As with our 50-best single narratives, artists came out of the woodwork in furious fashion once with projects that all restored our faith in humanity, and ways in which to diffuse the nonsense happening by the powers that be, both emotionally and politically.
We were given not one, but two landmark albums from two hip-hop pillars, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, both of which came out swinging necessary punches at social issues, the former of which notched in our Lyricist of the Year award for showing that love and hip-hop are as American as apple pie, while Nick Cave‘s homage to his late teenage son contrasted with Sturgill Simpson‘s homage to his just-born son, contrasted with a 82-year-old Leonard Cohen crafting his final album before his death with his middle-age son, were all an achingly beautiful triad trace around this circle we call life, among a handful of other brilliant LPs.
Once more, thank you artists of 2016, it wouldn’t be habitable without you.
The hip-hop world waited what seemed like an eternity for Tribe to drop their long awaited album. After a mountain of controversy and petty beef it finally reached the surface and sprouted like a California redwood. It was dark and in tune with what was in their head space, which was not an easy undertaking especially with all the chatter. Phife had passed and while his verses would have sounded better in a different light, it did show that the love was still there. It’s not People’s Instinctive… or The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders or even Beats, Rhymes and Life, it’s its own project with its own unique vibe, which is why it resonates so profoundly; that they can, after all these years, still innovate: [LISTEN] – Jeff Min
Though the album was largely complete before its author’s life was cast into chaos by the death of his teenage son, its progression eerily resembles the stages of grief. “You’re a young man waking covered in blood that is not yours,” he states, reeling behind a piano, denying the event and bargaining with the skies to take him instead. Just as desperate pleas of “I need you” seem to be his last gasp, another voice pierces the fog: “let us go now,” followed soon by the closing line: “It’s alright now.” Simple words, but given context they become simultaneously unlistenable and achingly beautiful to anyone who has lost a loved one and deconstructed everything they thought they knew, rebuilding the foundation as the only way to move forward: [LISTEN] – Jeff Godfrey
Here is Leonard’s last will and testament for humanity, an inheritance for the destitute. Arriving soon after alternating claims that he was ready to die, then that he intended to live forever, it commences with a speech for whomever will wake him the day after he dies. He greets his demise with humor, or perhaps just frankness, suggesting he needs to depart before last call. His final words on record reprise an earlier hymn, indeed, one of his oeuvre’s great themes: the signing of a treaty, the mending of the broken. A fitting goodbye as he returns to the same cracks that first let his light in, blending back into the darkness, once again anonymous to this world: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Leave it to De La Soul to show up out of nowhere and drop an album that was fully funded by Kickstarter. Instead of cashing it in, however, and relying on reputation to do all the work, they buckled down and released one of the strongest efforts in their catalog. There are decisions made on and the Anonymous Nobody that show they were more than willing to expand their comfort zone, which has been their M.O. since the daisy-age. The key is that they don’t blindly give themselves over to the process, instead they embrace it with a contentious attitude adding that outside touch only when necessary. It’s De La Soul doing what they do best — moving at their pace and thoughtfully cultivating what is a timeless style: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Jack-of-all-indie-rock-trades McCombs is a prolific dude, usually dealing in a type of filter-ready shag-lounge throwback light rock that can bend into flashes of psychedelia and alt-country, most always narratives chasing the lightness in the day-to-day darkness. Ex-loves, failed relationships, current relationships, these are McCombs’ bread-and-butter. Or so he’s been putting on for near 10 LPs in 10 years. In actuality, he’s a sneaky pop-culture poet genius with sharp teeth. Mangy Love is his most confrontational record yet, with commentary on political disparity (“Bum Bum Bum”), women’s rights (“Run Sister Run”), even a funny take on his own boring-ass self-deprecation (“Laughter is the Best Medicine”) with new sonic dabblings in calypso threads and Roxy Music panache. Yet there’s still those lover lament’s there to keep you nice and viciously warm, likening a lover to “two peas in a pod — Netflix and die,” on “Cry:” [LISTEN] – G.P.
Frank Ocean is one of the most enigmatic songwriters in music. Channel Orange is a once in a generation album, and to follow that up with an equally profound project is almost unheard of. Blonde is a small but conscious step forward for Ocean, which sounds like a slight but is not. For the average writer it would be a triumph, but for Ocean it’s a thoughtful take on what has happened to him over the past few years; his rise to stardom and the whirlwind that has surrounded him since. It’s cryptic, enthusiastic, and moody, an edict that shows the world that he’s still firmly in control of his chaos. He’s this generation’s Stevie Wonder and Blonde can be viewed as his Innervisions, the third album in what will undoubtedly be a career defining run: [LISTEN] – J.M.
In stark contrast to the machine like rhythms of their last effort, Radiohead bring a stunningly human offering rife with orchestration and synthetic elements that read organic even to the trained mind. Aside from a razor sharp opener and a few deep cuts, their typical political commentary gives way to introspection as the dissolution of their lyricist’s long term partnership has left him glassy eyed, wandering in a daydream daze. The surfacing of a finished True Love Waits follows the tradition of Motion Picture Soundtrack, Videotape, and other previous album closers: a crushing final act, one that maps out the irreplaceable idiosyncrasies that once held a union together in a chemical bond until the composition dissolved from the outside: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Straight-up Merle Haggard-era country as usual when you get to the meat, the beauty of Simpson is his ability to package it with pure love for the studio, never coming off like gimmicks. Directed entirely to his son, Simpson laces bits of soul and brass about lessons in everything from dependability (“Keep it Between the Lines“) to the dreamer’s mentality (“All Around You“), sneaks a brilliant idiot-nation Nirvana cover in the middle (“In Bloom“), bookending the entire twangy, endearing shot into the cosmos with a flourishing ballad fit for Broadway on the front-end, crooning, “Wish I’d done this ten years ago/But how could I know/That the answer was so easy,” (“Welcome to Earth“) and rollocking on the back with a warning to stay out of the military agenda and “turn off the TV;” (“Call to Arms“). If only ever father wrote a record to their son as right of passage: [LISTEN] – G.P.
The blasé approach to album drops seems to be working for the alt-country titans of the Midwest. Call it forever knee-jerk reaction to the industry shit they had to go through to birth Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, call it cool dad-rock, call it whatever, Tweedy and co. don’t give AF anymore. And that ain’t in the hipster sardonic way, either. Coming off of last-year’s cat-emblazoned Star Wars and its caterwauling return-to-guitar band explorations in ‘explained jokes’ and cryptic ‘pink refrigerator drone’, Schmilco, rides that same vibe, except with a little more clarity and in service to the adolescent in all of us. “I’ve never been alone/Long enough to know/If I’ve ever been a child,” Tweedy reconciles on “If I ever was a child.” “Some harm for the past/Others dream of at last,” he lullabies on a track called “Shrug and Destroy.” Ending with the Sky Blue Sky depressed-by-sunshine feet shuffler, “Just Say Goodbye,” Schmilco is a reminder that youth, or at least, youthful naiveté, can never really be wasted on the young: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Jamila Woods is another bright star to come out of Chicago, a savvy songstress who can interpret multiple styles and sound completely at ease while doing it. HEAVN her debut under Chicago-based label Closed Sessions took r&b and blended with elements of rap, funk and soul. It’s empowering, whimsical and fun; deep to the letter with personal and spiritual insights. She doesn’t dwell on one topic for too long, but doesn’t avoid the obvious controversy that comes with living in a place like Chicago either. It’s a powerful debut that analyzes womanhood, home and the hope needed to take the next step. First time up to bat and she hits a rocket over left field: [LISTEN] – J.M.