Brody's Best Albums of 2016
A fair amount of ‘best of’ lists are filled with records that are praised for their cultural footprint or political presence. None of the albums here took culture by storm or made monumental statements, but instead they did something far more important: they made me happy to be alive. This personal connection to music is one of the reasons why it’s so important, and 2016 continued to keep that alive. These are my top ten albums of the year: the ones I held onto tight through everything I dealt with.
1. Brian Fallon - Painkillers
When you’ve loved an album for a long time, it begins to feel worn in and weathered along the edges like your most reliable pair of jeans. Scuffed and possibly torn from all the times you’ve leaned on it? Absolutely. However, those familiar melodies feel like home the instant they come through your speakers. Fostering a connection like this usually takes months to years of listening and finding comfort within the noise, but Painkillers is an exception. The first solo album by the currently dormant rock group The Gaslight Anthem isn’t your ordinary first-time solo endeavor. Once the pounding kick-drum and roaring lead on “A Wonderful Life” kick in, it becomes clear that this album is something far more special.
Track after track, Fallon strikes with an emotionally sprawling and timeless sense of rock ‘n’ roll laced with bright Americana, creating a sound that feels instantaneously classic. Fallon’s greatest strength as a songwriter is his ability to write songs that are personal and revealing, but also are immensely relatable. The only thing these songs are missing on the first listen is your own stories and experiences. You can attach your ex-lovers to the story told on the title track “Painkillers”, past insecurities to “Rosemary”, and feelings of misdirection to “Among Other Foolish Things”. Painkillers was written for you and no one else, and it’s ability to reach out alongside it’s outstanding musicianship (not to mention fantastic production from Butch Walker) make this one of the best singer-songwriter records of the decade.
Listen to: “A Wonderful Life”, “Painkillers”, “Smoke”, “Steve McQueen”
2. Butch Walker - Stay Gold
Hardened, earnest, singer-songwriter driven rock ‘n’ roll is hard to find these days. Radio pop is fading into monotony and electronic music has an iron grip on just about anyone under 25, so genuine, sing-your-heart-out rock records like Butch Walker’s outstanding eighth LP are far too few. However, one listen to Stay Gold will make you think that music like this is alive with no intention of fading out anytime soon.
Right after the live-wire riff of the title-track kicks in, Stay Gold goes nowhere but up. The riff-heavy song radiates trapped, battered-up, suburban angst, waiting until the chorus to beam one of the most high-flying hooks sang this year: “In a world so black and white, boy, stay gold”. The song is a testament to anyone who’s ever felt stuck and ready to surrender to a world of monotony and diminishing color; a guiding light ready to pull you out right as you’re about to make the plunge. This is the kind of high-flying spirit that makes Stay Gold so special. In addition to showcasing some incredibly accomplished songwriting and performances, it makes you wanna do what every drunken idiot with words to slur tells you before he jumps from the roof into the pool: “Live a little”.
Listen to: “Stay Gold”, “East Coast Girl”, “Ludlow Expectations”, “Record Store”
3. Dawes - We’re All Gonna Die
On their fifth album, the California folk-rock band Dawes made a move that has the potential to make or break a musical career. Instead of making another endearing album that synthesizes the charm of Southern California into bold, sentimental melodies, they completely turned their sound around. Partnering up with industry leader Blake Mills, they made the adventurous, rhythm-heavy, and pop-flavored album We’re All Gonna Die.
This album is unlike anything Dawes has ever done, let alone what anyone has ever done. This creative output from the band renders almost every decision on the album spontaneous, distinctive, and charmingly left-field. The pop-oriented lead single “When The Tequila Runs Out” is just about the furthest you can get from the earnest folk-rock on the band’s debut North Hills, but even when Dawes does pop music, it’s a rung higher than usual. The zany, rhythm-driven instrumental and flavorful production from Mills make this a pop song with multiple layers, each more thrilling than the last. Track after track, Dawes continue to thrill and excite. Whether it’s the frills of blue-eyed soul on the title track, the wonderful west-coast charisma of “Roll Tide”, or the progressive, southern flair of “For No Good Reason”, this album will constantly keep you guessing and asking questions like “What instrument is that?” and “How did they make that sound?”.
Listen to: “We’re All Gonna Die”, “Roll With The Punches”, “Roll Tide”, “For No Good Reason”
4. Alex Dezen - Alex Dezen
Alex Dezen, the frontman of the recently disbanded indie-rock outfit The Damnwells, is one of the most overlooked musicians today, not only for his work with his old band, but his outstanding solo material. On Alex Dezen, his first official full-length released under his own name, he vividly delves into his own stories and experiences, crafting masterful and challenging songs that feel intimately personal while also immediate. These aren’t the kind of songs where you find a piece of yourself; rather, they’re a portrait of a turbulent yet wonderfully ordinary human life that not only holds dark details, but bright revelations. Honest, forthright, and challenging, this is a singer-songwriter album unlike any other.
Listen to: “Ode To Ex-Girlfriends”, “Elephant”, “Into The Hands of Hazelden”
5. The Last Shadow Puppets - Everything You’ve Come To Expect
Alex Turner, frontman of the UK rock band The Arctic Monkeys, is a polarizing songwriter in modern rock, known for his sharp, affectionately-twisted lyrics and a style that’s classic while lingeringly modern. On the second album with his side project The Last Shadow Puppets, a collaboration with Miles Kane, the two musicians dive into a style that echoes ‘70s pop, psychedelia, the dark, soaring orchestration, shadowy punk-rock of Joy Division, and doo-wop. The result is a record that’s just as aesthetically pleasing as it is musically proficient. Turner and Kane find the perfect balance between something old and something new, wasting no time in delivering infectious hooks, and shadowy, nostalgic leads, all while a constant sense of darkness lingers beneath the surface.
Listen to: “Aviation”, “Miracle Aligner”, “The Dream Synopsis”, “Used To Be My Girl”
6. Conor Oberst - Ruminations
Conor Oberst has never been shy at embracing simplicity. Despite the grand, technological arrangements on Digital Ash In A Digital Urn or the soaring, vintage pop on Cassadaga (both albums released with Bright Eyes), something about Oberst’s presence has always felt right behind only a guitar or piano. Ruminations embraces this, stripping instrumentation down to only an acoustic guitar, piano, and a generous helping of harmonica, resulting in a record that carries a sense of intimacy that could only be found in a living room performance. On these stripped-down songs, Oberst deals in intense contemplation on himself, the world around him, and what’s to come. These ruminations (I’m sorry, I had to) are awfully sad, but through his vivid, literate lyricism and one-on-one intimacy, they feel as immediate as an old album by Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Honest, forthright, and potent, Ruminations is a step backwards in the most charming of ways.
Listen to: “Tachycardia”, “Barbary Coast (Later)”, “Next Of Kin”
7. Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues
People tend to toss Jimmy Eat World into the bin of early 2000s has-beens, but their last two records, the latter being Integrity Blues prove that they’re the exact opposite. Integrity Blues is one of the best albums of the band’s almost twenty year career, finding the perfect balance between the nostalgia of their early sound and the glistening, self-assured, and polished pop-rock that came to define their sound in the mid-2000s. This is a record home to pulsing, riff-heavy tracks like “Sure and Certain” and “Get Right”, while also leaving room for spacious and sweepingly sentimental songs like the title track “Integrity Blues” and the masterful “Pol Roger”. Jimmy Eat World wear their age well, and if Integrity Blues is any indication, they’re not slipping up anytime soon.
Listen to: “Sure and Certain”, “You With Me”, “Integrity Blues”, “Pol Roger”
8. Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death
The world of pop music in 2016 was-- for the most part-- cold and devoid of much effort, imagination, or artful execution. More often than not, songs like these hit the charts, leaving outstanding pop records like Love You To Death behind. Tegan and Sara demonstrated their knack for affectionate, sugary hooks on 2013’s Heartthrob, but Love You To Death only expands on this ability, making for some of the best pop music of the year. Songs like “Stop Desire”, “U-Turn”, “Dying To Know”, and “Hang on to the Night” are pop music to a masterful degree, employing infectious hooks, elastic vocal harmonies, and sharp songwriting that feels familiar enough to enjoy on your first listen yetintelligent enough to come back to over and over again.
Listen to: “Stop Desire”, “Dying To Know”, “U-turn”, “Hang on to the Night”
9. Dan Layus - Dangerous Things
Dan Layus of Augustana has shown time and time again that he’s a songwriter of the highest degree, never wavering from greatness during his time with the band. However, he stepped away from his band on Dangerous Things, his first official solo record, and solo refers to a lot more than his decision to release it under his own name. These songs are spacious and minimalistic in their expression of melodic Nashville country, not utilizing much more than Layus’ guitar or piano playing, his precise and aching vocals, and frequent harmonies from The Secret Sisters. They’re stipped down in a flawless way, allowing their messages of love and loss to cascade into your own feelings and experiences with grace. They never feel deliberate or done-up; they use only what they need, and this laid back minimalism is part of what makes them feel like some of Layus’ most genuine and affected songwriting thus far. There are no frills, overproduction, or unnecessary additions to this record, which makes it one of the most heartfelt and refreshing singer-songwriter albums released in years.
Listen to: “Driveway”, “Four Rings”, “The Nightbird”
10. La Sera - Music For Listening To Music To
La Sera, the songwriting moniker of former Vivian Girl and bassist Katy Goodman and the recently included guitarist Tod Wisenbaker, has been one of indie-rock’s finest glimmers since their debut in 2011. The cleverly named Music For Listening To Music To, a record produced by Ryan Adams, plays like a SoCal rendition of The Smiths, complete with some of the most skilled and dynamic guitar work of the year and Goodman’s high register vocals to hold it all together. When the virtuosic talents of these musicians comes together, the result is forward and modern while also maintaining an undercurrent of nostalgia. This album feels instantaneously classic.
Listen to: “I Need An Angel”, “Nineties”