Aside from a certain orange overlord with tiny hands assuming power, it wasn’t a bad year, guys, in the music world. It’s depressing as hell that a campaign of anti-Trump 30 tracks in 30 days, that grew to 50 because of necessary art-healing demand, failed to keep him out of office, but like the two of those out of the lot that we included in our own 50 best, we have a feeling they’ll be around much longer. Or at least one could hope.
Otherwise, contrary to the theory that the late David Bowie was holding the universe — he was — and whether you give a damn about politics or not, the Internet Age continued to giveth, artists churning out more narratives than we could soak up.
From PJ Harvey’s searing attack on said Internet Age and humanity’s quickly fading empathy (“The Wheel”) to Jay Electronica’s reminder that no one is untouchable (“#TBE The Curse of Mayweather”), The Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie swinging back at a terminal brain cancer diagnosis (“In a World Possessed by the Human Mind”), the world will always push and push, but the pen and the studio are always here to help us push back.
To the 2016 class, once around the sun again, we salute you.
Anohni – ‘Drone Bomb Me‘
Innocence is the most certain casualty of war. Child soldiers spring to mind but the horrors of modern warfare are legion. Written from the perspective of a child whose family has just been killed by a drone, the 9 year old begs to be tried as an adult and sentenced to death. It then becomes impossible to see the “lesser evil” of accidental drone kills over the loss of American soldiers as anything less than pure evil: [LISTEN] – Jeff Godfrey
The long awaited return does not disappoint. There are lush samples tucked into impossible nooks and crannies. And while beats are their hallmark, they do manage to take it up a notch by commissioning some larger than life voices. Their selection in lyricists is the key to their success, and David Berman exemplifies that with his own off the wall word play. It’s a sonic carnival, full of odd beats and wild lyrics: [LISTEN] – Jeff Min
A best-of exception for this cover of Elliott Smith‘s Either/Or gem had to be made. Baker’s voice, even with the reverb tilt, is haunting on the same level as Elliott’s original, stripping the rhythm section and all until the narrative lay bone-bare, and turning its apathetic chorus into a battle-cry for the broken hearted. And that guitar tone — it’s so simple, it’s like fresh churned butter. Elliott’d be proud, and probably crack a beautiful apathetic smile: [LISTEN] – Gavin Paul
Big Thief – ‘Masterpiece‘
The next time someone tells you to let go in order to find your way, retreat to bedroom or car or wherever it is you jam and put Adrianne Lenker on blast. Bound up in a tale about a deceased friend, and that biological need to hold on to everything in the aftermath, Lenker, like Angel Olsen this year, evokes the spirits of grunge’s best past, taking the distortion into perfectly distilled new directions: [LISTEN] – G.P.
The young phenom puts the academics aside and goes straight for the jugular. This isn’t in line with his normal style, which shows his willingness to experiment. It’s carefree and rough around the edges, an effort that expresses some growing pains especially among his peers. The beat takes on the characteristics of an impending apocalypse. But even in darkness he finds a glimmer of light, developing insight in unusual places: [LISTEN] – J.M.
While on his previous effort he may have felt Overgrown, here James Blake invites an old friend and collaborator to help him burn it down. He explores the complicated relationship of humanity with nature which sustains us and can destroy us at a whim, hoping to resurrect something new from the destruction before he closes himself off for good: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Silky baritone spoken word opens the first verse, summoning specters of the dearly departed Prince-of-all-things. But it is the words of a 4th century African Saint, Augustine of Hippo, that are invoked to put us in a hall of mirrors that reflect from us to Hynes to The Purple One to Trayvon Martin back to the devastation of colonialism under Christianity’s guise. It’s a painful yet hopeful chain of lost sons on a pilgrimage home: [LISTEN] – J.G.
A man who claims no belief in a creator crafts a deeply nuanced exploration of this idea, perhaps as a blueprint for how he arrived at his decision, or perhaps to unearth new evidence. Regardless, it’s clear that this search has defined his actions as he mimics aspects of goodness that humanity expects. Aware of the hypocrisy inherent in trading subjective morality for salvation, his efforts only seem to widen the gap between him and his goal: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Bowie knew what was coming, and it was his acceptance and incorporation of this knowledge that steeped his swan song in poignance. Lyrical and musical recalls from throughout his mythical orbit of our world couple with an admission that he was keeping his imminent demise secret. It stayed out of reach until he wordlessly returned home, leaving our hearts blacked out, the news spreading like the flowers that grow in his place: [LISTEN] – J.G.
The Aesop Rock-produced beat comes blazing in like wildfire creating a hazy smokescreen that funnels the attention towards the lyrics. It’s laced with violent undertones; involving a graffiti writer, a gruesome murder and a case of mistaken identity. Blueprint is a master storyteller and a magician when it comes to analogies. It’s a movie trailer of sorts that hints at a larger narrative to come: [LISTEN] – J.M.
A rare guest vocal on a Nick Cave song punctuates the penultimate track after a half hour of self immolating grief becomes nearly unbearable as Cave reminds himself to breathe. A foreign cry penetrates the maelstrom from outside as a beacon that has weathered a tempest of its own. What it offers is escape, to leave the storm’s terrors behind together, accepting as compromise that they will both forever be soaked to the bone: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Cohen stands before his creator in song, an acerbic confrontation in which he demands answers for all those candles snuffed out while he sat in his throne. Choir and all, it’s a last dress rehearsal for what he knew sooner or later he’d have to do: either confront that indifferent deity in person or join the black abyss of oblivion: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Count Bass D – ‘Eagle‘
Another dual threat who can play both ends of the floor. His lazy flow is bewitching, but just when you think you got a read on him he hits you with a silky hook. The beat will have Dwight Spitz fans reeling, but rest assured it isn’t a throwback. He’s entering a new chapter in his life, and laying out the type of bugged verses that lets you know that everything is running on all cylinders: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Notorious show cancelers Death Grips explore their dysfunctional relationship with their audience as they genre-melt with a cage rattling blast beat and deranged guitar riff. The bizarre dismantling and forced lip syncing of a shoe in the vide provides further insight into their view of an audience that is willing to memorize someone else’s ideas and regurgitate them back as the idols gyrate on stage, swathed in a thousand gazes: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Name recognition alone is enough to garner interest: De La Soul, Estelle and the architect himself Pete Rock. The sweeping strings add a sophistication that only De La can pull off, and Estelle adds a woman’s touch that makes it beam with confidence. Posdnuos is like the Morgan Freeman of rap, a voice so smooth that he could read anything and make it sound prophetic. Luckily it’s not fluff, a verse that puts a quarter-century of work into perspective: [LISTEN] – J.M.
DJ Shadow has had an up and down career, but one thing is for certain: funk is in his blood. The beat has a filthy bassline that only lyricists like Run the Jewels could tame. The arrangements have an old school, boom-bap vibe, then halfway through it takes a turn, elevating it to the next level. No righteous political banter, just three homies getting comfortable and talking boatloads of smack: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Though it was written a couple years ago during Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin’s deaths, as Patterson Hood mentions in this bittersweet song, contentious cases that question our country’s declining morality so frustratingly “happened last weekend, and it will happen again next week.” There have been a few angry tracks that run the catharsis gamut on these subjects, but DBT take it subtle and folk, to let some of this ugly shit sink in, with organ fills and a bright prairie rolling melody: [LISTEN] – G.P.
A lyrical hailstorm aimed at a certain rap heavyweight. It is audacious and full of venom; the type of rap that makes other lyricists squeamish. According to Jay there is no king of rap, and so long as he has a pen Kendrick Lamar‘s kingdom will forever be under siege. The beat is just as fierce, and a battle cry like this will only pull the best out of Kendrick. And in that sense everyone will profit: [LISTEN] – J.M.
When the incessant bombardment of web content and one dimensional social media threaten the resilience of even the most analytical minds to ward off instantaneous judgements, “perception is reality” becomes dangerously close to axiomatic. As always, those who are already pushed into a box of limitations are most at risk of having their autonomy threatened. Lorely Rodriguez throws a brick through that window, pushing towards the moment when that word “woman” is free of its fetters: [LISTEN] – J.G.
FKA twigs delivers a vocal performance as fragile as her new love, balancing it on the pyramid of pain that forms the foundation of her idea of love. She even turns to heaven to let some light down upon her, opening the skies and opening her heart for one more try: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Freddie Gibbs – ‘All Day‘
Gibbs continues his LeBron-like domination of the league. Laced with crispy samples and skittish hi-hats, the Harry Fraud beat mirrors Gibbs’ growing legacy; a glimmering star in LaLa Land, but still committed to the streets that made him. It’s that rhythmic quality to his delivery that makes him such a compelling figure, his narratives leaping off the page the same way it did for Tupac. He’s a high ranking street poet who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, a lion on the microphone who is as fierce as he is loyal: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Rhythm section spawned from industrial hell, if you’re not paying attention you’d think Gordon is throwing punches at baggage still left from the Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore split, but this is just a gnar thrasher about the intoxication of the color black in matte spray form, said Gordon in a press release, she being fascinated by said color’s take-back of things American, shiny and new. So insinuate on your own accord, but turn those knobs to 11 and pay attention to color: [LISTEN] – G.P.
There’s more to NASA than just bookworms, telescopes and pocket protectors. There are hip-hop heads who know that if you’re going to commission anyone to wax poetic over the Big Bang it’s the GZA. The beat is a menacing grizzly bear, an impending supernova that invokes a ready sense of urgency. And the Genius does what a genius can only do; break down heavy concepts into ill rhymes: [LISTEN] – J.M.
The wheel spins in an ode to the disappeared and the massacred, their memories fading in time with our last photographs as the tragedies with the least compelling headlines and hashtags are forgotten in chilling order. The higher the number the less fathomable the loss seems, and eyes glaze over, perhaps just to get through another day. PJ reminds us that empathy for the lost is an easy casualty of living in the information age: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Narratively set around his kid’s birthday party, MC Taylor drips a honeyed version of a sentiment the Eagles spent decades trying to perfect. This is as beautifully bootstrap America as it gets, the it’s-gonna-be-alright brother mentality, dobro glistening in the golden hour sun, when there’s just enough shade on things to see the cracks and wrinkles are there and they aren’t going anywhere and that’s alright: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Killer Mike taps the well to show off his versatility as a lyricist. It’s a special artifact that examines the simple pleasures of shopping; being able to buy what you want to buy and when you want to buy it. The beat is not necessarily a banger, which is why it isn’t a surprise that it didn’t get the love it deserved. Nevertheless Killer Mike goes Conan, proving that he can rap about anything and still body a beat: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Likewise with Open Mike Eagle‘s contribution to the anti-trump agenda via hip-hop, John Roderick nailed the folk platform the way of creativity. Here we have the narrative that just won’t fucking quit, Americans that equate pride with intelligence, separate race by “good ones” and “bad ones,” and holy shit, won’t listen to themselves talk. It’s so damn sad, this mirror. And yet, it does nothing: [LISTEN] – G.P.
A tragic letter in progress is rehearsed before a mirror. Penned to an adulterer, it gets written and rewritten again. It’s unclear if the suspicions are confirmed or still intangible, but we know from the quivering, cautious penmanship that the author wants to retain ownership of the straying ship but fears that won’t be possible once the betrayal is confronted: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Masta Ace – ‘Story of Me‘
Decades ago it would have been unfathomable to think, but as it stands now one can make the argument that the most consistent lyricist from the Wu family is Masta Ace. 2016 saw him release his fifth studio album (The Falling Season), and it’s yet another triumph in what has been a quiet dynasty; he’s the San Antonio Spurs of rap. The beat is pop friendly, specifically the hook, but the rest is right in his wheelhouse. He’s reflecting hard, and giving us a clear shot of his blueprint to success: [LISTEN] – J.M.
With a calypso shuffle of a guttural horn and hand-drum rhythm McCombs chameleons once-again from his usual hazy 70s loungey light rock to stick it to a nation that still undermines women in every capacity. Considering he’s a white male who is the epitome of privileged, this is about as great as an olive branch you’re going to get from an indie-rock dude this year, which also happens to be hilariously revealing of the judicial system: [LISTEN] – G.P.
The past-their-heyday “supergroups” of yester-decade often found their genesis in geographical convenience. While wifi connections have eliminated this necessity the concept has waned. Ironically, Minor Victories (who all live in the UK) claims to have barely spent time in the same room crafting their debut. They cohesively meld their band’s respective styles as Rachel Goswell’s wispy oceanic laments dodge synth bullets that meet their end in a post rock guitar onslaught: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Beyond offering one of the greatest sing-along choruses of the year and explosively proving that in 2016 power chords still have some anthemic life left in them, Mitski joins in the agony of the love between a Capulet and a Montague. Her attempts at pleasing the mother of her American boy will never be adequate, and he himself will never see her as more than a caricature of a vastly different culture: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Rising up through the slam poetry ranks in the city that birthed slam, Louder Than a Bomb written word talent, Fatimah Warner, made quick work of the route to LP, appearing on a Chance the Rapper joint, and then bridging her obvious Lauryn Hill-type talent weaving jazzy talk-sing with a crises of family legacy like so, where grandmother drops knowledge, but it takes a soulful Warner to bring it to life: [LISTEN] – G.P.
A return to the shaky, iconoclast Dylanisms that began his career, Oberst bunkered down in his Omaha homeland, shaking off a year with both a brain tumor scare and rape allegations against him, that of course only made him more anti-poet laureate, here taking a shot at the vicious flip-flop mankind is capable of succumbing to, back to the troubadour bread-and-butter, with only a guitar and harp by his side as the lights dim and the people leave: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Oddisee – ‘Slow Groove‘
Arguably the most formidable double threat in rap, a Sudanese-American lyricist/producer who is just as comfortable on the mic as he is on the pads. For his EP AlWasta he zeroes in on his life’s work with a level of honesty that’s hardly seen in rap. His approach is simple and straightforward, the difference being an insatiable work ethic and down to Earth perspective. Proof that rap can be both a job and a passion: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Patchworking Olsen’s doo-wop vocal flutter that blossomed over her short career into a soulful howl, here we see the best step she could have taken — breaking out of the same mold that J. Tillman saw himself confined by in the sadsack singer-songwriter hole, morphing into Misty. With a little help from PJ Harvey-era grunge and a shit-or-get-off-the-pot lyric hook, pleased to meet you, gnar pop majestic, Olsen: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Angel Olsen – ‘Sister‘
Olsen’s voice glides through sparse acoustics with a level of ease that far exceeds her years. She has a way of capturing the everyday and transforming it into something distant and magical. She’s opening herself up to a sibling whom she hardly knows, wondering how or in what way she can close the vast divide. Her sweet tenderness is marked by a hint of tragedy, a sound that finds pleasure in pain: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Of all the tracks weaponized against the Trump state of mind, and of all those from the world of hip-hop, Open Mike Eagle gets the gold for this surreal narrative drugged intoxicatingly with a rufee caliber, warbling backbeat and a laundry list of a vengeance list from a deplorable protagonist hell-bent on making his ex suffer. Welcome to Trump Nation, America: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Phife Dawg – ‘Nutshell‘
If there was any question about whether or not Phife could still hang this J-Dilla produced cut puts all that noise to rest. He was kickin’ rhymes to the very end with that same buoyant intensity and liveliness he spit with when he first started thumping skulls with Tribe. Sure there was a hiatus, but that was just so he could regroup and re-energize. Pure hip-hop, and still a verbal gladiator: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Pinegrove – ‘Old Friends‘
All of the things that would have made this a face-punching session in handclap-and-harmony twee are gloriously absent and there at the same time. The guitar riffs are drug through this kind of oddly clean mud, the banjo percolates and percolates, the vocals one crack from shattering, and somehow, it’s all catharsis for the whole ride, and a reminder to yourself that yes, you should’ve gone out that time you didn’t so don’t do it a god-damn-gain: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Yorke promises not to get heavy, a vow he swiftly breaks as he admits his world is crashing down as he dances around it. Vehemently private about the recently ended relationship with the mother of his children, he chides us for listening at the door. This in spite of the fact that she’s undoubtedly been the subject of countless other works, though it’s never been more apparent than in this moment when she is no longer present: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Lil Sci has a smoky voice that is an instrument all unto itself; not totally like, but reminiscent of the great Guru. And like Guru, he uses his intellect to express what’s weighing heavy on his mind. The twist is simple, but seems to elude the general public’s attention. He’s praising all the beautiful attributes of his lady; her intelligence, her sophistication and the way she handles herself under pressure. A true and accurate portrait of beauty: [LISTEN] – J.M.
A converging of forces that hopefully will manifest into a full-length. El-P and Zach de la Rocha are cut from the same cloth, and both speak upon injustice with invective words; unapologetic and demanding, exactly what the world is in need of. The lyrics come pouring out like smoldering lava, and it’s as if the spirit of Rage never left. The ideas are full of malice, and the energy being projected is potent enough to ignite a war: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Savages – ‘The Answer‘
A first two-time entry here at SL, as a single it squeaked into last year’s best-of list. And now on Adore Life, it’s still that beautiful reminder to carpe diem the shit out of a day, while Jehnny Beth’s sorceress howl is still permanently vital to those who’ve forgotten that love is for the taking now, not waiting for Trump to take and then take back again: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Cranes in the Sky is a calm scream. It is the artful act of subtly releasing pain through materialism, of alternating extroversion and introversion, of attempting escape by any means. The crystalline beauty of the instrumentation punctuate the universal avoidance of existential pain. In the context of her album, the theme shifts from sweeping to specific of the way people of color feel their voices silenced in a country that values their culture more than their lives: [LISTEN] – J.G.
Right about that stride in Simpson’s perfect boundary-riding country gem where the soul and fingersnap brass return to help preach to his son about the dangers of living a life based on fear, it’s a pinnacle moment in which to understand how mystical life can be when you learn to let go, Simpson mirroring the sentiment with the angelic ghosts of Stax glory days, and a whirling string section: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Heavy-handed, Bukowski-rap from a lyrical hound dog. The Eugene McDaniels sample adds a peculiar touch to the oddball beat, which fits right in with the rest of the circus. He’s putting a frame around dark corners, shady bars and the wretched feeling that comes with being in the spotlight. His pain works to rap’s advantage as he’s leading the fight against the dreaded hype beast. A budding wordsmith finding his way: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Rather than crumble from the weight of a terminal brain cancer diagnosis, Canada’s beloved The Tragically Hip rallied behind their captain, lead singer Gordon Downie, and his decision to go on a nation-wide tour, and do what they do and the human race does best, of which this distilled alt-punk howler attests, to take what you’ve been given with your beautiful mind, reclaim fearless control of it, and do something of value with it for your fellow man: [LISTEN] – G.P.
A nerd for the all at once fluttering and feet-shuffling British folk of the 70s, Chicago’s Walker has taken the meditative finger-plunking of that genre and created something —when it’s good — entirely his own, riding the vibe plainspoken through his concrete jungle, lovingly documented in this whirl ’round a roundabout in his ‘hood, where his credit is shit, drinks are limited, and a winning lottery ticket won’t even get you a pack of smokes. If you’re a millennial and own a bike, and have ridden the boulevard system in Chicago on a bluebird day, welcome home: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Eclipsing their previous LP drop joke, the cat-emblazoned Star Wars, with a 10th effort called Schmilco, brilliant Spaniard absurdist cartoon art included. Though like many a Wilco joint, Tweedy’s ruminations turn a dark page despite the sunlight of this unplugged classic verse-chorus-verse, coming in like a bittersweet front of Sky Blue Sky summer sadness about a disconnection with one’s inner-child: [LISTEN] – G.P.