Grandpa died. Concussion. Illnesses of all sorts. A marathon hamstrung by a hamstring injury (Should’ve seen that coming, yes?). So many other issues not fit to print.
So, 2016 was a dumpster fire in my neighborhood. For a few months, it seemed like the year’s offering of albums would be as poor as anything else this year.
But in at least one way, 2016 rallied. From mid-summer through fall, an ear-opening album seemed to drop each Friday.
As I look back, there’s a lot I need to make sure I cherish, even during that perceived slump. The last we’ll hear from art-rock icon David Bowie. Parker Milsap’s entrance into my heart. Yet another album from both Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould.
I finished that stinking marathon, too, and as I approached the finish line, I managed something resembling a smile as the Car Seat Headrest lyric played:
“I’m so sick of … fill in the blank. Accomplish more, accomplish nothing.”
The smile had to look a little more convincing when I heard the song’s refrain:
“You have no right to be depressed. You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”
Now, there’s a friendly reminder, and a mantra to carry into 2017.
1. “22, A Million” – Bon Iver
Thanks to Radiohead’s transition to a hyper-digital format with “Kid A” in 2000, I was ready for this.
Justin Vernon hooked me with “Skinny Love,” an echoey, haunting tune from his debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” in 2007. Recorded in a hunting cabin, the alt-Americana album’s songs are sonically gaunt, compared to his follow-up self-titled album, let alone the digitally obese “22, A Million.”
Despite its bare bones, or perhaps because of them, “Emma” was an insanely endearing album.
So is “22, A Million,” except Vernon has welcomed us into the new way folk music is done: with a self-built voice modulator and the sound of tape disintegrating, right along with the listener’s heart. The desperation of frostbite season in the middle of nowhere is still at the heart of Vernon’s work. It’s just dressed up quite differently, and the reason it works so well is Vernon couldn’t sound more comfortable. That’s saying something for a guy whose lyrics key on how uncomfortable he is with high concepts like a higher power, the human condition and the meaning of all of this.
Must-listen: “29 #Strafford APTS”
2. “Teens of Denial” – Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo’s breakout single “Something Soon,” off the 2015 album “Teens of Style,” featured more great aspects than most entire rock albums boast. It was only a matter of time before the 24-year-old tapped into something of a magic formula – he’s written 10 full-length albums since May 2010.
Now, spreading that sort of can’t-miss variety across a 12-track album? That’s impressive.
There are no hiccups, no near-misses on “Teens of Denial.” It rocks out marvelously (see: “Vincent”), draws laughs with tales of binge drinking and taking drugs but not transcending (See: “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem),” and breaks every fiber of my heart with each listen to the bridge of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia.”
Those are just examples. Listen to it all the way through. Loud.
3. “Pretty Years” – Cymbals Eat Guitars
If you’re curious just how much I love those top two albums, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ 2014 release, “LOSE,” claimed my top spot in 2014, and I honestly like “Pretty Years” even more. It’s laced with the greatest things from the ‘80s, most notably echoes of The Cure and The Smiths.
It’s easy for me to embrace Joseph D’Agostino’s … let’s call it … unconventional voice, and I strongly suggest you do the same. He’s the sort of vocalist whose neck you can see straight down, right into his gushing heart.
The album is fun, with its ability to make you dance, headbang and swoon from track to track.
Must-listen: “Have a Heart”
4. “Winter Wheat” – John K. Samson
Bias abounds in my lists. I fault no one for leaving the latest from Okkervil River and Dinosaur Jr. out of their top 100s, let alone top 25s.
John K. Samson has had an address in my heart since his days as the frontman of the adorably deep Canadian outfit, The Weakerthans. I miss hanging out in their cramped two-bedroom upper, but with the other three members having moved out, Samson is able to be a little more direct, a bit prettier, far less playful and much more brutally honest.
Must-listen: “Postdoc Blues”
5. “You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen
Talk about rallying. Cohen didn’t so much record an album as put his house in order, while dying. It’s a stark contrast to David Bowie’s outstanding-but-business-as-usual album, with Cohen willingly reflecting on loving and lost and, perhaps most heart-wrenchingly, repeatedly conceding that he’s “out of the game.”
When the album was released Oct. 21, it sat toward the bottom of my top 25. It’s the only album that made me cry multiple times this year, and with every tear that fell, it climbed another rung. If it had dropped in September, it might have reached the top of my chart.
6. “Puberty 2” – Mitski
7. “WORRY.” – Jeff Rosenstock
8. “The Very Last Day” – Parker Milsap
9. “Away” – Okkervil River
10. “A Man Alive” – Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
11. “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service” – A Tribe Called Quest
12. “I Had a Dream That You Were Mine” – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
13. “Blackstar” – David Bowie
14. “Return to Love” – LVL UP
15. “Touch” – July Talk
16. “Goodness” – Hotelier
17. “The Impossible Kid” – Aesop Rock
18. “Masterpiece” – Big Thief
19. “Schmilco” – Wilco
20. “Wildflower” – The Avalanches
21. “Shape Shift with Me” – Against Me!
22. “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” – Beach Slang
23. “Light Upon the Lake” – Whitney
24. “Standards” – Into It. Over It.
25. “Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not” – Dinosaur Jr.