Like you, probably, I listen to a lot of music. I try to keep up with new releases, I make a deliberate effort to listen to new artists, and I explore music blogs and critic pages and even (gasp) print media, all in a futile attempt to stay on top of all the great and even not-so-great music that is out there.
But you know and I know that there’s just no way to hear everything. Even if I were able to devote a majority of my time just to listening to music, there would still not be enough time even to hear the best of it all. I try as hard as I can to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap and just keep listening to the stuff that I already know I like. If I did that, I could just dispose of more than half of my music collection, and what kind of life would that be?
No, I am determined to hear as much as I can before the effects of tinnitus catch up with me and before recorded music is abandoned forever in favor of mood-enhancing downloads that access the nerve centers of the brain directly. So I continue to plunge into those used CD bins and stream from all those free sites and spend my diminishing music budget wisely. With that in mind, here are 10 albums — artistic statements, if you will — that I enjoyed repeatedly over the last year. I won’t call them the best albums of the year, because I know there are sounds out there produced over the last 12 months that I have not heard, but might end up liking just as much or even more than what’s listed here. (The road goes ever on and on, as one fan of songs once put it.) But these, the best albums of 2016, are albums that were well worth my time and that said something to me or provoked strong emotions in memorable, vital ways.
As I noted in my review earlier this year, Wilco isn’t doing much we haven’t heard them already do before. But what they do they do with extraordinary precision and craftsmanship. I couldn’t tell you what many of these songs are actually supposed to mean, but the music does a lot of that work, anyway. This is an enjoyable collection of inscrutable lyrics put to music by accomplished players who know what they’re doing, and that is really all it takes, isn’t it?
Mould is not the most prolific artist. He’s only released three new albums since 2012, but they have all been strong collections of rock and roll, and they’ve just kept getting better. If you’ve stuck with Bob through the lean years (which, ungenerously, might include most of his work since 1990), his last few albums feel like prizes for keeping the faith. “Patch the Sky” is loud and cacophonic and rarely slows down. It demands to be played loudly on big speakers, to annoy your neighbors.
If you think 2016 was a crappy year, think about how much worse it would have been if someone had shot at you. Of course, in gun-loving ‘Murica, a lot of people can lay claim to that kind of incident, and a lot of those people also happen to be black Americans. But YG’s hospitalization after a shooting incident at a recording studio seems to have helped him develop a social consciousness, and that makes his latest album more than just gangsta hype. In the blistering tracks that close the album, YG throws down rhymes against law enforcement (“Police Get Away Wit Murder”) and the president-elect (the unforgettable “FDT”). And it’s all catchy as hell.
It’s been a very long time since anything the Stones did surprised me, and I had pretty much put them on the shelf. But one listen to just about any of the tracks on this album will make you reconsider these guys. All of the songs here are blues covers, and for whatever else you might say about Mick and the boys, they know their blues. Many of these songs are obscure chestnuts that aficionados might recognize, but hearing Jagger play blues harp makes these songs live again. I know the Stones are the epitome of “dad rock,” but this album does the unbelievable: It makes the Stones sound fresh again.
On their own, each of these women is a powerful singer. Laura Veirs has been an indie-music darling for several years but has never achieved the recognition of k.d. lang or Neko Case. But both lang and Case have albums that suffer from a sense of sameness, as if the singers needed something to shake them up. This album, improbably, brings them all together and, even more improbably, works. I can’t help but be reminded of Trio, the now-classic collaboration between Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. The way these voices work together is hypnotic.
One of the many great losses of 2016, the Year That Took Everyone, Cohen’s death was not entirely unexpected, even by himself. And the meditative songs on this album indicate that he had some indication that this collection might be his last. Some artists approach godhood, but Cohen actually sounds like one.
This is Beyonce’s “Sgt. Pepper,” an unmistakable announcement that she is more than just a pop singer and that her art is not only speaking her mind through her music but making it sound jaw-droppingly great. Once upon a time, people like the Beatles or Michael Jackson made records that everyone listened to, that impacted the culture on a mass level. We live in different times, but this album, in its stylistic variety and its relatable lyrics, has something for everyone.
The songs on this album start off as discordant, unnatural drones and evolve into natural, soaring hymns. As a document of grieving, it may initially be difficult to find enjoyment here. But let the album work on you as a complete work of music without skipping songs or playing them out of order and you will discover a remarkably cathartic collection.
There was every reason to think that this album would never be made and that even if it did manage to be completed, it would never reach the heights of the group’s earlier work. It took them 18 years and the loss of Phife Dawg, but the result is an inspiring, motivational, angry, urgent record. On Inauguration Day, turn up the volume, open your windows, and let freedom ring.
Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”
Like Nick Cave’s album, this too is a chronicle of loss — in this case, the end of Thom Yorke’s 23-year relationship with the mother of his children. And though the album begins with urgency, it delves into melancholy and sorrow but contains some of the most glorious music this band has ever fashioned. It’s not a record to put on during a party but one to savor when the guests are gone, the lights are out, and dawn is hours away.