My eighteen favorite records of 2016 feature a variety of styles, moods, and approaches. If nothing else, 2016 was good for showing the diversity of good music being made (and this list can, should readers be at all curious, traced to various times and places in my life). Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.
For all the experimentation and genre-hopping David Bowie did over the years, he rarely (one 1985 collaboration with Pat Metheney aside) incorporated jazz into his records.
After a long hiatus, Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day drew upon work with many of his longtime collaborators to produce another rock album. In his late sixties, he seemed to establish a sound and way of approaching recording.
Which he immediately discarded. Beginning with one new track on his 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, Bowie began working with Donny McCaslin and his band on recordings that reflected contemporary New York jazz. Thanks especially to drummer Mark Guiliana, the tracks on ★ are as fluid as any in Bowie’s catalog. The songs are dour, playful, skronky, and dramatic — all words that could describe tracks on Low, Diamond Dogs, or Scary Monsters — but approached with a freshness and vitality that promised a rich new chapter in Bowie’s career. Listening to this, I could easily imagine 70-year-old Bowie collaborating with Ingrid Laubrock, Tomas Fujiwara, or many of the thrilling improvisational musicians working in New York.
Chuck Cleaver’s made great records for a couple of decades (with the Ass Ponys’ Lohio being a particular highlight), and has just gotten better since he and Lisa Walker teamed up to lead Wussy. A theme in this year’s list is the strength of interdependent, democratic communication amongst highly accomplished, skilled people. That theme runs through Wussy’s entire catalog, and the swirling guitars (including pedal steel) and vocals have never been stronger than they are here. Forever Sounds is heavier and more psychedelic than last year’s Attica! producing my favorite record involving Cleaver.
Chance the Rapper captures the sounds of Chicago at a time and place as definitively as Donnie Hathaway did more than forty years ago. This is the Chicago of middle-class and working-class African Americans, of churches deeply rooted in neighborhoods, of friendship and collaboration amid injustice and tragedy. Just as the AACM represented some of the best and most distinctive aspects of the South Side half a century ago, Coloring Book does the same with local hip-hop. This is resilient and hopeful music that promises to be influential at home and across the country for years to come. I’m looking forward to hearing how he builds on this and hope he plays Comiskey Park a half dozen times a year every year.
If one of the great singers and guitarists of the past thirty years is going to release two strong, distinctive albums four months apart, then both will find their way onto this list.
The Thalia Zedek band puts Zedek’s vocals to the forefront with arrangements including strings, piano, and her guitar. It’s a delicate, ravaged sound that would fit a play set in the late Weimar Republic perfectly. Zedek uses it to great effect, best so on the Hurricane Sandy-inspired “Afloat.”
E is a dual-guitar trio that manages to sound very little like Zedek’s most famous two-guitar band, Come. That’s down to both the democratic sharing of vocals and the interplay between her and Neptune’s Jason Sanford. Unlike, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival, when this band splits up the vocals nothing is lost (check out percussionist Gavin McCarthy’s singing on “Candidate“); this is an interdependent, fascinating, and original band.
This is an unlikely Threadgill album to cite in a best-of list, in that he does not actually play a note on the record. But this four-part tribute to Butch Morris is vintage Threadgill in the writing, and he conducts a lively band featuring Jason Moran on piano and (as usual for Threadgill) buoyant tuba lines performed by Jose Davila. This is engaging, engaged, playful, and thoughtful. I love Threadgill’s process of composing and collaborating (as seen in this video from 2014), and Old Locks and Irregular Verbs represents this spirit even if the composer is not actually playing on it. Threadgill deserves all the recognition he is getting and here is a modest addition to the chorus of praise.
So, anyone who read my 2015 list knows what I think of Mary Halvorson as a guitarist and composer; her work with the Octet builds on Anthony Braxton’s approach and at times recalls the playful thoughtfulness of, yes, Threadgill’s work. I’ll just add that on this album she decided to add Susan Freaking Alcorn’s brilliant pedal steel guitar. This album came out a few weeks after I saw Alcorn blow away the crowd at the Dead C’s Brooklyn show and made me feel grateful to live in a city with such a thriving improv scene. THESE ARE TWO OF THE BEST GUITARISTS ALIVE WORKING TOGETHER WONDERFULLY. Those of you who have the opportunity to hear Halvorson perform should not waste it; those in other cities have many, many outstanding recent recordings to enjoy and this is a magnificent introduction.
the rutabega is two men, helped out on occasion by a friend or two, maybe a family member on a couple of tracks. I mention this because a casual listen to their records would make you think they were one of those bands like Arcade Fire that has more members than some census tracts have people. This is down to their superb sense of dynamics, producing both long and short songs as cinematic as any produced this century by a rock band. Amazingly, they retain the atmospherics and grandeur of the record in concert, and should be seen live if you have the opportunity.
Unlike his labelmate David Bowie, Leonard Cohen did not keep his physical decline a secret. In interviews for You Want It Darker, his musings on his health and mortality meant his November death was sad but not a shock. A happier development was his collaboration with son Adam, resulting in one of the best-arranged records of his career, mixing guitars, choirs, and orchestral flourishes with the synthesizers that have structured much of his music since his hair turned grey. Like Bowie, Cohen managed a pretty splendid swan song (granted, this is the most gravel-voiced swan to ever sing).
People, if you are not already convinced of Fulks’s brilliance as a writer, arranger, or guitarist, I don’t know if I can convince you here that he is one of the great country singers of the past forty years. (No, he’s not quite that old. Yes, I moved the goalposts so as to rank him with the legends cranking out gold in the Seventies.) Upland Stories continues the quieter, more acoustic and reflective approach of much of his past decade. In some respects, these songs combine the seriousness of Couples in Trouble with the bluegrass Fulks used to perform with Special Consensus.
Tim Midyett’s second EP since putting Bottomless Pit on hiatus rocks a little harder than last year’s In Season & Ripe and, on “Park,” has a new take on the jangle and twang of Gene Clark’s best work. I would not mind at all if the steel guitar approach on this EP anchors Mint Mile’s sound the way Bottomless Pit built its sound around Tim’s baritone guitar, but I am also happy to enjoy the sonic variety Mint Mile has already provided.
I did not know Price before hearing her on TV this spring. About thirty seconds into her performance of “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” I knew I needed to hear the whole album. She’s an excellent singer, with a great band behind her, and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter shows she’s a fine writer as well. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.
SAVAK is a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. Neither of those gentlemen is in SAVAK, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear otherwise. (The band consists of veterans of Obits and the Make Up, if that helps set your expectations.) Of all the records on my list this year, this is the one that most blatantly straddles the divide between noisy rock and pop hooks.
Kelly Hogan’s entire catalog is a singing masterclass. She possesses sufficient talent to be called Diva, yet one of the reasons her music is so good is she is as skilled a collaborator as she is a lead vocalist.
That’s a good way to introduce this supergroup she’s in with Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, and Casey McDonough. The Flat Five focus on Chris Ligon’s compositions, and the result is a bizarro world’s Fifth Dimension of pop virtuosity and odd songs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and is also a great deal of fun.
OK, this and the Flat Five record sound nothing alike. But they both have charismatic singers and waste no time grabbing your attention. Fake Limbs are louder, noisier, and manage to both supply your USDA supply of feedback and title a song after my favorite Raymond Carver collection of stories. Not to mention my favorite song title of the year: “hotdoghotdoghot.”
This is a smoother transition from the last record, as Fake Limbs and the Dead C both revel in noise. The comparison ends there because Fake Limbs veer much closer to the Jesus Lizard’s rock textures and Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats are New Zealand’s foremost practitioners of feedback-drenched drone.
To get through 2016 required the relentless pounding that marked the Xpressway label’s best records; label founder Russell and his colleagues come through with Trouble, a double album consisting of five numbered tracks of nasty racket. Even with Yates absent from this autumn’s United States tour, this music proved incredibly powerful in concert. The album retains that intensity.