FLOOD’s Best Records of 2016
Great year for music, terrible year for everything else.
In July, after a man named Micah Xavier Johnson killed five police officers in Dallas, Jonathan Chait sought to calm the readers of New York magazine by insisting that 2016 “is not 1968.” Despite everything that’s happened since, Chait’s contention that “the old, tattered idea of unity may be healthier than it seemed” is still somewhat sound, if you trust the popular vote to mean anything. But it’s telling that he felt the need to make the argument at all: we were only seven months in and 2016 was already being compared to one of the most tumultuous years in American history.
When we think of 1968, we don’t tend think of the music, because when the civilized world is in peril, music hardly seems to matter. Nevertheless, that year saw the release of The White Album, Astral Weeks, Beggars Banquet, At Folsom Prison, White Light/White Heat, Bookends, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Music From Big Pink, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Mama Tried, Otis Redding’s In Person at the Whisky A Go Go, Miles Davis’s Nefertiti, John Coltrane’s Om, The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home, Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites.” Fleetwood Mac, Randy Newman, Silver Apples, Os Mutantes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Neil Young all made their debuts. Brazil responded to its own political crisis with Tropicália. Nina Simone responded to ours with ’Nuff Said. Johnny Cash married June Carter.
Some of that music was engaged with the political moment; most of it was not. But it was all made in a time not unlike ours, when what remained of the social fabric seemed to be rending. This year, as with 1968, our best musicians actively pushed against oppressive forces, tested the boundaries of their genres, or just helped us find new ways to dance. Each is a way of refusing to be overwhelmed by the encroaching darkness. There’s no telling what 2017 has in store for us—outlook: not so good—but as the music of 2016 showed us again and again, power takes many forms; there are always new ways of fighting back.
Presenting the best records of 2016.
“All I wanna do is make something last,” sings Margo Price on a country-pop epic called “Hands of Time” that could very easily outlast us all. The whole record is full of crumbling sand castles and dreams deferred, battles waged and frequently lost, things falling apart. Many of her characters feel like rural American versions of Ozymandias, striving for eternity even as time threatens to erase them. What makes the record powerful is how it harnesses tropes and tradition to lend grit to its ephemeralities. Price writes prison songs, divorce songs, revenge songs, drinkin’ songs, country songs, soul songs—the kinds of songs that have been around forever, drawn from wells that just get deeper as the years roll by. Similarly, years of hard knocks have left her tough and tender in equal measure: it’s possible that no country record in recent memory has had this many middle fingers in its lyrics, and that no record in any genre provided more laughs this year. — Josh Hurst
Finally, a Cass McCombs record you can dance to! And by dance, of course, I mean “sway back and forth sloppily to while reading Urban Dictionary and sipping Fernet,” duh. For over a decade, Mr. McCombs has been as consistently great as anyone in the “indie” singer-songwriter cage, and Mangy Love offers perhaps a little more strut and jive than anything heretofore in the Cassalog. It’s still mostly the same mix of trippy weirdo gorgeousness we’ve come to expect, and on numbers like “Opposite House” and “Run Sister Run,” that newfound discernible groove purrs along like a calypso band playing an art school frat party on your dad’s favorite boat. Love is mangy, love is kind, and our love for this artful maniac at the helm most certainly perseveres. — Pat McGuire
Any other year, and Iggy Pop would be the elder statesman par excellence. That’s partially because Post Pop Depression—his collaboratory effort with Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, and Matt Helders—was so shockingly effective, and partially because, based on the releases that preceded it, it seemed that Iggy might have been running out of surprises (sorry for doubting you, dude). The album ended up being a monster, and would’ve easily been 2016’s most welcome return to form were it not for old friends David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, who both upstaged Iggy in a way that would have seemed immensely unlikely in 1977: by dying before him. But it’s not Iggy’s fault that he’s tougher than nails. And in a year so overwrought with death, it was a sincere delight to hear someone who had never sounded so alive. — Nate Rogers
The warmth and soul emanating from Black Terry Cat, Xenia Rubinos’s second album, coexist with a fierce awareness. The former are exemplified by the beautiful “Don’t Wanna Be,” wherein Rubinos sings, “Baby, where you’re not, I don’t wanna be.” The latter is evident on “Mexican Chef,” which Rubinos wrote for the people of color who built America and continue to sustain it: “We’re the ones that make sure the tree falls down / When the tree falls down, it don’t make a sound.” People cannot live without politics. Each one’s existence depends on the other. This album is brought to life by the music—which goes from smooth soul to punky dance and back again—and Rubinos’s sweet voice, but to strip it of its social intelligence would be disingenuous, because it’s also an observation of the world we live in. Black Terry Cat is gorgeous, romantic, and true. — Lydia Pudzianowski
21. Cate Le Bon — Crab Day
Cate Le Bon has an unlikely gift: the weirder she gets, the better she gets. For seven years now, the Welsh art-rock provocateur has been sailing out toward the far corners of our expectations, somehow managing to keep the ship upright despite the concerns from us on the mainland that surely the edges must be fast approaching. Not the case. The brave voyage reached new territory on Crab Day, her most profound album to date, itself a manifesto of continued purpose flying in the face of an increasingly mixed-up world. This time, the music was accompanied by a short film, further supporting the fact that clarity of vision is a chief attribute here, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door—er, the lifeboat or whatever. Just don’t be surprised if you end up back in the captain’s room later, sunburned and fatigued, asking to be let back aboard. — Nate Rogers
20. Solange — A Seat at the Table
A quantum leap forward from her past (often very good) work, A Seat at the Table establishes Solange Knowles as an inheritor to Prince, in that she takes her sadness and tiredness and renders it funky and poetic. Over the subdued lock-step of “Weary” she astrally projects her spirit in search of physical relief; in “Don’t Touch My Hair” she boldly demands respect and autonomy; in “Junie” she radiates joy. Album highlight “Cranes in the Sky” stands as one of 2016’s finest moments, in which Solange disposes of concerns and travels “seventy states” only to find her existential concerns have followed her, which only a piercing falsetto refrain of “away” (shades of Mariah!) can properly address. Incorporating autobiographical lyrics and spoken interludes by her parents and Master P, A Seat at the Table offers intimate personal reflections on blackness in America. Its musical ingenuity makes it an art-pop assertion of rage and hope and peace. — Jason P. Woodbury
19. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
If Questlove felt the need to wake up D’Angelo at four in the morning to tell him about “Awaken, My Love!”, what did he do when Malibu washed ashore in January? Brandon Paak Anderson released a pair of albums under the regrettable name Breezy Lovejoy, then put his name down, flipped it, and reversed course to create a hybridized version of soul and hip-hop and R&B that feels like a breezy West Coast cousin to D’s own Black Messiah. As with that album, the sense of struggle is never more than a James Brown-ish “huh!” away, but for Paak, who five years ago was living in his car with his wife and daughter, the pain is in the past tense. Malibu, then, is a celebration, the liberating sound of what it feel like to have made it through. — Marty Sartini Garner
18. Michael Nau — Mowing
Michael Nau is one half of the Maryland-based band Cotton Jones, which he has piloted with his wife Whitney for the last decade. Rather than release Mowing as the long awaited third Cotton Jones LP, Nau—formerly of the indie outfit Page France—went solo simply to avoid disappointing fans at shows expecting to see the couple onstage, as the family that the pair recently started makes it difficult for both parents to be away from home at once. Regardless of moniker, the songs collected here are among the most soulful, stirring, and singular of any folk-rock artist recording today. There is ancient wisdom hidden in Nau’s raspy, reaching voice, and a timeless sweetness reveals itself in every nook and cranny of the record. “Unwound” brings to mind the folkiest moments of Workingman’s Dead–era Jerry Garcia, and “Smooth Aisles” twinkles and grooves like a stripped down Steely Dan. There is much joy to be found in Mowing, and a full year into listening to these eleven tracks on repeat, it’s clear there are still miles to go. — Pat McGuire
It had been six long years since the last Antony and the Johnsons record, but when ANOHNI emerged with a new name and a stark new sound earlier this year, few could have predicted how drastic the change in her music would be. The dark, pulsating electro she creates with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never on HOPELESSNESS finds her shifting her focus from the personal to the universal and back again, berating the state of the world and the suffering of innocent people at the hands of malicious, power-hungry governments. In “Obama” and “Drone Bomb Me,” she hurls her disgust at American imperialism and the military-industrial complex, but she does so with as much grace as violence. HOPELESSNESS is a bold and ambitious move—one that became all the more relevant as the year marched on. — Mischa Pearlman
Rock and roll is dying, they say. Dead, even. And when these are your Grammy-chosen representations of the genre, maybe the reports of rock’s death have not been greatly exaggerated after all. But let’s be real: in this, the year of our Lord two-thousand and sixteen, who didn’t die, really? Rock is just another one to bite the dust—and Parquet Courts are currently the best candidate to be dancing on its grave. Human Performance, the band’s fifth LP, is their most realized vision yet of a post-mainstream guitar album, not built on technical prowess so much as a purity of ethos and dedication of spirit. This latest release comes following two statement-laden, melodically-sparse conundrums—Content Nausea and the Monastic Living EP—highlighting a progressivism that has them firmly embedded into the landscape of contemporary intellectualism. Have the rock gods forsaken them? Looks like, but this band never wanted to wear leather pants and play arenas anyway. — Nate RogersKeep Reading: »