Kevin: Top 10 Albums of 2016
Most people want to forget 2016 as quickly as possible. That's understandable. The list of legendary artists who checked out this year is long and almost too painful to read all at once. Through politics, America basically spent most of the year further ripping itself in half, doing lasting damage to our faith in both institutions and each other. And horrific carnage unfolded across the world, casting a long shadow into the future.
As always, music was right there alongside us to offer support, comfort, and distraction. So before we try and scrub 2016 clean from our collective memory, let's spotlight some of the artists and albums that deserve to be remembered amongst all the madness. Their achievements only shone that much brighter.
And 2017? Let's do this.
10. Sturgill Simpson –A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
This album wasn’t really a sequel of any kind to 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music . Whereas you might’ve been expecting another renegade country barnburner about drinking, drugging, and contemplating the universe, Simpson (who has been sober since he was 28, aside from the “occasional joint”) took a sharp left down a dirt road. Supposedly, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is loosely based off letters Simpson's grandfather sent his grandmother, as well as from Simpson’s own time in the Navy, but there’s no denying its overall theme is an ode to fatherhood. Simpson had a baby in 2014, the same year Metamodern Sounds was released. He’s name-checked Elvis as inspiration for this album, and fits with the introduction of horns and bigger sound overall. Still, songs like “Brace for Impact,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” and his tender cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” made this surprise collection of songs a pleasant one.
9. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Nonagon Infinity
When a jolt of extreme, unrelenting energy was needed this year, Nonagon Infinity was the answer. It’s straight shot of atomic, psych-garage that doesn’t let up, with each song seamlessly bleeding into the next. You could spend time trying to unearth what the lyrics are supposed to mean or whatever, but that’d be missing the point. This is just dumb fun played masterfully by a bunch of Australian dudes who take that kind of thing very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they’re planning on releasing five (yes, five) albums in 2017. Don’t expect those releases to all sound like Nonagon, as Gizzard has a tendency to shift its sound, but it’s a fair bet you’ll be hearing more of their frenetic antics in 2017.
8. Rihanna, Anti
Pop stars are built to be disposable, but Rihanna has endured for a reason. Her DGAF attitude runs throughout Anti, which surprises you most when you've let your guard down. Yes, everyone knows about the magic of mammoth single “Work," but that single's towering success only slightly overshadowed other top-shelf radio jams like the slow-rolling menace of “Desperado” and the infectious “Love On The Brain." The true standout for my ears is “Higher,” where Rihanna’s voice is front-and-center, sounding like she’s drunkenly singing in a smokey bar at 3 a.m. about a love that might not be working out, pushing her vocal chords to their limits with zero audio magic necessary. It’s raw as fuck and absolutely gorgeous.
7. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Not much to say about Kanye that hasn’t already been said this year. For me, The Life of Pablo feels like that Michael Jordan came back to the Chicago Bulls after “retiring” to play for a half-season in 1995 and wore the number 45 instead of the traditional 23. Yes, it was Jordan and he was still impressive but something was just off. That’s the way TLOP feels. Traditionally, Kanye has been so meticulous with his albums that he would never have released something as spotty as this. Yes, “Ultralight Beam” is an all-time classic, but there’s more like six good songs (“20 Hours,” “No More Parties In LA,” “Famous,” “Real Friends, “Father Stretch My Hands,” and “Ultra”) out of 20 here. And Kanye even manages to fuck up a couple of those with some historically dumb lines. That said, the highlights were very high, but overall just not at the level expected of Kanye at this point.
6. RY X, Dawn
This album was way off my radar until a publicist kept emailing me about it because RY X was coming to Portland. I had ignored all the emails, until one day I finally decided to cave and listen. Wow. Dawn sounds like early Bon Iver, but with even more of a delicate, fragile falsetto that feels like it should be enjoyed in front of a fire. Standouts include “Berlin,” “Shortline,” and “Howling,” but honestly, just throw it on front to back and settle in. It’s a soother, and it just may be a better listen than the one Justin Vernon made this year.
5. The Avalanches, Wildflower
The Avalanches will never to top their 2000 debut, Since I Left You. That LP hit at just the right time and stands as one of the true, all-time masterpieces of sound sampling. Needless to say, my hopes were extremely high for its long-delayed follow-up, Wildflower. While it doesn’t reach the heights of Since I Left You, there’s still a lot to love. “Because of Me” brings the dance-party vibe immediately and gets followed up with “Frankie Sinatra,” where Danny Brown just loses his mind over a bouncing carnival beat. Elsewhere, “Harmony” is a shot of pure serotonin and “If I Was A Folkstar” traffics in the kind of ear wormy rhythms that stay on repeat in your head.
4. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
I had a real hard time getting into A Moon Shaped Pool. It came out in the spring, when the natural world all around was coming alive, but it sounded like a collection of cold, dreary songs built for fall and winter. So I put it aside for a while and came back to it later in the year. It’s still a slow burn, but it has that deep, Radiohead-level of attention to quality you expect. “Daydreamer,” “Decks Dark,” and “True Love Waits” are just beautiful songs, but they’re not going to pick you up. If you make peace with that, you'll discover a richly contemplative album with lots of subtle rewards built for quiet afternoons and slow nights.
3. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
Some albums make you work before revealing their greatness. This one sounded incredible from the first spin and keeps getting better. We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service is like catching up with some old friends just when you need it most. Tribe hadn’t dropped a new album in almost 20 years, and they couldn’t have picked better timing: just a few days after the horrific conclusion of the presidential election. Hearing MC, Q-Tip, and the late Phife Dawg address today’s issues with old-school bravado on songs like “We The People…” and “Whateva Will Be” was unbelievably refreshing. It made me wonder what kind of material other legendary hip-hop acts would be making today if they put in this much effort into doing what they do well. True comeback albums are no easy task, and with Phife Dawg passing away in March, Tribe will never be able to make another album like this. It's best to appreciate the moment while it's here.
2. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book
No one is making hip-hop as unapologetically joyful as Chance right now. Hearing his growth from 2013’s Acid Rap to 2015’s Surf (with the Social Experiment) was exciting, but Coloring Book is where he put a lot of the pieces together. When it dropped in May, it felt like the perfect summertime antidote to all the doom and gloom that eventually became synonymous with 2016. From anti-industry bangers (“No Problem”) to anthems of gratitude (“Blessings) to sweet, piano-led laments about change (“Same Drugs”), the depth, honesty, and soul on this album are rare.
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
Honestly, Lemonade wasn’t even the album I listened to most in 2016, but it’s the one I’ll give the most recognition. Nothing else sounded like Lemonade. It’s an expertly crafted pop album. While there’s an R&B heart dancing at the core, every song seems to flirt with, if not completely adopt, a different genre. Within the first six tracks, you get dream-pop (“Hold Up”), blues (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), and country (“Daddy Lessons”). Those songs are anthems on their own, but they’re not even the tracks that gained the most pop culture traction, spawning memes rife with lyrics like “boy bye” (“Sorry”) and “hot sauce in my bag swag” (“Formation.") And let's not forget the Lemonade visual album or the epic, right-wing freakout following Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance. Not than an album should be judged on its cultural merits alone, but when it handles that task easily while also serving as a stunning piece of music production, it's really something special. This is all without mentioning the defiance that runs through the soul of Lemonade, aimed at significant others, but also those who choose to interpret America through a singular lens. Although you could probably drop “6 Inch” and “Forward” and not lose much, Lemonade is impeccable front to back and you really don’t need to be a fan of Mrs. Carter to appreciate it. Hail to the queen.