Best Albums of the Year 2016

Unfortunately 2016 will likely be remembered as the year the music died. Bowie and Prince were the headliners, but it seemed like every other week another famous musician was transitioning to the great gig in the sky. Thankfully, the reason we care about these people will never go away: the music. We may have lost a lot this year, but we were also blessed with a great new batch of albums to help us get through this thing called life.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

deliriumThe Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
Winning combination features Les Claypool of Primus teaming up with Sean Lennon, whose father John Lennon was once in a band called the Beatles. Most often described as “psychedelic rock” this album is so much catchier than that. Sure, it sometimes provides a glimpse of what it might have sounded like if John Lennon replaced Syd Barrett in early Pink Floyd… or if a time machine allowed Flea to play bass with the Beatles. There’s even a track about Bubbles the chimp, Michael Jackson’s old primate friend. Just a lot going on here. On this addictive set of tunes the younger Lennon certainly reaffirms his own chops as a singer and songwriter and provides the perfect soundscape compliments to Claypool’s always busy bass lines. And while Claypool’s lyrical and vocal quirks can keep his Primus albums out of heavy rotation, the smaller doses found here serve to keep an otherwise heavy affair light on its feet. Monolith has proven to be one of those rare albums that’s instantly likeable on first listen and also a grower that keeps you coming back again and again.

RUNNER-UP ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

de-latribe

A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
It’s really incredible to be sitting here at the end of 2016 with two of the best albums of the year coming from Tribe and De La. Yea that was the norm in 91, but 91 was a quarter century ago! And this isn’t a sympathy vote or career achievement award. These two albums are both expertly crafted… just straight-up bangers, instant classics. It’s a triumphant comeback not only for the groups themselves, but also for hip-hop Albums (with a capital A) as cohesive works of art.

BEST OF THE REST

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-artDrive-By Truckers – American Band
Easily the best Springsteen album in decades. But seriously folks, no one does true Americana rock quite like the DBT’s as far as depth of writing meets true grit. Grappling with what it means to be Southern in America has long been the Truckers lane, but they never fall asleep at the wheel. They continue to ask tough questions and find some relief in the screech of guitars and the fine art of storytelling.
bowie-blackstar-vice

David Bowie – Blackstar
This awful year started with this beauty of an album, followed a few days later by the departure of Bowie from planet earth. I wrote about it then, and it’s still one of the best albums of the year now.

radiohead-moonshapeRadiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Most Radiohead songs sound equally adept at sound tracking either a desperate escape scene or the mundane existence of laundry folding. And that seems to hold true here. I’d like a few more rockers, but I’m not shocked or disappointed to find a new Radiohead album is a mostly mellow affair. That said, “Ful Stop” is certainly a classic “this is what Radiohead sounds like” song.

anderson-paakAnderson .Paak – Malibu
This is one of those great summer albums, as its title and cover suggest. Perfect for the beach or blasting on road trips. Just a funky stew of a variety of styles masterfully pulled off by this mega-talented dude who sounds like a bridge between Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars.

jackie
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?

Otherworldly guitar rock effort proves that Jackie mastermind Steve Rubin is in fact, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, for real. Not just as a guitarist but also as a songwriter and producer. Don’t just take my word for it, go download the album.


margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughter-562x560Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

OK this one might be a little too twangy for you but it is some damn good authentic country music with SOUL, not that fake cowboy popstar contemporary crap they serve up at awards shows and before football games. This is righteous and hearty comfort food music, direct descendant of 1970s Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.


raggaStephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life

I think Stephen Marley is one of the best producers working today. The variety of sounds and the different types of tracks he can create is seemingly limitless. And among the numerous and talented Marley offspring, it is Stephen’s singing that has always sounded the most like Bob’s voice. Fruit of Life finds him working reggae and dancehall magic where it meets the road to hip-hop, collaborating with Rakim, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and even Wyclef Jean. Brother Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley is involved… unfortunately so is Pitbull on the inevitably cheesy filler track “When She Dances.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection

DECEMBER’S CHILDREN
These are the albums that came just came out in the final month of the year… I named this section after an old Rolling Stones album called December’s Children. My gut feel is they are good enough to be on the list of best albums of 2016, but sometimes we just fall in love with the shiny new things.

The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
The Stones putting out an album of old blues covers isn’t exactly shiny or “new,” and it might seem like the least exciting thing in the world, but Mick Jagger’s vocal and harmonica performance is worthy of the song selection, while the raw sound of the… seasoned band is a perfect compliment.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
So I’m not like a pop culture junkie and I don’t really watch much television that doesn’t involve football or animation… so I never realized “that guy Donald Glover from that TV show Atlanta” was also the rapper Childish Gambino. Same guy. Anyway, I’d seen a previous CG album on a lot of best of the year lists in 2013 but I never bothered to listen to him because for some reason I thought “Childish Gambino” was a really stupid stage name. I put it on ignore along with any rap artist with a dollar $ign in their name. But THEN amidst the release of his new album, I read that he got that nickname from putting “Donald Glover” into an online WuTang Name Generator. And then I listened to the album, it’s all funk and singing with no rapping… and it’s really good and weird and cool and other lazy words we fall back on to describe the indescribable. Sounds like D’Angelo mixed with Anderson .Paak… if George Clinton was the bartender.

Neil Young – Peace Trail
Guy is still putting out solid new albums in his 70s. He’s still finding new sounds and telling new stories but also tackling many of the same concerns he’s always had. This time around he’s anchored by a sparse acoustic band anchored by veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and a solid batch of songs that capture that “classic Neil” sound without sounding stale. Young admits to being out of touch with the world where everyone’s staring at their phones, but then also mentions buying a robot on Amazon.com. Dude is fuckin nuts but he’s still bringing the goods for our ears.

December 99th – Dec.99th
The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def is now Yasiin Bey and Dec.99th is a collaboration with producer Ferrari Sheppard. Another “weird/cool” album here that refuses to fit neatly into a category (though I did see a headline calling it “alt.hip-hop,” whatever that is). Chilled grooves meet spooky spoken word style.

Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two
The final Prince album was technically issued in December of 2015… hence its inclusion here as a “December” album since it was mostly received and enjoyed in 2016. The album opens with “Baltimore,” featuring the refrain “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Five months later Prince was dead. This album certainly stands up among his best 2nd-tier non-legendary classic works, and is a good cross section of the countless things he did so well. I’m still so sad he’s gone, but can’t say the same thing about the year 2016.

THE FULL LIST

For all the people who don’t want to read long blogposts and just srolled down to the bottom to see my list of the best albums of 2016, here it is:

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
David Bowie – Blackstar
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?
Margo Price – Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Stephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection
The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Neil Young – Peace Trail
December 99th – Dec.99th
Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

More ‘Best Albums of 2011’

We already compiled the Top Albums of 2011 that we reviewed, so let’s round out our Top 25 albums of 2011 with 15 more that we didn’t get around to writing proper reviews for. It’s a good thing we left our final list undun until now. Looks (sounds) like 2011 saved the best for last as December saw (heard) the release of two of the years’ best from The Roots and The Black Keys.

The Roots – undun
The masters of album making strike again. The Roots have been so consistent and set the bar so high that seemingly every year or so they drop another classic on us and we put them on our year-end lists and talk about how great they are, and yet it still feels like we somehow take them for granted. Saving the best for last and releasing it in December, The Roots’ stark narrative, with the accompanying musicality well beyond just the beats, stands as perhaps the best album of the year.


Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
The return of Ryan Adams features not only his best set of songs since 2005, but his voice sounds better than ever. His co-MVP’s here are legendary veteran producer Glyn Johns and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).


P.J. Harvey – Let England Shake
Maybe the most unique and interesting albums of the year. Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. This one took home prestigious awards and topped a lot of other lists, and it’s way high up on mine as well. Engaging and as urgent as she’s always been, but perhaps her most musical album to date.


Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I once described Fleet Foxes as a soundtrack for doing yard work at a Renaissance festival. And while that doesn’t make a lot of sense, I meant it in the best possible way.


Megafaun – Megafaun
Impossible to describe. Somehow manages to sound like both CSNY and Hot Chip. Comes off weird and eclectic, but still full of hooks.


Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
Not quite right up there with Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints, it’s certainly still a “return to form,” as the press releases like to say. And in between the spots where it bounces like those albums, he sprinkles in a few mellow numbers reminiscent of his 1970’s ballads.


The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
This time they tone down the lush, orchestral emo-pop sound of their previous album, Hazards of Love, and return with a rustic and rootsy affair, with a solid assist from Peter Buck on guitar.


Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Collaboration of lead singer/songwriters (Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez) team up for a simple but stunning record that underscores each of their (potential) places in the next generation of great American songwriters. It’s like if Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp recorded an album together, but did so in 1981-82, around the time they were each making Nebraska, Hard Promises, and American Fool. Actually it’s not really like that at all. Where was I? Oh yea, back to the list.


The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
Droney and addictive.


Radiohead – The King of Limbs
People either love Radiohead and swear by them as the best and most important and innovative band on the planet, or they don’t “get” them and think they’re overrated. There’s no point in me writing about them, other than to say The King of Limbs was a slow burn, took a while to grow, still one of my favorites from this year.


Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring From My Halo
This is a great record that took me a while to actually dig. I’d hate to cheapen it with a string of bullshit music-critic buzzwords and catchphrases… but the retro anti-folk of Smoke Ring From My Halo successfully mixes Dylanesque phrasing with Lou Reed-style street poetry, and somehow comes out smelling like indie rock.


Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
I like this better than their much-acclaimed debut. Full of subtle hooks and natural emotion, this has a crispy 70’s feel with all the guitars up front in the mix.


Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Instrumental rock experts hit us with another dynamic set.


The Antlers – Burst Apart
Another one that is kinda hard to describe. At times a bit odd, but mostly beautiful.


The Black Keys – El Camino
This is right behind The Roots’ undun in the “Best for Last” category. Dropping in December, this one brings the heat right outta the box. Once it’s given more time to sink in, it might end up being the best album of the year.

If the Cover Fits: Great Art to Match Some of the Best Albums of 2011

You can’t judge an album by its cover, but there’s something about when certain albums seem to match their covers, often in some odd unexplained way. For me, it’s not something obvious like “yea, it’s a picture of the band playing the music,” but something much subtler. So this isn’t necessarily my 10 Most Favorite Albums of 2011 so far (though many of them might make that list if it existed), these are just 10 Favorite Covers That Happen To Match Their Music Well. Or something like that.


The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient
The kind of album that’s hard to describe: it’s lush and dreamy but it still has an organic sound and chugging pace that seems in conflict with itself. Same for how many tracks sorta hum along on what seems like just one chord and yet you don’t feel bored. It’s an interesting drone, if that’s even possible. Like Bob Dylan meets Velvet Underground. Slave Ambient sounds how that cover looks. It’s this very strange intersection of electronica and Americana, though it doesn’t overtly sound like either.

PJ HarveyLet England Shake
Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. PJ Harvey delivered one of the finest albums of the year so far and this black and white cover is just sharp enough for the occasion.

Jay-Z and Kanye WestWatch the Throne
Is that not the perfect cover for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Just pure gold. Delicate wrapping, and you could say at times some paper-thin rapping as well. The cover doesn’t tell you the title or the artist (of course, you already know that you are in the presence of royalty), it simply conveys luxury. Insisting that it is the best of the best because, well, it’s the most expensive. But what’s inside? Like the cover, the album is more flash than substance. The only promise that’s really delivered here is that of more luxury. Expensive samples, top notch production, and signature styles (for better and worse) of the two co-star’s verses about, well, luxury. More gold rapping. The only album cover that might have been more appropriate would be a scanned image of their bank statements and tax returns.

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