Top Ten Albums
10. Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.: Someday, we are going to look back on 2016 and remember Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. as a great album for all its virtues and not for how it spoke to current events. We will listen to its frenetic rhythms and sweeping melodies, and we will relate to its expression of anxiety, free of any context as a great rock record, a paragon of pop punk. Its biting sarcasm, its contagious choruses, its backdoor hipsterdom- these will be its talking points, and not about how it speaks to “Trump’s America”.
9. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life: Writing about music has become increasingly uniform, to where a handful of artists dominate the media conversation in any given week. I enjoy a lot of these artists that are “relevant”, but an artist like Courtney Marie Andrews gives me a singular kind of pleasure reserved only for artists that feel like discoveries. Andrews, who combines Laurel Canyon vibes with her beautiful, Appalachian-folksy voice, deserves recognition as the best folk artist of the year, though I’m likely the only one that will give it to her.
8. Bon Iver, 22, a Million: Every Bon Iver album is different, yet they are all the same. Each release further deconstructs the reserved folk sound with which frontman Justin Vernon achieved fame, yet each release feels as comfortable as the best examples of the folk genre. 22, a Million is his most fractious work so far, yet Vernon is still crafting melodies that soothe the anxiety buried within his production.
7. Sho Baraka, The Narrative: Christian rap was ahead of mainstream rap with its forays into social consciousness by about a year, with some of its main stars releasing songs about police brutality in response to Ferguson well before any of their mainstream counterparts. The Narrative may be Christian rap’s social justice manifesto, putting into lyrics and beats a working theology of African-American history and emotion. Baraka has always been one of the most creative individuals in the genre (secular or no), and The Narrative finds him firing on all cylinders.
6. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings: Miranda Lambert never ceases to amaze me. After divorcing Blake Shelton following rumors of his infidelity, you might expect a fiery artist like Lambert to unleash the breakup album to utterly end all breakup albums, full of vitriol that would make “Before He Cheats” poop its pants. Instead, she releases her most subdued album yet, stretching it out over 17 songs, and finding as-yet-unreached depths that are far more cathartic than any stereotypical, crazy-ex-girlfriend songs could have been.
5. Solange, A Seat at the Table: This record was not made for me; this is a record made by a black woman for black women. In her thoroughly considered lyrics and her alternately light and forceful voice, Solange tells a story of the duality of a black woman in 2016. Empowerment is the goal, yes, but also affirmation, that it is okay to be angry or frustrated. There are historical touchstones Solange is drawing on here that are beyond my scope of understanding, but the album feels like a historical document, reaching across time to combine styles and ideologies. This was not a record made for me, but there is so much here for me to learn.
4. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial: I don’t know what music historians are going to do with the rock music of today. Rock is far from dead, though people like to claim so again and again. The truth is though that people just are not talking about the genre as much as they used to. Whatever the story they will tell, it is clear that a chapter must be reserved for Car Seat Headrest. Whether or not it fit into the national conversation, Teens of Denial embodied indie sensibilities and it embodied a rock ethos, and if indie rock is anything anymore, this is it.
3. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Simpson got a lot of mileage last year as an alternative to the country establishment, so much so that his album was somehow nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, a welcome but unexpected honor. The artist himself plays down his alternative status, probably because he knows that good is good, bad is bad, and alternative is neither. But Sailor’s is truly something different than your usual alt-country. He channels funk, grunge, and R&B at different points, creating a melting pot of styles and vibes. It’s all in the earnest service of celebrating his newborn son and creating art that his son can later experience to learn something about beauty and love.
2. Beyoncé, Lemonade: It’s impossible to think about Lemonade the album apart from Lemonade the movie, which was such a titanic statement of black womanhood that it threatens to bury Lemonade the album in history’s back pages. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen (because history will undoubtedly look to Coulda Been a Contender for all legacy issues); listening to Lemonade was one of the great, joyful experiences of 2016. We spend so much time talking about who Beyoncé is apart from her music; she became a cultural icon before she even made her best art, which has continually gotten better since. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is nothing like the five that came before, but it is also the perfect culmination of her life’s work- including her music, her brand, her motherhood, and, yes, her role as the scorned woman. Hell hath no fury like Lemonade.
1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Not only was Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of 2016, it was also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscious, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that his God is about joy.
There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through Coloring Book, after several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two glorious minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And only then does Chance rap, expounding on the idea that true freedom comes from loving God more than the world, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.
Chance is a phenomenon at this point. He may go on to rap about many other subjects that have little to do with his faith. But Coloring Book, in all its gospel-tinged glory, will stand as a new template for how a mainstream rapper fits his music into his faith, rather than the other way around.
Alicia Keys, Here
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
NAO, For All We Know
NEEDTOBREATHE, H A R D L O V E
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
Paul Cauthen, My Gospel
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Various Artists, Southern Family
Whitney, Light upon the Lake
Past Top Tens
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War
Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything