The sad truth is that 2016 will probably remembered, musically speaking, for what we lost. That’s sad. Sad not just because the list is, in fact, far too long and far too full of legends, innovators and revolutionaries that shaped the sound of everything we listen to. But also sad because what was taken tends to overshadow what we have gained.
The past year was, in fact, a tremendous year for music with some career-defining work. So while I will admit making a funerary run through back catalogs far too often, I’m taking a glass-half-full approach. Let’s celebrate the new year back looking at 2016’s best.
10 – Drive By Truckers, American Band: I was about ready to write off the Truckers, a once-beloved band that I felt had run out of things to say. My mistake. This year the Athens/Alabama act roared back with an overtly topical record that examines the dichotomy of being politically progressive in the conservative South. While the message might not be for everyone, the passion and musical approach is difficult to argue with.
9 – Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: Over the course of four years, indie pop-rock artist Will Toledo, who performs and records as Car Seat Headrest, has cranked out nearly a dozen lo-fi charmers, recorded under primitive conditions. Denial marks his entrée into the big time and his first real studio record. To celebrate, he approaches the listener with a product far more polished and pristine than his previous work, but equally quirky, charming and vastly intelligent. One to watch.
8 – Black Mountain, IV: This Canadian quartet is often criminally represented as revivalist, looting the fertile history of ’60s and ’70s prog, psychedelic and folk rock for its heavy-but-accessible sound. Wrong. While there are certainly elements of those specific genres to be mined from Black Mountain, to categorize Black Mountain as retro is vastly unjust. In an era where great rock bands are few and far between, it serves as a cathartic reminder of the power of big guitars.
7 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree: By Nick Cave standards, Skeleton Tree is a relatively small work – minimal in its length, arrangements and presentation. That does not mean, however, that it has less to say. Instead this record, informed by Cave’s grief over the death of his 15-year-old son, is a sparse, centered and distilled testament to the overpowering affect of sorrow. It’s hard to listen to and fans won’t play this one every day, but in the right time and place it’s incredibly rewarding.
6 – Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!: Some fans of actor Donald Glover’s hip-hop alter ego Childish Gambino may cry foul, believing this year’s sharp left turn away from rapid-fire rap into Parliament-style funk and soul as oddness for its own sake. While it is true this is new Childish territory, it’s an endlessly appealing foray into sounds that have informed and influenced urban music for decades. My advice – set free your mind and Awaken.
5 – Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression: An example of both defying and exceeding expectations, Pop’s collaboration with hard rock mavericks Queens of the Stone Age doesn’t take the expected course of Stooges-style rave-ups, but instead feels like a spiritual sequel to the moodier work Pop executed in the mid-1970s. More textural and tone-driven than punk rock Iggy, this collection feels like a tribute to those lost – most notably the Asheton brothers, who formed the core of Pop’s proto-punk Stooges. Pop has indicated this might be his last outing. If that proves to be true, it’s quite the final note.
4 – Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: The comparisons to Loretta Lynn must be acknowledged. So must the comparisons to the Rolling Stones. With arrangements that alternately twang and tumble and a real feel for autobiography, Price’s debut album is the product of a storyteller finally prepared to tell her tale. The songs document Price’s own failings, feelings and ultimate recoveries, but never seem maudlin or self-indulgent. Instead her music rewards those that listen and look inward. We are all human, it says. Now let us embrace what that means.
3 – Solange, A Seat At the Table: Man, those Knowles sisters, they sure know how to get our attention. While sister Beyonce certainly raised a ruckus with her also-excellent Lemonade, I must pledge my allegiance to Solange. This spiritual sequel to Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On is a deeply soulful and viscerally affecting collection of songs that document the current state – and failings – of race relations in America. It’s also a record that’s musically powerful and yet beautifully understated. There is no need for big moments. The performances serve the songs, every one of which has something specific to say.
2 – Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service: The unfortunate death of founding Tribe member Phife Dog may cast a long shadow over this standard-setting hip hop act’s first release in nearly 20 years, but it in no way diminishes or informs it. Completed before his death, this record instead functions as a joyful, intelligent and unbelievably infectious document of friends gathering and discovering they still have something significant to say. Every bit the equal of the group’s classic Low End Theory.
1 – David Bowie, Blackstar: One of the first records released this year. David Bowie’s last record. A meditation on mortality. A collection that vacillates between imminently listenable and hard to hear. This ranks not only as Bowie’s most fully-realized work, but also the kind of absolute classic record that becomes foundational when discussing contemporary music. I cannot imagine a finer so-long-and-thank-you from an artist for whom creativity was always paramount.