There’s no question that we’re living in an uncertain, tension-filled time, and the importance of art has never been greater. Thankfully, one of the few positive takeaways from a year filled with gloom was the monumentally terrific outpouring of excellent music. There were enough significant, meaty records released to fill out several years’ best-of lists, which makes the following ten chosen here standouts among standouts. We won’t look back on this year as being the most impressive for much of anything, but I’d bet on 2016 being the best year for music of the decade once it comes to a close. So, I bid adieu to the adieu, and present my favorite albums of the past 365 days.
10. The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free
For over a decade now, this outfit has been sprinting down a path painted by sprawling whirlwinds of Gareth Liddiard’s ravenous snarls and a perfect storm of tightly fit guitar orchestration. Each record by The Drones begins with an epic table-setting opener, and Feelin Kinda Free’s “Private Execution” is no exception. A hurricane of maniacal bells and whistles swirl together and the album comes crashing in, with Liddiard exclaiming “The best songs are like bad dreams, if you can cover all the exits”. Like the entire catalog from this visceral band, the album covers a wide variety of sights and sounds, taking the listener on a captivating ride whether it is with the kinetic barrage of “Taman Shud” or the slow-bleeding centerpiece “To Think That I Once Loved You”. They are, quite literally, one of the five best rock bands in the world today. This is another essential addition to their legacy.
9. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
I could never identify this as Leonard Cohen’s “swan song”, because to call it that would insinuate that it is a separate work from everything else in the poet’s book of life. From the moment he began creating, all of Cohen’s art has been an extension of what came prior, and the illuminating songs on You Want It Darker are no exception. In the final five years of his life he suddenly became more prolific than ever before, releasing three albums from 2012-2016. Perhaps this was an effort to bring the songs that needed to see the light of day into the world before death finally came to his door. One thing’s for certain: You Want It Darker is a document of a person talking directly to death, and giving himself over should it be his time. It is a stunning set of songs with lyrics that stand aside the finest he ever made. We lost one of our most essential ambassador’s of the love song, but we’ll always have his book.
8. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
There were many deeply sad records released in a depressing year, and this is one of the finest of that lot. Backed by a pummeling battleground of beats from Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, ANOHNI confronts the most devastating issues on our planet with a knife to the jugular. She’s built a powerful canon of piercing music for nearly two decades, but never has she sounded this angry and charging. In the process, she has written the best music of her career to date. Though it is not without hope for the future, the album quite literally does convey the feeling of hopelessness based on the fear for where we may be headed. It’s an important and unshakable piece of work.
7. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
It is a work-in-progress with shifting shapes, like its creator. It is a schizophrenically-paced barrage of lights, darks, magentas, and the shades in between, like its creator’s life. It is a frequently brilliant, sometimes appalling presentation, not unlike its creator since the turn of this decade. It begins with a revelatory statement, and then scatterbrained thoughts are unloaded in fragments for nearly an hour before an eye-opening self-examination closing number hits the page. The Life of Pablo is a perplexing, rough-around-the-edges representation of the current mindset of one of the most divisive artists in the history of music. It’s also something that only Kanye West could have made, whether that is for better or worse/love or hate him. When it comes down to the music, this is an awe-inspiring hip-hop record and another example of the man pushing himself to be better each time out.
6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Before we even get a chance to sit down and let it all sink in, “Burn The Witch” has taken us by the throat and thrown us into A Moon Shaped Pool with unapologetic fervor. Hearing the song for the first time was a memorable point in 2016 for me, as it was seen as a quick reminder that one of the most influential and innovative bands over the last 20+ years were back to further their legacy and turn the tables yet again. This is the best album in their discography because it reinvigorates their sound while at the same time incorporating all of the best styles from past records. As I’ve said before, “Daydreaming” may in fact be the greatest six minutes they have ever recorded, and the rest of the album manages to live up to that precedent. It also doesn’t hurt that they close it out with the haunting, first-ever studio take of “True Love Waits”, one of their oldest songs. Radiohead exist on a level that few artists today reside.
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Even prior to learning of the flooring tragedy that his teenage son, Arthur, fell to his death after an accident while they were recording Skeleton Tree, it already had the most personal themes Nick Cave had ever written about. The words had already been penned, so this incident didn’t have an influence there, but you can most definitely hear it in the aching delivery of the vocals. It is undoubtedly the most painfully bleak album of the year, and of a career filled with tales of darkness, debauchery, and the shadow of our looming demise waiting for that moment to pull us down. Cave is not living if not writing, and on Skeleton Tree he stares into a deep, seemingly never-ending cavern of a frightening hole, asking for direction. This is the sound of one of the greatest songwriters of all-time letting his guard down in a way that none of us could have ever expected, and it results in what is surely one of the best albums he has released with The Bad Seeds.
4. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Over the course of a breezy, uninterrupted hour, Freetown Sound seems to effortlessly place Blood Orange at the forefront of the current R&B world. It is a genre that is well populated, but there tends to be a bleeding-together redundancy with the majority of the groups there today. Dev Hynes refuses to fester on one note and will not be pinned down to a specific tone, and he has made Blood Orange into some kind of unstoppable beast altogether. This is the kind of album that would make past kings of the genre sing praises of a vintage, nostalgic vibe nailed down with precision. More than ten of the songs on the record could have made a strong case to make it into my 25 favorites of the year. Yes, it’s that good.
3. Angel Olsen – My Woman
The build-up has been steady and laid out well, and now the commanding piece to the sky-shot career trajectory of Angel Olsen has arrived, and it is called My Woman. The ten songs on this album feature an artist in full control of her vision, and with more confidence than ever displayed before on more reserved, hushed records. It is vast without being too big for its britches and a throwback with a simultaneously modern feel. Olsen’s songwriting combines tongue-in-cheek observational winks with honest introspection on the difficulty of losing optimism in relationships that have long since dissolved. There are dance-inducing ditties showcasing a band roaring on the same page, slow-burning epics that call to mind vintage-era Crazy Horse, and sparse echoes of a woman with nothing but her thoughts and a piano to help convey them. It is a perfect album.
2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
“Where you gonna look for confirmation…and if it’s ever gonna happen…”
This is a thought that hangs over the listener’s mind (and forever over its creator’s) when initiating contact on the challenging journey of 22, A Million. At first – or even fifth – listen, it could prove standoffish and difficult to become acquainted with…but then, at some point (if you still remain), the overarching elements meet you in union and you begin to understand that Justin Vernon has been far ahead of the majority of us all along. If you’re willing to do the leg work and catch up, this album is a rewarding miracle. Gone are the rustic, cabin-fevered mourns and in place is a palette with a bit of uncharted, fresh territory that incorporates the organic with the mechanically constructed. Vernon’s use of the vocoder is never a typically assumed distraction, but rather an essential cog to the translation of these current self-examinations. It is an album about the specific numbers that follow a life, numbers that can recall an exact pinpoint location and/or feeling during a monumental personal era. It is an album that none of us, maybe not even Vernon himself, could lay out a blueprint for, and nor should we try. It is, more than anything else, a phenomenal example of where a new sound could go should innovative artists like this continue to grace us with their presence. We need Bon Iver.
1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
“Blond or Blonde?”
There isn’t a wrong answer, alright?
When Frank Ocean announced in a post on his website during the summer of 2015 that he had “two versions” of an upcoming album and/or magazine, speculation came out of the woodwork in every direction imaginable. Little did we know at the time, but we would have well over an additional year to continue to speculate, then doubt, and then lose lots of hope for anything to be released at all. Then, late in the summer of 2016, a mysterious black-and-white video that appeared to be a live stream appeared on his site. It looked like he was building something significant in a spacious facility. Shortly after, the visual album Endless was released as an Apple Music exclusive, and it also served as the final piece of his contractual obligation to Def Jam Records. Endless was an intriguing set of sketch-like ideas, but there was something larger looming. During the same weekend, Ocean independently released the album that we had been painting in our heads for years since being melted to tears with Channel Orange.
Blonde opens with a track called “Nikes”, which un-coincidentally has two separate openings when compared from album version to music video version. During the intro to the music video, Ocean, while resting on the front fender of a sports car and wearing eyeliner, declares “I got two versions. Twoooooo versions”. This is the long awaited final reveal that the two versions always boiled down as a reference to the artist himself. Throughout Blonde, he frequently alters the vocal tracks to turn our heads at first glance, always keeping us on our toes and wondering if it’s actually him or a guest. In fact, it’s always Frank Ocean in the lyrical backdrop on the record. Sure, it is not without wealth of star guest appearances, but they are not put into the spotlight. Even large names like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, although here, are more a part of the arrangements than providing the expected, typical radio-primed guest focus. It is a big, big album while also remaining small. It is the most personal album of the year while remaining a mystery. Both versions of Frank Ocean are exceptionally genius, and they are on display in full form on Blond(e).