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)

Picture 1 of 10

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

Wot do u call it?

Wiley - Wot Do U Call It?

As the late, great Dennis Miller used to say, I don�t want to get off on a rant here. But this �hipster R&B� sobriquet being applied to The Weeknd and Frank Ocean is problematic enough that it deserves its own discussion, not the new and even more worrying front that The Awl�s Jozen Cummings covertly wants to open up. Somewhere in his race-baiting premise (�You say hipster R&B, I say nappy-headed pop. Either way, it�s offensive�) he sneaks a very shopworn theoretical pi�ata out of his Trojan horse, and proceeds to take a couple more swings at it. Shyeah, right, as Miller�s late, great fellow SNL alum Mike Myers used to say. As if we wouldn�t notice.

The Weeknd – What You Need by The_Weeknd

Cummings� argument has two parts as well as its secret third. The first two are helpfully summarized near the beginning:

�Calling [The Weeknd and Frank Ocean] “hipster R&B” is a nice way of saying it’s R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding), and here’s my problem with that: It’s myopic, lazy, and it sounds to me like a form of musical segregation that’s not entirely based on genre.�

So far, not too controversial. To be fair, as the inestimably great Tom Ewing points out in the Guardian, the album art is very Vice, and the samples are Pitchfork-approved (Siouxie and Beach House) so there might be more to the �hipster� tag than just white-people-acclaim. But I�m with Cummings on �myopic� and �lazy�. The word �hipster� itself is practically shorthand for both.

On the other hand, when someone uses a phrase like �R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding),� the house of cards is already starting to sway in the breeze. Cummings does at least acknowledge that R&B used to be a record industry term that supplanted �race music,� though he omits�or dodges�Alan Freed�s pivotal move, namely calling it rock �n� roll. There are whole sections of the library devoted to the racial implications of this name game, most of them filed under E for Elvis, but suffice it to say that R&B is such a slippery term that it really only seems to have one fixed meaning, and that�s as a marketing idea. Whether it�s being made by whites or blacks, whatever its musical characteristics, the record industry has almost always used R&B to refer to music being marketed primarily to black audiences.

Where Cummings loses the plot is when he tries to quietly suggest that at some point in the �90s, Timbaland and Prince somehow did what innovators from James Brown to Gamble & Huff to Roger Troutman to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis did not: transcended the R&B label.

�R&B as a genre has evolved over the years, no question, but the artists we associate with R&B evolved as well, sometimes moving beyond the genre with which they were first associated.�

Cummings never explains why Timbo and Prince are his radical break, and the argument from there on in gets far shakier.

�Chris Brown’s new album F.A.M.E. is a prime example of this evolution. Listen closely: Are we really listening to R&B or are we listening to pop? Different ears, different opinions, I’m sure; but if we can’t all agree on it being R&B, then why would we categorize it as R&B or compare it to other R&B albums in the first place? My guess, probably because he’s black. But I’ll be damned if CB’s “Beautiful People” is an R&B song (it’s dance music) or “Look At Me Now” is R&B (it’s a rap song with moments of melody). Are we really going to debate who has the better R&B album between Chris Brown’s F.A.M.E. and Adele’s 21? I don’t think we should, simply because one album is not R&B (F.A.M.E.) and one album is (21).�

Ah hah, says the audience member who glimpses the compartment in the top hat from which the rabbit has been produced. Chris Brown is not R&B, but Adele is. Cummings never gives us a musical definition of R&B, but from this comparison, we can deduce via ye olde deductive reasoning that it�s very similar to that much-polished critical saw, �real� (acoustic instruments, no Auto-Tune) vs �pop� (assembly-line songwriting, slick production, deal with devil). Who stole the soul? Probably the person trying to have this conversation with you. Again.

Long story short: the history of pop music from roughly �Rocket 88� onwards is about miscegenation, and the term R&B is the least racially pure of them all. Whenever someone uses it to make some kind of essentialist argument about it�even one as ostensibly noble as trying to redefine R&B along mostly musical lines, as opposed to one having to do with roping off one audience from another�there�s usually a bill of goods attached. The really sneaky move in calling The Weeknd �hipster R&B� is that those who use it are trying to segregate people who listen to and sample from Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees from people who listen to The-Dream and Drake (notice how many times people have mentioned the Beach House and Siouxsie samples, and NOT ONCE have I read somebody mention that �What You Need� very clearly samples Aaliyah�s �Rock The Boat�), and there�s an agenda behind that, too, one that�s more sinister than whatever Cummings is clumsily getting up to: Somebody wants the white kids and the black kids to remember that Real Black People don�t fux wit Beach House. Whether that somebody is a critic who groans at the prospect of Beach House-loving audiences digging slow jams without doing the crate-digging due diligence that supposedly gives the critic their authority, or a conservative R&B fan who doesn�t want bands on Sub Pop infecting their Real Black People music and making it less authentically black, either way it�s a bunch of old bullshit that only sounds plausible if you imply it rather than stating it outright.

I�d like to propose a time-saving shorthand response to this kind of audience segregating, logic-defying, time-wasting nonsense: whenever someone tries to make the argument that R&B is this and hipster R&B is that, just remind them that Kanye loves Coldplay and leave it at that. It�s no Reductio Ad Hitlerum, but it�ll have to do.