12/18: 2015’s Best Musical Moments (Podcast) and 2016 Predictions (Podcast)
12/21: Top Vinyl Variants/Top Vinyl Packaging
12/22: Top Reissues/2016 Most Anticipated (Text)/Best Tape Releases
12/23: Top 50 Songs/Top Albums
12/24: Label of The Year
In Alphabetical Order
Chvrches — Every Open Eye
Maybe I just don’t get the sophomore slump? It would seem, especially in the case of Chvrches, that rising fame could provide mass inspiration to a post-debut songwriter, the new world one enters into full of moral and personal pitfalls. The band goes right at that notion in album standout “Clearest Blue,” depicting a “light” that’s “all over us” and a steadfast effort to remain within the best of artistic intentions. “Make Them Gold,” meanwhile, showcases the band at its most inspirational, as Lauren Mayberry exclaims “We will take the best parts of ourselves” and use them to propel forward. But besides this willingness to open up about the process of hitting it “big,” you also have a group moving past the obvious 80s/synth influence. Instead, they use synth-pop elements of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Pet Shop Boys’ more popular work and even Flock Of Seagulls, giving the band a unique, slightly cooler than standard rock radio vibe.
Grimes — Art Angels
I’m honestly not sure if Grimes’ new album, Art Angels, is truly great, or if I’m just so impressed by her dramatic improvement I have my blinders on to any faults. Don’t get me wrong — I have long been a fan. I remember discovering her around the time of “Oblivion” and immediately regretting not seeing her live at 2011’s Moogfest when discovering her name on an old festival poster of mine. But this time around her vocals are crystal clear on most tracks, abandoning the breathy, past work and no longer are they buried behind a barrage of synths. And at times, she even lets out several surprising screams that caught me off guard in the best way. The instrumentation is the biggest step-up, though. The album opens with a fine orchestral piece, and rather than every song being dream-pop, there are some fast-paced, bass-heavy bangers, sure to get you pumped. Basically, Grimes does what you should do as a musician who has gained the success she has: improve, improve, improve. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next [Zachary Behm].
Hamilton: An American Musical — Original Broadway Cast
It’s been an interesting year for music, especially in the theatre world. But the release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is the first Broadway musical soundtrack I’ve been absolutely obsessed with in a very long time. The last time that happened? Spring Awakening back in 2006. It should be noted this isn’t Miranda’s first foray into Broadway; he originally found success with In The Heights back in 2008, as well as being one of the co-writers for Bring It On: The Musical in 2011.
Hamilton delves into the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, using a hip-hop based format. Miranda portrays the musical’s namesake, while backed by a diverse cast starring as great historical figures from the early years of America. It will leave you emotionally attached to the characters and should make you want to move and groove along with every measure. Lyrically, this whole album is spectacular and will leave you endlessly quoting random bits from it. After all, to quote Aaron Burr (portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.), “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” If you’re sick of the political battleground known as the 2016 Presidential Election, it might be worth checking out Hamilton, if only for a time when politics were much simpler, and duels (and just about everything else) were “legal in New Jersey” [Meghin Moore].
Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free
Following up Isbell’s critically acclaimed 2013 album, Southeastern, his new LP dives headfirst into what it means to be an American living in the South. Comparisons to Springsteen’s Nebraska were a given, the difference here being Isbell’s knack for adding incredibly thoughtful chord progressions and guitar solos over authentic stories of hope, love, as well as despair. Check out the full album review for a more in depth look at my favorite album of the year [Alan Miller].
Jay Rock — 90059
Right from the opener, Jay Rock’s much anticipated new album is an experience. The opening hook, “Nine-Double-Oh-Five-Nine be the zip,” Jay Rock takes the listener on a ride through his hometown and all the experiences he has had since Black Hippy broke out into the mainstream. It’s very similar to last year’s Freddie Gibbs record, not in sound, but in creating an immersive experience that puts you in the car with Jay Rock, cruising through his neighborhood on a hot California day. The album sports several impressive singles (my favorite being “Gumbo,” which has a really smooth beat/hook), and a really solid clique track with all members of Black Hippy (makes me want a collab album so bad). If you love hip-hop and have not checked this out, do so as soon as possible [Zachary Behm].
Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?
“I’m So Gross” is a single which carried over from We Cool’s writing mantra — creating offbeat yet wildly catchy pop songs with a punk veneer. Of course, this was no different from Rosenstock’s career with Bomb the Music Industry!, but the grossness of We Cool? is a gross overstatement. Perhaps it’s disgusting to attack post-teenage failure with such an astute, damning intersection of commercialism and cynicism as a malt liquor ad gets recounted on opener “Get Old Forever.” There’s mentions of vomit, beer and enough sweat to drown a “Polar Bear or Africa,” so basically instead of reinventing Bomb the Music Industry!, Rosenstock just lets his cheeky side get cleaned up just enough to score universal appeal before crumbling in a mess of confusion and student debt [James Cassar].
Slug — Ripe
Slug (aka Ian Black) knocked me out this year with his debut release, the delightfully eccentric and funky Ripe. Released just before Record Store Day, I got my first chance to hear it all the way through while stocking bins the night before RSD with my co-workers at the record store — we all loved it, and it’s stayed in my constant rotation since. Ian was kind enough to let us interview him, and I reviewed the album shortly after [Alan Miller].
Sufjan Stevens — Carrie And Lowell
Carrie And Lowell might just be one of the most emotional albums to come out this year. It’s beautiful. It’s poignant. It’s guaranteed to make you tear up at least once in the listening process. And to hear it live? Absolutely heartbreaking.
This was Sufjan Stevens’ first release since 2010’s Age of Adz and it shone brightly in a sea of excellent albums this year. It also marked a return to some of his softer indie roots, with standout performances on songs like “Death With Dignity” and “Fourth Of July.” The album’s subject matter is quite dark, dealing with his mother’s death, as well as flashbacks to his life as a child. Showcasing spectacular storytelling skills, I think this might actually be his best album, just after Illinoise, another classic [Meghin Moore].
Turnover — Peripheral Vision
We’ve seen this story play out before: a spry, brash pop-punk act finds footing in the linkages associated with the “emo” buzzword and then discovers languid, “mature” songwriting via a muse unafraid to experiment with ’90s production values and a self-aware, self-aggravating lyrical crutch. Producer Will Yip’s work with Title Fight followed them out of this hierarchy and into the ranks of Vogue.com (for some reason) and his similar tenure with Virginia Beach’s Turnover shows similar signs of transformation. Start by listening to the reworked “I Would Hate You If I Could,” a post-college portrait which in its second wind drips with indie-pop glaze rather than emo-rock naivete, then listen through the whole LP, stopping to examine key forays into self-medication (“Diazepam”), blustery lost love (“Like Slow Disappearing”) and a thin dusting of formal anxiety (“Hello Euphoria”). There’s an inherent ache for summer here and the shadows that ghost and linger after the season is over, and that’s the image Turnover wants to broadcast: for every high, there’s a comedown. In that valley, there’s a creative and musical peak. No one really saw this coming [James Cassar].
The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die — Harmlessness
Not only is the now memorable line of “Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow” the capper on “January 10th, 2014,” the best song on Harmlessness, but it depicts a willingness of The World Is A Beautiful Place to tackle big subjects. We’ve got revenge and gender roles in this track (based on a tragic true story), and with both death and mental health recurring themes, we’re looking at a record with a ton on its mind. And luckily, the execution is on par with the ambition. “I Can Be Afraid Of Anything” is another standout, which looks at self-improvement amongst a sprawling 7-minute landscape. “I really did dig my own hole, but I can see the top” is followed by a willingness to “climb out,” a mention of “life above the ground.” A darkness rests above this record, but one that’s meant to be triumphed over, one that’s meant to be eclipsed and defeated. Perhaps it’s this which connected with me most [Chris Lantinen].