What the pundit class missed, the creative class saw a mile away: These days are perilous, and any one of them could easily be the last. “Real midnight’s gonna come,” Birds of Chicago promised us, on an album released way back in February, and for some of us 2016 hangs like inescapable darkness. And they weren’t the only prophets of change, decay, time running out: Paul Simon warned us of a werewolf coming; Parker Milsap, that we are in the very last days. Margo Price shook her fists at the cruel hands of time. A Tribe Called Quest readied themselves for a future that could only possibly happen elsewhere, and without them (“no space program for niggas”). “You want it darker,” Leonard Cohen mused, and maybe we did. Be careful what you wish for.
The records of 2016 sound to me like the silver linings of a dark cloud—and, the very best ones, like shelter from the storm. Truthfully, this has been the richest year for new music releases that I can remember, and the Top 40 I’m offering here is cut down from a long-list of more than 100 fine ones. The records I’m honoring here are precious treasures, abundant in revelation, humanity, and humor; pure in their creative expression, robust in their entertainment, deeply moving in their celebration of song and story.
That many of these records offer hymns to the apocalypse is something I’ve already noted—but of course, nothing’s really the apocalypse until the world has ended, and some of my favorite 2016 records bear witness to new beginnings—like Sturgill Simpson’s heart expanding with the joy of fatherhood (“how could I have known/ that the answer was so easy?”), Miranda Lambert’s breaking into vulnerability and then renewal. Indeed, vulnerability has been a precious commodity, and on some records a weaponized one: I am thinking of Solange, Beyonce, Bon Iver, Noname, and Elizabeth Cook, among others. And what about Nels Cline, whose new album is a careful consideration of intimacy? And Birds of Chicago, for that matter, whose eschatological urgency is fueled by earthbound love?
2016’s records also include too many goodbyes, several of which are, in their bittersweet way, redemptive. Phife Dawg raps his ass off on a song that also finds him claiming the nickname “The Donald” for himself, for no other reason other than he can. David Bowie’s final bit of sleight of hand refused to give all his secrets away, and because it abides mystery it stands among his best records. So does Leonard Cohen’s album, which longs for a treaty and a better way, and Allen Toussaint’s, a swan song that adds to his legacy rather than simply resting on it. Nick Cave made an album this year that harbors grief without pretending that it’s all going to be okay; is establishes deep kinship with anyone who’s ever hurt before.
Many other releases from this year drew from a deep well of American songcraft that speaks in no uncertain terms to an invisible republic that has weather plenty of bullshit already, and will last long past the incoming regime; here I could name anyone from Carrie Rodriguez to Childish Gambino, The Bad Plus to Bob Dylan, Charlie Hunter to Willie Nelson.
And I will confess, too, that my spirits are lifted to hear The Rolling Stones play with such conviction, as though they might still outlive us all; Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan in such fine voice; John Legend making his most ambitious music yet; Chance the Rapper becoming a household name; Paul Simon, as restless as ever; Drive-by Truckers, providing a brainy counterpoint to the tangled politics of the South; Lisa Hannigan, finding the words again.
Here are some of the records from 2016 that I will treasure, with the final ten coming later. But first, a few quick accolades.
An album I was surprised to like, from a band I often don’t: Schmilco, by Wilco
Most invaluable session player: An oft-overlooked blues harp player named Mick Jagger.
Most invaluable producer of the year: Joe Henry, whose name credits several albums on my favorites list, but also Adam Cohen, for the warm and organic work on You Want it Darker.
Best song played on the radio this year: “Vice,” by Miranda Lambert (followed by Brandy Clark’s “Love Can Go to Hell”)
Most thrilling performance from a vocalist: I could say either Jagger or Dylan here, but instead will cite Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago, the year’s true star-in-the-making. Check “Kinderspel,” in particular.
Album that’s significantly more enjoyable than its boring cover suggests: The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome.
Most appealing change-up: Childish Gambino’s rap-free and funkadelic “Awaken, My Love!”
Least favorite song of the year: “She’s Got a Way With Words,” by Blake Shelton, who never deserved Miranda and we all know it.
Supergroup I want to hear more music from immediately: Q-Tip and Andre 3000
Trashy throwaway song of the year: “Welcome to Hell,” by Mudcrutch
Best Christmas albums: Holiday Party, She & Him; A Very Kacey Christmas, Kacey Musgraves
Most annoying semantic debate of the year: Mixtape vs. album
Most annoying two-word phrase of the year: “TIDAL Exclusive”
Lyrics that best summarize 2016: Toss-up between “mass unblackening” and “low-flying panic attack.”
Musician I’d most like to see become President: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Favorite Records of 2016, 40-11
- The Life of Pablo | Kanye West
- Black America Again | Common
- It’s Hard | The Bad Plus
- 22, A Million | Bon Iver
- Day Breaks | Norah Jones
- Schmilco | Wilco
- Shine a Light | Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
- HERE | Alicia Keyes
- Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth | Charlie Hunter
- Telefone | Noname
- Lemonade | Beyonce
- Exodus of Venus | Elizabeth Cook
- Are You Serious? | Andrew Bird
- Southern Family | Various artists
- At Swim | Lisa Hannigan
- American Band | Drive-by Truckers
- A Seat at the Table | Solange
- Darkness and Light | John Legend
- Blue & Lonesome | The Rolling Stones
- Big Day in a Small Town | Brandy Clark
- Fallen Angels | Bob Dylan
The looser, shaggier sequel to his first pop standards album rolls up its sleeves, leans into an amiable gait, and at times even swings a little. He treats these songs like the pieces of folklore that they are, and delivers them without easy sentiment: These are hymns for hard times; the landscape changes, but these love songs endure. And by the way, he is still a peerless singer.
- Lola | Carrie Rodriguez
Why build walls when you could build bridges? Rodriguez’ first bilingual album is an invitation to empathy, and a profound act of inclusion. It’s got waltzes and blues, ghost stories and love songs; it engages tradition as our common language, and invites us to say something new.
- Stranger to Stranger | Paul Simon
No songwriter of his generation is as committed to making each album sound different from the last as Paul Simon is, and this is one of his buzzing, jostling best: A kaleidoscope of beats and multiculturalism that hones in on the joy of love in the land of the dying.
- The Very Last Day | Parker Milsap
This one always reminds me of a phrase from Over the Rhine: “Pentecostal residue,” which is thick in these songs about religion and the end of the world. I am impressed by how seriously and compassionately these songs are handled. But what do these songs say about religion, you ask? Ah, it’s complicated.
- Secular Hymns | Madeleine Peyroux
Casual in its virtuosity, astounding in its resourcefulness, and unimpeachable in its good taste, this selection of cover tunes celebrates the communion of musicians gathered around the table of song. The title is trifling, but the performances go so deep.
- Midwest Farmer’s Daughter | Margo Price
Her achievement would be colossal even if it wasn’t so hard-won: This is a country album that works well as a piece, is steeped in tradition without being beholden to it, and tells a complicated story with a specific perspective. It is also, I should note, hilarious, and masterfully written.
- Meridian Rising | Paul Burch
More of a time machine than a concept album, Burch’s opus tells the story of Jimmie Rodgers without every stooping to parody of Rodgers’ sound: Instead it assembles the sounds and colors of the period, resulting in a kinetic album that’s full of life even as it races toward death. The perfect execution of this almost distracts from the fact that it was such a ballsy idea in the first place.
- blackSUMMER’Snight | Maxwell
An intimacy album for grown-ups—not unlike the Nels Cline one, come to think of it—and my favorite Maxwell yet. He leaves grit to the other guys, instead exerting his mastery of mood in this symphony of cool insinuation and extravagant elegance.
- Blackstar | David Bowie
Riddles, winks, inside jokes, ghastly innuendos—this is a puzzle that took on more resonance almost immediately after its release, but it’s also an all-time great Bowie album, one that reclaims his discoverer’s zeal after a few albums of careful craft. There is nothing else like it in his catalog or anyone else’s.
- Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper
Well, since he asks, I don’t especially give a fuck about mixtapes, but this sounds like a perfectly complete and visionary album to my ears—one that seizes on both the sound and substance of gospel music, celebrates our shared humanity through a rainbow of voices, and interrogates hip-hip’s materialism from a place of real joy—which, he would probably add, isn’t quite the same thing as happiness.
Coming soon: my picks for the top 10 albums of 2016.