I will remember 2016 as the year of grief in art. It was everywhere, and it all began in a big way when David Bowie released his supernova flameout, Blackstar, and three days later he was dead after a battle with cancer hidden from the public. Somehow, he wasn’t the only artist to carefully document his own death and dying; Leonard Cohen did the same toward the end of the year with You Want It Darker. And Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree, my favorite album of the year, became an uncomfortably prescient document when his son died weeks before its completion.
Despite the pervasive darkness in my favorite music this year, I kept finding myself searching out levity. School of Seven Bells released a mourning album in their own right in 2016. The duo wrote SVIIB before Benjamin Curtis passed from cancer in 2013, but his surviving bandmate and partner Alejandra Deheza didn’t finish the album until this year, and it’s pop that levitates, a testament to art and perseverance in the face of grief. “Open Your Eyes” is a graceful case study:
And when I needed resolve–which was often in 2016–I turned to Chance the Rapper‘s “No Problem.” It’s a joyous middle finger to the record companies and proof Lil’ Wayne low-key had a better year than all of us.
There was a lot of competition for my favorite concert of the year. Mitski whispered and wailed with equal force at the Black Cat. Kanye shrouded himself, put the spotlight on a stadium of his rabid fans and still managed to be magnetic. But it was Sufjan Stevens‘ concert here at Vienna’s Wolf Trap that sticks out as the year’s most memorable. In 2015, he toured a stripped-down live set that matched the weight and reserve of his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, another mourning album chronicling the death of his estranged mother. In 2016, though, he transformed the show into a celebration of life and movement with larger-than-life set pieces, technicolor wings and neon costumes and streamers that still honored that grief and loss.
There was *a lot* happening on this stage.
And just to bring it all full circle, I found myself reading Joan Didion‘s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, written following the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne. It’s staggering in Didion’s ability to seemingly compartmentalize grief and break it down to the science of illness. But she doesn’t compartmentalize; she recognizes that grief contains multitudes: There is the clinical desire to find out the how and the why, and that exists side-by-side with the emotional gravity of finding a husband’s Post-It notes in the home office a year after the fact and the tricks memory can play in between all of these moments.
In case you’re worried I spent 12 full months just listening to and reading about dead people, don’t worry. I also watched Atlanta. (OK, full disclosure: There’s some death in this show, too. I’m more fun than I sound, I swear.) In a year that saw nostalgia sweet-spot Stranger Things and Westworld‘s head-scratching ambition, Donald Glover managed to make the most inventive show on TV. “The Club” wasn’t my favorite episode in the FX series’ first season (see: “Value” and “Juneteenth”), but it delivered a moment most emblematic of the show’s ability to be playful and sober in the same breath. An invisible car emerges early in the episode as an elbow-in-the-side gag, but it returns at the end to suspend viewers’ disbelief in a story and world that is otherwise completely grounded in a stark reality.