Music columnists Robin Bradford (RB) and Steve Kemple (SK) score their Top Five albums of 2016, which include artists Beyoncé, Nick Cave, and Bruno Mars, along with a slew of Honorable Mentions
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Anohni. HOPELESSNESS. Secretly Canadian.
There’s a moment midway through the song “Crisis” when vocalist Anohni belts, over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” to a glistening background of synthpop. She had just posed the question: “If I killed your children/ With a drone bomb/ How would you feel?” HOPELESSNESS is a cathartic—and danceable—anthem for a world growing darker, tackling subjects such as climate change, mass surveillance, and foreign policy through a lens of ecofeminism. But HOPELESSNESS is more than just a political record. Anohni is a masterful singer and lyricist, and she collaborates here with electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. The result is urgent, powerful, and occasionally unsettling.—SK
Beyoncé. Lemonade. Parkwood.
The most important (to me) CD of the year. Aside from the discussion about whether it is autobiographical, it spoke to people across a host of descriptors. It was personal. It was political. It was whatever Beyoncé meant it to be and whatever we brought to it. Favorite song: “Freedom.”—RB
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Skeleton Tree. Bad Seed Ltd.
This record hit me like a ton of bricks. I first listened while driving aimlessly through rural Ohio in mid-September. The bleak, featureless landscape blasting by was an ideal accompaniment to Skeleton Tree’s windswept apocalypse. Though Cave spent more than a quarter century bawling dark tales of gothic malaise and murderous beauty—in so doing, defining a generation of literary postpunk art-rock—seldom has his oeuvre achieved such poignancy as found here. Following the accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son partway through the recording sessions, the album became a totem of grief. Although it was conceived as a document of personal loss, it taps into something prescient and universal.—SK
Bruno Mars. 24K Magic. Atlantic.
Second only to Lemonade for my favorites of 2016, this is a CD that I can’t listen to just once. Once I start playing it, there is a guaranteed replay coming. This one is a little more sophisticated than Mars’s previous CDs but is missing none of the music that makes you wanna move. This is our treat for enduring an awful 2016 and our promise of a better 2017. Favorite song: “24K Magic” or the throwback-sounding “Too Good To Say Goodbye.”—RB
Solange. A Seat at the Table. Saint/Columbia.
This is a CD that requires several listens; thankfully, that isn’t a hardship. First, listen for the music, then listen for the message. Then, listen again as the meaning and the message morph over time and you gain a new understanding of the things Solange is talking about. This CD will seem new again as the listener experiences more. Favorite song: “Weary.”—RB
Blood Orange. Freetown Sound. Domino.
Empowering, decidedly “woke” alt-R&B anthems with the flavor of your favorite 1990s R&B jams.—SK
Danny Brown. Atrocity Exhibition. Warp Records.
Detroit rapper’s thrilling, nonstop stylistic mélange.—SK
Gavin DeGraw. Something Worth Saving. RCA.
Definitely upbeat, but you don’t miss the message. I want to be able to tell people off this effectively (and with this much fun and pep).—RB
Dorothy. ROCKISDEAD. Universal.
Though her voice isn’t quite as powerful as Lzzy Hale from Halestorm, it’s in the same ballpark. The songs are just as hard and sassy, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from Dorothy.—RB
Tigran Hamasyan, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, & Jan Bang. Atmosphères. ECM.
Aptly titled quartet improvisation built around themes by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet.—SK
The Hamilton Mixtape. Atlantic.
There is some real genius in this set of songs you know and songs inspired by the songs you know. Favorites: Kelly Clarkson’s rendition of “It’s Quiet Uptown” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Cabinet Battle #3.”—RB
Jenny Hval. Blood Bitch. Sacred Bones Records.
Norwegian singer/composer’s homage to menstruation and time-traveling vampires.—SK
Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith. A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. ECM.
Trumpeter Smith and pianist Iyer radically shift between jazz and free-form improvisation.—SK
KING. We Are KING. King Creative.
A flawless album. The three ladies of KING make delicious, 1990s electro-R&B slow jams with harmonies you’ll want to fall into.—SK
Kendrick Lamar. untitled unmastered. Interscope.
If How To Pimp a Butterfly was “rap’s great American novel,” untitled unmastered is a collection of literary short stories. A worthy sequel.—SK
Naqsh Duo. Narrante. ECM.
A sparse, Iranian recording of Golfam Khayam (guitar) and Mona Matbou Riahi (clarinet) gorgeously merging Persian and contemporary classical music.—SK
Frank Ocean. Blonde. Boys Don’t Cry.
Sequel to the game-changing 2012 album channel ORANGE, by one of R&B’s most daring auteurs.—SK
Angel Olsen. My Woman. Jagjaguwar.
She’s been compared to Fiona Apple, Patti Smith, and Dolly Parton. My Woman is a record made for listening on repeat.—SK
Pentatonix. A Pentatonix Christmas. RCA.
The arrangements of the songs you know are so good, and the new songs are catchy, too. Definitely peps up the Christmas season.—RB
Emeli Sandae. Long Live the Angels. Virgin.
Sounds like throwback soul, and I can’t get enough. It’s on constant repeat, either on a device or in my head.—RB
Myles Sanko. Just Being Me. Kudos.
Though it’s often classified as blues, this album doesn’t sound bluesy to me, more like a retro soul CD with some jazz elements. He was a new artist to me, and now I can’t wait to hear more.—RB
Sun Ra/Merzbow. Strange City. Cold Spring.
Japanese noise artist’s homage to an eccentric jazz legend.—SK
A Tribe Called Quest. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Epic Records.
Hip-hop legends’ final album, anticipated for nearly two decades.—SK