The beginning of the new year is a time when we look back at the previous year. As we look back on 2016 (a year with some very disappointing Grammy selections), here are some albums that really struck me, some of which are getting recognition, and some of which have been regrettably overlooked.
Best Country Album: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Placing Sturgill Simpson’s newest album in a genre can be downright infuriating. Technically, he’s a country singer, and this album did get a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album (one of the few picks they got right). But at the same time, he also uses a variety of instruments and a diversity of songwriting structures, and the result is an experimental album that’s as much singer-songwriter and progressive indie as it is country. This is clear from the piano and strings opening of the title track to the groovy guitar of “Brace for Impact.” Through all of this, Simpson always keeps a country-tinged vocal style, and does an expert job of straddling the styles he’s melding. This album is, quite simply, a rare treasure.
Best Hip Hop Album: Lecrae – Church Clothes 3
If ever anyone claims that a Christian musician can’t make an impact in the broader culture, one of the first artists I’ll point them to is Lecrae. A case in point for the hip hop artists is Church Clothes 3, which debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200 without any prior marketing. With a couple of exceptions, the mixtape is packed to the brim with solid, thought-provoking songs exploring themes of racism, oppression, gang violence, and other forms of injustice. It has great production value, and the direct nature of Lecrae’s artistry here is moving and compelling. Few albums have really put me in someone else’s shoes to the extend of Lecrae’s Church Clothes 3.
Best Rock Album: Skillet – Unleashed
This was a bit of a tough choice. While there are secular albums that I have really liked (Who You Selling For by The Pretty Reckless in particular gets an honorable mention), I cannot ignore the fact that this is the best album Skillet has released since Collide. While it doesn’t have the experimentation I would have liked to have seen, their execution is spot-on, with hardly a filler song to be found. It’s bursting at the seams with energy, and the lyrical maturity here, the real thing that made this album win out, is almost like the psalms of rock music, if that isn’t too irreverent of a claim to make. Ironically, while this is the album that has brought them into more mainstream success in the secular world, it’s also one of their most spiritually focused albums yet. Check out our review for more.
Best Album & Best Alternative or Indie Album: Young the Giant – Home of the Strange
Young the Giant has never made a bad album, but this one is arguably their most compelling. It’s more thematically cohesive, for one, surrounding issues of immigration and identity. All members of the band are children of first-generation immigrants, and that shows. From “Amerika” to “Jungle Youth,” Young the Giant paints a picture of an uphill battle for many strangers coming to a foreign land, in a way that’s engaging and thought-provoking. The album’s sound, which is never too slow and never too energetic, shows a maturity and thoughtfulness that’s relatively rare among alternative rock groups. In Andrew Warnes’s review, he said “With a perfect mixture of addictive ballads and engrossing lyrics, Young The Giant has made Home of the Strange a sure fine place to be, if not to live.” I’m inclined to agree. I also am inclined to think this the most glaring Grammy snub of them all.
Best Pop Album: Lady Gaga – Joanne
I won’t be offended if you’re surprised to find Lady Gaga on this list. Had I somehow seen into the future and read this list prior to Joanne‘s release, I would have been surprised, as well. But she’s earned it. Not only is Joanne almost completely devoid of the sexualization that has characterized so much of her earlier music, but she’s replaced it with some messages worth engaging. This album takes place after Lady Gaga has separated from her fiance and lost her Aunt Joanne, which is clear in the more mature approach she takes. The album features explorations of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, as well as some bad decisions that she made that grew from that abuse. This is not to say that there are no moral issues with the album – certainly there are (check out our review for more on that). But it’s a vast improvement over Lady Gaga’s previous work, and does so with a stripped-down Americana style that’s as refreshing and interesting as it is different.
The Pretty Reckless – Who You Selling For?
Demi Lovato – Confident
The Lumineers – Cleopatra
What were your favorite albums of the year? Let me know in the comments below!