2016 was such a strange year, so many disastrous things happened, we lost so many people who were dear to many of us, the threats of terror are ever present, and America's election cycle was one of the most terrifying and fascinating I've ever seen. But, one of the beautiful things about music is how, with the right notes and mood, we can escape, if just for a bit, from the world. We can throw on some headphones and get lost in the stories these artists are telling. Sometimes they're political, which are always fascinating. But more often than not, they're stories about the artist's hope, loss, love, and fears.
This is what makes music special. It's fluid and ever changing; it's subjective and personal opinion; and it can be deeply moving if you allow it to be. Music has been one of the biggest parts of my life for years. More than any other medium, I find myself turning to music to relieve stress or pain, to relax or to pick me up.
As all lists are, especially "Best Of" lists, these are opinions, the records on this list are my personal favorite records from the past year. I'd love to hear what your favorites were from the past year in the comments below. There are going to be records this year that I missed, which always bums me out, so I'd love to hear your recommendations. I had to leave off some of my absolute favorite records from this year to keep the list at a manageable length, which shows you how strong this year was for music. And look for our other lists in the coming weeks for Best Movies, Video Games, and TV Shows.
I will link my favorite track from each record, so if you don't recognize the name, I highly recommend you taking a listen to it. You may find your new favorite thing.
Before we get to my Top 50 records, I'd like to highlight 5 of the best EP's I've heard this year. I noticed a trend with my favorite EP's opposed to my favorite records.
Top 5 EP's
5. Summer Heart - Colours EP
Summer Heart sounds exactly like their name. David Alexander (the lone member of Summer Heart) creates these magnificent soundscapes that are so reminiscent of the Summer season. It's airy and open; lighthearted but thoughtful. But it's not "Summer Road Trip" music. Instead, the lo-fi tracks are more encompassed by late night camping, looking up at the star filled night sky. The music is slow and beautiful and is perfect for those expeditions into the wilderness.
4. Mt. Wolf - Hex EP
Mt. Wolf are such an intriguing listen because of the hodgepodge of styles they throw into their sound. A mixture of hypnotic electronica, folk, and classical string instruments make listening to Mt. Wolf such a unique journey. The haunting vocals from Sebastian Fox add another layer to the sound in a way I haven't heard since Bon Iver's voice took over my life. After a series of EP releases, I can't wait to hear a full length from Mt. Wolf, whenever that may be.
3. Haux - All We've Known EP
"The more I think about it, the more I realize "All We've Known" is just a collection of secrets. The kind of secrets you might keep in the places you go or in the people you meet. The kind of secrets that, by themselves, don't mean all too much, but when put together paint a picture of you, the whole of you, and all the things you've come to know." That's what the band said about the record and I can't come up with a better explanation for the slow, calculated beauty of this EP.
2. San Scout - EP1
Having followed this band since they were named Boy Scout, I finally have actual music to listen to from them aside from a single track. That single track was so brilliantly done that I've been periodically checking for new music from them for years. Luckily, one day, my wife did some hunting and found out they had changed their named to San Scout and that they had released an EP this year. The EP is equal parts dense and spacious, which is a difficult thing to pull off. The thing that sets this EP apart are their experiments with structure. Finding the perfect balance between hectic and beauty.
1. Day Wave - Hard to Read EP
I said at the beginning of the year that this EP was one of the best things I've heard all year, and that hasn't changed. Jackson Phillips, the one man genius behind Day Wave, has tapped into something that few could. The whole EP is a soft, slow build with more layers than I could wrap my head around. Each track has its own feel while still being cohesive with the record. The band is in it's very early stages (only being a couple of years old) so I expect very good things from Jackson. I've said it before, but I could see Day Wave turning into a Sufjan Stevens type. An artist infinitely talented with a dedicated following but somehow consistently overlooked by everyone else.
50. Lewis Del Mar - Lewis Del Mar
Having released both an EP and LP in between religiously touring the country this year, Lewis Del Mar have been busy. One of the better debuts from a band I've heard, Lewis Del Mar constantly experiment with their own sound. Basing everything on an acoustic guitar and synth, the two lifelong friends out of Brooklyn have taken a hold of the Folk-Pop genre (if there ever really was one). With tracks like Loud(y) and Malt Liquor, Lewis Del Mar mix acoustic guitars, samples, and Latin American inspired drums, it's a sound both unique and familiar.
49. Tegan & Sara - Love You to Death
I wanted to love this record more than I do. Having followed Tegan & Sara's fantastic career, I miss the days of the more raw, indie inspired music. But with Love You to Death, they've decided to continue down the Pop road they've been slowly taking over the last few records. This is by far the "poppiest" record they've ever released, and it has some truly great tracks. But the days of "The Con" are far gone.
48. Quilt - Plaza
Quilt is one of the best champions of revitalizing the "60's British Pop" genre. And they nail it. Plaza sees them making a bit of a detour on some tracks, straying a bit too far from what makes them great. But tracks like Eliot St. and Hissing My Plea, that fantastic sound takes center stage. It's a style of music that really took off again a few years ago with bands like Quilt, Temple, and Sunflower Bean making it their mission to introduce that sound to a new generation, and it's still so good.
47. Charles Bradley - Changes
Talk about getting a late start. The 67 year old R&B/Soul singer released his first bit of music to the public back in 2011 and built quite a rabid following thanks in part to his incredible live performances. With the release of Changes earlier this year, he cemented himself as one of the best Soul singers working today. Using a cover of the classic Black Sabbath track, Changes, Charles Bradley really opens up and shows us his mind. Just a few months ago, in early October, Bradley had to cancel a number of shows due to illness. It was later discovered that he had a cancerous tumor in his stomach. With such promise from his short career so far, and the power behind each word he sings, I can only imagine how hard he'll be fighting, and we'll all be right behind him, supporting him however he needs it.
46. Trophy Eyes - Chemical Miracle
Hard Punk Rock bands are a dime a dozen these days, so it can be hard to find your place in the midst of the over saturated genre. Trophy Eyes have done just that. From Newcastle, Australia, Trophy Eyes have a sound that is all too familiar to vets of the genre, but they put enough twists in the music to keep it sounding fresh. Lead vocalist John Floreani sings and screams with such passion and veracity that you're almost willed to pay attention to what he's saying.
45. Pink Martini - Je dis oui!
At this point, Pink Martini are just being arrogant. Formed in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, Pink Martini are a 15 piece band that mixes Classical and Jazz with Latin and French inspired sounds. It's an incredible joy to listen to, and with Je dis oui! (which is French for I Say Yes!) Pink Martini have broadened themselves to incredible lengths. The record features tracks sung in English, French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish and even Xhosa (which is a Bantu region people). It's incredible to hear all of these different languages compiled to make one cohesive record, and it's this that makes America great. The diversity of its people, the joining together to create friendships and bonds and art. It's the collaboration of differing ideas to make something truly remarkable. I hope we don't lose sight of that.
44. RY X - Dawn
It just goes to show how incredible this year was in music, especially the second half of the year. When I first heard RY X (Ry Cummings from Australia) I just knew it'd be in my top 10. It's a phenomenally beautiful record, full of soft, swooning synth and subtle drum beats. A popular genre name that I despise is "Shoegaze" but that perfectly encompasses what RY X is. His music is so enveloping, so engrossing that it's hard to do much else when listening to it. It's hard to believe that he considers Pearl Jam and Jeff Buckley as his biggest influences considering his sound.
43. Phantogram - Three
The third LP of Phantogram's illustrious career, Three is more of what you'd expect to hear from the duo. Brutal synths from Josh Carter coupled with captivating vocals from lead singer Sarah Barthel. Josh sings more on this record than he had in the past few, and the tracks that he's featured on are the weakest. Sarah has such a beautiful voice and a commanding presence behind the mic, it almost feels like wasted opportunities for her to shine the way she should.
42. Beach Slang - A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
After a highly publicized meltdown from lead vocalist and writer James Alex. When he "quit" the band mid performance and told the crowd that the band was over and walked off stage, it obviously looked like the end. A few days later, he apologized and said he was in a bad state and that the band would be working on a new record. It was a strange thing to witness play out, but whatever works, because their second full length delivers in every area you'd want from a punk band.
41. Norma Jean - Polar Similar
Norma Jean has been around forever, it seems. I remember falling in love with them on their first record back in 2004 (the record was released in 2002). The band has had some lineup changes, as all bands do, but they've never lost their intensity or talent. As far as "metal" music goes, Norma Jean is one of the best. With each record, they strengthen their own lineup. It's rare to see a band release this many records over such a long period of time and not only continually improve, but perfect.
40. Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!"
Donald Glover just continues to amaze me. He's a successful Stand-Up Comic, a Movie star, a TV star, a TV show Creator, a successful Rap career and now this masterpiece. It's just a bummer that it came out so late in the year. If I had enough time with this record as I did some of the others on this list, this one might be higher. And this record needs time. The different styles and influences sprinkled throughout the record take some time to really dig into. You can really feel the passion that Glover put into this record. It's so much different than anything he's ever done before, and he absolutely nails it.
39. Agnes Obel - Citizen of Glass
There are very few voices that have the capability of buckling me. Agnes Obel has one of those voices. The incredible range, the softness and the power she can portray is absolutely astonishing. She's a fantastic lyricist, as well. It's almost unfair to everyone else. If she and Julia Holter were ever to collaborate, I can't possibly begin to imagine the ramifications that would have for the world.
38. Anderson.Paak - Malibu
This record (and another a bit later on) caught be completely by surprise. I'm not a fan of Rap or Hip/Hop for the most part. I'll give almost anything a chance (except for country) but it's rare that I find a Rap or Hip/Hop record that I like. The first track I heard from this record hooked me in and wouldn't let go. Anderson Paak is nothing short of a genius for the way he uses samples and different classical instruments. The soundscapes he creates are absolutely gorgeous. And, his selections for guest appearances are spot on. It's a truly fantastic record.
37. Adult Jazz - Earrings Off!
Adult Jazz isn't for everybody, in fact, they aren't for most people. To say they're experimental would be an insult to the word experimental. Adult Jazz combine random noises to such great effect that they become some form of music. Couple that with the incredible voice of the lead vocalist, who winds his way through the random nature of the "music" and you have something seriously remarkable. While not as good as their previous debut record "Gist Is", Earrings Off is still a fantastic addition to a portfolio that I'll be following closely. If it weren't for the three "interlude" tracks on the only 7 track long record, this record would've been higher.
36. Ghost - Meliora (Deluxe Edition)
Man, those Swedes sure love their Devil Worship. Ghost (formerly known as Ghost B.C.) are one of the newest members of the Satanic following Sweden has produced over the years, and they're easily one of the most talented groups to come out of the bunch. The members of Ghost are all immensely talented, using classic rock acts like Black Sabbath as their biggest influences, and the influences are evident. They're fascinating to watch, as each member keeps their identities hidden. Each member is named "Faceless Ghoul" and the lead vocalist is named Papa Emiratus I, II, and now III (they're have been 3 lead vocalist changes, even though it's the same dude... yeah, it's a bit weird.)
35. Bruno Mars - 24K Magic
If only this had been released as an EP. The first 4 tracks of the new Record from the immensely talented Bruno Mars are so good. They're catchy, they feel like throwbacks to a different era, and they're incredibly easy to get stuck in your head. But the second half of the record just falls apart, quickly. It's a short record, so maybe we can get more from him quicker, but after having so much fun with the first 4 tracks, it was a bit of a bummer to hear the next 5.
34. Kyson - A Book Of Flying
What an interesting journey lone artist Jian Kellet Liew takes us on with A Book of Flying. Throughout the year, I had to check to make sure I wasn't listening to new Jose Gonzalez music every time this record came on. Not because the musicianship is reminiscent of Gonzalez, but because Liew's voice so strikingly resembles it. Musically, Kyson is an interesting mix of foggy synths and samples and Liew's own intoxicating voice.
33. Every Time I Die - Low Teens
The band that just never quits amazing me did it again. There's a defining sound to all of Every Time I Die. Once you hear it, you know it. Forming in Buffalo, New York back in 1998, every record they've released has hit at the exact right point, it seems. It's rare to find a vocalist like Keith Buckley, who is so full of energy and passion for the music he makes, especially almost 19 years later. Low Teens seems to have more moments that slow things down than some of their past work, but the ferocity is still ever present.
32. GOAT - Requiem
The first thing that led me to fall in love with GOAT was the fantastic use of Sitar, an instrument that isn't used anywhere near enough. The cult band (both literally and figuratively) from Sweden (oh, those Swede's and their Devil Worship) have gained quite a bit of notoriety of late due to the incredibly talented musicians and the wide array of instruments they employ to achieve their signature sound. They're a band unlike most, and you either love them or hate them. There doesn't seem to be much in between with them.
31. Panic! At the Disco - Death of a Bachelor
Again, it's a testament to how great this year was in music that one of my favorite records of the year is at 31. Brendan Urie's voice is the key to Panic!'s success. Without him, I don't think this band would've had the success or longevity that it's enjoyed. And, what a voice it is. It's the type of voice that isn't era specific like so many are. It's rare that you see anyone sing the way 80's hair metal bands sang, but Brendan's voice would fit in at any point.
30. From Indian Lakes - Everything Feels Better Now
One of my favorite groups over the last 4 or 5 years, with each release it seems like the band changes drastically. Yet again, the lone member of the band, Joey Vannucchi writes, produces and performs every bit of music you hear, and then employs a traveling band to play with him on tour. It's kind of amazing to hear the music, and then to realize there's only one person doing every bit of it. With this release, the softest of the incredible catalog, we see Vannucchi at his most vulnerable. Which is incredible to think about considering where he comes from. Growing up on a small plot of land near Yosemite National Park, he had no electricity throughout his childhood. Which is where he began to play music, because it was the only thing to do. It's a fascinating story from a fascinating band.
29. Blind Pilot - And Then Like Lions
After a 5 year break, Blind Pilot finally released a new record that fits in perfectly with the other two releases of their career. The softness of Israel Nebeker's voice is what sets Blind Pilot apart. The instrumentation could really be any kind of style, and it would come across as intimate due to Israel. But the music isn't hard, in fact it compliments Israel's voice to perfection. This record is no different, but the instruments are. They utilize a banjo, upright bass, trumpets, ukulele, mountain dulcimer, and vibraphone. It's such a fascinating listen.
28. Tall Heights - Neptune
The duo out of Boston are poised to really take off with their first major label release. Consisting of vocalist/guitarist Tim Harrington and vocalist/cellist Paul Wright with a backing band for tours, Tall Heights have drawn some pretty impressive comparisons. Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver (although, anyone who sings with a falsetto is the "next" Bon Iver apparently) to name a few. Neptune gives enough to show the potential these two have to take the band to incredible heights, while staying fairly reserved. It's a beautiful record that deserves to be heard.
27. Stephen Steinbrink - Anagrams
Stephen Steinbrink has that kind of voice that makes you want to hear more. Born in Phoenix, Steinbrink brings a calm lusciousness to his music. The pop sensibilities throughout his music, coupled with his gorgeous vocals are a joy to listen to. The lushly arranged music, meaningful yet vague lyrics paint images that could mean a number of things, and usually are up for the listeners interpretation. Anagrams, the aptly named record, is no different. Allowing the listener to take meaning from his words, even if the meaning we take wasn't the intended.
26. Benjamin Francis Leftwich - After the Rain
There's rarely an album title that encompasses the feel of a record more than this. Throughout the entire 13 track, 49 minute run time of the record, the overwhelming feeling you get is that feeling after a rain. Regardless if the rain is metaphorical or not, the feeling is prevalent. Following Benjamin Francis Leftwich's career is equal parts frustrating and rewarding. It took 5 years between his debut record and this one, and he released more singles than anyone I'd ever seen before. But the culmination of that is this record, so it was worth the wait.
25. The 1975 - i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
This record was such a shock when I first heard it. Not because it was fantastic, that's expected of them at this point, but because of how vastly different it was from their debut. The debut record was much more in line with most British Pop right now, whereas this record is experimental, slow and plotting. It has genuine heart, it has truthful revelations of the struggles of addiction and the loss of loved ones. It's ambitious, much like its album title (which is far too long).
24. Band of Horses - Why Are You OK
Band of Horses, with their very first release, won my heart. The mix between fantastic Indie, Alternative, and just a bit of country influence. The first two records were as close to perfect as you could get. Then the third record came, and it was still great, but it was missing something. Then, Mirage Rock came out, and I lost all hope. It was the new "Say Anything" (a band that was once so good, and hasn't done anything even remotely listenable since). This record is a giant step in the right direction. There are still a couple of tracks that aren't great, but the ones that are great, are great!
23. James Vincent McMorrow - We Move
The voice, the compositions, the flow, the mood, everything about the Irish born artist has completely entranced me since I first heard him back in 2011. With each record, he changes his sound, going from a more stripped down acoustic sound to this record, an almost Soul inspired electronic romp. It's an incredible transformation that fits him better than I would've thought possible.
22. Words Like Daggers - Perfect Weather
The mid-2000's are alive and well with Words Like Daggers. That emo, post hardcore, whatever genre they called themselves, Words Like Daggers take that formula and further expand on the genre. It was a surprise to hear, considering it's a genre I've not heard in quite some time. It was a surprisingly welcome return, even if it's not a genre I would want to return to often.
21. Bear Hands - You'll Pay For This
Pop music is typically not my genre. In fact, I usually hate it. But there's something about Bear Hands and this new record that grabbed me. It's infinitely catchy, the deeper voice of vocalist Dylan Rau is a different pace than most Pop bands. Even this record is a bit different than what Bear Hands have typically done. Each track is a different masterclass in how Pop songs should be arranged. And after the last two records they released, it was interesting to hear the new direction they were heading. They not only chose the right direction, but nailed the new sound.
20. Secret Space - The Window Room
The debut record from the Toledo, OH group Secret Space is an incredible mixture of modern indie and 90's emo rock. The group, led Dean Tartaglia, wear their influences on their sleeves. Obviously influenced by bands like mewithYou, Circa Survive, and Balance & Composure. The variety of the record, coupled with the vulnerable lyrics make this a band to keep an eye on. "Our new songs are as genuine, self-critical, and honest as possible" says Dean, and its evident he means that.
19. High Highs - Cascades
I've often said that certain records have seasonal feelings. High Highs newest offering is very much a Summer record. When listening to it, it conjures images of riding in a car, windows down somewhere on the coast with the cool ocean breeze flowing into the car. Or the feeling of sitting on a beach, digging your toes as deep into the sand as possible. It's the lightness and airiness to the sound of this record, the carefree feeling. It's a "happy" record, but not in the same sense as most "happy" records. It's not trying to make you happy, but you genuinely can't control it.
18. Y La Bamba - Ojos Del Sol
Ojos Del Sol is a blast to listen to, and that's because the members of Y La Bamba sound like they're having a blast playing it. Lead vocalist Luz Elena Mendoza really shines on this record, using her voice as an extension of the instrumentation to incredible result. The group out of Portland, Ore. blend English and Spanish to perfection, and the Latin inspired instrumentation is something that very few could pull off.
17. Deftones - Gore
The Deftones have consistently put out perfect record after perfect record. After 22 years, they continue to crank them out. Gore is no different. It's their most melodic record to date, utilizing Chino's incredible voice better than on any other record to date. But that doesn't mean this is a soft record. It still has some seriously heavy moments, moments that are staples of the Deftones discography. At this rate, they've released a new record every two years, so 2018 can't get here soon enough.
16. Mat Kerekes - Luna & the Wild Blue Everything
Mat Kerekes said, in order for him to get in the right mindset to make his debut record, he kept telling himself one thing, "People, things, and feelings change as we get older." That's an ever present theme throughout the record, one that features an acoustic guitar and Mat's voice and little else. It's a beautiful debut from a man best known as the front man for acclaimed band Citizen. Mat has proven that he can make incredibly deep meaningful music on his own, and the world is a better place for it.
15. Ray LaMontagne - Ouroboros
Ray LaMontagne has already had an incredibly illustrious career, but with Ouroboros he's taken it to another level. Again, we have an artist who has clearly defined influences for this record. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon's fingerprints are all over this record. From the two sided record, to the homage to the incomparable Us & Them. It's an exceptional record that should give Ray some much needed publicity.
14. Relient K - Air For Free
This. This is the Relient K I know and love. The last few records Relient K have released have been underwhelming. More on the pop side than the pop punk they were known for. Relient K were always one of my favorite bands, and this record solidified that for me. Each track is fun, catchy, deep, and meaningful. It feels like the band has been reinvigorated, this is the most fun the band have had (seemingly) in years. They even released a Halloween EP this year; which was equally fantastic.
13. BADBADNOTGOOD - IV
BADBADNOTGOOD are some of the best Jazz musicians I've ever heard. They made their fame with a few original compositions, but they really cut their teeth (what a strange expression) on Jazz covers of popular Hip/Hop tracks. With IV, the band moves into a more lounge-y R&B style of Jazz and it fits them perfectly. The myriad guest apprearances throughout the record are all spot on. Sam Herring, Colin Stetson, KAYTRANADA, and Mick Jenkins all lend their talents to the record. But, the best guest appearance belongs to Charlotte Day Wilson and her incredible voice. The track is slow and deliberate, beautiful and engrossing. It perfectly sums up this record.
12. St. Paul & The Broken Bones - Sea of Noise
Soul music is one of the touhgest genres to pull off. It has to be genuine, it has to have a lot of heart, and it has to be powerful. Paul Janeway, the lead vocalist of the fantastic St. Paul... has all of these in spades. Where their first record was all about the joys of life and the party, this record is the opposite. It's evident throughout the record, his lyrics talk about racial violence and the current state of politics. It's a heady record that has serious weight. All while being immensely proficient at their craft.
11. The Gentle Hits - The Gentle Hits
Ah, that voice! Anyone that knows me should know how much I love Dear and the Headlights. The two records they released are to this day two of my favorite records I've ever heard. Ian Metzger, the lead vocalist of Dear and the Headlights, and now The Gentle Hits, hasn't lost a step. The same love, despair, passion, and sincerity from his days in Dear and the Headlights are present here, and it's been missed. Dear and the Headlights were, and are, one of my favorite bands, and it looks like The Gentle Hits will quickly be on its way there for me as well.
10. Killswitch Engage - Incarnate
As I get older, I've noticed a a bit of a change in my musical tastes. I've swayed further away from the harder music in recent years. Especially considering how much I listened to it in my younger days. Opting for calmer, slow music to fill my Library instead of the brutal metal music that dominatd my younger self. That's not to say that I don't still love the genre; there just seems to be an over saturation of the genre with too many bands that sound just like the other. *Insert "Back In My Day" meme*
That's why I love Killswitch so much. Forming in 1999, they've released 7 records, all with different styles while staying in that "metalcore" genre (whatever that means). This is due to the change in lead vocalist. When the band formed, Jesse Leach was the lead, and recorded the first record with the band. He left the band shortly after completion of the record (informing the band via email, no less), and Howard Jones was tasked with replacing him. I was always partial to Howard's vocals; he had a raw energy that really brought the band to a different level. But after 3 stellar records and 9 years, Jones left the band as well, which brought Jesse Leach back into the Killswitch family. This, the second record with Leach back on vocal duties, is the best record they've ever released. It's melodic while keeping the hard edge that they're known for. The lyrics, different from most metal bands, have been positive from inception. They aren't the "doom-and-gloom" types. Instead relying on uplifting tracks (even if the track titles are misleading). They're deeply personal and heartfelt, which is what sets them apart from many other bands in the genre.
9. Trails And Ways - Own It
Since their record last year, the excellent Pathology, Trails and Ways have gone through a lot of heartache and adversity. After touring all over the globe in support of their new record, Keith Brown came home to find out his long term relationship was at an end. Shortly thereafter, 2 of the 4 band members who make up Trails and Ways left the band. That's a lot to overcome in a short period of time. So it's no surprise to find the new record has a bit of a bite to it, even if the music is cheery.
Lyrically, Own It struggles with ideas of Capitalism, like in the excellent track "My Things". Keith sings "I don't wanna/wanna/wanna live without my things". Traveling the world and witnessing how much we as people essentially worship the products we desire was a big influence on the writing process for the record.
With Own It, Trails and Ways have tinkered with their own sound. On previous offerings, they tend to have a more "dream-pop" sound. But with the changes to the lineup and to their own lives, some punk influences made their way into the record. The best way to describe this melding of ideas would be something like "dream-pop-punk" which is as strange a genre as I've ever heard, but it surprisingly works really well. I'm excited for the new direction the band has taken, and it's unlikely we'll get a new record every year. However, whenever the next one makes its way out, I'll be waiting for it.
8. Oh Malô - As We Were
Oh Malô's debut record is a gorgeous, atmospheric dive into heartbreak, specifically after a relationship ends. It's with this theme in mind that the album progresses, and it does so magnificently. The band said the record "represents the shifting personas that burst forth after the emotional separation from a significant other. Vengeful reds grapple with introspective blues and find balance in a muted, melancholic orange. What begins as an anger-filled, distorted cluster of sound finds its way to a somber, vulnerably reflective conclusion."
That's such a fantastic description for this record. There's an obvious breaking point, right in the middle of the record with track 7, the incomparably perfect "Fine". It's the point where anger yields to acceptance. The point where vulnerability creeps in. It's hard to compare the band to anyone else because of how unique their sound is. Vocalist and writer, Brandon Hafetz's incredible falsetto shows passion and genuine heartbreak. This record is personal, it's his experience, but it is infinitely relatable. Almost everyone can attest to the feeling of loneliness and pain that happens after a breakup. On "Happy Birthday" Brandon, sings about recognizing the birthday of the partner he lost two years ago, and its deeply emotional ramifications that has on him. It's as original a track as I've heard due to the incredible musicianship of the band and vocal abilities of Brandon. His voice is seriously one of the most gorgeous things I've ever heard, and it fills me with envy every time I hear it.
The album tells a story of heartbreak and inevitable acceptance. Among the many standout tracks is the closer "P.S.". Brandon sings "I am not the same/I am not supposed to sound this way/But without you in my head, without you in my bed/Without your heavy presence, I am dead/I 'm not the same" It's deeply relatable, and gives the listener some closure after the marathon of emotions we've felt.
7. Gallant - Ology
Christopher Gallant's music is like something you'd hear from the 80's or 90's R&B scene, it's reminiscent of an era that no longer exists. His passionate voice is only catapulted by his heartfelt lyrics. Growing up near D.C. and moving to New York to start his music career brought some struggles that he wasn't prepared for. For whatever reason, his music didn't catch on while in New York, so he eventually moved to L.A. to continue to hunt for his dream. Luckily for us, it worked. After catching the ear of business manager Jake Udell , he finally got his break. After releasing an EP called Zebra in 2014, an EP that was good but reserved, he got to work on what would become Ology
Ology is successful, not only because of the incredible falsetto voice, but because of the words behind that voice. His struggles in New York, in relationships, in self confidence are all themes he plays with on the record. He's on open book that we're lucky enough to read. It's unlikely, but you get the sense that he recorded the record by himself, locked in a dark bedroom with only his computer to aid him. On tracks like "Talking To Myself" the feelings of isolation that are ever present throughout the record really shine as he sings "I've been whispering to ghosts lately/I'm begging for more time, before I'm buried deeper in the trenches of insanity" It's a defining record, and I can't wait to see where Gallant goes from here.
6. Hans Abramhsen & Barbara Hanngian - Let Me Tell You
Danish Composer Hans Abrahamsen's original composition "Let Me Tell You" was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I heard all year. In collaboration with "singer/actress" Barbara Hannigan, Hans Abrahamsen's story of Shakespeare's Ophelia is moving, spacious and atmospheric. And Barbara Hannigan's mesmerizing voice completely captures Ophelia, almost as if she were Ophelia.
Hannigan, being close friends with music critic/novelist Paul Griffiths, worked closely with his wife to give him the best birthday present imaginable, a new piece of music. Based on Paul's own book, "Let Me Tell You", which is not only written in the voice of Ophelia, but only uses her words from Hamlet, they helped create one of the most incredible pieces of music you're likely to hear. It was Hannigan's idea to commission Abrahamsen for the music, and it couldn't have gone any better. Abrahamsen's compostions are filled with Earthy, atmospheric and natural tones. It's a beautiful piece of art that only grows stronger the more you listen.
5. C Duncan - The Midnight Sun
Surrealism. That's the best word I can conjure to describe this record. There's a magical feeling to it, almost as if it would fell right at home in an old Disney animated film. It's a gorgeous soundscape that Chris Duncan creates, an isolated feeling present throughout that creates these incredibly calming sounds. There's an innocence to the Glaswegian composer's work. In a year full of political statements, this record is a soothing reprieve from the hectic.
It's hard to come up with comparisons for this music simply because nobody is making this kind of music. The feeling of airlessness, the stargazing worthy tracks are so disparate that it feels wholly unique. Duncan's falsetto voice is entrancing, but it's less about the words as it is about how his voice melts into the musical tapestry.
The Midnight Sun is C Duncan's second record in as many years. If this is a trend, I'll happily fall into his surreal world every year. The colorful imagery he's able to paint with his music is something that I didn't realize I was missing until I heard it.
4. Dirty Heads - Dirty Heads
Easily the biggest surprise of the year for me, this is a record I shouldn't love as much as I do. A fascinating mix of Reggae, Hip/Hop, Alt-Rock, Pop, and electronica, this record could be considered a cohesive mess. But, somehow it works. The oft-appointed "Spiritual Successors" to the insanely talented "Sublime", Dirty Heads made a living in the chilled-out-Reggae-rap that defined Sublime. But with this record, Dirty Heads are experimenting a bit. It's still the California Sun drenched Summer record you'd expect, but with some fascinating twists along the way.
The drug fueled lyrics about relaxing on a beach, the Reggae beats that transport you to said beach, and the genuine joy they seem to be having while making incredibly catchy music is infectious. It's a record that, track after track, makes you feel alive. It's also a new beginning for a band 5 records in. It's no secret they had been dipping in quality over the last few records. With this Self-Titled offering, they sound rejuvenated, which makes me excited for more.
3. exwhy - The Feels
A few years ago, a band called The Dodo's released a record that was so good, it pissed me off every time I heard it. Not in a bad way, but in a "why are they so good" kind of way. That same feeling is present when I listen to the debut record from Atlanta based exwhy. There's no reason why it's so good, they aren't exceptional at their instrumentation, vocally they aren't the most amazing thing I've heard. But together, it fits perfectly. The record is open and honest, lyrically being as blunt as possible and lead vocalist/writer Jack Fowler loves talking about the meanings and inspirations of his songs. Some artists like to to leave it up for interpretation, but that's just not exwhy's way.
The range of emotion in the record is incredible. Like in opener "Good Love". Fowler explains "it was written about the most peaceful moment of my life. I was living in Athens at the time and woke up one Sunday at my girlfriend' place. I knew we'd be getting day drunk." Or on first single "Salt", where he explains it as "the most difficult thing I've ever written about. I was in a relationship for a long time with someone who was haunted by a past trauma. All I could do was watch her struggle. It permeated her life, our relationship, my life... In execution, the song starts like any relationship does, loud and exciting. But once the sh*t hits the fan, and the reality of what exists in the dark begins to set in, everything becomes uncomfortably intimate and quiet. When it explodes at the end, that's the rage, despair, loneliness - you'd give anything to take it away, but it's not your fight."
This band is serioulsly something special.
2. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Oh Justin Vernon, you beautiful bastard, you. I was suspicious that we'd be getting new music from Bon Iver considering how often he was collaborating with other artists. Last time we got a Bon Iver record, he spent the year before on other artists tracks. That was over 5 years ago. With the release of '22, A Million', Justin Vernon has left the openness and atmospheric tone of his first two records for a more experimental sound. It's not something everyone is on board with, but that (obviously) doesn't matter to Vernon. He creates music and art the way he wants to make music and art, and so far, he hasn't given any reason for us to doubt him.
'22, A Million' is one of the most divisive records I've heard in that last few years. There seems to be no in between, you either love it or hate it. For me, it's an experiment that is a wild success. The hectic sounds that sometimes make you regret wearing earbuds, the soft hymnal sounds, the reserved, the bombastic, it's all here. Vernon's voice is absolutely stunning (and has spawned about a thousand different artists who are imitating his stripped down style). But with this record, he uses a vocoder-filter over his voice on most of the tracks, utilizing auto-tune, not to mask or correct his voice like it's so often used for, but as another instrument. There are horns, synths, flutes, all kinds of musical pieces to dissect and dig into.
His lyrics, just as nonsensical (heh) as his track titles, paint the picture of a man struggling with the ideas of Life and Death. Like in opener '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' where he seemingly realizes that nothing lasts forever. They show him struggling with religion liken in tracks '33 “GOD”' or '666 ʇ'. It's a fascinating listen. Now, hopefully we don't have to wait another 5 years for new Bon Iver.
1. Rob Zombie - The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser
It's incredibly rare (I don't recall it ever happening before) that a record stays my favorite for the entire year. I usually have an inner battle for my Top 2 or 3 spots and where exactly to rank them. That was not the case this year. When this record was released April 29th, it was the best thing I heard so far, and it still is.
Rob Zombie isn't for everybody, or even most people, but this record is so much fun. It's heavy, brutal music that never takes itself seriously. I mean, just look at that album title. When asked why he named the record the way he did, Zombie said "I just wanted the title to encompass how the record feels", and he absolutely nails it.
It might be a metal record first and foremost, but the tracks are so catchy that it blurs a strange line. You can tell, just by the sound, that they had a ton of fun putting this thing together. It's a short record, at just over 31 minutes, but the tracks are paced perfectly. You're never left feeling like you wanted more. It's so succinct and so tight that once the tracks ends, you can't wait to get to the next track.
I'll be curious to see how much longer Rob Zombie can do this. He's an established film maker (whether you like his films play into if you'll like his music, I feel) and obviously has had a long musical career dating back to the 80's with White Zombie. So, if he's not shooting a film, he's touring for his music, and when he's not doing that he's writing music. It has to be taxing, but he's said that he doesn't need the money (which I'm sure he doesn't), and that he'll quit when he stops having fun. I hope that's no time soon.
1. Microwave - Much Love
2. Basement - Promise Everything
3. Lady Gaga - Joanne
4. Local Natives - Sunlit Youth
5. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Pretty Years
All artwork and music courtesy of the artists and their record labels.