James’ Top Albums of 2016

2016 hit ya in the gut. So many groundbreaking artists, musicians and actors alike, that so many generations have grown up listening to and watching, gone. Just like that. In the case of Bowie and Cohen, we were lucky to hear one last goodbye, and rightfully Blackstar and You Want it Darker appear on several end of year lists. Groundbreaking statements on Black art and culture, genreless musings that nod to the counterculture past and digital future in the same twerk, post-everything explorations, music in 2016 was exciting, new, and above all else full of hope.

Here are the ten records that stuck with me the most this year, in no particular order.

10 (tie). A Tribe Called QuestWe Got it From Here / American FootballAmerican Football (LP 2)

A Tribe Called Quest and American Football make taking two decades off look easy. 18 years after the release of A Love Movement and months after the loss of founding member Phife Dawg, A Tribe Called Quest show no signs of rust on We Got it From Here. American Football may not be a band on everyone’s radar (unless you crew up mesmerized by emo legends like Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral) but 17 years after quietly releasing their self-titled underground classic, American Football returned to form on LP 2.

9. Childish Gambino“Awaken, My Love”

Sneaking in just before the holidays, I imagine this album would have made far more of the major publications’ Top 10 lists had it seen release before said lists were published (See Also: Run the Jewels RTJ3.) Gambino dives deep into the catalogs of Prince, Funkadelic, Betty Davis, Curtis Mayfield and more for inspiration on Awaken, My Love. Reinvention? Maybe.

8. Hiss Golden MessengerHeart Like a Levee

Southern gothic, Motel Americana, the best and worst part of Americana, Hiss Golden Messenger’s highly anticipated Heart Like a Levee was ultimately highly acclaimed as the buzzy songwriter continues to claw and scratch his way into the mainstream.

7. Angel OlsenMy Woman

Dancing among the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Ritchie Valens, Angel Olsen followed up her acclaimed 2014 Burn Your Fire with her best work to date in 2016. At times wandering (“Sister,” or the simple soul of “Mother”), other times brash and contagious (“Shut Up Kiss Me”), My Woman is above all else honest.

6. SolangeA Seat at the Table

Sisters Solange and Beyonce Knowles found themselves side by side on many “Best Of…” lists this year, a flip of the coin determining whose album’s were better. A Seat at the Table demands to be heard. Seat seduces you with sensual groove and luscious vocals, as Solange whispers “I’ve got a lot to be mad about.”

5. Bon Iver22, A Million

Looping and droning organs, glitchy atmospherics and otherworldly soundscapes, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million takes the heart-on-sleeve laments of For Emma, Forever and drenches them in DMT. Layers and layers of digital manipulation create a psychedelic palette for Justin Vernon to explore ongoing themes of isolation and insecurity.

4. Various ArtistsDay of the Dead

Conceived and crafted by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, Day of the Dead is worthy of acclaim for its breadth and scope alone. Across 59 tracks, a veritable who’s who of modern indie rock bands (Lucius, Bon Iver, Local Natives and Charles Bradley to name but a few), take on the best and worst of The Grateful Dead, with the Brother’s Dessner orchestrating it all.

3. Touche AmoreStage Four

The fourth full length from Southern California quintet Touche Amore is as personal as albums come. Bolm writes thoughtfully about the loss of his mother to cancer, retelling the moments he heard of his mother’s passing before taking the stage in Florida, last conversations they’d had about faith and “nothing much at all.” Bolm admits to being “highly decorated with a badge that reads ‘It Could Be Worse,’” as he and his band triumphantly leave every emotion on the table in a collective attempt to heal.

2. Frank OceanBlonde

With bated breathe the world waited for Frank Ocean to stop playing with us and finally deliver the highly anticipated Blonde. And worth the wait it was. Blonde is interstellar R&B, post-hip hop, avant and abstract a seventeen song set shrouded in secrecy that did not disappoint upon arrival. Minimalist and meandering, woozy, stripped and bare, Ocean reveals more and more of himself on each stream of conscience rambling. But please Frank, don’t make us wait so long next time.

1. Chance the RapperColoring Book

2016 was Chance’s year in the same way 2015 belonged to Kendrick. The Chicago-native broke out with the streaming only release of Coloring Book, shattering download records and forcing RIAA rule changes. Somewhere between hip hop and gospel, Chance’s Coloring Book garnered 7 Grammy nominations (and a Grammy rule change to allow for streaming only releases). Fatherhood, fame, and family take center stage in Chance’s world as Coloring Book showcases one of modern music’s brightest lights. 

Thoughts?