After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.
- ★ – David Bowie
David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.
2. Lemonade – Beyonce
Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.
3. Hopelessness – Anohni
Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.
4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.
5. This Is Acting – Sia
Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.
6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John
Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.
7. Joanne – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.
8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon
Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.
9. Super – Pet Shop Boys
How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.
10. AIM – M.I.A.
M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.