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).