by Jon Hunt
Hey, folks. It’s been a while.
I do not mind telling you: this year has been a soul-crushing piece of shit. I started losing my urge to write when Bowie died back in JANUARY — holy shit, that was a year ago that the fabric of our reality started unraveling — and lost it completely ’round about when Prince died. And when Trump won the election, it just cemented it: I couldn’t put pen to paper unless it was in the service of defeating fascism. Music seems super frivolous when the entire country is at stake, amirite? I know I’m not the only one to feel this. Anyway, it’s been a hell of a shit of a writer’s block.
I figured I had to surface at least once before the year is out to share my top ten list, because — you know, top tens. I spend all year ranking these records in my head, so what good is that if I don’t share ’em with you? I’m hoping, honestly, that this piece represents a return to writing rather than a quick aberration. But I promise nothing. Happy new years, folks, this one’s been one for the damn record books.
1. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” – At best, I hoped Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, would deliver an excellent, witty piece of super-modern hip-hop. At best. I did not expect this seriously fucking amazing funk salvo from the very heart of the Mothership, and neither did anybody else. It’s easily album of the year and I’m shocked that more people aren’t calling it, but I guess when your 2016 list comes out in mid-November you can’t add to it later, right? Anyhow, this is a damn near perfect funk album, from the wild fuzz of “Boogieman” to the depressing balladry of “Redbone” to the wah-tinged Inspiration Information-isms of “Stand Tall.” You can add Glover to the upper echelons of music-makers, and if Ghostface Killah even tries to make fun of him again — well, he can’t. Because this.
2. Solange, A Seat at the Table – Easily the most gorgeous and most political album released this year. The songwriting here is just superb, all across the board — mysterious tracks that sound like early-70s Motown at its most oblique, fronted by Solange’s world-weary voice and angry lyricism. There really is not a better single this year than the unbelievable “Cranes In the Sky” which absolutely epitomizes the difficulty of pushing deep depression away: you can’t. It ain’t all dark and deep: “Junie” is beautifully, brilliantly groovy, as effortlessly funky as the best of D’Angelo’s best. It’s a double-album-length deal, so it ain’t an easy listen, but wow, is it rewarding.
3. David Bowie, Blackstar – Welp, you know all about this ‘un by now, right? Bowie composed his own damn eulogy that can also be read as a eulogy for all of us at the beginning of the era of Trump. It’s maybe his most experimental album, and that’s saying something, and maybe his bleakest, which is also saying something, but he knew he wasn’t long for this world and imbued this album with every bit of grief and anger he was feeling, and wow, is it phenomenal. Best track: “Lazarus,” just literally the man saying farewell in an utterly brave, painful, gorgeous song. We needed you, dammit, why’d you leave us?
4. Beyonce, Lemonade – A few years ago, the notion that Beyonce was one of the most avant garde musicians out there seemed ridiculous, and I got made fun of for it relentlessly by pop-hating folks who couldn’t see her as anything but a frontperson for music-industry selloutism. Who’s laughing now, folks? Lemonade was a gigantic fuck you to spouse Jay Z, a meditation on female power and philandering and bitterness and love every bit as weird as anything Radiohead ever did (s’true) and ten times more listenable besides. It’s as bleak as Marvin’s Here My Dear and as dark as the Weeknd before he went pop. And she caps it all off with a magnificently minimalist single, “Formation,” that somehow made her an enemy of Trump Nation, and power to her for it.
5. The Monkees – Good Times! – If you think an album by a trio of 70+-year-old prefab pop guys from the 60s doesn’t belong here, then you didn’t hear it, because this album was the kind of stone blast you absolutely wanted from this 50-year-old band — and yeah, they are a band, fuck you very much. Made the way they made their best albums “back in the day,” the band worked with a marvelous collection of writers (Nilsson, Andy Partridge, Ben Gibbard, their own Mike Nesmith and more) and producer Adam Schlesinger to make an album that’s a glorious throwback filled with astounding writing and the still-perfect singing voices of Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith. And yeah, they played on it. And yeah, it’s better than the Stones album from this year (which was also great), which strikes me as a kind of Cosmic Justice.
6. Carly Rae Jepsen, E-MO-TION: Side B – This collection of b-sides from her cult pop collection E-MO-TION is even better than the record proper — it’s just eight perfect, utterly bubblegum 80s-influenced songs with hooks that will seriously destroy your brain. If it had been released at the top of the summer I’ve no doubt it woulda been a hit, but instead it came out during the darkest fall of our lives and seemed like a weird soothing tonic to the shit happening in the world, but didn’t sell worth a damn. Sonically, imagine “Borderline”-era Madonna mixed with Phil Spector’s songwriting team and you’re almost there. In terms of impact, if you aren’t pumping your fist by the middle of side one, I don’t even know what to say. Maybe music isn’t for you.
7. Bruno Mars, 24k Magic – Somehow this Bruno album time-travelled from the middle of 1983 (or, alternately, from a parallel-universe 1991 where electro-pop ruled the ‘waves and combined with New Jack Swing even earlier). It’ll push your ass onto the dancefloor as easily as the best Heatwave (or hell, MJ) album from that era, and even better, the ballads are great. Ain’t no way I’m skipping past the pure Jacksonian gorgeousness of “Versace On The Floor” or the first-dance-first-kiss amazingness of “Too Good To Say Goodbye.” This album is yet more proof that brevity is the soul of wit: it makes its impact across 9 all-too-brief songs and then gets the hell out, never pausing to suck even for a second.
8. Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank You Very Much – Upon which Tribe proves easily and handily that even in their mid-40s they absolutely dominate all other rap groups. Anytime I think “oh, somebody else’s flow is better” you should just play me Q-Tip’s verses on “The Space Program,” some of the smoothest, most slamming lyrical grooving I’ve heard in ages, at least since Jurassic 5 were still valuable. And you bet this album is crazily political and inventive as hell, too: “We The People” is the best of both and their performance of this on SNL was absolute rock-star-ism, just astounding. Two discs’ worth of amazing, amazing hip-hop, none of it remotely “retro” or second-rate. Fuck yes.
9. Glam Skanks – Glitter City – an absolutely unapologetically retro album of fourth-generation Runaways which nontheless managed to rock as hard as anything I heard all fucking year. There ain’t anything original on here but who gives a shit — it’s the real deal, pure snotty post-adolescent rebellion, punk in its purest form, tons of fuzzed-up proto-metal guitar and drum slamming and some of the best vocals you’ve heard in a while from singer Allie Cat (of course). Like dig “Teenage Drag Queen,” which sounds like female Redd Kross and tastes like lip gloss. Or the spoken word bit in the middle of the utterly ripping “Radio Blues” which transported right from 1976: “Hey all you glam fiends and glitter teens!” Oh, it’s a hell of a fun time, this.
10. His Name is Alive, Patterns of Light – I’m not sure when the last time I cared about a His Name Is Alive album was, but holy crap, you bet I care now. This is basically an album of dark cult rock, but instead of odes to Satan, we have odes to physics. No wonder: this album was made to be performed at the Cern Particle Collider and sounds like it sits at the very intersection of dark religion, magic and science that particle physics occupies. It’s spooky as hell, psychedelic as hell and just straight-up wild in way the band never has been before. The soundtrack to a horror movie, but a horror movie about science fiction. Magnificent.