2016 has been a shitty year for a lot of people. From Donald Trump getting elected as the new U.S. President to the loss of several musical legends, many of us have been eagerly anticipating the end of the year. I’m not going to say anything like “but music was pretty great this year, so it’s not ALL bad!” because that would be ridiculous. In the hellish year that was 2016, here are 13 albums that eased the pain a little bit.
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
Yes, this album is on nearly every music critic’s year-end list, and yes, you should still give it a listen if you have not done so already. I may be in the minority with this opinion, but I consider this album far superior to Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled effort, and not just because she followed up an album about how great it is to be in a relationship with Jay-Z with this, an album about Jay-Z cheating on her. What distinguishes Lemonade from a lot of other contemporary pop—and in Beyonce’s musical catalog—is the sheer number of musical styles that she experiments with, among them hard rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), country (“Daddy Lessons”), gospel-influenced pop (“Freedom”), trip-hop (“Six Inch”), and the old standby of piano ballad (“Sandcastles”). To no one’s surprise, her experiments here are a total success.
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Skeleton Tree
[Full review here]: Even with the lack of “traditionally” Seeds-esque instrumentation, the vocals on this album are nothing short of spectacular—and, at times, make for an uncomfortable listen, as we can hear the many nuances in Cave’s vocal inflections, whether the material is spoken or sung. This discomfort does not get in the way of The Skeleton Tree being a rewarding and necessary listen; like Bjork’s Vulnicura, another deeply powerful and uncomfortable work that takes listeners on a guided tour of grief (for a broken romantic partnership), Cave’s work here asks a lot of its listeners even as he gives us a window into his—and his family’s—mourning following a catastrophic event.
3. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Frank Ocean’s 2012 album Channel Orange was a massive success, and some music fans were concerned that his long-awaited sophomore album would not be worth the hype. Blonde doesn’t just surpass its hype, but lays to rest any doubts that Frank Ocean is ahead of his time. Like that of his contemporary Anohni, Ocean’s music consistently pushes past the limits of genre—R&B, pop, and hip-hop—and gives listeners insight into what popular music might sound like in a decade or so.
4. David Bowie, BLACKSTAR
Would this album be as good if it were not the legendary David Bowie’s final one? I vote yes, but his passing away a mere two days after BLACKSTAR was released gives the record a gravitas that is difficult to describe. In an age of single-heavy albums and music software that encourages listeners to have “shuffle” mode on at all times, Bowie’s last album is a rewarding listen from beginning to end.
5. Anohni, HOPELESSNESS
[Full review here]: HOPELESSNESS is filled with mournful electronic blips, cascading boop-heavy scales, and shuffling drum machine stops and starts that owe less to current musical trends and more to an imagining of what music might sound like a decade from now; to use a Star Wars comparison, the musical accompaniment is more akin to the chirps and clicks of a sad, introspective BB-8 rather than the cheerful frittering about of C-3PO.
6. Springtime Carnivore, Midnight Room
Former Hush Sound vocalist Greta Morgan’s sophomore effort as Springtime Carnivore chronicles the end of a relationship, but don’t expect an album full of mournful ballads from start to finish; Midnight Room is definitely a pop album, and a fantastic one at that. Highlights include the upbeat and guitar-heavy “Face in the Moon,” the disco-influenced “Under the Spell,” the darkly funny “Nude Polaroids,” and penultimate track “Bad Dream Baby,” which may be the catchiest ballad about falling for an ex-lover’s B.S. promises ever recorded.
7. Joanna Newsom, Divers
People who are disdainful of Joanna Newsom might say that she’s made a career out of being weird—or, worse, that she’s too twee for her music to be interesting or worthwhile. These people do not understand Joanna Newsom. Divers, Newsom’s fourth album, is her most accessible and pop-influenced record to date; however, this doesn’t mean that she’s gone full Sia. There is a fine selection of short, catchy songs on Divers. “Short” and “catchy” mean different things to Joanna Newsom—remember, this is a musician who once opened an album with a 12-minute song/short story that went deep on questions of family, nature, sisterhood, and the universe (“Emily,” from 2006’s Ys). Similar to Newsom’s past albums, it’s hard to pick out a bum track from Divers; best of all, it’s an album that rewards repeated listens.
8. Regina Spektor, Remember Us to Life
[Full review here]: Since the release of her 2001 indie album Songs (and her more refined albums since then), Spektor has made a career of successfully balancing her more experimental impulses with both her classical training and her impressive pop sensibility. Remember Us to Life is not a perfect album, but it is a damn good one; more importantly, its showcasing of Spektor at her most pop-influenced will enthrall new fans, and remind seasoned listeners of her status as one of the pop music world’s most original creators.
9. Tori Amos, Boys For Pele 20th Anniversary Reissue
Amos’s third album Boys For Pele was panned by critics upon its release in 1996, but was—and still is—adored by her legions of fans, many of whom consider it to be her best album. Amos shocked the music world by jettisoning the persona of “sensitive girl with a piano” that had characterized her first two albums, and replacing that persona with that of an intense musician who was not afraid to tell listeners how she really felt, nor of musical experimentation with harpsichords, keyboards, and unusual compositions and song structure. Amos’s legacy since then has tended to paint her in the popular imagination as an aggressive, piano bench-humping weirdo, but her fans love her for that. The 20th anniversary reissue of Boys For Pele pays wonderful tribute to her rather mixed legacy, both with the re-mastering of the original songs and with the inclusion of several of Amos’s best b-sides, including longtime fan favorite “Alamo,” and an absolutely blistering live version of “Professional Widow,” which features Amos re-interpreting one of her most gossiped-about songs (the track has been rumored to be about Courtney Love). There’s some new material in the deluxe reissue as well, including “To the Fair Motormaids of Japan,” a wrenching, wry breakup song that had been previously unavailable on any of Amos’s albums or singles.
10. Emily Jane White, They Moved in Shadow All Together
If you fancy a little bit of goth-inflected, beautifully realized chamber pop instead of holiday cheer and the more traditional music that comes with it, this is the album for you. Northern California-based musician and composer White made her indie debut in 2007 with the album Dark Undercoat, and her songwriting ability since then has greatly matured with each consecutive album. They Moved in Shadow’s gorgeous arrangements, haunting vocals, and at times overtly political subject matter (“The Black Dove” sees White paying poetic tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, while “Womanhood” is a powerful rejoinder to violence against women) make it an album that rewards repeated listens.
11. Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN
My personal favorite Angel Olsen album is 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but MY WOMAN is a very close second. It’s a phenomenal pop album and a solid Olsen record—thankfully, with the critical praise that this album has garnered, more people are getting to know Olsen as an incredibly talented singer-songwriter. Opening track “Intern” is a nice slow burn of a track, but the following tracks “Never Be Mine” and “Shut Up Kiss Me” explode with Olsen’s expressive vocals and guitar work; the rest of the record just grows from there, often in unexpected and original directions. A word of warning: this album might not leave your Spotify playlist for some time after your first listen.
12. Mitski, Puberty 2
Here’s another talented singer-songwriter to watch—Mitski has been making weird, distorted guitar-and-vocals-heavy music for a few years now, but Puberty 2 cements her as a rising star. From St. Vincent-esque opener “Happy,” to sardonic single “Your Best American Girl,” to final track “A Burning Hill,” Mitski combines witty lyrics with unique guitar work and her spirited voice throughout Puberty 2, making it a must-listen for rock and indie fans.
13. Sia, This is Acting
This album consists of songs that Australian musician Sia—who’s known for being the primary songwriter/composer of a ton of great pop songs, and who has repeatedly said that she does not want to be famous—wrote for other artists. You might think that This is Acting is an album of Sia’s b-grade material, but Sia’s b-grade material still blows most other pop records out of the water.
Photo: Lena/Creative Commons