If I had to describe 2016 in music, words that spring to mind are tears and politics. 2016 saw the releases of David Bowie’s and Leonard Cohen’s last albums while they were alive, shortly after both died. On these albums they sang about coming to terms with mortality. Meat Loaf was another aging music icon who in 2016 sang about the challenges of getting older.
Prince was a huge loss and very unexpected. Artists paid their respects by singing covers of his hits, such as D’Angelo’s Somethings It Snows In April, a ballad which became infinitely sadder after Prince’s passing in April.
Glenn Frey, founding member of the legendary rock band Eagles, will be missed, as he at just 67 years old succumbed to his battle with heath problems.
Greg Lake, prog rock bassist and founding member of both King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer died at the age of 69 following a battle with cancer. Keith Emerson of the same band died in March.
Maurice White, singer and co-founder of the group Earth, Wind & Fire died in February.
George Martin, legendary producer for The Beatles, passed away age 90.
Guy Clark, Grammy award winning country and folk singer, left us on May 17 at age 74.
Bobby Vee, pop singer and teen idol in the early 1960s, died in October age 73.
Another loss was the frontman of Motörhead who passed away in late December 2015. In November 2016, Metallica paid tribute to Lemmy in their animated music video for Murder One. A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg died in March due to complications from diabetes, but managed to finish his work on what would be the hip hop groups final album.
Nick Cave’s new album was about grief, his 15 year old son tragically dying in an accident. Last year we also got Sufjan Stevens’ acclaimed album Carrie & Lowell (2015) about the death of his mother Carrie. It can be tough to judge albums that are so autobiographical and personal. What they are singing about becomes more essential than the musicianship.
But it wasn’t all morbidity. With the presidential election on people’s minds, many artists were not afraid to express their political views, and there were a number of Trump protest songs.
Beyoncé, Solange, Common, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Blood Orange, Open Mike Eagle, Prince(Dec 2015), Kanye West, The Weeknd, Michael Kiwanuka, A Tribe Called Quest and other artists put out 2016 material with references to black lives matters. Attempting to make important albums/songs about our time, presumably following in the footsteps of, but not quite matching, Kendrick Lamar’s highly successful socio-political album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015).
In fact if a black artist didn’t sing about black lives matters, it almost came across as politically incorrect. Lil Wayne came under fire for publicly denouncing Black Lives Matters. He later apologized. A$AP Rocky claimed in an interview he “did not sign up to be no political activist”.
A lot of fuss was made over the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan, who technically is a musician/lyricist and not a writer of books. Many publications focused on his lack of acknowledgement of the award, although he did finally speak on the matter to The Telegraph and said it felt “amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?”. He asked the US ambassador to Sweden to read his acceptance speech and Patti Smith was present at the dinner to sing Dylan’s music.
The argument against him is his rivals in the category actually do write literature. The argument for Dylan’s win is his importance to our culture and that his writing could be described as Homeric or Shakespearean, which is meant to be spoken aloud/sung.
In other news this year, Bruce Springsteen released a well-received autobiography Born To Run, which was praised for its prose. I haven’t yet read the book, but I’m told it provides insight into the inspirations behind the songs and details his inner traumas. There were also new memoirs by singers/musicians such as Phil Collins, Brian Wilson, Grace Jones, Maurice White, Johnny Marr, Lol Tolhurst, and Robbie Robertson.
What should we make of the current state of the music industry? In the 2010s, we are no longer seeing that many classic albums getting released. Disposable music is the norm. The quest becomes to locate the keeper albums.
There’s just one debut album (Margo Price) in my top 20. I’m worried about the future of music with so few new talents making an impact. Perhaps I simply overlooked them? Of course certain bands take a few releases to perfect their sound.
Definitely a throwback to the 90s running through my list with the inclusion of Radiohead, Garbage, The Divine Comedy, A Tribe Called Quest and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
Anyway, below are my choices. The order ebbs and flows. I hope my top 10 represents the non-disposable.
Blonde by Frank Ocean
Neo-Soul. Channel Orange (2012) was beautifully produced with some great songs such as Pyramids and Thinkin About You, although Blonde (2016) was easier to connect with emotionally. The strongest moments such as Ivy, Pink+White, Solo, & White Ferrari speak to me on a meditative level. On Ivy he manipulated his voice to sound younger, to better capture the time he was evoking. My favorite on the album is Nights, which is quite moving. White Ferrari is possibly the catchiest. I disliked the vocal on Nikes, which is an odd choice for lead single.
A record you have to listen to more than once for it to get under your skin. Many of the lyrics seem deliberately relatable. Maybe in a year there will be other cuts from the album which will become favorites.
Many of the new songs have two or three competing narratives — different points of view participating in the same story. “That was my version of collage or bricolage,” he said. “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear. We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.”
★ [Blackstar] by David Bowie
Experimental Rock. Bowie knew he was going to die and this album reflects his state of mind, coming to terms with his life and accepting death is moving ever closer. A worthy final album, which is quite affecting given the circumstances. Bowie died of liver cancer just two days after its release.
He is supported by a group of jazz musicians, who may go on to have separate careers of their own. The videos are impressive. Dollar Days and Lazarus are the tracks I return to the most. A contemporary classic with good tracks from start to finish.
Strange Little Birds by Garbage
Alternative Rock. Shirley Manson, now 50, writes from a standpoint of experience and I guess she wants to pass on her life lessons. I have grown out of some of their earlier pop stuff, yet there are still a bunch of their older, darker songs which hold up. Interesting how the new album has a maturity and feels like fan service to the now older audience.
There are strong moments such as the My Bloody Valentine-esque single Empty and killer lyric ”I’ve been feeling so frustrated, I’ll never be as great as I want to be”. Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, penned by producer/drummer Butch Vig, delivers a memorable guitar riff and could be interpreted as a song about animal welfare, when you consider the music video and album sleeve. Another highlight is Blackout which musically reminded me of The Cure and feels like an anthem for introverts in the same vein as Here by Alessia Cara. Amends and If I Lost You might be the most autobiographical songs Manson has ever written, the latter about jealousy and insecurity. The closing ballad (which Garbage albums are known for) Amends is presumably about past relationships as Shirley has publically disclosed the lead singer of Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie cheated on her in the 1980s. While the new material is not as catchy and chart-friendly as Garbage’s earlier work, her vocal still sounds the same, and many songs grew on me on repeat listens. Even Butch Vig admitted: “They’re gonna need to hear it a couple times to get into it”. As a fan, I would rank Strange Little Birds fourth, with their 1995, 1998 and 2001 albums in the top 3 spots. If I had to point out a weakness, it’s that some tracks go on a little too long.
Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Singer/Songwriter. Not as accessible as Push The Sky Away (2013), no obvious singles for radio. It feels wrong to talk about the commercial performance of the album. Skeleton Tree is a sad yet beautiful record. The epic opener Jesus Alone is lyrically remarkable. I love the melody and vocal in Girl in Amber, which is reminiscent of the title track on his 2013 album. In fact quite a few of the new songs are variations on the synth-based soft spoken closer Push The Sky Away.
A very personal, therapeutic, melancholy release, uncommon for Cave to be so vulnerable and direct. I felt his pain over the loss of his son, particularly on the heartbreaking I Need You, Girl in Amber, and the duet Distant Sky. Although if I’m honest, in some moments the album made me feel a little drowsy and disengaged. There are weaker tracks, but enough significant moments to make it impactful.
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?
We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest
Hip hop. An album worth revisiting. Received generally positive reviews and considered by critics as a return to form. The group is regarded as a pioneer of alternative hip-hop and this is their first studio album in 18 years. I’m unfamiliar with their 90s heydey, so I can’t compare how it stacks up. Disc 1 has a lot of quality tracks while disc 2 is weaker. Lost Somebody and The Donald are tribute songs to recently deceased band member Phife Dawg. His nick name was Don(ald) Juice.
Stand outs for me are The Space Program(an anthem for change), Dis Generation(an ode to the new generation of hip-hop), Melatonin(about the struggles of modern life), We The People(the lead single) and Movin Backwards(about being remembered)
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by Margo Price
Country. Proof that it pays to read year-end lists. I missed her debut in March and what a great discovery late in the year. I love Hands of Time and the other songs are good too. A towering vocal and skilled musicianship by the backing band. Seldom am I wowed by an unknown artist. She has a talent for songwriting and creating melodies. While the lyrics tend towards melancholy there’s also an air of hopefulness. In a few months, the album might move further up my list. Much better than this year’s overhyped A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson.
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
Art Rock. Very atmospheric, very melancholic, very Radiohead. Not as groundbreaking as their earlier work. You could argue the new album is fan service, but holds up well to repeat listens. Their music to me is something you experience and I don’t really want to explain it. Speaks for itself.
The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
Hip Hop. The marketing and release of this album is what it might be remembered by. And of course the controversial video for Famous. After it was put out, he remixed several songs and released it again, the album was an unfinished work in progress. He also added new tracks. This kept his name in the media, and made you listen to it again, which was clever salesmanship. The album is inconsistent, half the songs are pretty good. Better than overrated Yeezus (2013). Not as great as MBDTF (2010). I’m still undecided about the quality of the lyrical content.
Foreverland by The Divine Comedy
Chamber Pop. Nice to have Neil Hannon back, it’s been six years since the last Divine Comedy album. I quite enjoyed the lead single Catherine the Great, which is an entertaining history lesson of sorts, and also works as a word play on his partner’s name Catherine. The second single How Can You Leave Me On My Own is hilarious and seems quite confessional. The intro of Napoleon Complex is beautiful. To the Rescue is my favorite non-single track, which can be read on several levels, presumably there’s a shout out to My Lovely Horse Rescue, a charity Hannon co-founded with his girlfriend and animal lover Cathy Davey. If I had to point to a weakness, some of the tracks don’t delve deep enough with the lyrical content, for example Happy Place, I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget), and Funny Peculiar.
Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
UK Hip Hop, Spoken Word. The album title is presumably a reworking of the famous “Let Them Eat Cake” quote which is associated with Marie Antoinette. Tunnel Vision is among the best tracks of the year, in which her political message is the most direct. If you only listen to one song from the album, try that.
As with her album Everybody Down (2014), the lyrics are the main attraction, and I recommend reading the words while you listen. On her 2016 outing, she looks at bigger issues, such as climate change and gentrification(the track Perfect Coffee).
A number of the songs are structurally reminiscent of her previous material. This time a group of seven Londoners living on the same street. For example Ketamine for Breakfast, in which Jemma only likes those who treat her badly, and We Die, where Alicia mourns a deceased friend.
Kate Tempest’s writing has many details, which can be perceived as both a strength and a weakness. She believably shows us this world in its complexity, even if some details could be regarded as unnecessary.
Other cuts that moved me, Pictures on a Screen, a haunting account of modern day emptiness and discontentment. Grubby, a chaotic stream of consciousness, about a relationship that won’t let go. Some of the other songs may grow on me.
A shout-out also to the artwork, the sleeves for the singles and album are above average, the visuals stay with you.
Kate Tempest’s vocal is quite similar to Anne Clark, the English poet, songwriter and electronic musician.
Which are your favorite albums of 2016? Have you listened to any of the albums here and what did you think? Have I encouraged you to listen to any of these? As always, comments are welcome.