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.
Music in 2015 was good to me. I like to reflect on the albums that impacted me over the course of a year to understand myself, and others, better. Continuing my yearly tradition, here are my top albums and what they meant to me.
Adele’s 25, Miguel’s Wildheart, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf, mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses, Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$, Of Monster and Men’s Beneath the Skin, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye
- Depression Cherry—Beach House
I only bought this album recently, so admittedly it is a last minute addition, but I feel like it will easily climb this list as 2016 progresses. Beach House know how to create a feeling with their lush instrumentation and singer Victoria Legrand’s dreamy voice, and that all begins with the opener ‘Levitation,’ in which Legrand lamentingly accepts, “You grow up too quick/then get over it.” The album is full of these melancholic musings, and you can’t help but get lifted in the process.
- Coming Home—Leon Bridges
My Fort Worth bias may heavily come into play here, but Leon Bridges is undeniably talented and only starting to show what he is capable of with Coming Home. Throughout the short 10-track debut, Bridges shares his family history (‘Lisa Sawyer’ and ‘Twistin’ and Groovin’’), swoons over girls (‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’) and preaches the gospel (‘Shine’ and the album’s highest moment ‘River’). All of these songs capture an old-fashioned sound (the Sam Cooke comparisons are so frequent they no longer need noting) that perfectly embody an age where vinyl and vintage are peaking, yet what will keep Bridges here for the long haul is not his nostalgic sound but the authenticity in his writing and voice.
- Seeds—TV on the Radio
When it comes to a breakup album, TV on the Radio don’t think sadness necessarily calls for heavy music. “Could you care for someone above your bright lights?” singer Tunde Adebimpe asks, over a boisterous horn section. Even when the album makes less noise, the feelings of a love lost are felt deeply (see ‘Trouble’). On the title track, Adebimpe details the initial feelings of a new love (“I told your sister that you’re all I ever dream of” is one of the most romantic lines ever written), and it is clear that this album will not let pain over heartbreak stop hope from coming (“rain comes down like it always does/this time I’ve got seeds on ground”).
- Strangers to Ourselves—Modest Mouse
Strangers finds frontman Isaac Brock still angry about the world and its follies. Brock tackles everything from environmental destruction (“pack up again, head to the next place/where we’ll make the same mistakes”) to the Internet age (“the way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us”). But the album really shines when Brock gets quiet and vulnerable, like on ‘Ansel,’ a reflection about losing his brother in a mountain accident, and the regret that comes with things unstated before it’s too late. On the album opener he muses, “we’re lucky we’re so easy to forget.” It’s one of many contradictions expressed, as much of the album hones in on the irreparable damage we’ve done. And yet, Strangers to Ourselves understands the human condition is contradiction, a long history of unknowing, anger, fear, and regret, but still somehow trying to manage and move forward as best we know how.
- Kintsugi—Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab returns with a refreshing take on romance in modern times. Beginning with ‘No Room in Frame,’ singer Ben Gibbard asks an ex-lover, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” It is a question about celebrity romance, but one that could reach into every broken heart burdened by an age when selfies reign over settling down. Throughout the album, Gibbard explores long-distance romance, the ghosts that follow you throughout life, and the constant reaching and not finding that he has always been so good at exploring. The standout is ‘Binary Sea,’ the final song, which narrates the day Atlas realized the world got bigger while he got weaker. “You took photos capturing his defeat,” Gibbard describes, “and messaged them to all your friends/and we all laughed at his expense.” The subject matter of the Internet’s effect on our compassion and connections has not been explored enough in music, and certainly not this well yet.
- Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens
As far as reaching into the deepest emotional places goes, Sufjan Stevens made the best album this year. Exploring the grief he is dealing with in the loss of his mother, Sufjan takes a headfirst dive into their long-estranged relationship, the reunion near the end of her life, and finally, her departure. Sufjan leaves nothing out on this sparsely instrumented album, from his suicidal ideation on ‘The Only Thing’ (“do I care if I survive this?”) to his feelings of abandonment as a child (“I should have wrote a letter/and grieve what I happen to grieve”). But what makes this album beautiful is that, amidst his grief, there is still so much life to be found. “Search for things to extol,” he sings on ‘Blue Bucket of Gold,’ and Sufjan has created a wonderful album for which to do so.
- How Big How Blue How Beautiful—Florence & The Machine
How Big finds Florence maturing into her big sound in all the right ways. Opening the album with the line, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills/they mess with my head,” Florence lets you into the dark night of her soul within seconds of the first song. “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build a ship to wreck?” she asks. When describing an abusive relationship, Florence surrounds herself with a choir and pulsing rhythm section while asking, “What kind of man loves like this?” This album shines through Florence’s incredible range of emotions, as she express her deepest regrets, deepest hurts, and deepest gratitude for life itself through the darkness (see the title track). It is the fact that she has felt pain so deeply that makes the listener feel her victories even deeper near the end of the album, on ‘Third Eye’ (“you don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living”) and standout track ‘Mother’ (“mother make me a big tall tree/so I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me”).
- Beauty Behind the Madness—The Weeknd
On Beauty, The Weeknd embraced pop without compromising his dark, dark, dark lyrics. It’s hard to quote almost anything he says about the nameless women that move in and out of his life, but what makes this album complex is that—amidst his oft-regretful trysts with these women (“in my dark times baby/this is all I could be”), the voice of Abel Tesfaye’s mother weighs heavy on his mind (“mama called me destructive/said it’d ruin me one day”). She appears throughout the album as the good angel on his devilish shoulder, and as he wrestles with whether the fast life is the good life, we find that the Ice King of Pop is not rotten to the core. Nowhere is this more evident than the end of the album, when—his mother’s voice absent—he hopes for something real in a relationship and concedes, “but if not, I hope you find somebody to love.” Feelings, engage.
I’m currently reading Between the World and Me, a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son on what it means to live free in a black body in America at this time. I am certainly no expert on the black experience in America, but these albums have done as much for me in seeking to understand it as my students’ personal reflections and my own independent reading have.
- Summertime ’06—Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ 20 song debut album describes the scene on Long Beach, California, where Staples implores if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Kendrick’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly attempts to moralize many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips the fight between good and bad from the conversation to offer striking insights like, “I never vote for presidents/the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” The album challenges and engages as Staples does not attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it is like to be a youth in the suburbs we are afraid to talk about, the ones we whisper about without thinking about the real children and parents and siblings there fighting to survive while we cast judgment and proclaim to know what they need. “My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the middle of a world that is fighting over the value of a black body, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we’re somewhere in between.”
- To Pimp a Butterfly—Kendrick Lamar
Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar, amidst massive stardom, promised to bring Compton to Hollywood and the White House and did just that. In many interviews he talked about a nation that wants to use him—an exception to the rule of how many kids succeed coming from a neighborhood like his—by selling his body and value for profit, aka pimping a butterfly. Rather than settling for the totally justifiable route of simmering criticisms of corporate America (“I can see the dollar in you,” Lamar states in the voice of Uncle Sam attempting to buy and sell him), Lamar explores every wall that contains him, including the mentality that tells him he doesn’t deserve to speak for the people. “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression,” he requests of the listener. Some articles said this is a specifically black album, and how are white people to take it? I find myself learning something new with each listen, not forming opinions based on empty politics, but from the perspective of a real human with real hurts rooted in real racism, as King Kunta takes me for a walk in his shoes while “everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”
- Rodeo—Travi$ Scott
Although Vince and Kendrick offered up incredible takes on the black experience in America, there was something about Travi$ Scott’s debut Rodeo that really affected me. Forget that it features the best guest verses from the likes of The Weekend, Justin Bieber, and 2 Chainz. In an age where Drake’s overconfessional raps reign supreme, his antithesis is Travi$ Scott, a Houston emcee offering almost zero personal details about his life. “Give you some of me, you want all of me,” he groans on the first track, and it is this statement that defines the album’s themes. On the cover of Rodeo is an action figure version of Travi$, a man who himself almost never poses with his face fully visible to the camera (seriously, check out his Instagram). We live in a time where black culture is lauded while black lives are taken too soon, with no consequence to anyone but the families and communities that are left without them. So what does it mean when a rapper like Scott intentionally does not allow you into every corner of his life? It could be his means of hiding one’s self for survival, something Coates talks to his son about in Between the World and Me. It could be his way of not being pimped as corporate America’s butterfly. On a single song, Scott celebrates the fast life (“pray for my liver when I’m up in this club”), then later laments, “I’m tired of seeing black kids’ faces on Fox.” Some may scoff at a man who tries to be political while trying to party, but Rodeo, in its very name a form of entertainment to some that is life-or-death for the actual participants, is just the outline of a portrait of a black man who demands the right to a truly free life, as he wants it, on no one’s terms but his own. “I don’t want your apple pie, mama,” he boasts on the finale, “I need my own pepper, please/my own legacy/my own recipe.” We owe this freedom to choose our own paths to more people.