Did any music come out this year? It feels like the year was spent in a hole of existential dread and that listening to music was something that slid through the cracks. Thankfully that wasn’t always the case, and here are some records that eased the pain of screaming into the void.
Top 12 Albums
12. RJD2, Dame Fortune (RJ’s Electrical Connections)
It’s been more than 14 years since DJ/producer RJD2 emerged as a solo artist in the turn of the century wave of instrumental hip-hop. Over the course of those years and DJ mixes, solo albums, collaborations, remixes, and productions, he’s established a distinct sonic footprint. Yet, as his latest record shows, he’s never afraid to blow up any previous expectations. A mix of “classic” RJD2, with nods to the LA beat scene, unexpected abstract moments, well-chosen collaborations (Blueprint, Phonte Coleman, Josh Krajcik, Jordan Brown, and Son Little) and some rock-influenced workouts, Dame Fortune looks forward and back at the same time. It’s nearly everything you loved about RJD2 in the past and some new things to love as well.
11. De La Soul, …And the Anonymous Nobody (A.O.I. Records)
With 12 years since The Grind Date, De La Soul found themselves in a unique situation of being legacy artists, but also in a sense, new artists. While they never stopped touring and kept fairly visible with appearances on other artists’ albums—notably the Gorillaz—for a certain generation they never really existed. So flushed with fistfuls of Kickstarter money, the group released …And The Anonymous Nobody. Because sample laws are too cost prohibitive, the crazy quilt of days gone by are absent. In their place, De La created their own samples from live band recordings they commissioned. The result is a much more music-based album, where the backing tracks are as much of a focus as the rhymes. And as with their other albums, there are a bunch of featured guests, but the band also takes the opportunity to go different places sonically. It’s a rare “grown-up” album that has more on its mind than pleasing the kids.
10. Xenia Rubinos, Black Terry Cat (Anti- Records)
Xenia Rubinos’ second album finds her straddling the sounds of neo-soul, Cibo Matto, and the early days of Grand Royal. There’s the temptation to try to categorize it into one thing or the other, but one label doesn’t seem to fit as Rubinos continuously takes the familiar and turns it into something new. It’s slyly political, but danceable; sensitive, but with a ton of swagger. It’s a quiet storm with a fist in the air, and a record that’s uniquely hers.
9. E, E (Thrill Jockey Records) and Thalia Zedek Band, Eve (Thrill Jockey Records)
This year we got a twofer from Thalia Zedek: Eve from her self-named band and the self-titled release from the supergroup trio E, featuring Jason Sidney Sanford (Neptune) on guitar, vocals, and “devices,” and Gavin McCarthy (Karate) on drums, percussion, and vocals. It’s the perfect combo, with E showcasing the more rowdy and rocking side of Zedek, while Eve takes a more slow-burning expansive take on things. Together they’re a perfectly balanced diet.
8. Anthrax, For All Kings (Megaforce Records)
For All Kings is Anthrax’s second album since Joey Belladonna returned to the fold, but as his bandmates began recording 2011’s Worship Music before he rejoined, it is the first full-length that has been truly co-piloted by Belladonna since 1990’s Persistence of Time. The new album also features the guitar work of Jonathan Donais, formerly of Shadows Fall, who joined after lead guitarist Rob Caggiano left the band in 2013. With most of the intervening years spent on the road, the result is a record that is impossibly good. For All Kings encapsulates nearly aspect of the Anthrax catalog, with the exception of their hip-hop detour. Wisely, the band doesn’t overtly reference their past. Instead, they’re agile enough to mix and match styles with ease, shifting from the alternative sounds of the John Bush years to a thrash breakdown and then someplace altogether different. Basically, For All Kings is not only the record you would want from Anthrax, it’s the type of record you wish every reunited band could pull off.
7. Solange, A Seat at the Table (Saint Records/Columbia Records)
While pop culture has been preoccupied with her older sister, Solange presaged the things for which Beyonce has become celebrated. But instead of worrying about it, Solange released her long delayed full-length follow-up to 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. A Seat At The Table is a collection of psychedelic soul, future R&B, some Afrobeat influences, and curiously Master P. In a year where “unapologetically black” became not only a calling card, but a rallying point, Solange provided the right soundtrack at the right time.
6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
Darkness is a given when it comes to a Nick Cave record. However, his 16th record with the Bad Seeds was produced under perhaps the darkest of shrouds. During the album’s recording sessions his 15-year-old son Arthur died after an accidental cliff fall. While the record was written and the initial recording sessions were completed before Arthur’s death, naturally in revisiting the material the tone changed. And while the record isn’t directly about the incident, there’s an eerily prophetic aspect that hangs over the songs. Fittingly the album is less narrative than what Cave is known for, and the production matches with a moody, minimal and at times dissonant tone. Co-piloted by longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, Skeleton Tree is a beautiful, devastating, and emotionally complex record that’s not just one of the best of 2016, but one of Cave’s best.
5. Lydia Loveless, Real (Bloodshot Records)
Music critics can be the laziest SOBs. Case in point: since she first emerged, Lydia Loveless has been tagged with some version of “alt-country.” But in the years since her debut, it’s become increasingly a bad fit. With her fourth album, Real, Loveless and her band seem determined to see who is really listening. While there are some songs that would work comfortably on country radio, the rock aspect of her sound is pushed forward as are the pop and the New Wave–esque elements. It’s a confident and, at times, heartbreaking record that points to a boundless future.
4. Anohni, Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)
Hopelessness is the unapologetically political debut album by Anohni, formerly known as Antony Hegarty, leader of Antony and The Johnsons. Stepping away from the chamber pop of her former band, Anohni embraced electronic music. Yet Hopelessness isn’t the nu-disco banger that might be expected from the maker of “Blind,” while it’s also not a total rejection of the Antony and the Johnsons sound. There are definitely traces of orchestral pop at the edges. A song like “I Don’t Love You Anymore” could easy be recast by just removing the distorted drums. But Anohni fully embraces glitches, bleeps, and beats in a manner that makes it seem as if she’s been fluent in the language the entire time. One would imagine that with a few savvy remixes, several tracks would be ready for the club. As it stands, there is plenty of head-nodding production work. But nonetheless, it is Anohni’s swooping soaring tenor that is the focal point. It’s a unique instrument that demands attention no matter what’s going on. Lyrically, the album balances criticism of American foreign policy, the surveillance state, and failed environmental policies, as well as a personal disconnect from nature. Paring such concerns with a solid beat helps the medicine go down.
3. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)
Chance The Rapper is one of the more leftfield success stories of 2016. Coloring Book, a.k.a. Chance 3, isn’t technically an album, but a mixtape. It’s a free release that’s streaming only, unless you got a first-day download. It’s record that manages to straddle the sounds of both gospel music and hip-hop, with production work from a variety of disparate artists such as Francis and the Lights and Kaytrada. While not quite the shock to the system that was Acid Rap, Coloring Book shows the leaps and bounds by which Chance has grown as an artist.
2. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic Records)
Another record release that was tinged with loss, this album nevertheless celebrated the legacy and potential future of one of the greatest groups to ever do it, A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe had famously broken up in 1998, and although they had gotten back together to perform sporadically, no new music had appeared. It seems to have taken the celebration of the anniversary of their debut to kick things into gear. Recorded in secret before the passing of Phife Dawg, the album is minus DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, but has a boatload of guest artists. There are some nods to the past, but Q-Tip’s production looks more to a wiggy future than the boom-bap past. A better farewell than the previous last album, The Love Movement, We Got It From Here shows the best possible way to come back and take a bow.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
It seems fitting that the event that seemed to signal the beginning of the darkest timeline, the passing of David Bowie, was somewhat softened by the release of his final album, Blackstar. A record laced with examinations of mortality and death, there’s a sense of Bowie putting his metaphoric house in order. But instead of trying to do a grand sonic summation, Blackstar is instead a fractured jazz-infused record with some hints of Earthling-era electronics. The experimentation that fueled much of his career is in full display as he seems to not only reinvent his sound for the umpteenth time, while also making deep-cut nods to his past, but also seems to have absorbed something from the younger bands that he influenced. (Some songs wouldn’t out of place on a TV on the Radio or Panda Bear record.) While it was unfathomably sad to see him go, to paraphrase the words of Costanza, “He left on a high note!”