Top 10 of 2016
10. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
What a way to end the story. The timing was incredible in and of itself, but the fact that Bowie recorded his best work in at least 35 years, one of his boldest adventures, makes Blackstar an achievement that might never be matched.
9. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)
It was May in Ohio, the sun was just starting to emerge full-time. I got in my car and thought, “That new Chance record—I should check it out.” Opener “All We Got” seemed designed to be played in the car on the first, perfect, spring day, with its trumpets and 808 handclaps. Chance’s first words are “we back,” and at the one-minute mark, as you pull onto the highway, that sweet chorus drops. Another memory: months later, one of my favorite people in the world visits from Chicago. He got fired the day before and he’s pissed. What do we do? Get in that car, put the windows down, and blast “No Problem,” of course. One of my favorite moments of the year.
8. Peter Broderick, Partners (Erased Tapes)
I get chills listening to this. It’s actually the record I listened to most in 2016. It’s a tender tribute to John Cage and makes use of his chance-based operations. The album is mostly a collection of piano pieces, though there’s also a track with sung vocals and voices are lurking in the backgrounds in other places, too. But first there’s the spoken-word intro, which begins, “To remain at the beginning until the end, starting anew every single moment, with regard for all living souls and finding life in mistakes and peace within chaos. A prayer for everyone.” It’s not a John Cage quotation, but it lovingly captures his spirit. The partners of the title might be Cage and Broderick, both of whom seem to have equal sway over the recording. Or the partners might be the piano and the human voice, which work together here to achieve something remarkable, heartfelt, and beguiling.
7. Hayes Carll at The Ark, Ann Arbor, June 18
If you haven’t been to The Ark, I recommend the trip. It’s a nonprofit, membership-supported institution, an intimate club that’s been a home for folk and roots music since 1965. Hayes Carll is an eccentric, country music songwriter from Texas who, in 2016, released his first LP in five years. Despite the fact that most of the crowd was north of retirement age (which Carll noted is pretty standard for his shows), they were very enthusiastic. Seemingly no one held back their urge to shout at the stage, responding to Carll’s jokes with one-liners of their own and attempting to flirt with supporting act Emily Gimble. I’d been waiting years for Carll to visit the Midwest, and this weird guy performing for this cranky crowd at this iconic venue made for a show that was bizarre enough to outwit my imagination.
6. Daniel Lanois, Goodbye to Language (Anti- Records)
This is simply a beautiful recording. Featuring lap steel, pedal steel, and a desk full of effects, it sounds like the rivers of the mind and time rolling over and over on itself. You will be drawn in by it. You could get lost in it. Don’t think about it too much, it’s nothing but questions anyway.
Though I’m not obsessed with it like a lot of my theatrical friends, I still had very high expectations for the first truly great hip-hop musical. It surpassed them all. It’s a nearly perfect production, full of great, musical storytelling, and overflowing with once-in-a-lifetime virtuosity. More than once I said aloud, “Ho. Lee. Shit.” Forget the hype, once the show starts, all that becomes irrelevant. Hamilton is that good.
4. Neil Young, Time Fades Away (Reprise Records)
This year saw the long awaited vinyl reissue of a 1973 live album that Neil Young called the worst record he ever made. For decades, he refused to re-release it. Turns out, it’s a great record. Young’s problem with it is that it’s an accurate representation of the dark place he was in at the time, and the trouble comes through in the ramshackle performances. They are shabby, to be sure, but also fragile and intimate, effortlessly honest. This might not be the side of Neil Young that you prefer, but to my ears, it’s essential and absolutely among his best.
3. Kamasi Washington and The Next Step Live
Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album, The Epic, got a lot of play this year, both digitally and in the form of the gorgeous triple-LP box set. Two of the very best performances I saw all year were put on by Washington with his band, The Next Step. Their Sunday morning set at Pitchfork was spiritually rich, a ray of light shining out on a dark day. In Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater, the band brought its own darkness, pushing the music into heavy territory that was more wailing funk than gospel bop. Both sets were furious and unforgettable.
2. Damian Jurado, Visions of Us On the Land (Secretly Canadian)
Visions of Us On the Land is the fantastic, final album in Damian Jurado’s great trilogy about a man’s attempt to view society from the outside. I listened to all three albums a bunch, especially this last one, which brought the themes and sounds of Jurado’s two previous LPs to a brilliant culmination.
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Making the Most of the Night” (Interscope Records)
On Spotify, this was my most played song of the year by a long shot. This is a story in two parts. First was her appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival. My surprise and delight at the immense joy she delivered made a lasting impression, and this song, the second in her set, was instantly embedded in my heart. As the year went on, it became something of a late-night anthem, the song I’d turn to for a pick-me-up when things didn’t seem to be going my way.