Best of 2016: David Bowie, Beyonce, Radiohead among year's top 10 albums
It was the year of surprise releases, the year of celebrity deaths, the year that the only thing predictable about the music industry was that no one could predict the future. It was also the year of Beyonce. All of that and more, you’ll find on my Top 10 list for the year. Here are the best albums of 2016.
10. Various artists, Fargo Year 2: Songs from the Original MGM/FXP Television Series: In a year of so much strong and innovative original music, why include a compilation soundtrack to a TV show that aired all the way back in 2015? Because Fargo’s outstanding second season had the most eclectic playlist of any TV series this decade, and I daresay its companion soundtrack, released in March, is among the best of all time. The choices run from whimsical (Burl Ives’ One Hour Ahead of the Posse, Bobby Gentry’s Reunion) to funky (Yamasuki’s Yama Yama, the Dramatics’ Whatcha See is Whatcha Get) to flat-out rocking (Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Billy Thorpe’s Children of the Sun). There were also outstanding spins on some of the best-known songs from the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre (Blitzen Trapper’s I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, White Denim’s Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), the Chieftans and Bon Iver’s Down in the Willow Garden). Series creator Noah Hawley (who performs on Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby) and music supervisor Marguerite Phillips dug deep into their collections to find surprising songs that evoked Fargo’s late-’70s setting, yet captured its ineffably timeless aura. Does Fargo Year 2 scream 2016 like the other albums on this list? No. But this is the year it came out, even if few people really noticed. We should all be thankful that it did.
9. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool: Radiohead could coast on their legacy forever, but they didn’t let themselves off the hook with A Moon Shaped Pool, one of those so-called “back to basics” albums that is actually anything but. The alt-rock icons wrung A Moon Shaped Pool out of dusty acoustic guitars and plaintive pianos, full-bodied strings and masterful musicianship. The album contains some of the most imposing (Burn the Witch) and heartbreaking (Daydreaming) songs of their career, as well as one (True Love Waits) that took 20 years to finish. It couldn’t have been an easy album to make, but knowing that, feeling that, is part of what makes it so great.
8. Rihanna, Anti: What happens when the most dominant singles artist of the 21st Century decides to make an album? You get a dominant album, the best of Rihanna’s career by a wide margin. On Anti, Rihanna dabbles in trippy psychedelia, ‘80s hair balladry, indie rock, classic ‘50s pop and spaghetti-western textures – and, oh by the way, she still also found room to include one of the one of the year’s biggest singles in Work. Anti was later upstaged somewhat by Beyonce’s equally genre-curious album Lemonade, but it doesn’t deserve that legacy. It deserves to be remembered as one of the most convention-flouting albums of 2016.
7. Chairlift, Moth: Brooklyn indie-pop duo Chairlift took four years to create Moth, but it sounds like they had fun in the interim. The album bursts with life and color and the sensation of recently discovered love, particularly on the exuberant Crying In Public and Show U Off, but also on the bold and confident Polymorphing, Romeo and Ch-Ching. It’s thrilling and sensual, the sort of album that gives you a new reason to smile every time you put it on. Unfortunately, Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly recently announced they'd be breaking up in 2017, but at least they gave us this fine farewell.
6. The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: It’s a mouthful of a title, and an earful of an album, every ‘80s pop-rock sound revived and reimagined for The Kids These Days. Thing is, it mostly works -- there are at least eight dynamite singles on I like it (take your pick: The Sound, Love Me, She’s American, the list goes on), to go along with another nine tracks of gorgeous atmospheric texture. Somehow it channels both Phil Collins and Sigur Ros, INXS and Bon Iver.
5. Anderson Paak, Malibu: The year’s best hip-hop album didn’t come from Drake or Kanye or Future or even Chance the Rapper. Frankly, it might not even be a hip-hop album. That’s the genius of Paak, a rapper and singer who burst to fame on Dr. Dre’s Compton last year and never looked back, touring and collaborating relentlessly behind Malibu. With Paak’s voice crackling like vintage vinyl, it’s an irrepressible pastiche of ‘70s and ‘80s soul and R&B filtered through a lens of neo-soul and gospel. The Schoolboy Q collaboration Am I Wrong could pass for a Bruno Mars chart-topper, while Come Down feels like a lost Curtis Mayfield demo. While his more famous peers get all the headliners, Paak is building something great.
4. White Lung, Paradise: The most urgent rock record of the year screams along like the entire Warped Tour all playing at once. The Canadian punks’ fourth album is a half-hour of spidery guitars, relentless punk percussion and Mish Way-Barber’s sneering, snarling vocals. White Lung took a different path from other bands who caught this year’s wave of nostalgia for ‘90s and 2000s emo, focusing on rage as much as pain on thundering shredfests like Narcoleptic and I Beg You. Yet they also tossed in some memorable Goth-ish melodies, like Below.
3. Maren Morris, Hero: In a year jam-packed with strong country albums by next-gen women (Aubrie Sellers, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, etc.) this is the best, and maybe the riskiest. While her breakout single My Church name-checks Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, the rest of the album luxuriates in melodic pop-rock tinged with R&B, like Rihanna covering Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club. There are hooks for days on songs like Rich, Sugar, Just Another Thing and ‘80s Mercedes; and very little traditional country anywhere in the slow-burning How It’s Done. It’s the sort of album that sets Morris, 26, up to go in any direction she pleases.
2. Beyonce, Lemonade: Only Beyonce could surprise-drop an album days before launching the biggest stadium tour of the year, and have fans in the stands singing every word from the jump. But Lemonade is just that good. Formation was the single of the year, but you could’ve made a case for at least a half-dozen songs on this album, including Sorry, Hold Up, Freedom, Don’t Hurt Yourself and Daddy Lessons. It’s endlessly quotable, made for plenty of culture-dominating water cooler talk about Bey’s marriage to Jay Z (who IS Becky with the good hair?!?) and far and away the most stylistically adventurous album she’s ever made. We bow before you, Queen B. We are not worthy.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar: You could argue this year of celebrity mourning began on Jan. 10, when Bowie died from liver cancer — the first of several culture-shattering passings of 2016. Or maybe it began two days prior, when Bowie released Blackstar, the album that will forever be associated with his death. Like Bowie’s best LPs, it shape-shifts all over the place, bouncing ideas about death and the great hereafter off textures of jazz and indie rock, funk and skittery avant garde poetry. From his questioning lyrics to the searching moan in his voice, it was a gripping confessional by a man who knew he was facing the end, and was determined to go out on his own visionary terms. Death defined this year in pop culture; along with Prince, no artist’s passing had a greater impact than Bowie’s. The magnificent Blackstar ensures generations of his fans will always remember that feeling.
Honorable mention: Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger; Blood Orange, Freetown Sound; Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate; A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service; Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
-- Jay Cridlin