I intended on posting this on December 31st, but you know…life.
So even though it probably doesn’t need to be said, 2016 was not a good year for many people, but the music was still amazing. I mean, who didn’t release an album this year? It was hard to narrow down, but here are my top ten favorite albums of 2016. You might recognize some names, others not so much, but check them all out if you can. I promise it’s the best music you’ve never heard!
Peace, love & rock-n-roll,
Black Lab: A New World
Released: November 2016
Best Songs: I Fought The Law, A Matter of Time, Bring You Love
One of my favorite indie rock artists, Black Lab, wins best album of 2016 with the incredible A New World. Black Lab, mostly known for the 1997 hit “Wash It Away,” has released several amazing albums since then (most notably A Raven Has My Heart, a fully crowd-funded album released in 2014) but A New World takes things to a whole new level for the band. Front man Paul Durham has been open with his fans about suffering a devastating loss a few years ago, and that pain and sadness comes through in every song here, though there is also the hope and desire to push through that sadness and come out stronger for it. His voice is as aching, raw and emotional as its ever been throughout the album, most notably on the opening track “Bottomless Sea,” a song about the heavy weight of loss and how overwhelming it can be, against an electronic beat that the band does so well. (Again, listen to A Raven Has My Heart or the all-electronic album Technologie).
One of my favorites is the gritty, sexy cover of “I Fought The Law,” which takes the song to a completely new height and is one of the best cover songs I have ever heard. “Bring You Love” echoes “Bottomless Sea,” and is a beautiful and haunting close to the album, a plea to hold on and not give in to sadness. The best song on the album is “A Matter of Time,” with uplifting lyrics (“Keep holding on for more, keep holding strong in the storm…I’ll be here for you.”) and a fun beat and hand claps behind them. The overall feeling I get while listening to this album is that when life throws things at you that you can’t control, it is always possible to get through it all with a little help from friends, loved ones and time.
Buy A New World here
Blue October: Home
Released: April 22nd, 2016
Best Songs: Leave It In The Dressing Room (Shake It Up), Houston Heights, I Want It
The eighth studio album from Houston’s Blue October gets the number two spot, with the feel-good Home, which was released on the band’s independent label Up/Down Records. The album is unquestionably different from the band’s earlier work, which has turned off some long-time fans, but introduced Blue to an entirely new generation. I like to think that this band grows and changes with every album, which is unique and refreshing; too many bands sound exactly the same no matter how many albums they release. Blue October’s progression through the years is stunning. From the early angst of Consent to Treatment and History for Sale, to the breakout mainstream success of 2005’s Foiled (the album with the hits “Hate Me” and “Into the Ocean”) to the anger-fueled and heartbreaking Any Man In America, every Blue October album tells a story. These stories belong to front man Justin Furstenfeld, a man who has never shied away from raw honesty in his music. It’s as if his entire life has unfolded with every album, from suffering through mental illness and suicidal thoughts, falling in love, falling out of love, custody battles and divorce, all for the world to see. I respect that so much, because too few artists have that level of realism and honesty.
Home is no different. The album is full of hope, love and perseverance, and it chronicles Justin’s light at the end of the tunnel. The title track is the best example of this, from the very beginning (“I’ll smile if I want to, not afraid and gonna flaunt it, too.”) to the chorus (“Daddy loves Mama and Mama loves him, tomorrow we get to do it over again.”) Justin is finally happy and he is not apologizing for it, nor should he. He has survived what most people couldn’t dream of living through and these songs echo his journey and destination. “Heart Go Bang” is a song about finding true love and I like to think of it as a sequel of sorts to the older song “Balance Beam.” “I Want It” is an anthem of pushing through anything and refusing to be sorry, and is my favorite song on the album. (“Don’t ever think you’ll take away the fight in me.”) Blue October has not forgotten how to rock out, either, evidenced with the hard-hitters “Leave It In The Dressing Room (Shake It Up)”, and “Houston Heights.” Justin also addresses the things he has been through and offers hope to anyone listening with “Time Changes Everything,” a reminder that where you are is never your final destination. The same is true for this band, I think. They will continue to grow and progress and own it every single time.
Buy Home here!
Switchfoot: Where The Light Shines Through
Released: July 8th, 2016
Best Songs: I Won’t Let You Go, Holy Water, Live It Well
Veteran Christian alternative band Switchfoot comes in third with tenth studio album Where The Light Shines Through. This is another band that is able to constantly reinvent its sound and remain fresh and relevant not only in the Christian rock genre, but mainstream, too. The band blurs the lines and does it well with this new album. From the opener “Holy Water,” a song that is a bit heavier than expected from Switchfoot, to the stunning closer “Hope Is The Anthem,” Where The Light Shines Through is a journey of self-discovery and of finding self-worth and love. The title track is a testament to this, with lyrics pronouncing that what a person has been through does not define who they are. (“Your scars shine like dark stars, the wound is where the light shines through.”) The gorgeous “I Won’t Let You Go” is the best song here, and although it is undeniably a song about faith, it is not so in a preachy way (one of the best things about this band.) Instead, it can be construed as simply having faith in one’s self to make it through. (“Maybe that’s where life is born, when our façades are torn and pain gives birth to the promise ahead.”)
“Live It Well” is another great song that recognizes that life is short, and that everyone should do the things that make them happy and live a good story. (“I’m living for more than just a funeral.”) “Hope is the Anthem” is a soaring and beautiful end to the album, like a promise to keep going and let hope guide the way. Switchfoot has long partnered with the non-profit organization To Write Love On Her Arms, spreading awareness of mental health, depression and addiction and most importantly, overcoming these things. Switchfoot is a band unafraid to tackle these issues and connect with people through music, and I think they have definitely done so with this album.
Buy Where The Light Shines Through here!
Jimmy Eat World: Integrity Blues
Released: October 22nd, 2016
Best Songs: The End Is Beautiful, Get Right, Integrity Blues
Jimmy Eat World has been around a long time (an impressive 23 years) and in that time, the band has gone from an indie underground favorite (1999’s Clarity) to chart-toppers (2001’s Bleed American, 2007’s Chase This Light) without slowing down. With Integrity Blues, Jimmy’s ninth studio album, the band proves they still have phenomenal staying power. Front man Jim Adkins said recently that the band almost didn’t follow through with the album, because they’d already released eight, so, “Why release nine?”
Listening to this album, it’s clear to see why Adkins and the rest of the band simply can’t stop making music; because they are still unique and more than relevant. They made emo-alternative what it is with the release of “The Middle” way back in 2001. There are so many bands that wouldn’t exist without Jimmy Eat World’s influence, but no one can do it quite like they can. With the combination of thoughtful lyrics, Adkins’ unrivaled, emotive vocals and the band’s ability to transition between heavier rock (“Get Right”) to the softer, radio-friendly pop (“Sure and Certain,” “Pretty Grids”) to incredible gut-wrenching love songs (“The End Is Beautiful”), Integrity Blues showcases everything this band is capable of and more, and they do it better than anyone else. I hope Jimmy Eat World will continue to make music for many years to come. So, here’s to that tenth album, guys.
Buy Integrity Blues here!
White Lies: Friends
Released: October 7th, 2016
Best Songs: Take It Out On Me, Right Place, Is My Love Enough?
White Lies are still relatively unknown to the mainstream, but the band has a strong cult following, including yours truly. The five-piece out of London released the stunning To Lose My Life in 2009, an album that featured the song “Unfinished Business” (if that title sounds familiar, it’s likely because of the Mumford & Sons cover in 2010, which doesn’t hold a candle to the original), which introduced the world to this amazing band. White Lies’ dark and moody sound is in the same vein as Interpol, Editors and Joy Division and lead singer Harry McVeigh’s vocals have been compared to Ian Curtis’s more than a few times. Yet, the band still stands on its own and refuses to be bogged down or labeled.
While it’s true there are some White Lies songs that are no doubt influenced by the formerly mentioned bands, there are even more that are uniquely White Lies, such as “There Goes Our Love Again,” an upbeat, dance-friendly tune from 2013’s Big T.V. or the tongue-in-cheek “Getting Even,” also from T.V. With Friends, the band’s fourth studio release, their sound has definitely become more polished. While To Lose My Life and Ritual are darker in nature and Big T.V. a bit more upbeat, Friends falls nicely in between.
First single “Take It Out On Me” is a good introduction song, combining McVeigh’s aching baritone with a synth background that echoes ’80s pop. “Hold Back Your Love” continues the simultaneously happy and sad feel of the album, something that White Lies does better than anyone. “Is My Love Enough?” is one of my favorite songs here, with excellent music and McVeigh’s lovesick vocals meshing perfectly together. “Right Place” is another favorite, with great lyrics (“I’ve got my heart beating in the right place, it’s just the wrong time.”) and superb drums. White Lies have progressed with every album, but with Friends, it seems they have truly come into their sound.
Buy Friends here!
OneRepublic: Oh My My
Released: October 7th, 2016
Best Songs: Let’s Hurt Tonight, Wherever I Go, Heaven
Back in 2007, OneRepublic burst onto the scene with a little song called “Apologize.” Though the original song was simplistic and focused mainly on lead singer Ryan Tedder’s vocals, the remixed version by Timbaland inadvertently labeled the band as mainstream pop/R&B. The rest of 2007’s Dreaming Out Loud was quite different from that song, but in no way is that a bad thing. “Stop And Stare” proved that the band was just fine on their own and OneRepublic’s success continued with the release of Waking Up in 2009, which gave the band several more chart-toppers, including “Good Life” and the phenomenal “Secrets.” The band’s third album Native is arguably their best to date, featuring the massive hits “Counting Stars” and “Love Runs Out.”
It’s hard to believe that Oh My My is only the band’s fourth studio album, since they have had so many radio hits in such a short span of time. Oh My My is shaping up to be yet another album of hits, with singles “Wherever I Go” and “Kids” already topping the charts. On the new album, OneRepublic deviates quite a bit from the foot-stomping, hand-clapping songs of Native, relying more on Tedder’s stunning vocals and the superb musicianship behind them. “Let’s Hurt Tonight,” a gut-wrenching love song with beautiful lyrics (“If this love is pain, well darling let’s hurt tonight.”) opens the album and almost sounds like it could be a b-side of Dreaming Out Loud. “Future Looks Good” keeps things going with big, anthemic drums and layered vocals, while singles “Wherever I Go” and “Kids” lean towards alt-pop, with Tedder’s perfect falsetto shining in the chorus of both songs. “A.I.” features legend Peter Gabriel, but it’s definitely not what you’d expect from this collaboration, a very upbeat dance track that is unlike anything OneRepublic has ever done. But somehow it works, and further proves that this band is capable of anything and they will still rock it.
Buy Oh My My here!
Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow
Released: January 22nd, 2016
Best Songs: Quiet Americans, Filaments, Radio Silence
I discovered Shearwater back in 2010, just after the release of the album The Golden Archipelago. I saw them live for the first time in a small club called The Earl in Atlanta, GA and was completely blown away by lead singer Jonathan Meiburg’s powerful vocals and the intensity of the performance. That intensity has never quite been present in their albums as well as it is presented live (with the exception of a few songs), but all of this changes with Jet Plane and Oxbow.
From the very beginning, “Prime” sucks you in with a slow-building synth opening that later explodes into a piano-driven epic and Meiburg’s plea of “Come on, come on!” Lead single “Quiet Americans” is one of my favorites that Shearwater has ever done, with lyrics political in nature (“The only sound are the bells up on the hill…where are the Americans?”) but it’s also foot-tapping and Bowie-esque song that could easily appeal to almost anyone, even if politics is not quite your thing. “Filaments” is just stunning with a plethora of instruments begging for attention behind Meiburg’s brilliant lyrics (“In the center of the sun, in the stain spilling out into the light…in the calling of the gulls, in the river running out into the night.”) Then there is the heart-pounding urgency of “Radio Silence,” which is probably my favorite track on the album, with everything about Shearwater…the soaring vocals, the anthemic music, the smart lyrics…coming together in beautiful harmony. Bottom line? You need to hear this.
Buy Jet Plane and Oxbow here!
Lacey Sturm: Life Screams
Released: February 12th, 2016
Best Songs: Rot, Roxanne, Impossible
If you recognize the name Lacey Sturm, it is because she was the lead singer of heavy Christian rock band Flyleaf from 2005-2012. Sturm, who undoubtedly made Flyleaf what it was, left the band in 2012 to settle down with her family. But she didn’t stay away for long, returning in 2016 with solo album Life Screams.
There are undoubtedly shades of Flyleaf in this album, but it still has a fresh edge, especially present in the interlude/prolouge “Vanity,” which leads into “Rot.” “Vanity” is a spoken word piece that initially sounds like a couple arguing, until you realize that it is more or less a conversation between Lacey and “the devil,” or some kind of evil incarnate (maybe even her own subconscious?), however you want to look at it. Lacey speaks with the same passion that she sings, (which is the best thing about her voice in my opinion) and sounds as if she’s on the verge of tears throughout the song. “Rot” is my favorite on the album, with lyrics that confront hypocrites straight up (“I want what’s pure and want what’s right, but I need another fix tonight.”….”I need a faith that’s solid as concrete, but the impact’s broken both my knees.”) Another highlight is the unexpected but incredible cover of The Police’s “Roxanne.”
Life Screams is definitely still in the hard Christian rock element, but this album is slower and more introspective than previous Flyleaf releases. I still hold on to the hope that Lacey will return to Flyleaf one day, but she is a more than capable solo artist.
Buy Life Screams here!
Released: June 10th, 2016
Best Songs: No Good, Broken Bones, Vor i Vaglaskogi
At first listen to lead singer JJ Julius Son’s soulful voice, you wouldn’t immediately realize that he is Icelandic (real name: Jökull Júlíusson), as is the rest of the four-piece Kaleo. Definitely one of a kind, these guys received some much-deserved fame in 2016 with the release of bluesy single “Way Down We Go,” which was featured in several TV shows and commercials, not to mention the fact that it dominated rock radio.
From the stellar, foot-stomping opening track “No Good,” A/B never lets up with a mix of folk, delta blues and dark ballads, all perfected by Julius Son’s powerful growl behind the shredding guitars and drums. It’s easy to close your eyes and think you’re listening to classic rock, because this music just sounds that timeless; there are definite shades of Zeppelin here. “Vor i Vaglaskogi” is one of my favorites, which reminds the listener halfway through that these guys are actually not from the Southern U.S., but from Iceland. The song highlights Julius Son’s range (who knew he could go from that growl to that falsetto??) and is sung in his beautiful native Icelandic language. “Broken Bones” is another standout, about a deal with the devil, with its dark chain-gang style vocals and hand claps.
With A/B, Kaleo does what The Black Keys and Kings of Leon have tried and failed to do in the last few years: bring back real blues and rock n roll. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how it’s done.
Buy A/B here!
Released: April 2016
Best Songs: Revelator, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Stand By Me
It’s rare that an album of nothing but covers would make my top ten list, first of all. But with Homage, Bootstraps have completely transformed these songs and made them all their own. With songs from everyone from Etta James to Fleetwood Mac to Moby, Homage certainly has a broad range, but somehow every single song sounds like it should have been sung by Jordan Beckett to begin with.
“Earned It” (originally by The Weeknd) opens the album and introduces the listener to Beckett’s gritty and soulful voice that grabs and doesn’t let go. “Revelator” (a country song by Gillian Welch) is hands down my favorite track on the album; atmospheric and moody and really showcasing Beckett’s voice. This guy was born to sing love songs, it seems, and “At Last” and “Stand By Me” (by Etta James and Ben E. King, respectively) are beautiful renditions, made even better by his aching vocals. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is another example of this, taking the Whitney Houston song and breaking it down to nothing but the lyrics, which you have probably never realized are pretty melancholy in nature. The song, which was featured on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, is a stark contrast to the original, but it is better. The same can be said for every other track on Homage. Also, this is the ultimate chill out album. Headphones recommended.
Buy Homage here!
Bonus Albums: (because 10 just isn’t enough)
Chevelle: The North Corridor
Released: July 8th, 2016
Best Song: Enemies
Bottom line:Pete Loeffler can scream better than anyone.
Blink 182: California
Released: July 1st, 2016
Best Song: Bored To Death
Bottom line: Who needs Tom DeLonge?
Lacuna Coil: Delirium
Released: May 27th, 2016
Best Song: Delirium
Bottom line: Lacuna Coil have remembered they are a metal band.
Dorothy: Rock Is Dead
Released: June 24th, 2016
Best Song: Raise Hell
Bottom line: rock is not dead. And Halestorm is not the only badass female fronted rock band anymore.