On the three occasions I’ve done it (not 2015, unfortunately), my year-end list was comprised of all the albums I rated A Minus or better, but since I got a rather late start on 2016 and was unreasonably lazy about picking up my own slack or sticking with it as the year wore down, the idea of listing the thirty-odd albums I rated as such as my definitive picks didn’t feel right. And to be honest, trying to rank anything outside of the top fifteen got arbitrary real fast, so I’ve decided instead to go the conventional route of a top ten. Even this list feels suspect: two of the albums on the list I never formally reviewed, and some others—while I really do enjoy them a lot—I’m convinced would have had an increasingly narrow shot at ranking this high had I been better about keeping up with music. I told myself I’d do better in 2017—the same thing I tell myself every year—so we’ll see how that goes.
But know this: These are Great Albums. It wouldn’t matter how much I did or didn’t hear from what 2016 had to offer—I’d still love these, each and every one.
1. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Rough Trade): Parquet Courts are anti-Romantic but not anti-romance: Having injected some Human Emotion into Human Performance, they’ve evolved beyond songs about the functionality of their penises (“The More It Works”) and married the dystopian portraits of Content Nausea and Monastic Living with songs about love (“Steady On My Mind”). Their predilection for groove gets off its stoned slacker ass and reaches its apex in one of their best ever (“One Man, No City”). Their lyrical acuity is again on point. But most of all, my favorite working band do more than make great music with rhetorical substance—they make me not just pump my fist in agreement, but actually want to be a better person. That’s pretty fucking rare. How’s that romanticism for ya?
2. The Paranoid Style – Rolling Disclosure (Bar/None): I think one reason Elizabeth Nelson crams so much political invective into these thirty-odd minutes of punk pulchritude is due to her brief stint as a DC lobbyist: to be that close to unfathomable levels of power (not to mention a real shot at attaining real wealth) and understand the slime behind it better than I or you will ever be able to and still escape not only with her soul intact but the gumption to be a sandwich board-wearing, bell-ringing street prophet-of-sorts takes a level of discipline a lot of plebs like myself romantically wax we retain but couldn’t ever really know unless we were in that position. Well, she did. So when she refers to what I’ll cheekily call the bourgeoisie and says “They’re general gamblers; they bet your life every day,” take her at her word. I sure do.
3. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO): Ever feel like a song was made specifically for you? That’s how “Ramon Casiano” makes me feel, with Mike Cooley’s pitch-perfect summation of paranoid 2nd-Amendmenters (“Men whose triggers pull their fingers / Men who’d rather fight than win) who transpose their innate suspicion of everything into a quixotic quest to take back their country from everyone who isn’t them and their beer-pounding buddies. The kind of men who think war is as simple as a Michael Bay movie (because Michael Bay made a movie about Benghazi, dontchaknow), the kind of men who’d shoot their own tail if they caught it because it might be a terrorist. The kind of men who think the most recent election vindicated their value system—which they might now have to reevaluate given their inherent distrust of anyone in power.
4. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry): Of all the great elements floating through Ocean’s effervescent soundscape, there’s one line jumps out at me when he reminisces about his childhood: “We could only go to Shoney’s on occasion.” Those rare moments—sprinkled between long bits about his current romantic trysts—coupled with recorded bits and interludes that usually irritate the hell out of me inform his present more than his words about his present do. Blonde is best described as bubbles of the past brought forth to the present, partially worn by the journey through time so that all that remains is stitched fabrics of hazy memories.
5. Beyoncé – Lemonade (Columbia): So Parquet Courts is my personal favorite of 2016, but if ya wanna know what the ‘critic’ in me thinks is truly tops, it’s Lemonade. And that’s not just because it’s a great album in and of itself with an absolutely killer first half and indispensable accompanying feature-length video, but because she so owns her sexuality and is a symbol of woman empowerment that she makes stuffy whites scoff and roll their eyes—the same kind of whites who would have fretted jazz led to race mixing, or that Elvis’s hip-shaking was a degenerate imitation of ‘the blacks.’ Love to Lady Gaga, but she doesn’t have a prayer at upsetting people the way Beyonce did at her Super Bowl performance, and though To Pimp a Butterfly might have garnered a tad more critical praise, it didn’t have the immediate and (still) lasting cultural impact Lemonade has already levied.
6. Van Morrison – … It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Vols. II, III, IV & DVD (Sony): I’d really like to meet the shitheads at Sony (or Warner Bros., or wherever) who thought it a great idea to sit on this treasure trove of performances from Van the Man’s peak period as a live act for over forty years before giving it a proper release. But at least it exists. With three-and-a-half-hours’ worth of material, this is definitive proof that Van Morrison was an unparalleled live act, his backing band the Caledonia Soul Orchestra perfectly in sync with his every leap or hesitation, his timing impeccable. With a trove this rich, someone explain to me why it took decades until this saw the light of day.
7. Jinx Lennon – Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger): Here’s an aging, half-crazy Irishman I wouldn’t have discovered without the good graces of Robert Christgau. A “punk-poet” of sorts, Lennon churns out 23 tracks in 60 minutes in which he shouts, stutters, and “sings” over simplistic (not necessarily minimalistic) electronic beats, accompanied more often than not by a laptop’s bleep-bloops or guitar or trumpet and almost certainly by lady vocalist Sophie Coyle, whose presence softens the blow of Lennon’s charges. An unorthodox bloke to say the least, he pours through half-raps with furious rhythms (“Bonus Ball” or “Bedblocka”), but the sweet spot is in the somehow unsentimental “I Know My Town,” where Lennon runs through all the displeasing odors his village emits but loves its crumminess all the same.
8. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (self-released): One reason I’ve never reviewed Coloring Book—and by the same token Acid Rap—is because I remain at an absolute loss as to what to say about it. It’s heavy on gospel, cheerful even in its darker corners, and so goddamn easy to listen to that if you want some sort of insight, you’re best off reading a real music critic’s take. Me? All I can say is he’s someone who loves life so much he doesn’t know what to do with it.
9. Homeboy Sandman – Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw): This takes off halfway through with “This,” in which Homeboy tells off a series of naysayers over a shifting James Brown beat, a skronky trumpet imitating the speech-less adults of Peanuts standing in for the nonsense advice they hand his way. There’s no immediate grand slam like “America, the Beautiful” or anything as darkly political and paranoid as “Illuminati,” but as album-closer “Speak Truth” and, especially, “God” demonstrate, Angel Del Villar’s about as close as a rapper gets to Zen save for stoning himself into a coma.
10. P.S. Eliot – 2007-2011 (Don Giovanni): So many pop-punk groups of a similar vein are as similarly lost as the Crutchfield sisters at least claim to be, but while that aimlessness often reflects itself in truly aimless music directed more by feeling than riff, hook, melody, or chorus, P.S. Eliot were rare in channeling the frustration of being in a place you in which you definitely did not belong into memorable if a bit cacophonous nuggets of youth-wisdom not as unintentional as an infant yet less deliberate and cynical than a proper adult, perhaps best summed up in the first verse of the very first song: “I’ve got affection to criticize, monogamy to abhor / A cold heart and an altered state of mind / And baby, you’re just what I’m looking for / Because we’ll go to sleep when we’re dead / And I’ll quit when I’m 25 / But now I’m feeling indestructible / Aimlessly alive.”