Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.
Without further ado…
1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:
Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.
Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of national acclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.
In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.
2. David Bowie — Blackstar
In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:
2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.
3. Frank Ocean — Blonde
It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazine — take a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:
While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.
4. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.
5. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial
To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.
6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine
This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:
Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.
7. Drive-By Truckers — American Band
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.
8. Bon Iver — 22, A Million
I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.
9. Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger
In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.
10. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN
I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.
Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine…
11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light
…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work
James Supercave — Better Strange
Andy Shauf — The Party
OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.