This just in: 2016 was a tough year. You could feel it in nearly every facet of day-to-day life, from world news to politics to your best friends' bad day. Even most of the excellent art we received last year was fraught with gloom and doubt, so hats off to Car Seat Headrest, who made an album that's essentially about nothing more than being young, dumb, and sedated. Frontman Will Toledo guides us through his early 20's haze with one hilariously self-effacing crack after another, all as lo-fi drums pound, and earworm guitar lines quickly make their way into your long-term memory. There's seemingly an endless line of bands that will forever want to be the new Pavement, but Teens of Denial puts this Virginia four-piece squarely at the front of the line. Here's to hoping these mangy college rockers don't give up the spot anytime soon.
"I want to start again," bellows Taylor Rice, providing both the opening line and thesis statement behind Local Natives' excellent third album Sunlit Youth. First emerging on the scene with 2009's rousing Gorilla Manor, the band opted to use their moment in the spotlight to release sophomore effort Hummingbird, a beautiful and delicate record that prioritized the pristine over the pulsating at nearly every turn. Their latest LP seems eager to place them back in the ranks of music festival titans, and if there's any justice in the world, they will be. Lightly modifying their caffeinated-Fleet Foxes aesthetic with sparingly-used electronics, the album has world domination on its mind from start to finish, each of the 12 tracks completely convinced of its status as the true standout. Harmonies ring, drums crash, and guitars wail; it's stadium-level rock that's eager to redefine the idea after U2 and Coldplay have driven it into the ground.
Endless by Frank Ocean
The wait for Frank Ocean’s follow-up to his 2013 breakthrough Channel Orange was a long and painful one, and finally met it’s end in about the strangest way possible. Accompanied with a music video that essentially turned out to be a beautifully captured wood working class, Endless arrived out of nowhere in late June, and bore a sound lightyears removed from Ocean’s previous works. Gone was the warming glow of his old aesthetic, replaced with something dark, dank, and spacious. Clocking in at just over 45 minutes despite its 18-song tracklist, Endless plays like side B of Abbey Road if the Beatles took the wrong drugs instead of the right ones, but in Ocean’s capable hands (and otherworldly voice), the warped, swampy sound fits like a glove. I never knew to ask what a Radiohead album by Frank Ocean would sound like, but I’m so glad to know the answer.
HEAVN by Jamila Woods
By far the most over-looked album of the year, HEAVN is a disc of pillow-soft sonics and uncompromising ideas that somehow marries these two polarities without even seeming to try. Where other recent R&B records have addressed racial injustice, police brutality, and black beauty in ways both subtle and convincing, Woods goes directly for the throat, favoring candid descriptions of generation-spanning violence and abuse. Yet the tracks themselves are sumptuous as can be, each immaculately produced number tickling the eardrums, more recognizable as bedroom tunes than the protest music that they actually are. HEAVN possesses the wisdom of a teacher, and the comfort of a lover. It lives up to its name.
Anthony Hegarty had floated around the outskirts of the independent music scene for years, fronting projects like Antony and the Johnsons and Hercules and the Love Affair, and even lending his wholly unique croon to a number of other projects without ever committing fully to any of them. Hopelessness, by the starkest contrast imaginable, plants its flag deeply into the earth over and over again, refusing to even instantaneously look away from the world's brutal and bruising truths. Her first post-op effort, Anohni leaves no stone unturned in her stately evisceration of the globe's present state, musing on omnipresent surveillance, political corruption, and the growing divide between the victims and perpetrators of wartime manslaughter. Her voice, which has always seemed strangely inhuman, is perfect for relaying the surreal darkness of these ideas, and matches perfectly with the percolating electronic textures created by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. It's certainly not an easy listen, but 2016 wasn't an easy time.
The complete Kanye West experience has always been an amalgamation between his irrefutable talent as a producer and the whirling dervish of his public persona, but the valley between the two was deeper and wider than ever last year. By now, The Life of Pablo has been all but swallowed up culturally by Kim, Taylor, Trump, and a fainting runway model or two, but that doesn't mean that there isn't still something beautiful and exhilarating here if you can tune out the noise. The first Ye album that doesn't represent a sea-change in the music industry, Pablo plays like a Greatest Hits record, synthesizing almost every sound he's ever visited into a sprawling, messy, exciting whole. Zigging and zagging in a way that might cause whiplash if our driver wasn't such an expert, Kanye's eighth LP is unneeded proof that this maniac still has the goods, and throws bigger and better musical celebrations than anyone else in the industry.
And to think that for a few brief, fleeting hours, I was perfectly happy with Endless being the new Frank Ocean album we had all been salivating over for years. Blond, in every imaginable sense, is the main event, playing Star Wars to the Endless' weird indie flick, making good on all the promise of 2013's still-classic Channel Orange. With this sort of wish-fulfillment praise, you'd expect the disc to be titanic and grandstanding, but Blond nearly foregoes those sounds and styles wholesale, creating an intimate space for Ocean to unfurl his mastery as both a singer and a songwriter. Don't let the album cover fool you; the disc certainly has its moments of lonely despair, but is more defined by the expansiveness of its emotional pallet, containing moments of joy, pain, anger, swagger, and capitol h Humor. The sounds beneath him are less eclectic but no less winning, a collage of warm summer nights and slow-motion sunrises, immaculately crafted but ever careful to not upstage our troubadour. At first I wondered if it was too modest an offering after such a prolonged wait. Now I wonder if it's the best thing Ocean has ever done.
Lemonade by Beyonce
What is there left to say about Lemonade that has still gone unspoken? The event album of the year by nearly any measure, Queen Bey's second visual album exploded in the early days of summer, debuting on HBO and dragging Jay-Z's laundry out into the world for all to see. It's been talked about as a feminist epic, a thoughtful distillation of blackness through the decades, and even potentially as a hoax created by a rich and powerful couple who knew we'd eat this up like catnip. What's perhaps been under-reported is just how damn good the album sounds, usually the point of releasing music, but here relegated to seventh banana. Glossy and bright, down-tempo and depressed, defiant and enormous, the disc is a smorgasbord of styles and sounds, and would probably maintain this exact slot on my list even if it's connection to the real world didn't exist. Beyonce has fully arrived as an album artist.
When we first met Justin Vernon, he was known simply as the guy from the cabin capable of slicing through both time and space to speak directly into the core of your being. There's no doubt that the religious fervor with which people treated his voice must have been intimidating at first, his following involvement in projects that deemphasized his signature talent standing as proof. 22, A Million brilliantly splits the difference, funneling his croon through one voice-altering device after another, and caking all of these outsiders onto his normative howl, forcing it to fight through the ghosts of his own conscious. It's a beautiful, swirling mix of sound and feeling, and while those odd song names seem intimidating at first, they end up serving as an admission of Vernon's failed attempt to find greater meaning. As one of the only outside voices solemnly offers on closer 00000 Million, "The days have no numbers."
My favorite album of 2016 is also the only one that could honestly be described as a miracle. Following an 18 year period of silence, Tribe announced their plans to release a new album near the end of year, and hip hop heads had a right to be skeptical. Not only is rap particularly harsh on its elder statesmen, but the group had been split apart by inter-band conflict. Oh, and their very beating heart, Phife Dawg, had past away in the spring. Not only is We've Got it from Here the lord's perfect opposite of a victory lap, it was released a mere three days after the election of Donald Trump, and its mix of frustration and buoyant defiance seemed to predict it in advance, and served as an immediate balm for myself and many, many others. Q-Tip brings his A+ game on every track, flowing smoothly and creating some of the best hip hop beats you'll ever here. Jarobi gets in on the fun too, and his first appearance with the Tribe since the early, early 90's feels vibrant and fresh. Then there's Phife, who we're simply blessed to get one more crack at, one of the funniest, warmest, funkiest rappers to ever grace the planet. We'll miss both him and Tribe at large, but holy hell, this is how you're supposed to go out.
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