As the Age of Trump dawns, many artists are rediscovering resistance, rebellion, and political commentary. In that spirit, here’s a list of my favorite albums of 2016, with a heavy emphasis on music that spoke to our moment.
In taking simultaneous aim at both a wandering lover and a faithless nation, Beyoncé demonstrates yet again that the personal is most decidedly political. Both a classic breakup album and a powerful protest album, Lemonade makes quite clear that equality must be achieved behind closed doors and on our city’s streets. When Beyoncé sings “Ima riot through your borders” she is talking at once to the lover who scorned her and the country that would deny her. When she takes a baseball bat to a series of parked cars in the “Hold Up” video, her targets are private and public. Beyoncé’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton in Cleveland sent a powerful message about sisterhood and the possibility that a woman scorned could overcome and knock down the final barrier to success: that this goal eluded Hillary in the end demonstrates that happy endings are easier to achieve on wax than they are in real life.
Drive-By Truckers—American Band
Over their 20-year run, the Truckers have told the stories of men and women—out of luck, down and out, on the run—whose lives were affected by a government too indifferent or malignant to care. American Band is their most explicitly political work—for the first time the band is lifting the curtain that forms the everyday backdrop to their characters’ lives to show what’s behind it all. “Surrender Under Protest” is the perfect song for the aftermath of an election in which the loser received several million more votes than the winner: “Compelled, but not defeated. Surrender under protest if you must.” “Ramon Casiano” explains how we got here: “It all started at the border and that’s still where it is today,” and offers an explanation of our next president’s appeal: “He had the makings of a leader, of a certain kind of men, Who need to feel the world’s against him, Out to get him if it can.”
Radiohead—A Moon Shaped Pool
We have been looking for scapegoats since the ancient Hebrew priests laid the sins of the people on a goat and drove it into the wilderness. On “Burn the Witch,” Radiohead tell that tale anew—this time with our ire directed at the powerful female figure of the witch. It’s a violent, paranoid story—“Stay in the shadows, cheer the gallows, this is a roundup, this is a low flying panic attack”—and a timely update for a year in which Hillary Clinton was branded “a lying witch” and worse, and Donald Trump promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. The album sounds panicked—strings are struck rather than bowed and a claustrophobic buzz hangs compressed over Thom Yorke’s melancholy voice.
Sturgill Simpson—A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Just before Labor Day, Sturgill Simpson went to war with Nashville. In a long Facebook post, Simpson accused the Academy of Country Music of ignoring “actual Country Music” in favor of “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit.” Simpson’s protest was motivated by the announcement of an award that the ACM planned to name after the late Merle Haggard. As far as Simpson was concerned, the country music establishment had disdained Haggard while he was alive and was hypocritically appropriating him after his death. Simpson wasn’t the first country musician to rebel against Nashville and as long as Music Row is determined to appeal to a mass audience he won’t be the last. A Sailor’s Guide is indeed a rebel’s album that plays with form and convention. It’s conceived as an open letter to his first-born son—a filial love letter set to horns that come by way of Brooklyn rather than Nashville. On it Simpson urges his son against a life in the military and covers Nirvana’s In Bloom and its criticism of careless gun owners—not exactly typical country music fodder. In a nation divided between red and blue, Simpson challenged convention and preconception successfully: A Sailor’s Guide hit number one on the country charts—a feat achieved, Simpson wrote, with no help from the country music establishment.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds—Skeleton Tree
A harrowing, grief stricken work released in the wake of horrible loss, Skeleton Tree offers few concessions to the listener. As Cave was composing Skeleton Tree, his 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. Cave begins the album by laying bare, “You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field.” The music is foreboding, the imagery biblical, and faith offers no relief: “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief,” Cave sings. And so, alone, he is left to repeatedly cry out, “With my voice, I am calling you.” On “Girl in Amber” Cave seeks to preserve what has been lost, practically weeping, “Let no part of her go unremembered. The phone it rings no more.“ A powerful, and difficult meditation on grief that concludes “All the things we love, we lose.”
Hiss Golden Messenger—Heart Like a Levee
“I’m not a protest singer, not in any obvious way,” Hiss Golden Messenger’s Mike Taylor recently told The New Yorker. “But those who do not understand how the personal and the political are deeply interconnected do not understand art.” Since 2010 Taylor has examined our obligations to one another and our relationship with God, setting the deepest questions of faith and family to a homebrew of folk and country and gospel. Taylor’s first album was recorded on an acoustic guitar at his kitchen table as his newborn slept in the next room. Levee’s sound is considerably louder—as Taylor has achieved greater success, he has expanded his musical palette to showcase a funkier, brassier side. Although its sound is a bit shinier, Levee is about the basic quest to balance our commitment to our loved ones with our pursuit of art and commerce. Anyone just off a campaign will know exactly what Taylor means when he sings, “I was a dreamer babe, when I set out on the road, But did I say that I could find my way home?”
Last March the Gloaming, a traditional Irish “supergroup” led by world class fiddler Martin Hayes, played a week of sold old concerts in Dublin’s National Concert Hall and were hailed as “national treasures.” The Irish Independent stated, “They deserve to be celebrated and cherished.” One month later, in April, tens of thousands turned out in Dublin and across the Republic of Ireland with great fanfare as the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising against the British. Irish music and Irish history are deeply entwined—and the struggle for independence drew from a deep awareness of both. Hayes brings an encyclopedic knowledge of that heritage to his playing, but he is not limited by it. The band’s second album is both deeply respectful of tradition—hundreds of years of reels, and jigs and airs—and determined to add to the canon. Hayes is aided in this quest by his bandmates, particularly the boundary pushing of Thomas Bartlett on piano and the majestic vocals of Iarla O Lionaird. It is a vibrant, moving, emotional, searching work, and a triumph.
A Tribe Called Quest—We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
ATCQ return from an 18-year hiatus to deliver the election year album we needed. Tribe long ago perfected the art of sounding simultaneously insistent and laid-back, and We Got It From Here successfully walks that same tightrope. What’s new in 2016 is the context—Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, and the debate over the Confederate flag. “The world is crazy and I cannot sleep,” Q-Tip raps on “Melatonin,” echoing the laments of many Clinton voters since the election. On “We the People,” Q-Tip opens by responding to Donald Trump: “We don’t believe you, because we the people, are still here in the rear, ayo, we don’t need you.” Later he mimics the president-elect’s message: “All you black folks, you must go, all you Mexicans, you must go, all you poor folks, you must go, Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.”
Bob Mould—Patch the Sky
At 55, after an occasional detour into house music and professional wrestling, Bob Mould is enjoying a late career renaissance by doing what he does best: composing great fuzzed up melodies, turning the amp up to 11, and howling about life’s challenges and setbacks. Mould describes Patch as both the “darkest” (lyrically) and “catchiest” (musically) of his recent albums, and he is right—you will hum along until you focus on the lyrics—suicide, breakups, and all “the ghosts and demons” that typically inhabit a Mould album.
75 Dollar Bill—Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock
Last week a young woman wearing a hijab was attacked on the New York City subway by three men screaming “Trump” and “Go home.” This was the 34th reported bias crime in the city since Election Day. In comparison, during the same period last year there were 13 bias incidents reported to police. 75 Dollar Bill are a New York City guitar and percussion duo that play a mix of North African blues, San Francisco psychedelia, and New York noise set to a Bo Diddley backbeat. It’s a melting pot, and a wordless rebuke to the very idea of division and category. This is ecstatic music with big, open ears and everyone is welcome.
Howard Wolfson is the director of advocacy at the Bloomberg Foundation and serves as a senior advisor to Mike Bloomberg. He previously served as a deputy mayor for the City of New York and as communications director to Hillary Clinton.