What 2016 Sounded Like NPR Music editor and reviewer Stephen Thompson reflects on the year through the lens of music and shares the songs that impressed him most.
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What 2016 Sounded Like

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What 2016 Sounded Like

What 2016 Sounded Like

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Now we want to mark the winding down of 2016 by looking back on some of the best music moments. This was a difficult one in the music world with the death of so many iconic artists. Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen were some of the biggest names. But this year also brought some interesting musical experiments. Michel Martin sat down with NPR music editor Stephen Thompson to talk about the year in music.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Stephen, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you know, let's start, though, on a sad note. It does seem as though 2016 has been kind of an unforgiving year in the music industry. Of course, a lot of people are still mourning the loss of Prince.

THOMPSON: Yeah, Prince died in April. I mean, the year kicked off - the year was only a few days old when David Bowie died. And it has just been a parade of incredibly sad news across the year. I mean, everybody from Merle Haggard to Phife Dawg, from A Tribe Called Quest to Glenn Frey from the Eagles, Sir George Martin - I mean, I think as rock 'n' roll ages, a lot of the pioneers are leaving us, which is, you know, incredibly sad.

MARTIN: And then, of course, there's David Bowie. Right before he died, he released "Blackstar." In hindsight, it does seem that he was giving some hints as to what he was going through. Do you think that that's true?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And it's so interesting - when that record came out, I just thought, this is the best record he's made in years. He sounds so reinvigorated and revitalized. I remember thinking, I can't wait to hear all these additional David Bowie records that were going to follow along these lines. And the record came out on a Friday, and I think he died, like, Sunday or Monday.

Then when you look back on the record, all of these - you know, song titles like "Lazarus," song titles like "I Can't Give Everything Away" suddenly take on this new meaning. And he clearly - he made it while he was sick. And so you wonder how much of it was conceived as a final statement.

MARTIN: Can we play a little bit of "Lazarus"?



DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Look up here. I'm in heaven. I've got scars that can't be seen. I've got drama, can't be stolen.

MARTIN: Now, at the beginning of the year, we spoke. And I know you remember it because it was so memorable (laughter).

THOMPSON: Of course.

MARTIN: You gave us some artists to look out for. What have you got for us now? What really impressed you in 2016 now that you're looking back on it?

THOMPSON: Well, I think in many ways, the album of the year, in terms of cultural impact - and, I think, in terms of just great song after great song after great song - was "Lemonade" by Beyonce. And when it came out, a lot of people talked about how it expressed things that were going on in Beyonce's personal life. And I think it took a while for people to latch on to A, how much this record was saying and B, how many different styles there are. There's a country song. There's a - just a rock song. And there are also just these amazing powerhouse anthems, like "Formation" and "Freedom" with Kendrick Lamar, which is probably my favorite song on it.

MARTIN: Oh, let's play a little bit of that.


BEYONCE AND KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) Freedom, freedom, I can't move. Freedom cut me loose. Hey, hey, freedom, freedom, where are you? 'Cause I need freedom, too. I break chains all by myself, won't let my freedom rot in hell. Hey...

MARTIN: All right. Give me a minute. I'm still listening.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) No, I don't want to stop you.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) to have to take it all in, take it all in. Before we move on from Beyonce - hard to do - it also debuted as a visual experience as well as a musical experience. And I'm wondering if that is setting a new standard - if that is creating a different environment now.

What do you think?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I actually think that, in a way, it does set a new standard - and maybe not that every album is going to come out as a visual package like that. I do wonder what Taylor Swift is going to do (laughter) to try to match it. But I think that so many of the best albums of the year came with a certain element of mystery and were more than just a collection of songs. So you have this record that comes with this whole visual experience. You have, like, the Kanye West record, which was never actually finished. He was constantly changing it. So many of the records that really made an impact had a lot more to them than just, like, here are some of my new MP3s.

MARTIN: Let's hear about Bon Iver.

THOMPSON: This record - "22, A Million" it's called - numeral 22, comma, a million. The singer from Bon Iver is a guy named Justin Vernon, and his first record was these very stripped-down kind of folk songs that were recorded in a cabin. And then his second record came out, like, a few years later was this big, orchestral kind of grandiose, swoony kind of thing. And this record somehow meets in the middle and yet completely differently. And it - I describe it almost as is, like, it sounds like it's being beamed to us from a faraway satellite. And so it has this very beautiful and intimate quality but also this distance. This song we'll play here is called "8 (Circle)."


BON IVER: (Singing) Too much for me to pick up, whoa, not sure what forgiveness is.

THOMPSON: Pulling out a little sample from this record is tricky because it works, I think, so well as kind of a 34-minute experience the way the songs kind of bleed together. I just - I love him so much. That's Bon Iver.

MARTIN: And one more artist that you wanted to tell us about from 2016, Mitski Miyawaki.

THOMPSON: Yeah. She goes by the name Mitski. She's a singer-songwriter-guitarist who put out, unquestionably, my favorite song of the year. It's called "Your Best American Girl." And it kind of has everything in just a few minutes. It starts out very sweetly, you know, where she's detailing a lot of these very specific details of a relationship. And then as the song fans out into this ever bigger chorus, she starts to tackle, like, issues of identity and expectation and where she fits into her relationship and where she fits into the world. It's a beautiful song to unpack, but it's also just a top down, you want to crank the song. So the song is called "Your Best American Girl." The album is "Puberty 2," and the singer is Mitski.


MITSKI: (Singing) Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me. But I do. I think I do.

THOMPSON: I'm going to go back to my desk when we're done taping this and listen to the whole the song.


MARTIN: So all in all, this was a very exciting year in music. I mean, it seemed as though this was one of those years in which music became something we talked about again and not just people who are really into music.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think that you had albums that really broke out of our silos. There were records that everybody talked about. And part of it was because of the intersection of music and news, you know, with the way some of these musicians have died. But also, something like the Beyonce record just became part of the cultural language. And so, like, phrases from it started popping up in conversation. And I think that's really a sign that music is alive and well in 2016 and hopefully in 2017 as well.

MARTIN: So I'm tempted to say boy, bye. But...


THOMPSON: You could always wave me off that way.


MARTIN: But we are going to have you back next week so you can give us a preview of what to look forward to in 2017.

Stephen Thompson of NPR Music, thank you so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Sorry. I ain't sorry. I'm sorry. I ain't sorry. I ain't sorry. Nuh-nuh, naw. I'm sorry. I ain't sorry. I'm sorry. I ain't sorry. I ain't sorry. He trying to roll me up - I ain't sorry. I ain't picking up - I ain't sorry. Headed to this club - I ain't sorry. I ain't thinking...

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