Let’s admit it, 2016 was a pretty rough year for essentially everyone. Entertainment is sometimes our only escape from the lunacy that goes on in the real world, and music is something that will never let you down. So, let’s get right down to it. Here are our picks for AOTY.
25. Cody – Joyce Manor
Joyce Manor’s fourth album Cody had the means to make a well-produced rock song suitable for radio play, but the band stayed true to their fans by creating a raw cutback album whose sound doesn’t stray too far from the first three. The emotionally vulnerable record is composed of 2-minute honest stories bluntly discussing the death of friends seen in “Fake I.D.” It holds despair in the track “Eighteen”, and crippling nostalgia in “Stairs” to just name a few. Pop-punk had a decent year in 2016, but Cody’s heart-wrenching delivery made this album stand out above the rest.
24. Konichiwa – SkeptaBeatles, Stones…Skepta? At first glance, these names may not completely line up, but when you look at the impact Skepta has had on the UK music scene in just one year you may feel inclined to switch up the order. Konichiwa not only pulled English grime into the international spotlight, but it earned Skepta immense critical acclaim including the coveted Mercury Prize. Undeniable tunes like “That’s Not Me (feat. JME)”, “Shutdown”, and “It Ain’t Safe (feat. Young Lord)” also solidified the album’s notoriety by infiltrating DJs’ arsenals all throughout the world.
23. Telefone – Noname
Fatimah Warner may have just released her debut mixtape, but she is no stranger to the hip-hop world. Noname, formerly Noname Gypsey, has garnered a passionate fan base by featuring multiple times on fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper. Most recently, Noname made her way into a special Saturday Night Live performance by Chance on “Same Drugs”. Regardless of her past features, Telefone illustrates a beautiful vision of childhood memories and rainbows painted with jazzy paint strokes. “Yesterday” and “Diddy Bop (feat. Raury & Cam O’bi)” serve as two of the many brushes that paint Noname’s musical introduction.
22. Puberty 2 – Mitski
In broad terms, Mitski’s Puberty 2 is melodrama pieced together with fuzzy mixing, distorted guitar, and themes of both emo music and whimsical dream-pop. But this album has layers because even on songs as beautiful as “Once More to See You” and “Your Best American Girl” feelings of detachment and alienation hide under the surface. Personally, my favorite moment on this LP is “A Loving Feeling”. It’s an act-out, a release filled with a simple message and flat out noise just for the sake of noise. Like a lone Velvet Underground song on a Björk playlist.
21. The Colour in Anything – James Blake
2016 was a year full of music that shattered genre boundaries and even traditional conventions of songwriting. James Blake has always been a spearhead behind this movement, but the surprise release of his third studio album in The Colour in Anything fully opened the public’s ears to the sound of complexity. Blake experiments with chilling electronic sounds and vocal chops while still remaining true to his echoing lyricism and singing. The Colour in Anything feels bitter-cold on the surface, and it is throughout the opus. However, when you listen to tracks like “I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)” and “Timeless”, it’s clear that Blake is examining an aspect of life many artists steer away from…intense sadness.
20. Skin – Flume
Although it has made great strides in the mainstream music scene, electronic music has continuously missed the mark for predominately every blog’s year-end lists and award nominations. A musical mastermind like Flume rejects this idea entirely. On his second album, Skin, Flume has entranced listeners with his idiosyncratic methods of developing soundscapes garnering a Grammy nod for electronic album of the year in the process. Jagged synths and half-speed drum patterns are expectedly an equation for disaster, but with the help of Kai, Vic Mensa, and others, Harley Streten has carved out his own division in the pop world.
19. Ology – Gallant
Christopher Gallant from Columbia, Maryland, first bursts onto the scene with the release of his smash hit single “Weight in Gold” in June of 2015. The song is absolutely huge and definitely a standout but it doesn’t carry this album alone. Gallant’s vocal range is like no other I’ve heard in recent memory, this man can hit any note. His singing can be so beautiful at times it’s almost mesmerizing, but don’t let your mind drift too much or you’ll miss out on his vivid, thoughtful lyrical ability. Already earning the admiration of legends like Sir Elton John and Seal, this 24-year-old R&B sensation is bound to be a star.
18. Wildflower – The Avalanches
One of the masterminds behind The Avalanches, Robbie Chater, described the album as, “a road trip from a hyper-realistic urban environment to somewhere remote and far away while on LSD.” The man hit the nail right on the head. The Avalanches, reaffirmed their status as the kings of sampling on 2016’s Wildflower which sort of had to be gone given the fact that the group’s previous release, Since I Left You, dropped sixteen years ago. It is an album that demands the seemingly lost practice of a full, uninterrupted listening. It moves you through space and time with Danny Brown as your inattentive tour guide (the rapper is truly the only constant throughout the album). He brings you into the fantasy city of “Frankie Sinatra”, and lets you fend for yourself through this alternate reality of changing landscapes until he meets you back at “The Wozard of Iz”, then leaves again and lets you mellow out among tracks like “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” and “Saturday Night Inside Out”. And might I suggest that while you are touring the world of Wildflower you check out the distorted “Come Together” lyrics on “The Noisy Eater”? It isn’t every day that an artist receives clearance to sample The Beatles, so it’s essential that this one made it high up on our year-end list.
17. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
Ever since Devonté Hynes started creating under the moniker Blood Orange back in 2011 he’s been blending 80’s funk, R&B, and baroque pop to borderline perfection. Freetown Sound is 58 minutes of a man trying to justify love through experimental songwriting and production. Standout track, “E.V.P.”, features spoken word over hypnotic bass lines and tings akin to the unrightfully deceased Purple One. The diverse mixing of sounds and influences that range from tribal beats on “Best to You” to the saxophone backed “Squash Squash” are what make Freetown Sound deserving of being a top album this year. Blood Orange is a man of many nuances.
16. “Awaken! My Love” – Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino really came into his own on this his third studio album. Channeling his inner Prince with vocals so breathtaking they sound like they’re drastically manipulated by sound engineers. However, we learned from his astounding performance of standout “Redbone” on Fallon that his voice can stretch to crazy ranges. The instrumentation and vocals on this album are refreshingly diverse and gorgeously experimental containing unique elements of rock, pop, funk, reggae, soul and more. Standouts for me include “Me and Your Mama,” “Zombies,” “Redbone,” “California” and “Stand Tall” but all 11 tracks are outstanding. Well done, Childish.
15. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
Was there a better opening track out there this year? And “Fill in the Blank”‘s encapsulating features go beyond the cheeky at home-recorded voice intro. The long buildup comprised of a simple drum pattern and repetitive guitar is reminiscent of “Do I Wanna Know?”, in that, both songs set the table for the listener. Teens of Denial is Car Seat Headrest’s thirteenth album. It is also the band’s second album to not be self-released (Matador Records), but even with the larger budget, the group’s DIY intuition shines. I believe that what is most appealing about this album is singer Will Toledo’s presence. He’s a music-nerd expressing his emotions, and this description is not intended to be condescending in anyway possible. He’s an endearing frontman, his anxious persona is calming on an album that is far from mellow.
14. Down in Heaven – Twin Peaks
Garage-rock band Twin Peaks mellowed out from their young, sporadic sound into casual slow jams on their new record, Down in Heaven. Their care-free insolence seen in their previous albums is toned down and replaced with the somber attitudes of failed relationships. While Wild Onion and Sunken still hold some of Twin Peaks best rebellion songs, the more sentimental songs “Walk With the One You Love” and “Wanted You” on Down in Heaven make this the best Twin Peaks record to date.
13. MY WOMAN – Angel Olsen
“Shut Up Kiss Me” is the song of the year, maybe even the last five years. The song, much like the album as a whole, reject the unfair pigeonholing of the 29-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist as the sad, outcasted girl. MY WOMAN contains infectious hooks and riffs that are almost poppy, but also slowed down simplistic tracks that let the lyrics shine. However, the most impressive element of this LP is Olsen’s voice. This is probably the most important instrument throughout all ten tracks. This is where Olsen finds the ability to create the roller coaster of sounds and themes present on MY WOMAN. From “Never Be Mine” to “Not Gonna Kill You” to “Those Were the Days”, Olsen brings the listener to feelings of comfort, ferociousness, and wistfulness.
12. Light Upon the Lake – Whitney
Whitney’s debut album, Light Upon the Lake, is the warm feeling you get after you take a sip of coffee that is the perfect temperature. The smooth rock ‘n’ roll created by former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and former Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich, is blissful beyond words. The intricate perfection of the instruments woven in between every word seen on tracks like “Golden Days” and “Polly” make Light Upon the Lake a beauty like no other.
11. Lemonade – Beyoncé
Beyoncé is a killer warrior on Lemonade, her sixth and best release to date. The body of art juggles being ever so personal, while also putting middle fingers and fists up on behalf of an entire society. Tracks like “Sorry” and “Formation” would have been botched into cheesy oblivion had they been belongings of any other artist; however, Beyoncé is such a commandeering force that these are the anthems that she needed to be making, and should continue to make. Unless she doesn’t want to, Beyoncé can do anything she wants. Some of the listed producers on Lemonade include Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend), Jack White, and James Blake.
10. untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick’s surprise release of his demos from To Pimp A Butterfly took fans by storm and reinforced Kendrick’s dominance in the hip-hop world. This unique project consisting of eight numbered and dated tracks is somewhat of an extension to TPAB thematically, by making a statement against the music industry and commenting on race in America. Kendrick Lamar’s potent lyrics are accompanied by infectious jazz music that will have you listening to this record on repeat.
9. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
No matter what Kanye West does in the public eye, he remains ingrained into our society as an icon. Throughout his career of 8 studio albums, he’s hopped in the studio with every reputable producer imaginable, and now on the most recent he seemingly has combined all those influences into one final (revised draft) project. The events leading up to The Life of Pablo epic MSG release spelled disaster for any other artist who would have had to overcome them. Bad press has historically elevated Kanye’s works to unparalleled heights, and this time was no different.
Although Kanye West might be the only artist to ever re-release a project several days after it drops (I wish my teachers would be so kind), The Life of Pablo is a culmination of College Dropout, Yeezus, and everything in between. It features past collaborators such as Kid Cudi on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, and sports new faces such as Chance The Rapper on the grammy nominated single “Ultralight Beam”. There’s not an obvious consistent theme, but Kanye West has yet again produced an album stacked with absolute bangers. “Famous”, for example, may not have sounded like a radio hit at first, but Kanye West has developed the perfect formula to create earworms. We’d just prefer it if he didn’t hang out with the President-elect.
8. 22, A Million – Bon Iver
In my probably fifteen-year music-listening career I’ve never come across a songwriter as confusing and alluring as Justin Vernon. Well, Thom Yorke is most definitely confusing, but Radiohead can honestly go disappear forever. But I digress… Bon Iver, the folk quintet lead by the aforementioned Justin Vernon, released the quintessential thought-provoking album this past year with the ten track, 22, A Million. “33 ‘GOD'”, “715 – CR∑∑KS”, and “29 #Strafford APTS” convey the complexity of today and uncertainty of tomorrow wonderfully, while the album as a whole utilizes synthesizers and electronic sampling in lieu of Vernon’s usual indie-folk tones.
7. A Seat at the Table – Solange
For years, actually, until right about now, Solange has lived in the shadow of her older sister, Beyonce. Solange has consistently released beautiful, self-written works, but they fell short in the media’s eyes to albums like Dangerously in Love or 4. Thankfully, we’ve finally seen the 30-year-old singer bloom into her full potential. A Seat at the Table is expressive, reflective, and alluring in its vulnerability. From front to back, Solange tells the tale of life through the eyes of a young, black woman in today’s day in age. The single off the record, “Cranes in the Sky”, has surprisingly entered every radio station imaginable and amassed 15 million streams alone on Spotify. Everything about this album felt triumphant, and to Solange, it just seems like another day in the life. Our hats are off to Solange, and we will surely not be taking the needle off this one for a while.
6. Cardinal – Pinegrove
Pinegrove effortlessly accomplishes engaging their listeners in every song on their sophomore album, Cardinal. The indie-rock record begins with “Old Friends” and takes you through lead singer Evan Stephens Hall’s struggles fixing familial, friend, and romantic relationships, and coming full circle to tie the whole album together with “New Friends.” The simplicity of each song is a bit deceiving when you understand the depth of the lyrics, making the album all the more powerful.
5. 99.9% – Kaytranada
Everything came together for Canadian DJ and producer Kaytranda in 2016. At the very ripe age of 24, Louis Kevin Celestin has over 40 remixes, several full-length projects, and a debut studio album that was awarded Canada’s preeminent Polaris Prize (equivalent to the UK’s Mercury Prize). Masterfully mixing hip-hop and R&B with the special flair that only Kay has, 99.9% turned every genre of its head. With features from legends like Craig David and up and comers like Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada built the perfect tower of dance music based firmly on urban-centric music for the first time ever. “Lite Spots” shines the brightest on this record, and although its running time rounds out at about 4 minutes, no recitable words are ever spoken. That’s the captivating aspect of Kaytranda’s music, though. It keeps you waiting for a hook to sing-a-long to all the while you plunge deeply into the grooves of his spacey tunes.
4. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service – A Tribe Called Quest
We got it from Here makes any Tribe fan wonder what the group’s course of time would have been had Jarobi White not left ATCQ after their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, in order to attend culinary school in ’91. The 45-year-old MC is a clear MVP of the album, with standout bars coming in hot on tracks such as “The Space Program”, “Dis Generation”, and “The Killing Season”. The late, great Phife Dawg (#Fuck2016), Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed also brought back Tribe’s infectious sound and positivity into a world and time that needed it the most. However, I do not believe this project would have come together in the way it had without a little help from friends. Longtime Tribe collaborators Consequence and Busta Rhymes along with seasoned artists like André 3000, Anderson .Paak, Jack White, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and a well placed Elton John vocal sample pushed these indescribable communal vibes that play a vital part in any album that this beautiful band creates.
3. Blond – Frank Ocean
Since Channel Orange‘s release in 2012, Frank Ocean fans have been gathering bits and pieces of a puzzle the singer never even intended for them to create. Avid listeners waited on his every moment, post, and feature to try and decipher a date or even a meaning behind the follow-up to his Grammy award winning debut record. Unfortunately, that puzzle never came into clear view for fans, but what did was the surprise release of Ocean’s visual album, Endless. Then, a music video for the single “Nikes”. Then, we got Blond, and oh how the wait was worth every minute and meme. All three pieces of work flowed flawlessly into one another, but Blond was the shrine of musical freedom Frank has been planning for years.
It’s no secret that Ocean has had issues with his now-former record label, Def-Jam. Creative ownership struggles caused the 29-year-old to embark on a multi-year battle to go independent, or better yet, “Solo”.
Blond lists no features but it’s now known that collaborators include Andre 3000, Beyonce, and even the Beatles. Ocean takes listeners into his dream for the future of R&B. Ambient, emotional, and warm feelings carry you through 17 tracks of a personal look into Frank’s thoughts and dear childhood memories.
None of Ocean’s projects were submitted for Grammy nomination, but to his fans and to him, this album was never about validation. It was about creating something that will last, and last it will.
2. Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper
Chance made reference to his history-making, Grammy-nominated third mixtape Coloring Book three months prior to its release on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” On the verse, he boasted, “let’s make it so free and the bars so hard, that there ain’t one gosh you can’t tweet.” Sure enough, within the first week of the project’s release, fans had tweeted out EVERY SINGLE BAR.
It speaks to fans affinity for Chance that they would echo every line on twitter, what speaks to his musical peer’s affinity for Chance are the incredible feature artists he tapped for this tape. The gospel-like content and production throughout much of the project is liberating and refreshing
By throwing up the proverbial middle finger to the labels, releasing music for free, and still managing to earn himself a whopping SEVEN Grammy nominations, Chance The Rapper is breaking unchartered ground for an independent artist.
1. Malibu – Anderson .Paak
A year ago, at the age of 29, a couch-surfing, no car driving, Korean-descent having Anderson .Paak would be given the shot to record with one of his Westcoast idols, Dr. Dre. Dre went on to feature .Paak’s unique vocals on 6 tracks off his comeback album, Compton. What followed was the release of Malibu on January 15 which hit the music world like a sonic genre-bomb wielding elements of jazz, soul, funk, rock, rap and just about every musical style you could think of.
It’s so hard to pick standout tracks because this masterpiece has no misses. The story begins with imagery of family upheaval and turmoil on intro track “The Bird” which continues through “The Season / Carry Me.” The vibe picks up and gets you dancing with jams like “Am I Wrong,” “Parking Lot” and “Lite Weight.” Eventually, the story wraps up and brings it all into a united perspective with the last two tracks “Celebrate” and “The Dreamer.”
What really escalates Malibu to the top of our list is its consistent musicality and instrumentation. Whether it was him handling the production himself (on 4 tracks), or getting a hand from titans such as 9th Wonder, Madlib, Hi-Tek or Kaytranada, among others, the record is musical brilliance from start to finish. With .Paak’s vocals and simultaneous drumming backed by his band The Free Nationals, their live shows have been riveting audiences throughout the year. We’re not sure how .Paak is going to follow up this masterpiece, but we’re damn sure excited to see him try in 2017.