It’s earned its own hashtag: #WorstYearEver. The music world’s losses started with David Bowie in January and went on to claim luminaries including Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Pete Burns, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and in a Christmas surprise, George Michael. While fans mourned on social media they also took solace in some incredible swan songs—for Bowie and Cohen, records consciously created as final acts.
Pop’s heavyweights posthumously asserted the enduring power of art, in all of its messy nuance and abstraction, while American voters signed off on a reductive vulgarian—a manipulator who didn’t pursue truths but invented convenient ones, an anti-artist, his triumph a middle finger to wisdom, introspection, compassion, liberation, and virtually every other positive theme you might associate with the elevating music of the deceased. It was a grim campaign season, one that pushed me toward familiar comforts. Here are the artists and moments that gave me encouragement and even, dare I say, hope in 2016.
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic Records)
A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth album, delivered two days after the election and eight months after the death of founding member Phife Dawg’s from diabetes-related complications, is its first in nearly 20 years and its best. If I met someone who had somehow never heard hip-hop and wanted to fall in love with it, I would instruct them to hit play and clear out enough space for dancing.
Lyrics touching on racial experience, the media, and the kind of scapegoating that drove a president-elect to power give it a contemporary and urgent feel even if some of its production sounds like it was dug up from a time capsule capturing the best of Tribe’s early ‘90s feel-good vibes. Actually, much of it is deliciously throwback—big, theatrical scratching on well-known rock-samples (“Benny and the Jets”), Run DMC–style rhyming tug-of-war between Q-Tip and Phife, and bursts of battle rap braggadocio on knockin’ beats. The final track is called “The Donald,” a nod to Phife’s old moniker “Don Juice” and a paean to the self-made Queens legend featuring Tribe co-founder Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes. “Fuck your ass-cheek flows with bars sweeter than scones,” Phife raps on the final track, the perfect sign-off from a master of the craft who never compromised even when America did.
X at Irving Plaza, New York, August 13
I’ve caught the Los Angeles four-piece X a number of times over their decades-long run, but this summer show at Irving Plaza marked the return of rockabilly hell-raiser Billy Zoom, who was sidelined with cancer when I saw them a year prior. The set started with some of the group’s mellower numbers, including their excellent cover of the 1930 jazz standard “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and “Adult Books,” which got a vibraphone treatment. Then, the menacing opening riff to “The Hungry Wolf” kicked in, and vocalists Exene Cervenka and John Doe proceeded to demolish Irving Plaza with a frenzied set of classic West Coast punk. An old-timer in a T.S.O.L. shirt at the merch table told me it was the best he’d seen them and I have to concur.
The Stone Roses at Madison Square Garden, New York, June 30
Madison Square Garden is not the greatest place to see a show. Depending on your seats and the vocal capacity of your neighbors, the noise of adjacent conversation can drown out the band. But when The Stone Roses, playing their first NYC show in 21 years, hit their stride with a rousing, sing-along version of “Made of Stone” (from their eponymous 1989 debut), it reminded me there is indeed a place for stadium concerts; there’s no matching the energy of 20,000 people dancing and singing along to an iconic band.
Bohren & der Club of Gore, Bohren for Beginners (PIAS Recordings)
If dark jazz sounds like something you might be into and you’ve never heard it, treat yourself to this haunting double-disc of music spanning the under-appreciated German band’s 25-year career. A few words come to mind, but I’m not sure how to put them together so I’ll leave them here: exquisite, spooky, sublime, ghost, orchestra.
Jane’s Addiction at Ford Amphitheater, Brooklyn, July 15
Jane’s Addiction’s performance at Coney Island’s new boardwalk amphitheater had the muscle, sleaze, and sideshow weirdness befitting of the locale. Impish frontman Perry Farrell still controls a stage like few others, breathing fire into tunes like the anthemic “Mountain Song” and “Jane Says.” With the saltwater breeze, fireworks, and a setlist that included my favorite Jane’s record, Ritual De Lo Habitual, in all of its psychedelic, prog-rock meandering, this was a summer high mark.
The Pixies, Head Carrier (Pixiesmusic/PIAS Recordings)
While 2014’s Indie Cindy was not the comeback album for which Pixies fans like myself clamored (and if you’re splitting hairs it was a collection of EPs, not a proper full-length, anyway), Head Carrier was. From the opening churn of the title track to the majestic closer “All the Saints,” this record is a tour of the signature sounds, tempo changes, and weirdo lyrical allusions that made them one of the most influential bands in the alt-rock boom of the early ‘90s.
The Pretenders at Madison Square Garden, New York, December 1
Chrissie Hynde’s change from an angular white-trimmed blazer to a black and white Elvis-printed tee certainly ranks among the more bad-ass wardrobe changes I’ve seen. Actually, everything about Hynde was alternately bad-ass and elegant, from the soaring third stanza of “Back on the Chain Gang” to “Hymn to Her,” a show-stopping display of vocal control. This night, she was the king, the queen, the court—she was everything.
David Bowie, “Lazarus” (Columbia Records)
Bowie lies in a hospital bed, blindfolded, with buttons for eyes in the video for “Lazarus,” an incredible track from his poignant final album Blackstar. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings in the opening verse. He released the album January 8, and died two days later. It was an intense goodbye, one that both rattled and motivated me; I love the fact that Bowie never stopped thinking like an artist. A Dylan Thomas poem comes to mind.
RJD2, Dame Fortune (RJ’s Electrical Connections)
Columbus, Ohio–based RJD2’s latest LP is a fine collection of neo-funk and soul, along with some spaced-out hip-hop instrumentals. “The Sheboygan Left” was my feel-good jam of the summer.
Run the Jewels, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” (self-released)
Just as I’m getting ready to turn in my picks for the Best of 2016, Run the Jewels drops their third full-length ahead of schedule and Killer Mike again proves why he’s my favorite political emcee. This six-minute closing track also includes two choice El-P beats and a guest spot from Zack De La Rocha and is thus making my cut.