Tk’s Top Ten Albums of 2016
2016 in music was a year with a strangely high number of prominent musicians dying (David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen in the same year?!) and also a year with some fun new trends in Top 40 radio.
The easiest way to identify sweeping trends in the music world is to look at pop music, where big-money all but demands that the artists try those sweeping trends on for size. This year, the most prominent musical trend that I have noted is a warm, tropical texture infusing so many pop songs (think of the instrumental riff on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”). Many artists have dipped into a fun, humid equatorial sound to spice up their music. This is accompanied by that characteristic Caribbean-style, Reggaeton-influenced drum beat that non-Latin pop music somehow missed for so many years. The result has infused popular music with new life.
One other notable trend, building on the intellectual West Coast rap from the last few years, is a return to both gospel and funk in hip-hop music. This has shown up on many new albums from Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid to Anderson Paak and, of course, Kanye.
In a very difficult and trying year for most of the world, music has remained a spark of hope and community. Below you will find my Song of the Year, Honorable Mention Albums, and then my Top Ten Albums of 2016.
Song of the Year
Calvin Harris & Rihanna – This is What You Came For: Please don’t reference the lyrics in your critique of my SOTY choice. As I have stated numerous times before, I never pay any attention to lyrics. Vocals are just another instrument (the most soulful instrument, barely beating out flutes) making a wonderful variety of sounds (that some call words) in melodic ways. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of this song to me; Rihanna’s voice, more than any other song I’ve heard this year, functions like an instrument with the main delivery being “oooh, oo0h, oo0h, oo0h, oo0h, oo0h…” Speaking of melody, this is what you get when a big-name Scottish DJ teams up with a big-name Barbadian pop singer: undeniable catchy, dance-ready, and with a hint of tropicality. When pop music invited me to its party, this is what I came for.
Honorable Mention Albums (11 – 20 in alphabetical order)
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…: Their first album in 18 years and, most likely, their last album also happens to be one of their best albums. It is a loose and fun outing that sounds like 3 guys in a room having a blast, rapping about timely topics that they care about.
Fruit Bats – Absolute Loser: Folk rock from Chicago (no, not THAT folk rock band from Chicago) with Kermit the Frog’s cousin on vocals. It takes a lot for folk rock (perhaps the most tired genre) to grab my attention these days, but this one did for its quality songs and consistency.
Steve Hauschildt – Strands: Ambient, minimalist techno with very few ‘beats’ and plenty of repetition. If that sounds good to you, you’ll love it. If it doesn’t, you won’t.
James Hunter Six – Hold On! Bands get bonus points when they have an exclamation point in their artist or album name (of course, maybe I’m biased because I am married to Mo!). JHS (non-existent acronym, until now) are a British R&B/soul group doing throwback tunes to the 1950s and 60s.
Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now: An American jazz saxophonist who isn’t afraid to bring in some synthesizer. This guy played with David Bowie on Blackstar and shows, once again, that the best jazz musicians today (all musicians, for that matter) keep their sound fresh by collaborating across genres.
The Radio Dept – Running out of Love: Swedish dream-pop/shoegaze with 80’s-tinged vocals. They sound like a toned-down Cut Copy, full of gratifying melodies.
Sidestepper – Supernatural Love: British DJ Richard Blair teams up with Colombian musicians and create a fun sound that is heavy on percussion and vocals.
Songs of Separation – Songs of Separation: The first super-group that’s actually worked, in recent memory! Ten female musicians from Scotland and England come together to play traditional folk music. A beautiful and powerful release.
Syd Arthur – Apricity: More British music! A talented rock quartet who seem aware of and in touch with rock and roll history and have crafted a fresh, sleek sound of their own. “Sun Rays” and “Apricity” are 2 of the best songs of 2016.
Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death: This Canadian twin sister duo got a whole lot better when they decided to whole-heartedly embrace the delicious, sparkling early-90’s girl pop sound with simple, gorgeously-produced songs about heartbreak.
Tk’s Top Ten Albums of 2016
10. The Early Years – II: The Early Years may be from London but they look to German kraut-rock for their primary inspiration. They have existed for 10 years but this is only their second album… Maybe all that time off and prep time was good for them, as this is a modern rock masterwork.
9. Anna Meredith – Varmints: Anna Meredith considers herself a classical music composer, but also happens to be a forward-thinking artist making forays into electronic music. This debut full-length is overflowing with creativity and won the Scottish Album of the Year Award for 2016.
8. Touche Amore – Stage Four: A Los Angeles-based post-hardcore group with, dare-I-say, some screamo influence. This is the album that reminded me of how much I love this genre and has caused me to dig up some of my high school favorites from the Taking Back Sunday era. It’s also an energetic, heartfelt grappling with death, God, and grief in the aftermath of the frontman’s mother dying from cancer in 2014.
7. Eluvium – False Readings On: Portland, Oregon-based producer Matthew Cooper makes ambient, patient songs that build towards beauty. This is his best album to date and may help him score some movie scores. Score!
6. Kaytranada – 99.9%: A head-spinning debut from the Canadian electronic producer with guest appearance from the likes of Anderson Paak and BadBadNotGood. At 15 tracks and 1 hour of blissful variety, it’s basically your next party playlist.
5. Anderson Paak – Malibu: It was a breakout year for L.A-based singer, rapper, and drummer Anderson Paak. A soulful, sometimes funky, always fresh release proving that smart West Coast post-rap is not losing any momentum. Seriously, watch the video below. It’s basically your next next party playlist.
4. Wye Oak – Tween: I don’t know what it says about a band when their best album is outtakes and B-sides, but I think it’s a good thing. Despite churning out quality tunes for 10 years, Wye Oak hasn’t quite had their breakthrough moment like some of their Baltimore peers (Dan Deacon, Future Islands, and Beach House come to mind). This is evolving, atmospheric indie rock with rich female vocals. The triumphant “Watching the Waiting” was another Song of the Year candidate.
3. Bon Iver: 22, A Million: I have been on record saying that Bon Iver has the best career arc of musicians in recent memory. He started simple, with Emma, focusing on the core of strong, sincere melodies and acoustic guitar. It fit the times. After its release, he took his time, collaborating with other artists (Kanye West, James Blake) who stretched him and brought out new sides of him. In 2011 came his self-titled masterpiece with full instrumentation. Same melodic core but more of a fully-developed band sound. This won him a well-deserved Grammy. Then came more collaborations and side projects, once again stretching him and taking him in new directions. It would be 5 long years before 22, A Million and it is well worth the wait. Yes, it is his Kid A moment (that followed his OK Computer moment) and there is a bit more electronic experimentation, but what really makes it work is Justin Vernon’s distinct melodic core, which is most pronounced on the sublime, Phil Collins-channeling “8 (circle).” What will your next move be, Sir Justin? I look forward to it.
2. The Range – Potential: Brooklyn-based DJ James Hinton sifted through Youtube clips and found audio that is catchy, memorable, and haunting (“Right now, I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it…”) and juxtaposes it with electro-pop, dubstep, and hip hop. This is a poignant, modern album that I returned to again and again in 2016.
1. Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room: Nobody does it better than Laura Mvula right now. The quintessential new-pop artist who won’t settle for anything less than genre-busting brilliance. Her 2013 debut showed her to be a confident, fearless artist who didn’t need any growing into her sound. The Dreaming Room takes her soaring neo-soul even further with layers upon layers to be unraveled with every listen. It is also deeply personal and reflective of her unique journey (her mother is from Saint Kitts and father is from Jamaica, she suffers from crippling stage fright). She brings in some electronic and orchestral textures at different moments – anything to elevate the sound – but the towering core is always her spirited vocals. This is an iconic release from a quickly-ascending artist who, I predict, will be touring with Beyonce (I know… she’s didn’t make my list, so I had to give her some name-drop love) before too long.
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