“Boo, 2016,” they said. “2016 is a dumpster fire,” they said. “2016? #notmyyear,” they said. This year, a relatively ordinary one in the grand scheme of things, attracted an inordinate amount of anger from uncreative Twitter users, who blamed the various problems that popped up in this span of 365 days not on the long-germinating forces that created said problems, but on the year itself. People talked about 2016 as if it was a sentient being, angrily snatching aging
celebrities into the jaws of death, rigging elections, and ruining beloved movie franchises. Certainly, it wasn’t the best of times, but it also wasn’t the worst, either. Looking back on this year, there are a number of things to be glad about and a number of things to be sad about. The ratio tips one way or another depending on your political stance, your socioeconomic status, and your tolerance for absurd fast-food concepts, but we can all agree on one thing: 2016 is about to be over. So: what the hell happened?
Starting on a positive note: a lot of damn fine albums came out this year. Beyoncé, arguably the most beloved pop musician of our time, released an uncompromising, scathing attack on her equally famous husband, Jay-Z, that somehow managed to come off as a document of compassion and forgiveness. Lemonade is basically a shoo-in for album of the year, and for good reason: Lady Bey narrowed her focus and crafted an immaculately produced record, dismantling people’s assumptions about her private life while expanding her sonic capabilities ad infinitum. We also saw We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, a new (and supposedly final) album from seminal rapgroup A Tribe Called Quest; and Blonde, a long awaited Frank Ocean record that somehow lived up to its expectations. Chance the Rapper snagged seven Grammy nominations for his joyous, life-affirming mixtape Coloring Book, and Kanye West released The Life of Pablo, an uneven and imperfect album that still managed to capture the fragmented WTF-ery of the year better than any of the more polished records listed above.
In darker news, we were also subjected to the resurgence of Hot Topic-core rap rock, in the form of Twenty-One Pilots, a band whose unyielding commitment to bumming out their audience will likely end in them periscoping their group suicide. Meghan Trainor continued her inexplicable reign over the pop charts, but competed with Shawn Mendes, a 17-year-old Vine star, whose biggest sin was creating “Treat You Better,” a cloying anthem for friend-zoned teens that feels like Stevia being poured into your ears. And the Chainsmokers landed three platinum singles by spot-welding abrasive instrumental drops onto unbearably self-aware millennial lyricism, always accompanied by a generic female vocalist.
Another album that got a lot of attention was Black Star, the final record by David Bowie, who died. Like, two days after it came out. This was a huge boss move on David Bowie’s part, and it makes sense seeing as he spent his entire career expertly trolling the press and the public. Leonard Cohen also pulled the extremely alpha move of releasing a record immediately before shuffling off this mortal coil, but received less attention because people only really know him from that song that was in Shrek. We also bid farewell to Prince, another gender-fluid polymath, whose influence is impossible to estimate. His Midwestern version of funk spawned a whole genre of perverted musical mutants, taking George Clinton’s freaky vision of the future to a whole ‘nother level and crafting Purple Rain, a cinematic masterpiece and undeniably classic album all in one, along the way. The Purple One is only the latest luminary to die from overprescribed painkillers, part of an addictive epidemic that affected the entire nation this year.
We also lost Muhammad Ali, the boxer and activist born Cassius Clay, who transformed the national conversation around race and war when he refused to fight in Vietnam, Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary-turned-dictator, actors Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman, who were most famous for playing vindictive factory owners and vindictive schoolteachers, respectively, and astronaut John Glenn. All in all, 2016 killed a lot of people, many of whom were old and about to die anyway, and threw in young actor Anton Yelchin, who was senselessly crushed to death by his own car. [Editor’s note: Since this was written a mere few days ago, we’ve also sadly lost George Michael, Carrie Fisher and now Debbie Reynolds].
Yelchin, before getting mercilessly murdered by his own Jeep Grand Cherokee, starred in Green Room, the best thriller of 2016, where he played one of four punk rockers trying desperately to escape a Nazi music venue after witnessing a murder. The movie is an uncompromising and gritty look at the violent lengths people must resort to when combating fascism, and seems prescient given that it was filmed far before the “alt-right” invaded the American consciousness. We also saw a couple great superhero flicks, with Deadpool pointing the way to an R-rated future for grown-up comic book blockbusters and Captain America: Civil War proving that Marvel can continue to make tent pole films that deliver on their promises. Unfortunately, DC floundered, with the horrifically grim Batman vs.Superman sucking every bit of fun out of its titular premise, and Suicide Squad just sucking all around.
Many of the most critically acclaimed flicks of the year were well-constructed, but boring. Moonlight was a slow but pretty take on a black man’s struggle with his sexuality that failed to plumb any of the depths its arresting trailer promised. Arrival was a heart-wrenching but not particularly exciting sci-fi joint (more “fi” than “sci,” if you ask me). Midnight Special was director Jeff Nichols’s weakest film yet, giving away its central plot twist less than halfway through. Among the year’s underrated highlights: Don’t Breathe, a minimal, nerve-wracking horror film that deprived your senses rather than assaulting them, and Edge of Seventeen, a painfully awkward teen comedy that transcended its genre to be perhaps the most “2016” movie that came out in 2016 (star Hailee Steinfeld also dropped one of the year’s best singles with “Starving.”) The awards contenders that actually stuck out were equally hard on the psyche. Elle harkened back to director Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct heyday, as he pulled off a taut, over-the-top erotic thriller. Hell or High Water was a white-knuckled heist flick with a heart of gold. And Manchester By the Sea was a deeply human drama that, in between scenes that glued you to your seat, scored some of the year’s most understated comedic comments, due in large part to its brilliant script and an affecting, career-defining performance by Casey Affleck.
2016 was violent. Though they attracted enduring headlines, celebrity deaths constituted a fraction of the lives lost when compared to terrorist attacks across Europe and the USA. On New Year’s Day, 300 migrants were reportedly executed by Daesh (or ISIS, as they would be preferred to be called) in Libya, setting the tone for a year in which the would-be caliphate engaged in its most vindictive and destructive assaults on civilians yet. It would take pages to sum up the
atrocities Daesh encouraged or engaged in this year, many against other Muslims, but for the West, things came to a head in June. On the 12th, an ISIS-affiliated security guard massacred 49 people, mostly Latino, at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. Two days later, a truck drove through crowds of innocents celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 86, and ISIS again took responsibility. In the U.S., violence between police and civilians continued, with 940 people shot and killed by police over the course of the year, and 10 cops gunned down by militants in June alone. The year ended with horrific violence in Aleppo, Syria, which had been brewing for months, and little hope for peace in the Mideast.
Depending on who you ask, this category might as well have been tied in with the one above. A presidential campaign that many proclaimed as the most contentious on record ended with two candidates who boasted the highest unfavorability ratings in history. Donald Trump wiped out 16 other Republican candidates without breaking a sweat, coining derogatory nicknames for his opponents and utilizing his Twitter feed to communicate directly with his supporters in an unprecedented use of social media. The Republican establishment hated Trump almost as much as his opponent. Hillary Clinton faced an unexpected challenger in Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed her after a hard-fought primary battle, but failed to convince many of his hard-left supporters to fall in line with Clinton’s centrist campaign after leaked emails proved the Democratic National Convention had colluded with her campaign. She won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, triggering a massive deluge of grief from supporters who were shocked by Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric, alleged history of sexual abuse, and friendly attitude toward Russia, which was rumored to be responsible for the e-mail leaks. As his inauguration rapidly approaches, the question looms: did he mean the things he said, or was he, for lack of a better word, trolling?