This essay was originally published in Compass, an Arts & Entertainment supplement produced by The Lakeville Journal Company, in December 2016.
2016 was by many accounts a rotten year. However, modern music fans share a silver lining. Though several legends left us — David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen (I told you it was a bad year) — others returned from hiatus and even some new hopes emerged. Hip hop innovators A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in 18 years, albeit an untimely posthumous one for member Phife Dawg (again, R.I.P.), one of the greatest songwriters alive Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature, and contemporary talent like Solange kept issue-driven discourse alive in the mainstream. Aside from the blemish that was the rise of trap music (or is this just my first “back in my day” moment?), 2016 produced a wealth of quality records in an age where the album format is at threat. Below are this listener’s picks for the best in the lot.
5. Lemonade by Beyonce, April 23, Parkwood/Columbia Records
Though her little sister delivered an ideologically powerful record, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the Knowles album that makes the cut — and it certainly is not without its own social commentary. Prominent, however, is its music and production. (Hey, this is a list of music after all!) Early on is “Hold Up,” a sedate pulsation with an underwater-‘70s-reggae vibe; meanwhile its lyrics take a more assertive approach with relationship dynamics — a major theme here on. By contrast, the instrumentation and vocals are consistent on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” with guest writer and performer Jack White adding his characteristic feisty blues flavor as Beyoncé howls about the repercussions of infidelity. “Sandcastles,” an unhinged ballad that bleeds and bursts emotion as vocals crack and rumble, makes the best case yet that raw singing trumps Auto-Tune. The second half is carried by “All Night,” a masterpiece performance of Beyoncé’s range and flow over a very full band of guitars, drums, and horns. Lemonade is marked by diverse songwriting in a cohesive package, reconfirming what a great album should be.
4. Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest, May 20, Matador Records
The wildcard in the list goes to Seattle-based alt-rock group Car Seat Headrest. Teens of Denial is catchy enough to qualify as a pop record but with the right amount of messy angst to pull on the heartstrings. At surface level one might consider it a cheery album, and while there are uplifting feels through bright guitar work and sing-along climaxes, a closer listen exposes its twisted lyrics. But that’s a beautiful polarity in art — the faculty to convey different, even contradictory feelings at once, like when a movie depicting woe is visually stunning. Similarly, singer Will Toledo packages his problems in exuberant songs. Or is that how he solves them? There’s certainly a sense of release throughout, all while riding the entire spectrum of passion — from quiet serenades to booming choruses, Toledo’s mind and expression are all over. There’s likely much more to come from Car Seat Headrest, but for now, Teens of Denial offers plenty.
3. Blonde by Frank Ocean, August 20, Boys Don’t Cry
R&B prodigy Frank Ocean dove head first into the obscure on Blonde. While the 2012 breakthrough Channel Orange exhibited heartache, Frank delivered it with buoyancy that carried it to the ranks of popular charts and acclaim. Blonde is no less burdened from heartache, but this go-around has little by way of candy coating. If you make it through the pitch-bent opener, “Nikes” (it’s a grower I promise), the immediate pay-off is “Ivy” — a melodious break-up track where Frank shows he’s still smooth. “Pink + White,” which with a suave bass line and prominent snare feels like hip-hop at its grooviest, follows. “Solo” expectedly feels like a soliloquy and it is a highlight thanks to soaring vocals and illustrative lyrics. Every track, however, seems susceptible to off-script howling or some other out-of-key force, usually late in the song, which Frank seems to throw in to show that maybe everything is not O.K. Overall, Blonde offers depth in themes like self reflection, love, and doubt, as well as a far from over-produced sound that is unique in 2016.
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead, May 8, XL Records
If all the great classical composers wrote rock albums instead, the product would resemble Radiohead. A Moon Shaped Pool is its most mature effort yet — and that’s no obvious conclusion considering the group’s broad discography of pop brilliance and praised experimentation. Immersive orchestration, hypnotizing ambience and an arc on the verge of tangibility make listening seem like you’re not so much a consumer but a part of something bigger than an album. The listener becomes the subject as the songs affect sensation. “Daydreaming” suspends you in a coma; “Ful Stop” packs enough adrenaline to pull you out bopping your head (or if you’re like singer Thom Yorke, dancing uncontrollably). It’s no wonder guitarist Jonny Greenwood writes music for films (There Will Be Blood, The Master) when he’s not fleshing out Yorke’s conceptions for England’s best band since The Beatles.
1. Malibu by Anderson .Paak, January 15, Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/Empire Distribution
While the albums above are great, if I had to pick one record from 2016 to bring with me on a deserted island, I could and it would be easy: Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. It’s soulful, it’s feisty. It’s political, it’s romantic. It’s smooth, it’s sharp. .Paak is a multi-dimensional musician who happens to be really good at all of his dimensions. His shining asset is probably his singing voice, a tenor with a touch of rasp that can serenade like a soul legend. But Malibu also has some of the best rap verses of the year. .Paak’s word choice for rhyme schemes is original and refreshing, for instance, “The Waters” — a reflection on the music industry grind: “Now I can do anything but move backwards/The hardest thing is to keep from being distracted/My big sister still claiming me on them taxes/Tell Uncle Sam I just need a second to add this.” Further, this Best New Artist Grammy-nominee plays his own drums — exceptionally! “Come Down” is high tempo evidence, with delightfully bright hi-hat and snare execution on display in the live version from the artist’s NPR Tiny Desk concert on YouTube. If .Paak does not win that Grammy, my television set and living room window may have it coming.
Music is healing y’all! Plug in.