Some people may be tired of hearing about how terrible 2016 was, but I don’t really care. It was not only bad on a global level; for me, it started with cancer and a major surgery, ended with cancer and chemo, and was punctuated by two pet deaths and some illnesses along the way. Thankfully, there were many musical highlights as bright spots. Of course, 2016 was also rife with big losses, beginning with the death of David Bowie and ending with the George Michael’s passing, with the losses of Prince, Sharon Jones, and Leonard Cohen along the way. However, let’s get to the good things: my top 10 albums and favorite music moments of 2016.
Top 10 Albums
10. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador Records)
Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial opens with lyrics that seem especially fitting of this year: “I’m so sick of: fill in the blank.” It’s the band’s first proper studio album of new music (2015’s Teens of Style was a compilation of tracks from prolific Will Toledo’s 11 previous Bandcamp releases), and with guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Darby and drummer Andrew Katz joining Toledo, Car Seat Headrest’s sound is obviously fuller, while the lyrics—whether spoken, crooned or shouted—maintain a sense of intimacy via a borderline confessional tone and introspective grappling with self-doubts and inner demons. Songs about depression—“Fill in the Blank” for example—can sound surprisingly upbeat, and a bad trip story, “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem),” becomes tragicomedy. While there’s often a Pavement-like pace to many of the songs, Car Seat Headrest is still incapable of creating something predictable on songs like the soaring “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” the meandering and beautiful “Cosmic Hero,” and the epic “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” which contains both a melancholy ballad and an upbeat piano tune. At a time when there is so much to be sick of, Car Seat Headrest is a refreshing antidote.
9. The Avalanches, Wildflower (Astralwerks)
The Avalanches’ Wildflower was 16 years in the making; the Australian electronic group started working on this record after the release of their acclaimed 2000 debut, Since I Left You, and reportedly finished it the night before mastering the recording. Founding members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi are joined by a rotating cast and countless guest stars like Camp Lo, who is featured on the soaring R&B track “Because I’m Me,” and Father John Misty on “Saturday Night Inside Out.” Many of the tracks—“Subways,” “The Noisy Eater” (featuring Biz Markie), “Colours” (featuring Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev), and “Stepkids” (featuring Warren Ellis of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Jennifer Herrema of Black Bananas and Royal Trux)—seem to be extracted from a psychedelic pop dream, which is not that surprising when you consider Chater underwent a three-week ibogaine hallucinogenic treatment. Wildflower shows that good things can come to those who wait.
8. Lucy Dacus, No Burden (Matador Records)
The catchy hooks and witty lyrics (“Yeah, I’ll read the books and I’ll be the smartest. I’ll play guitar and I’ll be the artist.”) of Lucy Dacus’ anthem to awkwardness, “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore,” garnered the attention of about 20 record labels before Dacus and her band decided on Matador for their debut, No Burden. The Richmond-based singer-songwriter is a fresh voice, yet her lyrics and honey-tinged vocals often sound older and wiser than her 21 years, such as with the sad beauty of “Dream State/Familiar Place” and the worldly wise storytelling of “Troublemaker Doppelganger.” With No Burden, which was essentially recorded in a single day, Dacus proves that she can be anything she wants: funny, smart, and an artist.
7. St. Lenox, Ten Hymns from My American Gothic (Anyway Records)
St. Lenox is Andrew Choi, a New York attorney by day who occasionally shows up to gigs still in his suit and a transplanted Iowan by way of Ohio who is also a Julliard-trained violinist. His second record, Ten Hymns from My American Gothic, the follow-up to his 2014 debut, is a nod to his Midwestern roots and is a 70th birthday gift to his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea. Choi tells tales—lyrics don’t rhyme but follow a rhythm—with his soulful voice, often backed only by simple keyboards and a beat. A modern-day philosopher (really, he has a philosophy degree), St. Lenox paints vivid vignettes with only a few words, whether he’s exploring his heritage (“Korea,” “What I Think About When You Say South Korea”), childhood (“The Public School System” with the refrain “You’re not better than me, rich kid”) or the present (“Thurgood Marshall”).
6. Savages, Adore Life (Matador Records)
After 2013’s acclaimed Silence Yourself, the Savages’ blistering, assertive debut record, the post-punk British foursome returned in 2016 with Adore Life, an even more powerful collection of tracks. It opens with “The Answer” and the command of “If you don’t love me, you don’t love anybody” followed by the assertion that “love is the answer.” That line sets the tone for the record; according to the liner notes, “It’s about love, every kind of love.” It’s tough love on “Sad Person,” while it’s something more ferocious on “T.W.I.Y.G.” While hints of the band’s influences are present throughout—from Swans in some feedback-drenched interludes or Siouxsie Sioux in Jehnny Beth’s vocals on “Evil”—at the record’s core is the sound of a band maintaining its trademark urgency and energy without being afraid to evolve.
5. Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen became an indie-rock darling in 2014 with her sophomore collection of country-tinged tunes, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and a voice which, belying her name, displayed human vulnerability and strength. With My Woman, Olsen returns with even greater intensity. On the first single, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” she commands, “Shut up kiss me hold me tight ” almost as one word over an indie-pop melody with hints of ’50s rock & roll and R&B that show up throughout the album, as on the torch song “You’ll Never Be Mine.” Olsen also ventures—very subtly—into new wave with the synth of “Intern,” as well as psychedelia on “Not Going to Kill You.” Her ease in trying on a variety of styles is displayed throughout the record, as on the loungey jazz of “Those Were the Days” and the hymnal beginning of “Woman,” while she still shows her folksy roots on cuts like “Heart Shaped Face.” Olsen is not exactly a musical chameleon, though, as her distinctive voice shines too brightly to blend into the background.
4. Doprah, Wasting (Prison Tapes)
Doprah, the New Zealand trip-hop duo of Steven John Marr and Indira Force, released an EP in 2014, but Wasting—with four more band members now in tow—is the band’s full-length debut. With Force’s haunting vocals, “I Will Be a Figure Eight” picks up where Tricky and Portishead left off in the late ’90s, while tracks like “Borderline” and “Lucid Visions” venture into Bjorkian pop. While the entire album is an electronic gem, standouts include the dreamy “Subaeruginusa,” the eerie “Machinery,” the surreal “San Pedro” and atmospheric “Stranger People,” as well as the quirkily beautiful “Wool.”
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
With Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 16th album, Skeleton Tree, the Australian teller of dark stories is possibly at his darkest. While much has been made of the devastating personal loss Cave experienced—the death of one of his 15-year-old sons in a tragic cliff fall—the recording of much of the record preceded the accident. From the eerily sparse “Magneto” and the slow-build of “Jesus Alone” to the raw vocals of “I Need You” and the haunting beauty of “Girl in Amber,” heartbreak, sadness, and loss are often suggested not just by what is there—a simple synth line or an acoustic guitar, for example—but by the absence of sound, hinting at the disappearance of a loved one or hope. With lines like, “You cried beneath the dripping trees. Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid,” (“Jesus Alone”), there is a noble, melancholy beauty throughout the record.
2. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia Records)
Unlike David Bowie (see below), Leonard Cohen knew this year’s album was a farewell, addressing death in interviews (“I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”) and in his lyrics (such as in the title track, proclaiming “I’m ready, my lord”). Cohen’s music was as distinctive for his deep half-spoken tone as for his poetic lyrics, which here touch on regret (“Treaty”) and heartbreak (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”) in addition to mortality. As Cohen sings, “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” (“Leaving the Table”), we’re reminded the world is a little bit darker without this musical luminary.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
When David Bowie died a few days after the release of Blackstar last January, it seemed as if the album and the haunting video for “Lazarus,” with Bowie singing lyrics like “Look up here, I’m in heaven” from a hospital bed, was a goodbye. A visionary throughout his career, Bowie never seemed fully of this world. He was Ziggy Stardust, the Man Who Fell to Earth, someone who could master different styles like pop, funk, soul and electronic music and turn it into his own. Blackstar is a seamless album, with haunting melodies, simple beats, and a lonely saxophone throughout, while some of the showman comes through on “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Only recently was it revealed that Bowie didn’t know this was to be his final album and that his cancer was terminal until three months before his death. Nonetheless, it possesses the kind of prophetic resonance that characterized so much of his life’s work.
Top 10 Music Moments
Arab Strap, Barrowlands Ballroom, Glasgow, October 15
In June, my boyfriend sent an email titled “Glasgow in October?” with a link to Arab Strap tour dates, and I immediately replied, “Yes!” We often send each other links to shows we’d like to see abroad but don’t have unlimited funds or vacation time. However, Arab Strap was reuniting for the band’s 20th anniversary, and I’d had the same conversation with my boyfriend 10 years earlier, when Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton were playing the band’s farewell tours. Life is short and I was in between cancer treatments. Not only is Scotland one of my new favorite places, but seeing Arab Strap reunited and playing to a sold-out Glasgow crowd was unforgettable. Moffat confessed he had a nervous dream about the show during a post-soundcheck nap, but his vision didn’t materialize. The crowd went crazy for “The First Big Weekend,” but it was great to hear songs we’d never thought we’d hear live, like “The Shy Retirer” and “Packs of Three.” It was well worth the trip and the decade wait.
The Cure, Madison Square Garden, New York, June 18, 19, and 20
The Cure is my favorite band, so when we heard they would be playing three nights at Madison Square Garden, we got tickets to two shows. We ended up seeing the band an additional night when we found last-minute eighth-row seats for the first show. Robert Smith seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself—even doing a goofy voice at one point for “Wrong Number.” Over the course of three nights, we saw 61 different songs, including perennial favorites like “Just Like Heaven” and “Lovesong,” as well as delightful surprises like “Bananafishbones” and “This Twilight Garden,” as well as “Last Day of Summer” on the first official day of summer. Even better, on the second night, our hometown Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship seconds after The Cure returned to the stage for their first encore.
Sebastian Bach, St. Vitus, Brooklyn, December 6
While Sebastian Bach didn’t sing at this discussion and signing of his autobiography, 18 and Life on Skid Row, the consummate entertainer delivered laughs and stories in his Q&A with Brandon Stosuy, editor-in-chief of The Creative Independent. Told in Bach’s voice, the book is entertaining and one of the better rock bios, and it was a treat to hear the man himself discuss Skid Row, the effects of grunge in the early ’90s, Jesus Christ Superstar, Supergroup (with his favorite line a critic wrote, “Well, it’s a group,”), and, of course, some of his wild tales, which he often punctuated with a smile and the admonition, “It was a different time.”
Iggy Pop, United Artists Theater, New York, April 12
While this Iggy Pop show in support of his Post Pop Depression album was a typically great, energetic performance—he quickly removed his jacket, danced around the stage and crowdsurfed—the highlight was that I touched him. Or he touched me, really. As Pop jumped into the crowd and made his way down the aisle of the venue, I found myself inches from him. I’m not one to fawn over singers, but as Iggy Pop stood before me, I timidly outstretched my hand in his general direction, and he held it to his chest for a few moments as he sang “Fall in Love with Me.”
BMX Bandits, Cake Shop, New York, April 8
This night was probably among my favorite shows at the Cake Shop, which sadly was another casualty of 2016. Duglas T. Stewart—the primary member of Scotland’s BMX Bandits since 1985—and Chloe Philip were backed by members of The Hairs and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart for a set of the Bandits’ trademark indie pop. Stewart’s banter between songs was quick-witted, making for an even more memorable show.
King Missile, Cake Shop, New York, May 29
According to frontman John S. Hall’s website, this was the first time in 20 years King Missile had played in Manhattan. The Cake Shop show included some of King Missile’s finest, including “Cheesecake Truck,” “Jesus Was Way Cool,” “Take Stuff from Work” (with some things on the list, like a word processor, hilariously outdated), and, of course, “Detachable Penis.”
Rob Sheffield, Word Bookstore, Brooklyn, July 14
On a sweltering summer day, a few dozen David Bowie fans—some holding Bowie records or bottles of wine to share—gathered down in the basement of Word Bookstore in Greenpoint, where writer Rob Sheffield discussed his book On Bowie with fellow music journalist Amanda Petrusich. Sheffield, who always has good stories, shared some from his book research, which included combing through his VHS tapes for a clip of Bowie with Henry Winkler on The Dinah Shore Show. The audience was invited to share favorite Bowie songs for a memorable evening that was part book discussion, part fan gathering, part post-Bowie loss group therapy session.
Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk, Queens Museum
The Ramones exhibition at the Queens Museum examined the band’s Forest Hill roots, as well as the band’s influence on music, culture, and fashion. On display were handwritten lyrics, passport photos from tours, artwork from Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, comics, magazines, flyers, photos and, of course, leather jackets, as well as a room showing vintage concert footage, including video of the band’s legendary 1977 New Year’s Eve show in London.
Johnny Marr, Gramercy Theater, New York, November 15
Book events played a big role in my music highlights this year. Presented by The Strand Bookstore, Johnny Marr discussed his autobiography, Set the Boy Free, with Ian Svenonius (of Chain and the Gang, The Make-Up, and Nation of Ulysses). With guitar in hand (or in stand), Marr played a little bit to underscore various stories in the book. The conversation provided a lot insight into his days growing up in Manchester, noting that my hometown of Cleveland reminded him of his, and his first meeting with Morrissey as they formed The Smiths.
Eric Bachmann, HiFi, New York, January 28
In January, Eric Bachmann played two shows to celebrate Merge’s re-release of Crooked Fingers’ first two full-length albums, one in Durham, North Carolina and one at the HiFi, where his Archers of Loaf had frequently played when it was Brownie’s. The intimate setting was perfect, as Bachmann, backed by a small string ensemble, played the records in their entirety.