Wilco's Schmilco was among Robin Hilton's picks for the best albums of 2016.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
A lot of the releases I loved most in 2016 felt like they could only have come out this year. They were inward-looking, personal albums informed by where the artists find themselves at this specific moment in time. Some, like Beyoncé's Lemonade or Solange's A Seat At The Table, were reflective but spoke to bigger discussions and events that emerged and unfolded as the year lurched on. Others, like Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool or Wilco's Schmilco, were middle-aged meditations on misspent youth or loss. In short, these were the right albums at the right time for each of these artists.
I had a hard time keeping my list to 10 and should mention some of the ones that could have just as easily appeared on it: Weezer's self-titled white album was one of the year's most infectious pop records and in heavy rotation on my iPod in 2016; Margaret Glaspy and Big Thief put out a couple of the year's best debuts, while LVL UP, Hannah Georgas and bed. were among my favorite discoveries.
At the beginning of 2016, I just knew the Car Seat Headrest album Teens Of Denial would be my No. 1 record of the year. But by the time fall rolled around, I conceded that not only had I listened to Beyoncé's Lemonade more than any other album in 2016, I spent more time thinking about it and contemplating its many, many layers of sound, meaning and criss-crossing genres. Whether you heard it as a break-up album or a statement on the Black female experience in America, Lemonade burned up the air with mystery, heavy-hitting lyricism and unparalleled production and songwriting. Lemonade feels like a once-in-a-generation release.
2. Car Seat Headrest, 'Teens Of Denial'
This might be the best guitar-rock album of the century. And it's by a 24-year old kid who's already released more full-length records than many artists do in a lifetime. On Teens Of Denial, his 13th album, Will Toledo lays down endlessly revolving melodies and riffs with hairpin turns that happen so seamlessly you don't realize you're getting four or five different songs in every track. Toledo's narratives sometimes feel as though he's capturing his own stream of consciousness in real time, but he somehow keeps it all from careening off the edge into senseless territory, with muttered observations on youthful discontent, disappointment and foolishness. Teens Of Denial is a breathlessly ambitious work of art, and one I can imagine future generations of 20-somethings obsessing over.
Even the name of this one seemed to signal it was a minor work from Wilco. But it's not. In fact, Schmilco is one of the best albums Wilco's ever released. Perfectly understated and deeply affecting, this batch of songs finds frontman Jeff Tweedy, who turns 50 next year, reflecting on his teen years and the universal fumbling toward adulthood. The album title itself projects the dismissive pretense of a sullen teen who, as Tweedy sings in the opener, "Normal American Kids," "hates everything [he] doesn't understand." Dim the lights, put on your headphones, close your eyes and spend some time alone with this one. It's worth noting, by the way, that Jeff Tweedy has released an album in each of the last three years, either as Tweedy or Wilco, with more than 40 songs between them. I've said it before but I'll say it again: He's one of our greatest living songwriters, producing some of his best work ever in a remarkable stretch of creativity.
In talking with friends and longtime Radiohead fans, it seemed some weren't sure what to make of A Moon Shaped Pool. It isn't as noisy as some of the band's most popular work. It isn't as conceptional or wildly experimental, or as disjointed with fractured polyrhythms. But A Moon Shaped Pool is the most beautiful and profoundly emotional album Radiohead has produced. Quieter, more introspective and personal, it's framed in part by the dissolution of singer Thom Yorke's 23-year relationship to the photographer and lecturer Rachel Owen with songs of heartache, longing and surrender. A lot of people didn't know how to take Kid A when it first dropped, though it's now considered a classic. I think, in time, A Moon Shape Pool will be, too.
5. Bon Iver, '22, A Million'
Diehard fans of Bon Iver's incredibly gorgeous — and largely acoustic — debut For Emma, Forever Ago, are likely baffled by Justin Vernon's aggressively processed sound on 22, A Million. But if you listen carefully to that 2007 debut, around the 2:50 mark of "The Wolves (Acts I and II)," you'll hear the tiniest blurbble of Auto-Tune at the tail end of the line, "What might have been lost." It's Vernon dipping his toe in his more experimental sonic future. At times, 22, A Million feels like it was made by strange creatures in a future other-world, which could easily come off as icy or unemotional. But the deeper you dig into this one, the more mind-boggling it becomes. It's synthetic to be sure. But Vernon still makes it pulse with life.
I suppose it's inevitable for everyone (I'm guilty, too) to consider Solange's record alongside her older sister's album from earlier in the year, and some of the themes of empowerment and grief do overlap on both releases. But the tone and production couldn't be more disparate. Where Lemonade thunders and rages, A Seat At The Table is restrained and meditative. Even on a song called "Mad," Solange lays back, keeping the anger and resentment she feels on a short leash. This is one of the year's most inspiring, thoughtful and poignant albums.
7. Greg Laswell, 'Everyone Thinks I Dodged A Bullet'
I spent more time feeling brokenhearted and dispirited over the state of the world in 2016 than I do most years. And while Everyone Thinks I Dodged A Bullet is about as personal and inward looking as an album can get (it's largely about Laswell's painful split with singer Ingrid Michaelson), it felt like the right soundtrack for much of what I was feeling this year. Perhaps that's because its ultimate message is that life is beautiful. The heartache, at times, is crushing. But at the end of this seemingly endless struggle called life, there's hope and gratitude for being able to feel anything at all.
Back in May, RY X, the recording name for Australian singer Ry Cuming, put out what became my headphone record of the year. Dawn has plenty of ear candy, with finger-picked acoustic guitars and Cuming's beautiful falsetto floating over moody strings and mysterious textures. But the real genius is the songwriting, the airy melodies and magnificent forms these songs take as they swell and sigh, shifting elegantly from intimate melancholy to soaring euphoria. If you want to get lost in a world of sonic wonder, try this one on a quiet rainy day.
Full disclosure: Apart from a few songs here and there, I haven't been able to get very deep into any of Bowie's albums since 1977's Heroes. I'm fine calling this my own failing. So when I first heard Blackstar at the top of January, I didn't immediately connect with much, though of course I was deeply saddened when Bowie passed away two days after its release. The connection I made with Blackstar came much later in the year when I finally carved out some alone time to spend with the record. The polyrhythms and production are a good place to start; the gnarled guitars and insane beats he pulls together are astonishing. From there, you can start to dig into the words as Bowie recounts and reflects on the final months of his life, knowing he would die soon. "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" is a song he originally released in 2014 not long after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Like the rest of the album, this twisted tale of broken dreams, disappointment and death — with at least an allusion to some sort of sickness ("The clinic called / The X-ray's fine") — both unnerves and stirs the heart. Blackstar is just an extraordinary listen.
The even-tempered, unhurried and gently-brushed songs of Chris Staples couldn't be more opposite than the music that appears at the top of my list, but it's no less vital. Golden Age does share similar themes of mourning and recovery, and, like the bigger albums here, it's a record Staples could only have made at this point in his life. After enduring a series of personal setbacks — from a painful breakup to a horrible bicycle accident and mountain of medical debt — Staples understandably romanticized earlier days. But these songs gradually reveal the wisdom it takes to understand the past is rarely as grand as we once imagined and that spiritual and emotional growth require letting go.