I will remember 2016 musically as the year of the unexpected album. There were great releases from bands that we thought were never going to get back together (A Tribe Called Quest), bands that I thought were well past releasing anything worth listening to (Radiohead), and a guy who I haven’t liked anything else he’s ever done (Childish Gambino).
A year ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that I would have included half of these artists. That just shows the importance of giving musicians a chance with at least one listen.
First, the honorable mentions:
The Getaway – Red Hot Chili Peppers
This was a surprisingly good album. Not flawless by any means, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers clearly still have their fastball almost 30 years after their debut.
Never Twice – Nick Waterhouse
Nick Waterhouse is awesome and this is another great album full of retro-soul and R&B music. The best song is “Katchi” featuring Leon Bridges. It’s a catchy, fun, simple groove.
Signs of Light – The Head and the Heart
The third release from The Head and the Heart picks up where their last one left one, with catchy folk rock songs and solid lyrics. There’s a reason they are one of the few surviving bands from the post-Mumford folk rock revival of the early 2010s.
10. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
I really didn’t think I was going to like this one. I haven’t liked much of anything Radiohead has done since In Rainbows. Yet, In Rainbows is one of my favorite albums of all time, so I always try to give Radiohead the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I gave this one a shot. It’s a return to the brilliance of Radiohead’s past.
The best Radiohead songs transport you into another world. They make you feel like you are in a movie. A very sad, very deep, very strange, and very smart movie.
9. “Awaken, My Love” – Childish Gambino
Oh boy. I didn’t want to like this. I didn’t want to write about it. I didn’t even want to listen to it.
But here I am. I can’t stand Childish Gambino’s rapping. I haven’t ever really seen a show with Donald Glover in it, besides the few episodes of Community that I watched (and didn’t like).
So, why do I think this album is so great? Because it’s not a rap album. It’s a neo-soul masterpiece. It is by far the most unexpected album of the year. I don’t know how one human being can excel at so many different disciplines, but Glover is now a successful stand up comedian, actor, rapper, and soul artist. Personally, since I don’t really like his rapping, I hope he continues in the soul vein for his next album. Though, he’s so ridiculously talented that if he released a country record it would probably be pretty darn good, too.
8. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son died after falling off a cliff while he was recording this record. Most of the record was already finished when he fell, but it doesn’t feel that way.
This is not a fun album. It’s a gut punch of emotion, tragedy, depth, anger, faith, and a myriad of other things I won’t notice until I parse the lyrics for weeks.
Cave is a poet more than a singer, and the first song “Jesus Alone” barely even features any singing from Cave. It’s clearly geared towards his son (though, if written before his death, it’s prophetic in nature), but more obtusely it’s geared towards himself. Cave, who in the past has identified as a Christian but has more recently backed off that characterization, infuses the album with Biblical imagery amidst the despair.
In a year in which we lost so many great artists, leaders, and important people, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree may be the most important album of the year. It’s an elegy for a year many of us would like to forget.
7. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
If Skeleton Tree is an elegy, the Coloring Book is a joyous celebration. It’s Chance the Rapper’s coming out party. He’s been hovering around the mainstream for a few years, garnering a passionate fanbase and critical acclaim, but Coloring Book is his triumph. There are tons of great songs on this mixtape with features from Justin Beiber, 2 Chainz, and Lil Wayne, but the most jarring song is without a doubt “How Great”. Chance discusses his Christian faith often in his songs, even if he’s also talking about and doing decidedly non-Christian things, too. But a casual discussion of faith or a background in church is not unique in rap music, what makes Coloring Book unique (at least for any non-Kendrick Lamar record) is the explicitness of “How Great” and by explicitness I mean the explicit Gospel.
“How Great” is almost 3 minutes of a Gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” before anyone starts rapping. There are entire “Christian” albums with less specific discussions of God than this song. Chance’s and Jay Electronica’s (a professed 5 Percenter) verses focus on the greatness of God.
I don’t think “Coloring Book” should be played in churches or anything, but it’s still a great example of God using imperfect people to spread his message.
Oh and the rest of the album is fun, despite being pretty explicit in the more traditional understanding of that description.
“the book don’t end with Malachi.”
6. My Gospel – Paul Cauthen
I gave this album a listen almost exclusively because I liked the cover art. He seemed like a cool dude. And man, I honestly can’t believe I haven’t heard anyone else talking about this guy. His voice is a revelation. It’s all power and depth and age and strength.
This album doesn’t feel like 2016, and that’s precisely why I loved it. I’ll be honest, I knew nothing about Cauthen until I started writing this. I just found out he grew up in Tyler, TX like me. So, I guess we are basically best friends.
Anyway, this is a great alt-country album and I hope Paul is the next big thing in that world because this is an incredible work of art that I think a lot of people have slept on this year.
5. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
I had no idea who Rostam was before this album, and honestly, I’m not sure it matters who Rostam Batmanglij is because this is all about Hamilton Leithauser. For me, it’s not different enough musically from Leithauser’s other albums to really care about Rostam’s contributions (which I’m sure are incredibly significant and I’m sure he’s great and super talented and important and nice and please don’t hate me self-important indie rock fans).
Leithauser’s voice is a seminal one in indie rock. The former frontman of The Walkmen, this is Leithauser’s second album since their breakup. His first explored his “white collar Americana” side and this one is a bit more pop-focused. Though, it’s not exactly pop music. It’s Hamilton Leithauser through and through. For me Leithauser has reached a point where he releases exactly what I expect from him. Not that he is predictable. I have no clue what instruments he will use or how his new songs will sound, I just know that he’s going to do something unique and that it’s going to be great and uniquely Hamilton Leithauser.
4. The Very Last Day – Parker Millsap
When Parker Millsap’s The Very Last Day was released in March 2016, it’s postapocalyptic lyrics may have seemed a little too focused on doomsday for an album written by a kid who isn’t even 25.
Then the rest of 2016 happened and Millsap looked like a prophet. The Very Last Day might be a little too on the nose, actually. The lyrics carry a weight and a drive that is uncommon from someone Millsap’s age, though if you have listened to his previous releases you already knew that about him. Millsap is going to be a force in Americana music for a long time, he’s a revelation live, with a strong voice and a passion that rivals Glen Hansard.
A brilliant example of Millsap’s writing is “Hands Up”, a tale of a veteran sticking up a QuikTrip. It’s a song that gets your feet moving and your hands clapping, even as it tells the story of an increasingly desperate man.
3. We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
I love Tribe so much and I never really considered that they would get back together in my lifetime. Especially after the untimely passing of the great Phife Dawg.
2016 is going to be remembered for a lot of bad things, but at least it’s going to be the year that A Tribe Called Quest released the best rap album.
What separated Tribe from every other rap group was that their verses and their production were always so unique. They could make you bob your head and make you think at the same time. Q-Tip is one of the greatest producers and one of the greatest rappers of all time. Phife is a legendary rhymer, and Jairobi, who left the group after their debut album but returns in this one, holds his own with these two.
Only Tribe could get features from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Andre 3000, Jack White, Talib Kweli, and Busta Rhymes without even crediting them on the record.
This album is a shot across the bow to modern hip hop. Turn on any rap station and everything sounds the exact same right now. One of the things that made Chance the Rapper’s album so significant was how different it sounds from modern hip hop.
But man, nothing sounds anything like “We The People…” or “Ego”. Tribe are in their own category of greatness at the moment. There won’t be another Tribe album now that Phife is gone, I’m glad their final effort is befitting of their greatness.
2. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth – Sturgill Simpson
This should come as no surprise to anyone. Sturgill is in his own league right now. After this album, I hesitate to call him a country singer. His voice is most definitely country, but almost nothing about this album is country.
The best description of him I’ve heard is that he is like Neil Young. He’s going to do whatever he wants musically. Sometimes, that may not work. But, so far, he hasn’t put a foot wrong.
His first album, High Top Mountain, was a triumph of bluegrass and hard core country. His second, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, broke the mold of the country/americana singer and explored Gram Parsons-esque acid country.
So for a Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Sturgill took the next step in his evolution as an artist, he hired the Dap Kings as his horn section and he covered Nirvana.
The album is written as a letter to his young son and as such it ticks off a number of different life experiences Sturgill has had, some good, some bad. The best song, though, is the final number, “Call To Arms” which starts with bagpipes and seagulls, segues into a T. Rex style boogie punctuated by the blaring horns of the Dap Kings and ends with Sturgill telling you to “turn off the TV, turn off the news”.
Sound advice, so long as you’re turning on Sturgill’s music instead of those things.
1. The Weight of These Wings – Miranda Lambert
A decade ago Miranda Lambert introduced herself to the world with “Kerosene”, a song about lighting an ex boyrfriend’s stuff on fire. Back then she was just a country girl from Lindale, TX singing a rip-off of a Steve Earle song.
A lot has changed in 11 years. She’s one of the biggest country stars in the world, with 52 (!!) awards to her name, including two Grammy’s.
And, oh yeah, a very famous divorce from another very famous country singer.
So, now that she’s had such a major breakup, it’d only be natural to think that her first album after the drama would be an inferno of rage. I mean, we got to know her as the 22-year-old burning stuff down.
Instead, The Weight of These Wings is a sprawling, introspective, brilliant record. It parses through all of the emotions of a breakup, from the self-destructive (“Vice”, “Things That Break”) to the reflective (“Pushin Time”, “I’ve Got Wheels”).
Lambert, like any Nashville artist, has fallen victim to the machine-like production of major country albums in the past. But for this, most personal, album, she and her producers went a totally different route. Listen to “Vice” and tell me if you’ve heard a mainstream country song sound like that in the last 20 years? Or maybe even ever. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I’m not the biggest Lambert fan, I’m not even sure I’ve ever listened to a full album of hers before. But this is just fantastic. Also, I hope her new relationship with the ultra-talented Anderson East works out because he’s a super nice, humble guy who I happened to interview last summer right before he met her.