2016 has been a bad year for many, in several ways, but music is thankfully not one of them. Although we lost some legends – some of whom released music this very year – there were also some stunning new releases by established artists, intriguing projects by relative newcomers and masterpieces by an enigmatic few. To pick the ‘better’ albums among this flood of great music was far more difficult than I’d anticipated. In addition to the albums I’d call my favourites, the list also includes those that challenged my sensibilities, affected me emotionally, and/or offered new perspectives.
The first five albums on this list are the special mentions – albums that have come out too recently to judge their impact, or ones that don’t quite fit in with the rest, but ones I enjoyed nevertheless.
1. Stoney by Post Malone
White Iverson was a dream start to Post Malone’s career – it was a viral hit, ubiquitous throughout 2015, and gave him a major label deal. In the coming months, however, album release dates came and went, with his buzz seeming to fizzle out, despite an intermediary mixtape release.
With Stoney’s eventual release though, it’s now clear that the wait had merit to it. Post plays to his strengths here, while indulging in a bit of genre-hopping. While the subject matter sticks to the conventional comeup story, he combines an array of compelling melodies with top-notch production. Tracks such as the stadium-sized Broken Whisky Glass, the tropical RnB jam Deja Vu – with a Bieber guest spot, and the acoustic-tinged Go Flex, ensure that the album – at 18 tracks long – rarely stagnates, and allows Post to display some musical diversity.
True to its name, Stoney is an album to lay back and listen to in a haze; it might not be particularly innovative, but it’s never boring.
2. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ by Kid Cudi
Kid Cudi is a deeply flawed man, and his music has reflected that ever since the landmark confessional hip-hop of the first two Man on the Moon albums. In the following years, however, Cudder has been more hit than miss with his experimentation, often tied to his issues in his personal life and addictions. After a stint in rehab – inspirational in its own candid admission to his struggles – Cudi has put out his best album in years, navigating his personal demons in his trademark style of unflinching honesty.
There are seemingly contradictory narratives of intense pain and depression, optimism and self-assured confidence, of love and hate; the many shades of the man and a tumultuous period in his life are on display in stunning clarity. Thankfully, Cudi’s words and always-powerful vocals find their complement in the gorgeous, thematic production, largely courtesy MotM collaborators Plain Pat and Mike Dean. Stirring strings and synths, purposeful percussion and elegantly used vocal samples provide the perfect soundscape for Cudder to preach his gospel.
There are redundant moments and lyrical slip-ups, to be expected given the particularly long run time, but this is the most focussed, revealing work Cudi’s put together off late. And his fans are rooting harder than ever for him.
Listen to: By Design, Rose Golden
3. The Hamilton Mixtape by Various Artists
Few pieces of art have occupied a place in pop culture as quickly and as ubiquitously as the Hamilton musical. And given its USP as the first hip-hop Broadway show, releasing a relevant mixtape consisting of some of the finest talents in rap and RnB seems only logical.
Although largely contextualized in the musical, the majority of the tracks are self-explanatory, and make for great standalone music. The racial discourse of the musical is reflected in the themes of the mixtape, and make its contents extremely relevant to the nature of race relations in modern America; whether proclaiming the staunch perseverance of the black man, or tackling the anti-immigrant sentiment of Trump’s America head on. Besides thematic relevance, however, the sheer beauty of the music is just as noteworthy; from the moving duets on Satisfied, to the shimmering Dear Theodosia and Dear Theodosia (Reprise), there is plenty to enjoy here, irrespective of your knowledge of the musical.
Given its labelling as a mixtape, this record can seem like a scattered collection of tracks rather than an album, but in no way does that diminish its quality. The Hamilton Mixtape is another feather in Lin-Manuel Mirinda’s crowded cap.
Listen to: My Shot, Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)
4. Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada by A.R. Rahman
It is rather difficult to classify the soundtrack of a movie as an album, given its wide range of sound and emotions, couched in the screenplay of the movie. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to find an album as cohesive as AYM‘s orchestrated by the maestro A.R. Rahman himself; the music providing the imaginative fuel to visualize the scene(s) associated with each track here.
Pulling from a variety of influences – local and foreign – Rahman infuses existing musical structures with fresh dynamism. The bass-heavy melodic trap of Thalli Pogathey might have been a disaster in less capable hands, but coupled with the incredible vocals of Sid Sriram and a surprisingly congruent verse by ADK, the track became the monster hit it has for good reason. The Carnatic stylings of Rasaali, meanwhile, might seem like an unconventional choice for a road song, but once experienced as such, makes little sense as anything else. The breezy pop of Idhu Naal is one of my surprise favourites, impressive in its earworm quality, with bright vocal turns by Aditya Rao and Jonita Gandhi.
Bolstered by poetic lyricism throughout the album – save some of the cringe on Showkali – there is ample reason to call AYM one of ARR’s finest productions in recent years.
5. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil by Pritam
In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Pritam delivers the quintessential Bollywood album: multiple gut wrenchers helmed by Arijit Singh, a couple of energetic dance-floor numbers and the rock-tinged hype track. What elevates this album, then, is the quality of the music itself, with some truly moving vocals and emotive lyrics penned by Amitabh Bhattacharya.
The melodies are sparsely arranged, with Arijit’s voice front-and-center; fortunately, when paired with the compelling turns of phrases in the lyrics, they escape the trap of the Arijit saturation. The title track is gorgeous and ruminative, although it sometimes veers towards the melodramatic. The standout Channa Mereya, however, remains one of the most subtly devastating tracks in recent memory, the vocals betraying the deep sorrow beneath the pretense of acceptance, and Amitabh’s lyrics ripping out the heartstrings. Bulleya, on the other hand, is an extremely memorable, Sufi rock-influenced ode to love and one of its foremost proponents, Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, that also acts as a tour-de-force for Amit Mishra’s vocals. Cutiepie and Breakup Song, meanwhile, are nothing if not fun, with production guaranteed to get you grooving.
As a whole, ADHM is a powerful run through the gamut of emotions sure to be present in a KJo movie – good or bad. Luckily, these songs work just as well without the context, in one of the year’s most musically stunning Bollywood releases.