The uniting factor among the albums that made my Best of 2016 list is that every one of them actively seeks to blur boundaries of genre. Devoted readers of my Best of lists will not be surprised by this, as musical curiosity and willingness to infuse different styles are some of my most desired traits in music. I can’t claim that I listened to a lot of music this year, but this list is fairly diverse, with styles ranging from country to jazz. Below is my list of (an increasingly arbitrary number of) favorite albums for the year:
12) Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN – Chicago folk artist Angel Olsen amps up the energy considerably in her latest effort. WOMAN is still guided by her intimate and pained vocals, but the music here benefits from an increased range of styles, ranging from the aching balladry of “Intern” to the punkish rancor of “Shut Up, Kiss Me” to the flat-out epic rock of “Sister”.
Essential listening: “Sister”, “Heart Shaped Face”
11) Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book – Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper punctuated his rise to public and critical acclaim with this neo-gospel/hip-hop album, which synthesizes his admiration for those genres in a subdued yet fully realized finished product. Book also works as an introspective reflection on social issues and contemporary struggles, yet it is eminently uplifting.
Essential listening: “Same Drugs”, “Blessings”
10) Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression – Josh Homme’s trademark sleek, dark, and fuzzy production is a wonderful complement to the deep, world-weary drawl of Iggy Pop, and though the album (which he claims is his final studio album) bears Pop’s name, it is essentially a Queens of the Stone Age album fronted by the punk icon. Like a QOTSA album, Depression is chock full of sumptuous hooks and grooves, like the particularly chilled “Sunday”.
Essential listening: “Sunday”, “Gardenia”
9) Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Anyone who says they love every kind of music is probably lying; everyone has at least one style they can’t stand. For me, that’s country. So it’s a testament to Simpson’s genre-stretching brand of country that it works so well for me. Getting an assist from the Dap-Kings, Earth is an unapologetically country album that is seared with a tasty blend of R&B and rock.
Essential listening: “Keep It Between the Lines”, “Call to Arms”
8) Dr. Dog, The Psychedelic Swamp – With its modern roots-rock style and prog/digital timbres, Dr. Dog’s latest effort justifies its title. Much of the music fits within the confines of more radio-friendly contemporary folk rock outfits (particularly Cage the Elephant), but unexpected detours in sound colors and chord progressions help to set Dr. Dog apart.
Essential listening: “Badvertise”, “Bring My Baby Back”
7) A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – On their first studio album in 18 years (and first since Phife Dawg passed away, though he was a part of the recording), ATCQ deliver poignant lyrics over a great collection of samples. Although Service includes several A-listers, the varying level of interplay between their core members is the album’s strongest aspect.
Essential listening: “We the People”, “Dis Generation”
6) M83, Junk – The unironic embrace of pop music on Junk is reminiscent of Gorillaz, as is their luscious, fuzzy production. Some songs (notably the instrumental “Moon Crystal”) sound like theme songs from cheesy late 70’s sitcoms, but devices such as modal borrowing and intrastructural modulations add excellent, unexpected twists. Like any great pop record, Junk puts equal emphasis on creating both killer hooks and a nuanced sound world.
Essential listening: “Bibi the Dog”, “Go!”
5) Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger – Continuing the late career artistic resurgence begun by 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, Stranger is another sublime yet boldly experimental collection of songs by the illustrious Paul Simon. Lyrically, songs range from intimate to silly (“Wristband” was inspired by a bouncer not allowing him backstage access to his own show) but all maintain Simon’s acerbic wit. Musically, each song is intricately orchestrated, creating layers that can only be fully parsed after repeated listenings. Put another way: how many pop/rock artists use instruments hand-built for them by Harry Partch?
Essential listening: “Proof of Love”, “Insomniac’s Lullaby”
4) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies – As the second consecutive album by Argue written as a self-contained, programmatic suite, the parallels between his latest and 2013’s Brooklyn Babylon are unavoidable. Still, they are drastically different works, as Enemies is more committed to a singular motive (a rhythmic motif introduced at the very beginning of the album) and aesthetic (both in the form of dark, spacious soundscapes and recurring audio clips regarding conspiracy theories). What unites both is Argue’s stubborn refusal to make a jazz big band behave like it’s supposed to, as his orchestration here remains vivid and flexible.
Essential listening: “Dark Alliance”, “Casus Belli”
3) Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool – The word that most comes to mind when listening through Pool is pastoral. The stunning simplicity and restrain on display here recall works like Led Zeppelin III and even Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, though filtering them through Radiohead’s lens of digital paranoia. Even songs with more drive like “Decks Dark” and “Ful Stop” are rooted in patient builds in orchestration and harmonic development. Radiohead has been downplaying guitars in their music ever since Hail to the Thief, but they’re almost nonexistent here, being replaced by pianos, strings, and lots of cavernous reverb. The effect is a lovely collection of subdued yet fully realized compositions.
Essential listening: “Decks Dark”, “Daydreaming”
2) The Robert Glasper Experiment, ArtScience – Genre-bending jazz pianist Robert Glasper continues to meld jazz and R&B, pushing his sonic experiments to even greater lengths in his latest release. ArtScience puts its own spin on jazz standards (Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”), free jazz (“This Is Not Fear” kicks off the album with an unexpected aleatoric blitz before coyly shifting into a tight funk-fusion groove), and pop-funk (“Day to Day” pairs Glasper’s harmonic sophistication with a Daft Punk-esque groove). Glasper’s music continues to set the mark for modern jazz experimentation, but this may be his most immersive creation yet.
Essential listening: “Hurry Slowly”, “Day to Day”
1) David Bowie, Blackstar – Has there ever been a more eloquent, poignant, and creatively bold reflection on death by an artist staring it in the face? It is now impossible to disassociate Bowie’s final album with his death, and although he kept his condition a secret, lyrics like “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried ‘I’m a blackstar’” show that this was intended as Bowie’s parting gift to us. Circumstances aside, the music is an incredibly ambitious synthesis of rock, classical, jazz, and world musics, all of which are on display in the album’s epic 10-minute eponymous opener. As sad as Bowie’s passing was, Blackstar made it beautiful in a way because it allowed us to not remember Bowie but to continue to ponder his genius.
Essential listening: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”