This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.
MY TOP 10 ALBUMS:
1. Relient K – Air For Free
There are so many ways that this album could have gone wrong for Relient K. They were already coming off of an album – Collapsible Lung – that went horribly wrong. They were down to two band members. Matt Theissen went through another relationship blunder (before finally settling down and getting married after the record was written!) while Matt Hoopes went through a divorce. They decided for some reason to be ambitious and record a 16-track album that ran for an hour. Pulling that off without any bad or mediocre tracks is a feat for even some of the best bands out there, let alone one I’d kind of grown tired of over the years and wasn’t expecting much from this time around. While piano-driven pop and rock songs about love and heartache dominate this album, there’s plenty of time for meaningful personal reflection, a bit of the spiritual wisdom that has informed Relient K’s better works in the past, a bit of pure silliness, and some fleeting moments of rocking out. (Sometimes all within the same song!) There will probably never be an album again that pleases every segment of the Relient K fandom at once, but I feel like they’ve grown over the years and so have I, and now we’re both in different places from when I first heard the band’s silly Blink 182-lite formula in 2000, and we just happen to have emerged on roughly the same page in 2016. This record just kept hitting my sweet spot, track after track, and it never once felt tedious or like the band was running out of ideas. It’s nothing less than a career renaissance for a band that I had pretty much assumed would never be worth taking seriously again.
2. Paper Route – Real Emotion
Paper Route is giving MuteMath a serious run for their money as my favorite high-energy electro-rock outfit. Their third LP also contains 16 tracks – though in this case a few are interludes, so it’s not quite as ambitious as Relient K. But it’s still admirably well thought-out, feeling more like a song suite that’s meant to be ordered just so, rather than merely an amazing collection of songs all in row (which is basically what their first two albums were – though Absence had some thematic continuity here and there). They’ve lost a drummer and gained a guitarist since the last album, and while their sound is no less percussion-based (thanks to the assistance of MuteMath drummer Darren King, who is a freakin’ animal), it certainly benefits from more prominent guitar riffs on several of their new songs, without losing the synth and keyboard-heavy melodic aspects that made them such a standout in the genre to begin with. It’s a definite growth all around for the band that expands their sound slowly into territory you might not have expected them to cover, but that never feels inauthentic compared to the Paper Route we’ve known all these years. With three A-grade albums in a row (also a rare feat for even some of my all-time favorite bands), I’m excited to hear where these guys take it in the years to come.
3. House of Heroes – Colors
A lot of House of Heroes’ music walks a fine line between power pop and rock opera, and the lives of scrappy underdogs in rundown towns seem to be a favorite recurring theme for the band, so it’s not terribly surprising that they’d attempt a full-on concept album about a feud between two cousins in an urban setting. One represents freewill and idealism; the other fate and pragmatism. While this one takes more effort to fully get into than past HoH albums, the strong hooks are there if you can weather the sudden twists and turns in some of the song structures, and figuring out which character lead singer Tim Skipper represents in each song isn’t too hard once you’ve got the backbone of the story down. The climax of this one is a genuinely heartbreaking commentary on urban violence, crime and punishment. When it all clicked with me after a few listens, I was really floored by the thought and emotion that had clearly gone into the writing of these songs. And it doesn’t hurt that a few of ’em rock harder than the band ever has before.
4. Sherwood – Some Things Never Leave You
Sherwood’s music is the perfect soundtrack for a sunny summer road trip to California. Not just the tourist hotspots, but the smaller towns with their own little scenic spots tucked away for the more determined explorer to find, like San Luis Obispo where the band hails from. Their first album back after a 5-year break pursues more of aggressive power pop sound, and part of the delight in listening to it is realizing just how loud some of these otherwise easygoing, radio-friendly, sing-along type tracks are willing to get. While a few tracks are definitely tearjerkers, most of this album seems determined to put a big smile on my face. It’s a simple recipe, but Sherwood has pretty much perfected it.
Listen: “Closer to You”
5. Lucius – Good Grief
The two frontwomen of Lucius aren’t twins, but they love fooling people into thinking they are. Their aesthetic has evolved from “a little bit 70s-era folk/rock supergroup, a little bit 90s-era harmonic indie rock” to include a wide swath of the 80s, by way of a dual keyboard attack that brings to mind a few girl groups from the era. That makes this album a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge, not quite as tightly put together as their debut, but damn, is it fun to listen to. They have a habit of throwing little melodic twists and turns, and bursts of vocal energy, into a song just when you think it might threaten to get predictable. Lucius certainly keeps me on my toes, and makes me want to root for more women in rock music who have take-charge attitudes like this instead of just being figureheads to give their bands some sex appeal.
Live Video: “Almighty Gosh”
6. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
Esperanza seems like the kind of artist who is determined to prove you wrong the moment you put a label on her. She’s known for being a jazz bassist. And she does that quite capably on this album’s 12 tracks, but as a singer/songwriter, she seems to leave no stone unturned, throwing an experimental jazz sort of chord progression into an aggressive rock song one song, spitting rapidfire poetry in another, throwing down a funk jam, leaving room in between for some soothing R&B/pop type tracks, and even covering a song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of all things, at the end. This is all in service of a mischievous alter ego she’s concocted for herself, bearing her middle name Emily, and there’s plenty of both naughty and nice throughout these twelve songs to keep me intrigued.
Music Video: “Unconditional Love”
7. Owel – Dear Me
I got into Owel not long after their self-titled debut was released, at the recommendation of a friend, forgetting that the friend actually had some personal contact with the members of the band and would happily send my glowing praise in review form their way. That happened again just days ago when I reviewed their equally stunning follow-up album. It’s weird to know that something you wrote about a band is being read (and even retweeted) by a few of its members within hours. Anyway, enough about the weird interconnectedness of the social media world. This record is so wonderfully immersive that it takes a while to fully appreciate a lot of its longer, more slow-building tracks, but it’s delicious once you get there. Having a full-time violinist in the band as well as several members who can play keyboards when a song calls for it, as well as the expected guitar/bass/drums combo, makes Owel’s sound incredibly versatile, and yet it all flows so smoothly together that it never feels discontinuous. The cryptic lyrics and ornately detailed arrangements are a big draw, as is the raw energy when the climax a song has been hinting at for like five minutes comes to fruition. It’s breathtaking stuff. I want to see enough glowing reviews written about their music by other people, giving them the exposure they truly deserve, so that I no longer have to think of them as “that band that my friend knows”.
Listen: “Too Young to Fall in Love”
8. Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through
Switchfoot never disappointed me on past albums as badly as Relient K did, but I definitely felt a growing sense of weariness with each new album that came out for a while there. This album, their tenth full-length, is the kind of comeback that isn’t a radical reinvention, nor it is a complete throwback to the sound of a past album. They just seemed to have worked a lot harder at coming up with great songs that had both immediate appeal and staying power. Jon Foreman’s a smart guy, who writes a lot of intriguing lyrics for his solo EPs, yet I don’t think I’ve heard him come up with anything as profound and challenging as “If the House Burns Down Tonight” or “Looking for America” on a Switchfoot record since “Dirty Second Hands” back in 2006. And “Float”, which is just pure fun with a funky time signature, ended up being my favorite song of the year. Not every single track here works wonders for me, but I honestly can’t say I’ve had this positive of an initial reaction to a Switchfoot record in ten years. That excitement hasn’t worn off with repeated listens, either.
Listen: “If the House Burns Down Tonight”
9. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
You might be seeing a pattern forming at this point. Bands that have been absent from my personal favorites list (or just absent from the music scene, period) for a while now suddenly come back strong with Top 10-worthy material. Jimmy Eat World, like Switchfoot, didn’t need to radically reinvent their sound in order to do this. Like Relient K, the divorce of a founding band member (lead singer Jim Adkins, in this case) informed a lot of the songwriting. You wouldn’t notice a whole lot different from Jimmy Eat World’s usual, highly melodic and incredibly emo, musings on relationships at first. But these new songs just seem to hit harder and a lot more consistently on that topic. There’s a learning curve throughout the album, starting with confusion over why things had to fall apart and ultimately working through some of the stages of grief to get to acceptance and a sense of peace about being alone. And in the middle of it all, there’s… whatever the heck “Pass the Baby” is. It’s the creepiest and most surprising thing Jimmy Eat World’s done in a long while. Nothing else on the record comes out of left field quite like that, but the band is certainly firing on all cylinders on a lot of their more straightforward, radio-ready material as well.
Listen: “You with Me”
10. Animal Collective – Painting With
Since Animal Collective’s aim with this album was to pretty much floor it all the way through and dispense with the long, drawn-out ambient passages and noise experiments heard on some of their other albums, it’s pretty easy to see why it was so addictive for a guy like me who likes his music doused in a lot of fun percussion sounds and doesn’t mind the lyrics coming fast and furious. An album like Merriweather Post Pavilion might have more elegance and breathing room amidst the madcap experimentation, and be more critically acclaimed for it, but for those of us who can endure the obstacle course of ping-ponging vocal parts and quirky beats, there’s a lot to love about this record, once you work out what’s different from one track to the next. (It’s admittedly easy for a lot of it to blur together, aside from the stupidly catchy “FloriDada”, which will stay with you whether you want it to or not. Thankfully I wanted it to.) These are clearly some fun-loving guys, and they know how to blend the madness just right with some killer melodies, and for me at least, that’s what gives Painting With a ton of replay value.
Listen: “Bagels in Kiev”
11. Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
Another solid “reunion” record in a year that was good for comebacks overall. The Orange County boys made a simpler and more straightforward hard rock record than some of the more experimental stuff that first got me into them, while still leaving room for some unusual time signatures and some hard-hitting (though admittedly a bit too on the nose at times) political and social commentary. Seeing them in concert for the first time this year (something I never thought I’d get the chance to do when they went on indefinite hiatus a few years back) added a bit of dimension to some of the songs I hadn’t fully appreciated at first, too.
Listen: “The Window”
12. Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
Parker Millsap could well be the next Josh Ritter. He’s that solid of a songwriter, and he likes to challenge the norm of the country and blues genres that he blurbs together on his records. There are so many varied highlights on this record, written from so many imaginatively different points of view, that I hate to let just one song steal the spotlight (so I gushed about the gut-wrenching “Heaven Sent” on my top songs list instead). And his vocals sell it every time, with just the right mix of grit and grace that I still have a hard time believing the dude’s only in his mid-twenties.
Live Video: “Hades Pleads”
13. Green Day – Revolution Radio
If you were a Green Day fan in the 2000s, and you’d like to pretend the slapdash trilogy of albums they put out in 2012 only happened in some bizarro alternate universe, then step right up, have I got the album for you! While a lot of the styles and subject matter explored on this album may seem old hat in light of the monolithic American Idiot at this point, I feel like we live in a political climate where a lot of those lessons have to be re-learned, and Billie Joe Armstrong walks a pretty fine line between sober reasoning and bratty petulance as he recaps the turbulent firestorm that was both our country and his own personal life over the last few years.
Live Video: “Somewhere Now”
14. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
File this one under “Pretentiously long albums with even more pretentiously long titles that touch upon every throwback genre they can think of, and the kitchen sink for good measure, over the course of like seventy minutes.” Usually reserved for dinosaur prog rock bands, I suppose, but The 1975 managed to make me appreciate the audacity despite the huge reservations I had at first. Matty Healy is the kind of songwriter who can be annoyingly trashy one moment and then super-clever the next, and then make you realize that the trashiness actually informs the cleverness in some weird way. All the while, you have to wonder whether he’s being deadly serious or just making fun of himself, or trolling members of the audience who are prone to suspecting either. “Why the heck did they do this?” is the huge, driving question that keeps me coming back to the 17 tracks on this album and finding little bits of intrigue among them that I had never noticed before. While a lot of my favorite tracks are the singles, the deep album cuts that are incredibly far from radio-friendly make a strong case for themselves as well.
Music Video: “Love Me”
15. The Gray Havens – Ghost of a King
The Gray Havens’ first album was a fun little homespun folk/rock record. This one excels at its own brand of otherworldly storytelling. While the occasional goofy pop song or stripped-down ode to the married duo’s relationship turns up in the middle, the album is bookended by a pair of song suites that demonstrate a real gift for carefully arranging a modest song in a way that brings life and drama into it without it seeming at all overblown. “Quietly epic”, though that sounds like an oxymoron, is my two-word summary.
Listen: “Shadows of the Dawn”
16. Gungor – One Wild Life: Body
Michael and Lisa Gungor have the rare honor of appearing on my list twice, because they put out two pretty good albums this year, completing the trilogy that they started last year with One Wild Life: Soul. (Hmmm… they have two rugrats at home, and they actively tour. Where do they find the time?!) Body concludes the trilogy, and is its most ambitious entry, with a slew of unconventional songs largely related to our physical selves, and how our spirituality can often clash with our physical wants and needs, and our egos. Like every album in the trilogy, it can feel a bit scattershot at times, but digging through it reveals a commitment to never write the same song twice (not even when they reprise an earlier song at the album’s end), which leads to some of their most off-the-wall bits of experimentation and a few surprisingly touching ballads as well. I wish more “Christian music” was this daring.
Listen: “Alien Apes”
17. M83 – Junk
The title tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the style and intent of this album (it’s shameless nostalgia, thrown together with seemingly little rhyme or reason), and thankfully almost nothing about its quality. Sure, a few tracks are throwaways. But you know you’re always bound for a dose of cosmic synthpop on an M83 album, and by varying the vocalists a lot more here than I can recall them doing before, they make sure pretty much every track is distinctive, even if the reason it stands out is because it initially seems goofy to listeners like me who will later come to love it. It’s OK if you feel like you’re flipping channels through a bunch of 80s music videos and sitcom theme tunes when you listen to this one. It’s all part of the cheesy charm.
Live Video: “Laser Gun”
18. Gungor – One Wild Life: Spirit
The middle album in Gungor’s trilogy might be my least favorite of the three, but there are still a number of strong songs here, and it feels like the most immediate album of the bunch, due to the up-tempo heavy-hitters that dominate most of its front half. You’ve got some great social commentary that oughta make certain parts of Protestant white America squirm on tracks like “Let Bad Religion Die” and “Kiss the Night”, while anthems like “Wonder”, “Whale”, and, well, “Anthem” are every bit as catchy as they are esoteric.
19. Future of Forestry – Awakened to the Sound
Future of Forestry has a habit of very suddenly releasing albums that pretty radically defy the expectations built up by their previous ones. Following the ballad-heavy Pages is this album that could almost work as a film score, given how prominent the Eastern-tinged string arrangements are on some tracks. A few of them resound with booming drums reminiscent of the Travel days, while others are quiet moments of lush poetry, all of it very well orchestrated. The fact that Spotify has an instrumental-only version of this record available should tell that the music alone is a beautiful thing to behold here. But Eric Owyoung’s lyrics are still an important piece of the puzzle, and on several tracks, his love of the journey and his yearning for home have never sounded more compelling.
Listen: “On Giant’s Shoulders”
20. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
It’s nice to finally give Andrew Bird a nod on this list. He’s always been an intriguing artist, but this is the closest he’s come to making an album that excites me as a whole, rather than just for a small handful of especially ingenious tracks. I feel like it’s just a better marriage of his knack for catchy rhythmic loops, his baffling yet playful wordplay, and his virtuoso skills on the violin than he’s previously presented. He’s one of the few songwriters who can manage to be witty and punny while gracefully handling some genuinely dark and heartwrenching subject matter.
Live Video: “Truth Lies Low”