A recurring theme with this year’s best albums — and, indeed, with this year, if we’re honest about it — is that it they seem to render traditional critical models somewhat redundant. The utility of the album review has long been open to question in an age when you can hear anything you want for $10 a month: what do you need me, or anyone else, to tell you if an album’s any good for, if you can just listen to it yourself?
More than that, though, the very nature of the records that characterized 2016 seemed to render the whole “Is it good?” aspect of record reviews… frivolous. Two of them — David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker — were profound meditations on mortality by artists whose death would follow shortly after their releases. What can I tell you about those records beyond “They’re wonderful, and you should listen to them”? Another — Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree — followed a tragedy so unimaginable that, again, a score out of ten feels trite. Two more — Solange’s A Seat at the Table and her sister’s Lemonade — were examinations of race in America, a subject that the records in question could tell you more about than I, a white critic from Australia, could ever do.
And so on. As the year went on, the whole idea of cultural criticism came to feel equally questionable: there’s a fascist in the White House, our institutions are under unprecedented attack, so why does anyone care about a review here or there? But out of these questions, some sort of answer emerged: that in a world where certainty seems to have gone, never to return, art and culture are more vital than ever. They help us to understand what’s happened to us; they give us frameworks to process tragedy and mortality; they provide comfort; and, just as importantly as any of that, they entertain us. That’s not as vapid an idea as it might sound: every life needs levity and joy as much as it does profundity and gravity.
And so, with all that in mind, here are the records that illuminated my year: some with a light that’s bold and colorful, and some with the strangely comforting light of the last dying embers of a fire that once burned bright.