Eagle News’ 20 best albums of 2016: Pop & Beyond
“Lemonade” – Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s sixth studio album, “Lemonade,” is solid proof that her music has evolved into a constant array of thought-provoking anthems. The album, which was released in April, served as Beyoncé’s second visual album and was accompanied by an hour long film that aired on HBO. 2016 was a pivotal year for people of color in America, from the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement to the KKK endorsed president-elect, and “Lemonade” served as the soundtrack to the rebellion against White-washed America. Come for the powerhouse that is “Formation” and stay for the head-bopping “Sorry.”
“The Life of Pablo” – Kanye West
Kanye West’s year was anything but ordinary. From announcing he wanted to run for president to being hospitalized and cancelling both his U.S. and European tours, West was in the spotlight on more than one occasion. However, the release of his seventh studio album “The Life of Pablo” in February was definitely the most newsworthy event of West’s 2016. It’s a tour de force. From the lead single “Real Friends” to “Famous,” the song that rekindled the feud of the decade between West and Taylor Swift, West seemingly re-wrote rap in 20 tracks. From collaborations with Desiigner, Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper and Rhianna, “The Life of Pablo” proved that a genre as versatile as rap can come together and create something timeless.
“Views” – Drake
Drake is on top of his game and 2016 is proof of that. “Views,” the Canadian rapper’s fourth studio album, was released in April and became the soundtrack of the summer. Producing hits like “One Dance,” “Controlla” and “Too Good,” “Views” elevated Drake from the guy who crooned about his exes to the guy who curated a dancehall-infused, Grammy-nominated authority on hip-hop. While the singles on the album are worthy of a thousand streams on Spotify, the best tracks are hidden in-between the ones played on the radio. “Keep The Family Close,” “9,” and “Faithful” prove that Drake is truly still here.
“Coloring Book” – Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, “Coloring Book,” is appropriately named. Released in May, the album is a kaleidoscope of genius collaborations, gospel sounds and deep lyrics, and is not only up for Best Rap Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards, but gave birth to what just might be the collaboration of the year – “No Problem,” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. “Coloring Book” is a nonstop party, from the optimistic “All We Got,” featuring Kanye West, the sun-soaked “Blessings” to “All Night,” a song that won’t tire on the dance floor no matter how many times it’s played. Chance has outdone himself.
“Untitled Unmastered” – Kendrick Lamar
The album art for Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled Unmastered” may be plain, but the album, released in March, is anything but. Lamar solidified himself as the poster child for experimental, politically instilled rap after releasing 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and “Untitled Unmastered” expanded Lamar’s horizons even more. A conglomeration of soul, jazz and funk, the album allowed the Compton rapper to explore the very depths of what it means to bend the laws of hip-hop, and what came out of it was extraordinary. The sole single off the album, “untitled 07 | levitate,” is Lamar at peak performance – while repetitive, it flows smooth like honey. “Untitled Unmastered” is out of this world, and Lamar is king of the universe.
“Anti” – Rhianna
Rhianna has had a hell of a career, and her eighth studio album “Anti” is proof that there is nowhere to go but up for the Barbadian singer. Released in January, “Anti” started 2016 off strong with its first single “Work,” a Patois-infused reggae-pop number that was so big it granted not one but two music videos. “Anti” is unlike anything Rhianna has released before and is perhaps the boldest move the singer has made in her career – which says a lot, coming from a woman who draped herself head to toe in Swarovski crystals. The album is dark with bursts of light, like waking up from a dream with sun poking through your blinds. While “Kiss It Better,” “Needed Me” and “Love on the Brain” are perfectly chosen singles, “Consideration,” “Desperado” and “Woo” are the real stars. Rhianna’s new sound is here to stay.
“I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It” – The 1975
English rockers The 1975 first came onto the music scene in 2013 with the cheery, unorthodox anthem “Chocolate,” and have since then solidified themselves in the alternative genre. Their second studio album “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It,” released in February, is as close as 2016 is going to get to pure, untouched 80’s inspired indie pop perfection. Front man Matthew Healy is the captain of a ship that has successfully battled and slaughtered the sophomore slump, producing hits like “Somebody Else,” this generations’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”. “The Sound,” is a magical, jump-up-and-down kind of song, and “A Change of Heart” is a grin from ear to ear. The 1975 is perfecting their brand, one that will soon be a household name.
“Blackstar” – David Bowie
David Bowie’s decades-long career not only molded pop music into what it is today, it became the soundtrack to the lives of people across the globe. While Bowie tragically passed away in January, he gave his fans the ultimate parting gift – one final collection of songs. “Blackstar,” Bowie’s 25th album, served as a swan song to a world that wasn’t ready to let him go. Much like the title, “Blackstar” is darker than anything the singer has released thus far. Brooding and full of emotion, “Blackstar” is the result of Bowie crawling into the darkest crevices of his brilliant mind. “Lazarus” serves as the crowning jewel in Bowie’s last piece of art – with lyrics like “look up here, I’m in heaven” and “you know, I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, oh, I’ll be free,” the song lets fans across the world rest easy knowing that Ziggy Stardust is now the brightest star in the sky.
“Blonde” – Frank Ocean
Four long years separated Frank Ocean’s debut “Channel Orange” and his second album. After years of constant demands from fans, Ocean released “Blonde” in August, a far stretch from his “a tornado flew around my room” days. “Blonde” is a deep dive into experimental, psychedelic R&B. It’s like biting into a piece of birthday cake after eating nothing but vegetables – a breath of sweet, fresh air in the midst of a year of auto-tuned pseudo rap. “Blonde” starts off strong with “Nikes,” a slow-dancing, electric single that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Ocean’s singing ability shines through in “Ivy,” “Pink + White” and “Solo.” Ocean’s return was well worth the wait.
“Joanne” – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga first stepped onto the music scene in absurdly high heels, platinum blonde hair bows and meat dresses after releasing the pop extravaganza that was her debut album, “The Fame.” Eight years later, she’s traded in her wigs and stilettos for a pink cowboy hat and nothing but raw, natural talent. “Joanne,” Gaga’s fifth studio album, is an homage to classic, soft Americana rock, a genre that Gaga seemingly thrives in. Named after her late aunt and released in October, “Joanne” is quite the opposite of Gaga’s previous work, “Artpop.” Gaga teeters toward country, and it suits her. The lead single, “Perfect Illusion,” is reminiscent of the anthem “Born This Way,” while the majority of the tracks seem like they belong on a front porch overlooking a country sunset. “John Wayne,” “Million Reasons” and “Hey Girl” are the sweetest peaches in the bunch.
“Next Thing” – Frankie Cosmos
New York’s Greta Kline took her alias Frankie Cosmos and toyed around with a polished sound over her familiar laid-back bedroom recordings with her first studio release, “Next Thing.” Kline is known for her numerous releases on online streaming sites, which often featured lo-fi acoustic ditties documenting teen angst. Her voice has that accessible indie quality that isn’t practiced and perfected, yet reaches the deepest part of your inner Kimya Dawson. The simple guitar progressions in “Next Thing” lead into various indie-pop style choruses one after the other. Her catchy songwriting is abundant in songs like “Fool,” and “Embody,” where she fixates on how much she loves her friends. Her homey lyrics remind you of times spent sipping Arizona tea between skateboard sessions in the cargo bay a local grocery store. Tracks like “Outside with the Cuties,” “On the Lips,” and “Is it Possible/ Sleep Song” are especially warm.
“Private Energy” – Helado Negro
The subtle intimacies you hear when you listen to Helado Negro stretch beyond language and social boundaries. The solo musical expedition Roberto Carlos Lange sends listeners on is full of bubbly, sweeping soundscapes and warm, colorful vibrations of sound. “Private Energy” features the track “It’s My Brown Skin,” an especially fitting song for a year like 2016 where racial bias seeps into the cracks of our society. It shows passion for diversity, in friends of different colors and promotes love and Latinx pride. Even if you don’t know Spanish, the music speaks for itself and it’s easy to get lost in the colorful coral reef of music poured out for you.
“The Party” – Andy Shauf
If you’ve ever attended a crowded house party and felt awkward, out of place or you’re trying to grab the attention of your crush, then “The Party” is an album you’ll find relatable. The concept album by Canadian singer/ songwriter Andy Shauf captures the perspective of the observer at the party; he surveys all the social intricacies and documents it with his own sheepish voice. “Quite Like You” carries this album and is all about a half-drunk attempt to win the favor of his best friend Jimmy’s girlfriend while he’s off getting drunk and ignoring her. It’s especially charming when Shauf says he’s “had a few,” in several songs, and he grapples with the fact that Jimmy kind of sucks as a person but Shauf’s character still likes him as a friend. Songs like “Early to the Party,” speaks to those awkward, shuffling moments when you’re alone in the kitchen with the host and nobody has showed up yet except you.
“Puberty 2” – Mitski
Prolific guitarist and vocalist Mitski attains full realization as one of indie-rock’s most boisterous and spectacular voices. “Puberty 2” is a very powerful coming-of-age power struggle of trying to be happy. Its contents chronicle a grapple of depression, anxiety and sifting through old relationships in her poetic lyricism. “You’re the sun, you never see the night but you hear its song from the morning birds” she croons in the backbone of this album, “Your Best American Girl,” a feeble plea for finding stability that builds into a towering wall of sound and emotion. This album is especially potent for college students dealing with depression and heartbreak, which makes Mitski an obvious staple for this year’s soundtrack.
“A Moon Shaped Pool” – Radiohead
Radiohead is one of those legends of rock that could easily throw their veteran status in the music realm so that any of their albums gain mainstream success. However, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is an example of how Radiohead still has it. “Kill the Witch” is a track about lynch mobbing, possibly signaling the current state of affairs in the world with raised political climates. Every Radiohead release has its own unique sort of instrumentation; where “Kid A” was known for its heavy electronic influences, “A Moon Shaped Pool” bursts to life with massive orchestral backing that fills each song with a sort of classical feel to it. This isn’t to say the driving rock vibe is lost in any way.
“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” – Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson is a beauty in both lyricism and complexity. You may not have heard of him, but Simpson is a bit of a science dabbler, which places his latest release, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” as a rarity among country music. What Simpson does with country music is what Gaga did to pop — a radicalization much needed by a decaying industry. This release takes you on a waltz with the sea. A pirate-themed country experimental concept album may not have been expected this year, but it was certainly a welcome addition. This sort of grand gesture to his newborn child delves into themes of growing up and protecting the kid from the rough choppy seas of life. Notably, his cover of “In Bloom,” originally performed by Nirvana, shows Simpson’s talent for making a true cover – catapulting a 90’s grunge song into the twangy country universe.
“22, A Million” – Bon Iver
After a contentious release schedule and years of hiatus, the brainchild of Justin Vernon ruptured the indie folk bubble and redefined the genre forever. “22, A Million” borrows a lot from pop influences, utilizing chipmunk vocals and heavy distorted bass to weave together something purely magical and inspired. Not only does this release dazzle with contrasting musical elements, but it was also released with visually aesthetic artwork and numerology. Each track is named with a mix of numerals, Greek symbols and binary wording like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “715 – CR∑∑KS” that would give copy editors nightmares. Vernon’s affinity for auto tune and drum machines in this album will either steer away ardent listeners or draw in more followers who enjoy experimentation and genre bending.
“Freetown Sound” – Blood Orange
Somehow managing to slip under the radar of many pop critics, UK’s Dev Hynes’s third album documents personal strife and softness as detailed as Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar. “Freetown Sound” has elements of 80’s Afro-pop mixed with sampled hip-hop and cutaways of monologues to really supplement the tracks. This album is shaded by events of police brutality in the U.S., and speaks to social change that must be fixed. A Personal favorite, “Juicy 1-4,” is a shimmery pop ballad that includes separate movements and swooning vocals. Hynes’s third studio album under Blood Orange cuts deep and is a definite proponent for social justice in the black community.
“Pool” – Porches
Porches is the long-time music project of Aaron Maine, who, up until this record, produced lo-fi rock EPs and albums. Now, under Domino records, the bigger budget is clear and the sound is vastly more electronic and synth-pop orientated. One of the best parts about this release is how incredibly syncopated and uniform every song is; even though every song is unique and vastly catchy, the whole album has a single sound. This, I believe, is the true test for a great album. Songs like “Be Apart,” “Car,” and “Braid” cast a lonesome shadow most fulfilled by a long drive in the moonlight off the coast. Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos also lends her backup vocals to most of the tracks, adding a melancholic hue to an already bleak album.
“Junk” – M83
The powerhouse electronic sound M83 births into the vast universe sets it apart from any other Podunk wannabe Skrillexs. “Junk” is filled to the brim with bright, vibrant tracks that take you on an acid-powered ride on Space Mountain. From the get-go, “Do it, Try it” kicks off the album with punchy, bright piano chords following whacky chord progressions. The pitched voices are reminiscent of animatronic fast food mascots. Some of the stronger tracks, like “The Wizard” and “Road Blaster” are pleasing to the ear with their strong rhythms and catchy fills.