Favourite Albums of 2016 – #5 to #1

2016 was a phenomenal year for music, with musical releases spanning the array of genres, artists drawing from the old and infusing it with the new, and taking up strong personal and political stances, implicitly or explicitly. This made it incredibly hard to pick 30 albums, let alone sort them. With that being said, 2016, thank you for the music. These may not be the 5 best albums of the year, but they’ve left an indelible mark on me. I’m also skipping the Listen to section because each one of these albums deserve to be heard in their entirety.

#5. Lemonade by Beyoncé

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Let’s put aside the possible real-world implications of this album. Purely in terms of the music, this is quite simply one of the best pop albums to be released in recent times. Lemonade stands out as a testament to what a mainstream artist can accomplish when they envision art, rather than a product. This is the collaborative work of some of the best musicians in the industry, with Bey as the conductor and curator. In terms of pure musicality, Lemonade is outstanding: the sharp production, Beyoncé’s stunning vocals and lyrics that effortlessly blend an array of sentiments, come together in a way many musicians of Bey’s stature have forgotten to do.

Quite simply, this album is a powerful statement from one of the biggest musicians of our time. To put together a record such as this needs a commanding presence at the helm. And in that regard, Beyoncé has just proven she’s the cream of the crop.

#4. Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino

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There’s only a handful of mainstream artists that defy boxes across mediums, be it in music, film or television, and Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino is one of them. In the context of his music alone, his evolution has been a sight to behold, from a geeky punchline rapper who took after Weezy, to one who could create a uniquely conceptual project, to a musician who’s abandoned every previous sound of his to deliver one of the most musically stunning albums of the year, and possibly his career.  And this progression is important to note – it’s resulted in a body of work that examines the world through the personal lens he’s consistently employed, but is also expansive in terms of musical variety, while reaching into one of the golden ages of music – 70s soul and funk – for inspiration. Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins and even a bit of Prince.

True to its influences, and its consequential presence in modern music, Awaken, My Love is detailed with intricate instrumentation, threads of sound interwoven so meticulously that it takes multiple listens to begin to decipher its components, all layered together with a ear for stunning cohesion. Gambino’s vocals are, of course, one of the key components here: he pushes his voice to its absolute extremes, and occupies every space in between just as comfortably , with lyrics that ground the space-opera sound in human terms. True to its album art, this album is a cosmic trip. It’ll be worth the wait to see where Bino goes next.

#3. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

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It’s tragic how many albums in 2016 are associated with the death of a phenomenally talented musician – in this case, the Five Foot Assassin, Phife Dawg. Their terribly long hiatus was broken with his death, with a commitment to honour his memory with one last resurrection of the group, in more ways than one. And what a fitting tribute it is.

This is ATCQ at their finest, with Q-Tip, Phife and the “4th member,” Jarobi White laying down smooth, thinking-man’s rhymes over classic jazzed-up hip-hop instrumentals, courtesy of Tip himself. It harkens back to the mid 90s, and the time of the Native Tongues collective, in style and sound, capturing a youthful, exuberant vibe that’s optimistic while acutely aware of the injustices against their community. Translated into contemporary America, ATCQ expand their lens to the travails of an array of minorities in the country, while drumming up a message of steadfast hope. Through all this, Phife’s memory lingers – there’s no obituary truer to him than his own rhymes, self-assured as they were on their first album. This is his, and the Tribe’s final album, but their legacy is inseparable from hip-hop’s; and they couldn’t find a higher note to go out on. Kick it one last time, in their remembrance.

#2. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

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There are few bands that can commit to a concept like Radiohead can, and A Moon Shaped Pool is proof of the surreal spaces to which they can take these concepts. The dreamy atmospherics that is created through delicate instrumentation grounds epic swells of sound in intimacy, as Thom Yorke’s reedy voice stirs intensely human emotions. And while the imagery evoked by the soundscape is often transportative and grand, the esoteric nature of the words Thom employs to speak to the listener, as well as to himself, brings about a certain open-endedness to the themes of this album, that seem to range from heartbreak to sociopolitics.

The result is a sweeping, expansive masterpiece populated by existential meanderings, a soliloquy that feels extraterrestrial in scope, but meditative in intent. There may never be appropriate language to capture every mood of an album such as A Moon Shaped Pool, but immersing yourself in it is the only way to begin to discover its tongue. Let the waves of Radiohead’s singularly haunting musings wash over you. True Love Waits.

#1. Blonde by Frank Ocean

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No 2016 album felt as stunningly complex, layered and human as Blonde felt. From its initial title, Boys Don’t Cry (referenced by the album cover), to its current body of contents, this is an album with Frank Ocean’s beating heart at its core, one that’s been assaulted and ruined and rebuilt, and continues to react to the human experience. It’s terrifyingly personal, each note resonating with emotion clearly felt by the man in its deepest depths, the soundscape subdued, yet imbued with the same mood Frank is singing about. Each song is a musical thread in this inextricably linked yarn, each touching upon an aspect of humanity with shades of love and heartbreak. Each licked wound, each loss wept over, each ray of light shining through is given space to breathe, but not always to resolve itself. This interminable vortex of cause-and-reaction to the spectrum of Frank’s soul swallows the album, and releases a mangled, yet somehow beautiful experience. All the listener can, and need do is let themselves be consumed by it. This is the only way to begin to understand this musical masterpiece like no other, and it is rewarding in a way little else is.

 

 

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Favourite Albums of 2016 – #5 to #1

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #10 to #6

#10. When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired by Mothers

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Rare is the album that leaves you slack-jawed, stunned from the very first beginning, the music possessing the sort of beauty that entrances you like a pristine pool of water. Each auditory component plays impeccably, the plucked strings of the guitar singing its own melancholy song, the violin stirring parts of your being you never knew music could, the restrained percussion uplifting the other parts of the music, but never overwhelming it. And then there’s lead vocalist Kristine Leschper’s hauntingly ethereal singing, each note striking you with incredible clarity, her earnest pleas and ruminations ringing true in every syllable.  Each song is a long, slow trek through the depths of emotion, with each section occupying its own niche, interplaying, but never overruling each other. When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired is a debut unlike any other in recent times. It’s confident in its musicality, gorgeous in its instrumentation, and yet vulnerable in its humanity. This is more than an album; it’s a testament to the sheer might of beautifully constructed music.

Listen to: Too Small for Eyes, Nesting Behaviour 

#9. Black America Again by Common

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Common has been at the forefront of ‘conscious’ hip-hop for a long time now – from the classic that was Resurrection, Com has tackled issues relevant to the struggles of the common man, with razor-sharp lyrical analyses of race, money, faith and love. Black America Again, then, is a culmination of Common’s position as an activist Black rapper in the sociopolitical climate of present-day America. Over the years, he’s also matured as a rapper, bringing more nuance to his lyrics, as well as at crafting a focused album – this shows most prominently on this album. Each track is an incisive examination of a facet of race and humanity with the wisdom of a rap elder, while existing within the larger context of the album. There is a warmth to Com’s observations, reassuring his people of their power, and driving them to fight the forces trying to keep them down. The production reflects this sagacity – it’s contemporary and confident, while reminding the listener of their roots. This is a celebration of Black America in a musical era that is countering the miasma of the world around them, delivered by one of the most compelling voices in hip-hop.

Listen to: Home, The Day Women Took Over

#8. The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

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The Life of Pablo is the rawest manifestation of Kanye’s abstraction. It is his worst, and his best, grating each other and swirling in terrible splendour in turns. This projects cements the man’s status as the most fascinating musician alive; the opposite of manufactured marketing, and an almost solitary spark of exciting conversation in music. It brings together every such part of Kanye, and presents it to the listener with no pretense. Ye is music’s foremost purveyor of disarming honesty. He openly shares his failings, his boasts an enforced foil to his grapplings with the self.

The soundscape on TLOP is the beauty in the insanity here; it brims with the diversity and magnificence Kanye perfected on MBDTF. In its intricacies, TLOP balances aggression with harmony; tempers stadium sounds with gorgeous melodies. Much like the man himself, the music is restless and dynamic, pausing only to reveal the scale of Ye’s vision in a few stunning minutes. As a wholem The Life of Pablo is unadulterated auditory insanity. It’s Kanye off his Lexapro, yet still somehow in control. This might not be his ‘best’ album, but it’s just as crucial to his mythology as his other work.

Listen to: Ultralight Beam, Real Friends

#7. You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen

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It’s impossible to place You Want it Darker outside the context of the legend’s death; the half-smiling acceptance of his mortality is evident throughout the album, a fact that he’s acknowledged and accepted as being true of his songwriting. He has no qualms deconstructing man’s end, tinged with his wry wit, yet it is not without sadness. His voice is reflective of this mood – his full timbre deadpanning his thoughts, introspective lyricism grappling with universal questions of life, love and death. The somber production – dramatic organs and keys, menacing strings, haunting orchestral voices and subdued percussion –  rests in the background, setting the atmosphere appropriately dark.

As a whole, You Want it Darker is an ode to the crescendo of an incredible man’s life; it’s impeccably crafted, but his time in this world weighs heavily on its heart. It’s a gospel-like final presentation of a man who’s spent his life grappling with the questions contained within, with answers that serve as a bittersweet Hallelujah to the great equalizer. And we are all better for the poetry he’s give us.

Listen to: You Want It Darker, If I Didn’t Have Your Love 

 #6. Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

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In a rather dark year, some records sought to act as a source of thoughtful joy, a defiant proclamation of optimism – Coloring Book was, perhaps, the brightest of such lights. Chance is at a peak, both in his personal and professional life. He’s become a family man with the birth of his daughter, is a critically lauded musician with a dedicated, involved fanbase, and he’s derived clear contentment from his faith. And that theme of spirituality, buoyed by humane joys, forms the heart and soul of this album. This is quite possibly the most gospel album a hip-hop artist – including Kanye – has ever made. Besides the explicit references to God and the divine, there is a reaffirmation of themes beyond the typical materialism of rap; family, friendship, and the power of music itself. Chance’s malleable vocals are often jubilant, and hopeful even when nostalgic. The production – mostly courtesy of The Social Experiment –  is chock-full of live instrumentation and choir vocals, uplifting and stirring. In drawing from his inspiring happiness, Chano has passed on that optimism to his listeners, in music that impresses on you the divinity in humanity. And in a year such as this one, that felt incredibly important.

Listen to: All We Got, Angels

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #10 to #6

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #15 to #11

#15. The Colour in Anything by James Blake

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James Blake is something of a singularly unique figure in music – despite being lauded by critics, roped in by some of the biggest musicians on the planet to collaborate with, and with a dedicated cult following, it’s almost unnerving how he maintains his insularity. Despite The Colour in Anything being, by all accounts, his most collaborative work yet – Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon and more appear in the credits throughout – this is still very much a one-man show. The mood Blake has perfected in his previous albums, of terrifying loneliness, pervasive melancholy and an eternal struggle against the personal battles of life, remains just as stunningly effective here. The music is beautiful, despite its inherent sorrow, with the glacial electronica and keys providing the perfect soundscape for Blake’s chilling voice, one dripping in emotion that isn’t captured by any of his contemporaries nearly as truly. The solitude remains the central theme for nearly the entire 17-track running time, but the true beauty of this album, as it is with all of James Blake’s music, is the acceptance that this pain and heartbreak is an essential part of life. It’s difficult – there is no way you come out of this album without feeling broken. But it isn’t dreary – in its own weird way, this is an album that meditates on sorrow thoughtfully. It is human – and as with everything human, it’s incredibly compelling.

Listen to: Radio Silence, Love Me in Whatever Way

#14. 22, A Million by Bon Iver

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Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, is a work of detached beauty. The album is possibly the most challenging of Bon Iver’s discography, with a lexicon that communicates emotions and moments beyond the pedestrian, in words – existent and invented – that appear carefully pruned to strike the right chord at the right moment, yet maintain the enigma. The electronic elements and distortion that finds its way into the production is a departure from their acoustic stylings, and the lyrics have become even more esoteric. However, the core of the album is still very much Bon Iver, with the music delivering the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer, rendered in the haunting, layered voice of Justin Vernon.The listener is thus left to decipher an intricately woven, highly conceptual exploration of Justin Vernon’s psyche, a narrative wrought of creative exhaustion and anxiety, the soul of the sagacious recluse laid bare. 22, A Million, is a layered, intelligent but heavy record. It’s also deeply emotive. And in that dichotomy, lies Bon Iver’s genius.

Listen to: 33 “GOD”21 M◊◊N WATER

#13. Blackstar by David Bowie

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Did David Bowie know Blackstar was going to be the last gift he’d give to music? If he did, it sure doesn’t sound like it. The album is brimming with experimental instrumentation, with elements of jazz, funk, rock’n’roll, and even the occasional hip-hop, his songwriting is as wonderfully esoteric as ever, and the record as a whole sounds like the work of a man invested in absolute creativity, not one 25 albums in. And therein lies Bowie’s genius; here was a man dedicated to pushing the envelope of music till his last breath, forcing his contemporaries to play catch up even as time was catching up with him. The centrepiece of the album, Lazarus, swirls in a lush mix of saxophone, rolling drums and startlingly distinct guitar riffs. This runs consistently through the tight runtime, with an energy that never lets up, yet never becomes chaotic. And as the soaring music crescendos in the final track, there’s a sense that David Bowie has given all he is to his music. The man may have lived his turn, but the music will never truly die. RIP, Ziggy Stardust.

Listen to: LazarusGirl Loves Me

#12. We’re All Gonna Die by Dawes

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Don’t let that album title fool you: this isn’t a hopelessly nihilistic record. Matter of fact, this might be one of the cleverest musical dissections of the human condition to come out this year. The indie-folk rock of this album is nuanced, with philosophical musings on several existentialist themes, as well as on ideas closer to the realities of our lives. The songs move from restrained to anthemic with ease, with huge, extremely catchy choruses. The instrumentation moves far enough to standard indie tropes to be deemed experimental, but there’s still something comfortable and familiar about it. Everybody’s Gonna Die feels like a wise older brother, with years on the road, the smell of whisky and cigarettes on his breath, telling you about the years of wisdom he’s acquired in a manner that merely feels like he’s revealing to you what you’ve already known in your heart, albeit in the most pleasant form possible. This is a big, meaningful record. The proclamation might be of death, but its contents focus on the journey of life. Its success lies in the fact that it helps the listener appreciate the wonderment of that journey a  little more.

Listen to: One of Us, When the Tequila Runs Out

#11. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson

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Sturgill Simpson is that sort of genre-bending singer-songwriter that can extract the finest from each facet of music he touches on, creating a lush, evocative ode to the journey of life itself. Sturgill’s deep, rustic voice with its country twang guides the listener through personal musings, thoughts collated with everyman lyricality, as he relates his paths of discovery – of self and to the world – to his family. The instrumentation, appropriately, sounds like the soundtrack to the meditative lulling of a vessel swaying in the waters of time. This is an earnest, honest exploration of the truths of life; it’s a deeply thought-out album, one that is carried by Sturgill’s rich vocals and eloquent songwriting into the realm of the heavenly, yet tethered to the beating heart of humanity.

Listen to: Breaker’s Oar, In Bloom

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #15 to #11

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #20 to #16

 

#20. American Band by Drive-By Truckers

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The Drive-By Truckers sure sound like a true-blue American Band, with their country-inspired rock and southern twang. Given their roots then, this unabashedly political album is a bold statement to make. There are no convoluted metaphors or wary approximations here; the lyrics are a direct reflection of the America that primary songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood live in.

Ranging from racism, immigration and police shootings to personal struggles and economic hardships, the Drive-By Truckers are grave and contemplative throughout, and offer more nuance to the issues that country is grappling with than several political pundits, the largely frenetic guitars and percussion driving home the point. Uniquely positioned as they are in the South, making an album such as this one is risky, but there are messages here their audience would do well to listen to. And that makes this record an essential listen in 2016.

Listen to: Ramon CasianoGuns of Umpquoa 

#19. Blank Face LP by ScHoolboy Q

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Rap is currently experiencing a paradigm shift: shedding the sounds of the old school, and embracing a more fluid definition of hip-hop. ScHoolboy Q is one of those rappers straddling both eras in a way few others can, revitalizing  West Coast gangsta hip hop with a dose of hazy cloud rap. Q’s rhymes are among his sharpest here, delivering incisive, vivid observations of the street life he came from, and his transition to a life of fame, with clever bars delivering pithy commentary on the consequences of his lifestyle. But this isn’t a steady stream of hedonism either – Q recognizes that he often personifies what, to him at least, is necessary evil. There is a menace in the tone of the album, whether it be in Q’s snarling vocals – even the more laid back flows have a sneer to them – or the grimy production. Booming 808s, growling guitars and basslines, everything comes together in a form that goes from haunting to aggressive. Blank Face is a West Coast record through and through, in its imagery, sound and character, and ScHoolyboy Q has assured himself as one of the finest purveyors of that atmosphere.

Listen to: Groovy Tony/Eddie KaneTookie Knows II

#18. Jeffery by Young Thug

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Is any character in hip-hop today as fascinating as Young Thug? From a ~gangsta~ rapper with a unique voice, Thugga has evolved into one of the most wonderfully weird rappers around. His subject matter may not exactly be unique, but his delivery is his USP. Thug modulates his raspy sing-song voice in ways few other musicians can, be it a high-pitched screech, an aggressive growl, or a smooth RnBesque flow, often switching styles multiple times in the same song. He flows effortlessly over bass-heavy trunk rattlers that stay faithful to his own off-kilter style, perfectly accommodating his unconventional melodies.  However, this isn’t to say his lyrics aren’t equally entertaining – whether he’s rapping about his seemingly endless sexual escapades or his high-end lifestyle, he elicits more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, in moments of hilarious brilliance reminiscent of golden-age Lil Wayne, one of Thugga’s idols. Alongside his own declarations that “there’s no such thing as gender,” supported by the androgynous album cover, it’s clear that Young Thug aka Jeffery has no fucks to give about convention. Hip-hop is better for it.

Listen to: Wycleaf Jean, Kanye West

#17. 99.9% by Kaytranada

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99.9% is abstract, bright music that demands the listener’s attention. With polyrythmic, massive-bass driven production, Kaytranada comes up with some truly unique sounds that skitter across a wide array of sounds, never getting into a rut. While it can be broadly classified as electronica, with distinct hip-hop influences, there is a significant amount of progressive genre-blending here, particularly with the percussion, such as on the stellar BBNG-assisted Weight Off, the unmatched Glow’d Up with Anderson.Paak’s inspired vocal performance, and Breakdance Lesson N.1 which sounds like straight 80s hip-hop interspersed with futuristic synths. The vocals, although limited, often complement the production extremely well, with some hip-hop, and a healthy dose of RnB-based vocals from decades post.However,  Kay’s work on the boards remains front and center for the most part, resulting in a hypnotic, layered record created by a man with a meticulous ear for sound. Music is all the better for it.

Listen to: Got It Good, Weight Off

#16. Malibu by Anderson .Paak

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It’s hard to describe Malibu in musical terms; it’s a record that feels both sprawling and intimate, offering up depictions of .Paak’s life through a bird’s eye view of his soul. We’re walked through the streets of his town, peeking into the churches he sang in, the rooms he fell in love in, the grimy dance floors he let loose on, and the homes where his heart was broken. In his inimitable raspy voice, he weaves tales of family, strife, love, and growth with incredible lyricism, the imagery evocative, and the settings distinct. Drawing on the sounds of various past decades, while still firmly grounded in contemporary hip-hop and RnB, the rich live instrumentation complements .Paak’s prowess as a singer, moving between forms with incredible ease. Malibu is .Paak’s heart worn on the album’s sleeve, and it is one that beats with a passion that few other musicians can conjure.

Listen to: Heart Don’t Stand a Chance, The Season|Carry Me

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #20 to #16