By Spencer. I’m going to make a bold statement: 2016 was the best year for music in S&N’s three-year history. And I mean that from top to bottom. The top five in my year-end list is a murderer’s row of absolutely ingenious albums—each of them practically perfect from the first track to the last and displaying both infectious listenability and grand artistic ambition. But whereas in past years we saw a quick decline between the top five and everything else, 2016 presented so many good options that it was damn near impossible for me to even compile this list. Since science has yet to find a way to cram more than 20 albums into a top-20 list, though, I was forced to leave many worthy contenders out.
So flawed and incomplete as it may be, here’s my list for the best albums of 2016:
1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
2. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
4. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee / Vestapol
5. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
6. Billie Marten – Writing Of Blues And Yellows
7. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
8. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
9. Matt Corby – Telluric
10. Aoife O’Donovan – In The Magic Hour
11. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
12. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math
13. Gallant – Ology
14. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
15. Woods – City Sun Eater In The River Of Light
16. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
17. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
18. Natalie Royal – Harbinger
19. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs
20. Chris Staples – Golden Age
It seems unoriginal and almost anticlimactic to crown a Radiohead album as the best of the year—like we tripped through a time warp and woke up in 2001. But A Moon Shaped Pool was something special, even within Radiohead’s hallowed catalog. We can debate whether it represents a return to form or whether that’s just a convenient media narrative that undersells the quality of their past few albums, but there’s no debating that this album deserves to stand alongside Radiohead’s very best—and that’s saying something now, over twenty years into their history-making career. How many bands can still innovate like this in their third decade of existence? How many aging artists can say something new without resorting to gimmicks like a radical genre change or a concept album? What I find most fascinating about A Moon Shaped Pool is that it retains the core identity of vintage Radiohead without sounding like a mere rehash of their past glory. You can’t say that about U2, who are still putting out perfectly fine music but, let’s face it, have been running on a musical hamster’s wheel of self-imitation for fifteen years now. You can’t say it about Bruce Springsteen, who keeps mining the same comfortable working class themes over and over again. You can’t say it about Smashing Pumpkins, who have become a virtual tribute band to themselves. You can’t say it about Wilco or Pearl Jam or Metallica or The Rolling Stones, who live on mostly as live acts, putting out the occasional mediocre album simply to justify the tour. But Radiohead remains a vital voice in our musical lexicon, and A Moon Shaped Pool sounds startlingly fresh and yet enduringly faithful to the band’s sonic story. The achievement in that is monumental.
Blood Orange may not have Radiohead’s longevity, but the timelessness of Freetown Sound’s fusion of pop, techno, and funk made it one of the most fun listens of the year, filling a gap in our musical tapestry that had lingered since the very best days of Prince. A Tribe Called Quest made a comeback (and a swan song) of their own with a political masterwork that also happened to be the most satisfying hip-hop work in half a decade. Meanwhile, Hiss Golden Messenger wowed me with a flourishing new band and an album that finally made me see the hype behind this songwriting talent. And Michael Kiwanuka doubled down on everything I loved about his 2012 debut with an ambitious concept album that infused prog rock sensibilities into his vintage folk and R&B sounds.
Turning to the softer side of the spectrum, Billie Marten gave us the year’s prettiest album, a collection of English folk so fragile you fear you might break it just by listening—but by all means, take the risk. It’s worth it. The eclectic mishmash of the pairing of Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam was like taking five decades of random sounds and putting them in a cocktail shaker; the result reinvigorated two indie artists who just might belong together better than with their respective bands (The Walkmen, Vampire Weekend). Is the new Sturgill Simpson still country? Maybe in doses, but we need a whole new genre to describe his epic, nautical-themed collection of C&W, funk, and alternative soundscapes. Likewise, it’s hard to tack an accurate descriptor onto Matt Corby, but Telluric was trippy, mysterious, and brimming with soul-swirling melody. And Boston’s Aoife O’Donovan used meandering melodies and Celtic influences to give folk music an unpredictable flair.
Margo Price brought a hipster’s sense of vintage thrift store style to country music with her throwback 70s sound. While Margaret Glaspy made the leap from typical folk to a punchier grunge/blues hybrid, writing vulnerable, biting songs in the vein of a Liz Phair that have the upbeat guitar licks of a Bonnie Raitt. I loved the debut LP from Gallant, who does experimental R&B with all of the flair of The Weeknd (and far less ego). Irish balladeer Lisa Hannigan returned from a too-long hiatus with an album that evoked nuances of Radiohead but stayed true to her basic roots. And Woods broke the wall into Afro-pop and finally found a voice that set them apart from all the sound-the-same indie bands of their generation.
Rounding out my list, Chance The Rapper made hip-hop interesting again with intellectual spoken-word lyrics and doses of gospel to go alongside more traditional party fare. England’s The 1975 went full-on 80s for their sophomore album and proved that pop can still have a brain (even if it’s hiding behind a lot of teenage sentiment). Natalie Royal defied easy categorization with songwriting that flirted with R&B, indie, or just vintage hippie folk. The power trio of Case/Lang/Veirs (as in Neko, k.d. and Laura) proved greater than the sum of its parts with an album that single-handedly revived three separate careers. And Chris Staples stood out among the year’s late entries with a mostly-unheralded batch of quirky folk compositions with just the right amount of shiny gloss.
Of course you know I can’t pass up a chance to comment on the year’s notable disappointments too. Count me among the skeptics of Beyonce’s Lemonade; it’s not that it’s a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but come on, is it really worth being the consensus #1 album of the year among the major music publications? Are we even rewarding the actual music anymore, or is it just Beyonce’s larger-than-life persona that people love? To me, all of the posturing of an album meant to rebuke Jay-Z for cheating and portray Beyonce as the finger-wagging diva that won’t put up with that shit is a little betrayed by the fact that, you know, she stayed with him. And once that’s gone, what’s left?
Likewise, after two critically-lauded albums that put me to sleep, someone needs to explain to me the appeal of Angel Olsen. And James Blake’s lengthy third album seems to be the point where his music is all starting to sound the same; it’s good for a song here and there, but it gets dreary when heard all in a row. I also fear we’ve reached the point where Frightened Rabbit and The Joy Formidable no longer have much to say. Most disappointingly, I was huge fan of PJ Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake, so I was crushed when her follow-up this year was gratingly offbeat and aimless.
And then there’s Bon Iver. I know some of the other S&N contributors are going to tell you they loved 22, A Million, so in the words of the immortal Jules Winnfield, please allow me to retort. And keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who has otherwise loved Bon Iver—but this collection of self-indulgent blather is actually painful to listen to, seemingly produced on purpose to sound broken and flawed—with audio glitches and even moments where one headphone or the other appears to short out for no apparent reason other than that it makes him “edgy” and “inventive.” (You can’t see it now, but my eyes are rolling as I write this). I can think of no greater example of confusing novelty with art. And when you aim for profundity with gimmicks like, say, naming all your songs as nonsensical streams of letters, symbols, and gibberish, that doesn’t make you deep; it makes you a vapid poseur. Justin Vernon isn’t the first artist to throw his lot in with this kind of pretentious B.S.—I’m looking at you, Sufjan—and he won’t be the last. But when you lose one of the good ones to this brand of pseudo-intellectual affectation, it just hurts me a little bit more.
So stick with the good ones this year. 2016 gave you an embarrassment of riches to enjoy, so let’s not waste time on the middling. As Radiohead reminded us with their closing track, “True Love Waits” for those who seek it out.