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Emerald Recommends: The best albums of 2016

It’s likely that 2016 will be remembered as the year that proved no one is safe as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and so many legends passed away. But as strange of a year as it may have been, there were many great releases that powered us through. Emerald writers have selected their favorites.

Emerson Malone’s top albums

5. ★ — David Bowie

On Blackstar, Bowie did it: He fulfilled his lifelong dream of working with a jazz band. Inspired by the dissimilar styles of Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips, Bowie uses an eclectic palate to shade in this transcendent, existential, seven-song/forty-minute production. On the titular opener, Bowie’s voice is quivering and inhuman as he introduces us to a mystical scene: “In the villa of Ormen / stands a solitary candle / in the center of it all.”

On “Lazarus,” he explicitly tells us he’s dialing in from heaven, a lyric that amplified with subtext as Bowie passed two days after the album’s release. The final track “I Can’t Give Everything Away” shows Bowie — someone who’s adopted various colorful alien personalities over the years — admitting that there’s more that could be shared with the world, but it’s unreachable, either by the constraints of time or simply by human capacity. Even in death, Bowie — nothing if not a curator of his public persona — couldn’t help but turn it into a narrative.

4. A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead

Look: 2016 felt like the world as we know it was unspooling at every seam, even without a new Radiohead record. But this year felt a little darker with the icicle record that is A Moon Shaped Pool. Each cut from Moon is uniquely captivating, from opener “Burn the Witch,” with its knotty, taut percussion of violin bow sticks clacking against the instrument’s strings (a technique called “col legno”). This tumbling clamor hurtles forward into a swollen, panicked climax.

The unrest never lets up on A Moon Shaped Pool: Listen to the immaculate coda of “Decks Dark,” the buoyant six-minute ambient techno of “Ful Stop,” the gurgling orchestra in “Glass Eyes,” the submerged instrumental work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” and the glacial closer “True Love Waits,” an inebriating piano ballad that has Yorke crying: “I’m not living; I’m just killing time.” I mean, seriously, 2016 was sullen enough.

  1. Human Performance — Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts built its reputation on a streak of silliness and haphazardness on their first two releases, the Tally Up All The Things You Broke EP and full-length debut Light Up Gold. In Human Performance, however, the Brooklyn-based punk band has taken a sharp left turn on this third full-length album past the two-chord punk tracks and articulate stoner-poet lyricisms. When I first heard opening track “Dust,” in which singer-songwriter Andrew Savage taunts, “Dust is everywhere / Sweep!” I misheard: “Dust is everywhere / Sweet!” But I didn’t question it. The group has always been pretty sarcastic and lazy, so reveling in grime is not implausible. But here, Savage is narrating a nightmarish, germaphobe’s account of “oh-my-god-my-house-is-trying-to-kill-me.” But on a more symbolic level, the song posits that the group’s decided to clean up its act with the new album. The array of instruments at the band’s disposal is another notable advancement on Human; what previously was a guitar-bass-drums-screaming outfit now finds room for flute, keyboards, marimba and bongos. There’s no conceptual narrative on Performance to swallow, nor a hyper-literate social commentary like on past records, but Parquet Courts having fun on a new level of musicianship here, highly evolved and entirely human.

  1. Absolute Loser — Fruit Bats

It’s like signing your own divorce papers to put your wife on the cover of your band’s album and slapping the words “Absolute Loser” over it. But in an interview earlier this year, singer-songwriter Eric D. Johnson told the Emerald that not only did his wife pick the photo, but the title is not a jab, it’s a philosophy: “The words don’t really mean an ‘absolute loser,’ it means someone experiencing an absolute loss. If you listen to [the title track], there’s an extreme silver lining in there that means you’ve lost everything and you’re about to rebuild.”

The Portland-based indie-rock band has always found inspiration in the emotional elasticity of life: the nakedness of “Baby Bluebird,” which recalls John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; the chugging guitar and locomotive momentum of “My Sweet Midwest” and its allusion to homesickness; and processing feelings of malaise and solitude (“Soon-to-Be-Ghost-Town.”) Fruit Bats have made an album that is, frankly, excellent to drink alone to. Absolute Loser is an excellent soundtrack to the fraught year that was 2016. And still, despite its woe, Johnson makes you want to dance.

  1. A Seat at the Table — Solange

Solange has always been perceived as the indie counterweight to her older sister. Since 2016 brought albums from both Knowles sisters, this contrast may begin to erode because each of their dispatches are steeped in a bruising political climate. Lemonade is a loud, blockbuster parable of adultery, while A Seat At the Table is a quieter, more intimate affair. In his review of the album, former Emerald writer Daniel Bromfield wrote that the succinct lyrical thesis “some shit you can’t touch” from “F.U.B.U.” sums up the album’s vital self-declaration and serves as a “rebuke to appropriation, white-splaining, the defensive of egregious racism in the name of ‘humor’ and the festishization of black bodies.”

At times reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s protest-soul or Haim’s bubbly synths, or the melodic anguish of James Blake, A Seat At the Table is transposed with testimony from Solange’s family members about the black experience in America. Paradoxically, A Seat at the Table feels effortless and exhaustively produced in equal measure. It’s an inimitable, exemplary album that far outpaces any comparison.

Honorable mentions: Lemonade by Beyoncé; Beyond the Bloodhounds by Adia Victoria; New View by Eleanor Friedberger; My Woman by Angel Olsen; The Ridge by Sarah Neufeld; Blonde by Frank Ocean; Congrats by Holy Fuck; Visions of Us on the Land by Damien Jurado; Big Fugitive Life by Ezra Furman; Day of the Dead (compilation, various artists)

Craig Wright’s top albums: 

5. Wild Stab  — The I Don’t Cares

After the recent Replacements reunion, frontman Paul Westerberg teamed with longtime friend Juliana Hatfield to record songs he had stashed in his basement recording studio. As The I Don’t Cares, Hatfield selected the best of Westerberg’s material and found a few diamonds in the rough. “Hands Together” finds Westerberg opening up about his personal life, and it is as funny as it is devastatingly sad: “The dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up / And the blankets are embarrassed / It’s only me that they cover up.” Luckily, the heavy hitters are balanced by the levity of “½ 2 Pee” and rockers like “Need The Guys.” Ultimately it’s a reminder that music doesn’t always need to be an overproduced tour-de-force; sometimes a crappy microphone and a few old ideas are all you need to make something fresh.

4. Lemonade — Beyonce

From the opening bars of “Pray You Catch Me,” it’s clear that Beyonce is on a mission with Lemonade. Every word in this album is a pointed attack at Jay-Z’s infidelity, but none are more powerful than when she poses the question “Hey baby, who the fuck do you think I am?” on “Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White).” This does not feel like a pop album, rather it is a statement album that Beyonce can conquer any musical style she wants, and probably the world if she so desires. Beyonce flexes all of her muscles musically, emotionally and physically with this record — it’s a not-so-gentle reminder of why we call her Queen Bey.

3. ★ — David Bowie

David Bowie was a tireless innovator. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, Bowie changed personas and styles like no other. For his final album, he used Kendrick Lamar inspired hard jazz to create his best album in years. Blackstar was released days before he died from a private battle with cancer which adds a haunting quality to the album. It’s difficult to hear Bowie sing “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” on “Lazarus,” but the music is so good that it’s impossible to turn off. Bowie went out on top, leaving us with a final album that’s destined to be remembered as a classic. 

2. Human Performance — Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts have been called slackers more times than any band since Pavement, but that hasn’t stopped them from releasing an endless stream of great albums. After the oddly entertaining and instrumental Monastic Living EP, Parquet Courts returned to what it does best: guitar-driven rock with stoner-poet ideologies. On this album, Parquet Courts displays its range in styles while also managing to continue its tradition of punk inspired instrumentation and offbeat storytelling; it sounds like nothing the band has recorded before, but its style is instantly recognizable as Parquet Courts.

1. Teens Of Denial —  Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo is a special talent. Not only is he arguably the best lyricist of his generation, his ability to transform a song’s sonic path is unmatched. Toledo accomplishes more in “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” than many artists can hope to achieve in their careers — and that’s not even the best song on the album. The 11-and-a-half minute epic about the Italian cruise ship that capsized in 2012 is part slow acoustic ballad, part Adele style minor chord piano lament and part fiery grunge over some poetic wisdom about the uncertainty of how to become a proper adult.

Much of the album uses funnier-than-it-should-be humor to battle his depression: “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys? What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses,” Toledo barks on “Destroyed By Hippie Powers.” No matter how long the songs are, they’re never boring. It’s an album that grows more interesting with each listen due to the depth of the lyrics.

Honorable Mentions: 

The White Album — Weezer; “Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino; Schmilco — Wilco; Babes Never Die — Honeyblood; 22, A Million — Bon Iver

Sararosa Davies’ top albums

  1. Emotions and Math — Margaret Glaspy

Margaret Glaspy’s debut album Emotions and Math feels like waking up from a short night’s sleep. Glaspy writes bleary-eyed, weary lyrics and plays her guitar in a start/stop manner. No song feels quite complete, but that’s the magic of this album. It always feels like there’s more for Glaspy to say, especially in songs like “Memory Street” where she repeats the phrase “times I” like a broken record. In that repetition, Glaspy leaves you wanting more.

  1. Shmilco — Wilco

Wilco’s Shmilco opens with “Normal American Kids,” a winding song about childhood. Jeff Tweedy sings, “I was too high to change my bid/always afraid to be a normal american kid.” Compared to 2015’s Star Wars (with use of of synthesizer in songs like “Magnetized”), this album feels simple like youth. In a Portlandia sketch, Tweedy has a cameo where he sings about fire alarms going off in his childhood home. Shmilco could be a legitimate response to that sketch, but in the best way possible.

  1. 22, A Million — Bon Iver

22, A Million is Bon Iver’s first album in five years and it’s a valuable departure from Justin Vernon’s previous work. With autotune over Vernon’s voice and heavy electronic sounds, 22, A Million has a darker tinge than albums like For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s striking and though the electronic sounds may sound superfluous at times, it all ties together in the haunting last track “00000 Million.” It’s an album for soul searching in every way.

      2. Teens of Denial — Car Seat Headrest

Teens of Denial, an amazing feat of an album by Car Seat Headrest, came very close to being the top of my list. Founding member Will Toledo manages to cram all the catharsis that comes with mental health issues like depression and anxiety into every track. Teens of Denial is not meek or shaky, though. It bursts at the seams with great lyrics and brash instrumentation. Toledo opens up the album with “Fill in the Blank,” a song that tears past the listener with brazen guitar riffs and shouts of “You have no right to be depressed!” The album continues on like this, alternating between songs like the grinding “Destroyed by Hippy Powers” and the beautifully layered “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” until it ends. And then, you listen again. For an artist with 11 previous albums (all of which are on Bandcamp), Toledo put his all into Teens of Denial. There’s no denying that this album was worth the effort.

  1. Cardinal — Pinegrove

Every outcome’s such a comedown,” vocalist and guitar player Evan Stephens Hall sings in “Old Friends,” the opening track on Pinegrove’s Run for Cover Records debut Cardinal. Hall’s sometimes country twang and knack for introspective, intellectual lyrics make Pinegrove a band that’s hard to classify. No matter what their influence is Cardinal’s tracks unravel from quiet introspection to outright eureka moments like this one from “Then Again:” “It’s so illogical / It’s nothing you can see /there’s no retreating/Try it one more time with feeling/help me.”

There’s a deeply emotional, almost emo quality to Cardinal, but where emo gets too dramatic, Pinegrove brings the truth. With drooping, slow guitar riffs and Hall’s voice melting into them, tracks like “Aphasia” and “Cadmium” stand out as moments where emotion reigns without being overbearing. Cardinal’s last track, “New Friends,” brings the album full circle. As Hall sings, “I resolve to make new friends,” all those tiny eureka moments come together in one big moment of catharsis.

Hall noted in an interview with Pitchfork that he was happy that a writer described the band as “Wilco by way of Taylor Swift.” It’s a true and right comparison, but Hall is also being modest. Cardinal stands on its own perfectly. No Taylor Swift or Wilco is truly needed when Pinegrove has their own internal lives to look to for inspiration.

Honorable mentions: Communist Daughter The Cracks That Built The Wall, Lizzo Coconut Oil, Seth Bogart Seth Bogart, Whitney Light Upon the Lake, Weezer The White Album

Dana Alston’s top albums

  1. 22, A Million — Bon Iver

Bon Iver brainchild Justin Vernon entered modern folk canon when he recorded the band’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, while isolated in a wintery woodland cabin. Their third release abandons all pretenses of folk music, opting instead for experimental sonic palettes based on electronics and sampling. The result is a gorgeous, forward-thinking project as opaque as it is surprising.

  1. We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service — A Tribe Called Quest

When Phife Dawg, one of the five original members of legendary East Coast rap enclave A Tribe Called Quest, passed away in March, rumors of the group’s forthcoming final album all but evaporated. Against all odds, Tribe managed to release We Got It From Here, an introspective showcase of lyrical brilliance. The record’s subtle production, coupled with guest appearances from contemporary “gatekeepers of flow” like Kendrick Lamar, ensured that no other rap album said so much at once in 2016.

  1. Run The Jewels 3 — Run the Jewels

Surprise-released a month ahead of schedule on Christmas, El-P and Killer Mike’s third project continues their tradition of unfiltered, breathless riot rap. This time, El’s production maintains its aggressively primal tendencies (“Call Tinkerton” is a highlight), and the pair continues to tear each beat to shreds in vicious lyrical bursts. The result is a continuation of a spectacular run of albums. No other recent hip-hop duo has produced music this good so consistently.

  1. Blonde – Frank Ocean

The most heartbreaking, personal album of the year drifted into the world amid seemingly insurmountable hype, but Blonde made Frank Ocean’s four-year disappearance from the public eye well worth it. A clear-eyed portrait of masculinity, memory and love, the album represents Ocean at his most artful. The gentle instrumentation flows spectacularly over the album’s 60 minutes. But it’s Ocean’s ability to conjure nostalgia, regret and empathy that is most remarkable. Music this understanding is rare, and a much-needed gift to a world in which empathy appears more rare and fragile with each passing day.

FRANK OCEAN – Pink + White from Amaury on Vimeo.

  1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

Twenty-sixteen was a depressing year for many, but Chance the Rapper was having none of it. The Chicago native dropped his third mixtape like an exuberant atom bomb designed to extinguish uncertainty and fear forever. Few albums are this confident, well meaning, and happy. Buoyed by horns and the sounds of the gospel, Coloring Book feels like the epitome of Chance’s musical style, and a continuation of his previous release, Acid Rap. The Social Experiment, Chance’s backup band and frequent collaborator, leads the production. The rapper takes on record labels on “No Problem,” muses about his early days on 79th street with “Summer Friends,” and leads a gospel choir with T-Pain on “Finish Line.” But the mixtape primarily acts as Chance’s vote of confidence to the world, and a reassurance that things will always get better, even if sometimes, “music is all we got.”

Zach Price’s top albums

5. Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight — Travis Scott

After gaining a large mainstream following from his debut album, Rodeo, in 2015, Travis Scott’s sophomore follow-up did not disappoint. The album was filled with a list of star-studded features, including Andre 3000, Young Thug, Quavo, 21 Savage, Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. The album’s hit singles Pick Up The Phone, Goosebumps and Wonderful were accompanied by songs Sweet Sweet and Way Back on the full-length’s release in September. The album hit No. 1 on Billboard’s top 200 following its release.

4. Teens of Denial — Car Seat Headrest

Along with his nihilistic lyrics that describe the frustrations of youth, Will Toledo’s unique vocal timbre, which can only be described as a perfectly pitched moan, make Teens of Denial the best Indie/Alternative release of the year. The Trio’s 12 song sophomore album is highlighted by lead single “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” which gave the album mainstream attention after the band released a condensed version of the song for better radio playability.

3. Malibu — Anderson Paak.

Anderson Paak. had one of the most successful breakout years in recent memory. In 2016, the SoCal singer made waves in the Hip-Hop/R&B scene with not just one, but two (!) top 10 albums. His record with producer Knxwledge Yes Lawd!, made it difficult to decide which Paak. album should crack my top five. While Yes Lawd! was a fantastic collaborative record, Malibu presented Paak. for who he truly is, an authentic and multitalented musician.

2. The Life of Pablo — Kanye West

Say what you will about Kanye. He might be an eccentric, selfish, insane egomaniac, but he also makes some really good music. While TLOP was not the return to The College Dropout version of Kanye that many of his fans were hoping for it to be, the record was a great collection of collaboration in which Kanye orchestras some of the Hip-Hop biggests acts into making a cohesive project. The albums list of features includes Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Future, The Weeknd and many more impressive names. Along with Kanye, the record was mostly produced by legendary record producer Rick Rubin and the 2016 breakout producer of the year Metro Boomin’.

1. Coloring Book — Chance the Rapper

Although it was released much later than expected, the Chicago-born rapper did not disappoint with his long awaited 3rd full-length mixtape. Chance, initially releasing the album exclusively on iTunes, later released the entire mixtape for free via Soundcloud and Spotify. While his sophomore mixtape, Acid Rap, was filled with features from fellow independent artists, Coloring Book features an upgraded list of guest appearances that includes the likes of Kanye West, Future, Lil Wayne and many more. The most impressive aspect of this record is its versatility. While songs like “No Problem” and “Angels” are absolute slaps, Chance also allows himself to be vulnerable on tracks like “Summer Friends” and “Same Drugs.” This record displayed a cohesiveness that Chance was unable to achieve on his previous releases. This can be mostly attributed to The Social Experience (Chance’s band who is led by band director Donnie Trumpet) producing much of the album. While Chance is becoming increasingly more popular in the mainstream, he has continued to deliver his unique brand of rap without selling out, which makes Coloring Book my album of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Still Brazy — YG, 4 Your Eyez Only — J. Cole; We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service — A Tribe Called Quest; “Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino

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Craig Wright

Craig Wright

Craig is the senior arts and culture editor for the Emerald. He is from West Linn, Oregon, and is a senior majoring in journalism at the UO. He has made Nick Frost laugh and has been deemed to be "f---ed up in the head" by legendary thrash-metal band Slayer.