Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top 50 Albums Of 2016, 20-11


We've reached the end of 2016. The 12 past months have been interesting, to say the least. As our society begins to crumble, faced with the daunting effects of a controversial POTUS set to take over, we must turn to art for salvation. Bad news has spread like wildfire across televisions, computers, and cell phones, which is why the music I found most appealing this year were those albums that deferred attention by making something beautiful.

And while a slew of disappointing releases came to fruition, no, don't expect to find Ab-Soul, Post Malone, or Vic Mensa here, some success stories emerged as unexpected candidates assumed roles with albums made outside of their preconceived threshold. These 50 albums spread the gamut of my musical understanding for 2016, finding recourse in the dark world of a slave ship gone rogue, a man finding conflict within his own brain, a summer road trip down route 66, and a demented children's party out on a yacht. Diversity in music is at an all-time high, and with these 50 albums, I'm set on proving why.

*All albums from 2016, apart from two, which released at the tail end of 2015.

Also be sure to check out my best albums of 2015 and 2014.

Kanye West | The Life Of Pablo | Review

If there was one album that represented 2016, it was The Life Of Pablo. This lofty attainment isn't out of the ordinary for Kanye West, someone whose represented our music, culture, and society incredibly well from the get-go. He honestly might be the most influential artist living right now for the rappers and singers currently making music. However, out of all years in recent memory, 2016 would be the least respectable one to typify. Much like this year, Life Of Pablo had flashes of brilliance, elegance, humor, and gusto. It also showed ludicrous signs of insanity, hogwash, banality, and embarrassment. The album's clearest direction was that there was none. Gone were Yeezy's days of focused art, thematic style, and aesthetic shifting. What remained from West's collection of albums was his current mind state, always expressed doubtlessly within his idiosyncratic music.

Pushing further off the deep end, the rapper with humble upbringings became the walking stereotype all those who hated him embellished. He deflowered the chastity of Pop's darling Taylor Swift, talked about bleached assholes, and scolded the ignorance of old heads on 'I Love Kanye.' More than that, The Life Of Pablo set about to ruin the traditions of music culture by changing album covers, tracklists, release dates, all on a whim in front of everyone on social media. The goal? To bring about as much attention as possible with each incarnation. I mean, just look at the cover which turned into the industry's most immediate meme. This made Kanye's latest work a masterstroke in short-sighted entertainment, causing Hip-Hop to stop at a standstill for damn near a month. With Life Of Pablo, the chaos became the art, the mess became the joy.

Noname | Telefone | Review

Ever since I heard her on Chance The Rapper's 'Lost,' I knew Noname was special. A new Chicago spitter with the brevity, wit, and intricacies of a seasoned veteran, every quiet, rare, and delicate feature verse she honed in on only further proved her skills as a solo artist. It's a shame then that three years had evaporated before we received our first official mixtape from her, leading many to lose interest as Chance, Mick Jenkins, and the rest of the Chicago scene began to thrive. And really, for a wait so long, the ten soft-spoken tracks found on Telefone aren't satisfying enough to condone such a drought of silence, especially at the precipice of your career bump. 

Nonetheless, Telefone, standing on its own merits, proved, once again, why Noname is currently leading the next generation of female emcees. Not only that, in these short, compact, focused minutes, Noname proved to be one of Hip-Hop's best conscious rappers, bar none. Socially aware recitals like 'Casket Pretty' and 'Shadow Mine' compete with only the likes of Kendrick Lamar in terms of driving home a point, eclipsing both Chance and Mick in her political messages when she's at her peak. And while the entirety of Telefone wasn't that peak, what was left surmises a left field rapper honing in on her pre-Pop Kanye West influences, joyfully bouncing over blissful beats and sincere monologues about a broken childhood.

Xiu Xiu | Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks

Before this year I hadn't really given television shows a chance. Now that still rings true, as the likes of Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, and The Walking Dead still pass me by, but earlier in the summer I decided, on a whim, to check out Stranger Things, and boy am I glad I did. The show was elaborate, intriguing, and well-executed. One of its strongest influences, I was told, came from a short-lived cult series from 1990 entitled Twin Peaks. As fate have it, that was around the same time I stumbled upon Xiu Xiu's Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks and from then on, the rest is history. A mysterious tale of murder wrapped up in a Lynchian world where Noir, Romance, Comedy, and Tragedy clash.

Plays The Music replicated those genres beautifully, transitioning them to a musical realm, keeping all the odd Twin Peaks ticks intact. The feeling, passion, lust, and desire is all there, it's just told through excessively ambitious measures, culminating in the magnificent 'Falling.' And really, there couldn't have been a better match, Xiu Xiu and Twin Peaks, as, right after discovering this album, I sat down with the former's discography, and let me tell you, the twisted monstrosities littering their first few releases are entirely indicative of their Twin Peaks love. The final form, present here, delves into an eery world yet unearthed, like the spine-tingling 'Sycamore Tree,' or the filthy and perverted 'Josie's Past.'

Anohni | Hopelessness

Hopelessness is a controversial album. That's by nature, of course, being that Antony Hegarty designed it that way. Using confrontation, functional discourse, and satirical disguises, Hegarty doesn't hide behind any beliefs she harbors. This is something that your most publicly political artists, like Kendrick Lamar, can't even attest to attempting. While he, and others, allow you to form your own opinions, Hegarty and Hopelessness doesn't do anything of the sort, feeling content in blatantly telling you when you're wrong. On 'Drone Bomb Me' and 'Execution' she attacks the government's emotionless use of violence, on '4 Degrees' she mocks those who don't believe in global warming, and on 'Watch Me' she visits the touchy topic of public surveillance and the concept of Big Brother.

In other words, despite the downtrodden content pouring from Hopelessness, Hegarty is in total command, a dominate force not afraid of any who interfere. Making matters more conflicting is the production work, which sees Electronic gurus, Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, battle back and forth over aggressive dance floor beats. The confusion comes in the execution, as that dance floor intends to alleviate the mindless horde of the world's problems. Hopelessness forces you to listen when you don't want to. Hegarty wants you to feel guilty for not inciting change. And while that'll obviously ruffle thousands of feathers, Hegarty wouldn't mind, as that's the point of it all.

Isaiah Rashad | The Sun's Tirade | Review

After the long wait between Cilvia Demo, Isaiah Rashad's early 2014 debut, and his successor The Sun's Tirade, many felt the awkward TDE signee was stuck behind massive writer's block following the success of his debut project. They weren't wrong, as Rashad spoke about many times throughout the duration of his latest project. Thankfully, patience, and struggles, on behalf of Rashad led to a project equally as good, as impactful, and as laced in Southern Hip-Hop truisms as the hyped-up debut. With 16 meaty tracks all attempting to make a grand statement, you'd figure the final product would combust under its own weight. Yet, The Sun's Tirade still feels cool, calm, and collected.

While his dive into Trap on 'A Lot' and 'AA' was a bit unfounded, causing the second half of the project to lose some momentum, the first half, spanning nine songs, failed to turn up a lackluster moment. The syrupy smooth flows of '4r Da Squaw' and 'Bday,' the oozing seduction of 'Silkk Da Shocka,' the heritage alluring pieces 'Rope Rosegold' and 'Tity Dolla,' The Sun's Tirade created such a strong first half that it's hard not to commend the entire piece. Regardless, it's not as if the second lacks impressionable pieces. Rashad's unassuming lyrical tenacity comes around on 'Dressed Like Rappers,' his versatility appears on 'Don't Matter,' and his tarnished melodies find withered reassessment on 'By George.'

Preoccupations | Preoccupations | Review

For the primary members of Preoccupations, having to change their name is no new venture. In 2012, Matthew Flegel and Michael Wallace had part in the disbandment of Women following the tragic death of their drummer Chris Reimer. Rather than recess into Post-Punk canon as a massive what-if, a new group re-formed under the presumptuous title Viet Cong. The self-titled was a rousing success, that also warranted them some unneeded attention from those who felt their name was offensive. And so, Preoccupations was born. If we're keeping track, 2016's release was the third self-titled album between the Flegel and Wallace, and yet their music was able to maintain relevance throughout thanks to sheer talent.

Preoccupations is no different, thanks in large part to its beginning, middle, and end. 'Anxiety,' lead single, opens the album while simultaneously dipping their toes in untested waters that saw them using acid-drenched synths more than ever. It's not until 'Memory,' the 11-minute, three-part centerpiece where everything comes together, ironically, with the indispensable help of Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade putting down a truly sensational performance. Finally, 'Fever' sent Preoccupations out with a bang, reassuring the listener of their confidence, something the album was building towards since its introductory anxiety. The anthem riddling the finale represented the purpose of the third self-titled as a whole.

James Blake | The Colour In Anything

2016 marked the first year I gave James Blake a shot, and man am I glad I did. The soon-to-be, if not already, influential artist whose promoted a new brand of Alternative R&B that relies strongly on atmosphere through inherent minimalism, Blake continued to move forward with a daunting new album that attempted to force 17 full-length tracks together. Thanks to some superior pacing, a knack for constantly finding melody in the strange, and a voice that transcends, Blake was able to make those 17 tracks worthwhile, and the album imperative. It wasn't his best, his debut still holds that title, but Colour In Anything certainly molded the best assets both his previous albums held dear.

From the quirky look at relational troubles in the social age on 'Put That Away And Talk To Me,' to the inviting evolution of 'Choose Me' and 'Always,' to the mid-album stunner 'I Need A Forest Fire' that sees Blake and Justin Vernon collide in downtrodden harmony, The Colour In Anything barely entertains any dull moments. Even sonically speaking, hits like 'Points' and 'Timeless' provide Blake a scope in which he can be melodramatic even whilst dancing over a synthetic beat. What we lost in true innovation, we gained with a rectified view of the same palate.

Open Mike Eagle | Hella Personal Film Festival | Review

Before he'd go on to work with Danny Brown and tear down pre-conceived notions of what could be properly labeled as a Hip-Hop beat, Paul White worked with Open Mike Eagle on a collaborative album doing effectively the same thing, just with more refined nuisance. White, who proved himself as one of the best producers bar none this year, first showcased his versatility on Hella Personal Film Festival, a vibrant collage of short stories brought on by OME and heightened by White's own craft. The samples, using a splattering mix of 70's Soul, 60's Psychedelia, and seemingly homegrown film scenes, danced around OME with ease, creating a living, breathing world that found hidden delicacies at every turn.

It wasn't just White's show though, as the man heard through and through brought some of his most inventive bars, unique commentary, and downright silly vocal melodies and flows. Take the clever 'Check To Check' that plays on musical tropes of poor citizens by focusing instead on their obsession with technological devices. Or 'The Curse Of Hypervigliance' and 'Smiling' that prey upon those who see racism as a non-issue by opening up socially-aware discussions that aren't typically talked about. Finally, there's even a slight recourse in 'Drunk Dreaming' that dissects a dream gone under duress. Hella Personal Film Festival was loaded, top to bottom, with moments of splendor contained in a neat package 

Kendrick Lamar | Untitled Unmastered | Review

Last year, Kendrick Lamar's declaration of blackness sat firmly atop my best of 2015 list. I was not alone in that sentiment, as his place atop Hip-Hop's current greats is not questioned by many. While Untitled Unmastered, a collection of eight tracks not destined for release on To Pimp A Butterfly, doesn't compare to its predecessor or some certified albums this year, the fact that a series of B-sides has the capacity to compare with 2016's best says a lot. A testament to his thematic craft, standouts like 'untitled 02,' 'untitled 03,' or really this entire project, failing to make an official album is shocking.

To many in Hip-Hop, merely conceptualizing a track and seeing it out until completion is enough to warrant its place on an album. To them, cohesion doesn't matter. To Lamar, that's all that matters. And then some, considering Untitled Unmastered was released purely to spite the naysayers by proving that his back catalog surpasses the vast majority of his competitors. From the dastardly flow and verse at the end of 'untitled 02' that ranks as one of the best of the year, to the creative racial awareness on 'untitled 03,' to the catchy Funk of 'untitled 08,' Untitled Unmastered comes equip with a myriad of proving points that somehow doesn't harm Lamar's impeccable track record in the process. 

A Tribe Called Quest | We Got It From Here | Review

If you had told me coming into the year that A Tribe Called Quest would, alongside De La Soul, release an album before marking their swift departure, I'd have called you crazy. If you revealed to me Phife Dawg's death, I would've assumed a lazy cash cow was at play. And if you had convinced me that it's one of the best, most socially aware Hip-Hop albums in recent memory, I would've laughed you out of the room. And then I'd remember just who we're talking about. This is A Tribe Called Quest, coming together in unity, over a sudden death, a turbulent political season, and with companions known far and wide. 20 years had passed and with We Got It From Here, it feel as if they never left.

The double LP wastes no time attracting your attention. Admittedly, I was worried ATCQ's sound would've been dated, their content as well, but the minute 'A Space Program' confronted the black community about their condition on earth, and 'We The People' reinforced the stances those in power have, I knew We Got It From Here was special. 'Dis Generation' and 'Kids...,' both siding with the youth and against those condemning the current generation, only strengthened my appreciation of the group's mentality. Not to mention, with strong appearances by Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, and Talib Kweli, We Got It From Here wasn't half as bad when it came to being a straight up enjoyable Hip-Hop album.

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