Those who know me at least relatively well know that I won’t remember 2016 as one of my favorite years. Which is all I will say about that.
But among the constant good things in my life is music. The best songs and albums have a way of propelling me through tough times – whether it’s a personal struggle, a busy work day, or simply a morning walk.
I trend toward the loud and fast, generally with a lot of guitars. But I appreciate the quieter moments in music, too. All of it’s represented on my list of top records of 2016.
Without further filler, here were my favorite albums of 2016. These are the records that I gave “A” or “A-minus” grades. Of the more than 660 albums and EPs I listened to in the past year, these are the 55 albums (and a handful of EPs) that cleared that bar.
If you’re interested, I will provide a full ranking of all records I listened to in the coming days. The link will be in this story online.
67. Muncie Girls – “From Caplan to Belsize”
66. Moose Blood – “Blush”
65. Drakulas – “Raw Wave”
64. Angel Olsen – “MY WOMAN”
63. All Get Out: “Nobody Likes A Quitter”
62. July Talk – “Touch”
61. Crying – “Beyond the Fleeting Gales”
60. Beach Slang: “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings”
59. The Hunna – “100”
58. Nothing But Thieves – “Nothing But Thieves”
57. Band of Skulls – “By Default”
56. Elliot Sumner – “Information”
55. Sorority Noise – “Forgettable”
54. Oh Pep! – “Stadium Cake”
53. American Authors – “What We Live For”
52. The Rifles – “Big Life”
51. Dinosaur Pile-Up – “Eleven Eleven”
50. DREAMERS – “This Album Does Not Exist”
49. Beach Baby – “No Mind No Money”
48. Violent Soho – “WACO”
47. Diarrhea Planet – “Turn to Gold”
46. Mitski – “Puberty 2”
45. Dark Blue – “Start of the World”
44. PARTYBABY – “The Golden Age of Bulls--t”
43. Dentist – “Ceilings”
42. The Wrecks – “We Are The Wrecks” (EP)
41. Oscar – “Cut and Paste”
40. Big Eyes – “Stake My Claim”
39. Blackout Balter – “Twist and Bend” (EP)
38. Them Bruins – “No One Wants to Dance With Them Bruins” (EP)
37. Wolf Parade – “EP 4”
36. Frightened Rabbit – “Painting of a Panic Attack”
35. Yellowcard – “Yellowcard”
34. Martha – “Blisters in the Pit of My Heart”
33. Ladyhawke – “Wild Things”
32. Mikey Erg – “Tentative Decisions”
31. Matt and Kim – “We Were The Weirdos” (EP)
30. October Drift – “Stranger Days” (EP)
29. Glass Gang – “1 For None” (EP)
28. Banners – “BANNERS” (EP)
27. Bad Sports – “Living With Secrets”
26. Pkew Pkew Pkew – “Pkew Pkew Pkew”
25. Fakers – “Sounding the Alarmists” (EP)
This 5-song record from the Australian alternative band moves fast and loud. But even within blistering rockers like “I Wanna Be Like Jeff Electric” (which is how I’d like to be known from now on, btw), there are sing-a-long harmonies.
24. Something To Do – “Not Making A Sound”
I first ran into this rock and ska outfit in 2013 on a side stage in the middle of a sunny afternoon at Summerfest in the band’s hometown of Milwaukee. Since then, I’ve seen them play live 3 more times. The band’s latest record continues their fun sound with a more polished and melodic sound. If you love ska, give these guys a listen!
23. The Virginmarys – “Divides”
This British 3-piece is a straightforward rock band that offers an enjoyable mix of grit and melodies. “Divides” builds upon the band’s outstanding 2013 offering, “King of Conflict.”
22. Twin Atlantic – “GLA”
I enjoyed this Scottish indie rock band’s previous efforts, but “GLA” sees them adding a harder edge to their stadium-ready choruses. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more pronounced Scottish accent in lead vocals, and I love it!
21. Weezer – “Weezer”
The self-titled release, unofficially known as The White Album, is the band’s strongest since 2005’s “Make Believe.” Songs like “King of the World” and “California Kids” showed Weezer still has some of the magic that fans feared had been lost a decade ago. Good stuff.
20. Basement – “Promise Everything”
This British band’s third studio album deftly merges the sounds of modern alternative rock with vintage emo. There’s a steady dose of lush guitars that interact with Andrew Fisher’s baritone voice to make for hooky, shoegazey rock.
19. Iggy Pop – “Post Pop Depression”
Like David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” Iggy Pop returned to top form with his 2016 release. The production and musical collaboration from Queens of Stone Age frontman Josh Homme gives what was pitched as Iggy Pop’s final record a fresh, funky sound.
18. Biffy Clyro – “Ellipsis”
There aren’t any better rock bands making music today than this Scottish trio. And while “Ellipsis” doesn’t quite rise to the level of the 2013 masterpiece, “Opposites,” there’s more than enough bangers (“Wolves of Winter”) and earworm hooks (“Herex”) to please fans. There’s a reason this band plays to big crowds overseas.
17. Catfish and the Bottlemen – “The Ride”
This Welsh band followed up the 2015 standout “The Balcony” with a record that follows the same formula but adds a few more hooks and polish. If you get a chance to see this four-piece alt rock band live, do so.
16. Savages – “Adore Life”
The menacing guitar intro to the lead track “The Answer” was a musical highlight of 2016, as was the high-energy show this four-piece post-punk band of women from England and France put on at High Noon Saloon in Madison, Wisconsin.
15. The Dead Ships – “CITYCIDE”
The Los Angeles rock band’s major label debut is a grungy but melodic mix of California beach and Texas saloon. That interesting mix is most evident in the album’s standout song, “The Big Quiet.”
14. All Tvvins – “IIVV”
The Dublin, Ireland, band put out the best alternative pop record of 2016. From “Book” to “Resurrect Me,” “IIVV” is chock full of sing-along toe-tappers.
13. Sundara Karma – “Loveblood EP”
I predict this British quartet will be a buzz band in alternative rock in 2017. “Loveblood” is the latest in a series of EPs and singles the band has released in the past 2 years, all catchy guitar rock that should make the expected 2017 debut album much anticipated.
12. Augustines – “This Is Your Life”
One of the year’s greatest disappointments in rock music was that this New York-based band decided to call it quits at year’s end. “This Is Your Life” offered a big sound – big vocals, big drums, and big choruses. Think a merger of U2 and Frightened Rabbit styles.
11. Paws – “No Grace”
The Glasgow, Scotland, band adds a punk intensity to its punchy, blazing indie guitar rock. From the opening title track to the closer, “Asthmatic,” “No Grace” offers soaring guitars and vocals and pounding drums, all wrapped in a layer of glazed echoes.
10. Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Pretty Years”
The Manhattan band has gone through a number of personnel changes since its beginning in 2009. Only vocalist and guitarist Joseph D’Agostino remains. But the band’s fourth album is its best, adding a definitive ‘80s (think The Cure) flavor to the band’s guitar rock sound.
9. Tokyo Police Club – “Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness (Parts 1&2)”
Like Biffy Clyro, this Canadian indie rock quartet has consistently produced catchy, quality music for the better part of a decade. Its two EPs of 2016, if put together, might have been my favorite record of the year. It’s that good.
8. Rock Eupora – “Soon The Sun Will Come”
The record, recorded entirely by Clayton Waller, is an interesting, bouncy brand of “fuzz pop” with a Southern flair. Live, the band consists of Waller, Cody Carpenter, Dakota Davis and Jonathan Williams. I met them briefly before their show in March at Theo’s Java Club in Rock Island. Good dudes. Great sound.
7. A. Sinclair – “Get Out of the City”
One of the most interesting records of the year. A. Sinclair is a mesh of pop, punk and country, which might be the result of the band’s Austin, Texas, and Boston origins. “Get Out of the City” is a diverse set of 12 songs that range from blistering guitar rockers to Neil Young-like ballads. A front-to-finish standout.
6. Asylums – “Killer Brain Waves”
The siren call of guitars that usher in “Second Class Sex,” the debut record of the UK’s Asylums, signal the beautifully chaotic 36 minutes of power pop rock that follow. The height of this barreling tour-de-force of a record is “Joy In A Small Wage,” which personifies the band’s mix of helter skelter and melodies.
5. David Bowie – “Blackstar”
This record made me cry, even before the stark reality that it would be David Bowie’s last hit just a week after its release. “Blackstar” isn’t the best Bowie record, but it definitely was his best in decades, and it marked a fresh turn of jazz-infused rock that proved that even in his last days Bowie remained an innovator.
4. Against Me! – “Shape Shift With Me”
Against Me! has been raging for 15 years now, but the past few years have marked a significant turn for the band. Lead singer Laura Jane Grace (born Thomas James Gabel) came out as a transgender woman in 2012. The band’s excellent “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” in 2014 dealt with that transition. “Shape Shift With Me” is less significant but more fun. The songs “333,” “Crash” and “Boyfriend” are as catchy as anything Against Me! has done, and “ProVision L-3” and “Dead Rats” show the band still packs a strong punch.
3. PUP – “The Dream is Over”
Told by a doctor that “the dream is over,” and that continued singing would shred his vocal chords, singer Stefan Babcock and the Toronto-based band PUP turned around and put out the best power punk record in a long time. The opening tracks, “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” and “DVP” were my favorite tracks of the year. The economical 30-minute records is full of shredding, squealing guitars, Babcock’s shouting vocals, and sing-along chants. Glorious.
2. Jeff Rosenstock – “WORRY.”
Rosenstock has been in the music business since the mid-’90s, but didn’t make his solo debut until 2012. His third record, “WORRY.,” is an upbeat-but-angst-ridden classic. You read that right: upbeat angst. The album’s 17 songs are full of, well, worry and despair. But musically it feels like a joyously drunken party. The closing 11 songs – all of 18 minutes long – run together and combine just about every style of alternative music possible into one fantastic opus.
1. Car Seat Headrest – “Teens of Denial”
Will Toledo has been making music, some of it literally from the backseat of a car, at a prodigious rate since 2010. But “Teens of Denial” is his and his band’s first proper album on the indie giant Matador Records. It’s also one of the best records of the decade. A sprawling 70-minute record, the 12 tracks on “Teens of Denial” often are songs within songs, taking turns and heading into new musical directions you don’t necessarily see coming on first listen. The songwriting is brilliant, the production immaculate. The music is an intriguing concoction of singer-songwriter, pop and punk. It ranges from rock opera (“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”) to thumping rock (“Destroyed by Hippie Powers”), without a weak link in the bunch. That’s a rarity. This record is a treasure, by a pretty significant margin the best of 2016.