Every year, I like to reflect on the albums that got me through the year. In 2016, I spent more time trying to listen than talk, and I felt these albums offered the space for me to reflect and understand the nuances of the experience of others. Each title links to where you can purchase directly from the artist (in most cases), and a few of them are even free.
16. Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!
15. Anderson .Paak’s Malibu
14. John Legend’s Darkness and Light
13. Solange’s A Seat at the Table
12. BANKS’s The Altar
11. James Blake’s The Colour in Anything
- Pharrell’s Hidden Figures Original Soundtrack
Numbers 11-16 were all in heavy rotation this year, but Pharrell swooped in near the end with his infectious, joyous music to create a soundtrack as playful as his work on Despicable Me, but more in-tune with Pharrell’s purpose to bring light to the world through powerful stories. Using other vocal powerhouses like Janelle Monae and Alicia Keys, Pharrell not only celebrates little known figures in history: he might just be re
writing history better than any textbook could.
- Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo
Number 9 is a low spot for Kanye in my book, but TLOP was my least favorite album by him. Sloppy in places, unfocused in lyrical content, and missing not just opportunities for social commentary but outright missing the mark on being conscious (a chance to talk about the racism employed against West in the infamous Taylor Swift moment turned solely into an irresponsible, misogynistic quip), TLOP disappointed in many ways. But Kanye is a complicated being beyond what the American public allows him, and throughout 2016 I kept coming back to TLOP for the patchwork it makes of his sonic career as he lifts the voices of friends over himself. The best verse of the album, by Chance the Rapper, stands as the ultimate example of Kanye launching an already successful career into the stratosphere. Kid Cudi’s and Rihanna’s hooks are the best they’ve ever been. And occasionally, through the messy, unexpectedly successful, ultimately confusing year that Kanye had, his own voice remains unquestionably unique and insecure as ever, as seen on album highlights “Real Friends” and “Pt. 2.”
- Beyoncé’s Lemonade
I have a confession to make: I didn’t listen to Lemonade that much after the first month of its release. It is undeniably Beyoncé’s best, but it follows the narrative format that so often turns me away from albums, since I know how the story will end the next time I start it again. That being said, this was one of, if not the most important album of 2016. It’s been said better by plenty of other writers more qualified to say it, but Beyoncé made a statement to start the year: anyone is free to listen to black artists, but it is now going to come at a price. No longer could mere pop fans sing and dance to singles like “Formation” without wrestling with the demands and ideals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As many “fans” stormed out on the Queen, and conservative news outlets almost forgot they weren’t E! News, Beyoncé sat atop her throne with a visual album that will place her in more than music history courses, and cement Lemonade as the first album of 2016 to raise the stakes on the conversations we have about music.
- ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP
At the outset of ScHoolboy Q’s sophomore LP, Anderon .Paak’s voice interrupts the cacophony of voices talking to announce, “Trade the noise for a piece of divine.” And a piece of divine is just what you get throughout Q’s album, as his narratives weave circles around other rappers to prove his place among (and even above) most of the top emcees of the moment. Beyond the catchiest song of the year with Kanye, “THat Part,” Q shines most when approaching heavy topics like police brutality and community action against oppression. At some turns, he ironically boasts about the kind of violence you can expect if you cross him and his friends: “one of the homies got slayed so we bang at the King parade.” At others, his real fears about the shortness of black life peak out through his expert writing skill: “I wrote these rhymes days apart/most of us get caught before we can expand our thoughts.” ScHoolboy Q is a heavyweight, and Blank Face LP measures out just right.
- Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool
Between the apocalyptic scenes on A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke describes everyday scenes that threaten the same magnitude of disasters as invading spacecrafts: “Hey, it’s me, I just got off the train/a frightening place, the faces all concrete gray,” he mutters on “Glass Eyes,” before explicating what this moment elicits in him: “and I’m wondering/should I turn around?/buy another ticket?/panic is coming on strong.” A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s quietest album, full of small moments like this where Yorke utilizes Johnny Greenwood’s disarmingly eerie-calm soundscape to express fears about the modern world, from climate change to fear-mongering politicians. The scenes are all grandiose and overwhelming, yet Yorke is unafraid to bark back at societal ills with just a few words: “Why should I be good if you’re not?” It’s a paranoid soundtrack for our times, and if it’s too quiet, it is only a warning of what might lurk in the not-so-distant future.
- Saba’s Bucket List Project
Even if 2016 wasn’t ready for the post-Drake days, I certainly am. Saba first came to my attention with his feature on Chance’s “Angels,” but seized my attention when the opening track of his new album took no time for further introductions: “I’ll pretend that all our friends still alive.” Lyrically, Saba proves that he’s not standing in the shadow of Chance but rapping right alongside him, covering similar ground but without redundancy. “It’s rarity in my realness,” he spits on my favorite song of 2016, “Church/Liquor Store.” When he starts the chorus of another song with, “I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talkin’ about,” Saba is just acknowledging that the story he is telling is so honest it’s unlikely you’ve heard anything quite like it before.
- Bon Iver’s 22, A Million
Without dancing around the topic, 2016 was a hard year for me. After making the decision to attend graduate school, the powers-that-be forced my hand to quit my teaching job in Dallas. As my first semester in grad school was riddled with financial woes, a real grief over the loss of a job that allowed me to positively influence teens every day, the death of my last grandparent, and a long-needed step to receiving counseling, no lyric struck me in 2016 quite like 22, A Million’s opening line: “It might be over soon.” Without defining whether this statement relates to joy or grief (it’s more likely both), 22, A Million is full of scattered pieces patched together that last as long as Justin Vernon allows them to, which is to say not long. At only 34 minutes, this album captured everything I felt in 2016, from the anxious moments, to the longing and the mourning, to even the immeasurable joys. On what can only be described as a gospel finish, Vernon both laments and celebrates the fleeting moment of all life: “And I walked it off: how long I’d last.” This album is the Ecclesiastes of albums, a balance forged out of uneven parts.
- Noname’s Telefone (psst… free download of the album on her site)
As Kanye’s musical output inevitably began to decline this year (I blame time and age, not the Kardashians), and I remain largely unimpressed with most of the new gods of rap, Noname carved a space in my weekly music rotation. “Check my Twitter page for something holier than Black death,” she raps on album opener “Yesterday,” an ode to lives and moments lost too soon. Although sonically the album sounds light, with Noname gliding over characteristic Chicago keys, her subject matter is anything but: “ain’t no one safe in this happy city/I hope you make it home/I hope to God that my tele don’t ring.” Where Beyoncé opened the door for black women to talk about grief, Noname stepped into the room and barely cleared her throat before stating her thesis. “Casket Pretty” is probably the year’s most haunting track, with lines like “too many babies in suits,” and although the album centers around black death, Noname breathes life into a necessary topic that people are already tuning out on in favor of mainstream rap without consequence. On album closer “Shadow Man,” Noname makes requests for her own funeral, asking for Kanye to read her eulogy, a fond remembrance of her bashfulness, and most poignantly, the prophesy that “my music was a church when my spirit hopped out.”
- Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book
In the same vein as Noname, Chance breathed life into heavy topics. Although he does not dwell on grief on Coloring Book, his joy is more earned than any other artist of the moment. Chance was successful before 2016, but his rise to the top this past year was the most worthy of celebration, as he scored numerous credits on his hero’s album (The Life of Pablo), changed the rules of the Grammys whether they’ll admit it was him or not, and continued to smile humbly through every bit of success that came his way. Behind Chance’s goofy smile is the serious mission to save his hometown Chicago through his various activist efforts, continually inspiring youth through free music and even giving them space through their own open mic nights, and being unapologetically faithful to a higher being in a cynical age. Where other rappers with faith have failed to capture my attention for no other reason than the word “corny” popping to mind, Chance’s feels authentic, hard-earned, and the result of someone who knows the world is broken but is crazy or caring enough to believe he can do something about it. “They’re screaming Chano for mayor,” he rapped on a b-side that preceded the album, but at this point I’m already screaming Chano for president.
- Frank Ocean’s Blonde
After one of the most covered disappearing acts of a celebrity in recent history, Frank Ocean quietly returned in 2016, not to the spotlight, but to the business of good storytelling. After all of the hype and missed release dates bubbled over, Ocean stood waiting at the end of the noise to share two albums worth of material he had made during his public silence. In 2013, he hinted that he might not make another album but rather write a novel, and on Blonde that is basically what he did. As his voice varies in sound and tone, Ocean seems to create characters out of himself, wrestling for a version of permanence in the lives of some (“I’m not him/but I’ll mean something to you”), or just passing moments with others (“I know you gotta leave/take down some summertime/give up just tonight”). There is no song on this album that is not devastating, as the Invisible Man makes visible his attempts to understand the people whose lives he passes through. As the album title and content signal Ocean’s fluid sexuality, the person he seeks most to understand is himself. Leaving his major label to be independent (read: free) and purposefully leaving himself out of the running for the Grammys, Ocean’s story is one of liberation in a world, industry, and society bent on holding black, LGBTQ, and other oppressed populations down. “I ain’t on your schedule/I ain’t on no schedule,” he boasts on “Futura Free.” These lines are not mere braggadocio, but a man fighting to tell his story his way, free from the restrictive pressures of the modern world. The power of the best storytellers, from Salinger to Fitzgerald, is that their actual lives were as complex as the literature they produced. It’s why we continue to study them long after they leave, because the person—like the stories he or she tells—is larger than life. With Blonde, Ocean writes a story so compelling that, even if we never hear from again, he knows he is already worth his weight in words.
Click here for the music that I worked on last year, as well as my artist statement.