As I write this, I am currently streaming Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (with plans to listen to Solange’s Seat at the Table afterwards). Bon Iver’s new album is beautifully dissonant, and is at once filled with the typical Bon Iver sound (indie instrumentals, hazy vocals), along with a new, atypical Bon Iver sound (heavy auto-tune, vocoder work, electronic influence). It has been five years since he last released an album, and his latest leaves the listener in a much different place than his last album left us. It takes us to new territory while remaining familiar. His work is still progressive and transcendent, but in different ways. He has moved on from a simpler acoustic singer-songwriter sound to something more dense and overlapping. When Bon Iver first entered the public eye he was seen as unconventional and progressive through the gloominess of his acoustic work. Still progressive, he is now turning the indie scene on its head by combining the acoustic with the electronic. The Bon Iver of the past is still alive, but the past five years have shaped him into a resurgent confidante of pain and piety.
A few days before Bon Iver released his new album, Danny Brown released his. It’s been three years since Danny released anything, and his latest album is vulnerable, scary, but downright stunning. It’s Danny Brown at his most intimate and most open. He is angry, depressed, but revenant. It is a radical, refreshed Danny, but he, too, still sounds familiar.
And that may be the theme of 2016. This year’s music releases, especially the most critically acclaimed, are all progressive in their own way. We got a new Kanye album, which steps towards a more gospel-influenced sound. We got a new Drake album, which took strides towards dancehall while staying safely within his old archetype. We got a new Kendrick Album (B-Sides from To Pimp a Butterfly). We got new Radiohead (it’s Radiohead…!), we got new Chance (gospel rap!), we got new Beyonce (poppy as fuck) and WE GOT NEW FRANK (my album of the year pick).
What’s interesting is that most music fans, critics and analysts have heard these names before. These are not artists swooping in from off the radar. These are names, and albums, that we have anticipated. The exact sound of these newest releases may have caught us off guard, but it still follows an established evolutionary arc.
And in that regard, I guess, this year has been a critic’s dream. I mean, the industry got a lot of easy 9/10 scores. Frank Ocean’s Blonde deserved it. So did Kanye. So did Radiohead. It’s obvious to many that prior to release, these albums were going to not only be critically acclaimed, but also end up on a lot of “end of the year” lists.
However, who could have told us that some of the best, and some of my personal favourite albums of the year would have been by people I had not yet heard of. I mean, Joey Purp released my personal third favourite hip-hop album of the year next to Danny Brown and Kanye. Joey’s 2016 mixtape iiiDrops is frantic and steeped in pain. At the beginning of the year, I would not have known his name, and now he is someone that I will be looking out for. Another artist that caught me off guard was Anohni. Her latest album Hopeless was an indie-electronic crisis of emotion. And yet again, someone that I hadn’t known at the year’s beginning has become one of my favourite artists at year’s end.
Furthermore, this year has been stacked with albums by bands that, while on the radar of many music critics, were not anticipated as highly as the ones mentioned above. Two of the better indie albums of the year are by groups I had heard of, but never paid much attention to—these being Porches and Car Seat Headrest. Also, Solange Knowles (yes, Beyonce’s sister) released a painstaking, heartbreaking R&B album. It is not a new sound, but is as polished as any of her sister’s pop work. Solange was a name that people knew, but an awareness of her genius was limited. With her latest release, that genius is simply impossible to disregard.
Young Thug has similarly reached a new level of respectability and maturity. As shown on his newest mixtape, JEFFREY, Young Thug has become a serious artist, even within the absurdity of his style. His vocalization, which was once a joke, is now a movement. It doesn’t matter if you understand what Thug says, because of the supreme confidence with which he says it.
This year has been an amalgamation of different artists from varying levels of relevancy growing and releasing fantastic music. We got great albums from artists that we expected. We saw some eye-opening new strides from artists on the outskirts, and we witnessed some break-outs from artists that came out of nowhere. 2016 has been an amazing year for music, and one that truly blew my mind almost daily. It has been a clusterfuck of releases from artists all over the map, and as a music fan, it truly has been something to revel in.
Below are ten albums, not ranked, or in any specific order, that I think are necessary to understand the music of 2016… That being said, of course, 2016 has some months left. It’s still not over.
1. Frank Ocean Blonde
2. Kanye West The Life of Pablo
3. Bon Iver 22, A Million
4. Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool
5. Beyonce Lemonade
6. Solange Seat at the Table
7. Young Thug JEFFREY
8. Chance The Rapper Coloring Book
9. Danny Brown Atrocity Exhibition
10. Anohni HOPELESSNESS