As I may have mentioned, 2016 was a banner year for significant new music, enough so that I could barely whittle my favorites down to a tight Top 40. Today we burrow down further still: What follows are my most treasured albums of the year, the ones I can count on my own 10 fingers. The criteria, as always: Mystery, revelation, vision, humor, entertainment, humanity. These are records that revel in being made by human beings of flesh and blood, telling stories that they and no one else could tell. They delight in incarnation, and point us to bigger things unseen.
- Lovers and Leavers | Hayes Carll
Carll has always been an ace songwriter, but there is both a new seriousness and a joyous freedom to this latest volume; there are past Hayes Carll songs that you could almost call zany, but the ones here feel like a turning point. The album opens on an open road, a stark black-and-white vision rendered in widescreen vistas, and from there it journeys through elegant monochromes and generous washes of color. The accents are from the crack backing band, assembled by producer Joe Henry, but the depth and character are from Carll’s songs, which invoke heartache, abide solitude, and reach tremblingly toward peace.
- The Ghosts of Highway 20 | Lucinda Williams
She only seems interested in doubles now, which is fine by me: Her two most recent sets are expansive in their imagination, Shakesperean in their scope, and abounding with the sweet and soulful communion of musicians gathered around the table together, and of the singer with her song. This one is a perfectly reasonable pick for the best-ever Lucinda Williams record: A collection of ghost stories and campfire songs, punctuated with glorious childhood remembrances. Like Dylan on Modern Times, Williams writes songs that are formally conservative as a way of underlining their creative audacity: Plenty of songwriters can paint in various shades of country-blues, but only she could have made an album about memory’s grip that is haunted and haunting in the ways that this one is.
- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth | Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill’s hymn to fatherhood opens with a new arrival, and the rush of revelation that attends it: “I should’ve done this years ago—but how could I have known?” It ends with him kicking against the pricks, in a screed against the terrors and uncertainties of this world that could only come from the anxious and lovestruck heart of a new dad. “The bullshit’s got to stop,” he cries, fretting in the very same way that I have fretted through each day that brings us closer to the dawning of Trump’s America, which is to say that I have fretted for my children’s sake, and not without reason. Simpson’s record—a beautiful suite that’s enlivened by its nautical conceit and by its country/soul touchstones—is an important reminder that the world has always been a dark and beautiful place in which to have children, and that our fear mustn’t outpace our wonder.
- Lovers | Nels Cline
Cline’s long-gestating suite of mood music is made with romance in mind, yet it may prove an odd accompaniment to candlelit dinners or sensual hot-tubbing: This is music that considers intimacy in all its rough and tumble, a patient and idiosyncratic reflection of what it means to love another person with both body and soul, through the heady rush of good times and in the long shadows of bad ones. Masterful in how it sustains its cool, meditative vibe through variations on ambiance and smeared-lipstick Americana, Lovers doesn’t just recall classic albums by Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and Quincy Jones, but it equals them in its use of the full orchestra as a medium of personal expression.
- Let Me Get By | Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tedeschi, Trucks, and every jam band this side of Lowell George has been building toward this one, a record that manages to be tight and tuneful even as it reveals in its loose electricity, its frayed edges, and its extended codas; a record of fetching gospel harmonies, Stax grooves, bluesy intonations, rusted-over country, and punchy rock and roll. This band is great because of how hard they work to make the listener feel welcome, and few albums in any idiom as as generous in their sensual pleasures as this one is: Everyone from the marquee names down to the horn players and harmony singers exude warmth and big heart throughout. It’s a masterpiece of chemistry: Everyone here is just on, and their good intentions are given over to songs that are worthy of them.
- The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will (rightly) go down as a masterpiece, and this one as a hot wonder of loose ends and excess—but let me tell you something: I’ve spent a lot of time listening to both albums back to back, and it seems undeniable to me how far she’s come as a singer and as a songwriter. The 2007 album transforms a cartoon character into a real person, but this one exudes humanity in its major songs and its minor ones; it celebrates restraint both in its singing and its lyricism; it masters the double-album form by including both a tight-and-perfect 12-song CD followed by a killer mixtape of bonus features and flights of fancy, and it unites the whole sprawling thing through a series of metaphors (restless movement, endless road-tripping) that make it feel purposeful in its exploration of vulnerability, and in broken-heartedness as a starting point rather than a conclusion. As always, even the cover songs are masterful, and seem tailor-made for the story she’s telling.
- You Want it Darker | Leonard Cohen
He could have called it The Long Surrender, were the name not already claimed. This is a sigh of resignation, but not a wave of defeat; on what wasn’t necessarily intended to be his final album, Cohen is weary and wise, cracking bleak jokes and shaking his fist at a god who he may or may not believe in, absconding from our terrestrial plane as though his soul simply can’t bear one more indignity. “Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall,” he bids us—because all will come to ruin eventually. And yet he can’t help but admit his love for this place; “I wish there was a treaty we could sign,” he sings, and it sure sounds nice. Speaking of which, no Leonard Cohen album has ever sounded this fine, this warm or this elegant; and none ever hung together better as a tight, focused, and ennobling tower of song.
- We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest
“Yo, where Jarobi at?” Q-Tip wonders at one point, and Jarobi’s quick to respond: “Imbibing on impeccable grass.” Why don’t other hip-hop groups do this kind of tag-team rap anymore? Maybe because, Beastie Boys aside, none could ever do it as well as Tribe, though Andre 3000 is ushered into this hallowed fraternity during his delightful back-and-forth with Tip, on a song called “Kids.” This is a record that’s bursting at the seams with pleasures like those, and with the mastery of a group that seems like they’ve reemerged only because they have something important to tell us. The album brings old-school technique up to date and positions the Tribe gang not as godfathers nor as trend-chasers, but rather as the fulcrum of a deep continuum of expression; these songs are knotty and funky, political and frivolous, committed to eccentricity as its own kind of realness and of everyman wit as better than tough. It’s wondrous and strange, mournful and triumphant; it’s one for their legacy.
- American Tunes | Allen Toussaint
Toussaint’s first Joe Henry-assisted assortment of Americana was named for a river and a Monk tune—The Bright Mississippi—and captured some of that strange delta magic in its spirited shuffles, its mystic blues, its rough and muddy handling of folklore and all its implications. The follow-up, and Toussaint’s final album, captures that same magic but casts a wider net, patching together a weirder and woolier mosaic of American folk song, one where so much of the joy is in the delightful juxtapositions—how elegant classical pieces give way to Toussaint banging away at some lowbrow, barrelhouse blues, and how Rhiannon Giddens swoops in after that to carry the whole thing back to church. This is a songbook for the invisible republic, and a record that is ravishing in how out-of-time it seems. That’s a comfort to me: Things may fall to pieces, but that river’s gonna run.
- Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago
I’m surprised, too—but as it turns out, the album I was obsessing over back in February is even better than I first realized. It’s remarkably accomplished in ways that you don’t quite notice at first: In the same year that gave us The Life of Pablo and Coloring Book, this is a music of many voices, a record for singing along in complete abandon; a record that uses gospel music for its shades of blue and its rafter-shaking conviction, but also a singer/songwriter showcase that speaks of the deep, vast mystic in the language of sensuality, and keeps its transcendence dusty and earthbound just like Van Morrison always did—or for that matter, Prince. And all of that is bent into the compact frame of pop music: This is a record where the words matter deeply but there are never too many of them, and where the hooks are as big as skyscrapers.
It’s also a record of apocalyptic fervor; like the Leonard Cohen record, it knows that all of this will end in ruin, and likely sooner than we’re expecting. Real midnight’s gonna come, but this record’s all about how we’ll spend the meantime. “Are you cruel to the one who loves you, because/ you’re tired and you’re scared?/ It’s so easily done,” one song asks, and boy is it ever; it’s so easy to tremble at time’s erasure, to wonder what good there is in building anything here in the land where moth and rust destroy.
But they anyway; they hope against hope, and they live and love more deeply because of time’s advance. The songs their multitudinous, earthbound choir sings here are songs of new parents and jittery lovers; of people who have tasted and seen how sweet all this can be, which is why their hearts sink at the thought of losing it, and why they dance and sing in the long shadow of ruination day. “You never walked away from a good fight/ And you loved this world with all your might,” one song says. It’s cruel and pretty, this place, and nobody keeps anything here. So we hold on tighter. And we love without fear.