2016 was a hard. Like really hard. Again. Shit happened. First of all, people died. I don’t usually get overly sentimental about deaths of celebrities and public figures. When nearly everyone in my social media feed all make the same damn post about the same famous person dying, I tend to roll my eyes at how weird people are on the internet and then maybe feel sad for a moment. People get old and then they die. Even famous people. Sometimes they die when they’re not old. This will never stop happening. But then David Bowie died. David Bowie. The Starman. That really shifted my perspective. This time around, I wasn’t annoyed by countless posts on Facebook. I was amazed at the realization of just how many people were just as affected by his art and really, his existence, as I was. Then of course, Prince died. And Phife Dawg. And Leonard Cohen. Sharon Jones too. Meanwhile in the world of the living, black lives continued to not matter in America and yet a white man served 6 months in jail for raping an unconscious woman. A fascist who jokes about sexual assault was elected to the goddamn presidency. Everything is going to shit and I’m left here with all my privilege and a broken brain just trying to take care of myself. While others fought the good fight for social justice, I just tried to stay afloat. My depression and anxiety reached new heights. It got really bad. Fortunately, I reached out, built up my support team, and found new coping skills.
There was a Sunday morning early in the summer of my nervous breakdown, I woke up and realized I maybe didn’t want to be alive anymore. That’s a horrifying moment. Wanting to be dead and still knowing that I probably was not going to hurt myself. I can’t honestly state that knowing I wasn’t going to kill myself was even remotely comforting at the time. Maybe more disappointing than anything. Somehow, I crawled out of bed and immediately made a playlist. I titled it You Are Not Going to Walk into Traffic. Mostly songs that conveyed a message of shit may be hard and horrible but you can and maybe should keep trying. At least keep breathing. Right now. In this moment. I listened to this hastily pieced together playlist on repeat for much of the day while breathing through the anxiety and just trying to not be completely swallowed by the depression.
Speaking of anxiety, you may recall last year that my primary musical coping skill was none other than Taylor Swift’s brilliant work of art/stupid pop album 1989. Yeah, I still don’t know how that happened but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least just a little excited to see what T. Swift does next. But I digress. This year, the Jason’s Best Musical Coping Skill award goes to my Calm the Fuck Down, Jason – Spotify playlist, an excellently curated body of ambient, drone, noise, and piano music. If you suffer from anxiety or if you just want cool background music on while you do yoga or masturbate or get high or whatever, follow my playlist. It’s fucking awesome. No really, this playlist helped me through the absolute worst, most prolonged anxiety attacks of my entire life. When I couldn’t handle listening to much of anything, this playlist delivered.
Through all of this, I’ve also gone through a fucking arsenal of drugs trying to hold it together: hydroxyzine; buspar (lol, was that one actually supposed to do a thing); Celexa; Bupropion (150 mg, 300 mg, and back to 150 mg); then motherfucking Zoloft which maybe helped me through crisis but also wouldn’t let me orgasm for nearly 3 months. I couldn’t feel much of anything, really. I smoked a lot of cannabis during that time; at my absolute most desperate moments, I pilfered from my wife’s Xanax bottle; Then there was Mirtazapine; Vyvance (Holy shit, who would give stimulant drugs to a person in my condition?!); and most recently a mood stabilizer, Lamotrigine because my ARNP didn’t have the heart to prescribe me another SSRI. I’m not sure if any of these drugs helped. Well, maybe 150mg of Bupropion is helping. Or it’s exacerbating my anxiety. I don’t fucking know. I think maybe the mood stabilizer is starting to work. Therapy helped. Shit, maybe I should dedicate this year’s list to my therapist who I started seeing near the end of last year. She’s not reading this. That would be weird. But you should know that she’s great and I don’t know what I would have done without her.
Aside from a barrage of prescription drugs, my other coping skills were the mountains. I spent as much time in the woods as possible. And music. That’s why we’re here, right? Why I write these words that a few friends enjoy reading. I continued obsessively seeking it out. Looking for sounds that made my ears, brain, and body buzz with the excitement of discovering something new that’s really good. Something to help me feel something. Anything. For all my efforts, I figured I should make a list again. Some of you seem to really enjoy it. Here we go…
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein – Stranger Things, Vol. 1 (An Original Score from the Netflix Series)
In 2016, we all watched Stranger Things on Netflix and most of us loved it. The soundtrack also ended up being surprisingly enjoyable as a standalone body of ambient music. Probably the best original score for a television series since Angelo Badalamenti’s stunning score for Twin Peaks.
Solange – A Seat at the Table
I’m just now really getting around to giving this one some intentional listening time. This is Queen Bey’s little sister, mind you. I gave it a listen back in October and I found it to be a bit dull but not uninteresting. But I recently came back to it and follow-up listens are revealing this one to be a neo-soul album with a great deal of depth. The album is a far more subtle and nuanced affair than anything you’ll ever hear from Beyonce. But it’s a cohesive, focused, and just goddamn gorgeous statement on black womanhood. Listen to it. Then listen two more times. By then, you should hear it.
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen’s songs will never pass The Bechdel Test. But that voice. Good god. Anyways, I snubbed her 2014 release, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. I did not make that mistake this time around. With both of these albums, this folk singer is increasingly becoming a rock goddess.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Well, this is awkward. Radiohead released a new record and to date, I have not fallen in love with it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s the new Radiohead album so I do keep coming back to it. Over and over. It’s fucking gorgeous. But I haven’t obsessed over any of it, which is well, not how I tend to interact with a new Radiohead album. I can’t think of a single song on here that I absolutely must listen to the next time (if ever) I take acid. That said, it’s still Radiohead. So it’s really fucking good. For this album, I think the star of the show really is longtime producer Nigel Godrich. The production here is flawless and really captures an essence that gives the album a unified cohesive vibe, much more so than 2011’s The King of Limbs. The songs are beautifully orchestrated but also just a little…bland. I don’t know. Radiohead have an arsenal of masterpieces under their belt. Even a lesser effort is still better than just about anything anybody else out there can create. One nice surprise was that True Love Waits, a song that had previously existed only as a rare treat in live performances, finally found its way onto an album but with a completely different arrangement that the days when Thom would perform it solo on acoustic guitar. And yet I’m still not experiencing about Really Big Feelings about it. I don’t know. Radiohead are getting older. So am I. Like Abby texted me earlier this week, “It’s possible that it’s us, not him.”
Day of the Dead
Well, it finally happened. It’s become cool to like The Grateful Dead. Members of The National curated this beast of a compilation of Grateful Dead covers and the indie crowd is eating it up. Clocking in at 5.5 hours, there is a vast body of covers and re-imagined versions of Grateful Dead songs. Many of them are absolutely fantastic. Others are okay. Some just plain suck. My personal favorites include performances from The National, Courtney Barnett, Bonnie Prince Billy, Angel Olsen, The War on Drugs, and Tim Hecker.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill has done it again. The modern outlaw country music artist continues to give the finger to the Nashville music establishment by making really good country music. This time around, he draws from his years in the Navy and the birth of his first child, to create A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. In a departure from his previous album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill eschews penning songs about encountering reptile aliens made of light healing his soul while in the depths of a DMT trip and instead gives life instructions to his infant son to “Stay in school/Stay off the drugs/And keep between the lines.” This album has a rather insular feel of a songwriter who is suddenly spending a lot of time at home caring for an infant. But it also gets a big soul music injection courtesy of the horns of The Dap Tones. Sturgill continues to impress.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
People keep calling this Bon Iver’s “experimental” album. I don’t understand why. It’s not fucking experimental. Justin Vernon doesn’t come out of hiding to make an experimental album; he makes the next Bon Iver album. Sure, it sounds a little different, given its preference for bleeps and bloops and auto-tuning instead of Vernon’s usual lush acoustic guitar stuff and haunting untreated vocals. With this album, the severity with which his personal work has been affected by his collaborations with Kanye West is undeniable. Combine that with his penchant for progression and building upon his previous work anyways, this album really does make perfect sense. Just don’t call it experimental.
Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
I’ve loved nearly everything Jaar has released to date, from his first proper album, Space Is Only Noise to the Psychic album from his Darkside project, and a slew of singles and other assorted oddities. Jaar has been releasing by far the most interesting electronic music I’ve heard in recent memory. I’m beginning to hold him in the same regard as Four Tet, Flying Lotus, and The Knife. Jaar’s music is dark, at times a little sinister, and always unhurried. And masterful. On Space Is Only Noise, Jaar’s music meanders through some strange ethereal, ambient, and sometimes psychedelic places until late in the album when the build finally peaks with Variations, the only real dance track on this electronica album. It’s not that the track is necessarily worth the wait. It’s all about the journey. And the fruit of that track is all the more sweet when taking the full ride. The same is true with Jaar’s latest offering, Sirens. The album is only 6 tracks in duration. But what a ride it is.
Anderson Paak – Malibu
Malibu was the album I needed earlier in the year while I waited patiently for new albums from Kanye, Chance the Rapper, and maybe just goddamn maybe, Frank Ocean. And in that task, it was a success. But even after all those people released their albums, I still ended up coming back to it time and time again all year long.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
One of my favorite hip hop bands of the 90s got back together and recorded an album. During those recordings, key member Phife Dawg passed away. I was surprised by its release. I actually had no idea these recording sessions were even happening. Well, here it is. This could have been one big boring nostalgia trip. Instead, it’s pure A Tribe Called Quest. In many ways, it sounds familiar, just like the Tribe you remember. But it’s also fresh and new. The beats and production are more complex than ever before. The members more conscious. The message more political. And for this album to arrive right now? At the exact moment when that vile piece of shit won the election? There’s something to be learned here. Phife knew he was sick during these recordings. He probably even knew he was near the end of his life and yet this album is full of joy. A gratitude for getting to be alive even during the darkest of times. Let’s try to hang onto that as we move forward in these dark days ahead.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Only Bowie could orchestrate turning his own death into art of this magnitude. The entire album is surprisingly strong but the title track and Lazarus really are the stars of the show. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the music video for Lazarus. Maybe someday. I want to say more but nearly a year after his passing, I still really just don’t know what to say. Fortunately, I have a small arsenal of David Bowie records to lose myself in again and again.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
The most polarizing and easily the most hated person in contemporary pop music released his messiest, most unfocused album to date and you know what? It’s fucking brilliant. A big messy beautiful patchwork of glorious music. Yes, it’s a little disjointed at times. One musical idea crashes into another (listen to the last 90 seconds of Pt. 2.) and in the hands of another, it wouldn’t work. But this is Kanye West. No producer in music comes even close to Yeezy’s wizardry in the studio. Goddamn, when he samples Bam Bam at the end of Famous and then tosses Nina Simone on top of it, fuck the haters. Kanye West is one of The Greatest of All Time.
But then there’s the rapping. Kanye has never been the best emcee but here, as with most of his records, the verses are mostly competent, at times brilliant, and other times stupifyingly cringe-worthy. Like “what the actual fuck were you thinking, Yeezy?” kind of bad. The Life of Pablo is no exception. There are some truly awful lyrical moments. And yet there was something perversely satisfying about seeing Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 as the opening song at his Seattle performance and instead of Yeezy singing the opening verse, he allowed 16,000 rabid fans to take the lead on vocals and sing in unison “If I fuck this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get bleach on my t-shirt/Imma feel like an asshole.” Transcendent, really.
There are definitely some duds on the album. There is also some of Kanye’s best work. Opening track Ultralight Beams is quite possibly the greatest song of 2016 and one of Yeezy’s finest efforts to date. Just an incredibly powerful performance featuring an excellently curated sequence of guest artists. Most notably Chance the Rapper’s verse which is just pure heat.
Other noteworthy tracks include: Waves, FML, and Real Friends. For me, the album really ends at Wolves. The additional tracks feel like a welcome collection of bonus tracks. No More Parties in L.A.,featuring Kanye holding his own against superior emcee Kendrick Lamar quite nicely, is a real hip hop treat.
Over the years, many artists have played with new and interesting methods of releasing an album. In 2001, when the new CEO of their label refused to release their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco released the album for free online. Nobody had really ever done that yet. In 2007, Radiohead, as a sort of social experiment, introduced a pay-what-you-want approach to the release of In Rainbows. And in 2016, Yeezy released an album and then he kept on working on it and releasing it several more times. The album was already released several days late because he was still making changes. Once it was finally released, the streaming version of the album went through several iterations over the ensuing weeks. While there is certainly an obsessive-compulsive quality to this method (and Kanye does clearly suffer from some significant mental health struggles), it is still an innovative and previously unheard of approach to releasing music.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
In his verse on Kanye’s Ultralight Beams, Chance promised he’d “do a good ass job on Chance 3” and the kid has indeed done a good ass job. Coloring Book is easily the hip hop album of the year. Here, Chancellor is at the top of his game and he is just so goddamn grateful for the opportunity.
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Music has always been one of my greatest coping skills. But two musical events this year provided significant care for my fragile mental health. For all of my crippling breathe through it for hours on end anxiety, I had my Calm the Fuck Down, Jason playlist. And for the coping with the most brutal depths of depression of my entire adult life but also needing to hear some rocking guitars, there was Teens of Denial. Here was a young man exclaiming “I’ve got a right to be depressed” because “I’ve given every inch I have to fight it.” And that’s what I needed to hear in the summer of 2016. I’ve tried as hard as I can to be okay and it’s not working so fuck you, I’m just going to be depressed.
I spent months not being able to feel anything anymore. So to experience something resembling catharsis in screaming along to lyrics such as “They’ve got a portrait by Van Gogh on the Wikipedia page for clinical depression/ Well it helps to describe it yeah it helps to describe it yeah it helps to describe it.” Not bad for someone who was struggling to feel…anything. Throughout the year, I tried a vast array of prescription drugs in failed attempts to find some sort of relief. Half emptied bottles of drugs have accumulated in a cabinet in my kitchen. Toledo captures that experience perfectly; “In the back of the medicine cabinet/You can find your life story/And your future in the side effects.” Will fucking Toledo, man. This kid can write about depression.
One interesting aspect of getting older for me is being moved so deeply by artists who are now significantly younger than me. Listening this collection of songs, there was a part of me, maybe a parental or big brother kind of thing, where I wanted to reach out to Will and let him know it’s going to be okay (to which, if Cosmic Hero is any indicator, he’d probably just reply with a hearty fuck you). Then I remember that even at 36 years old, I’ve devoted a lot of time to feeling very much not okay and then remembering that imparting that kind of reassurance to another human struggling with depression is disingenuous and patronizing. At best.
Fuck depression. Yay, Car Seat Headrest.
Beyonce – Lemonade
A few years ago, Beyonce released her self-titled video album. I didn’t love it but it certainly got my attention. This year, she dropped easily the most important album of the year. Not my favorite. But goddamn, what an album. I don’t feel qualified to write about this one. Therefore, as is becoming a tradition, I’ll pass this one along to the wife….
Frank Ocean – Blond
Approximately one year ago, a beautiful and terrifying shift happened in my life. I fell in love with someone. Someone who is not my wife. So many things were so difficult at that time but this just sent me over the edge. Wife freaked out. I freaked out. I had no idea what the fuck to do. It was eating me alive. We tried and tried to figure out a solution. I figured, why not just start collecting therapists, and my wife and I immediately started couples counseling to try to make some sense of all of this. This was a smart decision. Time went on and we did the best we could. We learned more about ourselves as individuals and as a couple. We began to forgive each other and ourselves. Over time, a lot of time, a paradigm shift began to unfold. We had some big realizations and we started to come up with some creative solutions. We were finally on the same page again so we learned some new skills and decided to make some radical changes in our relationship. At the beginning of August, after some significant time apart, we reconnected with this other person and made some decisions about how to move forward. After months of struggle, there was finally hope that just maybe everything was going to be okay. That just maybe we could do this and make it work. And then Frank Ocean showed up. Right on time.
On August 20, Frank Ocean released the new album. Many didn’t think he’d do it. My own wife was certain that he was going to pull a D’Angelo. I wasn’t so sure, but I was definitely starting to have my doubts. Maybe this really isn’t going to happen, I thought. And then it arrived. I’m finally feeling a glimmer of hope about my life, my loves, and my mental health and one of my favorite musicians releases the album I’ve been waiting for. It actually happened. One evening immediately after the release, we came home from an intense conversation between me, my wife, and this other person. The wife and I sat in our living room, listening to this album that is so beautifully bittersweet, and grinned at each other. Everything in life is painful, but maybe, just maybe, everything is going to be okay.
Frank Ocean is not comfortable with fame. I don’t think he wants to be famous at all. But Frank Ocean needs to be heard. 4 years after Channel Orange, it’s here. It’s glorious. It’s unlike anything anyone else is doing. It’s unlike anything he has done before. Frank Ocean gets pinned down as an R&B artist but this is goddamn psychedelic pop music from the future. Many of the songs are wrapped up in this trippy, cannabis-infused haze. There’s hardly a drumbeat to be found. Instead, it’s slinky guitars, synthesizers, and an occasional organ. And yet this music is built of layers upon layers. There are so many sounds to dissect with repeat listens. Meanwhile, lyrics flow in a stream-of-conscious fashion. The album begins with entire verses subjected to an absurd amount of auto-tuning. It’s nearly 3 minutes into the opening track Nikes before we actually hear Frank’s unfiltered voice. We waited 4 years to hear it again. I guess he figured we can wait an additional 3 minutes.
I find myself at a loss for words about this album. I’m crying right now just thinking about this beautiful thing that was created by a human being on the planet Earth.
Well, thanks for reading, everyone. For all the talk about depression, I want you to know that I’m mostly okay these days. So don’t worry too much, okay? Meanwhile, take care of yourselves and each other, especially during these dark days ahead. Life is hard. But I am alive and my heart is full of love.
Here’s a mixtape I made for you.