The Year in Music

2016 was a terrible year. Very few will dispute this sentiment.

It was, however, an exceptional year for music — arguably the best of the past decade.

Back in February, Kanye West released The Life of Pablo, a manic, perpetually unfinished masterpiece that blew up the internet for months. The besieged king of hip hop’s latest offering is a rowdy torrent of exuberance, punctuated by sharp intervals of darkness that now seem glaringly portentous. A few months later, Kanye’s protege (and foil) Chance the Rapper released Coloring Book — a future classic that radiates with that joyous, life-affirming optimism that defines the ‘New Millennials.’ 

2016 also produced a trio of profound and subversive musical statements on race and identity. On Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes and an impressive group of female vocalists join forces to grapple with questions of migration, faith, and black masculinity. Several months after Beyonce released Lemonade — a revolutionary visual album and deeply personal feminist manifesto — her sister Solange upped the ante with A Seat at the Table, a stunning album that manages to both capture and transcend the sense of weariness that has so saturated the past 12 months.

2016 also produced a trio of outstanding albums from three of popular music’s all-time titans, each a profound meditation on death. Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker collects the musings of a poet-philosopher that is ready to die, while Blackstar pulls back the curtain on David Bowie’s 18-month battle with cancer. On Skeleton Tree, a shockingly vulnerable Nick Cave struggles to cope with the unexpected death of his 15-year old son.

2016 will also be remembered as the year that A Tribe Called Quest dropped their brilliant final album (and their first in 18 years). We got it from here...Thank You 4 Your service is a satisfying victory lap that provides ample evidence in favor of Q-Tip’s theory that “the best art comes not from the exuberance of youth, but the mastery of form.”

Nor did Frank Ocean disappoint with his much-anticipated follow up to channel ORANGE (things had reached a fever pitch). Blonde is a completely original album, one that transcends both genre and form, and expands the possibilities of pop music (his mini-visual album, Endless, is pretty damn good, too). Neither albums are eligible for next year’s Grammy’s, which means that Frank can quietly slip back into the shadows, his mystery intact.

Rock and alternative music (indie?) had a relatively quiet year — aside from Radiohead’s solid, but, let’s admit it, underwhelming new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, there really weren’t any major releases much worth talking about. Perhaps it’s telling that for the first time in many years, no ‘rock’ albums were nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Or maybe the genre is simply changing. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, once the patron-saint of indie-folk, traded in his acoustic guitars for home-made synthesizers on 22, A Million, and — inspired by recent collaborations with Kanye West — processed his signature falsetto through home-made synthesizers, to unique and powerful effect.

Similarly, Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty) — the inimitable singer-songwriter known for her dramatic chamber pop and quaint duets with the likes of Boy George and Yoko Ono (she’s also the first trans person to be nominated for an Oscar) — has undergone a wholesale transformation. Co-produced by ‘trap’ producer Hudson Mohawke and experimental electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, HOPELESSNESS is an intrepid, and challenging album, one which deftly layers Anohni’s voice on top of aggressive electronic rhythms; one which not only juxtaposes, but balances gorgeous pop melodies with violent bursts of noise. It’s also a protest album — against drone warfare, environmental destructions, and the failures of the Obama administration (admittedly, the latter is harder to swallow in the era of Trump).

There were, of course, a few treats for fans of indie music that were willing to dig a bit deeper than usual. Hamilton Leithauser teamed up with Rostam Batmanglij to create I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, a neat little album that sounds exactly what you’d expect to hear if a member of the Walkmen teamed up with a member of Vampire Weekend. With Puberty 2 and My Woman, Mitski and Angel Olsen provided further evidence that women are the current guardians of guitar-based rock music. There was also a mini-soft rock revival thanks to folky throwback curios from the likes of Weyes Blood (Front Row Seat to Earth), Kevin Morby (Singing Saw), and Whitney (Light Upon the Lake).

But the year ultimately belonged to hip hop, a genre that has fully eclipsed rock music and secured its place at the center of mainstream music. In addition to the heavy hitters described above, 2016 also produced solid contributions from the suddenly prolific Anderson. Paak (Malibu, Yes Lawd!) and the suddenly gender-bending Young Thug (No, My Name Is JEFFERY), plus a fiery collaboration between 21 Savage and Metro Boomin (Savage Mode), yet another wild album from Danny Brown (Atrocity Exhibition), and finally, a couple of g-funk highlights from YG (My Krazy Life) and Kamaiyah (A Goodnight in the Ghetto). 

Finally, 2016 also featured a trio of excellent debut albums from Jamila Woods (Heaven), dvsn (Sept. 5th), and Kaytranada, whose seamlessly genre-bending album, 99.9%, earned him this year’s Polaris Prize. Oh, and also new, surprisingly accessible music from Aphex Twin (Cheetah EP), if you’re into that kind of stuff.

All that being said, here is my list of the top 5 albums of 2016:

  1. Frank Ocean, Blonde
  2. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
  3. Anohni, HOPELESSNESS
  4. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
  5. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Richie Assaly14/12/16