Before I go any further, fuck 2016. Yes, this is a recap of all the great music we had the pleasure of hearing for the first time this past year, but fuck 2016. As far as years go, it was a pretty crappy one—considering, the artists we lost, the neo-nazis we gained—and for many of us, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to get any better. Other than going out there and actively engaging in the world positively (speak out, donate time or money), I found solace where I have always found solace: in music.
On that front, this year was rough. The amount of capital-L legends we lost was staggering. Barely two weeks into this shitshow, and David Bowie, the Thin White Duke, the man from Mars, gone. Then Prince, and Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones and Leon Russell, Maurice White, Merle Haggard, and Glenn Frey, who I suspect is owed a debt of gratitude higher than the average devotee of the Dude is willing to give. I mean, fuckin’ a.
From three of these artists, we received parting gifts in the albums they’ve left behind. Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker are both end of life musings on the eventuality of all humanity. The album covers are shrouded in darkness, and so are the albums, each song about death in one way or another. They are, in both cases, some of the best music these already legendary artists produced, perhaps creating a trend for the aging forebears of Rock and Roll: put out one last one, and make it a doozy.
More tragically than the long lives lived by Bowie and Cohen, is the life cut short, such as Phife Dawg’s. The legendary MC from A Tribe Called Quest died at forty-five, just forty-five years old while in the midst of making one last album with the group We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. The album is at once confrontational of everything negative happening in the world (Q-Tip said that the terror attack in Paris is what allowed the members to put aside their differences), but also, like no other rap group, the Tribe remains optimistic. It’s appearance alone is a gift, but that it represents the putting aside of grievances, it is a beacon of peace in troubled times.
As far as music’s survivors go, this year brought us releases from Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Stones, and Eric Clapton. Dylan’s covers album receives notes just because this is his second album of Sinatra covers, it’s certainly not a Dylan album even the most ardent fan is going to be reaching for. The same goes for Paul Simon whose album Stranger to Stranger comes off as a late period collection of songs that would have otherwise surrounded the hits on earlier albums when the songwriting was stronger. While the album is certainly not bad, it’s missing a “You Can Call Me Al,” or “Kodachrome.”
The Stones collection is boring. The idea is boring, the artwork is boring. It seems lazy. The Stones have built an entire career on borrowing liberally from blues artists, that this album feels unnecessary. As far as Clapton goes, with his failing infrastructure and admitting that playing guitar just isn’t as easy for old hands, it’s incredible that he’s released an album that is just fun to listen to. I Still Do is a return to form that’s not going to top anyone’s best-of list, but definitely deserves some ears to listen to it.
Bridging the gap between the old and the new, we had two albums from seminal British artists Radiohead and PJ Harvey. Yeah, they’ve both been around for a while, and yeah they both do that thing where everything is part of a dystopic future (maybe they’re right?), but they’re still releasing great music. Given the state of music now and always, that means that Radiohead could release a mediocre collection of songs old and new and it will surely end up on every Album of the Year list. This while PJ Harvey continually tells interesting and engaging stories, musically and lyrically, stretching the boundaries and only getting a peep of a mention from American press. Here’s to hoping they have some sense back across the sea.
Along the same lines, my Beloved Wilco released the follow up to last years Star Wars with a collection of somber and quiet tunes called Schmilco. In the last five years, Tweedy has been exorcising some sort of demon, getting out as much music as possible and engaging his faithful like never before as this period might have seen him release the most amount of music in any given stretch of time not including the Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie project Mermaid Avenue. I loved it. But of course I did.
Next up we have a trio of R&Bs greatest female singers in Rihanna, Beyonce, and Solange. Rihanna, after much waiting, finally released her long anticipated Anti-, while Beyonce out of nowhere released visual album Lemonade on struggling platform Tidal. While the former was made available for free download, the latter was never made available off of Tidal (legally), which means that I still haven’t heard it. People tell me it’s good, but my free trial already expired. Anti– is an excellent album, one that has Rihanna expressing a range of emotions that pop hits never allowed her to consider expressing. For my money, it was A Seat At The Table by Solange that really caught my attention. She didn’t have the popularity of her sister or Rihanna going into the year, but by releasing an album with something to say, with a message so necessary for our times, she has asserted herself.
Strangely, it was kinda a slow year for rap, no? Of course there was Kanye, and Kanye Kanyed, and then Kanye Kanyed again, and people made fun of him. Doesn’t matter, The Life of Pablo is a great record, maybe no 808s or MBDTF, but one hopes his endeavors into the world of art will push him further into the possibilities of his music. That is if he can get his head right (which seems fucked up that we would even go after him in the first place, but I guess we did it with Michael and Britney and anyone else that dared be human). Then there was Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Great album. But that’s all I can say about it. I suppose that’s enough.
Two of the most highly anticipated albums came from Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, who are more alike than I think most people will tend to give credence to (unless they have and I just haven’t been paying attention). After being completely into Ocean’s staircase building and Bon Iver’s cryptic numerology, I was let down by albums that would have been better off as stepping stones. They seem, to me, to be the faults of the excesses in the digital age. You can spend hours and hours tinkering and finding sounds that seem just right, playing with track listings, and aiming toward this impossible goal of perfection, all while muddying up a perfectly good thing. There are great albums in Blonde and 22, A Million, they’re just there under layers of muck and wasted time. Next time, they should just tear off the band-aids and release a product with the full emotional intensity both of them are entirely capable of before watering it down with production. But what do I know, both albums are going to end up collecting accolades just for being.
A couple of albums, seemingly out of nowhere, came into my life and found places in rotation, briefly or permanently. The first being William Tyler’s Modern Country. I saw him open up for Wilco, and well, I was impressed. I think I said then that it reminded me of every Cameron Crowe travel sequence, but in a good way. Warm, golden, and beautiful. His guitar playing is extraordinary and original, definitely music to relax to in the background while trying to get something done on a Sunday morning. On the opposite side of things, GOATs Requiem has so much primitive energy, it’s the perfect album for when things get weird (so it’ll have a pretty steady rotation for four years).
The dual albums of Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest and Human Ceremony by Sunflower Bean fill pretty much the same space for me. The former takes off where The Blue Album ends in terms of Ocasek inspired power pop, but with a slightly darker take. Sunflower Bean’s Human Ceremony is probably one of the strongest debuts I’ve heard in a while. It is by no means a perfect album, but it has the structure and the insight that bands need to break-out. Both bands have promising futures, but for now, a good first year will have to do.
Childish Gambino proved on December 2nd that the years not over until it’s over. Taking a complete left turn from his rap career, Donald Glover released an almost insanely good album in “Awaken, My Love!” The turn has taken him through all the funk, soul and R&B one album could handle while not neglecting his roots in hip-hop and making a statement. Between this and his television show Atlanta, I think it might be time to start taking the “I have the weirdest boner” guy seriously.
And that’s 2016 in music. For the most part. I’ve forgotten some albums (TEEN’s Love Yes) and neglected others (Kendrick Lamar’s album of b-sides Untitled, Unmastered). Frankly, I haven’t listened to every single album that’s come out this year, and probably won’t have that kind of time in the last few weeks of this year. I’ve spent a lot of time digging my head into the crates. I’ve had a new favorite Bowie album every month (It’s Young Americans for December), I’ve pored over Cohen’s poetry, listened again and again to Prince’s guitar tone trying to figure it out, and the Clash, because know your rights (all three of them).
Music is music, even in the darkest hours, and that’s what’s always got us through. I don’t expect that to stop. Fuck Drake.
Article: Christopher Gilson