Although I was not given a musical bone in my body, I listen to music almost all day at work.
One of my favorite things to do each year is sit down and list the best albums of the year. On Spotify I also have my favorite songs of the year, but it is a different accomplishment to make an entire album that fits together.
As Jeremy Begbie has said, the most important question for engaging culture is not “Do I like this?” (and I would add, “Do I agree with this?”), but rather, “What is going on here?” Part of the purpose of listening to a wide range of music is to learn about people and their narratives, even if you don’t agree with them.
What are they like? What do they value? What are they searching for? How do they communicate? These are all more important questions than the simple question of, “Do I like this?”
Below are the albums that I learned the most from this past year. There is a sense in which I liked each of them, but I liked them because I learned from them and engaged in the world in a different way because of their art. Each artist on this list made something unique, they made something worth talking about.
9) James Vincent McMorrow: We Move
This Irish folk singer-songwriter has a falsetto voice. In this album he mixes it with pop R&B music which I think worked perfectly. He picked up the tempo and seemed to find his vibe.
8) Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
Maybe I will regret putting this on my list because for the most part this album received very low reviews. So why did I like it? Many criticized it for its sophomoric lyrics and juvenile rap jokes. What others were annoyed with, I found refreshing. It felt like they were having fun on this album joking about how their cats are more famous than we will ever be. But they also stop and go deep speaking about the problem with overprescription in America and Black Lives Matters. I agree it was not as good as The Heist, but even in The Heist this duo was playful. To expect something less is trying to make them into something they are not.
7) Bon Iver: 22, A Million
There were mixed reactions to Bon Iver’s newest album which departed from his usual style. It is still clearly Justin Vernon, but he has shoved the electronic forward and I can understand how a few were put off. I myself was confused when I first heard the album and thought it was a dud. Then I realized I had listened to the album on shuffle. This work must be engaged in the order Vernon has placed it.
6) Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
Kanye is like a train wreck I can’t look away from. At first his new album was a confusing piece to me. Sometimes it felt like he wanted to go toward gospel music like the previous Kanye, and then at other times he went deep into the pits of the unengaged and filthy, attempting to fill a track. Yet, there are enough bright spots in this album to make the list and quite a few of the songs grow on you as you listen for a third or fourth time.
Listen to Saint Pablo if you are going to check out one song.
5) James Blake: The Colour in Anything
Jame Blake’s album isn’t on many “best of 2016” lists. I wonder if people forgot about this album because of its early 2016 release. His sound is spacious and the shades of gray and blue cover his voice. The mixing for this album alone deserves an award.
4) Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool
When it comes to a band like Radiohead I always question whether they made the list just because of their history. But this album proves they are still capable artists who continually tap into a melancholy fear that pervades their writing from the start of their career.
3) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
This is the first project of this collective in 18 years and it has lived up to the hype. They speak about current issues with both A-list current artists and throwback rappers from the past. This is one of the most creative in terms of sound that I listened to all year.
2) Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
Chance mixes gospel and rap in this feel good album that burst onto the scene and hasn’t slowed down. He refuses to fall in line with the typical hip hop genre and therefore stands out as a leader among the pack.
1) Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth
What can I say about this album? I usually don’t listen to country music because the genre has been hijacked. Sturgill is returning country music to its roots. This album was written to Sturgill’s first son and it is the most masterful thing I listened to all year. The album echoes life, with the sunlight, darkness, hope, happiness, and frustration throughout.
Listen to Breakers Roar if you are going to check out one song.