Top Albums of 2016: Limitation Game

“Maybe this time I can be strong
But since I know who I am,
I’m probably wrong”

-Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”


Here comes the screeching halt. There’s no road left to travel. Please, don’t let it end like this.

The end looks like this: I listened to as much music as I possibly could. I couldn’t give a second more.

The end looks like this: My self-contained thoughts from the past year have sobered and I’ve learned nothing.

I read, I wrote, I ran, I climbed, I fell, I flew, I peaked, I plateaued, I laughed, I rioted. I tried, I tell you.

I guess I did learn something: We aren’t here to do everything as individuals. We can’t possibly. We all shouldn’t have a voice on every issue. We can’t splinter our interests to the point where we accomplish nothing (which I am very close to achieving). I can’t watch every sporting event while going on long-distance runs while writing a book while volunteering at a shelter while maintaining a household while traveling the world while working a full-time job while being a good husband/son/friend while figuring out how to solve the world’s issues.

I shouldn’t try to listen to every album that comes out. It’s madness. And now I’m tired.

My absurd stats for 2016, which are even more baffling considering I didn’t log iPod plays and I left out a month of Spotify listening.

Like a musical hermit, I emerge from seclusion at the end of the year and what madness I exhibited on the inside is reflected tenfold outside.

The end looks like this: What happened to my beloved nation? Time was up, I suppose. Everything has a limit.

This is the end, but only the end of one, not the end of all. I will be here for the foreseeable future because I have goals I have yet to achieve (I’m talking about the arts). The rest of us should stick this out, too (I’m talking about democracy).

I will wake up tomorrow, the toll of this unknown. Without even realizing it, one day, I will reach this limit again. Having endured these trials, I will have enough strength to push past it. I will live to fight another day and, if not, I will live to find another way. As is the human spirit. If I’m smart, I’ll ask someone for a helping hand.

To infinity and beyond.

The Albums

10. Lissie – My Wild West

Defining Track – “Wild West”

I read music reviews, but only for context. There is something to be said of universal acclaim and of collective loathing. Then there are the albums with middling reviews, like this one, which are difficult to discern.

I can only surmise that either a.) the reviewer has nothing in common with the artist he or she is reviewing or b.) the reviewer has the musical taste of a deaf hermit crab.

Reviewers seem to intentionally find the bad in something and let the black ink consume the white page, so to speak. I see the black ink in this and other albums. But the blotch isn’t intrusive and, in a world of cynicism, I would rather focus on the papyral purity. To do so, you must look at the album from the artist’s perspective instead of the reviewer’s.

This album represents the false dreams of Hollywood – how the dreams of millions die while a tiny percent acquire the sought-after fame and fortune. The industry strings you along while the real-estate eats you alive.

Lissie Maurus found her limit, leaving California years ago after seeing the darker side of that lifestyle. In her third album, she found release through the Midwestern-rogue anthems of “Hollywood” and “Wild West.” In a way, Hollywood is the antithesis of how art is reviewed: It focuses on the positives, no matter how minuscule they are.

I remember the first time I went to Los Angeles. The lights shined brighter, the people emitted an enviable aura. It’s enough to make you forget to look up to the stars and give in to the synthetic beauty. And what happens when you do look up? You see nothing but neon lights reflecting down, not a sparkle in the sky. Everything real is gone.

Guess what Lissie did after she left LA? She bought a farm in Iowa. She is a Midwest girl at heart, so its no wonder her music gives me chills.

There’s a bravery in leaving what so many see as the Eden of their craft. There’s esteem to being the black sheep. And I hope there’s respect when you go against every music review site, put together a list half full of misfits and leave out critically acclaimed albums because you value artistry.

But that’s the reviewer putting his perspective onto the artist’s. We’re not off to a good start.

9. Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being

Defining Track – “Life Itself”

Right off the bat, this is the best album title of the year and the cover art complements it with all-American class. All Glass Animals had to do was go back to fundamental journalism.

Those people on the cover? This album is all about them. Lead singer Dave Bayley assembled this billowing indie pop collection from stories he heard from people while on tour. If you haven’t noticed, we live in strange times (all times are strange). In reflection of that, the themes of this album are wild, dark and, above all, real. That is what separates the average Joes from the superstars.

Who listens to the big names to get a lay of the land in which they dwell? Though the Kanyes and Drakes do represent a specific demographic worthy of occasional deliberation, it’s too small and insignificant to matter to a nobody like me. But if you want the damaged and the depraved, How To Be A Human Being is a smorgasbord of caricatures:

  • A sci-fi fanatic living in his mom’s basement obsessed with ray-guns and aliens (“Life Itself”).
  • A 21st century couch potato binge watching Netflix and using a cookie as a coaster (“Season 2 Episode 3”).
  • A homeless man talking about pineapples in his head (“Pork Soda”).
  • A basketball player who flies too close to the sun out of greed (“The Other Side Of Paradise”).
  • A girl who isn’t afraid to whore herself out through college (“Take A Slice”).

Make America great again? We’re exemplary!

We need eccentrics to tell us who and what we really are. I’m afraid to share what’s going on in this splintered conscious of mine, so I offer nothing in terms of human progress and understanding. But the oddballs who have voices in their heads, the celebrities that publicly fail and harlots with no self-esteem represent what is really going on underneath each one of us.

Without them, we’d think we were the only ones who have those thoughts, faults or desires. At least to an extent.

We spent so much of this year appointing heroes and villains that we forgot about the ones filling the cracks, the true patrons of America. I think they still found a way to make their voices heard.

8. NF – Therapy Session

Defining Track – “Real”

Before we dive too deep into concepts, allow us to focus on one of the great parts about music, which is autobiographical songwriting.

I’ve lost contact with popular music faster than I thought I would – I couldn’t even make it to age 30. But most top-40 hits lacks authenticity. I know because I can feel it. Or rather, I don’t feel it.

With the exception of No. 2 on this list, I felt Therapy Session’s raw force more any other album I heard this year. NF chronicles his exponential rise to hip-hop fame, starting with clean vocal precision before whipping up an emotional rap storm. As an aggressive white rapper from Detroit, he might remind you of a certain Eminem. But NF is not him. If you just stand back and take the punches they dish, there are similarities. But listen!

Just because an artist is at the top of the Billboard charts doesn’t mean that they have anything compelling to write about. There are musicians you’ve never heard of who have have some of the most heart-wrenching or inspiring stories you’ll ever hear (Benjamin Clementine, for example). Meanwhile, Jay-Z may or may not be cheating on Beyonce and the world ceases all production to tune in.

Listen to NF’s “How Could You Leave Us” and imagine hearing that on the radio. You can’t. It’s too real. The man weeps on a track about his mother falling victim to pills. His dialogue at the end had me bawling while mowing the lawn.

That is the most extreme yet most telling example of how unfiltered NF is with his craft. There are no barriers between him and his songs. His music is him. The core of album’s message resides in some of the more punishing tracks (“Therapy Session,” “Real,” “Grindin'”). He is a 360-degree rapper, who lives and dies by his success and rhymes about every internal and external struggle. He doesn’t have his own champagne or fashion line, and he leaves the profanity and trashy nightlife stories to the “successful” rappers. So as of right now, he’s the Netflix Daredevil to the MCU Iron Man. So as of right now, he still has work to do.

But he’s getting bigger. The swagger is a new addition to NF’s game, what with “All I Do” and “Statement” letting the rap world know that he’s coming for the top. The biggest question is what will happen when he gets there.

7. James Blake – The Colour in Anything

Defining Track – “I Need A Forest Fire”

Based on my limited experience, in order to learn about love, you should fulfill two requirements: You must experience heartbreak and you must have a firm sense on your own worth and identity. Take the good with the bad, as they say, and allow the sad and lonely times lead into happily ever after. This album is a story of that in-between stage.

As James Blake said himself, he wasn’t going to let his dark days and early fame form his musical offerings. In doing so, he transmitted his own somber mood onto an hour-plus album of soothing self-recognition. Even with all the heavy sensations, Blake gives the whole album a weightlessness to ease the listeners’ burden. This is sadness I can deal with, knowing it will one day lead to finding love.

I’ll give James Blake one other prop here, because he has now become a true pop artist: He collaborates with A-listers, but retains his musicianship. Blake has worked with Beyonce, Bon Iver, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Rick Rubin – a collective of hit music churners. You won’t hear Blake on top-40 radio, however, because he is not a brand.

OneDirection is a brand. Foo Fighters are a band. Rihanna is a brand. You get the picture. James Blake was not built to serve you; he is an artist who works meticulously at his craft. He made sure to improve upon his own talents as an instrumentalist and vocalist until he could do no more – until he reached his limit.

In order to finish this album, Blake chose a path in which we would be wise to follow, whether in love or in our professions: When you need help, get it.

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Defining Track – “Burn the Witch”

I’ve written a lot already, so here’s a little reprieve. If any band could just show up on a best-of list without argument, it’s Radiohead. The musicianship and introspection of this album is so profound, I still haven’t been able to comprehend it all. No one can do what they do.

5. Thrice – To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere

Defining Track – “Blood on the Sand”

I am anger, hear me roar.

At some point this year, I’m sure you’ve said something similar to the muffled end of the above song: “I’m so sick of this shit!” Take a moment to let it out once more, for old time’s sake.

Let us not stifle the anger, but approach it with sensibility. As Thrice has done so many times before, they tackle issues at the core with fury and purpose in prose. The three songs of note here – “Blood on the Sand,” “Black Honey” and “Death from Above” – scream out on behalf of the fear, frustrations and bigotry that has openly plagued our modern society. Pockets have more power than politics. Facts are falling prey to fear. Contempt is more common than compassion.

The systemic grievances are speckled throughout this page and in any online comment section, but they’re enough to make a mild-tempered man foam at the mouth. Allow me to share some sensible ideas: Everyone should be allowed to marry, the world is round and the people who get offended by things that don’t affect them deserve to be offended.

Some of you are out of your minds and you’re making the rest of us, too.

Tapping into the writings and teachings of Tolkien, Seneca and CS Lewis, Thrice asks the same questions as the philosophers of old. And when you revisit the ideas of wise men of old, the subjects are as relevant as ever. My, how far we have come. I wonder when the last time one of our nation’s leaders cracked open one of those blessed tomes.

If you’re angry, let it out. By God, you’ve probably earned it. But in your rage, try to harness it for the greater good. Think about the source and how to quell it. How can we avenge the fallen? How can we end the bigotry? How do we become one?

Thanks to this passage, my computer’s keys now are sticking as I strike each letter. I’m still angry because no one has answers.

4. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Defining Track – “Brace for Impact (Live A Little)”

If we were to go back in the vaults, we could probably define every year, album, movie or otherwise by limitations. It’s one of the secret ingredients to the humanity, you know. Sturgill Simpson presents a good limit, if there was such a thing: How can you raise a child when you are a traveling musician?

Simpson did so the best way he knew how, which is a musical narrative weaving all of life’s lessons you’d expect to learn from a dad. This album is a vessel to teach his son the hardships of love, the importance of good judgement, the value of taking risks and so on.

I said it in the mid-year review, but this fact cannot be overstated: Sturgill Simpson has revolutionized country music. I did not think it could be done. There are layers, cohesive concepts and brass instruments. Trumpets! Now I know it is possible to compose a superb 21st century song with country twang.

As an open confession, I do not actively enjoy country music. Most of it, like candy corn and Kevin James sitcoms, is usually stale and predictable. But country artists excel at fostering love and the pleasantries of life in the most basic terms. The simple things usually mean the most. And here I am, looking to the stars for guidance, forgetting how the bread got on the table.

Simpson straddles the line with both concepts. He tells his son to be mindful of life’s purpose while giving some wiggle room to enjoy it, whatever it is. In “All Around You,” Simpson sings of a “universal heart,” an ambiguous yet all-powerful love that cannot die.

Out of all the artists on this list of limitations, he’s one of the only ones to find a loophole.

3. Anderson .Paak – Malibu

Defining Track – “The Bird”

There’s a changing of the guard. I don’t know who is leaving, but Anderson .Paak is coming. Perhaps he is this generation’s Outkast. Either way, .Paak has subtly dominated 2016 in music (two full-length albums, millions of guest spots, not to mention his performance on Dr. Dre’s Compton in 2015) and Malibu is his breakout collection.

The sympathy builds up while listening to his lyrical portrayals of childhood: .Paak’s step-father was behind bars and his mother dealt with a gambling problem (and eventually found herself in jail as well). He made it through suburban California life thanks to his sisters, friends and music.

He sings/raps his story all over the album, most notably through “The Bird,” “The Season | Carry Me” and “The Dreamer.” It’s the origin story of every lowlife, but .Paak avoided that outcome by pouring his issues into his lyrics and instruments. .Paak even said himself that his life could have taken a dark turn without his music.

He chose a noble path, which makes him an admirable fellow. When I see this man hold his adorable son and I see him flash his beacon of a smile, I see the power of music at work. It’s beautiful.

This line, performed by Talib Kweli, is the reason I love music:

“My job as an artist is making miracles
To show you how to struggle poetic and make it lyrical
Crystallize the thought to make it clear to you
And make the revolution irresistible”
-“The Dreamer”

The arrival of a new-age funk/soul is in .Paak’s hands. And they seem to be pretty good ones.

2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Defining Track – “Jesus Alone”

Before you go jumping into this record, I must warn you that its contents are quite heavy. This is not for your enjoyment. It’s too busy being a melancholic masterpiece.

During this album’s production, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son died after falling off a cliff, a tragedy of immeasurable magnitude. As such, the tone of Skeleton Tree is one of ambience and grief.

Harnessing such a cloud of emotion was immensely painful (as you can see in the powerful documentary, One More Time with Feeling), but the result is one of the most visceral and vulnerable albums I have ever heard. And herein lies the magic of art.

Through certain catalysts, music being one, writing another, artists can summon irrefutable emotions from their past. Seldom do we hear wounds as fresh as what Nick Cave exhibits on this album. This can mean anything to any given listener, but it is the best catharsis an artist can achieve.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds normally fall into the “hard to classify” territory, and casual listeners might find it challenging to grasp on to their music. But as hard as it is to listen to this album in particular, we can classify Skeleton Tree as a one-of-a-kind treasure tethered to an unspeakable tragedy.

1. Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

Defining Track – “Love & Hate”

I warned you about limits. Time’s up, this is it.

Empathy is not an easily quantifiable trait. I don’t know how to tell someone that I feel their pain because I don’t know if I actually know it and they don’t think I am capable of knowing it. So the best I can do is listen to the stories, the ones from those who have hearts with visible piercings.

Michael Kiwanuka wrote a rare album, one that carries you with patient instrumental exploration like Pink Floyd and transcendent vocals akin to Otis Redding. Love and Hate is about a man who has reached his limit with the age in which we live.

The problem is that I don’t know what to say here. Any opinion anyone seems to have on any matter sparks a flurry of outrage from someone on the opposing side. So can we chill out for a second? Let’s just have a discussion, even though I might say the wrong thing.

The title track, “Love & Hate,” puts a stranglehold on song of the year. Danger Mouse deserves a lot of credit for unlocking the true depth of Kiwanuka’s soulful rock – in this track in particular – but the songwriting hits as hard as it needs to. I am at once disheartened, humbled and strengthened. Kiwanuka knows these are rough times, but as a black man, what else can he do? Now I’m asking myself the same question.

As a white man, what can I do? Can I do more? Do I have to care more? You music has moved tears as I nod along, wishing to find warmth for your cold heart. Just tell me what to do to make my feelings matter.

I’m almost done writing, so there should be a lasting message, especially for a year so diluted with wickedness. Unless you were married or had a child, there are few other ways to remember 2016. But there are no lessons because we should already know what we need to achieve a semblance of peace and progression. Don’t hate? Don’t kill? I have a better chance of dumping the ocean on North America.

“I don’t understand the game
Or who I’m meant to be
It’s driving me insane
The way you’re playing me”
-“Rule the World”

I could go on and on. But here it is, the screeching halt. I have limits. Racism has limits. Unity has limits. Music can be a bridge, but even it has limits. Music is supposed to heal, it always does. But I listened to everything and I feel no better. All those hours meant nothing. I am hollow.

I want to know your pain, Michael. Maybe then we could find a cure. Maybe then you won’t have to write another album like this.

I am in my car singing along with the inappropriately catchy hook of “I’m a black man in a white world.” It doesn’t make it any more true.

 Previous Year-End Lists

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

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