The 50 Best Albums of 2016

In this post: an introduction, reviews of the top 10 albums of the year, a complete top 50 list, and a streaming playlist with a track from every top 50 album save for those not on Spotify. See you in 2017!

There were no seismic shifts in the pop landscape in 2016, nor in 2015, nor in 2014, nor in recent memory. The last time I remember feeling a legit sense of the earth moving under my feet (um, ears?) was when in 2006-2007 the Neptunes and Timbaland ceded ground to Kanye West’s now-dated chipmunked vocal samples, The White Stripes (and before them, The Strokes) firmly rewrote the pop-rock template and the Dixie Chicks told the world they weren’t ready to make nice. All the change since then has felt incremental, which may be a function of my age, but aside from maybe Drake and 40, who has rewritten the playbook — anyone’s playbook? Maybe it doesn’t work like that anymore. Technological change can generally be seen only in the rear-view mirror, but I can’t help thinking it’s changing the way the music evolves. Weep for the future historians who have to find a through-line in the evolution of music in the teens.

If that’s the way things are, or will be, then 2016 was the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the absence of a bomb. None of the albums on my top 10 list feel like any kind of quantum leap forward, but they are all masterful and constantly stimulating, even surprising, on the tenth or even fiftieth listen. It’s pretty shocking to me that a straight-up gangsta rap record like Still Brazy or an instrumental-rock spazzout like Return To Sky would end up atop my list, to the point that I often wonder whether I’ve started privileging the familiar over the unexpected as a kind of defensive mechanism, against the shell-shock of the new. But the flipside of that is my disdain for the records proclaimed as epochal (Arcade Fire *durrr*, Taylor Swift *yawn*) has made me more enthusiastic about records that feature maturing talents, like Blonde, and that showcase mature artists operating at their peak, like Anguis Oleum and A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s exciting to be around when the music world is being turned upside down, but it’s no consolation prize to bear witness to a crop of artists who be doin it and doin it and doin it well.

1. Frank Ocean - Blonde (Boys Don't Cry)

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Team Frank Ocean was already a heaving bandwagon when Blonde dropped, though to these ears the hype was premature when Channel Orange was the only evidence on offer. Whatever, I probably wouldn't have thought Prince was a genius on the basis of his first album, and yet, and yet. Blonde is plenty full of genius-signaling greatness, in flashes of wry lyrical humor ("did you call me from a seance? You from my past life") and epic ballads like "White Ferrari" that just scream This Is Everything You Never Dared Hope He Could Become. There's something in Ocean's ability to leave a line hanging in the synth-soaked, sometimes guitar-wrist-flick-punctuated air. He owns the space between words, shapes it invisibly with the last line and the next one. Even the funkier moments like "Pink + White" are expertly paced hops from one melodic cloud to the next, with his signature move of brightening the harmony in mid-lyric. More than any other impulse he seems to have, Frank Ocean just loves to yank the listener from nostalgic, sometimes idyllic images drenched in romance to mundane, pungent detail about drugs or, often, driving. "We're alone, making sweet love, taking time / but god strikes us!" To me, the centerpiece of the album is "Solo" for the simple reason that it works on a granular detail level -- capturing a moment of pure bliss from an acid trip on a dance floor -- but it also works its way gradually through a heartbreak that left him alone, exposed without a lover and without the rhythm section whose absence leaves a joy-shaped hole in the track. Absence and space are the most expressive parts of the album, and knowing how to play them is irrefutable proof that Frank Ocean has ascended to a higher plane. Though if he really were some kind of god, he'd be the kind that likes to day-trip back to earth, maybe as a swan, just to mess with some poor human for a few hours before returning skyward.

 Selections from a-void’s Best Albums of 2016

 The List: 1-10

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
2. YG – Still Brazy (400/CTE/Def Jam)
3. Lorenzo Senni – Persona (Warp)
*4. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Anguis Oleum (Screwgun)
5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – FRKWAYS Vol 13: Sunergy (RVNG Intl)
6. Causa Sui – Return To Sky (El Paraiso)
7. Pangaea – In Drum Play (Hessle Audio)
8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
9. DVA [HI:EMOTIONS] – Notu_Ironlu (Hyperdub)
10. Kaytranada – 99.9 (XL)

 11-50

11. Pet Shop Boys – Super (X2)
12. Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP (Def Jam)
13. Weaves – Weaves (Buzz)
14. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Matador)
15. Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yr Not (Jagjaguwar)
16. Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
17. Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (Atlantic)
18. *Purling Hiss – High Bias (Drag City)
19. A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend)
20. *Useless Eaters – Relaxing Death (Castle Face)
21. The Gaslamp Killer – Instrumentalepathy (Gaslamp Killer Music)
22. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Dirty Hit/Interscope/Polydor/Vagrant)
23. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
24. Bardo Pond feat Guru Guru and Acid Mothers Temple – Acid Guru Pond (Fire)
25. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)
26. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service (Epic/Sony)
27. Kenny Barron – Book Of Intuition (Impulse/Universal)
28. Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)
29. Hieroglyphic Being And The Configurative Or Modular Me Trio – Cosmic Bebop (Mathematics)
30. Camera – Phantom of Liberty (Bureau B)
31. Rihanna – Anti (Def Jam)
32. The Field – The Follower (Kompakt)
33. Trevino – Front (C Birdie)
34. Marquis Hawkes – Social Housing (Houndstooth)
35. Warpaint – Heads Up (XL)
36. *Fp-oner – 6 (Mule Musiq)
37. Lone – Levitate (R&S)
38. *Lawrence – Yoyogi Park (Mule Musiq)
39. Black Milk and Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly)
40. Pye Corner Audio – Stasis (Ghost Box)
41. Africaine 808 – Basar (Golf Channel)
42. *Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
43. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution (Blue Note)
44. Jakob Skott – All The Colours of the Dust (El Paraiso)
45. Dynamis – Distance (Tectonic)
46. Gerry Read – Chubby Cheeks (Timetable)
47. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Columbia/Sony)
48. Steve Haushcildt – Strands (Kranky)
49. Future – EVOL (Epic/Sony)
50. Prins Thomas – Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)

* = not on Spotify

Top 10 Albums of 2013 so far

Since it’s the long weekend and people will be reflecting, as well as pondering the few summer weeks we’ve got left, it’s a good time to proffer my choices for the 10 best albums of the year so far. I blurbed the first five, and offer links and clips for the bottom five, lest this turn into a 3,000 word post, but if you want more opinions (as if there were a shortage!), hit me up on Twitter. On with the show…

1. A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)

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The moment when “trap” became a thing was bewildering. Being a person who is not young, I remember the sniffy attitudes critics took toward the instrumental hip-hop coming out on Ninja Tune and Mo Wax back in the day. A lot of that stuff has held up about as well as the rest of what was being played on college radio, which is to say it hasn’t (Pizzicato Five, where are you). Trap is basically the same thing – a deracinated, feeble imitation defined by what it can never be – and quite a lot of it will be forgotten. Strike the alt-hop thing from the history books, though, and we wouldn’t have DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing or Dr. Octagon’s Octagonecologist, two of the most inspired albums of the 90s. And while I’m sure the time is not long before woozy, cotton-swab-muffled ambient sounds and skittering hi hats make me want to put a pillow over my face, Long Live A$AP is the disc that will be my “yeah, but what about” exception to the rule.

What I love about A$AP Rocky, first and foremost, is that his persona is a kind of hyper-aggressive, hyper defensive stance designed to scare you worse than the average thug does (there’s no storytelling or boasts of arms-length mafia style hits, he’s going to kill you and your family – “hit yo children with that Smith an…”) while simultaneously daring you to call him on his arguably effeminate displays (“I be that pretty motherfucker,” one of about a dozen boasts about his looks and his fashion sense; there’s also his drug dependence issues, breaking the dealers-versus-fiends dichotomy). There’s never any question of whether he’s vicious enough, though. Amorality and narcissistic disconnection are his trump cards, the tattoo across his chest saying he’s got nothing to lose. The way he spits is its own kind of threat – other rappers make a point of sounding laid back and magisterial, but Rocky is all about the bark. “My whip white but my top black / and my bitch white but my cock black” is as aggressive as one of Jay’s best put-downs, and delivered with a syncopated flow that makes you linger over every consonant. We can hear it; all of him is consistent, and sharp; an ice pick aimed at your ribcage and a forceful grip on your girl.

As a pure lyricist, he’s no Nas. He’s more of a Pimp C, full of caustic wit and contempt, his diction as much a part of his appeal as his wordplay. Some critics find that leaves his record sounding thin, but personally, I’ll take a great actor over a decent poet any day. And if he is an actor, he’s a damn convincing one. If he ain’t smoother and scarier than Vincent Price, he’s the closest one.

Read my Globe and Mail review here.



2. Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (Bandcamp, click here to buy)

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Built on dialogue samples from the old wild west TV show, Rawhyde is less of a concept album than a platform for Jeremiah Jae and Oliver 2nd to sling some rock-hard tough guy rhymes. The MCs compliment each other nicely; Oliver’s a nice battle rapper who makes the most of the concept (“I’m Wyatt Earp, twistin wild purp”) while Jeremiah Jae is his spaced-out comrade in arms. Even when mostly just sticking to the script, Jae’s rhymes are evocative:

The street desolate, the heat present
on the hip of the citizen
Police heist on the bank with your women friend
Rank next to Dillinger
Ace on the cylinders

And the dusty boom-bap beats have a casual, Madlib-esque quality that makes this perfect for just riding around town on whatever steed you choose. Extra points for Jae’s CanCon shout-out: “My shit gravy like poutine.”

3. The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)

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“I make love to my girls / I get high with my n******.” That chorus right there is basically The-Dream’s manifesto, and IV Play is evenly split between the kind of stuff you can play when your girl is around, and the kind of stuff you better have headphones for (or jam with your boys in your car). But it works. After briefly veering too far toward The Weeknd / illangelo territory with his 1977 album, IV Play is a bit of an aesthetic retrenchment towards 00s R&B. As an artistic statement, though, IV Play might be his best solo work yet, from the breathless lust of the title track or “Pussy” to the romantic duet with Kelly Rowland “Where Have You Been,” and the unexpected but wholly appreciated blues turn with Gary Clark Jr, “Too Early.”

4. Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)

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Bitchin Bajas is Cooper Crain of the solid four-piece Cave and Dan Quinlivan of the criminally underrated Mahjongg, and they have a new album, Bitchitronics. I’ve only listened to it once but so far, so excellent; that said, I doubt that drone-oriented LP is  going to supplant this more obviously Krautrock-influenced EP, Krausened. That’s not a slam; I can certainly understand why a band wouldn’t want to remake the same thing, and it’s pretty hard to vary the motorik beat-plus-floaty-keyboard template that Neu pioneered. The amazing thing about Krausened is that Crain and Quinlivan nail the template while still making it their own. Sure, that’s the “Hallogallo” drum pattern the drum machine is playing, but there’s also a cheeky bossa nova rhythm going on, while the synths shimmer kaleidoscopically in the background. And it’s telling that, when the beat comes in or drops out, it’s not as though the track gets any less hypnotic. Maybe Bitchitronics will get on this list after I’ve let it sink in, but for the moment Krausened is Bitchin Bajas’ most intense, deftly controlled and mesmerizing achievement.

5. Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)

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I haven’t thoroughly checked out the Robin Thicke disc either, though Blurred Lines is much more chart ready than anything on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. I doubt, however, that Thicke’s album is as ambitious as JT’s, or as successful in its aims, whatever the critics are saying. 20/20’s not a jaw-dropper the way Justifed was, nor does it have the hit potential of FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s definitely more defined by risk-taking. There’s no SexyBack Part Deux here, just a bunch of soulful extended jams – none of them shorter than 4:39 – with a real disco-era Motown/Tamla vibe. There’s Smokey here, a little Eddie Kendricks, some even more discotastic MJ than even “Rock Your Body”, a smidge of Shuggie Otis perhaps. But tunes like the gloriously slick “Spaceship Coupe” or the grown-up horn hits of “Suit and Tie,” to me, bring to mind Marvin Gaye circa Midnight Love, an album whose time has come. 20/20 plays around with all kinds of sounds that few other artists would touch, mostly because they’d be afraid to make something so radio-unfriendly, even something as funky as this. It’s the record I would not have expected or even hoped for JT to make, and a sweeter surprise for it.

6. Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)

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Hov Is Watchin: A look at Magna Carta Holy Grail

7. Matias Aguayo – The Visitor (Comeme)

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One to watch: Matias Aguayo

8. A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)

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9. VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)

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10. Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)

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Kobo Town and your best bets for Caribana weekend