I've been wanting to put a list together like this for years. But every time I tried to assemble it, it would largely consist of older albums I had only discovered that year.
Not so this year.
People keep celebrating how remarkable a year 2016 was for music. But it really sank in when I went to write down every influential album I listened to this year. On one half of the notebook's pages I wrote down all of the 2016 titles. On the other I recorded the older titles. I ran out of room on the 2016 page.
So here then are the 2016 albums, followed by a list of my favourite older discoveries.
1. Paul Simon's Stranger to Stranger
This album gets top mention for three reasons. First, he has promised to take a hiatus from music, very possibly making Stranger to Stranger the 75-year-old's last album. Taken as a whole it is also one of the best of his late-career albums (although I prefer some of the songs of 2013 'So Beautiful or So What'). The production combines Simon's folk and world influence with exceptionally mixed electronic music, embracing the new while continuing the craft of the old. The fact that it's been woefully missing from the best of year lists also prompts its high rank on my list.
Second, this album seems to sum up 2016. "Ignorance and arrogance, the national debate." The music's weary cynicism, schizophrenia, and loneliness speak to the heart of what it meant to be woke in 2016.
Finally, Paul Simon is my favourite artist and in 2016 I got to witness him perform songs of this album live. How could this not become my album of the year?
2. Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book
In the face of what so many have called truly tough year, this album of full-hearted joy has taken the world by storm. So much of this album shouldn't have been; its streaming only, free download status, its label-free release, its unabashed Christianity, and its generous joy. It blissfully breaks down barriers between secular music and Christian, gospel and hip-hop. It taught me to love R&B. It embraces the complexities of the world and giggles back a song of mirth and praise.
3. Bon Iver's 22, A Million
At first, we weren't sure if Justin Vernon would ever return to the Bon Iver moniker. Yet we were sure that whatever work the man would drop next would be well worth exploring. But nobody counted on something so entirely different and yet so entirely good. Every track on this 33 minute, electronically charged, broken down with expert craft album feels like a prayer. As a whole, it's a minuet and affecting masterpiece.
4. A Tribe Called Quest's We've Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
First, Phife Dog passes away and there's an outpouring of grief. Then, Quitip announces the final Tribe album just weeks before its realise and we collectively hold our breaths hoping that it is a fitting send off to these legends. And then, during the week of the election and hours after Leonard Coen's death is announced, the album drops and everyone hails it as excellent. There is so much to enjoy here. The beats are fire. The verses are funny, enjoyable, thought-provoking and fun. The messages are some of the most challenging that Tribe have ever worked on. To be honest, I've only really made my way through the first half of the album. Every time I try to listen through the whole thing, I get distracted by the excellence of the first half of the album and have to go back and re-listen to it from the beginning.
5. Frank Ocean's Blonde
2016 convinced me to enjoy R&B. Colouring Book announced that it was worth listening to. Marvin Gaye persuaded me it could became art. And then this album showed me how damn convincing it could be. The music is a roller coaster of pace, tempo, and reach. But above all, this album is emotionally hooking. I have no idea what he is singing about, but I know it is disparately important.
6. Leonard Coen's You Want It Darker
This final album of the man whom Bob Dylan called "the number one song writer of all time" is tragic, tender, and haunted by life, death, and God. It was a beautiful album before he passed away just weeks after its release. After his death its mournful, bittersweet quality, so perfect for late night ruminating, perfectly encapsulated the late evening of a full, yet broken life.
7. Carl Bromel's 4th of July
I'm so glad I discovered this gem of a record. Epic landscape songs like the 10 minute long title track are paired with self-contained songs like Rockingchair Dancer, a delictly told story of how the narrator's assperations changed as he has matured. The music's beat and riff is the perfect complement to the well crafted visuals of the lyrics. This album sustained many late night walks home from work. It rewards repeated listening and I'm happy to recommend it to everyone.
8. Micah Bournes No Ugly Babies
I met celebrated spoken word poet Micah Bournes while in Portland this summer, when he told me about how, despite never singing or playing an instrument, he was hard at work on his first blues album. The songs he was writing could only be told in this medium, and what songs! They are tunes you dance to on your way to work or karaoke to in the shower. They get under your skin with their stories of confidence in the face of despair, commitment in the face of easy love, and joy and hope in the face of pain.
9. Wesley Randolph Eader's Highway Winds
Wesley's world-weary, dust and tear-streaked record of heartache, failure, and disappointment is somehow ballasted by a hope and comfort that sustains despite all odds to the contrary. The production is equally timeless, feeling like some dusty vinyl pulled out of a shelf of old bluegrass records.
10. Christmas Albums: Chance the Rapper's Merry Christmas 'Lil Mama and Josh Garrel's The Light Came Down
This year gave us two very different but both excellent Christmas albums that I'll be pulling out annually for years to come. Chance the Rapper decided he was not content with being named artist of year by every other year-end list and gave us all a pre-Christmas gift of this jewel like EP. Like his more-famous 2016 release, it effortlessly combines the sacred and the secular and is bursting with joy. There is a sadness and tragedy underneath it all too.
And Josh Garrels' lush Christmas complication deserves mention for its dark, comforting, intricate mixture of original tunes, classics, and covers.
11. Other Hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered and Sho Bararka's The Narrative
Both of these albums are flawed - Kendrick's, as its name suggests, is messy and unfinished and Sho's is overly declarative in our age of hip-hop storytelling. But both are essential. I turn to the angst and desperation of untitled unmastered to express what I often choose to hide. And I turn Sho's The Narrative to understand the experience of the black Christian in 2016: their despair, injustice, style, commitment, and ultimately their hope.
Jordan Klassen's moody and polished Javlin, Shearwater's driving Jet Plane and Oxbow, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zero's south drenched PersonaA, Baaba Maal's exotic and emotionally hooking The Traveler, Radiohead's urgently contemporary A Moon Shaped Pool, Sturgill Simpson's richly textured A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Slow Dakota's tragic and lovely The Ascension of Slow Dakota, and Wilder Adkin's affecting Hope and Sorrow.
The album I'll probably be listening to the most years from now is Liz Vice's timeless There's a Light. I loved the wilderness-haunted pop of Lord Huron's Stranger Trails. I was finally ready to enjoy the excellent merging of hip-hop and R&B that John Givez provides on Soul Rebel. I was seduced by Van Morrison's bewitching albums like Moondance and Astral Weeks. I continued my endless trip down the Bob Dylan highway with only the beginning his Bootleg series and recent Modern Times. And I became obsessed over this little thing called Hamilton.