4. Old Friends, Pinegrove. A few days after the election, I took two of my most depressed friends to see Pinegrove play at Slim’s. Pinegrove is the sort of act that has fallen so far out of fashion it’s almost cool again: an Americana guitar band from Jersey playing emo-inflected alt-country. But Cardinal, the record Pinegrove put out in January, gradually carved grooves into my ears. Bright, literate lyrics, as sung by a melancholy Evan Stephens Hall, kept landing their punches.
Between songs at Slim’s, Hall spoke repeatedly about the election, and our collective need to come together and preach the gospel of tolerance and inclusion. His songs sounded better than ever — none more so than “Old Friends,” a shambolic lament about growing older and wiser that sounds both like a tune you’ve heard before and something that cuts much deeper. I left Slim’s feeling something like normal for the first time since Nov. 8th, and a Pinegrove fan for life. A few days later the band put Cardinal up on Bandcamp under a pay-what-you-want license, and announced it would donate all proceeds to Planned Parenthood.
5. untitled 07 (Levitate), Kendrick Lamar. Few artists speak to current events more credibly than Kendrick, who followed up last year’s essential To Pimp a Butterfly with this year’s jazzier, more interior untitled unmastered. In eight tracks Kendrick investigates the world with characteristic wit and a spectacularly elastic voice. On “Levitate,” which is maybe as close as untitled comes to pop, his voice dances over a woozy beat. I recoil at the idea of speaking for untitled unmastered; what I can tell you is that I spent much of this year meditating on it.
6. U-Turn, Tegan And Sara. The Quin sisters’ sometimes-lamented pivot from folk-rock to pop yielded another bag of bubblegum this year in the form of Love You To Death, which followed the formula of their earlier hit Heartthrob to only slightly diminishing returns. If there was nothing to quite match the sugar rush of “Closer,” I’m still beyond grateful for the end-of-album standout “U-Turn.” Backed by towering synths, the twins apologize for taking an ex for granted, and promise to write them a love song to make up for it. If an ex ever played “U-Turn” for me, all would be forgiven.
7. 33 “GOD,” Bon Iver. 22, A Million is a more challenging listen than Bon Iver’s previous work. But the more I listened, the more I found to admire. Justin Vernon’s often cryptic lyrics have never had a stranger home, and yet the soundscapes they inhabit are deceptively rewarding. Nowhere was that more the case than on “33 ‘GOD,’” where distorted vocals finally bring a sense of order to the atmospheric clatter around them. Vernon could have made a lot of money just re-making “Skinny Love” for the next decade, but instead he indulged his strangest impulses. We're better off for it.
8. “Native Tongue,” Gang Of Youths. Another gift from Spotify: this indie band from Sydney, Australia, whose members met at an evangelical church. But Christian rock this isn’t: “I still align myself with Jesus, I’m just not a great poster-boy for it,” frontman David Le’aupepe says. “I’m a fornicating drunkard who swears a lot and listens to a lot of black metal." He certain swears a lot on “Native Tongue,” an off-kilter love song that ends in a riot of F-bombs. Indie rock couldn’t be more in the wilderness in 2016, but I feel better knowing guitars this muscular are still throwing off melodies and wreaking havoc somewhere.