Rarely have we seen a year so vehemently loathed as the one that's about to wrap up. Before the first quarter had even finished, the internet began sharpening a mantra that seemed wholly appropriate: “F*ck 2016.”
Depression's looming spectre prevailed over nearly all of music, from DIY basement punk to the highest echelons of pop royalty. Almost by necessity, 2016’s best albums -- from Beyonce's Lemonade, to Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, to Leonard Cohen's swan song You Want It Darker, and beyond -- are inextricably linked to anxiety, isolation, hopelessness, self-hatred, and an obsession with death. Here's a closer look at a handful of the best.
"Paranoid... But I see something in you. You're paranoid. " - The Weeknd, "Party Monster."
It's a testament to the overwhelming bad vibes of 2016 that a creeping sense of dread managed to infect The Weeknd's airtight case for MJ-level pop superstardom. While Abel Tesfaye is no stranger to darkness, the ghost that haunts Starboy is a different sort than the ones he danced with on House of Balloons.
Lofty, glittering and cold, like a leased penthouse, the album follows Tesfaye through a series of sexual conquests that seem to drive him deeper into Tony Montana-esque paranoia, making sure to constantly "check the safe, check the dresser for my chains," in case the latest supermodel isn't what she appears. Even on his Kendrick-featuring victory lap "Sidewalks," The Weeknd can't shake the anxiety about being knocked off his perch: "'Cause too many people think they made me, Well, if they really made me then replace me."
"At night sometimes my thoughts collide my body shakes I feel so separated from what I thought I'd be and what I am is there nothing I can do?" - Mannequin Pussy, "Denial."
Some 40-odd stories below Tesfaye's penthouse suite is the basement that houses Philly punks Mannequin Pussy, whose exhilarating 17-minute LP Romantic begins with a caustic "Kiss" and a line that the Ontario producer probably understands all too well: "I am not ashamed to be lonely but I'm afraid to feel it so deeply."
In 57 blistering seconds, "Ten" captures the same self-imposed claustrophobia that Tesfaye spent 18 songs meticulously constructing. Railing against the four walls of her dust-filled room as her voice is swallowed by a cacophony of buzzsaw guitars, guitarist-singer Marisa Dabice struggles to find the strength to leave the house.
"I am freaking out in my mind, In a house that isn't mine." - Car Seat Headrest, "Destroyed by Hippie Powers."
The anxiety peddled by indie rock everyman Will Toledo, aka Car Seat Headrest, is just as viscerally felt, but rather than allowing fear to overwhelm him, he makes the relatable mistake of attempting to go out into the world and interact with other meatbags. Toledo's depression is fused to his sense of humor, so even his most bitter lyrical pronouncements come with the ghost of a wry smile.
"What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys?" He wonders of his youth, "What happened is I killed that f*cker and I took his name and I got new glasses."
"It's hell on Earth and the city's on fire. Inhale, inhale there's heaven." - Frank Ocean, "Solo."
Frank Ocean's Blonde relishes in a similar brand of dark comedy, wallowing in a haze of self-pity and self-medication but still leaving room for the occasional masturbation joke.
Therein lies genius of "Solo," which begins with self-gratification wordplay and slowly unfurls into an aching portrait of a young man hidden in plain sight, isolated from his peers by a brain chemistry he doesn't fully understand. That isolation resonates in Blonde's spare sonic textures, spacious and shining white, like an empty California mansion.
"Your worst nightmare for me is a normal dream, and if I learned anything, is don’t nod off with ya motherf*cking cigarette burning." - Danny Brown, "Downward Spiral"
In a year that saw his neighboring city of Flint, Michigan, effectively left for dead, Danny Brown released an album darker than blood-red tap water. Atrocity Exhibition is the full realization of Brown's nihilistic, self-destructive urges rendered onto wax.
Choking down drugs as if each high might be his last, Brown stares death in the face while cackling maniacally on "Ain't it Funny," but the joke is on him. Atrocity is like Taxi Driver without the Hollywood-mandated happy ending, with a resolute Danny Brown resigning himself to a short an unimaginably bleak future.
"Look up here, I'm in heaven, I've got scars that can't be seen." - David Bowie, "Lazarus"
Blackstar, David Bowie's swan song, is similarly obsessed with the fleeting nature of mortality. In the final stages of his secret battle with cancer, the legendary artist mustered enough strength to return to the studio and render his pain into a profound and moving record. Beginning with the funereal incantations of its title track, death is never far in Blackstar, even on the theatrical "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)," which mentions X-rays and doctor's calls in the midst of its historical trappings.
Despite his immediate proximity to the hereafter, Bowie managed to find the most life-affirming musical moment of 2016 on Blackstar's "Lazarus." Singing with a failing body that would finally succumb just days after his album's release, the Duke reminded us all of the beauty inherent in the darkness:
"Oh, I'll be free, just like that bluebird. Oh, I'll be free, ain't that just like me?"