Top 25 Albums of 2016

Sho Baraka — The Narrative

“You’re a drug addict lying on your back
 In a Tijuana hotel room” — Nick Cave, who might as well be describing 2016

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Last year I topped my best album of the year list with a three-way tie, crowning albums from Grimes, Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens as a triumvirate sitting atop the years’ releases. This year, I will repeat this practice and may officially recognize this as a tradition moving forward. While I tied last years’ albums together by the theme of authenticity, it will come as no great surprise that I tie this years’ albums together by the theme of death.

David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Harper Lee, Gary Shandling, John Glenn, Gwen Ifill, Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones, Richard Adams. And others, of course. While many rightly note we are likely to see an uptick in celebrity deaths in the coming years, as many came to fame in the days of mass communication expanding to a rate that allowed us access to become familiar with more and more celebrities, there is a clear, striking thread that ties most of the biggest names lost this year together. As Sarah Kendzior noted on Twitter, “we lost people who rejected fame, fought for the underdog, defied creative boundaries, refused to fit in” in this “era of groupthink, mob bullying, technological categorization, rigid partisanship.

But of course, it was not just celebrities whose deaths affected us this year. The death, destruction and atrocities we have witnessed in Syria, truly traumatizing to the refugees fleeing the area and those trying to struggle to continue to live there, mass shootings in Florida and Southern California to name just a couple, deaths of people of color across the United States that seemingly defy justice, and any personal loss of friends, co-workers or family. And on top of that, the United States dealt with the most divisive and gross Presidential campaign in recent history, with Donald Trump multiple times suggesting he could kill citizens on the street and not lose his supporters and inquiring why we couldn’t use the nuclear weapons in our arsenal.

Two of those celebrity names we lost are the owners of two of the albums that sit atop this list: David Bowie & Leonard Cohen. Joining them is Nick Cave, who thankfully did not die, but recorded his album while dealing with the death of his son, who fell to death off the edge of a cliff after ingesting LSD. All three albums are dark and foreboding, beyond just dealing with death, but engaging with themes of loss and longing, heartache and hope in the face of a world that seems to spare no quarter. And while two of these artists faced their own deaths creating their swan songs in the face of their ends, gifting us who remain with some parting words, it is Cave who maybe summarizes best the zeitgeist and common lament of the day as he repeats over and over in I Need You, “nothing really matters.”

In the ancient world, professional mourners, called moirologists, were employed to give laments at funerals and even deliver eulogies. In our age, and especially our Western culture, we seem to want to reject or move past mourning as quickly as possible, ignoring the very real pain and heartache that it often takes time to process and recover and even grow from. As we fall into an ever increasing whirlpool of so called progress, so called winning, and so called greatness, it is in a way refreshing hearing our own moirologists lament for us even as they face and struggle with death themselves.

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Other albums on my list are not so wholly morose, and include a “super group” of female singer/songwriters in Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Viers, the prolific Andrew Bird visiting the list for the second year in a row, rap group Run the Jewels squeezing in with a late Christmas album release, a mostly overlooked Paul Simon album, two of my favorite discoveries in 2016 in Cass McCombs and Sho Baraka, and the most creative audial release of the year in D.D Dumbo.

A Spotify playlist of these albums can be found here.

25. Two Door Cinema Club — Gameshow

24. Tindersticks — The Waiting Room

23. Lambchop — FLOTUS

22. Wye Oak — Tween

21. case/lang/veirs — case/lang/viers

20. Foy Vance — The Wild Swan

19. Andrew Bird — Are You Serious

18. Angel Olsen — My Woman

17. Solange — A Seat at the Table

16. School of Seven Bells — SVIIB

15. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 3

14. Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger

13. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound

12. Cass McCombs — Mangy Love

11. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

10. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

9. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

8. Sho Baraka — The Narrative

7. Birds of Chicago — Real Midnight

6. Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

5. Childish Gambino — “Awaken, My Love!”

4. D.D Dumbo — Utopia Undefeated

1 (tie). Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree

1 (tie). Leonard Cohen — You Want it Darker

1 (tie). David Bowie — Blackstar