2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.
5. Sept. 5th: dvsn
dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.
And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.
Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.
Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.
Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”
4. Blonde: Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.
Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.
“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.
Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.
On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.
Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”
3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino
Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).
It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.
The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama. (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.
Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.
Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.
Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”
2. Lemonade: Beyoncé
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.
Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.
Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.
The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).
After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.
Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.
Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”
1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West
In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.
In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.
Where does all that fame land him?
It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)
It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.
It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.
It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.
Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.
Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”