Reflecting on the past twelve months, 2016 has surely been one whiplash of a year. The number of mass shootings in the country have risen immensely; the atmosphere in the Middle East has continued its downward spiral in safety resulting in an influx of immigrants; ‘Black Lives Matter’ shed a spotlight on the modern-day mistreatment of people of color; and, most unforgettably, a former reality star billionaire managed to seize one of the most powerful positions in the world: President of the United States. Despite this year’s rocky timeline of events, there was one aspect of 2016 that we never really lost hope in: music. With 2016 smeared by social revolutions and international political crises, music gave us the crucial reminder that it will always be there for us. In honor of the year’s closing, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite albums we enjoyed listening to at the office.
10. James Blake – The Colour In Anything (Polydor)
Released: May 6
Since his rise to the limelight in 2011 with his 11-track self-titled album, James Blake has continuously proven that he is a master of constructing melancholy, electro-textured rhythms. The Colour in Anything is a reminder of this gift. As Blake experiments with vocal modifications and minimalist instruments, he maintains his ominously gloomy guise. Rather than offering a personal memoir through his music (as many artists did this year), Blake brings a mood. A masterfully pieced together mood, at that.
9. Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL Recordings)
Released: May 6
From Anderson .Paak to AlunaGeorge to Vic Mensa to The Internet’s Syd the Kyd, Kaytranada’s debut LP was no stranger to collaborations. Although the majority of tracks off of 99.9% featured guest vocalists, the album would be nothing without Kaytranada’s groovy, hip-hop-influenced bounce beats. His seamless interlacing of rap, funk, R&B, soul and dance brings out the good vibes, leaving listeners itching to take it to the dance floor.
8. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Released: September 30
Following a 5-year album hiatus, Bon Iver edged their way back into the music scene with their most unconventionally innovative album to date. The song titles themselves—“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, “715 – CRΣΣKS”, “22 (Over S∞∞n)”—indicate the album’s nod to the digital age. With modernity in mind, 22, A Million embraces the reverberations of synths, loops and pitch-shifted vocals to express a journey of self-understanding. With each album release, Bon Iver has proven their potency as a solid indie rock band. This time, it’s displayed through the band’s ability to maintain their beloved indie folk sound in the midst of futuristic melodies.
7. Anderson .Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool)
Released: January 15
Handpicked as Dr. Dre’s latest protégé, Anderson .Paak was a major contributor to the hip-hop kingpin’s comeback album (Compton), where he co-wrote and sang on six songs. It was an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who had been practically unknown at the time. With his sophomore record, Malibu, .Paak proved why he had secured such a remarkable collaboration: his unique vision. .Paak doesn’t allow himself to be restricted under one genre, unifying hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and rock elements to masterfully craft his own kind of soulful funk. He’s somewhat of a musical Renaissance man with his knack for singing, rapping, writing and playing multiple instruments. This year saw nothing short of experimentalist albums, and .Paak pushed the boundaries of rap and soul even further.
6. Travis Scott – Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (Grand Hustle/Epic)
Released: September 2
Not many artists are allowed the opportunity to collaborate with their idol during their career, yet 24-year old Travis Scott was able to do so by his second full-length release. A few years back, Scott spoke of his profound admiration for Kid Cudi—even shedding tears the first time the pair met—and now, his sophomore record showcases not one, but two collaborations with the man who inspired him most. He remains consistent with his signature sound, first introduced to us after the release of Rodeo; Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight is a more refined, cohesive production that exemplifies Scott’s growth as an artist. While the record boasts collaborations with Cudi and Kendrick Lamar, Scott manages to hold his own in the midst of some the most reputable rap lyricists in the game. Scott managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump this year, and it only looks as if he will continue to improve from here.
5. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo (GOOD Music/Def Jam)
Released: February 14
Finalized as a 20-track album, The Life Of Pablo is probably Kanye West’s most disorganized release to date. After debuting the first version back in February, West continued a months-long renovation of the record through inserts, splits and redesigns of various tracks. His fixation on updating the “unfinished” album in a frenzied manner offers a glimpse into the inner-workings of West’s experimentally imaginative mind. After all, he repurposed online streaming services as an artistic medium where he was able to make modifications to his art as he saw fit. It’s as if the album’s messiness purposefully echoes the chaos and disarray of West’s own life. He details the superficiality of celebrity life, reflects on past relationships and finds fault in his workaholic nature for being a distant husband and father. As a whole, Pablo is an inside look into the broken psyche of a “38-year old 8-year old.”
4. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service (Epic/Sony Records)
Released: November 11
To make a return to the music scene after almost two decades is no easy feat, and yet, A Tribe Called Quest did it with a bang. Tribe could have easily given us a nostalgic album that reworked the group’s legendary discography from the 90s, but instead the record is a modern update to the minimalistic, jazz-leaning instrumentals and poetic rap that skyrocketed the rap group to fame. We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service is an album of social conscience that is part-impassioned protest album and part-eulogy for a deceased member. Hearing Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Consequence rap of social struggles relevant to 2016 seems a bit unreal at times; but one thing’s for certain, Tribe concluded their career in an enduring fashion, releasing one of their greatest works to date.
3. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (Self-Released)
Released: May 12
Chance the Rapper has never been signed to a label. And, as this release reminded us, he doesn’t need one. Sans label ownership, Coloring Book seized a spot on the Billboard 200, found its way onto multiple radio airwaves and secured numerous Grammy nominations under its belt. Graduating from his drug-induced Acid Rap days, Chance’s brand-new life as a family man has influenced him into rapping of happiness, admiration, and love. Chance excels at walking the fine line between gospel and rap, even mixing in some emotional slow jams and house party ballads to create a mixtape that is—at its core—a joyous celebration of life.
2. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Def Jam)
Released: August 20
After four years of meticulously escaping the fame that followed the success of Channel Orange, Frank Ocean returns with another soulful, poetically-driven record. While other breakout artists have fallen victim to commercializing their music, often recreating their sound in order to secure themselves radio plays, Ocean managed to preserve his elusive artistic voice. Veering from the intricately ambitious production of Channel Orange, Blonde opts for more minimalistic, stripped-down arrangements. Ocean seems to be longingly soul-searching as he sings of sexuality, heartbreak, growth and self-reflection. Although we will never really know for certain the exact context behind his libretto, his words always seem to resonate within us in a relatable way. Despite the heart aching delay on its release, Ocean successfully delivered a modern masterpiece.
1. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Saint/Columbia)
Released: September 30
During a time when tense race relations seemed to have escalated throughout the country, Solange delivered A Seat At The Table, an ode to the trials, tribulations and triumphs of black women in modern-day America. The record presents neo-soul ballads, jazz variations and wistfully smooth vocals to emotionally encapsulate the enduring history and experiences of the black community. Woven together with skits from the likes of her mother, Tina Knowles, and her father, Matthew Knowles, she invites us to understand her family’s struggle with open arms. It’s a celebration of black culture and one of the most significant politically-charged albums to date.