I’ve done a best-of-the-year albums list for more than a decade and can’t remember when I had a harder time separating the top entrants on the list. Not because none were truly exceptional in 2016, but because so many were.
Yes, it was a particularly strong year for recorded music, ironically or coincidentally in a year when we lost so many of the greatest music icons of the past several generations. That included two – David Bowie and Leonard Cohen – who each died only days after releasing albums that ranked among the finest of their careers and near the top of this and so many similar lists.
Death and doom were everywhere in those brilliant albums by Bowie and Cohen, and also in the somber, spare masterpiece from Nick Cave, who recorded it not long after the tragic death of one of his 15-year-old twin sons. Cave & the Bad Seeds’ “Skeleton Tree” album demands full attention and isn’t an easy listen, but there have been times when I played it start to finish and honestly felt mesmerized, almost in a trance when the music ended. It’s brilliant, beautiful and heartbreaking, and I had it penciled in as No. 1 album of the year a few times.
But that’s the thing about these personal best-of lists in music – or movies, books, etc. They are so entirely arbitrary to begin with, when one person is simply stating what he judged to be the best, or his or her favorite, in a particular arm form that year. And the lists can evolve and change based on mood. This is where I am now with this, and I’d feel good about any of the top five on this list being in the No. 1 slot.
I’d also emphasize the part about this being a “favorites” list: These are simply what I liked most from a year in which I was immersed as always in music during much of my free time when not at a ballpark or writing about baseball — and sometimes while writing at home, though I tend to stick with jazz when writing anything at all challenging, as lyrics tend to distract me. I should note, I’m listening to Drive-By Truckers’ “An American Band” as I write this intro to the list — a list I’ve spent far too much time filling out and changing over the past week as I went back and listened to stuff from earlier in the year and also a dozen or so albums I bought recently that had slipped through the cracks during busy parts of the year.
(That’s the other thing to reiterate: Unlike most who do these lists, it’s not my job; I’m a baseball writer who happens to have a lifelong obsession with music. I only rank albums that I possess, at least 99 percent of which I buy; if there’s an artist not ranked, it might mean I simply didn’t get around to buying the record (and no one sent it to me) and I don’t want to rank music just based on downloads or streaming or listening on youtube. I’m a dinosaur like that – I have to have it in my hands, where I can look at the album art, the notes, etc. For example, I love what I’ve heard of Chance the Rapper “Coloring Book,” but it’s not out on vinyl or CD, so I didn’t consider it for my list. Sorry, just way I do it.)
The other minimal rules for my list were the same as the past: Genre doesn’t matter; I don’t do a separate list for “country” or “Americana” or whatever. No need to. The only non-eligibles for my list are albums of cover songs (hence this year’s Dwight Yoakam and Rolling Stones albums weren’t on the list, though I loved both), box sets, and soundtrack or compilation albums — not even ones as good as producer Dave Cobb’s “Southern Family” from this year.
And so, what follows is my list of favorite albums from a tumultuous year in which a lot of the best music seemed to be made in direct response to all the tension and problems people faced. So much vital music this year, stuff that really moved the needle emotionally and stood for something. Important music. I love that. I don’t just listen to music to forget all the problems of the world. More often, I prefer listening to music that makes me think about issues, that makes me feel. And there was plenty of that this year.
Ultimately, my final choice was down to one from a handful of records that included one the strongest comeback albums in recent memory, by A Tribe Called Quest; the aforementioned dark masterworks from Cave and Cohen; and albums from one of my favorite rock bands of the past 20 years, Drive-By Truckers, and from a real-country artist who has hit home runs with each of his first three albums, Sturgill Simpson.
In the end, one stood just a bit above the others. From the first crunching guitar chords of the Mike Cooley-penned opening cut, “Ramon Casiano,” through the final verse of “Baggage,” the closing song written and sung by Patterson Hood, the Drive-By Truckers’ “American Band” is powerful, provocative, in-your-face Southern rock of the highest order. DBT made an overtly political album, addressing topics from guns to immigration and particularly race relations – and did so surely knowing that it would turn off a segment of their fan base who would prefer they not venture so far outside those fans’ comfort zone.
To do that took cojones and a lot of integrity, and Drive-By Truckers did it while turning those intelligent lyrics by Hood and Cooley into one of the most listenable, vital and powerful set of songs the band has ever recorded. This record kicks ass. I’ve loved the band since hearing the epic “Southern Rock Opera” double album when it came out in 2001, and for me “American Band” is the best record they’ve made in a decade — and ranks up there with the strongest stuff they did when Jason Isbell was in the band, which is saying plenty. Here’s “Surrender Under Protest” from my favorite record of 2016, a year when there were a bunch of exemplary ones to choose from.
- Drive-By Truckers “American Band”
- Tribe Called Quest “We Got it from Here…Thank You for Your Service”
- Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree”
- Leonard Cohen “You Want It Darker”
- Car Seat Headrest “Teens of Denial”
- Lucinda Williams “The Ghosts of Highway 20”
- David Bowie “Blackstar”
- BJ Barham “Rockingham”
- Beyonce “Lemonade”
- Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool”
- Lydia Loveless “Real”
- William Bell “This is Where I Live
- Greg Laswell “Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet”
- Cody Jinks “I’m not the Devil”
- Blood Orange “Freedom Sound”
- Becky Warren “War Surplus”
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam “I Had A Dream That You Were Mine”
- Michael Kiwanuka “Love & Hate”
- Dori Freeman “Dori Freeman”
- Mitski “Puberty 2”
- Randy Rogers Band “Nothing Shines Like Neon”
- Brent Cobb “Shine on Rainy Day
- Kelsey Waldon “I’ve Got a Way”
- Paul Simon “Stranger to Stranger”
- Frank Ocean “Blonde”
- Aaron Lee Tasjan “Silver Tears”
- Wilco “Schmilco”
- Danny Brown “Atrocity Exhibition”
- Elizabeth Cook “Exodus of Venus”
- Aesop Rock “The Impossible Kid”
- Bob Mould “Patch the Sky”
- White Lung “Paradise”
- Angel Olson “My Woman”
- Robbie Fulks “Upland Stories”
- YG “Still Brazy”
- Kendrick Lamar “untitled umastered”
- Case/Lang/Veirs “Case/Lang/Veirs”
- Anderson Paak “Malibu”
- Parquet Courts “Human Performance”
- Bon Iver “22, A Million”
- Margo Price “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”
- Brandy Clark “Big Day in a Small Town”
- Lori McKenna “The Bird & the Rifle”
- Lambchop “FLOTUS”
- Alejandro Escovedo “Burn Something Beautiful”
- Amanda Shires “My Piece of Land”
- Whiskey Myers “Mud”
- Schoolboy Q “Blank Face”
- Hiss Golden Messenger “Heart Like a Levee”
HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical order): Courtney Marie Andrews “Honest Life”; Anohni “Hopelessness”; Avalanches “Wildflower”; Beach Slang “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings”; Karl Blau “Introducing Karl Blau”; Charles Bradley “Changes”; The Cactus Blossoms “You’re Dreaming”; Childish Gambino “Awaken, My Love!”; Common “Black America Again”; Cymbals Eat Guitars “Pretty Years”; Dinosaur Jr. “Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not”; Brian Fallon “Painkillers”; Steve Gunn “Eyes on the Lines”; Hard Working Americans “Rest in Chaos”; The Handsome Family “Unseen”; The Jayhawks “Paging Mr. Proust”; King “We Are King”; Miranda Lambert “The Weight of These Wings”; Loretta Lynn “Full Circle”; Cass McCombs “Mangy Love”; Parker Millsap “The Very Last Day”; Grant-Lee Phillips “The Narrows”; Pinegrove “Cardinal”; The Pines “Above the Prairie”; Iggy Pop “Post Pop Depression”; Pup “The Dream Is Over”; Richmond Fontaine “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To”; Savages “Adore Life”; Shovels & Rope “Little Seeds”; Chris Staples “Golden Age”; Dan Stuart with Twin Tones “Marlowe’s Revenge”; Thee Oh Sees “A Weird Exits”; William Tyler “Modern Country”