Sweet ’16

The RN&R’s resident music geek picks his favorite new albums of 2016

For folks who care about things like art, humanity, the planet and the future, 2016 was a rough year. Too many good people died—David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, my grandmother Martha Bynum, Muhammad Ali, and on and on. And too many evil people consolidated wealth and power, as is their wont. Wars were waged, lives were lost, and climate change continued to be real.

Despite all that—or perhaps because things were so bad out in the world—it was a surprisingly good year in music. So good, in fact, that some of my favorite artists, like Kanye West, PJ Harvey and Swans, all of whom have released my favorite records of recent years, put out good albums that didn't even make my final cut this year. I heard great albums in all kinds of genres, including country (Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth), metal (Neurosis' Fires Within Fires), jazz (Nels Cline's Lovers) and Beyonce (she's her own genre).

But the enjoyment of music is a subjective pleasure, so this list is shaped by my personal taste, which tends toward post-punk and hip-hop, and the records that I gravitated to most this year were united by a strain of melancholy.

Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

The first name in melancholy is, of course, Leonard Cohen. And this album, as the title implies, seems willed toward an even dimmer tone than the bulk of his somber oeuvre. And, in one of the year’s strangest trends, Cohen died just two weeks after the release of the record. With that in mind, it would be tempting to characterize the album as the singer-songwriter’s staring-death-in-the-face record since the lyrics explicitly explore themes like religious doubt and inevitable mortality. But Cohen had been exploring those themes for more than five decades. A stirring end to a beautiful career.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition

The album title is a nod to a Joy Division song from 1980. Not the reference you might expect for a 2016 hip-hop album, but Danny Brown is not your usual rapper. The best rappers are often those who balance conflicting impulses. The craft of music in general, and rapping in particular, is to balance predictability—the clarity of rhymed speech—with the unexpected—a surprising twist of thought or phrase. Brown seems like both a loose cannon and a thoughtful, careful craftsman. That mix of precision and volatility, paired with his eclectic taste in beats, references and collaborators, makes him one of the most fascinating players in the game.

Violent Human System: Gift of Life

There are few labels more damning than “local band,” a phrase that tends to lower listener expectations by about 300 percent. VHS is not a local band. They’re based out of Seattle, but three quarters of the group are ex-Renoites. I know them all pretty well, and have written about their previous bands over the years as part of my beat covering Reno music. This album is one of the best Reno-affiliated records to come out in years. It’s a nice mix of angsty Northwestern rock and dour British post-punk—it sounds a bit like Nirvana covering the Cure. It’s great stuff—although in typical Reno fashion after doing something excellent, they’re already on indefinite hiatus.

Parquet Courts: Human Performance

This is a fun little art-punk/indie rock record by a band that just keeps getting better. This band appeals to the same part of my brain that used to love Pavement back in ye olde 1990s, but I’m starting to think Parquet Courts is an even better band. The songwriting is surprisingly nuanced. There’s a lot of snark and humor on the surface, but some bittersweet undertones in both the music and lyrics that distinguish them from a run-of-the-mill indie band. Plus, the songs are deceptively melodic, and this record just rocks.

Run the Jewels: RTJ3

For some stupid reason—I blame Pitchfork—most music critics post their “Best of the Year” lists near the beginning of December. This means that late December masterpieces, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah a couple of years ago, end up on the critics’ lists for the following year. I hate this trend and am willfully bucking it. Next December, people will tell you that RTJ3 is one of the best albums of 2017. Don’t believe them. It’s one of the best albums of 2016. Sure, the third record from the fire-spitting, politically engaged rap duo was originally slated to come out in January, but they emailed out a free digital download of the whole album on Dec. 24, “a Christmas fucking miracle” for fans. It’s essential listening—with raucous, grimy production, astute, infinitely quotable lyrics, and two rappers with perfectly complementary styles.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

When a band has released multiple paradigm-shifting albums, it can be easy to underrate their records that are merely excellent. This record won’t change the world—or even alter the minds and ears of listeners the way that classics like OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows did. It’s subtler and mellower than most previous Radiohead records. And yes, there’s a pervasive air of melancholy about it. And whether from singer Thom Yorke’s recent divorce or from some other source, there’s a feeling of finality.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree

It’s a steep competition, but this might be the saddest album of the year. Nick Cave—a singer-songwriter who draws liberally on the somber traditions of the aforementioned Leonard Cohen—isn’t the type of artist who would usually inspire autobiographical interpretations of his work. He’s too “literate.” But it’s hard not to hear this album as an explicit exploration of the sadness the songwriter felt after his teenage son died last year. The music, and every turn of phrase, is weighted with mourning. It’s a gorgeous record, but don’t listen to it with anyone you don’t feel comfortable crying with.

Savages: Adore Life

This London post-punk quartet’s second full-length is a bit uneven, but the good songs are as good or better than anything else that came out this year. In fact, the kind-of-sort-of title track “Adore” is probably my single favorite song of the year. Hearing singer Jehnny Beth repeatedly intone, “I adore life” with increasing intensity is probably the single most uplifting thing I’ve heard all year.

David Bowie: Blackstar

No matter what we try to do, few of us will leave closing statements or final words as poignant as this weird, gorgeous record that was released almost simultaneously with Bowie’s death. Sad and beautiful.

A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service

There are many, many things to love about this album, Tribe’s first new record in nearly two decades. There’s a strange, almost magical juxtaposition: The album sounds utterly contemporary—it sits nicely next to this year’s records by Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and other top-tier rappers—but it also continues the traditions of Tribe’s classic Golden Age records like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. It’s like it exists simultaneously in two separate time lines. It’s also unusually consistent for a hip-hop album—with great songs that touch on a variety of genres and feature guest spots by everybody from Andre 3000 to Jack White to Elton John. It’s topical and angry—the closing song is called “The Donald,” and it’s certainly not supportive of the president-elect. But the musical pleasures are diverse and eclectic, drawing on reggae, jazz and rock in equal, unexpected measures like the best polyglot hip-hop.

But sadly, this record too, is touched by melancholy, as core rapper Phife Dawg died during the recording of the album. So it too is an album that can be described by the single adjective that seems to sum up 2016 as a whole—posthumous.