“That’s a pretty fuckin’ fast year flew by…” said nobody in 2016 except Frank Ocean (this being just more evidence to Frank existing in a parallel space-time continuum).
There’s a notion that hard times bring great art, and this year is damn good evidence to support that. 2016 was slow, painful, and a monumental year in pop music history; a terrible horror-show reality set to a beautiful and restoring soundtrack. We received mind-blowing, perfect music from both Knowles sisters, expanding public consciousness on intersectionality and black self-love. Frank Ocean, the Avalanches, ANOHNI, and a Tribe Called Quest all returned from hiatuses we thought would never end. Both Anderson .Paak and Chance the Rapper went from indie darlings to omnipresent pop stars.
Maybe hard times bring great art, but what’s more important is that hard times need great art. To all the artists this year who fought through the hardships to bring beauty to the world, thank you.
As the year comes to a close, let’s not drop our guard, as tempting as it may be. There is no guarantee that 2017 will be easier than 2016; in fact, all signs currently point to the contrary. We need to be strong together now more than ever. Keep fighting, keep exploring, and keep learning.
And in the words of Killer Mike, “At the end of the day, just be good to each other, cause no one else is gonna be good to you.”
Here is our favorite music of 2016.
Follow along and listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/123804628/playlist/7yJjRkC6lcNOO4z5eCDuWF
Album of the Year
Solange ∴ A Seat at the Table
We weren’t going to choose one single top album, but after we separately and unanimously chose A Seat at the Table as a favorite, we realized it was without a doubt the Album of the Year.
“Interlude: Dad Was Mad,” track 5 on A Seat at the Table, teaches us how to read Solange’s album. Matthew Knowles recounts being one of the first 6 black children integrated into the previously segregated school in his community. These children were accosted by KKK members, people yelling and throwing things at them. Mr. Knowles recounts living under a constant fear of death at the hands of bigots.
In its 21 tracks, A Seat at the Table lays bare the psychic traumas of racism, recounting time and time again, in ways both subtle (“Cranes in the Sky”) and explicit (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), the way racism and misogyny inflict constant emotional damage. The album is not entirely bleak: choosing Master P as the album’s narrator serves the dual purpose of situating the listener firmly in New Orleans, and reinforcing a theme of betting on one’s Black self in a world of seemingly insurmountable White odds.
This is music that lives with you. The album’s seductive melange of funk, soul, pop, and R&B provides a danceable canvas for thought-provoking lyricism. Solange welcomes you into her soundscape, her world, her home. Each interlude is built on the previous or following song, creating the sensation that the album is eternal. “Cranes in the Sky” expresses this infinity in miniature. The chords never resolve, but they create flow rather than tension. The beat grounds the song and never shifts; the strings breathe deep and exhale.
The power of this album is the effortlessness with which Solange exposes the seams between the personal and the political, puts them right up to your face, and makes you confront them.
– Adán & Nico
“Cranes in the Sky”
Albums of the Year (listed alphabetically)
Anderson .Paak ∴ Malibu
In spite of his magna cum laude resume of prior hip-hop accomplishments and collaborations, Anderson Paak’s Malibu was slow to catch fire when it dropped back in January. Perhaps this is because — despite it being chock full of end-to-end grooves, boasting plenty to sing-a-long with and dance to — there is not one song that would sound at home amongst today’s urban radio.
This is grown-folks music that deftly finds ways to not sound out of touch. Paak’s vocal performance is contemporary in that he is able to drift seamlessly between singing and rapping, but his style recalls Goodie Mob-era Cee-Lo rather than Big Baby D.R.A.M.
The album’s production is handled by a “hip-hop purists” dream-team of folks like 9th Wonder, Madlib, Hi-Tek, and Kaytranada. Malibu makes no accommodations to the contemporary sound of the culture, yet somehow avoids sounding dated or even nostalgic.
“The Season | Carry Me”
– Addendum –
Anderson Paak and his band, “The Free Nationals,” have carved out a space of their own, and a vibe that sounds just as at home alongside Dr. Dre or Mac Miller, as it does Snakehips or Thane. Since “Malibu” dropped Mr. Paak has popped up as featured performer on almost every noteworthy hip-hop (or hip-hop adjacent) release this year – see the attached playlist for some of the highlights.
Beyoncé ∴ Lemonade
Beyoncé Knowles’ Lemonade is a “visual album” whose audacious scope and manner of release could only have been attempted by a handful of pop-artists in American history. There are great songs on Lemonade: tunes like “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “Freedom,” “All Night,” and “Formation” will undoubtedly endure. However, Beyoncé resonates in the popular imagination and discourse as much more than a musician.
With “Lemonade” Beyoncé enlists the disparate geniuses of Warsan Shire, Serena Williams, Jack White, and Kendrick Lamar to play supporting roles. She reduces the greatest rapper of all time, her husband, to a prop. As our contemporary “Queen of Pop” becomes increasingly comfortable as a creator of seismic cultural episodes, she becomes a much more fascinating and effective artist.
Whether it was bringing the Black Panthers to steal the Super Bowl Halftime Show or bringing her flawless Black self to the lily-white Country Music Awards, watching Beyoncé’s body— where she puts it, how she chooses to adorn it, how she moves it, and who she allows close to it — all become just as meaningful as anything we hear.
Chance the Rapper ∴ Coloring Book
Coloring Book stood as a beacon of fun, joy, and hope in the face of an otherwise bleak year. Rather than take on the cold, detached persona that defines much of contemporary pop rap, Chance chooses to hold us close, smile, and dance. Like his fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, Chance took us to church this year, mixing the highs of an earnest religiosity (“I don’t believe in science/I believe in signs”) with the lows of someone farting in your car, to capture the entire spectrum of human existence.
Chance continues to blaze his own trail, putting out yet another album/mixtape without label support, and proving with Coloring Book that he is one of the most powerful voices in pop music today.
Frank Ocean ∴ blond
Blonde is frustrating. It is beautiful and it goes nowhere. The majority of songs have no drums, no hooks, and no chorus. It sits with you in the corner, quiet and contemplative. It psychs you up and breaks you down.
Deep inside each song are tiny, pristine traces of mastery; as weird as Blonde is, it is certainly Frank’s intended finished product.
Blonde isn’t a collection of songs, it’s an album of moments. It flows through you like a memory; but memory is imperfect, and moments distort. Like a memory, you aren’t sure what it is while you live it, and you can rarely put it into words when it’s over.
Kanye West ∴ The Life of Pablo
Kanye West is many things to many people: the lone legitimate “rock star” in today’s American music landscape; an asshole; a transcendent, multi-media artist; a husband and a father; a misguided Trump supporter. The Life of Pablo wraps all of these personas and behaviors into a unique and far-ranging exploration of hope and despair, of God and celebrity, of fame and its perils.
Where else could you find one track closing with an uplifting sermon (“Ultralight Beam”), and the next detailing the perils of fucking a model with a recently bleached asshole? On TLOP, Kanye doesn’t just enjoy these seemingly contradictory elements of life, he’s on a mission to prove that they’re not contradictions to begin with.
A Tribe Called Quest ∴ We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
I suppose I should not be shocked by the fact that ATCQ’s sixth studio album “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service” is as undeniably dope as it is. We knew these were immensely talented dudes. What is remarkable, however, is that in a year full of younger hip-hop artists dropping some of the best work of their careers, this group of mid-forty-somethings may well have outdone them all.
“We Got It From Here…” sounds like what would happen if Tip, Phife, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammed got quantum-leaped forward in time from 1994 to 2014 and were given two years to assess the modern world and compose a worthy follow-up to “Midnight Marauders.” Appropriately, the album begins with “Space Program,” a parable about how much has changed in their now-gentrified home of outer-boroughs NYC.
Conceiving of Tribe as a band of Encino men who’ve observed hip-hop’s transformations over the past two decades in a silent and frozen state is the most illuminating way to listen to this album. Four masters of the art-form get the band back together with a very clear and uncorrupted sense of what that band is, how they should sound, and what “Tribe” should mean to the culture at large. “We Got It From Here…” proves that the formula behind the group’s first three classic records is a timeless one, suitable for any musical or political moment.
“We the People…”
Adán: Noname ∴ Telefone
A Noname song is a conversation. Her flow and lyricism work hand in hand to make you feel like you’re sitting across from her over a coffee or a beer to discuss life. But her lyrical content is far from prosaic or trifling; she speaks to the realities of poverty, racism, hopelessness (which she locates in the personal context of her family), her friends, her lovers. As the conversation opens up and gets progressively more intimate, you can’t help but lean in and listen.
Devin: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith ∴ Ears
Smith’s album is full of vivid compositions that evoke lifelike forms and a sense of growth. It as exceptionally and strangely beautiful upon first listen, and continues to reward with every revisit.
Nico: The Avalanches ∴ Wildflower
There is a particular kind of euphoria that only overtakes you in rare summer moments. It’s pure, wide-eyed delirium, a sunburst dripping in technicolor goo, and it’s precocious and overeager and clichéd and loveblind and very much present and in the moment. It doesn’t last. You remember it, don’t you? Here, listen:
Olivia: KAYTRANADA ∴ 99.9%
Somewhere in outer space, in an equatorial jungle on an Earth-like exoplanet, Dilla is alive and well, blasting 99.9% to an alien dancefloor. And they dance, cry, and love to it just as hard as we do.
Sayre: Vince Staples ∴ Prima Donna
There is no more fun rapper to listen to today than Vince Staples. He raps from the perspective of an irreverent, wisecracking Long Beach hoodlum who is wise beyond his years. Prima Donna is the most marketable sound we’ve gotten from Vince. Part of what makes Vince so great though, is that the record’s marketability is simply an unintended consequence of Vince getting doper.
Plus, mentioning Vince allows me to link this.
Thank you to our contributors:
Adán Magaña, Devin Erbay, Enrico Watson, Fiona Hannigan, Francis Eastman, Keshin Purohit, Nick Peterson, Nico Simonian, Olivia Petrocco, and Sayre Piotrkowski