(The top three are ranked, the rest follow no particular order).
1. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
This is far and away my favorite album of the year. Justin Vernon has kept himself busy with some cool collaborations over the past few years but this is his first full length album since Bon Iver (2011) and his life altering For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)… and dear “33, GOD” is this album beautiful and haunting. This album is strange in that its both deeply vulnerable and personal while at the same time is incredibly almost obscurely (sometimes bordering over) produced. On the one hand, it feels wrong to get this kind of access into a stranger’s soul. On the other hand, it feels so right because it provides scaffolding for accessing your own.
The album embodies a paradox in that it accessible for mass consumption but also offers rich, deep rabbit holes for those who want to listen seriously. 22, The album title, 22, A Million captures this. According to the analysis of Trever Hagen’s, one of Justin Vernon’s best friends and bandmates): “’22’ stands for Justin…the reflection of ‘2’ is his identity bound up in duality: the relationship he has with himself and the relationship he has with the rest of the world. A Million is the rest of the world: the millions of people who will never know, the infinite and endless, everything outside one’s self that makes you who you are.” (The analysis is well worth reading: it not only casts light into the genesis of the album but is beautifully written in its own right.)
My favorite track on the album is “33, ‘GOD’”. It’s perhaps the best example of how thoughtfully, intentionally constructed this album is. Like the whole album, this song can be background music but is worthy of one’s full, undivided attention. You could enjoy the song upon first listen but I don’t think you have a shot at actually understanding it without listening to three songs Vernon samples from: Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning” from Morning (1971), Paulo Nutini, “Iron Sky” from Caustic Love (2014) and Psalm 22. To hear what Bon Ever is saying requires an exercise in intertextuality. A few other nuggets: it seems that the track title is a clear reference to Jesus’ age of death and the track is 3:33 long which I think is an allusion to Jeremiah 33:3. This song is a prayer asking the biggies: what is life? who am I? is God? if so, where?
2. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Chancelor Johnathan Bennett AKA Chance the Rapper has made quite the splash with this album. The independent rapper’s album is nominated for several Grammys and it is well deserving of the high praise it has received. I think it’s going to win at least “Best Rap Album” and that Chance will win “Best New Artist.” This is an amazing thing considering it was not released under a music label. It’s probably worthy of a nomination for “Best Album of the Year” but not sure the music industry gatekeepers would allow this kind of thing happen. In any case, I love this album and it just keeps getting better the more I listen. The album’s mix of themes including Christian spirituality, the music industry and political activism and cultural criticism congeals together quite naturally. Maybe it’s his signature “agh agh agh” that ties it together? In any case, the album is both weighty and so, so happy. His recent performance on SNL captures the feel of the album nicely with his slim fitting Super Mario-esque outfit and goofy dance moves. I was hoping to get back into hip hop again this year and so many excellent albums in 2016 made it easy.
3. Sho Baraka, The Narrative
My appreciation for the album is not reflected in critical acclaim and I think that makes sense. It’s I imagine this is due, in large part, to the fact that Sho Baraka falls under the genre of Christian hip hop. This not a genre I spend much time listening to (or “Christian” music, in general, for that matter). Nevertheless, I loved this album. I found so many of his songs to be fresh, sharp, illuminating and convicting. Two of my favorites were “30 & Up, 1986” and “Maybe Both, 1865.”
The Narrative is a timely album and was a constant companion during the fall, especially during the run up to the Presidential election. I found it to be a helpful voice as I processed race relations in America and my place in it all. Common’s Black America Again played a similar role in this way. The final track on Common’s album called “Letter to the Free” was one of my favorite songs of the year and is the key song of the soundtrack to Ave DuVernay’s new documentary 13th (one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen and watching it probably constituted the most impactful 100 minutes of my 2016). Despite the goodness of this one song, Common’s whole album wasn’t good enough to make the list but I did want to give it a shout out here.
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
This album doesn’t make the list because I’m a Radiohead fanboy… but I am a Radiohead fanboy. My first introduction to Radiohead back in 2000 with their album OK Computer. I distinctly remember buying the album 16 years ago from a Barnes and Noble store in Annapolis, Md – it was probably the last physical CD I purchased. Over the past 15 or so years, I’ve spent about as much time listening to Radiohead as any band. If you’re not into them, I feel bad for you. There is a Radiohead shaped hole in your heard that only Radiohead can fill. There is an inevitable void of goodness in your life. If you bristle at that, I’ll give you my version of the ThomY Stink Eye… anywho, I digress. This a great album. You have an evolved species of the vintage Radiohead sound (of the latter years with the more electronic sound) coupled with an astute voice speaking into our cultural moment. The song “Burn the Witch” is a great case in point – where the band addresses the nativism on the rise around the globe which is expressed in things like Brexit, the re-emergence of nationalistic politicians and political parties in continental Europe, not to mention the election of The Donald.
Andrew Bird, Are You Serious
This is an essential part of my soundtrack for early 2016. It was largely eclipsed as I got more into hip hop as the year went on. Still, this is a solid album. It hooked me right from the first track – that killer drum beat that drives “Capsized” just grooves. Bird does all the things on this album that makes him special. It’s full of his signature whistling, violin distortion, percussive plucking and thoughtful lyrics (“Roma Fade” is a perfect example of all this). His duet with Fiona Apple in “Left Handed Kisses” is fantastic. This is probably the first song with Fiona that didn’t leave me feeling hollow and slightly dirty inside (and not in the good kind of way). Don’t get me wrong, I like Fiona but I’m worried about her. If you’ve never listened to Andrew Bird, this album is as fine an introduction as any. This Tiny Desk Concert will give you a good feel (please excuse his greasy hair).
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
This is such a “white girl” thing to say but this album is just FUN. I’m always a big fan of drummers who can sing whilst drumming and Anderson just grooves. The best way to describe him is this: he’s the slightly rebellious lovechild of Prince and Bruno Mars. He’s funky and talented. This is probably my least favorite of my favorite albums this year but it’s still great. I can’t wait to see what this guy does next. Check out this video of him performing “Am I Wrong,” the best track on the album. Be sure to watch to the end so you can see him go ham on the drums.
James Blake, The Colour In Anything
This album marks the next stage in Blake’s music. I loved his first two albums Overgrown (2013) and James Blake (2011) but this album feels more mature. He seems to have grown through his teenage angsty melancholia without losing that which what makes his sound uniquely his. Apparently, this album is the fruit of the healthiest and most productive season of Blake’s life and I think that come across in the music.
The album is full of the quintessential-Blake sound whether its edgygrittymuddy eletronic (“Radio Silence”) or sparse piano and vocals (“f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” or “The Colour in Anything”) The songs are mostly beautiful and Blake’s haunting soulful crooning can be hypotonic. This is nighttime music at its finest. My favorite track is “I Need a Forrest Fire” produced by Justin Vernon, who also provides some delicious vocals. That I loved this track came as no surprise. It’s so good. All that said, not every track is pure gold. One case in point is “I Hope My Life.” That terrible 80s synth riff should have been left in the 80s with other things that have not come back in style. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m at a middle school dance (which is a horrible feeling). You listen to this song and you inevitably anticipate Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams Are Made of These.”
Jim James, Eternally Even
Though not quite as good as his last solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013), his newest album serves as a companion to it. It’s sort of like a handsome younger brother who is only considered to be slightly less attractive when his older devilishly square jawed brother enters the room. The album offers the listener a pretty trippy experience. James’ transcendent voice soars through this album of slow burning tracks full of rich and complex layers of thoughtful compositions.
Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
I was debating between Simon’s newest and the late Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker (2016). While Cohen’s song “You Want It Darker” is so amazing that it just might change your life (at the very least it will help you prepare to die), the rest of the tracks didn’t really do it for me. Not so with Stranger to Stranger. I thoroughly enjoyed the album’s story-songs accompanied by the the unmistakable world music inspiration. Songs like “Cool Papa Bell” made me feel warmly nostalgic, reminding me of some of the African gems from Graceland (1986)… the song also has a few very well placed cusses (which I’m in to). Some of my favorite tracks on this album include “Wristband” and “Street Angel.”
Lara Downes, America Again
Last but not least, the latest album from contemporary pianist Lara Downes’ is an anthology of solo piano music composed by (mostly) Americans. The composers range from Leonard Bernstein to Duke Ellington to Art Tatum to Florence Beatrice Price (the first African American woman to have a symphony perform her music). This is a beautiful album. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, especially considering her version of “Over the Rainbow” but if I had to pick I might say “24 Negro Melodies, Op . 59: No. 10 Deep River” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is my favorite. It’s just a gorgeous song. This is an easy listening album. You should definitely check it out.