Judging just by the obituary columns, 2016 was a miserable year for music. From David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen to Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Juan Gabriel, and Maurice White, not to mention Vanity, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell and Sharon Jones, it wasn’t simply that an unusual number of major musicians died, it often seemed as if the very foundations of Western musical culture had begun to erode away with them.
And yet, it also felt like music simply mattered more in 2016. Perhaps it was the renewed awareness that no veteran musician ought to be taken for granted, and stellar new works from Bowie, Cohen, Paul Simon, Radiohead, and the Rolling Stones stood as stark counterpoints to pop music’s obsession with youth. Perhaps it was the full emergence of major new voices like Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada, and Maren Morris into the mainstream conversation, or the continuing evolution of artists like Solange and Frank Ocean into potentially generation-defining talents. And when faced with an ever darkening and splintering socio-political climate, a refreshing number of artists seemed willing to risk singles-chart positions for the sake of statements, no one more visibly than Beyonce, who brought Black Panther iconography to the Super Bowl and elevated the longform music video into something that ended up in film critics’ year-end awards discussions.
With that, here are the ten albums from the past year that personally surprised me, struck me, stirred me, and stuck with me the most. I could have easily added ten or twenty more.
10. YG, “Still Brazy”
For rap fans of a certain age and geographic orientation, it’s hard to listen to the liquid Zapp basslines and sparkling minor keyboards on YG’s “Still Brazy” without having a strong Pavlovian response. But as much as the 26-year-old Compton rapper honors his city’s 1990s musical heritage, he’s no facile throwback artist, and here he fully perfects his own personal portrait of parties, palm trees, and paranoia. (And for whatever it may lack in nuance, YG’s anti-Trump track “FDT” offered the most direct election night catharsis to be found.)
9. Mica Levi, “Jackie”
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Pablo Larrain’s film “Jackie” without Mica Levi’s strange, unnerving, evocative score. It is, however, entirely possible to find just as much complexity and drama by experiencing the music as a standalone work, thanks to Levi’s ability to craft ingenious sonic surrogates for such complex emotions as post-traumatic stress, grief-stricken boredom, and the sinking feeling in the stomach that immediately precedes an unwelcome epiphany. Following her equally memorable first score for “Under the Skin,” Levi has already established herself as one of the most exciting young composers working in film, and perhaps anywhere else.
8. Dillinger Escape Plan, “Dissociation”
Before calling time on a two-decade career, the New Jersey hardcore/mathcore/prog-metal/ jazz-metal/whatever-else-you-want-to-call-them band made sure to throw themselves a fittingly savage retirement party. For a group whose live shows were rarely more than half a step short of a riot, Dillinger Escape Plan were always willing to follow their muse into surprisingly melodic and nuanced directions, and that sense of unbounded adventurousness remains strong here, though they still make sure to include enough hairpin tempo shifts and screaming blasts of noise that listening to this album while driving is not recommended.
7. Maren Morris, “Hero”
In spite of its overall aura of traditionalism, country music has always been adept at hoovering up new musical styles without losing its core identity, from blues rock to heavy metal and synth pop. Hip-hop and modern R&B have proven more of a challenge, however, with bro-country’s urban radio borrowings often sounding more like Rappin’ Granny than Raekwon. Enter Maren Morris, who understands how to draw inspiration from various sources without letting them overwhelm her. From the Rihanna-esque vocal inflections of “Sugar” to the more direct hip-hop references on “Rich” – which borrows from Steve Miller’s “The Joker” just as inventively as EPMD sampled his “Fly Like an Eagle” – Morris sounds equally at ease namechecking Diddy as Hank and Cash, and always comfortable in her own skin.
6. Angel Olsen, “My Woman”
Several years ago, I watched as the then-marginally-known Angel Olsen brought a boozy, cacophonous crowd at an echoey storefront venue in Downtown LA to pin-drop silence with nothing but her gently-strummed guitar and a voice that rarely rose above a tremulous deadpan. The singer-songwriter’s peculiar brand of quiet intensity remains as strong as ever on “My Woman,” and Olsen’s second Jagjaguwar release expands the scope of her sound in some eye-opening directions, with “Sister” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” giving peeks at the sort of range and potential that she still has left to explore.
5. Anderson .Paak, “Malibu”
In the years before releasing “Malibu,” Anderson .Paak had been a touring drummer for an “American Idol” contestant, a marijuana farmer, a fellow traveler in L.A.’s experimental rap underground, a key collaborator for Dr. Dre’s 2015 album, “Compton,” and one half of duo NxWorries, whose second album “Yes Lawd!” was a strong runner-up for this top ten list. It’s hard to assemble a more Los Angeles resume than that, and the Oxnard-born singer-songwriter-rapper-producer’s gleefully uncategorizable music reflects his life experiences. He isn’t the first to try to move freely between soul, jazz, hip-hop, and funk, but by refusing to acknowledge any meaningful boundaries between those genres, he does so with a remarkable ease.
4. Miranda Lambert, “The Weight of These Wings”
To say that Miranda Lambert released the best country album of the year is hardly news – she’s done that several times since 2007. But with this sprawling double-disc set, she released the best full-on rock album of the year as well, spotlighting her gift for impeccably stinging turns of phrase (delivered with just the right balance of venom, sadness, and sarcasm) by stripping down her surrounding musical palette to its key elements. The bright pop hooks of her past records are still here, but the country radio bombast is not, and the rougher, messier templates fit these songs like a glove.
3. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
I listened to “Blackstar” for the second time on the day of David Bowie’s death – just days after the album was released – and from that point forward, it has been impossible to hear it as anything other than a stunning musical last will and testament, a clear-eyed and complicated rumination on mortality. But I listened to it for the first time on the day of its release, when the Starman still walked the earth, and regarded it quite differently. Not yet a voice from beyond the grave, the album seemed to suggest nothing less than an artist reborn, a radical and fully-fleshed new musical direction from a man who had experienced so many creative lives in the course of his 69 years. No matter the context in which it’s heard, “Blackstar” is an album that remains fiercely and thrillingly alive, from its 10-minute jazz odyssey opener to its sadly triumphant closer.
2. Solange, “A Seat at the Table”
Beyonce’s “Lemonade” will surely go down as 2016’s most culturally significant album, and deservedly so. But little sister Solange’s third album is a work that that’s already begun to feel timeless – a low-key epic filled with warmth and curiosity. Tackling the weightiest of subjects with a diaphanously light touch, organically incorporating spoken-word interludes without ever slipping into didacticism, and finding perfect thematic throughlines linking the righteous defiance of “Don’t Touch My Hair” to the warped funk of “Junie” and the swooning elegance of “Cranes in the Sky” – unquestionably the standout R&B track of the year – “A Seat at the Table” was a complete artistic breakthrough, catapulting Solange to the forefront of pop’s most adventurous musicmakers.
1. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
Unless I’m discussing the Bible or Smokey Robinson, the word “miracle” doesn’t come up often in my vocabulary. But everything about the sixth and final Tribe album is a miracle. It’s a miracle that it even exists, coming after 18 years of breakups, reunion tours, and well-documented inter-band strife. It’s a miracle that Phife Dawg managed to record more than half a dozen verses for it before his untimely death last spring. It’s a miracle that the album still sounds unmistakably like Tribe, while also sounding like nothing else in their discography, and no hip-hop album released in their absence. It’s a miracle that it serves as the first great protest album of the Donald Trump era, though it would have sounded just as urgent and relevant even if Hillary Clinton had prevailed. It’s a miracle that Phife, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and Jarobi are all back to rapping as well as they ever have (and in Jarobi’s case, far better). Tribe’s status as one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time was never in doubt, and with this swan song, they’ve scratched off that “one of” modifier. Miraculous.