All in all, 2016 was one hell of a year. And, as with any particularly tumultuous time, it left us with some amazing music. In this special end-of-year list, the Artsweek staff reflects on some of our favorites.
Emotion: Side B by Carly Rae Jepsen
In Emotion Side B, the “Call Me Maybe” singer shifted from guilty pleasure pop anthems to complex stories disguised in ’80s pop arrangements. Jepsen channels the complexities of a love-struck mind into song, creating a colorful haven that is welcoming to all. Although these are unused songs from Jepsen’s 2015 project, Emotion, these B-sides highlight a sincerity in modern pop music that is often diluted, or even completely lost. With the guidance of indie-heavy hitters Dev Hynes and Greg Kurstin, Jepsen made a project full of melancholic songs that could instantly become the soundtrack to the next independent coming-of-age film. The track “Cry” accentuates the downfalls of unrequited love with inviting synths, no doubt an influence from Hynes. The disco pulse radiating from the ’80s in “Body Language” had people singing the chorus in the shower in a matter of time. There is no need to put your Spotify on a private session when listening to Emotion: Side B; this is an album that no one should feel guilty about listening to. Jepsen deserves more recognition for her ability to transform from one-hit wonder status to the same realm as imaginative indie-pop artists like Sky Ferreira.
— Jasmine Rodriguez
We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest
Legendary jazz-rap maestros A Tribe Called Quest reunite for their swan song with their first album in 18 years, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. The group’s sound has aged like a fine wine, and their influence is all over the modern rap game, which is full of jazzy beats and lyrics that celebrate blackness. The group even acknowledges this on the song “Dis Generation” which passes the torch from the old guard to the new vanguard of hip-hop music shouting out “Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole.” Another example of the group’s sound being perfect for 2016 is the politically charged lead single, “We The People….” With divisions between people being a huge part of the rhetoric of the last election season, this track fights back emphatically. The chorus, for example, rails against the rhetoric of people like Donald Trump who believe that black, Mexican, Muslim and gay people are “bad folks” who “must go.” A Tribe Called Quest instead sells a message of unity with the track from the opening lyric, “We don’t believe you ’cause we the people,” by drawing on the language of our constitution.
Beyond the standout tracks, it’s impossible to talk about the album without mentioning the recent passing of founding member Phife Dawg in March. The group does an amazing job celebrating the life of The Five-Footer throughout the album by incorporating Phife’s raps recorded before his death and the emotionally charged tribute, “Lost Somebody.” As Tribe calls it quits with their final album, don’t feel that you’ve lost a great rap group; instead, celebrate that they went out with a banger. As for Phife Dawg, “he’s in sunshine.”
— Ryan Hykes
Splendor & Misery by clipping
The experimental, noise-rap trio led by 2016 Tony Award winner and frontman Daveed Diggs is back with one of the strangest releases of the year. According to their label, Sub Pop, Splendor & Misery is an Afrofuturist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship and the onboard computer that falls in love with him. If that doesn’t sound like a unique album, then I don’t know what does.
Thematically, clipping analyzes blackness in the modern age by catapulting it into the future and the past at the same time. The protagonist, the slave from the future Cargo 2311, comforts himself by rapping over the clangs and buzzes of the spaceship itself, and this is reflected beautifully by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’s instrumentation that transport the listener to the noisy ship perfectly. The album makes many allusions to the past through choral renditions of African-American slave spirituals and tackles universal themes of loneliness and existentialism as the main character suffers anxiety and depression as a result of constantly feeling on-the-run. These futuristic ideas have a basis in our modern age, but the Cargo 2331 passenger comforts himself by reasserting his roots through rap music and slave spirituals. This is reflected in today’s America, where black artists are reasserting their identity through their music in an environment that can feel hopeless with systemic injustices.
— Ryan Hykes
Blackstar by David Bowie
David Bowie did something amazing with his final album, Blackstar. Of course, it is his last album because he sadly passed away in January. However, what is truly remarkable about Bowie as an artist is that he used the pain of the cancer he eventually succumbed to and awareness of his own mortality to make his art. With Blackstar, he solidifies his nearly 50-year legacy as one of the most unique artists of the last century. Not only is the subject matter innovative and unique as Bowie explores his own death, but it’s a testament to Bowie’s constant evolution as an artist that this album sounds very distinct from his previous work. He fully embraces jazz experimentalism with this album, despite being a rock legend. Additionally, with Bowie being older, he has adapted his music to highlight his weathered voice by focusing on the timbre of his vocals and the haunting mood that they create throughout the album. Overall, this album was a legendary send-off for a legendary man and artist. As Bowie tells his fans and loved ones on the song, “Dollar Days,” “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you.” And we won’t forget you either. Rest in peace, Starman.
— Ryan Hykes
Blonde by Frank Ocean
Perhaps the most anticipated album of the year, Blonde is the follow-up to Ocean’s acclaimed 2012 debut into alternative R&B stardom, channel ORANGE. On this album, Ocean continues doing what we love him for: being himself. Blonde features Ocean bearing his heart and soul on his sleeve as he sings about unrequited love, depression and other events from his life. The project features some of the most emotionally charged vocals and lyrics of the year as Ocean’s raw humanity shines through.
Despite the intensity of emotion and imagery throughout the album, Blonde is rather minimal. So minimal, you might not notice that Beyoncé, perhaps the most well-known modern pop artist, sings background vocals on “Pink + White” or any of the other understated features including sad Swedish rapper Yung Lean on “Self Control.” And that’s without mentioning the myriad of other artists on the album including James Blake and Pharrell Williams. This style allows Ocean’s voice to take center stage without wasting any energy on superfluous instrumentation. However, there is one feature that stands out above the rest: André 3000 on “Solo (Reprise).” André 3000 brought so much energy in his one-minute-long feature that people are begging him for a new album. This is for good reason, as “Solo (Reprise)” was, in this writer’s opinion, the best guest feature of 2016. This moment of intensity does well to inject energy into the album while keeping the focus on Ocean’s minimal style that pervades the other tracks. Blonde may have taken a while to finally come out, but any Frank Ocean fan will tell you that the wait was worth it, as he released one of the best records of the year.
— Ryan Hykes
ROCKISDEAD by Dorothy
They may have named their album ROCKISDEAD, but in 35 minutes the members of Dorothy prove that rock remains alive and thriving. Old school without feeling overdone, the quartet’s debut record comes packed with infectious clapping beats, blues-inspired guitar riffs and even hints of country all centered around lead singer Dorothy Martin’s powerhouse vocals. Even if you can’t quite belt with the same ferocity as Martin, it’s hard to resist singing along with her hooks. So go ahead and put on ROCKISDEAD next time you’re on a drive; wail your heart out about what a wild and reckless rock star you are.
— Melanie Voskanian
Teens Of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Thirteen albums in, Will Toledo and the rest of Car Seat Headrest show no signs of winding down. In fact, with their latest release, Teens Of Denial, they’ve only picked up speed, so buckle up and take a listen. Appearing on multiple music publications’ best-of-2016 lists, Teens Of Denial succeeds in its ability to make you feel okay with not being okay. The record offers an honest take on often-heavy topics including clinical depression, but the music never strays into cynicism, maintaining positive and hopeful sounds throughout. If you’re looking for a feel-good take on the low points in life or even just some catchy lo-fi rock tunes, Teens Of Denial is waiting for you.
— Melanie Voskanian
City Club by The Growlers
Instead of the twisted beach carnival vibe created in The Growlers’ Hot Tropics, City Club feels more like watching a five-piece downtown Vegas casino house band while peaking on acid, Raoul Duke style. In lieu of Sinatra covers, they’re playing “I’ll Be Around,” and it’s a little confusing, but there’s nothing wrong with being disoriented sometimes. That is what is so special about City Club to me. While 2016 has been a time of questionable changes and uncertainty, The Growlers keep it fresh while staying true to their roots. It’s fun, romantic, weird and different from anything else out there. The Growlers are a comforting reminder that all hope isn’t lost. In a genre that has become increasingly derivative, no one else can even do a quality job at ripping them off. With the aptly titled City Club, The Growlers move away from the surf rock stylings that made up the bulk of their work. Tunes like “Beach Rats” and “Burden of the Captain,” which previously defined their style now morph into “Night Ride” and “Rubber and Bone.” This transition hasn’t happened all at once and doesn’t isolate die-hard Beach Goth festival fans. It’s a diversification of The Growlers, and it’s rad.
— Sean Edwards
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
English alternative lords Radiohead released their ninth studio album in 2016, and it was a gentle reminder that they are still relevant and ever-powerful influencers of music culture. Entitled A Moon Shaped Pool, the album is an ethereal blend of soft droning melodies and piercing lyrics that evoke such profound emotion from mundane words. Thom Yorke has always had a unique ability to speak simply but wholly capture exactly what you’re feeling. A Moon Shaped Pool does this just as well as OK Computer or The Bends, and worms its way into your mind. It relates itself to everything that’s been swirling around your brain, getting deeper with every play. A Moon Shaped Pool feels like classic Radiohead: a little inaccessible, but that’s the point. There isn’t a Radiohead album that is immediately easily digestible; they all require active thought to really enjoy. Just like jogging through a museum, a half-assed listen may leave you confused and a little sweaty. A Moon Shaped Pool reveals something new or makes you feel something different with every listen. It becomes a distorted reflection of internal processes, and Yorke’s blunt lyrics still leave room for creation of your own context. Radiohead once again slipped under our skin and delivered 11 tracks to make us think.
— Sean Edwards
Malibu by Anderson .Paak
Hip hop fans have been waiting for Anderson .Paak for a long time. For years, we have been left struggling to prove the true musicality and talent required to excel in our beloved art form. We could point to Kendrick Lamar for his lyrical wizardry, or Dr. Dre and his command of modern technology in production, but there was no one with undeniable musical greatness. With the release of Malibu and the live shows that followed, Anderson .Paak has changed all of that. A Grammy nominated album recorded on an old laptop and dented microphone, Malibu features a mix of soulful singing and rapping over instrument-based beats with samples from the likes Hiatus Kaiyote or fully original tunes curated by .Paak and his longtime band, The Free Nationals. Additionally, .Paak is completely redefining the standard of hip-hop live shows. While many rappers only feature a hypeman and a DJ, .Paak’s live show is music being played almost entirely live. Paak himself brings an unmatched energy with his bold personality, quirky outfits and astounding drumming capabilities (these aren’t Bieber drum fills, they’re jazz fills!). At the end of 2016, .Paak, The Free Nationals and Malibu have brought some much-needed funk and soul pizazz to hip hop all the while raising the bar for what it means to be a performer.
— Daniel Carroll
Cardinal by Pinegrove
The natural inclination of people in their late teens and early twenties is to be apathetic. Whether it’s a dead-end job, rough times in school or even a hangover, there will always be a mild feeling of dislike within close reach. Pinegrove, folk-punk’s latest prodigy, captures this feeling with both wit and self-awareness on their debut, Cardinal. “How come every outcome is such a comedown?” lead singer Evan Stephens Hall sings in a tone both sardonic and earnest on the lead track “New Friends.” The exact genre of Pinegrove’s music is hard to pinpoint, dipping into the sensibilities of modern pop-punk, toying with elements of folk and even hinting at a country twang. Music’s current state is one that has no boundaries, and this is a band that is aware of the greatness this can bring.
— Zoe Jones
Holy Ghost by Modern Baseball
Split between lead singers Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald, Holy Ghost is an 11-track confrontation of depression, loss and past loves. If you listen to the album on shuffle, the two frontmen act as a foil to one another. Ewald’s side is bold, while Lukens’ side is dark. Ewald grew up in a religious household, so tinges of those memories appear in his lyrics at times, most apparent in his wry mention of a girl who is “sipping from that holy cup.” Lukens’ mental health battles are approached directly, “always looking back on my mistakes and others’,” he sings at one point. Holy Ghost is the band’s third album, and their growth is clear in the way they continuously dig deeper into themselves without over-exploiting their own struggles.
— Zoe Jones