Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

Top 50 Albums of 2016

on November 28, 2016, 12:00am
view all

ANOHNI05. ANOHNI – Hopelessness

For protest music to be truly impactful, it needs to make the listener uncomfortable, urging them to action. On Hopelessness, ANOHNI, the auteur formerly of Antony and the Johnsons, uses her powerful, operatic voice to construct a harsh vision of our society, issuing a dire warning for the future. ANOHNI barrels forward on a righteous path of destruction, taking on climate change, drone warfare, the hostile reaction to globalism, and the surveillance state. Everyone is held accountable, from herself to President Obama. Reinforcing ANOHNI’s urgency is the heightened melodrama of the production, the result of the maximalism of Hudson Mohawke clashing with the hyperkinetic experimentation of Oneohtrix Point Never. Between psychosexual voyeurism to feminist theory about our connection to the Earth, ANOHNI issued a scathing indictment of how we got here. Utilizing extremism, ANOHNI dares to imagine a world where self-reflection causes citizens to unite against cycles of violence and the destruction of our ecosystem. An album that grows more prescient by the day, Hopelessness is the sound of the realization that it might be too late. –David Sackllah

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

Frank Ocean04. Frank Ocean – Blonde

It just seems patently unfair that the metric Blonde might never escape is whether it was worth the wait. The underlying assumptions are insulting: Frank Ocean as entertainer instead of human being, four years as protracted delay instead of artistic gestation period, music as obligation instead of gift. The world hungered for Ocean’s talent and voice, an appetite that turned into entitlement. It’s just as well then that Ocean gave us an album that meanders as if oblivious to expectations. On Blonde, there are few stable drumbeats, some indulgent interludes (“Facebook Story” is the album’s biggest misstep), oddly paced tracks, and unpredictable guest appearances (head nods to a masterful André 3000 and Beyoncé, in the background but in her element). But Blonde is nothing if not beautiful. Ocean’s voice — ”That’s a pretty fuckin’ fast year flew by,” “You see me like a UFO” — cuts through the haze with enthralling suddenness and clarity. Blonde is an album to luxuriate in, one that gives up little secrets when you thought you’d worn it out. Frank Ocean made Blonde to last. –Karen Gwee

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

David Bowie

03. David Bowie –

He was ready. In a year of immense darkness, we needed an album like , a record that reminds us that death is not the all-encompassing conclusion that it may seem. Upon its release, felt like a bold new statement, a jazz and electronic-addled labyrinth. David Bowie’s meticulously coordinated commotion, somehow crushing and atmospheric, a cocoon of life. We had all our information logged and saved for quite sometime; Bowie was sick and suddenly befriending mortality in a way that made you feel alive. But his death two days after the album’s release unearthed new layers of meaning within that maze — layers avowing both the depth of darkness that his disease entailed and the transcendence that only an artist like Bowie can summon. We thought we were ready.

By and large, these songs glow from the core, built with an underlying, unabashed sense of accession. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings on “Lazarus”. “I’m dying to, I’m trying to,” he yearns on “Dollar Days”. “I know something is very wrong,” he adds on “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. The songs feel mortality around the corner and reject it, embrace it, and ignore it at turns, as Bowie leads the way through concentric circles of meaning. To achieve that, he returns to his most iconic instrument: his voice, which soars, sours, cracks, and burns to convey the entirety of his circuitous career in one voyage. And much like Bowie himself, the complex riffs and rhythms yet carry many idiosyncratic twists waiting to be discovered. Meant as a mournful requiem and an anthem of acceptance, positioning death as a rueful reminder that we all still have a chance to live. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

Chance the Rapper

02. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

There have been plenty of theories discussing Chance the Rapper’s album covers — from 10 Day to Acid Rap to Coloring Book, telling a story from his skyward intentions, his head-on assessment of the world, and his look back at the ground now that he’s risen to the stars. More to the point, in an interview with The Fader, artist Brandon Breaux revealed that he captured that loving look on Chance’s face by having him hold his baby daughter.

Coloring Book beams with pride, love, joy, passion. As much gospel as rap, the mixtape rightfully spawned a Magnificent Coloring World Tour, a Magnificent Coloring Day festival, and the immersive Magnificent Coloring World event. The latter was a listening party experience in which Chance invited listeners into a magical listening party full of candy, coloring, dancing, carnival games — and, more importantly, the power and beauty of African-American culture even in the face of a dark environment like Chance’s violence-riddled Chicago, or, hell, the oppressive, racist state of the country today. Even in the face of all this darkness, Chance finds salvation in love, in God, in music, in friends, in family. And it’s infectious: He’s the kind of guy that can threaten to give Satan a swirlie in a rap track and call for smiles rather than eye-rolls.

From the gleefully independent “No Problems” to the Chicago-tastic “Angels” to the spiritual “Blessings”, from twisty wordplay to pure musical elation, Coloring Book feels like having Chance’s beneficial smile beam right into your heart. As the many tragedies, pains, deaths, frustrations, atrocities, and insanities of 2016 have unfolded, nothing has been as comforting, inspiring, and life-affirming as Coloring Book. Happily, Chance the Rapper backs that all up with charitable work, putting good into the world. But if the mixtape stood entirely on its own, it would be a strong enough contribution to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being of the world to look to Chance for years to come as an inspiration and friend. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

Beyonce

01. Beyoncé – Lemonade

On a November night so cold I could see my breath, I looked up at the looming Trump Tower in Manhattan and wondered if the pain would ever go away. A small, disorganized group of protesters milled about around me, signs half raised, chants a little muffled. Some seemed confused as to what to do next while others looked too tired from having marched and shouted all day. In that moment, I have to admit it all felt a little uninspiring. As I began to make my way out of the crowd, an old, black woman pushed past me. She had an eagerness about her I hadn’t yet come across that evening.

Seeing her enthusiasm, two younger women who were supplying materials for signs approached her and asked if she wanted to make one herself. She didn’t hesitate, and I watched as she hurriedly scribbled “Donald Trump is a Pussy Grabber!” on a piece of construction paper while telling those nearby, “He ain’t grabbing my pussy! He ain’t grabbing my pussy!” She laughed, and we smiled, amused but also sincerely delighted by her passion. It’s like she’d been waiting forever for this moment and knew exactly what she wanted to say.

For the next 45 minutes, I stood beside this woman. She was thin, likely in her early sixties, and looked a bit fragile. But when it came time to hoist up her sign and yell, she seemed invincible. Even as others’ words were drowned out by New York’s noise, hers rang out clearly. When multiple chants were being orchestrated from various sections of the crowd, she joined in them all. “Not my president! My choice, my body! Black lives matter!”

I got the sense that she was really fighting for something and that her sign, which now was nearly torn down the middle from excitement, represented so much more than the phrase written across it. Sometimes her timing would be off and she’d end up yelling all by herself, but she didn’t mind it one bit. It appeared she was familiar with the burden of having to speak out against forces that encourage submission. She seemed to know what it was like to have to resist a broken system; to heal and will oneself strength after being wronged; to carry on with a cause till its last breath. Despite a tepid group of protesters, she still looked so happy to have found some form of solidarity, grateful for the opportunity to have her voice heard. This one woman single-handedly changed the energy around us — things finally felt alive and purposeful.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade was made for people like the woman I encountered that night. Though hers is a narrative about heartache — supposedly at the hands of her adulterous husband, Jay Z — she speaks a universal language of tremendous human struggle. In particular the strife of black women, “the most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X (who was sampled on Lemonade) once famously said. Beyoncé’s betrayal, healing, and rebirth are theirs, too, and it’s a story as old as time.

Like her “Formation” music video, the visual accompaniment of Lemonade immediately highlights Beyoncé’s ancestry. There are scenes featuring Louisiana plantations, West African religious rituals, and people covered in Yoruba paint. It’s a prideful showing of her blackness, but also bittersweet given the exploitation she and generations of her family have suffered. The music itself also quickly illustrates this mistreatment. On the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-sampling “Hold Up”, she sings, “To ever feel this worthless/ How did it come down to this?” She’s calling out the philandering father of her child as well as those who’ve chosen to question the value and place of the black woman. It’s hardly an issue from the days of slavery; if you’ll recall, Trump and his surrogates have cut the pop singer down countless times this year. Also, her recent, now-controversial Country Music Awards performance brought out some of the vilest, most hateful bigots. To say that seeing Beyoncé simply destroy shit with a baseball bat in the song’s visual component is cathartic would be a massive understatement. A million cars couldn’t stand the weight of her pain.

It’s not unheard of for disenfranchised people to blame themselves, believing that the fault is somehow with them, but Beyoncé isn’t falling for that evil, psychological trick. On the next couple of tracks, her wounds seep anger and retaliation as she reasserts her worth. “I ain’t sorry,” she says on “Sorry”, in a tone that’s the equivalent of a cold shrug. “I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up.” Later on the Jack White-assisted blues rocker “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she’s got nothing but rage coursing through her veins: “Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.”

At the end of the day, Beyoncé advocates for the protection and respect of black lives. The last third or so of Lemonade suggests the key to accomplishing that can be found through healing, rebirth, and solidarity. “True love breathes salvation back into me, with every tear came redemption/ And my torturer became my remedy,” she sings during the euphoric exhale of “All Night”. Penultimate song “Freedom” is a powerful anthem in which Beyoncé deals with her oppression by staring it in the face and resisting. She’s born anew, stronger and more convicted than ever. “I break chains all by myself,” she boasts with a voice like fire, not unlike the flames that lit up her blazing BET Awards performance). Accompanying her on the track is none other than the mighty King Kendrick Lamar, whose masterful To Pimp a Butterfly dealt with similar topics on blackness in America.

While “Formation” was the only single to preface Lemonade, its placement as the final song is perfect. As a closing note, Beyoncé issues a call to arms and asks that black women stand together, own their blackness, and defy the forces that seek to abuse and enslave them. “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama,” she touts, later directing, “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation!” It’s no coincidence she sported Black Panther-style garb during her performance of the song at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show or repeatedly showed her support for the Black Lives Matter movement — Beyoncé is ready to make sure the invisible are seen and heard, ready to reclaim her humanity and body, much like that woman outside of Trump Tower who refused to be silenced. –Michelle Geslani

Buy: Amazon
__________________________________________________________

view all
69 comments