With George Michael’s passing yesterday (just, why?) it has continued to be abundantly clear that 2016 has not only been a hard year to be a human being, but also a hard year to be a music fan. And yet, even when we get bogged down with some beloved musician’s death or a million different news stories that should fill us with nothing but the utmost despair, music fights back. Take for instance the fact that even with the year not quite being over, just a few hours prior to the news of the reluctant gay icon’s passing, we also got a new Run The Jewels album that I’m sure will suitably rally us against whatever bullshit is headed our way in 2017.
So when I say 2016 was an overwhelmingly great year for music, it’s hard for me not to think that this was some sort of reaction to all the bad stuff that went down in 2016. Now, I can’t say that artists were making a conscious decision to make great albums this year, since I assume most artists are aiming to make great albums whenever they can. But I suppose it’s possible there was this feeling in the air that this shit really mattered in 2016. For me, music has always been the most immediate, gut-level art form, and so I think for that reason, a lot of musicians felt the need to speak from their guts, which in turn created a lot of albums that spoke to people’s guts, minds, bodies, souls, etc.
Anyways, enough about guts… on to the list.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Solange – A Seat At The Table
I just want to be perfectly clear, this is a year where any of my honorable mentions easily would’ve made my top ten in a lesser year, but instead I was scrambling to make a cohesive list at the last minute, which is usually not how I approach these things. But even deep into 2016, I was still catching up with great albums that won’t make my list, like Solange’s fantastic A Seat At The Table, it’s just that I haven’t spent quite enough time with it. So instead I went with I Had A Dream That You Were Mine in the 10 spot, an album from The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, which I’ve certainly listened to A LOT, since its dreamy lead-off track was my favorite song of 2016. Meanwhile, the rest of the album is a perfectly pristine collection of songs to put on in the background, and revel in the small triumphs of growing older while telling yourself that everything’s gonna be alright.
And here’s an album that not only told you everything was gonna be alright, but that everything was gonna be some weird, awesome, spectacular party to which there should be no end. A big part of 2016 for me was getting used to the (relative) routine of a 9-to-5 desk job, and I don’t think there was a better album to get out of the office, plug in my headphones, and rock the fuck out with than A Giant Dog’s Pile. It’s just always reassuring to hear a band that can take the same old rock formula of shouty vocals and heavy guitars and turn it into something fresh and vital as the old warhorse of a genre heads into the uncertain future of the 21st century. But if it’s any consolation, it feels like rock and roll will always be the music of weirdos, and if Pile is any indication, I don’t think the weirdos of the world are going away without a fight.
Not gonna lie, both of the hip-hop albums appearing on my list are pretty easy-to-scoff-at typical white guy picks for hip-hop albums. But still, I think there is something pretty remarkable about Chance The Rapper’s third mixtape, and further proof that the dude should be in no hurry to sign to a major label. But whatever the future brings for this immensely talented performer, Coloring Book painted a hopeful picture of a 2016 that never really came to be – a 2016 filled with understanding and empathy and surrounding yourself with like-minded friends in a gospel-like chorus of joy and compassion. But if this kind of togetherness could happen in the microcosm of Coloring Book, who’s to say it can’t happen elsewhere? I know. That kind of optimism seems so naive and well, kinda stupid right now, but I think the fact that Coloring Book was able to communicate that kind of warmth without feeling hollow is quite the achievement.
To call this album Jeff Rosenstock’s punk rock masterpiece may seem a little like I’m short-selling it. Not because the idea of punk rock seems a little quaint in this day-and-age (which to be honest, it kind of does), but because there’s so much ground that Rosenstock covers here. Perhaps it’s the sheer volume of bands Rosenstock has been involved with over the years that has given him just enough musical dexterity to jump between genres with the slightest of ease. Also, the ground that Rosenstock covers here lyrically is deeply personal, but in the way that a lot of us were dealing with our own personal anxieties, which somehow always felt like global anxieties. And despite the fact that this album didn’t really have a global appeal for most, I think it feels totally reflective of the micro/macro level ups-and-downs that punk rock still seems primed to tackle against all odds.
Remember when I was talking earlier about the very 2016 phenomenon of a terrible thing happening followed swiftly by a perfect musical rebuttal? Well, it’s hard to think of a better example of that than us being informed of the most depressing election results one could possibly imagine, while that Saturday we got the image of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” paired with Q-Tip raising his fist in the air, telling everybody we gotta get it together. And surprisingly, the album A Tribe Called Quest were promoting on SNL was filled with exactly the kind of unifying and angry tone that I – and I’m guessing a lot of people – were looking for that week. Still, a part of the timeliness of this album’s release was a bit of a coincidence (the first track does reference an assumed female president), but it clearly evokes a lot of things that were bubbling beneath the surface of the Obama presidency, and in effect kind of threw down the gauntlet of how artists can stand strong into 2017 and beyond.
I really feel like I’m leaning a bit too much into framing all of my album picks in the grand scheme of 2016’s politics, so it’d be nice to just talk about the music from here on out. But I don’t know. Considering my next three picks are three young, confident American women who like all young, confident American women were denied the promise of a more hopeful future, we’ll see… But what I can say for certain is that Puberty 2 firmly establishes Mitski as a force to be reckoned with, while her songs are filled with a kind of messiness and confrontational quality that’s often mesmerizing. But at the same time, she’s not afraid to let loose with fuzz-laden freak-outs and the kind of pop hooks that made “A Loving Feeling” one of my most listened-to songs of the year, while recognizing that yes, the more measured “Your Best American Girl” is even better.
It’s hard to say what finally got me on the Angel Olsen bandwagon, but perhaps it had to do with her releasing a straight-up rock song as perfect as “Shut Up Kiss Me”. However, it’d be foolish to think that Olsen can merely be summed up in a simple-but-catchy chorus slathered over some crunchy guitars, since there’s a whole wide range of internalized feelings she explores here. Much like I was predicting in my original review of My Woman, the eclectic nature of this album resulted in it taking a while for me to dig deep into its second half. But in the end it was worth it, as both “Sister” and “Woman” were two of the most epically assured songs I heard all year, and proof that Olsen’s talent knows no bounds.
Yeah, yeah, I know. With this whole spiel I keep going on about with how music can be a force in the face of tough times, you’d think I could come up with something a little more substantial than Frankie Cosmos’ Next Thing as my number 3 pick. But as I said in my review of this album, Greta Kline’s songs always feel like a safe place, and maybe that’s where this album’s appeal laid for me. That and the fact that these songs are pure, delightful ear-candy. Not a single one of the songs on Next Thing breaches the 3 minute mark, and yet the lyrics are so astute and so welcoming that I just couldn’t resist listening to them over and over again. And like all three of the artists that make up the trio of 20-something women in my 3-5 spots, I really can’t wait to see what Frankie Cosmos does next.
It’s unfortunate that none of us at Mildly Pleased ever got around to reviewing (or really writing about) David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, because I’m not even sure where to start with it. This is just a monumentally impressive work from a monumentally important artist, whose death combined with this album forced us to reckon with what a towering figure of rock music we’d lost this year.
Of course, Bowie strips all of that away on Blackstar, making an album that somehow sounds like no other album Bowie had ever released, and yet for that reason, sounds like pure Bowie. Because whatever acidy jazz-influenced sounds Bowie seems to be channelling here, they’re not the types of sounds I typically find myself seeking out. But that was the brilliance of this guy. He was always able to take all kinds of outside influences and transmit them through his own sensibilities and through what I still say is one of the greatest voices ever, which is incredibly hard not to be affected by when you hear his brittle croon belt the refrains of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. So yeah, this is just an astonishing parting gift from a guy who was able to make his life his art, and somehow even managed to do the same in death.
And yet just as we’re forced to say goodbye to one of the giants of rock music, here comes along a fresh young voice to tear it down, rebuild it, and start all over again. Seeing Car Seat Headrest live about a month ago made it quite clear that Will Toledo has already mastered the art of rock songwriting, and the way he displays that mastery over the course of the beautifully bloated Teens Of Denial was truly something to behold. Some of the songs are short and tight, and some are meandering 10-minute-plus opuses, but all of them are guided by the unmistakable voice that Toledo commands with a crapload of neuroses and the skill to wield that neuroses like a sword.
I can’t tell you how many little lyrical nuggets from this album served as mantras of sorts as I made my way through this year – “I’ve known for a long time, I’m not getting what I want out of people”, “It’s an unforgiving world, she’s not an unforgiving girl”, “I have become such a negative person, it was all just an act…”. I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say that 2016 was a messy year filled with lots of fear and dread and uncertainty, and for me, Teens Of Denial was the perfect antidote for both embracing and escaping that anxiety through what else but music.