Some years are groovier than others. This year, music provided a steadying backbeat against the craziness of the political climate. We recoiled from depressing TV news segments and reached for the beats to keep us sane. Who knows if we will emerge from the funk in 2017? If not, we hope music continues to be our guide rope through this alternate reality. We love the artists and songs that delivered bold statements, notable comebacks and other creative noises to make 2016 bearable. Here’s how the year went down:
Technology majorly influenced how we discovered music. Streaming platforms put countless new releases at our fingertips, but these services also proved to be cluttered landscapes wherein quality albums by old-school megastars like Sting, The Pretenders or Paul Simon went largely unnoticed in the mainstream (even if Simon’s whole record, especially “Proof of Love,” was sublime). We were gifted with Leonard Cohen‘s final work (which proved interestingly dark, as its title promised) just two weeks before his death; Nick Cave climbed the Skeleton Tree with an equally somber mood. On the flip side, I luckily happened upon bands like Hoops and St. Lucia, whose positivity I might have missed without Shazam and Spotify.
Word-of-mouth and real-life experiences still mattered. Seeing Young the Giant perform “Something to Believe In” at a spring music festival sold me on them for good. And the teenagers in my life got me hooked on Hey Violet and The 1975, a fact I’m not embarrassed to admit. FM darling Alessia Cara became the perfect (and clothed!) role model: striving for beauty isn’t worth the pain she sang about overcoming in the empowering song, “Scars to Your Beautiful;” This same vibe in Blood Orange‘s “Best to You” makes us root for the Empress Of.
Music raged against inequality and begged us to “get woke.” Common’s “Black America Again” (featuring Stevie Wonder) spoke volumes about realizations and race, and The Hamilton Mixtape will no doubt be the cultural relic people look back on 100 years from now as the truth of our times, with its own nod to history. De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest both returned with poetic vengeance after struggles with the industry and life (R.I.P. Phife Dawg).
The freaky squeaks of tropical house and ear-worm tunes written by mathematical formulas filled the airwaves. It’s scary to live in an age where most pop songs are credited to five or more writers. Maybe melodies are sometimes created by consensus, but The Weeknd‘s “Starboy” (a collab with Daft Punk) is so addictive, it almost doesn’t matter how it got here. One Republic‘s “Kids” is a slow-burn hit that’s still brewing; Frank Ocean‘s “White Ferrari” gave Kanye a run for his money; and Solange put forth a brave and nuanced yin to her big sister’s Beyonce‘s “Lemonade” yang with tracks like “Rise.” Maxwell‘s “Fingers Crossed” was always on repeat in my car, and Alicia Keys kept it real with “More Than We Know.”
Long live the singer-songwriter. Amen. Boutique songcrafters such as Ben Watt, John Paul White, Gungor, Martha Wainwright and Johnnyswim blessed us with new classics that uphold impeccable standards and carry inimitable qualities. Keane’s Tom Chaplin broke out with his beautiful “Still Waiting;” KT Tunstall returned to tell us to “Run On Home;” and Corinne Bailey Rae rocked us gently and soulfully with “Stop Where You Are.”
Big hooks got up in our heads and stayed there. Everything Robert Glasper touches hits the right notes for me, and his Experiment brought “Day to Day” into my daily routine a few weeks before Bruno Mars took me back to the roller skating rink with “24K Magic.” Also, who could resist the gritty summer heat of the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ “Dark Necessities”? What a well-deserved smash for those guys. (The bass riff and guitar solo were bonkers awesome, even if in a 1990s way.) Radiohead continued their reign over my mindspace with “Present Tense” and Quincy Jones protege Jacob Collier captivated me with his YouTube overdubs on the Stevie Wonder love song,” You and I.”
At the end of the day, nothing could take this year away from David Bowie. His January 10th death marked the beginning of a huge shift in the way we relate to musicians and their bodies of work. Bowie’s death taught us so much about why we love music. Just listen to “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” and you feel the vocal harmonies fighting for air with the layers of guitar, saxophone, keyboards and drums in the mix. Bowie’s last thrust of life on earth is a sound we’ll never forget.
(Note: Some of the tracks in the playlist contain explicit lyrics.)
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