2016. You were the worst.
Brexit. The U.S. Presidential Election. Police shootings. 60 million refugees forced from their homes due to violence in the Middle East and Africa.
But, that wasn’t enough, was it?
You took from us some of the greats of music, too. David Bowie. Prince. Leonard Cohen. Merle Haggard. Leon Russell. Sharon Jones. Beatles’ producer George Martin. Ralph Stanley. Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore. These are just some of the remarkable, legendary, and accomplished musicians who died this year.
So, DISH’s annual list of THE BEST MUSIC OF 2016 comes with an asterisk for all that was the worst in music. Listening back to these picks may offer comfort, maybe a respite from the shock of so much loss, perhaps even some joy. BON IVER’s “22, A MILLION” (Jagjaguwar, boniver.com) matches the disjointed year with punctuations of abrupt synth and samples over surreal, ethereal melodies. Justin Vernon broke away from the romance of his first two albums by bashing and breaking up his work using many a technical twist and turn. Filled with numbers and cryptic hieroglyphics in place of standard song titles, “22, A MILLION” is hallucinatory, satisfying, and a triumphant step on his continuing musical journey.
Two days after the release of DAVID BOWIE’s “BLACKSTAR” (Columbia, davidbowie.com), the man who sold the world died of liver cancer at age 69. Bowie’s death was an utter shock as he had slipped from the public eye years earlier and kept his illness private. As producer Tony Visconti revealed, Bowie planned on “BLACKSTAR” being a parting gift to his fans, with its lyrics of heaven, death, and making meaning of the days that remain. As an artist, he was as detailed and experimental as ever, leaving hidden Easter eggs for all to find. From the cryptic visuals on the video for “Lazarus” where he all but tells the world he’s dying to wearing a black shirt and pants first seen on the back of his 1976 album cover “Station to Station” to buyers discovering if you hold the album cover art up to sunlight, a field of stars appears in the giant black star.
LEONARD COHEN, too, departed this Earth with the knowledge that his time was drawing near. On the Canadian poet and songwriter’s last release, “YOU WANT IT DARKER” (Columbia, leonardcohen.com), he confronts mortality on the track “Leaving The Table” with exposed lyrics like “If you are the dealer/Let me out of the game” and “I’m ready, my lord”. Cohen was a laureate of sorrow and searching, influencing many over the past six decades with his poetry and melodies to worldwide acclaim and devotion.
One musical upside to 2016 came with the return of a new album by KATE BUSH. In 2014, the magical, mercurial songstress of the 70s and 80s staged a 22-show residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, her first concert performances since 1979. “BEFORE THE DAWN” (Concord Records, katebush.com) is a live album of those three-act sets that includes past work, such as 1985’s “Hounds of Love”. With nearly 30 songs and Bush’s voice, a now deeper, huskier growl, this just may be the gift that keeps on giving to her most ardent admirers.
SONG OF THE YEAR for 2016 goes to THE MONKEES “ME & MAGDALENA”. Reunited for their 50th anniversary, the three surviving members (Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork) released “GOOD TIMES!” (Rhino Records, monkees.com), a collection of unreleased tracks from the 1960s and new songs written by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, who penned the afore mentioned single. The warm harmonies between Nesmith and Dolenz on “Me & Magdalena” are gorgeously blanketed over an alt-country tempo and, without question, the prettiest song heard all year.
Released independently and streamed exclusively through Apple Music, Chicagoan CHANCE THE RAPPER “COLORING BOOK” (chanceraps.com) is the artist’s third mixed tape, an ode to his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. It’s clever, filled with sass and regret, gospel and tech and simply catchy as hell. Guest appearances by the likes of Kanye, Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, 2 Chain and the Chicago Children’s Choir fills “COLORING BOOK” with an abundance of styles that demand repeated, enjoyable listens.
The western-goth stylings of THE HANDSOME FAMILY are as abundant as ever on "UNSEEN" (handsomefamily.com), Brett and Renny Sparks’ 10th full-length album. Known to wider audiences for their track “Far From Any Road” featured in the opening credits of HBO’s “True Detective” Season 1, the duo radiate a dark, surreal narrative on their latest effort, an exploration in to things overlooked. Desert bones bleaching in the sun ("King of Dust"), a miniature horse once displayed at the state fair ("Tiny Tina") or William Crookes, the inventor of the first vacuum tube ("Gentlemen"). Mining the depths of nature, history, and personal demons for songs has never been so imaginative.
Exploding in to 2016 with her third album “MY WOMAN”, ANGEL OLSEN (Jagjaguwar, angelolsen.com) grabbed all the attention with the first single and title track, an insolent-filled, garage rocker sounding like an angry combo of Pat Benatar and Deborah Harry. With sharp electric guitar, distorted vocals and a direct assault chorus of “Shut up/Kiss me/Hold me tight”, Olsen rocketed to the top of many a critics’ Best Of List in 2016 and will ride the much-deserved wave of accolades in to 2017 with a U.S. and European tour.
Recalling ‘90s indie luminaries like Pavement and Jonathan Richmond, musician Will Toledo stood out with his brand of indie intellectualism under the band name and album CAR SEAT HEADREST “TEENS OF DENIAL” (Matador Records, carseatheadrest.bandcamp.com). An extremely talented young man, Toledo makes smart music you can dance to. Most of the tracks come in at over 6 minutes, defying conventional wisdom and showing his lack of convention. The track “Vincent” starts as isolated guitar notes coming to the surface before launching in to a full-on rock drive about anxiety, while “1937 State Park” and “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” are perfectly crafted, messy punk tunes.
Rounding out THE BEST OF 2016 comes from Minneapolis’ THE JAYHAWKS. Their far-from-alt-country effort "PAGING MR. PROUST" is the band’s ninth album and was produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and musician/producer Tucker Martine. Buck’s influence can be heard on “The Dust of Long-Dead Stars”, a guitar driving, foot-to-the-floor, college rocker R.E.M. could’ve cooked up in the mid 80s. (Back up vocals from Mike Mills only add to the comparison). The Jayhawks lean on their ‘70s British Invasion influences (“Lovers of The Sun”) and dabble in techno sonic experimentation (“Ace”). What solidifies this album as essential to the band’s career output are the three-part harmonies of front man Gary Louris, drummer/vocalist Tim O’Reagan, and pianist/vocalist Karen Grotberg. Together, the three soar, a la Fleetwood Mac and Crowded House, on the shiny “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” and the lilting “The Devil Is In Her Eyes”.
There you have it. 2016… one for the record books.
And to the universe surrounding us all, please allow 2017 to be a kinder, gentler 365 days.