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

Best Albums of 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.