By Sarah Marsland
2016 has not exactly been an easy year.
Amidst the chaos and divisiveness of the election, seemingly constant news stories of conflict and violence, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead both within America and abroad, at times it has been hard to find something worth celebrating. Internet memes proclaiming that 2016 will go down in the books as “the worst year in history” have gone viral, received with nervous laughter by young people across the country – at times, it can seem like a scary time to come of age.
But although 2016 may be remembered as a somewhat dark time politically and socially, there is one story of growth and progress that should not be ignored: 2016 turned out to be a golden age for music.
After nearly a decade of over-produced, formulaic music and stale ideas, 2016 brought a sense of revitalization to the music industry. New artists emerged, surprising and challenging audiences everywhere, and veterans of the industry released what many have deemed their best work yet. Their stories could only have come out of the information age: Chance The Rapper released one of the most successful albums of the past few years without a record label contract; The 1975 made an album with a 16-word title and songs that refused to commit to any genre; Beyonce pioneered the visual album and shed light on issues of race, gender, and class; and Lady Gaga decided to wear a pink hat and sing Bruce Springsteen-esque folk-rock as her alter ego, “Joanne.”
But perhaps the most interesting part of it all was that all of these albums shared common themes. Across a multitude of genres, every artist seemed to have an ear for the American sentiment – especially a sense of nostalgia for a simpler past (aptly expressed in a certain candidate’s campaign slogan). From Frank Ocean (“You ain’t a kid no more/We’ll never be those kids again) to Bon Iver (“Here in this room, this narrow room/Where life began when we were young”) to Margo Price (“I wanna turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time”), nearly every album was characterized by a longing to return, or at least to reflect. At the same time, within these albums there was also an ushering in of a new age, not just for music but for society in general. All year, there seemed to be a feeling of restlessness in the air, a premonition that 2016 was a turning point.
Now, we look back at the 11 albums of 2016 that captured this mixture of excitement and uncertainty, and look toward the future with their lyrics still stuck in our heads.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Standout Tracks: Solo, Nights, Siegfried
With his signature combination of stream-of-consciousness lyrics, experimental production, and soulful voice, Ocean has produced a sophomore album that paints a picture of twenty-first century life and its complexities, weaving together race, sexuality, and gender through the lens of love and heartbreak. From the most upbeat songs to the ballads and everything in between, Blonde captures a certain nostalgia, a yearning for simplicity best displayed in the radiant and layered harmonies of Self Control: “I, I, I, know you’ve gotta leave, leave, leave/Take down some summertime/Give up/ Just tonight, night, night.”
2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Standout Tracks: Don’t Hurt Yourself, Daddy Lessons, Freedom
Two years after the surprise release of her self-titled album, Beyoncé returned with a slightly darker and much more mature body of work, and the result was a worldwide phenomenon, one that received its fair share of both high praise and harsh criticism for its revealing depiction of police brutality and institutionalized racism. The accompanying visual album features a cast primarily composed of African American women, as well as beautifully integrated poetry by Warsan Shire, in a haunting hour-long film set in Knowles’ mother’s hometown of New Orleans.
3. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Genre: Hip Hop/Rap
Standout Tracks: All We Got, Blessings, Same Drugs
Only in 2016 and only in America could there be a Chance The Rapper. With a hit album that is actually a mixtape, a long list of record labels itching to be the first to sign him, and songs that sound like a mix of Kanye West and gospel, Chancelor Bennett has done in one year what some artists do in a lifetime: created a whole new territory for himself in the music industry. His distinctively soulful and lighthearted voice has become a familiar sound, no doubt due in part to his insistence on releasing his music free of charge. As Bennett says himself on Blessings, “I don’t make songs for free; I make them for freedom.” And the world is better for it.
4. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Genre: Hip Hop/Rap
Standout Tracks: Ultralight Beam, Famous, No More Parties In LA, Saint Pablo
West has never been known for his modesty, and in the album’s title alone he manages to draw comparisons between himself and three famous (and wildly different) figures: Paul the Apostle, Pablo Escobar, and Pablo Picasso. But in the context of the record, this becomes less of a boast and more of a statement about fame and the ramifications of giving the people what they want. With his signature candidness, West once again delivers an album that mixes the silly with the profound, the frivolous with the spiritual, creating something that feels like a cultural snapshot as well as a forecast.
5. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Standout Tracks: 33 “GOD”, 29 #Strafford APTS, 00000 Million
Vastly different from his previous two acoustic albums, Justin Vernon has returned with an unexpectedly experimental new project, emerging as a singer/songwriter for the Internet age. With songs that read like poems and sound like hymns, as well as a decidedly electronic sound, Vernon’s ode to numerology is equal parts complex and uplifting. The last track, 00000 Million, finds Vernon returning to something much like the forest of Emma, Forever Ago, ending the album with a parting glance at the “wild courses” where he’s been, and accepting that the future ahead of him is as uncertain as infinity.
6. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
Standout Tracks: Radio Silence, F.O.R.E.V.E.R., The Colour in Anything
No one has quite mastered the sparse and lonely sound of electronic heartbreak as well as James Blake. What could easily have become a drawn out pity party is instead a nuanced depiction of romance gone wrong, beginning with the piercing first words, “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me,” repeated over somber piano and haunting vocals. Music’s favorite melancholic songsmith has returned, and he’s sadder than ever.
7. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
Standout Tracks: If I Believe You, Please Be Naked, She Lays Down
The only band that takes the word “pretentious” as a compliment, The 1975 are an anomaly in rock music. Unconcerned with appearing unconcerned, the band have produced an album that refuses to fit into any genre, poking fun at the Twitter age (“And then you took a picture of your salad and put it on the Internet”) and celebrity culture (“You look famous, let’s be friends and portray we possess something important”) in a series of songs that show influences of everything from 80s pop to ambient to gospel. Somehow, the seventeen songs prove to be cohesive despite their eclectic sounds, forming a narrative as dynamic as one of their much-talked-about live shows.
8. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Standout Tracks: Not Gonna Kill You, Sister, Woman
Sounding like a cross between Hole’s Live Through This and Neil Young’s Harvest, My Woman is dynamic and engaging from start to finish, with poignant lyrics and soaring melodies. Olsen is a master of the kind of seemingly simple lyrics that listeners wish they’d thought of first, particularly in Not Gonna Kill You: “That is the kind of kind of love I’d always dreamed to be/However painful, let it break down all of me/’Til I am nothing else but the feeling.”
9. The Lumineers – Cleopatra
Standout Tracks: Cleopatra, Gun Song, Angela
In a time of so much experimentation, The Lumineers stand out for their back-to-basics approach. With lyrics that craft folklore out of everyday life and simple production, they manage to provide a fresh take on a classic sound, complete with the powerful vocals of lead singer Wesley Schultz. In a particularly climactic moment, Shultz delivers the punch line of his anecdote on masculinity: “And one day, I pray, I’ll be more than my father’s son/But I don’t own a single gun,” with the kind of everybody-knows-it gusto that manifests itself from only the most precise and authentic songwriting.
10. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect
Standout Tracks: Aviation, Miracle Aligner, Sweet Dreams TN
Although Alex Turner’s rock star croon is the same as ever, the surprising twists and turns of Everything You’ve Come to Expect are a testament to the irony of its title. The retro sound of the record turns out to be a good home for Turner’s voice as well as for his wry lyrics, which never had room to fully develop within the confines of Arctic Monkeys’ modern moodiness. However, the real star of the album is the orchestral accompaniment, arranged by Owen Pallett, which lends a rich and cinematic tone to the record.
11. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Standout Tracks: Hands of Time, Hurtin’ (On the Bottle), Desperate and Depressed
Refreshingly honest and with a knack for storytelling, Margo Price emerged this year as an alternative to the forced twang of stadium country music. Her lyrics are funny but heartfelt, recalling even the lowest points of heartbreak and failure with a witty sense of humor. The album is by no means a feminist statement, but Price’s observations of the industry and her place in it are spot on: “Maybe I’d be smarter if I played dumb/But I won’t put out or be controlled/I don’t write the s*** that gets bought and sold/From what I’ve found this town gets around.”
What do you think was the best music of the year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or @BranfordBuzz on Twitter