I discovered Twin Shadow right before leaving Seattle, and by the time we headed south to Portland for the beginning of a meandering road trip east, “Five Seconds” had become the official song of the journey.
12 days, 13 states, a co-pilot trade at around the halfway point, and through it all at least one thing remained constant: this song started each major leg of the journey. It made the weight I carried during a really difficult time just a bit lighter.
Granted, we didn’t ever get to join a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang, but the song still helped.
As a bonus, this KEXP in-studio from two years ago has a great acoustic version of the song.
Chance the Rapper — aka Lil Chano from 79th, aka Chancellor Johnathan Bennett — may just be the epitome of the ‘month of happy’ converted into human form.
I mean, has anyone seen any definitive scientific proof that Chance the Rapper isn’t happiness personified?
The guy is fucking delightful.
A self-proclaimed man-child, he is infectiously joyful. I have to assume he’s that guy at the party who gets everyone dancing and smiling, but without being annoying about it.
Seriously, what’s not to love. He gives away all of his music, donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools because politicians were being dicks about it, regularly talks adoringly in interviews about his dad and his daughter, and loves Kanye while also revealing that the stuff ‘Ye says in private is even crazier than what he says in public, which is hilarious.
I love Chance the Rapper. Everyone should. I genuinely think he may become president someday.
Exhibit A, just watch one of his adorable Kit Kat commericals.
Exhibit B, his awesome single-take music video for Sunday Candy, a song about his grandma.
Of all the things and people I plan to include this month, none are more appropriate for International Women’s Day than Mitski.
Simply put, she is amazing.
I listened to her quite a lot last year, and my love only continues to grow.
As I previously wrote about Puberty 2: “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.”
She’s my favorite songwriter right now. Her lyrics are strong and vulnerable, full of all the paradoxical juxtapositions that roil inside our hearts. Her songs are confident and fearful, hard and soft, tough and anxious. The work is rich with emotional depth, the kind that is so particular to her that it somehow impossibly feels particular to me, too.
Just the lyrics would be enough, but then she combines it with this remarkable sound, which is so full of strength and rage and tenderness and desperation.
I think the reason for the living death or sleepwalking I experience much of the time is that I try to uncomplicate myself, try to be only one or two things. I try to be simple and easy. Mitski reminds me to be all of the things. Her music helps me give myself that mental permission to explode in all of the different directions in which my heart pulls me.
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.
Also, you can watch one of his live performances from Brooklyn earlier this year HERE. NPR recorded it and the quality doesn’t disappoint.
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!
“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 hasmoved 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.
One of the earliest memories I have comes from when I was six years old. I was in the downstairs family room of the first home I can remember; a house in Newburgh, New York that acted as the background for all my earliest memories. In this particular recollection, I was watching MTV.
Yes, I was watching MTV alone when I was six, because the 80’s.
On the screen, the black and white shot of a jukebox appears. The automated arm presses a record up to the needle. Organ music starts playing as the shot changes and the camera scans up, revolving around torn, faded, bleach-stained jeans, followed by a leather jacket — I couldn’t read the word ‘Revenge’ printed at the bottom at the time. My young eyes barely registered the sexy female legs seen from the waist down, leaning against the jukebox, black and white but for the bright blue pumps. All my attention was on those bluejeans on the other side of the jukebox, one leg propped up in a pose that was mind-blowingly cool to my six-year-old self.
The music video that unfolded after that deeply imprinted itself on my brain. Perhaps because I had a gay father, I interpreted the whole video as hyper-masculine. The huge cross earring, the popped leather collar, the overlarge aviator sunglasses, the ass-shaking, the poofy bleached hair: all appeared to me as the epitome of what manly cool looked like. I had no idea how gay the video for “Faith” was, or how prominently it was showcasing the fact that George Michael had a great ass.
I would later realize that, while I totally missed the gay part — as did most of the viewing public, as it turned out — I was spot on with my estimation that it was wildly manly, just not in the mode most readily affirmed by small-minded idiots.
Anyway, before I was 8 years old I had gotten my hands on the cassette tape and played it over and over. Undoubtedly, I was too young for this album, full of sex and very adult relational themes. Even K104, the Hudson Valley’s go-to Top 40 station, made people request the song “I Want Your Sex,” as “I Want Your Hands” — they didn’t edit the lyrics, just the spoken song identification.
While the song titles were too spicy for radio, and the majority of the subject matter was way over my head [see: Father Figure], I’m so glad the 80’s were a decade of parental complacency when it comes to that sort of thing. My childhood would have been poorer without this album, the legacy of which is underrated by the larger public (although often celebrated critically, example: it is featured on Rolling Stones’ “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” both originally in 2003 and then again when they remade the list in 2012).
Faith is one of those albums that plays like a greatest hits track list. Even if you only get the four songs that make up the first side of the tape, it’s worth the price of purchase. It’s one great pop song after another.
As I got older, it became wildly uncool to like George Michael. With his arrests for sex acts in public and the general cultural desire to reject the reality of gay masculinity, George Michael became the butt of countless jokes. All those images in the “Faith” video that had endeared me to all things George Michael were now the object of derision. During high school, I wouldn’t have admitted my appreciation of his music to anyone, with the notable exception of the “Freedom ’90!” music video featuring a naked Cindy Crawford in a bathtub.
Fortunately, I grew up eventually and realized, “Fuck you, I like George Michael.” I still framed it as a guilty pleasure, still felt a mild embarrassment at the knock to my indie cred, but I no longer hid my affection, especially for that album in particular.
Up until his tragic death, 2016 was a good year in popular culture for people who appreciated George Michael. First, Wham! featured prominently in Deadpool. Then, more notably, Key and Peele went so far in Keanu as to include a drug trip sequence where a character finds himself inside the video for “Faith,” his “favorite fucking song.” There is no way I can describe the joy I felt when Keegan-Michael Key hallucinated his way into a moment so deeply connected to my childhood. It was like an inside joke that the rest of the theater got in part, while missing the deeper layers. When Key’s character found himself in that giant white space, with a lone jukebox in the distance, I immediately knew exactly where he was, and my delight knew no bounds. It is one of my favorite moments of the year in film.
George Michael led a life troubled by the problems that plague so many celebrity lives. It was a story that ended, as too many musician stories do, well before it should have. I can’t speak to what sort of person he was at all. What I can say, with certainty, is that I’m glad his music is the subject of one of the two or three first things I consciously remember.
The fact that 2016 has been terrible is no secret. If the only bad things that happened this year were losing Bowie, Prince, Leonard Coen, and Phife Dawg in the same year it still would have sucked, but somehow that is just the tip of the giant shitberg this year has been.
Fortunately, there is still awesomeness to make me feel better, and I wanted to share a few of those things with you — ‘Five Things’ style.
1. Baby Fucking Groot
The second trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy — released a week ago at this point, this post took me way too long to get around to finishing — showcased more of the comedic energy fans expect from the series. I’m assuming anyone who cares about this at all will have already seen it at least once. Still, it’s too great to not have it up on RtM, just for posterity. I loved the first Guardians so much, and this one continues to look like it will easily win my heart next year.
A growing baby Groot is even more amazing that I could have hoped.
2. Awaken, My Love!
Is Donald Glover the messiah? He might be. I just don’t see how an ordinary human can give the world Atlanta and Awaken, My Love! in the same fucking year. HOW?! There are plenty of talented people who might release two things that good in their career… but in the same year?! Say what you will about 2016 — it was fucking awful — but Donald Glover certainly did more than we could have hoped in an attempt to salvage it.
Have you listened to this album yet? Did anyone see this coming? Were we aware Childish Gambino was capable of creating a neo-soul masterpiece?
When Questlove — a bonafide pop music historian with an encyclopedic grasp of all things soul — freaks out and wakes D’Angelo at 4 a.m. to listen to an album, you should take note.
Here is a fun interactive video of Gambino performing “Me and Your Mama” at his Pharos concert event.
3. The Girl Who Drank the Moon
The people who live in the Protectorate believe a witch lives in the woods. They believe they must sacrifice a baby to her every year to avoid her wrath.
A witch does live in the woods, but is nothing like the blood thirsty monster she is imagined to be. Confused why babies are annually abandoned in the wilderness, she rescues them and takes them to loving families far away, feeding them starlight to nourish them on the journey. During one of these trips, the witch accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, enmagicking her.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a book about identity, about the power story has to nurture or destroy, and it is about truth and lies and the way the powerful distort the narrative to maintain the status quo. It’s also about love and family and the way courage and compassion can change the world.
It’s lovely and well-written, full of wisdom and lines I wanted to go back and reread multiple times.
You should read it.
Good news: The guy who wrote the screenplay for Kubo and the Two Strings is supposedly the one adapting this book into a screenplay. More on Kubo if I get around to making my own 2016 lists.
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I know, I know — I barely write on RtM anymore and when I do, half the time it’s about how much I love Taiki Waititi. Well, what of it? I do love Taiki Waititi.
A friend recently asked people on Facebook to give a list of their favorite films since 2012, and I listed What We Do in the Shadows; not just because of my affection for that film, but because I needed a representative of Waititi’s work.
His films are so full of charm and joy and sweetness, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no exception. Plus, I’m a sucker for stories about people who come together and make weird nontraditional families. It deserves all the inclusion it has gotten on various lists of underrated or underappreciated films of 2016.
Speaking of underappreciated, when people talk about Hunt for the Wilderpeople they always mention What We Do in the Shadows but not Boy. Watch Boy!!!
Taiki for life!
I bet some people are unreasonably disappointed when they visit New Zealand and it’s not actually Middle Earth. I’m probably going to be unreasonably disappointed if I ever go because everyone doesn’t talk like a character in a Taiki Waititi film.
5. End of Year Lists
Hopefully, I’ll find time to make some of my own this year, but either way I am so excited that it is time for people around the internet to curate lists of their favorite things of 2016.
I love curation, both doing it myself and when others do it well. There is so much to learn by experiencing what other people get excited about with an open mind. It expands my life and my perception and offers me new things to enjoy.
Some of the stuff won’t be for me, but I might find a new favorite thing. There might be an amazing album or movie or book I would have otherwise missed, or I might be inspired to finally check out some show I’m sleeping on, or I might be encouraged to look at something I didn’t enjoy in a new light. Either way, my world will get bigger and brighter.