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.

 

 

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 – #25 to #21

#25. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown

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Atrocity Exhibition is the opposite of pleasant; it’s filthy and brutal, a no-holds barred stream of debauchery and tumult. Danny Brown has long lived on the fringes of hip-hop, whether it be due to his abrasive rapping voice, discomfiting persona or the translation of his darkest parts and times into his music. But with this album, Danny has abandoned any notions of conforming to traditional hip hop sounds, instead plunging into the depths of his psyche, with some of his most left-field hip-hop and electronic production.

While the dreary hedonism on here – full of drugs and sex – is certainly disconcerting, Danny also raps of his many conflicts, and the violence he has been, and continues to be witness to, describing his past with an oft-repeated nihilism. The production, though, is the most evidently anti-mainstream, anti-radio, aspect of Danny’s music. Combining layers of electronica, hip-hop and post-punk, there’s grisly percussion, glitch-y synths and haunting, psychedelic samples. Atrocity Exhibition, then, is a piece of utter chaos, interspersed with tales of sordid successes, that most musical audience would be turned off by. And yet, it exists as the ultimate middle finger to commercial music.

Listen to: Rolling Stone, Pneumonia 

#24. Telefone by Noname

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I’ve been waiting on a Noname album ever since I heard her heart-rending verse on Chance the Rapper’s Lost (back when she was Noname Gypsy), her tempered voice and mellow flow acting as a front for deep introspection. In the years since, Noname has put together an intensely personal coming-of-age record, her poetic lyricism and spoken-word cadence delivering her story in evocative arrangement.

Noname’s form of confessional hip hop reflects that of several of her Chicago peers – Chano, Saba, Mick Jenkins – but there’s some unabashed soul-searching with a depth that some of her peers miss. She’s not a rapper’s rapper, but her thoughtful musings are layered with deliberate detail, and she raps intricate phrases with ease. No other album in recent memory has revealed the soul of a pensive black woman as well as this one; and given the America’s social climate, this scion of black femininity is a welcome addition to hip-hop.

Listen to: Diddy Bop, Shadow Man

#23. The Wilderness by Explosions In The Sky

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Explosions in the Sky are one of the finest post-rock bands of our times for good reason: their sprawling music encompasses an array of textures, often within the same songs, but they resonate in intimate notes. Songs float in an expanse of space, sometimes surging in volume, sometimes shedding its moving parts down to the bare minimum. the mood shifts between intimate, to soaring, to shades of melancholy; the instrumentation is intricate, but never messy, making impeccable use of an array of musical components. As for the music itself, its beauty lies in the range of emotions it evokes. While the song titles and the moods of the soundscape themselves convey a trotting journey through the titular abstract wilderness, the reactionary perspective to each of these moments is entirely subjective to the listeners. And therein lies the significance of this record, and EITS themselves – epic in scale as it may be, it resonates with the audience with a familiarity that is entirely personal.

Listen to: Wilderness, Logic of a Dream

#22. Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

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An album that embraces aggressive weirdness and amps up the adrenaline to over 9000, while never really taking itself overly seriously, Nonagon Infinity is that rare beast – and it truly is a beast – of an album that is made for the purpose of finding out to what strange new extents music can be pushed. It’s loud, it’s relentlessly paced, and its garage-rock/psychedelic instrumentation is a vortex that is nearly impossible to get out of once you’re sucked in. One of the primary reasons for this immersion is the sequencing of the tracks; besides the impeccable segue of each track into the next, this is also probably the first album in the history of music that can be played as a continuous loop, its assigned end smoothly flowing into the opening notes of the album. Once you begin a listening session, there is no escape – while the wonderfully arcane lyrics are a delight, the frenetic soundscape will ensnare you in its spiked jaw, and the endless loop will imprison you in a perpetual stampede. Enjoy your stay.

Listen to: the whole album

 

#21. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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Music can often exist by itself, in meaningful vacuum, but there are albums where the context is inextricable from its content; Skeleton Tree is one of those albums. Although created prior to the tragedy, there is no denying the influence the event has had on the creation of this work: the death of Nick Cave’s 15-year old son.

There is no joy to be found here; the music over which Cave’s husky voice deadpans is almost underproduced, with no unnecessary flourishes or embellishments, yet moving in its own right. The voice and the words are front and center; the esoteric ruminations on death permeate the album, with anecdotes that simultaneously feel fantastical and personal. The pain and darkness that came with the tragedy is pervasive, and it influences every aspect of the music here. But it feels like Cave is speaking to his listeners just as much as he’s looking inwards, his eyes to a clouded-over sky, his feet on unstable ground; the result is one of the most sadly beautiful albums in recent times, and one that will stay with its creator and its audience for a long time to come.

Listen to: Rings of Saturn, Magneto

 

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #25 to #21

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #30 to#26

#30. NO REALITY by Nosaj Thing

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Rare is the album that can form a mood, and stick to it throughout its runtime. NO REALITY is that type of album. Eclectic producer Nosaj Thing has experimented with varying styles throughout his career, and he’s settled on dark atmospherics here. Imagine a deep pit, blacker-than-black to sight, with you stuck at the bottom, trying to claw your way out, with a barely visible rope in hand. There’s glimmers of hope, but mostly an unshakeable dread. This is the mood NO REALITY captures.

With deep, driving basslines and glitchy percussion, the weight of the sounds weigh heavy. Bursts of sound, almost like static, puncture the blanket of black.  The pacing of the production is deliberate; it sways between urgent and foreboding, never settling.

NO REALITY is a body of work that demands a complete listen; given its short runtime, that might not seem like a challenge, but the music is anything but light. It truly seeps into you, and is one of the most fulfilling electronic listens of the year.

Listen to: the whole thing

#29. Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka

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The first time I heard Michael Kiwanuka was the title track off his rustic debut album, Home Again. The incredibly soulful voice and melancholy lyrics stirred my very soul (no pun intended.) If I thought that album was special, four years later, the sprawling Love & Hate does it one better, with some gorgeous production and Kiwanuka’s vocals, reminiscent of some of the finest soul singers.

The title is a sweeping thematic declaration, that finds resonance in varying forms throughout the album. Here, love and hate are personal revelations, political declarations and a culmination of the spectrum of emotion, positive or negative. As a ‘black man in a white world,’ Kiwanuka offers unique points-of-view to these sentiments, expressing them in their entire depth, courtesy of his sonorous voice. The production derives from classic soul, jazz, funk and blue, with a rich, textured sound. It sounds contemporary, without compromising the timelessness of the music. The epic title track acts as the lynchpin to this body of beautiful work, proclaiming that “you can’t take me down/ you can’t break me down.” In the years since his debut, it’s clear that Michael Kiwanuke has come into own as a mature artist, as one worth giving your complete attention to. I have only love for this LP.

Listen to: Black Man In a White World, Love & Hate

#28. untitled unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar

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What does one say about Kendrick Lamar, and his music that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? The rapper, who by this point has all but staked his claim as the finest of his generation, if not among the all-time greats, has nothing to prove. It’s fascinating to view these tracks as works-in-progress; the amount of meticulous detailing Kendrick puts into his final music becomes very evident. But even in this unfinished state, the music here can often be stunning; the ‘demo’ tracks that comprise this collection are far better thought-out than most rappers’ albums.

The songs tackle an array of perspectives and concepts, which although not entirely fleshed out, are a peek into the mind of possibly the most fascinating artist in the industry. Kendrick’s rhymes are as sharp as they’ve ever been, his vocals contorting in the wonderfully weird ways he’s come to be known for, and he orchestrates a song like few other artists can. The beats are evidently constructed in the same space To Pimp a Butterfly was, with plenty of throwback live instrumentation. Truly, the only reason this album doesn’t feature higher up is it because it isn’t an album; nevertheless, it’s one of the most interesting collections of songs this year.

Listen to: untitled 02, untitled 07

#27. Cardinal by Pinegrove

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Cardinal is an album about friendship. This might not be immediately apparent; the lyrics are far from esoteric, but there’s a certain doublespeak in the themes. This doesn’t really matter initially, for Pinegrove have created an immensely listenable indie rock record, with the sincere vocals and nostalgia-inducing instrumentation. But listen closely, and the words begin to make sense. You begin to see the people you know and love, or loved and lost, in the songs. As a year that brought me extremely meaningful friendships, and new wisdom on what these relationships meant, it’s hard to truly measure the quality of this record, except in terms of how it resonated with me. It’s a moving listen, but never overtly sentimental. It’s an ode to our equations with some of the most wonderful people in our lives, and an ode to the mistakes and successes we’ve had with them, in an intensely personal manner. So throw on Cardinal, call over a few friends, and soak in this record. And even when it ends, know that your friends are still around.

Listen to: Old Friends, New Friends

#26. Darkness and Light by John Legend

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John Legend is an RnB traditionalist: he’s one of the best singer around, and emotes classic RnB subjects through his vocals: love, loss, hope and grief. But with Darkness and Light, Legend makes his most distinguished attempt to present himself as an artist that understands his place in music and society, as someone with a voice that’s speaking – or singing – about what matters to him.

Given his appearances on shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher and tweets, it’s evident that John Legend cares about being a person of colour in the America he lives in; it’s a harsh place, even more so for someone without Legend’s money and influence. For the first time in his music, he acknowledges this, and grapples with the reality his community lives in. Herein lies the darkness.

However, his light comes in the form of people: his wife and his daughter, most prominently. He derives hope from them – despite their obstacles, there is an abundance of love between them, and Legend builds upon this as his foundation, as his reason to keep fighting, living and making music. His ode to his daughter, Right By You (For Luna), thus acts as the thematic centerpiece – a recognition of the world she’s been brought into, with the reassurance that he will do his best to show her the goodness in it – the darkness and the light.

Listen to: Penthouse Floor, Overload 

 

 

 

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #30 to#26

Favourite Albums of 2016: Special Mentions

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

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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.

Listen to: No Option, Go Flex

2. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ by Kid Cudi

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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

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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 manor 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

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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.

Listen to: Thalli Pogathey, Rasaali 

5. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil by Pritam

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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.

Listen to: Channa Mereya, Bulleya

Favourite Albums of 2016: Special Mentions