The 10 Albums of 2016 That Most Floated My Boat

10. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Chance’s third mixtape took me a while to appreciate. Frankly, there is not as much rapping on it, which was a huge surprise and disappointment to me at first. While I still believe Chance’s cleverness and technical skill are showcased much better on his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, the small void created by lack of rapping on Coloring Bookis filled by, and even overflows with, the most earnestly joyful and fun performances I heard all year.

Favorite Tracks: No Problem, Angels, All Night

9. Joey Purp, iiiDrops

When you listen to enough of any one genre, or, really, if you specialize in anything to the right extent, you get to a point where you feel like you know exactly what you want out of that one genre, that one thing — almost that you’ve mastered liking that thing. It is a very rewarding and liberating feeling to get this familiar with something, to know that you can access exactly what you want at a moment’s notice. You can always do that thing, or listen to that genre or specific band, when you need a pep talk. It relaxes you and even makes you feel more fully yourself. The flip-side is that it can feel like there is no more progress to be made. However, that little bit of restlessness perfectly sets you up for an even more rewarding thing, which is the moment that you learn you have more to learn and more to explore.

Joey Purp reminded me this year that I have more to explore in hip-hop. There are always new artists, and there is always the potential to find another one of my life-long favorites. Based on iiiDrops, Joey seems like he could be life-long-favorite material.

The most perplexing part of Purp’s allure is that, on the surface, he is recycling old sounds: most of his beats scream 2000’s Kanye West, and all the rest evoke 90’s New York. His flow sounds like Jay-Z here, Joey Bada$$ there, and sometimes even a little Tupac influence creeps in. The lyrical content has all the common themes too. As usual — and you would think I would expect this by now — the value lies in more careful listening. Joey thinks for himself. He says he is different, and even though this is an easily ignorable rap trope, he manages to come across as truly independent and super intelligent. You get the impression that fitting in is not one of his highest priorities. Like all the best Millennials, he is clever, dedicated to improving the place he came from, and brutally honest. All of this is Very Good Stuff and describes most of the rappers I am most drawn to, but the thing that sets Joey apart in my mind is the way he vocalizes his thoughts: exasperated, using every bit of breath he has, punching every single word like it’s the most important one on the album.

Favorite Tracks: When I’m Gone, Photobooth, Cornerstore, Godbody

8. Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death

At this point in their careers, everyone’s favorite queer Canadian twin sisters are best described as pop scientists. Every sound is ridiculously well-curated: their snares are satisfying, their hooks are crazy catchy, the beeps and bloops are beautifully blended.

“That Girl” is an especially impressive specimen; it has been one of my go-to jams for poppy nostalgia vibes, which for me, especially in summer, are the life-sustaining vibe-equivalent of water. Their voices complement each other perfectly, which is made that much more poetic by the fact they are twin sisters. This is just a small part of what makes their aesthetic so contagious. I caught it from a friend in high school, like the probable majority of their supporters. But even if you have already graduated high school, I’m confident there is a place in your heart somewhere for their messages and their beats.

Favorite Tracks: That Girl, Faint of Heart, Boyfriend, White Knuckles

7. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial

It is hard to write a brief review of an album that is so verbose, so vast, so full of ideas. Car Seat Headrest blew up in 2017, and here is why: Will Toledo is one of the most thoughtful and refreshingly Millennial songwriters my generation has ever had the privilege of getting to relate to through words and instruments.

Before you fill in your own definition of “Millennial” — and there are many, which is sort of going to be my point — let me try to explain what I mean when I use that word. I am talking about the first generation that had to figure out how to adjust to a complete and utter overload of information from all directions at all times, how to have opinions (or not have opinions) about all of it, how to deal with the existential implications of being hyper-aware of over-population, Kanye West’s personal life, cute cats that live thousands of miles away, and climate change. This, and everything else that Will Toledo thinks about and feels about those thoughts, is largely what Teens of Denial is about. It’s also about nostalgia, and entropy, and about “freaking out in [your] mind,” and feelings you can’t express in words so you have to express them in drone-punk instead, and about things that you expect to be glamorous but aren’t. It’s about rocking out and also about having really intimate experiences with other people. It’s about self-indulgence but also deep thoughtfulness about self-indulgence. It’s about being meta-aware of making an album about all of those things, and worrying about it, and then getting over it.

What else do you think this album is about? It’s probably about different things to you than it is to me, because of post-modernism. Or are we in post-post-modernism now? Or, ugh, maybe it doesn’t matter. But it’s worth thinking about I guess. We are alive after all.

Favorite Tracks: Fill In The Blank, Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, The Ballad of the Costa Concordia, Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)

6. James Blake , The Color In Anything

One of the reasons I like James Blake’s songwriting is that it lives in a world in which the line between electronic and acoustic is intentionally blurred. He seems even more determined to blur that line on The Colour in Anything, an album that draws on acoustic genres like jazz as much as it draws on minimalist 20th century composers and electronic genres like whatever happened after dubstep and grime. (I have honestly lost track — I guess that’s why music-writers use terms like “post-dubstep” and “post-grime”: because it is exhausting and futile to come up with new genre terms when making a point to defy genres is so fashionable.)

If you like James Blake’s first albums, you probably already know and agree that this is an excellent and logical next step for his craft. If you don’t know about him yet, this is a great collection to start with.

Favorite Tracks: Radio Silence, Waves Know Shores, Choose Me, The Colour In Anything

5. Beyoncé, Lemonade

You likely already live this life.

Can you believe this album came out last year? (You’ve already memorized and internalized every track.) Can you believe it’s better than her last album? (No, but like, also yes.)

I’m gonna go ahead and say that Beyoncé has reached Beatles status, at least for me. She has not only reached Beatle-level fame; she has transcended what happens after that level of fame, which is a phase I like to call “wow, how are you so famous but still so legit?” She has reached Enlightenment. She is Queen Bey.

And yet, somehow, this album is about how she is a normal human with flaws and a whole range of feelings. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

Favorite Tracks: Pray You Catch Me, Sandcastles, Freedom, All Night, Formation

4. Drake, Views

This is a great time to remind you all that this is a list of my favorite albums of 2016, which is distinct from the best albums of 2016.

Now that we got that out of the way: Y’all already know how I feel about Drake. Even though this album is too long, it is chock full of Drake-y goodness, and almost all of the songs are excellent and stand alone well. I love this album for the same reason a lot of people seem to hate it, which is that Drake sings more. While he is probably good at rapping now too, Drake’s actual gift lies in singing, conveying swag, and continuing to associate himself with his legendary producer, 40.

Favorite Tracks: U With Me?, Redemption, Still Here, Controlla, ONE Dance, Fire & Desire

3. Poliça, United Crushers

I continue to be pleased by everything Channy Leaneagh is a part of, and Poliça continues to be my favorite Minneapolis band by a pretty wide margin. The difference between the band’s first two albums is similar to the difference between Shulamithand United Crushers: you’ll notice a slight broadening of sound palette, a few new vocal effects, a little more rhythmic experimentation. The result is satisfying and just enough to keep the already unique Poliça vibe really fresh. Channy’s mumbled yet dynamic vocals still blend beautifully with the talented double-drummers, and the band is still held together by the groovy glue of Chris Bierden’s still underrated talent on bass.

Favorite Tracks: Summer Please, Wedding, Baby Sucks, Lose You

2. Frank Ocean, Blonde

I can confidently say I have listened to Blonde more than any other album released in 2016. Some albums are what you turn to when you’re already in a certain mood: nostalgic, happy, painfully aware of the state of the world, cozy on a rainy day, tryna cry, etc. Blonde is an album that you turn to when you want to achieve a certain mood — in this case, a convenient blend of every mood listed in the previous sentence.

The utter creativity this album represents is hard to hold in my mind long enough to write about it. The only way to get a glimpse of it is to listen again, which is something I’m happy to do literally any time. Frank Ocean, like Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, is one of the most thoughtful and refreshingly Millennial songwriters whose art we are privileged to have access to, but his approach to information overload is a bit more focused than Toledo’s. When Frank is overwhelmed, he seems to retreat to those things that are most intensely personal to him, especially his own nostalgia about childhood, love, death, friendship, and the way these things interact. His lyrical imagery is intensely reflective and vulnerable, and yet opaque in a way that encourages the listener to fill in their own details. His voice is gorgeous and subtle, and he has a great understanding of how layers of sounds interact to create new sounds. He also has a great understanding of when silence is the most powerful. He loves organs, cars, and the intimacy of the vernacular.

Perhaps what keeps me coming back to Blonde the most is that it has infinite depth; I’m sure I will listen to it differently 2, 10, and 20 years from now. How will I listen to it today?

Favorite Tracks: Nikes, Ivy, Pink + White, Solo, Solo (Reprise)

1. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Music which is named ‘Radiohead’ has historically been the music which is most perfectly well-suited to me (or, as normal people would say, “They’re my favorite band!”). Over the course of this year, I have decided that A Moon Shaped Pool is my second favorite Radiohead album by a slim margin after In Rainbows, which might be my favorite album of any album ever made. About nine out of the eleven songs on Poolare basically like delicious individually packaged spiritual experiences crafted specifically for me. (The other two songs are amazing too — just amazing on an earthly level.)

Isn’t that kind of crazy? My experience of listening to this 53-minute album in a focused way is one in which my mind is never restless for more than 3 seconds, and, without fail, those 3 seconds are immediately followed by a uniquely and viscerally pleasing sound-treat. A Moon Shaped Pool is full of goodies. I should be clear what I mean by “goodies”; if you come away from this review thinking that this album is in any way happy, you will be very, very disappointed. However, if you are a sound nerd, you will derive great pleasure from the intense care with which these gentlemen crafted every sound into its very best sound-self. This album’s production is on the same level of ear magic as Daft Punk’s incredible Random Access Memories, which, for the last few years, has faithfully served as my go-to example of how satisfying it is to listen to a well-produced album.

You guys, I am so proud of Radiohead. It is amazing that musicians who have already changed the course of rock multiple times can still have new sounds to create on their ninth album, released 23 years after their first album. On a normal schedule for a good band, these gentlemen should have started tiredly recycling material about 12 or 15 years ago, after 3 or 4 albums, but here we are in 2016 (2017, now), and they sound so fresh it’s silly. Although Radiohead’s overall stylistic range on A Moon Shaped Pool — from intimate solo piano all the way to dynamic build-ups with plenty of bass — showcases their usual high level of versatility, the album is also uniquely characterized by gorgeous and twinkly sounds throughout. These, I think, are the sounds of metallic and weightless moon-water, and their beauty is best exemplified on “Glass Eyes”. But each song has its own sound-treats: the whispery background vocal sounds are especially stirring on “Present Tense”, as are the unpredictable split-second vocal inhalations which decorate the tumbling piano in “Daydreaming”. The driving bass and intermittent sirens on “Ful Stop” play off each other beautifully, and the cynical yet ennui-laden cosmic acquiescence in Thom Yorke’s vocals is especially palpable on “Decks Dark”. (As in, if it were the right kind of gloomy day, you could spread that shit on toast.)

Somehow I haven’t even mentioned “True Love Waits” yet. It is one of the best recordings of the year and clearly also especially close to Thom Yorke’s heart. Loyal fans will remember that Thom has been working on this song for many, many years: an early version was released in 2001 as the last track on I Might Be Wrong, a mostly forgettable collection of live recordings that otherwise contained alternate versions of songs from the last two albums (Kid A and Amnesiac). Finally, fifteen years later, the group has put together a studio version of the song, and the result is a very special and very intimate treatment on the feeling of loneliness. Although the words are simple (anchored by a two-word sentence: “Don’t leave”), the story is intensely personal, and we know for a fact that it’s decades in the making. I believe it is the stories that keep us coming back to music, and to art in general. We see ourselves, our experiences, and potential futures reflected in electronic and acoustic sounds, and in words, and especially in the combination and layering of those two media. To put it briefly, the real magic of this album lies in the skillful interplay of those sounds and words, brought to us by a group of musicians who know each other like close relatives.

Favorite Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Glass Eyes, True Love Waits

Music moves us through our lives in productive and spiritually significant ways. I write about that. More writing on The Wild Honey Pie, FRONTRUNNER, & Patreon.