My Favorite Albums of 2016

From the visual album for “Lemonade”

“Music is all we got”

As summation for 2016, Chance the Rapper might not have been far from the truth. His third mixtape, Coloring Book, weaponizes joy. It’s the equivalent of firing a t-shirt cannon filled with prints of “Black Lives Matter” or “Stop the Violence” at a jubilant crowd. His topics were mostly unenjoyable on their own: gun violence, separated parents, music-industry greed, and temptations of the Devil. His response to it all? “I might give Satan a swirly.” “I got Angels all around me they keep me surrounded.” “Only righteous, I might just shrug at the skullduggery.” “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood / Make you remember how to smile good.” It was a year that bred cynicism and required immense effort to not fall into despair. When those feelings come, I could recommend no song more than “Finish Line/Drown”, appearing on the back half of Coloring Book. On it, Chance makes way for a verse from Chicago rapper/poet Noname. Her own mixtape, Telefone, was released in July. Over silken beats, she poeticized the personal and cultural. Listening to tracks like “Yesterday”, “Diddy Bop”, or “Casket Pretty” leads one to believe that, in the years to come, Noname will be a part of any conversation on the best MCs to come from Chicago.

Icons like Prince, Sharon Jones, David Bowie, Phife Dog (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Leonard Cohen all died; the latter three left exceptional albums in their wake (Blackstar, We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, and You Want it Darker, respectively). If 2016 has a takeaway, let it be that we appreciate the legends we have before they pass away, legends like Van Morrison (Keep Me Singing), John Prine (For Better, or Worse) and Paul Simon (Stranger to Stranger). And hey, while we’re at it, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan released a new album this year.

As the album of the year for all purposes, Beyoncé’s Lemonade redefined what it meant to be a pop-star, placing a primacy on independence, all while making something great out of the scraps, whether that be a tumultuous marriage or life as a black woman in America.

Kanye West also redefined the meaning of star, though in a more bracing and tragic way. I did not enjoy The Life of Pablo in totality, but “Ultralight Beam” is very much the best song of the year, no matter how many times West sets foot in Trump Tower.

If there was one thing I know I needed this year, it was a long, idea heavy indie rock record that just jammed, provided primarily from Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial. Car Seat Headrest, for the unfamiliar, is one of those “bands” that’s really just one person, Will Toledo. Toledo spent years making music primarily on Bandcamp, and Teens of Denial is his thirteenth (13th!) album. If that didn’t make you feel inadequate enough, Toledo is 24 years old. Therefore, Teens of Denial feels both seasoned and youthful, the music of an artist practiced extensively in what he does but who still sees the world through the lense of youthful animus. It’s a revelatory record that, as NPR writer Bob Boilen said, has to have at least 40 songs even though the track listing is only 12. It’s an album that rewards both close listening and distracted driving.

Justin Vernon has remarked time and time again that he sees hanging up the Bon Iver moniker very soon. I’m fine with that, more or less. Vernon has a slew of other great projects (The Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, those few songs he appears on for each Kanye record). So, as I listened to his new record I couldn’t help but feel as though it would be his last under the name. And it feels right. 22, A Million might sound different that For Emma, Forever Ago or Bon Iver, but why anyone expected it not to is beyond me. There’s a clear pathway, sonically and lyrically, from For Emma to 22. It charts the expansion and introspective evolution of a folk singer whose voice is now mythic. Therefore, his only option left is to distort it.

On the opposite end, Angel Olsen’s voice is just so full, soft at once and roaring the next that it doesn’t really make sense to me. She is a Missouri-born musician who now lives in Asheville. She recorded her new album, My Woman, in LA, but it feels like North Carolina to me. I can’t express why, but I thought a lot about the state and all of its people a lot while listening to the record. It soundtracked some drives I took around my home state and just seem to emanate from it. As well, Drive-by Truckers’ American Band is the progressive rock record that the south needs most right now after we helped hand the White House to Trumpism. Their tour through the south found DBT decorating their stage with only a “Black Lives Matter” keyboard banner, fighting the good fight indeed.

DBT, with the best album cover of the year

I am as surprised as anyone that Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, but I’m not sure if anyone deserved it more. Known for sticking it to the country music Nasvillian establishment, Simpson’s third record takes a familiar storytelling conceit (a father’s letter to his newborn son) and infuses it with more raw emotion than is typically afforded to country music. Simpson is angry, melancholic, reminiscent, and flanked by a horn section to lament all the ways the world has already failed his infant son.

I was worried that this year would really need some new music by Jason Isbell to make sense of things, and we weren’t getting any. We didn’t, but were blessed with the other side of the coin: Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife. On My Piece of Land, Shires proves to be the ultimate Americana voice needed in 2016: strong, motherly, wise, and abundant in spirit. All these aspects are conveyed in such lyrics as “I know what it’s like to want to give up on the fight / To want so much to run away / To have nothing left to say.” It’s a great relief that Shires found some things to say, and was willing to do so. One of the overall records I listened to the most this year was Bright Eye’s Cassadaga as part of the re-issue of the band’s six main albums. Thankfully, I had a new Conor Oberst record, Ruminations, to listen to as well. Oberst has often been a bastion of young, leftist idealism and some of his best songs have tackled abstract negatives like greed, corporate interests, and religious fanaticism. With a lesser artist this would come off as petulant, and sometimes maybe it is, but Oberst is always, always sincere in his songwriting. Ruminations was recorded in about 48 hours, but rather than come off as shoddy, it comes off as unfiltered. He still has his obtuse metaphors here and there, but they’re anchored in strong, simple melodies.

I listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye this year. What’s Goin’ On celebrated its 45th anniversary this year, and feels more prescient than ever. Thankfully, we also got new music from the second coming of Gaye, British soul singer/guitarist Michael Kiwanuka. His sophomore LP, Love & Hate, expands his sound with distortion guitars and a backing choir — the benefits of producing with Danger Mouse. At the center remains Kiwanuka’s passionate voice, singing on the personal and the wide-ranging. “Cold Little Heart” is the most enthralling song of the year, opening an album of immense feeling. “Black Man in a White World” follows it, and no line encapsulates my mood for the year more than, “I’m in love but I’m still sad / I’ve found peace but I’m not glad.”

Michael Kiwanuka, from Austin City Limits

Some brief notes on list making:

  1. I haven’t come close to hearing all the music from this year; it would be impossible for anyone to do so. There are almost certainly some good records I didn’t listen to, either out of ambivalence or ignorance.
  2. These are of course my favorites. Anyone who claims a definitive, objective list is either a fool or liar.
  3. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the order I’ve listed them in is mostly superficial and, upon close inspection, will probably seem silly.

I enjoy cheating, and so here is a list of the ‘almosts’: great albums that I may not have been obsessed with, but deserve equal mention and strong recommendation:

Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks in Whispers | David Bowie, Blackstar | Bob Weir, Blue Mountain | Schoolboy Q, Blank Face LP | Kendrick Lamar, untitled.unmastered | Johnnyswim, Georgica Pond | James Blake, The Color in Anything | Rihanna, Anti | Xenia Rubinos, Black Terry Cat | Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker | James Vincent McMorrow, We Move | L.A. Salami, Dancing with Bad Grammar | Lucy Dacus, No Burden | Wilco, Schmilco | Mitski, Puberty 2 | Black Mountain, IV | Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop, Love Letter For Fire | Frank Ocean, Blonde | Emeli Sandé, Long Live the Angels | Carrie Rodriguez, Lola | Pinegrove, Cardinal | Kevin Devine, Instigator

These are the albums that soundtracked my year, for the bad and the worse and the mostly alright:

  1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
  2. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
  3. Drive-by Truckers, American Band
  4. Noname, Telefone
  5. Beyoncé, Lemonade
  6. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
  8. Angel Olsen, My Woman
  9. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
  10. Conor Oberst, Ruminations
  11. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
  12. Amanda Shires, My Piece of Land
  13. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
  14. Solange, A Seat at the Table
  15. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger