2016 was a year so starkly unique from the recent years surrounding it. From the unprecedented election to events overseas, a constant blow of human atrocities shook our moral compasses to the core. However, there was also music. Music in 2016 growled deep within the talented artists in the industry, and it came to the forefront in a time when many needed its solace. Whether socially confrontational, enjoyable, or creative, music really brought the competition to unforeseen heights. Visual albums, cross-genre benders, and surprise releases are just a few of the sharp turns that pumped life into a world that seemed a little grey this year. It’s hard to narrow down the artistic greatness to a just a few in 2016, but here’s a list of those that made the cut:
Top 10 Albums of 2016
10. Miranda Lambert│Weight of These Wings
Miranda Lambert brought raw, self-reflective honesty to her new music. Weight of These Wings is a two-disc album titled “The Nerve” and “The Heart.” By ripping open the stitches of human imperfections, Lambert welcomes her listeners into an unfiltered, genuine side to the country star. There’s something about the old-fashioned sound and unhinged lyrics that make this album jut out from the genre’s crowded platform.
In “We Should Be Friends,” Lambert drawls, “If your mind’s as cluttered as your kitchen sink / if your heart’s as empty as your diesel tank / if all your white t-shirts have stains / if you’ve got some guts and got some ink / well then, we should be friends.” It’s a celebration of her imperfect, ugly qualities and vices that are embraced on her album rather than snubbed. This is arguably the most candid song off Weight of These Wings. Her new work carries many emotional tracks that artistically expose her heart as an unattached woman. The album is a fascinating cross between self discovery in response to a void and also newfound freedom to openly express herself.
There is no hate track for Blake Shelton, nor does this level of country music warrant that. Weight of These Wings shows the difference in talent between the singers post-divorce. While Shelton leaned on cheesy lyrics hand-fed to him by songwriters (He’s a songwriter on three out of fifteen If I’m Honest tracks…), Lambert leaned into herself and in turn, aired out her dirty laundry. (Note: “We Should Be Friends” lists Lambert as the only songwriter.)
9. Kanye West│The Life of Pablo
West is one of those artists who you either worship or despise. This is due to a myriad of factors, but the most prominent is his asshole identity mask that he wears with pride. There are layers to his insecurities that become pronounced in Twitter rants, feather-ruffling lyrics, and dramatically messy events such as The Life of Pablo album release. His recent album follows that trend: messy, unrestrained, and wandering in its direction. But then again, we wonder if this is orchestrated. West seems to have released The Life of Pablo with the intention of a “work in progress,” like he’s remixing and refocusing as we listen.
Tracks that boost the album include “Famous,” “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” and “Fade.” “Famous” dredges the feud of the century between Taylor Swift and Kanye West through the spotlight once again, but the hyper focus on the song’s first few lines disregards the brilliance of the rest. West’s rap weaves between heavy, catchy backbeats that quickly transitions to a lighter dance beat to hollow out the rest. The many elements put together sound odd when described, but in song, West easily balances between both realms.
West also delves into his experiences and anxieties with his identities as a father, husband, and son. Insecurities covered up by the Kanye who rants onstage and tweets outrageous statements. There is an orchestrated madness to The Life of Pablo that a listener becomes engaged with. Instead of the Exacto-knife stylings of 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Yeezus, West seems to veer away from precision and towards genius in the messiness.
8. J. Cole│4 Your Eyez Only
J. Cole’s surprise album, only noted a few weeks before it dropped, is some of his best work. J. Cole is known to produce music with deeper meaning, a far cry from the typical topics of rap that hover on sex, violence, and money. 4 Your Eyez Only continues his consistent ability to make his raps full of eccentricities and storytelling. This can be as simple as retelling a plot or as complex as speaking to a specific other through music. Both are accomplished in his new work. “Neighbors” recounts the night a SWAT team descended onto Cole’s house. Through his retelling, J. Cole sheds light on racial profiling; the umbrella issue that encompasses the traumatic event that included helicopters in addition to a full SWAT team.
“4 Your Eyez Only” dives deeper, as he raps to the daughter of his deceased friend. He wrangles with the concept, and the result is an eight-minute song regarding her reaction and healing to the death of her father. He is directly speaking to a subject; a one-on-one conversation converted to musical language, and the delicate and intense nature of the subject matter again parallels J. Cole with intimacy. This is the J. Cole fans love from “Wet Dreamz” and “Crooked Smile” because he picks apart life’s imperfect moments and turns them beautiful. It is so rare for a rapper, as the puffed-chest, ego drama infiltrates most hip-hop. This is not absent in J. Cole’s work, as his ego and hype certainly shows through, but he arguably backs up these declarations with actual unique talent in his artistry.
7. Radiohead│A Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool received the approval of critics across the board. Though the band is well-known and commercially successful, their album drop brought a new version of Radiohead to light. The reinvention first started with the erase of their social media accounts. This album also had another odd preceding action in the separation of Thom Yorke and his partner of 23 years. Though it is cheap to delineate the whole album to the breakup, there are certainly traces of pain after lost love within A Moon Shaped Pool. It hints that the creation of the album might’ve certainly aided his healing along the way, but the issues discussed in Radiohead’s new work go far beyond heartbreak.
Instead, the group dredges up issues in human beings that continue to be perpetual problems. There is no serious critique of the now versus the past, but there is the continuous poking of the ugliness that keeps persisting to modern day. “Burn the Witch” discusses the the danger of blindly following group-thinking, rooted in society since the days of witch killings over mere paranoia. One of the most unique parts about tracks like this one is the skeleton of the song has been known for years. It was one of their unreleased songs that the group wrestled with through multiple other albums. However, now the band comes forward in A Moon Shaped Pool with the fleshed out version, and it’s done with vigor.
6. Bon Iver│22, A Million
Bon Iver brought the chaotic yet delicate musical stylings the group is known for at the forefront of 22, A Million. Saying it’s experimental is somehow an understatement. It is a cohesive statement of erratic glitches, voices, and sounds much like the album art itself. Somehow this contradiction makes sense for Bon Iver. Their new album explicitly pokes at the notion of traditional songwriting and what “makes sense” for a song. The indiscernible, scatterbrained path of 22, A Million fights against the coherency of verses, choruses, and storytelling. However, this doesn’t mean there’s no message to be taken from it.
Somehow through the uniquely undecipherable rhythm of the songs, a journey through uncertainty becomes prominent. The album almost metaphorically represents a time of wandering, but not a time of being completely lost. There’s a sense of forward movement through the chaos, and the beauty of Bon Iver’s records is still strong. Bon Iver challenges the traditional narrative. Critics might say it’s really just delicate garble not to be analyzed or valued heavier than it is. However, musicians aren’t that reckless with their work, particularly not Bon Iver. There’s a method to the madness, and through the lyrics of existential curiosity, Bon Iver again brings its listeners to their knees.
5. David Bowie│Blackstar
Even after David Bowie passed away, his music and legacy still soared. This is the benchmark of an icon. Their work after they’re gone continues to prove how bad ass they were. Morbid? Kind of. But Bowie somehow timed his death days after he announced his upcoming album. No PR rep could ever plot such a publicity stunt that epic. And there’s no other way Bowie would go out other than with a bang. Blackstar encouraged his fans to embrace his free-falling, give-zero-fucks identity. Jazzy beats and experimental sounds enhance the sound of the album.
The best part about the album is, with all the questions about this new Bowie path of music, there is no ability to get an answer. That itself shrouds Blackstar more in mystery, as its complicated, modernized jazz touches mystery and intrigue. However, what Bowie is trying to allude to remains a mystery in itself. It almost adds to the vibe that Bowie was trying to create, almost like his death’s timing was on purpose. Almost.
4. Chance the Rapper│Coloring Book
Chance the Rapper is plowing forward on the brink of hip-hop innovation. He proved to everyone this year that independence is sweet. The fact that he is not signed to a big label is his ‘trademark public image quality.’ Everyone has thrown themselves at his feet, or at least that’s the takeaway (Jimmy Iovine, have you bought him flowers?). Chance the Rapper turns his face away from the upfront big bucks to focus on maintaining his independent artistry. He forewarns newbies of 360 deals, notorious for taking away a musician’s soul and handing it to the record label execs. He’s not wrong.
Therefore, this hip-hop force of nature finds his earnings through touring and merchandise. All of this looks to lead to a man who thinks he’s above it all and too good for the norm. The irony is, Chance the Rapper is far from the out-of-touch rockstar who believes he knows best – though he does work closely and look up to someone very much like that. Instead, Chance is somehow relatable. If a listener doesn’t catch the wit in his lyrics, they’ll pick up on the jazzy or gospel sounds that carve out a unique niche. Chance the Rapper also grounds his work in his love for Chicago and spiritually, a nod to the gospel that pervades Coloring Book. It is clear that Chance is an intellectual and progressive part of hip-hop’s new generation.
3. Frank Ocean│Blonde
Frank Ocean released Blonde after many delays and high anticipation this year. It did deliver on the front of intrigue and excitement, as fans weren’t sure what to expect after the release of his visual album Endless a few days prior. The hype around the album certainly heightened due to the four-year gap between Blonde and Channel Orange. When it finally did drop, I think we got more questions than any answers.
Blonde sounds like a drugged-up state of mind. There isn’t one core element that connects it all together, but rather than making it feel like a useless mess, this fogginess creates more curiosity due to the liquidity of Ocean’s voice and the intent behind all of this music. In a much different way, it’s like West’s The Life of Pablo. The messiness and unsure footing of the music actually seems intentional, like a constantly unraveling story as you listen. Ocean’s iconic vocal range crowned him the King of Something… what that something is, critics seem to disagree. It’s sort of R&B mostly, sort of hip-hop, sort of pop. Whatever it is, it’s always different. A series of high-level features also appear: Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and James Blake to name a few.
2. Solange Knowles│A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles preceded her 2016 album with an essay on Saint Heron website by Saint Records. A Seat at the Table is one of the only albums that came close to knocking Beyoncé off of her pedestal. Knowles knocks at modern day racism with beautiful force. In her essay, she discusses the tone that people use, the subliminal and overt racism that persist; misfortune her family and friends face everyday. The message of discomfort in predominately white spaces due to these subliminal and overt actions translates to her new work. A Seat at the Table is one of the most progressive and true albums from 2016 because it so purposefully holds the heaviness of this modern day issue.
In “Don’t Touch My Hair,” she compares African American women’s hair to their privacy; something frequently violated. There are interludes that explain stories from the Civil Rights Movement and other blatant moves towards addressing the continuing issue. There is a lot of anger and dredged-up emotion. People who take Knowles’ side and people who believe racism died the second slavery was abolished.
However, Knowles’ only purpose is not to expose these issues. Instead, she focuses on healing. In “Mad,” she sings, “You got a right to be mad, but when you carry it alone, you find it only getting in the way.” It explains that striking back or seeking revenge only gets you so far. The unique quality of Knowles is her delicate, beautiful voice can distract a listener from the intensity of the lyrics if you’re not listening. Don’t take its gentleness for weakness. The absence of loud yelling, grit, and roar doesn’t mean that A Seat at the Table lacks artistic venom.
Bitch, she’s back, by popular demand…
Most large publications placed Lemonade as the Top Album of the Year. Beyoncé began the movement with her HBO Special, a visual album for Lemonade, that also exclusively streamed to TIDAL. The manner of the short film, leading the viewer through her album, was also of a quality that demanded attention. The costumes created iconic looks from Lemonade now recognizable everywhere (i.e. the yellow dress from “Hold Up,” the black hat from “Formation”). And all the while, these are not merely costumes or set designs. And that’s frankly Beyoncé’s point.
Lemonade forcefully engages with African American heritage, particularly that of a black woman. It is evident the second the music video for “Formation” begins with the backdrop of New Orleans highlighting Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. There are also references to the Trayvon Martin shooting and to historical African American culture. The album even exposes and plays with stereotypes. This surfaces with lines such as “I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch.” A side piece of commentary inserted into the actual song but extremely important. She does small finesses like this throughout the entire album. Each song, though heavily focused on her marriage compromised with infidelity and the recovery, also hovers on her interaction with her heritage.
In “Don’t Hurt Yourself,”
through her screeching anger and one-liners, there’s a political stance to note. The music pauses and welcomes a blurb, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” This is a quote from Malcolm X, a civil rights activist of the Black Panthers that used violence instead of MLK’s peace protest method to fight for justice. Throughout lyrics that fight with her husband’s infidelity, Beyoncé incorporates this passage that reflects her own emotional state but also umbrellas a bigger message. Her identity as an African American woman automatically puts her at a disadvantage in regards to opportunity. Passages such as this demonstrate her ability to connect micro to macro throughout Lemonade.
This is the first album where Beyoncé pushes past her image as a sex symbol to embrace social heaviness. Particularly with the events of 2016, an artist’s purpose to convey a message is urgent. What makes Lemonade so apparent as the best album of the year is not because it’s Beyoncé. Or because it is a visual album. Or even because fans love lines like “Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.” No, the reason Lemonade slays is because one of America’s most-idolized women throws her most intimate pain into the fire to burn. In turn, she creates an artistic platform to speak on the social issues surrounding African American womanhood; therefore, Beyoncé sacrifices her most vulnerable self for the identity she embodies and is fighting to better.