An abnormally good year for music in an abnormal year. As we close 2016 with either a fond wave of farewell or a single-finger salute, let’s look back on some of the records that made the mania a little less worrisome.

Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!” While it could be derided by some as a nostalgia trip for fans of ’70s funk, I happen to believe that assessment is unfair. Donald Glover, a/k/a Childish Gambino, sounds far less into approximating the sound than in communing with it. In interviews he has said that a family member was in absolute awe of the musicianship in Parliament-Funkadelic, and as a kid this was all around him. Therefore, the transition from rapper upstart to funk/soul singer is not that crazy. Fortunately for all of us, Glover has the wherewithal to actually do the thing versus just dreaming about doing the thing.

Seek out: “Boogeyman”

Cheap Trick – Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello It seems so far away, doesn’t it? That big return to form from the venerated Cheap Trick? I walked into the record with a grudge and a chip on my shoulder. It seemed it couldn’t be a Cheap Trick album without Bun E. Carlos on the drums. In some ways, it still may not be. But it is good, and Dax Nielsen ably fits into this version while bashing the skins. Robin Zander sounds almost ageless, and when you do hear the age it works for the songs, and not against. It’s hard to keep up the arguments against the record once you hear it, despite that awful title.

Seek out: “When I Wake Up Tomorrow”

Mecca – Mecca III A left-field entry to be sure, but for fans of sophisticated rock that combines the occasional heavy riff, the frequent jazzy run, and a soulful touch throughout — not to mention the songs are as hooky as blazes — Mecca provided something really special with their third outing. The regular description for such things is, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.” I concur.  

Seek out: “Gone”

Field Music – Commontime The Brewis Bros. exploit stylistic tensions as few can. On one side is an arch devotion to post-rock aesthetics, where everything is meant to play against expectations. The other side likes the candy coating and defends it rigorously. Once digested, this album manages to give you the sugar rush of classic pop without the guilt that usually follows for swallowing “junkfood.” Nothing junky about this one at all.

Seek out: “Disappointed”

Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence Like a wall of majesty that could lift you up or crush you beneath. Townsend calls that sound the “ocean machine,” a nod to his first proper solo record of the same name and, at one time, the name of a new recording entity. It didn’t happen. Life and hard decisions found him making changes, saying goodbye to some old ways, seeking out new ways, and apparently being all the better for it. Not since Terria has the grandeur and the sheer hookiness of the songs merged so thoroughly. Metal for people who want to feel electric, not burnt up. (There’s also a Ween cover!)

Seek out: “Failure”

David Bowie – Blackstar Is it a sort of heresy to park this release in the middle of the list? Maybe. The majority of the critics’ year-end lists have crowned it king (with Beyonce’s Lemonade reigning as queen), and I won’t argue any of their points. In fact, given some distance, I could easily see myself revising this up to number one. Yet Blackstar remains Bowie’s last great act of tweaking the expectations of the public. A return to the spotlight — briefly — which is actually a hail and farewell. The thing that holds the record back is that it is resolutely from and regarding a man ready to walk off this world. In a year where so many slipped from ground control, it’s too much. The record is a monumental effort, but as the memes say, “too soon?”

Seek out: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
 
Frost – Falling Satellites By daring to merge the sounds of modern dance-electronic with the often rigid requirements of progressive rock, Jem Godfrey, John Mitchell, and company do what prog was designed to do, what it was always meant to accomplish…to be the melting pot for composition, bravura performance and still be “rock.” Falling Satellites accomplishes this without wavering.

Seek out: “Towerblock”

Haken – Affinity I might get dinged for calling Haken’s Affinity “fun,” but that’s what I get from it. Sure, there are some pretty heavy concepts floating around here, but there is a weird playfulness guiding the proggy hard rock that one can easily get attracted to. Nowhere is this more evident than on the track “1985” which merges a heavy, anthemic speaker-buster with interludes that sound like the cheesiest ’80s action movie soundtracks. Even the packaging asks you to fire up the flux capacitor for a spin. So Affinity is a fun record. Sue me.
 
Seek out: “1985”

The Dear Hunter – Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional Front and center, the fifth entry of The Dear Hunter’s “Acts” chronicles displays the narrative skill of band’s founder Casey Crescenzo, as well as his undeniable love for popular music. By which, I mean ALL popular music. Coming out of the supposed “post-emo” rock realm, Act V has plenty of heavy and plenty of the emotional. It also has beautiful acoustic balladry, Broadway barnstormers, and a swing tune that would make a crooner jealous. The album is grand in its place among the other acts, but stands well on its own, and that in itself is a kind of genius.

Seek out: “Melpomene”

Marillion – FEAR 2016 is going down in the history books as the year the world succumbed to madness, when humanity looked at itself in the mirror and said, “Yes, we are only animals,” and consciously decided to act accordingly. Oh, many will say it’s always been like this, but then they say a lot of fairly ignorant things, so why do you give them the credit now? The fact is, given enough time and distance from the spirit of disaster, this weak and timorous being eventually goes back to it because even though it abuses us, we feel closer than ever to it.

Marillion have been writing their magnum opus, their diatribe, their effigy for a couple of years, and the majority of it came to fruition in the first quarter of 2016. Those who will insist that the 6 compositions on FEAR, mostly longform suites, are reactionary screeds are among the “it’s always been like this crowd,” conveniently ignoring that the band was calling the outcomes before the outcomes actually went down. They were speaking about the zeitgeist, the selfish inward-turning, and the disastrous decision that “the new kings,” although they intrinsically despise us, made life easier than fighting for the best of all possibilities.

Selecting a single track to seek out is nearly impossible. In grand prog rock tradition, the whole record is interdependent. But going against prog’s tendencies to linger in splendor and fantasy, this is as real as it gets. The beauty portions are draped in sadness. The angry portions are steeped in rage. Real highs and mighty lows. Maybe in ten years, when Bowie’s Blackstar doesn’t feel as much like an open wound, we’ll revisit FEAR and say we walked it back from the brink. Maybe we can yet say we overreacted and humanity isn’t as self-destructive as we thought. Until that day, no record in 2016 was a clear-minded and purpose-filled as this.   

Honorable mentions:

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker Like Blackstar, it is a farewell, but not quite as adventurous conceptually. It, however, benefits from the still-agile mind and wordplay of one of popular music’s great wordsmiths, capable of speaking these words when the rest of Cohen’s body was failing.

Big Big Train – Folklore Folk prog hasn’t been this good in many years. The band benefits greatly from the presence of drummer Nick D’Virgilio and guitarist Dave Gregory, who bring their bona fides with them and make an already terrific band that much greater.

Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night Elton reclaims his pop star moves from the late-’70s and early-’80s. The title and “what were they thinking” cover art hide (in plain sight) the desire to get up and shake.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool A radical departure for a band who have made radical departures their norm. This album tends to ingest its own vapor trail once too often, but is nonetheless a terrific listen.

The Monkees – Good Times! They are. There’s no reason why this record had to be even listenable. It exists primarily because the fans demanded it. Yet, given the golden opportunity, the remaining Monkees didn’t waste it.

Best left unsaid:

Metallica – Hardwired…To Self-Destruct You know, it’s not a bad metal album. But there isn’t anything on this to get passionate about either. For a band that thrived on records you either really loved or really hated, sitting on this fence in-between is a pain. You will thrill to their return to thrash, but not have incentive from (or possibly recollection of) the songs to want to immediately revisit. But it could always have been worse.

Dream Theater – The Astonishing Yeah.

Drake – Views You kids just love your Drake, don’t you.