It’s no secret that it’s been a rough year. From Bowie and Prince to Leonard Cohen, it seems like we’ve lost an entire wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame within a few months, even guys like Scotty Moore and Leon Russell, whose influence far outshone their Q rating. There were so many more: Merle Haggard. Vanity. Suicide’s Alan Vega. Phife Dawg. Dan Hicks of the Hot Licks. Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns. Juan Gabriel. Guy Clark and Emilio. Buckwheat Zydeco. We could go on.
But all that can at least partially be written off to the natural passage of time. The seams in our threadbare culture are showing everywhere — in the acute social-media exhaustion that set in after the election, the anxiety about the looming rise of white nationalism and the alt-right, or our gradual indifference to the differences between real and fake news. In such a politically and emotionally fraught environment, it’s natural to look to our leading artists and musicians for comfort and guidance, but even their messages of hope have been strangely muted; Beyonce can’t be expected to shoulder such a hefty burden alone. So we had to look extra hard, but but in reviewing the past few calendar flips, we did manage to find a few bright spots. In many cases, simply turning up the volume helped a lot.
With all of the deaths of great musicians in 2016 I’m grateful that Neil Young, my personal favorite musical artist of all time, is still around, prolific and relevant as ever. In June, Young & Promise of the Real released a live album titled Earth, which was recorded during 2015’s Rebel Content tour; the album features some of Young’s classics like “After the Gold Rush” and “Vampire Blues” as well as new classics “Wolf Moon” and “The Monsanto Years” from the album of the same name recorded with Promise of the Real in 2015. Neil also made headlines this year performing at Desert Trip in Indio Valley, California, with fellow classic-rockers the Rolling Stones, Sir Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Who, and Roger Waters in October; the concert reportedly surpassed all of the hype surrounding it and provided some good YouTube clips for fans like myself who couldn’t afford a ticket.
On his 71st birthday on November 12, always the socially conscious activist, Neil visited and performed at Standing Rock, site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to lend his support. On December 9, Neil will release his latest album, Peace Trail, which, like all new Neil Young albums, I eagerly anticipate. It also gives me something to look forward to during the often stressful holiday season. DAVID ROZYCKI
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
One of the constants of keeping up with music is that the cycle never ends, with talented individuals crafting profound, exciting pieces of art from all corners of the world. One way I like to measure this is by looking at my favorite albums of the year and picking out ones that came from artists I hadn't even heard of at this point last year. One was Your Friend, a sublime indie-rock outfit from Lawrence, Kansas that blended introspective rock with faint noise and looped ambience to evoke a quiet desperation. Another is New York's serpentwithfeet, an utterly captivating musician who combined gospel with lurching electronics to sound both familiar and fresh, a strong voice that carried the immense emotional weight of his songs.
Finally, there was Pinegrove, the emo/folk-rock hybrid who managed to write the album Ben Gibbard has been trying to for over a decade now. That's just three of scores of artists I could fill a list with, artists from Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, Berlin and Buenos Aires. No matter how disillusioned you may get with the music industry, or what gets covered, or even fondly lament for a "better time," all it's doing is revealing an inner complacency. There's always new artists emerging making vital, necessary music. You just have to be willing to seek them out. DAVID SACKLLAH
POP MUSIC GOT A KICK IN THE ASS
Look, pop music sometimes gets a bad rap. Some folks hear the words “pop” and automatically tune out. That would have been a mistake in 2016, which featured some of the best mainstream pop in recent memory. Yes, Adele technically released her latest masterpiece — 25 — in November 2015, but the album pretty much owned the first few months of 2016. Then, Drake came along in April and released Views. Response to the record was understandably mixed, as some folks prefer club-banger Drake to mopey Drake. Personally, I find mopey Drake far more introspective and thus more accessible. Either way, “One Dance” is pretty much a perfect pop song, one that helped catapult Views to platinum status several times over. Oh yeah, Houston’s own Beyoncé also shocked the world with Lemonade, among the most personal pieces of musical art you’ll ever hear. This year also featured new releases from the likes of Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga and Sia. All in all, 2017 has its work cut out for it in terms of keeping up with the pop landscape set forth by its predecessor. CLINT HALE
MARLON WILLIAMS & HIS BRETHREN
I'm not sure what kind of elven magic cast a spell on the musicians of New Zealand, but that country is producing some of the best folk singers I've heard in my life. There's Marlon Williams, whose brooding single "Dark Child" details the brutal loss of a son to suicide. There's Nadia Reid, whose rich vocals fill out ominous songs of hardscrabble lives. And there's Aldous Harding, whose voice is so mystic, so ethereal, her music crosses you into another plane of existence. All three of these artists make music that's both down-to-earth and other-worldly, which is what the best folk songs are made of. In a year marked by so much domestic distaste, I'm grateful for these artists. Let's hope more of this great New Zealand music starts crossing the pond. KATIE SULLIVAN
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VULFPECK AT BROOKLYN BOWL
There are few musicians I like watching in action more than the folks in Vulfpeck. Famed drummer Bernard Purdie is one such musician. Naturally, seeing that these two would join forces for a two night stint at the Brooklyn Bowl was exciting even all the way from Houston. Luckily, thanks to the graces of YouTube, there is video evidence available and ripe for watching over and over. Purdie, who in a baller move is wearing a T-shirt of his own likeness, plays on Beatles covers, Vulfpeck tunes, and reprises his own legendary groove on Steely Dan’s Kid Charlemagne. This show is nothing short of a torch passing to the new wave of groove-centric music, led by Vulfpeck and Lake Street Drive. It’s a wave I’m willing to ride into 2017 and beyond. ERIC SMITH
HEY, AT LEAST THEY TRIED
Blink-182, Green Day and Metallica did not release great albums this year. It would be easy to classify them as returns to form, perhaps, but I think after 2016 we can allow ourselves some honesty: all three released records that sounded like they were trying. And I can respect that. It's easy to phone it in at a point, and even if what they churned out weren't classics, there were bright spots at least: "San Diego," "Bang Bang" and "Spit Out the Bone" are all worthy entries into each band's canon. And I get it, it sounds like I'm damning with faint praise, but what you have to understand is that these bands are large parts of why I fell in love with music in the first place. They're the reason that I'm here, writing about music. In a year when we lost so many artists that were iconic, I find... relief... in the fact that these bands are not just alive but fighting to put out good music. Sure, when the year is said and done I'll be talking about Tycho and Real Friends and From Indian Lakes and The 1975 as the artists who put out my favorite things in 2016, but I'm glad my old favorites are part of the conversation as well. CORY GARCIA