Most 2016 music passed me by, which is amazing, because I still listened to so much great music this year. Artists are magic.
Writing music lists the years I get around to it, I realize I have much less in the way of language and bonafides when it comes to music than I do for films and books, but I still shared a thought or two about each album.
You should listen to all of this music. And you should share your favorite 2016 music with me so I can fill in all the gaps in my experience this year.
Here is the music I listened to the most this year, in alphabetical order by artist.
BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
White jazz quartet from Canada who essentially create Hip Hop beats and songs that feel like samples for Hip Hop beats — and not just obvious pop stuff, the first track on IV could be a Shabazz Palaces song. They came onto the scene as a trio doing covers of Hip Hop tracks before moving into original stuff. They’ve worked with some really great emcees and producers, even releasing an entire album with Ghostface Killah this year.
IV is really good. It’s one of my favorite albums this year to play while getting stuff done around the house.
Andrew Bird – Are You Serious?
This album snuck up on me, which is weird with an artist I’ve loved for so long. To be honest, I hadn’t gotten into some of his more recent efforts. Then, I didn’t even realize how much I liked this album for a bit, until I started noticing how regularly I was relistening to it.
I’m not sure why I didn’t catch on right away. In so many ways this is vintage Andrew Bird, it’s sweet, funny, sad, clever, and full of whistling and violin. Not that it’s all blends together, “Capsized” feels like it could be the cover of a Bill Withers song, which I’m totally into.
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
This album continually surprised me more than anything else I listened to in 2016. There’s a throwback quality to it, but it’s also always looking ahead — and sideways, and inward. It’s moving and interesting and it makes me want to resist all the bullshit we keep getting asked to swallow, both artistically and politically.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
I’m pretty sure this is my favorite album of the year.
I didn’t write these in the alphabetical order I’m organizing them now, so below I wrote about the Frank Ocean record and the creation of a sonic landscape for an album — Bon Iver does that as well as anyone. His albums are sustained moods you get to live in for however long you keep the track list on repeat. His concert at Sasquatch Music Festival years ago, where in addition to playing the new album he also rearranged the music from For Emma, Forever Ago to fit the tone of Bon Iver, Bon Iver was still one of my favorite live performances ever, experiencing old favorites anew with fresh colors and shapes.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Obviously, the loss of a human being is tragic far beyond the creation of any sort of art. Yet, as a people who will never know Bowie the person and will only experience him through the music he made and the characters he created, we feel the blow more powerfully when we lose a public figure who is still creating amazing things to help us understand the world.
At 69, Bowie was at the top of game with this album. We didn’t know it at the time, but this album and his death set the tone for the rest of 2016.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Who can make a wildly fun drug fueled mixtape called Acid Rap (still one of my favorite albums of the current century) and then follow it up with an earnest gospel album that finds enormous mainstream success? Chano from 79th can. Chance can do anything.
Childish Gambino – Awake, My Love
You can’t be good at everything. There are limits of time and attention when it comes to the media we can master.
Obviously, no one told Donald Glover. If we take the popular metaphor of 2016 as dumpster fire or clusterfuck house fire further, and I was forced to grab an armful of ten or fifteen things to run out with, I’m pretty sure Atlanta and Awake, My Love would make the cut.
Some Prince, some George Clinton, plus the influences of a bunch of deep cuts I’m unaware ignorant of, all on the way to a brilliant neo-soul/funk album.
Mick Jenkins – The Healing Compenent
I really like this album. It’s layered and complex and is doing uniquely interesting things in a genre where you will already find the most interesting and innovative experimentation in modern music.
There were a large number of albums this year by Black arists, including Kiwanuka and the new Tribe album, that lyrically sound like they are responding post-Drumpf election even though they were released earlier. It’s an indictment on surprised white folks like me who weren’t looking closely enough at how bad things were even before Drumpf won the election, creating the context where that was possible.
Also, this collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD is one of my favorite songs and favorite music videos of the year.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
We got a lot of albums in 2016 that we’re going to need for the next 4+ years. This is one of them. If you’ve never listened to Kiwanuka, you should remedy that as soon as possible. And don’t stop here, Home Again is even better!
Lapsley – Long Way Home
“There’s a dark, roiling hue to the pop sensibilities of Holly Låpsley Fletcher that hooked us in when we first heard her debut album Long Way Home. While her vocal & melodic prowess have the right ingredients for the next big pop star, the minimalist electronic underpinnings push her left of center in just the right way, keeping the listener from ever being able to completely pin her down. At 19, Låpsley has produced an album far beyond her years & one we’ll be quick to spin again and again.”
Also, I highly recommend Vinyl Me, Please. If you are going to sign up let me know first because it can get me $10 off my subscription.
Mitski – Puberty 2
With Puberty 2, Mitski made a deeply personal album that resonated with me, even though for most of the year we didn’t share any common demographic info whatsoever (now at least we both live in Brooklyn). Her album about struggling to find identity and happiness in the midst of profound anxiety, angst and depression obviously means very different things for her than it does for me, and yet she created this perfect sonic expression of that struggle that feels true to me.
I knew before 2016 that to create something universal you need to be more particular, but I seemed to experience that reality with more frequency than ever this year.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
The death of the album was much heralded, as a result of mp3’s and whatnot — as always, this was wildly overstated because hyperbole is easier than nuance, and it gets more clicks, too. I’m glad it isn’t actually dead, and that we keep getting albums that aren’t just a series of singles, but that create a sonic landscape to live in for the duration of the playtime. Many of the albums that have done this recently are directly influenced by Kanye and his friends and collaborators, like Bon Iver earlier on this list, and Frank Ocean here.
I’m ok if we have to keep waiting extended periods between Frank Ocean’s albums so long as we are rewarded like we were with this one.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
One week this year, when I was feeling really depressed (the clinical sort not the situational or general mood sort), “Daydreaming” on repeat was genuinely my only solace. I don’t know how it worked, feeling comforted by the melancholy song inspired by Yorke’s breakup from the woman he’d been with for 23 years (the strange vocals played at the end of the song are the words “half my life” played backwards over and over). I just know that, in spite of it being a very specific artifact about someone else’s heartache, it’s one of those songs that feels like it isn’t coming from the headphones, but from a deep place inside myself. Again, in being particular we find broader connections.
Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
Even more than Tribe’s album, this album captures so much of what made me fall in love with Hip Hop as a kid. The production, the energy, the humor, the wit, the overall feeling — it’s looking backward and forward at once.
Watching the video for “4r Da Squaw” for the first time is the closest I’ve felt to watching the deeper cuts, like the Pharcyde, they’d play on BET when I was a kid. It’s fun and honest, which were qualities in short supply in 2016.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
When word came out immediately after Phife’s death that Tribe had a new album on the way, I was worried. It seemed too conveniently timed, and I was concerned we would get a subpar release of unused vocal cuts repackaged into a new album.
Instead, we got the real deal. It’s not Midnight Marauders or The Low End Theory, but it’s still pretty damn good.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Those of us who love Kanye understand how crazy he is. The line between his performance art and his downright immaturity and mental illness is often blurry, but there are clear examples in both those categories.
What those of us who love him don’t understand is how people can’t hear what we hear musically. If we are going to argue about whether or not you can love the art but hate the artist, we can at least hear you enough to talk about it. But to argue that he isn’t a genius just doesn’t register for us, I have trouble even understanding how to start that conversation.
For me, The Life of Pablo doesn’t reach the sustained brilliance of his last few albums, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the production on Ultralight Beam has moved me to tears more than once.
Anyway, here is a video Estelle Caswell put together earlier this year for Vox explaining a bit about the genius of ‘Ye.
Wye Oak – Tween
By all rights, this should be a throwaway album. They won’t even call it a fifth album. It’s songs from the unreleased material that came after Civilian but didn’t make it onto Shriek.* Thus: Tween. Yet, I still liked it enough to listen to it over and over all year long.
Long live Wye Oak!
Also, the honorable mentions that almost made the cut or that I really liked but haven’t listened to enough yet: Kendrick Lamar untitled unmastered, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree, Leonard Cohen You Want it Darker, James Blake The Colour in Anything, Kishi Bashi Sonderlust, Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial, Solange A Seat at the Table… if I gave myself more time to work on this list would get longer and some of this would make it the list. Alas, I waited to long to think about lists last year.
*I updated the Wye Oak blurb because originally I had incorrect info about the timeline for the recordings.