2016 was such a good year for music and yet, also, such a shocking year for music. It was filled with strong, energized, and interesting releases from well-established artists, as well as some exciting, new talents, many of whom were rediscovering and modernizing classic, old sounds.
But, it was not such a good year for music as we saw the passing of giants such as Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, George Michael, and too many more.
Thankfully, it was a difficult year to pick favorites. I’ve rank ordered a top ten and I simply must resist the temptation to re-order them that one more time. You’ll then find a further ten, in alphabetical order, any of which could easily have bumped one from the top bracket.
There’s so much here to enjoy, but 2017 will bring its own surprises, too. I’ll be keenly listening and I hope you will be, too! Leave a comment to share your favorite albums of 2016.
10. Nick Waterhouse – "Never Twice" (innovative Leisure)
Combining doo-wop, jump blues, and just plain groovy rhythm-and blues, Nick Waterhouse is solidly located in the post-war era. The album was proudly captured to tape without computers or much modern technology in the recording. Ralph Carney features on sax, Will Blades on organ. This is foot-tapping lounge music that yearns for pork-pie hats, ladies dressed to the nines, and smoke-filled rooms where the musicians skiffle and shuffle away in a distant corner.
"She wears a big coat, trimmed in fur. I’ll stay up all night, just to see her. Down on Stanyan Street."
9. C.W. Stoneking – "Gon Boogaloo" (King Hokum Records)
It’s like a well worn 78, recorded deep in the jungle of some swampy locale. From within the trees a rockabilly guitar growls, some gospel singers purr, and a raspy Delta bluesman relives his inner Leadbelly. This, the third album from C.W. Stoneking, is part Screamin Jay Hawkins, part Tom Waits, and part JD McPherson.
"I drifted in the Doldrums, almost dead, A weedy, watery trail, With a useless rag hangin above my head, Not a breath o' breeze to fill my sail."
8. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Polydor)
The most mainstream release on this list, Michael Kiwanuka continues the modern resurgence of great soul music. In the vein of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield (but with the modern hit-making abilities of producer Brian “Dangermouse” Burton), this album is grand, triumphant, and self-assured. Michael Kiwanuka, clearly "I’m black man in a white world", strikes a bold, captivating voice on this consistently enjoyable album.
7. Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros (RCA Records)
I can’t completely understand why this album seems so overlooked in 2016. It is a masterpiece from a well-honed and popular musician. Long tracks that meander and bounce from place to place, they are good meditations on self, starting, and rebirth. (An Ouroboros is an old symbol of a snake eating its own tail, a symbol of infinity and the cyclical nature of life.) I hear nods of Pink Floyd and an obvious heavy influence of My Morning Jacket (who play on many tracks, with Jim James as the record’s producer). Trippy and shimmery.
6. Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal, The Very Best, & Beatenburg – Johannesburg EP (Glassnote)
Recorded in South Africa, this all-too-short EP is a melting pot of influences: Esau Mwamwaya (lead singer of The Very Best) is from Malawi, Baaba Maal is Senegalese, and Beatenburg are a Cape Town pop band from South Africa. Mumford & Sons are a British band with lots of Americana influences of banjo, mandolin, and vocal harmonies. It is hard not to find similarities with Paul Simon’s Graceland and Vampire Weekend’s first album, as this EP has much joy and life.
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd)
Nick Cave’s music has frequently been dark and morose, prowling and twisting at the edges of society. But, the death of his son during the recording of this album lends a particularly macabre and prescient tone.
"With my voice, I am calling you."
Ghosts inhabit the songs with a heaviness of perspective and patience. The strings are restrained, like demons only gently kept at bay. God is in the details. An outstanding recording from a master completely at ease with his craft. Nick Cave is confronted by the rawness of life. There are tears here.
4. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Great music transports you to another place; provoking and challenging, all the while generating a strong emotional response. Bon Iver’s third album is all this, by far his strangest yet. In the week in which it was released I must have listened to it fifteen or twenty times. I couldn’t quite understand it, but I was fascinated by its boldness and intrigue. Justin Vernon’s beautiful vocals are distorted throughout, processed by a home-made Auto-Tune. Electronic blips and blurbs intrude and fade. Strings soar and saxophones wail. Absolutely brilliant.
3. Radiohead – "A Moon-Shaped Pool" (XL Recordings)
From a band that has always broken defined styles, Radiohead delivers their most "experimental offering" since "Kid A" (still my favorite Radiohead album!) For a band on their twelfth release, they are gracious and poised on this meditative and moody disc. "A Moon-Shaped Pool" rewards careful listening all the while that it carries you on its waves and tides.
2. Esperanza Spalding – "Emily’s D+Evolution" (Concord Music Group)
With complex jazz-funk rhythms and bold R & B vocals, this album is reminiscent of the 70’s prog-rock, jazz fusion, and Frank Zappa. A concept album of angular and dischordant themes, it is an enticing self-referential world of love and identity. Emily is an alter-ego, we imagine, "a spirit, or a being, or an aspect who I met, or became aware of," as Spalding told NPR. This is art-rock territory, a theatrical flourish that challenges as much as it soothes.
1. Lake Street Dive – "Side Pony" (Nonesuch)
This was the album that I featured the most on Freeforms in 2016. So many good songs! Heck, it was probably the most played album all year on Montana Public Radio. "Side Pony" is upbeat and bouncy, bold and sassy, playful and confident. It is produced by one of 2016’s big names - Dave Cobb, who also helmed work by Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, Miranda Lambert, and Lindi Ortega. Perfectly mixing Muscle Shoals soul, Motown grooves, shimmering harmonies, and a torchsong Pop diva in Rachael Price, "Who doesn’t love a side pony?"
Ten more favorites of 2016 (in alphabetical order):
- Clairy Browne – "Pool" (Vanguard)
- Brandy Clark – "Big Day in a Small Town" (Warner Bros.)
- Leonard Cohen – "You Want It Darker" (Sony Music)
- Frightened Rabbit – "Painting of a Panic Attack" (Atlantic)
- Lisa Hannigan – "At Swim"
- The Heavy – "Hurt & the Merciless" (Bad Son)
- The James Hunter Six – "Hold On’" (Daptone Records)
- Kaleo – "A/ B" (Elektra)
- Anderson .Paak – "Malibu" (Steel Wool / OBE / Art Club / EMPIRE)
- William Tyler – "Modern Country" (Merge Records)
Lastly, my favorite hip-hop albums of 2016 were:
- A Tribe Called Quest – "We Got It From Here: Thank You 4 Your Service" (Epic Records)
- Chance The Rapper – "Coloring Book" (self release)
My favorite classical album was Jóhann Jóhannsson– "Orphée" (Deutsche Grammophon).
What were your favorite albums of 2016?