by Jeff Fiedler
First of all, let me stress – and I can’t say this enough – that this is not a “Best Of” list; music taste is subjective, after all, and I always find “Best of” lists slightly pretentious for that reason. These are simply the 2016 releases that I personally enjoyed the most, and I don’t pretend to speak for anyone other than myself with these lists, and I’ve consequently made a point of excluding albums I didn’t take to as instantly, no matter how much – or how many – other music critics may have fawned over them. [Let me also say here that as a longtime David Bowie fan, it really pained me to not include Blackstar on here, but as artistic and interesting as it is, interesting doesn’t automatically mean the same thing to me as greatness, and I’m honestly not sure that I’d even rank it among my top fifteen or twenty favorite Bowie albums. Not that I think it’s a bad album – on the contrary, it’s quite stunning – but it was just a little TOO uncommercial an album for my own personal tastes to land on my year-end list. I think it’s admirable – desirable, even – for artists to be artistically adventurous, but even experimental albums like Station to Station and Low still have their hooks (i.e. “TVC 15,” “Sound and Vision,” “Golden Years”) to make them at least partially accessible to pop buffs, whereas Blackstar is far more uncompromising, and I tend to gravitate towards albums that strike a bit more of a balance between the two extremes.] Consequently, this self-admittedly is probably not one of the hipper year’s-end lists you’ve read in recent weeks, proud though I am of it all the same, and if you think my choices are a little less than cool, you may want to check out our own Brian Erickson’s admittedly much-hipper top-ten list (as revealed on the December 19, 2016 episode of The Great Albums Podcast) if you haven’t already. There’s no denying that I do not have the world’s hippest record collection – if you scan my shelves of records, you’ll find plenty of discs by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, XTC, Frank Zappa, The Replacements, King Crimson, and The Clash, but you’ll simultaneously run into discs by, say, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Air Supply, Peter Allen, and the Carpenters; I just love music, plain and simple, no matter what the genre, how hard or how soft, how mainstream or indie, commercial or experimental, hip or painfully unhip, and there’s extremely little music out there that I’m NOT willing to listen to or can’t find something about that I enjoy – and for those of you Great Albums listeners or readers out there who may have cringed at some of the artists or albums I’ve chosen to cover in my Discog Fever or Albums from the Lost and Found columns over the last twelve months, you may be relieved to hear that I am stepping down as a weekly and regularly-scheduled contributor to this blog at the end of February to go focus on several other pet projects in my free time, not in the least to start my own local record label. (Conversely, for those of you who have enjoyed my columns for The Great Albums over the past year, I do hope to still post a column on here from time to time when I have the opportunity, so I will very likely remain involved with the podcast in a diminished capacity and won’t disappear entirely.) Like my record collection, this list is pretty all over the place stylistically, so if nothing else, this piece should at least be fairly amusing and fascinating, even if you don’t necessarily agree with any of my selections. So, without further ado, let’s jump right into my Top Twenty favorite albums of 2016 …
20) Walls, Kings of Leon
Yes, the album cover is one of the most unappealing album covers by any band in recent memory. The hideous album art aside, however, I haven’t enjoyed a Kings of Leon album this much since Only by the Night. And how “Find Me” has not been released as a single yet is one of the biggest head-scratchers of the year; that one might actually be my favorite song by the band to date.
19) Rehab Reunion, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers
He may not get even a fraction of the attention these days as he did during his days fronting Bruce Hornsby & the Range, but Hornsby has very quietly released a healthy helping of fine discs of varying genres (ranging from adult-pop to jazz to bluegrass) in the intervening years, and this is one of his most fun experiments yet. Hornsby unexpectedly steps away from his piano entirely for this mandolin-drenched outing to surprisingly delightful results. Songs like “Soon Enough,” “Tropical Cashmere Sweater,” and the creative “Tipping” (likely the first song ever crafted about estimating what to tip your waiter) are a sheer joy.
18) Joanne, Lady Gaga
I never thought I’d ever be putting a Lady Gaga album on a year-end list of favorites, but this disc won me over. I still have trouble warming up to her prior discs, but I can honestly say I really like this one, especially the rock-tinged sounds of “A-Yo.” Here’s hoping she keeps working with Mark Ronson in the future, because he really brought out a whole new side of her I never would have thought was there.
17) A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
Arguably their finest disc since Kid A, this disc is a really hypnotic and beautiful album, but it also benefits from the band showing a willingness again to craft something just a tad more radio-friendly than normal, as they do on the excellent single “Burn the Witch.”
16) blackSUMMERS’night, Maxwell
The second installation in a planned trilogy (begun with BLACKsummers’night) from one of the most intriguing R&B artists of the last three decades, Maxwell is even more ambitious here than on his last outing, but not so much that it becomes polarizing, and though nothing here sinks in quite as instantly as the still-charming “Pretty Wings” from the last record, the tracks are all interesting enough to merit repeated listens and gradually work their way into your brain, especially the soulful grooves of “Lake by the Ocean.”
15) Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello, Cheap Trick
Bun E. Carlos may sadly no longer be drumming for the band, and he is missed, but this album is the legendary power-pop band’s best work in years, and the first half in particular is absolutely smoking, thanks to great rockers like “Heart on the Line” and the wildly catchy “No Direction Home.”
14) Heads Up, Warpaint
Like the last Tame Impala album (Currents), this disc strikes the perfect balance between highly artistic and daring indie-pop and ice-cube-cool, near-ambient, catchy dance grooves. It’s hard to resist moving along to cuts like “New Song” and “The Stall.”
13) You Know Who You Are, Nada Surf
The whole disc is enjoyable, but I cannot get enough of that first half. Cuts like “Friend Hospital,” “Cold to See Clear,” “Out of the Dark,” and “New Bird” are fabulous.
12) I Still Do, Eric Clapton
Reuniting with former producer Glyn Johns, who had helmed both 1978’s Backless and Clapton’s greatest studio album of all, 1977’s Slowhand (the disc that spawned “Lay Down Sally,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight”), Clapton turns in his finest and most inspired album in years.
11) The Suffers, The Suffers
One of the most promising newcomers of 2017, this Houston band sets itself apart from the rest of the retro-R&B pack through its sheer eclectism; sure, they might be primarily R&B/soul-oriented, but they stylistically dabble in a little bit of everything and also have a hint of rock to them that makes them comparable at times to a Blood, Sweat & Tears. (Both bands have amazing horn sections, to be sure.)
Stay tuned tomorrow for my Top Ten favorite discs of the year, plus a special surprise bonus list!