Below are our favorite albums of 2017.
For our favorite songs of 2016, we are going to let the songs do the talking. We have included music videos and live performances for them, as well as an Apple Music playlist. Enjoy and Happy New Year!
- Childish Gambino – “Redbone”
- Beck – “WOW”
- Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
- Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
- Drive By Truckers – “Ramon Casiano”
- Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”
- The Avalanches featuring Danny Brown – Frankie Sinatra”
- Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”
- Beyonce – “Formation”
- Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
PJ Harvey – “The Wheel”
Margo Price – “Hands of Time”
Radiohead – “Burn the Witch”
DJ Shadow featuring Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – “Nobody Dies”
Austin: Miranda lambert – “Running Just In Case”
Todd: MIA – Bird Song (Diplo Mix)
Wes: Parquet Courts – “Dust”
I’m certainly not the first person to say 2016 was full of loss and turmoil, both with losing several music legends and the world experiencing all sorts of violence and tragedy. Some of our picks speak to that turmoil, whether it be speaking to police brutality and racism in our justice system, or the fear and xenophobia against immigrants that has spread throughout the U.S. and around the world. Other picks of ours were a comfort and escape from the madness. Others were just flat-out great albums.
- William Tyler – Modern Country
Fitting firmly in the escape category, it’s rare that an instrumental album makes our list for 2016, but William Tyler’s country-guitar picking is breathtaking and cathartic. I probably listened to Modern Country more than anything else this year.
- A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service
A return almost 20 years in the making, influential rap trio returned just after the passing of the late Phife Dawg with an urgent, political album for Trump’s America. It’s warm and hopeful, but still cuts like a knife.
- David Bowie – Blackstar
In truly prophetic fashion, David Bowie’s last album delivered 3 days before his passing speaks to death, mortality, and the afterlife like a man embracing it. With the help of Donnie McCaslin’s avant-jazz group, Blackstar was Bowie’s most experimental and best album in 35 years.
- Solange – A Seat at the Table
Fair to say, it was a great year for the Knowles sisters…not so much for Jay-Z (see Beyonce’s Lemonade). We had a good conversation over which Knowles sister should make this list, so we sort of split the two, Beyonce on our songs list, and Solange on our albums list, for the more poetic album statement: about what it’s like being black in America and how to persevere when life gives you lemons.
- Drive By Truckers – American Band
Not many people wrote better about Black Lives Matter, anti-immigrant sentiment, and our current political landscape than the old white Southern rockers Drive-By-Truckers. Seriously though, Patterson Hood and his Southern compatriots sound like a band on fire on American Band, almost like Crazy Horse in their peak.
- Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
A joyful and unique expression, Chance the Rapper released his 3rd mixtape Coloring Book, which is a celebration of growing up, becoming a father, and expressing faith in a child-like fashion. Few people exert more exuberance and joy about their city, their art, and their life as Chance, and the world is better for it.
- Angel Olsen – Woman
Over her work with folk singer/songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy and her first three solo albums, Angel Olsen’s music has been expanding and becoming more of her own with each album. On Woman, Angel Olsen delivers song after song with her melodramatic voice and compelling arrangements for her best album to date.
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Even Kendrick Lamar’s scraps are better than other artist’s best feasts. Kendrick surprisingly delivered untitled unmastered, the b-sides to our 2015 album of the year To Pimp a Butterfly, and even those made for our favorite rap album of the year. Suffice it to say, I’m not sure any musician is as exciting or talented as Kendrick Lamar right now.
- Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
The story behind Skeleton Tree is simply devastatling: Cave’s 15-year-old twin son Arthur tragically died after falling off a cliff near the family’s home. Cave, who has always dealt with death, God, and the afterlife in his music, now had to face it head on. On Skeleton Tree, the mourning and emotion is palpable in Cave’s voice, and the music is simply devastating. But there are moments of tremendous humanity and slivers of hope amidst the tragedy.
- Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
2016 isn’t exactly the golden age for rock music, but 24-year-old Will Toledo aka Car Seat Headrest delivered the most riveting album of the year, a concept album on adolescence that is sharply written, inventively composed, and full of good-old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll energy.
Beyonce – Lemonade
Mitski – Puberty 2
Anderson Paak – Malibu
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailors Guide to Earth
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Wes – Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Chicago singer, rapper, and spoken-word artist Jamila Woods first became known on Chance the Rapper’s joyful “Sunday Candy”, but she showed what she’s made of in her debut album HEAVN, a beautiful, and personal expression about her life as a black woman in Chicago that also keys on musical influences from surprising places.
Austin – Lucy Dacus – No Burden
Richmond’s Lucy Dacus debut No Burden was a true surprise: a well-written rock album fronted with Dacus’s classically beautiful voice.
Todd – Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
Chicago duo Whitney is as soft and soothing as it gets, sort of a 70’s soft rock throwback, which makes this pick extra surprising for former wannabe-punk Todd. I guess he’s becoming a softy in his old age.
2016 was not-so-great, and most pertinently here, it was the year the music died. Not only did we lose three stone-cold legends in David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, we also lost many more way too soon. So below is a brief tribute to some of those we will miss the most as well as an In Memoriam playlist with some of my favorite songs from these artists.
No one in 2016 brought more joy and energy to the stage than Sharon Jones. The soul singer, backed by Brooklyn’s soul revue band the Daptones, was the face of relentless joy and perseverance. Jones’s musical career didn’t start until her 40’s, where before she worked as a correctional officer on Rikers Island. Over the last 15 years, Jones has provided a shot of happiness everywhere she performed, including the last three years where she continued to perform even as she recovered from pancreatic cancer. However, she finally lost her battle to pancreatic cancer after a stroke on Election night that deteriorated her health after that. The world became a little less bright after her loss.
Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest
One of the most influential rap groups of all-time lost their short, fierce, and clever MC Phife Dawg aka Malik Taylor. Phife died from diabetes during the making of their latest album We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, their first in 20 years and one of their best.
Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic and Talking Heads
A true musical pioneer and someone who expanded the role that keyboards and synthesizers play in rock music, Bernie Worrell wrote some of music’s most memorable keyboard riffs. From Parliament’s “Flashlight” and “Hit It and Quit It” to “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads, Bernie brought the funk everywhere he went.
Alan Vega of Suicide
For those that love experimental electronic music, Suicide are sort of their Velvet Underground, the band that launched a thousand bands. The electronic New York duo made apocalyptic, avant-garde music that sounded frightening and like nothing else around. Vega died this year at 78, but his legacy lives today more than ever: where electronic music is now at the forefront of popular and independent music.
George Martin, Legendary Beatles Producer
There’s been countless arguments over who the “fifth” Beatle is, whether it’s often collaborator Billy Preston, early members Stu Sutcliffe or Pete Best, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the answer is George Martin, who produced almost every Beatles song you and I know and love. Martin expanded the studio as an instrument, and was a big proponent of why rock and roll became art and not just something fun for teens to dance to.
I’m not sure there was ever a more poetic and graceful songwriter than Leonard Cohen. Dylan was certainly a greater political and urgent songwriter, but no one wrote more gracefully about love and death than Cohen. He was never the singer that he was a songwriter, and strangely his deep, husky voice in his 80s worked better for his subjects of aging and death than in his earlier year’s. Cohen’s voice and music aged like a barrel of bourbon, and his legacy will probably do the same.
Until high school, I thought Prince was just a weird, creepy, androgynous dude. Then my friend and fellow LxLer Austin introduced me to Sign o’ the Times, Prince’s ambitious 1987 double-album, and it was all downhill from there. From the perfect pop masterpiece of Purple Rain (I can’t name many other albums that I wouldn’t change a thing about) which is the perfect medium between pop and experimental Prince, to his legendary live performances (which I sadly never got to experience in person), to his surprisingly entertaining if somewhat troubled films, Prince could do more than almost any other artist. He could sing, dance, perform, write, play almost any instrument masterfully, dress, produce, create films, and so much more. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more wholly talented musician.
Perhaps more than any other musician, David Bowie was a voice for the outcast. I think that’s a big reason you see so many artists today, likely outcasts in their youth, see Bowie as their biggest inspiration and hero. Bowie was also a true musical chameleon, releasing almost 50 years worth of a music, from a musical-inspired Space Oddity, to an electronic music pioneer on Low, Bowie tried on a number of characters and genres throughout his near 50-year career. At the very end, the Thin White Duke released a prophetic final statement on death and the afterlife with Blackstar two days before his passing from liver cancer. His legacy will live on from his music and the many Kooks that followed him.
For more songs we love from artists that passed in 2016, check out this In Memoriam Playlist.
This election season couldn’t be over soon enough. This fall’s music has offered both a respite from the political ugliness and also has spoken straight to the urgency of it like the David Egger’s led 30 days for 30 songs now 40 songs in 40 days for a Trump-free America. Whether you are feeling righteous anger towards this election cycle, feeling existential and maybe a little hopeless, or just seeking some peace and quiet, this fall has delivered good music for all three. Here are a few of my favorites.
Amber Coffman – “All To Myself”
The eclectic Dirty Projectors have been one of my favorite bands in the last 10 years, and I’ve always thought their guitarist and co-vocalist Amber Coffman should split off for a solo career. She finally has here in 2016, with a solo album to come soon, but led by “All To Myself” a lovely mid-tempo ballad which isn’t a far cry from her sound in Dirty Projectors. The Dirty Projectors themselves are coming out with an album soon, and it appears based on their lead single, frontman Dave Longstreth doesn’t seem too pleased about Coffman going solo.
Moses Sumney – “Worth It”
LA’s Moses Sumney is one of the more refreshing up-and-coming artists today, mixing soul and folk in creative ways. A Sufjan Stevens touring mate and disciple, Sumney’s songwriting is similarly informed by his faith, with his debut EP Lamentations finding him wrestling with God, and lead single “Worth It” sort of being an open-hearted, auto-tuned confessional.
Jim James – “Same Old Lie”
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James’ musical heroes (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Roger Waters) have a knack for writing politically urgent yet timeless lyrics to fit their time and to last beyond. James strikes that balance well on his first single “Same Old Lie” for his upcoming second solo album Eternally Even, singing a Mayfield-esque protest against the hatred and violence that perpetrates our world.
Swet Shop Boys – “T5”
One of the most surprising new duos in music is Swet Shop Boys, which combines world-class British actor Rez Ahmed aka Rez MC (hot off starring in HBO’s stellar Night Of and soon to be star in Star Wars Rogue One) with Himanshu Kumar Suri aka Heems 1/3rd of goofball rap troupe Das Racist. What the two have in common is being of South Asian descent, with Heems being an Indian-American from Queens and Rez being a Pakistani-Brit from London. On “T5”, the two furiously and humorously break down what it’s like to be brown post 9/11, facing Islamophobia, xenophobia, government surveillance, racial profiling at the airport, and much more.
Nick Cave – “Skeleton Tree”
For those feeling straight-up existential and depressed this election, maybe wait to listen to Nick Cave’s latest Skeleton Tree until November 9th. While Skeleton Tree is certainly the saddest listen of 2016, it is also the most moving and human. In the summer of 2015, Cave experienced unbearable tragedy with the loss of his 15 year old son Arthur who fell of a cliff to his death while on LSD. This happened in the middle of the recording of Skeleton Tree, and was captured in Andrew Domenik’s black-and-white documentary One More Time With Feeling. Over spare piano ballads, Cave pours out his soul, the sort of primal scream album like John Lennon’s therapeutic Plastic Ono Band. It’s certainly not for everyone, but music was made for healing, and hearing Cave work out his tragedy can help someone else going through hardship to know they aren’t alone.
For more of my favorites from the fall, check out my Spotify playlist.
Blonde and Endless
New Orleans-born and L.A.-raised Frank Ocean has been one of the most consistently interesting and mysterious pop stars of the 2010’s. After helping shape the sound of boundary-pushing and controversial L.A. rap collective Odd Future, Ocean released his first mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra in 2011. Frank Ocean was then highly featured and highly involved in the production of the blockbuster rap collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne, before finally splashing with his debut album, Channel Orange. The album showcased Ocean as one of the brightest young songwriters around, echoing Prince and Stevie Wonder at their very best, and setting the groundwork for a legendary career as a singer and songwriter.
To add even more intrigue, Ocean came out in a letter on his website which corresponded almost directly with Channel Orange’s album release. Then Ocean pretty much disappeared from the spotlight for four years, before suddenly teasing a new album titled Boys Don’t Cry to release August 12th. The day came and went, and then a week later, Ocean dropped two albums on Apple Music, a visual album called Endless and Blonde, the studio follow-up to Channel Orange. He also ended up releasing a Boys Don’t Cry zine that he released for sale at various music stores around the country which includes an entirely different version of Blonde. I guess the extra week was worth the wait. So after four years, was it really worth all the wait and hype? Yes and no.
I’ll start with no. The answer would be no mostly from the standpoint that neither Blonde nor Endless is the pop smash album that everyone was salivating for. In a world that demands social buzz and meme-ability, Frank Ocean provided a mood album set to the building of a staircase in black and white (not exactly sharable) and a fairly low-key, vulnerable release in Blonde lacking any big hits or beats (not exactly a Drake or Taylor Swift record). Blonde is also filled with a handful of skits (which people almost never like) and also a star-studded cast (Beyoncé, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell) though you can barely identify their imprint beyond Andre 3000 of Outkast’s starburst of a rap on “Solo (Reprise).”
But really the answer now and over the long haul will be yes. Endless and Blonde are most certainly slow burns, but full of novel musical ideas, their own undeniable sound, and a vulnerability that so few artists can reach.
Endless largely feels more like a table-setter, which is how it was used on the two albums release weekend coming out the night before Blonde. It’s melodies don’t burn as bright, and without any easy track list to grab, it stands as more of a mood statement and conversation piece than anything. There are still notable moments. “U-N-I-T-Y” has Frank flashing his rap skills for really the first and only time on both Blonde and Endless. At the album’s close, Frank splits into Pet Shop Boys mode on “Higgs”, a chic, bass-heavy form of new wave which really breaks the album up for its most hypnotic stretch. It’s a very varied album but feels very seamless and of one piece even if a little less memorable than Blonde.
Blonde feels like the proper follow-up to Channel Orange and where Ocean focused his time and energy: the production is crisp and exact, everything feels as it should be, where Endless feels more like a mix tape of sorts. Lead single “Nike” definitely sets the tone of the beautifully spare sound to expect on Blonde: processed but expressive vocals, bright and airy arrangements, and mood-led songs lacking the major hooks of Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange. You won’t find yourself singing choruses but rather getting little moments and lines stuck in your head: it’s certainly catchy if unconventionally so.
While other black artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are making bold statements about the unjust world we find ourselves in, Frank Ocean isn’t focused on racial injustice beyond the occasional empathetic passing line on Blonde (“R.I.P. Trayvon, that n**ga look just like me”). That doesn’t make Ocean’s album any less ambitious: Ocean feels like the millennial descendant of Stevie Wonder to me. He’s making music that fits well in this world and this time, but it’s soft-hearted, musically sophisticated, and ultimately exploring a brighter future. If Channel Orange was his Songs In the Key of Life, Blonde is his Innervisions but without the funk and the hits. The slightly strange-sounding ballads like “Ivy”, “Nights”, and “White Ferrari” really feel like something Stevie could have released if he was born 40 years later.
Frank also brings the church into his music like Stevie especially on “Skyline To” and “Godspeed”. He sings with an open-voice that is pretty rare to find outside gospel and truly draws you in. “Godspeed” opens with a piano line that sounds like it could be worship anthem “Revelation Song” before splitting into the open-armed love song it is. All the weird production tricks serve as an interesting counter to the nakedness of Ocean’s voice: he remains vulnerable and open to love even as the noise attempts to break him.
I’ve said this before, but the most interesting work being done these last few years is in R&B. Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Bon Iver, FKA Twigs, Thundercat and even Kendrick to some extent (though he’s pushing hip hop and beyond) are making timeless and timely artistic statements both musically and lyrically. Frank Ocean isn’t looking to make the big attention-grabbing statement, but is special for just being himself.
Frankly, 2016 has been an awful year. It has felt like every news cycle brings a new tragedy: black lives being taken from police brutality in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, police being shot in Dallas, and ISIS attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul, Orlando, Brussels, and San Bernadino. Fear, hatred, and anger is the language of the day and in the U.S. Election and Brexit. Voices of ignorance and arrogance drown out those of love, courage, and unity.
While there is still certainly plenty of reason for protest and fighting for justice, sometimes we all just deeply long for peace and for all the madness to end. Music can bring a sense of healing and peace of mind like nothing else.
These for the most part aren’t anti-war or protest songs (we’ve been there before), but these are songs pointing to a brighter future, plain and simple. So for myself and anyone who needs a little bit of hope, here are my favorite songs for peace.