THE TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2016
Scum With Boundaries
Death Grips side project the I.L.Y's is about as bizarre as it gets in the art rock/post punk world. Cartoonish, zany, quirky, and even aspects of glam come to mind in the lyricism, flair instrumentation, and vocal layering. But at the end of the tunnel Scum With Boundaries still strives to be a pummeling, punishing rock album. The drums and guitars still crush and pound down on the ear, with some of the most unique and memorable rock and punk melodies in recent memory. Altogether mosh-friendly at its loudest, perplexing at its quietest.
Before Summertime ’06 I placed all my faith and all my chips on Vince Staples' first Hell Can Wait EP. Seeing the Long Beach hero return to the EP format is as exciting as I could have hoped, with a new completely listenable roster of ear bugs to tide me over until next time on Poppy St. What elevates this EP however isn't the hooks (the real money maker on Hell Can Wait) but the interludes, lullabies aching on Vince's conscience between every song.
Highlights: Peep the Prima Donna short-film in full if you appreciate longer, more abstract rap narratives similar to Kanye West's Runaway.
Flume is approaching a new peak in terms of how trendy it is to like him in his field (only Porter Robinson comes to mind, edging the Australian out just barely). But the rabid fandom isn't without its element of truth. Skin is distinct, with a particularly glistening artistic direction aided by copious amounts of animated 3D artwork, color sheets, and even a brand new live show visual arrangement. It even answers the primary complaint of Flume's original detractors: this album is absolutely loaded with amazing vocal accompaniments and features to elevate the music even further. The album indeed shimmers, with each of its moving parts in a bizarre, yet harmonious coexistence.
The Sun's Tirade
Isaiah Rashad is in a unique headspace in hip hop. Every verse feels measured, swift and darting but with its own sense of weight. Each drum tap is uniquely considered with its own footfall, it's own footprint. The Sun's Tirade is surprisingly vibrant and thoughtful hip hop, with a color palette far brighter than Cilvia Demo's own frigid winter fall. In many ways these songs still sound like hymnals, but with even more confidence in each little prayer, and more personality in each sonic movement.
Blank Face LP
ScHoolboy Q wears his influences across his face and over his eyes, not on his sleeves. Ghostface Killah meets a new featureless supernatural persona, a promising protégé in ScHoolboy's latest. Following Oxymoron, Blank Face LP is as methodical as its predecessor, and perhaps even more confident in its strides to draw ties between music and the never ending drug hustle. The music here thumps, rattles, and sinks its hooks deeply; an impressive roster of features and music videos doesn't hurt either.
Highlights: At least 10 separate music videos were released for Blank Face, outdoing the amount of promo work for TDE's flagship To Pimp a Butterfly from last year.
Neon Grave is like candy to me. Indulgent, nasty dubstep that gets my blood pumping and swallows my ears. The easily consumed 20 minute runtime is full of color and personality in the rises and drums. Solid vocal contributions from O.V and Nefera in tow, Zomboy simply knows how to tap my toes, to catapult my head back and forth, to slam on the accelerator at every possible second. Also, the closer, the long-awaited extended mix of "Like a Bitch," has been a personal favorite hype-up song of mine for a greater portion of the year.
Every musical year needs one fantastic mashup album. Previously, 2015 received two. Mouth Sounds/Mouth Silence by Neil Cicierega of various YouTube fame persists as some of the funniest and most creative mashup music created to date, so I was rightfully resigned to possibly waiting until 2017 for newly recycled glory until Daft Science came along in the fourth quarter. Put shortly, this collection is nothing short of a marriage between two of my childhood favorites. And the bond goes far past Beastie Boys verses over Daft Punk's most famous noises. (The conception of mashups as flat verse/instrumental combos is what makes the genre suffer from hideously low standards in the first place.) This, instead, is a chaotic, energetic feeding frenzy between two great tag team acts turned into a full five member Justice League or Avengers-type super group. The Boys go from brash New Yorkers to cartoonish levels of wild with the French androids to assist. It's as intergalactic as possible, and as detailed as it is catchy.
12 year old me couldn't be
Malibu is among the earliest 2016 releases to be featured on this list. This is point worth making because, much like the title suggests, this album is more like a place, worth revisiting time and time again. Despite a solid discography preceding Malibu, this is certainly the conductor's first real breakout endeavor, and with good reason. The lasting soul wonderland unfolds and washes over listeners in warm waves and sun rays. It's an irresistible combination of piano keys, drum rolls, and, of course, excellent vocal performances. It's as effortless as listening to the ocean smack the beach, or watching clouds go by.
99.9% is like a roof party at some ridiculously chic apartment with all your friends and your favorite drink on tap. Not too crowded, not too loud, but just the right amount of attitude and style, it's you dancing around with just enough wherewithal to keep you from spilling your drink onto yourself. GoldLink is flirting with Aluna Francis. Vic Mensa is a little too fucked up. BADBADNOTGOOD just jumped into the pool, dorky clothes, jazz instruments, and all. The lights keep everyone shaded in a sweet fluorescent color palette, plenty of pastels and neon shadows. Everyone is lit but no one is going to fight or anything like that, no way. In fact, you're even pretty excited about Ubering out once it's all done to get some food with the gang. Yelp indicates your favorite spot nearby is open for a few more hours. You're very thankful KAYTRANADA invited you to this party.
Birds in the Trap
Travis Scott has now created an aura about himself that rivals a Gotham super villain. Despite footage of his massive mansion super gift owning the newsfeed for a brief stint, Travis Scott is most enjoyable to me when I completely buy into this aura of a villain, rap's own pariah of sex, drugs, and rockstar jeans. Birds in the Trap... makes this image quite easy to manifest. The music itself is shadowy, nocturnal, occupied entirely by phantoms and silhouettes. Simultaneously, this dark quality is completely alluring, even captivating at its strongest during personal favorites like "way back" and "goosebumps." The hooks and vocal performances complete the illusion and set the trap in place. Birds in the Trap... turns hood rat shit into the most opulent and indulgent experience, bogged down in a fluorescent drug-fueled haze.
Chance The Rapper
Chano's latest is a victory lap. It's celebratory yet well deserved, lackadaisical yet deeply reverent. Musically, it's all of the best elements that made “Sunday Candy” one of the best singles last year, amplified and humanized even further. It's a samba/salsa fusion with the noted gospel influence taking the driver's seat. At its best, it can even be considered the logical continuation (or spiritual successor, more likely) to the original Kanye West trinity. Jesus Walks and he's on Kit Kat commercials now. But pushing any ill will aside its plain to see/hear how sweet Coloring Book is/sounds. And it's not a sugary pop smack, it's more like a wholesome sunbaked warmth. It's the kind of good vibe your dog senses before you do, and it makes their tail flap around like a helicopter blade. It's you reflecting on the smell of your favorite home cooked meal.
Missed opportunities: What would have been the best track never made it onto the official mixtape. And Mick Jenkins and Alex Wiley definitely needed the visibility more than Justin Bieber... But least Brasstracks managed to get a production credit on the tape.
G-funk and gangsta rap are genres rooted in their fundamentals. Revitalization of these styles risks pandering to listeners instead of catering to them if their keen West Coast sensibilities are trampled upon and not treated with proper reverence, or bravado in this case. YG dispels these fears almost immediately: "Don't come to LA!" Where My Krazy Life felt like a banger clinic, which is all right and well, Still Brazy is leagues beyond. Bangers intact, YG resurrects gangsta rap's most understated tenet: storytelling. The rapper has since become very express and direct with his personal life, his maturation as an artist, and his leap into wealth and stardom which has left him with bullet wounds, twice. Simultaneously, every aspect of Still Brazy is fresh and crisp. Flow, features, breath control, and even the skits are well paced, and persistently entertaining and recognizable to any fan of the genre.
The Avalanches released an album this year. And after 15 some odd years, it's difficult to consume Wildflower without drawing comparisons to Since I Left You (one of my all-time favorites). Thankfully, the experiences are different enough to make Wildflower it's own distinct storybook world. A good indicator is the cover art, a multicolored patchwork of textures and sounds assembling a blanket of sound, maybe even a magic carpet ride. And unlike the rocking waves of Since I Left You, Wildflower can be said to be the more confident sound. While I stand firm with the belief that Wildflower was delayed due to lagging sampling clearances (after all, there were likely thousands of them, literally), it may easily be discerned with trained ears that there appear to be far less samples and sources total. In their place come some extremely vibrant features (Toro y Moi, Danny Brown, MF Doom, Biz Markie), and what I argue to be longer, more centralized samples. These longer pieces eventually serve as the foundation for these distinct melodies that Wildflower offers while at the same time capturing the mystique and playfulness of the original Avalanches plunderphonic sound. At the very least the Avalanches still possess the capability to create new worlds--beauteous, radiant, and bursting with personality--from thin air. And it does the soul much good to know that any band can deliver the goods even after waiting over a decade since they left us.
Memes, like stereotypes, are most elucidating when there is an element of truth to them. Restating infinite times how Kendrick Lamar's b-sides are leagues better than most actual projects released in a single musical year has more truth to it than not. This collection of b-sides listens more like an audiobook of Kendrick's most intense diary pages, a sonic journal of his journey to becoming chosen as hip hop's most holy prophet. But more often the music of untitled... bemoans apocalypse, internal strife, or at the very least a deep sense of confusion. To channel these loose-leaf anxieties into a fully comprehensive runtime is nothing short of incredible, but a task proven to be fully within Kendrick's capabilities. This mixtape is a journey deep into the mind of the butterfly: perfectly jazzy, often even funky, emotive, deeply personal.
Capsule's Pride (Bikes)
Tribute albums are tough to call. It's always difficult to measure where appreciation for the old material ends and the new material begins. The only way to avoid this problem is for the artist themselves to completely reimagine the source material. Thankfully, Bwana has turned the sounds (and sights, I'd argue) of Akira into one of the most beautiful and captivating soundscapes of the year. The work here rivals the genre's very best (modern house heroes like Caribou, DJ Koze come to mind), but Akira's influence ensures the ecstasy of the chimes and drums to be uniquely tragic in nature. Bwana's understanding and appreciation for the source material shows in spades, however. No sample, no loose vocal is wasted, and every twist and build along the varied song structures illustrate a masterwork of sequencing, narrative, and simple rhythm. Bwana is in fact so successful at this that anyone who hasn't interacted with Akira at all won't be amiss listening to the project (but it certainly wouldn't hurt).
Sound on: check out LuckyMe's amazing digital presentation for the release here.
The Life of Pablo
It's laborious work being a Kanye West fan in 2016. Pushing aside, for now, the needless chore of reminding peers constantly of how appreciation for artistic capabilities or contributions does not ever have to perfectly align with political affiliation or personal agendas (rarely does it), staking one's claim as a disciple of Yeezus becomes increasingly treacherous. Especially when Gods do bleed. But there do come times when our extended experience does become inextricably linked to the final reception of an album: I cannot remember a more enjoyable time to be a fan than the prerelease of The Life of Pablo (formerly known as Swish, Waves, and so on). The memes, autographed track list, the free shoes, and all the hoopla of post-release edits, the web of lies, alterations, the addition of an entirely new closer: all these moments lapse into The Life of Pablo, the quintessential Kanye West roller coaster experience perhaps only truly appreciated by a Stan running down the streets of Manhattan, or hoping over guard rails and security officials. I'll own up to that, at least. Musically, the album is its own bizarre tragicomic display: the corrosive power of fame, the thin veil separating genius and madness, even glimmers of the light, the Old Kanye.
Frank Ocean released an album this year, too. And while the wait was less than one third of the time the Avalanches made us wait, meme magic made it seem infinitely longer. At times the incessant teasing (and occasional blue balls) made it seem like an actual impossibility. Now that it's here, though, the new impossible task is decrypting what we've been given, to unravel Frank's latest. Blonde isn't the pop zenith to match Channel Orange hook for hook. But Blonde's own religiosity is its own masterful egg to crack. The lyricism is on full display, typically laid out over sparse and subtle instrumentation. Themes of lonesomeness, isolation, and longing are all prevalent, allowing Frank to fine tune his grasp on the heartstrings of an entire generation, a greater consciousness. This adept sense of emotion, found in both the performance and the songwriting prowess, is almost impossible to overstate. Especially considering Frank can harness it while saying so little, at such quiet volumes. All of it together results in one of the most stunning and abstract portraits of an artist, inextricably linked his lovers and his listeners. Blonde was worth the wait and, considering how many times I had lost all hope for the project in anticipation of its release, that truly is saying something substantial.
We got it from Here...
Thank You 4 your service
A Tribe Called Quest
The term "voice of a generation" has been overused to the point of hyperbole; it's a meme. But A Tribe Called Quest could, without exaggeration, very well be the voice of at least two generations, maybe even three. To Tribe's benefit, the jazz rap sound they pioneered in the 1990's still feels incredibly relevant, polishing better with each passing year. That being said, it's still difficult to handle how to actually describe the album: is it pushing boundaries or just an example of old heads flexing their mastery of the genre? Maybe it only seems to push boundaries because Tribe is still so noticeably in a league of their own. In touch with the soul and essence of youth culture, in tune with the raw bass lines and boom-bap foundation of jazz rap's most rewarding song structures, Tribe is still unmatched. And the most satisfying realization is that being different, the lone novelty that catapulted Tribe and allowed them to transform hip hop in the first place, is the core value of this album's greater themes and messages. Being different is worth all the abuse, the prejudice, and even all the killing if it can at least inspire the next generation to do better.
In a year full of wavy albums, I would gladly award IV the title of Waviest Album of the Year. What I mean by that is, I can think of no other album as immediately accessible, engaging, or easy going as the fourth full-length jazz installment from good ol' BBNG. By now, the trio has traded in the hip hop and video game covers of their first two full-lengths not only for another solid track list of original material, but also for a veritable who's who roster of wavy magicians: KAYTRANADA, Mick Jenkins, Sam Herring, Colin Stetson, and Charlotte Day Wilson are all featured here, and add their own unique dimensions and details to the fractal jazz parade put on by the original trio. At the core of what makes IV so goddamn listenable is its pacing, sequencing, and observable comfort in the jazz instrumentation that it uses as its foundation. The album, for the most part, finds itself cruising in a pleasant middle register, occasionally lulling into even slower and quieter valleys, or steadily rising to a stylish jazz peak at other times. In any case, the smooth rumbling of IV is its own mild psychedelic journey each listen, like a massage for the brain and ears at the same time.
A Moon Shaped Pool
I won't shy away from the fact that a great deal of my love of this album comes from its sonic similarities to In Rainbows. But while In Rainbows shuttles listeners to the outer reaches of space, I consider A Moon Shaped Pool to offer destinations only inside the listener's own mind. And rather that rousing these emotions with massive fluctuations in scale and sound, Moon is consistent in sound and structure despite most likely being a collection of Radiohead sounds from several recording periods. The project is subtle, slow to build, and deliberately paced to create a deeply lonesome, introspective world. Realistically speaking, this isn't new territory at all for Radiohead. A Moon Shaped Pool succeeds in that it can establish this setting with as little bells and whistles as possible. That isn't to say that the album lacks climax or even cataclysm at its most dramatic points; "The Numbers" and other songs are obviously loud enough when they have to be. But it's the crushing ambience, the lonelier guitar tones, and the most siren-like whispers of Thom Yorke's crooning and singing that makes A Moon Shaped Pool a lasting edition to the Radiohead discography.
Throwback: A live version of fan-favorite "Identikit" being performed at ACL four years ago.
Hot off the success of last year's We Cool? comes yet another Jeff Rosenstock project that--considering how long Jeff has been making guitar music--is nothing short of astounding. What's most surprising about WORRY. though isn't Jeff's observable comfort in a variety of song styles and structures from piano ballads, acoustic performances, and stamping pop punk; it's the lyrics and songwriting capability that seems to have matured like wine. The anxieties about getting old and being alone in We Cool? are tiny by comparison. WORRY. tackles all that and more, deeply personal at times ("Staring out the Window...") and massive at others. "To Be a Ghost..." is perhaps the most obvious showcase of Jeff's impressive lyricism neatly serving up the greater theme of personal determination in the age of memes, hashtags, and emojis. WORRY. is full of existential dread but the hammering drums and strong guitar tones are so lush that you might not even realize the entire album focuses on exactly what it's named after. That being said, the crippling anxieties of being a young person becoming an older person has never sounded catchier or more triumphant than this.
Baauer has always had a lot to prove. The ability for dance crazes like the Harlem Shake to consume producers and personalities is deadly. Those less capable or less inspired would resign themselves to lower expectations. Aa, the full-length debut for the cocaine cowboy, is not only truly inspired but it's also the most stylish electronic release I've heard in years, completely defying my expectations after lead single "GoGo!" finally got identified earlier in 2015. What makes Aa so special is its ability to give the veritable banger an amazing amount of personality and international flair from the Far East to the depths of UK Grime. Aa is also blessed by its amazing roster of tag team features. Predictably, M.I.A. and G-DRAGON are perfect together, and Future has never sounded better right beside Pusha T. The list goes on, as does the number of perfect singles sequenced back to back. But the talent showcased across Aa's brief half hour time span is magnificently cool. It's a project about fully realized potential, leaving no stone unturned in the effort to express an intense vision through sound (and a healthy dose of uppers).
I'm thoroughly convinced at this point that Rae Srremurd couldn't release a bad song (or at least a boring song) even if their lives depended on it. SrremLife 2 is an exercise in simplicity. This is party rap at its absolute finest. You can't expect the champions of No Type and No Flex to explore much lyrically, but the energy in each effortless verse and the chemistry between the brothers (and Mike Will) is undeniable and infectious. As we've seen, nearly every song happily rests on the precipice of becoming a viral hit in an instant. And on top of that SrremLife 2 is just full of sing-along moments. "Start a Party" and "Over Here" stand out immediately. The crooning on slower songs like "Swang" is as impressive as it is hilarious. The Black Beatles are in their element, with enough singles to fill a list all on their own if left unchecked.
To call Danny Brown ahead of his time would be an understatement. Not only is he a pioneer of the genre but instead of simply traveling forward he appears to be maneuvering and contorting in several different planes at once. To say he is in a league of his own would be equally moot. Atrocity Exhibition launches Danny out from the current league of great rappers today and sends him into an entirely new dimension. That being said, this is still a hip hop album at its core, but unlike anything I've heard to date. For one, Danny's vocal range is unmatched as he switches between his high-pitched squeal and lower deflated drawl with schizophrenic quickness. The music itself is impossible to categorize, abandoning any traditional chord progression, harmonic scales, or boom-bap patterns to push himself into an entirely new sonic headspace. "Ain't It Funny" sounds like a runaway train barreling through a Guitar Center. "When It Rain" is the logical end to flirtations between footwork and hip hop instrumentation. "Really Doe" is most definitely a frontrunner for best posse track of the current decade. Danny's flow and lyrical skill allow him to float and gloat all over each and every one of these tracks and more. Addiction, aggression, and all that comes with the usual Danny Brown fanfare (pill popping and pussy eating to name a couple) are all dialed to 11, painting a magnificently vivid portrait of an addict and an artist all at once.
Jenny Death's outro "Death Grips 2.0" isn't so much a song as it is a promise to return with a revitalized sense of the hyper violent sound Death Grips has cultivated since 2011. Bottomless Pit is that return, and it also so happens to be the most consistently exciting, unrelenting, and intensely rich experiences of the musical year. It's simultaneously a technicolor explosion and a pitch black mass. And with a runtime of only 39 minutes across 13 songs the project is as nimble as it is aggressive. The effortless moves from apocalyptic yelps from lead single "Hot Head" to the more idiosyncratic movements on songs like "Eh" and "Trash" display masterful control of a sound that's so loud and demonic that it becomes all the more impressive to revisit this album endlessly. The hooks are as lurid and defiant as possible ("I fucked you in half!") but demand attention and somehow become catchy as toxic bubblegum pop, track after track. Under the bravado, Death Grips also unleash some of their most impressive instrumentals yet that ripple, warp, and contort themselves with military precision. Everything about this album is tight, which is befitting of the greater theme of perpetuating as much sexual violence as possible. But Bottomless Pit fulfills the promise of its title: it sucks you in and never lets go. It's entirely weightless and crushing at the same time. Exhilarating and horrific all at once. The charisma and detail of this album can only be described as inescapable. It's a revolving door of guillotines. It's a carousel with electric chairs for seats. It's the best album of the year.