FREEwilliamsburg’s Top 25 Albums Of 2016

2016 was the dirt fucking worst. There’s no other way to put it. It seems almost absurd to talk about what a great year it was for music, in light of all of the terrible things that have happened, but music helped us cope a lot over the last twelve months. And serendipitously, a wealth of great records were released this year, as everything else seemed to go for broke. Here are twenty-five of them that allowed us to forget the cruel dystopia that has become our reality, if only for a little while. We needed both their comforts and catharsis, perhaps more than ever before.

25) Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
LISTEN: “Bottomless Pit”
Let’s just get this out of the way: Death Grips made their name by being assholes. From no-show gigs to faux break ups and a host of Gn’R-patented accoutrements in between, the abrasive trio adopted an any press = good press approach that—despite its occasional artifice—put their name on the tongue of Pitchfork readers from Portland to Portland. Sustaining such a caustic brand of rap rock hip hop for hardcore kids requires an entirely different approach, however, and on Bottomless Pit—the band’s most focused, cohesive collection yet—they found an unlikely one: restraint. That’s not to say Death Grips have sold out. They still sound like an under-lubricated robot enema. But for a band who never followed the rules, setting a few of their own has made all the difference.
– Coleman Bentley

24) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
LISTEN: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
No one ever accused Will Toledo, the brainchild behind Car Seat Headrest, of being lazy. Still in his twenties, he’s proven to be impressively prolific, which is a tad ironic given his obsession with early Nineties slacker rock. If you’re a fan, you probably already know that he released a staggering ten records on Bandcamp before being picked up by Matador. Not surprisingly his latest, Teens of Denial, is very a generous offering. Clocking in at one hour and ten minutes, it avoids the pitfalls of its own excess by refusing to shy away from the hooks. The record certainly shows its Nineties influences, Pavement and Guided by Voices will immediately come to mind, but hints of The Kinks and Destroyer are in the mix as well. It’s a bit more polished than his last release, Teens of Style, but it’s also a lot more fun.
– Robert Lanham

23) Gramatik – Epigram
LISTEN: “Epigram”
Once again, Brooklyn-based electro-funk producer Gramatik shows us that the best things in life really are free. His ninth studio album, Epigram, which you can stream or download for the price of nada HERE is the most dynamic release we’ve seen from the Slovenian-American electronic pioneer to date. Featuring collaborations with soul singer/pianist Leo Napier, Chicago rapper ProbCause, and eclectic producer Russ Liquid, among others, Epigram is a testament to Denis Jašarević’s uncanny talent for genre bending. The glitch-trap sounds of War of the Currents make it one of those tracks that both excites the senses and ignites the dance floor, while Napier’s sensual croonings on Native Son Prequel offer a funky introduction to what Gramatik does best. The entrancing Room 3327 is dripping with expertly-mixed orchestral layers, offering insight into Gramatik’s impeccable approach to composition and his innate thirst for musical exploration. Based on his prolific tendencies thus far, we don’t expect the 32-year-old producer to stop surprising us any time soon.
– Megan Venzin

22) Martyrdöd – List
LISTEN: “Harmegedon”
In the year Lemmy died and the world went to shit, it seems only fitting to kick off This One Goes To Eleven’s contributions with List, a record that took up the punk-metal torch this year and started swinging it like a flaming fucking hammer. Forged in the dueling fires of D-beat and Swedish death metal, the Scandinavian vets’ 7th full-length is as infectious as it is unrelenting, with brooding melodies—from the title track’s meth-Celtic breakdown to “Harmageddon” and its sprawling coda—adding some much-need nuance to the bludgeoning. You could argue that Kvelertak were more fun and Magrudergrind more core, but in 2016—as legends fell, cities burned, and a wax idol became a false god—the rabid melancholy of Martyrdöd was just right.
– Coleman Bentley

21) The Men – Devil Music
LISTEN: “Fire”
It’s tempting to call Devil Music a “back to basics” record for The Men. It’s their first record since 2011’s Leave Home without Ben Greenberg (whose industrial noise band Uniform had a great EP this year), perhaps the most skilled musician in the band. It was released via their own We Are The Men imprint, instead of their usual distributor, Sacred Bones. It’s heavy and caustic, unlike their last few records, which found the band gradually distancing themselves from the hardcore and art-punk roots that marked their first couple of releases, to the point where they ended up sounding like The E-Street Band on 2014’s Tomorrow’s Hits. While Devil Music undeniably sounds the most like the band’s early work, it doesn’t quite disrupt their album by album exploration of the classic rock cannon. There’s familiar territory here; The Stooges, Cherubs and Husker Du, for sure, but I also hear a little Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath… you know, what moms of the 70s might call “devil music” in the mix.
– Peter Rittweger

20) Jan St. Werner – Felder
LISTEN: “Foggy Esor Pt. 1”
Jan St. Werner, a.k.a. Lithops, is as prolific as they come, either as a solo artist or as one half of Mouse On Mars. His recordings are plentiful but his sound is rare. It’s a delightful abstraction: squiggles of melodic sound, rhythmic subtlety, and melting atmosphere. The challenge his music presents has a funny way of drawing you in, and 2016’s Felder turns out to be a keeper. It’s simply one of his best works.
– Johnathan Rickman

19) Jackie Lynn – Jackie Lynn
LISTEN: “Bright Lights”
Jackie Lynn was an outlaw who made millions “distributing the illegal substance of cocaine around Chicago & the Chicago tri¬state area,” reads the faux bio of this concept album’s namesake. “Traces of cocaine were found on a red and gold LP jacket with the following recording enclosed.” Haley Fohr, who typically records under the name Circuit des Yeux, is the artist behind the intriguing rebel cowgirl named Jackie. Working with members of the Bitchin Bajas, the album reminds us of a melancholy Hazelwood & Sinatra recording, if they’d had access to a drum machine. Though just over 20 minutes in length, Jackie Lynn packs enough punch to breathe life into the conceit.
– Robert Lanham

18) Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow
LISTEN: “The Dead Are Dumb”
Nothing made our 2014 list with Guilty of Everything, and while the chunky guitars are still common two years later, it’s when the band tackle a more classic shoegaze sound on Tired of Tomorrow where they really excel; tracks like The Dead Are Dumb, Everyone is Happy and Our Plague have all the floating qualities of Slowdive (with whom they had a brief run-in then make-up over twitter). It’s hard not to get caught up in guitarist/singer Domenic Palermo’s life in the music and lyrics, he was attacked and left with a fractured skull, his father died and then found out the label they were on was being bankrolled by Martin Shkreli. This all makes for a rather downbeat record, but Vertigo Flowers, A.C.D and Curse of the Sun pack enough hooks and punch across the album to stop you falling too far down.
– Chris Quartly

17) Fear of Men – Fall Forever
LISTEN: “Trauma”
After the band’s wonderful 2014 debut, Loom, it would have been easy for the Brighton trio to simply rehash the formula of bright guitars and swaying harmonies backing Jessica Weiss’ longing vocals. Rather than accentuate their poppy tendencies, Fall Forever takes a daring step back, focusing on mood and texture, with barely a conventional guitar chord in sight. Fall Forever doesn’t get out of second gear and all the better for it, with sparse drumming and more emphasis on Weiss’ lyrics, who has skipped the metaphors and isn’t afraid to tell us what a terrible year she has had. Everything is laid bare and would fall completely flat in lesser hands, but Fear of Men have made depression sound beautiful, and that is worth clinging to.
– Chris Quartly

16) Noname – Telefone
LISTEN: “All I Need”
The jazzy sounds of Golden Age hip-hop returned in 2016 with a fantastic record by Tribe Called Quest (see below). But Q-Tip and Phife weren’t the only ones dropping rhymes to blunted-out jazz loops this year. Isaiah Rashad, Saba, and Chance the Rapper (to name a few) found inspiration in the era, taking the Golden Age vibe to all new places. Meanwhile, a more under-the-radar rapper, Noname, released a debut called Telefone that’s filled with enough jazzy vibes to make a Native Tongues fan drool. Understated and highly confessional, Telefone, showcases the laid-back rhymes of Noname (aka Fatimah Warner) delivered over music that will remind listeners of a Vince Guaraldi recording. At once melancholy and joyous, Noname’s Telefone is one of the most exciting records to emerge from the vibrant Chicago hiphop scene.
– Robert Lanham

15) Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
LISTEN: “In Bloom”
Outlaw country isn’t a sound, it’s an ethos, and this year no so-defined album proved as subversive—to both the Nashville political complex and the music media think tank just outside its gate—than Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. More than just an elegant fuck you, however, Sailor’s Guide is also a deep expression of love; a father’s adoring tribute to his firstborn son rendered in a horizon splash of Americana, folk, and rock (yes, that’s a Nirvana cover you hear). So forget everything you know about “country”, even if Simpson’s warbling tenor is a dead giveaway. This is something else entirely—the watery gasp of a boy waking up on some far-flung beach to find himself a man.
– Coleman Bentley

14) Springtime Carnivore – Midnight Room
LISTEN: “Wires Crossing”
If there is a more vivid break-up album in 2016 then I didn’t hear it, though despite the sometimes bleak lyrics, there is plenty of optimism to be found in the cracks. I was a big fan of the self-titled debut from 2014 and as with that record, Greta Morgan recorded most of the instruments herself, but Midnight Room benefits greatly from pushing her voice way up in the mix. Providing my favourite vocal performance on record this year, her range is astounding as well as choosing when to deliver a restrained croon or belting it out. The record is mostly front-loaded with the upbeat tracks before sending you off on a lullaby, something we discussed in an interview when the album was released (“I only realized recently that the reason I love closing records with a slow song is because of “Goodnight” by The Beatles, which is the perfect closer to on The White Album. I’ve always been a fan of a lullaby goodbye.”).
– Chris Quartly

13) Astronoid – Air
LISTEN: “Homesick”
In metal’s neck of the dark, monster-strewn woods, we find release through circle-pit catharsis or a similarly fucked-up shoulder to scream on. Sincerity is a farce, clean vocals are for virgins, and accessibility is a four-letter word if you fudge the numbers a bit. But as Brett Boland croons midway through Air, “I’d rather be ignored than insincere”, and so goes the driving mantra of Astronoid—the gorgeous cryo-freeze progeny of some bizarre Emperor- and Sigur Ros-helmed lab experiment. From school project to internet myth to AOTY-contender over course of just four years and 15 songs, the media-ready narrative is certainly in place, but the acclaim the Boston quintet have enjoyed boils down to something far more simple and far more essential: Astronoid are the feel-good metal band of 2016 and Air their bleary-eyed Monet—a daily call to turn and face a sun that is coming up tomorrow whether you like it or not.
– Coleman Bentley

12) Cass McCombs – Mangy Love
LISTEN: “Opposite House”
Cass McCombs makes records that sound like Yacht Rock from a David Lynch movie, so it comes as no surprise that his eighth album, Mangy Love, is compellingly offbeat. Definitely not “shabby,” “scruffy,” or “worn” – all Webster synonyms for mangy – the album is painstakingly engineered and precise, filled with melody, but slightly too paranoid to be mistaken as warm. It’s also his most accessible record to date, blending his eccentric style of storytelling with a slightly more upbeat set of songs. Standout tracks “Bum, Bum, Bum” and “Opposite House” wouldn’t be terribly out of place on a Steely Dan record – and we mean that in a good way – but Combs’ quirky lyrics and hazy atmospherics make things just a little bit stranger. Like an AM radio station that’s broadcast from a fever dream.
– Robert Lanham

11) La Sera – Music for Listening to Music to
LISTEN: “High Notes”
Few musicians step out from the shadows of a band to produce better work on their own, but when Katy Goodman formed La Sera in 2010 while Vivian Girls (2007-2014) were still active, she has managed just that. Music for Listening to Music to is the band’s fourth album, and the first with with guitarist (and husband) Todd Wisenbaker officially on-board (though he was a major player on 2014’s Hour of the Dawn). Produced by Ryan Adams, the record bops between country twang and Johnny Marr/Peter Buck-influenced arpeggios, while Adams has also coaxed a much more confident vocal performance out of Goodman which you always felt was bubbling under the surface on previous records. Wisenbaker produces an understated guitar masterclass throughout which is worthy of celebration alone.
– Chris Quartly

10) Big Ups – Before a Million Universes
LISTEN: “National Parks”
Big Ups grew into one of the best punk bands I knew I could see on seemingly any given Tuesday night at Shea Stadium with the release of 2014’s Eighteen Hours of Static, but they’ve truly tapped into their potential and reached the heights of their talents with Before a Million Universes, a record that elevates them to modern day post-hardcore torch-bearers. While their sound basically follows the template shared by all bands who have inherited the mantle from Fugazi; soft, rhythmic verses that explode into pummeling, high-octane choruses, you’ll have to look far and wide to find anyone who executes the formula as well as the New York quartet do.

They distinguish themselves in a couple of ways, in part, by borrowing some tricks from the Slint playbook; angular guitar riffs, thumping bass and poetic, borderline spoken word verses. Frontman Joe Galarraga avoids the tongue-in-cheek humor of contemporaries like NEEDS, Sick Feeling and United Nations, electing for more straight-forward punk themes on tracks like “Capitalized,” though he’s most interesting when he’s emotionally vulnerable, as heard most prominently on “National Parks,” easily the best song they’ve ever written.

Bands like Big Ups are a big reason why I live here in Brooklyn, and that makes their new record my sentimental pick for album of the year in 2016. But hey, I’m not the only music writer here, so they’ll have to settle for the number ten slot for now. Perhaps that will only motivate them further.
– Peter Rittweger

9) Into It. Over It. – Standards
LISTEN: “Vis Major”
Evan Weiss is your favorite emo band’s favorite emo musician. He’s played in a bunch of bands, including Pet Symmetry, Damiera and Their/They’re/There (with Mike Kinsella – bulletproof cred), but he does his best work under his most pop-minded moniker, Into It. Over It., which has been one of the quiet cornerstones of the ever-blogable “emo-revival” since the release of 2011’s Proper. Standards, Into It. Over It’s 2016 offering is a pop record in the style of early-aughts emo – think Jimmy Eat World, Brand New and, most prominently, Death Cab For Cutie – but the album’s musicianship elevates it far above others of its ilk. Most notable is the work of Josh Sparks, who seems hell-bent on a mission to become this wave of emo’s Josh Baruth with his lightning fast, intensely precise drumming. It pairs well with Weiss’ Kinsella-styled math-rock guitar noodling for a very interesting experience that rewards a close listener.
– Peter Rittweger

8) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
LISTEN: “Burn the Witch”
The closest I can imagine to living through Beatle-mania was being in Oxford just before OK Computer was released, there was a local build-up that I have never experienced at any time or place since (even though in reality they’ve always been left well alone when I’ve seen them walking the streets of Oxford). Who knows what we would have done if it was terrible. Radiohead’s legacy these days would remain untarnished if they released a 45-minute fart over Thom Yorke beat-boxing, though even after the somewhat tepid King of Limbs, the fervour of 1998 seemed as distant as it should, did the world even need another Radiohead album? For a band with nothing to prove to anyone, they certainly did anyway. A Moon Shaped Pool may be their darkest release yet. Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements add an extra dimension and the band know when to drench songs in layers or let the arrangements breathe, leaving you hanging on every note. For a record that dips into the archives of unreleased tracks multiple times, it has a more natural flow than any album since Kid A and while some bands benefit from honing their skills on staying on track (more on that later), no band benefits more from pushing themselves into new territory, even after all this time.
– Chris Quartly

7) Pinegrove – Cardinal
LISTEN: “Old Friends”
Not quite emo, but existing quite comfortably next to emo, Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove have the spirit of pop-punk, but then there’s dudes playing banjos. The lyrics are verbose and the mood often “solipsistic,” but Evan Stephens Hall delivers them in a warbly, laid back, drawl you’re more likely to hear while kickin’ back Buds at a bar with wood paneling than at your local punk house. Cardinal, their debut LP, would have absolutely come out on Saddle Creek had it been written in 2003, is what I’m getting at. Hall would have been in the discussion with Connor Oberst as the best songwriter on the label, and we’d all have away messages about remembering to call our parents and being nervous about going to Japan in the same drop down menu as the ones about the kid with the chemicals and the calendar hanging itself. It would have been one of the best records they put out. Instead, it’s one of the best records of 2016.
– Peter Rittweger

6) Blood Incantation – Starspawn
LISTEN: “Starspawn”
There’s a sort of unspoken agreement amongst music writers that debuts don’t top these kinds of things. Maybe the requisite “dues” haven’t been paid or perhaps the best is yet to come, but whatever the reasoning (or lack thereof), Blood Incantation‘s cosmic death metal opus, Starspawn, kicks it into airlock and flicks the release switch. While the Colorado outfit’s 2015 demo, Interdimensional Extinction, demonstrated real promise, their first full length, Starspawn, is a hyperdrive leap to the forefront of underground metal, grinding the collected histories of psych, prog, and death into an intoxicating (and likely fatal) space dust. So fuck the politics and leave the preconceptions at the door. If it’s a “best-of” list you want, the “best” records—the ones that pushed their genres farthest and in the most captivating ways—should win. And thanks to Blood Incantation, justice has been fucking served.
– Coleman Bentley

5) The Hotelier – Goodness
LISTEN:Piano Player”
If 2014’s shattered/shattering Home, Like No Place Is There was the record that solidified The Hotelier’s place at the vanguard of modern emo, Goodness is the one that sees them resign it. The guitars are subdued, the outlook optimistic, and the songwriting more than just verse/chorus heartstring tugging. It’s an emotive record that isn’t emo, a rock n’ roll album not particularly interested in rocking out. But in the green and golden places in between—Born to Run if Springsteen were reared in suburban Massachusetts instead of Asbury Park—Goodness stretches out, satisfied. Like frontman Christian Holden’s bristling depiction of life, it isn’t anything in particular, and that’s just fine for now.
– Coleman Bentley

4) David Bowie – Blackstar
LISTEN: “Lazarus”
Blackstar is almost impossible to write about. Not because there’s any shortage of things to talk about, but because the music basically speaks for itself. David Bowie spent the past six decades meticulously crafting his narrative and self-mythologizing through his music, films and visual art; a master of many disciplines. In retrospect, then, we should have always expected him to deliver breathtaking and graceful self-eulogy like Blackstar, which was released just two days before he died (even though it always felt like he would never die), or more pointedly, transcended into the cosmos. Blackstar’s, sprawling free jazz to me, is Bowie’s best work since the Berlin era (and I’m of the camp that has a lot of love for his 80s dance-pop cheese), which was one of the loftiest creative periods any musician or artist has ever unleashed. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect swan song. There will never be another David Bowie.
– Peter Rittweger

3) Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are
LISTEN: “Believe You’re Mine”
Nada Surf should be considered one of New York’s greatest bands, which is a claim only strengthened with the release of You Know Who You Are, their seventh original studio album. Twenty years after their debut High/Low and subsequent surprise hit, Popular, the band have only improved over time (can you say that about any other band who are ever considered a one-hit-wonder early on?). With the addition of cult-guitar hero Doug Gillard as an official member, the now four-piece effortlessly crafted a power-pop record of love, loss, and trying to get by in bleak times; something pertinent in 2016. Matthew Caws has clearly listened to himself, as the chorus in Believe You’re Mine consist of the lines “one day, I’ll love somebody else, one day, I’ll be good to myself”, and as reported in the New York Times, he recently re-married. To hear these songs and see Caws come through the other side gives hope in what seems like a broken year, it has certainly been one of my most listened-to records in some time and I don’t know where I’d be without it. Musically the band don’t veer too far from a template they have near perfected over the course of their career, but sometimes you need that reassuring embrace of an old friend, or a favourite band… Nada Surf have almost single-handedly saved 2016.
– Chris Quartly

2) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thanks You 4 Your Service
LISTEN: “Black Spasmodic”
Well, it certainly FELT like we needed a new record from A Tribe Called Quest this year, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that we’d actually get one. And definitely no one would have imagined that it’d be every bit as good as The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. The sixth Tribe record had been rumored for years, but Phife’s untimely death earlier this year seemed to finally put those rumors to rest. Luckily, the five foot freak with the roughneck business had recorded enough bars to make this a proper Tribe record instead of an unheralded mixtape, like Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes criminally underrated The Abstract & The Dragon. Tribe’s records have always been political, and they have no shortage of things to say here, tackling issues like gentrification, institutional racism and well… The Donald. They do this with the calm and cool eloquence of the laid back, literate dude at the party. The one everyone wants to get to know. A lot of rappers have that approach these days, and Q shouts them out on “Dis Generation”: Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$ and Earl Sweatshirt. We Got It From Here… proves that the Native Tongues godfathers still do it best. Imagine what they could have given us all of those lost years, and in the years to come.

1) LVL Up – Return to Love

LISTEN: “Spirit Was”

In the sea of cynicism, sarcasm, and post-whatever irony that is New York City, LVL UP’s Return to Love possesses an endangered quality: Earnestness. A neo-biblical tale of finding a reason to wake up in Brooklyn circa 2016, the band’s third LP provides the focused indie-pop answer to their previously sprawling rock n’ roll rabble, capturing in its 10 hook-packed tracks the true bleary-eyed spirit of both LVL UP and the borough’s dwindling DIY resistance. As the story goes, the SUNY Purchase-reared rockers made a pact to either get good enough for a label that could pay them or get the hell out, and now—however many months later—here we are with a Sub Pop-backed gem gleaming from the top of our list. If that’s the end of it, it’s a fitting conclusion. If not, then all the better. For now, however, let’s just call it mission accomplished.

-Coleman Bentley

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