Staff List: Ethan’s Favorite Albums of 2016

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Over the next few weeks, The Alternative will be publishing numerous EOTY staff lists leading up to our site-wide ‘Top 50 Albums of the Year’ article. Why so many lists? Well, we believe in giving as many bands/artists exposure as possible, and with so many great releases in 2016, more lists will cover more ground. Our goal is to help you find something new. Thank you for reading.

I am not a huge “end of the year” listicle guy, but as 2016 comes to a close and I reflect on the sheer volume of excellent music that was released this year, I inevitably began to categorize the records I loved most. Now, before I continue, I want to make explicitly clear that the following albums are not the best records to come out this year, nor does it mean that they are better than any others — these are the releases I have enjoyed most, plain and simple.

I am notoriously “behind the times”, as it were, when it comes to new releases, usually getting around to them a year or two later and being the guy that is all, “Damn, this is good, where have I been?”. That said, after cataloging my favorites, I was surprised to find that I was actually pretty up to speed this year. There was a ton of good music in 2016, so it would have been overly negligent of me if I missed too much. I don’t feel like wasting anymore time, so let’s get right down to it.

Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

I am having difficulty thinking of an album I slept on quite as hard as Coloring Book. When it was released in May, not only did I not listen to it, but I actively avoided it. I have a tendency to have an aversion to albums that explode in popularity. It is shitty, and, quite frankly, wholly irresponsible, but I never said I was a smart guy. One day, out of curiosity, I decided to throw on CB when I was cooking and waiting for my girlfriend to come home. Although the first song did not grab me, I wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. My apathy mostly remained unscathed until I reached the song “Same Drugs”. After it finished, I am pretty sure my face contorted into a “god damn!” expression and I immediately replayed the song. From there, the rest of the album finally clicked and it was love. It is the perfect blend of R&B, hip-hop, gospel, rap, pop, and so much more. Not to mention lyrically this album is a fucking treasure. It somehow smoothly alternates between socially conscious and flat out fun without being heavy handed. Seriously, don’t be like me — listen to this album.

Whitney — Light Upon the Lake

I came to this album fairly late. As in, I-just-found-out-about-it-two-weeks-ago-late. I was cycling through Paste’s “50 Best Albums of 2016” list (which, if you haven’t already checked it out, you really should), when I came across Whitney. After I clicked the link for the song they had as a sample, I instantly fell in love (a recurring theme). Their music is everything I look for when I am searching for new bands: great hooks and stellar harmonies. But it wasn’t just their catchy songs, it was the familiarity to the tones and chord progressions. It sounded as if the riffs from a Beatles or The Band record had a baby with Car Seat Headrest, just with way higher singing. I’m not fucking around, folks. It came as a surprise, but I am thankful I found this album before 2016 concluded.

Mock Orange — Put the Kid on the Sleepy Horse

Mock Orange has been one of my favorite bands since I was about thirteen. If you have ever listened to my old band, you will probably hear similarities. Evan and I (mostly me) unabashedly ripped them off all the time.

Over the years, and many albums, Mock Orange has distilled their style into a complex wave of pure indie fused with interesting time signatures and post-punk-esque tonal cues. Put the Kid on the Sleepy Horse is a continuation of that developed sound, but a bit crunchier and a little less shimmering than their 2011 album, Disguised as Ghosts. In my opinion, it feels like they hit a sweet spot. Although I have loved every album Mock Orange has released since I discovered them, their work post-The Record Play has felt as though they were searching for their comfort zone as the members’ music tastes and approach to writing matured, leaving the composition of their past albums disjointed and inconsistent. With Sleepy Horse, I think they finally found it. I have always felt this band never received the attention they deserved, so I hope with their latest record, more people figure out what I have been screaming about for years.

Left and Right — The Yips

It utterly baffles me that The Yips is not on every album of the year list ever created. Coming in as the heaviest album on my list (or, at least, quasi-heavy), The Yips is by far the most solid album, front-to-back, I listened to this year. Every goddamn song has a riff, feedback break, lyric, or funny quip to make you stop what you are doing and just appreciate the level of musicianship your ears are being treated to. If Jawbox and Torche eloped and got married irresponsibly (I enjoy personifying bands so I can hypothetically ship them), this would be their offspring. In fact, no, that’s not true at all. Comparing one band to another is reductive. The Yips is entirely it’s own thing. It’s salty, endearing, oddly sad, involved — it’s terrific. If you decide to listen to only one of the albums on my list, try this one. And then reevaluate your thinking and listen to all of these albums because you’re being unreasonable.

The Amazing — Ambulance

At this point, The Amazing feel like old friends. I found Ambulance fairly early in the year, and it has thankfully stuck with me the rest of the way. I say thankfully because there was no better musical companion to have throughout the many highs and lows — especially considering how much of a special and pure garbage-cyclone 2016 was — I endured throughout the year. From the opening melancholy of the title track, “Ambulance”, to the ethereal closing track, “Perfect Day for Shrimp”, each song feels like a specific emotion as it is expounded and made raw for the listener and speaker to understand as a unit. It’s intimacy evoked a sobering vulnerability that was unexpected. It felt personal and public simultaneously, which perhaps was what prompted me to seek a better understanding of my mental health. Within the span of a year, I went through two job changes, saw my partner experience the ugliness of depression, and watched as our country voted a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia into office. But with the bad, there is also good. This year, I was able to write for sites I revere (such as The Alternative), land a job that actually treats me well, openly discuss marriage with my partner, and read more than I ever have. While it may sound contrived, Ambulance’s ability to capture the intricacy of emotion helped me digest the various feelings I felt and was an effective security blanket. It acted as comfort food when I was sad, a scapegoat when I was mad, and a beacon of joy when I was particularly happy.  It was exactly what I needed this year, and I hope others can find in it what I did.