As you might have noticed, 2016 was not the brightest year for the human race. So here’s to the musicians who made albums worth celebrating – so many great ones, there was no way to slice it down to a mere top 10. These were my 20 favorites, from all over the map: soul catharsis, rock & roll kicks, hip-hop exorcism, cheap pop thrills. Some came from new voices, others from old favorites, and a few from legendary hearts saying good night. But these were the albums that lifted me up, dug me out, spun me right round and sang me back home.
Nobody else could have dropped an album two days after Prince died – but when Beyonce released Lemonade, it sounded like no less than a passing of the purple torch, especially since Lemonade is full of songs about how the beautiful ones will hurt you every time. And that includes America, the lover who always finds new ways to sell you out. Beyonce ruled this year – Lemonade was the queen's boldest personal statement, but also her picture of where the country's bad brain is at. She claims every corner of American music, from country ("Daddy Lessons") to muscle-car blues-metal ("Don't Hurt Yourself"), from New Orleans bounce ("Formation") to wherever Vegas meets the Lower East Side ("Hold Up"). But it's a land where you never know when love will turn to betrayal. And in a year that needed music as desperately as 2016 did, nothing less than Lemonade would do – a levee-breaking, lemon-squeezing, fire-breathing rage suite. This is hardcore.
A year ago, I was obsessively playing the new Bowie song, "Blackstar," and nothing about it sounded like a man looking back – a 10-minute space-glam trip with a jazzy R&B groove. Nearly a year later, after more obsessive listening, Bowie's parting gift remains full of mysteries, but it's the exuberance of Blackstar that really astounds. He's not summing up where he's been or revisiting past glories. Instead, he crams this album full of ideas for future songs he won't get to write and says, "You got it from here. You're welcome 4 my service." What an album. What an exit. What a life.
"You're my favorite but favorites always fail" is the greatest lyric in any love song this year, or at least it's impossible to think of any others while a Mannequin Pussy song is playing. Especially since Marisa Dabice clobbers every word with her savagely funny scream. These Philly punks won my sick heart with their 2014 debut Gypsy Pervert, but Romantic is an even hotter knife, 11 tantrums in 17 minutes, an album about self-destructive mood swings and why they're excellent. Favorite moment: Dabice takes a deep breath and yells, "I was miles away when you needed someone to sit on your face screaming, 'Keep me,' and I am not ashamed to be lonely but I'm afraid to feel it so deeply," which takes her just nine seconds. Jesus, what an exhausting band to fall in love with.
"It looks like freedom but it feels like death/It's something in between, I guess," Leonard Cohen once sang. "It's closing time." That was back in 1992, when he was just a lad of 58 and his idea of "Closing Time" meant shutting down the honky-tonk bars with an alluring older woman. "She's a hundred but she's wearing something tight" – great line. This year Cohen turned 82 – not quite a hundred, but closer to a hundred than to 58 – and made one final masterwork. There's a harrowing calm in his voice as he rasps, "A million candles burning for the help that never came." All over Darker, he casts a cold eye on the world he's leaving behind, and signs one last "sincerely, L. Cohen" to his classic songbook.
The guitar album of the summer – I probably watched the sun go down 30 or 40 times to this record in 2016. There are really only a handful of songs in the universe as great as Sebadoh's "Soul And Fire," but Lvl Up have at least a half-dozen of them on Return to Love, as the Brooklyn dudes bring a weird element of psychedelic pantheistic pastoral to all the urban grime.
Officially a 20-minute, six-song EP, but loaded with more sonic and lyrical twists than most artists pull off in a career. The self-proclaimed "gangsta gone Gatsby" gets real about the mean streets inside his head, while loading up on literary mic checks, from "I write the James Joyce, don't need the Rolls Royce" to "Edgar Allen Poe tried to warn them of demise and all he seen was crows."
Not just a reunion – a career-capping triumph. The Tribe didn't owe the world a thing – they sealed their legacy two decades ago, except they went back to the lab for one more one-two one-two and came out with this. A statement of rage and solidarity that became a posthumous tribute to the late great Phife Dawg – as well as the loyalty he inspired in a few old friends.
Something I tried giving up for Lent this year was ridiculous Pavement comparisons, but that kind of strength I just don't have – I didn't even make it it to sundown on Ash Wednesday before I was saying things like "This is the Pacific Trim of grilled cheese sandwiches." Yet there really is something jubilant about how Will Toledo takes that Pavement style of indie slop to such anthemic levels here. It's almost like the guy went from a home-taping Bandcamp solo geek to, like, an actual rock star or something. On Teens of Denial he's part Dashboard Confessional, part "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," running off at the mouth with a head full of drugs and porn and books and lyrics of popular rock ballads. "What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys? What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses."
Their most unabashedly beautiful-on-purpose album, except maybe In Rainbows, as Jonny Greenwood calls in the strings and the boys nick guitar tricks from Jimmy Page ("The Numbers") or Neil Young ("Desert Island Disk") or Side Two of the second Police album ("Identikit"). Somehow even the saddest moments sound spirited – as if Thom Yorke got his hopes up for one little fucklet of a second that the ice age might take a little longer.
The never-ending story of punk girls and their mad love for Blink-182. Lisa Prank's tunes might sound like they come straight from the Enema of the State playbook, but they kick in and stick through months of heavy boombox rotation. She bangs her guitar and pours her heart out about troublesome menfolk ("Your long hair hides a waste of time") and her troublesome self. I guess this is semi-quasi-growing up. Preach, sister: "If you're sad, you're listening to the wrong song/And if you hear your mind, the music's just not loud enough."
Quiet music that's vivid enough to fill up any room where you play it. From the mournful piano of "Pink + White" to the guitar trembles of "Ivy," it's a Pet Sounds with sex scenes.
There were so many concept albums this year about why it sucks to be 23 but this one really got me. Katie Bennett sings the wise-ass boho poseur blues, a guitar girl who gets home from her supermarket job and writes funny songs just so she'll have something worth remembering tomorrow. "Chubby Cows" has my favorite hook: "My friends are weepy/We weep for weeks/I weep for no reason." But "for you I'd write a shitty poem on the wall of a dressing room at JC Penney" is a romantic fantasy to believe in.
Imagine putting a song as beautiful as "Sister" into the world – eight minutes of goth-cowgirl confessional. Olsen sings with a high-lonesome twang that's as much Siouxsie as Dolly, as if "Shut Up Kiss Me" fell from the soundtrack of some lost Nineties straight-to-video erotic thriller nobody ever rented. "Something in the world will make a fool of you" – does she mean that as good news or bad news? Both.
I've been a Nick Cave devotee for 30-something years, but I never knew he was capable of a statement like this. The documentary One More Time With Feeling tells the story – he was working on this album when his family suffered the death of his teenage son last summer. For fans who've used his music as therapy to get us through grief experiences, part of the Nick Cave mystique is how he approaches the dark side as a working professional, a family man who heads to the office and writes about his nightmares from nine to five. "I wake up in the morning and I go and sit down at the songbook or typewriter and I start to work," he told me in 2014. "The same way with anybody who has a job. You just get up and go to fucking work." But to face this real-life tragedy, he went back to the office and finished Skeleton Tree – starkly beautiful, unhysterical, an album that lifts you up because it's so candid about the mechanics of grief. Mourning the dead is a matter of doing the work. (The film's most surprisingly funny moment: His wife rearranges the house as he muses, "It's a common thing for women to move furniture around.") It's like Cave sings in "Girl in Amber: "If you want to bleed, just bleed."
Great album – much stronger than Kanye seems to think it is, given his decision to use "Famous" as the calling card, since "Famous" is dog vomit and there's no way he doesn't realize it. Who knows, maybe in his most self-loathing moments, he thinks "Famous" is all he is and all we deserve. Pablo has amazing peaks like the Arthur Russell–sampling Drake duet "30 Hours" – "collaboration" may be too loaded a word, given how the auteur ended the year with his head so far up the fascist rectum he might never look any audience in the eye again. "Fade" caps it with a loop of the Motown classic "I Know I'm Losing You" – not the Temptations' original, not even the Rod Stewart version, but a cover by white-bread Midwest rockers Rare Earth, a brilliant gesture of how alienated he feels in an adult life he wasn't so sure he wanted.
An album of four stretched-out guitar trances from the duo of drummer Rick Brown and ax man Che Chen. Brown bangs a plywood crate he found on an NYC street corner while Chen digs into his refretted quarter-tone guitar for improvs that blend Moorish modal music with Ornette and Bo Diddley, creating one monster of a groove record – especially the climax of "Beni Said," which sounds like Fairport Convention covering "Sister Ray" while their hair catches fire.
"The visionary in the vintage Chevy" pulls off so many dazzling tricks on his virtuosic sophomore album, building his poetic R&B grooves. Bonus applause for rhyming "chronic smoke" with "the greatest hits of Hall and Oates."
The Brooklyn guitar savants dabble in verse-chorus-verse songcraft to mix some of their funniest blurts with a few downright sincere moments. And when they lock into the sideways riffs of "Dust" or "Outside," they're both funny and sincere.
Here is the young man, the weight on his shoulders. Danny Brown gets as goth as you'd expect on a rap album named after a Joy Division tribute to J.G. Ballard, complete with an opener titled "The Downward Spiral." He goes cinematic, from "I'm like Kubrick with two bricks" to "I'm Coltrane on Soul Plane," in a disturbingly druggy tour of hotboxed hotel rooms and red-carpet nosebleeds, from the industrial interzone of Detroit.
Some witty Peter Tork stage banter, from the Monkees' 50th anniversary tour this summer: "If you've been following us from the beginning, just remember one thing. Any one thing." But against all odds, they came back with one of the year's kickiest pop surprises. Thank producer Adam Schlesinger, the first actual Monkees fan ever to make a Monkees album – which might be why it's (easily) their finest since the Head soundtrack. All the guest songwriters rise to the occasion, because they're also fans: Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge, even Noel Gallagher. Seeing Mike Nesmith join live for "Papa Gene's Blues" – via Skype – was another surprise. Here's to crazy ideas and the artists crazy enough to make them real. In 2017, the world will need as many of those as we can get.