Old-School, New-School: World Cafe's 2016 Jams : World Cafe Ease into the season of "best-of" lists with a handful of standout tracks from 2016: five retro-sounding, five cutting-edge.
NPR logo Old-School, New-School: World Cafe's 2016 Jams

Old-School, New-School: World Cafe's 2016 Jams

Whether you go for the throwback sounds of Lake Street Dive (left) or the high-tech electronica of Moby (right), 2016 had plenty to offer. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

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Courtesy of the artists

Whether you go for the throwback sounds of Lake Street Dive (left) or the high-tech electronica of Moby (right), 2016 had plenty to offer.

Courtesy of the artists

With just over a month to go until the new year, the season of "best-of" lists is upon us. It's a time for celebrating the musical gems that made you hit repeat all year, or for discovering some great songs and artists you might have missed.

To ease you into a list-making mood, we at World Cafe came up with a couple of fun categories celebrating a few great songs from 2016: five "old-school" jams with a retro feel, picked by David Dye, and five cutting-edge "new-school" tracks, chosen by Talia Schlanger. (And you may discover, as we did, that these categories are more fluid than you might think.)


2016: The Old-School

By David Dye

  • 1. The Frightnrs, "Nothing More To Say"

    Discussions of The Frightnrs' glorious debut album usually begin with the tragic story of lead singer and writer Dan Klein's death from ALS. Klein's decline and death took almost exactly long as it took him and his bandmates to make this near-perfect recreation of '70s reggae. The Frightnrs (who are, ironically, from Jamaica, Queens) grew up loving the vibe and precision of old-school rocksteady, and it shows. As sad as Klein's illness and death are, he's largely responsible for one of the best albums of 2016.

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  • 2. Lake Street Dive, "Call Off Your Dogs"

    The glory of Lake Street Dive is not in the recreation of any specific style, but in how this band lets older styles play out as influences on something new. With its energy, wide-open harmonies and exquisite taste, the quartet could easily choose to mine familiar ground on Side Pony, the follow-up to Bad Self Portraits. But Motown, rather than Lake Street Dive's typical pop-jazz, is the inspiration for "Call Off Your Dogs." (There's no argument, though: This is not your mom's Motown.)

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  • 3. The Shelters, "Rebel Heart"

    Here's a perfect example of the edict that everything old is new again. When the members of the Los Angeles four-piece The Shelters discovered the sounds of the Rickenbacker 12-string, The Byrds and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, it became their music, not just their dads'. The Shelters set off for the clubs of southern California, playing for their peers in a world that wasn't always so friendly to rock 'n' roll. Petty did hear the band there, and its self-titled debut bears his name as co-producer — but aside from loaning out a few guitars, he left The Shelters pretty much alone. That's probably because he knew an album that revisits older styles works only if it offers something new, not simply nostalgia.

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  • 4. Brent Cobb, "Solving Problems"

    Brent Cobb's debut, Shine On Rainy Day, is not as much a descendant of the rural musings of country writers like Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson, whom he references in "Solving Problems," as of the acoustic-guitar folk of James Taylor. Like Taylor, Cobb can talk moonshine and lazy afternoons with the best of the good old boys, and his songs seem to just roll off the top of his mind. This album definitely came out at the wrong time of the year: I'm saving it up for next summer.

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  • 5. Anderson .Paak, "The Bird"

    Surprised that Malibu, a hip-hop leaning album from the soul-singing dynamo Anderson .Paak gets tagged as "retro"? Give another listen to this gorgeous, meticulously produced release from early 2016. The opening track "The Bird" shows off a '60s soul groove and "Am I Wrong" a house-music vibe; various eras of hip-hop are all represented, too. The result feels just like an old-school mixtape.

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2016: The New-School

By Talia Schlanger

  • 1. A-WA, "Shamak Zabad Radai"

    You might assume a band that draws upon Arabic texts, Yemenite folk songs and religious prose is about as old-school as it gets. But the three Haim sisters (yes, three other musical Haim sisters: Tair, Liron and Tagel) who make up A-WA bring hip-hop and harmonies to the heritage table — and they come by that sense of openness and collaboration honestly. They were raised on a communal farm in southern Israel, between Egypt and Jordan, by a Ukrainian-Moroccan mother and a Yemenite father. They are Jews who sing in Arabic, who don't draw borders because they don't see a gulf between peoples. They just see a dance floor.

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  • 2. Yola Carter, "Fly Away"

    The fiddle and strum that open "Fly Away" promise a bluegrass track that is going to sound solid but not necessarily new. And then, there's the voice. Yola Carter's pipes propel this track --and the debut album it comes from, Orphan Offering — into the future of fusion with with the lightness of yodel and the depth of gospel. It's a voice that betrays her childhood love of Dolly Parton, her British upbringing, her blackness and the powerful way she draws all those elements up from firmly-planted Americana roots.

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  • 3. Moby & The Void Pacific Choir, "Are You Lost In The World Like Me?"

    Ever since Moby dropped his very first single, "Mobility," in 1990, his music has carried an air of the new-school. He is, after all, a DJ who lives in a high-tech world. But his latest work as Moby & The Void Pacific Choir takes electronica to even newer, more dizzying and unsettling heights. The album These Systems Are Failing and its accompanying manifesto sound the virtual alarm on the dangers of a worldview that revolves solely around tech. Using electronica to comment on electronics? That's so meta — and so new-school. If you need further proof, see the cartoon music video where our hero bounces around a world in an emoji coma, desperate to find a human connection in a sea of strangers imprisoned by smartphones. It's sad, lonely and so very now.

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  • 4. Xenia Rubinos, "Mexican Chef"

    Drums, bass, guitar and vocals aren't necessarily what you'd consider boundary-pushing. But with those simple musical ingredients, Xenia Rubinos cooks up a record unlike anything you've ever tasted. The main dish is "Mexican Chef," in which Rubinos fuses jazz, funk and rap to make almost unbearably honest statements about race and respect in America. She spits rhymes like "Brown breaks his back, brown takes the flack, brown gets cut 'cause his papers are wack / Brown sits down, brown does frown, brown's up in a hospital gown / Brown has not, brown gets shot, brown got what he deserved 'cause he fought." This is as 2016 a conversation as it gets, and Rubinos has the spice, sass and guts to make it sound tasty.

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  • 5. De La Soul feat. Little Dragon, "Drawn"

    You could say that to embrace the new-school is to throw away the rule book. De La Soul never even owned a copy. Although its 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, was heralded as a hip-hop smash, its irreverent approach set the precedent for a band that would refuse to be defined by any genre — or, for that matter, by any "maximum persons capacity" in the recording studio. 2016's and the Anonymous Nobody... is a no-rules sonic sandbox where hip-hop legend Pete Rock sounds just as at home as ambassador-of-the-strange David Byrne, glam-rocker Justin Hawkins and salty soul trip-hop singer Little Dragon. This is also the first major rap act in history to crowdfund a record entirely through Kickstarter. For better or for worse, can you say new-school financing?

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