By Jackson Anderson
5. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Betcha didn’t think a hip hop album was going to be on this list. Notice in my title I didn’t specify the top 10 punk albums of 2016, but the top 10 albums of 2016. When punk music was being crafted in the forges of Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders’s basements the word rock was paired with punk like Hansel is paired with Gretel. Eventually punk rock began to be referred to as punk music thanks to acts such as Andrew Jackson Jihad that espoused the same punk ethics, themes, and ideals while sonically resembling folk music. Alongside the now rebranded AJJ, bands like the appropriately titled Leftover Crack were on the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, resembling heavy metal sonically while maintaining the punk credo. It became apparent that punk could be and was more than just rock.
One genre of music that never really took hold in the punk scene was hip hop. While some acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan have been heralded as unintentionally punk, there has never been a large movement in the hip hop scene or the punk scene to try and bridge the gap between the two genres, where punks are claiming to be hip hop or hip hop heads are claiming to be punk. There isn’t necessarily an animosity between fans of either genre towards the other, but there has never been a forced effort to unite the two genres. There is surprisingly a lot of fans from both genres that enjoy each others music, as can be seen from musical discussion threads amongst both fanbases where a lone punk or hip hop album can be picked out of a sea of its counterparts.
However, if I were to pick the punkest hip hop artist, that title would undoubtedly go to Aesop Rock. He’s underground, he’s working-class, he has issues with The Man, he tells it like it is, and he’s probably the best lyricist on the planet. The Impossible Kid is a collection of vignettes that are hard to understand to do the abstract and extremely verbose nature of Aesop’s lyrics that paint a destitute and melancholy picture of American life. The album appears to be reflective in nature, with Aesop taking a step back to look at how he got where he is. It’s bitter, clever, self-aware, and it doesn’t pull any punches.
4. Cold Wrecks – Breaking
It seems like nobody has even heard of these next four albums, and they make up my favorite, most listened to, and most mind-occupying albums to be released in 2016. Breaking would most-likely be categorized as “emo” by most reviewers, but Cold Wrecks themselves have said that they just think of their band as “punk” and that sub-genres aren’t that meaningful to them. I think that’s a good attitude to have. Make the music you want and don’t care about what label it falls under.
Breaking is a very emotional album, but so is every one on this list, so that’s not saying much. It deals a lot with feelings. While albums such as Signals Midwest’s At This Age deal with stories first and feelings second, Breaking is the release. It talks about the chemistry of feelings, talking about the serotonin and dopamine releases in the brain, describing the physicality and causes of panic attacks, describing the action one wants to go through after a break-up, describing the downsides to feeling loved, describing the desire to be able to miss old friends. It’s all about feelings, and Cold Wrecks nail every single one of them.
The constrast between the clean vocals of vocalist/bassist Craig Shay and the rougher and throatier vocals of vocalist/guitarist Mike Vizzi is a great asset to the band, which they utilize to their full potential throughout breaking. They explore gentler, more intimate feelings with Shay, and more destructive and frustrated feelings with Vizzi. Of course, everyone in the band knocks it out of the park in regards to their instrumental performance, with Shay’s bass work, guitarist Matan Uchen, and drummer CJ Dunaieff’s tightness and chemistry showing particularly in “Drawbridge” the album’s closest thing to a single.
A special shout out should be given to guest vocalist Freya Wilcox, who is absolutely haunting in “Down.” Speaking of haunting, the album closer, “Broken” which both references the title, and features that book-endsy reprise that I love so much is a contender for the year’s best album closer. Unfortunately for Cold Wrecks –and fortunately for us– everyone else ahead of them delivered on that front as well.
3. Posture & The Grizzly – I Am Satan
I had heard of Posture & The Grizzly and liked their lone effort, an album that leaned on the hardcore side of emo. The only real reason I had remembered the band was because of their name. I had no idea how much potential laid inside its three founding members –vocalist/guitarist Jordan Chmielowski, guitarist Derrick Shantholzter-Dvorak, and vocalist/keyboardist Ella Boissonault– (this band wins the award of having the band members with the most interesting names) who tapped Connecticut locals bassist Josh Cyr and drummer Brian McFarland (the latter of which is the only musician to appear on this list twice) with the intention of becoming the next big thing. I don’t know if they succeeded in their minds, but they definitely deserve to become a sensation.
Another emotive album, I Am Satan similarly runs the emotional gamut, but with nearly all of the vocal duties being entrusted onto Chmielowski. Chmielowski’s whiny tenor –which is very reminiscent of blink-182’s Tom Delonge– manages to cover an incredible range of emotions and song types, from acoustic modern love ballads to bass-heavy screamed indictments of some guy who Chmielowski doesn’t like. While I Am Satan is a bit schizophrenic, changing immediately from the aforementioned incitement to the album’s most intimate and tender song about the ending of relationships, each song is so gripping and intense in its own right that what surrounds it isn’t an issue outside of contextualizing the range of emotions that one can feel. It truly is all killer and no filler, even the instrumental tracks which lead up into their predecessors in a way that makes them unlistenable without them.
I Am Satan has an otherworldy feeling to it, from the bizarre album art to the ambient instrumental tracks –and their titles– to the unique bass-heavy timbre of Cyr’s bass to the videogamey ambiance courtesy of Boissonault’s keyboard, all while the subject matter of the songs are solidly grounded in pedestrian, everyday reality. There are bits of lyricism sprinkled into these pedistrian, everyday struggles such as “you float in your deathstar, far away” that speak to this alien nature of the album, which, in my opinion, speaks to the strangeness and incomprehensibility of everyday life. Posture & The Grizzly have created an album that seems to do everything, and begs to be listened to again and again.
2. For Everest – We Are At Home In The Body
This one is perfect. I’ll just state that right at the start. I cannot find a single flaw with this album. A band that was not even on my radar, that I had never heard of, came out of nowhere and produced one of the best albums that I have ever heard. Vocalists Sarah Cowell and Nick Pitmen have the male/female vocal dynamic down perfectly, and their lyricism practically sets a new standard. We Are At Home In The Body is a concept album about… existing? Life? Death? Sex? It’s so complicated that I struggle to explain it. I feel like the intellect and depth displayed in For Everest’s songwriting almost flies over my head. They don’t do it in Aesop Rock’s manner either, they don’t say things like “Float that buttery gold, jittery zietgeist / wither by the watering hole, what a patrol” and leave you to figure out what it means. All of their lyrics are tangible, but difficult to digest. They’re like a Walt Whitman poem.
And yet, even if you don’t know exactly what they mean, you know what they mean. They have songs about the difficulties of everyday life, which, if you haven’t noticed, is a topic that a lot of these bands seem to tackle, and they all nail it in their own way. For Everest handles the feelings of depression specifically in the most honest and tactful manner of any band that I have ever seen or heard, though. They also address feelings of uncertainty in regards to sexuality in a way that doesn’t seem forced or weird. It’s a hard topic to tackle, and they do it in a way that doesn’t feel like a moral crusade or like it was some challenge, but like it is a genuine feeling that they are sharing with the world. Go you, For Everest. Then, they have one of the most heart-breaking songs about death that I have ever heard, especially in contrast with the rest of the album. It goes without saying, but they’re fantastic musicians, too. They also have something fairly unique in punk music, a violin! Violinist Nick Kwas also has my vote for MVP of the album, an award that I hadn’t even considered giving out until just now. Kwas and company are able to garner so much emotion through just their instruments that Cowell and Pitmen’s extraordinary vocal talents in regard to both range and emotion aren’t necessary, just an added bonus. Buy this one. Listen to it.
1. Ceres – Drag It Down On You
This album still blows me away with how incredible it is. Upon every listen I still notice what an incredible display of vocal talent Drag It Down On You is. Punk music has a bit of a reputation for having less than average singers. That is somewhat deserved. A lot of punk musicians don’t have formal musical training, and sometimes it shows. It’s easy to forget about when you get used to it, then guys like Tom Lanyon come around and I remember what people who are amazing singers sound like. I don’t know the story behind Lanyon’s musical education, but he is probably the best vocalist in punk music right now. He can be tender, he can scream, and he can do everything in between. He can sound like he’s crying while singing, he can do it at all dynamics, and it still sounds good. He can also pull off sounding like he’s crying because hes sad, and because he’s happy. Who does he think he is?
While being an amazing vocalist in his own right, Lanyon is also a top-notch lyricist, because we all know this album wouldn’t be on this list if it didn’t have good lyrics. It’s not just the lyrics in Drag It Down On You that are special, but the build-up to them. The metallic chip-tuney sound of guitarist Sean Callahan and bassist Grant Young –this is another band that has a solid, unified, nailed-down sound– combined with the vocal work of Lanyon and the drumming of Frank Morda climax into these stunning emotional zeniths where just viewing the lyrics “I’d probably choke on you” or “If I told you I want to die, would you come then” doesn’t do them justice.
Drag It Down On You deals a lot with relationships. It deals with their end, their beginnings, their conditions, their good parts, their bad parts, their aftermaths, and their preludes. It deals with all the emotions that goes into them, and how that effects those involved. It explores this in both vignettes and telling how things feel. It its cake and eats it too, and manages to get away with it. It’s the best of both worlds. Ceres have created an album that I would classify as truly “beautiful.” I’d recommend this album to you if you’ve ever felt anything. Be ready to get shivers.