Top 10 2016 albums: Joel's picks

Joel Oliphint

I've never liked attempts at establishing a begrudgingly agreed-upon list of "best" albums. I'll leave that to the aggregators. But these are my personal favorites - the records I came back to over and over again the past 12 months.

1. Pinegrove:Cardinal

You could describe Evan Stephens Hall's songwriting as "confessional," but that sells Pinegrove short. "I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago," Hall sings on "Old Friends," then follows it with, "I saw some old friends at her funeral." It's devoid of melodrama, with just enough detail to hit you in the gut (bonus points for making words like "solipsistic" and "labyrinthine" feel totally natural in the same song). Pinegrove is a band for Tweedy-heads and emo-revival devotees and everyone in between.

2. Bon Iver:22, A Million

The experiment of22, A Million was this: Can Justin Vernon maintain the radiant warmth of Bon Iver while filtering his sound through glitchy vocal experiments and burying his words even deeper in confounding symbolism? It's not an entirely new experiment. (Vernon has been messing with vocoders sinceBlood Bank's "Woods.") But somehow, every time Vernon pushes his aesthetic further into the realm of ones and zeros and potentially alienating titles ("715 - CR∑∑KS"), the songs feel less like aggressive innovation and more like intimate fireside chats.

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

When Phife Dawg died in March, a new Tribe album seemed 100 percent impossible. And then the impossible happened. Q-Tip's voice is comfort food at a time when comfort is more necessity than luxury. Phife's voice is a reminder of what we've lost and what we should savor while we can. And while Tribe nostalgia is the hook,We Got it from Here lives entirely in the urgent present.

4. Rosali:Out of Love

Philadelphia's Siltbreeze Records, a label that came out of retirement to release Times New Viking'sDig Yourselfin 2005, quietly released this gorgeous, slightly psychedelic debut from Rosali, a folk singer for fans of early Kurt Vile and Joan Shelley.

5. St. Lenox:Ten Hymns from My American Gothic

St. Lenox is New York City attorney (and Columbus expat) Andrew Choi, who is blessed with a soulful, head-turning croon honed by years in karaoke bars. After the excellent, nostalgia-ladenTen Songs about Memory and Hope, Choi followed it with an album about identity, family and politics set to laptop beats. Like the Mountain Goats or Magnetic Fields, St. Lenox uses seemingly disparate ingredients (an idiosyncratic singer, pop hooks and lyrics that initially seem like stream of consciousness but are, in fact, carefully crafted) to create something memorable.

6. Lydia Loveless:Real

At this point, it would be silly to put Lydia Loveless in a Locals list (and I wouldnever want to be silly). With each album, her ever-morphing Americana reaches wider, international audiences. It's certainly deserved.Real is Loveless at the absolute top of her game, and "Longer" just may be the best song she's ever written.

7. Chance the Rapper:Coloring Book

While the Chicago MC's best track may have been the Kanye collab "Ultralight Beam," Chance's gospel-heavy love letter ("I speak to God in public," he raps) isn't grounded in platitudes. There's real, living hope threaded throughoutColoring Book. "Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?" the choir asks on "Blessings (Reprise)." Ready or not, this album feels like both of those things.

8. Robert Ellis:Robert Ellis

If you slept on Robert Ellis' self-titled record, at least go back and listen to "California," an organ-and-guitar vamp that tells the story of a fictitious West Texas couple that called it quits. "I get really irritated when people use words like 'troubadour,'" Ellis told me back in June, and with this album - his most sonically adventurous to date - he may have finally put the descriptor to rest.

9. Mike Adams at His Honest Weight:Casino Drone

There is nothing trendy or sexy about Bloomington, Indiana's Mike Adams, yetCasino Drone is a rewarding rock record from front to back. Adams is a stickler for the perfect guitar tone, psychedelic vocal effects and subtly layered yet crushing harmonies. It's an album that draws you in with vibe and textures, and once you're there, the power-pop riffs, sing-along hooks and enigmatic, scene-setting lyrics build a comforting home you don't wanna leave. Sexiness is overrated.

10. Big Thief:Masterpiece

Naming your debut albumMasterpiece is a real Jack Black move, but this record lives up to its name. You might think a song titled "Real Love" by a so-called folk singer would be a sappy rumination, but instead Adrianne Lenker pens a heartbreaking, loud-quiet-loud meditation on love from the perspective of a child observing her parents' dysfunctional relationship.