By Max Ufberg
There’s nothing worse than a music snob. I say this as a former music snob.
In a past life, I wrote (uncomfortably earnest) music profiles for an alternative weekly in Philadelphia. It was a fun job — I hung out with musicians who talked fervently about their art and chain-smoked cigarettes, even though we all knew cigarettes were a wretched idea. But it was also an exhausting job, and one that demanded the pretense of pretension: Save for those fabled few who enter what I might call the indie cred hall of fame (Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West), every band has an expiration date. That’s why critics are always in search of a new sound.
Knowing that the much-hyped bands of today become the relics of tomorrow, the music writer — in an endless quest for relevance — becomes as desperate to clinch onto his cool status as the very bands he’s propping up. My problem was that I still kept an old copy of August and Everything After in my car stereo. I was always a fraud.
What follows is a smattering of music recommendations, from staffers, friends at other publications, and a family member or two. Most are newish; some are old; all are good. Are these albums more important in some vague and silly framework than 2015’s set of superlatives? I have no idea.
We don’t purport to be critics, but we can still recommend a song.
‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,’ by Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth starts out like any decent throwback country album: there’s a mix of somberness and wistfulness, mention of a salt-of-the-Earth grandfather, and sparse instrumentation (of course there’s slide guitar). Then, almost three minutes into the opening track, Sturgill lets out a little yelp; on cue, the horns come bopping along and a syncopated beat shambles in. Suddenly it’s as if you’re experiencing Amy Winehouse playing shuffleboard with Townes Van Zandt.
There’s a cool thing about authentic country singers (and Sturgill is one of them): They don’t have to work so hard to convince you of their Southern credential. It’s just embedded in their bones. That allows Simpson to eschew the token countryisms in favor of, say, a soul-flavored horn section, hip-hop-inspired wordplay, even a Nirvana cover (the latter is, for my money, one of the album’s best tracks). Make no mistake: This is a country album. It also reminds us that country, in its purest form, is all about breaking the rules. —Max Ufberg
‘Malibu,’ by Anderson .Paak
It’s hard to earn the title of Dr. Dre’s most charmed protege — but Anderson .Paak did so this year, with flying, California sunset-soaked colors. In his second studio album, Malibu, .Paak alternates smooth, bluesy hip-hop with audio clips from 1960s surfers. It’s the perfect way to capture his home state (.Paak is from the not very musically prolific Oxnard — what up, 805!) — and an exciting showcase for his talents. Dr. Dre (apparently) said it best: .Paak’s voice really does just have “that natural pain.” —Elena Gooray
‘Vibes 2,’ by The Deli
Honestly, I have no idea who The Deli is, and a Google search reveals a non-helpful smattering of the closest sandwich shops. But this Austin, Texas, producer (that’s according to Bandcamp, which is The Deli’s only online presence) is responsible for the album I have undoubtedly listened to more than any other this year. Subtly combining jazz, hip-hop, and a smattering of off-kilter samples, Vibes 2 is a fully realized version of my favorite type of music: mellow, instrumental hip-hop. I can work to it, run to it, ski to it, drive to it. While there have certainly been albums more worthy of conversation this year — ones that fit the mold of “Best of the Year” a bit better — I’d be lying if I gave the nod to anything other than this masterful piece of understated soul. —Wes Judd (fitness editor at Outside;former Pacific Standard editorial fellow)
‘22, a Million,’ by Bon Iver
As Max said, music snobs are the worst. And so I unironically submit Bon Iver’s 22, a Million as my album of the year because I’m the worst. But, my god, what an album. It’s got cryptic symbols, a new instrument that one YouTuber said “sounds like an Atari shitting itself,” and Justin Vernon’s perfect falsetto vocals guiding us through what is undoubtedly his most abstract electronic landscape to date. — David Shultz
‘Blue Jean,’ by David Bowie (a.k.a. The Most Important David Bowie Music Video to Watch When You’re Losing Your Mind in Morocco)
Sometimes the only way out of a bad reality is a strong hit of good nonsense. Ever since November 9th, for me, that nonsense has been old David Bowie music videos, the more frivolous the better — and few Bowie videos (excepting “Fashion”) are more frivolous than “Blue Jean.” For this 1984 single, Bowie débuts as “Screaming Lord Byron,” a rockabilly aristocrat clad in his namesake’s signature Albanian dress. What’s the meaning of the Turkish slippers? Absolutely nothing, except that Bowie looks tremendous dancing in them. (And that make-up! — watch his facial expressions at 0:25.)
This video was of particular comfort to certain American journalists in Marrakech, after the United Nations climate talks were derailed by developments stateside (some kind of a clown uprising; reports remain hazy). After a long day of reporting, we’d kick off our slippers, weep prodigiously, stare at the African moon, eat a small brick of sugared majoun, and get lost in that great honking ’80s sound — a gorgeous powdered confection in which, for three minutes and 22 seconds, you can forget that Bowie is dead and that the planet on which he spent most of his time is melting. — Ted Scheinman
‘My Woman,’ by Angel Olsen
This year, Angel Olsen released My Woman to breathless reviews declaring her gift to be embodying many women: a folk singer, an edgy performance artist, a garage rock star, a chanteuse. And she does occupy those roles on her latest album. But throughout, there’s a clear constant: the kind of songwriting and vocal sincerity that make genre irrelevant. It’s been a year of stand-out Emotionally Cathartic Albums (we’re looking at you, Solange and Frank Ocean). Olsen crafted one of the best of them, just as likely to make you want to slam dance as to cry. — Elena Gooray
‘Moth’ by Chairlift
On their first album, Chairlift mined your standard indie-pop fare of the mid-2000s; it was sweet and catchy and soundtracked a cute Apple commercial. Their second — the one that perked up critics’ ears — was an elastic, but faithful, recreation of ’80s pop anthems. Moth, the duo’s third and best album, is something else entirely. Swooning and menacing in equal measure, Moth is without precedent in how its instincts trend toward the bizarre without ever straying from a sort of parallel reality pop — it’s not hard to imagine an alternate timeline where Moth spawned a few No. 1 singles. In a year filled with releases from powerful, important, popular artists — Beyonce, Frank, Kanye, Justin, among many others — Caroline Polachek’s bubblegum rollercoaster of a voice kept things interesting on the sidelines. Unfortunately, Moth would also serve as Chairlift’s swan song; the band broke up at the end of the year, ensuring that they went out after their best work and that the horror show that was 2016 stung just a little more. —Brendan Klinkenberg (music editor at Complex)
‘Human Performance,’ by Parquet Courts
When your album begins with a grungy nightmarish anthem to housecleaning you know you are far outside the realm of white bread Top 40 radio. And here I refer to Human Performance, the 2016 release from Parquet Courts, a band so loose and unselfconscious they even changed the spelling of their name (and then changed it back again). With tracks that run from “Dust” (“…is everywhere. Sweep!”) to the rootsy jangly surrender song “Already Dead,” the album is a sleigh ride through raunchy grooves, dystopian riffs, and melodies that grind and occasionally crash into a post-punk gnarl. It is very human, and quite a performance: an essential listen for any hater of white bread Clear Channel Top 40 radio. —Jennifer Sahn
‘Sail Away,’ by Randy Newman
I’ll start with the music — the actual tunes — because long before I discovered the brilliance of Newman’s lyrics in this album I was captivated by its music, and the vast range of attitudes it conveyed. In that sense I think only the Beatles are comparable. Hear the mellow soulfulness of “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” and “He Gives us All His Love”; the mime-like mockery so apparent in “Political Science” and “Lonely at the Top”; the raucous sensuality of “You Can Leave Your Hat on”; and the elegant, wistful beauty of “Old Man” and “Memo to My Son”. And how can anyone not be captivated by the calming beauty of the exquisitely composed, arranged and sung lead song, “Sail Away” — only to be blown away by its completely contrary story line: the miserable, horrid deception of slave trafficking, from Africa to America!
Second favorite album: Good Old Boys [also by Randy Newman] — I’d love to discuss it in equal depth but I’m already beyond my son’s meager word limit. —Dad (whose verbose proclivities cannot hide the fact that he’s apparently never listened to an album recorded by anyone other than Randy Newman, or anything recorded after 1975, for that matter)