A year’s end wouldn’t be complete without copious amounts of “best of” lists, right? That’s why we’ve saved our best for the last day of the year. The Third Coast Review music team has pored over albums and songs this year. Some emotionally raw. Some mesmerizing. Some pure, unabashed noise. We’ve listened, we’ve loved, and now we want to share our favorites with you, all of equal importance and unranked. Take a listen as the year winds down and as you venture into 2017.
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
I literally can’t think of one issue I have with Angel Olsen; the woman who has reconnected me with my feelings song after song after song, like the lines that connect a constellation. When I first began listening to Burn Your Fire For No Witness, I was immediately captivated by how raw everything was. Truths were found in illustrious lyrics, reminiscent of universal feelings. MY WOMAN continues this trend, but takes her talents in a new arc. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is a powerhouse ballad, while “Heart Shaped Face” is to put it aptly, heartbreaking. Olsen is able to merge so many sensibilities at once, yet convey them with a sense of continuity. With a new identity, she keeps up with her musical caliber. Her vulnerability is her infinite power.
The Falcon – Gather Up the Chaps
2016 appeared to be the year of the comeback, as punk rock supergroup The Falcon released theirs follow up to 2006’s masterful Unicornography, with Gather Up The Chaps. A mishmash of members of The Lawrence Arms, Alkaline Trio, and The Loved Ones, The Falcon takes components of each band’s best abilities and blends them together seamlessly to give the band a life of its own. And with song titles like “Hasselhoff Cheeseburger,” and “You Dumb Dildos,” it’s a pretty unique album.
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Kevin Morby has been taking baby steps to the front of the stage ever since he played bass in Woods nearly a decade ago. A few years ago, he shared center stage with Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls in the Babies. And more recently, he’s been writing under his own name. In his past three records, he evokes early Leonard Cohen and post-motorcycle accident Bob Dylan. But while Morby draws from ’60s and ’70s songwriters, his music is much more than the sum of its influences. He dedicates “I Have Been to the Mountain” to Eric Garner but he’s never preachy as he delivers his message. Morby covers much of the American song experience in Singing Saw without making the music feel too thin nor dense to carry his voice.
Mild High Club – Skiptracing
It’s difficult to write about an album this year that isn’t by Frank Ocean, Bowie, or Solange, but Chicago expat Alex Brettin is mastering the most sophisticated and sleekest production techniques in modern rock music under the alias Mild High Club. The jazzy, smooth 12-string electric guitars and saxophones take us back to our parents’ era, where Steely Dan and Chicago fused the high-concepts of jazz with the carnal appeal of rock ‘n’ roll. Though songs like “Skiptracing” and “Tesselation” stick out (just try not bobbing your head to “Tesselation”), let’s not forget that Brettin writes records. And the best albums transports us to a place, allowing us to experience time differently for the length of about 30 minutes. Skiptracing does this.
Planes Mistaken for Stars – Prey
It’s been a little over 10 years since Illinois’ own Planes Mistaken for Stars released their last album and the quartet hasn’t seemed to miss a beat on their new album Prey. The album is an onslaught of aggression the band has been known for, mixed with some melodic interludes that don’t bog down listeners senses too early on. If they can present this in their comeback attempt imagine what the future holds.
Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
Like many of you, I was heartbroken to learn that the Smith Westerns had broken up (before I saw them live, nonetheless). Elation followed when I heard of Whitney, founded by former members. Julian Ehrlich’s inimitable vocals blend perfectly with the soulful grooves the band creates. Feel-good favorites like “No Matter Where We Go” are followed by the haunting tune “No Woman.” The debut album clocks in at just over 30 minutes, but it fills the entirety with value. With lilting instrumental songs and lyrics that stay with us long after we’ve listened, Whitney have created their pristine start.
Wilco – Schmilco
This band is my forever favorite for a reason; no matter what they create, they’re evolving in some way. Schmilco, with its chuckle-inducing title and silly cover art, is full of some of the band’s best material. And yes, they’ve been around for decades now. “If I Ever Was a Child” is heart wrenching, while “Normal American Kids” takes us back to Wilco’s most powerful quiet works. “We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl)” sounds like it’s straight out of Summerteeth, but it maintains its newness, too. Wilco is evergreen, especially in Chicago, where fans are ever grateful for the music that somehow continues to be more than stellar. Beneath the whimsical title lies many of Wilco’s most mesmerizing ballads yet.
Against Me! – “Boyfriend”
If I could use a The Replacements metaphor for a moment, if Transgender Dysphoria Blues was considered Against Me!’s Tim, then their 2016 release Shape Shift With Me, would be their Don’t Tell A Soul. It’s a bit of a more romantic record, that still encompasses lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s rebellious spirit. And nothing encompasses that more than “Boyfriend,” where she sing about moving on from the past. And with a chorus of “Treated me like a boyfriend, some dumb fucking boyfriend,” how could you not sing along.
Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
You didn’t think we’d forget Chance on this list, right? The guy is brilliant, and he hails from our city (added perk). Coloring Book absolutely elevated the hip-hop game, from the way it was produced to what was packaged inside. Out of all the tracks, “Same Drugs” is easily the most sonically stunning. A Peter Pan reference. Essential lyrics like “Don’t forget the happy thoughts.” Beautiful piano notes backed up by gospel choirs and Chance’s voice building and falling. While he gave us solid hits like “No Problem” and “Blessings,” “Same Drugs” is a song that can elicit smiles and sadness at exactly the same time. And that’s something to cherish.
Childish Gambino – “Me and Your Mama”
Think Donald Glover is still just an actor? Think again. With his newest release, he moves away from the hip-hop he’s created; while innovative, he’s subverted the genre and brought us something new. But new in this instance isn’t a bad thing. “Me and Your Mama” opens with a glittering backdrop, chants from a chorus, and a synth line. Next, Childish Gambino wails out and takes us into a retro groove with soul and funk at its core. The six-minute song is surprising, and may have turned off some of his initial fans. The innovation on this album was, however, necessary for him. Childish Gambino has never remained stagnant, and this song proves this isn’t going to change.
Japandroids – “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”
In the time the Japandroids released their last album – 2012’s Celebration Rock – we’ve had two presidential elections, so it’s only reasonable they returned from their self-imposed exile to roar back with “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”. Thankfully for the masses, the Canadian duo has not lost a step as their first single in four years is an onslaught of blustery drums and a chorus you will be singing for days.
Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014”
When Kendrick Lamar released his untitled record this year, he documented survivor’s guilt. After he turned 27 and enjoyed in the fruits of his labor — women, money, fame — and yet he noticed a dissonance between his success and the people in his black community struggle. He reflects on friends locked up in prison and he sees a girl from home who values “fast money” over education. His untitled songs feel very much a part of the To Pimp a Butterfly sound and theme while also offering very personal narratives and even jazzier arrangments. During his major performances this past year, including performing this song on the Tonight Show, it’s clear that Kendrick knows he’s setting the terms for rap music. This song lets us see that we’re witnessing an artist master his craft.
Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”
If you have read the excellent New Yorker profile on Leonard Cohen, the reports on his final days have been greatly exaggerated. While Cohen’s death this year was another installment of why 2016 was the garbage fire to end them all, the profile presents a creatively reinvigorated Cohen and that is heard on this last album, You Want It Darker and its title track. A mix of his classical lyrical style and fabulous arrangements, “You Want It Darker” was a perfect swan song for his final album.
Parquet Courts – “Human Performance”
The theme of confinement surfaces with each Parquet Courts record. This time the singer, Andrew Savage, is trapped in his own apartment after a breakup, “Ashtray is crowded, bottle is empty / No music plays and nothing moves without drifting, into a memory.” As one of our generation’s best rock lyricists (alongside Protomartyr’s Joe Casey and Courtney Barnett), Savage writes a song that involves a breakup without making it sappy. Instead, he addresses larger questions of authenticity and identity as he’s struggling to keep his grief at bay, “It never leaves me, just visits less often / It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften, without a coffin.” He’s performing as a human without feeling connected with his motions. For all of their nervous, energetic rock music, Parquet Courts are a bunch of bookworms. And while they may wax philosophy through songs about one their cats or being paralyzed by too many decisions while stoned at a convenience store, they’ve shown with a song like “Human Performance” that they can write raise existential questions with humor and a loud rhythm section.
Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
Solange’s new album topped many a best of list this year, many times even superseding her sister’s dazzling album, Lemonade. With A Seat at the Table, we received a conversation that all could join, whether by relating to experiences, or by learning more when they’re not our own. “Cranes in the Sky” stuns, with struggle at the root of it. She drinks, she dances, she changes her hair; but none of it works. She can’t break free from the isolation she feels.”Yeah it’s like cranes in the sky/ Sometimes I don’t want to feel those metal clouds.” A hushed song that ebbs and flows with her strong vocals, “Cranes in the Sky” is vital; as Solange embarks on her own journey of self-discovery, she encourages us to continue our own.