Dear Julianne, Ann, and guests,
Well, hell, welcome to the 2016 Slate Music Club. This year-end critics’ roundtable has been running since 2002, so it’s seen some dark days, but in my own shorter tenure, I haven’t experienced a year when there was such a clear consensus, best expressed by Last Week Tonight With John Oliver: “Fuck you, 2016.”
I’m sure we’ll discuss the musical greats we lost this year, a byproduct mostly of boomer aging that’s only going to intensify. As the U.K. critic and producer Paul Morley put it in July, “Death is now the future of rock. Mourning will be a consistent thing for the next few years.” (We’ve been debating whether rock as a genre is “dead” for a long time; the metaphor is getting grimly literal.) But grief for fallen icons is a small weight to shoulder compared with the great spreading social and political Age of Dis-Enlightenment signaled by the twin shocks of the Brexit and Trump votes.
This makes 2016 in music a weird one to talk about, the major themes at once too obvious and too bewildering. Allow me to set the table with an opinionated recap, and then you folks can pull my chair out from under me and/or fill our plates with richer fare. I’ll also make a toast to my own favorite albums of 2016.
There was an unruly energy to the first third of the year, when we witnessed experiments in album form and content from Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar. Perpetual procrastinator Frank Ocean’s Endless/Blonde diptych came later but belongs in that company, as our sometime Music Club member Lindsay Zoladz discussed in her Ringer year-end piece. With album sales scraping ever-lower lows, including a plummet in digital downloads, it’s clear that streaming is now the emperor of all media—the new label wars are between Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, YouTube, and Tidal, etc., with Bandcamp and SoundCloud as the scrappy indies. The ontological status of the album has been in flux for years, but in a streaming context it’s more abstract than ever, totally malleable to the user’s whims as well as the artist’s.
That first begot the surprise album, and now the surprise “visual album” (à la Lemonade and Endless), the surprise “mixtape”-that’s-really-an-album (Chance’s Coloring Book, among others), the outtakes-album-that’s-also-really-an-album (Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered), the album-as-work-in-progress (Kanye’s multiply revised The Life of Pablo), and so on. Combined with the consciousness-raising momentum supplied by Black Lives Matter in particular (as well as David Bowie’s and Prince’s startling deaths), that made for an intense, high-stakes winter. The peak was probably the weekend in February when Beyoncé released the “Formation” video and put on a Black Power–themed Super Bowl halftime show, rearranging her own image as well as the pop-culture dynamic.
But now that seems long, long ago. It was hard to maintain that fierce, open-ended sense of possibility after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination. The culture went into a state of suspended tension. The standard “song of the summer” contest felt lackluster, with Drake’s memorable but emotionally arm’s-length “One Dance” taking it by default. Besides Ocean’s game of catch-me-if-you-can and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool (an elegant swan song), the major summer album event was Drake’s long-awaited Views, whose bloat and sprawl betrayed the downside of the streaming album’s flexibility.
As I said in my recent review of the Weeknd’s Starboy, since “sales” for charting purposes are now counted by the number of streams of any tracks from an album, one way to juice them is just to have a shitload of tracks. In other words: Trump was right! The system is rigged! This was hilariously mirrored back in the world of physical sales by the recent news that the year’s top-selling CD album is not a pop record at all, but Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition. How did it score this coup? Simple, it’s a 200-CD box set, so it only had to hawk a little more than 6,000 copies to chalk up 1.25 million individual CDs sold. (As critic Marc Masters tweeted, it’s “like the Electoral College of CD sales.”)
As dread and social conflict built through the fall, it was hard for many of us to think much about music at all. When we did, we often fell back on big moments of nostalgic reflection. There was Bruce Springsteen’s top-selling memoir Born to Run, the controversy around Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, comeback albums from Metallica and the Rolling Stones, and the Desert Trip festival in California—aka “Oldchella”—where the old rock gods (Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, the Who) rose once more to loom above the landscape and claim their eternal reward (that is, gobs of cash). Nostalgia even dominated a lot of music for younger listeners, with a wounded yearning for the bygone comforts of childhood marking hits by Twenty One Pilots (“Stressed Out”), Ruth B (“Lost Boy”), in a way the Chainsmokers (though their chart-beater “Closer” is more about the bygone comforts of college), and Danish band Lukas Graham (with the balefully banal “7 Years”). Incidentally, are we post-millennial yet?
Which brings us to now, in the nervous and numbing dawn of the Age of Trump, trying to sum up events we don’t really grasp and anxiously debating what’s next, what must and must not be done. I’ll leave that to further rounds and retreat to the reassuring order of a list. Albums today. Songs to come later.
My Top 25 Albums of 2016
Top 10, in alphabetical order:
David Bowie, Blackstar
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You
Veda Hille, Love Waves
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Elza Soares, The Woman at the End of the World (A mulher do fim do mundo)
Tanya Tagaq, Retribution
Another 15, in alphabetical order:
Anal Trump, That Makes Me Smart
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke
Frank Ocean, Blonde
Angel Olsen, My Woman
Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Noura Mint Seymali, Arbina
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You for Your Service
A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo