Without going too far into it, there would probably be widespread agreement that 2016 was an absolute head-scratcher of a year. And it all started with a gorilla…
I’m not here to get sociopolitical or pontificate about where it all went wrong, right or weird. There are better people in your life for that. But 2016 probably had exterior negative stimuli and stressors from which they used their hobbies as an escape. For some of us, it’s video games, maybe movies, drawing or some other form of nerdery. For me, it’s the hypnotic spin of a record or strapping on my headphones. 2016 was a blessing in terms of having a seemingly endless supply of music I found interesting. And it seemed that hip-hop found different ways to shine brighter to me than it had in years past, which is always a welcome thing in my world. There were also plenty of pop, rock and soul releases to keep even the most ardent fans of the genres busy. Artists signed off in style, returned in surprisingly relevant and even jaw-dropping fashion, continued stylistic win streaks and even took after thoughts and showed they could make interesting projects.
Usually, I make a list that tops out at 15 with me struggling for fillers because for the past couple year, I’ve at the very least had more than a top 10 and didn’t want to leave the extras off without a little something. This year, I could’ve made several lists of 20 where the only unchanged selections would be the 3 I put at the top. With that, here’s the list I’m putting out there today. I hope anyone that reads will enjoy it.
Banana and out!
20. Albums of 2016
20. Various Artists – Day of the Dead
Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National compiled this 5-CD, 10-LP set for the Red Hot Organization. As someone who’s tried on multiple unsuccessful occasions to ‘get into’ The Grateful Dead, this set kept me absolute captivated for its duration. Comprised of a cross-section of who’s who in modern indie rock as well as members of the band being celebrated and members that where just with the band at points, this compilation is an argument for why The Grateful Dead are important to pop music history. An overwhelming majority of these songs are by-the-numbers covers. As pejorative as that seems, the special thing throughout this set is the fact that not all songs are done merely by a single band or artist. It’s a mixture of bands, band members and artists working together with many of the songs featuring “& Friends” in the artist column. It’s a tiny detail, but one that is probably closer to why The Dead have such a massive fan base. Their mantra was “Hey, were gonna play music here. If you want, you can listen and bring your friends. Stay as long as you like and bring the positive vibes.” 2016 needed that. A LOT.
Highlights: “Sugaree,” “Touch of Grey,” “Box of Rain,” “Shakedown Street,” “Cassidy.”
19. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
I appreciate Radiohead to a point where I’ve long grappled with whether or not I even like them. For nearly 25 years (yes, it’s been a while now), this band has seemingly done more musically to get its fans to turn away than invite them in. Yet, there are those out there that will listen to no one else. This all being said, I’m there day one for a Radiohead release and this is the first one since Kid A where I found myself only listening to it for days at a time. Greenwood’s lovingly constructed arrangements for members of the London Contemporary Orchestra are the welcome mat by which the listener feels invited to stay a while and listen.
Highlights: “Daydreaming,” “Burn the Witch,” “True Love Waits,” “Ful Stop,” “Desert Island Disk.”
18. Lapsley – Long Way Home
I have the lovely folks at Vinyl Me, Please for exposing me to this album. I would’ve never heard it otherwise. Lapsley seems a singer out of time in the best possible way. In the first decade of the 2000s, singers with a soulful rasp seemed almost to fall out the woodwork and be found singing over the most derivative attempts at 60s soul filtered through drum machines. I don’t doubt their talent, but it could’ve been so much better for them. I’m glad Lapsley isn’t one of them.
Highlights: “Hurt Me,” “Tell Me the Truth,” “Heartless,” “Station,” “Cliff.”
17. Dinosaur Jr. – Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not
There’s not a new argument for once-great bands that acrimoniously separated reuniting and still being that band. Dinosaur Jr. might very well be one of the bands that the argument is based on when considering their decade-long run since coming back. In fact, if you like 80s Dinosaur Jr., you’ll love this album as well as anything post 2007. J. Mascis, Murph and Lou Barlow still have the fire they had on Bug and You’re Living All Over Me. And it’s still amazing to my ears.
Highlights: “Goin’ Down,” “Love is…,” “I Told Everyone,” “I Walk for Miles,” “Be A Part.”
16. Beyonce – Lemonade
Life often imitates art, sure. But when art imitates life, or when the boundary is so blurred that one cannot distinguish fact from fiction or even which direction the current is traveling, things get interesting and speculation runs rampant. Since Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled visual surprise, trouble has seemed to be a-brewing in paradise in public fashion for her and Jay-Z. Maybe Lemonade is shedding light on the incidents. Maybe it’s the truth. Maybe it’s her truth. Or maybe it’s just more food for our thoughts on the matter. At any rate, she dropped another amazing album.
Highlights: “Hold Up,” “Daddy Lessons,” “Love Drought,” “Freedom,” “Sandcastles.”
15. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie has seemingly had several music careers packed into one vast tapestry of a catalog. Probably only Kraftwerk has had more influence if only post-60s success is considered. Blackstar is Bowie’s ‘Ted Williams’ moment. One last home run, before walking off the field into posterity. Bowie said goodbye as only Bowie could, completing one last transformation before leaving us to miss him.
Highlights: “Blackstar,” “Lazarus,” “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” “Dollar Days,” “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).
14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
The patron saint of goth. Nick Cave feels as if he’s always been part of my life, despite me only really becoming a fan just over a decade ago. Skeleton Tree is among the darker albums I can even immediately think of having ever heard. The fact that it comes from the aftermath of losing his son, Arthur, sheds light on its dichotomy. Darkness is a real presence, if not the star of much of Cave’s work – be it at the center of bawdy carnivalesque theatricality or fueled by drugs and libido or even full preacher man mode. Here, Warren Ellis and The Bad Seeds generate an airy, uncertain tranquility while Cave vulnerably aims at extracting some good from a whole lot of evil.
Highlights: “Magneto,” “Jesus Alone,” “I Need You,” “Skeleton Tree,” “Rings of Saturn.”
13. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Travel back to a time between 2008 and 2010. The world hadn’t heard of Frank Ocean, but Tyler the Creator and his Odd Future crew were taking twitter, tumblr and the music blogosphere by a reasonable amount of storm. Tyler was then seemingly the ringmaster of this mainly hip-hop collective. When the tapes started coming, Ocean’s Nostalgia ULTRA was the surprising odd one out in the best possible way. His follow-up, Channel Orange, made him a bona fide star. Then there was sparsely interrupted silence until some posturing teased a release. Then, we got the visual album Endless quickly followed by Blonde, both of which continue their creator’s tendancy of dead-pan but richly emotional complication of the male R&B star. I always feel like I have so much to say about this album after each listen, but it’s complete enough to speak for itself.
Highlights: “Pink + White,” “Self Control,” “Nikes,” “White Ferrari,” “Good Guy.”
12. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon and company really created a piece that resembles a snake swallowing its own tail on their 3rd outing. 22, A Million seems to constantly be disassembling its electro-accoustic self while simultaneously building itself back up, rinsing and repeating. At the center of it all is that golden, soothing voice. It’s been 5 years since that self-titled album proved that For Emma, Forever Ago was the work of artist with a footprint. Present here is an abrasive austerity that can be as cold as that shoulder on the scorned significant other, but that voice, seriously. Might be one of the very few times I’ll point to the use of auto-tune as a good thing.
Highlights: “33 “God”,” “29 #Strafford APTS,” “22 (OVER SooN), “8 (circle),” “00000 Million.”
11. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
Smith Westerns were a special kind of throwback. Very much the way Girls created a new vibe from the very familiar, Smith Westerns were, in my ears, a lo-fi blend of the bigger sounds of the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s that seemed new and not derivative. Whitney was formed by 2 thirds of Smith Westerns and the ‘fi’ is no longer ‘lo’. In fact, there’s a certain AOR tone to Light Upon the Lake that’s remeniscent of a less power pop Big Star to the point that, if they were The Beatles, Whitney would be Badfinger. This is an album of solid, solid guitar rock with appropriate splashes of horns providing a nice space in which the listener can wander at their own leisurely pace.
Highlights: “No Woman,” “On My Own,” “Light Upon the Lake,” “Golden Days,” ” The Falls.”
10. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
You Want it Darker is the album of a dying man. Cohen had no delusions as he sung from his medical chair. This is a poet beautifully taking his chance to put his house in order just before the door is involuntarily closed for good. I think there’s mutual sadness from both sides of the headphones. While resigned to the fact that his number was fast approaching, he refused to go out without giving the world an ‘I’ll miss you’ sort of message. This sadness is good, healthy even, if only because he got to go out on his terms.
Highlights: “Traveling Light,” “You Want it Darker,” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” “Leaving the Table,” ” On the Level.”
9. Solange – A Seat At the Table
If your last name is Knowles and you’re trying to make it as a soul singer, but your first name isn’t Beyonce, you might have a tough time of it. Solange has taken her lot and done something inspiring. As a male, I know nothing about what being a woman is like and even less when the issue of color enters in. Without getting didactic, A Seat at the Table is a much-needed demand for the base amount of respect that has eluded all women, especially those of color for…well ever. “Be leery ’bout your place in the world/You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world/You’re leaving not a trace in the world/But you’re facing the world” from “Weary” is an example of how, in the face of that fight, turning the other cheek can be a weight very difficult to bear. A Seat At the Table tackles this conflict and many others with an empathy that lends a universal humanity to this album’s journey. There’s even a moment where Master P puts the album in perspective in an interlude stating “If you don’t understand this record, you don’t understand me – so this record is not for you.” I’m not going to pretend I get it, but Solange, I feel you.
Highlights: “Weary,” “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Mad,” “Rise.”
8. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
I’ve always loved hip-hop because it’s a weird art form. That statement may or may not apply to Schoolboy Q’s unabashedly street Blank Face LP. I’m pretty sure there’s a suburban kid listening to this very much in the way I was found in the late 80s-early 90s digging the golden age, native tongues and G-funk era. Parents won’t get the appeal and the kid won’t be able to explain it, but when the sensationalization of the street is done in a manner like this, where the world is conjured as a tangible, lived in environment, the results are fire.
Highlights: “THat Part,” “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane,” “TorcH,” “Big Body,” “By Any Means.”
7. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
The former rising from the hiatus-stricken Walkmen and the latter departed from Vampire Weekend provide a pastoral, cinemascope-scale meeting of the minds. Rostam Batmanglij incorporating VW’s globalizing pop while that platinum smile of Leithauser seems to possess power that might’ve destroyed Jericho had he been born in a different time. Both make adjustments in their respective modes to compliment the other without ceding an ounce of what makes them who they are as artists with impeccable results.
Highlights: “1000 Times,” “In A Black Out,” “Peaceful Morning,” “When the Truth is…,” “Sick as a Dog.”
6. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
James Blake was once heavily associated with dubstep in the style’s still-fascinating infancy. While he would speak out against the latter day bass drops that permeate what folks refer to as dubstep, he never stopped being him. His albums were cold, quiet and austere with his trademark croon. His albums were exercises in minimalism and relatively organized. As Kevin Lozano stated in his brilliant review of The Colour in Anything, “this is Blake’s wonderfully messy dive into maximalism.” I couldn’t conjure up anything more apt to describe this album. From a man who could’ve been said to release pocket-size efforts of cold austerity, we received a sprawl that I, for one, was shocked he had in him mores than how many spins it continues to get in my head.
Highlights: “I Need A Forest Fire,” “Radio Silence,” “I Hope My Life – 1-800 Mix,” “Points,” “Meet You in the Maze.”
5. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Danny Brown is magnetic in his desire to be alone. He’s great on the interwebs in all forms, but that joviality almost never carries over to his music. He’s the one in the group that has the bad trip almost completely missing out on communal joy of the experience. Don’t let his cartoonish voice fool you. Dude is a wordsmith to a high degree. Atrocity Exhibition sees him shining.
Highlights: “Ain’t it Funny,” “Really Doe,” “Downward Spiral,” “Rolling Stone.”
4. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
Each album in the 5-year journey towards To Pimp A Butterfly seemed like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each one pointing towards the next step forward the next thing that culminated in his 2015 masterpiece. Every journey has ephemera and side-steps that can vary in quality. For the man with the best batting average in hip-hop today, even his outtakes provided some gold. No, this may not be his true follow-up to Butterfly, but man it seems like Lamar has plenty in his locker still.
Highlights: “Untitled 03,” “Untitled 02,” “Untitled 05,” “Untitled 07,” “Untitled 06.”
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Artist and creation are separate things. I’ll leave that there. Kanye West loves a production. The Life of Pablo is without a doubt among his best outings, even if it is full of warts. The valleys make the peaks the peaks and the peaks absolutely soar. Kanye at his best is very similar to many that people would call geniuses. He’s a restless perfectionist struggling with greed, religion and the need to retain his credibility. It is a chaotic masterpiece.
Highlights: “Ultralight Beam,” “Feedback,” “30 Hours,” “No More Parties in LA,” “Real Friends.”
2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
When Phife Dawg died, I was saddened in a way I didn’t expect. Thinking about how much of that man had echoed through my headphones for so many years. Then a new album was announced. I was actually angry about it. I was thinking this was some 2Pac and Biggie stuff being put out posthumously just because. Of course I listened and immediately learned that all the members were actively present and the album was recorded at the time of his passing.
All that said, more so than Dinosaur Jr. mentioned earlier in this list, Tribe feel like they were never gone and that they never stopped leading the game. Not only are Tribe in form, they’ve got Jarobi rapping for the first time and he shows and proves he belongs there. Q-Tip, Ali, Phife, the myriad of guest also have plenty to say about gentrification, the state of hip-hop and the racial tension that continues to spread. Sadly, this is the final ride into the sunset for one of the greatest groups in hip-hop ever.
Highlights: “Space Program,” “We the People,” “Dis Generation,” “The Donald,” “Black Spasmodic,” “Mobius.”
1. Avalanches – Wildflower
Mid-2016, it was announced that a second album from Australia’s Avalanches was happening. I was nervous because the sampledelic thing could easily not be the treasure trove that Since I Left You… was. But the time “Because I’m Me” splashed out of the speakers, I knew it would be okay. There’s a pastoral joie de vivre imbued in Wildflower that managed to be the smile I needed at my saddest, most stressed or even angriest. Hip-hop hasn’t sounded this psychedelically explosive and expressive since the early 90s. I’m thankful this album exists. From start to finish, this record – with very few written lyrics – paints with warm tones, head-nodding beats and could be another argument, alongside their debut, J Dilla’s Donuts, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…. and Madlib’s Beat Konducta that sampling is an art form in the vein of the found art principle used by Picasso and Marcel Duchamp with nearly endless rewards.
Highlights: “Because I’m Me,” “Noisy Eater,” “Harmony,” “Living Underwater (Is Something Wild),” “Saturday Night Inside Out.”