By all accounts, 2016 was pretty shitty. From the moment we lost David Bowie in January, we couldn’t catch a break from death, political vitriol, and the general rope-a-dope pummeling that was this calendar year. These past 12 months were so bad the Mother Jones decided that the official meme of 2016 was “dumpster fire” back in October. Not great!
As far as I know, we all dealt with the general psychic trauma on our own terms, be it through escapism, confrontation, or, more realistically, some bipolar cocktail of both. Perhaps you vented prodigiously on social media whenever bad news struck, perhaps you felt betrayed by the algorithmic echo chambers and avoided the internet altogether, or, again, more likely, both. When grief struck it always seemed like our collective response was fight and flight in a haze to make sense of it all. It was paradoxical but it didn’t make any less sense than the reality that caused it.
As is ever the case, there was a mimetic response wherein life imitated art and vice versa this year. When we lost Bowie and Prince, all were quick to point out that either of these iconic artists neither really seemed like they were confined to the physical limits of Earth. Rather, their deaths seemed to symbolize a return to some other cosmic realm, far away from our frivolous troubles. Even though the moribund topics on Bowie’s and Leonard Cohen‘s final records dealt head on with their impending deaths, a significant initial interpretation of either of these records was about how either artist didn’t have to worry themselves with the very things making us rip our hair out. Likewise, people like Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) were making music that existed elsewhere in the cosmos, emoting in way that were either long forgotten or not yet considered. Artists like Chicago’s Chance The Rapper and newcomer Noname offered gospel inflected sermons that felt like much needed soul cleanses.
And on the polar opposite side of this spectrum, certain artists cried out, “fuck this,” with their records, tackling issues that were glaring injustices, whether personal or societal. From Solange’s soulful exploration and reclamation of black identity, to her big sister Beyoncé‘s bat-to-window revenge for marital infidelity, to A Tribe Called Quest‘s farewell album to their fallen brother Phife Dawg—an album that also served as a post-election rallying cry, but perhaps not as much as YG’s most memorable single from this year—confrontational albums were everywhere in 2016. That makes sense, right? Regardless of your background or political affiliation, we all felt like Beyoncé in this GIF at some point this year:
After you’ve watched that GIF enough times to feel some sort of catharsis, I invite you to take a peak at my favorite albums from 2016 in the list below. Even though not all of the aforementioned artists made it into my favorite albums list, I highly recommend listening to all of them: just because an album helped me zone out or engage with the noise this year doesn’t make it good or bad relative to other music that came out this year. Plenty of albums fell into the spectrum I outlined above, and plenty of excellent records/listening experiences existed on their own terms, too.
Let me know what you guys were listening to as well this year. More great music came out this year than I possibly could have listened to, so I want to know what you think I should check out.
15. Yalls – Shut Down
Yalls is a Bay Area-based experimental musician who makes emotionally intelligent electronic music. Though Shut Down was a small independent release, its satisfying drones and synth arpeggiations made it one of my favorite ambient records of the year. Some of the tracks are soothing (“Memory Space”) and some are anxious (“Sad Promoter”), but all build a three dimensional space that allows the listener to explore a well crafted digital world.
14. YG – Still Brazy
YG has a cockiness that is infectiously cool (bool). On Still Brazy, the 26-year-old rapper solidifies his status as the West Coast’s other, more visceral story teller, with tales about growing in Compton, paranoid anthems about attempts on his life, and jubilant G-funk party tracks that motivate you to memorize every single word so you can shout them when they come on the radio. Also, very low key, YG had my favorite political song of the year, “FDT”, which gets the point across pretty quickly.
13. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson has consistently been a country singer that has never really fit into the country music paradigm. Although outsiders have always bucked the confines of country music, Simpson has always come across as more of a weirdo than any sort of outlaw (though he likely grew up listening to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings). Though his voice serves as the constant anchor in the realm of country, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a kaleidoscopic projection of genres and stories. He is just as likely to reference Johnny Cash (“Keep It Between the Lines”) as he is to summon orchestral swells (“Oh Sarah,” “Welcome to Earth,” “Breakers Roar”) as he is to offer a fantastic Nirvana cover (“In Bloom”), and all under the loose umbrella concept of nautical tails. That combination simply doesn’t exist anywhere in music, let alone one of the most traditional arms of the music industry. But the doesn’t seem to concern Sturgill much. All that matters is that the music is good, and it absolutely is.
12. Jim James – Eternally Even
The My Morning Jacket frontman’s second record is one of the best releases of his career as he tackles disillusionment with remarkable soul and technical adroitness. A deeply psychedelic LP, Eternally Even finds Jim James chanting oft-ignored truisms (“Same Old Lie”, “We Ain’t Gettin Any Younger”), shaking the dust off them with his impeccably smooth vocals, warm electric pianos, tight guitar playing (duh), and a renewed artistic focus.
11. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
In the span of a year and a half, Brandon Paak Anderson helped Dr. Dre with his comeback album Compton, and then released two critically acclaimed records of his own. Even in our hyper-accelerated culture, in which we feel entitled to new things immediately, that is an insane amount of creative output. Malibu serves as his artistic breakthrough, and it is a collage of R&B, soul, and hip-hop that showcases .Paak’s versatile instrumental skills as well as his lyrical swagger. Equally adept at rapping and singing, his voice froths like the white part of a wave as it breaks on the beach. Despite Anderson .Paak’s unbelievable work ethic, he has an unflappable cool that permeates Malibu, making it a remarkably confident, fully realized record.
10. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
“Where you are is where I want you,” sings Angel Olsen on “Give It Up,” reminding listeners that the story of her steady rise over the last five years is hers and hers alone. The Angel Olsen discordantly caterwauling over guitar strums from four years ago seems distant from the Angel Olsen writing imperative, catchy rock anthems with the same literary approach to language. MY WOMAN, the followup to her career changing Burn Your Fire for No Witness is assertive, vulnerable, and easily boasts some of the best rock songs of the year. It is one of those albums that is so suspiciously good because it seems like it was an effortless endeavor. Her voice, her most striking asset, soars defiantly and simmers spectrally throughout 10 immaculately arranged tracks, and whenever my brain autofills in Roy Orbison or Stevie Nicks comparisons, I have to take a step back and wonder if Angel Olsen wants me to be making those comparisons.
9. Wilco – Schmilco
I feel like people often forget, thanks to the whole “dad-rock” thing, that Wilco is band born of torment. This isn’t to fetishize depression or adversity as an indicator of “authentic art,” but to say that Wilco ever being reduced to a punchline (not on their own terms) is such a crime. The fact that this group has stuck it out and allowed confines to dissipate overt the course of 22 years, while maintaining a self-referential sense of humor is astounding. As with the best Wilco records, a thoughtful darkness looms throughout Schmilco‘s tracklist. Whether Jeff Tweedy is singing about “crying all day,” his fear of “normal American kids,” or postulating that a loved person is merely just someone you will eventually lose, black humor is the functional thread that lets the audience know that Wilco have been in on life’s dark jokes longer than we’ve been aware. Just look at that album art for crying out loud.
8. Noname – Telefone
The best newcomer of 2016, Noname has been around in the Chicago hip-hop scene for a few years, appearing here and there on fellow artists’ projects. But with Telefone, excellent debut mixtape, Fatimah Warner finally takes the time to expound upon spirituality in a way that is wise beyond her years. Using warmly soulful, and jazzy instrumentals, Noname switches deftly from singing to rapping while telling you stories about growing up on her block (“Diddy Bop”), dealing with death at a young age, and learning to find the poetry in dark circumstances. “Casket Pretty” is meditation on death and addiction that would be hard to listen to if not for her soothing vocals and the lullaby quality of the production. Elsewhere on her mixtape, Noname offers sage advice—”the money don’t really make me whole”—and commiserates with us, pining for simpler times. Even though she is in the same boat as us, I can’t help but trust that things will be alright when listening to her bare he soul.
7. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
It’s a real shame that Kanye is such a megalomaniacal asshole, because this album was great. That is all I have to say about him in 2016.
6. Frank Ocean – Blond
Frank Ocean has a supernatural ability to emote on a wavelength that most of us can’t detect. Since absence has been a large part of his persona and, weirdly, a perfect marketing mechanism in a post-Lemonade, over-saturated album rollout ecosystem, it is the all the strange negative spaces and tangents that make this album so good. It comes across as experimental—full amorphous genres, silent collaborators, voicemails, spoken word—because it is fundamentally risky (thanks in no small part to finagling his way out of his record contract with an impressionistic visual album that preceded Blond by a day). But I think this just sounds normal to Frank, who sat with this record in London, playing each track on speakers until it sounded perfect to him, keeping us in suspense for four years with absolute radio silence. Certainly, hype was a major factor/concern when evaluating this album early on, because Frank finally dropped it, but this was an album that, like everything else Frank has done, begged for time and patience. Maybe on your 10th listen, the lyric “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” will dreamily remind you of a vague feeling you hadn’t thought about in years. Maybe on your 20th listen you will notice Beyoncé’s quiet background vocals on “Pink + White.” Maybe on your 50th time you will notice the sample of the accelerating car in “Nights” and remember, for a brief, precious moment, that everything is careening forward no matter how you feel about it. Frank is a lot more giving than people give him credit for, you just have to wait.
5. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
“I’ve been carved in fire” is my favorite lyric of 2016. It is a simple phrase with astringent implications about external circumstances, but also about the will and methods to survive. It is the central mantra of 22, A Million’s penultimate track “__45___”, a song that was improvised by Justin Vernon and fellow musician Michael Lewis via a two-man instrument. The idea of inventiveness is always an important criterion for art and pop culture, and Bon Iver’s team literally invented a new instrument (The Messina) for the songwriter’s third LP. You can hear how it takes the form of a digitally affected saxophone on “__45___”. All throughout 22, A Million are these big reinventions of sound comprised of smaller, subtler reinventions of philosophy. You get an idea about this with all the arcane symbology and math that peppers the album’s cover art and tracklist. However, the most concrete examples of this are the quotes that appear inside the gatefold of the album’s vinyl: “Faces are for friends” and “Family is everything” are among a few. They might sound weird of not exactly revelatory, but you can tell that in the process of making this extremely left-field record, he was able to get at some kind of personal truth, even if he went through hell.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Part tribute to a fallen bandmate and friend, part comeback, part post-election rallying cry, A Tribe Called Quest‘s final(?) record is the the most experimental album in the group’s legendary discography. Where prime Tribe albums relied on a Q-Tip’s spare jazz samples and less obviously confrontational bars from him and Phife, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service thickens sonics and offers the most directly political rapping of the group’s career. Since this album came out the week of the election, tracks like “The Space Program” and “We the People…” carried extra weight with lyrics like, “All you black folks you must go / all you Mexican you must go / all you poor folks you must go…” The totemic conscious hip-hop crew from the ’90s is older now and though they are hardened and wiser, the thoughtful optimism on this album still overrides. First and foremost, this is a tribute to Phife Dawg, the founding emcee who died this past March. Even though you can tell he was ailing, his verses connect every time when he appears on tracks (“Black Spasmodic” is incredible). On Phife’s verses there are gentle admonishments, incisive barbs, and traces of his incomparable sense of humor. Though the final track on We Got It from Here is noticeable for Phife’s final verse on a Tribe record, it most prominently features a jubilant celebration of a beloved friend. In his unmistakable croak, Busta Rhymes—Tribe’s honorary fifth member—chants the truest lines on the record: “Phife Dawg, you spit wicked every verse.”
3. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
In a year of high profile musician deaths, Leonard Cohen’s passing in November was a grave punctuation to a year in which we had come to expect the worst. The legendary songwriter’s final record, the bleakly titled You Want It Darker, is a profound farewell. With windswept, hoarse vocals, spare glows of bass and violin, and the occasional backing chorus, Cohen lets us know that he was ready for death, to meet with his girlfriend who had passed nary six months before his own death. Though the image of a candle being blown out is a frequent refrain of this collection of swan songs, Cohen’s lyrical genius shone bright right up to the very end and will continue on as a beacon for any fan of music and the written word.
2. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange’s most artistically unified and compelling entry into her discography, A Seat at the Table finds the singer/songwriter plumbing existential depths and beaming unfettered joy about black womanhood. Tightly produced with a cadre of rising and established R&B legends (Sampha, Raphael Saadiq), the songs on A Seat at the Table confront identity, anger, stereotypes, pride, community and spiritual glory in a way that serves to remind listeners that assumptions of one-dimensionality are toxic. Weaved into meditative songs which feature Solange’s delicate, yet nimble voice are recurring audio interviews with her mother, father, and Master P (yes, that Master P), who is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the music industry. Much like the far-ranging topics in Solange’s songs, these interstitial moments of discussion bring to light the people behind the issues. Thought it occasionally breaks up the momentum of the album, it feels extremely important to exercise patience and just listen.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
In retrospect, listening to David Bowie’s final record in the liminal, two-day space between its release and his death was magical. There was so much to decode, so much he was trying to tell else by reinventing his style yet again, and so much potential. And then, free fall. There he was in the music video for “Lazarus,” bandaged and invalid, bidding us farewell before slowly stowing himself away in wooden cabinet, fading to black. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings with a slight wheeze at the beginning of that song, anticipating that by the time most people heard these lyrics, it would be so. Ever ahead of his time and forward thinking Blackstar is Bowie’s brilliant, prescient last act, the final removal of the many masks worn throughout the years. This was simply David Bowie, saying farewell. The album is a transfixing meditation on death, and though the mourning process became an integral part of this album’s meaning in culture and in the context of a very dark year, it is still hopeful. I think people forget that. It’s in the way stars appeared on the vinyl artwork months after the album came out. It’s in the way he sings, “You know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird.” Just because he is gone doesn’t mean thousands—millions?—won’t continue to discover him and in the process feel brave enough to express themselves. Yes, David Jones died this year, but David Bowie’s magic is eternal.
Images: Columbia, Gold Robot Records, Epic, Jagjaguwar, GOOD Music, dBpm, Capitol/ATO, Steel Wool, Def Jam, Atlanttic
Matt Grosinger is the music editor for Nerdist. He wants to know what your favorite albums of 2016 were, so hit him up on Twitter.