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We have reached that key moment of the calendar year in which there is little wonder left to ponder with regard to what the remainder of the year holds for the music world – December is usually the beginning of an otherwise languid slow down of the music industry, though December 2016 promises a few exciting releases before the year’s end – but rather look back in retrospect of the year that was.

When it comes to 2016’s year in music, there’s a single word that could describe the year: Surprise.

That’s right, if year in music was anything, it was a surprise – in tragedy, joy, excellence, quality, etc (you get the picture) – year. It was the year of surprise releases from Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Rihanna, Radiohead, and James Blake (some of which were more surprising than others), all of which were largely considered some of the best of the year.

While there were an inordinate number of great “surprise” albums – most notably Frank Ocean’s Blond, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, and Queen Bey’s Lemonade – that doesn’t mean 2016 didn’t have its fair share of fantastic scheduled releases either. In fact, 2016 was such a surprisingly great year for new music, that it’s actually kind of difficult to pin down any of the definitive best albums. But we’ll try, anyway.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 2016’s best records were the sheer number of phenomenal “debut” albums – the quotations used because most of these debut releases follow EP or mixtape releases, as hardly anything is truly a wholehearted surprise these days – most notably Montclair, NJ post-punkers Pinegrove and their absolutely brilliant debut LP, Cardinal, or the cosmic indie country stalwarts Whitney (featuring ex-Smith Westerns/UMO cohorts Julien Ehrlich and Max Kacacek) out of Chicago and their Light Upon the Lake LP.

Then there’s Japanese Breakfast and Psychochomp, Michelle Zauner’s album tribute to her late mother, or NONAME’s Telefone, one of the finest genre bends of the past half-decade, blending brooding R&B and hip-hop house vibes into one hell of a debut mixtape-turned-LP. While the wild success of each of the aforementioned artists’ successful debuts may come as a surprise for 2016, such a fact will not remain as years progress along with the bands themselves.

While 2016 was year of more than a few surprise releases and debuts, it was also (and unfortunately) the year of “surprise” deaths (perhaps “surprise” would be better served as “untimely” in this regard), with legendary music icons passing away without any preceding notice – David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Frank Sinatra Jr. – a list which is far too long, and far too devastating.

That being said, while the passing of so many iconic artists is one hell of a pill to swallow, it’s a great reminder to look back at the magnificent discographies of such significant contributions to the world songbook. Go back and watch Prince’s Super Bowl XLI halftime performance, and understand how he came to influence the likes of current stars Bruno Mars and The Weeknd.

Take a moment to listen to Bowie’s Blackstar, and understand the emotional depth and weary awareness of Bowie as he closed out his illustrious, star spanning career.

Listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service and feel the heartbreak of one of hip-hop’s most legendary groups as they commemorate the memory of their fallen comrade, Phife Dawg.

Dive into Leonard Cohen’s songbook and bare witness to just how influential the “Bard of the Boudoir” in forming what we now know as songwriting of the modern day. Listen to Merle Haggard and Leon Russell and see how the two made an immeasurable impact on country and rock and roll music and everything in between.

Listen to Miss Sharon Jones, and watch YouTube videos of her and her Dapkings, one of the finest live bands to ever take any stage in the past decade, and see what music can do to the soul.

While 2016  will certainly be remembered for the devastating losses that just kept coming throughout the year, they certainly (and thankfully) were not the only “surprising” thing. 2016 was also the year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There had been plenty of opportunities for the Nobel Prize committee to nominate a musician or songwriter of Dylan’s stature as a potential recipient for the Prize, but for as long as the award has been in existence, no songwriter or musician has ever received the award. That is, until this year, when the Nobel Prize committee selected the “The Voice of a Generation,” making him the first official songwriter to receive the prize for literature. And, Dylan being Dylan, when the Nobel Prize committee reached out to Dylan to give him his award, he was unavailable, and seemingly unwilling to accept the award. That led to some humorous memes here and there about an increasingly surly (and/or senile) Dylan not wanting to partake in the Nobel Committee festivities (though Dylan officially accepted the prize in late October).

Whether or not 2017 is up to snuff remains to be seen, but in the mean time, here are 15 of the best (not necessarily THE best, but great ones nonetheless) albums worth diving into (in lieu of Christmas albums) as you close out the year (along with all albums mentioned earlier in the article).

FLOTUS – Lambchop

Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

A Seat at the Table – Solange

Jeffery – Young Thug

Human Performance – Parquet Courts

Puberty 2 – Mitski

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson

Post Pop Depression – Iggy Pop

Adore Life – Savages

Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

Potential – The Range

22, A Million – Bon Iver

99.9% – Kaytranda

Sweet Creep – Jonny Fritz

Yes Lawd! – NxWorries

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Music

There is excellent music coming out in December

December 2016 has some serious heavy hitters that are dropping full-length albums to close out the year.

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While movie season kicks into highest gear during the month of December, the world of music has a distinctly different feel (most years). That being said, December 2016 has some serious heavy hitters that are dropping full-length albums to close out the year. Like some big time, all-timers. I’m talking legends in the making, legit legends, and legends in their own right – there’s the guy who might be having the greatest year ever, there’s the greatest rock n roll band ever, and one of the greatest singer songwriters ever – all releasing new projects before the year end.

Here are five albums dropping in December that you need to get as soon as they hit the racks.

December 2nd

Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

Hands down, Donald Glover is having one of the best years ever – his original FX series Atlanta is a critical darling, he was cast in Spiderman: Homecoming and will play young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo film, had his own curated festival in the desert.  Now he’s capping off a stellar 2016 with his first Childish Gambino album since 2013’s opus, Because of the Internet. Glover has already released two tracks off the record – “Redbone” and “Me and Your Mama” – which sound like George Clinton, Mos Def, and Earth Wind and Fire got together to record an album. This is likely going to be one of the best hip hop records of the next few years, you heard it here first.

Darkness and Light – John Legend

This is an example of the beauty that is cross-platform branding. John Legend will star in the upcoming Oscar favorite La La Land – which also marks his first feature acting role – so what better time to release a new solo record than when your buzzy new movie is out.

Blue & Lonesome – The Rolling Stones

We may need to take a step back here – yes, this is a new record from The Rolling Stones, however, it’s a covers album. That being said, it’s a new album from The Rolling Stones nonetheless, and we should cherish it, because if 2016 was any indication, those guys’ days are unfortunately numbered. It’s the band’s first studio album in 11 years, the album is sort of an homage to the genre that gave he band its name – from a Muddy Waters record – as the band takes on twelve tracks from the 50s, 60s, and 70s eras of blues music.

December 9th

December 99th – December 99th (Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def)


Finally granted permission to leave South Africa after being detained for trying to use a World Citizen Passport, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def, is releasing an unexpected (but much welcomed) new record this December, under yet another new moniker, December 99th. The album is eponymous and features Ferrari Shepherd on most of the production, which was recorded in South Africa. Bummer alert, however, the album will release exclusively on Tidal before making its way out to the rest of us good non-Tidal folks.

Peace Trail – Neil Young

Neil Young has kind of been on a recording tear as of late – who can blame the protest singer with the kind of year that 2016 has become? – with Peace Trail being his second release in as many years. Recorded at music production legend Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios, the album focuses heavily on the recent North Dakota Access Pipeline controversy that has cropped up in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

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Remembering Leonard Cohen: Five essential songs

It seems as though the calendar year of 2016 is trying to give all of existence a run for its money when it comes to the title of “Worst Year Ever.” Leonard Cohen passed away on Thursday.

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DUBLIN - JUNE 14: Singer Leonard Cohen performs onstage at Kilmainham Royal Hospital June 14th, 2008 in Dublin, Ireland

gcluskey / Shutterstock

It seems as though the calendar year of 2016 is trying to give all of existence a run for its money when it comes to the title of “Worst Year Ever,” for a variety of reasons that don’t need to be delved into at this moment, but there’s one reason that’s become painfully familiar – the loss of legendary icons of art and entertainment. Now there’s another: Leonard Cohen.

Arguably the greatest songwriter this side of Dylan, Leonard Cohen was one of the most relatable of “troubled” artists – “troubled” is the choice descriptor here because while Cohen dabbled with the use of drugs and what not, his biggest obstacle as an artist was his constant self-doubt. Cohen’s self-doubt and hyper criticism in turn became one of his biggest strengths, as he typically bucked traditional approaches to writing music, and at times would take years at a time to finish a single song. One such song that Cohen enlisted such an approach is also by far and away his most popular – and may actually be the most popular song of all time – “Hallelujah.”

Cohen famously wrote 80 verses for “Hallelujah,” subsequently tabling the song for some time, before being egged on by Bob Dylan to release the song, which made its debut in December of 1984. Since the songs release – which was not immediately well received – “Hallelujah” has had over 300 known versions of the song recorded, some famously by the likes of Jeff Buckley, John Cale, and Rufus Wainwright, alongside hundreds of unknown ones.

While “Hallelujah” is by far and away the most famous song from the Canadian legend’s song catalog, there are countless other songs that have inspired generations of world class musicians, creatives, songwriters, and the general population. So as we remember Cohen on the day of his death at 82 years old, here are five essential Cohen songs to help extend his memory long after the devastation of his passing has subsided.

“Suzanne”  (1967)

Initially conceived as a poem, “Suzanne” was recorded as a song by Judy Collins in 1966 – the same year the poem was written – and the next year, Cohen recorded his version of the song. Inspired by a platonic relationship with the girlfriend of sculptor Amand Vallincourt, the song recalls the rituals of Cohen and Suzanne’s interactions when they first met.

“Anthem” off of The Future (1992)

A song which features what is arguably one of Cohen’s finest lyrics – “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.\” – is also one of Cohen’s bleakest (which is saying something considering how bleak all of his songs can be.

“Dance Me to the End of Love” (1984)

Another legendary song along the lines of “Hallelujah,” “Dance Me to the End of Love” is a song inspired by the Holocaust. The song has long been described as a “trembling on the brink of understanding,” and been featured as part of a “Poetry & Art” series alongside paintings by Henri Matisse.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” (1971)

In the early 70s, someone stole Cohen’s old raincoat from Marianne Ihlen’s New York apartment. Undoubtedly having been pawned for cash, the coat was the inspiration for one of Cohen’s most brooding and mysterious songs. That being said, Cohen had said in the past that he was never fully pleased with the lyrics for the song.

“Everybody Knows” (1988)

Cohen is famous for magnificently pessimistic songs, but “Everybody Knows” is arguably his most dour. Focusing on the cyclical nature of class warfare and wealth disparity throughout the world, “Everybody Knows” holds a mirror up to this unfairness and forces it to take a look at itself in all its distorted glory.

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November music: Skip the holiday stuff, check out these 5

With December right around the corner, that means we’re about to see a TON of Christmas albums and EPs hitting the racks sooner rather than later.

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With December right around the corner, that means we’re about to see a TON of Christmas albums and EPs hitting the racks sooner rather than later. There have already been a handful of country Christmas records that released in October, but don’t be surprised when even more cropping up in November. That being said, November isn’t going to be the all out assault of Christmas that most of November is otherwise, instead, there are a handful of solid releases from names both big and small, ranging from Metallica to Efterklang (exactly). Here are five records (slim pickings, I know) worth grabbing instead of yet another pop artist’s half-assed attempt at Christmas standards.

Leaves the Colour of Falling – Efterklang

Efterklang are an indie rock/dream pop band from Copenhagen, Denmark with an exceptionally onomatopoetic name, which ends up being highly indicative of their fantastically whimsical music. The band took a brief hiatus after their 2012 release Piramida, but have since returned to making music together as Efterklang following a secret record as Liiama and composing a symphony. The band has only released one song to this point – “ Fundal – Cities of Glass” – but I’ll be damned if the song isn’t fantastically orchestra-laden with parts going every which way and coming back together as a fundamentally baroque pop orchestra piece.

57th & 9th – Sting

At this point, anything that Sting puts out is going to be well worth listening to, as the exceedingly active (in more ways than one) member of The Police and general music idol, Sting seems to always push the confines of music conception. 57th & 9th will be Sting’s first rock album in almost a decade, and the singer has cited it as “impulsive,” whatever that may mean. Either way, its always great to get new music from a living legend, and Sting is the embodiment of such an existence.

Woman – Justice

French music is probably best identified by the beat heavy music of Daft Punk or Phoenix at this point, but Ed Banger Records is a legendary electronic music label that has produced many a fantastic electronic act, but few better than French house legends Justice. Gaspard Auge and Xavier de Rosnay are the minds behind Justice, and they’ve concocted yet another fantastic electronic record that will undoubtedly see a return to form on their preceding effort, Cross. Be sure to check out lead singles “Safe and Sound” and “Randy” before copping the full record on November 18th.

Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – Metallica

The original heavy-shredders of music, Metallica are poised to release the tenth full length record of their storied career. The band has already released two tracks off the record – “Hardwired” and “Moth Into Flame” – and plan on releasing a third single at 3 PM Eastern on Halloween, making for an exceptionally “spooky” record (yeah, technically that makes this an October record. Sue me.).

Starboy – The Weeknd

After years toiling away in the underground Toronto trap scene, Abel Tesfaye finally came into prominence with his second full-length (and first major label) release, The Beauty Behind the Madness featured many chart topping hits – in case you somehow forgot, they were “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills.” On top of that, The Weeknd got a couple songs featured on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, so he made some serious cash, and it looks like Tesfaye is ready to reemerge with yet another album that will undoubtedly feature many a drug-filled anecdote or tall tale of clubs and promiscuity in Starboy. As a guest on Saturday Night Live, Tesfaye debuted the title track and “False Alarm” off of the record.

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