Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
This is Aesop’s finest album to date – a kaleidoscopic trip through his youth and across his unrelenting career at the helm of the independent hip-hop scene. All of his trademarks shine here, but he goes beyond the “word salad” critiques and delivers an album that distills the psychic debris that haunts all creative minds. I’ve listened to this one almost daily since it dropped, and I got the chance to meet the man himself briefly this year – if only to say “your shit’s awesome, dude” and catch a photo with the guy. He’s an American writer hero. His live show is unreal, though I do think DJ Abilities needs to jump back on his tour. Don’t sleep on this album, whether you’ve ever listened to hip-hop or not. Listen: To this day, I tell any mafaka I meet on East Ninth that this cat still runs the underground, no matter what they say! Highlight track: Dorks.
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Every now and then, an album comes along that fucks me up emotionally. The last time was 2009. (It was an older album that intersected with my own parabolic growth at the time. Buy me a 12 Dogs for more info if needed.) This album shows up in this fucked up year, though, and captures a gamut of moods I’ve walked through over the past decade. I’m not sure if Evan Stephens Hall will become more than a flash in this weird era of music, but his writing is top-notch. I’d put him up against some of the greats this year. To paraphrase Trey Anastasio, the white kid from suburbia who listens to music in his bedroom has a place in rock ‘n’ roll history. Take it or leave it. Hall comes from Montclair, N.J., and his stuff reminds me of the uncertainties of youth in Rocky River. In more than one way, I’m still a 16-year-old kid in need of the stuff music provides. I hope all my friends are, too. Highlight track: New Friends.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
This is a perfect album. Enough said. There’s something awe-inspiring about watching a band do – yet again – what they do best. In a consumer-marketing society obsessed with “breaking ground,” here’s Radiohead, a band that went through the media hype of “reinventing rock ‘n’ roll” 15 years ago, just casting another die into the game. …And I’ve said this before: Every Radiohead song is a love song. (Go back and listen if you insist it’s all post-globalism dystopia stuff. It’s not [entirely].) Here, I think based on Thom Yorke’s breakup, the love songs cut deeper and summon even more ghosts from the floorboards. Despite all that, it’s an opus worthy of even the shoddiest homemade bongs. Superb songwriting. Mindfucking lyrics throughout. Heart-breaking. Listen with a confidante for best results. Highlight track: Decks Dark.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
This is the latest arrival on my list, and I doubted that I would even dig it. But the new Tribe album – 18 mafukin years after their last one – is exactly the music we needed right now. (We’re about to inaugurate an authoritarian president!) Never forget that marginalized Americans continue to fight for representation and equality. The politics of this album are paramount, and the lyrics are crisp and mind-bending. To paraphrase my friend, it’s like Q-Tip was sitting in his house rapping for 18 years, and he dropped the genius-level shit that rendered at the top. Also – I mean, fuck – hearing new verses from Phife is a cosmic trip. When I was getting into hip-hop in high school, these guys played a major role. It’s a head trip that I’m writing about them right now. RIP Phife. Highlight track: Whateva Will Be.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel
This one comes from a trip across northern New Mexico in early summer. A few months before this album dropped, Chris Robinson was hanging out on Jam_ON and throwing a few early tunes around. I was in awe, caught up in a landscape of psychedelic pine trees and time spent well with friends and family. I interviewed him later this summer, and he was one of the all-time coolest dudes to talk to about music. The album reflects my personal assumptions. If ever there was a need to pick up where Haight/Ashbury and the Dead left off, it’s now. And this particular Robinson brother can do that for us. (Have you been listening? Have you been to this band’s shows?) Standout track: Some Gardens Green.
The Dirty Nil – Higher Power
I used to listen to a lot more hardcore and punk stuff, but it still has place in my living room. This album is the earliest release on this list. And it’s a trip. Smoke a joint and grab a brick, because this one will fuck you up a bit. These guys “get it” – that important nexus of hardcore and early emo and melodic punk. You don’t find much of that these days. They spun through town twice this year – and both times I showed up *right after* their set, thinking that they’d play later. Maybe it’s a lark, but I feel this band is the real deal. Highlight track: Wrestle Yu to Husker Du.
Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
One of my all-time favorite bands right here. Somehow, in spite of years of inner-band turmoil that continues to this day (J and Lou haven’t talked directly to each other in years), these guys churn out some of the best slacker-rock in America. They called it “ear-splitting country” in their earlier days (mid-80s); I call it life-affirming depression rock as a writerly malcontent in 2016. If I’m in need of a personal funeral dirge in the next few years, get J to sing me out. I saw them in Akron when I lived there briefly last year, and they opened with Bulbs of Passion. That’s the Alpha. Whether this album is the Omega, I can’t say. But tune in right now if you haven’t. This is a Great American Rock Band. Highlight track: Be a Part.
Aqueous – Best in Show
If you’ve spent a minute or two at a bar with me or next to an open Spotify account at a house party with me in the past four years, I’ve surely told you about this band. They, more than any other band on this list, should be heard immediately. (And if the previous things apply, you know I don’t fuck around on these proclamations.) A few guys my age from Buffalo, N.Y. (a lovely city) have created the most important jam scene in 2016 outside of Phish, JRAD, Dead and Co. and Snarky Puppy. This is the only EP on my list, and it comprises just four songs that they debuted during a transition period over the past year or two. I believe in this band completely, and they’ve become terrific music acquaintances since I met them in 2012. If you’ve never partaken, well, this EP is as good a place to start as any. Highlight track: Don’t Do It.
Wilco – Schmilco
Jeff Tweedy is one of American rock’s last iconoclasts, and this album is yet another feather in that cap. It’s not Wilco’s best; it’s not Tweedy’s best, but it’s *exactly* the album that Wilco needed to drop at this point in their stellar individual careers. I think it’s better than Star Wars (don’t confuse that with the rather pedestrian sci-fi movie series of the same name if you’re unfamiliar with Wilco’s catalog) and I think it’s better than maybe another third of their overall output. This is good, left-of-center, emotional “folk” music (if you need a label). Glenn Kotche shines here, and I love when he does. (See: Cry All Day.) Almost everything I’ve lauded about the previous eight bands can be found in this album, which says something. The Wilco lesson? Fuck everybody else; do what you love. We need this band more than ever. Highlight track: Quarters.
Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
This album came out while I was writing an oral history of Speak In Tongues, a legendary Cleveland DIY punk venue on Lorain Avenue. John Dwyer, the main cat in Thee Oh Sees, showed up in a few photos from shows at SIT that I had gathered. He was in a band called Pink and Brown at the time. (Read Scene Magazine for more information on all that weirdness!) Anyway, Thee Oh Sees have a long and storied West Coast life, but this album of psychedelia and punk and fuck-your-face music cops another needed notch on the bedpost of 2016. Listen: If you bring the blotter, I’ll bring my copy of A Weird Exits and a set of headphones to the Rocky River reservation this winter. Leave a note before you listen to this album. Highlight track: Jammed Entrance.