Columns Opinions Reviews — 01 February 2017
Review: Staffer picks favorite albums from 2016

2016 is looked at by the general public as the worst year in a very long time. Celebrities died, politics were pervasive and iOS almost got rid of the peach emoji. But, because of this brew of bad news and pessimism, people failed to look at the bright side; this year was the year for music. From the most A-list of pop stars to the grimiest underground rappers, nearly every significant name in the industry dropped some sort of project or other.

I was very pleased with 2016, in that it blessed me with some of the best original music I have heard in a very long time. So, here is my personal Top 10 list of musical compilations from this past year.

10. Collage – EP by the Chainsmokers

In my 10th spot, I have selected The Chainsmokers’ Collage-EP, which I actually did an extensive review on in December. A lot of critics and EDM fans in general were not impressed with this project, referring to their music as cliche and their personas arrogant. But, I find it hard to deny the talent of a duo that has managed to rise from the mockery they received after their hit song “#Selfie” and into the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for over 12 weeks. The bottom line is this: these songs are catchy and are meaningful. Regardless of how cliche the dance genre is becoming, we can not turn a blind eye to fresh talent.

9. The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

Next on my list is an album that has been accompanied by its fair share of controversy and backlash, including one line in particular that sparked a feud with Taylor Swift. I am, of course, talking about Kanye West’s newest effort, The Life of Pablo. One of the most interesting parts of this album is that it was one of the first strictly digital album releases from a major artist. Because of this, TLOP became the most torrented album of the year, garnishing more than 500,000 illegal downloads off of sites, such as Pirate Bay. But, that is not what stood out about this album. West is being his best creative self here, and it is helplessly addictive. From powerful, auto-tune assisted choruses (as heard in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. I”, my personal favorite) to sobering realism and gut-punching bars (I.E. “No More Parties in LA”), West is exploring and setting a cozy niche for his new, eclectic style of rap. While the pink polo days of Yeezy may be over, a new and exciting chapter had begun for this wild artist.

8. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest

As the new chapters in books begin, other chapters must come to an end. This, sadly, is the case for my No. 8 pick, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest. After the loss of member Phife Dawg this year, the rap group — with their prominence dating back to the glory days of the ‘90s — has delivered us a farewell album stocked full of all the things we Tribe fans know and love. Prepare for witty commentary on race and politics, clever word play from front man Q-Tip and even some very impressive bars from the late Phife Dawg, recorded prior to his death. Divided into two parts, you will have plenty to digest with this deep, philosophical record that is the perfect send off to a legendary career in hip hop.

7. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

At No. 7, I have A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead. This album took me by surprise in the way that I did not expect to enjoy it. I had heard of Radiohead before, but had never really given them a thorough listen. However, the hype this newest release had been receiving from fans and critics alike was enough to get me to dip my toes into the vast universe of this English alternative rock band. And, I found that I love this album. I recommend on a rainy day, taking a long drive and listening to the nostalgic production of this near masterpiece. The only reason that it was not higher on my list is that, at times, it got dull. Near the middle to end, I found myself skipping some tracks halfway through. Gradually, though, it grew on me, which is precisely what happened with my No. 6 pick.

6. Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino

Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino is an album I hated at first listen. I was used to his R&B infused hip-hop and lively word play, the factors that really made me a fan in the first place. In this record, Gambino leaves hip hop behind and takes a sharp detour into the realm of psychedelic funk, where he experiments with quirky guitar riffs, warped vocals and accented singing voices, which, at first, turned me away. But, after listening to the song “Terrified,” which is by far my favorite track, I was convinced to give this album another go. And, once again, my mind was blown. This new, unexpected sound worked for Gambino, and in the best way possible, might I add. Because of his brave leap into another genre, I have been turned on to the funk genre, James Brown and Prince in particular. I just hope that a day will come where this genre-bending artist will return to hip-hop once more.

5. The Human Condition by Jon Bellion

Approaching the top five, ranking became a serious task, because I love all of these albums dearly, and picking one over the other to me was like picking a favorite child. But, in the end, I decided that the most lackluster of the bunch was The Human Condition by Jon Bellion. This, by no means, goes to say that you should turn this album away. This is my favorite pop album of the year, which goes to say something, as pop stars in general had a weak turnout with strong projects (Lady GaGa, Ariana Grande and Rihanna). What made this project stand out to me was Bellion’s painfully true lyrics about all the touchy subjects most singers do not dare to cover. While listening, I found the singer weaving through each song, all equally catching, tackling issues such as depression and substance abuse as if he were writing it in a diary. And, in a way, I guess you could say he was.

4. Blonde by Frank Ocean

Building off of the painfully personal, we have Frank Ocean’s Blonde. This album in itself was one of the most anticipated things of 2016. I first fell in love with Ocean’s music through his collaborations with Tyler, the Creator and the Odd Future collective, but then when giving his debut Channel Orange a try, I found that there was a lot more to him than just a guest appearance on the hook of a rap song. As such, I ate that album up as quickly as possible… but that was in 2012. Yes, fans had to wait four whole years for a new Ocean album, and let us just say that it was well worth the wait. Ocean goes for more of a pop-style take on this record, but still manages to stay in his niche of lush yet personal R&B. In comparison to his debut, though, I found it just a bit more on the boring side, with tracks dragging out to be five minutes long. However, most music critics have gone as far to name this an album of the year, and who am I to deny that I did not enjoy it through and through as well.

3. Blackstar by David Bowie

I have always had a nostalgic place in my heart for the late David Bowie, from the moment I first saw Labyrinth at the age of five. This is why my third spot goes to his newest, and sadly last, project Blackstar, which, adding in the factor of Bowie’s tragic death, sent absolute tingles down my spine. This album, which actually plays off the theme of death, among other things, was released just two short days before the singer’s passing and was met with open arms immediately. I personally was very impressed with his ability to deliver good music, if not his best project yet, at such an age where most artists have retired from the spotlight. In ways, I felt like Bowie knew he was leaving soon and that this was purposely his final message to the world.

2. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown

I have personally never been a fan of underground hip-hop artist Danny Brown. Since the artist really came into prominence in early 2013, I have found his vocals to be corny, exaggerated and, frankly,a bit on the faux side. With that said, I was not expecting to find this album entertaining in the least. What really pulled me in was the song “Really Doe,” featuring artists Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, which was released as the third promo single for the album. I have been a fan of Earl Sweatshirt since my obsession with rap began, so I was expecting an amazing song, but what surprised me was how outshined he was by the one artist I detested on the song: Brown himself. His verses were some of the most hard-hitting, personal cuts I had heard in a hip hop album since I can remember, and it only got better when the album actually came out. Each song acted as a chapter in a book you can not put down, every word hitting home. Brown’s off-kilter beats are some of the weirdest, grimiest production I have ever heard, and it is unbelievable he can even flow over them in the first place. I am proud to call myself a Danny Brown fan now and recommend this project to any hip-hop fan wanting to try something new.

Honorable Mentions

I am now going to go over some albums that did not make my initial list, but I still think deserve recognition, be it for whatever reason. For my first pick, I have Big Baby D.R.A.M. by D.R.A.M. This is the the debut from the singer that made “Broccoli,” a song that many consider to be the anthem of 2016. The song has earned itself more than 200 million streams on Spotify and has striked beef with the likes of street rapper Kodak Black and others who oppose the song. This album is, in short, great, mixing feel-good vibes and smooth new-soul that are sure to provide for a heartwarming first listen.

Next is Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which, in my opinion, was nothing special, but in what seems like everyone else’s opinions, was one of the best albums of the year. I can see where they are coming from, as it promotes female independence, but while this message is positive, it failed to deliver anything that I would choose to listen to on my own. In short, I did not find any of the songs incredibly catchy, and I found Beyoncé’s singing voice, which is more of a rapping voice in this project, borderline annoying. However, given the aesthetics and the lyrical content of this album, I found enough enjoyment with this album to list it as an honorable mention.

Next is 4 Your Eyez Only by J. Cole. A lot of people may be surprised as to why this album is not on my Top 10 list, but I will be perfectly honest with you in the fact that this album was a bore. This album is packed with lazy vocals on top of grueling beats, spanning over the course of seven-minute tracks I frankly do not have the time to sit through. Because J. Cole is marketed as one of the greatest rappers ever, though, people are quick to assume that this work is amazing without actually giving it any sort of critical glance. With that, I thought this album was good, but it certainly was not great.

And, finally, at No. 1…

1. Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

This was Chance’s year, there is no denying it, and if you’re looking for an album that makes you smile, this is the one. Chance takes a complete detour from his last mixtape, Acid Rap, to focus less on drug use and loneliness and more on a gospel-infused, optimistic look on life. This mixtape came in the earlier part of this year, but none of the tracks have grown old. The fact that Chance can stay fresh, unique and relatable all at once is the reason he is my favorite hip hop artist (or any artist for that matter) to date. I recommend the tracks “No Problem,” “Mixtape,” “Smoke Break” and “Juke Jam” when you are first diving into this project. But, I think that within the first couple minutes of listening, you will realize that Chance knows what he is doing and that this album is the best of the year.

Article and photo by staff member Zach Zoeller

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