Monday, January 9, 2017

the top 25 best albums of 2016

And now, the final list, the one that always gives me the most anxiety but also the one that I'm always happy to have finalized by the end of the year - or by the first few days of next year, I'm going on vacation for the first week of January and I'm in a bit of a rush to get packed and ready on time, so this video might be a day or two late. 

But in an odd way that's kind of representative of 2016's albums as a whole, as I've definitely not seen a lot of common consensus surrounding picks - and fair warning, that'll be very true with these as well. Great records in 2016 came in fits and spurts, with a lot of big returns that didn't quite impress me, some debuts that blew me out of the water, and a predominant theme of endings that ran through a lot of albums that I covered and loved this year. I'm not quite sure if it's reflecting the tempo of the times or my personal feelings surrounding the year, but this list really feels all over the place, all albums I loved but coming from radically different locations, styles, and genres than I expected. In other words, there are albums that you will not recognize on this list, and a few major exclusions.

But it also runs deeper than that: for instance, this is the first year I've ever given out a perfect score on this channel - and then I did it twice. I'll get more into this when I talk about the albums at length, but I would recommend you consider my top two choices as interchangeable at best, I flip back and forth with them every day. There's also a whole bunch of albums that narrowly missed the cut, from punk veterans like Against Me!, White Lung and Jeff Rosenstock, to metal and experimental rock like Swans, Savages, Epica and Tarja to hip-hop powerhouses like clipping., Ka, LMNO, Elzhi, and Denzel Curry. And as I've mentioned a number of times, country had one of its best years in recent memory, and that led to some extremely painful cuts, from the superb pop country of Jennifer Nettles to the neotraditional tones of Cody Jinks and Mark Chesnutt to the stripped back indie starlets like Karen Jonas and Dori Freeman. Everyone I just mentioned dropped albums this year you can consider honourable mentions that I couldn't rank if I wanted to and are all worth your time, but now it's time for the list proper, starting with...

25. We're starting off this list with hip-hop, which despite the mainstream's fumbling to the contrary, actually had a pretty good year. I wouldn't say it was a banner year like country had, but in terms of fresh talent, experimentation, and old pros, we got a lot of quality that should be appreciated. This record falls into the last category, and it's one of those cases that I think I ended up loving this album so much more than everyone else simply because the themes had so much powerful resonance with me... but for as long as this took to get made, I'm so happy we got it.

25. 'and the anonymous nobody...' by De La Soul
Best Song: 'Greyhounds' ft. Usher

And yet I totally get why so many hip-hop heads didn't really get behind this album - for as much as De La have been pushing the boundaries of sound in hip-hop since their inception, this is one of those projects that seemed too weird, featuring less rap verses and an overload of guest stars that don't seem to make much sense, from Snoop Dogg and Pete Rock to Estelle and Usher to 2 Chainz, Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, and David Byrne. And yet once I managed to decode the thematic arc, I loved this album - it's a wonky oddball record about the relationship of artists to their music as they see through the metaphorical genre apocalypse and find the whole package waiting on the other side, not saviors but common contributors, speaking from the masses with the populism and power that has made De La Soul among my favourite hip-hop groups of all time. It's high concept genius and easily one of the best rap records of this year, so worth the time to entangle.

24. And from transcendence we crash into the gutter in epic fashion, because there's the side of hip-hop experimentation that celebrates the genre to elevate it... and then there's the sort that'll burn it, the artist, and everyone else in its path - and of course it's on this list.

24. 'Atrocity Exhibition' by Danny Brown

Best Song: 'Ain't It Funny'

I'll say this outright: if your record manages to give me nightmares, it's got a major chance of making my list, and just like The Flaming Lips did with The Terror in 2013, Danny Brown did with Atrocity Exhibition in 2016. This is a record that takes rock star opulence and merges it with the most hellish drug trip since Requiem For A Dream, and yet unlike that movie that I've refused to watch again, you can't look away from Danny Brown on this. The experimental production courtesy mostly of Paul White - who of course we'll be seeing more of on this list - pulls Danny Brown through a funhouse stream of mirrors where sees his sanity collapsing in a haze of hedonistic overload... and yet the relentless stream of dark humor, blistering insight, and over-the-top white-knuckle bars holds through the crash and comes out of hell all the stronger. I was originally not as high on this record as some critics, but like the substances used and heavily abused on this album, I kept coming back for more. Terrific record, although I really do hope this was the project Danny Brown needed to get this out of his system, he's too talented to lose.

23. So let's not mince words: women in country had an excellent year, both in the mainstream and the indie scene. This record tilts more towards the former courtesy of its production, but it also fell through the cracks because in 2016, most conservative country stations weren't willing to hear this sort of brutal honesty, even though it was a far more empathetic picture than you might think. Of course, this is nothing new for her - she just got the production to match the scope of her words this time around.

23. 'Big Day In A Small Town' by Brandy Clark
Best Song: 'Girl Next Door'

So for the longest time this record was paired in my mind with Jennifer Nettles' Playing With Fire - and considering Brandy Clark cowrote the majority of that album, it's no surprise as this rings as the much darker side of the coin to that album's feeling of hope to turn all the polish into something more real. But as the year progressed, on the strength of stronger individual songs and the black comedy that underscores so many of these tunes, Brandy Clark pulled ahead. Her stories about women in small town America pulled no punches and took its fair share of them, and while Jay Joyce couldn't quite capture all the rougher textures that Dave Cobb would manage brilliantly - that's no surprise, we'll be getting to him later - Joyce proved up to the task here. Eclectic and diverse without losing its cohesion, relentlessly witty while never losing its populism, it might be a shade weaker than her debut 12 Stories in its choice to go broader, but that doesn't make it any less excellent. In other words, there's a reason Brandy Clark has been pulling in the critical acclaim - she deserves it.

22. This is a very late entry to this list - but the more times I listened to it, the more it fit. It was a return to form I don't think anyone saw coming, with the sort of brilliantly refined compositions with the gravitas in writing and delivery to earn them - and for someone who has never really been a fan, she captured a magic that inspired memories I didn't know I had. In other words...

22. 'Remember Us To Life' by Regina Spektor
Best Song: 'The Visit'

No jokes, I didn't think Regina Spektor could pull this off, because there is a weight and maturity to the writing on this record that her progression over the past few albums didn't see. Most of this is a factor of the heavier, richer, more orchestral production, but a big factor is that she dialed back the quirk in favour of insightful songwriting about the nature of time's passage, from lost old devils and obsolescence to an increasingly uncertain future. And yet this is not a record that falls into nostalgia or nihilism, but simply finding the maturity in the middle path, acknowledging time's flow around you, your own choices within it, and savoring the connections that transcend it. I'm not going to deny that this record picked up a bit of additional personal weight for me given Regina Spektor's odd connection to my past - see the review for more details there - but it worked, and she ended up delivering one of the most sumptuous releases of the year.

21. I thought this record would end up being lower than it ultimately is - and again, not because of the album itself, but overriding circumstances surrounding this year. After all, it's one thing to make a relentless, uncompromising satire of ego and fragile arrogance - but it's very much another to see it prosper, and it can leave a very bitter taste in your mouth when you realize the fallout has the potential to be more than self-destructive this time around. But on the other hand, that's being unfair to a damn great record, especially when it provides us the blueprint of how the degeneration is going to happen in real time, so...

21. 'Egomaniac' by KONGOS
Best Song: 'I Want It Free'

I stand by the fact that this album was ignored by too many people upon its release. A lot of people thought KONGOS were a one trick pony after 'Come With Me Now', but with Egomaniac they not only show themselves as more experimental than many modern alt-rock acts, but also far more ambitious. Beyond phenomenal instrumental dynamics and willingness to bend genres until they snap, KONGOS didn't just bring relentlessly catchy hooks but also the sort of blistering satire of egomania that's framed entirely too close for comfort. It's a record of monstrous hubris that spends its runtime ripping out its insides, revealing the depths of insecurity, grief, and empty convictions that cannot be sustained, no matter if you have all the privilege in the world. And when the story does crash hard, the album pulls no punches in its conclusion with the frank admission that no, you're not getting the chance to do it all over again, because that's not how life works. It's an utterly brutal record - and yes, I can definitely see why it might be a little harder to stomach given what happened this year, but hey, if you want a glimpse inside that mind, KONGOS did it better than anyone else with some great music to boot.

20. This is a difficult album to discuss - and I mean that in every sense of the word, and not just because he passed days after the album was released, a thought that still sends chills down my spine to this day. No, the larger factor is that not only did he seem to know this was coming, but the tangled mysteries of his final record delved into those complex emotions and ideas in a way that raises more questions with every listen... And yeah, you already know what it is.

20. 'Blackstar' by David Bowie
Best Song: 'Lazarus'

This record confuses, frustrates, and blows me away every time I listen to it. The touches of experimental rock, with fragments of jazz and an implacable moody atmosphere that can't help but inspire chills, with Bowie's haggard voice echoing and breaking into the deep, the morbid fascination with being the dead man walking and yet the lingering regret at not being able to go further, the inscrutable genius wishing to just have a little more so he give it all away. It's not a record I find myself revisiting often - between the themes, bizarre lyrical twists that recall Death Grips more and more, and the fact that it still manages to get to me even with some distance - but whenever I do, I'm all the more convinced of its value. Very few artists get to write their own coda, and this one quite simply transcended.

19. This was the sort of debut that deserved so much more attention than it got. Sure, synthpop wasn't huge this year, but when I saw people going crazy for a collection of Carly Rae Jepsen b-sides - a project I did like, for the record - it gave me the sinking feeling that this had been overlooked. Spoilers, it shouldn't have.

19. 'Nothing's Real' by Shura
Best Song: 'Make It Up'

But look, in a strange way I get it. Shura's Nothing's Real is a subtle, quieter album that calls back to 80s pop and R&B but not the flashier stuff, it's easy to see why many people would overlook it. But it's not really something I can excuse either, because the emotional complexity, the fantastic hooks and layered production, and Shura's potent, understated charisma is something that kept drawing me back more and more. And that's before you get writing that delves into the quiet desperation of trying to hold onto ephemeral connections, be they relationships for the wrong reasons or family who are bound to depart this world like anyone else. But for as gauzy and uncertain as this record can feel, it taps into a certain humanity that makes it fantastic synthpop and one of the best pop records of 2016. Seriously folks, Shura's the real deal, and I'd love to see her get the attention she right deserves.

18. Okay, so one fun little thought experiment I do whenever I make a list like this is to wonder what this collection of albums taken in aggregate says about my year. Now that's always a hazy proposition: the records exist as part of the culture and not just for me, and there's probably more of a correlation between cultural moods than any one specific album. But what I do see when I look at this list is a lot of desperation, change, endings, death, confusion, it would be enough for armchair psychologists to start asking questions. But here's my counterpoint: if the breakdown is going to be this compelling, how can I not praise it?

18. 'Teens Of Denial' by Car Seat Headrest
Best Song: 'The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia'

Yeah, nearly every critic has put this record somewhere on their list, and that doesn't surprise me at all, because Will Toledo pulled off something masterful with this record. He didn't just capture teenage angst with the overwritten, hook-driven indie rock sound that many millennials grew up with and adore, but he went deeper to skewer himself, my demographic, and the older demographics that enabled this breakdown, and he did it with the attention to detail and edge that shows a songwriter who doesn't just understand and relate to our generation, but has lived it with the self-awareness of all its flaws and glories. In short, it kind of reminds me a little of the movie Superbad, which I probably like a lot more than I should: self-indulgent and a little overlong, entirely too crass for its own good, but there's a real emotional core and power to it that will ensure it remains a classic. Yes, I just called Superbad a classic, and I stand by that.

17. Of course, it isn't all about my generation. Sometimes you need the words of those who came before to set the stage and prove that they not only can hold their own, but surpass it.

17. 'We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service' by A Tribe Called Quest
Best Song: 'Dis Generation' ft. Busta Rhymes

Here's another album that grew on me a lot since I covered it - I originally thought I loved the De La Soul comeback more, but the more I dug into A Tribe Called Quest's final record, the more I found a record just as thoughtful, just as experimental, but with a shade more grit and character that put it over the top for me. The rapping interplay is masterful, the content is hard-hitting and extremely relevant in a way few political albums managed to execute this year, and the pivot to a phenomenally poignant and well-realized tribute to the late Phife Dawg marks as among some of Tribe's best ever work. I keep finding more moments of genius every time I go through the record, from guest performances to Busta Rhymes hitting a stride masterfully to the fact the group doesn't just celebrate and reassert their dominance but shows how younger MCs are indeed taking up the torch. Look, if you love hip-hop, you've probably already heard this and probably love it as much as I do if not more - and again, what a way to go...

16. Okay, so one thing that some of you might recognize is that there aren't many metal albums on this list this year - and yeah, part of that is on me, I don't think I covered as many as I would have liked, but the larger truth is that there were some big disappointments this year in metal that didn't help matters. I wasn't in love with Metallica's comeback, Dream Theater's double disc epic fades more every day for me, and even some of the metal records I loved didn't hit as strongly as their predecessors did, like with Epica or Opeth... to the extent you can call Opeth metal these days. But that's not saying there weren't a few surprises, and here's one of them.

16. 'Ghostlights' by Avantasia
Best Song: 'Let The Storm Descend Upon You'

I was never a big Avantasia fan, but man, Ghostlights won me over in a huge way. The narrative rises to among the best in symphonic metal, the vocal performances are tremendous, the solos are excellent, and it's easily some of the most catchy, hook-driven music you'll hear all year. This is the sort of metal that, yes, can get gloriously cheesy at points - it's a conflict in Victorian England between reason and magic, the only thing it's missing are a set of over-the-top steampunk music videos - but just like the Meat Loaf that it clearly worships, Tobias Sammet knows how to transcend it and make something glorious and epic. Folks, if you're looking for symphonic metal not just with a brain but with the sort of power to get you coming back over and over, this record is definitely it - it's Ayreon for symphonic metal, and that's a high compliment indeed.

15. Look, you don't need me to tell you this guy had a great year, the work speaks for itself!

15. 'Malibu' by Anderson .Paak
Best Song: 'Parking Lot'

I still contend that this album was not released at the right time - if Anderson .Paak had dropped Malibu in, say, mid-May, it could have ruled this summer for everyone and not just me. But really, if that's the biggest flaw I can find with the project that's saying a ton, because this record was relaxed, groove-heavy, relentlessly catchy, and features one of the most versatile and potent talents in modern hip-hop and R&B to break in recent memory. The charisma is boundless, he draws out the best in some great guest verses, his stories are detailed and well-told, and I still love the loose framing device to this day. I hope Anderson .Paak makes a record for every part of L.A., that's how compelling and well-realized it is here! In other words... folks, this is what hip-hop could have sounded like for you in the mainstream in 2016, and yet apparently you all wanted Drake and an ever-increasing stream of bargain-barrel wannabes instead. That's your loss, not mine.

14. And speaking of artists who deserve far more attention...

14. 'The Impossible Kid' by Aesop Rock
Best Song: 'Blood Sandwich'

I remember watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and seeing Aesop Rock perform for the first time in his twenty-plus year career on network television. And aside from once again confirming that Stephen Colbert's taste in musical guests is more forward thinking than you would ever expect, it's almost poignant that Aesop Rock on an album about opening up to his audience and the rest of the world would take that step. You don't need me to tell you that the wordplay is incredible, that he's one of the most lyrically dexterous and ingenious rappers working, that his production work is layered and brilliant in a way that holds its own secrets, but what's more amazing is that this probably Aesop Rock's most accessible album to date in terms of hooks and powerful content. In other words, if Aesop Rock is reaching out to the world, it's about damn time the rest of the world started reaching back, especially when his work is this powerful.

13. And now we move onto yet another criminally underappreciated record in 2016 - and at this point I'm not just talking about mainstream electronic fans, who would probably run screaming from this. No, I'm stunned there wasn't more attention from critics who cover electronic music beyond just Pitchfork and, well, me. So for those of who aren't aware, here's an education...

13. 'Varmints' by Anna Meredith
Best Song: 'The Vapours'

I'm not going to deny that Anna Meredith's music is daunting stuff, a classical composer who took modern composition and fused it with experimental electronics, contorting across tempos, tones, nested cadences and sounds, and yet still with a striking pop sensibility in creating music you'll want to explore. Coupled with a level of lyrical cohesion that caught me completely off-guard in the best possible way and some of the best crescendos and climaxes you'll hear in the genre, I can comfortably say that Anna Meredith's Varmints sounds unlike anything you've ever heard before - and in this case, that's definitely an endorsement. Again, I can't promise you'll love it, but it heartily deserves the chance.

12. And on the flip side, sometimes you get records that are exactly what you'd expect in terms of composition, content, tones, the whole package - and yet when you do it this well, you can bet I'm still onboard.

12. 'Like An Arrow' by Blackberry Smoke
Best Song: 'The Good Life'

In terms of southern rock, I don't think there's a band that did it better than Blackberry Smoke did in 2016, mostly because they refined their strengths into a white-hot core of incredibly catchy and potent music. You'd never know it was a self-produced record for as crisp and well-balanced as all the tones are, the hooks are as great as ever, and the writing again proves that Blackberry Smoke might go for broad themes, but approach them with a hardbitten maturity and poise that doesn't need to rely on genre tropes. In other words, there tends to be a rock record that just straightforwardly kicks a lot of ass to land on this list, and with Like An Arrow, Blackberry Smoke nailed the bullseye.

11. I don't think anyone expected this to be this good - hell, I didn't expect it to be this good, and I like all the artists involved in this collaboration! And again, I don't quite think it's gotten the praise it deserves, mostly because it's decidedly low-key and subtle... and yet...

11. 'case/lang/veirs' by case/lang/veirs
Best Song: 'Down I-5'

I could easily listen to a half dozen more records from this collaboration project, because the blend of k.d. lang's smoky poise, Neko Case's indie charms, and Laura Veirs' ethereal mystique blends into a project that again, is a little low-key and probably shorter than I'd like, but features the best possible versions of all three artists adding their voices to each others' work in order to refine a sound of pure beauty. The production is layered and diverse, the harmonies are gorgeous, the writing might share individual hallmarks of the artists from track-to-track but with enough flourishes and refinement to go further, and it also happens to be catchy as all hell. This was one of my go-to summer albums - it just got in my head in the best possible way, and ladies, that follow-up? It really can't come fast enough.

10. There's a part of me that's surprised I loved this as much as I did - I mean, I had liked this guy's solo work in the past, and his work with his rap collective was always stellar, but this... it's on a different level.

10. 'More Than Ever' by Sims
Best Song: 'Spinning Away'

If you want to talk about experimental hip-hop and you're not talking about Sims' More Than Ever, you're doing it wrong. He might not have the same wild personality in his delivery as Danny Brown, but much of the quivering off-kilter production can go toe-to-toe and certainly bang just as hard. Just like every member of Doomtree, Sims gets that you can make insightful, brilliantly lyrical hip-hop while still delivering monstrous hooks, but More Than Ever pushes that even harder, tapping into the personal territory that Sims has rarely touched in the same way. Powerfully honest and sincere, genius in so many subtle ways, and a banger that should send the mainstream cowering, it's one of the best hip-hop releases of the year, hands down. Rest of Doomtree... Sims raised the stakes with this, and I want to hear some competition.

9. So, once again I didn't quite explore as much black metal throughout the year as I wanted - and considering I actually covered more albums this year than 2015, that's saying something! But sometimes you find a project in the margins, one that winds up on your radar practically by accident and ends up blowing your mind...

9. 'Guardians' by Saor
Best Song: 'Tears Of A Nation'

Look, I will freely admit that just like with Panopticon blending in elements of bluegrass and country won me over, Saor had a foot in the door thanks to their usage of Celtic folk. But it takes some damn impressive craftsmanship to match those instrumental tones with atmospheric black metal and make it feel like more than a gimmick. And with Guardians... look, I don't know what to tell you, some of these melodies are the most viscerally satisfying I heard in 2016. The tonal balance is the best it has ever been with real instrumental diversity, the lyrics and vocals are solid as hell, the transitions are masterful... but really, at some point it all comes back to melody, and Saor delivered some of the absolute best. It's an incredible fusion and an incredible album.

8. Okay, I'm a little amazed how big this got. I mean, I've been a fan of this guy for a couple years now and frankly, I'd argue this isn't his best work, probably his last album is. But this album has rapidly become the 'I don't like country, but I like this', which is probably linked to it being the furthest he's ever stepped away from the genre. And yet this is one of the cases where the success is so justly earned, I can't complain.

8. 'A Sailor's Guide To Earth' by Sturgill Simpson
Best Song: 'Sea Stories'

This got a nomination for album of the year at the Grammys, a fact that still makes no sense to me and also a promising sign that Sturgill Simpson will get a huge primetime performing slot, which is awesome. But I think it's important to stress how he got to this point, with one of the best country-adjacent projects of the year! Yeah, the elements of soul and rock can feel a little weird, but Sturgill's composition, serious songwriting chops, and production skills - yeah, people forget he produced this himself! - make them fit seamlessly together, hauling the Muscle Shoals back into the limelight with tremendous success. Coupled with the most daring Nirvana cover I've heard in years and the fact that Sturgill has sworn to keep on experimenting... if it's this amazing, I'm definitely along for the ride!

7. So now we have the other Grammy-nominated record for Album of the Year on this list - frankly, I'm a little stunned that there's two here, but sometimes they actually do get things right. But I think I'm more surprised not that the Grammys nominated it, but that it made my list - because I was outspoken against this artist before 2016, she's had multiple songs land on worst lists from me, and yet...

7. 'LEMONADE' by Beyonce
Best Song: '6 Inch' ft. The Weeknd

Look, I'd be hardpressed to find the critics who didn't like Beyonce's Lemonade - even a lot of the people who hated her music couldn't help but admit that this was something special. And for me... well, I was always indifferent, but Lemonade is on a different level. The genre-bending and experimentation, the willingness to embrace rougher sounds, the fact that Beyonce was willing to rip away the veneer of 'American pop culture royalty' to find and ultimately embrace the flaws in it in some of her best songwriting with guest stars that blew me away. Oh, and it also happens to be Beyonce's best vocal performance of her career, hands down, bringing a level of raw intensity that I did not believe she could pull off. But again, you all know this: Lemonade was a pop culture phenonemon, and while it's probably going to snatch the Grammy from Sturgill, I'd argue in this case it's deserved. I just wish the hits had stuck around, but I predict in ten years, Lemonade will have stuck around - just watch.

6. This is my favourite hip-hop album of the year. It's not the flashiest, not the most dense or experimental - but it is by far the smartest and most emotionally resonant, with the sort of storytelling and vulnerability that still managed to be insightful and funny as hell. Again, not quite certain it's his best work, but the fact it landed this high is a testament to the quality.

6. 'Hella Personal Film Festival' by Open Mike Eagle & Paul White
Best Song: 'Dive Bar Support Group'

I get the impression that this album was a slow burn for a lot of people, the sort of album that at first didn't attract a lot of attention but going on months later has developed a much bigger following. And deservedly so, and not just because Paul White proves to be an absolute genius behind the production boards in crafting beats and weird ideas that stick with you. But the star is Open Mike Eagle himself, taking us through the little stories through a day that explores insecurities, alcohol abuse, technology, and the little complicated moments and motions that inform being a black man in America. It's so unbelievably clever and funny that you almost miss how nakedly sincere and powerful it can become in the details, perfectly framed and amazingly nuanced. Look, Open Mike Eagle made my list in 2014 with Dark Comedy, and while I do think that album is a tad better, I still absolutely love this - hella personal for sure, but also a work of genius.

5. And yet if we're looking for a songwriter to go toe-to-toe with Open Mike Eagle when it comes to nuance and detail... well, of course we're going to country, a parallel genre to hip-hop in so many ways. And while it was one of the real treats of my year to dig into this woman's extremely rich discography, this was the crowning moment.

5. 'The Bird And The Rifle' by Lori McKenna
Best Song: 'Halfway Home'

You know, I could engage in some debate whether or not Lori McKenna's The Bird And The Rifle is her best album or how it compares with Bittertown or Lorraine - but I'm not going to, half because the majority of her albums are brilliant and deserve your attention and money, but also because this album is a tour de force without comparison. Dave Cobb delivers some of his most restrained production to date and knows to get out of the way of genius, because Lori McKenna knows how to write the songs that feel lived, all the more powerful because the little details that don't shy away from a dark reality. Again, I'm not sure this album is for everyone - there's a level of maturity and understated poise that I think will not get the appreciation as louder, more accessible work will - but for me, I'd be hardpressed to find much better. This, along with the next two records, very nearly got the highest possible scores from me, that how much they connected. And on that note...

4. This was the most fun record I heard all year - and yeah, the fact that it's number four says a little something about the general mood of 2016, but man, it deserved to be so much bigger than it is. Because it's rare you take the blend of styles and influences that this guy does and pull together something that blows above nearly all of it and sticks the landing, especially on a debut, and yet from Kyle Craft, we got it.

4. 'Dolls Of Highland' by Kyle Craft
Best Song: 'Lady Of The Ark'

And to think I effectively found this record by accident browsing through Pitchfork, the sort of oddity that I don't think anyone was expecting but certainly won its fair share of people over. Every one I've shown this to - which is anyone who will listen - has loved it, mostly because it's a southern gothic blend of glam rock with a titan of a frontman. Not only is Kyle Craft one of the most impressive and powerful singers I've heard in years, the fact that his songs are so ridiculously melodic, well-mixed, and well-written blows me away, with the penchant for over-the-top colourful detail that feels mined from equal parts Dylan, early 70s Bowie, early Meat Loaf and Nick Cave. This might seem like a retro choice, but the framing is updated and modernized in the best possible way, and I cannot wait to see what he delivers next, absolutely stellar work.

3. If I'm going to talk about regrets this year... it'd be that I didn't really have a chance to review this properly. Oh, I did review it... while I was on vacation in Spain, I actually filmed that review outside my AirBnB in Barcelona. And it came at a very complicated time in my life and got under my skin in a way that not only guaranteed its spot on this list, but also that it would go down as an all time favourite of mine. And she did it by making the least country record of her career - and also her best.

3. 'Real' by Lydia Loveless
Best Song: 'Real'

Yeah, I said it, this is Lydia Loveless' best album. I love The Indestructible Machine, but Real is playing in much more complex and powerful territory. It's an album about relationships, but rarely have I ever seen songwriting that captures the emotional complexity at their roots that feels both modern and yet relevant to any situation. The melodies and hooks are stunning, the production is ridiculously on point, especially considering how far this genre ventures into uncharted territory, and Lydia Loveless' delivery is jaw-dropping in its intensity and subtle power. And no, I don't think I'll ever be able to properly separate this record from a very turbulent time for me emotionally - so raise all the questions about objectivity you want - but I cannot deny the straightforward quality, raw beauty, and power of a record like this, and those experiences just cemented what was already there. In any other year, this album would top my list... but 2016 is not any other year. As such...

2. Again, I want to stress that we're in uncharted territory for this channel - this was the first year I've ever given a perfect score, and this year I gave two - believe me, I'm as floored as anyone is. And as such I don't know how to rank these records. Not only do they do different things but they tap to different emotions and will become classics for entirely different reasons. And when you get to that point, there's no reason to rank them - it's a big reason I don't have a 'favourite album of all time', mostly because the albums that have perfect scores for me are all in their own lane. But I did want to set some sort of ranking... and here it is.

2. 'Skeleton Tree' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Best Song: 'Distant Sky' ft. Else Torp

I am in awe of this album. This is the sort of artistic achievement that I have a hard time believing exists, not just because of the heartbreaking circumstances of its creation but because Nick Cave was able to translate all of that without fear or holding back. Even without that context this album would have chilled me to the bone all the same: this is a master storyteller, a giant among men in the tales and music he's woven, crushed back to earth and forced to confront mortality in its worst possible manifestation. And the fact that he not only reached some vestige of resolution but did it on a record that transcends genre and is unlike any experimental rock record you'll hear this year... it's a classic, and not since The Good Son has Nick Cave made something this powerful. It's hard for me to not get chills when I watch or read reviews of that album, that's how much it cut for me. It's not an easy listen by any stretch... but my god, it's worth it in the best possible way.

1. And at the end of the day, when it came down between this and Nick Cave... look, both albums for me are effectively classics. They are milestones in both artists' careers that raised the bar to a level I'm not sure will be passed, by them or a very scant list of artists with their talent. And in a twisted parallel these two albums share a lot in common - understated, restrained, powerfully emotional and dealing with deaths in the family, all while finding some vestige of closure at the very end... and thus when you're stuck comparing records that to me I can't find flaws, the only thing I can compare is something that has never really been a factor in my rankings: cultural and historical impact. Because while Nick Cave made a classic in the scope of his career, Dave Cobb did it for the genre.

1. 'Southern Family' by Dave Cobb & Various Artists
Best Song: 'I Cried'

It was my most anticipated album of 2016, and it lived up to all of my expectations... and it did it by being a compilation project that takes each artist to their zenith. John Paul White sounds better than he ever did with The Civil Wars, Jason Isbell's writing is witty and top notch, Morgane Stapleton proves to be the equal of her husband on a cover that still amazes me to this day, Zac Brown shows exactly why country is his first love, Jamey Johnson reminds us that we still need that next album, Brandy Clark broke my heart yet again, and Miranda Lambert... well, you could argue that this project and her connection with follow artist Anderson East pushed her career in the best possible direction going forward. The thematic richness of these stories, perfect in their intimacy and timeless in their resonance, and with the masterful production touches of Dave Cobb proved to be the masterpiece that more than lives up to its inspirations. Again, it's a subtle record, which has caused some critics to dismiss this as 'overhyped' - which to me doesn't make a lot of sense, because hype implies inflated buzz and a temporary moment of popularity, that it won't last. And while there are many things about this album that might not stick around - the artists, the promise of independent country that this album has further spurred and picked up all the more momentum in 2016, even the critics who talk about it - the stories, the resonant connections, those last forever. And even if they don't, as the album heralds in its final glorious moments, it'll be alright on the other side. Without a doubt for me this is the best album of 2016 and will go down as one of my favourites of all time - 2017, the bar has been set.

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