As I have done for at least the last couple of years, here is my best albums of 2016 list. Of course, I can’t listen to everything so take it for what it’s worth. And each year this gets slightly harder to do because I have a huge list of albums from the last couple of years that I want to listen to and haven’t had time to yet (159 at this moment) and so all the new albums from 2016 go there first unless it’s one of my favorite bands. 2017 won’t be any easier. Anyway, here we go.
1) Darcy James Argue, Real Enemies
As the majority of jazz albums don’t have lyrics, the number of them that have really come to represent the poltiics and society of a particular moment are relatively few. Some of the standouts are Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s We Insist! Real Enemies is in this fine class. Taking as its theme the conspiracy theories that have become so prevalent in American life, this incredibly compelling album combines Argue’s great big band compositions with political speeches and recordings of conspiracy theorists over the past half-century or so. Of course, when he set out to write this album, he could not have known that its subject would become the theme of 2016.
Darcy is a long-time friend of the blog, but this rating would be the same if I had never heard of him before. This is an astounding album and I hope it wins the Grammy it is nominated for.
2) Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
The best country album made in some time, Price has a great voice, is a compelling performer, and writes very honest lyrics. She’s well within the traditional country vision, but also rejects all the gross Nashville bullshit in favor of a musical palette that combines what is great about the country tradition with a vision of directness in writing and music. She also put on the best show I saw in 2016, right after the election in Boston when her and the band were suffering as much as the rest of us. Just a fantastic record.
3) Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Now that it’s happened, it seems inevitable that DBT would go full protest band as Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley enter middle-age. This is the most stripped down DBT album in a long time and also the best. Taking on the NRA and the Confederate flag, supporting Black Lives Matter, writing songs about the massacre of students in Oregon and the meaning of southernness, and closing with a lament for the death of Robin Williams, this is a consummate album of 2016. And a great one.
4) Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
Another masterful album from the British poet and rapper, who imagines a world of insomniacs and their struggles. And if the other albums on this list have strong connotations with 2016 in the United States, “Europe is Lost” is the Brexit version of this.
5) Mount Moriah, How to Dance
The North Carolina Americana group created its most sophisticated album to date, with more of a band feel that allows Heather McEntire’s incredible vocals to flourish in a collaborative setting. “Baby Blue” is also my favorite song of 2016.
6) Lydia Loveless, Real
The country-punk songwriter adds a serious shot of pop music to her repertoire for her latest album, which complicates the music usefully and shows an artist still growing while not compromising on her songwriting. Very enjoyable music.
7) Rhianna, Anti
This is an album of liberation through sex and marijuana, which might seem pretty cliched and maybe in some ways it is, but the vocals are great and at some point in this horrible, don’t we need an album of simple liberation, especially from someone who has legitimately been through a lot of terrible things?
8) Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories
Fulks’ best album since Georgia Hard. He is still using the folk/bluegrass instrumentation of his last, slightly disappointing album, and that’s always worrying for a fan of country music given that a move to bluegrass-influenced folk is so often a sign of an artist without all that much left to say. But Upland Stories is a pretty great set of songs, some with the humor Fulks is known for (although not with his more offensive side which he has tamed more in the last decade) and some in the very serious and dark mode in which he often writes.
9) Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
This British artist has plenty to say about the racism toward black people that never ever went away but has had a disturbing resurgence around the world in the last few years. With songs directly referencing the murder of Trayvon Martin and other racial issues across the pond. Blood Orange has plenty to say to us.
10) Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Another fine album from this Brooklyn rock band, combining longer and profound songs with short one-offs that provide a lot of variation on a very interesting work.
Other good albums from 2016, in a vague order of how much I like them
Always skeptical of supergroups, but Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Viers sound great together.
12) Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny
I’m not a fan of Pat Metheny generally. His work always seemed uninteresting and geared toward more of an audience not too excited new sounds. But the trumpeter Cuong Vu has made some really interesting albums since leaving Metheny’s band. And this reunion works very well, with Metheny doing his best work in years. This pushes the envelope with the rest of the trio, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Ted Poor on drums, into some really interesting places. Metheny is of course a great guitar player so to hear him push himself into new sonic territory is refreshing. Really solid album.
13) Wussy, Forever Sounds
The noise is great. The songs are disappointing for a band with such a great pedigree of writing fantastic songs.
14) Laura Gibson, Empire Builder
Solid set of songs about traveling the nation and discovering oneself.
15) Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s no point arguing about Joanna Newsom. You either like her or despise her. I tend toward the former. But after an overwrought triple album a few years ago, her comeback is solid and relatively tight for her.
16) Taylor Ho Bynum, Enter the Plustet
I love a big sound on a jazz album and this huge band provides it. Highlights include Bynum’s frequent collaboration Mary Halvorson; both had great years on the many albums they appeared on.
17) Chvrches, Every Open Eye
This is a confident sophomore album from the indie pop band. It has an optimism in the lyrics that I really need right now and is catchy and hooky as can be. And while I will never truly love this level of synth, the overall quality of the album makes it more palatable than it usually is for me. I don’t love this, but I can see listening to it every now and then when I need something a little more upbeat than my usual fare.
18) Freakwater, Scheherazade
Any new Freakwater album is welcome and after a long time off, this is a solid attention to a solid catalog.
19) Mary Lattimore, At the Dam
A beautiful set of compositions by this harpist.
Finally, a few albums by great artists that really disappointed:
Frank Ocean, Blonde
This did almost nothing for me, a significant step down from Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. The best part of the album is his mom leaving him a phone message to stay off the weed. Not a bad idea really, maybe more sobriety would lead to more happening.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Life
Overwrought and overproduced without very many good songs. Even seeing him live, a good show for sure, was a bring down because he basically played his catalog in order and the last 1/3 of the show did not hold up to the first 2/3, i.e., once he played the new album.
PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
It’s not a bad album per se, but as a cut-rate version of Let England Shake, it does not hold up to her best work.