Top 10 2016 albums: Andy's picks

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive
Mitski

As always, here are the albums that kept me coming back time and again over the course of the year.

1. Mitski:Puberty 2

The most memorable moments onPuberty 2, the fourth and best album from New York musician Mitski, find the singer and guitarist engaged in an attempt to fuse two worlds. Witness the crackling, lo-fi "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars," where Mitski tethers the cosmic to the commonplace, vacillating between the lines "I want to see the whole world" and "I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent." Then there's the intensely personal "Your Best American Girl," where the Japanese-American grapples with questions of identity ("Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me") before making hard-won peace with her background ("But I do, I finally do").

2. A Tribe Called Quest:,We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

With nearly two decades between studio releases, and still reeling from the March death of founding member Phife Dawg, expectations for A Tribe Called Quest's latest might have been tempered. It turns out there was nothing to fear.We got it from Here… takes its cues from its chest-puffed title, with the late Phife and Q-Tip confidently diagramming the insanity as it unfolds all around them. The line, "Why y'all cool with the fuckery/Trump and the 'SNL' hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no times for comedy," for one, stands as perhaps the most adept media criticism of 2016.

3. PUP:The Dream Is Over

Singer Stefan Babcock was diagnosed with a cyst on his vocal cords as recording sessions forThe Dream Is Over wrapped, and for a brief moment the PUP mates feared the album could be their last. It's a fitting sensation, too, considering the way the musicians wrestle with doubt, disillusionment and the ever-growing gap between youthful expectation and grown-up reality on endearingly snotty howlers like "Doubts" and "Sleep in the Heat," a heartrending portrait of what it feels like to watch a loved one wither and die. (That Babcock is actually singing of a pet lizard somehow doesn't lessen its impact.)

4. Michael Kiwanuka:Love & Hate

The sophomore effort from the British soul man feels more like a senior thesis, advancing the music far beyond his 2012 debut. Over the course of 10 tracks, a handful of which clock in at more than seven minutes, Kiwanuka explores issues of race ("Black Man in a White World," a plantation stomper that doubles as a raised fist) and self-doubt ("I can't stand myself … I've been ashamed all my life," he offers amid gently weeping guitar on "Cold Little Heart"), adopting a warm, conversational approach that only adds to the music's gravity.

5. Lydia Loveless:Real

Loveless doesn't shy from exploring uncomfortable situations onReal, delving into unraveling romances ("Out on Love") and penning tunes shaped by loss ("Longer" has its roots in the death of friend and fellow musician Joey Blackheart). Musically, tunes flirt with everything from Fleetwood Mac to the Cars, with Loveless and her band adopting an expansive sonic palette that offers welcome contrast to the intimate scenes frequently unfolding in her words.

6. Pinegrove:Cardinal

With Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall, sometimes the details he withholds can be as shattering as any words spoken. "I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago," he sings on "Old Friends," and then, yada, yada, yada, "I saw some old friends at her funeral." Oof, gut punch. ThoughCardinal is the New Jersey indie-rock band's label debut, there's a maturity to the songcraft here that holds everything together even in those more scattered moments where Hall details youthful arguments devolving into confusion and fits of laughter.

7. Drive-By Truckers:American Band

There shouldn't be anything revolutionary about a white Southern rock band stumping for Black Lives Matter, as the Truckers do on the sad, searching "What It Means," but Patterson Hood and Co. are at their best blurring these increasingly polarized lines. Equal parts personal and political,American Band presents a complex portrait of a population standing "on the precipice of prejudice and fear," making it an ideal soundtrack for this unsteady political and social climate.

8. Angel Olsen:My Woman

On the album-opening "Intern," Angel Olsen sings about "going through the motions as you sing your song." This is precisely what she avoids on a probing, assured effort, which sees the Asheville-based singer-songwriter both broadening and sharpening her sound. "I dare you to understand what makes me a woman," she sings as the album nears its close. Even singing of dares, it sounds like truth.

9. Chance the Rapper:Coloring Book

Chance pumped added life into Kanye West's "god dream" with his "Ultralight Beam" guest verse, but religion bleeds into his reality throughout the career-bestColoring Book, which finds the Chicago rapper mining his city's musical past (gospel, blues, R&B) in service of verses aimed at creating a brighter future for his daughter.

10. Sturgill Simpson:A Sailor's Guide to Earth

On his third album, the Kentucky-born musician drafts a winding, country-soul road map for his infant son, balancing practical advice (eschew pricy, synthetic blends because "motor oil is motor oil" he advises on one song) with big-picture musings about embracing everything this short life has to offer.