Last year, I ditched a bunch of twentieth-century material: vinyl, CDs, turntable, speakers bigger than a lunch box. There was nothing experimental or investigative about this move. Shrinking my house was just convenient. My listening life had migrated years earlier to a few hard drives, a laptop, and a pair of small, cheap monitors. My attachment to music hadn’t diminished, and the epiphanies didn’t stop coming. The fancy stuff was firmly stuff and stuff only, and it didn’t hurt to part with any of it. None of this felt particularly radical.
Maybe it isn’t. No one who came of age in the digital era would think so; for them, recorded music was never a physical object, unless it was a couple of hard drives, an iPhone, or another storage or delivery device. What’s the difference between LPs and digital files? Sound quality, vinyl purists might say, though I’ve got plenty of digital iterations of music that could never be properly reproduced on a piece of vinyl. (Bass.) Size seems the most reliable answer. Though MP3s and FLACs need a physical medium, they take up less space than any previous storage method. The transition from LPs to CDs to MP3s, and now to streaming, can be thought of as dimensional, if by dimensional you mean the space taken up.
In any of those transitions, is music less of a thing? Does digital dematerialize the music it transmits? Not to any meaningful degree, area man gently posits. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the middle of an impromptu dance party. The DJ was a TV set channeling YouTube and several smartphones trading off songs. There was no kvetching about the lost halo of music as a physical object or diminished audio fidelity, though there were several loud complaints about logging in to and out of Apple Music. None of this bears any resemblance to listening circa 1997, or 2007; yet the idea of the streaming as immaterial still doesn’t seem like a conceptual fit. Sound is a physical event, whether it’s delivered via vinyl, CD, or Wi-Fi.
These questions have made their way to the main stage. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book — number four on the Pazz & Jop albums list — is not available in any physical format. Because of changes made by the Recording Academy last year, streaming-only releases are eligible for Grammy nominations; Chance got seven, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. More significant on a daily basis is a new metric being used by both Billboard and the RIAA: Fifteen hundred song-streams equals one album sale. A number one album can now be,essentially, nothing more than a playlist. (Earlier this year, Epic collected songs from streaming powerhouses like Future and DJ Khaled, added on tracks from unknowns like Lotto Savage and Gnarly World, and created an instant chart-topper called Epic AF.) Driven in large part by streaming payouts of more than $1 billion, the recorded-music industry is marking its first year-over-year revenue increase since the pre-Napster Nineties.
Is it money that links the immaterial of the digital back to the physical world? Digital has an appeal as a realm without physical boundaries or constraints, a notion that translates to artistic freedom: Kanye West treating The Life of Pablo as a public art project, tinkering with mixes and lyrics; Chance working by his own rules, with no a&r person asking if he’s thought about getting a verse from Drake. The utopian part of this scenario is where an artist puts her music on the internet, without the help of a large company, and powers herself into view, winning a Grammy in the process.
But Chance is in business with Apple, which had an exclusive with Coloring Book for three weeks before it was available on all the other major streaming platforms. If refusing to charge for this specific album is an act, so is putting your album on a platform that charges for subscriptions. Digital real estate is not so different from physical real estate. After it is colonized by artists, capital follows, as do legal strictures that favor the capital. What is unregulated and freewheeling becomes regulated and exploited. The digital siphon might end up being the end of net neutrality, or more of the same: Google buying YouTube, and the like, until there are no “free” corners. So Chance is a victory that only would have been a victory in, say, 2005. There was a point when the internet was unruly and instructive, unsupervised and fertile. As a teaching tool, the power is still mostly intact. As a creative platform, things have narrowed.
SoundCloud, the streaming platform that made its mark by hosting DJ mixes, has gone through a peculiar form of immaterial purging. After accepting investment money from Sony, SoundCloud started expunging copyrighted material. Even though no commerce was being conducted, hundreds of mixes were summarily pulled. To test its content detection, recently I laid the Westworld theme on top of Bowie’s “Warszawa” and tried to upload the result. Both times, SoundCloud detected Bowie’s track — though not Westworld — and instantly removed the blend from my profile. Minor stuff, obviously; a few of my friends were prevented from hearing a demonstration of how similar the two pieces of music are. This is also a pointless flexing of muscle on SoundCloud’s behalf, especially for a company facing a cash shortfall and user loyalty issues.
I listen to something on SoundCloud nearly every day, because it’s a free streaming service designed for unsigned artists, or signed artists who want to share their work there. But that’s not a business model, apparently. Until last week, I had absolutely no idea that SoundCloud had introduced a subscription on-demand streaming tier that lets you mix the abundant free material with commercial releases. Useful, I guess, if you find switching between Spotify and SoundCloud on your phone to be a lot of effort.
So rather than immateriality as a model, we may have entered digital music’s phase of what Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity.” The utopian phase has already passed; now we are in a mode of turbulence that sees a series of patches, one after the other, trying to hold together some kind of narrative that never quite coheres. As Bauman wrote in 2012, “We don’t have a clear image of a ‘destination’ towards which we seem to be moving....Instead, we react to the latest trouble, experimenting, groping in the dark.” There are a few true holdouts for independent music, like Bandcamp, which can power careers as long as we hang on to net neutrality. But the real estate that streaming platforms occupy is already out of reach for many independent labels, many of which still don’t accept Spotify’s royalty structure.
Coloring Book winning a Grammy would be a triumph for the same reason it placed so high in Pazz & Jop: simply because it’s an exceptional record. It wouldn’t say much about the nature of the immaterial, which is subject to some pretty material relations. On earth, the big dogs are still the ones getting those heavy gramophone paperweights.
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Anderson .Paak’s musicianship and raw vocals, Maxwell’s mature elegance, Beyoncé’s angry-wife persona, Bryson Tiller’s wistfully whiny sexuality, and Kandace Springs’s rich voice and bluesy piano chops showed that the b in r&b was finally getting equal weight after being drowned out for several years by the r. Though Solange got most of the blog coverage, rookies Gallant, Springs, and Audra Day all made impressive albums that suggested they have the chops and p.o.v. for long careers. Nelson George
Overshadowed by Kanye, Chance, Kendrick, or the Knowles Sisters, Rihanna proved that she is our most sophisticated consumer of pleasure and, in her own way, continued the argument that female sexual autonomy as a construction of self and power is both refreshing and full of danger. That she has done this consistently for eight albums is a streak rivaled only by Stevie Wonder or Madonna. Anthony Easton
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson’s endlessly tender dedication to his newborn son presents a dramatic contrast to the arguably toxic masculinity that has plagued country music for years. Amy McCarthy
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
America’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band in an era when that doesn’t mean a goddamn thing put out their best record in nearly a decade, immersing themselves not just in the stories they’ve always told, but the politics that have always underpinned them. Jim Connelly
Danny Brown, Atrocity
Exhibition Forget the words. The sound of these doomy, gothic soundscapes that surround you in ever-tightening spirals
mirrored the fear and loathing so many of us felt in the weeks following Trump’s election. Jim Connelly
The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
Plastic neon boner-funk high off hubris and philosophy books. You could try to make this shit up, but why would you? Evan Sawdey
Awareness of your implicit role in global exploitation and impending climate doom has never sounded so beautiful. Joe Lynch
In a year when so many great records aimed at making us think, feel, pray, smile, cry, rage, empathize, this album — more than any other — just wanted you to dance. Alex Gale
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution
“Earth to Heaven” and “Funk the Fear” remind me of Dream Theater one second, Joni Mitchell or crisp jazz the next. “Unconditional Love,” a softer piece, has such a warm studio feel to it, I can almost smell the instruments and the soundproofing acoustic foam. I mean this in a fond way, I swear. Farah Joan Fard
KING, We are King
More r&b should shimmer and be this diaphanous. Alfred Soto
Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
Like a gallery of human desires mounted to a wall that come back to life and start wriggling under their pins. Sasha Geffen
Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories
The frustrations, furies, and fleeting grace notes of flyover America. These songs sounded warm and empathetic before the election. It was already too late when they revealed themselves as warnings. Max Berry
Kevin Gates, Islah
A new classic: Layers of hooks, a remarkably chameleonic voice and flow, and (almost) more mood swings than Trump’s Twitter account. Corey Beasley Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger V.I.P. wristband as a metaphor for colonialism? What would Trump tweet? Ken Rayes
Jamila Woods, HEAVN
A work of beauty rising up through the Chicago gun smoke, mostly about the Chicago gun smoke. Phillip Overeem
Young Thug, Jeffery
Everyone always talks about how weird Young Thug sounds, but here’s a list of other “weird sounding” guys he reminds me of: Louis Armstrong, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Richard, Chuck Berry (“My Ding-a-Ling” is very similar to “Future Swag”). Rollie Pemberton
Horse Lords, Interventions
There’s an old Laotian proverb that says if you like to have things easy, you’ll have difficulties, but if you like things difficult, you’ll succeed. Baltimore quintet Horse Lords like things difficult, and their kinetic freak-out rock offers rich rewards and thrilling ecstasies. Patrick Wall
Xenia Rubinos, Black Terry Cat
I can’t think of a Latinx artist who so aggressively confronted a world so hell-bent on vilifying her, and her people, as the Puerto Rican and Cuban Rubinos. Rubinos made it a point to address what it’s like to be a brown girl in a country where so many Latinxs thirst for white acceptance. Jaime-Paul Falcon
A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation
A beautiful piece of humanity-laced activism painted on a trancelike electronic backdrop complete with tribal chanting and throat singing, this album stands out in a year with so many great releases as truly unique both musically and in point of view. Heather Hoch
Bonnie Raitt, Dig in Deep
The sexiest album of the year was made by a 66-year-old woman, quite possibly at the peak of her powers. Thomas Inskeep
G.L.O.S.S., Trans Day of Revenge
One zillion points. Absolutely essential. Michael Fournier The Tragically Hip, Man Machine Poem As undeniably courageous as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen were in staring down the respective barrels of their own mortality in 2016, my number one hero of this or any other year is Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for Canada’s favorite sons, the Tragically Hip. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Downie led the Hip on a farewell tour that galvanized an entire nation in addition to helming not one but two career-defining albums. To modify an indelible Hip lyric: “Courage: It couldn’t come at a better time. Gord’s legacy will live to survive our paradoxes well into eternity.” Mike Mettler
Tweet made us remember the days of Minnie Riperton, when soul and singer-songwriter folk could combine. Ian Steaman
Garbage, Strange Little Birds
As David Greenwald has pointed out, there’s a real issue with the way veteran non-superstar acts’ releases are covered (or aren’t). This album deserved a real critical reckoning. Jesse Richman
The Highest Order, Still Holding
A psychedelic country record that seeks to decolonize and confront settler mentality, and it’s amazing. Andrea Warner
Hella Blackfolk loved David Bowie; David Bowie loved hella Blackfolk, and hella music by same. Bowie even outdid most of his pink-skinded compatriots — the Stones, Talking Heads, and Police excepted — adding two jawnts (“Fame” and “Let’s Dance”) to the permanent playlists of our most funk-centric DJs. That said, it seems fitting Bowie’s last hurrah atop the Pazz & Jop platform is one he shares with hella musical folk from our beloved community. And via a swan song where he finally declares for all the world to hear, “I’m a Blackstar, not a rock star.”
The Blackstar meme carries a lot of non-racial metaphoric weight on the album for sure, but all that jazz within — provided by saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet — also links Blackstarwith the realm of cosmic improv inhabited by Bowie beloveds like John and Alice Coltrane, stellar adepts who likewise made music about earthly transcendence seem as ineluctably a human concern as making babies (and making babymaking music). Few of us will be singing the theme music at our own wake or delivering the tightest eulogy imaginable about what we did with the Dash (what the preachers call the mark placed on tombstones between our birth dates and death dates). But Bowie turned his departure for the afterlife into a moment where he would once again, even with hella critical eulogy verbiage flying, have the last word on the bloody meaning of it all.
It’s easy enough to read his taking the number one spot above Queens Bey and Solange as more rock-crit nostalgia for dead white musos. But a year after Bowie took it to the next phase, Blackstar remains a hypnotic head rush of an afterlife-and-death-embracing suite. One chock-full of the song-and-studio craft, soulful yearning, pungent funk, and experimental daring that was DB’s career-long calling card.
And Bowie’s win is not just a matter of rock critics’ feeling a tad moist-eyed — give as much credit to the miserable rise of Mein Chumpf as to lifetime-achievement-award sentimentality. When the shite gets this dread on the American political front, muhfuhkuhs always turn to the music most capable of inhabiting the darkness within them with redemptive, angst-driven feeling. Hella folk, progressive rock scribes and non, are feeling like the Bowie of Blackstar’s “‘Lazarus” right about now, running around “with scars nobody can see.” Ditto for the Bowie of “Girl Loves Me,” who demands to know “Where the fuck did Monday go?” After this election cycle’s stupor-Tuesday, what refrain could be more point blank in delivering the horror-vacui of 2016? Hugging up on the soaring lilt found on the album-length death march of this British rock star hardly seems overwrought — especially given he was the One who’d spent decades being defiantly, elegantly, heroically there for America’s Most Unwanted and the rest of the repressed world.
The fact that 2016 also took Prince — Bowie’s heir apparent in producing anthemic outsider panegyrics — should have alerted us early on that something abominably wicked this way comes. This paper’s own Nineties Black feminist star Lisa Jones Brown rang to query, “Greg, who’s going to stand up for Black people now that Prince is gone?” Prompting us to inquire in reply, “And even more to the point, who’s going to stand up for freaky Black people?” The final succumbing of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White to a long-withering illness put too fine a point on it: Contemporary kulcha’s most #woke newjacks were being roughly passed the baton of serving their flocks with spectacular pop Revivalism, whether they were ready or not.
News of His Purple Majesty being brought down hit on a Thursday. Nobody we know had blinked twice enough to wipe the tears out their eyes when Lemonade was suddenly there on everybody’s cable box two days later, clamorously demanding attention be paid. And more than a few folk we know were mad as a mutha that Bey and HBO hadn’t rescheduled her opus’s debut in honor of this epoch’s Fallen Black Prince. But we watched, we got rocked, rolled, rhapsodized, wept in several places, and had to give Sista Beyoncé her propers as matriculated artist. Even hardcore sistas previously on record as anti-Beyhive STFU, begrudgingly bowing down in Lemonade’s wake.
That Beyoncé straight-up owns the number two spot on this year’s Pazz & Jop isn’t just because the audio album alone is That Dope. It’s because the visual album came behind her and her Lady Panthers’ owning, blindsiding, and Black Lives Mattering & Shattering 2016’s Super Bowl out-the-frame so completely you’d be forgiven for forgetting it was ostensibly Coldplay’s gig, as well as the same game that served as Peyton Manning’s enfeebled last stand and Cam Newton’s fall to earth. Having already snatched Madonna’s Head Feminist in Charge crown, now Beyoncé was booting Public Enemy out of Huey’s wicker chair as the sonic face of Black pop militancy. And doing so right on the field of play, dead in AmeriKKKa’s pigskin-worshipping eye. Then three months later here she was again with Lemonade, proving undaunted in having to meet the Kendrick Lamar/Black Music Matters Challenge before a Black Rock/Hiphop Nation still in disbelief over Prince’s curtain call.
Back when some of our confederates were roiling in horror that rap and r&b were being appropriated, expropriated, and de-melaninated to goober dust by Iggy Azalea, Macklemore, and Robin Thicke — back when the Grammys looked destined to become the Other Country Music Awards — this reporter thought, “Well, this is where My People will either step up outrageously or sit down on the songwriting tip.” After the fiery urban rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, after the killing of Michael Brown by now-ex-cop Darren Wilson and the killing of Freddie Gray by the now-exonerated Baltimore police farce, the relevancy stakes rose considerably. Militancy and minstrelsy were both rebooting across the land. Merely making one’s game worthy of wizened NARAS voters’ attention wasn’t going to cut it.
In this context, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (and his incendiary Grammy victory lap) set the bar for how much agitprop spectacle this generation’s most ambitious and conscientious Black superstars now had to surround their radical lyric content with. To Pimp a Butterfly ranks as the kind of overkill MJ intended and wrought with Thriller. What came with the high bar was a bandwidth thick enough to speak to the body politic on an existential meta plane — that mythogenic higher level where Black spiritualities, epistemologies, and cosmologies matter as much as funky beats. You could get swept up in the rapture of TPAB and Lemonade and not know where Robben Island is, or who Audre Lorde was, but no two pop albums in the past twenty years have made Black cultural literacy more of a prerequisite for a complex understanding of the contents within.
This is not to say the music of Lemonade is chopped liver. Even without the visual package’s Daughters of the Dust–haunted imaging (as well as the confessional, introspective human touch provided the magical lyricism of Somalian-born poet Warsan Shire), Lemonade is a big, bossy, brassy, totemic blueswoman’s album, full of spite, bite, and more hairpin stylistic left turns than we’ve heard on a mainstream r&b jawnt since Prince’s Parade. Re-fired from the speakers months after the hype of shady martial reveals have gone the way of all bossip, Lemonade sounds as smart, witchy, and whimsical a take on hurt women and cheating hearts as this era can throw up. The raunchy-as–Betty Davis grit and griminess of the Jack White collab “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is worthy of Death Grips. Matter of fact, the low-end dubplate-wise distortion heard on much of what follows tells you the Orphic depths of hell are Bey’s current idea of fun. Psycho-candied paeans to streetwalkers, second-line-inflected cowgirl odes to outlaw father figures, downer duets with James Blake that sound recorded in sunken cathedrals, funked-out spaghetti western scores for personal liberation marches — all this marks Lemonade as an album aflame with skin-shedding musical maneuvers by the self-care queen of modern pop. And the unabashed bratty big-willie braggadocio heard on “Formation” renders it the trapbeat record Muhammad Ali should have released at the height of his swagatudinal poetic prime.
That said, who knew the Knowles Industrial Complex was going to expand into a sister act? Or that Baby Sis was going to quietly release what’s become most millennial Blackfolks’ vote-by-daily-rotation album of the year: Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
Readily enchanted Pazz & Jop voters gave it the number five slot. Among hella non-critics, though, it was the second project in less than a year from the Knowles Industrial Complex to have folk from L.A. to Johannesburg routinely playing it all the way through twice in one sitting. Only this time the devotion was accomplished solely by a Knowles Complex Clanswoman’s sonic objet d’art. Everything Beyoncé beez and does — sound, color, movement, imaging, composing — is chain-linked together in the public imagination. Up until A Seat at the Table, Solange was more impressive for her use of negative space relative to Big Sis — for being the Un-Bey every which way to Sunday, remarkably undiminished by proximity to the throne, title, and tiara in manifold ways no Jackson but Janet ever achieved. To the extent the record had any pre-hype it was the infamous three-year-old elevator incident video — the one where Jay Z can be seen fending off a flurry of fisticuffs and kicks from a femme fatale who likely weighs 125 pounds soaking wet with a brick. But curiosity about how much heart you display in pummeling gangstas above your weight class won’t shoot your record up to number one on the charts. Not even in this socially mediated and medicated age of starfucking schadenfreude.
The plaintive and affecting grace of A Seat at the Table derives from it never sounding like it’s trying too hard — so one never feels like Solange is out here “Doing the Most,” as the kids say, to compete with anybody else on the pop du jour food chain. It’s a personalized response to the Ferguson/Baltimore/Kendrick/Lemonade challenge that finds Solange answering the call to re-polemicize r&b using what your grandmama would call her “inside voice,” à la Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly. Seventies soul lyric sopranos Syreeta Wright, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, and the Pointer Sisters loom as musical godmothers — not to mention Aaliyah — while Solange’s deployment of pointed interludes from the Knowles sisters’ OG parental units and Master P brings gravitas and more overt rage. Those spoken-word choices prove as canny as her DJ-savvy picks in lush, translucent beats.
This year’s Call It a Comeback Award clearly goes to A Tribe Called Quest, holding down number three with We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, as death-shrouded and tearjerking a project as Bowie’s, given the transition of Phife Dawg from mortal to Native Tongue ancestor-spirit while the reconvened Tribe were mid-recording. The snarling ebullience of Phife’s verses on “We the People” refuses to allow the cemetery any kind of last word on him. But released three days after the election, We Got It From Here also functions as the hope, change, and radical headchange candidate of 2016 hiphop releases.
Tribe stealthily returned relevance to New York hiphop, not by way of a stated intention but by sounding as fresh now as they did on their debut of — yikes, was it really 27 years ago? — proving that good old uncrackable Blacknuss isn’t just skin deep but can spit its bunions off given enough political motivation and luminous beat construction. That said, it’s De La Soul’s Kickstarter-funded And the Anonymous Nobody, with its beyond eclectic supporting cast (David Byrne, Usher, Justin Hawkins, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, Estelle, Damon Albarn), that’s become our regular morning go-to for Nineties cool-rap-redux enchantment. Anonymous is by far a more casual, less career-mortality-reminding reboot than ATCQ’s, but to these ears more musically seductive and surprising — no matter if it couldn’t crack our estimable voters’ top 40. (Number cruncher alert: It lodged at number 58, tied with White Lung; the full results are at villagevoice.com/pazznjop.)
In some quarters Kanye West might as well be left for dead after daring to visit the non-resident elect in his pyrite towers alongside other opportunists. But there’s no denying he earned his number ten position on the album list and number two on singles the old-fashioned way. The Life of Pablo continues his long stretch of being the most hated man in modern pop who’s never phoned an album in — even when you think he’s given artistic integrity up for celebrity stunting. In addition to being Chance the Rapper’s most memorable track to date, “Ultralight Beam” was the propulsively poignant score to one of the most rapturously reviewed gallery works of the season: Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. The song and Jafa’s video-art piece are both vivid, phantasmal markers of how much state-sponsored violence was done to We the People during the Obama era. These are zeitgeist tone poems that anticipate our vulnerability and potential for radical elevation in the face of Mein Chumpf’s Mephistophelean promises to make demonic savagery an Oval Office priority.
Some scribes have predicted this terrorized moment of global right-wing white-supremacist-enabling ascension will incite a restoration of roots reggae, punk rock, and political rap to oppositional glory. But musical revolutions have a funny way of not exactly repeating themselves. What you hope for is a millennial music culture that synchronizes with the Progressive Now in ways we can’t even predict — one that possesses the consciousness-rearing shock-and-awe that the Clash and Public Enemy detonated in a previous generation’s heads but also understands that aggro agit-pop may not prove as spiritually or erotically energizing, or as necessary, to next-wave young radicals as the next-wave Al Green, Pretenders, Grace Jones, or Joy Division. The depth-perception listeners who latched on to Solange’s album, and the use of Shire’s writing on Lemonade, tell us that balladry that provides respite and shelter from the shitstorms ahead will be as welcome as, if not more so than, those that bring the noise and sturm und drang.
Which brings us to Rihanna’s Anti, an album-length flipping-off of runaway bedmates and a celebration of self-pleasuring and, we presume, mad weed smoking. Anti is almost as thoroughly listenable and sonically au courant as the work of the Knowles Industrial Complex, and there are a few non-Bey stans of our acquaintance who would see Anti trade places with the Queen’s Lemonade stand. If you prefer your hot-mama deities to bring switchblades and amoral anarchy to the party, Ri remains your 21st-century kind of irrepressible riot grrrl. But it also brings us to the mid-list stacking of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and fallen Romantic bellwether Leonard Cohen and the top 20 rankings of Nick Cave, Bon Iver, and Sturgill Simpson. All speak to the desire for renewal in dark, tuneful places, a monastic mode that will likely become commonplace of transmissions from our more etheric pop avatars in less than a post-inaugural New York minute.
We were therefore much encouraged to see Anderson .Paak’s sunny Malibu emerge as the eleventh pick among all the def-chasing-murder melancholia. Maurice White — like .Paak a drummer turned vocal popmeister — would surely approve of .Paak’s crafty, crooning veneration of tradition and eclecticism, just as Q and MJ would approve of his desire to render the dancefloor jazzy and seductively buoyant again.
Given this P&J’s diversity of chosen ones — an alchemical mixture of Amazonian fire starters, rogue gentlemen ancestors, infectious groove outliers, Big Apple hiphop avengers, navel-gazing dungeon-loving darkstars — we enter this next cycle of crisis in the democratic experiment with a certain optimism: a wildly giddy hope that our popular culture’s most undaunted will once again artfully and inspirationally respond to state-sponsored domestic terrorism, Draconian fuckery, and social-contract-decimation with rule-shattering reflection and regenerative ruckus-bringing rambunction.
The Top 10 Albums
David Bowie, Blackstar
Death as performance art. Laurence Station
The ultimate trick: Eschew
media-induced sympathy, deliver a tour de force, and die as the raves swirl around you. Holly Gleason
Sentimentality? It would’ve been the best album of 1978, too. Steve Erickson
What the backlash tells you: There’s nothing that scares Americans more than the sound of a strong, confident black woman at the peak of her powers. Ken Capobianco
Frank, tough, and political amongst the personal, this is a true de force for feminists and feminine mystiquers everywhere. Holly Gleason
Beyoncé makes the great Gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century. The most important thing about it was that she insisted on the uniqueness of that argot: Black music for Black people, with no effort at including white desire or white understanding, the argument against universalism was a gift in a low, dishonest, post-truth year. Anthony Easton
If this couldn’t score the first album win by a woman of color in the 43rd or 44th year of this poll, what could? Dan Weiss
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
If you told me twenty years ago that in 2016: a) my favorite albums would be from A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; b) I would buy more records than CDs; and c) Donald Trump would be president — I would have no reason not to believe you. After all, I was only seventeen. Michael Pollock
Fuck return to form, this is the form. Hobey Echlin
The political album of the year, getting the edge over the Drive-By Truckers by remaining joyous — and these are the black guys. Michael Tatum
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Finding brilliance in rap’s corniest corners. JD Swerzenski
He’s annoyingly good at making you happy when you don’t want to be. Michael Tedder
Chance the Rapper is his own puppet master, committed to controlling his destiny as an artist. During his sold-out tour he proved he could pull the strings of an audience like the best gospel preachers. Plus there were literally puppets. Katie Moulton
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Where Beyoncé’s 2016 output shone for unapologetically proclaiming her stratospheric celebrity and womanhood, Solange’s eloquently (and equally unapologetically) explored the consciousness of being a Black woman living in modern America. This song cycle explores the soul and Blackness of a people, long-suffering, deserving of an indemnity and reparation which is historically ignored, repudiated, or snuffed out permanently at the hands of a society and system long overdue for course correction. EJ Friedman
I listened to this so much, and genuinely missed it at times when it wasn’t possible to listen to music. Josh Timmermann
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Dense and obtuse, yet clear as a bell. Ken Rayes
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Cohen always hinted at a collapse into self-parody, and his best work absorbs it with full force, so a work this genuine and devoid of irony made me nervous (it does have one great joke, though; it’s not a Lenny record without one great joke). But I doubt that any other human being could write his own obituary with so much power. An act of secular majesty and Hebrew sanctity, it is his last argument proving that he is one of the century’s great theologians. Anthony Easton
Leonard Cohen lived with dignity and elegance, and he died the same way. No kicking, no screaming, no fear. When you’ve done it all, there’s no need for that. Deb Sprague
A brilliant concept album about going home and not being to arrive there. Michael Tatum
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
For all the talk of impeaching Kanye, Pablo is his most compelling work in quite a few years. The audio equivalent of a manic episode. Martin Douglas Gotta love an album that requires a changelog. Josh Bis
Male entitlement is a crucial part of rock’s DNA, and the pop charts — which, in 2016, were ruled largely by the likes of electro-bro duo the Chainsmokers and the grown-and-sullen Justin Bieber — reflected that reality loudly. The way the curdled view of women espoused by giant hits like Bieber’s “Love Yourself” (No. 1 on the 2016 Hot 100, No. 126 single) and the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” paralleled the breezy “not a 10” dismissiveness of the new president rankled even more when contrasted with the bona fide pop stars who were tackling womanhood and humanity with complexity and grace, but who were largely exiled from Top 40 playlists.
Beyoncé (No. 2 album, No. 1 single), for all her internet-shaking ability, only managed to place one track on the Hot 100 — “Sorry” (No. 15 single), all the way down at No. 71. Only Adele (“Hello,” No. 9 single of 2015) and Rihanna (“Work,” No. 9 single) managed to crack the year-end Hot 100’s top ten, while other women — Daya, Bebe Rexha — were relegated to second-billed status, their gasped lyrics depicting alienation and aloneness seemingly brought on by the men they supported.
The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (No. 94 single), meanwhile, could have been crowned 2016’s official Uber-ride anthem; blippy and lethargic, it spent twelve weeks atop the Hot 100, drilling its insistent playground-ringtone chorus (“backseat of the Ro-ver,” “tattoo on your shoul-der,” ashes, ashes, etc.) into anyone within spitting distance of a radio. Its genesis, according to Billboard, was spite, with ’smoker Drew Taggart writing conversational lines about hooking up with a former flame, then — whoopsie! — realizing he had nothing but contempt for the woman in question.
That a duo whose first hit was a mockery of women crowding around cellphone cameras — “#SELFIE” (No. 213 in 2014) — would strike pop gold with a whinge about an ex who’s poor and bitchy but still hot enough to bang isn’t too surprising; and it seemed appropriate to 2016, when pop rotated on the axis of male entitlement in ways not seen since the breaking-stuff height of the nu-metal era. “Closer” featured alt-pop upstart Halsey, who’d proved her arena-level charisma with the inane yet potent generational rallying cry “New Americana” and a run supporting bleary-eyed fist-raisers Imagine Dragons; here she was relegated to Taggart’s duet partner, echoing his withering observations of her character’s post-breakup existence in a generic bleat reminiscent of an also-ran from The Voice. And the song’s blasé rallying cry — “We ain’t ever getting older” — summed up life in 2016’s sullen-teen United States almost a little too well.
Abel Tesfaye’s anomie-&-b project the Weeknd is still benefiting from the makeover that included counsel from pop auteur Max Martin, who decided that the pill-popping Torontonian would be the perfect person to reanimate the more paranoid portions of Thriller. On his second major-label full-length, Starboy, the Weeknd brought in French masked men Daft Punk, who at baseline shared his affinity for staying up all night. The title track (No. 29 single), one of the fruits of that collaboration, has the vocodered bounce of “Get Lucky,” although it’s shot through with fame-related unease and copious references to getting high. It, too, was inescapable on pop radio after its release, although on the bright side, Tesfaye’s ladyfriend’s ability to hoover up rails does inspire a profession of love. (Or maybe he’s just high.)
The ruling prince of pop in 2016, Drake, has built an entire career on the pose of the “nice guy,” the sensitive prince who can’t seem to get a woman to understand where he’s coming from, either because he’s famous or because he’s too sensitive. His much-awaited Views (No. 505 album) was a slog of self-pity, its streaming stats goosed by the presence of the buoyant “Hotline Bling” (No. 1 in 2015), coming alive only when his longtime foil and bullshit-caller Rihanna shows up (“Too Good,” No. 179 single).
The losses of David Bowie (No. 1 album), Prince, and George Michael made these petulant, no-way-out depictions of masculinity even more depressing. That those three artists existed in a time when pop was still figuring itself out — when album rockers were making awkward “look, I’m making a video” clips so they could get airtime on the then-nascent MTV, and when programmers in far-flung El Paso could agitate for oddball tracks to eventually crack playlists in bigger markets — is of course relevant here; they tested the boundaries of masculinity in real time and in public, from Prince’s high-heeled splits to Michael’s scrawling of “EXPLORE MONOGAMY” on a woman’s back, and even though they operated in a more generally conservative world, it was one with more leeway to fuck around and, maybe, fuck up — fewer prying paparazzi, a fraction of the tabloid outlets ready to overanalyze and finger-wag, and more wiggle room on the pop charts, which are now boxed in by top-down programming on one side and streaming-era monotony on the other. (“Closer,” as of this writing, is hanging in at No. 11 on Spotify’s U.S. chart, and still in the Hot 100’s top 10.) Draw those lines tightly enough and pair them with all-seeing, all-judging eyes, and it’s no wonder the men of pop want to remain in a tantrumlike state, feeling misunderstood by the world despite being exactly what a large chunk of its inhabitants supposedly crave.
Justin Farrar, a freelance writer and curator for Resident Advisor, Third Bridge Creative, and Napster, managed an impressive feat, casting a ballot with ten albums and ten songs that garnered zero votes from the other 549 voters in this year’s poll. Farrar explains his approach:
I want to hear musicians absolutely obsessed with their own unique visions, so much so that what the outside world thinks of them largely is irrelevant. I simply don’t hear that kind of intensity in more popular records. One of my favorite releases of 2016 is Forced Into Femininity’s I’m Making Progress, a tape on the excellent Decoherence imprint. It’s all about operatic absurdism built from stuttering drum machines, motley belches of sound, and shrieking meditations on shattered self. In a lot of ways, it’s the crazier, underground counterpart to Anohni’s critically lauded Hopelessness. But where Anohni is too refined, too professional, for my temperament, Forced Into Femininity goes straight for the jugular with straight-up transgressive inscrutability.
Not everything on my ballot is balls-to-the-wall bonkers. Some of it is fantastic, hook-stuffed music whose only fault is that it isn’t championed by publicists who have the ears of Pitchfork. Boy Harsher’s Yr Body Is Nothing, on DKA Records, is one of the most fully realized minimal wave/synthpop records of the past decade. The blend of cold, mechanized dread and rock ’n’ roll physicality is so damn captivating precisely because it’s far more insular and less concerned with mimicking previously established templates in those genres. The best art has to forget everything: the public, history, tradition, and especially us critics.
ALBUMS (10 POINTS EACH)
- Ariisk, Fatal Errors
- Boy Harsher, Yr Body Is Nothing
- Finished, Cum Inside Me Bro
- Forced Into Femininity, I’m Making Progress
- Liquid Asset, Colony Denied
- Naked Lights, On Nature
- Next Delusion/Boris Hauf Sextet, Next Delusion
- Profligate, Abbreviated Regime Volume One
- Tether, Mirror Finish
- Viki Viktoria, New Victorian
- Chromesthetic, “Suicide”
- Craow, “Game of Fools”
- Fwy!, “CA State Route 138”
- Kill Alters, “Sensory”
- M Ax Noi Mach, “Walking at Night”
- Prostitutes, “Pressure on the Haunted”
- Pure Ground, “Still”
- Pussy Mothers, “Get From in Front of Me”
- Sponge Bath, “Golden Light (Club Mix)”
- Unicorn Hard-On, “Miss Maddox”
A song unapologetically black, celebrating distinctly black features from Afros to flared nostrils? Yes, please. Empowering doesn’t even begin to touch on the magnitude of this track. Nilina Mason-Campbell
Some years, “single of the year” seems like a personal preference, basically meaning “favorite song.” Other years, there seems to be an empirically provable Single of the Year. This is the latter case. Josh Timmermann
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Trust Solange to stare down the weights of the world and transform them into something so effortlessly light. Sasha Geffen
A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People...”
Hip-hop’s first step in developing a coalition between gay people and Muslims. Wes Flexner
David Bowie, “Lazarus”
He videoed his own wake. He knew. He knew. Eugene Holley Jr.
Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
Forget roller-rink drama and pre-Trump literature, this firebreathing rocker made me wanna kiss with my eyes open. Brent Baldwin
YG feat. Nipsey Hussle, “FDT”
The most important song of the year, for obvious reasons. Natalie Weiner
Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
A catalog of no-nos, a real woman’s rap sheet, and a lack of guilt or shame about any of it. Who knew liberation sounded like a Victrola’s hiss? Holly Gleason
Young M.A, “OOOUUU”
This ran the streets of New York for much of 2016 and rendered any naysaying about gay female rappers moot. Ian Steaman
D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty, “Broccoli”
Because you can’t name a children’s song “Higher Than a Witch Doctor.” Hobey Echlin
Young Thug & Travis Scott feat. Quavo, “Pick Up the Phone”
“Hotline Bling,” minus the cynicism and lazy misogyny and with more original production. Natalie Weiner
Frank Ocean, “Ivy”
Who knew Frank could take what sounds like a Real Estate demo and turn it into one of the most affecting songs of the year? Probably everybody. Martin Douglas
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
In a year of unprecedented narcissistic self-indulgence sans consequences, this emerges as the most of-the-moment song I can think of. Add that smooth, Motown-feeling melody and my anger has a sweeter place to channel. Holly Gleason
Charles Bradley, “Changes”
Yeah, it’s a Black Sabbitch cover — the only one to make Ozzy pour orange juice into the correct receptacle. Brent Baldwin
Lizzo, “Good as Hell”
A shining light to lift us up out of the garbage fire, and a true anthem for radical size acceptance. Andrea Warner
Maren Morris, “ ’80s Mercedes”
I want a white leather jacket and a neon soul, too. Thomas Inskeep
Margaret Glaspy, “You and I”
Her purrs have a snarl at the edges, and she strums that Telecaster like she’s picking at a blister. Jim Macnie
Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind”
It makes me cry, like the sentimental country boy I’d never be. Also, it’s not terrible advice. I like McGraw as an elder statesman, his voice burnished to burled walnut. Anthony Easton
Sheer Mag, “Nobody’s Baby”
I triple-emoji dare you not to fist-rock your heart to these big Philly hooks. Brent Baldwin
Tiwa Savage feat. Dr. Sid, “If I Start to Talk”
Catchy Afropop that needs to be put on a compilation and get pitched to hipster media. Steve Kiviat
Lori McKenna, “Wreck You”
Sometimes we all push and shove, but this micro anthem about relationship bruises is about those seasons when it’s nothin’ but pushin’ and shovin’ and hidin’. And leavin’. Jim Macnie
A Tribe Called Red Feat. Black Bear, “Stadium Pow Wow”
A big-sounding slab of electronica, full of looped ululations, artful noise samples, acoustic tribal rhythms, and spoken-word exhortations. Carol Cooper