2016 has not been pleasant, personally or globally. I’m finding it hard to keep up hope for anything or anyone at the moment and I think I’m pretty much just lock myself in my house and stop talking to people. Every single thing I had faith in- humanity, love, truth, history- has been mocked and made a joke of. And music, a healing salve for much of my life, has been rocked with so much loss over the year. My music choices are generally quite dark. That’s what happens when all the light is sucked out of your world.
20. Angel Olsen My Woman
Folk-rock chanteuse Olsen just gets better on every record. On My Woman, she wittily takes on love, expands her musical vocabulary, and creates a delightful pop album that can be, at moments, life changing. And oh, that voice of hers. It’s a masterpiece from God himself.
Key tracks: “Shut Up Kiss Me”; “Sister”; “Never Be Mine”
19. Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool
Returning to form after the messy The King of Limbs, the Oxford band has created a stunningly beautiful and emotionally rich album. Broken relationships seem to be the focus, as Thom Yorke had separated from his partner of a quarter century ( her recent death from cancer was particularly hard to hear about as a fan). Add in Jonny Greenwood’s experience in creating film scores, which expands the use of orchestrations to a new level, and you have the most creatively successful Radiohead album since Kid A. It’s truly a wonder to listen to.
Key tracks: ” Burn the Witch”; “True Love Waits”; “Desert Island Disk”
18. Blood Orange Freetown Sound
Hip hop in 2016 took on the mantle of revolution and some of the best records of the year speak to that spirit. On Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes keeps evolving away from his former punk rock days without losing the punk rock spirit. An expansion on the themes of his 2015 stand alone single ” Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?”, Hynes sings about a world many of us will not understand, even if we emphatically want to. But his goal of inclusivity is a noble one, and one we should be aspiring to. A very powerful statement.
Key tracks: “Augustine”; “Hadron Collider”; “But You”
17. PJ Harvey The Hope Six Demolition Project
My beloved Polly Jean visited Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan in recent years and saw so much death, destruction, and hopelessness she was inspired to write an entire screed about it. The contrast between the obvious war -torn Kosovo and Afghanistan with the U.S. capital’s response to years of failed policies on both a federal and municipal level to create a poverty-stricken populace amidst the grandiosity of the federal government’s pomp and circumstance leads one to think war is not always fought with guns, but sometimes with alienation and gentrification. A thought-provoking album.
Key tracks: “The Wheel”; “A Line in the Sand”; “Dollar, Dollar”
16. Iggy Pop Post Pop Depression
He claims it’s his last. If so, it’s quite the way to go out. Teaming with QOTSA auteur Josh Homme, released on the heels of his long time friend and former collaborator David Bowie, Iggy pulls from many a genre, but never ever forgets he is the godfather of punk. His swagger is intact, and Homme cultivates it beautifully. Stylistically it may be varied, but Iggy, he’s going out calling us all fucking phonies.
Key tracks: “American Valhalla”; “Gardenia”; “Paraguay”
15. Bon Iver 22, A Million
A Bon Iver album release thrills me in ways that are inexplicable. I’v never hated a single thing Justin Vernon has released, and his place as the indie guy that hip hop loves just endears him to me even more. This album isn’t as low-fi stripped down as For Emma, Forever Ago nor as referential as Bon Iver. In fact, it’s odder, more unorthodox. It’s refreshing to see an artist refusing to rest on his laurels and simply churn out pretty impressionistic folk music. On 22, A Million, Vernon ups his game, and in the process makes us all wonder where the hell is he going. He’s also making us click on the special character button more often than we ever thought possible.
Key tracks:”22 (Over S∞∞n)”; “___45___”; “21 M◊◊N WATER”
14. Common Black America Again
On the heels of winning an Oscar for co-writing “Glory”, Common returns to his music roots, escaping the mediocre acting career he was forging despite obvious talent in that field. He is not a happy camper- the man built his early career on being an activist rapper, and it suits him better than any incarnation since. That was the power of “Glory” in the first place. But while that single showed a glimmer of the frustration of being a black man in America, Black America Again ramps that emotion up further, and the result is a powerful statement that is very much-needed in today’s world.
Key tracks: “Black America Again”; “Rain”; “Letter to the Free”
13. Chance The Rapper Coloring Book
Chance the Rapper is quickly becoming the king magpie of hip hop. On his third mixtape, he pulls from gospel, R & B, and dance to create an album that shows both the frustrations of being a black man from Chicago and a man of deep faith in a world that is increasingly diminishing his position as a moral human being simply by the colour of his skin and the career he pursues. There is a beauty in Chance’s music and the collective he surrounds himself with- the Social Experiment, Kanye, Kaytranda, and Lido all have a hand in production. “Music is all we got” he proclaims on the album opener. In the end, he may be right.
Key tracks: “Angels”; “All We Got”; “All Night”
12. The 1975 I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
I admit. I dismissed them. British bands like the 1975, the ones trying to be the Arctic Monkeys or the Libertines, are a dime a dozen. They rarely are any good, especially if you have some middle class comprehensive school background like the 1975. The band’s first album didn’t impress me. So imagine what happened when I sat down and listened to a maturing sound on I like it when you sleep. Firmly entrenched in indie, with verbosity and pretension intact, but showing a cheeky sense of humour. They know what has been said about them, and they will use it to make us eat our words.
Key tracks: “The Sound”; “Love Me”; “Somebody Else”
11. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree
The songs had mostly been written. But the recording came after. Cave has built a career out of death and violence in music. The sudden accidental death of his fifteen year old son hangs over this album. The real pain of loss hovers over every second, making for one of Cave’s most emotionally harrowing albums. As a fan I feel like I’m intruding in on grief that cannot be defined, and I’m uncomfortable with that. At the same time, I’m grateful he has shared it with us so we can mourn with him. A beautiful album. A difficult album. A needed album.
Key tracks: “Rings of Saturn”; “Jesus Alone”; “I Need You”
10. Anohni Hopelessness
It’s the album title that seems to sum up 2016 as a whole for those who crave community, understanding, and refuse to cave to fascism. Moving away from the chamber pop she did with the Johnsons, Anohni delves into electronic beats to express dismay about the world around her. From vocalizing her frustrations with a leader who promised hope and change (“Obama”) to giving up on people in general (“4 Degrees”), it a different type of political album from all the others. It’s just as powerful, though.
Key tracks: “4 Degrees”; “Drone Bomb Me”; “I Don’t Love You Anymore”
9. The Avalanches Wildflower
Returning after sixteen years, Australia’s purveyors of pastiche dance music decided that they needed to actually release some of the music they have worked on all this time. It could have been a disaster. Fortunately, they sprung an album of pure joy on to the world, and in a year where anger, darkness, and death seemed to prevail, it was a breath of fresh air.
Key tracks:”Frankie Sinatra”; “Saturday Night Inside Out”; “Live A Lifetime Love”
8. Solange A Seat At the Table
There is a laconic feel to much of the electronic soul of Solange’s breakthrough album. It’s that earth girl crunch to neo-soul that suits her lovely soprano so well. But don’t let that sweetness in the r&B tones fool you. She’s pissed off. And she’s telling you so. Whether its bodily autonomy (“Don’t Touch My Hair” is both feminist decree and a black power anthem, and works on about five different levels of warning), self-destruction (“Cranes in the Sky”), or simply being too tired to put up with the bullshit anymore (“Weary”), she refuses to simply sit back anymore. A powerful if quiet testimony on being a black woman in the new America.
Key tracks: “Cranes In the Sky”; Weary”; “Don’t Wish Me Well”
7. Sturgill Simpson A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
I love Sturgill. Much like Jason Isbell, he has brought that Americana roots vibe back to country. Which means you will never hear him on country radio. I’m also frustrated by the pop music with a twang definition of new country, one that celebrates Merle and Johnny while sounding nothing like either of them. The lack of respect for country’s musical roots was made even clearer with the evisceration of Beyonce performing on the CMAs. While she is clearly not a country artist, she was singing a country song in collaboration with a country act, and the whitewashing of country music is increasingly troubling. Simpson admits to not listening to “country music” and it shows. He is a firm disciple of the Outlaws musically, with modern attitudes to boot. His Nirvana cover strips the song to its melodic brilliance, and his love letter to his newborn son is both sweet and funny. The Grammy’s rarely do anything right when they nominate stuff, but when singling out Simpson for Album of the Year, they very much got this one right.
Key tracks: “In Bloom”; “Keep It Between the Lines”; “Call to Arms”
6. Frank Ocean Blonde
Sturgill Simpson, however, would rather his place in the Grammy category be taken by Frank Ocean. I would make an argument that he is wrong, but one of the frustrating things about this year was the exclusion of Ocean’s two releases from Grammy consideration. Blonde continues the revelatory genius of 2012’s channel ORANGE, which continues to reverberate through hip hop years later. More experimental, more sparse, more ambient, Ocean continues to expand on what hip hop can be musically and lyrically.
Key tracks: “Ivy”; “Nikes”; “Godspeed”
5. Michael Kiwanuka Love & Hate
In an interview Kiwanuka did around the album’s release, he talked about the shock of seeing a predominantly white audience during his first American tour. Growing up middle class and black in the U.K. seems to be a different animal than growing up middle class and black in America. This new perspective fuels the lyrics on Love & Hate. Teaming up with Inflo, Danger Mouse, and Paul Butler as producers, Kiwanuka explore his world, himself, and the nature of being “a black man in a white world”. Unlike his American counterparts in 2016, he does it with folk-jazz vibes, standing out among the noise trying to get through the atmosphere with contemplation.
Key tracks: “Black Man in a White World”; “Love & Hate”; “I’ll Never Love”
4. Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker
Hymns laced with Hebrew prayers, musings of death that took on a whole new meaning after November 7, and gambling references. It must be a Leonard Cohen record. Leave it to Canada’s bard to create one of the most musically dour but thematically rich records of 2016. Left in the hands of his producer-son Adam, Cohen left us with his finest album since the 1970s, a meditation in a world where not much makes sense anymore.
Key tracks: “You Want It Darker”; “Treaty”; “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
3. A Tribe Called Quest We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Phife Dawg’s death in early 2016 placed a pall over the reunion of the greatest 90s political rap act, but they didn’t let it stop them. And they are more pointed than ever. The musical vibe is as ATCQ as ever- jazzier rhythms and sharp percussion under the soft-spoken flow of Q-Tip and the classic punch of Dawg. But the lyrics are unrelenting at their humanist core. There is no place for them in Trump’s America. They are angry. And they’re going to take all the disenfranchised on their shoulders because it matters to them that we the people are all heard.
Key tracks: “We The People…”; “Dis Generation”; “The Killing Season”
2. David Bowie Blackstar
The year started off rough with the sudden loss of David Bowie. His January death was days after he released the magnificently dense and complex Blackstar, created with NYC jazz musicians and produced by long time fried Tony Visconti. Bowie’s best music always seemed to come under Visconti’s careful curating, and this album was no different. Already a challenge before his death, it became near impossible to listen to in the weeks after. Now, months later, it stands as honoring a legacy that will likely be unmatched in history.
Key tracks: “Lazarus”; “Blackstar”; “Girl Loves Me”
1. Beyonce Lemonade
As an album, it is superior to all her other music. It doesn’t matter if the marital discord that is the theme of the album is real or not, she inhabits the woman wronged cloak with a ferocity rarely seen. Beyonce’s career to this point has been carefully calculated and curated, lessons learned from her father, her former manager. The girl can sing her ass off, and no one in the industry works harder than Queen B. She makes that point repeatedly on the album, because we all know it. It’s not arrogance that fuels her claims, it’s acknowledgement. She’s an African-American woman, she has to work quadruple hard for a quarter of the credit. The songs form a cohesive thread through the genre jumping, and collaborators like Jack White, James Blake, and Kendrick Lamar lend assistance to the woman who runs the world but often takes flack for reasons unbeknownst to me.
If the album simply came down to the wallop of “Formation”, the album closer and the controversial first single, it would still be the most talked about album of the year. But there’s the rock vibe of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the bluesy base of “Freedom” to start with. She pulls out country for “Daddy Lessons”. She samples from Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the Lomax family, Animal Collective, and Zeppelin. She is fearless here, much more so than at any other time in her career. She matches this musical audacity with lyrical plaintiveness. We know what she’s feeling. The guarded Beyonce of old has been stripped of her fortress walls and she is hurting and she is not going to go away and be quiet about it.
She should always- ALWAYS- be this open. It makes everything she does extremely powerful.
There are no adequate words to describe the impact of Lemonade.
Key tracks: “Freedom”; “Formation”; “Sorry”; “Don’t Hurt Yourself”; fuck it, the entire album