The year in music of 2016 seems likely to be remembered for its major losses. This was a year when we lost artists who were not merely stars, but icons whose albums helped shape entire genres of music: Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Ralph Stanley and Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire). We also said goodbye to Glen Frey, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Dan Hicks, Chips Moman, Ernestine Anderson, Mose Allison, Paul Kantner, Guy Clark and Stanley Dural (Buckwheat Zydeco), to name a few, all artists who also made a real impact on music. Fortunately, when it came to the music itself, 2016 was a good year, with plenty of strong albums from some big names (including swan songs from Bowie and Cohen) and artists whose popularity has never matched the quality of their work (Bob Mould, Dawes). Here are my picks for the top 10 albums of 2016:
1) Beyoncé: Lemonade
No album made more of a stir in 2016 than Lemonade. Beyoncé had a lot to say about resilience, self-pride and self-determination, echoing such themes in songs like “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom.” The music is as strong and focused as the lyrics, as Lemonade contains some of Beyoncé’s most addictive songs yet. This is a career-making album, something that seems odd to say considering Beyoncé was already the queen of hip-hop before Lemonade arrived.
2) David Bowie: Blackstar
An innovator right until the end, Bowie’s Blackstar is elusive to categorize, but easy to enjoy. Its songs feel almost freeform, their skittering rhythms pushing them through moments that range from striking beauty to gritty dissonance. Somehow it all coalesces into a focused and forceful album. The often-cryptic lyrics make several allusions to Bowie’s impending death, but don’t reveal a clear narrative or message. In some ways, Blackstar mirrors its creator’s enigmatic shape shifting while remaining emotionally resonant and powerful.
3) Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
At age 23, Will Toledo has now released 13 albums under the Car Seat Headrest moniker, and with Teens of Denial he’s made one of the year’s best indie rock albums. Stocked with concise rockers and a trio of epic tracks, Teens of Denial is a multi-faceted and frequently bracing work.
4) Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
This third mixtape from the Chicago native shines with its musical range and ambition, bending hip-hop boundaries with songs that incorporate elements of jazz (“All We Got”), New Orleans reverie (“Blessings”), gospel (“How Great”) and more.
5) Drive-By Truckers: American Band
No album this year captured the political/social climate of the country better than American Band. Frequently angry and always thought provoking, the Truckers address racial tensions and hostilities between police and minorities, the rise of the National Rifle Association and much more on a set of rockers and taut mid-tempo tracks that are as musically powerful as the lyrics.
6) Dawes: We’re All Gonna Die
On their fifth album, Dawes expand their sound while retaining their country-pop core. The group brings an electronic vibe to “One Of Us” and “When The Tequila Runs Out.” At the other end of the spectrum, the delightful “As If By Design” feels jazzy with its freewheeling piano fills and horns. The new elements may challenge long-time fans, but stick with this album and its quality and inventiveness really shine.
7) Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome
Fifty-plus years ago, the Stones helped introduce the pop world to blues music by covering some of their favorite blues songs. Now the Stones have made their first true blues album, and this time, they bring a passion and an authenticity to these covers that only talent and years of exploring and experience can produce.
8) Kanye West: Life of Pablo
West’s recent albums have seemed a bit too convoluted. Life Of Pablo remains ambitious, but its songs are more sharply drawn, a little more economical in their production yet still creative and unpredictable. A couple of tracks fall flat, but Life of Pablo is a step in the right direction for the seemingly tortured, but undeniably creative West.
9) Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead has made its prettiest, most soothing album, but one whose musical layers allow the songs to grow more potent with additional plays. By Radiohead standards, A Moon Shaped Pool might qualify as an easy listen, but it’s also replete with the bold qualities we’ve come to expect from Radiohead.
10) Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker
Sounding like he knew You Want It Darker would be his final album, Cohen is his usual articulate and poetic self as he frequently ponders the regrets of life and relationships within songs that balance the lyrics with considerable beauty. The famously dour Cohen also gets in a last laugh with the zinger of an album title. In all seriousness, though, our world has become a bit darker with the loss of this masterful songwriter.
Bob Mould: Patch The Sky; Green Day: Revolution Radio; Ty Segall: Emotional Mugger; Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me; Lucy Dacus: No Burden; Bonnie Raitt: Dig In Deep; Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Mudcrutch: Mudcrutch 2; Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories; Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings