It was the year that kept taking and taking. In the year 2016, we lost Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Phife Dog, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, not to mention R2D2, Professor Snape, Alan Thicke and Admiral Ackbar. Admiral Ackbar is dead, y’all!
But for all that 2016 took, it was also very giving —particularly through music. I had to really do some thinking and listening to get my best of 2016 list down to just 10 albums.
And without further ado, here they are in no particular order.
“The Weight of These Wings”
Yes, this is Lambert’s breakup album — the one she made after her divorce from Blake Shelton. Lambert has never been afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve and for this double album, she strips back the slick production of “Platinum” and makes an album about loving, losing and moving on.
“To Learn Her” is the best country song you’re bound to hear in this year or any other.
“Blue and Lonesome”
On this album of blues covers, the Stones make their best record since 1981’s “Tattoo You.” It’s full of covers of songs recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Willie Dixon. Mick Jagger attacks the tracks with the perfect mix of the fervor of his young days and the coolness he has eluded for decades. Sure, it’s just the Stones covering the blues, but at the same time, it’s the Stones — covering the blues. It’s a win/win for the band and their fans.
“We Got it From Here...Thanks 4 Your service”
Tribe decides to pass the peace pipe and gets back together for their first album since 1998 -- that’s a long time. And they make one of their best albums and Phife Dog dies.
If Phife had to go out, this is a very fitting note on which for him to end.
It features collaborations with Jack White, Kendrick Lamar and many others including Elton John. Plus it samples “Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.”
It’s pure hip-hop gold. Rest in peace, Phife Dog.
“For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price”
National treasure Willie Nelson pays homage to his friend and colleague, the late Ray Price. Price is one of the best singers to sing any genre and we are very fortunate that he chose to make his path singing country music.
Nelson’s tribute is a warm affair, with The Time Jumpers backing him on many tracks.
He may have recorded a definitive version of Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” with Price back in the day, but Nelson finds the same success this time around with a new version of the song with Vince Gill providing tenor vocal harmonies on the chorus. I asked Gill how he recorded those harmonies with Nelson, who is a master of phrasing.
“I did it like this — I sang it one word at a time,” Gill said.
Maren Morris is a singer/songwriter who has been making records for more than 10 years. On “Hero,” Morris delivers certainly the best country-pop album of the year if not the best pop album of 2016.
“Hero” is full of hooks, especially on songs such as “Rich,” “My Church” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.”
This is the answer to bro country that we’ve been looking for.
“Love and Hate”
Remember how it felt the first time you heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder or even “Let Love Rule” by Lenny Kravitz? Michael Kiwanuka’s “Love and Hate” is a throwback to when soul music was about two things — love and social issues. It has one of the most lush orchestral productions you’ll hear this year. Be prepared to play this one over and over as it takes more than a casual listen to truly discover all of its nuances.
Ah, power pop how I love thee. It’s been 10 years since Teenage Fanclub released its last album and it’s been more than 20 years since the release of the seminal “Bandwagonesque.”
The band from Glasgow’s 10th album is full of hooks and big choruses and jangly guitars and lyrics about love. It’s power-pop perfection.
In this day and age, we could all use more lyrics like “I’m in love with your love.”
“And the praises go up and the blessing come down,” sings Chance The Rapper on “Coloring Book.” And it’s true. This album has that “thing,” well, actually, this album has many things going for it including smart lyrics, gospel choruses, horns and guest appearances from 2 Chainz, Kanye West and Justin Bieber, among others.
It’s a mix of laid back hip hop, accented with swirly church organs, trumpets and choir background vocals.
Chance The Rapper has created his own church on this, his second mixtape.
“Wynonna and The Big Noise”
Wynonna releases the most important album of her career with her new band, led by her husband Cactus Moser.
This is the year’s best Americana offering. Wynonna takes on songs by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Raphael Saadiq backed by vintage drums and hollow body guitars.
Wynonna is an artist and this album isn’t as much a reinvention as it is an extension of what she’s always wanted to do. And she’s never sounded happier doing it.
Her duet with Jason Isbell on “Things That I Lean On” will have you replaying it in your head long after the fadeout has happened.
“Heart Like A Levee”
I was anticipating the release of this album all year and when it was finally released in October, it certainly didn’t disappoint. MC Taylor has created a perfect blend of folk and country-rock, with touches of Muscle Shoals, Van Morrison and Memphis peppered throughout.
“Heart Like A Levee” has a it’s own “Biloxi” song, and no offense to Jimmy Buffett, Taylor’s “Biloxi” is my favorite song about “Biloxi.” I hope to have the opportunity to ask Taylor about the song.
And the album’s closer, “Highland Grace,” is the “Into The Mystic” you need.
My guest pickers:
She does it again. Over and over and over again, Rihanna is ahead of the pack when it comes to producing music that everybody wants to hear and that everyone else wishes thought of producing themselves. “ANTI” is an album that isn’t exactly mainstream but sends a message of power in being a little different. Rihanna will always be a trendsetter in my heart, and her music speaks to me because I grew up with her as her music evolved.
Sia “This is Acting”
It is insane to me that Sia is not nominated for more Grammys, as her music is powerful and speaks to our culture in ways I’ve never seen before. This album was a collection of songs Sia wrote for other people, thus truly explaining her disconnect from the performances. But still, the music and lyrics radiate and cut deep. “Alive” feels like the morning after a cold front comes through and you go out for a run. “Cheap Thrills” is the song you sing with your girlfriends when you’re tired of hearing “Closer” by The Chainsmokers every five minutes. “Reaper” still sends shivers down my back. Even with her face-covered, the lack of expression by Sia is still emotional, personal and freeing.
Frank Ocean “Blond”
When I heard Frank perform “Thinkin’ Bout You” live on SNL, I immediately became immersed in his album Channel Orange and could not stop listening. I replaced Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die” in my CD player for the first time in a year. Frank made me feel like it was OK to talk about love, even though I loved men. “Blond” immerses the listener on a new journey of self-expression, and I’m totally into it.
The Lumineers “Cleopatra”
“Ho Hey” was so overplayed, I almost didn’t give the Lumineers’ second album a chance until my boyfriend sent me the link to “Sleep on the Floor” and I became hooked. The band stayed true to themselves and delivered a pop-folk album that makes any long car ride enjoyable. “Sleep on the Floor” is easily my favorite track — I hum it every single day.
Lemonade - Beyoncé “Lemonade”
Angel Olsen “My Woman
Frank Ocean “Blonde”
A Tribe Called Quest “We got it from here... Thank You 4 Your service”
Solange “Seat at The Table”
Michael Kiwanuka “Love and Hate”
From the opening strings of this album, the listener knows that there is something epic waiting in the wings and is rewarded for it again and again on this sprawling masterpiece. Nothing in 2016 came close to matching the visceral tone of “Love and Hate” to these ears. Granted, I have been a fan of Kiwanuka since his first album, but I was not at all prepared for this record. It is the 2016 version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The lyrics are there. The frustration is there. The angst is there. Most importantly, through it all: the music is there. This album is not out of place among albums from Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield or the aforementioned Gaye.
Hiss Golden Messenger “Heart Like A Levee”
M.C. Taylor’s album is the sound of a husband and father who is on the road. Always on the road. Missing birthday parties, missing Saturday morning coffee and missing the people and things that most of us call life. All of this is not to suggest that it is a depressing album. Far from it...it’s a singalong joy, and I’ll admit that I am partial to the song “Biloxi” even if I have no idea why the name of the city that I used to call home garnered a song title from a songwriter in Asheville, NC.
The Frightnrs “Nothing More to Say”
I loved this record before I knew the story behind it. Singer and principal songwriter, Dan Klein, was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and died in June 2016, before the album was officially released. Tragedy aside, the album is a beautiful tribute to the rock-steady sounds of the the Jamaican dance halls of the 1970s...but, in true Daptone style, it is not simply a re-tread or a flattering tribute. The music comes across as real and as heartfelt as anything else recently recorded, made only more haunting when you know the full story.
Lydia Loveless “Real”
I’ve been a fan of Lydia for years. Over the last four albums, she has evolved from a straight up punk country of Loretta Lynn to a songwriter on par with anyone. Her latest album is the most radio-friendly and pop-centric of her career and I hope it is a launching pad to a brighter spotlight. Lydia wears her heart on her sleeve and her lyrics reflect it: sometimes joyous, sometimes depressing, but always brutally honest. Her backing band (featuring her husband, Ben Lamb, on bass) sounds better than ever and Todd May’s guitar remains the best kept secret weapon in rock music.
Drive By Truckers “American Band”
Southern rock is best when played loud at (at least) 65 mph and with the windows down, but that doesn’t mean it’s dumb. This album, more than any I’ve heard in a long time, is proof of that. Songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley pull no punches when reflecting on the life and times of the south and America as a whole in 2016. With the rest of the band in tow, they have built a career on huge riffs, nefarious characters and wry observation, all of which are showcased on “American Band,” their best post-Jason Isbell record. If the Rolling Stones were from Birmingham, Alabama, they’d be the Drive By Truckers.
Childish Gambino “Awaken My Love”
Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
Justin Peter Kinkell-Schuster “Constant Stranger”
Car Seat Head Rest “Teens of Denial”
A Tribe Called Quest “We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your service”
This much-anticipated release is in essence “poetry in motion” to beats. I often listen to this album to get the blood flowing early in the work day. It offers thought provoking lyrics and a slew of guests including Jack White, André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Kanye West and Busta Rhymes.
Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool”
Radiohead albums seem to transfer one’s head into a bubble — floating around in a vivid production of lyrics, strings and electronic beats. Their sound isn’t for everyone but for those who do appreciate it, their sound can classified as part ‘masterpiece’ and part ‘break from reality’.
Michael Kiwanuka “Love and Hate”
This British soul singer’s songs are timeless and reminds me of classic cuts from the likes of Bill Withers & Bob Marley. I first saw the then unheard of Michael Kiwanuka in Los Angeles opening for the Alabama Shakes, who were just beginning their on road to stardom, in 2012 at The Fonda Theater — I’ve been a pretty devoted fan ever since. This album is played best from start to finish.
The Marcus King Band “ The Marcus King Band”
Marcus King voice reminds me of what an old beat-up guitar case with bumper stickers might sound like if it could talk ... except he’s only 20 years old! Produced by musician Warren Haynes and written entirely on the road. The band has made a huge leap this year and shown maturity from the road, we caught them at the House of Blues in November. Look for them to start popping up on 2017 festival line-ups and opening slots for larger household bands.
Bon Iver “ 22, A Million”
Very experimental and that’s what makes this album so interesting. The songwriter keeps pushing the envelope, quiet and often simple lyrics jump to a sonic wall of sound, quickly. Lots of beats and twists and turns, this is definitely am album to be discussed when looking back at the year in music 2016.
The Avalanches “Wildflower”
A Tribe Called Quest “We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service”
Mitski “Puberty 2”
Open Mike Eagle and Paul White “Hella Personal Film Festival”
White Lung “Paradise”
Chance the Rapper “Coloring Book”
Danny Brown “Atrocity Exhibition”
Mothers “When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired”