Beyoncé smashed the system, Chance the Rapper counted his blessings, David Bowie left a powerful goodbye and more
2016 was seemingly hardwired to self-destruct, as Metallica sang on their furious 10th album – and music stared down the chaos. It was a year of explicitly political R&B molotovs, (Beyoncé, Solange), revolution rock (Green Day, Esperanza Spalding), hip-hop that heals (Chance the Rapper, A Tribe Called Quest) and even one especially poignant country plea from a Red State (Drive-By Truckers). Powerful and unique personalities like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen had the powerful and unique ability to say goodbye with album-length farewells. Anohni sang about the environmental apocalypse over a dance beat. But of course there was also no shortage of messy pop stars, indie rock diarists and proudly indulgent rappers happy to simply let their pens and personalities explode. Here’s the year’s best.
50. Death Grips, ‘Bottomless Pit’
It’s remarkable to think that noise-rappers Death Grips once seemed as unstable as radioactivity: battling record labels, canceling shows and presumptively announcing their breakup via napkin in 2014. Two years later, the Sacramento trio has evolved into a dependably provocative unit that operates at the nexus of punk rock, live electronics and barking energy raps. Fifth album Bottomless Pitoffers further refinement: “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” rattles like an old industrial banger, “Hot Head” applies breakcore dynamics like smeared lipstick and “Warping” stutters on a toy piano melody. Then there’s MC Stefan Burnett, an animated and muscular presence who splits the difference between DMX and Henry Rollins, and whose vocal performance goes beyond mere war chants. When he quietly shrugs “Eh” over Andy Morin and Zach Hill’s whirligig rhythm, he sounds just as devastating as when he’s bellowing “My death is money” on “Ring a Bell.” M.R.
49. Dawes, ‘We’re All Gonna Die’
This L.A. outfit’s first four albums faithfully recreated the folksy, confessional vibe of Seventies Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, but with the band’s former guitarist Blake Mills producing, the studio now becomes Dawes’ playground. “As If By Design” is overrun with wild barroom piano and mariachi horns, while on several tracks Taylor Goldsmith’s vocals are filtered with heavy electronics and the drums and guitars are processed to a digital crunch that recalls the more adventurous side of the Black Keys. Goldsmith’s lyrics are still thoughtful and earnest (“I’m asking you for help/How do you fall in love with anything?” he sings on the title track), but he’s also looser and more playful on cuts like the lead single, “When the Tequila Runs Out” (“We’ll be drinkin’ champagne”). With this bold left turn into sonic experimentation, Dawes proves that you can be faithful to your roots and still branch out. K.H.