In the past, whenever I compiled my best-of-the-year post, I always had to sift through a slew of music publications’ lists to see all the music I’d missed throughout the year. Then I’d quickly give it a listen and decide if it was worthy for inclusion.
Now, as I prepare to post Infinite Shuffle’s eighth annual “best of” list, I can proudly say that I have not looked at a single year-end recap. Instead, I’ve listened to more new music this year than ever before and feel confident that I’m well-versed enough with this year’s releases that I can competently put together my own list without any outside influence.
Throughout the past 12 months, whenever I came across a disc that I deemed especially noteworthy, I added it to my list of contenders. Then, during the December lull in new releases, I went back and listened to all of the nominees, rated every song on a 5-star scale and gave each album a cumulative average score.
While the scores below may seem rather low, that’s just because the inevitable filler tracks on every album bring down the averages considerably. So, really, anything in the 1.5-star range or higher is still a very strong album. And there was a pretty clear cut-off toward the end of the list, which is why it’s awkwardly broken into the top 31 plus 13 honorable mentions. That’s just how things shook out.
Also worth noting is just how big the gap is between the Nos. 1 and 2 discs. It just shows how impressed I was with my top pick.
I’ve created a couple of playlists — one through Google Play and the other embedded below via YouTube — for your listening pleasure as you peruse my list.
So, without further ado, I give you the best that 2016 had to offer.
- The Strumbellas – Hope (2.64 stars) … I proclaimed this album my favorite of the year when I first heard it in the spring, and nothing’s changed. I hadn’t actually listened to it since, but it more than holds up. Most of the albums on this list are lucky to have one or two songs worthy of 3 stars. Of the 11 tracks here, I rated eight of them 3-4 stars. It’s an embarrassment of riches from the Canadian crew’s third release.
- The Hotelier – Goodness (2.25 stars) … The Worcester, Mass., group came into its own on its third album, mixing pure emo (“Goodness, Pt. 2” and “Sun”), R.E.M.-style harmonies (“Piano Player”) and head-bobbing goodness (“Soft Animal”).
- Big Thief – Masterpiece (2.18 stars) … The debut from Adrianne Lenker’s crew stacks up well alongside such contemporaries as Hop Along, Warpaint, Sharon Van Etten and The Walkmen. The strongest tunes include the title track, “Vegas” and “Real Love”.
- Lucy Dacus – No Burden (2.17 stars) … Speaking of Ms. Van Etten, this indie rocker’s debut flows in the same vein as the Brooklynite — perhaps a skosh lighter. “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” is a standout among plenty of quality tunes.
- Palace – So Long Forever (2.09 stars) … The British indie rock band’s debut is filled with The XX-style chillwave guitars throughout — particularly on “Bitter” — and emotive folk vocals.
- Oscar – Cut and Paste (2.05 stars) … Every song is an earworm, starting with opener “Sometimes” and its catchy, droning male vocals and complementary female vocals. Another big track, “Fifteen”, oozes twee, while “Breaking My Phone” (grunge) and “Daffodil Days” (chillwave) add some breadth.
- Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2.0 stars) … Solid, catchy pop-punk in the same vein as Sleater-Kinney, but much tamer. “Wednesday Night Melody” definitely has the best hook, and “Trying To Lose Myself Again” is also noteworthy.
- Frightened Rabbit – Painting Of A Panic Attack (1.9 stars) … With The National’s Aaron Dessner behind the mixing board, these Scots added a melancholic layer to their already-emotional rock. “Get Out” is the latest in a growing catalog of awesome from the group, while “I Wish I Was Sober” and “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” are not far behind.
- Butch Walker – Stay Gold (1.9 stars) … A great mix of alt-country and modern classic rock, like a Son Volt/Gaslight Anthem hybrid. The title track is the strongest on an album full of pleasant tunes.
- DMA’s – Hills End (1.88 stars) … This Aussie crew’s debut sounds like a modern take on Oasis. Listen to “Lay Down” and you’ll be hooked.
- Amber Arcades – Fading Lines (1.85 stars) … The Dutch singer-songwriter’s debut channels a number of influences, such as Best Coast (“Come With Me”, “Perpetuum Mobile” and the title track), shoegaze (“I Will Follow”) and rock (“Turning Light”).
- American Wrestlers – Goodbye Terrible Youth (1.83 stars) … Gary McClure’s second album is an indie rock/chillwave hybrid with vocals reminiscent of Silversun Pickups. “Give Up” is one of the best tracks of the year.
- Balance and Composure – Light We Made (1.75 stars) … On their third album, the Doylestown, Pa., crew beautifully toe the line between hardcore and emo. Most of the stuff here is above-average, but “Is It So Much To Adore?” and “Afterparty” stand out.
- Pinegrove – Cardinal (1.75 stars) … Throughout the album, this group conjures up thoughts of The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie, but there’s also some early ‘90s college rock mixed in for good measure. “New Friends” will quickly feel like an old friend.
- Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow (1.75 stars) … On its second album, this Philly duo shows how amazing shoegaze can be, particularly on “Vertigo Flowers” and “The Dead Are Dumb”.
- Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony (1.73 stars) … A good mix of lo-fi, shoegaze, psychedelia and good old-fashioned indie. The real key is the airy-fairy guitar mixed with the female vocals.
- The Trouble with Templeton – Someday, Buddy (1.72 stars) … A great mix of indie rock, emo and shoegaze, this is the second release for the Aussie outfit. Standout tracks include “Bad Mistake”, “Sailor”, “Heavy Trouble”, “Complex Lips” and “Vernon”.
- Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (1.68 stars) … Throwback country for a modern audience, the songs range from fun, honky-tonk to melancholy, down-in-the-dumps. Channeling her inner Dolly Parton and Jenny Lewis, Price nails it throughout, particularly on “Hands of Time” and “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)”.
- Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (1.68 stars) … With a proper backing band, Will Toledo takes his slacker serenades to a whole new level. Angsty and apathetic, Car Seat Headrest are equal parts Cloud Nothings, Beck and Courtney Barnett. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is the highest high on an album full of them.
- Eagulls – Ullages (1.64 stars) … This is The Cure at their darkest and heaviest. “Velvet” and “Lemontrees” are the standouts, but, really, this is a great collection of classic post-punk.
- Haley Bonar – Impossible Dream (1.6 stars) … The Minnesota artist is on par with every other powerful indie-rock/pop singer-songwriter out today. “Called You Queen” should be enough to get you hooked.
- Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp (1.57 stars) … A quick, fun listen filled with a different kind of indie-pop. “Everybody Wants To Love You” is a standout.
- Beach Baby – No Mind No Money (1.55 stars) … These Brits’ debut is like a modern take on ‘80s alt-rock, most notably The Jam. It’s full of catchy tunes, such as “Limousine” and “U R”.
- Caveman – Otero War (1.54 stars) … When you listen to “Life or Just Living” and “On My Own”, think of it as Mike + The Mechanics for the millennials.
- Pity Sex – White Hot Moon (1.54 stars) … Shoegaze at its absolute finest, standouts include “Orange and Red”, “Burden You”, “September”, “Pin a Star” and “Wappen Beggars”.
- Sioux Falls – Rot Forever (1.53 stars) … At 16 songs and nearly 73 minutes, there’s plenty of solid indie shoegaze to enjoy. “Dom” reminds me of a lo-fi/garage version of Blink 182’s “Adam’s Song”.
- DIIV – Is the Is Are (1.50 stars) … This is a great sophomore effort full of airy-fairy goodness. “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Under the Sun” are top tracks.
- Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let the Kids Win (1.50 stars) … The debut full-length release from this Australian singer-songwriter feels like Sharon Van Etten meets Lucinda Williams. There are deeply personal lyrics sung in a half-angelic, half-haunting voice over folk-country instrumentation. Everything here is above average, but “Leadlight” stands out just a bit.
- Aurora – All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend (1.46 stars) … This Norwegian teenager has the firepower of Sia and Ellie Goulding and emotional quirkiness of Bjork. An ethereal voice with plenty of help from Auto-Tune, she occasionally seems to have an Irish lilt. Particularly on “Through the Eyes of a Child”, which, along with “Winter Bird”, is on the softer end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, standouts such as “Runaway” and “Conqueror” are of the anthemic variety.
- Stephen Steinbrink – Anagrams (1.46 stars) … The singer-songwriter strikes a happy balance between hopeful and melancholic, slow and upbeat, raw and shiny. Steinbrink uses production effects to make his near-falsetto even higher, and he mixes it with some solid guitar work to create a perfectly pleasant batch of tunes that you could either put on in the background or turn up and sway along to. The title track and “Impossible Hand” are very catchy.
- Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death (1.45 stars) … Eight albums in, and these two Canadian sisters haven’t missed a beat. This album is loaded with electro-pop bliss. “Boyfriend” and “U-Turn” are standouts.
- Teenage Fanclub – Here (1.33 stars)
- Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Little Windows (1.3 stars)
- KT Tunstall – Kin (1.27 stars)
- Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (1.25 stars)
- Local Natives – Sunlit Youth (1.21 stars)
- Adia Victoria – Beyond The Bloodhounds (1.17 stars)
- LVL UP – Return to Love (1.15 stars)
- La Sera – Music For Listening To Music To (1.15 stars)
- Lumineers – Cleopatra (1.14 stars)
- The Head and The Heart – Signs of Light (1.12 stars)
- case/lang/veirs – self-titled (1.11 stars)
- Lydia Loveless – Real (1.10 stars)
- Black Rivers – self-titled (1.00 stars)