Artists — from the experienced to the emerging — are amongst an eruption of technology in sound design that has let 2016 become an incubator for unique works of art. We experienced an incredible year in music with a versatile and wide-ranging selection for just about any mood or ambiance. The large selection we had to choose from spanned across many musical realms. Hip Hop artists fought hard for their transcendence into poets. EDM artists fought for deviated attempts at mesmerizing us into pure hypnosis. All the successors of rock shared the same but unique revolutionary voices as their predecessors… And beyond genre, artists of all backgrounds created albums that have bent and pushed our preconceived notions of music gracefully and masterfully. Besides all the opinions, all the commentary, all the outstanding context that changed our individual interpretations of music, I want to remind you what music did for us this year, and who did it best, who fell short, and what this all means for music and the direction it will head onto in the year 2017. This year was a hard-hitting year from beginning to end that saw great albums getting released well into the final week of the year, and although I wasn’t able to mention to my best ability every great work, such as the recently released Run The Jewels 3 or The Rolling Stones‘ Blue and Lonesome, these are my picks for albums to remember from the Satan-sponsored shit-show known as 2016.
Kanye West once asked: “Is hip hop, just a euphemism for a new religion/ The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing?” Earlier this year this line slapped me in the face with how true it was. We are now beginning to see that Hip Hop is a culture, a tool for healing, that gives faith to the newer generations.
The leader in hip-hop: Chance the Rapper with Coloring Book. He stays true to his philosophy of remaining an independent artist, which allows him to have a voice that shows promise for the future of rap, making healing melodies and showing how Chance the Rapper can go from a hype track to lullaby, like the songs “No Problem” to “Same Drugs,” while still being a joyful perspective for us to revere as a leader that uses his music for good. We saw incredible works of art such as Prima Donna by Vince Staples, which invited us into heavy realities with its well-developed lyricism and dark humor. The production on this album was not scared to find different approaches to hip hop structure, while remaining true to it, like sampling ATLien (OutKast) on “War Ready.” His rap/rock-like sound on this album helps the narrative being told and paints the picture for the listener.
The most masterful work that I can’t seem to stop playing was Atrocity Exhibition (Danny Brown). This one showed maturity in his style by giving us the internal pressures and painfully raw emotion which he captures with its extremely mesmerizing beats that give the feel of a concept album while inviting us into his reality. Like in the song “Ain’t It Funny,” the sonic structure paints the realities of his lyrics that in turn paint a powerful image of a reality while also illustrating a juxtaposition of his pain and his uncontrollable attraction to the lifestyle of drug addiction. Among my picks for best of is Kendrick Lamar, who was the lyrical leader of the year, including all the features across too many albums to mention. Although Untitled Unmastered isn’t a full-length album, it needs the credit of one. With the residue of “To Pimp A Butterfly” in the air, he released this social poetry out of thin air with unnamed tracks to focus on what he wants to do with his music. He makes a stance on the things that are going wrong in our society. I can’t pick a favorite verse from this one; however, the last line of the album is “Bitch I made my moves, with shackled feet,” which illustrates the power in his writing by focusing on how much he’s done with his career while also reminding us of all the difficulties and effort it took for him to reach his success.
Hip Hop seriously made a statement this year, and, on top of this, A Tribe Called Quest gave us Thank You 4 Your Service, which thematically was the strongest album of the year. It reminded us that age is nothing but a number, considering the gap between this album and their last one. ATCQ stayed true to their original work in this one while also showing how much they’ve grown since their last album. Q-Tip stepped up to the plate with the rapping on this one while giving us a masterful farewell to the late Phife Dawg. It’s a true masterpiece that was fearless in bringing a message to listeners, like in “We The People…” and its chorus having no shame in pointing out things that must be said, and who better to say it than some of the greatest lyricists of all time.
Honorable Mentions in Hip Hop
Still Breathing, YG
Blankface, ScHoolBoy Q
Imperial, Denzel Curry
The Healing Component, Mick Jenkins
The Sun’s Tirade, Isiah Rashad
If we saw any other genre transcend its earlier days throughout this year, it is electronic dance music. We saw some producers take force by showing their distinction from formulaic and unimpressive in EDM. We saw extremely talented works like 99.9% from Kaytranada that shows anyone can come from humble beginnings like his Soundcloud days to giving us one of the most colorful and highly mixable work of 2016. If you can learn anything from his work, it is: fuck the hype and make something that gets under your skin and want you to dance. Besides the colorful melodies, killer drums, and incredibly funky rhythm in his style, he harnessed collaborations that lyrically and vocally matched Kaytranada perfectly, from AlunaGeorge and GoldLink (on “Together”) to Anderson .Paak (on “Glowed Up”). There is something inexplicable that makes us dance, and when it came to Kaytranda, he was the leader of this effort.
Other superstars such as Flume with Skin created sounds that we never thought imaginable. Although his collaborations didn’t quite match Kaytranda’s, Flume’s innovation in sound design stayed true to his self-titled debut album, with tracks like “Wall Fuck” and “Smoke and Retribution.” Flume deserves recognition for staying true to always pushing the boundaries of design. His ability to warp and distort sounds into new images created genuine intrigue while successfully being a transformative figure in pop music. His follow up Skin Companion later showed us his abilities while remaining true to the sounds Flume has become synonymous with. Also on my list is Santigold with 99 cents, a highly self-aware album that fits in the genre of bright pop, but given its uniqueness in production techniques, I want to put it up with these guys. Both as singer and producer on her work, the commentary on this album was one of the more self-aware works in a year full of self-awareness in artistry.
Master of the craft A-Trak deserves recognition for his lifetime achievement towards music, although In The Loop was not a genuine favorite of mine. It is nothing entirely new, having the structure of a remix album, since it is a compilation of mixes. I will say, though, as far as an influence to music, In The Loop is a perfect collection of A-Trak’s greats that sums up what it feels to witness A-Trak.
Finally, something difficult to put into words deserves to be mentioned as an instant classic: a master of the craft in both the likes of jazz artist and electronic producers is BBNG with IV. Although I wouldn’t exactly call them an electronic act, their efforts to combine jazz with a 21st-century sound deserves the same respect as other producers for the quality put on their latest album. They carry qualities similar to some of the greatest jazz solos ever, like the saxophone solo in “IV” that interchanges perfectly with the drums and piano.
Honorable Mentions in Electronic
Self-Assemble, Mat Zo
55, The Knocks
Bloom, RUFUS DU SOL
iii, Miiike Snow
Good Will Prevail, GRiZ
Save Yourself, SBTRKT
As far as indie/rock/alternative albums go, I first have to give it to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Skeleton Tree. This album creates a dark and spacious sound that harnesses the feelings of the lyrics, similar to previously mentioned Atrocity Exhibition. However, along with the madness it feels therapeutic, while also being traumatizing at the same time. I can’t explain it, but every time I put it on it puts me at peace while staring the sublime right in the face. Another great indie album this year was Beyond the Fleeting Gales by Crying, a new approach to the sound that made the ’80s unique. It does not explore too much, which makes it so nice. I find pleasure every time I hear this album, since it has an optimistic voice filled with an independent and free personality. Similar to its optimism and reinvention of older sounds, are The 1975 with I Like It When You Sleep, which brings back a euphoric retro feel shaped by what could be the greatest production in the last year. First glance, this is systematic of what pop wants pop to sound like… so I wanted to say it wasn’t authentic. However, the more I listen to it, the more I realize its attempt at trying to create a unique sound that was honest yet prideful of its retro sound, like “UGH!” or “She’s American”. Their blend of synth and guitar rock gives me a nostalgic feeling that perfectly captures a timeless feeling of glamour and a very refreshing and unique form of rock that had me on repeat.
Speaking of on repeat, Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard of Lizard Wizard is an album designed to play on repeat from beginning to end; it can attract anyone into its garage rock having you head-banging whether you like it or not. It lives somewhere between a live- and studio-album feel. Taking from several sounds including psych and punk, this is seriously a thrilling album I would love to have as the soundtrack to dune-buggy racing somewhere in a desert.
Finally, an album I could dedicate a book to, an artist who never falls short in any musical aspect, and my pick for favorite album of the year; 22, A Million by Bon Iver. Disorienting, mesmerizing, atmospheric, with a range of emotions, my only criticism of it is that it’s only 35 minutes. From beginning to end, every single song portrays a different emotion, ranging from “10 Death Breast” to “8 Circle.” Similar to Bon Iver albums in the past, it’s a pleasurable disorientation that is relaxing and unlike any other album I have ever heard. It takes familiar sounds and changes their designs to let all the sounds resonate and come together as one. It may take a few listens to understand the disorientation, but it beautifully captures a universal image with a wide emotional and structural spectrum, something that words have a hard time explaining but still somehow makes so much sense.
Teens of Denial, Carseat Headrest
An Odd Entrances, Thee Oh Sees
Artists transformed and developed their character and sounds in different directions, like Kanye West with The Life of Pablo, which did not come from Kanye West the rapper or producer but felt almost like Kanye the musical curator, which parallels his entrance into the fashion world. His production efforts are flawless, and songs like “No More Parties” remind us Kanye is not to be lyrically tarnished; however, it feels like this album passes his power on to a powerhouse collection of feature guests including Kid Cudi, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, and so on (seriously, I could go on). The way the chorus makes a strong opening in the intro “Ultralight Beam,” then to pass the first verse of the album onto Chance The Rapper goes to show how much Kanye West has grown into a curator, delicately making bold decisions that make an album almost like a painting that perfectly depicts our culture.
This was the year for artists to reinvent themselves; while many failed in their attempt, many succeeded. The late David Bowie reinvented his image of glamour on Blackstar, staying true to older Bowie while bringing up the topic of death heavily. With the context surrounding this album, it was an absolute masterpiece that showed us his vulnerability and emotional spectrum, giving us an incredible farewell piece. As far as reinventions goes, an artist who completely jumped to another style, voice, and genre was Childish Gambino with Awaken, My Love!, which was a phenomenal approach to soulful funk that I am honestly still trying to rap my head around, no pun intended. “Redbone” captures a new Donald Glover that shows its force and his range while also making an incredible reinvention of funk. It showed his ability to create different atmospheres and showed the spectrum this artist is capable of creating.
A group coming back with a new approach to their sound that cannot got without mentioning are the Red Hot Chili Peppers on The Getaway, although it still remains true to the structure of their Californication days. They have maintained their work to be continuous through eleven albums, but this lush and more laid-back sound shows how far RHCP has gone since their younger days, creating atmospheric wonders like the the song “Dark Necessities,” which makes an incredibly funky guitar layer for Kiedis’ lyrics to go through.
Honorable mentions in Reinventing artists
Divine Feminine, Mac Miller
Weezer (White Album), Weezer
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
The musical diversity witnessed this year made for a list that cannot be summed up in nineteen albums. Beyond the masters of the craft, many artists deserve the same respect for a truly powerful and stunning year full of memorable albums. To round up 2016, these are some accolades for albums this year that must not go unnoticed:
Most powerful album: Lemonade, Beyonce
Best Underrated Album: Phase, Jack Garratt
Biggest disappointment in Pop: Starboy, The Weeknd (featuring Daft Punk laughing all the way to the bank)
Rookie of the Year: Anderson .Paak with Malibu & Yes Lawd! (with Knxwledge)
Close second: Nao with For All We Know
Best Sophomore Album: How to Be a Human Being by Glass Animal
Close Second: Blond by Frank Ocean
Best Music Video: “Fade” / “Famous” by KanYe West
Best Latin Album: Energia By J Balvin
Best Overall Aesthetic: Farewell, Starlite by Francis and the Lights
Biggest let down from a single release: Ology, Gallant
Greatest Collaboration Project: TOPxMM, Twenty One Pilots and MuteMath
“I want more of this” Award: Bottomless Pit by Death Grips & Telefone by Noname
“I still don’t know how I feel about it” Award: Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, Kid Cudi
Most surprising debut album: Sincerely by Stephen
“Look At You” Award: Aa by Baauer
“Headbanger” Award: The Boy Who Died Wolf by Highly Suspect
“The individual songs are stronger than the sum of the whole” Award: I Remember, AlunaGeorge
“Reshaping how we look at history” Award: Hamilton Mixtape, Various Artists
“Please Stop” Award: Hardwired…To Self-Destruct by Metallica & Death of a Bachelor by Panic at the Disco!
“I’ll only mention it to show how much I don’t want to mention it” Award: Views by Drake
“Single that got us hype for 2017” Award: “On Hold”, the XX
Thank God that’s over: 2016