Watch the video for Nick Cave’s "Jesus Alone," from his 2016 album, "Skeleton Tree."
Don’t kid yourself. There are tens of thousands of albums released each year and nobody can listen to them all. So all these year-end "best of" lists are really just lists of personal favorites. This one is no exception. Out of the hundreds of albums I listened to in 2016, here are the ones that I kept coming back to the most:
1. Nick Cave, "Skeleton Tree" (Bad Seed Ltd.): Sometimes grief isn’t enough. The personal loss that shadowed this album (Cave’s teenage son fell off a cliff and died last year as the songs were being completed) turns into a personal reckoning. Everything is in doubt: the power of love, the existence of God, the meaning of life — big questions pondered through some of the most intimate, harrowing and beautiful music of the singer’s career.
2. Frank Ocean, "Blonde" (Boys Don’t Cry): "It’s over in no time, the best life," Ocean sings. These songs are like snapshots of moments: fleeting, blurred, destined to fade. Ocean orchestrates his voice into a mini-theater of characters over undulating guitars in this dreamlike song cycle about time and the last flickers of innocence.
3. Jamila Woods, "HEAVN" (Closed Sessions): Woods is a Chicago poet-turned-singer whose gently insinuating voice belies her pointed wordplay about life as an outsider in a divided city. Her music folds together gospel, soul, blues and hip-hop, while adult longing and anxiety rub shoulders with nursery rhymes and childhood reveries — the story of a woman in full.
4. Michael Kiwanuka, "Love & Hate" (Interscope): The singer-guitarist’s 2012 debut album was so retro and respectful it sounded like Kiwanuka hadn’t yet figured out who he was. On the long-simmering follow-up, he sounds like an artist with nothing to lose, a go-for-broke guitarist whose witheringly honest lyrics bring out the soul singer within.
5. Anderson .Paak, "Malibu" (Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/Empire Distribution): The gospel drummer-singer-rapper has been around for a decade on the fringes of a music world that didn’t quite know what to make of him. He sounds like a man living through his last chance, as he links funk and rock, rap and soul with agility and daring. His resilience and optimism in the face of a broken home, poverty and indifference to his creativity shines through it all: "What don’t kill me is motivation."
6. PJ Harvey, "Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island): The U.K. singer has shifted from the personal to the political on recent albums, and her firsthand songs inspired by visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C., bristle with rage and poignancy. Images of beggars and homeless children are set against gray bureaucracies that exist only to perpetuate themselves, and her songs toggle between despair and defiance.
7. Drive-By Truckers, "American Band" (ATO): The Alabama band has been around for nearly two decades, long enough to be taken for granted. But this album hits the reset button, with songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley funneling a world of hurt through their Southern vantage point — clanging guitars, raspy voices and weather-beaten songs that split the difference between news bulletins and personal accountings.
8. Chance the Rapper, "Coloring Book" (self-released): "I don’t make songs for free, I sing for freedom," Chance raps. "Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom." His album — containing multitudes of collaborators and singers — is as much about community as music and connects Chicago hip-hop and social activism to ’60s gospel and freedom marches.
9. Solange, "A Seat at the Table" (Columbia): Beyonce’s sister takes a back seat to no one on her third album, a major statement that blurs genre lines and maintains its deceptively low-key but simmering intensity as it provides a wide-screen view of what it means to be a woman of color in America.
10. David Bowie, "Blackstar" (ISO/Columbia): Released only days before the singer’s death in January, Bowie showed no signs of slowing down or giving up. His final album continued to break musical ground with a fiercely inventive jazz combo, and the singer left behind a typically subversive epitaph: "I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again."
The next 10: Eleanor Friedberger, "New View" (Frenchkiss); Beyonce, "Lemonade" (Parkwood/Columbia); Savages, "Adore Life" (Matador); Kendrick Lamar, "untitled unmastered" (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope); Bob Mould, "Patch the Sky" (Merge); Leonard Cohen, "You Want it Darker" (Columbia); Angel Olsen, "My Woman" (Jagjaguwar); Maxwell, "blackSUMMERS’night" (Columbia); Lydia Loveless, "Real" (Bloodshot); Common, "Black America Again" (Def Jam/UMG).
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.