Two thousand sixteen was a lousy year in a lot of important ways, and many of those ways will spill over into 2017 and beyond.
I think it’s important to acknowledge this right up front, as I have for the past couple weeks, since I’m going to spend the rest of this column talking about what a tremendous year it was for music. For all the ways this year served up heartache and despair, the music was one thing 2016 got absolutely right. And while we shouldn’t ignore or stop talking about the ways this year repeatedly and viciously knocked us down, spending a little time discussing the good among the bad is healthy and important.
That might be the most pretentious introduction to a top 10 column I’ve ever written, but it felt like the right thing to say. There have been few years I can remember that were as rich, as full, musically speaking, as 2016. On the way to constructing this top 10 list, I created a top 25, and I swear any and all of them deserve end-of-the-year accolades. I had an embarrassment of greatness to choose from when putting this list together, and even now I’m toying with the order, not quite sure how to rank one masterpiece over another.
What ends up happening in years like this, as you will see, is that my personal taste ends up having more influence over the final selections than it does in a year when there are only a few clear favorites. It’ll be difficult, I know, for me to present this list and not seem hopelessly out of touch, but these are my ten favorites, and I can’t hide or deny that. To be fair, there is a critical consensus on the best album of this year, and that album appears in my list. But it’s not at number one, and the albums ahead of it are ones that virtually no one else is talking about. But they have enriched my life and improved my year beyond measure, so there they are, atop this list.
The rules are simple as always. Only original full-length albums released between January 1 and December 31 are eligible for this list, which means no live albums, no repackages, no EPs and no covers albums. Revisions are certainly possible, given the instantaneous nature of record releases these days – I’m posting this on December 20, which means there are still 11 days for something to come out of nowhere and surprise me. I’m less concerned about that this year than I would be in a less phenomenal year for music, since I doubt any of the 10 albums below would be shaken loose from this list that easily. But you never know.
For right now, though, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2016.
#10. Sarah Jarosz, Undercurrent.
It was a splendid year for albums by singer-songwriters of the folk persuasion, and of all of them I heard, Undercurrent is my favorite. Jarosz’ fourth album builds on the beauty of her first three, and offers her strongest set of songs, from the delightful and encouraging “Green Lights” to the dusty “Lost Dog” to the remarkable portrait of Jackie Kennedy (“Jacqueline”) that closes the album. There are no gimmicks here, no bells and whistles, nothing beyond Jarosz’ crystal-clear voice and equally clear songs, and that is all she needs. I’m glad to see Jarosz pick up some Grammy nominations for this album, since I think more people should be talking about it. Undercurrent is often so nakedly beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.
#9. Gungor, One Wild Life.
This one is cheating a little, since Michael and Lisa Gungor’s monumental One Wild Life trilogy began in 2015. But its two most impressive installments came out this year, and rather than choose between them, I’ve offered this spot in the list for the entire work. And it is quite a work: thirty-eight songs separated into three volumes, starting with the airy Soul and segueing into the ‘80s-inspired Spirit and the danceable prog concept album Body. Along the way the Gungors tackle heavy themes, from depression to unity to the poison of bad religion to, in all of Body, what it means to be human, and they do it with deceptively tricky and unfailingly melodic songs, played with giddy excitement. If I Am Mountain was Gungor figuring out what they are capable of, the deliriously ambitious One Wild Life is them taking these newfound capabilities out to play, and reveling in them.
#8. De La Soul, And the Anonymous Nobody.
My favorite of the two long-awaited hip-hop returns this year, edging out the similarly welcome Tribe Called Quest. It’s been a dozen years since De La Soul gifted us with an album, and they’ve never given us one like this before. Funded by Kickstarter and entirely created with organic instruments, And the Anonymous Nobody is simultaneously an old-school hip-hop revival (just check out “Pain,” as effortless a flow as you’ll ever hear) and a completely insane hodgepodge of ideas from outside De La’s already large comfort zone (I still don’t know what to make of the astonishing “Lord Intended”). Over all this, Pos, Dave and Maseo (and a massive complement of guests ranging from Snoop Dogg to David Byrne to Little Dragon) rap about their own legacy and, in the process, fashion an album worthy of that legacy. It’s so good to have them back.
#7. Regina Spektor, Remember Us to Life.
It took seven albums for Russian-born Regina Spektor to make something perfect, but with Remember Us to Life, she’s done it. Every song here sparkles with her unique energy, from the opening singalong “Bleeding Heart” to the closing heartbreaker “The Visit.” Her stories sparkle just as much this time, and she takes each one seriously, crafting them with a consistency that she’s rarely shown. “The Light” is one of the year’s most beautiful and hopeful songs, and epics like “The Trapper and the Furrier” and “Obsolete” practically glow with hard-won wisdom. Even the bonus tracks, like the stunning “New Year,” are wonderful. Spektor has been a singular voice for a long time, and on this album, she finally harnesses that voice to its fullest. It’s a gorgeous thing to behold.
#6. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker.
Unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar, which only made sense in retrospect after his death, Cohen’s swan song almost spelled out its finality in every note. For the entirety of the album, Cohen wrestles with mortality and searches for his lost faith, coming up empty again and again. Cohen spares nothing here, giving us an unfiltered peek into his soul, and it’s a difficult, bleak, dazzling listen. At 82 years old, his voice a low rumble, his body wracked with so much pain that he needed to record vocals sitting down at home, Cohen created one of his finest and most powerful records, and not long after gifting it to us, he left us for good. You Want It Darker is an uncompromising farewell, an achingly beautiful portrait of a man inches from death, sending dispatches back from an undiscovered country. Its existence is a miracle, its author a legend, and I will miss him like crazy.
#5. Beyonce, Lemonade.
This is the one we all agree on. Beyonce’s sixth album shattered all expectations, arriving suddenly as a storm, a fully formed musical and visual feast. To say that the music on Lemonade rises above anything Beyonce has ever shown herself capable of is an understatement. A conceptual piece about a woman discovering her partner’s infidelity, Lemonade manages to jump genres like hurdles while maintaining a remarkable thematic consistency and an emotional resonance. It’s an album that isn’t for me – it is specifically geared toward sharing and celebrating the experience of black women – and yet I haven’t been able to listen to the run of songs from “Love Drought” to the glorious “All Night” without tearing up. An album as important as it is magnificent, Lemonade’s journey from anger to disbelief to strength to reconciliation is one I am beyond grateful to have taken.
#4. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger.
Paul Simon is 75 years old, but Stranger to Stranger conclusively proves that he remains one of the world’s finest songwriters. A beautiful collection of rhythmic wonderlands, guitar instrumentals and songs of deep meaning, Stranger is a giddily weird thing – there are songs featuring nothing but percussion, and a song arranged for microtonal instruments – but a stunningly creative one so late in Simon’s celebrated career. Best of all, it contains two songs – the title track and the astonishing “Proof of Love” – that stand among the finest and most indelible of his career. I have no idea how Simon is continuing this streak so late in his life, but here’s hoping he keeps it going as long as he can.
#3. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution.
I bet the Grammy committee had no idea, when they awarded Esperanza Spalding the Best New Artist prize in 2011, that she would ever make an album like this. Spalding made her name as an acoustic jazz bassist, but on Emily’s, she rips up everything she’d become known for, delivering a loud electric soul-pop-prog album of staggering proportions. It’s an elusive record, taking time to sink in – the grooves are tricky, the vocal lines elliptical, the arrangements full and elaborate. But once it takes hold, it’s unshakeable. “Unconditional Love” is one of the best hum-along pop songs of the year, “Good Lava” an opening salvo of molten energy that will knock you flat, “Ebony and Ivy” a socially conscious powerhouse. She even reinvents Veruca Salt’s anthem from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “I Want It Now.” The top three this year all share a predilection toward defining their own careers on their own terms, and with this phenomenal album, Spalding personifies that ethos. She’s come into her own, and this album is unreal.
#2. The Dear Hunter, Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional.
For a very long time, this album topped this year’s list, and I’m still not absolutely sure it shouldn’t be in the number one spot. I really don’t know of anything else like the Acts series, a six-volume rock opera in progress that nimbly incorporates a dozen different musical styles in the service of a complex story about identity and the choices that make us who we are. Casey Crescenzo, the band’s mastermind, has been telling this story for a decade now, planting clues and callbacks like a master, and Act V is perhaps his finest work. It’s spellbinding – like Act IV, this one takes you by the hand at the beginning and leads you through all 73 minutes with perfect confidence. Crescenzo works in dark blues, Michael Buble-style jazz-pop, full-on Broadway sweep and some of the most fitfully amazing lead guitar playing you’ll find anywhere, and he always stays on the right side of ridiculous, delivering an emotionally resonant climax to his story. The cumulative effect of all five Acts gives the final five songs here a force that I can’t explain in words. It’s like coming to the end of a particularly well-thought-out epic film, and hearing Act V brings new meaning to much of the previous four Acts. In many ways, the Acts series is one of the most impressive, remarkable achievements in modern music, and I cannot wait for the concluding chapter (whatever form it will take), and for what Casey Crescenzo does next.
I would not argue with anyone who considers Act V the best album of the year. In many ways, it is. But given the year that we’ve had, I felt compelled to choose something else.
#1. Marillion, Fuck Everyone and Run.
Of everything I heard this year, Marillion’s 18th album sounds the most like 2016 to me. It’s an angry, haunted, uneasy thing, dangling from a precipice and about to drop, staring at the oncoming storm and pleading with the townspeople to listen and evacuate. It captures the moment between Brexit and the Trump election, and what may have seemed bleak and paranoid a few months ago now feels prophetic. Fear is what brought us to this place, and the people who run the world (the people Steve Hogarth calls “The New Kings”) will use that fear to enrich themselves and control all of us. We didn’t listen, the storm is here, and Fuck Everyone and Run now feels like the most important piece of music anyone made this year.
Of course, it’s also a masterpiece in its own right. From its bold title to its structure – the bulk of the album rests on three long, subdivided pieces – this is unlike any Marillion album before it. “El Dorado” may be the best song that anyone released in 2016 – it’s about the ways money makes us worse, from the point of view of a man watching a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon of his pleasant English walled garden. Live, the band treats “El Dorado” like a piece of classical music, hushing applause and drawing the audience’s attention to the quieter parts, and when it arrives at its bravura four-minute climax, Hogarth spitting out lyrics about how “the wars are all about money, they always were, and the money’s wrapped up in religion,” it’s breathtaking.
Fuck Everyone and Run is the epitome of the Marillion Effect, meaning it sounds meandering and unfocused at first, but as you get to know it, it comes alive and inhabits your world like little else. The theme of the album makes itself known over time as well – that personal fears lead to global catastrophes if we don’t face them. In the more intimate pieces “The Leavers” and “White Paper,” Hogarth talks about his own fears of isolation, rootlessness, age and irrelevance, and extrapolates those into the first-person unease of “El Dorado” and the widescreen horror of “The New Kings,” perhaps the sharpest song of the year. (“Remember a time when you thought that you mattered, believed in the school song, die for your country, a country that cared for you?”) Musically, the band has never been more intricate, and has never followed the shape of Hogarth’s words more completely.
But there is hope here as well, in a gem of a song called “Living in FEAR.” It’s sequenced second, before the worst of the storm, and that’s on purpose, but it gives instructions on dealing with the world to come: “We’ve decided to start melting our guns as a show of strength, we’ve decided to leave our doors unlocked…” It’s not naive, Hogarth sings, and the rest of the rest of the album bears him out. It is facing the world with wide eyes, meeting it with love, tearing down walls instead of building them up. In the song’s joyous coda, Hogarth runs down a list of some of the most famous walls mankind has constructed to keep each other out, and dismisses them as “a waste of time.” It’s a bold act of defiance, and if we want to survive what’s coming, we need to live it.
In the coming years I think we’ll see more albums like Fuck Everyone and Run, taking stock of this new world and figuring out ways to navigate it. At the moment, I can’t imagine I will love or appreciate any of them as much as I do this one, from one of my very favorite bands. It’s been a tough year, and it’s about to get even tougher, and if music is one of the ways we’ll get through it, then Marillion is ahead of the curve, as always. Fuck Everyone and Run is brilliant, scary and utterly amazing, and is for my money the best album of 2016.
That’ll do it. Tune in next week for Fifty Second Week as we bid this year farewell together. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.