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Best Music Of 2016

Bob Boilen's Top 10 Albums Of 2016

Car Seat Headrest's Teens Of Denial is Bob Boilen's album of the year. Courtesy of the artist. hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist.

Car Seat Headrest's Teens Of Denial is Bob Boilen's album of the year.

Courtesy of the artist.

I'd never imagined my list of favorite albums in the 21st century to include musicians who made records in the 1960s. Now David Bowie and Leonard Cohen are gone. That said, much of the music I loved in 2016 came from artists early in their career. I imagine someone making a list in 2066 that includes a few of these on their year-end list.

Bob Boilen's Top 10 Albums Of 2016

Cover for Teens of Denial

1. Car Seat Headrest, 'Teens of Denial'

I swear there are about 40 songs packed into Car Seat Headrest's first major full-length record, Teens Of Denial. Sure, the album only lists 12, but do this: Drop a needle on any one song and within a minute the tune will abruptly shift and a new song will blossom. That's the beauty of 24-year-old Will Toledo and his band. Songs like "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" and "The Ballad of the Costa Concordia" are bursting with ideas, but unlike so many albums this year, these ideas don't feel gimmicky (voice processing is high on my s***list these days); they feel developed, designed to serve the song, and best of all, they stop time. Teens Of Denial lifts me out of my day-to-day routine. I admire a lot of music, but this is what I want from music. It's also astonishing that this is Toledo's 13th album. Paul Simon has released 13 records, and he's 74. So even assuming a career lull, Car Seat Headrest should have its 100th album out by 2066.

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Song
Teens of Denial
Album
Teens of Denial
Artist
Car Seat Headrest
Label
Matador
Released
2016

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Cover for Blackstar

2. David Bowie, 'Blackstar'

He fulfilled his longtime dream, to make a record with a jazz band. Then two days after its release and his 69th birthday, he died. Jazz is often at the core of Bowie's music; his work with pianist Mike Garson is a prime example, going back to 1973's Aladdin Sane. More recently Bowie worked on a song called "Sue" with jazz composer and bandleader Maria Schneider. It was Schneider who led Bowie to sax player Donny McCaslin and his band. These insanely sharp musicians are at the center of Blackstar's quirkiness. It's an album wrapped in mystery from a man whose life's work was always shrouded and filled with wonder. His death surely had us listening closer, and this was the perfect exit.

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Song
Blackstar
Album
Blackstar
Artist
David Bowie
Label
Sony Music
Released
2016

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Cover for 22, A Million

3. Bon Iver, '22, A Million'

I'm not usually conflicted about music I put on my favorites list, but this record has me all twisted up. I love it: I love it for its surprises, for its ability to be so delicate, sometimes angry, sometimes loving, sometimes lost. Where I'm conflicted is that I miss Justin Vernon's voice. I admire the mask he wears in the form of vocal processing, but it makes the very personal feel distancing. It's that same effect that can make it feel as if 22, A Million is this close to falling apart, and that frailty doubles as the album's strength.

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Song
22, A Million
Album
22, A Million
Artist
Bon Iver
Label
Jagjaguwar

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Cover for Masterpiece

4. Big Thief, 'Masterpiece'

While some albums this year felt like solitary records, records to be listened to while I'm alone (Bowie and Bon Iver come immediately to mind), Big Thief's Masterpiece was a shared experience. It was an album I'd put on riding in a car with friends, for example. For their album debut, Big Thief added heft to these whispery tales. And that heft often comes in the form of Buck Meek's guitar, as he underpins Adrianne Lenker's chilling voice. I've listened to this album more than any other in 2016. It's just about perfect.

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Song
Masterpiece
Album
Masterpiece
Artist
Big Thief
Label
Saddle Creek Records
Released
2016

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Cover for Pearls To Swine

5. Adam Torres, 'Pearls To Swine'

It took Adam Torres 10 years to release his second album. His life took a non-musical turn when he moved from Athens, Ohio, to Austin, Texas, with South America somewhere along the way. This album was the antiserum to all the overused and over-abundant vocal processing I heard in 2016. Adam Torres high and lonesome voice is pure, relatable and visceral. The songs are weightless with an underpinning of violin and simple, tasteful keyboards and percussion. I tend to need, then find, one good quiet record each year. Pearls To Swine was my go-to serene album for 2016.

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Song
Pearls To Swine
Album
Pearls To Swine
Artist
Adam Torres
Label
Fat Possum
Released
2016

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Cover for You Want It Darker

6. Leonard Cohen, 'You Want It Darker'

Imagine being a pretty good musician and songwriter working on your father's final testament. I keep coming back to that beautiful relationship between Adam Cohen, producer, and Leonard Cohen... well, let's call him "master." Leonard Cohen died with just enough life to witness the release of his 14th and final record, You Want It Darker. Leonard Cohen never wrote a bad song, but he did make albums that were ... not so great. This is not one of those. His final record is closer in tone to Songs of Leonard Cohen, his very first album. You Want It Darker is hymnal and testament. Tale-telling is key, but these songs often feel like their stories are meant to be heard by higher powers. There's a comfort knowing that a life — in this case Leonard Cohen's — can seem complete. It's a life that feels whole and the end was less about tragedy and more about the right time. I keep coming back to his son Adam and thinking about how powerful this must feel.

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Song
You Want It Darker
Album
You Want It Darker
Artist
Leonard Cohen
Label
Columbia
Released
2016

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Cover for Dancing With Bad Grammar: The Director's Cut

7. L.A. Salami, 'Dancing With Bad Grammar'

I'm still discovering this record but I'm in love with the poetry and imagery of this British artist's debut album. Dancing With Bad Grammar has the ramble and lyrical impact of Dylan doing "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," but with a swagger that suits hip-hop. Lookman Adekunle Salami (his real name) fingerpicks his acoustic guitar and sings words like this:

"Watched the news, someone died / Watched their mother teary eyed / Son shot dead on Wareth Road / I thanked god no-one that I know"

But there are moments that these American ears hear a glam-rock Bowie in the music, or the lyrical intensity of one of our better poets these days, Saul Williams. This was a hidden gem in 2016, just a hint of what the future holds for this talented visionary.

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Song
Dancing With Bad Grammar: The Director's Cut
Album
Dancing With Bad Grammar: The Director's Cut
Artist
L.A. Salami
Label
Sunday Best Recordings

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Cover for No Burden

8. Lucy Dacus, 'No Burden'

I hear Lucy Dacus and I imagine that voice coming from the horn of an old 78 record player. Her mellifluous tone seems from another time. Her songs, on the other hand, are modern, funny (though she says she doesn't wanna be) and points to her own imperfections. "Oh, please, don't make fun of me, with my crooked smile and my crowded teeth or my pigeon feet or my knobby knees." Owning these imperfections seems to be at the core of Lucy Dacus' music and the turning points in songs like "Maps on the Wall" where she sings, "And I made up my mind to live happily, feeling beautiful beneath the trees above a ground that's solid at the core." This is a stunning debut from a timeless artist.

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Song
No Burden
Album
No Burden
Artist
Lucy Dacus
Label
Egghunt Records
Released
2016

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Cover for Stranger to Stranger

9. Paul Simon, 'Stranger To Stranger'

We're fortunate to have this national treasure still making music. When we spoke earlier this year, Paul Simon was thinking this may be his last album, as he intends to explore other ways to channel his creativity. Simon's songs are portraits and thoughtful snapshots on the human condition, and more often than not on Americans and American culture. The lead track on Stranger To Stranger, his 2016 masterful album, explores our fears as a culture, fear of the future, of the unknown, all so beautifully expressed in "The Werewolf." What shines so clearly on this album are the songs: every instrument, every sound effect, every vocal is finely detailed and crafted to serve the song. And those songs are more often created not from the usual three-chord acoustic guitar repertoire, but from the feet of flamenco dancers and electronic beats, then sculpted and changed and polished beyond recognition into memorable musical jewels.

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Song
Stranger to Stranger
Album
Stranger to Stranger
Artist
Paul Simon
Label
Concord/Universal
Released
2016

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Cover for Emotions And Math

10. Margaret Glaspy, 'Emotions And Math'

Emotions And Math is the perfect title for this record. There's a brutish honesty in the songs of Margaret Glaspy that at once seems cold and at the same time comes from the heart. This album, featuring a full-band, is a huge leap forward from her earlier EPs that were mostly Margaret and an electric guitar. You can hear her sharp words on those older records, but now that wit and wisdom packs a punch and conveys confidence, as does her guitar playing, which is no longer simply fingerpicked but crunched with power chords that support a newly brazen voice.

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Song
Emotions And Math
Album
Emotions And Math
Artist
Margaret Glaspy
Label
ATO
Released
2016

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Bob Boilen's 2016 Honorable Mentions

Cover for All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend

• AURORA, 'All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend'

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Song
All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
Album
All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
Artist
Aurora
Label
Liberator Music
Released
2016

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Cover for Puberty 2

• Mitski, 'Puberty 2'

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Song
Puberty 2
Album
Puberty 2
Artist
Mitski
Label
Dead Oceans
Released
2016

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Cover for Ruminations

• Conor Oberst, 'Ruminations'

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Song
Ruminations
Album
Ruminations
Artist
Conor Oberst
Released
2016

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Cover for Beyond the Bloodhounds

• Adia Victoria, 'Beyond The Bloodhounds'

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Song
Beyond the Bloodhounds
Album
Beyond the Bloodhounds
Artist
Adia Victoria
Label
Atlantic

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Cover for Beulah

• John Paul White, 'Beulah'

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Song
Beulah
Album
Beulah
Artist
John Paul White
Label
Single Lock Records
Released
2016

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