Fuck 2016. Excuse my French, but there’s no other way to say it. This past year was as horrible as it gets. We not only lost an inordinate number of creative talents, but the morons who make up a large portion of our country’s population elected king dipshit to lead our country for the next four years. Add in a big helping of police murdering black citizens, the brutalization of the DAPL protestors, and more mass shootings because the hillbillies have got to have their guns, and it’s enough to make anyone want to never get out of bed.
But that wasn’t all. In addition to the big star deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Phife Dawg, George Michael, et al. we lost Billy Miller, who headed up the A-Bones and, along with his wife Miriam Linna, ran Norton Records. In New York, important indie institutions Other Music and the Cake Shop closed up shop.
This year sucked on a personal level as well, with the death of two beloved cats, one as a result of a truly awful virus, FIP. And last but not least, we lost a member of The Agit Reader family, former contributor Terrence Adams, to whom we dedicate this remembrance of 2016.
As such, this year we needed music more than ever, to soothe our souls and provide some kind of cathartic release. So while the pall of death hangs over several of the records in the list below, these are nevertheless albums that provided sanctuary from the horror of the year, as well as vitriolic relief when we needed it. SS
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
The second life of Dinosaur Jr. continued this year with the fourth release since lead singer and guitarist J. Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow (and drummer Murph) reunited in 2005 to resurrect the pedal-pushing wall of sound that they first formulated in the late ’80s. On Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, “Goin Down” and “Tiny” come out the gate with big, belting hooks, while other tracks take turns that are sludgy, jangly, or moody and introspective. Per established convention, Barlow lends vocals to a couple tracks that would fit more seamlessly on a playlist of Byrds-era psych rock. While jarring, they’re not unwelcome on a fine installment from one of guitar rock’s greats. JP
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. JR
Coloring Book is the most fun hip-hop record since Kanye’s Graduation. While his contemporaries mostly stick to rhyming about the insides of their cells or the insides of their heads, Chance writes about the passion and determination it takes to crash the gates of the music industry. Sometimes that means throwing hands in the lobby (“No Problem”) and sometimes it means “speaking to God in public.” Chance launched Coloring Book by performing “Blessings” on The Tonight Show, making no bones about his intent to worship on national television. The gospel influences don’t tell Chance’s whole story (there are also tracks about what a successful young man might do on a Saturday night), but they do set Coloring Book apart from his previous works. He uses choral singers for more than just their symbolism, and he puts the most memorable verses (by a long shot) on the praise tracks. The message is clear: let others move units by watching the bottom line, Chance will outshine them all by keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon. MS
Like so many of this year’s best records, You Want It Darker is haunted by death, with its creator passing away just weeks after its release. Ever the sage, Leonard Cohen seemed to see his death coming, addressing the subject in interviews and in the record’s opening title track in lines like, “I’m ready my Lord,” and later “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” on “Leaving the Table.” But even if Cohen were still with us, this album’s gravitas would be impossible to ignore. Eschewing the modern keyboard tones of his past few records for a more natural palette, You Want It Darker has all the hallmarks of his best work: lyrical poignancy, grand metaphors, that distinctive croon, and a timeless quality that ensures it will live on for ages to come. The only disappointment that comes with this record is that it is his last. SS
On A Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles combines the personal and the political so deftly that the boundary becomes a mirage. Working with a diverse dreamteam of collaborators (including Raphael Saadiq, Dev Hynes, Q-Tip, Sampha, Dave Sitek, Rostam, and Dave Longstreth), she bracingly details the vast and difficult range of emotions that are an inescapable part of 21st century black lives in America. She is, in turn, determined, weary, desperate to escape, defiant, exhausted, and despondent. Remarkably, the magnitude of her personal struggle is matched by her ability to transform burdens into beauty. Even indignation comes out as a lilting melody over a patient groove. Rather than allowing the righteous flame of her anger to rage out of control, she harnesses the energy, containing and tending the fire, and releases it in a slow, steady burn. MS
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. JR
With three stunning albums in quick succession, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has become a superstar of sorts without succumbing to any cornering identity. She’s the odd one out, capable of wearing multiple hats: the mystic folkie, the alt-country starlet, and the indie goddess with guitar chops that resemble Yo La Tengo in their ’90s buzzbin days. Though My Woman magnetizes with the pop immediacy of its irresistible first single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” it mesmerizes throughout with its sleight of hand and subtle graces. Olsen’s rich arrangements rarely shout, and most times, whisper. Whether the influence is a rough-hewn tribute to Neil Young or a metaphysical ode to Stevie Nicks (“Sister”), simplicity is at the absolute center. Olsen’s voice serves as the anchor, a confident siren song and the vulnerable sound of pure heartache. My Woman is a record that is various shades, but demands repeated listens to realize Olsen as a singular force in a sea of similar counters and less inspired peers (of which there are many). KJE
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. DSH
Announced just two weeks ahead of its November 11 release, A Tribe Called Quest’s closely guarded sixth LP was a bombshell of a surprise and a much-needed panacea for those reeling from the election of the most divisive president-elect in modern history. Kicking off with “The Space Program” and protest anthem “We The People,” which the band performed on Saturday Night Live, the record is a front-to-back classic blending ethereal soul, classic Tribe party vibes, and patois-inflected vocals courtesy of the late Phife Dawg, who died in March from diabetes-related complications, and Busta Rhymes, both of whom have Caribbean roots. Recorded entirely at Q-Tip’s home studio in New Jersey, it features an A-list roster of rappers including Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Talib Kweli. Every one of them delivers at peak performance, and if you ever wanted to hear what it sounds like when artists feed off of one another’s energy in the booth, listen to Busta come in on “Mobius.” It is ferocious and a worthy tribute to Phife, one of hip-hop’s most beloved emcees. JP
Blackstar is my favorite record of the year, not because of some obligatory debt I feel is owed to this year’s first massive musical tragedy, but because in concept and context it is certainly one of Bowie’s finest moments, looking towards a sonic future and a spiritual beyond with equal aplomb. Sure, it doesn’t match Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, but it wasn’t intended to do so, as Bowie was never one to look backwards. He was facing encroaching death, and in this knowing, he left us a puzzle of an album (even the jacket was created with mysteries to unlock). There are touches of his Eno/Berlin-era doom updated in the title track and “Lazarus,” while modern psychedelic jazz tropes are interwoven throughout, as is Bowie’s curious proclivity for Kendrick Lamar and cinematic beats. (It’s easy to imagine a K-Dot verse on “Girl Loves Me.”) All this without mentioning that “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is one of Bowie’s finest pop songs in 30 years. Wanting to leave behind something dark, twisted, and encompassing, the icon knew it would take us at least this entire year to unravel the genius within. KJE