10 Best Rock/Alternative Albums of 2016: Critics' Picks

Jimmy King
David Bowie

We’d all like to find the next big, meaningful artist. Even more, most of us would probably like to get the next big artist, make them our own. In the realm of rock and alternative, 2016 gave us some very literal reality checks, reminding us the value of connecting with the old masters among us. Often, this meant grappling with mortality itself.

This past year, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen both died within weeks of releasing spellbinding albums. We experienced them while mourning, trying to find meaning in the work they left us, just before actually leaving us. Elsewhere, veteran songwriters gave us reason to continue being fascinated by their work, decades into their careers. And of course, new faces, who comparatively few were familiar with this time last year, delivered powerful breakthroughs, assuring they’ll be in the critical conversation for years to come. 

Taking into consideration all of this and more, here are Billboard’s staff-wide selections for the best rock and alternative full lengths of 2016. 

10. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial

Twelve albums -- that’s how many full-lengths Virginian songwriter Will Toledo crafted under the name Car Seat Headrest before releasing Teens of Denial, his first collection of new material for the venerable indie rock label Matador. Since 2010, he’d built himself into a legend on Bandcamp, the DIY platform he released music on before a savvy Matador intern tipped off his bosses. At this point, you could say the rest is history. Toledo delivered a lengthy (70-minute!) album that managed to be consistently revelatory all the way through, reflecting his label’s canon while taking plenty of singularly personal left turns along the way. On opener “Fill in the Blank,” Toledo struggles with the politics of one’s “right” to depression; an hour later, he’s riffing on the 2012 sinking of an Italian cruise ship (“Costa Concordia”) while (naturally) comparing it to his own shortcomings. 

9. Bon Iver - 22 a Million 

For a while, we weren’t even sure there’d be another Bon Iver album. Sure, we knew Justin Vernon would keep creating, but it had been so long -- half a decade -- since his last LP, that we had reason to fear the Bon Iver we knew and loved was long gone. Well, Vernon returned this year -- just as the weather was getting cold, appropriately -- and it just feels right. The organic warmth of Vernon’s voice is still uncanny, and yet, he’s still finding unnatural ways to distort it, never beyond recognition, but almost always enough to outpace his imitators, even if they had five years to play catch up.

8. Angel Olsen - My Woman

What a talent Angel Olsen is. It had been no secret for years (the St. Louis-born singer-songwriter had been releasing excellent music since the beginning of the decade) but this year’s sublime My Woman came as her strongest statement to date, while the most people were paying attention. On “White Fire,” a seven-minute dirge off 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, we saw Olsen’s potential to mine the depths of her being for an absolutely harrowing piece of music. That’s flashed across all of My Woman, be it searching for one’s self in the synthy opener “Intern,” waltzing through the heartbroken Americana songbook on “Never Be Mine” or the devastating voice-and-piano closer “Pops.”

7. Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger

Still crazy after all these years? Just enough to keep us guessing. On his 13th solo album, a 75-year old Paul Simon sounds like he’s having an absolute blast, toying with jet-setting sounds that sound foreign, yet somehow familiar coming from the man who brought us Graceland 30 years ago. His work since will always be compared to that career-redefining album, and this makes as good a case as any as his best statement since.

6. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

The great Leonard Cohen was 33 by the time he released his first album, so his career says plenty about how a waiting game can be a winning game. He was especially prolific at the end of his life, giving us three albums over his final five years, including this somber masterpiece, less than three weeks before his death on Nov. 7. Throughout You Want It Darker, Cohen’s regal baritone lingers just a couple ticks above a spoken-word register, yet the impact is dynamic. At times, he joins forces with gorgeous flamenco flourishes (“Traveling Light”) while using his weather-beaten voice to dictate his relationship with his creator on the opening title track: “If you are the dealer/ I’m out of the game/ If you are the healer/ I’m broken and lame.”

5. ANOHNI - Hopelessness 

On her first album as Anohni, we’re given a bold left turn from the delicate chamber pop of Antony and the Johnsons classics I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light. Anohni throws her being into grappling with some of the planet’s greatest terrors -- not limited to, but prominently including animals left dead from climate change and children left orphaned from the United States’ drone bombings. It’s done over post-apocalyptic electronic production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, as if anything less than a complete musical reinvention on her first album in six years wouldn’t have been enough. The wondrous power of Hopelessness makes it well worth it, with Anohni's own views of ecofeminism providing a light at the end of a tunnel.

4. Mitski - Puberty 2

“Puberty one? That was a private experience,” Mitski joked on Billboard’s Alt In Our Stars podcast, riffing on the meaning of her breakthrough album for prominent indie Dead Oceans. Mitski Miyawaki’s songwriting prowess was evident on her previous three albums, but -- like Angel Olsen and Car Seat Headrest -- 2016 was a magic moment where both a songwriter came into their own and the outside world really started paying attention. We’ve applauded her for tearing apart indie rock tropes (and racial tropes, and gender tropes) on “Your Best American Girl,” and across Puberty 2, Mitski takes disparate sounds -- synthetic drumbeats, girl group rhythms, fuzzed out punk hooks -- and adapts them to her own compelling worldview.

3. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

After teasing new music for some time, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool finally arrived this May. The storied band’s first album in five years felt like a tying of loose ends, those which reflected both the current album cycle and the Radioheads of eras past. Finally seeing the light of day were “Present Tense” (post-In Rainbows years), “Burn the Witch” (pre-In Rainbows years) and “True Love Waits” (Bends era). The very Radioheaden social commentary was unveiled right away with “Burn the Witch,” but Thom Yorke’s own life often took precedent, as he dealt with separating from Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years and mother of his two children. We can all wonder what led Radiohead to finally release a 20-year-old song, but for Yorke, it certainly seems like a momentous occasion. 

2. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

On paper, it shouldn’t work. The sophomore album from the British pretty boys opens with an assault of nĂ¼-new wave nuggets, followed by a brooding midsection that’d threaten to throw us off completely if they weren’t so damn good at composing expansive electro-soundscapes. The second half of this 74-minute album finds them alternating between the two models, while going off the beaten path entirely with a cooing lullaby like “Nana.” In the end, we’re left with something like a Duran Duran hits comp with a Chromatics album wedged in between -- ungainly in theory, but utterly sublime in execution. 

1. David Bowie - Blackstar 

What’s left to say about Blackstar that hasn’t been said already? Bowie capped off five decades of keeping us fascinated with an album that was arguably his best in decades. He died to days after giving it to us and many -- us included -- were quick to frame it as some sort of planned goodbye letter to the world. But despite this well-scripted narrative (which would have been classic Bowie, alas) Bowie fully planned to keep creating beyond Blackstar, even as his heath deteriorated. Fronting Donny McCaslin’s avant jazz band, Bowie is absolutely baffling, guiding us on a journey through the ethos of his own mortality over horns, strings and guitars liable to coo you into an existential stupor, then shake you out of it with a post-apocalyptic groove. If Blackstar does hit us with a lingering lesson, it’s that we need to take time to see past the endless conveyor belt of buzz artists and truly appreciate our hallowed elder statesmen while they’re still around. 

Billboard Year in Music 2016