“In the 17th Chapter of St. Luke it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within man’ – not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power. The power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure!”
– Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
There’s no need to begin by belaboring the kind of year it’s been. That ground’s been well-trod, and that framing would discourage the hope necessary to keep pushing for positive change and undermine the personal milestones worth celebrating. And I don’t want to altogether misremember 2016, so the latter is worth capturing: I got a killer new job! I saw the Northern Lights! I high-fived Iggy Pop! I visited Paisley Park! I competed on Family Feud! I starred in a music video! Troubles, both personal and societal, needn’t be called out and given power. I have resolved to focus my energy on “the power to create happiness,” aiming to “make this life free and beautiful” for myself and others in every way I am capable.
I feel that same resolve in the strength of musical offerings this year, perhaps the best in my lifetime. Sure, the emotions and perspectives ran the gamut, but one thing felt consistent: artists poured themselves into their work as if it were all they had.
When I look back on 2016, I want to remember these high-water marks as a reminder of mankind’s possibilities – a year of people at their best. When we get to a place where that feels more common than phenomenal, we’ll know we’ve won. My favorites, and the impressions they left upon me as I went about my year, are detailed below.
40. Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light (Woodsist)
39. Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor (Fat Possum)
38. Future of the Left – The Peace & Truce of Future Of The Left (Prescriptions)
37. Like Rats – II (Southern Lord)
36. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy (RVNG Intl.)
35. Nels Cline – Lovers (Blue Note)
34. Car Bomb – Meta (self-released)
33. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit (Third Worlds / Harvest)
32. Paul Cauthen – My Gospel (Lightning Rod)
31. Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (ANTI-)
30. Sunwatchers – Sunwatchers (Castle Face)
29. the FRIGHTNRS – Nothing More To Say (Daptone)
28. Head Wound City – A New Wave of Violence (Vice)
27. Mndsgn – Body Wash (Stones Throw)
26. Jenks Miller and Rose Cross NC – Blues From What (Three Lobed)
25. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
24. Les Halles – Transient (Not Not Fun)
23. Psychic Temple – III (Asthmatic Kitty)
22. 6LACK – Free 6LACK (LoveRenaissance/Interscope)
21. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
20. The Well – Pagan Science (RidingEasy)
I’ve dug RidingEasy Records’ vibe for a long while, but very little of its output (with the notable exception of Spelljammer) has stuck to my ribs. No more. Oddly enough, Norman Reedus hipped me to this band at an Uncle Acid show – the note I saved in my phone simply said “NORMAN SAYS DIG THE WELL,” which understandably took a while to decipher. The Well has the kind of sound that could’ve only fermented in a blacklit basement in Austin, and the record creeps like a thick fog through your floorboards.
19. Vincas – Deep in the Well (Learning Curve)
In my hunger for the new Hawks record, I stumbled upon their labelmates and fellow locals Vincas. Descriptors like “Nick Cave singing for the Jesus Lizard” and “threatening and unnerving, ugly and alive” (as part of an analogy to T-Bone Burnett’s ability to capture a doomy swamp vibe for True Detective‘s soundtrack) drew me in. While it’s difficult (and often patronizing) to qualify what makes something “Southern,” my love of this album is informed by some quality I perceive as a distinctive Southernness. Something about a line like “My baby’s got a crystal ball / She sees the end of all” feels too bluesy to have been forged from any ingredient but red clay.
18. Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus (Brownswood)
Somewhat inexplicably, jazz is cresting toward a new high-water mark. Between thrilling new voices like BADBADNOTGOOD and the Brainfeeder camp and mainstays like Vijay Iyer and Wayne Shorter (still crushing at 82), it’s as if the form has encircled all its mutated future forms and absorbed them into an invigorated new mass. Nowhere is that more evident than Black Focus, like a BBNG for the grown-and-sexy set. It feels like what might happen if you asked Questlove to jam on Herbie’s farthest-out 70s stuff and put to tape only the wee-hours output, when the room had had a chance to sweat itself into a groove. In fact, there’s a small moment close to the six-minute mark of “Remembrance” that captures that feeling: keyboardist Kamaal Williams fires off run after fleet-footed run until the band abruptly drops out and someone cries out in celebration of their shared joyful noise.
17. Deap Vally – Femijism (Cooking Vinyl)
I am overjoyed this band exists. Just when I thought the lo-fi two-piece had been done to death, along comes the tornado that is Deap Vally to drop a house of sludge on my head. The record and its creators just ooze cool, with loud, rad, scuzzy, dazzlingly unique sensibilities. It’s what might happen if Karen O had honed her chops in LA instead of NY, raised on a steady diet of “Black Dog,” “Stranglehold” and live Motörhead. It’s that bad girl with a heart of gold and a Marlboro Gold leaning on the hood of her T-top, blasting some band you’ve never heard. As badly as you wish she’d talk to you, you know it’ll never happen: she’s as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.
16. New Madrid – magnetkingmagnetqueen (Normaltown)
I started spinning this record at some musician’s Instagram recommendation (and it’s driven me crazy all year that I couldn’t remember who). It was nearly November before someone brought to my attention that they’re an Athens band. That was revelatory but made perfect sense – magnet evokes humidity, drifting along with the languor of a Georgia summer’s dog days, melting away the false construct of time and practically hitting “Repeat All” all by itself. If you want to get to that place deep in the center of your brain for which you haven’t found a word, this record on a long drive is a mighty good way to get you there.
15. Various Artists – Jazz Dispensary: Cosmic Stash (Concord Music Group)
Through TuneDig, I’ve forged some interesting relationships in the world of music, none more illuminating or fruitful than with my man Eric Levin from Criminal Records. As I spent the morning of Record Store Day at Criminal, he reiterated over and over that the Jazz Dispensary comp was an absolute must-have. As it played over the store’s speakers, I realized how right he was. The four LPs of soulful, simmering grooves and breaks have been my most-played vinyl this year. Honestly, having a killer pressing of “Mystic Brew” or “Astral Traveling” each alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the full play-through, though, that really makes this comp a delight.
14. 75 Dollar Bill – Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (Thin Wrist)
Many years ago, during a false start into a liberal arts Master’s degree, the Appalachian drones of a band called Human Bell soundtracked many endless nights. I was reminded of Human Bell when I first listened to 75 Dollar Bill, who hike toward nirvana by way of Natchez. While 75$B is a brighter, more kinetic experience than Human Bell was, I know my love for Wood / Metal‘s beautiful blend of American and North African blues traditions reaches back to that time in my life and the way it rewired my mind and spirit. I also read a commenter describe it as “Junior Kimbrough on acid,” which reminded me of an even-longer-ago time hosting a blues show on my college radio station. After a few months on the air, I noted how our late-night time slot heightened the blues’ hypnotic qualities, helping to unlock new doors in my mind. This record pulled taut the golden thread of time, collapsing those reference points into a single, still, vibrant plane of awareness.
13. Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL)
An artist like Kaytranada is difficult to classify, so reviews of 99.9% shifted their focus to meta-descriptions about the pastiche of sounds, the laundry list of collaborators, the unusually analog sound for an artist whose break came via SoundCloud. What these writeups fail to find is a throughline, so allow me to try: there’s a supreme steadiness anchoring the confident forays into different sounds, a calm assuredness directing an otherwise-unwieldy cast. Kay is new-age Dudeist; his robe Versace and his White Russian sparkling water with cucumber. 99.9% reads like The Tao of Swag, weaving together impressionist images of self-concept: when we’re rising to the quiet start of the morning (“Bus Ride“), trading smiles with a face that sends us aflutter (“Together”), locking into creative flow and knocking out a project (“Weight Off“), putting on our favorite outfit for an evening out (“Despite the Weather“), or hazily skating through the wee hours (“Glowed Up“).
12. G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day of Revenge (Sabotage)
“When peace is just another word for death / It’s our turn to give violence a chance!”
There may have been objectively harder records by other artists this year, but nearly no one was heavier than G.L.O.S.S. Revenge was a five-song, seven-minute primal scream in response to the trauma of weaponized ideology and systemic injustice at their boiling points. It’s a burst vein, a white-hot animal rage. Its loudness is a reminder that silence is complicity toward injustice. Although G.L.O.S.S. is dead, I’m glad Revenge lives as a reminder to fight on.
11. Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (ANTI-)
In so many ways, words failed us in 2016. Mind you, that didn’t stop us from using lots (and lots, and lots) of them to try and construct meaning for our shared experiences. Using words to describe the beauty of this record is, in itself, a bit of a folly, though Lanois himself did sum up his approach rather well: “I operate under the banner of soul music – music that just feels right and comes from a truthful place.” At the heart of this record indeed is a meditation on truth and the hope that springs from it. There are no words to muddy or politicize the truth of our oneness, and the music has appeals for each of the two Americas. For those nestled into our cities’ tight quarters, there’s a transportive, dreamlike atmosphere without beginning or end. For those dotted across the fruited plain, the poignant choice of steel guitar, hearkening to our country’s rosetta stone of blues and folk traditions, evokes a slow-motion golden hour gaze upon some vast, quiet landscape of Anywhere, USA. If we can’t reach consensus on much these days, hopefully we can reach inside ourselves, remember what’s beautiful about the miracle of life, and see more of that beauty in the faces and hearts around us.
10. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits (Castle Face)
When people ask the age-old “favorite bands” question, I fall back on the same list I’ve rattled off for much of my life. For myriad reasons, it becomes more difficult to consider late additions a true “favorite.” And how could it not? These newer arrivals have the objective disadvantages of less time and competition against incumbents. Well, in 2016 I realized the mighty Oh Sees had become a true favorite, having captivated my attention and demanded repeat listens each year for the better part of a decade. Jon Dwyer’s crew is so singular, so visionary in its creativity, so relentlessly energetic that it feels like a march toward world domination when experienced live. It’s nearly impossible not to be swept away in its current. Thee Oh Sees are a force. I’m hesitant to overstate the impact of a second drummer, but it does undeniably shift the typically-frenetic pace to a focus on groove, and boy howdy, does this record groove. (The fact that album closer “The Axis” reminds me of a punky “Tuesday’s Gone” doesn’t hurt either.) With this record, they’ve officially entered “I will pre-order the vinyl before I’ve heard a note” territory.
09. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel (Silver Arrow)
Here comes a 200-word exercise in defensive rationalization:
I *hate* jam bands. In my eyes, Phish is right on down there with Taylor Swift. At odds with that is my love of Chris Robinson’s very jammy jam band, which I’ve been trying to rectify for a few years now. Did I just love the Crowes that much? (Probably.) Is there something that makes CRB different than “typical” jam bands? (I think so.) Like with Vincas, I think it’s a Southern thing. (I know, I know.) Robinson always has been an extraordinary student of blues, folk, soul and gospel, having hailed from its fertile crescent. He was in a real-deal rock ‘n roll band before starting to mellow down easy. Other jam bands feel like socks-and-sandals rock ‘n roll tourists; musical Hard Rock Cafes, if you will. Their love of blues, country, soul, and funk is academic, not lived-in. Chris may be a Haight-Ashbury hippie, but his bare feet are stained red. All roads in this world may lead to the Dead, but CRB has carved a path as a descendant of swamp rock, the rhythm and blues emanating from funky hillbillies like Little Feat, Stephen Stills and Hoyt Axton, to name a few. And Anyway is their funkiest, most straightforward jam yet, chooglin’ out grooves like “Leave My Guitar Alone.” I still feel out of place at their shows (older uptown executive types sure love blowing off steam at those things!), but the record’s kept me in a groove for days at a time.
08. NxWorries – Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw)
If ever there were an appropriately titled record, this is it. Chance was lauded all year long for the joy he pumped by the gallon into Coloring Book, but this Yes Lawd! was the one that made me stand up in praise. (I mean, the group’s edict is built right into it name.) If the mission of WATTBA were room-rocking joie de vivre instead of self-obsessed grandstanding, the result would feel a lot like Yes. .Paak’s Malibu may have been a more significant breakthrough for him this year, but I love the soulful gestalt that results from his apparent creative chemistry with Knxwledge. They crafted some seriously beautiful #vibes together. It’s a perfect spiritual descendent both of its Stones Throw predecessors and the enlivening influence of a West Coast Doctor, but it’s a sound all its own.
07. Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming (Red House)
Good God almighty, can these brothers sing. The obvious comparison to the Everlys sells them way short, but they certainly share a knack for harmony that feels as easy as breath itself. “Dreamy” is the operative word for their satiny croons, and Dreaming is at its best when it’s at its dreamiest. The title track perfectly renders a tender gaze at a sleeping love. “If I Can’t Win” seems to drift from the AM radio ether on a dusty highway outside of Bakersfield. But the real gem is a simple, gorgeous little love song that may be one of the finest I’ve ever heard: “Queen of Them All.” If you ain’t had love like that – “a wild, wild thing” – in your life, boy, you ain’t lived. Sturgill may be the heavyweight champion of classic country music right now, but You’re Dreaming floats like a beautiful butterfly.
06. StoneRider – Hologram (self-released)
On the one hand, it feels strange to include close friends on this list, when the other entrants are people I’ve never met but have studied closely and admire greatly. On the other hand, anyone who knows me well knows that I have loved and championed StoneRider’s music well before I’d ever met its makers. Having said that, I’ve probably spent more time with this record (and this band) than any other on the list, so at this point it welcomes me like a dear old friend. For the first time in my life, I had the privilege of watching an album gestate from ideas and conversations in a practice space to something miles ahead of those original ideas. Jason [Krutzky, drummer – see, it is weird trying to] is one of my favorite people in the world with whom to talk music and/or the universe – he always has interesting counterpoints to my ideas and perspectives, and he has regularly introduced me to records and sounds I likely wouldn’t have tried on my own. In many ways, my intimacy with SR’s music (and its myriad inputs) has become a vehicle from which I have come to understand and appreciate so many more creative outputs than ever before. Now, absent of all of that still, I still challenged myself this year to be objective: if I didn’t know these dudes, do I think I would like this record? Inasmuch as it’s even possible to address that kind of hypothetical, I feel strongly that the answer is yes. I’ve said before that SR “sounds like your whole record collection” – they craft a timeless rock ‘n roll sound in a way that I just don’t hear being done by anyone else. Above all that, though, SR’s true gift is melody. Every thread in the fabric of this record was sewn to be remembered: every chorus, every section of riffs, every bassline. The production is lush, spacious, and yet pronounced, with repeat listens rewarding headphone listeners with layer after layer of nuance. The music of Hologram, a record about finding your soul, will fill your spirit. I know this to be true because it’s worked for me time and time again.
05. Nails – You Will Never Be One of Us (Nuclear Blast)
Watching the events of 2016 unfold was the proverbial long gaze into the abyss. One of Us was the abyss gazing back, the wretched sounds of our own monstrosity. Kurt Ballou extends his streak of helming the best heavy record of the year, and this may be one of his best, period. It’s gnarly beyond belief. While the band claims the title is “inclusive,” it sure feels like a line in the sand. If you need help defining negative space between yourself and a world you barely can bear to comprehend anymore, One of Us does more than draw that line – it pours gasoline in front of you and throws down a match with vigor. Further yet, if you’re inclined to prepare for a not-unfathomable doomsday scenario, leave this on repeat in your headphones for the entirety of your training montage, which fades to black as closing track “They Come Crawling Back” rains down napalm. Godspeed.
04. Savages – Adore Life (Matador)
“I think, in some ways, being in love is revolutionary in this world, in this time now. I think most of the record is about feeling inspired … In a way, that’s not what society wants you to do, ‘cause it takes you away from what people are supposed to do in this world, like have a job, make money, make a family, make all these things.”
– Savages singer Jehnny Beth
The above seems like a weird way to describe a record that sounds as dark, sparse, and tough as Adore Life, but it’s right on the money. In fact, that very tension reinforces its central thesis: that love is not a thing to be achieved, but a state of enlightenment to grapple with and claw toward. It’s a simple idea, but in Savages’ hands, it feels radical. Here, the qualities we associate with love (soft, tender, delicate, pretty, ethereal, natural) actually are the opposite of true love, which takes courage, grit, grace, humility, and above all, risk. To see Savages live (which I had the privilege of doing twice in 2016) is to understand this: they make an inarguable case in their favor, looming a hundred feet tall and making any obstacle feel conquerable with the proper resolve. Savages are strength personified, and Adore Life is a mighty good snapshot of that if you play it loudly enough.
03. Every Time I Die – Low Teens (Epitaph)
ETID has been one of my favorite bands for more than a decade now, so writing about them is a bit like trying to describe my own face to a sketch artist. More has been said about this record than any other ETID effort, as their endurance in the extreme music world, largely a young man’s game, has become a phenomenon. The easy things to write about Low Teens are the fan narrative and the media narrative: respectively, “How do they keep digging so deep and getting so much better / heavier / more unique / more intense each record?!” and “[singer] Keith’s personal trauma, a record about mortality, deeper meaning, yadda yadda yadda.” To me, though, the real story is something Keith touched on in an interview with Fuse:
I also just wanna say that I know that everything that happened with my wife and Zuzana is like, the story, but there’s so much music there that’s f***ing … it’s the best music the guys have ever written, too, and I don’t want that to get lost. These guys were writing things they’ve never done before, tapping into some source they’ve never tapped into, and it was perfect for me, who needed more room to figure things out. It’s so special, it’s so much more than just another Every Time I Die record.
I’ve made no secret of ETID being my career role models; that is, no matter what point I’m at, I always want people to think incredulously, “Good God, this is the best thing he’s ever done. How is that still possible?” That same sentiment, a distant echo of that same fear of mortality, seems to drive the grizzled vets in ETID, eight albums and eighteen years in. And even if you’re turned off by the kind of music ETID makes, it’s nearly impossible to deny the presence of that feeling after a play-through. There’s a spirit of total abandon. They’re leaving it all – sweat, tears, and especially blood – on the field. The value-add of drummer Daniel Davison, whose chops and creativity I obviously have grossly underestimated for some fifteen years, cannot be underscored enough here. He’s an impossible combination of jazz dexterity and Animal ferocity, and it’s bulked Andy and Jordan’s riffs up to a whole new weight class. In a year brimming with reminders of Death’s e’er-outstretched hand, both personal and societal, Low Teens is all the reminder I need to tighten my grip on life in 2017 while I’ve still got one.
02. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!” (Glassnote)
Steve Harvey has a legendary bit from Kings of Comedy in which he extols the virtues of old school soul music. The bit culminates with Lenny Williams’ “‘Cause I Love You,” and Steve winds himself into a frenzy in keeping with the passion of what he dubs the greatest love song of all time. “You can’t tell me Lenny didn’t MEAN this s***,” he exclaims. I was reminded of that bit when my brother shared “Me and Your Mama” in my driveway, playing full-blast from his car speakers. I wasn’t ready. Could this be the same Donald Glover that vacillated between obnoxious, winking NYU-kid pretense and bummer-vibe self-seriousness? Turns out it was – dude took a stratospheric leap of faith from Because the Internet, channeled the spirits of Eddie, Sly, Shuggie, and Bootsy, and melded that hot iron into something at once timely and timeless. Paired with the record-breaking Atlanta, Awaken feels like Glover’s own Lenny Williams moment – a seismic, timeless love song to a family forged in a strange and broken world.
01. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista)
When The New York Times blew the lid on Homme and Pop’s secret session, a wave of anxiety washed over me: this is the leader of my absolute all-time favorite band and a hero of mine (and his) – on a scale of 1 to 10, how let down will I inevitably be? The bar was impossibly high. And yet! The two met in the desert, tied a string to their signature moves, walked 200 paces, stumbled upon uncharted territory, and divined the ground with the holy rituals each had learned and unlearned over his long musical life. Sure, the comparisons to Iggy’s Berlin period are easy and not unfounded, but this is something thrillingly new. The best context for understanding Depression‘s building blocks comes from Alligator Hour, the short-lived Apple Music radio show through which Homme winked at all the delightful flourishes he enjoyed but must’ve felt restricted from absorbing into QOTSA’s vocabulary. They’re on full display here, and it lends an air of hard-won freedom to the proceedings – a feeling compounded by Iggy’s eulogizing, with the hard-handed poetry only a master like he could pen, his own long and winding journey. There’s a beauty, a tenderness to this record that both parties long have hinted at but neither has been able to articulate like this before. Homme has spent his entire career swinging for the fences, and this feels like he’s finally found a way to homer off of a lefty. From Them Crooked Vultures onward, all of Homme’s output has felt literally monumental: this record, like Them Crooked Vultures and QOTSA’s …Like Clockwork, evokes the Great Pyramids in their towering confidence and inexplicable wholeness. (This becomes doubly incredible when you consider Depression seems built from the bricks Homme has kept in the back of his truck, unable to fit them onto any other structure.) As I arrive at the Sunday of 2016 and pause for a moment to rest and reflect, this struck me as a valuable lesson: if you want to build something worthwhile, you’d be smart to envision it becoming a Wonder of the World from the moment inspiration strikes.
Other memories worth crystallizing:
- Guwop’s jubilant return, capped by an extraordinary Tiny Desk Concert showcasing the majesty of Zaytoven.
- The ecstasy of Atlanta, driven by its pitch-perfect music (may I never forget losing my mind when “No Hook” dropped over the first title card)
- Listening to Earth, Wind and Fire with new ears, and subsequently falling in love with them, after talking with Steve Harvey about them
- Stumbling upon funky, soulful sweet spots like Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and the pure power of ’74 Stevie.
- The pure joy of Bankroll PJ’s “Jump In” video, especially as a memoriam to the selflessness of his uncle Lil Money (may he and Bankroll Fresh rest in peace)
- Lil Dicky leaping from maybe-joke to defensible MC in a single bound
- Deftones’ sublime “Prayers/Triangles” video
- Casey Gerald inadvertently striking punk rock gold in Gospel of Doubt “because it’s time to question the gods of our time”
If you even skimmed this, I am grateful. If it brought you even a dash of the satisfaction it brought me to make, it was all worthwhile. I’m always game to dig in and talk music with you over a brew sometime.
Be sure to also check out my list of favorite songs and the full list of albums I considered when making this list. Also, previous years’ lists are available here: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 [Note: I wasn’t inspired to compile a list in 2015. Oh well.]