2016 sucked. Worst year of my lifetime by far, but at least it was a sublime time for new music. I present to you my picks for the ten best albums dropped in 2016.
10 – Arbina – Noura Mint Seymali
As a griot, Noura Mint Seymali is part of a family that includes ten generations of bards. So rich is that history that had she been alive a century or two ago, she would have followed warriors into battle to encourage them on and later recount their feats and demises. She would have eased their troubles with the magical power of musical oratory prose and poetry. But with her masterful skill of the ardin and hypnotizing and fascinating vocals, she still gets to do that.
The only “world” music album on this list (sigh, I wish more people expanded their horizons) it nonetheless benefits from record label clout. For every foreign album that makes waves elsewhere there are dozens that are systemically ignored. Noura Mint Seymali is a Mauritanian artist who is gaining traction in the world music scene, and is a refreshing inclusion in the under appreciated sphere of Arabic art.
9 – The Uncanny Valley – PERTURBATOR
The biggest television phenomenon of the year came from a sublime 80’s throwback Netflix original, Stranger Things. You may have heard of it. For whatever reason, retro 80’s music never comes close to touching the visual media that benefits so wonderfully from its throwback concept. This is tragic, because there is a vast trove of such music to be found below the mainstream. And no album does a better job in capturing this retro-synth sound than PERTURBATOR’s The Uncanny Valley. If this column were my top 10 favorite albums of the year, this album would be number 1.
Out of all the albums that fall under the category of ” retro-80s-synthwave,” this is by far the most realized, cohesive effort. PERTURBATOR’s work has flirted with breaking through to a larger audience before (popular indie video game Hotline Miami), but The Uncanny Valley is the project that deserves to pivot the spotlight entirely. Unfortunately, that will most likely never happen, and the Stranger Things soundtrack will remain in the spotlight, if only because of its accompanying visual medium.
That is truly a shame. The album’s title refers to the idea that human replicas (in this context it is androids, but the aesthetic philosophical theory also includes, corpses, zombies, prosthetics, etc) that are similar to but do not completely resemble humans are eery and illicit feelings of revulsion and disgust. Most of this album is definitely creepy.
It is ripe with minor notes and chord progressions that provoke discomfort. As intense as The Uncanny Valley is, however, there is a wonderful moment on the album’s closing eponymous track in which the eeriness fades, and there is a brief moment of relative quiet. As a listener, one relaxes, and almost breathes a sigh of relief when the relentlessness has abated. Instead of shocking the listener by returning to an intense synth ridden high beat-per-minute rhythm, PERTURBATOR ends the album like a classical composer such as Beethoven or Mozart would end one of their symphonies, in majestic and completely satisfying fashion.
8 – Malibu – Anderson .Paak
By leaps and bounds the happiest and most optimistic album on this list, Malibu was at times this year completely intolerable and unlistenable. I rarely ever sought out this album or wanted to listen to it, just because I was not in the mood. The warm and conversational music did not mesh well with my curt and pessimistic outlook on the year. In short, it was not enough of an escape.
The moments in which I heard the soulful, passionate, and celebratory voice of Anderson’s fantasy were, however, no less than wonderful: a massive reunion of friends at my alma mater, road-tripping during the summer, grilling with roommates, that kind of thing.
Frank Ocean said “When you’re happy you enjoy the music, but when you’re sad you understand the lyrics.” Quite the insightful phrase, it does not ring more true on this list than within the context of Malibu. The music itself is uplifting, but take a moment and listen to the lyrics and you will realize that there is suffering and hardship in them. Album standout and candidate for opening track of the year “The Bird,” is a perfect example of how staying positive in tumultuous times can be enduring.
I’m repping for the longest cycle,
My uncles had to pay the cost,
My sister used to sing to Whitney,
My mama caught the gambling bug,
We came up in a lonely castle,
My papa was behind them bars,
We never had to want for nothing,
Said all we ever need is love,
7 – Run The Jewels 3 – Run The Jewels
There used to be a time in which music that was as abrasive as the content on Run The Jewels’ (here on in known as RTJ) albums would cause me to have a pretty negative reaction. Alas, I lost my innocence and sometimes I fully embrace my fiery anger and increasingly pessimistic side and tell my haters and folx I disagree with to “run naked backwards through a field of dicks.”
As bleak and horrifically rude that is, my music taste has definitely evolved in an incredibly healthy way, and I am grateful for that. It has been sprinkled with a healthy amount of cynicism, and I remain steadfast in my choice to name RTJ2 the single best album of 2014. Every single RTJ album is the truth, and the truth is brutally harsh. As far as Killer Mike and El-P are concerned, they will take the world’s bitter truths and use them like sandpaper on a festering wound.
Beware of horses
I mean a horse is a horse of course, but who rides is important
Sitting high with a uniform, barking orders, demanding order
And I’m scared that I talk too much about what I think’s going on
I got a way with this, they might drag me away for this
Put me in a cage for this, I might pay for this
I just say what I want like I’m made for this
But I’m just afraid some days I might be wrong
Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along
Hey, not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming
Can’t contain the disdain for y’all demons
You talk clean and bomb hospitals
So I speak with the foulest mouth possible
And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical
I will not be confused for docile
I’m free, motherfuckers, I’m hostile
RTJ’s music is not just hostile, but also enlightening and socially conscious. They may have “become famous for flamin’ you fucks and maimin’ their way through the brush,” but if you take a few minutes to watch interviews of Killer Mike and El-P, one can tell that the duo who make up one of the most vitriolic rap groups today are gentle giants who create music as an outlet–a method to stay sane in an increasingly turbulent and infuriating world.
6 – Blond – Frank Ocean
These bitches want Nikes
They looking for a check
Tell ’em it ain’t likely
The first three lines of Frank Ocean’s through-the-roof anticipated sophomore album are a doozy. As a runner who only ever raced competitively in Nike spikes and as somebody who was seriously interested in Steve Prefontaine and his Coach’s revolutionary shoe technology, the opening track stood out. Frank decides to open his highly awaited album talking about materialistic wants and capitalist privilege. The same track ends with the lines, “I may be younger, but I look after you. We’re not in love, but I make love to you. When you’re not here I’ll save some for you. I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.” Frank Ocean is back, and his lusciously rich and soothing voice is here to remind you that life is complex and not always black and white.
Compared to his visionary Channel Orange, this album is the quieter of the two. It is more understated, and that works against him at times. While the album is a tad off with its pacing and a bit rambling, it is still a work of genius. Had it been another year, another planet, it would be number 1. That is true for a lot of albums, even those excluded from this list (my number 11 Solange’s A Seat At The Table, I am looking at you). While Blonde is a more subtle, less spectacular album than the one that came before it, it is symbolic of an artist who is four years older. He has changed, he has matured, he has decided who he is and who he will be in this moment. The weight of the world may be looming over him, but no matter, tortoises move at their own speed and are intelligent because of it. Frank Ocean put out an album that contains a savvy prescience eras ahead of its time. Knowledge is a precious thing, and while it is sometimes beneficial and sagacious to hand knowledge down cryptically, sometimes its better just to give it to us straight.
You cut your hair but you used to live a blinded life
Wish I was there, wish we had grown up on the same advice
And our time was right
5 – Rheia – Oathbreaker
Metal is another genre that up until five years ago I did not care for. I listened to loud music like Metallica and AFI, but that was the closest I got to black, goth or doom metal. Even then, bands like Oathbreaker are frowned upon by metal heads because they are too progressive and melodic. Like pioneers Deafheaven, Oathbreaker’s music will transition seamlessly from scream0-type severity to beauteous serene and atmospheric instrumentation. The arguments between camps unravel like so: “Why sully such a darkly beautiful thing?” the metal heads cry. “You call that beautiful? How dare you sully such an (actual) gorgeous thing!” the post-rock inclined Explosions in the Sky sympathizers cry.
The Belgian outfit from East Flanders are by no accident former label mates of Deafheaven, and their music is at times painfully full of sorrow and at others raging with pent up fury. Vocalist Caro Tanghe, delivering lyrics in English, manages to sound earnest, vulnerable, and caustically acidic all at once. People who so casually dismiss bands like Oathbreaker just because they scream are fallaciously ignoring an honest longing and are stubbornly refusing to be sympathetic. There is a reason why shoe gaze infused metal music is receiving so much acclaim these days, and it stems from the ability to deconstruct musical genres. Removing separate parts from metal, rock, shoe gaze, folk, etc in a broken fashion is reckless and ill-advised. In normal hands that would be the case. Good thing Oathbreaker organized those broken puzzle pieces and reassembled them to create and expand on something brilliant and new.
I listened to this album a lot this year, most repeatedly and ardently after the election. One of the predominant themes of Rheia is the idea that collective trauma is bearable through the act of processing it together and with akin feelings. One finds comfort and strength through shared experience. Rheia is an album ripe with pain and suffering, with dark lyrics, but it implores you to feel your feelings and work together with those who would be with you no matter the hardship. Work towards something better, together.
Hand out your troubles, give me your pain
I’ll plant them next to the thorns in my veins
Tie your limbs to my crippled life
Hang on, I’ll carry you around
4 – I Am Satan – Posture and the Grizzly
I listened to quite a bit of punk rock this year. Okay, backup–I embodied gluttony itself and engorged myself with angst-ridden, ear-hemorraging, feedback-filled, trepidatious and self-loathing rock music. In a year in which Blink-182 released their first album in four years and supplanted Drake to top the Billboard #1 album chart, I suppose this is okay.
Out of all the sublime punk rock albums to be released this year, I discovered Posture and the Grizzly by happenstance. They are very much an indie outfit who mostly perform in DIY spaces, such as basements of apartments rented out to struggling 20-something year olds. Their label, Broken World Media, is amazing, and I went to see sister band For Everest perform a house show in a basement in North Philadelphia (the ceiling was so low I had to bend my 6’2″ frame diagonally). There I spoke with the drummer, who is also in Posture and the Grizzly, I sensed that all of my questions about the music made him weary. I cannot blame him, my critic-like attitude and seemingly interrogative music fanatic attitude was probably the last thing he wanted to deal with at a punk rock house party.
Somewhere, somehow, we all fall in
And you’re bleeding out from all the stupid fucking shit
That everyone has to deal with
It’s a lesson learned in life
The New Yorker also happened to mention the band and how uncannily similar their lead singer, Jordan Chmielowski, sounds like Tom DeLonge, the former vocalist and guitarist of renowned afore mentioned pop-punk group Blink-182. Both do indeed dramatically and violently emphasize vowels when they sing, and while such crooning may come across as whiny and not actual singing, there is an alleviating aspect to the vocalist’s nasally approach. The lyrics and their delivery are like an anti-venom. Or more precisely, Posture and the Grizzly’s I Am Satan sucks poison from wounds. If you visualize the process, its a revolting image and not exactly a precise procedure, but it is life saving.
3 – Lemonade – Beyoncé
If you had asked me about Beyoncé a year ago today, I would have been beyond vocal in my praise for her self-titled (at the time) magnum opus. Hell, my inaugural post on this blog was a review of that album on its one year anniversary. Well, I am a passing white dude who is again put in his place by a tremendously powerful woman of color. Beyoncé proved me wrong when I thought her best work was behind her. And then some.
I am still very skeptical about Lemonade. It seems too voyeuristic to be genuine, too perfectly dramatic to be authentic. Ultimately, my thoughts mean nothing. This album’s successes speak for themselves, and the acclaim reaches a magnitude that is so immense that my opinion is inconsequential. Furthermore, the story itself is entertainment gold. This year I went through a tumultuous and devastating breakup, and whenever I listened to Lemonade, I could not help but draw comparisons. After dating the same person for almost four years, it was hard not to listen to most music within that context. The breaking and complete dismantling of a relationship is devastating. Thanks to Beyoncé, I am reminded that it is how you handle the aftermath that sets the stage for what is to come.
2 – Blackstar – David Bowie
Where the fuck did Monday go?
David Bowie released his final studio album on Friday, January 8. On Sunday, January 10, he died. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” was the line that made me cry when I first heard this album to completion on Monday, January 11. For Bowie, that Monday never happened.
But it did. That bleak Monday was a catalyst, and unbeknownst to the world, David Bowie set the tone for a tumultuous, death-ridden year. Even if one did not personally and directly deal with death in 2016, one read or heard about it constantly. Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Richard Adams, John Glenn, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Patty Duke, Anton Yelchin, Leonard Cohen, Harper Lee, Ashraf Pahlavi, Muhammed Ali, Nancy Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Juan Gabriel, Arnold Palmer, Miruts Yifter, Carrie Fisher…
Carrie Fisher, the woman who singlehandedly laid the groundwork for my feminist doctrine, died of heart attack complications. The following day her mother, Debbie Reynolds and Singing in the Rain star died. How on earth must Billie Lourde–Fisher’s daughter and Ms. Reynolds’ granddaughter–feel?
Seeing more and feeling less
I learned more about myself this year than ever before, which I suppose makes sense as I am one year older, and one year wiser. Anybody who has read The Giver, however, knows this is not always a good thing, and sometimes knowing more is too much to handle, and as a defense mechanism one draws within oneself. Silence, nothingness, absence of emotion…sometimes that is better than feeling anything at all.
David Bowie knew that, and when he was diagnosed with cancer and came to terms with his own mortality, I am sure he wanted to feel nothing. Dealing with death is traumatic, but Bowie turned to his ultimate form of therapy–music. Like the greatest classical composer of all time, Bowie composed his own requiem and in the process transformed his passing into a therapeutic and enduring work of art, one that will forever remind us that death too can be beautiful.
1 – Sirens – Nicolas Jaar
My cousin Lucas was riding his bike home from the dentist in Santiago, Chile. He was hit by a truck, thrown onto the sidewalk, and died of massive thoracic trauma. He was 23. He had just graduated law school. He was everyone’s favorite cousin, because he was the kindest person you could possibly meet and got along with everyone. My sister and Mami flew down to be there for everyone, while I spent the following four days mourning with the rest of my stateside family. I thought about changing the tickets for my planned February trip, but elected not to. I will celebrate Lucas’ life with everyone then.
Nicolas Jaar is–like myself–Chilean-American, and I cannot emphasize enough the profound impact his music has on me personally. It is not just the similar cultural background, Nico’s second studio album, Sirens, is emotionally devastating, transcendently cathartic, and majestically complex.
That was how I described this album before Lucas died. Now nothing I say or do will convey the depth of feeling and describe my now absolute and essential relationship with Sirens.
I found my broken bones by the side of the road
I found my broken home by the side of the road
I found my broken lens by the side of the road
I found my broken friends on the side of the road
Those lyrics (taken from track 6, “Three Sides of Nazareth”) are now especially tough to stomach and are one of the most literal and explicit examples of how my feelings towards this album has shifted. The biggest changes are mostly implicit and allegorical, however, and the best art in the world provokes intense emotions without being crassly unambiguous. Nicolas Jaar’s sophomore album–while subtly yet immensely political–is deliciously ambiguous and can be interpreted in many ways. Nico is a DJ who is widely praised for his prodigious skill and knack for making layered and amazingly complex music, but this time he has outdone himself. Some may find it boring, others too pretentious and artsy, but Sirens is a masterful and stunning work of brilliance.
Music can be cathartic, and my favorite way to deal with tragedy and anxiety is to listen to music that makes me feel my emotions and reflect on their meaning. This year, no album did a better job in helping me cope with horrific and incomprehensible tragedy. No album made me appreciate my life and loved ones more. No album did a better job in forcing me to confront my fears. No album so eloquently reminded me to learn from past mistakes, nor was any other album so powerfully alleviating. No other album was so empathetic, so bleak, so tender, so political, so personal, so innocent, so perspicacious, so soothing, so unforgiving, so complex, so gentle. Sirens is all of those things and more, simultaneously. As overwhelming as that sounds, it never is. It is omniscient, loving, and never forgotten.