The list of first-rate musicians lost in 2016 is longer than the pompously pseudo-intellectual Nobel Committee speech justifying Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature with sentences such as “His rhyming is an alchemical substance that dissolves contexts to create new ones, scarcely containable by the human brain.” Seriously.
The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Natalie Cole, Sharon Jones, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, and so many others, often way too young, created a sense that 2016 was on a mission to decimate popular music. Combined with the absence of a truly joyful, cross-genre mega hit like “Uptown Funk” (2015’s biggest Billboard hit, though it was released in November 2014), a sense of musical malaise seemed to pervade the last year.
Yet 2016 produced a lot of great pop music. You just didn’t hear most of it. Below are seven of the best albums or EPs that were released in this lamented year but that did not get the attention they deserved.
1. ‘Parking Lot,’ by The Accidentals
This young Michigan folk-rock trio combines folk, funk, classical, jazz, and rock influences to create beautiful melodies with fun rhythms and super smart lyrics. They are first-rate musicians (the front duo of Savannah Buist and Katie Larson play a combined 19 instruments) who have produced an immensely creative and enjoyable seven-song EP. They did not get a lot of radio play in 2016, but they got a major label’s attention, and you’re likely to know their name in the coming years.
2. ‘Changes,’ by Charles Bradley
The former James Brown impersonator broke through the clutter a bit this year with the video for his “joyful” (Rolling Stone’s word) “Ain’t it a Sin,” but this achingly soulful album reached only 148 on the Billboard charts. His cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” is surprisingly moving. The album is a throwback to ‘60s soul that doesn’t get lost in nostalgia, but gives the genre a powerful revitalization.
3. ‘Almost Paradise,’ by Suburban Living
This is about as perfect a dream pop album as any fan of the genre could hope to get. It’s a smooth, ethereal, airy creation that has hints of early ‘90s Cure and Two Door Cinema Club, but manages to achieve its own identity. A nice blend of pop instrumentation and rock beats keeps the listener engaged and prevents it from feeling too soft or retro.
4. ‘My Woman,’ by Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen is one of those singer-songwriters, like Courtney Barnett, who can make isolation feel really enjoyable. On “My Woman,” Olsen lays beautifully rough vocals over strong rhythms that drive powerful melodies expressed through raw, emotional guitar playing or light, spare keyboard work. She uses the combination of her soft voice and either loud electric guitar or minimal keys to great emotional effect, creating wonderfully dark and lonely tunes.
At times surprising, the melodies are always pretty and her delivery always satisfying. It’s the kind of album you can listen to over and over, preferably alone in the dark with nothing to do but get lost in it.
5. ‘Nights By The Lake/Blunt Claws/Amplified Heart,’ by Hate Week
This little post-punk band on London indy label WIAIWA is better than a lot of so-called punk bands that have come to define the genre. Their anger or rebelliousness, however you want to define it, is muted by catchy melodies that might earn some radio play were radio more hospitable to rock and roll these days. They’ve released exactly three songs, and every time I listen to them I find myself playing them several times because the tunes are so strong. More, please.
6. ‘Impossible Dream,’ by Haley Bonar
Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Haley Bonar’s sixth studio album is a beauty. There are haunting ballads that express great longing and frustration intertwined with upbeat soft guitar rock that exudes a childish sort of hope. She has a great sense for just how loudly or softly to sing, and how to pair a tempo with a melody, so the switches between softly beautiful and understatedly frustrated make for a nice flow to the album that takes you up and down at just the right times.
7. ‘Say It Out Loud,’ by The Interrupters
L.A. ska-punk band The Interrupters released “Say It Out Loud” in June, and it’s a raw, banging middle finger to 2016. There’s a lot of energy in this album to get you moving, and the song “Media Sensation” could be the theme of the 2016 election, no matter your political views.
Although it was frustrating to lose so many great musicians who had a lot left to offer, 2016 did produce some very good music. This is only a sampling and by no means a comprehensive “best-of” list. (I don’t like those lists anyway, because who can possibly listen to everything put out in a year?)
I’ll leave you with my favorite upbeat musical surprise of the year. It’s a video by Nashville band The Daily Howl. The unsigned young band released this great song with a killer hook a few years ago, and it went largely unnoticed. They finally raised enough money to cut a video, which they released in August, and it’s adorable. The song is “Be My Beyonce,” a charming expression of unrequited love. It’s proof that 2016, as lousy as it was, had its wonderful moments.