Favorite Albums of 2016
Well, 2016 has been a hell of a year, and I for one won’t be sad to see it go. While it may have seemed like we watched the world as we know it fall apart we at least we got to listen to some great music through it all. Before we officially welcome 2017 and the brave new world it’ll bring with it, I wanted to recap some of my favorite albums of the past year. The key word here is favorite, these are my favorites, and not necessarily the best. They are the albums that I found myself listening to again and again, day after day. If you haven’t had a chance to check these albums out I highly recommend you take some time over the holidays to do it. Here they are, presented in no particular order.
David Bowie- Blackstar
On January 8th, David Bowie celebrated his 69th birthday and released his 25th studio album Blackstar. Two days later he would die, following an 18-month private struggle with liver disease. For his final album, he would turn his own death into performance art. Bowie kept with the tradition of reinventing himself and his sound that had made him a legend. An eerie jazz theme pervades the album and the lyrics focus heavily on death and dying. The titular opening track is a 10-minute chaotic dirge on which Bowie sings
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star's star, I’m a blackstar)
It’s clear from the onset that this is an album about an artist coming to terms with his own mortality and imminent death. The song “Lazarus” is a haunting goodbye from beyond the grave, it’s first line is “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and continues in a later verse
This way or no way
You know I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain't that just like me?
Blackstar is an intensely emotional album and I notice something new every time I listen to it. A fitting final gift from the Starman.
Chance the Rapper- Coloring Book
Moving onto to something more upbeat, Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape Coloring Book is a fantastically fun, feel-good album. On “Blessings (Reprise)” Chance raps that he’s “Kanye’s best prodigy, he ain’t signed me but he proud me,” and he makes a strong argument for his case. Chance takes Kanye’s patented soul and gospel infused rap (see “Never Let Me Down”) and follows it to its logical conclusion, creating a hip-hop album so infused with soul, gospel, and praise that it defies all attempts to labeled. The chorus on “Blessings” would fit just as well in a Sunday morning service as it does on this track, and Chance comes hard with lines like “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom/Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdon” and “Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy/Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family/He ordered my steps, gave me a sword and a crest.” Coloring Book isn’t all God and praise though. “No Problems” is a banger that features great verses from Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. The features are actually another one of the strengths of this album, the list also includes Kanye West, Francis and the Lights, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Justin Beiber, Jay Electronica, and Future. The album feels like a party that everyone wants to be at.
Frank Ocean- Blonde
We waited four years for the follow-up to Ocean’s 2012 Channel ORANGE, and what a wait it was. Frank teased us with mysterious tumblr posts, pictures, and hints of potential release dates for an entire year. Fortunately, the two albums Ocean released in August were well worth the wait. Over several weeks, Ocean released the visual album Endless, the traditional album Blonde, and set up pop-shops in several cities that sold the first issue of his magazine Boys Don’t Cry. For this list, I’ll focus on the traditional album, my favorite of the projects, Blonde. The album is a sparse and heavily curated peak into Ocean’s psyche. “White Ferrari” is a quiet and haunting meditation on the impermanence of life and love, and when Ocean sings the opening lines “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” on “Ivy” it’ll give you chills. In addition to the raw emotion on the album, Ocean also shows off his ability to write complex lyrics with multiple layers of meaning. For the example, the song “Seigfried” is named for the legendary Norse hero and veritable avatar of traditional masculinity and martial prowess. Yet on “Seigfried” Ocean croons “I’m not brave,” contrasting himself with the mythical hero. He also alludes to his struggle with ownership of his sexual identity (Ocean came out as bisexual several years ago and has since become the de facto poster boy for LGBT R&B/Hip-Hop) “Maybe I’m a fool/Maybe I should move/And settle, two kids and a swimming pool.” However, in addition to possibly being about his own masculinity and identity the song also alludes to a break up and to Ocean’s disillusionment with the current culture. Another track where Ocean rolls three separate meanings into one is “Solo” which could refer to him singing solo, finding himself without a partner (i.e. solo), and/or being depressed (so low). Simply put, Blonde is immaculately produced and beautiful from start to finish.
Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
In just a couple years Sturgill Simpson has become the torchbearer for progressive-country. This year he brought us A Sailor’s Guide to Earth an album built around the concept of sailor writing home to his wife and son (Simpson served three years in the U.S. Navy and celebrated the birth of his first son in 2014). “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” is a beautiful ode to fatherhood that starts with quiet and sweet piano and builds to a roaring climax that includes an awesome old-school horn section. While Simpson’s lyrics are fairly simple and straight-forward, there is something powerful in their earnestness. For example, in the song “Keep it Between the Lines” Simpson urges his son
Don't turn mailboxes into baseballs
Don't get busted selling at seventeen
Most thoughts deserve about two or three more
Motoroil is motoroil
Just keep your engine clean
Because, as he puts it, “Do as I say/Don't do as I've done/It don't have to be/Like a father, like his son.” Simpson also includes a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” giving the song about a confused young man who “likes to shoot his gun… [but] don’t know what it means to love someone” fresh meaning and relevance. Simpson’s ear for detail and a taste for weird make A Sailor’s Guide to Earth one of the freshest things you’ll have heard in a long time.
Say Anything- I Don’t Think It Is
While most of the other albums here likely appear on a wide variety of ‘end of year lists,’ this next one is more of a unique choice. Say Anything’s I Don’t Think It Is largely makes the cut due to a strong personal connection I feel towards the band. Their now classic 2006 album …Is a Real Boy will always be an emotional touchstone for me, bringing me back to those days of teenage angst and confusion whenever I listen to it. Because of that album I’ve followed Say Anything for the last 10 years. Admittedly, I’ve been pretty disappointed with their last several albums and when I heard they were releasing a surprise album in February my expectations were fairly low. To my surprise and joy I Don’t Think It Is blew me away. Max Bemis, lead singer and the creative force behind Say Anything, returned to form, older and wiser, but just as angry and disaffected. If …Is a Real Boy defined the angst of teenage years, then I Don’t Think It Is may well define the angst of my late 20s. “17 Coked Up and Speeding” combines accounts of Bemis’ tumultuous 20s with a look into his internal struggle to move past his youthful mistakes. The song is also one of several that directly confronts the complex relationship Bemis has with his first album. Bemis owes much of his musical success to that album yet constantly struggles to move out of its shadow. On “Jiminy” Bemis roars “so destroy our first LP, if you know what’s good for me!” The quieter, but just as biting, track “The Brent Easton Ellis School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” is the most relatable song on the album for those that came of age with the band. Bemis sings seemingly to an old friend,
I knew you when you went to shows and had more pins than a cushion
Now you work at some vaguely purposed startup
And spend your weekends spinning Best New Music tracks
And not calling girls back
So tell me, man
Is this what you wanted?
Did you get what you wanted?
Reflecting and reconciling on our past selves is a theme Bemis returns to again and again. “Princess” finds Bemis, now a husband and father, forced to defend a new set of values.
Would you spit in Little Lucy’s face
Because she watches the movie Frozen
And she wants to be a princess
Even though Disney employs nearly genocidal business practices?
If the answer is yes
If the answer is yes
If the answer is yes
I tell you
You’re dead to me
I’m so happy that Say Anything is back and that I Don’t Think It Is is the album for your quarter-lifer crisis.
Kanye West- The Life of Pablo
Kanye West had a rough year, but that didn’t stop him from releasing an album that holds up to the rest of his impressive catalog. The Life of Pablo seemed to be a manifestation of West’s midlife crisis. Nearing 40, married and expecting the birth of his second child, West was confronted with a stark choice over what type of man he wanted to be. Would he be the devoted husband and loving father or revert to the womanizer and partyer that he was in his younger days? West clearly wants it to be the former, but the struggle is real. I could go on and on about how all the craziness leading up to and surrounding the release of the album only added to its authenticity and reinforced the themes of midlife/existential crises. I have a draft of a longer post dedicated to just that topic, so for now I’ll just discuss some of my favorite highlights from the album. The Pablo that West is referring to in the album title is left purposefully ambiguous so that it can refer to different ones over the course of the album. On the first song “Ultralight Beam,” which is my favorite song on the album and probably one of West’s best songs, the Pablo in reference is Saint Paul the Apostle, who was blinded by a light from heaven before dedicating his life to the Lord. On the track, West uses a gospel choir to voice the struggle that the entire album will focus on
I'm tryna keep my faith
But I'm looking for more
Somewhere I can feel safe
And end my holy war
The song also features a monster verse from Chance the Rapper. On “Real Friends” West shows how isolating and painful success can be. His success has strained his relationships with friends and family, West raps “I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions/Fuck the church up by drinkin’ at the communion” and “I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was/Couldn’t tell you how old your son is.” He even gives an unfiltered account of being extorted for $250,000 by one of his cousins, a defeated West can do nothing but lament “Real friends/I guess I get what I deserve, don’t I?” Contending with “Ultralight Beam” for my favorite track is “Wolves,” which features haunting vocals from Sia and finds West chastising himself over the fact this his late mother wouldn’t approve of his behavior and life choices. While the album has about 20 tracks, and all worthy of comment, the last I’ll mention is “I Love Kanye” a short acapella track where West pokes fun at his public image singing “I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye/The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye/I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye.” The song is light and funny and captures the humor that made West so endearing on his first few albums. This humor has been largely missing from West’s more recent work and public persona, and with the news of his recent struggles with mental illness it’s not all that surprising. As a diehard Yeezy fan here’s hoping that West can get his health straight and that we can have the best of both the old and new Kanyes for years to come.
Looking for more recommendations? Here are a few more great albums to check out.
Drug-addled experimental hip-hop from one of the most forward thinking and creative artists around.
Your post-election survival guide in audio form. Tribe returns after nearly two-decades without missing a beat.
Emo-revivalists making the jump to mainstream rock
Existential electro-inspired rock with a dash of Alan Watts
Math rock to lose yourself in
Fresh Rock-N-Roll from Texas