Top 10 Albums of 2016
I used to sit around waiting for the top 10 countdown on the radio to play my favorite song, pressing record just before the next track started until Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” finally made its way to my cassette for repeat listens on future mixtapes. Later, cheap concerts and listening stations at record stores were the best places to discover new music. I loved so many opening bands! On my visits to New Orleans for shows, I would always stop at Tower Records on Decatur Street, wearing headphones at each spot loaded up with staff picks. I still treasure finding new music I love, and this year did not disappoint.
Without further ado, here are my top 10 albums of 2016:
10. The Olympians – The Olympians
Evoking a funkier time, wah wah guitars dance over driving beats and sweeping strings as this group of Daptone Records all-stars churn through a soulful suite fueled by dreams of Greek gods. The Olympians recorded the soundtrack of a movie I want to see or a life I want to lead.
I can’t be the only one who puts headphones in and feels like it’s the soundtrack of my life. Right? Because someday soon I’ll be playing this in my headphones while skateboarding to the beach. And I will feel like the star of my own, very cool show rather than the too-old-to-be-skateboarding dweeb that I am.
9. Smshng Hrts – On My Way
I first heard Smshng Hrts live in September at a Red Bull Sound Select show, and they grabbed me from the first song. Given lead singer Sir Dylan’s production and playing on Solange’s excellent “A Seat at the Table” (more on that later), I shouldn’t be surprised to like this band so much. With a fresh, slick sound, this is sensual music.
“On My Way” kicks in with “The Picture,” featuring pulsing synth and beat, and moves through a set of tracks that sound like they were sent from a future I want to live to see. In my mind, it’s like a better version of the future in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” but with Smshng Hrts as Wyld Stallyns.
8. Dylan Leblanc – Cautionary Tale
Can I trust you now
Not to pull me out
Of this cautionary tale that
you know that I won’t be reading?
Shreveport, Louisiana native Dylan Leblanc weaves together a troubador’s guitar, saloon piano, and cinematic strings into a timeless piece of Americana. Melancholy melodies are gently tucked in right where they’re supposed to be, not exactly hiding from the dark, but with the covers pulled up tight. This is relaxing and satisfying like a bath time cry, like resignation, like resolution. “Cautionary Tale” offers empathy, a place to bring your troubles, songs to hold your hand while you remember that sometimes there’s beauty in the sadness.
7. Tingsek – Amygdala
Listening to Tingsek’s “Amygdala” is like lighting a fire in the fireplace; it will keep you warm.
If this progression can ease your depression
maybe I can say something that matters
That fire can be comforting, romantic, angry, passionate, excited. Through everything, it will always keep you warm.
The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for emotions. A purveyor of Swedish Soul music, Tingsek employs earthy grooves to tell stories of old times, disintegration, depression, lost and found love. Throughout, he nakedly delves into and shares his own emotions to help listeners tap into their own.
6. Teen – Love Yes
Capturing the spirit of another musical era while sounding like a breath of fresh air is a difficult task. With big vocals and even bigger synths, “Love Yes” has the 80’s written all over it. Teen propels synthpop into the new millennium using the same instruments from the past; the result is sublime.
Alternating between sickly sweet and super sexy, Teen takes us on a very danceable trip of discovery. Lyrics flit through the melodies while background vocals punctuate with staccato breaths.
Love wasn’t designed for trust
Tension only brought us fear
Love wasn’t designed for us
Largely focusing on subjects of sexuality and spirituality, the sibling songwriters examine relationships, insecurity, jealousy, and betrayal through an imperfect narrator. She meets in secret with her lover. Questions go unanswered. Advice she gives herself goes unheeded. She is stuck in a pattern of infidelity, to her partner, to herself, and she struggles with the resulting guilt.
Through all of this, she seems to lose her personal identity for awhile, only regaining this sense of self toward the end of the album on “Please,” finding comfort in the words of her father, defining herself near the end:
I have a singer for a mother
I am a woman of few words
At its core, Teen’s “Love Yes” is a powerful exploration of womanhood in all its complicated glory. Plus, it’s got a good beat that you can dance to.
5. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Beyoncé pulled off an incredible creative feat in the music for “Lemonade” and its artful accompanying film. Following an album on which she expressed her intense love for her husband, “Lemonade” traces her discovery of his infidelity and the resulting torrent of feelings. This is a therapy session committed to record, a detailed documentation of the hurt, reconciliation, and ultimately the empowerment she feels in the aftermath of Jay-Z’s affair. She’s always made great music with a great message. In sharing this intensely personal pain, Beyoncé further cements herself as a true artist.
I asked my friend and avowed Beyoncé superfan Sheila Ferrari for her take on what she proclaimed was her “favorite female album of all time,” and this is what she had to say:
“There is a really important part in the beginning of the film where Beyoncé seems to be jumping off a building to commit suicide. I think that sets up the entire message that basically this album was the death of her previous persona. It was a risk. She’s basically saying that she is going to kill herself for her art.
Beyoncé seems to have it all together – perfect career, husband, family, etc. – and her message up to this point has been that you can have it all. But in order for art to come alive, you have to be truthful, and she’s proclaimed herself first and foremost as an artist.
Whatever fear she may have had from exposing her flaws or fears and the deepest cracks in her persona did the opposite of what she anticipated it would do; it didn’t kill her previous message at all. If anything, it made us aware that those things come at a price. It grounded her, made her human. Her honesty led to empowerment. We take her more seriously now.”
4. Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY.
One of the best compliments I can give Jeff Rosenstock’s extraordinary opus is that I didn’t even know I liked this kind of music. I would never normally go for a pop punk or ska record. Rosenstock expertly blends the personal and political to reveal a vulnerable and cynical take on love in the modern world, one ridden with anxiety and hopelessness.
“WORRY.” seamlessly straddles the idea of falling in love while the world is falling apart. In one line, he’s declaring his love; in the next, he’s dismayed by a society of binge watching, greed, and militarized police.
Oh, I will be there kicking,
fighting, beating, screaming
“There’s no fucking way I’m ever letting go of you!”
After listening to this album twice, I messaged a friend and fellow poet Ben Kopel to get his thoughts. He replied, “That last half is my new ‘Abbey Road,'” which crystallized everything I had begun to feel about it.
“WORRY.” concludes with eight interconnected, short songs that all blend into one another despite sliding from fast, aggressive punk to ska to pop punk. This closing suite is connected by the message of love in troubled times that populates the entire album, neatly summarized near the end:
And it’s not like the love
that they showed us on TV
It’s a home that can burn
It’s a limb to freeze
Love is worry
3. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
“Teens of Denial” is a celebration (maybe even a fountain) of youth. Sometimes you have to battle in order to win. The only other option is giving in.
Songwriter Will Toledo explores depression, alienation, self-loathing, altered states, loss, longing, and love in this epic concept album. This is some dark shit, but it rocks! Car Seat Headrest screams into the darkness, desperately trying to create light, fighting to live. And it gives me life.
They got a portrait by Van Gogh
On the Wikipedia page
For clinical depression
Well, it helps to describe it
Car Seat Headrest combines the loud, urgent angst of Nirvana with the taut lyricism of Okkervil River along with a flair for sonic pageantry that recalls The Decemberists’ best work, with songs that stretch over several movements, all working together to tell a single, complicated story.
By the time the righteous screaming of “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” subsides and the brass intro to “Cosmic Hero” cools things off, you notice that this very cohesive set of songs keeps changing shapes. And it works. This is a real coming of age story; it’s happy and sad and angry, full of trying and failing and trying, and I just want to listen to it again.
2. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
I didn’t know Donald Glover had this in him. I mean, damn. When he pleads “Let me into your heart” on the opening track, I feel like it was the first time Childish Gambino really let us into his.
His previous releases sound nothing like this, with a more analytical lyrical and vocal approach. “Awaken, My Love!” is raw emotion, musically conjuring old Parliament Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone in a wholly original way, featuring Childish Gambino’s playful, powerful, versatile voice as both a singer and a songwriter, one we haven’t heard in this way before.
But if he’s scared of me,
how can we be free?
This is one of the records of the revolution; I just didn’t expect it to be so much fun! Covering wide-ranging topics centered around the birth of his first child, Glover ponders their very existence being black in America, making the personal political. On “Boogieman,” he explores his place in a society that views him as a threat solely because of the color of his skin. On “Redbone,” he reminds the subject to “stay woke,” a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. Glover closes the album with a kind of lullaby featuring advice from his own parents and an uplifting refrain:
Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall
If you are strong, you cannot fall
There is a voice inside us all
So smile when you can, when you can
This is wisdom handed down for generations that he is passing on now. Childish Gambino sees the world for what it is, a deeply unfair and beautiful place where sometimes you cry, sometimes you fight, and sometimes you just need to dance.
1. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” begins with an invitation to be yourself, whomever that might be:
Walk in your way,
So you may crumble
Walk in your way,
So you can sleep at night
This could mean being resolute with a strong sense of self, picking yourself up when you fall, sleeping well because you know that you’ve been true to yourself. It could also mean being stuck in your ways. I suppose it depends on your point of view.
Barely breaking a whisper, Solange issues a direct, pointed statement of self-empowerment across a brilliantly understated collection of songs and conversational interludes. In a jarring juxtaposition, her soothing voice belies the confrontational nature of her lyrics.
On “A Seat at the Table,” Solange makes the political personal. This is especially evident on “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a song deeply rooted in the common universal experiences of black women, but individualized and delivered from a place of great personal strength. “F.U.B.U. (For Us By Us)” takes this power even further, announcing to white people like me who can’t actually sing along because the ‘n-word’ is threaded through the chorus:
Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along
Just be glad you got the whole wide world
In the interlude before “F.U.B.U.” Master P relays the story of an argument he had with his brother over a million dollar offer. Master P didn’t want to take it, telling his brother, “If this white man offer me a million dollars, I gotta be worth 40 or 50…or 10 or something.” There is power in knowing your worth.
Solange wills a strength that moves beyond the struggle. “A Seat at the Table” makes a compelling case for retiring the phrase “unapologetically black” forever, a phrase that never should have been created in the first place. There are no apologies necessary; there never were. This strength, this freedom, this art is unapologetically beautiful.