Good Music for a Bad Year: 2016


Not that my year was short of professional and personal turmoil, distress or disappointments, but 2016 was so bad in a public way—putting it lightly and hastily: bad wars abroad, bad politics at home, bad survival rate for beloved celebrities—that you almost have to feel pity all those people having personal victories. The truth is, in 2016, babies were born, people met people and fell in love, people got married, there were new jobs, new pets, new degrees, new, improved hairstyles…all of these things still happened. The sun came up over mountains and set over oceans every single day. I mean, where I live the sun sets over New Jersey, but it’s enough to know that it’s happening somewhere.

And not to excuse any of the wrongs in the world, but simply to be honest, or maybe to give us a reason to keep rolling along, music was good this year too. They say at some point you stop liking new music and just listen to whatever you’ve been listening too, and when that happens, I will feel sad. But this year, even more than last, which was even more than the year before, I heard more new stuff, and liked more stuff than ever. And I wasn’t the only one. Included in this post are entries from none other than my good buddy Nigel Harsch. We briefly had a music blog. Maybe we still will, someday.

I thought it was somewhat arbitrarily—given my and everyone’s listening habits—to limit this playlist and post to 2016 releases, but I think it’s important to complicate how we understand everyone’s least favorite year. Maybe this year got away from us, but we have to remember that it was still, for a while (365 days) the present and therefore best year we had at the time. Who knows how it will look in retrospect? I think we can all agree it’s going to look good in the rear view mirror.

If the playlist embed isn’t working you can find it here.

Best Musical Death Note:

David Bowie—Blackstar and also Leonard Cohen—You Want It Darker and A Tribe Called Quest—We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. All of Leonard Cohen albums were kind of death notes weren’t they? That man was ready, I think. Phife and Bowie were younger and had been sick but it’s heartbreaking to lose anyone under any circumstance, even if they’re someone you’ve never met.

Album That Made Me Care About An Artist I Last Really Cared About 10 Years Ago:

Conor Oberst—Ruminations. I didn’t really care about the Conor Oberst solo albums or Mystic River band, or the last Bright Eyes album. It seemed like with angst (his heretofore guiding principle) pretty well assuaged by becoming a beloved songwriter, Oberst was kind of drifting around, dabbling in spiritualism or abstraction but the songs that came from that seemed…I don’t know, kind of aimless. It could’ve been me; maybe we were just growing apart.

But just like Wilco, who seem to be on a two-album winning streak–including probably the runner-up for this category with Schmilco–the winning formula once you can do whatever you want is to release an album made within really specific parameters. Written in a single night, recorded in single takes, it’s a solo album all the way. Also Oberst had some angst to motivate him. I hope that’s not what it takes. 

Parenthetically, we ran into not only CO but also the whole Saddle Creek gang when we were back in Omaha. All that money they made as a community got reinvested, and they now run a couple of bars. They were all still dressed like 2005 hipsters, but that’s because they invented that look.

Best New Album By a Golden-Era Hip-Hop Group:

A Tribe Called Quest—We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. I really wanted to like De La Soul’s new album, but it sort of left me cold. If I’m honest with myself, probably the thing I like the most on those first three records of theirs is Prince Paul’s production (more on this in a minute). Anyway, ATCQ, operating in the shadow of death (RIP Phife Dawg), released a great album this year. From production to the rap (I can’t remember the last time I was like ‘Hell yeah, Busta Rhymes!’) to the timely and cutting social commentary to…look I don’t know what to tell you. This thing is just so solid. Also, Elton John is on there. I don’t know if he edges a year of extremely well-behaved Lil’ Wayne for “most puzzling cameo.”

Best Album Purely on Paper:

Brookzill! Throwback to the Future. I love Digible Planets, Brazilian music and Prince Paul, and here they all are. It’s not my favorite thing from Digible Planets, from Brazil, or from Prince Paul, but I still had to point out that this exists. Also on the track on our “best of” list, the MC spins the Portuguese accent on the words “Beastie Boys” and it’s pretty delightful. In the future, everything you like will eventually be combined and about 15 minutes of it will be great. Likewise I really like Westerns and Serge Gainsbourg, and thus really like The Liminanas’ new record Malamore.

Giant Collective You’d Want to Be a Part Of:

I mean, Goat has kick-ass costumes, but probably live in Sweden. They claim to have existed for hundreds of years, but…almost definitely haven’t. it’s a mixed thing to consider. Goat’s new album, Requiem, is really fun though. I thought Family Atlantica was also a big crazy collective, but they’re actually just a band with people who can play a lot of instruments. 

Best Duet Album:

Gotta give it to Les Filles de Illighadad by Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni. Let’s Eat Grandma have a hilarious name, a haunting album, and are twins, but man is this Les Filles album ever pretty.I’m also getting really into the pentatonic scale. I must be getting old. 

Best Proof We’re All Getting Old:

Look at all these records that don’t have beats that are ostensibly from genres where rhythm matters! Frank Ocean! Solange! Jenny Hval! Soft! We’re all going soft! But then, I guess even soft R&B deserves a seat at the table.

Best Brother and Sister Pair of Albums:

I can’t really hear Noname’s album without thinking of Chance the Rapper’s and vice versa. They’re both thoughtful missives from Chicago, with songs about being a kid, outside, on summer nights. Really mellow affairs. Real familial. I’m neither young nor residing in Chicago anymore, but these records make me look fondly back on both. Sorry, Knowleses!

Carole King ‘70s Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year Award:

Weyes Blood—Front Row Seat. I really wanted to give this one to Angel Olsen, whose music has more hooks than Blood’s, but her backing music is usually pretty MOR indie, which I seem to have developed a mild allergy to. Kevin Morby’s record has a great loping sort of groove but his songs are jammier than seems appropriate for an award I made up and named after Carole King, who writes watchwork perfect songs. So Weyes Blood walks away with it, even though one of my favorite moments on this record is on “Do You Need My Love” when she tosses out a Christmas-carol-ready “Fa fa fa!” and then lets the song just simmer. We saw her a couple of years ago (with Kevin Morby, now that I think of it) and she blew us away. With each release Weyes Blood keeps getting better.

Favorite Reissue:

Always a tough call, but Bobo YéYé: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta from the early ‘70s from what is now Burkina Faso has it for the moment. Volta Jazz is an especially inspired group. I love how that backbeat on “Mama Soukous” sounds like it anchor a mid-90s top 40 hit.


From Nigel:

2016 was probably the year I had the least complicated relationship with pop music. For years my musical tastes had been a major part of my identity, one that informed who I hung out with, my political views, and some major life decisions. But over the last couple years, pop music and I have been drifting apart. I’ve been busy with work and domestic life, pop music has been busy transforming itself into a social media platform. I just turned 30, which is when people are generally supposed to stop caring about new music, and generally just ride on nostalgia for the rest of their life. But 2016 surprised me with some great musical moments. Here are some of my favorite moments:

Kanye West – the last 2 minutes of “30 Hours (The Soundcloud Version)”

Fuck the stupid rollout of Life of Pablo, fuck all the good will Kanye West just keeps pissing all over, fuck the Famous video, fuck his stupid celebrity feuds, and definitely FUCK the spotify/tidal/apple music version of this song feat. a totally underused Andre 3000 guest and Kanye ruining what could of been (had been for like 72 hours) one of the best musical achievements of his career by verbally shitting all over it. 2016 was the year I ultimately stopped caring about Kanye West.

But for a couple days in February, 30 Hours reminded me that Kanye is still one of the greatest producers of all time. Arther Russell’s somber mumble mixes perfectly with the straight up boom-bap drum loop. No dramatic mid song jump cuts or face melting digital distortion, just tasteful sampling and letting the beat breath. Unfortunately, Kanye the brilliant producer later decided the track needed more Kanye the sometimes good rapper but Kanye the aspiring fashion mogul was on a tight deadline so what we got was Kanye the shittiest freestyler of all time Kanye-rambling all over it. Thankfully the original soundcloud version is still available, with a glorious 2 minute instrumental outro where you can imagine a better world, one where Kanye is busy trying to top Donuts and has never heard of Twitter.

Oh, and “No More Parties in LA” is pretty cool too.

Circuit Des Yeux – Jackie Lynn

Haley Fohr combines an immense musical talent, a taste for experimentation, an ear for texture and a willingness to let ideas unfold slowly. So naturally, she’s a perfect fit for the Thrill Jockey roster. On “Jackie Lynn”, Fohr dons a new persona: a coke slinging, hard talking southerner who arrives on Chicago’s near south side, enamored with bright city lights and a new start, only to fall into violent and lusty love affair that ends in a hail of bullets. The new persona allows Fohr to try a more straightforward, rough and ready sound, one that perfectly evokes the urban wild west feeling of living south of Roosevelt Street. Although not as impressive as the incredible and unprecedented “In Plain Speech”, “Jackie Lynn” easily stands on its own as a bold statement from a singular voice.

Making music for specific use cases, instead of “art for art sake” can yield some interesting results. Footwerk is a prime example: music built for the sole purpose of having kids battle dance to ends up being some of the most original, forward looking and influential musical genres of the past 10 years.

Although the individual tracks featured in the MFP mixes weren’t necessarily made for coders to work along to, the mixes are. That curatorial constraint is actually pretty tricky, the mixes need to be stimulating and varied enough to be engrossing but not distracting. Surprisingly, Brian Eno’s foundational “Music for Airports” doesn’t really work, it’s both too spare and too interesting. The best mixes aren’t just well curated playlists, they play like live DJ sets, artfully blending the pieces together, mixing in effects and found sounds, making them feel like live performances. The mixes not only serve their stated purpose, they’re the best curation of ambient, classical, drone, experimental music I’ve heard.

Okkervil River – Away

Although I loved their debut, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You Meet, I never really kept up with Okkervil River. I unfairly lumped them in with the uncomfortably earnest, acoustic guitar end of indie rock that I (rightfully) suspected was turning the genre into a flannel-and-beard parody itself. There was something about Will Sheff’s shout to the rafters vocal delivery that made sense at 17, but I couldn’t stand at 25. When I stumbled on Away, I was genuinely surprised the band was still together, only to discover on the first track, “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, that it was in name only. Sheff goes full Van Morrison, trading in his rock band for a nimble group of jazz and classical musicians. The metamorphosis pays off. Sheff’s once shaky, emo kid voice is now weathered and somber, at turns gravely and almost wispy. Already known as a talented “literary” lyricist, the lyrics here are some of his best, at times reaching an elegant profoundity that even the greatest songwriters only occasionally reach. “Call Yourself Renee” is the most surprising, a character sketch told in second person that’s so well rendered that ‘Will Sheff: clever songwriter’  disappears into it completely. Sheff says of Away, “It’s not really an Okkervil River album and it’s also my favorite Okkervil River album.” I hope this the first of many in the songwriter’s second act.


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