With the New Year comes the setting of goals, the redoing of errors the year before, and most importantly, the releasing of new music. Truth be told, the eagerness New Years for me are these three things, in this exact order:
- Correcting the mistakes I made the year before.
- Emotionally and psychologically resetting myself in areas that need to be reworked.
- Preparing myself for all the new music I’ll get to discover over the next 12 months.
When it comes to the artists, albums, and songs that I really, really like, their music is more than just music to me. More times than not, an album or a song that hits me deep becomes like a religious experience. Since around 2014, I’ve been creating Spotify playlists of my favorite music of the year that I can relive. It’s good for recreating memories to live through again, but it’s also great to create an emotional vibe to write with – which, as most people who write with music know, is the handiest tool in the shed.
So, with that, please enjoy my list of my favorite albums of the year. I wish I could be as concise as someone like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, but then I’d have to hire an entire office for that. And I don’t think I’m that rich yet.
Until then, let’s just focus on what I considered to be the best albums of 2016.
5. 99.9% – KAYTRANADA
Louis Kelvin Celestin, better known by Kaytranada, caught my attention on total accident earlier this year while I was trying to choose music to listen to while playing MLB: The Show 16. I never, ever, ever choose ‘gaming playlists’ on anything, much less my Spotify account (mostly because it’s always music I hate), but I found an ambient-based playlist and I think I accidentally tapped a song called ‘BUS RIDE’. I didn’t read the artist, I didn’t see the album art, anything.
“Oh my God,” I told myself. “This is so good.”
I immediately paused my game after the song ended and added ‘BUS RIDE’ to my saved songs. Personally speaking, it is very rare for me to find a song by an artist I’ve never heard and immediately dive into the rest of the album, but Kaytranada helped change that.
Since 2012, Kaytranada has already released 13 projects and over 40 remixes. 99.9% was his debut album, and boy is it good.
Celestin has one of the best ears for production I’ve heard in quite some time, whether it’s hip-hop, rock, you name it. His instrumentations are absolutely solid, like with ‘LITE SPOTS’ or ‘BUS RIDE’, mostly due to his ability to call back to 1990’s hip-hop. Most of the album seems to flawlessly infuse the best of hip-hop from 20 years ago with the transition the genre has taken over the past five years. It’s done so in a way that never once sounds like it’s too much or done with force.
Even with the hits off the album ‘GOT IT GOOD’ and ‘ONE TOO MANY’, there are those ever-present hints of the sweet future this guy has if he continues to advance his artistic ability. It’s really something else. Most notably, ‘GLOWED UP’ starts off with the tremendous Anderson .Paak carrying a somewhat eerie beat – until the last two minutes. The drums kick in, the bass comes up and you can begin to visualize the emotion being spoken.
There’s a sense of pride in his work, too. I suppose you could argue that with any artist who genuinely connects with their work, and that always speaks volumes for the quality of their final product. ‘BREAKDANCE LESSON N.1’ feels like a guy who is having fun doing the thing he loves most: making music. The beat is great, but the energy it drives reminds you just that this guy has ‘it’. He ain’t a rookie to the scene, but Kaytranada’s certainly someone who has a feel for contagious production.
Had I discovered this album when it first released, I’m absolutely positive I would have wound up with a three-way tie between 99.9%, Blonde and The Life of Pablo. I’m still discovering the career of Kaytranada, but I am so excited for this guy’s future. He has such a great future ahead of him. If you respect good hip-hop, please check him out and support him.
TRACKS TO CHECK OUT: GOT IT GOOD, ONE TOO MANY, GLOWED UP
4. A MOON SHAPED POOL – RADIOHEAD
Can we talk about how great the month of May was for music? There was Chance the Rapper, Kaytranada, Radiohead, Bob Dylan and Flume all within the same calendar month. Ridiculous, right? That’s what I told myself as I kept adding to this list. I mean, I guess April was pretty good too, but May was right down my alley.
A Moon Shaped Pool is perhaps Radiohead’s most Radiohead-like album since Kid A or Amnesiac. The wait for LP9 was a long, death-defying walk through the desert from their last release in 2011, The King of Limbs; five whole years! The release single, ‘Burn The Witch’, was both so Radiohead, but mixed with a sort of drive and energy the band had yet experimented with fully: orchestral-electric art tock.
Red crosses on wooden doors
If you float you burn
Loose talk around the tables
Abandon all reason
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
Shoot the messengers
However chaotic the opener of their ninth album may sound on first listen, the rest of the album spins the listener for a much more quiet, late-night listening experience. Starting with ‘Daydreaming’, Thom and co. go on a journey of symbolic talks of loss, heavy emotions, anger, confusion and redemption. Tracks like ‘Desert Island Disk’ are mostly reminiscent of their more ambient-driven acoustic tracks, while ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ (yes, that’s the title) soothe back into the post-2000 Radiohead we’ve known to come and love; spooky and ominous with a hint of fiendishness.
One of the more surprising aspects of A Moon Shaped Pool comes in the lack of prominent guitar use. Both Jonny and Ed are still heard throughout the album, but in ways similar to Kid A; subtle, in pieces and subdued. ‘Identikit’ has a stellar Jonny solo that, while great, nearly left me urging for more of that from the beginning. There are parts of the album where I simply feel disconnected, admittedly. The experimental aspect is what makes them as iconic as they are, and yet I still often find myself unable to dive into some of their songs simply because it’s nearly too much. Surprisingly for this album, that ‘too much’ aspect was the near overuse of orchestra. It’s done well enough to where it isn’t overbearing, but half a year later, I still find myself wondering, “Why didn’t they just include guitar there instead of more strings?” It isn’t that I dislike orchestral music in the slightest, but again, there was a time and a place for it on this album inparticular.
Still, most of A Moon Shaped Pool could be considered Radiohead’s most fan-serviced album. ‘Burn The Witch’, ‘Decks Dark’, ‘Desert Island Disk’, ‘Ful Stop’, ‘Identikit’, ‘The Numbers’, ‘Present Tense’, and most famously, ‘True Love Waits’ – a song that dates back all the way to the mid-90’s – were all well-known tracks by dedicated Radiohead fans. The result was far from average, even with my love-hate relationship of the album. I can’t yet put the album in my ‘Top 5’ list of Radiohead albums – mostly because I don’t see The Bends leaving the #1 spot anytime soon – but I can easily consider it for my ‘Top 3’ list of 2016 albums.
TRACKS TO CHECK OUT: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, The Numbers
3. BLONDE – FRANK OCEAN
Yes, Frank. Yes you did.
(NSFW, in case you were curious.)
Frank Ocean is the man with a million locations. His social media presence is about as present as his public presence, but his talent is on another level. Even The New York Times said Frank is ‘finally free, mystery intact’. Part of the charm in Frank’s following is his batting of the public eye, as well as his ‘realness’ that connects with so many, like his confession of his first love that helped the change the scope of sexuality in rap and hip-hop.
But it’s hard to believe Channel Orange is already as old as my 4-year-old little brother. His debut album, much like Blonde, was met with immediate praise from both critics and fans alike. He was younger, and his music reflected that. It was so fluid, it was fun, and it was an absolutely tremendous debut after an already critically-acclaimed mixtape in 2011, Nostalgia, Ultra.
One of the most exciting parts of an artist’s sophomore album is the growth made not just in their sound, but their emotion. For Blonde, Frank took an entirely different route for his follow-up debut. Instead of looseness, instead of more beat-driven tracks, Blonde instead chooses a path of ambiance, relaxation, depression and longing.
It works very, very well.
‘Nikes’, the ambivalent album opener, sets the mood tremendously for the next 16 tracks. It’s bittersweet, it carries an emotion-driven beat, and it captures some of Frank’s finest work in his career so far. The way it concludes, by drowning out all the sound and noise except for ghost-like guitar picking in the background behind his vocals, before finishing the same way it started – with an ambient beat that I’m sure will become iconic for Frank Ocean fans one day – the production smooths perfectly to highlight the rest of his album.
I may be younger but I’ll look after you
We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you
When you’re not here I’ll save some for you
I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you
I’ll mean something to you
I’ll mean something to you
Immediately after the album released, there was one comment I read on /r/HipHopHeads that, for some reason or another, has always stuck with me.
“I feel like as time goes on, people will see this album to be like The Life of Pablo in the sense it’s an unorganized mess that eventually is nothing more than a work in progress,” said the poster.
I remember looking at the comment and laughing to myself because the album had not even been officially released for more than one hour. How can you possibly judge an entire album and its legacy on one playthrough? Even still, I think of that comment consistently and realize just how silly we can be judging or reviewing music.
That comment specifically is why I took in Blonde as a bath more than a shower. I saw and felt like I was living through the album instead of putting it on repeat for more than a few weeks and moving on. There’s such a heightened sense of maturity with Frank in Blonde that even three months later, I still find myself finding new things to be amazed by. Like the absolutely gorgeous tone change halfway through ‘Skyline To’ – a song I easily consider to be one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard -, or the hilarious ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Facebook Story’ ‘story’ tracks with one of the most relaxing beats, or even the Bon Iver-esque second half of ‘White Ferrari’. There are just so many incredible moments, so many small things, throughout Blonde I still have a difficult time deciding which trumps them all.
Like I’ve already said, Channel Orange is solid, but Blonde takes the man known as Frank Ocean to entirely different heights. It will be a damn shame if his work isn’t nominated for a Grammy, because even though the world is already well aware of him and his talent, securing the seat for one of the best hip-hop albums conceived is no easy feat.
TRACKS TO CHECK OUT: Nikes, Skyline To, Seigfried (+Futura Free)
2. THE LIFE OF PABLO – KANYE WEST
Where do we begin with The Life of Pablo? First came the changing tracklist(s)…
And then came the album name changes. For reference, The Life of Pablo was originally known as So Help Me God, a title that went back far beyond any of the tracks on the final release. (‘All Day‘, specifically.)
However chaotic the unassuredness the release to the release was, Kanye officially released The Life of Pablo on Tidal just hours after his performance on Saturday Night Live on Valentine’s Day.
To fully understand what makes The Life of Pablo such a big name in hip-hop, you have to look past the fact it was just released by Mr. West. Consider its release, first and foremost. The golden standard of any artist of any genre lives up to is to work on the album until they’re finished and happy with what they have. Until Kanye’s multi-named album, doing anything else was either preposterous or too difficult to accomplish. But, with the level of access musicians have to release their content, Ye was able to accomplish what he would later call a ‘contemporary work of art’.
It’s a fair statement to say The Life of Pablo could not and should not be compared to any of his other works. It lacked the aggression of Yeezus, a sound that polarized many of fans already, and it broke away completely from the clean and crisp production of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but The Life of Pablo makes a name for itself by creating a raw, unorganized energy previously unseen by anything in Kanye’s discography.
As a whole, The Life of Pablo is unkempt, raw, and out of focus. But in its whirlwind of chaos both before and after its release, the album shines doing exactly that: being a chaos. Not only does it channel some of Kanye’s original work, it has one of Kanye’s best verses (‘No More Parties in L.A.’), the return of Frank Ocean (‘Frank’s Track), a heap of special guests (Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Sia, Vic Mensea and others!), gospel themes (‘Ultralight Beams), ongoing controversy (‘Famous’), absolutely sick beats (‘Fade’), and some of Kanye’s funniest songs (‘I Love Kanye, ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’), but it also has a tracklist half the size of Texas.
In a year ruled by good music almost month-in and month-out, The Life of Pablo carries into a league of its own. Kanye did not expand into new territory with hip-hop for Pablo, nor did it set a standard for other artists to live up to. But there’s a time and a place for that, and we all know Mr. West is more than capable of doing that just as he’s done many other times.
But for now, just keep it loopy Kanye. I know you’re gonna keep it loopy.
TRACKS TO CHECK OUT: Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1/2, Famous, Highlights, No More Parties in L.A.
1. WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
Can they kick it?
Where would hip-hop even be without A Tribe Called Quest? Aside from their musical influence, it’s hard to deny the cultural impact they’ve had on the world even after their last studio release in 1998. There always seems to be one band, group or artist that single-handedly shapes the future of music, and for A Tribe Called Quest, that feat came so relatively easy it’s almost funny to sit and think about.
The Tribe came back to wow the world in November with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your service, their sixth studio album, but also with an absolutely jaw-dropping performance on Saturday Night just one day after their album had released. (Watch below.) If one year ago you would have told anyone, “Yeah, Dave Chappell will introduce A Tribe Called Quest on SNL.” would you believe them? Of course not.
Part of A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy is more than their unadulterated, undeniable sound, but their ability to weave in social and political ties into their music so fluidly. Just one look at the tracklist for We Got It From Here is easily identifiable as being driven by the election cycle that ended this year. Part of what made me fall for this album so hard so quick was that, regardless of whichever political affiliation you fall in line with, this album presents arguments for both sides of the coin in a way that’s more than just relatable, but honest, genuine and, frankly, real.
The flow, oh my God, the flow. It’s incredible. Delivery makes a good line great, but flow makes a great album fantastic. It’s almost comical that an 18-year absence from the hip-hop group would result in either a lackluster reunion or at the most, a ‘good’ album. Instead, to follow the tradition of a year seemingly fueled by hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest returns blending an absolutely gorgeous mix of fresh beats, the honoring of Phife’s last recorded songs, and so much fluid production. There’s an energy that captivates you, set perfectly by ‘The Space Program’, from beginning to end, in a way most artists could likely only dream of. (Specifically, the transition from ‘Solid Wall of Sound’ – featuring Elton John – to ‘Dis Generation’ is enough to make you smile like an idiot when you have a speaker system set up to really catch the aggressiveness of its production.)
Don’t miss: Q-Tip’s verse in ‘The Donald’, displaying some of his best flow as a part of The Tribe. It’s one of few moments in music this year that makes me smile like an idiot every time it comes on.
We Got It From Here, though, doesn’t set out to be another Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. While the attitude of those timeless albums carries over, We Got It From Here carries into a more politically-driven theme, with ‘The Space Program’, ‘We The People’, ‘Black Spasmodic’, ‘The Killing Season’ and more. Still, it isn’t over-the-top, and The Tribe still manages to keep the graciousness of their ‘old’ sound alive through cleaner production, more modern production. A prime example of this is ‘Enough!!’, which samples their classic ‘Bonita Applebum‘. There’s a very smooth and soothing energy that both compliments their own sample, and also sets the tone for the second half of We Got It From Here.
Phife Dawg passed in 2016, and with this rumored to be the actual final album from A Tribe Called Quest, expect lots of tribute to the former group member. His vocals are featured in most every song, but the two best tracks to look out for regarding Phife are ‘Lost Somebody’ and ‘The Donald’. I cannot speak enough good things about ‘The Donald’ with its fluidity, its ambient-esque atmosphere, and of course, its final goodbye to Phife with a tremendously catchy outro to the 16-track album.
The entirety of their new album is some of the most refreshing music I’ve heard from anyone in ages. One of the initial reactions I read the night of its release was, “This almost feels like the second wave of hip-hop. We need this.” While that remains to be seen, and probably won’t be seen for quite some time, the fact of the matter is A Tribe Called Quest came back from the grave after so long and produced so much material near-flawlessly, sort of like, “Yeah, we were gone. So what?”
Listening to anything by them immediately sends you back to the 1990’s, even if you’re like me and only remember Christian hip-hop growing up. It’s just… it’s very relaxing. The infusion of old-school hip-hop with modern hip-hop is, like everything, as smooth as butter. I’m not sure if nostalgic is the right word to describe Thank You 4 Your service, but the album compliments most of what I enjoyed most growing up.
Listening to this album is still a work in progress. It’s been about a month and a half since the album released, but the crisp production is soothing to my soul. I cannot get enough of it. Take a listen through some of the chaotically-driven tracks like ‘Dis Generation’ and feel submerged, relax with ‘Melatonin’ and ‘Solid Wall of Sound’, and do nothing but bask in the glory of their return.
TRACKS TO CHECK OUT: The Space Program, Dis Generation, Enough!!, Black Spasmodic, The Donald