#15. Hardwired… To Self-Destruct – Metallica
Eight years ago, when Metallica returned from another (not as) long hiatus and released Death Magnetic, I wrote a review for my high school newspaper that stated (and I quote): “With their first studio effort since 2003’s lackluster St. Anger, Metallica is back — with a vengeance… The new album’s thick yet brutally raw sound perfectly recaptures the energy and intensity of the band’s Master of Puppets-era work.” I was not alone in my enthusiasm at the time, and while I’ve since come to accept that the second half of the record doesn’t quite hold up to the first, I would still rank “The Day That Never Comes” and “All Nightmare Long” as two of the greatest songs Metallica has ever written. Now, if you’re wondering why I’ve spent so much of this review talking about the last album instead of their new one, well… That’s because the two sound pretty much the same. Yes, Hardwired also recaptures the energy and intensity of the band’s heyday, perhaps even more so than Death Magnetic did. It’s also a double album, meaning that the bulk of its 78-minute runtime (!) goes in one ear and out the other, but also that the highs — when they come — hit higher than ever. The three singles — “Hardwired” “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” — elevate the first disc to the point that it could work as a standalone release. Better yet, if the band had bumped the last song of the second disc up to the first, they would have a full-blown masterpiece on their hands. That final track, “Spit Out the Bone,” sounds like someone made a checklist of all the things that Metallica does best and then gave them 10 minutes to complete the list — only to have the band pull it off in a little over 7. It’s a fearsome intersection of prog and thrash, a stereophonic nightmare about technology exterminating mankind, its visceral details made all the more effective by the galloping tempos and thundering riffs and hair-raising solos. If anything, Hardwired proves that Metallica doesn’t have to break any more ground — lord knows they broke enough between 1983 and 1988 alone — to justify their status as one of the biggest rock bands on the face of the Earth.
#14. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
Every artist has a relationship to the past, be it intentional or not, and “indie rock” as a whole seems predicated on its multifarious ties to the musical counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. What started as a bunch of misfits channeling their love of folk and art rock — Highway 61-era Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, et al — soon evolved into a mainstream of its own, a collective hit-factory for car commercials and Disney soundtracks. Rostam Batmanglij belongs in the former camp, even if his old band occasionally erred toward the latter. He’s a gifted composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist whose impeccable taste has steered him clear of the phony affectations and retro contrivances that so often plague lesser artists. I Had a Dream is arguably his strongest outing to date, or at least the most Rostam-y: the stylistic flourishes (too many to count) come and go, sometimes within the span of a single song, their transience suggestive of the artist’s refusal to get bogged down by homage. Such prudence behind the knobs leaves ample room for Rostam’s foil, ex-Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser, to strut and fret his hour at the mic. The guy can shout, howl, and croon with the best of them, his range versatile but not overly polished, and it’s the voice as much as the production that makes this album a standout among so much middling competition.
#13. Cardinal – Pinegrove
Cardinal is one of those rare records that seemingly transports you to the room where — and the moment when — it was recorded: you can not only hear but feel the guitarists’ fingertips brushing their strings, the singer’s breath on his presumably beer-scented microphone, the clatter of sticks on skins at the back of the room. It’s all so perfect in its imperfection, like The Basement Tapes for millennials, that one can’t help but want to partake in the so-called “introspective partying” to which Pinegrove professes its music. Singer/songwriter Evan Stephens Hall’s lyrics are brilliantly, often unbearably honest — as is their delivery — and he & his bandmates play with a communal abandon that would make Keith Richards proud (even if the results sound nothing like the Stones). With every listen, you’re sure to discover a new wrinkle, be it a phrase or a word or a note, that further enriches the overall tapestry of sound.
#12. Air – Astronoid
Over the last decade or so, American metal has undergone a significant renaissance — thanks to the vacuum left by fickle tentpole acts like Metallica and filled by independent trailblazers like Mastodon, Pallbearer, and Deafheaven — and in a single record Astronoid has taken the movement one step closer to its zenith. On Air, the Boston-based quintet crafted a monochromatic post-rock soundscape and imbued it with layer upon layer of sonic color and texture: black metal, shoegaze, emo, even streaks of pop. In fact, the music bears even stronger affinities to early Radiohead and Explosions in the Sky than it does anything on the heavier end of the spectrum. The clean, melodic vocals are sure to polarize the dyed-in-the-denim metalheads among you — just as the blast beats will scare off the populists — but I would argue that it’s taking those very risks that makes Astronoid worthy of the genre.
#11. Sumerlands – Sumerlands
Ever since my (self-evident) obsession with metal first took hold — I’d put it somewhere between hearing Back in Black in 7th grade and reading Daniel Bukszpan’s Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal cover to cover a year later — I’ve found myself invariably drawn back to the music, not so much its extremes and fringes as the stone-cold classics that helped birth the genre: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, pre-MTV Scorpions, Dio, et al. And now, as late as September of 2016, Sumerlands has made a belated but no less welcome entry in that same canon. Where this record could have easily stooped to cheap throwbackisms it transcends the very notion instead, thanks in large part to Arthur Rizk‘s savage fretwork and atmospheric production, the latter establishing a perfect medium between today’s standards of engineering and the arena-ready reverb of yesteryear (think Max Norman with ProTools). Every song is a tightly wound beast, arranged and executed to a tee, with aggression and pathos in equal supply. That balance extends to the melodies, which feel anthemic without ever verging on cheese, like the best of Accept and Armored Saint. You won’t find anything new here, at least not like you would in the avant-garde (see: Astronoid), but what you will find is a celebration of heavy metal and a reinvigoration of certain tropes — fist-pumping vocals, references to Revelations and/or Ingmar Bergman, the guitar solo as an exercise in composition — that made this type of music successful in the first place.
#10. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead / Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Two veterans outfits with diehard fanbases. Two albums born out of personal loss — the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son and the dissolution of Thom Yorke’s marriage — and two starkly gorgeous encapsulations of the distinct emotions therein. And while I may have called this tie as an excuse to squeeze both albums into my top ten, I also have a hard time discussing one without drawing comparisons the other. Ever since releasing Kid A just a little over sixteen years ago, Radiohead has shown a remarkable aptitude for electronic instrumentation and digital production, using these technological advances to broaden the aesthetic and thematic dimensions of their work, whereas Nick Cave did not gravitate in a similar direction until 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Now the two seem equally at home on the cutting edge, their “artificial” soundscapes punctuated and grounded by more organic tones, a single note of guitar or piano like a stab of truth amidst the white noise of modernity. Each group features a prominent composer/multi-instrumentalist at the core of its sound: Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, both of whom have scored a number of high-profile films in the last decade. The elegiac violas that characterize Cave & Ellis’s work on The Assassination of Jesse James, The Road, and Hell or High Water (to name a few) find new purpose in the quiet eulogies of “Girl in Amber”; Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra likewise use col legno strings to recreate the aural mania of There Will Be Blood and The Master on “Burn the Witch.” Radiohead carves beauty out of anxiety and alienation, Cave finds it floating in the quiet stages of grief — not anger and denial, but despair and acceptance — and together they epitomize the kind of music that allows its listeners to think and feel more perceptively in the process.
#9. Turn to Gold – Diarrhea Planet
At some point in the last two decades, classic rock became cool again. Maybe it was when Kurt Cobain covered Bowie on MTV Unplugged. Or when J Mascis put guitar solos in punk music. Or when Neil Young made an album with Pearl Jam. Maybe classic rock was never cool in the first place, only “relevant,” at least until the labels and critics decided it wasn’t anymore. Whatever the case, as soon as the boomers started tossing out their old records, the Gen Xers and millennials went dumpster diving. Like Weezer and their unabashed love of KISS, or Ryan Adams and his obsession with all things ’80s, Diarrhea Planet has exploded from the fringe with an arsenal of influences that your average hipster would deem passé at best. As if the name wasn’t ridiculous enough, the band has three guitarists — all of whom alternate between rhythm and lead, like Skynyrd by way of an East Nashville garage — and they’ve name-dropped everyone from AC/DC to Steely Dan when describing their sound. The songs themselves fall squarely in the tradition of poppy yet powerful punk popularized by Bad Religion, Social Distortion, and Rancid; but it’s the triple-threat fretwork that really sets Turn to Gold over the top. From the instrumental opener “Hard Style” to the majestic breakdowns that close out “Headband,” these dudes straight shred, their respective styles a cocktail of bombast, finesse, and hilarity. Every track is the musical equivalent of a party scene in a Richard Linklater film — you could easily replace the Van Halen needledrops in Everybody Wants Some!! with “Life Pass” or “Ain’t a Sin to Win” — and I guarantee you’ll have as much fun as those characters do onscreen.
#8. Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – Dinosaur Jr.
Speaking of J Mascis: who could have guessed that an artist who once shared a label with Black Flag and toured with Sonic Youth would come to bear the standard for guitar heroes in the 21st century? Even if you’d heard You’re Living All Over Me way back in ’87 (or at any point since then) and knew what the guy could do with a Fender Jazzmaster and a Marshall stack, no one could have predicted that the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. — Mascis, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph — would reunite after nineteen years and put out four of the best albums they’ve ever recorded. On the heels of 2007’s Beyond, 2008’s Farm, and 2012’s I Bet on Sky, this year’s Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not feels like both a continuation of the band’s home-run streak and an encapsulation of it. The songs are catchy, the rhythm section is rock-solid, and from the colossal Sabbathesque riffs to the face-melting solos, the album wastes not a second in justifying why so many (myself included) count Mascis among the greatest guitarists of all time. He’s equal parts chops and charm, never letting technical perfection get in the way of a good phrase, a low-key wizard in a field stuffed with pretentious pedants. If you disagree, give “Knocked Around” a shot. At the very least, you might have a little fun.
#7. You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen
“I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game.”
Leonard Cohen made this announcement eighty-two years into his life, fifty years into his musical career, and a little less than halfway through what would prove to be his last album, his last gift to humanity, the quietly astounding piece of songcraft that is You Want It Darker. As with much of Cohen’s output in recent years, he doesn’t sing so much as incant, recite, declaim. The music remains sparse but elegant, the session players accompanying his sandpaper whisper of a basso like museum bulbs to a Greek statue. But Cohen’s ability to sculpt meaning from the clay of experience remains all but unmatched — Dylan may very well be our last living bard — and You Want It Darker ranks alongside Johnny Cash’s American IV as one of the greatest farewell transmissions ever put to tape. In the ever-elaborating refrain of “Steer Your Way,” Cohen seems to advise his listeners on surviving the modern world without him, his wisdom and warnings echoing those of his 1992 masterpiece, The Future. “Steer your way through the pain / That is far more real than you / That smashed the cosmic model / That blinded every view.” Compare that with the counsel offered on “Anthem” twenty-four years ago and you will find something of a continued thread, to say the least: “Ring the bells / That still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Throughout his time on Earth, Cohen always acknowledged the imperfections within and around him — us, too — and yet never went so far as to damn the species (I suspect he enjoyed sex too much for that). Instead, he resorted to wit, charm, and grace as a means to hold his head high and steer his way through it all. Only by dedicating ourselves to the degrees of awareness expressed on this beautiful record may we hope to do the same.
#6. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service – A Tribe Called Quest
Of all the extraordinary talents we lost in 2016, Phife Dawg went out on the highest note. Some had the chance to bid us poignant farewells; others passed too suddenly and unexpectedly to do anything but let their respective legacies speak for them; Phife, on the other hand, was in the process of finishing what would turn out to be his comeback and his swan song. We got it from Here… is ATCQ’s first album in 18 years, a reunion that most fans thought unlikely given the length and bitterness of the group’s split, and on it Phife and Q-Tip get to uphold their status as hip/hop legends by laying a proper capstone atop a solid — yet palpably incomplete — body of work. Two tracks in, Tip drops the line “guilty pleasures take the edge off reality” in reference to an unspecified VH1 show that “you can waste your time with.” The exact opposite can be said of this album, a 4-sided tour de force that explicitly sharpens those edges and, in doing so, offers something that you can take pride in enjoying. It has the social consciousness and call-to-action spirit that informed much of 2016’s best music, plus some gloves-off criticism of the changes that have befallen hip/hop since Tribe’s mid-late ‘90s heyday — what many still consider the Golden Age. That said, the group never lets these frustrations stop them from having fun, nor do they limit their engagement with the new generation to a “kids these days” mentality: Phife even goes so far as to name-check his worthiest successors: “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul / It’s the highest in commodity grade / And you could get it today.” As proof of his sincerity, Kendrick shows up for a guest spot, as do Kanye, Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Anderson Paak, and “honorary Tribesmen” Consequence and Busta Rhymes. These collaborations range from topical to ribald, all of them delivered with the heady yet funky looseness that characterizes Tribe’s self-described low-end theory. And by the end, Phife gets to eulogize himself without even broaching the subject of mortality. “Phife Dawg legend, you could call me Don Juice / I’m the shit right now, what, you need to see proof?” He proceeds to lay down said proof in every line of the verse that follows; Q-Tip later concurs when he raps, “He’s a Trini gladiator, ain’t no need to take it further / If you wanna take it further your Huckleberry is here / Doctor of your holiday, Wyatt Earp ya like the tears,” referencing Phife’s heritage as well as the film Tombstone (one of my all-time favorites). These layers of personal and pop-cultural wit have always permeated Tribe’s work, be it in the words or the jazz-centric samples, and never has their “beats, rhymes & life” mantra been more seamlessly integrated into a single work.
#5. The Bird & The Rifle – Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard; the fact that she can summon the words to match is a testament to the integrity of her songs. She has penned hits for Tim McGraw and Little Big Town — the latter of which, “Girl Crush,” won her a Grammy earlier this year — and has released nine albums of her own in the last sixteen years. The Bird & The Rifle is the latest and best, the crowning achievement that establishes Mrs. McKenna as a worthy successor to Lucinda Williams, a peer to Jason Isbell (with whom she shares Nashville’s most prolific producer, Dave Cobb) and — most significantly — an artist in her own right. Unsung, her lyrics read less like verse than they do prose, more Carson McCullers than folksinger. Take the stunning tercets that begins the record: “I get dressed in the dark each day / You used to think that was so sweet / By 6AM I’m in the car driving / I keep my change in the car ashtray / I haven’t smoked in years and years / But lately I’ve been craving.” Or on “Halfway Home,” the devastating resolution of the pre-chorus: “Calling the dreaming girls / Looking for a savior / He ain’t gonna save you / That’s just what you think his eyes say.” When McKenna sings these lines, the novelistic detail assumes a new dimension, her wisdom of experience made all the more real by the unsanded edges of her otherwise lilting voice. And then there’s the music itself, performed live in the studio by McKenna and a handful of session musicians, their time-tested foundation of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums adorned with just enough flourishes — piano, mellotron, electric guitar — to complement the vocals rather than swamp them. Of the innumerable artists leading the mass folk-and-country revival around the country right now, Lori McKenna has dispensed with the cliches and broken from the pack entirely.
#4. Paradise – White Lung
Every now and then, there comes a band that reminds you why you fell in love with rock & roll in the first place. For me, White Lung is that band and Paradise is the record. It’s a synthesis of all the things that I love about the genre and its many offshoots: soaring pop hooks, thrashy riffs and beats, spacious post-punk atmosphere, and lyrical narratives inspired by classic country. “While doing the record, I was listening to nothing but country and blues,” says frontwoman Mish Barber-Way in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I really wanted to do storytelling the ways those great performers did: Tell it like it is, with the message very clear… I was listening to a lot of Hank Snow and David Allen Coe.” These influences ring like gunshots throughout Barber-Way’s lyrics: “Kiss Me When I Bleed” sounds like Loretta Lynn by way of Girlschool (“I will give birth in a trailer / Huffing the gas in the air / Baby is born in molasses / Like I would even care”) and the album standout “Demented” could have been penned by Jim Thompson (“And you can reflect on me / I hate all that I see / They’ll load up on the pity / And whine for a world that’s clean”). It’s Southern Gothic courtesy of a Canadian punk and I, for one, cannot get enough. Like Japandroids and Titus Andronicus before them, White Lung has raised the bar for rock music in the 21st century.
#3. Lemonade – Beyoncé
Everything there is to say about Lemonade has already been said. Between my friends’ monosyllabic utterances of adulation and the critics’ more measured dissertations, I think we can safely conclude that just about everyone with internet access and a pair of headphones thinks that Queen Bey has delivered something special here. And I happen to agree, even if I arrived at that conclusion a good eight months after everyone else did. But by avoiding the zeitgeist surrounding the album’s release, I got the chance to discover a work of art on its own terms and, in doing so, went head-over-heels for what I heard. Lemonade is at once a celebration of self, a “breakup album” every bit as righteous and vitriolic as Blood on the Tracks, and a multimedia manifesto on cultural identity. Taken song by song, the music defies genre — “Sorry” is R&B, her collaboration with Jack White on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” careens into rock & roll, “Daddy Lessons” goes full country, “Sandcastles” is the most heart-wrenching piano ballad since “Someone Like You” — but as a whole it epitomizes the perfect pop record: huge, catchy, and relevant. Whether or not you enjoy Lemonade as much as I do matters not: the fact that Beyoncé manages to innovate even as she pleases the crowd makes her one of the rarest talents ever to grace show business.
#2. Puberty 2 – Mitski
On its surface, yes, Puberty 2 is a rock album. There’s electric guitar a-plenty, most of it distorted to the teeth, and just enough engagement with the ‘90s alt-rock idiom to warrant a litany of comparisons to Pinkerton and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; I’ve also noticed prominent strains of Cocteau Twins and the Jesus and Mary Chain on repeat listens. But things get complicated from there: drum machines, shimmering synths, vocal hooks that have more in common with the ‘70s Japanese pop that Mitski listened to as a kid than anything you’d hear on college radio in the States. And while a lot of millennial artists get off on hybridity — albeit the kind that feels a little dead-eyed behind the oh so tasteful affectations — Mitski is operating on a different stratum altogether, far removed from the trappings of mixing-and-matching for the sake of itself. Beneath all of her music’s texture, as fun and engaging as that texture may be, there lies something far more consequential: a point of view, hers and hers alone, and a damn compelling one at that. “Your Best American Girl” is my pick for song of the year, hands-down, and one that boldly encapsulates the theme of cultural estrangement underpinning Puberty 2 (Mitski has previously identified herself as “half Japanese, half American, but not fully either”). But that’s just one high point in an album almost exclusively comprised of them: the opener, “Happy,” features a refrain worthy of the Great American Songbook (“When you go, take this heart / I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you”); “I Bet on Losing Dogs” draws an empathic connection between destructive relationships and the most inhumane sport of all; “Thursday Girl” dares to ask whether or not the self-abasement of partying humanizes us. The tone of these songs oscillates freely between tongue-in-cheek and devastating, an all but impossible balance that Mitski — who at 25 has already achieved Dylanesque degrees of personal expression — seems to have no trouble striking.
#1. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor’s Guide is a lot of things. For starters, it’s the latest masterstroke in an ongoing reclamation of country music from the mainstream by Nashville outsiders — a pretty romantic notion, to be sure, but one that Sturgill Simpson himself refuted in his WTF interview with Marc Maron. It’s also a song cycle, addressed to Sturgill’s first and (so far) only son, that tackles life one stage at a time: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. Last but not least, it’s a balls-out journey through luxuriant soundscapes, with Stax-style horns courtesy of the Dap-Kings (R.I.P. Sharon Jones) and string arrangements straight out of a Glen Campbell record, all of it anchored by one of the most distinctive voices in popular music period. Sturgill has transcended the Waylon comparisons that most critics and listeners (myself included) lobbed at his first two records and achieved a range of expression that’s entirely his own, much as Adele and Beyonce have done with their respective forebears; the fact that he managed to steal a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year suggests that the industry agrees with me. If anything, A Sailor’s Guide sounds more like Elvis’s Afternoon at the Garden than any one piece of country music: the densely layered arrangements, the wide assemblage of session aces (guitarist Laur Joamets picks on par with the great James Burton), the energy of their performances, the quality of the songwriting, and — above all else — the swagger. Let this sailor guide you across Earth — from the edge of a newborn’s crib to the edge of the sea, from Kawasaki to Kuala Lumpur, from the moment you first heard Nirvana to the moment you first fell in love — and you might just live a little in the process.