It was difficult to find engagement in this year’s music. This was a year of loss, of disappointment, of scattershot feelings and even moreso scattershot expression. This isn’t to say there want immense work of quality, which makes discovering it even more intriguing. There wasn’t a lot of overlap in our staff lists this year, which made for a group of rather exciting selections for our favorite music. Check it out.
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8 tie. J-Zone – Fish-N-Grits (Old Maid)
If you’ve spent even a moment of your life thinking about hip-hop’s “golden age”, lamenting over where the genre has gone, then Fish-N-Grits announces itself as exactly what you’re looking for in the intro, “Swagboi vs. Purist”. Songs like “Go Back to Selling Weed” and “I’m Sick of Rap” drive the point home while bringing an original sound born out of, but not apishly stuck to, that golden age (it helps that J-Zone’s big influences in hip-hop go beyond the giants of east coast hip hop). On tracks like “Seoul Power” and “Funky”, J-Zone flexes his instrumental skills and live drumming chops, bringing out the funk. It’s serious music, but without losing any of the fun inherent to making it.
8 tie. Xenia Rubinos – Black Terry Cat (Epitaph)
The most striking part of Black Terry Cat are the incredible vocals laid down by Xenia Rubinos. Her singing hits right at all the pleasure centers in the brain and the Berklee-trained singer/songwriter/bassist blends a smattering of genres to aplomb in her second offering. The nominally alt-rock record is no less wide-ranging and serious in subject matter than the many of the other top records released this year, it’s just more fun than the rest of them. If there ever was a bellwether for the direction of a new slate of musicians and artists to follow, this would be the album to point to.
8 tie. Psychic Temple – III (Asthmatic Kitty)
III is brilliant in its ability to be so many things. It’s an album full of sweet folk, rock, jazz, Americana, and blues. It is concrete in its schizophrenia. It’s a collection of songs that are so many excellently done things. It’s a group of arrangements from Chris Schlarb that are masterfully written from the finest of ears, and his voice fits in perfectly. The Psychic Temple continues to shine in all their glory spreading the gospel of music to the land. In their third album, one may not be quite sure what the Psychic Temple is anymore but like any cult, they’re a continuously compelling group to keep following.
7. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive (Ribbon Music)
A Man Alive is an album to dig into the way you haven’t dug into an album since you were 15. Obsess over the lyrics, the song transitions, the musicianship, the album sequencing. Play it non-stop for a month, take a break, then three weeks later play it again non-stop for a month. Layers continue to reveal themselves, and the emotion in these songs is entirely intact after dozens of listens. Not breaking into tears during “Millionaire”? Not loudly singing along with the chorus on “Nobody Dies”? Hmm, try turning it up. Not feeling the bassline and instrumental freakout on “Endless Love”? Then I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do for you.
6. Solange – A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia Records)
Solange made the most unapologetically black album of the year at a time where artists felt compelled, at the very least, not to diminish their cultural identities. The album’s grooviness harkens back to when R&B wasn’t picked apart and left emaciated by pop producers or forced in the shadows of hip hop’s economic dominance. A Seat at the Table bumps equally well at a club, in the whip, or on the stereo and especially when you need a pick me up from life. It is an overtly political record that belongs in the rafters with the other luminaries of political music not just because it hits hard, but because it sounds that good.
5. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
They did it again. They do it every time, and they seem to keep doing it better. Radiohead pulls at the heartstrings as much as they warp the brain and they keep making music that can only be referred to as alternative because pinning down what it is they do now to one descriptor can only lead to them being alternative to whatever it is one might try to say about them. However, in A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke, the Brothers Greenwood, and co. have gone back through the roots of their sound over the years and like seasoned artists expressed what made them them– the lush arrangements, the electronic blips and bloops, the layers and directions, some guitars here and there. They brought it all to do what they do every time, and they keep getting better at it.
4. Mndsgn – Body Wash (Stones Throw)
Cosmic, dreamy, spacy funk that sounds like Mndsgn is perpetually on the way to… well, something. There’s a precision to the slop here, and a human touch behind the electronics, both in Mndsgn’s vocals, keyboard, and synth playing and in his ability to manipulate samples and program drums in an organic way. It’s not easy to make it seem this laid-back and effortless, but Mndsgn has pulled it off here. Endless grooves on this, and when it all clicks into place it’s wonderful, lazy summer evening-type stuff. When it doesn’t click into place, just give it a minute – the journey is an important part of it.
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (GOOD Music)
Kanye West and The Life of Pablo are both absurd, and in 2016, they’ve both been talked about and analyzed to death. The rollout of this album, the constant non-stop rollout of this album overshadowed the lesser tracks but fell just short of overshadowing the greater tracks, like “Ultralight Beam”, “Fade”, and “Friends”. West even shined on some songs that you would expect him to sound ridiculous, like when his verse appears opposite of Kendrick Lamar’s on “No More Parties in LA”. At the end of the day, in spite of all the media and mess, The Life of Pablo is one of my favorite albums of 2016.
2. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (Self Released)
Chance the Rapper’s second mixtape is a spiritual hip hop declaration drowned in exaltation. With lyrics like: “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom/Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom” and “Jesus’ black life ain’t matter/I know, I talk to his daddy,” Coloring Book clearly has an audience, but anyone under the age of 40, religious or not, will likely find something personally valuable on this record.
As universal as the themes are on Coloring Book, Chance absolutely makes this HIS album, intertwining personal social commentary with first person revelations to create a beautiful statement diametrically opposed to the stereotypical values of the Millennial generation.
1. David Bowie – ★ (Blackstar) (Columbia)
David Bowie’s Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, and two days later, he died of liver cancer, an illness he hid from the public. Everyone quickly realized the music icon had given us the perfect thing to cope with his seemingly sudden death. Bowie’s death put so many parts of Blackstar into perspective and vice versa. But there was something about the album that needed no perspective: it’s gripping, it’s heavy, and it was born in Bowie’s mastery. From the expansive two-part album opener to the last bit of fading static on the final track, Blackstar bears the indelible marks of his craftsmanship.