Staff Picks: Zo's 16 Best Albums of 2016
2016, you cruel, sadistic beast: you took frequently and relentlessly, swallowed legend after legend whole, no remorse. Yet some might argue (read: this guy) that you've plugged as many holes in our as our hearts have sustained. Which is to say, the love you took was almost equal to the love you made. Actually, never mind all that. 2016, with the exception of the notes that poured out of your wounds, you were absolute garbage. And we deserved better at the onset of a new regime that happens to be led by one of the most hateful orange men to have ever walked the planet. Luckily, our favorite artists gave us heaps to heal with.
And they did so with more nuance/less regard for conventional album formats than ever. Between Kanye's concerted chaos, Frank's mountain of mixed media and Beyonce's audiovisual bomb, the album as we know it is simply no more. Stripped of its crown, and its limits. Three of the most commercially successful releases of the year were brought to us by independent artists, another sign that the landscape is shifting and revealing new paths for the modern musician, free of corporate strings. The church proved to me a reliable, self-replenishing source, and no one was shy about tapping in.
So, needless to say, 2016's got us in a funk. And the sad reality of it is that 2017 probably won't be the cap on it. But with the sheer breadth of quality releases the year's seen, our year-end superlative process is as complicated as ever (discussions that already demand the full tank of our emotional capacities) And seeing as how it's best albums o' clock across the internets, pulses are racing at the prospect of duking it out over who did what and which was better. But we're not here for blood. So this year, as you've seen from my comrades Kevin Clark and Elijah Watson already, we're introducing another first to our end-of-year programming. Namely, individual staff picks for best albums of the year.
None of these lists (including our forthcoming group list) are meant be taken as anything definitive. That's a hard sell no matter the outlet. Rather, these are the albums that got us through the perpetual heartbreak of 2016. Only because if there was ever such thing as a truly transformative year, 2016 you were it. And for that we have to thank you, though we won't miss you for a second. So on to 2017, a year poised to be somehow even more devastating than the last. A year where I stop telling you things you already know about records you've already heard. This list reflects precisely that promise. These are my favorite albums of the worst year in modern human history. They fortified me, helped me feel. Hope you'll find that solace.
1. Frank Ocean - Blond(e)
By summer 2016, many were convinced Frank was done with us. Both he and we had respective gripes. All reasoned, though disheartening nonetheless. Then "two versions" turned into two albums and a gorgeous blown-up zine in just two days. It was an inundation. Endless, the visual album preceding Blond(e) might have been enough, honestly. 40 some odd minutes of Frank proving over and over that he (and r&b itself) is not to be defined or held to any schedule unless the definition and timetable are his (its) own. I'll argue that one of the year's best verses by any MC takes shelter in that shifty bed of loose and moody cuts. Blond(e), however, is a creature apart. On the second of his two 2016 releases, Frank hops out the woodshop and into the driver's seat for a tour of his worldly exploits, a psychedelic slideshow capturing years of growth and heartbreak one memory at a time, sometimes all at once. His voice more polished and painfully gorgeous than ever. His recollections deeply intimate and pristinely vivid. Blond(e) was not the album we were expecting. And if Frank has it his way (he will) we’ll never see him coming again.
2. NxWorries - Yes Lawd!
Even before Anderson .Paak began his 2016 heroics, he had a major hit on his hands with "Suede," a true-to-its-name slow-burner fit for kush-kissed rides in the cadillac. The track was produced by Knxwledge, a recent Stones Throw signee with a taste for luscious soul loops and fucked up drums, and marked the commencement of a new era in Stones Throw duos. NxWorries, as they came to be called, would eventually bloom with a six-track EP, followed by the full-length Yes, Lawd!, unveiling a pimp-talking and butter-smooth .Paak persona almost diametrically opposite to the heart-warming, lovelorn one heard on Malibu. This .Paak only needs an L and a cold cuban funk flip to fuck up your #relationshipgoals. But no matter which of the two is the "real" .Paak, Yes Lawd! proves to be a triumph for both MC and producer. Both clearly just beginning their respective and joined journeys into the hearts of heads.
3. Solange - A Seat At The Table
Not sure if anything hit me as hard as A Seat At The Table did in this most dreadful year. But truth is I needed it, and badly. It's a rare record that speaks directly to our devastations and the emotional costs of it all, provides not only an outlet for them, but a means of processing. With heartfelt footnotes from Mama Knowles and Master P, Solange's latest gracefully suggests power and beauty in the simple act of getting mad. And there's a lot to be mad about. It's the What's Going On of 2016 and well beyond, a template for how to ask simple questions that demand thorough responses. Merely coping is no longer enough.
4. Francis and The Lights - Farewell, Starlite!
If you'd never heard of Francis Starlite before 2016, we couldn't possibly hold you accountable. The man is a question wrapped in a lux choir of his own electrified vocal clones. The years since his aptly-titled debut EP, Striking, have seen him collaborate with Drake, support MGMT and Mark Ronson on tour, score a critically-acclaimed sci-fi comedy and join Chance The Rapper's Social Experiment, contributing to Chano's deceptively dark in memoriam. He's found fans and friends in Benny Blanco, Justin Vernon and Kanye West, all of which contributed to his stellar 2016 project, Farewell, Starlite! The guest list is impressive, no doubt, but the record's so much more than Starlite warming his hands by the homies' fire. It's the cumulative product of nearly a decade's labor (of love,) a contortion of pop's rigid structures, bending them to the will of 90s r&b licks and sprawled-out synth beds on ballads that mourn time's ruthlessness and lovelorn funk frolics, equally ripe for that top-down cruise into the sunset. The type of record scores your most head-over-heals moments. It also happens to hold one of the year's most uplifting hymns within ("Friends.") You may not have known his name going into 2016, but you'll have a tough time forgetting it coming out.
5. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
Presuming that many of you have lost your faith in Yeezus by now. Perfectly fine, reasonable even. But if the album as we know it is no more, Kanye's to blame. And it maybe his biggest creative feet to date. Pablo is pure, unhinged, probably-off-his-meds madness. And despite the god complex, it's deeply human. Slightly off-kilter, but a new kind of long-form musical body that lives and breathes with its helmer, offering a rare glance into the gears that grind inside of a mind you can't stand to love so much. Another case of having to distance art from artist, and observe them as respective forces; a common symptom of history's most revered works. Oddly enough, with its crutching of gospel and church-tuned musicians, Pablo almost feels like a confessional, an attempt to absolve himself of fame's ills. Maybe he his is still mourning. But Ye's most penetrating work has always been the product of sorrowful alchemy, the pursuit of benediction. Throw in rare collaborations with some of Stones Throw's finest, and you've got the best of both Kanye's, new and old, treating the album as a freshly-unholy thing.
6. Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!
Let the record show that "Awaken, My Love!" was the year's toughest sell from one of its most charming and versatile entertainers. A polarizing record for anyone with reverence for its source material, the success of Bino's third studio album, like those that came before it, will not be determined by a critic's keyboard. It bends and shifts into its borrowed sonic era like The Mothership in a turbulent turn towards the wormhole faking the funk at no point in its 49-minute runtime of Parliament flag flying, garnering the blessing of Starchild himself. My Love acknowledges the greats and builds around the altar, finding new spaces to slip into; an album that forces even the most stone-set snobs to take their heroes off the pedestal and just enjoy what's before them.
7. David Bowie - ★
No one could have imagined that Bowie's exit could be as theatrical as his entire existence. ★, released the day before his death, is a stout and shockingly self-aware album that leans heavy on jazz fusions and freakouts. It's not an easy listen, even for those well-versed in Bowie-isms and jazz's stranger applications. But it's a fitting (and final) note from one of music's most brilliantly eccentric minds living out his last days on record, sharing those fleeting moments with us all as he heads to the horizon.
8. Kaytranada - 99.9%
Said it before and I'll say it a thousand times more: Kaytranada is what happens when a devout Dilla and Madlib disciple applies his teachings to four-to-the-floor house. The result is a universal groove that hits as hard as his kick drops. 99.9% is the crystallization of this; a record that builds its own party wherever the hell you hear it. Where jazz heads like Karriem Riggins and new school soul stars like Syd can all get some. If Kaytranada was once king of the cloud, with his debut album, he's earned a title even more regal. But we'll have to stop dancing to "LITE SPOTS" before we can determine precisely what that is. So yeah, it could be a while.
9. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Always found it odd when people claimed Justin Vernon, principle creative force behind Bon Iver, was making his Kanye album. Vernon’s vocal experiments are front and center on just about every record he’s touched since 2008. Though prior albums were on some weird and wild folk shit that basically flew over my head, when I heard Kanye's chorus of auto-tune wrap around "Lost In The Woods," it wasn't a far leap to assume that Vernon's glow had been felt, and was already making a lasting impression. On his latest, 22, A Million, Vernon bursts through the folk fold with stunning explorations of purple and paisley pop, his "Messina" vocal effect humanizing charged choirs, buzzing and growling over and under devastatingly beautiful ballads.
10. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
Rap's golden child was nothing short of exemplary in 2016. Did as he pleased, pleased countless with what he did. Led the first successful charge for independent artists in ages and did all of it with the most spirited outing of the year. But truth is, Coloring Book didn't take for me at the jump. Its seemingly impossible joyfulness was hardly relatable. Didn't see that kind of light in the world (or at least couldn't.) Not until seeing the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille within days of one another, the year's absolute nadir, did I understand purpose in a record so elated and confident and overtly idealistic. Coloring Book's light reveals itself in our darkest moments. What a gift that is.
11. Noname - Telefone
There was a moment this past weekend where Noname joined her fellow Chicagoan, Chance The Rapper, onstage for a performance of "Same Drugs" on Saturday Night Live. She delivers her verse, sings the hook and gingerly smiles while shuffling stage right off the screen. Basically the physical embodiment of her stunningly delicate debut album; playful and soothing as it grapples with more agony than any young heart should bear. Her voice cool, her head cocked, her disposition redemptive. It's adoration and indictment of/for her hometown to the tune of a post-Dilla acid trip in church, led by one of Chicago's warmest new voices and a brilliant regime of musicians (Saba, Cam O'bi and more.)
12. MNDSGN - BODY WASH
For years now we've only known Ringgo Ancheta, BKA MNDSGN, for his boogie-blessed beat suites. Warm synthesizers that lay over lo-fidelity drum programs with the occasional warbled croon. BODY WASH, his second studio album with Stones Throw, picks up right where "Camelblues" drops off; syrupy straight ahead r&b grooves laced with just enough of that interplanetary funksmanship to make it feel real and seductive. Here Ancheta proves he can pen a hook with the best of 'em allowing his voice to drive slinky melodies that have always been buried in his compositions, but are now full-bloom and articulated. BODY WASH lays the type of foundation that makes you a go-to. Which is to say, I would not be surprised if MNDSGN's 2017 plays out like Anderson .Paak's 2016.
13. Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
With his third studio album as Blood Orange, Dev Hynes rails on politics and identity with poise and polish. Dense and sprawled out all at once, it's easy to lump Freetown Sound in with some of the decade's most acclaimed protest records. But there's an air of tranquility that underscores Hynes' latest outing, where he's frontman and shadowed curator, a vehicle for punctured prayers, spoken-word warrants and lovelorn laments. And while the notes don't explicitly quote his father's hometown haunts, they yearn for that connection. Freetown Sound bridges generational and geographic distances with plush pop ballads and terminally funky '80s riffs, maintaining its sharpness and intended destination all the way through. And it's a helluva ride.
14. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
The year really was a tale of two .Paaks, but Malibu was the one that set the ship on course. Where NxWorries was a dynamic duo at work, .Paak's first of two stud performances was success by committee. Particularly those producer's already cemented as hip-hop's elite (Madlib, Hi-Tek, 9thWonder.) But versatility's been the Oxnard-native's key to stardom, and Malibu provides warm, fertile ground for him stunt with his malleable rasp. .Paak's pen game proves to be outrageously intricate, scrawling meditations on strife, spirituality, excess and despair. But that's only one side of this coin. The other, a rare caliber of musicianship, as raw as it is refined. Throw in a seductive dance-floor-ready Kaytranada collaboration and Malibu is easily amongst the year's most alluring releases.
15. NAO - For All We Know
NAO's come a long way since stepping out with A.K. Paul on the potent introduction "So Good." The arrival of For All We Know nearly two years later, finds the cross-ponder's lilt adorning 18 tracks of blistering, phased-for-days r&b and disco grooves. First half of the record is dedicated to the two-stepper in you, dotted with demos and high-voltage funk frolics. Paul resurfaces on the steamy mid-tempo heater "Trophy," but his influence is felt across the board with razor-sharp six-string strikes punctuating NAO's squalls and shouts throughout. As far as the year's standout debut's are concerned, the conversation will always be incomplete without For All We Know's mention. And in the era of trapped-out romance records, NAO's more than a refreshing chaser, redefining just what r&b's capable of along with just about every artist on this list. Safe to say, the future's in good hands.
16. Travis Scott - Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
Whereas many of the year's finest outings decided to scrap any notion of the album as we know it, Kanye's protege went with his gut and basically made the trap-era Thriller. Birds In The Trap is so seeped in back-to-back bangers that you're likely to toss any preconceptions of who or what he is. La Flame's auto-tuned-to-death hooks may seem a bit sterile, but I'll be damned if they don't make for the perfect accompaniment to all of the bad decisions you'll ever make, straight-edged or stoned out of your gourd. Yes, some tracks feel like Scott is just conjuring up sequels to all of his favorite songs with the artists they are known for (Kid Cudi, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar and more) but even with the string of part twos, Birds In The Trap is the year's most mindlessly enjoyable record.