By: Drew Cowen, Daniel Slattery, Marissa Walker, Brendan Callan
Edited By: Wayne Epps Jr.
Albums shouldn’t be ranked or compared to one another. Ever. Everyone has their own particular music pallets and I think we forget that sometimes. Not saying all albums are created equally, but how do you compare the works of a neo-soul artist to one of a loud rock band? You can’t. So here at WXJM we created our own top albums of 2016 to show you what we’re feeling this year.
Car Seat Headrest: “Teens of Denial”
This album was on repeat in my car the entire summer, so I might carry with it the biased nostalgia of warmer weather. But I don’t care, it is fantastic nonetheless. The desperate need to be recognized as an individual is captured excellently in these lyrics. Whether a song is about clinical depression, a bad drug trip or even a topic as trivial as never being told how to use a tube amp, Will Toledo is able to apply the amount of empathy into his lines that truly forces some personal understanding of the work. A connection is formed with a singer you’ve never met, which is the kind of ish I live for. I am almost convinced that Will Toledo has potential to be our generation’s Bob Dylan, at least in terms of the massive quantities of work he is able to output and the sheer quality found in most of it.
Parquet Courts: “Human Performance”
The best “noisy-indie-rock-slightly-punk-in-ethos” band
around! I think “Dust” is my favorite song this year. Andrew Savage captures the anxiety that can be expressed through something as seemingly harmless as dust. “It
sneaks in ignored/It stacks up around/It follows, now swallow/You're biting it now.” I love it when mental illness is addressed so flawlessly and through such a brief vignette. And oh my God, the sweeping sound of a broom in synch with the snare drum … perfect.
Tiny Moving Parts: “Celebrate”
If you have yet to see a video of Tiny Moving Parts performing
live, stop what you’re doing, look up the Audiotree performance of “Always Focused” and gape as guitarist/vocalist
Dylan Mattheisen frantically shouts, strums and taps into an essence of pure emo/math rock bliss. I only romanticize because I care. This album is loud and fun and
sad, but the good kind of sad where the prospect of getting better is just around the corner.
-Drew Cowen, Loud Rock Director
Anderson .Paak: “Malibu”
This album was so unique that I still consider it to be the album of the year, despite it coming out in January. This album expertly blended neo-soul and hip-hop into its own style that helped it stand out, especially in a year that was crowded with other types of rap and R&B music. Anderson .Paak doesn’t waste a single song on this, bringing in a lot of quality features and producers, including Schoolboy Q, Kaytranada and Talib Kweli. Every song on the album deserves to be on it, and the lack of any filler, despite the album’s 16-track length, make this my most played album of this year.
Saba: “Bucket List Project”
This album was my favorite Chicago-based project of the year, despite having a crowded field of projects from other amazing rappers from Chicago, like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Vic Mensa, Joey Purp and Mick Jenkins. A lot of great rappers have one weakness, whether that be bad hooks, bad production or an uninspiring flow and delivery, but Saba combines all the elements that make a good hip-hop track into every song on this album. As common with the albums released by other Chicago rappers this year, Saba brings awareness and personal experiences to important issues that affect him, and makes them relatable and optimistic. Overall, he succeeds in creating a very cohesive album that has a lingering theme of people listing items on their bucket lists, and that helps contribute to his optimistic approach.
Blood Orange: “Freetown Sound”:
Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) combines a lot of elements into his music, including phenomenal background vocals from artists like Nelly Furtado and Carly Rae Jepsen, and great instrument usage, that he did all on his own, to create a phenomenal album. The album blurs genre lines, since it includes some elements of pop, R&B, hip-hop and electronic. This album sends a message that is relevant to today’s political climate, without relying too much on the message, and instead letting the music do the talking.
A Tribe Called Quest: “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
Continuing the trend of long albums that are well worth their length, A Tribe Called Quest fits socially conscious and political messages in its songs that feel very timely. The contributions from many great artists, like Anderson .Paak, Andre 3000, Jack White, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and many more help this album feel like a great one that utilizes the talents of its features, while also feeling very much like a Tribe album. The untimely death of Tribe member Phife Dawg makes his posthumous lyrical contributions on the album stand out even more, and the album serves as a great reminder of his, and the rest of Tribe’s, legacy.
Noname : “Telefone”
Just like Saba, Noname creates a great album that focuses on her personal experiences and has a happy atmosphere, despite its lyrical content not being as happy. In a move that is like Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo,” Noname brought together a lot of people to help her produce a cohesive album that fits the mood that she was trying to convey. Her lyricism, combined with the production and hook and rap support from her friends like Saba, Phoelix and Cam O’bi, help her make a project that highlights her experiences while also highlighting the contributions of her friends.
Solange: “A Seat At The Table”
Solonge’s third studio was everything is was supposed to be. Raw and beautiful, the younger Knowles sister gave us an album depicting rage, sadness, happiness, pride, joy and black womanhood. Every song flowed perfectly with the one before — so well you might not be able to realize that the next song was playing. Knowles created an auricular masterpiece while managing to tell the incredible stories of Percy Miller, her parents and herself, all wrapped up into an indie R&B package.
Mac Miller: “The Divine Feminine”
Mac Miller changed up the game on us … again. If you were paying attention last year you would’ve peeped that Mac stepped up his instrumentation game along with his flow. You also should’ve noticed more R&B elements present than before. Mac took all that and more and created the Divine Feminine. It’s evident that Mac has been in love and wants the world to know it. He spends the majority of the album somewhat crooning over neo-R&B beats while reminding us he’s one of the industry’s most underrated creatives. While the mellow album kind of mushes altogether, Mac still found a way to reinvent his sound while maturing his content, creating a fantastic fall record.
Not sure about how much Rihanna had to do with her eighth album, but whatever the process was, she should stick to it. Anti felt like the first time in Rihanna’s career where she had a connection to her music. Unlike the majority of her discography, she left behind the pop/EDM and embraced a mellow, urban vibe, which may have cost her on Billboard, but won her new fans. Her lead single “Work” was probably one of the best singles of year, with the singer back to her Caribbean roots, similar to her “Music of the Sun” album. Fenty furthered the awesomeness of the album with a Tame Impala cover on which she changed nothing, making it as perfect as the original. Rihanna ultimately grew as an artist with a more complex sound and maturity in content of this album.
Kaytranada showed his ass on his debut album “99%”. Working under his personal theory that most electronic DJs and pop artists don’t blend well, the Canadian producer brought in hip-hop and R&B artists to help his project. Nobody disappointed. Even Craig David, who’s returning to work after a hiatus, had an incredible feature that would suggest he hasn’t missed anything in his absence. Other amazing features that aren’t necessarily under R&B and hip-hop tags include Little Dragon, AlunaGeorge and BadBadNotGood, and they killed it as well. Kaytranada managed to master collaboration with multiple artists from different genres while creating a smooth but upbeat neo-soul project.
Isaiah Rashad: “The Sun’s Tirade”
After pushbacks and other uncertainties, Isaiah Rashad gave us the perfect fall project with “The Sun’s Tirade.” While the subject matter hasn’t changed from substance abuse issues and family troubles like Rashad’s 2014 project “Cilvia Demo,” his sound has. This project is bluesier and more laid back than his previous work. Rashad is fighting his demons through 17-tracks while reminding us that he can probably spit better than your fav. Rashad keeps his southern twang to his sound even with heavier voice modulations on some tracks. Oddly, like most urban artists in 2016, the album meshes together, but in the most tranquil of ways.
-Marissa Walker, Urban/Rpm Director
Kendrick Lamar: “untitled unmastered”
Kendrick Lamar surprised fans and the music industry on March 4, 2016 with the release of “untitled unmastered” with practically no promotion and almost exactly a year after the release of his groundbreaking, unapologetic and socially conscious “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Many credit the release of the album to a tweet from Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, begging for the CEO of the record label Top Dawg Entertainment, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, to release Lamar’s untitled tracks after Kendrick’s captivating performance at the Grammys. While variations and/or full versions of these songs were performed at the 2016 Grammys and late night talk shows such as “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and “The Colbert Report,” recorded versions had never been heard and fans were overjoyed.
Blood Orange: "Freetown Sound"
Devonté Hynes (the artist and songwriter going by the moniker “Blood Orange”) opens his album, “Freetown Sound,” with a gospel choir accompanied by jazz instrumentation on the track “By Ourselves”. About a minute into the song, Ashlee Haze grabs the listener’s ears, unapologetically delivering her captivating poem “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem),” a poem on black female representation in the media. Haze’s moving monologue sets the socially aware and moving tone for the rest of the album. On the song “Hands Up,” Dev Hynes sings on the chorus, “Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?/(Hands up, get out, hands up, get out) / Keep your hood off when you're walking cause they/(Hands up, get out, hands up, get out),” using the melancholy synth and drums playing behind him to make his lyrics concerning police brutality against African-Americans stand out to the listener. Hynes also includes in the chorus the lyrics, “Sure enough they’re gonna take your body/(Hands up, get out, hands up, get out),” a possible reference to author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates writes a letter to his teenage son, Samori, describing the structural racism working against African-Americans, specifically concerning the police force who, in the words of Coates “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” Coates goes on to say, “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.” Hynes samples Coates on his song “Love Ya,” in which Coates describes the racism facing minorities in the conflict many minorities go through on deciding what to wear. Hynes quotes Coates stating, “How was I gonna wear my pants? What shoes was I going to wear?” When asked in an interview about the Coates sample, Hynes said, “That’s definitely intentional”.
At the end of “Hands Up,” Hynes samples protesters chanting “Hands Up/Don’t Shoot!”, a phrase used by the Black Lives Matter movement, which Hynes sampled from from the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. Hynes, commenting on “Hands Up” and his song “Sandra’s Smile” (a song not on the album, but one that is a tribute to Sandra Bland, a black woman found dead in a Texas jail cell after being physically harassed and detained for a minor traffic violation) said, “When I was writing those songs I remember thinking that people weren’t really writing songs like this, but now that these sorts of songs are coming out it really makes me happy.” On the record as a whole, Hynes said, “I think of this record as [being] fully aware of, ‘Yeah, my life is in danger on a daily basis,’” but using that as strength to rise up and stand tall and be proud of who you are and accept who you are.”
Angel Olsen: “My Woman”
Angel Olsen’s “My Woman” showcases her powerful and beautiful voice, captivating songwriting and guitar playing that’s as sharp and unforgiving as her lyrics. The album flows seamlessly. At the start, “Intern” introduces ambient synths and a variety of catchy hooks that add for replay value. Olsen follows with “Never Be Mine,” gradually building up the energy and leaving you dancing to the waltzing drums, debating with yourself whether her guitar solos or chorus is catchier. “Shut Up Kiss Me” kicks the album into overdrive and showcases how powerful Olsen is as a songwriter. The intensity of the song captivates the listener and leaves them replaying the song over and over again. Her intensity is particularly showcased in this song because the most intense parts of the song are the first verse and the bridge when Olsen is the only one heard as she plays guitar and sings. Sonically, the album shifts from driving intensity to Olsen grabbing your attention with her unparalleled voice that shifts from both powerful and delicate. This shift occurs seamlessly after “Not Gonna Kill You” into “Heart Shaped Face.” The last half of the album includes songs like, “Sister,” which features a moving, dynamic build centered around Olsen’s vocal, guitar and piano harmonies, and the repetition of the line, “All my life I thought I changed,” centering the listener around a broad, relatable theme while still remaining personal to Olsen based on the context of the rest of the lyrics. She also shreds a bone-chilling guitar solo to this song that leaves listeners spellbound with her raw talent at playing the guitar. That song flows perfectly into “Those Were The Days,” where Olsen captivates the listener with shimmering vocals that stand out perfectly while being complimented by the ambient free-jazz music behind her.
-Brendan Callan, 200 Director