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.
On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.
Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.
Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.
President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.
Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.
Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”
This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.
I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.
After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.
Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).
But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?
I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”
As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.
What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)
When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.
It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.
A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.
I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.
When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.
I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.
If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.
If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.
Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.
I wanted to take some time to talk about the greatest year of my life so far, but I couldn’t find a way to do it without being sappy. So, since I love music and since this year gave us some phenomenal music, why not write about my year through the soundtrack to it? After writing this out, it seems I said more about the music than myself; I think it’s fitting though, since this music says more about me than I ever could.
Here are my 14 favorite albums of 2013. Yes, it would make more sense to choose 13 albums for the year 2013; but I refuse to let you box me in like that, world!
Honorable Mentions: J. Cole’s Born Sinner, Atoms for Peace’s AMOK, A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP., HAIM’s Days Are Gone, Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob, The Great Gatsby Soundtrack.
This was the first album of the year to catch my attention. The album starts out with “Acts of Man,” a sad song about how terrible humans are to one another when it comes to love: “Let’s promise every girl we marry we’ll always love them when we probably won’t.” It’s a sad sentiment, but by the end of the song he admits to his girl that he is just as bad as other men, “sorry, selfish, trying to improve.” It’s the beginning of an album full of blunt, honest confessions about what it means to be human. When the end of the album comes, you feel like being a little more honest with yourself and others too. “There’s still hope so I think we’ll be fine,” the singer offers, “in these disastrous times.” It was a great start to a year of self-improvement and honest admissions in difficult situations.
13. Love in the Future, John Legend
This was not a year of romantic love for me, but that’s okay: I got to live vicariously through John Legend’s swooning love album. I never thought I would like one of his albums as much as I did 2004’s Get Lifted, but this one had me (and my students) crooning along often. When the title was announced awhile back, I thought Legend might describe what love will like in future times; instead, he describes love the way it should look right now. “I wanna get caught up in your love tonight/you can help me just breathe.” It’s these simple ideas that make Legend’s album a hopeful look into true love.
I have always enjoyed Drake’s music, but everyone knows I have beef with him. I used to hate how he would brag about being the best rapper just before admitting how self-conscious he is. It made both ideas of Drake, the boastful and the heartbroken, ring hollow for me. But with Nothing Was the Same, I got over it. He’s doing exactly what I, and most of us, do; we all pretend to be more confident than we are to help us through times of extreme vulnerability.This album is a perfect example of how things change and people grow apart. On “Connect,” Drake makes this confession: “She used to say, ‘You can be whoever you want, even yourself’/I show up knowing exactly who I was and always leave as someone else.” In my first year of post-grad life, as I moved to Dallas, lost good friends, made new ones, and searched for myself, this was an album I needed along for the ride to figure just who exactly I am.
11. Let’s Be Still, The Head and the Heart
Let’s Be Still is music for the soul. While it may not have the same amount of songs that burrow into your mind like their self-title debut, Let’s Be Still explores the changing of seasons in powerful ways. On the title track, the singers ask you how necessary it is to keep up with the modern world: “The world’s just spinning a little too fast/If we don’t slow down soon, we might not last/So just for a moment, let’s be still.” I’m in a time of my life where everything seems to be swirling around me and I’m just trying to catch my breath. When I put this album on, the band gives me no choice but to sit and listen for a spell. And I’m not going to argue.
10. Because the Internet, Childish Gambino
When Donald Glover said that people who loved Camp would hate his new album, I trusted the guy and stopped looking forward to Because the Internet. But now I’ll never believe the guy again. No one was better able to capture the feeling of being a young adult in 2013 than Gambino. “House full of homies/so why I feel so the opposite?” he asks. In the Internet Age, where we are all over-connected but feel more isolated than ever, Gambino brilliantly expresses these feelings lyrically and even musically.Much of the music seems disconnected from the moment, as some songs trudge along with computer-made beats filled with solitude while others find Childish seeming to change his mind about whether he wants to rap or sing midway through.He invites you to a party at one point, then realizes he didn’t invite all of these other people, and tells everyone to get out. Well, the album is no party, but you’re invited to the isolation afterward; on the last track when he says, “because the internet, mistakes are forever/but if we —- up on this journey, at least we’re together,” it’s a party we’re all familiar with these days.
I’ve been a fan of Pusha T since he proved himself to be the best guest on Kanye’s 2010 magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I followed what felt like hundreds of guest features where he constantly showed up the other emcees and I not-so-patiently waited for this album. Right before it dropped, I feared I had overhyped it with the three-year wait, but then my fears were put to rest. From the opener, “King Push,” where Push boasts that, “I made a lane ’cause they blocked ours,” to the absolute jam “Numbers on the Boards,” where he talks about his “36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day,” this album just makes me feel cool by proxy. Pusha thinks highly of himself, and you can’t help but feel the same about yourself while rapping along at embarrassing volumes in the car. Of course, it’s the serious moments where MNIMN really shines. On “40 Acres,” after reflecting on his family and how his mother left his father after 35 years of marriage, Pusha comforts her with these words: “You should never question if you ever stood a chance with him/Only question is: did you enjoy the dance with him?”What’s cooler than telling your mother you love her after bragging about your drug-dealing days?
With the way I freaked out about this album, most people would think this would be my #1 of the year. Not quite, but that’s no insult to Beyonce; there was just a lot of good music this year. I have long been obsessed with the Queen Bey for the fact that she seems perfect in every way. Not only did she have the coolest way of dropping an album (and ruining every other pop star’s year), Beyonce made the defining album of her career. With blunt honesty about her, uh, intimate moments with Jay Z, and her shunning of radio-friendly tunes to adopt the guise of Yoncé, an even cooler persona than Sasha Fierce, the Queen Bey made an album that surprises in ways I only thought possible from Kanye. It’s not just a feminist album; it’s an album for all of humanity to feel good about yourself. I woke up like this!
In a year of albums about what it means to be growing up right now in 2013, Vampire Weekend pretty much put it the best. “Age is an honor; it’s still not the truth/Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,” singer Ezra Koenig pontificates. The album is rife with thoughts like this, thinking about how we choose to grow up–if at all–and whether there is anyone out there who might save a little grace for us. At one point Koenig questions how God could choose to be so mysterious in his cheeky way (“through the fire and through the flame, you won’t even say your name/only ‘I am what I am’/but who could ever live that way?”)–almost as if to really ask the listener whether we ourselves could benefit from a little mystery in the age of the over-share.
6. Reflektor, Arcade Fire
It’s been said a thousand times over, so I won’t harp on how joyous Arcade Fire’s new album sounds. What I loved about this album is the influence the hundred(ish)-piece band took from a Kierkegaard essay, “The Present Age,” which basically states that we live in a time where people would rather reflect on doing great things than actually doing them. Amidst all of this sitting around, Arcade Fire looks to music as our possible redemption (taking from another influence, that of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice) but the ultimate ending, though beautifully crafted, seems to find the two lovers separated by the inevitability of death.But this sad conclusion seemed the only possible way to go when Butler questions halfway through the first song: “We’re still connected/but are we even friends?” It’s yet another moral tale for our times about searching for something more in our isolated world. Amidst all that joyous noise is a lesson to be learned: Are we doing anything real or are we just reflektions?
People didn’t seem to care for Magna Carta, but I think it was one of the best things Hov has ever done. If he had cut two or three songs, I feel like it would have received a much better rap. But who cares what you people think! The concept of the blackout art alone (Basquiat once said that he blacks words out not so that you’ll pay less attention but so you’ll pay even more attention; Jay Z said America is the same way, trying to black out the plight of African-Americans) makes the album worth a look and listen. Tracks like “Picasso Baby,” “Tom Ford,” and “****withmeyouknowigotit” are instant Jay classics, but it’s deep cuts like “Oceans” that made the album. On the Frank Ocean-assisted track, Jay and Ocean contemplate what it means to “make it” in America as a black man. “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo,” Ocean concedes. Elsewhere Jay Z talks about how his success gives many ignorant Americans the excuse to think that him “coming from under the thumb of this regime” is an “everyday thing” for African-Americans. At this time in my life, when I am learning about and trying to fight the social inequalities of our nation, Jay Z’s words cut deep and keep my eyes open to the injustices we have yet to overcome.
This gal. If you had asked anyone which female artist would release the best pop album this year, Lorde would not have been anyone’s answer because we didn’t even know who she was. But now, the results are in. Though Beyonce came through and took over the end of the year, Lorde had our ears for most of it. This album dances the lines between pop, hip-hop, and indie. But the real greatness of this album comes from the 16-now-17 year old’s incredibly mature outlook on the world: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” she recognizes. The “Royals” singer took no prisoners in dismissing the culture of materialism we have all become new slaves to (as Kanye put it in less radio-friendly terms). While she wrestles with the mainstream (my personal favorite is when she says, “I’m kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air”) she also deals with growing up and growing old: “I know we’re not everlasting/we are train wrecks waiting to happen/one day the blood won’t flow so gladly/one day we’ll all get still.” It’s a deep thought for a girl who was only 16 when she wrote it, but it’s an honest look at mortality that most of our “we’re gonna live forever” youth culture never bothers to think about.
3. The 20/20 Experience: Part 1, Justin Timberlake
I have no shame in saying that this album was one of my most played of 2013. It was the feel-good album of the year. I disliked a lot of Part 2, but Part 1 had me doing my pseudo-Justin impersonation (both dancing and singing) all. year. long. There is not one song on this album that will make you feel bad. From the R&B-infused opener “Pusher Lover Girl” to the slow-burning closer of “Blue Ocean Floor,” I was all about this long-player. In a time where we want everything fast and hate when something demands our attention for longer than a few minutes, JT asked you to sit for longer than an hour to listen to radio jams that lasted almost 9 minutes. It was a bold comeback, and that confidence in the music as well as the confidence of the lyrics (“I heard you tell your girl friend you could do better/well, I’m the best ever”) made this album my pump-up soundtrack any time I needed confidence.
The National’s new album got me in all my feels this year. I went through a lot of transitions and growing up this year, and The National was there for all of it. “If I stay here, trouble will find me,” Berninger acknowledges on the title track. I wasn’t in any particular trouble this year, but I knew there were things, people, or even just thoughts I needed to get away from. Trouble Will Find Me is an album about recognizing that where you are may not be destructive at the moment, but staying put might be your downfall. “I need somewhere to be,” Berninger notes, “but I can’t get around the river in front of me.” In the end, you get the feeling that to grow into the person you are supposed to become, it’s not going around the river that is going to help; it’s through. On the cusp of those defining moments, The National provides the perfect backdrop for feelings of fear and insecurity just before taking the next step.
1. Yeezus, Kanye West
I hate to not surprise anyone, but Yeezy did it again. When this album came out, I did not expect it to be #1 on my list for most of the year. It’s abrasive, sometimes unpleasant to listen to, and in general not for mixed company. But over time, the ideas and the music got into my system and I could not get them out. At the height of his musical creativity and in a moment where America loves to hate him (like most moments), Kanye embraced the idea of himself as a villain (“the monster about to come alive again,” he warns on the opener) and made us all think about our place in this world and who’s on top of us. On “New Slaves,” he makes an uncomfortable sermon about how we are all enslaved to materialism, racism, corporations, and societal standards in general. We have come to accept too many things as okay in our culture, and while we reject Kanye as unacceptable, he asks us to consider what should really be unacceptable: a man who believes that he is made in God’s image despite the fact that he’s only “doing 1% of what God wants me to do right now” or a culture where people hate themselves so much that they cut musicians down who they have never even bothered to really listen to. When Kanye calls himself a god, or calls himself Yeezus, we call it blasphemy and write him off. Meanwhile he explains over and over again that he’s not saying he is the equivalent of Jesus, but spent too many years pretending he wasn’t made in the image of God, wasting time drowning in self-loathing and other people’s negative opinions of him. Instead of rejecting his sermon, perhaps it’s time we hear it for what it’s worth, take the good parts out, and leave the rest. Kanye made the album quickly, writing many of the lyrics in less than an hour, as a way of showing us that for all of its imperfections there is some truth to saying what’s on your mind and expressing your frustration with the world in both right and wrong ways. Yeezus is an album about the state of affairs in America in 2013. Its brilliance lies it in its imperfections; even if it’s not all right, at least Kanye is trying to tell the truth, or even just search for it. As I fail over and over again at being an adult and a teacher, Yeezus was a message I needed this year. I am mostly wrong about everything, definitely imperfect, but I am still made in God’s image. We all need to pay less attention to what other people think of us and more attention to how we can keep reaching up and beyond ourselves.
What albums are on your list? I’m looking forward to what 2014 has to offer, but I’m pretty sure this guy will have the best album: https://soundcloud.com/therealbenshady/stoplights.