In Search of New Music for a New Year? Our Favorite Albums of 2016

Dec 19, 2016

We received around 1,800 albums this year, and we put just under 900 of those into rotation on IPR's Studio One. There's been so much incredible music released this year; it's impossible to get to all of it. Never fear! We've created a guide. 

Below, you'll find lists of favorites from 2016 from all three of IPR's Studio One Tracks hosts, alongside lists from IPR's Sean McClain and Clay Masters.

The music listed below ranges across genres, and includes both rising, young stars and some bona fide legends. If you think there's something we left off, let us know! Email us at studioone@iowapublicradio.org or tweet us @IPRStudioOne. If you're looking for Bob Dorr's list of new blues music for this year, find it here. 

Sydney Hauer, host of IPR’s Studio One Tracks

  1. Angel Olsen - My Woman

My Woman is a vulnerable and mature work, signifying Angel Olsen’s great artistic evolvement. The lyrics on the album are experience-ridden. She writes of lost love and the process of working through the devastation of heartbreak, and the importance of self-assurance and autonomy. The album exemplifies just how painful heartbreak can be, and offers a glimmer of hope and positivity.

  1. Bon Iver - 22, A Million

Bon Iver’s latest is a complete abstraction of the band’s previous work. The lyrics seem nonsensical to me, and this makes the record very thought-provoking. You can still tell it’s a Bon Iver record even with the new instrumentation. The band’s new direction and use of electronic elements is genius.

  1. Jessy Lanza - Oh No

This album is so much fun to listen to. Lanza’s work on her second full-length album sounds nervous and poppy, but in the best way possible. It’s a high-energy album filled with ten songs that are very unique from one another. The album offers something that has really stuck with me, but I have a hard time distinguishing exactly what it is.

  1. Beth Orton – Kidsticks

Kidsticks is Beth Orton’s sixth album. This album sounds much different from Beth Orton’s past work. Her other work is more folk-based and used more traditional instrumentation. The use of electronic elements on this record is a fitting artistic direction for her to take, and I think it works very well.

  1. Cass McCombs - Mangy Love

Cass McCombs’ eighth album is humorous, dark and idiosyncratic.

  1. DIIV – Is The Is Are
  2. Amber Arcades - Fading Light
  3. Kevin Morby - Singing Saw
  4. Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing
  5. Lee Fields and The Expressions – Special Night

Mark Simmet, Senior Music Producer, host of IPR’s Studio One Tracks and Gas Money

  1. Leonard Cohen- You Want It Darker

A farewell album from a singular artist- sung while sitting in his “medical chair.”  A summing up of Cohen’s great themes; the words and their presentation convey hard-won truths.  Uneasy truths and no easy answers.

  1. Kristin Hersh- Wyatt At The Coyote Palace

Indie rock “godmother” writes and sings 24 songs and plays every single instrument heard on the album.  Hersh plays and sings in a way that is so direct and compelling that it doesn’t matter that her lyrics are often inscrutable.

  1. Kate Bush- Before The Dawn

A beloved star in her native England, a cult figure in the U.S.  A live album culled from her 22 show stand at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in 2014, including two long-form pieces that work as theatre even without the visuals.

  1. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide To Earth 

A song cycle written as a sailor’s letters home to the wife and child he left behind.  Simpson tells stories, rants, and gives advice based on the experiences of this sailor.  Features strings, horns and synths.  Let’s call it “progressive country.”

  1.  Neil Young- Peace Trail 

Young is determined not to settle into professional old-fogeyism after being in the game for over 50 years.  It’s just him (guitar, keyboards, harmonica) and a rhythm section delivering his state-of-the-nation songs as if he had to get it all on tape this afternoon.  Some might call this sloppy, but it’s quintessentially Neil.

  1. Dawes- We’re All Gonna Die
  2. Gillian Welch- Boots No. 1:  The Official Revival Bootleg
  3. Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle- Colvin & Earle
  4. Billy Bragg & Joe Henry- Shine A Light:  Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad
  5. David Bowie- Blackstar

Tony Dehner, host of IPR’s Studio One Tracks and Gas Money

  1. Mavis Staples - Livin' On a High Note

Gospel/R&B legend Mavis Staples has continued to release great music well into her 70s. Her latest album features songs by some of the best songwriters working today, including Nick Cave, Neko Case, Justin Vernon, and M. Ward, who produced the album. Everyone who contributed to the album has a strong feel for Ms. Staples’ legendary voice, and understands exactly how to write to her strengths as a performer.

  1. Lucius - Good Grief

This five-piece band from Brooklyn is led by vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who met over 10 years ago at Berklee School of Music. Their powerful unison vocals are the main attraction here, and the music is a seamless blend of a variety of styles, including indie pop, ’60s-girl group sounds and a little bit of country.

  1. Shovels & Rope -Little Seeds

The South Carolina husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst are Shovels & Rope, handling all of the vocals together and switching the instruments between the two of them. They raise quite a ruckus for just two people, with a sound equally suited to big stages and the back porch.

  1. Drive-By Truckers - American Band

Drive-By Truckers have always made music with a social and political edge, as they’ve struggled with mixed feelings about their Southern heritage. American Band is the band’s most pointedly political album to date, with specific references to many recent incidents. There’s a lot of righteous anger and frustration here, but also a lot of empathy, and songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remain two of the best storytellers in music.

  1. Angel Olsen - My Woman 

The third full-length album from Angel Olsen suggests a star in the making. Having gotten her start as an alt-country/folk-rock singer, Olsen has expanded her sound greatly to include pop and rock influences. The album also shifts gears thematically about halfway through: the first half (or side) is much more upbeat, while the second half is slower and more introspective.

  1. Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee
  2. Margaret Glaspy - Emotions And Math 
  3. Lydia Loveless - Real
  4. The Kills - Ash & Ice
  5. Jim James - Eternally Even

Clay Masters, host of IPR’s Morning Edition

  1. Leonard Cohen –You Want it Darker

No one could write about life and mortality like Leonard Cohen and now we have an astounding final testament. Released just before his death, Darker gives us insight to a legendary writer’s final thoughts.

  1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

This much-anticipated record is full of beautifully produced string sections and finds vocalist Thom Yorke charting through heartbreak and the apocalypse. Fan favorites, like “True Love Waits,” have finally found a proper studio album.

  1. William Tyler – Modern Country

One of my favorite living guitarist expands his sound and pens an instrumental love letter to “what we’ve lost” in America.

  1.  Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Oberst spent a winter back in his hometown of Omaha writing and recording songs reflecting on a pretty dark time in his life.

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

The king of Goth actually confronts death in an album released following after losing his teenage son in a fatal fall.

  1. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
  2. Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds
  3. Big Thief – Masterpiece
  4. Wilco – Schmilco
  5. Glenn Jones –Fleeting

Sean McClain, IPR Broadcast Operations Specialist

  1. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

The latest offering (in a vast career) from Oberst is in no way the flashiest album of 2016, but sometimes less is more. A damaged man with his guitar, piano, and harmonica creates a feeling of loneliness that sets a well-executed tone for the record and forces the listener to focus on the poignant lyrics, Oberst’s greatest strength. It would be easy to think of this as a “simple” record: however, it's anything but. Oberst tackles issues such as death, substance abuse, betrayal, and depression among others.

  1. DIIV – Is the Is Are

             A tragically beautiful record, this project was born in the depths of a growing issue in today’s society: heroin addiction. After a 2013 arrest for possession, lead singer Zachary Cole Smith spent his time in rehab creating much of this 17 track journey. The listener is transported into a feeling of free fall led by dreamy instrumentals and heavy, sometimes cryptic lyrics and mantras.

  1. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

On his third solo album, the LA based musician elevates himself from promising to proven and firmly establishes himself as one of today’s more proficient singer/songwriters. Through his lyrics and instrumentation, Morby is able to create imagery and a mood that will make you think you’re listening to an album from the ‘60s rather than 2016. The most powerful song on this project may be the second track, “I Have Been To The Mountain”, which was written in response to the 2014 death of Eric Garner.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

An 18 year gap between album releases could seem like a daunting ambition, but Tribe silenced any doubters with this impressive compilation. We got it from Here is able to satisfy longtime fans and attract new listeners, especially with contributions from some of music’s biggest names like Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Talib Kweli, and Elton John just to name a few. The most important factor to this record may be that it gives fans a final goodbye to founding member Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, who passed away in March at the age of 45.

  1. Twin Peaks – Down in Heaven

These young garage rockers from Chicago have been creating a stir for the past few years, and with the release of their third full length album they have hit their stride. With a more refined sound, Down in Heaven is a quintessential summer night album that will keep you tapping your foot from beginning to end.

  1. Big Thief – Masterpiece
  2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
  3. Preoccupations – Preoccupations
  4. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math
  5. Steve Gunn - Eyes On The Lines