The year is now 2017 and I’m still not entirely sure where the last 12 months of my life has gone. I found a fitting start to this blog would be a look back at all of the great music that 2016 had to offer.
Attached with this post is a collage that was made to accompany my 12 best albums of 2016.
The list begins on Valentine’s Day with Kanye West dropping the album (“a living breathing changing creative expression”!?) The Life Of Pablo. After a few name changes with the album initially titled “So Help Me God” followed by “Swish” followed by “Waves” and then FINALLY “The Life Of Pablo. With 2014/15 being void of a new Kanye album and littered with only a few singles to keep us going, it seemed as though the entire world was chomping at the bit to get another full length from Ye and although initially sceptical, I feel like he really lived up to the hype with this record. The production on this thing was second to none and it seemed as though every care had been taken for this project to be as impressive with the sound of the album as much as the quality of the tracks themselves. There are some great features on this album, I loved Chance The Rapper’s input on “Ultralight Beam” and I don’t think I’ve heard anything as good from The Weeknd since his early work. Standout tracks for me on this album were “Ultralight Beam” “Freestyle 4” ,which wouldn’t have looked out of place on Yeezus, “Real Friends” and “Facts”. I’m already excited to see what Kanye’s next project will sound like.
Although my favourites started in February, we can’t ignore some other brilliant albums that dropped a little earlier in the year. January brought us David Bowie – Blackstar which topped a LOT of year end lists , Hinds – Leave Me Alone which is the fun debut full length from all female Spanish indie garage rock band. Anderson .Paak – Malibu which very nearly made the cut but just fell short. Money – Suicide Songs which is the second LP from the Manchester based alt rock band who aren’t nearly as big as they should be. Finally probably the slowest burner of the year for me was Rihanna’s – Anti album. I listened to this album a lot when it first came out on the basis of the critical acclaim that it received but I just couldn’t get into it at all. Only after leaving it alone for a few weeks and upon coming back to it I slowly started seeing what the hype was about and it got a heavy amount of play towards the tail end of 2016. Any album that has a track with the opening lines “I’d rather be smoking weed” is bound to hit it off with me eventually.
February along with some of my favourites provided some great music . I really enjoyed most of DIIV’s ‘Is The Is Are’ although it started feeling a little too long towards the tail end of the album which is always a bit of a risk in the reverb soaked dream pop style genre. Animal Collective pleasantly surprised me with a slight change of pace on “Painting With” I thought there were some really fun and promising tracks on this record.
The next album to be released that made the list was dropped on the 4th March, a lovely early birthday present to me courtesy of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Untitled Unmastered’. Consisting of seemingly B sides from his 2015 full length (and one of my favourite albums of all time) To Pimp A Butterfly. Although lacking the kind of story like approach and song connections which we usually associate with Kendrick, this album still really hit the spot for me. It’s apparent that these tracks can stand alone individually, and I’ve found myself putting an odd song on here and there when just leisurely listening. I don’t feel like I could do this with some tracks from TPAB such as “u” which, to be appreciated properly, need to be heard in the context of the full album. The creativity of the instrumentation really is diverse and very refreshing and when you see the likes of who he worked with on both TPAB and Untitled Unmastered it isn’t much of a surprise. The likes of Thundercat and Terrace Martin have a gorgeous impact on this project and Kendrick’s flow over jazz infused hip hop beats is nothing short of amazing. I found it almost unbelievable that an album compiled of Demo’s and B sides managed to stand so strong and I really hope to hear more music from Kendrick Lamar in 2017.
Just as I was looking for some new music to listen to after essentially binging Untitled Unmastered, a good friend of mine put me onto one of my next favourite albums of the year, dvsn’s Sept 5th. Released on March 27th, Sept. 5th was a complete game changer to modern RnB, and though that is a big claim I feel the album justifies it. The perfect blend of the babymaking, slow grinding RnB with astonishing production and genuine lyrics. Though most of the songs are crafted around love and sex, dvsn manage to prevent it from being smutty and actually connect and portray realistic human emotions. This album really does stand out among the overcrowded sea of other RnB artists spouting out meaningless songs about having sex that dominate the charts. Sadly, a lot of people’s only exposure to RnB. The vocal delivery on this album is otherworldly with Daniel Daley flittering between vocal ranges like it’s nothing, throwing in falsetto leads and harmonies left right and centre. The production on this project is definitely a worthy mention, with Anthony Jefferies (Nineteen85) responsible. Nineteen85 has made a name for himself over the past few years, most notably by working on Drake’s album Nothing Was The Same and was responsible for the massive single Just Hold On We’re Going Home. I feel the duo come together most strongly on the final 7+ minute epic ‘The Line’, when the beat comes in I just melt every time. Definitely one of the strongest releases to come from OVO in my opinion.
Sticking with the RnB genre, the next album to make the list was the highly anticipated (and rated) Beyoncé album, Lemonade. Released on April 23rd with a visual album to accompany the record, I think Lemonade is one of the stronger albums that Beyoncé has put out through her long and well established career. Although amazing, I still don’t think it’s as good as the self titled she released in 2013 which, to me, is some of the best RnB music to have come out for a good few years. Boasting a number of big names on the features list such as Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, James Blake & Jack Whyte, the album features influence from a wide variety of genres. My only nitpick on this album was the track ‘Daddy Lessons’ which I found almost unbearable. The Americana country kind of sound just didn’t do anything for me and compared to her last album where I didn’t have to skip a track, I was a bit disappointed. I feel like the rest of the tracks are just as good or in some cases better (Freedom , Formation & Pray You Catch Me) that the album was still worthy of the list. Although guilty of still not having seen the visuals to go with the album I still feel that the music is strong enough on it’s own and I will get around to it eventually which will probably help me see the album in a different light altogether.
Other albums released in April that didn’t make the list but I still really enjoyed throughout the year are: Weezer – Weezer (White album), Gallant – Ology, Xiu Xiu – Xiu Xiu Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks, Drake – Views (meh, it had its moments).
Earlier I mentioned Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ album taking a while for me to warm to, but this was not as surprising to me as how initially underwhelmed I was by Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. Being a big fan of Radiohead’s previous material, Ok Computer was one of the earliest memories I have of experiencing “grown up” music as the parents of a childhood friend played this album constantly. Therefore when I caught wind of a new Radiohead record I was really looking forward to it. A Moon Shaped Pool was released on May 8th and I sat down with this album numerous times to try and absorb it but it took it’s time. I thought that the critics had over rated it just because of how excited everyone was for new Radiohead music. I knew there was something that I liked about this record but I just couldn’t place it. It was when I was having a bit of a shit night that I realised what I like about this album. It is how much of a real portrayal of human emotion this thing manages to put across to the listener. Thom Yorke having recently come out of a 20 year long relationship has managed to completely wear his heart on his sleeve with his lyrics and it’s almost haunting. The thing I love about Radiohead is that they’re seen as a band and not just a singer with accompaniment. Jonny Greenwood (most notably) had as much of an effect with the instrumentation than Thom Yorke with the vocal delivery. Particular highlights (can I call them highlights?) come from the tracks ‘Burn The Witch’ (which took 16 years to make it onto an album) ‘Desert Island Disk’ and ‘True Love Waits’. Now after it being almost 8 months old (upon writing) I’m still finding bits in the album that I’ve seemingly missed and it’s resonating with me now more than ever. I can only hope it’ll continue to grow on me but now I rate it as one of Radiohead’s better albums and just shows to not always take an album for its face value, there is reward in patience!
More albums worth a mention that were released in May are: Kaytranada – 99.9% which was a fantastic electronic album with some insane features and Modern Baseball – Holy Ghosts which is another solid release from the Philadelphia indie/emo outfit.
The next record to make the list is Whitney’s ‘Light Upon The Lake’. I wish I could say that this was the soundtrack to my summer because it would have been perfect with it being released on June 3rd. But I can’t. For two reasons: 1, in Manchester we don’t get a summer we get warm (ish) rain and 2, I didn’t find out about this album until about August and by then the rain had gone cold again and the “summer” was over. Regardless, this album was the best for sitting in my room with the heaters on full and pretending I was somewhere hot. Whitney is a duo that came together when their previous band, Smith Westerns, decided to call it a day. Julien Ehrlich’s vocal style is one you either love or hate, and that really shows in the reviews. To me, it has a great unique sound but I can understand how it’s not to everybody’s taste. With a real light hearted indie / dream pop vibe the album doesn’t overstay its welcome, just managing to clock the half an hour mark. The melodies and harmonies on this project are lovely and some soul influences can definitely be heard hidden in their sound. It really is perfect for summer days and an album I enjoyed deep into winter time.
July was probably my favourite month in 2016 for new music. Notable records that dropped which didn’t quite make the cut were the new Blood Orange album ‘Freetown Sound’ which was a very interesting genre blending record with some brilliant lyricism. Maxwell’s BlackSUMMERS’night also got a lot of play from me as a great RnB / Neo Soul record. Both the mentioned albums dropped on the same day which was crazy! It’s rare to get two albums this solid in the same month never mind in the same 24 hours. Schoolboy Q’s ‘Blank Face LP’ was a solid release for him and another great addition to the Top Dawg Entertainment discography. Michael Kiwanuka released the gorgeous soul influenced ‘Love & Hate’ which had a very 70’s style production, something which i found pretty creative. Gucci Mane dropped his post prison sentence ‘Everybody’s Looking’ which, as suggested, was a very attention grabbing album and to me, the best thing Gucci has ever released. British artist Nao released her debut full length “For All We Know” which was an incredible blend of electronic, soul, RnB & funk which made for a really fun listen.
Alongside all of these great albums, July provided me with another favourite from the year in the form of Noname’s ‘Telefone’. I played this mixtape so much when it first dropped and its still on heavy rotation now. Telefone manages to blend together the perfect mix of soft, but still predominantly, hip hop beats over noname’s soft vocal style. Providing hard and truthful lyrics about life and death. The death subject is very heavy on this mixtape with lot of mentions to her late grandmother. This raises a lot of questions of mortality and family life through grief. It’s quite a strange combination of heavy subject matters over really quite gentle beats but it really works and is definitely more effective than it would have been over just generic trap beats. She also touches on the issues of being a black person and police brutality in probably my favourite track on the mixtape, “Casket Pretty”. Although she was featured on Chance The Rappers album, pre slight name change (she appeared as Noname Gypsy) she hasn’t got anywhere near the credit she deserves for this project.
August was a great month for music in general but a massive month for Hip Hop and RnB. We got not one, but TWO new projects from one of my favourite artists Frank Ocean. Endless was released on 19th August as a visual album exclusively through Apple Music. Although this was a tactical move to fulfil Frank’s contract with previous record label Def Jam, Endless was something completely different than anybody was expecting. After a slurry of fake release dates circling the web a lot of people were left thinking is this the album all the fuss has been about? Of course in hindsight we now know the answer to be no, but at the time I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that after all of the build up that the end product was a bit dissapointing. Of course as soon as Blond dropped 24 hours later all faith was restored and I could actually enjoy Endless for what it was, now that the pressure was off. This new material from Frank didn’t only become what is probably my favourite album out of this entire list, but did something I never thought could be achieved, surpassed Channel Orange. Although being almost incomparably different, both albums did come from the same creator. Upon first listen I knew this album was something special and every time I give it the full attention it deserves, I’m still finding new things to love about this album. With a feature from dvsn, who I previously mentioned, on one of my favourite tracks from the full length. I haven’t dreamed about skipping a single track. It would be pointless to try and name my favourite tracks because they’re all SO good, but ‘Nights’ really does something for me. Upon release of this album and with nobody really knowing what to expect from it, it’s made me even more hopeful for the future of Frank’s career. I really hope he continues in the direction he’s set off in, it suits him. There is a sad and quite emotional theme recurrent throughout the album and lyrics that express regret and review failed relationships. There’s something in there that everybody can relate to from some point in their life and that’s why Frank’s fan base is as big and loyal as it is.
Three albums that dropped in September made this list and they weren’t the only great albums to drop that month. Angel Olsen gave us ‘My Woman’ which is a gorgeous – heart on it’s sleeve – indie record with a crazy amount of catchy hooks and brilliantly crafted songs. We got a new How To Dress Well record in the form of ‘Care’ which is the most accessible record by Tom Krell to date and I had the pleasure of seeing him (again) a couple of months ago. If you get the chance to see him live then don’t miss it, he puts on a great show and I left feeling so uplifted – might have had something to do with the Ariana Grande cover (?!). Danny Brown gave us some new material with ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ which was so much better than I expected it to be, I hadn’t really listened to much Danny Brown before this record. He’s not the easiest person to just throw on and have on in the background, his voice can be quite grating to the unexpecting ear. But once it clicks, it really fucking clicks. Jenny Hval released ‘Blood Bitch’ which was an avante garde extravaganza released through one of my favourite labels, Sacred Bones.
All of these great albums but the first to make my list was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’. Released on 9th September, Nick Cave managed to deliver one of the most devastating pieces of music I’ve ever listened to. Known for his lyrical abilities and for his well established and highly rated back catalogue, this is up there with the legendary Nick Cave albums for me. It just so happens to also be up there in the albums I find hardest to listen to. Some people don’t see the appeal to listen to music that either makes you sad, or is sad itself, but this album isn’t just sad for the sake of sad. Nick Cave unexpectedly lost his 15 year old son during the writing process of this album which would have had a disastrous effect on Cave’s life and the lives of everybody he cares about. People use their art as a form of expression and a form of escape and I’m just thankful that Nick managed to turn such a tragedy into something so profound. With obvious song themes covering death and loss, which isn’t out of place in Cave’s discography, this album is so specifically depressing that it really stands out from the rest of his work.
On a slightly lighter note, the next two albums to make the list were funnily enough (again) released on the same day. I’ll start with the lesser known Knowles sister with Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’. I’m quite ashamed to say that this album was the first thing that I’ve heard from Solange, but all I can say is that I’m glad I have now. Since discovering I have gone back and enjoy a lot of her earlier work too. With seeing the artwork to this album plastered all over various music social media accounts and seeing it being branded as ‘The most important album to be released this year’ numerously, I realized that this was really something that I needed to pay attention to. Before I even start with the lyrical content, this is some of the smoothest production I’ve heard this year and the beats have a really mellow and soulful feel to them. Even before Solange opens her mouth this album is a pleasure to listen to. The themes on this album float across culture, identity both as a black person and as a woman, and history. This is why this album is so important. A particular highlight was the track ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ with the message being mainly what the song title suggests, but that it’s a racial issue which has just been disguised as a compliment by white people. Although I understand that this music wasn’t written with my demographic as the target audience, which I fully appreciate, I really found this album a joyous listen.I genuinely think it has helped me improve as a human being. Most surprising for me on this album was the fact that we got a pretty good Lil Wayne feature, which deserves an essay on it’s own, but maybe I’ll save that for another day.
The final album from the month of September was the Bon Iver record, 22, A Million. When I heard that Bon Iver was putting out another full length, I was obviously excited. Not as excited as I would have been if I actually knew what we were going to get from Justin Vernon & Co. Bon Iver’s first record ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was a gorgeous primarily acoustic and vocal folk album which went down a storm for critics and fans alike. Their second self titled album followed on in 2011 which was different but not too far away from the folk roots of the first record. I thought I had an idea as to what to expect from new Bon Iver music until I saw the tracklist which to be honest I didn’t even know what to think. The tracklist is a barely readable scrawl of symbols and numbers which I kind of disregarded as hipster bullshit. I’m glad I didn’t let it put me off because the music absolutely blew me away. This is the album that has made Bon Iver more of a band and less of an individual with a backing band. There has been a few critics refer to this album as ‘Bon Iver’s Kid A’ which I can totally understand. Maybe not in the musical sense but in the sense where this has definitely concentrated the fans of the band. The first two projects were pretty easy going, even my mum wanted a bit of Bon Iver on her iPod, but with this record I’ve hardly seen any reviews of people on the fence about it. People either seem to love it and understand it and feel like it understands them, or just can’t take to it at all. This isn’t an album for background atmosphere at a cosy gathering, this is an album in the truest sense of the word. Probably the most experimental, boundary pushing mainstream folk album I’ve ever heard and I love every second of it. The vocals are occasionally broken up as though being transmitted through a temperamental receiver, which really brings the focus back to the instrumentation. There are still some hints of the Bon Iver of past, particularly on tracks ‘8 (circle)’ and album closer ‘00000 Million’ (See what I was saying about the track titles). I know this project is going to be a landmark in the bands catalogue and I can only hope that this isn’t the only album we get in this direction.
FINALLY! We made it to the last album in this list, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll buy you a chocolate bar. I’d near enough got my list in order until this record threw a spanner in the works. I am obviously grateful for the brilliant music that came from this record but a few months earlier (selfishly) would have been more convenient. Bon Iver took a turn in direction with his most recent release but not even a scratch on what this artist provided us with. Childish Gambino unleashed his 3rd full length ‘Awaken My Love’ on December 2nd. With 2 singles released to promote the album, (to be) opener ‘Me and Your Mama’ and ‘Redbone’. It was obvious there had been a huge shift in sound from the primarily hip hop ideals of Gambino’s previous releases. Big enough that if I didn’t know who it was upon listening, I’m not sure I would have ever guessed Childish Gambino. A FUNK ALBUM. A PSYCHEDELIC FUNK ALBUM. With taking obvious massive influence from the psychedelic funk masters, Parliament Funkadelic – which ‘Maggot Brain’ is admittedly one of Gambino’s favourite albums ever. I don’t know if it was the shock factor initially that made me love this album but something just gripped me from the first listen. But being a big fan of P-Funk myself I wasn’t a stranger to the sound. This album is soulful, sexy and bluesy and has definitely opened doors to new worlds of fans. The lyrics also happen to be great, with socially conscious lyrics particularly on track ‘Boogieman’ which is a play on the child ‘villain’ the boogeyman. On face value it’s a fun track and the ‘boogie’ part of the title is very apparent in the sound, but when you dig a bit deeper it’s an expression fear that African-American’s live in due to the monstrous actions of the police of America. One line that stuck with me is ‘But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?’ which rings true through how mainstream media tries to portray black people as thugs and aggressive people. It will be very interesting to see where Childish Gambino goes from here. Maybe we’ll never hear another rap from him again. Maybe we will. But don’t be too surprised if he drops a folk album in a couple of years time (you heard it here first)
2016 was brilliant and I can only pray that 2017 is half as good as it’s predecessor. If you read any of this at all, thank you.
First Hurdle Music.