If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, I envy you. Here’s a quick rundown of what happened over the last twelve months: countless cultural icons died. Senseless violence and destruction pervaded at home and abroad. Some Russian hackers and racist frogs put a petulant baby in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Worst of all, pretty much every one of our predictions from a year ago ended up being wrong.

Despite all the horror, it was a banner year for music fans of all stripes: A Tribe Called Quest and the Descendents came back, Trent Reznor and Frank Ocean delivered on their promises of new music, and a slew of albums by everyone from Solange to Savages caught our attention. While there’s no magic button that will undo everything that happened in 2016, it’s worth trying to take some lessons from a few of the year’s best albums to figure out the best way for us to move forward in the year ahead.

Blood Orange Freetown Sound

Solange’s A Seat at the Table rightfully made its way to the top of many year-end lists, earning praise for its effortless translation of personal pain into something both empathetic and uplifting. But it wasn’t the only album of its kind to make an important statement this year. Arriving just before the brutal police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound was an essential document that explores the unique trauma of the black experience in 2016 America. What makes it vital is the way Devonte Hynes frames that struggle in terms that any outsider can relate to: the search for self-worth, the need to feel wanted, the longing to connect and share our experiences.

Picking up where Cupid Deluxe left off, the sonic template of Freetown Sound speaks to both the breadth of Hynes’ influences and his singular talent as an arranger. Instead of bombastic anthems, the album’s fluid tracklist offers a mix of melancholic vulnerability and quiet hope. Its synth lines, saxophone phrases, and song-stealing guest spots by artists like Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado make these songs feel truly timeless: removed from the present, but not anchored to a specific moment in the past. From the cover art to its final track, Freetown Sound makes the (sadly) defiant assertion that black life-and love-matters. But even more importantly, it reminds us that our joy, pain, fears, and dreams are far more universal than we know.

Touche Amore Stage Four and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree

If there’s one thing we’ll remember as we survey the wreckage of 2016 (besides the dying breath of America’s decaying empire), it will be the unprecedented outpouring of public grief  as iconic figures like David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, and Prince shuffled off this mortal coil.

Thankfully, albums from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Touché Amoré gave us a map we could use to navigate the stages of grief. On Stage Four, TA’s Jeremy Bolm shows us how the stabbing pain of loss hides in the innocuous as he sifts through the remnants of a life lived in  search of “a revelation that will make a difference.” If Stage Four’s lyrics read like journal excerpts, Cave’s Skeleton Tree deftly walk the line between abstraction and gut-punching frankness. When words fail, its instrumentation does the heavy lifting. Extraterrestrial theremins, belching synths and nervous drums combine to convey everything from nauseous despair to withered resentment.

Fittingly, both albums conclude with an attempted return to normality that’s no longer truly possible. Bolm ends Stage Four by walking listeners through what happens in the moments that re-trigger his grief. On Skeleton Tree‘s eponymous closer, Cave “call[s] out right across the sea, but the echo comes back empty”  before ultimately accepting that “it’s alright now.” Grief offers no artistic imperative other than whatever meaning the bereaved can wrest from it, and there’s no definitive point at which it vanishes for good. In a year when death claimed even those we believed invincible, it’s comforting to know that good music can be a source of catharsis and guidance for both creators and their audience.

Young Thug Jeffrey

2016 could have been the year that Young Thug came crashing down to earth. But instead of fading away, his work got better and more vital. Slime Season 3 was perhaps the most entertaining entry in the series to date, and Jeffrey saw him joining forces with everyone from a reinvigorated Gucci Mane to a revitalized Wyclef Jean to assert that he wasn’t going anywhere. Thugger exists on his own plane of consciousness, one where emotive crooning and drawing things in the studio are just as central to his persona as left-field turns of phrase that pack a surprising punch. A line from “Future Swag” like “I know that I look like a lick. I chop off your tongue, ya dig?” is Young Thug at his most clever: self-aware (without lapsing into  self-consciousness), succinct and slyly ferocious. Though Jeffrey’s tracklist is an ode to his influences1though the fact that one track is called “Harambe” sort of throws this into question, unless you’re willing to consider the possibility that Young Thug views his silent martyrdom as a source of quiet inspiration, his strengths as a rapper and beat selector turn it into the kind of project nobody else could recreate.

But you don’t even have to listen to Jeffery to sense Young Thug’s impact. In a year when we lost multiple iconic entertainers who rejected the assumptions of traditional masculinity, seeing him in an Alessandra Trincone dress on the cover was an important reminder that some of the most enduring art is androgynous. Thugger is far from the first of his contemporaries to assert this point: Big Freedia, Mykki Blanco and others have been even more unapologetically self-expressive in their gender nonconformity. But the fact that Young Thug continues to thrive entirely on his own terms- occasionally reaching moments of otherworldly genius in the process- should inspire all of us to reject the assumptions that tell us who we are and how we’re supposed to thrive.

LVL UP Return to Love

As 2016 ended, the prospect of a Trump presidency became more horrifyingly real. I’ve found myself hoping that something keeps us safe from annihilation over the next four years, even if I couldn’t name it. I don’t know if LVL UP’s Return to Love knows for sure what that something is, but it sure as hell grapples with the concept of spirituality in a way I didn’t expect. Couched within songs that ape Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Built to Spill and a whole bunch of slack motherfuckers from the 90’s, Return to Love is a theology lecture for the kids who skipped their youth group meetings to get stoned alone.

Just like with those Jesus freaks who see the Virgin Mary in their grilled cheese, religious signs can be found all over Return to Love if you’re primed to look for them. LVL UP believes in a spirit that “sift[s] through your pores” and a creator that is “ageless, boundless, sexless”.  One thing that often keeps us from integrating spirituality into our lives, however, is the tendency of authority figures to exploit it for their own purposes. Over a guitar that sounds like it was ripped out of Jeff Mangum’s hands, opening track “Hidden Driver” condenses the story of creation and crucifixion into three lines before summing up that tension between personal spirituality and organized authority: “I still think of God on the same way: as the moment in my dreams when I’m fading away, and what takes my place is a radial gradient of cops and priests… making rules for a body within me.” Yet “She2Perhaps a subtle dig at organized religion Sustains Us” indicates that belief has something to offer us if we arrive at it on our own terms: “Look at all the peace it brings to expunge every bit of reason within thee ‘cause we’re already certain it will be totally freeing.” Any alcoholic will tell you that surrendering to a higher power isn’t easy, but maybe once we cross that threshold, we’ll like what we find on the other side.

Throw in other religious tropes like closing doors (will God open another one?), flowing rivers (that are “gaining purpose, moving stronger”) and a tale of lost innocence that ends with pleas for Old Testament-style vengeance (album centerpiece “Pain”) and it’s clear that LVL UP have managed to weave a tapestry worthy of veneration.

I loathe to say we need to repent and get right with God to survive the years ahead. But if searching for some kind of higher power will help you sleep at night, there are far worse prophets than LVL UP to follow. With a band this talented leading the flock, at least the wait for salvation or eternal hellfire won’t be boring.

Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial

Since late 2015, I’ve spent an irrational amount of time hating Car Seat Headrest. Reading endless blog posts about how a 23-year-old named Will Toledo signed to Matador seemingly out of nowhere somehow churned up waves of existential despair within me. Seeing someone younger than me become an overnight success in doing what he loves3unbeknownst to me at the time, Toledo had already spent years releasing a prolific amount of music on Bandcamp only reminded me of how far I felt from achieving anything meaningful. Hearing the singles Toledo released in the long run-up to Teens of Denial only compounded my misery. I couldn’t find joy in the anthemic choruses of “Fill in the Blank” or admire how adeptly “Vincent” transitions from a two note drone into a sprawling epic. I interpreted them as signs that my window for creating anything worthwhile was already closed- if it was ever open to begin with.

Because I love to stew in my own toxic resentment, I kept on listening to Teens of Denial quite a bit after its May release. As I honed in on the lyrics, I realized Will Toledo isn’t any more sure of himself or his place in the world than I am. The songs that made me feel so inadequate were tales of depression, anxiety and the fear of death. I admired his ability to integrate influences like The Cars4maybe too much so- Ric Ocasek was upset about “Not What I Needed” and forced Matador to push back the physical release date and destroy thousands of copies of the album and Morrissey into his songwriting, fusing them with his book smart, precocious wit. Even if I’ve never experienced God via psychedelics or been destroyed by hippie powers, I came to  see him as a close friend who’s always ready with a perfect wry remark to make the absurdity of existence more bearable.  

There was no song last year that did more to reshape my outlook on life for the better than “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” It offers a stunningly simple piece of advice: “It’s not too late… it doesn’t have to be like this.” It’s an of aphorism that’s easy to dismiss unless it originates from outside of your own fucked up head. It might feel like we deserve our unhappiness, but taking a step back gives us the space we need to let go of it . 2016 turned even the most optimistic among us into bitter fatalists. 2017 promises us nothing more than an opportunity to start fresh. May we all remember that it’s not too late to shut up that voice in our heads that drags us down, and that a brighter future is still worth fighting for.

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1. though the fact that one track is called “Harambe” sort of throws this into question, unless you’re willing to consider the possibility that Young Thug views his silent martyrdom as a source of quiet inspiration
2. Perhaps a subtle dig at organized religion
3. unbeknownst to me at the time, Toledo had already spent years releasing a prolific amount of music on Bandcamp
4. maybe too much so- Ric Ocasek was upset about “Not What I Needed” and forced Matador to push back the physical release date and destroy thousands of copies of the album