Best albums of 2016: David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ leads the pack
It’s that time again — time to choose the most memorable CDs of the year. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hear every album that came out in 2016. But I did listen to more than 1,000. Here are the ones I’ll still be listening to next year:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
David Bowie - Blackstar ★
“Look up here, I’m in Heaven.” So sings David Bowie on Lazarus, a song from his final album ★ (Blackstar). At the time, we all thought they were just lyrics. Turns out they were much more. Two days after his 25th album was released on his 69th birthday, Bowie died after an 18-month battle with liver cancer. In keeping with his more reclusive recent life, he had kept his illness secret from the public. But true to his nature as one of rock’s most creative and committed artists and icons, it factored heavily into his music. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art,” longtime producer Tony Visconti was quoted saying. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.” And to marvel at this flawless, fearless parting gift from a chameleonic and utterly individual artist who treated his own passing as his ultimate work of art. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.
15 RUNNERS-UP (In alphabetical order)
Jeff Beck - Loud Hailer
Nobody ever called Beck a shrinking violet. But with the fittingly titled Loud Hailer (British slang for a megaphone), the gruff guitar hero comes out swinging with his most aggressive disc in ages. Joined by powerhouse vocalist Rosie Bones (think Alison Mosshart with a British accent), guitarist Carmen Vandenberg and producer Filippo Cimatti of U.K. outfit Bones, the 72-year-old Beck cuts loose on forward-leaning, freewheeling creations that tug at the boundaries of rock, blues, funk and soul. Meanwhile, the button-pushing lyrics tackle revolution, power, greed, politics and the dismal state of the world — but thankfully leave room for the master’s spiky riffs and blazingly articulate solos. Hail, hail, rock ’n’ roll.
Beyoncé - Lemonade
Only Beyoncé would try to out-Beyoncé Beyoncé. And only she could pull it off as stunningly as she did with this concept piece about a woman’s emotional journey through infidelity. The dozen-track, 45-minute Lemonade is the R&B goddess’s most ambitious, fully formed and complex album. It deftly tackles tabloid rumours that have dogged her marriage to Jay-Z — without admitting anything — and turns them into a discussion of contemporary relationships, female empowerment, mothers and daughters, unreliable fathers, the power of six-inch heels and the satisfaction of wielding a baseball bat. No wonder she’s going in 2017 with nine more Grammy noms.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
“You fell from the sky; crash-landed in a field.” Those are the dark first words of Cave’s 16th album — words made even more brutal and devastating by their eerie similarity to his own grim reality. In 2015, the singer-songwriter’s teenage son Arthur died after tumbling from a cliff near their home in Brighton. While those lyrics were reportedly written before the tragedy, they set the understandably bleak tone for what follows — an emotionally raw, atmospheric descent into agony, grief and desolation. This is the sound of mourning set to music.
Leonard Cohen - You Want it Darker
If you thought Cohen couldn’t get any darker … well, you’re probably right. Truth is, despite the title of his 14th and final album, the 82-year-old singer-poet didn’t change his tune much here — not that he needed to. His third release since unretiring in 2008 capped his remarkable late-career renaissance, offering another gorgeously shaded collection of slow-pitched, gravel-throated odes to forsaken love, tested faith, impending mortality and world-weary loss. And thanks to the help of son Adam, his philosophical musings and tender mercies came wrapped in a tastefully understated and lightly orchestrated mix of postmodern blues, gospel, country and more.
Gordon Downie - The Secret Path
Gord Downie has spent three decades chronicling and commemorating the history and mystery of Canada. But the Tragically Hip frontman’s fifth (and perhaps final) solo album is no cause for celebration — it’s a grim remembrance of a shamefully overlooked national tragedy. Secret Path is a concept album that recounts the sad death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who died of exposure and hunger beside a railway line after running away from a residential school in Kenora 50 years ago. Deeply moving and artfully experimental, Secret Path is not only Downie’s most focused solo effort, it may be the most relevant work of his career. And that’s saying something.
PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Sometimes you look inward. Sometimes you look outward. After doing the former for years, Polly Jean Harvey turns the camera around again with her rabble-rousing 11th disc. Titled after a controversial D.C. housing program and inspired by travels abroad, Hope Six Demolition Project finds the 46-year-old singer-songwriter offering boots-on-the-ground reportage and political protest, with detailed narratives that seem more like journalistic dispatches than lyrics. The music is equally grounded, with Harvey grafting blues samples, gospel influences and a labour-union folk vibe onto a foundation of ragtag chamber-rock peppered with honking sax. Take a long hard look.
Frank Ocean - Endless | Blonde
From drought to deluge in less than 48 hours. After vexing fans for more than a year with blown release dates, the idiosyncratic R&B iconoclast delighted them by dropping two weirdly wonderful creations in as many days. First but not necessarily foremost: The “visual album” Endless, a drifting 45-minute flow of songs and snippets set to black-and-white video of Ocean in a woodworking shop, building a circular staircase to nowhere. Last but far from least: The official sophomore album Blonde, a reverb-soaked dreamscape/netherworld that balances understated beauty and twitchy experimentation — all topped by his tender vocals and forthright lyrics, samples of everyone from Todd Rundgren to The Beatles, and cameos by heavyweights including Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000 and James Blake. Jump in. The water’s fine.
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Don’t let the title foot you. Anderson .Paak is coming straight outta Compton. As in, Dr. Dre’s companion album to the N.W.A biopic. After guesting on the gangsta-rap king’s comeback, multi-tasking singer-songwriter, scratchy rapper and curiously punctuated .Paak makes the most of his own shot at the spotlight with this inventive and sophisticated sophomore disc. Trippily melding rap, funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop — much like another Compton light named Kendrick Lamar — Malibu is everywhere you want to be.
Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
What have I done with my life? Was it worth it? Did it matter? And what comes next? These are the questions that come with age. Even if you’re Iggy Pop. Maybe especially if you’re Iggy Pop. But if you’re the 68-year-old godfather of punk eyeing the exit, you don’t just contemplate them on lonely nights. You process them. And if you’re lucky, you find a musical partner like Josh Homme, the musically gregarious, multi-tasking perpetrator of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures. You get him to help you transform them into a disc that circles back to your Berlin days. And end up with art that speaks for you — and to others.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
There are only so many ways to reinvent the wheel. Even for Radiohead. Having already deconstructed the modern rock album with releases like OK Computer and Kid A — not to mention upending the music industry by introducing the pay-what-you-like surprise album with In Rainbows, Thom Yorke and his cohorts prove the best surprise is no surprise at all with their ninth disc. Despite its alphabetical track list, cinematic orchestrations and sadly subdued mood, A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t some radical reinvention. But make no mistake: There’s still enough creativity, intelligence, mystery and inspiration packed into its 53 minutes to keep fans and critics puzzling and poring over it until next time.
The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome
Turns out you can get what you want. And what you need. For Stones fans and blues lovers, both wishes come true on Blue & Lonesome — the long-overdue collection of vintage blues covers that is their least forced and most enjoyable album in just about forever. Why? Maybe because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards didn’t have to grind out more songs that couldn’t possibly live up to their past glories. Or maybe recent tours have rekindled their enthusiasm while scraping some rust off their gloriously loose chops. Whatever the case, Blue & Lonesome finds the World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band revisiting their roots, balancing the unadulterated joy of youth against the taste and skill of experience.
Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
You think you know Simon. But the adventurous 74-year-old icon not only defies expectations with his 13th album — he exceeds them magnificently once again. Taking up where 2011’s stellar So Beautiful or So What left off, Stranger to Stranger balances ambitious songwriting with unbridled sonics, with vibrant cuts fashioned from clattery global beats, dusty textures, cartoon sound effects, New Orleans horns and, of course, Paul’s impeccably fingerpicked fretwork. It melds into a transfixing soundtrack for Rhymin’ Simon’s witty observations and ditties about werewolves, bouncers and the homeless, with characters bouncing between cuts. Just thought you should know.
Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Fame and family don’t always mix. Alt-country phenom and new Grammy darling Simpson learned that lesson. And he shares it artfully on his third album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his first since the birth of his son. The singer-songwriter spends much of the album talking to his boy — offering advice, sharing life lessons and apologizing for a job that keeps him away from home. He doesn’t rest on the musical side, either; the self-produced effort trades country-psychedelia for a more soulful and sophisticated approach, creating a disc that could make it even harder for him to balance fame and family.
Solange - A Seat at the Table
Greatness takes its time. To wit: It’s been eight years since Solange Knowles’ last album. But the articulate and passionate A Seat at the Table makes it clear Beyoncé’s little sister hasn’t been idle. A sprawling celebration of family, identity and empowerment that balances politically topical lyrics and personal reminiscence with adventurously mellow R&B, it’s her most accomplished disc to date — and deserved far more than its single Grammy nod. Pull up a chair.
Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
West does it again. And does it his own way. Surprise released after multiple title changes and endless tinkering, The Life of Pablo is a massive, magnificent mess of sounds, stances and styles that ignores convention, rules and form. Audacious and confusing, shape-shifting and bizarre, dishevelled and daring and uncaring, it plays more like a thrown-together mixtape than a carefully considered album. In the wake of West’s recent much-publicized breakdown and hospitalization, it’s hard not to see the cracks displayed in lyics like “I’ve been outta my mind a long time / I’ve been saying how I feel at the wrong time.” What a life.
100 HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Against Me! | Shape Shift With Me
Anohni | Hopelessness
Arkells | Morning Report
A Tribe Called Quest | We Got it From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Red | We Are the Halluci Nation
Avalanches | Wildflower
Avett Brothers | True Sadness
Band of Horses | Why Are You OK
Beach Slang | A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
Jon Bellion | Human Condition
Black Mountain | IV
James Blake | Colour in Anything
Blood Orange | Freetown Sound
Bon Iver | 22, A Million
Brothers Osborne | Pawn Shop
Danny Brown | Atrocity Exhibition
Car Seat Headrest | Teens of Denial
case/lang/veirs | case/lang/veirs
Chance the Rapper | Coloring Book
Childish Gambino | Awaken, My Love!
Eric Clapton | I Still Do
Common | Black America Again
David Crosby | Lighthouse
Death Grips | Bottomless Pit
Deftones | Gore
De La Soul | And the Anonymous Nobody …
John Doe | The Westerner
Drake | Views
Drive-by Truckers | American Band
Duotang | New Occupation
Fantastic Negrito | The Last Days of Oakland
Flatbush Zombies | 3001: A Laced Odyssey
Robbie Fulks | Upland Stories
Future of the Left | The Peace and Truce of Future of the Left
Lukas Graham | Lukas Graham
Coleman Hell | Summerland
Hidden Cameras | Home on Native Land
Horse Lords | Interventions
James Hunter Six | Hold On!
The I Don’t Cares | Wild Stab
The Jayhawks | Paging Mr. Proust
Shooter Jennings | Countach (For Giorgio)
July Talk | Touch
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard | Nonagon Infinity
The Kills | Ash & Ice
Michael Kiwanuka | Love & Hate
Mark Kozelek | Sings Favourites
Kris Kristofferson | Cedar Creek Sessions
Kendrick Lamar | untitled unmastered.
Lambchop | FLOTUS
Miranda Lambert | The Weight of These Wings
Lisa LeBlanc | Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
Lemon Twigs | Do Hollywood
Ray LaMontagne | Ouroboros
letlive. | If I’m the Devil …
Lydia Loveless | Real
LUH | Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
Metallica | Hardwired … To Self-Destruct
Mitski | Puberty 2
Moby & The Void Pacific Choir | These Systems are Failing
Jesper Munk | Claim
Jack Oblivian & The Sheiks | Lone Ranger of Love
Angel Olsen | My Woman
Panic! At the Disco | Death of a Bachelor
Parquet Courts | Human Performance
Pet Shop Boys | Super
Gregory Porter | Take Me to the Alley
Margo Price | Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Pup | The Dream is Over
Purple | Bodacious
Record Company | Give it Back to You
Dawn Richard | Redemption
Rihanna | Anti
Daniel Romano | Mosey
John K. Samson | Winter Wheat
Savages | Adore Life
Ty Segall | Emotional Mugger
Aubrie Sellers | New City Blues
Skepta | Konnichiwa
Slaves | Take Control
Todd Snider | East Side Bulldog
Esperanza Spalding | Emily’s D+Evolution
Vince Staples | Prima Donna
Suede | Night Thoughts
Swans | The Glowing Man
Tanya Tagaq | Retribution
Kate Tempest | Let Them Eat Chaos
Tindersticks | Waiting Room
Allen Toussaint | American Tunes
Tragically Hip | Man Machine Poem
Umphrey’s McGee | Zonkey
Various Artists | Day of the Dead
Violent Soho | Waco
The Virginmarys | Divides
Waco Brothers | Going Down in History
Martha Wainwright | Goodnight City
Dean Ween Group | The Deaner Album
Wilco | Schmilco
Lucinda Williams | The Ghosts of Highway 20
Saul Williams | MartyrLoserKing
FINAL NOTE: After 20 years and more than 20,000 reviews, previews and interviews, I’m unplugging my earbuds and moving on. Thanks for reading!