BLANK’s Top Albums of 2016

 

Intro by Luke Brogden

2016 was a rough year for losing influential artists but a Great Gig In the Sky is certainly building to a crescendo.

The music world lost jazz legend Allan Toussant, prog pioneer Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, soul legend Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, rock piano maestro Leon Russell, the inimitable poet and folk renaissance man Leonard Cohen, retro soul maven Sharon Jones, hip-hop priest Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, and so many more. But perhaps three of the deaths most deeply felt, evidenced by social media and news memorials along with countless tribute shows, were those of Prince, David Bowie and Merle Haggard.

David Bowie

Whether as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke or Aladdin Sane, David Bowie was always quintessentially himself: wild, weird, free-wheeling, inventive, eccentric, innovative, bold. He sold upwards of 140 millions records of the most psychedelic, whimsical indie rock mix of funk, punk, folk, jazz, soul and good old rock and roll. He even made some splashes in New Wave with “Modern Love” (1983) and electronic music in “I’m Afraid of Americans,” his killer 1997 collaboration with Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor.

Bowie was at his genre-blending best with his last record, the prophetic Blackstar. His 25th studio album found him mixing it up with accomplished, if relatively unknown avant-garde jazz players and offering a brilliant concept album that he secretly recorded after finding out about his impending death from liver cancer. Blackstar went to #1 on several charts and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album.

Bowie tribute shows sprang up around the country, celebrating his vast, eclectic catalog of masterpieces. Open Chord in Knoxville hosted one such event in the weeks immediately after and a capacity crowd sang along merrily to various bands’ renditions of Bowie classics like “Queen *itch,” “Life on Mars,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Rebel, Rebel,” “Fame” and more.

David Bowie proved that gender and sexuality can be fluid for some, life is more fun with a little controversy, and that music has no boundaries and limits. For those who grew up with him, and for a surprising amount of Young Americans, David Bowie has been a huge inspiration and will be massively missed.

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard always knew who he was and where he stood.

He was a down-to-earth “Okie From Muskogee” who didn’t forget where he came from. He was a hell raiser who knew “Mama Tried,” but he was not to be tamed. He was a loyal American who fought on the unpopular side of the Vietnam argument in his controversial hit “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” He was hero of the blue collar world who lamented the “Working Man’s Blues.” He was a repentant former inmate audience member at Johnny Cash’s infamous Live From Folsom Prison who wrote poignantly about his experiences as an ex-convict in “Branded Man.”

Haggard wrote songs for the heartland. He wrote songs condemning hippies and later enjoyed some of the lifestyles and politics that he’d previously shunned. He wrote songs that described the the feelings of the people of the small towns and rural byways in a world full of upheaval and change, and then later became part of that change as it affected him.

In a way, Merle Haggard embodied Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous Transcendentalist advice in “Self Reliance,” that a man should “Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts what you say today.”

Prince

The Artist Formerly Known As and Once Again Known As Prince. At 5’3” he was somehow larger than life. The Purple One, His Royal Badness, The High Priest of Pop, The Prince of Funk…he even had us all at one time acknowledging his moniker in the form of an unpronounceable symbol.

The mystical iconography of Purple Rain. The diminutive stature and androgynous clothing, makeup and talk juxtaposed against the thick fu manchu, hairy chest and snarling space funk solos. The designer and owner of the most outrageously flamboyant and beautiful collection of electric guitars this world has ever seen. The effeminate mannerisms and the ever present inconceivably gorgeous co-stars, dancers, partners. Prince was like Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, David Bowie all rolled into one. He was everything he wanted to be and more.  He exuded confident sexual swagger, life of the party bon vivance, and sensitive soulfulness.  There will never be another musician like Prince.

In honor of these musicians and the countless others that left this plane of existence in 2016, here are our albums of the year. As always, we took this on as a committee. We hope that you find albums on the list that you were fond of and maybe even discover something new.

By Michaela Marchardt, Zac Fallon, Matt Rankin, Andy Vinson, Benny Smith, Mathan Gore, Gene Priest, John Flannagan, Mark Arnold, Bill Foster, Matt Miller, Kyle Przybyszewski, Luke Brogden, Patrick Gipson & Cliff from Home Alone 2

30. De La Soul

and the Anonymous Nobody

2016 was a year of great loss especially in the music world, but with loss comes new life and that was in the form of De La Soul’s comeback long player.  Their first proper album as a proper trio in twelve years, De La Soul have aged like a fine wine or cheese.  While veteran hip hop acts often recycle stale rhymes and beats in an effort to capture glory of yesteryear, De La use fresh wit that’s always been a staple of their music.  Using a variety of guest appearances by Usher, 2 Chainz and Yukimi Nagano help make Anonymous Nobody a relevant record of 2016.  Stand out tracks include “Drawn” which features the aforementioned Yukimi over far-east inspired musical production and “Lord Intended” a thumping anthem that features a guitar solo no less. If anything, De La’s latest has proved worth the wait and also signals the return of one of hip-hop’s most venerable acts.     –John Flannagan, Butcher/Baker/Candlestick Maker

29. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Skeleton Tree

As a goth icon, Cave’s output has never been especially cheery. But the tragic accidental death of his teenage son in the midst of recording sessions for Skeleton Tree resulted in a devastating record flooded with ruminations on love, loss and mortality. Stark, somber and arresting, suffice it to say that it is not for the faint of heart. Cave’s pain is evident in his vocal turns, and darkness permeates all of the album’s eight tracks. But what is also clear is the fact that the Australian and his venerable backing band confronted their unimaginable grief and cathartically transformed it into a hauntingly beautiful work of art.   –Matt Rankin, Butcher/Candlestick Maker

28. Blood Orange

Freetown Sound

Dev Hynes is the songwriting mastermind behind Blood Orange. He’s been writing songs for his own projects as well as acts like Solange and Florence and the Machine for over a decade now. Freetown Sound, his third album as Blood Orange, feels like the culmination of all that work. On the surface Freetown Sound is one of the coolest sounding Pop/R&B albums out there.  The songs feel comfortable even when dealing with uncomfortable issues. As Hynes laments the Trayvon Martin shooting on “Augustine,” it becomes apparent that Freetown Sound cuts as deep as you’ll let it. It’s also boasting some of the best sounds of the year. Whatever the reason, Freetown Sound is a 2016 must-listen.  –Zac Fallon, Manbaby/Baker

27. Mitski

Puberty 2

While it by no means captures the full essence of the album, Mitski’s Puberty 2 occasionally grazes moments of the greatness Nirvana achieved twenty years ago, revealing the beautiful life affirmation the under-25 find in angst. Clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes the album has all the punch of a punk record with a forlorn wonder of life Black Flag didn’t ponder very often. These comparisons are even stranger in comparison with Mitski’s building work of music canvassing outside the boundaries of “singer-songwriter” or “rock star” or “shoe gazer”, which I guess ultimately proves her music is entirely of it’s own merit. It’s best experienced in the impeccably written “Your Best American Girl”, one of the years most pointed political statements and its best rock song.    –Andy Vinson, Chief of Mischief

26. Rolling Stones

Blue & Lonesome

Christmas came early this year at the Smith crib, thanks to The Glimmer Twins. When I first heard rumblings about my favorite band in the world, The Rolling Stones, finally recording an all blues album, I knew it would be worth the 50-year wait. I have always pined for the release of the Rick Rubin produced album of classic blues that Mick Jagger recorded with LA band, The Red Devils, but it never saw the light of day. Finally, after 24 studio albums, my dream of The Stones returning to their true roots came true with the release of the fantastic ‘Blue & Lonesome’ on December 2. At the young age of 72, Mick Jagger’s voice has never sounded better, as well as his very underrated harp playing. And, the guitar work by Ronnie Wood, who teams up with Eric Clapton on a couple of tunes (EC was recording in the same studio at the same time…lucky us!), is pure fire. Of course, Keith supplies his patented blues rhythm, and Charlie Watts proves, once again, he is one of rock and roll’s greatest drummers, ever. What is basically a tribute album to the sound that inspired the world’s greatest rock and roll band to start making music in the early sixties, Blue & Lonesome includes twelve Chicago blues deep cuts recorded live in studio over three days. Sure, The Stones took their name from the late, great “father of modern Chicago blues” Muddy Waters’ tune “Mannish Boy.” But, ‘Blue & Lonesome’ is basically a history lesson in Chicago blues that aren’t really standards like that song is, with covers of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Eddie Taylor. Standouts include Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em On Down,” as well as the Little Walter covers “Hate To See You Go” and “Just Your Fool,” which sounds like it was an outtake from the ‘Some Girls’ sessions. This is the good stuff from a band that has been doing it right for six decades, now. They sound like they had the time of their life recording this album, and they absolutely made my dream come true when they released it. Blue & Lonesome is an album that surely gathers no moss, and my favorite of 2016.    –Benny Smith, WUTK

25. Glass Animals

How to be a Human Being

Every year I get fixated on an album. Two years ago it was Jungle. Last year it was Father John Misty. And in 2016, it was Glass Animals.

This was rooted in preparation for this past July’s Forecastle Festival in Louisville, KY. After digging in to the lineup, I discovered that I already knew a few tracks from this Australian outfit and after digging a bit deeper, I discovered that I loved said outfit. Glass Animals produce silk sheets in music form. They’re selling danceable indie rock and business is good.

The album starts off with a hopeful number in tone, though the lyrics speak to a different reality. Chingy tambourines and warbly whistles and bells play while lyrics state, “I can’t get a job, so I live with my mom.” It creates a playful stage for the rest of the album, which is full of “take the top down” summer cuts. “Mama’s Gun” is a strong contender for song of the year.

-Rusty Odom, Cliff from Home Alone 2

24. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Nonagon Infinity

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is not everyone’s thing. Heavily influenced by jam bands, their albums seem to navigate around a few central themes and expand. The difference is King Gizzard gives you all the information and no fluff. All the grooves from a 4 hour jam band set, reduced down to their most essential 40 minutes is what to expect on Nonagon Infinity. King Gizzard continue to improve album to album and leave us waiting to see what might come next.   -ZF

23. Drive By Truckers

American Band

The Drive-By Truckers have always peppered political commentary in with their rowdy Southern folk rock, but never as directly and fiercely as on their critically-acclaimed powerhouse of a new album, American Band. It’s a tour de force of what’s wrong with America and the South, and takes on the topics of institutional racism and gun crime unflinchingly.

Patterson Hood’s “What It Means” addresses the shootings of young black men Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin head on with the stirring lyrics “If you say it wasn’t racial when you shot him in his tracks/ Well I guess that means that you ain’t black, it means that you ain’t black.” “Guns of Umqua” laments the fatal community college shooting in Umqua, Oregon earlier this year. “Roman Casiano” tackles the murder of a Mexican immigrant in 1931 by a young man, Harlon Carter, who went on to later lead the NRA. The stubborn rebellion of the Confederate spirit, often celebrated in country music, is examined under a harsher light in the Mike Cooley single “Surrender Under Protest.”

The least specific but possibly most poetic and telling track may be “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” which paints a powerful metaphor for how the band seems to see America today: in a dark period, still not arrived on the shores of a sunny dawn of true equality.   –Luke Brogden, Master of Ceremonies

22. The Shelters

Self Titled

When BLANK Los Angeles writer (yes, there is a BLANK LA) Michaela Marchardt and I were discussing our favorite discoveries of the year this spring, she told me about The Shelters.

From the first listen, I couldn’t help but ponder the long view for the LA rockers.  “They have a sound that would work on a lot of different radio formats,” I thought. “This is really well rounded and produced.”

So I set off to catch the gang live at Shaky Knees in Atlanta and I was blown away. “These guys are going to be big,” I said to a friend.

After the show I grabbed the free EP that was being handed out. I turned it over and found out that the album was produced by a one, Tom Petty. 

The Shelters. Remember the name. They made the best straight forward rock n roll album of 2016.    -RO

21. Aaron Lee Tasjan

Silver Tears

Some records defy being put into any specific genre and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s latest release, Silver Tears, is one of them. The Ohio native now lives in East Nashville and has put together a unique recording that goes from psychedelic pop to 70’s country rock to straight up Rock and Roll (he was guitar player for glam rockers The New York Dolls and Southern rockers Drivin’ n Cryin’) and it all runs seamlessly together. The playing, singing and writing are all top notch on this, his sophomore effort, and left us wanting more. Hit www.aaronleetasjan.com for more. –Marnold, Stage Gorilla

20. Michael Kiwanuka

Love & Hate

Soul singer Michael Kiwanuka’s sophmore album is a prime example of a musician coming into their own. 

The opening track, Cold Little Heart, clocks in at just over ten minutes and sets the tone for this psychedelic soul journey.  Soulful crooning (Love & Hate), social commentary (Black Man in A White World), and self introspection (Father’s Child) combined with top notch supporting musicians all produced by Danger Mouse cause this album to be a must have.   

–Kyle Przybyszewski, Barleys/The Lion King

19. Kaytranada

99.9%

Kaytranada has blown up at a pretty ripe time to be making his music. Following a wave of artists like Disclosure and Jamie xx, Kaytranada has done what great artists do; elevate his scene. His blending of pulsating grooves with old school hip hop funk vibes is a smash hit formula and a thoughtful list of features (pretty crucial to the music scene now like it or not) has 99.9% being called one of the biggest buzzes in the industry this year. It’s a multipurpose music that lives well beyond the confines of the club stretching across genres with ease each track. Pretty soon, you’re going to know how to pronounce his name. -AV

18. Frank Ocean

Blonde

Frank Ocean’s second studio album feels like it starts and ends inside of a snow globe; its vulnerable, precious, and it’s a legitimate creative force that isn’t afraid to expose its true self to listeners. Much like Kendrick’s follow up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, no one could really see this album coming while hoping for a repeat of the surprising earnest hits on Channel ORANGE. So expecting the most grandiose R&B in a minute, everyone got Blonde. Focusing on reclusion, Blonde harps on trying to live a life in the spotlight when you’re not quite equipped for it, calling back to the simple pleasures in life like first love and vices for peace and quiet. The unicorn of R&B managed to make the most masculine backpack rappers do some soul-searching, and it’s beautiful in form and function. -AV

17. Leonard Cohen

You Want it Darker

2016 was a brutal year with losses that affected all of us. But, it was also a year that gave us swan songs from artists like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen who knew their end was nigh but chose to spend their last months creating some of the most vital, alive music of the decade. With lyrics like “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game. I don’t know the people in your picture frame” and “I’m traveling light, it’s au revoir, my once so bright, my fallen star,” it’s impossible to look at You Want It Darker as anything else than the last gasp of an 82-year old artist at the end of his rope. And, yet, the production, by the artist’s son Adam, is among the most vital of his career. Convincing Cohen to abandon the tinny synthesizers and syrupy back-up vocals that dogged previous efforts, Adam Cohen concentrates on his father’s flamenco inspired guitar and ever more gritty baritone, placing his father’s voice front and center in the mix.

The result is the best album Cohen has made since 1992’s The Future, an album paradoxically full of power but sung in the defeated voice of a man who knows his time has come. Or, does he? On “Treaty,” Cohen sings, “It’s over now, the water and the wine … I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” One could certainly read that in light of Cohen’s recent passing but, in fact, he has been working on “Treaty” for almost twenty years. You Want It Darker plays like a last testament by an artist at death’s door, but the fact is that Cohen was always closer to the other side than the rest of us. He always understood what was coming and this remarkable final work is just one more example of what he has been telling us for half a century.    –Bill Foster, facespace laureate

16. Whitney

Light Upon the Lake

With songs like “No Woman” and “Golden Days”, Whitney’s debut album Light Upon The Lake sounds like an album from a well seasoned band.

Vocalist/drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakecek both played in The Smith Westerns and wanted to continue making music together after the band split up resulting in Whitney.  Musical styling comparable to Wilco, Dr. Dog and Bon Iver with a touch of Chicago soul make this album one of the best of 2016.    -KP

15. Bon Iver

22, A Million

Look past the maddening use of symbols in the highly stylized song titles, the glitchy processed beats and Justin Vernon’s ever-increasing embrace of/reliance upon Auto-Tune, and you’ll see 22, A Million for what it truly is: a sublime collection of substantive, deeply affecting songs that no amount of distancing flourishes can obfuscate. In fact, the experimental embellishments serve an important purpose; in exposing himself to the listening public, Vernon is choosing to dull the raw emotional content of these confessionals as a means of self-preservation. Clocking in at just over 34 minutes, 22, A Million is a quick listen, but one that begs for repeated plays. After what amounted to a rather considerable length of time in between albums (five years), it might be fair to expect a drop-off in quality, creativity or both. Ideas abound, though, and the end result is both masterful and indicative of an exciting new direction for Bon Iver.   -MR

14. Childish Gambino

Awaken, My Love!

I think it’s safe to assume at this point that most of us are well aware of the genius that is Donald Glover, at least in some form or fashion. Whether you know him for his role in NBC’s “Community,” or from his most recent breakout television series for FX titled “Atlanta,” it’s easy to see that regardless of the comedy or drama genre, he fits in quite well amongst both. Well, what about his music? Glover’s “Childish Gambino” started out in the hip-hop world by releasing a series of mixtapes (5 to be exact) prior to the release of his first full length LP “Camp,” released on Glassnote Records. 2 years later in 2013 he gave us “Because the Internet,” which exceeded the success of his first LP. This brings us to the now, and on December 2nd, Gambino released his most ambitious record to date… “Awaken, My Love!”

Earlier in the year upon hearing the news of a new Childish Gambino record, as a fan of all of his previous work, I was already excited because I personally thought that everything Donald Glover had released to date was nothing short of genius. I too was expecting another collection of quick bursts of lyrical witticism.

This record slinks away from the hip-hop most people, just like myself, likely expected out of a new Gambino record. This record is comprised of 49 minutes of a neo-soul / funk / psychedelic fusion mashup of greatness. The opening track “Me and Your Mama” drones on softly for about 2 minutes before pulsating in with it’s full on funk bassline and Glover wailing soulfully over the track like we’ve never heard him before. Something to note on this album is the amazing range Glover takes his voice through. Crooning theatrically over tracks like “Zombies” and “Redbone,” and channeling 70’s style funk in the tracks “Boogieman” and “Riot.” All I can say is that this is truly the most immersive and impressive record I’ve personally heard in 2016. Dare I say it may be Donald Glover’s “Kid A,” just for a comparative example of the magnitude this record has in store.   -Gene Priest, Sharing Needles with Friends

13. Anohni

HOPELESSNESS

2016 has been a difficult year for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the discord that so divisively split the country immediately following the presidential election. Released in May, Anohni’s HOPELESSNESS presaged the current sitch. A dystopian masterpiece, each of the album’s eleven tracks pointedly addresses a specific dogmatic issue; however, thanks to Anohni’s distinctive, pleading warble and compellingly layered production courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, the proceedings never get stuck in the mire like so much modern political discourse typically does. Instead, a gripping song like “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” provides a fine musical response to the title question, with boldly defiant verses soaring above whipping synth pulses and thumping bass. With the repeal of hard-fought equality measures a very real possibility in the next four years, HOPELESSNESS is a poignant statement from a prominent member of the LGBT community and one that deserves an open-eared listen.   -MR

12. Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool

With another abrupt and Thom Yorke-esque album release, Radiohead delivered their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, by introducing an incredibly relevant track, “Burn the Witch”. Yorke says “Loose talk around the tables. Abandon all reason. Avoid all eye contact. Do not react. Shoot the messengers.” This one verse encompasses our entire social climate. Our relationships with family, friends, and strangers. Yorke seems to have moved past some cynicism, and has adapted it into a more real and elaborate reflection of the world around us. Yorke’s voice remains the emotional center of the band and is even more impressive on this album. The band minimizes the normal technological driven approach for an album with much more heart and reflection. Highlights of the album include “Glass Eyes”, a piano-driven orchestrated story of panic and uncertainty, and “The Numbers” shows a different side of the band, with an acoustic led, Black Crowes style track. From beginning to end, A Moon Shaped Pool is a unique and mature album in the band’s discography, which unlike the next album’s release, is not much of a surprise.    –Matt Miller

11. The Avalanches

Wildflower

15 years since their last album, The Avalanches come out of hibernation with Wildflower. My favorite part about this album is that a decade and a half later, Wildflower absolutely still sounds like The Avalanches. It’s heavy on the samples and locked into a certain midpoint between chill and party. This is EDM for people who don’t really like dancing and might just want to sway with the music. Guest rappers (Danny Brown, Biz Markie) help keep the pace mixed up, and 15 years later the Avalanches are finally putting out great music again.  Because I’m me is a contender for song of the year. If you have four minutes, stop what you’re doing and listen to it.  -ZF

10. Beyonce

Lemonade

Beyonce. That’s all you have to say…but we’ll say more. Lemonade is her sixth number one album out of six tries. It’s not all hype though. This album is full of some of her best songs and production to date. She also made one of the most beautiful music videos of the year for the entire album. “Formation” in particular will go down as one of the songs of the year. She is the most popular woman in the business for a reason, and it doesn’t look like she’ll be handing that spot over anytime soon. Lemonade will win you over on the first listen, but the nuances that you’ll hear the second and third times around are what make it great. For many, 2016 sucked pretty hard, wash it down with some Lemonade.   -ZF

9. Margo Price

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

In April 2015, Margo Price played Barley’s and the Pilot Light here in Knoxville. In September, at Bristol Rhythm and Roots, she played the 100 seat Stateline Bar and Grill at midnight. By July of 2016, she had appeared on Colbert, Conan, Saturday Night Live and even an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and was playing the main stage at major festivals like Forecastle. Price had her struggles before arriving here, losing her first born, watching her father lose his farm, struggling with alcoholism and spending a few days in jail and every tear-soaked moment makes it into her remarkable debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.

It’s not the tear-jerkers that make this album so remarkable. It’s the never-say-die, spitfire defiance that weaves through the entire album that lifts things to another level. “But I won’t be put out or controlled,” she sings, “I don’t write the s*it that gets bought and sold.”

Buoyed by signing with Third Man Records, Price scored a Top Ten debut without making a single dent on country radio, the first time in history that a female artist had accomplished that feat. Lyrics like “It’s not who you know but it’s who you blow that’ll get you in the show” have kept her standing next to Sturgill Simpson outside the Nashville establishment’s castle walls. But, like, Simpson, she has demonstrated that great songwriting and a great performance will knock down any boundary. From the disco stomp of “Four Years of Chances” to the honky-tonk swing of “Since You put me Down” to the autobiographical “Hands of Time,” Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a remarkable, assured work of art. “I’m an outcast and a stray,” Price sings, “And I plan to stay this way.” Sounds good to me. It’s all working out so far.   -BF

8. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam

I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

A dream (pun intended) collaboration between former members of two of the most distinctive, respected and successful indie outfits of the past 15 years (The Walkmen, Vampire Weekend), this record was a favorite of many a cool uncle this year – and for damned good reason. As organic a synthesis of disparate genres and styles that you’re likely to hear in modern music, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine effortlessly mashes rock, pop, doo wop, soul and folk into delicious and easily digestible morsels. Leithauser’s tortured croon provided the Walkmen with its trademark detached cool; here, he displays a more varied range to better complement multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s ample talents. From the joyous barroom romp of “Rough Going (I Don’t Let Up)” to the oldies-inspired tearjerker “When the Truth is…” to the drunken waltz of “The Bride’s Dad,” exciting moments abound. Given that they wear their influences so proudly on their sleeves, it’s remarkable that the duo has crafted an album that sounds fresh instead of imitative. With any luck, it won’t be their last combined effort.   -MR

7. Sturgill Simpson

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

In three short years, Sturgill Simpson has become a beacon for modern (or meta-modern) country music. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his third album, serves as a well-placed intersection of his accelerated evolution. While his first two albums carried an effortless, stripped down country style, A Sailor’s Guide integrates jazz, big band and even covers a grunge classic with Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

The album is a beautiful personal memento, dedicated to his wife & son. It harkens back on Simpson’s own Navy experiences (Sea Stories), while sharing advice with his son (Keep It Between the Lines) and appropriately closes out with a tribute to his wife (Oh Sarah).

Sturgill has continued to emanate wisdom beyond his years, in a package that still carries a fresh scent. It’s like listening to Willie Nelson while shamelessly driving a Tesla. How many miles will he get out of the next album? We’re all so eager to see (or hear) what comes next.   –Patrick Gipson, Earth’s Cool lil Brother

6. Angel Olsen

My Woman

Olsen’s latest starts out innocuously enough, the delicate “Intern” gently floating upwards into the atmosphere at its conclusion. What follows, however, is a quintet of some of the most infectious, fully realized and confidently performed pop-rock songs ever to be grouped together. And that suite doesn’t even include psychedelic centerpiece “Sister” or the emotional one-two sucker punch of “Woman” and “Pops” that finishes this extraordinary album. My Woman is a definite step up from Olsen’s previous effort, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, an excellent record in its own right. But where its predecessor was firmly entrenched in a lo-fi aesthetic, My Woman boasts crisp production values that allow the artist’s pop sensibility to shine through. This time around, too, Olsen’s voice sounds more developed. For a prime example of her improved range, fast forward to the 4:22 mark of “Heart Shaped Face,” at which point an ethereal coo gracefully transitions to a dynamic howl. Less lyrically obtuse than in the past, My Woman’s songs are more relatable but just as cutting.    -MR

5. Car Seat Headrest

Teens of Denial

One of the many great qualities of music is its ability to have your mind go beyond the present experience of hearing the music to a place in the past. I would be remiss if I did not say that a significant portion of why Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial stuck out to me so much was because of this. A musician friend who left too early and has already been gone too long keeps showing up throughout the album in a guitar part here or a vocal delivery there.  That being said, 24-year-old Will Toledo’s thirteenth (!!!) release under the moniker of Car Seat Headrest has plenty to offer a fan of singer-songwriter indie rock. I first heard of the band in an up and coming artist article on a website I cannot quite remember. At the time, Teens was months from release, which left me with his previously primarily self-recorded releases. These releases have their positive qualities, and I would recommend checking out some of them if you are a fan of Teens. They are rough though and do suffer some from the lack of recording quality. I was left wondering what the effect of the time and budget of a label backed release would be. Thankfully, Toledo and company took full advantage of their new resources with the result being one of the bigger and more expansive indie rock albums that I have heard in the last few years. –Chris Lewis, El Capitan

4. Anderson Paak

Malibu

In a year where rules were generally ignored in rap and hip-hop, Anderson .Paak held strong on one virtue the scene was built on. He’s a showman. Following a pretty huge assist as guest vocalists on last year’s retirement record from Dr. Dre, Malibu plays to all of .Paaks strengths in very concentrated form. Even when restrained, .Paak is churning intensely to capture your attention. And he is captivating. Like a modern alt-Al Green; his crooning is passionate, his flow is unique and his talent is irresistible. Anderson .Paak is a bright star in the industry because of this breakout success holding everyone in his gaze. It’s exactly his intent   -AV

3. Chance the Rapper

Coloring Book

Chance, The Rapper figured out 2016 before most people. In the face of darkness, he hit em’ with light, and his unfettered optimism is presented as a challenge to the world. Coloring Book, the fantastic third mixtape (don’t call it an album) from Lil Chano from 79th Street, is an exuberant meditation in the power of positivity and faithfulness unrestricted. Coming from a guy who’s last project was fittingly titled Acid Rap, his gospel is remarkably reachable, and his ability to use artists like 2 Chainz, Young Thug, and T. Pain as his disciples is uncanny. Whether harping on the corporate music machine holding his friends back, the charm and sorrow in lost relationships, or just name dropping his baby and baby mama, he does it all with an ear to ear smile. Coloring Book is an effortless listen; one that is prone to be visited over and over and over again as a refreshing reminder that even when things are bad, the best is yet to come no matter what you dedicate yourself to.  –AV

2. David Bowie

Blackstar

Blackstar, David Bowie’s 25th studio album, was released to coincide with his 69th birthday, and with an announcement that he was dying of liver cancer. He passed two days later, leaving the music world in puzzlement and shock, both at his death and at the insanely inventive, prophetic futuristic concept jazz album he had just unleashed.

The title track and single, whose title is a symbol of a black star, is almost ten minutes long and features repetition, syncopated beats, eerie layered falsettos and a spooky video depicting Bowie as some type of prophet or cult leader in space, replete with stoic, dead-eyed backup dancers gyrating with sullen, fixed expressions behind him as he preaches through a blindfold from a book emblazoned with a black symbol. The rest of album is frenetic, heady jazz rock.

The fact that Bowie made the record in secret, the fact that he kept his disease secret until its release, the fact that he directly deals with his mortality in the music, and the fact that he chose relatively unknown local NYC jazz musicians to make it with him are signature Bowie moves. For a chameleon who always pushed the boundaries and never did what was expected, Bowie left one final beautiful example of his brilliance to his listeners, his swan song, Blackstar.   -LB

1. A Tribe Called Quest

We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Sometimes really great music just has a way of ‘being there’ when you need it most. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together for brothers / Gotta get it together for sisters…Let’s make something happen, let’s make something happen”

It was four days after the Presidential Election and we were in a rare, vulnerable state of mind. It was a reality check, delivered by a hip hop collective many of us had foolishly demoted to the history books. But from the first listen, Tribe’s long awaited album sounded more current than anything we’d heard in 2016.

The beats fuse between track seamlessly, like a J Dilla production, although it offers none of the relaxation afforded by Donuts, as Q-Tip, Jarobi and the late Phife Dawg hit you with hard realities, rapping about gentrification and deep-seeded American racism. “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways” The lyrics so eerily precede the ideologies of the alt-right dream that blossomed only days after this album dropped.

Featuring appearances by Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and Andre 3000, the album connects the rich hip-hop history of ATCQ to a “best-of” of today’s artists. We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service arrives 18 years after their last studio album and is [reportedly] the group’s last. How ironic? A Tribe Called Quest threw us a life vest just as we were drowning in our own psyches. We’d be so lucky if they’d take it from here, but all we can really do is thank them for their service.   -PG

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