The closing year was a fantastic and innovative one for music, though you wouldn’t know it from reviewing The Recording Academy’s dismal list of Grammy nominees. In 2016, international icons capped decade-spanning careers with masterful final releases, young up-and-coming artists declared their prominence by bringing new light to darkening genres and Nick Cave released the most somber, contemplative and painful records in years.
There’s much musicality to celebrate and cherish as the year draws to a close, and you can do it without having to weather a second of Justin Biebers’ newest record.
So if you agree that “Lemonade” really isn’t Record of the Year material, or that “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” can’t possibly be considered one of 2016’s best songs — if you believe that adult alternative is a real genre that should survive and be celebrated despite the cultural decadence of the 2010s — here’s an alternative list of some of the year’s best releases.
- “Skeleton Tree,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“Skeleton Tree” is, at times, a work as stunningly beautiful as it is nearly impossible to stomach. It’s songs wander through unusually atmospheric landscapes, and Nick Caves’ dreary, pained voice blows through them like a cold sonic wind. Released a year after the death of Caves’ son Arthur, the record was instantly lauded by critics for its gravity and morbidity. But in so aggressively focusing on the context of the record, early reviewers overlooked critical details about how a record this dense truly works: “Skeleton Tree” is not an album about death. It is death. The lyrics alone don’t — can’t — convey the depth of Caves’ mortal sorrow, fear and mourning; instead, every aspect of the record works together to craft a startlingly clear window to Caves’ soul. The trudging, heavy arrangements, the warm, dark synths and the occasional bursts of emotional collapse amid the otherwise steady songs — these elements paint a dark, agonized image of a father in existential mourning. Rare is the record that is this emotionally raw, from which listeners can hear and feel the quakes of doubt and sorrow in the artist’s voice.
To call “Skeleton Tree” “vulnerable” would be the understatement of the year. To call it anything less than a masterpiece would be a disservice.
Recommended tracks: “I Need You,” “Rings of Saturn” “Girl in Amber”
I more extensively reviewed “Skeleton Tree” for Glass Mountain Magazine’s December 9, 2016 issue, and if you’d like, you can find that review here.
2. “22, a Million,” Bon Iver
I have long considered Justin Vernon one of the great talents of the decade, but the lengthy breaks he tends to take from his flagship act Bon Iver render him an easy talent to overlook.
Not so any longer. Bon Iver’s third record “22, a Million,” is a short work of technological innovation and brilliance. Vernon follows in a proud, weird tradition of folk artists putting down the acoustic guitar in order to churn out a single, genre-bending electronic album; “22, a Million” joins Sufjan Stevens’ “The Age of Adz” and Bright Eyes’ “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” — hardly bad company — in this exclusive club of breathtaking electronic records crafted by folk artists.
But “22, a Million” succeeds on it’s own. “715 — CRΣΣKS” stands out as an awesome, thunderous track , and it’s lone instrument is Vernon’s voice, filtered through the Messina, a software-and-gear combination tool engineered specifically for the production of the record. In a deep, gorgeous flourish, the Messina harmonizes voices and instruments live — a vocoder on steroids — and produces a sonic effect unlike anything I’ve heard, as dark and devilish as it is lilting and heavenly. The electronic sound is a massive change of pace from 2011’s “Bon Iver,” but Vernon, now three very diverse records into a massively successful career, has made it clear that for Bon Iver the only constant is change.
We’ve come a long way from that cabin in the Wisconsin woods.
Recommended tracks: “715 — CRΣΣKS,” “33 GOD”
3. “You Want it Darker,” Leonard Cohen
One of Leonard Cohen’s most oft-cited poems and songs is “Anthem,” in which he writes, “There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” It’s an uncharacteristically hopeful quote from a characteristically cynical artist, an iconoclast whose humble, quiet mysteriousness kept fans swooning and curious for decades.
It’s only fitting that Cohen’s career ends with the proposal, “You want it darker. We kill the flame.” Cohen’s final record, “You Want it Darker,” released just weeks before his death, is exactly what longtime Cohen fans should’ve expected from the legendary songwriter in the dwindling months of his life. It’s a contemplative, humble, self-deprecating and mysterious work that smirks at listeners as it tugs softly at their hearts. Cohen’s voice, once again as gentle as it was at the start of his career, though for far different reasons and with a far different quality, is a gravely whisper throughout the record, as he mulls the length of life and the exhaustion of age. It’s a sparse and, at times, bluesy record that touches on Cohen’s final questions, before leaving the listener with a sweet outro, garnished with Cohen’s parting words to listeners. “You Want it Darker” is a fitting goodbye and a splendid cap on a career for the ages.
Recommended tracks: “Leaving the Table,” “Treaty,” “Traveling Light”
4. “Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” is one of the most fun releases of the year, and without doubt among the most dynamic. It’s a colorful, lively mix tape that showcases everything good about contemporary hip hop while forecasting the directions in which the genre may be headed.
Chance follows in the footprints of his mentor Kanye West — whose “The Life of Pablo” only narrowly misses the cut of this top five list — and utterly shreds traditional structures, genre-bending and waiving norms to create an upbeat, genuine blend of gospel, hip hop, pop and soul. “Finish line/Drown” morphs from a sunshiny feel-good track into a prayer into a full-scale, gospel choir-led jam; it is impossible to avoid smiling at how much fun Chance clearly has from track to track. And in the closing track, he delivers some of his best lines to date: “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons of childhood / make you remember how to smile good / I’m pre-currency, post-language, anti-label / pro-famous, I’m Broadway Joe Namath…I speak to God in public / he keep my rhymes in couplets.” The poetry is as strong as the arrangements are dynamic and frankly, kind of groovy. From track to track, “Coloring Book” will make you laugh, dance, think and reflect.
Chance offers a stark, though friendly, contrast with Kanye; while one breathes fire, the other breathes out and smiles, and dares you not to smile along with him.
Recommended tracks: “Finish Line/Drown,” “All Night” “Blessings”
5. “Blue Mountain,” Bob Weir
For me, Bob Weir’s “Blue Mountain” was the surprise of the year. I’m neither a particularly big country fan nor a Dead Head, but, like Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” last year, “Blue Mountain” was a country/folk record that came out of nowhere and grabbed me — albeit for very, very different reasons.
Weir drew inspiration for the Americana record from his time working as a Wyoming ranch hand in his teens, and those memories are relayed with just the right dose of misty, Western nostalgia. His voice is strong — at times, booming — over the rich acoustic and slide guitars, and it remains the centerpiece throughout the record. “Blue Mountain” meanders pleasantly through a grassy field under a blue sky; it is a gentle breeze, a wide-open Wyoming highway. And it is the rare country record that can, and should, be enjoyed by listeners from anywhere, at any of life’s stations. It’s a hidden Americana treat, and a great achievement for the Dead’s founding member.
Recommended tracks: “Gonesville,” “Only a River”