When we weren’t busy watching sports contests, we listened to some stuff. Here are the best things we heard this year.
I won’t claim that Metallica’s embarrassingly titled Hardwired... to Self-Destruct, was anywhere close to the best album of the year, or even my favorite, but it was 100 percent the album that made me the happiest to realize did not suck. This is the way of things for a Metallica fan these days: Wait ages for an album and pray it’s not humiliating to the band and to the listener, because that’s the impression you’re all stuck with for a long time, not knowing if there’ll be another one.
Let me tell you that Hardwired is objectively good. Not “good for a bunch of 50-year-olds,” not “good compared to Lulu,” but a genuinely enjoyable, absorbing album that I fully expect to revisit long after the novelty of listening to new Metallica wears off. There are, let’s say, six excellent songs on here. Low expectations or not, that’s a hell of a showing from the greatest metal band who ever lived, 35 years on. - Barry Petchesky
“THE GUY IS DRUNK! BUT THERE HE GOES!” Never mind that the Idiot teen in San Francisco says he wasn’t drunk, or even an adult. Kevin Harlan’s eyes for your ears on September’s Monday Night Football incident is the best thing I heard in 2016, and maybe ever.
In any normal year, we’d be talking about a Gusgasm or something on Russian or Spanish-language television. But Kevin Harlan—who, despite being one of the top TV announcers in the world, still calls national games on Westwood One radio—topped them all with his enthusiasm and vigor for the kid who was “BARE-CHESTED! BANGING HIS CHEST!”
At the micro level, the best thing I heard is Harlan’s post-coital sigh once the incident is over. It’s magisterial. - Tim Burke
I’m a goddamn sucker for covers, particularly if they are stripped-down and morose, so I knew I was going to like Julien Baker’s take on Death Cab For Cutie’s “Photobooth” before I even hit play for the first time.
What I did not expect was to like this version of the song so much that I now become visibly disgusted when I try to go back and listen to the original. Like all the good, thoughtful teens of my era, I spent a lot of time listening to Death Cab in my car, and I used to nod along pleasantly when “Photobooth” came on. But now I’m just angry I ever wasted any time listening to a lesser version of the song. In my opinion, Death Cab should just turn their entire catalog over to Julien Baker and be done with it. - Tom Ley
Look at this guy, finally getting around to an album released in 1959. Anyway, I was never really into jazz when I was younger, despite—or perhaps because of—having a brother who made it a career. But this year, while listening to Dave Brubeck, a lightbulb suddenly went off in my head, and I fell in love with jazz. It felt like I was high (I wasn’t, at the time) and that I finally got it, man.
On Time Out, the first frenetic, off-kilter piano notes of “Blue Rondo à la Turk” immediately hit, and the album never lets up, with an energy that pulses through each song. It grabs at you and demands your attention, and it’s absolutely worth giving in. - Kevin Draper
I explained my undying allegiance to The Struts back here in June, but I just want to reiterate that they were the only good thing about this year. Everything else should be incinerated.
I thought I would get sick of Everybody Wants and I didn’t. If anything, I’m listening to it even more. It’s like the thing is fucking enchanted. I can put it on and be happy, and that’s no small thing right now. God bless these fuckers. - Drew Magary
This year belonged to the Knowles sisters, better known as Beyoncé and Solange. Are they the obvious picks? Yes, and thank God they are. In 2016, the year black women showed up and did the damn job, while much of the rest of America didn’t listen, the two most important, beautiful, moving, heart-wrenching, soul enriching works of art came from two black women meditating on the lives of black women, created and delivered on their own terms. And all of America stopped and listened because these albums were that fucking awe-inspiring.
Don’t act like you don’t know exactly where you were when Lemonade dropped and don’t pretend your jaw didn’t hit the floor the first time A Seat At The Table’s opening track hit your ears. I still remember telling my husband to cancel all our plans because our butts would be on the couch watching Lemonade when it dropped, and then insisting afterward I had to buy the album because it was too damn beautiful and I was sure I had missed so much. A Seat At The Table came quietly, but that didn’t make it any less powerful. The moment I heard Tina Knowles’s voice saying, “it’s so much beauty in being black,” I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to sit on the floor and just think.
This is what great art is about, moving people, changing people, reflecting back our best and our worst, even if it’s not the experience you’ve lived. Nobody else did that this year like Beyoncé and Solange, not even close. So many writers have expressed this thoroughly and beautifully, so excuse me while I link out to them a bit gratuitously. Even then, it doesn’t feel like enough. At some point, words fail. Just go listen. - Diana Moskovitz
On April 21, 2016, Prince Rogers Nelson died. I spent the day, as I’m sure you did, reading odes to him and spinning his cover of “Creep” repeatedly for some reason, but that night I went to go see DJ Dodger Stadium play 1015 Folsom. Towards the end of the set, the lights went purple and a disembodied echo of Prince’s voice rang around the room like we were at a wake put on by the man himself (it would not have been out of character.) Out of all the songs in the Prince catalog, “Nothing Compares 2 U” made for a pure, somber send-off.
DJDS debuted the song months earlier, but it felt like it came from a specific place of pain, like it was created just after Prince’s death as a tribute to him (in fact, the duo had no idea that the track, made famous by Sinead O’Connor, was originally written by Prince.) Prince is, of course, present in the song, but it’s more like he’s dancing on the fringes, traipsing back across the stage to let you know “I go out every night” before dipping out for another few minutes. If DJDS simply dropped the needle on any song on “Purple Rain” it would have been just as cathartic, but something about breaking an old standard and reconstituting it in a different arrangement feels like an even more honest homage. - Patrick Redford
I thought I should try to get through these year end lists without mentioning my wedding but I got married in 2016 and that was the best part of this, or any other year. As a person who derives absolutely none of my self worth through musical affinities—this is not a judgement call just a personality quirk—I thought I didn’t care all that much what songs we picked for different parts of the wedding. But a thing about music, it’s evocative and increasingly omnipresent, which means that in the seven months since the wedding, the songs I associate with that day have been one of the surest sources of spontaneous joy. None of these were released in 2016 but in particular I have an emotional attachment to Alabama Shakes’ “I Found You,” which played during the bridal party processional; Deer Tick’s “Miss K,” which played while I walked down the aisle; and the acoustic version of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” which was our first dance song. If you’re judging these choices, please don’t tell me about it. - Hannah Keyser
The greatest rock show I saw this year, The Who this spring in D.C., was lousy musically. Just awful. The concert’s greatestness and lousiness both came from Pete Townshend being sick.
Townshend, the legendary British band’s 71-year-old guitarist, songwriter and heart & soul, stepped up to the microphone shortly after hitting the stage at the Verizon Center, the big downtown arena, and tried to announce that he had some sort of virus. But the sickness had taken almost all of his voice, so just getting those words out had a guy who so many years ago was the most dangerous man in live rock and roll looking pained and sad and real frail. It seemed like the show shouldn’t go on.
For me and the late-middle-aged geezers that packed the arena—my generation, for sure—Townshend’s confession of infallibility turned the night from your standard classic rock show into an existential crisis. This was a band that had replaced its irreplaceable original rhythm section, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, after they both died cliched rock and roll deaths (drug overdose and drug overdose, respectively), and kept playing. So if this guy and this band had reached a point where a few germs would stop the show, what chance do the rest of us have of getting through the day?
The band edited the tour’s standard set list to cut some tunes, like “Eminence Front,” where Townshend had substantial vocal duties, and on others his lifetime pal, lead singer Roger Daltrey, also 71, sang extra lines. But Townshend decided to stand and deliver “I’m One,” a country rocker from Quadrophenia about overcoming teen awkwardness with a loud guitar, a shot. Not only that, he rendered the song as a solo acoustic number, and handled all the singing by himself, to make his frailty impossible to ignore.
The performance, full of unintelligibility, was absolutely dreadful. And as riveting as any I’d ever witnessed from this band, which I’d seen countless times going back to the 1970s, and any other. At song’s end the crowd roared like he’d won a world war. And then came “Baba O’Riley,” the inevitable anthem that Townshend wrote all those years ago to lampoon the Woodstock nation that embraced him as a rock god. When it reached the bridge, Townshend was supposed to take over lead vocals from Daltrey. On this night, he couldn’t get through the opening line.
But as Townshend could be seen mouthing “I’m sorry,” Daltrey and all us old folks in the grandstand shrieked every iconic word for him. About the time I’d finished, “Don’t cry…” I was tearing up. I was crying for me, not Pete, and remembering the day when I was 11 years old and took a bus to the Seven Corners shopping mall in Falls Church, Va., to get to Harmony Hut to buy Who’s Next. That was the third album I ever bought with my own money, after Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping and the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, all because the Who disc had “Baba O’Riley.” If I never again heard the song as originally recorded, I’d be very happy. But this version, with a diminished Pete Townshend unable to hold up his end but us fans picking him up and getting him through it, was amazing and revelatory.
When the song was over, and everybody screamed some more. We never really hoped we died before we got old, and we were glad we didn’t, because we got to see this. You had to be there. - Dave McKenna
I’m the type of music listener who, when I find a song that I really love in a particular moment, I’ll replay it over and over for a truly disturbing amount of time. I regularly find myself playing the same song for an hour straight. (In those instances, alcohol is usually involved.) With ones I’m particularly obsessed with, this can go on for weeks at a time.
I spent most of the month of September listening to Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and especially to “Nights.” It’s the best track on a great album, with the song’s three distinct musical segments and Frank’s typically poetic and crystal clear writing giving listeners plenty to become infatuated with. It’s the last segment though that I kept returning to—so much so that I became quite adept at dragging the tracker on my phone to about the 3:28 mark to get straight to the best part.
Blonde very clearly took up the divergent, interestingly though not entirely successfully woven threads Andre 3000 was playing with on The Love Below and expertly stitched together a masterpiece out of them. The distinct inflections of inspiration from a wide breadth of disparate musical genres, the seamless merger of singing and rapping, the efforts to wrestle what love means to these famous and introspective 28-year-olds, the instrumental and lyrical fearlessness—Frank’s album, as Andre’s had before, features it all, and he does so even better and more assuredly than his predecessor.
Nowhere is this clearer than on “Nights.” Whereas Andre spent much of The Love Below thinking about love in the abstract—rhapsodizing its power and pleasures, yes, but also doubting its alleged permanence, fearing the vulnerability it demands, worrying about whether he’s fully noticed and appreciated it in past relationships, etc.—Frank is more interested in how love feels first-hand; how it shifts, heats up and cools off, changes your perspective, etc. “Nights” is a good example of all this, as it starts with the end of a relationship and the feelings of anger and pain and adopted-bravado that comes with a break-up, and by the end travels all the way back to the warm memories of the past, when the relationship was fresh and beautiful.
Frank writes about love and memory and aging from a place of love. Because of that, it’s easy to fall in love with the songs themselves. - Billy Haisley
I know nothing about Ethiopian jazz beyond this song, which I listened to every fall morning while watching dead leaves pinwheel down from the sky. Something about this sepia jam makes me feel prematurely nostalgic for the moment I’m presently living in. Much more importantly, they played it in our office bathroom last month and I had the serenest pee. - Giri Nathan