The Top Albums of 2016
by Tastemakers Staff, published December 26th 2016
10. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
If the rule is that rap is a young man’s game, A Tribe Called Quest is the exception. Dropping eighteen years after The Love Movement, Tribe’s secret album We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service rounds up a slew of current heavy hitters, including Kanye and Andre 3000, and effortlessly assimilates them into their staple sound, creating both an inspired elevation of the boom-bap technique and a masterful reminder of the everlasting influence Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have had on the latest generation of rappers.
Listening to We Got it From Here… is like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years – not much has changed, but that familiarity is exactly what you’ve needed. There is a greater sense of urgency here though, as Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and sporadic Tribe contributor Jarobi White trade lines reflecting on the plights of modern society, focusing particularly on the state of black life within it. Tribe have never shied away from dishing out harsh critiques, and they do so here as a call to arms, asking listeners to mobilize against the increasingly devastating atrocities being rained down upon us.
The only tarnish on an otherwise shining album is the sad reminder of Phife Dawg’s untimely death. Fans can rest assured, however, that Phife went out swinging, laying down some of his most acerbic lines to date, tackling racism, gentrification and everything in between. Ultimately, Tribe and company have produced a potent political record that serves as a glimmer of goodness in an otherwise hellish landscape, reminding us that though the future may seem bleak, hard work and unity can make it a little better.
- Sarah Kotowski (Economics)
9. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead’s ninth album is both familiar and path breaking. Beautiful instrumentation combined with pertinent and heart-tugging lyrics make a sound that is quintessentially Radiohead, while still being something completely new.
The opening track, making heavy use of Jonny Greenwood’s stringed instrument orchestration, paints a nice picture of what’s to come. “Burn the Witch” is similar in tone and energy to some of the band’s other opening tracks, and not too crazy melodically, but the use of strings so prominently is something new, cueing us into the way this album is unique. If you were to strip down the songs of A Moon Shaped Pool to their most basic melodies, they would sound how you might expect Radiohead songs to sound (which is, in and of itself, fantastic). But then, the songs aren’t stripped down. Intricate strings, layered and looped vocals, warm tones, multiple guitars, and first-rate production add to the album, pushing it from a good collection of tracks to an excellent Radiohead album.
Radiohead is anything but predictable, but after listening to the album, one can’t help but notice how well A Moon Shaped Pool fits into their discography. Once again, Radiohead has ventured to a new area of the musical landscape and planted their flag, making their mark and staking new territory for the rest of us to just enjoy.
- Jonathan Vayness (Psychology)
8. Beyoncé - Lemonade
Lemonade is a rousing album, encompassing intimate, personalized experiences and integrating them into a politicized memorandum. The album lacks almost all aspects of prior Beyoncé releases – over-the-top vocal flare, dance-ready tracks, and a predisposition to both club and radio success – but it’s very clear from just one listen-through of Lemonade that none of these are things Beyoncé aspires to make anymore as an artist. Using the motif of infidelity as a proxy, Lemonade explores the fervor of passion and pride through the lens of a black woman in America.
Songs such as “Don’t Hurt Yourself” demonstrate the duality of Lemonade. Lyrically, the song draws parallels between emotional reflex and historical context (“Motivate your ass, call me Malcolm X”). References to black empowerment and America’s history with race are abundant throughout the visual album, which even goes so far to incorporate poetry by Warshan Shire, eloquently accentuating the themes brought out musically. The closing song, “Formation”, crystallizes her message with a proud affirmation of identity, utilizing even facial features as a symbol of pride and even defiance (“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”). Through this, we as listeners begin to understand how Lemonade stands out not just because of its beautiful production and profound emotional message, but because of how it breathes life into the phrase “the personal is political.”
- Nikolas Greenwald (Chemical Engineering)
7. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
22, A Million is Justin Vernon’s distorted, obfuscating, difficult and unbelievably beautiful magnum opus. Where before the man known as Bon Iver trafficked in ghostly acoustic folk songs and richly orchestrated chamber pop, he has now embraced a dark world of electronically processed sounds. From the crumbling vocal drone that begins the album to the glitched-out vocoder on “715 – CRΣΣKS” and the algorithmic splatters of saxophone on “____45_____” there’s an immediately apparent phase shift in Bon Iver’s sonic direction. Even the song titles are strung through with obscure symbols and stylizations. But even when the songs are shrouded in carefully calculated randomness, an eerie loveliness and power manages to shine through it all. Vernon’s voice is as stunning as ever, his harmonies impeccable and his lyrics, blurred by invented words and obtuse metaphors though they are, manage to convey raw emotion and ask soul-searching questions at every step.
This all ties in, of course, to the central theme of the album: searching for order within the cruelty and randomness of the universe. This quest is not easy, nor is it linear, nor is the result exactly clear. Vernon makes many allusions to faith and God throughout the album, sometimes to disavow and other times to praise them. In the end he admits that spirituality ain’t gonna buy the groceries and seems to give in to chaos, but he retains hope. “What a river don’t know is: to climb out and heed a line,” he says, and whether or not he has fully learned to do what the river cannot, it gives him hope to try. In an era as uncertain as this one, an exploration of chaos and an affirmation of order might be exactly what we need. We can thank Bon Iver for giving us just that.
- Craig Short (Music Industry)
6. Mitski – Puberty 2
When you’re someone like me, false hope is part of your daily routine. You brush your teeth, pull on a white button down, and delete Tinder for the tenth time after Beecher, 23, asks you if your pussy is “as tight as they say.” You mentally resolve to find “they” and punch them in the dick. You later hear about the new big indie band, googling them only to find a sea of micro-fringe bangs, safety pins and names like Chad and Denver. You don’t know why you expected any different.
Upon hearing of a “Mitski,” you set your expectations low. But, this time, Google surprises you. Here’s a female indie musician, a Miyawaki among the Denvers, a Japanese transplant in the musical landscape equivalent of Portland, Oregon. Here, finally, is someone like you.
You listen to “Your Best American Girl” on the walk to class and your eyes water. You can’t tell if you’re sad or it’s windy. Neither, really. You’re no stranger to crying on Huntington Avenue, but this time is different. Mitski has encapsulated a feeling you know SO WELL, of being born in America and resenting it and yet wishing you were a part of it so, so badly. Anybody that’s ever brought their mom’s cooking to lunch and been laughed at because it “smelled bad” can relate to her line “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” first apologetically, now defiant.
You take this moment of complete self-identification and you relish in it, and it feels like being kicked in the throat and makes you late to class but you don’t care. You don’t get to experience moments like these often.
- Allison Bako (Animation)
5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Mainlining his career highlights into an intoxicatingly imbalanced rush of gospel, rap, rant, soul, and pop, The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s discography strewn across the Internet in jagged fragments, his artistic psyche repurposed as molding clay in the hands of a master, manic sculptor – or, perhaps more aptly, as vivid pools of paint on Picasso’s palette.
West, ever the perfectionist, nonetheless revels in such potent bricolage. One could rightly call The Life of Pablo a study in artistic contradiction – excepted the recurring explorations of benediction, pious and personal, that may have led the artist to call it “a gospel album.” Its religious moments emerge from strange places, ones befitting an artist as eclectic as Kanye – on the menacing dancefloor of “Wolves,” between the sheets on “Waves,” and within the naked opulence of “Saint Pablo.”
There are God dreams to be had, certainly, but The Life of Pablo makes holier still humanity, in all its intricacies and excesses. There’s no mistaking the reverence in West’s utilization of Chance the Rapper’s joyous wordplay, Rihanna’s sexy sampling of Nina Simone, and Frank Ocean’s icy falsetto. His thoughts on fame, fortune, family, fealty, and fatherhood are all, through coursing momentum and remarkable production, rendered equally sacrosanct.
But what’s most striking about the album is how it defies description at every terms, stretching its hands wide to encompass all of West’s most groundbreaking musical feats. “FML,” the kind of sobering anti-love song only West could conceive of, is filtered through raw 808s production; “Feedback,” a jarring, chilling scream of sonic manipulation, is ripped straight from the B-side of Yeezus.
There’s growth in West’s ability to blend his career of strengths into one sonic mixture, and progress in his willingness to let collaborators share his spotlight. The Life of Pablo perhaps best reflects an artist who, having grasped the lasting fame he’s always proclaimed to seek, is more than ever using the path and people that led him there to explore the realities and fantasies of his protean lifestyle – some dark, others twisted, and all characteristically beautiful.
- Isaac Feldberg (Journalism)
4. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
For a long time, Will Toledo was the embodiment of a Bandcamp artist. When a friend sent me a link to Twin Fantasy, it immediately triggered the sense of connection that comes from a musician who, though decidedly unpolished, holds the listener’s attention by being exactly like them. Tracks like “Stop Smoking” were genuinely charming, but it was hard to imagine Will Toledo as much more than a bedroom musician honing his craft for a forever limited audience.
Around 2014, however, something changed. A genre that had felt like an extension of the average local music scene began to have genuine breakout successes. Records like Alex G’s DSU and Teen Suicide’s I Will Be My Own Hell Because There Is a Devil Inside My Body began to garner critical and commercial attention, with the artists going on national tours to support their work. The bedroom genre was growing, and this came to a head in 2015 when Car Seat Headrest landed an unexpected deal with indie giant Matador Records. After the compilation album Teens of Style, more eyes than ever were on the band who, after six years of home recording, were about to put out their studio debut.
Enter Teens of Denial. In an epic double LP, Toledo showcases heightened songwriting skills with anthems like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Drugs With Friends”, tackling themes of God, depression, and drug use with all the ambition and execution of a classic rock titan. The album builds to a fervor, climaxing with the cathartic eleven minute centerpiece “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”. Here, Toledo shouts out the woes of coming into adulthood ill-prepared, climaxing in a strained cry: “I give up.” Teens of Denial is a record that stands on its own, but the true joy in this music comes from the progression of Toledo’s career. Where Twin Fantasy felt like music anyone could make, Teens of Denial is larger than life.
- Tim DiFazio (English)
3. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Pinegrove’s Cardinal, released in February on Run for Cover Records, has managed to lose none of its initial appeal throughout the year. Though only 31 minutes long, so much feeling is condensed into the record’s eight brief tracks. Frontman Evan Stephens Hall sings mostly about relationships – about friends, family and romantic partners. It’s a fitting theme for a record bookended by “Old Friends” (“I got too caught up in my own shit… I should call my parents when I think of them/ should tell my friends when I love them”) and “New Friends,” a hopeful track about feeling alone but working towards finding, yes, new friends. The twangy alt-country sound of Pinegrove complements Hall’s lyrical voice and sanguine endings: “One day I won’t need your love,” and “I wanna visit the future and dance in a field of light.” And there’s comfort to be found in Hall’s problems, in how personal and specific they are but at the same time so easily relatable – like a close friend patting you on the back and listening to what is bothering you.
The album features two previously released tracks: “New Friends,” which was featured on Everything so Far, a compilation of all of their work through November 2015, and a re-recorded version of “Size of the Moon” from their 2014 self-released Mixtape 2. In the Cardinal version, Hall’s desperate crooning “Fine you’re right/ but I wonder what it feels like/ to stop feelin’ so alive,” is one of the most attention grabbing moments on the whole record. Every track on this record contains such moments. With one of the best records of 2016 under their belt, great things should be expected from Pinegrove in years to come.
- Alex Wetzel (Business Administration)
2. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie could still be alive today- he could even be a no-name debut rock artist without a 40+ year reputation as a musical chameleon and auteur visionary- and 2016’s ★ would still be a masterpiece. Nobody realized upon first listen that ★, released just two days before his passing and on the eve of his 69th birthday, was in fact a death album. Musically, Bowie is as experimental as ever here; the frenetic jazz of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” the stream-of-consciousness flow of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” the calculated aggression of “Girl Loves Me,” the heartbreakingly confessional “I Can’t Give Everything Away” & “Dollar Days,” and the autobiographical title track all stand tall as short but richly detailed stories. Then there is “Lazarus,” a slow-burning track sung from the darkness of Limbo, which showcases Bowie at his strongest and most confrontational, yet also at his most vulnerable and scared. The album is a triumph regardless of circumstance, but ★’s initially unknown status as an intentional parting gift does not make it tragic; it makes it even more poignant and beautiful. Lyrics become deeper, tracks become more somber and, of course, the LP’s true nature is revealed: a haunting, beautiful love letter directly from Bowie’s inner psyche. Not a love letter to family, friends, fans, or his career, but to life itself. ★ is not a goodbye, and not a new beginning either. It is simply Bowie’s final mortal thoughts come to life, too abstract to quantify in just words and too breathtakingly moving to go unsaid. There will never be another David Bowie, because he’s not a pop star, not a film star, not a white star; he’s a dark, blinding, Blackstar.
- Jason Levy (Marketing)
1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Louise Bourgeois often referenced her upbringing as her art’s main inspiration. Raised by an affectionate, invalid mother and an adulterous, tyrannical father, the French-American artist channeled her frustration into large phallic sculptures and installation pieces, like one where a guillotine hangs over her parents’ chateau. In 1997, The New York Times asked famed art-world participants for answers to the questions “what is art,” “what is good art,” and “who decides,” to which Bourgeois responded, “Something is a work of art when it has filled its role as therapy for the artist. I don’t care about the audience. I’m not working for the audience. The audience is welcome to take what they can.”
Whether Frank Ocean has studied Bourgeois’s works remains unanswered, but he and his art are like interpretations of her brilliance. “Play these songs, it’s therapy momma / They paying me momma / I should be paying them / I should be paying y’all honest to God,” he trails on “Futura Free,” which plays out like Blonde’s take on the bonus joint. As a devoted fan, I can’t say I’m grateful for Ocean paying me back with four years of seclusion and an endless staircase, but I am appreciative that he allows listeners to share in his catharsis. On Blonde, Ocean reminisces on love and life over guitar-guided arrangements in songs that constantly feel like they’re shapeshifting. His enigmatic Stevie Wonder rendition on “Close To You” or his line “I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension” in “White Ferrari” sit heavier over multiple listens, and Blonde’s replay value stunningly grows over time as a result.
One moment that stands out to me every listen, and efficiently captures Blonde’s essence, is the beginning fifteen-or-so seconds of “Self Control.” A chipmunk voice erupts from the quiet desolation left after “Skyline To”’s onslaught of instrument and vocal layering. “Poolside convo, about your summer last night,” he squeaks, only going higher in pitch until what one would expect to be a beat drop. Instead, a slick guitar lick slides in between his pitch-shifted bars, and his real voice swoons: “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” In all these nuanced moments, I’m amazed at how Blonde continues to shock me with neither loudness nor aggression, but tenderness and sheer poetry. Through Frank Ocean’s therapeutic recollections of past dates and acid trips, Blonde stands as nothing less than a work of art.
- Anu Gulati (Computer Science/Math)