Exclaim!'s Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, Part One

Best of 2016

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Nov 30, 2016

Today (November 30), we roll out our first in a series of lists of the best albums of the year, by genre, starting with the first 10 of our Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums. We're beginning with albums 20 to 11 today; you'll have to wait until tomorrow (December 1) for albums 10 through 1.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.

Update: You can now see albums 10 through 1 here, and see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2016 album lists here.
Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of 2016, 20-11:  

20. DIIV
Is the Is Are
(Captured Tracks)
Emerging out of a chaotic period marked by increased drug use, frontman Zachary Cole Smith's high-profile arrest with girlfriend Sky Ferreira and a stint in rehab, DIIV's sophomore release may not be the grand deviation from their debut that the band had been building up to, but it bears a focused worldview that's the product of a difficult and emotional time in Smith's life.
Filled with doubt and disillusion, Is the Is Are is more of a cautionary tale about the impact drug abuse can have, rather than a celebratory ode to getting high. Wrapped in dreamy guitars that hold space like a thick fog setting in around you and a rhythm section that pushes everything forward, Smith's lyrics are littered with images of self-doubt, recovery culture, his battles with addiction and the tangled web of emotions and insecurities that substance abuse can both highlight and reinforce in someone.
Given his trajectory, Smith easily could have slipped away into the darkness like too many young artists have — instead he turned in one of the year's most revealing and magnetic albums.
Anthony Augustine

19. Pinegrove
(Run for Cover)
If you'd asked almost anyone in January if they thought that a lo-fi roots-rock group with emo tendencies would make one of the year's best records, they'd have said you were crazy. Cardinal, the second LP from Montclair, NJ's Pinegrove, makes a strong case for such a bizarre hybrid.
Singer-guitarist Evan Stephens Hall croons with an off-the-cuff spontaneity that belies the heft of his lyrics. Similarly, his bandmates' ramshackle playing masks their impressive chops. Yet, even when the record feels like it's about to fall off the rails, emotionally and musically, Pinegrove find a silver lining, spinning hopelessness into call-to-arms sing-alongs. 
Ian Gormely

18. Gord Downie
Secret Path
(Arts & Crafts)
When the Tragically Hip bid farewell in Kingston, ON, this past summer, Gord Downie took a short moment during the nationally televised concert to call on Justin Trudeau to press forward in reconciliation efforts with the country's First Nations. With Secret Path, he dedicates an entire album (with illustrations by collaborator Jeff Lemire) to remembering the tragedy of Canada's residential school system. The result is a delicate, atmospheric and emotionally poignant soundtrack to the real-life story of a young boy's attempt to escape and return to his family.
With a powerful ability to capture the setting and feeling of his character, the record takes us through hope, fear, sadness and desperation on a heartbreaking journey with the purpose of acknowledging a dark history. Secret Path's thoughtful artistry and resonant message make it both a superbly crafted record and an incredibly important one that comes at a pivotal time for the future of Canada's relationship with its indigenous peoples.
Adam Feibel

17. White Lung
In an age when punk rock is struggling to maintain relevance, White Lung's Paradise offers a juggernaut charge of visceral rage complete with striking melodies and wide open hooks. The difference here is more polished production and an even sharper attack. The record is ruled by steadfast vitriolic tirades courtesy of Mish Barber-Way's piercing wail, and colourfully filled with guitars that weave a brilliant labyrinth of snaky melodies, all without sacrificing its succinct delivery.
The reverb-heavy sound, paired with a myriad of wiry guitar lines almost gives the overall sound a somewhat shoegaze-like sheen, but it's all done across a backdrop of hard-hitting guitar fills, and with a relentless primal resolve. What makes this album so great is that the band have evolved their already fierce recipe of melodic punk to create a record that stands to rewrite the rule book on what good punk rock can sound like.
Mark Laffin

(Secretly Canadian)

Six years since her last LP and the first without her backing band, the Johnsons, British chanteuse ANOHNI has abandoned her brand of gentle and sleek chamber folk for something more visceral, both thematically and sonically. Produced by electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, HOPELESSNESS finds ANOHNI turning her pain into a raw, powerful document that holds to task all of humanity, from those who aim to benefit from the misery of others to those who've pledged to make the world a better place but have come up short — including herself.
But, as on her earlier work, ANOHNI comes off achingly honest and brave, as she expands her repertoire of recurring themes like environmental ruination and political strife to include topics like drone warfare and masculine violence, and even President Obama isn't spared from her pointed indignation. Many albums succeed at sounding powerful, but HOPELESSNESS feels it, too.
Daniel Sylvester

15. Whitney
Light Upon the Lake
(Secretly Canadian)
The magic of Whitney's Light Upon the Lake is how the entire album seems to be coated in a warm, golden hue. These images of light and warmth permeate the entire record, from "Golden Days" to "Red Moon" and onward. The album bursts with laidback confidence, gently swaggering through songs by way of bass reminiscent of Rick Danko and the beautiful, alien vocals of drummer Julien Ehrlich.
It's almost hard to pick out favourite tracks — Light Upon the Lake plays nicely from start to finish, surrounding the listener in that golden haze from the remorseful yet jovial "Dave's Song" to the beautiful existential crisis that is "Light Upon the Lake," where we ruminate again and again along with Ehrlich, "Will life get ahead of me?" The beauty of Whitney, and this album, is that though their songs are full of sadness, regret and longing, there's a pervasive feeling of optimism in their performance. The light upon the lake is shining through.
Corey Henderson

14. PUP
The Dream Is Over
(Royal Mountain)
The sophomore album slump can be a difficult hurdle to clear, but with The Dream Is Over, PUP soared over it, delivering a record packed with punchy pop-punk gold.
It starts with the all-too-real ode to life on the road, "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You I Will," then blasts right into the dangerously drunken blur that is "DVP," both tracks setting a standard for dressing up dark lyrical content with sugary "oohs," "whoas" and musical accompaniment begging to be moshed to.
The fast, furious pace of tracks like "Sleep in the Heat," "My Life Is Over and I Couldn't Be Happier" and "Familiar Patterns" comes to an end on album closer "Pine Point," letting the band show off their dramatic storytelling capabilities with a quiet start that builds into a proggy epic.
Just because something is loud and brash and fun doesn't mean it's not really fucking good, and The Dream Is Over is proof. If the dream is to churn out a career's worth of great albums, here's hoping that PUP are just getting started.
Sarah Murphy

13. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Skeleton Tree
(Bad Seed Ltd.)
The Skeleton Tree embraces the sound of sorrow. An inconsolable trauma resonates throughout the album, and looms like a foreboding spectre. Certainly, death operates as a central theme on The Skeleton Tree, and evokes a sombre glimpse into dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one.
The combination of Cave's hoarse, near-spoken-word lyricism with orchestral timbres and ambient textures invites listeners to the mourning process. It's housed in the lonely hour — just moments shy of dawn — when confrontation with the irreplaceability that follows loss is the most overwhelming.
The Skeleton Tree features cinematic stretches of gloom, with tracks like "Magneto" playing on foley and feedback loops that mirror the oft-never-ending-seeming cycle of grief. In this fragile vulnerability, the album offers something genuine to pry open, then emotionally immerse yourself in.
Corinne Przybyslawski

12. Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
It is only fitting that Car Seat Headrest signed to Matador for their first proper post-Bandcamp album, since Teens of Denial epitomizes the music that the label produced in its heyday. It's a glorious mix of fuzzy guitars, angsty lyrics and deadpan delivery that amply demonstrates why songwriter Will Toledo is such a force to be reckoned with.
It's a sprawling record that doesn't care about how long it takes to get to its final destination. Toledo is a great storyteller, and it's tough to think of a sharper lyricist this year when it comes to tales of cynicism and disaffection. His sense of humour stops it from being a maudlin affair though, and there are numerous quotable lines throughout.
It all reaches a climax with the duelling choruses on the mighty "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales," six of the most satisfying minutes of music released in 2016. But really, Teens of Denial doesn't put a single foot wrong.
Michael Edwards

11. Tanya Tagaq
(Six Shooter Records)
Tanya Tagaq doesn't want you to be comfortable. She doesn't want to merely entertain you. She wants you to understand that the wanton rape of our planet cannot continue without consequence.
On Retribution, the expansive dynamism of Tagaq's game-changing Animism has been pressure-cooked to an even more visceral and concise urgency befitting the narrative of mind-boggling brutality and callous exploitation perpetrated against the Earth, with direct lines drawn to the historical treatment of indigenous peoples and women, in particular.
That she and her collaborators express these thoughts and feelings in such intuitively creative, unsettling, hypnotic, artfully feral aural terms is what makes Retribution one of the most enthralling, affecting and challenging albums of the year.
Tagaq, Jesse Zubot, and Jean Martin's increasingly cohesive and constantly surprising fusion of traditional Inuk music, avant-garde explorations, aggression, diverse, unpredictable grooves and cinematic atmospherics isn't really what we think of as pop or rock music, but it does capture the most essential and honest aspects of what makes rock music potent when stripped of romantic artifice; and anything this purely realized by such talented and distinct musical voices should be popular.
Retribution may not be an easy listen, but it's a vital one.
Scott Gray
Look for pop and rock albums 10-1 tomorrow (December 1).

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