The best albums of 2016 (half a year late)
#10 Sleigh Bells — Jessica Rabbit
In 2010, noise pop duo Sleigh Bells shook the mainstream with their debut album Treats. The LP was a distorted, loud and in your face breath of fresh air that was both critically and commercially successful, but a select few worried how the duo would innovate further with such a niche sound. The worries became true, and each subsequent album seemed to prove that the brooklyn duo was in fact a one trick pony. Jessica Rabbit is the first step in a fantastic new direction, and the heavy distortion is now used to emphasize leading woman Alexis Krauss’s powerful vocals instead of clashing with it. An interesting sound isn’t all there is to music, however, and Sleigh Bells’ often surrealist lyrics and strong sound hold weaker songs such the opening track “It’s Just Us Now” afloat. Jessica Rabbit also ventures into a more earthly territory, with songs like “I Know Not To Count On You” and “Hyper Dark” have a certain beauty to them. Jessica Rabbit is an acquired taste, but the album may very well be a return to form for the New York band.
#9: Childish Gambino — “Awaken, my Love!”
“Awaken, My Love!” is a symbol of change; a change of genre, change of persona, change in lyricism, change in voice, and a change in personal life. This is a completely new Donald Glover. What we’re left with, sonically at least, is the 49 minute evolution of an artist. At its best, “Awaken, My Love!” is one of the best pure funk/psychedelic albums seen in years, with brain bending guitar riffs and vocal effects and a soaring voice that leaves an impression. The best of the album, however, is not the entire album, which is a risk that can’t be afforded in such a short LP; a few flat tracks can lead to the downfall of an otherwise great record. One of these sub-par tracks is the experimental parody song “California”, which is not near good enough to justify disrupting the otherwise focused themes. Songs like “Terrified” and “Baby Boy” feature some slightly underwhelming vocal performances by that holds the them back from their true potential. “Awaken, My Love!” is a huge step forward for Glover that shows his abilities as a multifaceted musician. Unexplored themes of intricate issues and occasional shallow vocal performances prevent this from becoming a masterpiece. When its highs hit, however, the force of the album is hard to ignore and we are left with a highly interesting first step in a new direction.
#8: Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost
The early to mid 2010’s has been a huge revival for youth punk, with bands such as Sorority Noise and TWIABP bringing emo back to relevancy in the eyes of critics and the UK’s Neck Deep revisiting the energetic melodies and riffs of pop punk. While these bands achieve moderate success, the genre’s old habits rear their head and the bands found themselves falling into the same cliches as their predecessors. Holy Ghost changes that. Modern Baseball’s fantastic album revitalizes tired tropes as well as they possibly could with songs like “Wedding Singer” and “Mass” whilst songs like “Hiding” venture into uncharted sonic territory. Holy Ghost perfects an exhausted genre and gives us a much needed taste of innovation, only to leave after a mere 27 minute runtime. A common problem with the records on this list, Holy Ghost is finished as quickly as it starts and leaves us begging for more.
#7: The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful, yet so unaware
UK Pop rock band The 1975 returns to the spotlight after the smash hit of their debut self titled album, this time brandishing a shiny new sound. The perfectly tight funk guitar riffs of “The Sound” and “UGH!” will hook you in, and the emotional and carefully orchestrated ambient tracks and ballads will keep you coming back for more. The album is not without faults, however, and loses its focus at the end. “The Sound”, while a fantastic pop song, seems out of place between the ambience of the album’s title track and the ethereal “This Must Be My Dream”. The lackluster Paris and Nana slow the mostly focused album, and no matter how good the emotional closing track “She Lays Down” is, the feeling that the songs were thrown in at random can’t be shaken. Two songs will not spoil an experience, however, and this incredibly catchy and intelligent romp through the sound of pop is sure to please.
#6: Frank Ocean — Blonde
Frank Ocean’s long awaited follow up to his freshman album Channel Orange does not disappoint. The 4 year production becomes apparent with the many subtle yet genius production choices, and every listen yields more surprises than the last. Ocean’s songwriting also shines throughout the album and shows real emotional and musical growth throughout. The album’s occasional dabbles in the experimental, such as Pretty Sweet’s jarring wall of sound, is a welcoming change of pace from the modern soundscape of generic neo RnB, but every good idea is left to dry and begs to be explored more. The slow tempo songs can wear you down during continuous listening, but the excellent songwriting and extremely thorough production makes every listen worthwhile.
#5: Noname — Telefone
Hype was building around the elusive rapper Noname Gypsy after her numerous features on other prolific hip hop artists such as Chance the Rapper & Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, and when her debut album dropped, it proved to be the most personal and warm hip hop albums in years. The influence of her peers shines through with the production, where an array of mallet instruments and warm synthesizers mixes pleasantly with soft 808 backing drums. The fantastic production allows Noname’s skills as a lyricist and storyteller to shine as she reminisces on childhood and feelings of safety and rests her head on the shoulder of nostalgia. The album isn’t all smiles and sunshine, however, as tracks like Casket Pretty and Shadow Man delve into fears of death and loss. Telefone is a debut full of happiness and pure charm that can’t be missed.
#4: A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
2016 Seems to be the year of comeback albums, and this is the cherry on top. A Tribe Called Quest returns for the first time in nearly 20 years with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. The album flaunts the trademark intelligence A Tribe Called Quest is known for, and tackles topics ranging from the oppression of minorities (“We The People”) to the newest lineup of hip hop’s finest (“Dis Generation”.) Thank You 4 Your Service has a variety of features as well, with Jack White contributing guitar licks and Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West taking guest verses. The oddball production takes risks that pay off, and keeps things interesting with an array of often distorted drum beats and synthesizers. With its blend of fantastic wordplay and interesting production, Thank You 4 Your Service is a worthy sendoff to the legendary rap outfit.
#3: SWMRS — Drive North
Drive North is the best punk album of the 2010’s so far. Produced by Zac Carper of FIDLAR, SWMRS perfectly emulates and mixes what made early early 90’s grunge, garage rock and late 70’s punk so beautiful;Calculated Loudness. Drive North is a perfect storm of heavy distortion, in-your-face guitar riffs, clever lyrics and interesting vocals. Every once in awhile, the punk rock takes a backseat and switches vocalists from Cole Becker to brother Max Becker and things slow down. With the exception of the phenomenal dream girl anthems “Hannah” and “Lose It”, the slower songs tend to be the worst of the album. No matter how low the lows of Turn Up and Ruining my Pretending get, however, the extreme highs of songs like Miley, Figuring it Out and Silver Bullet make Drive North an exceptional debut album.
#2: Bon Iver — 22, A Million
Indie darling Bon Iver releases his first album in 5 years, and returns with shocking ingenuity. Ditching the acoustic roots in favor of a more synthetic approach to instrumentation, the use of synths and distorted vocals and drum kits are prevalent throughout the album. However different the approach, Bon Iver is able to keep the feeling of folk with melody and lyricism, using technology to enhance the sound, not change it. The brilliant melodies’ emotions are by the newfound synthetic approach, and are the key to the album, with all songs able to convey significant emotion with nearly inaudible lyrics. With innovation at his side and the successful integration of different genres, Bon Iver delivers one of the most emotional and organic albums of 2016.
#1: Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Coloring Book’s release became a feat in itself when it was announced that Chance would continue to release music independently and for free on websites like soundcloud. The entire album was self funded, which made the monstrous feature list even more impressive. Chance was able to acquire features from today’s most prominent artists including, but not limited to, Justin Bieber, Future, Lil Yachty, Young Thug and Lil Wayne. The chicago rapper’s sheer positivity shines through on every song, but the tracks are not without purpose. “No Problem” deals with the topic of an often corrupt and greedy music industry and the absolutely fantastic “Angels” talks about Chance’s Chicago heritage and both his pride for the city and the city’s problem of youth violence. Beautiful, gospel inspired songs like Blessings and Same drugs serve as the foundation of the album and brim with the same excellence as the singles, often surpassing them in terms of quality. Coloring book is an exemplary album filled with innovation, charm and flow that sets the bar for modern rap.