We fight sometimes. It is a little difficult for us to find agreement when ranking the best or worst of anything movie-based on a list, but the consensus, eventually, becomes something we cinephiles can calculate to an agreeable degree.
The same can not be said for our music tastes. We do not even try to formulate common ground. Instead, we celebrate our diverse, genre-destroying interest in our second favorite media form. As such, we’ve allowed our writers to choose their favorite music of the past year to provide you with a colorful roller-coaster playlist of 2016’s best albums.
Blackstar – David Bowie
2016 took several great artists from the world but none affected me as much as David Bowie. How fitting, then, that he left us with one final album before his death. The January 8 release is stylized and titled Blackstar. Reminiscent of his 2002 album Heathen with its dark undertones and brooding melodies, Blackstar paints a haunting portrait of a man facing death. Bowie is a person who always seemed to have one foot firmly planted in another realm and this subject matter suits his style. The lyrics of the album are packed with religious themes, like in “Lazarus” (“Look up here, I’m in heaven”) and hints of regret like in “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Blackstar can only be compared to another legendary artist’s swan song album released the same year, Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker. Though it is arguably the lesser album, the experimental and eerie nature of Blackstar stands true to Bowie’s persona. Its space-like ambience and elastic vocals bring comfort and nostalgia to those who know and love his work. One of my favourite tracks, “Girl Loves Me,” is a creative and catchy conglomeration of words chosen for their sound rather than their message. The rest of the tracks show Bowie facing death head on, arms open, eyes wide. It is a brave and touching piece of work that fits seamlessly in with his discography and must be appreciated. –Becky Belzile
Blonde – Frank Ocean
The road to Blonde was practically cinematic, as Frank Ocean fans held their breath for over a year in anticipation after countless false alarms. I for one remember exactly what I was doing in July when the album was delayed for the first time, and I wager that many others who were a fan of Ocean do as well — the moments before the roller-coaster of anticipation really began. In the process, we received countless other treats that weren’t the actual album: a visual album Endless, zines, performance art-esque woodworking live streams — before the wait was made worth it and the album finally dropped to widespread acclaim from fans and critics. The album itself is deeply personal work– more so than the already extremely intimate Channel Orange. The opening track, a mesmerizing Nikes feels like a dream (and its music video is one of the best and singular short films of the year), while tackling major topical issues in classic Ocean fashion. It all culminates in the two part track Futura Free, reflecting on both the past and present success — as apt a closer as any. – Jason Ooi
Dangerous Woman – Ariana Grande
This year there was no pop singer who stepped up their game as much as Ariana Grande did with her third album Dangerous Woman. Originally called Moonlight with the lead single “Focus,” Grande switched gears, making the now titular track the centrepiece of an inspired collection of banging pop songs. There’s a reason she has been totally inescapable on the charts this year. Here, Grande has full-on embraced her sexuality and channeled it through her dominating voice to create not only the best songs of her career but also some of the most passionate of the year. The sultry, powerful “Dangerous Woman” track really sets the framework for everything that follows. Though all are wonderfully varied in style and sound, all are steeped in sensuality. Whether she was belting out the most killer club banger of the year (“Into You”) or taking command of her own unapologetic attitude (“Greedy,” “Side To Side”) or showing of a more vulnerable and honest side (“Thinking Bout You,” “Knew Better/Forever Boy”), Ariana Grande was without a doubt a woman worth listening to in 2016. –Ryan MacLean
Leave Me Alone – Hinds
Hinds, a Madrid-based lo-fi garage pop/rock quartet influenced by the likes of Mac DeMarco and The Black Lips, gained some attention with the recording of demos and Eps on bandcamp in 2014. Charming, off-beat tracks like ‘Trippy Gum” and “Bambo,” got them noticed by a number of outlets, before they set off on an exhaustive world tour (wherein they once played 16 gigs in 4 days). Yet there’s a worry with bands like Hinds that in the transition from EPs and demos to a full album that they stretch their sound thin, but that’s not the case here at all. New versions of older songs (the manic “Castigadas En El Granero” is my personal favourite) and the tonal diversity between the upbeat and the melancholy keeps things fresh all the way through. Cosials and Perrote’s vocals are distinctive, and contrast and complement each other through the melodic and the propulsive. They are unafraid of sincerity, whether it lead to cliché or absurdity, and it pays off to an astounding degree. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but Leave Me Alone is my favourite album of 2016, and the most fun I’ve gotten out of listening to music in years. – Jack Godwin
Human Energy – Machinedrum
When you think of New Age music, you probably envision Enya playing in a crystals store that’s burning a little too much incense. However, Machinedrum subverts that idea, taking New Age elements and fusing them with industrial electronic textures and world-music influences for a modernized version of spiritual sounds in Human Energy. Machinedrum, who practices energy healing techniques and meditation, creates dreamy tracks that vibrate with possibility and positivity. Songs such as “Tell U” and “Do It 4 U” utilize processed vocals interspersed with gauzy, frenetic synths for a deconstructed pop music sound, whereas “Spectrum Sequence” is an ascending build of trippy percussion that grabs elements of UK garage and New Age guided meditation tracks.. Fusing the gap between glitch, pop, and experimental electronica, Human Energy is an effervescent exploration for fans of any genre. – Staley Sharples
Puberty 2 – Mitski
I’m never one for trite encapsulations of what it means to be a millennial, but no other album in 2016 better captured my generation’s simultaneous passion and malaise than Mitski’s Puberty 2. In the opening track, “Happy,” she describes the emotion like an erstwhile lover, one who skips out before she wakes up and leaves her with a mess to clean. Mitski has a keen sense of irony, but not an all-consuming one. In the album’s standout track, “Your Best American Girl,” she sings about struggling to come to grips with her cultural identity and resisting letting others dictate it to her. On other tracks, she sums up millennial anxiety and ennui with a straightforward sharpness. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is about the existential desperation that comes with society’s seemingly arbitrary expectations, singing “My body’s made of crushed little stars/and I’m not doing anything,” and later on, “I’d better ace that interview/I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die.” The song builds to a fever pitch and by the end Mitski is practically screaming, laying bare the unspoken terror that fuels so much of our lives. Sonically, Mitski manages to retain the lo-fi atmosphere of her earlier work despite a clear upgrade in production value. She’s the voice of a generation, though she only intends to speak for herself. –Josh Rosenfield
Pool – Porches
Stripping down from a full band to a solo act, Porches (Aaron Maine) pared back his sound to hazy, lived-in rock on Pool. The ’80s influence is obvious here, but Pool sounds more like an old mixtape you made on cassette and let sit in the sun a little bit too much so that the tape sounds all warped and fuzzy. It’s perfect. Maine’s earnest, melancholy voice meets the wistful, DIY instrumental melodies in a way that’s sad and beautiful all at once. Single-handedly generating a minimalist revival of the chillwave genre, Pool‘s a great album to listen to while reflecting on life, or maybe not even thinking at all. – Staley Sharples
Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels
They got it in just in time. Right before Christmas, Run the Jewels, the collaborative project of rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P, excited about their product and motivated by the world’s need for their vision, digitally released their third album. And boy, were they right about us needing it. This time around, the beats feel a little punchier, the lyrics are a little less general and a little more purposed toward the dangers of a year that saw enemies of progress swing back really hard. The duo has made their social and artistic presence be felt through social media and TV interviews throughout a disheartening election cycle, and their early release of the album is a symbol for their inspiring refusal to accept the loss. Killer Mike, perhaps the best emcee working, is more cocksured than ever, and, as it becomes difficult for anyone in this fight for fairness to continue moving forward, neither lyricist (nor any of the line of guests on the album, from Trina to Kamasi Washington) are willing to rest through a single bar. The album presents its catchier tunes (“Legend Has It”) and even some slower, emotional breaks (“Thursday in the Danger Room”), but in the end, the real substance is in the impassioned spitfire of politically charged verses and sampling. Run the Jewels 3 doubles down on the earlier chapters, suggesting revolution or the apocalypse for music and the world. – David Shreve, Jr.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
When Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was announced as an Album of the Year nominee at the 2017 Grammy’s, pitting the relatively under-celebrated but up-and-coming alt-country star against the likes of Adele and Beyonce, the dark horse nominee tweeted out, simply, “#whothefuckissturgillsimpson.” If the modern outlaw singer’s most recent album is indicative of his career trajectory, that sort of self-deprecating joke toward his own unrecognized brand is about to be a thing of the past. Simpson’s latest album (which some are predicating might actually pull a Beck-like dark horse win in the Grammy category) leans on the traditional sound of outlaw country past with lyrical content that suggests a much needed upgrade to the archetype. At turns melancholy and rabble-rousing, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth offers a more self-aware country star, the likes of which we have never seen before. – David Shreve, Jr.
Terminal Redux – Vektor
Serving as the third studio album by American thrash metal band Vektor, Terminal Redux finds the Philadelphia-based hard rockers reaching for the stars on their most cohesively realized opus to date. Preceded by Black Future from 2009 and Outer Isolation from 2011, Terminal Redux offers another sweeping rock n’ roll vista teeming with the kinds of science fiction tropes and philosophical quandaries that previously found a place on the very best releases from the likes of Yes and Rush. Dealing primarily with a central narrative concerning an immortal astronaut in the pursuit of political and financial gain, Terminal Redux is another progressive metal record that sounds like 2112 took acid and went to Mars. The latest releases from Anthrax and Metallica may have been staid exercises in nostalgic regression, but Vektor has proved for the third time that thrash metal is still alive and relevant in the 21st century. – Sean K. Cureton
Featured Image: Mass Appeal/RED