A recurring theme with this year’s best albums — and, indeed, with this year, if we’re honest about it — is that it they seem to render traditional critical models somewhat redundant. The utility of the album review has long been open to question in an age when you can hear anything you want for $10 a month: what do you need me, or anyone else, to tell you if an album’s any good for, if you can just listen to it yourself?
More than that, though, the very nature of the records that characterized 2016 seemed to render the whole “Is it good?” aspect of record reviews… frivolous. Two of them — David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker — were profound meditations on mortality by artists whose death would follow shortly after their releases. What can I tell you about those records beyond “They’re wonderful, and you should listen to them”? Another — Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree — followed a tragedy so unimaginable that, again, a score out of ten feels trite. Two more — Solange’s A Seat at the Table and her sister’s Lemonade — were examinations of race in America, a subject that the records in question could tell you more about than I, a white critic from Australia, could ever do.
And so on. As the year went on, the whole idea of cultural criticism came to feel equally questionable: there’s a fascist in the White House, our institutions are under unprecedented attack, so why does anyone care about a review here or there? But out of these questions, some sort of answer emerged: that in a world where certainty seems to have gone, never to return, art and culture are more vital than ever. They help us to understand what’s happened to us; they give us frameworks to process tragedy and mortality; they provide comfort; and, just as importantly as any of that, they entertain us. That’s not as vapid an idea as it might sound: every life needs levity and joy as much as it does profundity and gravity.
And so, with all that in mind, here are the records that illuminated my year: some with a light that’s bold and colorful, and some with the strangely comforting light of the last dying embers of a fire that once burned bright.
David Bowie — Blackstar
These albums are unranked, for the reasons set out above, but if someone made me choose an album of the year, it’d be this one. Many words have been written about it — about the impossibly perfect and impossibly shattering nature of its timing, about how it reflects its creator’s struggle to reconcile himself to a mortality that clearly terrified him, at the gifts it keeps giving us, months after its release. It’s impossible to separate Blackstar from its context, but it’s also worth remembering that, its intimate connection with its creator’s death aside, it’s just a wonderful collection of songs: it stands with the very best of Bowie’s canon, and that is serious praise indeed.
Lost Animal — You Yang
Australian songwriter Jarrod Quarrell has released a pretty flawless series of records over the last decade, first with his band St Helens, and now as Lost Animal. The latter’s Ex-Tropical was your correspondent’s single favorite record of 2013, and this follow-up, which takes its curious name from a series of granite peaks outside Melbourne, is just as good. It takes Ex-Tropical‘s strange and unique sound — steel drums, synthesizers and a melodica — and expands on it, creating a variety of backdrops for Quarrell’s lyrics. Those lyrics remain as simultaneously impenetrable and evocative as ever; the overwhelming mood is that of darkness lurking beneath contemporary Australia’s veneer of sun-swept complacence, like sharp rocks unseen beneath the surf. As Quarrell notes in this track-by-track breakdown of the album, “I was thinking about Australia a bit during the making of this album. Both in abstract and in very real terms. Unfortunately the difference isn’t always obvious.”
Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
It’s hard not to compare You Want It Darker to Blackstar, and in doing so, it’s hard not to conclude that Cohen — 13 years Bowie’s senior — was more reconciled to the idea of his death than Bowie was. (His widely quoted interview with The New Yorker‘s David Remnick — “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.” — seemed to support this interpretation.) But there’s nothing defeated or resigned about You Want It Darker. At times it’s impossibly poignant, but as a whole it serves as a document of Cohen’s life, at one moment harking back to carefree days (“Traveling Light”), and the next seeking reconciliation with some long lost love (“Leaving the Table.”) As I wrote on Cohen’s death, it’s the sound of a man putting his affairs in order before he leaves us — and what a beautiful way to do so.
Solange — A Seat at the Table
As our former Flavorwire colleague Judy Berman points out at Spin today, the most effective political music doesn’t hector you to share its creator’s point of view; it “speak[s] honestly about [its creators’] own lives in a medium that is accessible enough to reach millions of people.” Plenty of people will plump for her sister’s opus Lemonade, but for mine, no album did that better in 2016 than Solange’s A Seat at the Table: it’s a portrait of black experience that is unabashedly “for us, by us.” And yet, it’s exactly that fact that makes it such a compelling political document: as her mother says during “Tina Taught Me”: “I’ve always been proud to be black. Never wanted to be nothing else. Loved everything about it … it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black and that if you do then it’s considered anti-white. No!”
Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
In a way, it seems perfect that Kanye began 2016 meeting Barack Obama and ended it meeting Donald Trump. As it was for many others, 2016 was a year of disintegration for Kanye West, although unlike the rest of us, his travails played out in the glare of endless flashbulbs. Ultimately, the minutiae of West’s mental state are only known to him and those close to him, but The Life of Pablo felt like the closest thing we’ll ever get to a glimpse into its creator’s head. Just like Kanye West, this album is chaotic, confounding, overflowing with ideas, sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible, sometimes laudable, sometimes indefensible, and always, always, compelling. (Also: why has no-one tracked down his laptop-stealing cousin yet?)
Mitski — Puberty 2
If The Life of Pablo is an insight into the mad world of a celebrity superstar and self-appointed genius, Puberty 2 is a document of a more relatable but no less chaotic life. Like The Life of Pablo, Mitski Miyawaki’s fourth album careers at a breakneck pace through a kaleidoscope of styles, rarely stopping for breath, and in doing so, it evokes the confusion of emerging from your adolescence into adulthood and finding that life is more confusing than ever. Puberty #2, indeed.
Gonjasufi — Callus
More chaotic still: this wonderful, strange, disorienting piece of work from the ever-fascinating Gonjasufi. The title suggests the idea of being worn down and yet toughened, developing a thicker skin. The experience of listening to this record somehow evokes the same feeling, albeit in a manner that’s entirely impressionistic: most of the time, it’s hard to understand what Sumach Ecks is singing about, but the feelings he’s evoking come through loud and clear. He described this album as an attempt to embrace pain and hatred: “The challenge becomes continually embracing the suffering of others around me and taking on their ignorance for them… We have to put an end to this hate. It starts at home, within each and every one of us!” Which, honestly, makes it the perfect document of a year that’s left us all callused. And scarred.
Suede — Night Thoughts
Amongst the year’s least expected comebacks: this masterful late-career work from Suede, a band who appeared until now to have run out of new ideas some time in 1998. Well, that’s not entirely fair — their 2013 reunion album Bloodsports was fine, but it never for a moment suggested that they’d reach the heights they did in their mid-’90s heyday. But Night Thoughts stands right there alongside their best work, full of the bruised, dissipated romanticism that characterized 1993’s Suede and 1994’s Dog Man Star, and accompanied by a feature film that captured the album’s atmosphere (and storyline) perfectly.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
If there’s one thing to hold on to during this beautiful, harrowing record, it’s that most of it was written before Nick Cave’s son Arthur fell to his death from a Brighton cliff in 2015. But then, even that fact only serves to make the recurrent imagery of falling that appears throughout the lyrics of Skeleton Tree all the more poignant and disturbing. In the end, it’s impossible to separate this record from the unimaginable bereavement that preceded its recording, and that seems to pervade every aspect of its sound. As the Guardian’s Dave Simpson wrote on its release, “Where the pre-trauma, far more private Cave would have honed lyrics, shrouded meanings, tidied things up in mix or postproduction, Skeleton Tree has been largely left as it was born, mistakes and all, as an instinctive howl from the heart and gut.”
Huerco S. — Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Pitchfork described this album by Kansas City producer Huerco S. as “this year’s great salve” — and credit where it’s due, because they couldn’t be more correct. The subtleties of this ambient masterwork demand headphones, which is perfect, because this album is something to sink deeply into, like a warm bath, or a warm bed — or perhaps the numbing embrace of painkillers and benzos. It’s a place to retreat from the world, a place that’s as affectless as it is beautiful. And god knows in 2016 we needed that more than ever.