There’s no getting around the fact that 2016 has been an emotional rollercoaster. And although we all embraced some brief upswings, these 12 months had many merciless and steep, downward plunges. Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg and Merle Haggard are gone. It’s daunting to take that in. We’re left to carry on with the knowledge that many steadfast innovators who wrote, recorded and carved out music history are not coming with us to 2017.
There’s little relief, but if there is any sparkle in 2016’s dark sky, it’s that so many artists demonstrated unwavering dedication to their craft and fans, even as health failed them. All the artists mentioned above recorded, released or contributed to major works this year. Their peerless impact on the popular music and irreplaceable presence will be felt for many years to come.
Thankfully, beyond classic artists releasing shortly before their final days, other groups, new and old, expanded their genres and put forth powerful works. Here are ten albums that became the soundtrack to the chaotic and uncertain days of 2016:
1) David Bowie - Blackstar
The optimism that often comes with crisp January mornings took a downturn with the passing of legend with a 50-year recording career. Bowie’s death was a surprise to many, but Blackstar’s somber lyrics and dark, experimental mixture of new wave and jazz are a testament to his suffering. The music video for “Blackstar”, although beautiful and classic Bowie, sadly showed how much Bowie seemed to age in the few years since The Next Day. “Dollar Days” and “Lazarus” are some of the most touching tracks to have come out this year. Bowie’s vocals, creativity and ability to stay relevant for half a century is unparalleled.
2) Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen passed shortly after releasing You Want It Darker--A powerful work comprised of nine new songs. The vocal performance proved haunting, marked by Cohen’s classic, gravelly baritone. Maintaining an air of romance and mysteriousness, songs like “You Want It Darker”, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” and “Treaty” are as poignant and relevant as material Cohen put out decades ago.
3) A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service
Releasing for the first time since 1998’s The Love Movement, this fresh double album has no filler. Epically packed Infectious grooves and guest appearances from everyone from Jack White to Andre 3000 and Elton John, Q-Tip’s rhymes are as solid as his production style . It’s a shame that Phife Dawg didn’t live to see this record’s release.
4) Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered
Taking shape from unreleased demos Lamar recorded during the sessions for To Pimp A Butterfly, these eight tracks that are titled only by the dates they were recorded. Exploring mostly psychological and politically-charged themes to free-jazz and avant-garde beats, Lamar has proven that he is still atop a creative peak and is one of the strongest voices in hip-hop.
5) Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
Recorded in Joshua Tree, California and produced by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Iggy Pop’s seventeenth album breaks out with some amazing guitar work and songwriting. “Gardenia” is one of the most powerful songs to have come out this year, and although Pop may be almost 70, this was his highest charting album to date.
6) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Thirty-three years after forming in Melbourne, Australia, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have released their sixteenth album. Dark, as expected, with Cave’s almost spoken-word style of singing, this album explores themes of loss and grief and makes extensive use of synthesizers and drum loops in this stripped-down, avant-garde production.
7) Savages - Adore Life
This sophomore release is a collection of love songs; however, singer Jehnny Beth refers to the emotion “as a disease”. These bleak, cutting and hypnotic tunes carry a raw energy that harkens back to groups like Joy Division and Gang of Four.
8) DIIV - Is The Is Are
Like floating on a dream, the songs of DIIV’s ambitious seventeen-song double album drift gently. They may have turned down the reverb since 2012’s Oshin, but these tracks are still as dreamy as they come. “Take Your Time” and “Under the Sun” have some especially gorgeous, shimmering guitar work.
9) Chris Cohen - As If Apart
Simple, sullen and full of yearning, this record casts evocative emotions in tune with the events that took place this year. Taking inspiration from 70s singer/songwriters, songs “Yesterday’s On My Mind” and “Drink from a Silver Cup” opened up comfortable spaces to explore melancholy.
10) Nothing - Tired Of Tomorrow
Opening with the beautifully noisy and melodic “Fever Queen”, Tired of Tomorrow is a shoegaze guitarist’s dream. As a follow-up to 2014’s Guilty of Everything, Nothing’s new direction is mellower, richer and brighter. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope of gorgeously distorted sounds.
Paul Simon, Suede, Chance the Rapper, The Last Shadow Puppets and Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, and others also put out great new material this year. We’re lucky to have had so many huge releases in such a short amount of time.
There is no doubt that 2017, like every year, will also have its own share of ups and downs. Still, if there’s anything to learn from 2016 it’s true artists commit to their craft for life and that there is absolutely no giving up.