16 Albums of 2016 Part 2 (#8-1)
For the most part, you'll have to find your own way to listen to the albums - most of them are available on all the major streaming services - but in case you're new to the artist, I'll post at least one video link from a track on the album. Enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter @PlayListedPod. Happy Holidays!
#8 Telefone - NoName
Many of us Chance the Rapper fans have been following this long-time Chicago collaborator (formerly NoName Gypsy) for a while now, so when news came of her debut LP, it took me exactly zero minutes to download Telefone. And it's even better than I imagined it could be. Not only does she show up with what she does best - a gentle flow of honest and poetic wordplay - but she brings in other Chicagoan artists, like Saba and Eryn Allen Kane, for some help with hooks. This album feels like a graceful and deeply mature version of adolescence, still holding on to childhood but constantly hit with daily doses of tragic reality, all in the localized context of her unsafe yet "happy" city of Chicago. My only complaint is that at 33 minutes Telefone is entirely too short, but I usually just end up listening to it twice in a row. It's hard for me to pick a highlight, but if I had to I would say the tracks "Yesterday," "Reality Check," and "Shadow Man." You can listen to the whole thing for free via Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/noname/sets/telefone
Released in late January, this whole album was my jam for the first quarter of 2016. You could find me spouting comparisons to Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope over a beer on the regular. Rih-Rih sets up her Anti-expectations album (her first for label, Roc Nation) with the very first chorus: "I got to do things my own way darling, will you ever let me, will you ever respect me? No." And so she does things her own way, and it is as glorious as it is, at times, surprising. While she's been showing her badassery for some time, ANTI expresses the whole gamut of emotions, including some Amy Winehouse-style vulnerability on "Love on the Brain." As much as I still love watching what the Drake-featured song "Work" does to a Toronto dance party, my highlights from this record are "Needed Me," and "Goodnight Gotham," and the first track that I quoted above, the SZA assisted "Consideration."
#6 22, A Million - Bon Iver
Having fallen deeply in love with Bon Iver's first two albums, I was nervous about 22, A Million - especially when they released the tracklist that featured a little more math than I feel comfortable with. It strays sonically from what I've come to expect from the band, but since my very first listen I've been absolutely mesmerized. Like Radiohead, what manages to remain in Bon Iver's ever shifting and evolving music is an atmosphere that accesses emotional language beyond words. It seems that as Justin Vernon experiments more and more with heavily filtered and produced sounds, his own voice ironically becomes clearer and more easily understood. So although this album is more electronic and even, at times, robotic, the songs themselves never lose a sense of human intimacy... which is exactly why I would like to make another comparison to Radiohead, but I'll let you make that connection on your own. The opening/title-ish track "22 (OVER S∞∞N)" seems especially relevant at the moment, and with a perfectly fitting sample taken from Mahalia Jackson's "How I Got Over," it holds on to some hope at the beginning of the record. My other choice tracks include "8 (Circle)," - which sounds a bit more like something from their self-titled album - and "33 "God"," which is embedded below in a video of the live release.
Before moving on to the top 5, I just want to say that this is the most ridiculous top 5 I can ever remember. #5-2 were some of the hardest spots to settle on, and for a while I considered making a 4-way tie. Seriously, so good. Ok, now that you're a bit more prepared for how great I think these albums are... on with the list!
#5 A Seat at the Table - Solange
Musically, conceptually, and as a package, A Seat at the Table is flawless. The scaled back production leaves room for the light piano and nearly counter-melodic bass lines, creating what sounds like conversation between the instrumentation and Solange's soft yet powerful vocals. I have trouble remembering a time when I so loved the use of interludes, in which she uses personal and generational voices (such as her parents, and No Limit label founder, Master P) to delve deeper into a broader experience of being black in America. Each interlude has echoes and hints of songs to come, allowing for smooth transitions between dialogue and melodies. Without question, "Cranes in they Sky" and "Where Do We Go" are two of my favourite songs of not only the album, but the year. Solange sings of strategies and questions that are both timeless and particularly pertinent, and offers songs as signs of healing and possibility without an ounce of naiveté, making ASATT one of the most hopeful collections of the year.
#4 Coloring Book - Chance the Rapper
If you are not yet a Chance fan, I simply don't know what to say to you. It seems like every time he puts out a new single, I forget about everything else that's out there. His rhymes are clever and playful and full of joyful energy. Chance has managed to do what only Kanye has come close to doing - he has married hip hop and gospel music in a believable way that stops just short of preaching. Praising, sure, but it's hard to sound judgmental when you take a "Smoke Break." The Kanye and Kirk Franklin featuring opener, "All We Got," is like part 2 of The Life of Pablo's "Ultralight Beam," similarly bringing the choirs together, literally and metaphorically, to begin the album. Sometimes I imagine it's like the start of a hip hop pageant - you can hear a delightful chaos of all the participants warming up their instruments and finding their way to their rightful places in the church. Then suddenly, the album is off with a bang, and while it takes some time for wistful reflection (on "Summer friends"), it's an animated celebration of life and creativity, bringing in a whole team Chicago collaborators, BJ the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods, NoName, Saba, and even the Chicago Children's Choir. He released one of my favourite tracks, "Angels," early, and it made my songs list of 2015, so that is obviously still a highlight, but I would add "Same Drugs," with its extended Peter Pan imagery around growing up and apart, and the closer, "Finish Line/Drown." "How Great," and even "Blessings," are nearly too much for this semi-post-evangelical, but both tracks have verses that are pure FIRE. Oh, and "All Night" has been my favourite non-Beyoncé track to spin at any and every party I've thrown this year.
#3 HEAVN - Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods' debut solo LP is phenomenal. Lyrically she shows off her skills as a poet and a spoken word artist, but the music never sounds like an afterthought. Woods defies genre, playing with folk, hip hop, hymns, r&b and lullabies to create a sense of childhood and nostalgia for everyone, even quoting Paula Cole's Dawson Creek theme song on "Lonely, Lonely." Like Solange's ASATT, HEAVN makes use of the interlude/skit in really effective ways; they mostly consist of black women leaving voice recordings talking about their experiences. One of these interludes describes how black children playing outside is proof of the resilience of black people, and it's hard not to hear that as the underlying theme and image of the entirety of HEAVN. It seems so fitting that Woods played a grandmotherly voice on Chance's "Sunday Candy," because on every track she says pointed and difficult wise words like only a grandmother can get away with. Also, like Chance and NoName, Jamila is deeply rooted in the city of Chicago, and regularly reflects on how her hometown has shaped her, not willing to give up any memories, no matter how painful. Speaking of memories, there is plenty of tribute on HEAVN to black women who have already gone ahead, paving a path of resistance, resilience, and healing. Every song on this record is pure art, so I hesitate to name specifics lest you only listen to only one piece of the puzzle. Especially since you can stream or download the whole album for free from Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/jamilawoods/sets/heavn
#2 Blonde - Frank Ocean
Like most of Twitter, I was anticipating this record HARD. Blonde (spelled with masculine on the album cover and feminine in your digital music player) was the second album released in a matter of days, breaking his 4 year streak of silence. For those in need of refresher on the timeline, the visual album, Endless was released only for Apple Musicfirst. It was relieving and beautiful, but when he surprised us with this second album, Blonde, it felt like summertime Christmas. Yet, while I'm happy to loudly defend any album on this list, I'd rather not talk about Blonde much at all, but just experience it alone, loudly over headphones. The album feels laced with subtle knowing glances and inside jokes, along with tornados of feelings and regrets. Frank manages to weave so many real-life tensions right in the music, as songs regularly referencing recreational drug use surround a lecture-interlude about the danger of drugs and alcohol, and descriptions of booty calls are directly before homages to Trayvon Martin - one of many young black men shot and killed by a cop. It's these uneven, and at times, stream-of-consciousness transitions that make this album sound so very beautifully human. So many moments stop me in my tracks - "Pink & White," "Nights," "Solo," and "Godspeed" are all regular reminders to keep your eyes open to the beauty and life around you, even in the pain and heartache. "Nikes," is the only video released from this album so far, and just as a warning this is NSFW.
#1 Lemonade - Beyoncé
To some extent I feel sorry for every other album released this year, because Lemonade is so much more than album of the year. It has been nothing less than iconic. For the third time now, Beyoncé has made what I was certain was the defining album of career; first with 4, then in 2011 with her self-titled visual/audial masterpiece, and yet somehow she managed to outdo her only real competition - herself! - with this beautiful masterpiece. With Lemonade we have stories within stories. At surface level, it continues the ongoing drama of Bey's personal life with husband Jay Z. "Is he cheating on me?" is the question posed early on, and the guiding emotion of the first half of the record. While on one level this is a story of reconciliation between two people, every song seems to beckon more characters in to the narrative using both lyrics and genre. By time time we reach "Daddy Lessons," we've heard the expected pop and R&B with some hip-hop nods, as well as straight up rock-and-roll in "Don't Hurt Yourself," when all of a sudden we get a deep-fried, New Orleans style, country song that asks us to consider not only Bey's relationship with her husband, but also her relationship with her father. Suddenly it's no longer just about a celebrity power couple, but reaches beyond them to the socio-political importance of all relationships within every community. It's about the hard emotional work that all mothers and wives inevitably do, and particularly the burden that black women carry for the people they love. It's about listening to one another's stories and holding each other up. It's about doing the personal inner work in order to "get in formation" and stay ready for whatever comes your way. It's about taking whatever random tart fruit you're given and making the absolute best damn summer beverage you possibly can. Even more than that, it's about not taking some white fangirl's word for it and paying attention for yourself.
As many of you probably know (or could guess), I've been hosting mini "screenings" of Lemonade at my house about once a month since its release in May. I might get in trouble for making even a light comparison to The Holy Bible, but I think our reading of media like Lemonade is only made richer when we watch it with others. Each and every person I've watched the film with has provided new insights and questions. While I prefer to experience Blonde in private, it's my belief that Lemonade is best when shared.
As happy as I am with this list, I was forced to leave out some truly fantastic collections. Honourable mentions go to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled, Unmastered, Anderson Paak’s Malibu, and Nao’s For All We Know. I’ve been also working on a list of 2016 songs that will purposely look at those not already featured on albums here, so check that out in about a week’s time. This year doesn’t seem to be getting any better, but I hope our collective reflecting and listening will prepare us for all the work left to do as we approach 2017.