My Last Year in Review…. An Overly Long Look at the Music That Defined My 2016.
2016 seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? It has already gone down in Internet history as the worst year of all time, and there are countless reasons why the country is happy it is behind us. I’m tired about hearing what an awful year it was. You’re tired about hearing what an awful year it was. That’s the most I’m going into it. It seems we have even more to worry about in 2017 anyway.
But throughout the constant turbulance, there was a lot of good music released in 2016; from a lot of artists and a lot of unexpected places. Most critics published their lists as early as the beginning of December, but I feel like that’s jumping the gun a bit, as there was so much quality content realized in those final weeks alone. (Also, it takes a long time to do 20 write-ups for 20 different albums. We’ve all got stuff to do). Anyways, below are my Top 20 albums of 2016, a list that ended up both taking longer and being longer than I ever originally intended. Read at your own leisure, if you want. Below albums are my favorite tracks of 2016, and below that are my favorite music videos. Enjoy whatever you choose to read, skim over, or what have you.
My Top 20 Albums of 2016
20. Twenty88 | Twenty88
I like Big Sean. I like Jhené Aiko more. Jhené Aiko has a confident, beautiful voice that immediately seduces listeners and lures them into a song. Big Sean is goofy, a bit awkward, and has yet to prove that he can hold down a project on his own. On paper the two don’t sound very compatible, nor what anyone would really ask for as a full collaborative project. But in the cold Spring of 2016, we got Twenty88, and I surprised by how enjoyable the project was. The concept is about as straightforward as it gets, as the duo capture the highs and lows, simplicities and complexities of a public modern relationship. Neither artist does much to innovate this idea beyond the basics, but they execute it in such an affable and slinky way that its hard not to be enticed by their obvious seductions. Jhené Aiko highlights each song with a purring vocal performance, while Big Sean finds a home in slow moving, soulful beats that allow his perverted rhymes to sound a little more natural. Tracks like Deja Vu and London Bridge find the pair exploring catchy melodies and whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears, while more aggressive outings such as Selfish and the highly comical Talk Show allow the two to rip into each other and one-up the other’s insults. (To be honest, though it can be hard to defend the record’s consistency, the main reason I enjoy it is because it was the only thing on my iPod for two weeks while traveling the UK, and ended up being my weird traveling soundtrack. I will always be strangely attached to it). At just 30 minutes, the project is short enough to get its point across, and though Twenty88 is neither as sensual nor mysterious at the pair thinks it is, it’s endearing enough to be a memorable effort.
19. Run the Jewels | Run the Jewels 3
Run the Jewels has always been so captivating because of how immediate and urgent their music is. Run the Jewels 3, the latest offering from Killer Mike and EI-P, is no different. Though they don’t have the most diverse catalogue in hip-hop, Run the Jewels has been able to continuously exceed expectations by building off their previous bodies of abrasive sound to find new ways to innovate their aggressive feelings and tireless minds. Run the Jewels 3 arrived by surprise at the very end of 2016 as a Christmas present to fans, and its difficult to think of a more fitting way to end such an uncertain and angering year. The album flows incredibly well, each track gaining momentum from the last at a rapid fire pace that should completely exhaust listeners, but thanks to the confidence and airtight voices of the duel leads, every mundane detail of each song hits perfectly, from the hard hitting production to the meticulously delivered lyricism. The chemistry is impeccable. Run the Jewels 3 enters new political territory for the duo, as they consistently refer to the powers that be as “the Masters” and use their established sound to fuel ideas of revolution. Elsewhere, standout song Thursday Night in the Danger Room finds the two paying tribute to friends lost to the uncontrollable circumstances of life, and is the most emotionally open Run the Jewels has ever been. More than anything, Run the Jewels 3 feels incredibly timely and important, perfectly encapsulating the frustrations felt in 2016 while trudging towards the New Year with an unstoppable might.
18. Radiohead | A Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool is without a doubt the most haunting record of 2016, each song sluggishly allowing itself to open up and progress to the next. This far into their career, one would think that Radiohead and Thom Yorke have already given enough to the world of music, baring their soul time and time again. But still, this is arguably the most revealing the band have ever delved into on a single project. Each muffled drum hit, each cluttered key feels as if it will disappear if you try to grab it. The entire body of work feels like a distant dream that you can always recall the feelings of, but could never tangibly describe. The story behind the album, Thom Yorke’s seperation with his wife of 22 years, has almost become synonymous with the project itself, and rightfully so. Yorke’s vocals are so raw and exposed, particualy in highlights such as the eerily beautiful Daydreaming and the downright heart wrenching closer True Love Waits, that it hurts the more you listen. Radiohead has always captured my attention not with their words but through their ability to create worlds of sound and atmosphere that are nearly impossible to not get lost in. These are universes of personal torment and heartbreak, but also of incredible beauty. A Moon Shaped Pool is a therapy session with no boundaries or regard to any sort of concrete ideas, just emotion. We’re just lucky they let us listen.
17. Lil Yachty | Lil Boat
Yeah, Lil Yachty’s here. I’m not sorry. Neither is Lil Yachty. Throughout 2016, Lil Yachty has been a lighting rod of controversy for “rap purists” to rally against to express their disdain for the new wave of mumble rappers and trap music. Many claim that Lil Yachty is “ruining rap” by disrespecting past rap legends and proving no knowledge of classic hip-hop. Though his trolling has grown to be a bit questionable towards 2016’s tail-end, here’s the thing: Lil Yachty has never tried, nor claimed to be a lyrsicist. He doesn’t consider himself a rapper. He’s just Lil Yachty. Classical paintings weren’t ruined by the countless artistic movements that reacted to and shifted the artistic norm; history proved that there are simply different forms of expression through the same platform, and that shifts throughout the years. Yes, I just referenced the history of painting in a Lil Yachty write-up. To claim Lil Yachty is ruining rap is giving him too much credit. He’s just doing something different. The two can co-exist and everything will be ok.
Anyway, Lil Boat is a simple, really fun project. The production sounds as though someone found a CD of pre-school playtime music and reinvigorated it to a series of summer hits. Yachty matches the simple production with very simple, comical vocals, his voice itself an instrument he weilds to create atmospheric tracks that are just so gleeful and smug you’d have to try to not crack a smile (and a lot of people are trying really, really hard). Minnesota proved to be one of the most consistent hits of the year, an immediate catchy tune that you’d be hard pressed to get out of your head after a single listen. Meanwhile, songs such as Never Switch Up are anthems to weirdos and outcasts about simply being comfortable in your own skin. The fact that it also happens to play really well blasting in a car on a summer day is just a bonus. At the end of the day, Lil Yachty is just a weirdo doing his own thing. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
16. Kendrick Lamar | Untitled Unmastered.
Though it consists of outtakes from 2015’s highly praised To Pimp A Butterfly, Untitled Unmastered hardly feels like just another collection of b-sides. There is an incredible sense of structure that ties the entire body of work together. Like it’s big brother before it, Untitled Unmastered focuses on themes such as racism in America, battling personal depression and how to handle the harsh responsibility of fame. That sounds pretty heavy, and at times it is, but what seperates the project from being a simple rehash of past work is the free-flowing and intimate sense to the music. Untitled Unmastered feels like a personal concert that Kendrick decided to put on for fans. Every time I listen to it, I can see the man in the center of some small, dimly lit venue, live band behind him, just performing for the love of performing. Much like the jazz music that clearly inspires Lamar, the production feels completely organic and improvisational, particularly in raw outings such as Untitled 05. Released from the pressure of making a huge statement with a full-fledged album, Kendrick allows room for the band to shine and steal the spotlight at times. The album itself feels like therapy for Kendrick’s restless mind, as well as a brief glimpse into his musical process — see the improvisational demo at the end of Untitled 07 or the quirky Untitled 06, which clearly shares the DNA of TPAB track For Sale? (Interlude). But at the end of the day, Kendrick proves to be as nimble and competitive as ever, as Untitled 02 sees him fusing his signature jazz sound with a more conventional modern hip-hop beat, and effortlessly knocking it out of the park.
15. Jeff Rosenstock | WORRY.
There is such a spontaneous kinetic energy to Rosenstock’s music, and that’s probably his main draw and also what turns so many people off to him (and ska music as a whole really). WORRY. opens with We Begged 2 Explode, an uncharacteristically slow and restained alternative number that finds Rosenstock in a characteristically reflective state, musing over life’s meaninglessness and why it sucks to grow up: “Laura said to me, ‘This decade’s gonna be fucked / Friends will disappear after they fall in love / Fall in love and get married / Isn’t that shit like, crazy? / The workin’, havin’ babies and promotions? / The cheatin’, cryin’, leavin’, and divorcin’?” Though the pressures of maturing, losing friends, inevitably working a dead-end job and not being able to get drunk every night have been cornerstones in Rosenstock’s career, here he sounds actually worried about it. This pensive sound hardly lasts, however, as the bulk of the album is filled with loud, catchy tunes that focus on the same impending dooms of life, but have a defiant sense of fun in doing so. Festival Song is potentially the biggest ear-worm of 2016. The Fuzz is a heart-wrenching 2 minute anthem. The album’s last 8 songs are a medley of seamless absurdity that sprints through 12 minutes, but feels like 11 minutes less than that. I’m only just really starting to love ska music, but the genre’s biggest allure for me is the epic way it painstakingly describes the situation of the average confused 20-something, and epically flips a middle finger to the responsibilities of life. This is beautiful, catchy, emotional music that, like so much of the ska-punk genre, is tailor-made to drunkly dance around to at 2 AM.
14. Saba | The Bucket List Project
Of all the talent to rise from the new wave of Chicago rap the last couple of years: Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Towkio… 22 year old Saba is by far the best rapper. The Bucket List Project, the follow up to 2014’s breakout tape Comfortzone, finds the MC showcasing his whirlwind technical skills while also proving his ability to guide a cohesive body of work. Whereas Comfortzone was a much more extra-terrestrial effort, The Bucket List Project is grounded and human. Opener In Loving Memory is a dizzying exercise of wordplay and lyricism, as Saba dares the listener to keep up, only slowing down to prove his talent for melody. GPS finds the up-and-comer holding his own against veteran rapper Twista, a clear inspiration for Saba’s sound. Church / Liquor Store is in part an anti-gentrification anthem as well as a personal tour around the city of Chicago. The album itself is an autobiography and collection of creative concepts, ranging from social issues, bravado and the city of Chicago, often intertwining to create a single vision. The music is so aesthetically pleasing that it’s easy to take for granted, but reveals layer after layer of ideas with each re-listen. However the clear heart of the album are the various interviews that serve as interludes and bridges from one song to the next, as Saba has his fellow Chicago friends, colleagues and idols describe what’s on their personal bucket lists. The answers range from small and mundane — having a meal from In-N-Out, learning to play the drums, having sex with Kylie Jenner — to highly personal and aspirational — helping your family eat, being able to say you chased your dreams, getting a Nobel Peace Prize (of course Lupe Fiasco). It all adds an incredibly human touch to each track, and makes The Bucket List Project feel like an universal effort.
13. Sing Street | Sing Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
I had an internal debate on whether or not to include soundtracks on this list, but when I thought about music I listened to the most in 2016, it became clear that Sing Street had to be included on here. That artwork alone warrants a mention. The entire soundtrack of Sing Street is one long love letter to ’80s pop-rock hits, and perfectly pays homage to the artists it takes from, while also being endearing enough to be memorable in it’s own right. I mean, the music is just so damn charming. The Riddle of the Model is as hilarious as it is catchy, and could easily pass for a Flight of the Conchords bit. If you haven’t seen it’s music video, I highly recommend it be the next thing you watch. Up dangerously flirts with that “too chessy” line (that’s kind of the point) but is just so damn simple and idealistic that you can’t help but fall under it’s spell. While it may be easy to argue that the music doesn’t stand as strongly without the support of the film’s context, it’s hard to deny how straight up fun it is, as it perfectly captures every kid’s childhood dream to start a band and emulate their idols. Seriously though, go see the movie.
12. Danny Brown | Atrocity Exhibition
Atrocity Exhibition can be a hard nut to crack. Everything about it is completely manic and unpredictable; even it’s more mellow moments are unsettling and jarring at best. If a man can take Lil Wayne’s most playful song, Kush, and manages to turn it on it’s head to only capture the strange paranoia the drug can create like on track Get Hi… then I honestly have no idea what that means, but it just baffles me Danny Brown managed to do that.
From the album’s opening mid-sentence yelp, you’re strapped into Danny Brown’s drag-addled funhouse from hell, and are forced to witness his inhumane lifestyle firsthand. Almost every beat on Atrocity Exhibition sounds like it could be from an overlty-gory ’80s B-movie horror flick. Brown constantly raps about the trappings of addiction and being unable to escape a lifestyle full of coke, alcohol, pills and who knows what else. There is nothing glorifying about the subject matter here, just a mind that desperately searches for direction, but can’t help but sprint in a hundred different ways at once, ultimately getting nowhere. Brown’s voice, often a high-pitched shriek, creates a convicting desperation that somehow manages to balance mania with a self-aware sense of humor that keeps each song from becoming absolutely unbearable. In Ain’t It Funny, the album’s most abrasive song in a project full of abrasive songs, Brown repeatedly raps: “Staring at the devil’s face but you can’t stop laughing.” It sums up the album and Brown as a whole. I hope Danny Brown conquers the countless demons he raps about, and continues to create the strangest music in rap and beyond. There is nothing else like this project out there, but I don’t think the world could take anymore of it’s kind.
11. Beyonce | Lemonade
A project full of heartbreak and empowerment, Lemonade is easily the most condensed, powerful Beyonce album to date; an important collection of songs that served as a beacon of hope for so many in 2016. There’s a clear, compelling narrative to this album: the journey of a woman handling the idea of her husband’s cheating (whether the story of Jay-Z’s infidelity is a fabrication or not is besides the point) and coming out the other side stronger for it. But what separates Lemonade from other works that tackle similar themes is the fact it covers all of the emotions one would go through in such an event, not just grief. The tone shifts from defiance (Hold Up), to blistering anger (Don’t Hurt Yourself), to shock (Love Drought) while still capturing absolute anguish (Sandcastles). But Beyonce never plays the roll of the victim. Throughout each track, you can feel her searching her feelings for how to handle each next step, observing every angle of her relationship, identity and perception. It is in this grappling and self awareness that the world’s biggest superstar feels more relatable than she ever has, while still maintaining the picture perfect image of a queen. Sleazy strip club joint 6 Inch is a rare instance when The Weeknd is invited to a song and asked to work to the host’s sound, and not the other way around. All Night perfectly caps off the album’s cinematic narrative. Lemonade proves to be much more than a simple relationship tale however: it is also an honest portrait of a black woman in a broken America. Cuts such as Freedom, a blazing duet with Kendrick Lamar, and hit single Formation celebrate Beyonce’s absolute blackness, and reminds the world of her identity. Above all else, Lemonade felt desperately needed in 2016, as it serves uncompromisingly honest rallying cry for those who have been knocked down time and time again but refuse to let tragedy define them.
10. Whitney | Light Upon the Lake
Light Upon the Lake is an absolute summer album. It’s filled with breezy tunes that are as catchy as they are beautiful. Whitney immediately grabs your attention with frontman Julien Ehrlich’s distinct voice, but this is anything but a one man show. Though Ehrlich is Whitney’s most immediate quality, it doesn’t take long to realize what a collaborative effort the band is, as each track is filled with lush instrumentals, sweeping guitars and epic horns that feel grand in scale but small in scope, allowing every member to shine. These are songs that open up in front of you and immediately invite you in to live in and explore. I challenge anyone to listen to The Falls or Golden Days without imagining a perfect summer scene. You can play this record front to back while relaxing by the water, but is so much more than background music. What truly makes Whitney special are the mundane details in each track; you can listen over and over again and pick up on something new. No Matter Where We Go was easily my song of the summer, and is effortlessly optimsitic. The album’s title track is both heartbreaking and intoxicating. The entire project carries an aesthetic that already feels classic; both familiar and fresh at the same time. At 30 minutes, Light Upon the Lake is short and to the point, but that’s all it needs to be to make it’s mark, as it will be enjoyed throughout countless summers to come.
9. Kanye West | The Life of Pablo
I’m tired of talking about this album. It sums up Kanye’s 2016 perfectly, for better or worse. It’s good, probably near the bottom of his discography, but still has a ton of brilliant stuff on it. I’m just gonna shamelessly plug something I wrote when it came out and be done with it: https://medium.com/@renwald12/the-life-of-pablo-2-0-and-why-kanye-still-making-changes-to-his-album-might-matter-1a61218bfd2f#.zc3vesuiw.
8. Anderson .Paak | Malibu
Nobody had a better year than Anderson .Paak. After 2015’s scene-stealing guest features on Dr. Dre’s Compton and under-appreciated collaborative EP with Blended Babies, .Paak finally stepped into the spotlight in 2016, and took advantage of every chance that came his way. Every track he guest featured on in the last year he made his own, using his effortless groove and warmth to dominate song after song. .Paak was blazing a trail for others to follow, never compromising his unique style in doing so. And it all started in the cold January of 2016 with Malibu, an inventive melting pot of genres and sounds.
The album art encapsulates the project’s sound pretty perfectly: warm, soulful, affable and sprawling. The live studio band lends every track a loose aesthetic, giving .Paak more than enough room too flex his vocals in countless ways, from rapping (The Waters, Carry Me) to crooning (Celebrate, Heart Don’t Stand A Chance) to full-out belting (Silicon Valley). .Paak flaunts his diverse musical talents through each song, while still maintaining a consistent tone that ties the collection together. .Paak’s rasp also adds conviction to his stories, usually about the struggle and endurance it takes to make it in the music industry. But however tired his voice may be, there is always an irresistible sense of optimism and celebration, as .Paak knows his hard work has paid off in spades, particularly on the infectious ballad Put Me Thru or the climatic anthem The Dreamer. But the album’s most powerful moments might be in the quieter songs, such as beautifully composed opener The Bird or the heartwarming musings of Celebrate, in which the singer showcases his appreciation for the people and artists who paved his road to success. Of all the emerging artists of 2016, Anderson .Paak’s future is perhaps the brightest.
7. Jamila Woods | HEAVN
Most know Jamila Woods without even realizing it: she’s the voice behind the soulful church hooks on 2015’s Sunday Candy and Chance’s Coloring Book-cut Blessings. In both of these tracks, Woods comes off as a warm, innocent presence; a wise figure devoted to God… Someone you would feel completely comfortable seeking advice from in a time of crisis. Wood’s debut album, HEAVN, is unsurprisingly a gospel album in part, but also completely shocks anyone who thought they had pegged Jamila Woods through her two most popular features. HEAVN reveals the energetic life bursting through the seams of the woman. Woods proves herself to be a badass who is hardly limited to the sounds of church organs and Sunday school.
HEAVN is as catchy as it is powerful. The production boasts a unique groove and extra-terrestrial bounce that engulfs the listener. Woods is a powerful storyteller and lyricist, painting vivid pictures of her experiences as a black woman hailing from Chicago. The music is political, whether it be in the proud “Miss Mary Mack” flip, VRY BLK, or the unrelenting rallying cry of Blk Girl Soldier, in which Woods states: “They want us in the kitchen / Kill our sons with lynching / We get loud about it / Oh now we’re the bitches”. The politics of HEAVN always feel natural, compelling and true above all else.
In epic album closer Way Up Woods finally proclaims herself “an alien from inner space”. You can picture her beam up past Earth and heaven to her own private planet. Woods serves as a comforting and convicting voice that is absolutely specific and timely, but also universal and all-encompassing. Jamila Woods may not be from Earth, but after experiencing HEAVN it becomes obvious she is determined to empower all those around her, and will do all she can to make this planet a better place before transcending to the clouds above.
6. Chance the Rapper | Coloring Book
Out of all the albums on this list, Coloring Book was probably the hardest to rank, as I have had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with it over the last year. I instantly loved it on first listen, but something was off. Something about Chance’s optimism was hard to swallow. It could be that it came off as borderline preachy and self-righteous at times, or that it seemed somewhat forced throughout the album, serving as a guise instead of genuine feeling. Or maybe it was just jealousy that someone so young has his shit together as well as Chance does. But whatever the case, my disliking of the album couldn’t last because I realized I was listening to it too damn much to be so skeptical.
Coloring Book is a huge progression for Chance, but also a natural next step. The youngin that rapped his ass of on Acid Rap had left the building, and in his place stood a mature role model that is quickly becoming an important face in modern hip-hop. It is very easy to tell that Chance the Rapper is much less focused on rapping, and is instead following the footsteps of his idol Kanye in becoming a director of sound; handpicking guests to fit the albums narrative and focusing on musical elements that transcend hip-hop. This works to some truly glorious results. No Problem is a jam in every sense, as we see Chance channel his optimism into an aggression that the rest of the album could have used more of. Blessings is simply a lovely song. Finish Line / Drown sees Chance utilize everything he has at his disposal perfectly; from the choirs (the “never, never, never” at 5:20 is probably my favorite moment on the album) to T-Pain and Noname (who probably holds the album’s best verse).
However, the album does have it’s rough patches. The idea behind All We Got is crystal clear and powerful, but Chance is too blinded by admiration to realize Kanye sounds awful on the hook, and the mixing completely misses the mark. Something about a trap song with Young Thug and Lil Yachty about being the only one who cares about mixtape, when you released your project through Apple Music, seems plain wrong. All Night sounds fun, but Chance is just sitting in an uber outside a club telling girls to get out of his car and stop farting. It just doesn’t work for me. Coloring Book proves without a doubt that there is greatness in Chance’s sights, but there are flaws that stop him short of reaching it. However, the highs are incredibly high, and what works result in some of my absolute favorite material of 2016.
5. The Range | Potential
Potential begins with a chopped, muffled voice speaking into a low quality microphone: “Right now, I don’t have a back up plan for if I don’t make”. What the voice lacks in audio quality it makes up for in relatability and passion. This unknown artist, and the countless others featured on Potential, are all clearly connected through a love of music, regardless of whether or not they make it. They are voices shouting into the endless void of cyber-space, with no certainty anything they say will be heard. Luckily, The Range was listening. Potential is an album created solely from unknown YouTube samples… videos with hardly any views featuring artists simply singing into the camera. Scouring the dark crevices of YouTube, producer The Range was able to dig up a bunch of seemingly random voices — aspiring artists, hopeful singers, or just lovers of music — and tie them all together to make a grand statement about humanity. Though this concept could easily have come off as a cheap gimmick, it feels entirely organic. The Range lays out sonic landscapes that give each sample room to breathe and be clearly heard. The instrumentals and voices feed off one each other seamlessly, and have a clear understanding of what the other is trying to say, making each track feel like a single vision. The Range clearly took time to truly study and understand each artist he borrowed from, creating an album that is diverse in it’s countless influences, but overall highlights the beauty of everyday life. You can feel the emotion in each individual telling their own stories in tracks such as Skeptical and Regular, while also mindlessly dance to the infectious production that carries each song. Tracks such as Copper Wire and 1804 could be hits in their own right, and exemplify why the album works so well. You don’t need to know the story behind the music to find it compelling and enjoyable, but once you do know, it provides an entirely new perspective to each song. The Range finds the beauty in the mundane, and makes you appreciate the fact that everyone has a story worth hearing. Nowadays, the internet feels like a meme-filled jungle of hate, insecurity and misinformation, but The Range serves as a reminder of the endless possibilities it can produce: a chance to be discovered, to share creations, to be heard. It’s what technology was meant to be used for in the first place after all. When did we forget that?
4. A Tribe Called Quest | We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The week of November 8th was a dark time. I remember taking an uber through the city of Boston as election results were just becoming final, and seeing nobody on the streets. My driver was having a panic attack as she listened to the radio. The next few days there was a cloud of fear and depression that hung over the city. Everything seemed (and still increasingly does seem) uncertain and up in the air. There was a clear collective consensus that everyone would remember where they were that Election Day, and the feeling of dread that followed. That same week, A Tribe Called Quest released their farewell album after an 18 year hiatus, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, and it couldn’t have been more welcome in it’s timing. As soon as Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are heard singing together: “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever / Gotta get it together for brothers / Gotta get it together for sisters” and the grooving keys of The Space Program rang through my headphones, a wave of insurance came over me. In a world where Donald Trump has been elected president, and nothing seems stable or secure… here’s Tribe making music as well as ever, even after enduring the tragic loss of Phife Dawg. Every time I listen to this album, and each moment is still as astoundingly good as the last… I don’t know, there’s just something comforting about that.
The album is a collaborative effort through and through, but the true hero here is obviously Q-Tip, who juggles every artist, concept and sound with a masterful ease. And there are a lot of all of those things on this record. Busta. Consequence. Andre. Talib Kweli. Kanye. Kendrick. Anderson .Paak. Elton John. Jack White. It all feels like a grand event, but the star power never overshadows the album’s ideas or themes. Everyone is given an equal playing field, and every artist exceeds expectations. The album is scattered with political ideas and observes modern America from a variety of angles, from biting social commentary (We the People…), to disillusionment (Kids…), to mourning (The Killing Season). But there is still plenty of room for Tribe to observe their legacy (Movin Backwards) or pay respect to Phife Dawg, whether it be through thoughtful tribute in Lost Somebody or simply by letting some of his final bars do the talking. Q-Tip’s production remains true to Tribe’s signature sound, but never feels like it is trying to hit the nostalgia button like so many other artists would do. The album flows naturally, and above all feels necessary.
Closing track The Donald is obviously titled with the president-elect in mind, but in actuality has nothing to with the man. Instead, it is one final tribute to Phife Dawg, or Don Juice. If I were to guess, this was Tribe’s attempt to redefine the now infamous name and give it back to the departed MC. We got it from Here could have been a victory lap for the progress America has made in the last few years, but instead is a sober reminder of the long road ahead for this country… but also insurance that everything will be ok.
3. Car Seat Headrest | Teens of Denial
If I were to give you an album that encapsulated my life right now, I would have to look no further than Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial. There is just something about Will Toledo’s playful cynicism of the world that connects so astoundingly. These are the sounds of young adults who know they have responsibility looming over their heads, but still can’t help getting fucked up and looking for answers, even if they know they’ll find none. It’s manic, it’s existential, and it’s always laughing at itself.
Every sound, every idea, every song on this 71 minute record is epic and overly ambitious. It successfully mixes the sounds of classic rock, ska, punk and alternative to create grandiose gestures and sprawling ballads. Toledo and co. aren’t interested in any sort of answers — “It took me a long time to find out I don’t know what I want / So you ask “why” and there will be no answer / Until eventually you shut up” he gracefully muses on opener Fill In the Blanks. But that doesn’t mean Car Seat doesn’t have anything interesting to say. Toledo’s disillusionment with the world seems to actually fuel his creative ambitions, as if he figures, “Hey, there’s no point, so why not go balls to the wall with every little thing we make?” The results are the exhausted yet hopeful rants of Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales, the wiser-than-my-years cautionary tale of Cosmic Hero and one 11-minute Ballad of the Costa Concordia, some of the year’s finest songwriting — period. The sounds of Teens of Denial range from stunning horns, heavy guitars and all feature incredibly catchy sing along hooks. If you’ve ever had an existential crisis, this record is worth a listen. Car Seat Headrest may never find an answer, but they know how to pose countless interesting questions.
2. Bon Iver | 22, A Million
I always feel like this record could fall apart at any moment. Sometimes it sounds like it already has. 22, A Million is without a doubt Justin Vernon’s most challenging music to date; built on computer glitches, chopped vocal samples, and pieces of leftover saxophone. But it is also Vernon’s most beautiful and concise work yet. Structurally, 22, A Million is near flawless; no song goes longer than it has too; each track hits an emotional chord that flows naturally from one to the next. It all feels completely experimental, yet confident and masterful — as if the sprawling beauty of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty and the manic minimalism of Yeezus flew into each other and morphed into a strangely fantastic hybrid.
Despite how ugly the music tries to be, Vernon’s breathtaking voice always shines through, creating a mournful beauty that has been present throughout his past work. One often forgets that track 715–CR∑∑KS is an acapella, partly because Vernon’s voice is drenched with a dozen different kinds of autotune, but also because his performance is so arresting that you’re practically on the edge of your seat waiting for the next word. #29 Strafford Apts could be easily adjusted to fit anywhere in Bon Iver’s discography, but the audio quality glitches in such a non-conventional way that it could only fit here. At risk of sounding cheesy, it’s as if the computer has trouble comprehending Vernon’s falsetto because it’s just that good. The transition from 21 M◊◊N WATER to 8 (circle) kills me everytime. I could obviously praise every track on this album, but I would just end up sounding more redundant than I already have. I also obviously have a hard time pinpointing exactly why this album works as well as it does. For me, it just does. It speaks for itself.
Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago, has gained notoriety for it’s naturally compelling backstory: Man goes through tragic break up, retreats to cabin in Wisconsin woods with a guitar and makes something magical. 22, A Million captures that same essence, but instead of sitting in a cabin alone with a guitar, Vernon now sits alone surrounded by computers. There’s just something I find beautiful about that that I can’t really explain. But I love it.
- Frank Ocean | Blond(e)
Every Frank Ocean fan knows exactly where they were when this album came out. After enduring years of waiting, and then weeks of staring at a man who may or may not build a staircase, and then receiving a kinda psyche out / kinda great-in-it’s-own-right visual album, the wait was finally over. We finally got the long-await follow up to 2012’s Channel Orange. We finally got Blond(e).
Perhaps this was inevitably going to be my favorite album of the year. But it easily could have been my least favorite. It could have been everybody’s least favorite. Even if the album turned out to be awful, it still would’ve served as a statement of fan entitlement in today’s entertainment industry, something notably affecting the way popular media is being made today. But enough about that. Beyond the initial satisfaction of finally receiving something you’ve waited years for, one eventually has to take a step back and ask if the music stands on it’s own. And in my personal opinion, Blond(e) absolutely does.
I love everything about this album. I love that even after making fans wait so long, Frank still makes us wait an additional 3 minutes before finally unveiling his real voice in opener Nikes. I also love that the vocal shift in those first 3 minutes still sounds beautiful. Like the rest of the project, it works in the context of the moment, but completely holds up on it’s own. I love the album’s sprawling misdirections. I love the thoughts within the thoughts of each track. Almost every song on the album — especially in it’s latter half — completely forgoes song structure altogether, and instead shifts, pivots and flows in whatever direction Frank is feeling in the moment. It almost feels like each song is alive, as if there are different personalties clashing with each other in each track, creating a body of work that almost feels as real as the figure behind it.
Whereas Channel Orange was a series of vignettes, Blond(e) is a series of fragments. It is the sound of an artist stretching out creatively, making intimate music as much for himself as for other people. In the album’s various skits, there is a beautifully simple instrumental that plays under each guest speaker. It invokes childhood, nostalgia, and would sound right at home on Jon Brion’s soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In fact, that film may be the record’s closest counterpart. In Blond(e) we find Frank wandering through his memories, trying desperately to hold on to feelings of his past, but tragically recognizing that each memory has already disappeared… and every song is just a futile representation of a feeling that he can never really relive. In a culture suffering from nostalgia, Frank Ocean once again accidentally stumbles into the roll of being a voice to a generation by tirelessly trying to understand himself. It’s something we all could try a little harder to do.
Now My Top Songs of 2016.
Wow, that was long, wasn’t it? Sorry about that. I realize that this article has become something more for just me at this point. So I’m just going to give my 20 favorite songs of 2016 for time capsule purposes. I hope you look up some of the music you might not know and enjoy.
20. Stupid Roses — Kweku Collins
19. Girls@ (feat. Chance the Rapper) — Joey Purp
18. A 1000 Times — Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
17. Put Me Thru — Anderson .Paak
16. Girlfriend — NAO
15. I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver) — James Blake
14. Festival Song — Jeff Rosenstock
13. Low Life (feat. The Weeknd) — Future
12. Copper Wire — The Range
11. Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty) — D.R.A.M
10. I Want You — Marian Hill
9. No Matter Where We Go — Whitney
8. Cosmic Hero — Car Seat Headrest
7. Finish Line / Drown — Chance the Rapper
6. Summer — Innanet James
5. Virile — The Blaze
4. Highlights (Original Cut) [feat. Young Thug] — Kanye West
2. WAAAVES — J M R
- Dapper (feat Anderson .Paak) — Domo Genesis
... And Favorite Music Videos For Good Measure.
6. Superimpose — The Range
5. Prima Donna — Vince Staples
4. Nikes — Frank Ocean
3. Daydreaming — Radiohead
2. The Riddle of the Model — Sing Street
1. Virile — The Blaze
Thanks for reading whatever portion of this and here’s to a better 2017!