Even putting aside the bottomless darkness of the election year and the tenuous fate of the free world, if that’s possible, few people will view 2016 with nostalgia. Musically, it will probably be remembered for the culling of some of our most prized pop icons: first Bowie and then Prince, especially, but also Phife Dawg, Paul Kantner, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones, among others.
If nothing else, our new political reality, whatever it holds for us, ought to provide fertile ground for musicians. And indeed, political indignation informed a lot of great music in 2016 — particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, as evidenced by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and some of the artists on this list.
It gives me hope that, though the next several years are likely to be brutal in many ways, the nonstop parade of controversy, scandal and injustice may inspire a righteous bounty of inspired, rebellious anthems. It’s certainly happened before.
Anyway, here are the jams I listened to or liked most this year.
A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
The Native Tongues family of the ’90s staged a mini-comeback in 2016, starting with De La Soul’s Kickstarter-funded “And The Anonymous Nobody.” But while that album suffered for sprawl, their old peers A Tribe Called Quest sound incredibly focused and inspired for a band that hadn’t released an album in 18 years.
“We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service” was released almost eight months after the death of founding member Phife Dawg from complications from diabetes. But Phife, Jarobi and Q-Tip are in fine form here as rappers, and they fill the album with energy and righteous political anger and a kaleidoscopic menagerie of musical samples. The Tribe sounds utterly refreshed and innovative.
Beyonce — Lemonade
Beyonce is of a force of nature, with plenty of backstory, multimedia and controversy that can sometimes overshadow her music. But “Lemonade” is bangin’, a powerful and diverse song cycle that at times feels like a soundtrack to a musical about our dysfunctional times via a meditation on marital betrayal and black identity. It’s sonically rich and hard to stop listening to.
Iggy Pop — Post Pop Depression
Ypsilanti’s favorite son, James Osterberg, released “Post Pop Depression” seemingly out of left field earlier this year. The album gained wide acclaim and spots on late-night TV. Then Iggy starred in Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges biopic “Gimme Danger.”
Recorded last year in the California desert with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age as his modern-day Bowie, the album is a dark and economically elegant affair, strung through with Homme’s signature rhythmic hooks and Iggy playing the part of a streetwalking cheetah who now wears a suit and holds the door open for ladies. Iggy weaves it full of lyrical explorations of his legacy, mortality and a world he no longer completely recognizes: “Innocence / It’s so hard to figure it out.” It’s a hell of a way to go out if indeed this is his final album.
Angel Olsen — My Woman
I hear touches of goth, desert rock and even Hollywood glamour in these songs from talented journeywoman songwriter Angel Olsen. The album has a nice progression from the rock blast of “Shut Up Kiss Me” to the west coast AM radio stylings of “Sister.”
This German DJ duo takes their name partly from the 808 drum machine. They recorded a fascinating album fusing techno beats and samples from African and other global sources into a celebratory, funky and danceable stew that is tailor-made for our times.
Shana Falana — Here Comes the Wave
A dark, swirling blast of droney, shoegaze dream pop. Falana wrote many of the songs for this album years ago while struggling to break drug addiction, and the sense of catharsis and clarity shines through.
Lucinda Williams — Ghosts of Highway 20
Lucinda Williams has been making music for a long time now, and she’s having a prolific run in her 60s, releasing this, her second double-album since 2014. It’s not a terribly upbeat album, as witnessed by the spare “Death Came,” but it’s rich with Williams’ rich lyrical detail, deft musicianship from her backing band and Williams’ incredibly expressive voice, which has evolved into a ramshackle thing. “It’s easier and I feel more expressive,” she told KEXP-FM in 2015. “It’s richer… I’m in pretty good shape right now, you know?”
Warpaint — Heads Up
Warpaint’s new album continues in the group’s vein of rhythm-driven, dreamy experimentalism, but the band adds new rhythmic textures and dance beats to a batch of more focused and forceful songs. There’s more variety than on previous albums, from the dub-like shimmer of “Dre” to the driving funk of “So Good,” which pleads “Can’t you tell me all your secrets? / I’ll tell you all mine.” A great rhythm section featuring Stella Mozgawa on drums and Jenny Lee Lindberg on bass.
Wire — Nocturnal Koreans
Another band enjoying a late-career burst of creativity, post-punk/art-rock heroes Wire delivered a half-hour-long minialbum full of its signature taut, neat and off-kilter songs that churn and purr and manage to sound like no one else.
What rocked your world in 2016?
It’s well into January now, but I started listening to Solange’s “A Seat At The Table” while I was writing this in December and haven’t stopped. This is a gorgeous, confident affirmation of black identity that manages to be at once delicate and powerful. “Cranes in the Sky” might be the song of the year, and 2016 might well have belonged to the Knowles sisters.