With the way music is consumed continuously changing, the way it is created changes too – artists have found new and exciting ways to destroy the limitations of genre, meld an array of sounds together and shape it into music that pushes boundaries, while still retaining the core of musicality. This charge into a genreless future is being led by a few stellar artists, each in a class of their own while defying categories.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Note: Listen to every song on these albums. They’re worth your time.
#3. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude – Pusha T
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
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
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.
#13. Rodeo – Travis Scott
Travis Scott is not a good rapper in the traditional sense. Let’s get that out of the way. But in 2015’s hip-hop scene, that doesn’t matter as much. What does matter is a rapper’s ‘sound’, his ear for production and skill in curating talent. And Travis Scott is exceptional on all these counts; his sound being one of apparent contradiction. The sounds of Rodeo are intoxicant-laden, yet have clarity. The production is heavy, but interspersed with subtle details, Travis’ vocals are slurred but have melody and rhythm, and the features overflow yet stick to the grander ideas. This album is less about Travis and more about the greater pool of musicians he helps bring together, but with him as the conductor, orchestrating the mass into forms that are beyond satisfying. And Rodeo is all the better for it.
Listen to: 3500, Maria I’m Drunk, 90210
#12. Surf – Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment
Chance the Rapper may be the most recognizable voice on Surf, but the project is credited to Donnie Trumpet and his Social Experiment band for the simple reason that the soundscape they provide is truly the backbone of this album. Consequently, it serves as a diverse palette of musical influences and gorgeous sonic textures, bouncing between funk, jazz, blues, hip-hop and more; drawing on, and building upon their hometown of Chicago’s rich musical traditions. Besides Chano, the guest features are meticulously chosen, and almost all of them bring their A-game, which is particularly gratifying considering the relatively unconventional production. This LP represents the pinnacle of a 20th century-influenced revitalization of hip-hop. Surf is warm, playful, thoughtful, and one hell of an album.
#11. Elaenia – Floating Points
One word: ethereal. Sam Shepherd, musical auteur/neuroscientist has, with Elaenia, produced a body of work that is precise in its purpose: but that purpose is that the music remain utterly amorphous. There is little to be said for form in this album. Sound bytes float in and out of the atmosphere, sonic elements glitch and apparate at seemingly random points, and yet the entirety of this album crescendoes towards an almost supernatural conclusion. It would be a discredit to the music here to pin it to a genre, and therein lies its beauty. The listener should not seek to listen to Elaenia as much as immerse oneself in its sparse, stark magnificence. Let the nerves of this piece bind themselves around your spine, and send chills running up it.