Behold, North America’s least pretentious best albums list of 2016, chosen by Amplify’s Dave Brooks. All of these albums are on regular rotation here at Amplify HQ in beautiful Long Beach, California. Did we miss something? Let us know in the comment section below or email [email protected] Cheers!
15. Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression
Post Pop Depression captures the mood of America’s coastal citizens, months before they became so pessimistic about the country’s future. The album’s haunting, bombastic signature sound is brought to you by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, plus Arctic Monkey’s Matt Helders, creating a soundtrack for Iggy Pop to continue his role as the country’s low-rent punk-poet emeritus. Post Pop Depression is only nine tracks long but feels like a marathon, with its sinewy and hard-swinging sound, ravaged anger and survivor’s resilience.
Favorite Track: Break Into Your Heart
14. Angel Olsen, My Woman
The Asheville singer/songwriter has shifted from simple folk ballads to all out Americana-fused indie rock on her third and best album so far. My Woman is Angel Olsen’s chance to reclaim her voice and establish herself as a force of nature in 2016. Her latest album is all-encompassing, ephemeral and very much in control. Olsen is a staggering talent and My Woman is a view into her persona, both soft and gradient without being obvious.
Favorite Song: Shut Up Kiss Me
13. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Four years in the making, Frank Ocean’s Blonde was worth the wait (especially for Spotify users who had to sit through the album’s exclusive on Apple). The pulse of Blonde is created by swaying guitars and undulating keyboards, each song awash in memories that constantly slip through his grip. It’s a mix of youthful whispers, unrequited love and lots of drugs and booze. None of the songs on Blonde are binary, going from space rock to gospel, with lyrics that float between Trayvon Martin and uneasy sexual exploits. It’s strange and discomforting, yet….always…seems….to just work.
Favorite Song: Ivy
12. Gallant, Ology
Singer/songwriter Chris Gallant brings his weightless voice to his first proper LP, a cathartic wail of stillness that combines 80s and 90s R&B with keen self-awareness and human sexuality. Arriving in sharp punctuated bursts, the songs on Ology channel the feeling of the once vibrant Neo-Soul movement, borrowing heavily while remaining distinct. We finally hear Gallant come to grips with all the struggle he’s endured in his young life, assessing himself through a mix of candor and ambiguity. Ology is the perfect soundtrack for an overcast Sunday afternoon, or youthful heartbreak, each track searing a little deeper than the last.
Favorite Track: Weight in Gold
11. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to the Universe
Sturgill Simpson made headlines this year when he took on Music City and its shameless clutch on Merle Haggard’s legacy. His latest album is a protest of Nashville, veering far away from the Music Row sound with late-Elvis balladry, Motown-infused soul, and a very strangely satisfying cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Those looking for a continuation of Simpson’s Waylan Jennings vocals and drug-heavy lyrics were surprised by this ode to his newborn son from a far-away place. “Sailor’s Guide to the Universe” is a delight because it surprised so many.
Favorite Song: Brace For Impact (Live A Little)
10. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got if From Here…Thank You 4 Your service
The new Tribe album was written for the old guys and the casual hip hop fans who are lost in today’s sound and long for a return to 90’s sensibilities. It’s multi-layered, sample heavy and woke as fuck — instead of auto-tune and lame hooks, We Got if From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service stands on its own with lyricism and a social critique that examines both where we are as a society, and how we got here. It’s dense, urgent and overwhelmingly gratifying.
Favorite Track: We The People
9. Drive By Truckers, American Band
I’ve always thought Drive By Truckers were one of the most underrated American bands in rock. Their lyrics and country-influenced style have always poignantly captured an American left behind, crafted as a critique of ignorance and a middle pathway to progressivism. On American Band, head Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tackle immigration (“Ramon Casiano”), mass shootings (“Guns of Umpqua”) and police violence (“What It Means”). Their vocal support of Black Lives Matter might alienate Red State fans, but the Truckers have never been about appeasing their listeners with nonsense drinking sing-a-longs and patriotic show tunes. Their music is challenging, dark and giving of zero fucks. It’s the bands’ most in-the-moment album to date, proving that indie country can still be recorded with depth and defiance.
Favorite Song: Filthy and Fried
8. Margo Price, Midwest Farmers Daughter
Nashville continues to overlook Margo Price at its own peril. Price grew her audience exponentially this year when she appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” but it was the Illinois troublemaker’s debut album, released on Jack White’s Third Man Records, that helped the former addict create the persona of modern female outlaw. Her songs tackle everything from sexual assault in Nashville to the experience of spending the weekend in lockup. In a town where honesty and authenticity are the currency of credibility, Price doesn’t obsess over either. She just lives it.
Favorite Song: Hands of Time
7. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
For an album universally loved by the rock media intelligentsia, hipsters and President Barack Obama, Chance the Rapper’s latest mixtape is a challenging, difficult album. Coloring Book is an album that should be enjoyed, but not figured out. How else does one make sense of its tendency to combine crazed block parties with the sound signature of gospel and worship? Poignantly tight and replete with a revolving door of rappers and indie darlings, Coloring Book is soul-and life-affirming while also being cognizant of the darkness within each of us.
Favorite Track: Angels
6. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
When it comes to cathartic indie rock, never bet against angst. The very sing-a-longable Teens of Denial is the first “proper album” for the Seattle Rock outfit (now repped by Ali Hedrick of Billions Corp.) although Car Seat Headrest has been recording and making music for years. This fun, upbeat album captures the doldrums of teenage life using an imaginative, vintage indie sound that will take even the most cynical among us back to the time of being wide-eyed youngsters.
Favorite Song: Vincent
5. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Never underestimate Radiohead’s ability to reinvent its sound. While opening track and lead single “Burn the Witch” is very much vintage Radiohead with a creepy stop-motion video to match, much of A Moon Shaped Pool is a return to its past sound of unfamiliar themes and sounds. The album is a syllabus of reinvented audio elements matched by orchestral tenacity, creepy lyrical puzzles and electronic infused dystopia. Their latest album is a triumph over expectations and the eery soundtrack of our collective demise. Lead singer Thom Yorke’s outlook is both gloomy and upbeat, leading us to a future we probably fear and deserve.
Favorite Track: Burn The Witch
4. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
The West Coast-based rapper and singer/songwriter Anderson .Paak showed up frequently on Dr. Dre’s Compton. His third album, his most assured and most personal project yet, is informed by voices from the past and full of guests (the Game, ScHoolboy Q, Talib Kweli) who are given ample space to do their best work. Malibu is an expansive opus that flows in multiple directions like a classic ’70s double album.
Favorite Track: Come Down
3. Hamilton, MixTape
Although the Hamilton MixTape came out nearly a year after the Hamilton soundtrack and hit musical, the new mixtape very much sounds like the inspiration and raw sounds that populated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s head as he developed the historical rebrand of the relationship between former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr. I am huge Hamilton fan and some of my favorite tracks on the mixtape are the demo versions of songs like Valley Forge and Cabinet Battle 3 that influenced the final Broadway product. There’s also some great covers from the soundtrack — Jill Scott totally flipped the meaning of “No to This,” Alicia Keys delivered a beautiful rendition of “That Would Be Enough” while Kelly Clarkson’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” touched my heart and drew out a teary-eyed smile.
Those songs are great, but the original hip hop songs that were created for Hamilton MixTape by rap heavies like Nas, The Roots, Buster Rhymes and Wiz Khalifa are what give the album depth, as if they were written as a treatise on opposing Trump over the next four years. On the “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” KNAAN, Snow the Product and Riz MC take one line from the bombastic battle song “Yorktown” and flip it into a rapid-fire defense of first generation Americans. And then there is the masterpiece “Wrote My Way Out,” a riff on the Hamilton song “Hurricane.” Aloe Blacc lays down the foundation with a beautifully clever hook while Nas and Lin-Manuel Miranda explain how they’ve used the power of the pen to “write their way out” of struggle, and then use that same pen to find success and establish their own legacy. It’s an affirmation that ideas still matter and break through the darkness.
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out
2. Sia, This is Acting
One of the strongest pop albums of the year, Sia’s This is Acting is the soundtrack of the summer with powerful hits like “Alive,” “Move Your Body” and “Cheap Thrills.” There is no weak spot on this album, each track is thrilling and danceable and Sia’s vocal range is incredible. “This is Acting” is a solid and smart pop album that never resorts to cheap tricks in the transition. At all moments, it’s powerful, engaging and easy to consume, making it a hit with music fans of all walks of life.
Favorite Song: Unstoppable
1. Beyonce, Lemonade
What can be said about Beyonce’s Lemonade that hasn’t already been said? Beyonce’s 12-track album hit like a powerful lightning strike; her lead single “Formation” wasn’t just a hit song — it was a reckoning. Queen Bey is back and whether or not we chose to participate in her coronation, we must all kneel down and pay tribute.
Lemonade has been described as a concept album, and while that description seems accurate, it misses its larger artistry. Lemonade is a glimpse in time, a collision of Beyonce’s marriage, her relationship with family and her hope and vision for African-American women. It’s been said many times before — Lemonade is not an album for white guys like me — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage and listen. It’s insular nature is not meant to be debated by many, but observed by all.
My favorite song is the opening track, “Pray You Catch Me.” It’s a beautifully woven together piece of music, with a soft piano and angelic choir. It’s vulnerable, honest and strong, animated with a brief organ interlude and a lyrical narrative that builds up slowly. And the video for the song is gorgeous and perfectly contextualizes the betrayal Beyonce has faced. She goes on later to get her revenge in “Sorry”…and oh how sweet it is.