The Best Albums of 2016

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.

  1. ★ – David Bowie

blackstar_front_cover

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.

Blackstar

Lazarus

I Can’t Give Everything Away

2. Lemonade – Beyonce

Beyonce_-_Lemonade_(Official_Album_Cover)

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.

Formation

Sorry

Hold Up

3. Hopelessness – Anohni

hopelessness_front_cover

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.

Drone Bomb Me

Hopelessness

I Don’t Love You Anymore

4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

skeleton_tree_album

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.

Jesus Alone

Magneto

I Need You

5. This Is Acting – Sia

Thisisacting_albumcover

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.

Alive

Cheap Thrills

The Greatest

6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John

Elton-John-Wonderful-Crazy-Night

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.

Looking Up

Wonderful Crazy Night

Blue Wonderful

7. Joanne – Lady Gaga

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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.

Perfect Illusion

Million Reasons

A-Yo  

8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon

stranger_to_stranger_cover

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.

Wristband

Cool Papa Bell

 The Werewolf

9. Super – Pet Shop Boys

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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.

The Pop Kids

Say It to Me

The Dictator Decides

10. AIM – M.I.A.

aim

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.

Borders

Bird Song

Freedun

 

People Ain’t No Good

Yes, I think it’s well understood. But you can always turn to Nick Cave for reminders of just how deeply no good people can be. Shockingly enough, this one is merely an ode to a marriage that failed to weather the passing of the years. Cave usually depicts humanity’s lack of goodness in swathes of blood, but no murder here. People, even the decent, just ain’t no good despite their best intentions, just because goodness is too much to expect. It’s out of reach, beyond our capacity, though we may try and even come close sometimes. Which is, when you think of it, even more depressing. The occasional bloodthirsty maniac may frighten us from afar, but most people never experience mayhem. Every person experiences everyday insufficient goodness, though; the disappointment that builds up over the years, the love that turns out to be as transient as the seasons, the good intentions that never really connect, our own dark hearts.

Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry

Nick Cave goes on a dark picaresque of some infernal other-dimension, not entirely unlike modern day America, but also not unlike mythical ancient Greece, or Europe in the Dark Ages. In Cave’s world every age is a dark age. Over the years, his delivery has gotten more literary and refined, but the vision hasn’t lightened up much. He still wants to explore the intersection between human ugliness and the human capacity for higher things. And he’s excavated that intersection in unprecedented depth recently. (More on that at a later date.) 1992 found him in mid-transformation from apparent death-wish-having rat punk to gentleman scholar. Cave is one of the few rock artists whose youthful kicking against the pricks fades in comparison to his more mature work. Henry’s Dream is a transitional album, from the period when the artist began to realize that being angry and loud was, in fact, less interesting than being a man of wealth and taste.

Oh My Lord

This is a master lesson in dramatic timing. Nobody tells a dramatic narrative like Nick Cave does. He starts with a whisper and builds, over more than seven minutes, to a devastating climax. He’s telling a very modern story about scandal, persecution and paranoia, but with clear roots in literary tradition that goes back centuries. Cave is one of our most literate rock star laureates, known to pay homage to Homer and the ancient Greeks. Nick Cave puts rock music at the exact intersection of theatre, poetry and folk tradition, and that makes him among the most thought provoking artists working today, most certainly one who has transcended the limitations of genre. The fall from grace is a narrative arc as old as literature and eternally popular, and Cave has always found it fascinating. He updates it here with telephones and paparazzi; the implication is that the public humiliation that modern media has made possible is its own inferno, a brand new circle of hell reserved for those who’ve sinned in the public eye. We’ve certainly seen it play out, this public flogging, and it is very much a horror show. We’ve seen people literally die from too much public opinion. We can’t have executions in the town square anymore or put adulterers in stocks, but we can watch our fallen stars get broken down psychologically until they’re pathetic husks of themselves, or dead. It’s a blood sport for a new generation, and it’s going to grow its own body of literature to explain, rationalize, ennoble, memorialize, and decry. This phenomenon of gawking at the famous when they’re at their lowest – think of Britney Spears with her shaved head and umbrella, Amy Winehouse running through Camden weeping and bloody, Michael Jackson at pretty much any point in his final 20 or so years on earth… Put this phenomenon in historical context, put it in literary context. It’s the eternal entertainment value of human tragedy, it’s our thirst for violence, it’s the mighty getting their comeuppance for being who they are. It’s culture.

O Children

Nick Cave can make cold creepy crawly chills run down your spine. This songs gives me all the heebie-jeebies.  And he’s not even going out of his way to be disturbing. Coming from a man who once made a full album of murder ballads (and called it Murder Ballads) what’s a song about taking children away on trains? What’s a few light Holocaust references? That’s what I take it to be, that or a hymn to religious fanaticism. Line your children up for inspection before they get on the train. Let the cleaners hose you down. You’re all going to the kingdom and you don’t know what you’re in for. There only one thing those images bring to mind.  Hardly the stuff of family entertainment, but somehow this song found its way into a Harry Potter movie. Now there’s two fandoms you don’t expect to have much overlap. On the other hand, the Potterverse explicitly got quite dark, and there were things implied between the lines that were frankly infernal. So maybe not a bad match, Nick Cave singing about the Holocaust and a children’s book about attempted genocide.

Nobody’s Baby Now

I don’t know why and I don’t know how…

This is the height of Gothic romance. Nick Cave is too moody, Gothic and romantic for this world. These are dark corners of the human soul your average strip mall emo kid wouldn’t dare touch. I assume that something very bad happened to the woman in the song, something along the lines of Ophelia. It feels like a teaser of a great story, a novel that weighs several pounds whose author died of emphysema and never earned a penny from it. Nick Cave has yet to be the author of a readable novel, and he’s missed the boat on dying in squalor at a romantically young age, but his legacy doesn’t need embellishment. It’s enough to give me a story to imagine.

Nature Boy

Only in a Nick Cave lyric would the mundane tropes of a love song – “and she moves among the flowers…” – sit beside references to “ordinary slaughter” and “routine atrocity.” It works because that’s how reality works. The self-conscious particulars mix with the trope-y idealized moments. The things we find most lyrical can come off as the most banal. You have to keep your poetic edge even in the throes of cliche feeling.