The Best Albums of 2016

This post was originally included in a group discussion at Type In Stereo.

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5. Letters to Lost Loves by Tyson Motsenbocker. There were a handful of albums contending for this final spot, from PUP’s rambunctious The Dream Is Over to Panic! At the Disco’s surprisingly enjoyable Death of A Bachelor but I’m going to go with a more subdued choice in Letters to Lost Loves. Motsenbocker’s debut full-length is slow and thoughtful with the kind of earnest, singer-songwriter melancholia that I thought had faded into history. For some, the album’s lack of high-octane punch will undoubtedly create a barrier to entry, but they’ll be missing out on some truly great songs like the windswept ‘House in the Hills’ and ‘In Your Name,’ an elegiac crisis of faith written in the wake of Motsenbocker’s mother’s death. Relative to the other albums on this list, Letters to Lost Loves feels simple but that simplicity can be misleading; there’s something special here, something powerful.

4. Passengers by Artifex Pereo. Over the course of their three-album career, Artifex Pereo have managed to seamlessly blend a wide variety of stylistic genre elements into practically each of their songs. Case in point: after I introduced the band to one of my friends with Passengers, he suggested that the album sounded like a cross between Deas Vail and The Fall of Troy. Which it kind of does. And which is completely ridiculous (and awesome) because those are extremely disparate bands. That ability to be all over the sonic map without ever feeling out of place may be Artifex’s greatest gift and it’s in full force on Passengers. Songs move from violent, screaming breakdowns to delicate falsetto to frenetic, noodly riffing in a few moments and none of it ever feels forced or hackneyed. The strong song construction continues beyond the music as there are solid lyrical ideas here as well, even if they’re often buried in a poetic style (‘Enterprise of Empire,’ for instance, condemns the violence and destruction of American imperialism). With so much going on, this is a record best served by active listening; there’s plenty of material to hold your attention as you sit with your headphones on tight.

3. dear me by Owel. Do you like pretty things? I like pretty things and my god if this album isn’t just gorgeous. dear memight be the prettiest album I’ve heard in a long time. Owel exists in this small sonic space at the edge of post rock where they continue to do their own thing in the most beautiful way. Jay Sakong’s otherworldly vocals and his preternatural feel for melody are truly phenomenal but everyone in this band is killing it on this record, from Ryan Vargas’s diverse beats to Jane Park’s emotive string arrangements. dear me is definitely Owel’s most cohesive and continuous release to date and it offers a damn near perfect introduction to one of the scene’s brightest young bands.

2. To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere by Thrice. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. While there are exceptions, reunion albums rarely go well and when I heard that Thrice was ending their four year hiatus with a new album, I worried that we’d be getting something that fell short of the high standard that the band had set with their previous work. Instead it turns out I was stupid to doubt Thrice, a band that’s been remarkably committed to the integrity of their craft since I was fucking up Spanish verb conjugations in middle school. From the opening acoustic chords of ‘Hurricane,’ which brilliantly presage the thunderous wall of sound that follows, through the final disconsolate lament of our digital lives in ‘Salt and Shadow,’ To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere is fantastic. In fact, it makes a strong case for inclusion on the short list of Thrice’s greatest releases. It is really, truly good to have these guys back. (And cheers to them for taking Gates on tour and giving us this incredible moment.)

1. Parallel Lives by Gates. When I wrote about Parallel Lives earlier this year I looked at the album with a grand, sweeping approach. Let’s flip that perspective today and focus on one song: album opener ‘Forget’ which happens to be one of the single most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve had the good fortune to, as either a listener or a performer, be a part of some truly beautiful music. I’ve seen Sigur Rós perform ‘Untitled 1,’ I’ve reviewed albums built around beauty, and in college I was fortunate enough to sing Biebl’s ‘Ave Maria’ in the world’s largest effing cathedral. This not-so-humble bragging is all to say: I know a thing or two about beautiful music. And there are few songs whose beauty more consistently moves me than ‘Forget,’ a track that still gives me goosebumps every single time I listen to it, despite that count now reaching into the hundreds. It’s a magnificent song; it breaks me with its soft, strong serenity only to swell up and reaffirm that this breaking is not only okay, but exceptional, a sign that there is beauty and meaning in the world, and in my life. If that kind of emotional response doesn’t convince you of a song’s greatness, then I don’t know what will.

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