amazing. After a side 1 that crafts infectious choruses about breakups ("Staring Out the Window at Your Old Apartment"), online alienation, the loss of small punk clubs ("Wave Goodnight to Me") and marketing ("Festival Song"), side 2 is a whirling dervish of a quick-hitters that careen through Rosenstock's past as a ska-punk and hardcore artist. Much like PUP, Rosenstock also makes music that lends itself to drunken shouted choruses. There's anger in them there songs; even as Rosenstock is a married dad in his mid-30s, much of his current audience is much younger than that. I saw him play at the Sinclair in Cambridge a few days after the election and he spent a fair amount of time speaking to the audience about their mutual fears of the incoming Trump administration and what it might mean for civil rights, etc. Although he went fairly under the radar for the first two decades of his career, Rosenstock is making his mark now and will be a force in indie rock for years to come (at least if there's any justice in the world).

2. Iggy Pop -  Post Pop Depression
With a career that dates back 50 years, Iggy Pop has earned enough goodwill to do whatever the hell he wants. Whether that's teaming up with Sum 41, doing French pop songs or making commercials for whatever, it's all fine. Nobody's expecting anything brilliant from him anymore. So it was a pleasant surprise when he reached out to Josh Homme and made a rock album that is on par with his best solo work from the late '70s. Homme assembled a crack team of rock craftsmen: himself as producer and guitarist, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age on multiple instruments and Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys on drums. The resulting album recalls the sound that Iggy and David Bowie achieved on the legendary albums The Idiot and Lust for Life (as well as Bowie's Berlin albums). On Post Pop Depression, Iggy looks back on his life and his place in the modern world, while his backing band is less in your face than the Stooges and more sharp edges and detached debauchery. Iggy's vocals are restrained, but focused. It's a mature yet powerful effort. Iggy has said this is likely his last rock record; if so, he's going out with a bang.

1. David Bowie - Blackstar
The year got off to a rough start after David Bowie died on January 10, just two days after the release of Blackstar, his 25th album. Bowie recorded the album in secret with longtime producer Tony Visconti and a group of little-known NYC jazz musicians, all the while dealing with a terminal liver cancer diagnosis. Themes of mortality abound, from the title track and "Lazarus," both of which featured cryptic videos with plenty of death imagery. Unlike his previous surprise effort, 2013's The Next Day, which echoed his classic '70s sound, Bowie went in a completely different musical direction on Blackstar. At the age of 68, he once again completely reinvented himself, exploring art-rock, jazz and experimental sounds. Obviously, the reaction to the record has been colored by Bowie's shocking death and how much his condition affected its creation. But there's no denying Blackstar's power and the inherent sadness hanging over Bowie and his final days. It's a tough listen, but a vital one. The fact that he could create such an important record while staring death in the face is not only impressive, it's courageous. His death leaves a huge vacuum in the rock world, but his parting gift is one that will never be forgotten.

Honorable mention:
Descendents - Hypercaffium Spazzinate
Used Cassettes - Rock n Rills
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Preoccupations - s/t
Johnny Foreigner - Mono No Aware
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Gord Downie - Secret Path
Terry Malts - Lost at the Party
Teenage Fanclub - Here
Hallelujah the Hills - A Band is Something to Figure Out
The I Don't Cares - Wild Stab
Ty Segall - Emotional Mugger
Kristin Hersh - Wyatt at the Coyote Palace
PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Pixies - Head Carrier
Wilco - Schmilco
Living Colour - Who Shot Ya
TUNS - Tuns
Future of the Left - The Peace & Truce of Future of the Left
Thin Lips - Riff Hard
Thee Oh Sees - A Weird Exits

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