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 – #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

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 2015 – #3 to #1

Note: Listen to every song on these albums. They’re worth your time.

#3. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude – Pusha T

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Pusha almost didn’t give us this masterpiece this year: dropped in mid-December, Darkest Before Dawn is the absolute last album to make my list. And with good reason: this is Pusha T’s best solo body of work so far. There is absolutely no excess on this LP: at 10 tracks and about 30 minutes long, this is an effortless listen, and every track makes its presence felt, loud and clear.

Push is rapping at his sharpest, on some of the best production he’s had. There is noticeable edge to the vocals and the lyrics, exacerbated by the issues of race Push touches on through the album. And while he’s always had great production, here is focussed, thematic production; there is no joy to it, the 808s and bass elevating the grit of Pusha’s lyrics to powerful places. Darkest Before Dawn is a testament to Pusha T as a musician, as one who can curate a laser-sharp body of work. And to think, this is only the prelude.

#2. In Colour – Jamie xx

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In Colour is one of those wonderful albums that can be treated as an audio-visual experience by virtue of its cover art and the music itself. Vibrant, warm, cool and silky in turns, this project is one of the most eclectic electronic albums in recent memory. What stands out the most is the seamless incorporation of samples, original production and vocals to present a flowing piece of music that finds form without being limited by any of its elements. Jamie xx incorporates a veritable plethora of influences with a remarkably contemporary flavour, ensuring that In Colour isn’t eccentric, yet like nothing you’ve heard before. I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), a tropical pop wonder, with rap and reggaaeton vocals is a thematic crux of the album.

Jamie xx is a connoisseur of electronica, and In Colour is his most compelling buffet. Let the music play and soak in its beauty.

#1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

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Everyone saw this coming. There is no way around it. To Pimp A Butterfly album transcends rap. Hell, this album transcends music. What Kendrick is conveying here moves beyond the realm of socially conscious music; it is a consciousness all in itself. This album is so incredibly complex, sonically and conceptually.  The lyrics, quite literally, weave short stories that cohere into an incredibly descriptive whole. They are, as James Joyce put it, the portrait of an artist and by extension, his culture. In the same vein, the production on TPAB is aggressively retro, while still sounding fresh; a melting pot of black music, be it funk or jazz or the blues. This is hip-hop grounded firmly in its roots. I am truly stunned by the magnitude of this album.

To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t meant to be easy listening, it isn’t music you can listen to passively. This is a microcosm of the spectrum of overwhelming life  Kendrick has lived through. It is a representation of the African-American experience, through the eyes of one if its own, straddling the line between stardom and humility, money and power, and good and bad. This is, dare I say it, a classic work of art.

 

 

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #3 to #1

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #16 to #14

#16. Thank Your Lucky Stars/Depression Cherry – Beach House

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Thank you Beach House, for dropping two incredible albums in the same year. Championing a genre that deserves greater exposure, Beach House puts shoegaze front and center in these projects. The production is intricate and textured, but never jarring. Gliding and swirling through the layers is vocalist Victoria Legrand’s tranquil voice. The music on these albums is thematically complex, but its reupholstering of dream pop makes it a serene listen. Wonderfully, these albums complement each other. If Depression Cherry is the surreal dream, Thank Your Lucky Stars is the jolt back to a harsher reality. All you need for this experience is to close your eyes and let the music engulf you.

 

#15. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

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If the grooves and funk that slinks its way in and out of the spaces of this album don’t make you feel incredibly alive, kindly visit a doctor for your soul.  This is an album that will tug at your heartstrings just as well as it might cause you to pull a hamstring while dancing.  It feels epic, without losing any of Alabama Shakes’ everyman soul. Sound & Color is truly an appropriate title; rather than music, this is on par with a vibrant theatrical performance. And as with any good performance piece, there’s little else to be said about this album. Experience it. It’s worth every second.

Listen to: Don’t Wanna Fight, Shoegaze, Future People 

 

#14. A.L.L.A – A$AP Rocky

A$AP Rocky has been an intriguing character from the start of his career. His music, Houston-inspired despite him being from New York, placed him as an outlier in the culture, just as much as his fashion sense did. Yet, Rocky’s been having massive success. A.L.L.A however, unravels quite a bit of the person behind the success and conflicts. Still recovering from A$AP Yams’ sudden death and a breakup, while still dealing with his fame, Rocky infuses A.L.L.A  with lyrics that are in turns mournful, frustrated, celebratory, and brash, backed by production dripping with psychedelic influences. It isn’t possible to nail down a single persona for A$AP Rocky, and that seems to be the point. A.L.L.A is self-assured, often arrogant, an album that revels in its darkness; much like the man responsible for the music.

Listen to: L$D (Love $ex Dreams), Canal St, Everyday

Favourite Albums of 2015 – #16 to #14