2016 is one of those years that will live on in our memory like a lingering bruise. Blueish and purple feelings dominated a year that exposed some of the worst tendencies in our communities, our friends and family members, and yes, even ourselves. 2016 was the year I looked myself in the mirror and realized that I wasn’t sh*t, realized that the tiny amount of good I prided myself on bringing into the world is constantly overpowered by an immense darkness that I can do nothing about. It seems like I wasn’t the only one, either. The records that dominated this year were ones about inner struggle, self-worth, failure, death, grief, racism, sexism, betrayal, or ferocious outpourings against these elements.
Music in 2016 spoke a language of pain, and we all sang along. But, there is power in that chorus. Expressions of pain are not always about perpetuating sadness as much as they are overcoming it. Naming your oppressor — whatever shape that takes in your life — is not only an expression of pain, it is an expression of power. While the bruise still aches, here are the albums that pressed it the hardest, demanding we recognize what is hurting us, what is holding us back, and forcing us, by exacerbating the pain, to push toward healing.
20. The Hotelier, Goodness
Most bands might employ the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ideology after finding nearly universal critical acclaim and success in the punk/emo community. The Hotelier are not most bands. With their third full-length effort Goodness, the took all of the momentum that had been achieved with their breakthrough album Home, Like NoPlace Is There and made a straight-up art rock record. Before hearing any music, listeners were affronted by a cover featuring several elderly nude models, which should be indication enough that Goodness is a conscious attempt to move the band in an entirely new direction.
The record sees Christian Holden’s songwriting move from autobiographically poignant to illustrative and metaphorical. Imagery of calming silences and a fawn doe shrouded in white snow fill the Goodness with a hopeful light, where Home was cloaked tragically in dark. It’s a logical continuation from Home, serving as a the clarity and light at the end of the tunnel after dealing with some heavy sh*t. Thus, we have Goodness, an incredibly expansive album that leaves listeners feeling awakened and empowered, ready to immerse themselves in a world filled with beauty, even though they might not see or appreciate it every day. —Zac Gelfand
19. Kaytranada, 99.9%
The first single released off Kaytranada’s debut album 99.9% was “Bus Ride.” It came out back in March, and even for those who hadn’t watched the young Haitian/Canadian producer born Kevin Celestin rack up Soundcloud plays like they were Mario coins, the song was a tipping point. First of all, it was gentle instead of jittery, incorporating strings and synth samples while still building throughout to a footwork-esque peak at the end. Secondly it featured both River Tiber and Karriem Riggins, and came paired with a tracklist that included host of other high-profile collaborators ranging from Anderson .Paak to Vic Mensa to Little Dragon.
As those early signs indicated, 99.9% was shaping up to be an album that fully encompassed the sound of 2016 while also establishing Kaytranada’s oeuvre. The record slips effortlessly into the strange and wonderful place where hip-hop, pop and electronic music dovetail into a brand new hybrid, marked in part by the mainstream’s increased ability to ingest traditionally “electronic” more complicated and difficult production. That literacy has increased within the world at large to the point that the Montreal producer was honored with Canada’s foremost award, the Polaris Prize, a worthy trophy for the city that, along with Detroit, helped foster the development of a viable electronic music scene in North America.
For all its historic momentum, the real reason to celebrate 99.9% is still the quality of the songs. They’re syrupy and scalding in turns, flowing in and out of one another like an endless DJ set made for a dancefloor where the ugly lights never come on. If Kevin Celestin has anything to do with it, they never will.—Caitlin White
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree isn’t easy to listen to, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds spent two years recording the album, and during that time, Cave’s 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. Much of the synthesizer and loop-heavy Skeleton Tree had already been written by that point, but it’s hard not to read into lyrics like, “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field, near the river Adur,” which are literally the first words on the album. The same is true of “I Need You,” which is sung to a woman in red dress, but the powerfully evocative “nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone” stirs up unsettling imagery. Grief looms large over Skeleton Tree, as it does with everything it touches. It hangs heavy in the spaces between Cave’s breathy vocals, and lingers in every tap of the piano. The Bad Seeds are present, but it’s Cave’s journey we’re following. He’s in the spotlight, one that’s bathed in a dark shade of sorrow. But there is hope. The album begins with death, and ends on, “And it’s alright now.” Skeleton Tree is better than alright — it’s belongs near the top of Bad Seeds’ discography. —Josh Kurp
17. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
There’s nothing like dedicating a work of art to your newborn child to put the pressure on, right? Not that Sturgill Simpson isn’t already familiar with pressure, after the entirety of the country music community, and any indie music writer who learned that liking “outlaw” country made them edgy, crowned him the second coming of the genre. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is the first album Simpson has put out since his 2014 record Metamodern Sounds In Country Music received the kind of universal acclaim that makes even diehard fans — and hell, maybe even the artist himself — cringe in response. Which could explain why his followup is a big, brassy and bombastic signpost devoted to the guy’s kid that shares little to no DNA with the sound that catapulted him to fame.
Sailor’s Guide includes a Nirvana cover of “In Bloom” that makes me wish Kurt Cobain had been the tiniest bit more into country, because steel guitar and a drawl lends this song a dead-on level of humanization that never came through in a Cobain whine. Sailor’s Guide includes a years-old love song that’s an ode to Simpson’s wife, it includes a lullaby called “Breakers Roar,” and a stately country waltz called “All Around You.” Best of all, it includes the Merle-channeling “Keep It Between The Lines,” a grinning, joyous commandment to his son that demands a little bit of rebellion even while it preaches the importance of studying.
So basically, it includes none of the things that drew a weirdly disparate audience to crown Sturgill as the second-coming of God-knows-what, restoring him to the outsider status that won them, and old diehards, over in the first place. I wouldn’t say its a purposefully ornery album, because it seems to be exactly what Sturgill wanted to make, but then again, I wouldn’t say it isn’t. Whatever achievements may have been on his agenda for this record getting nominated for a Grammy for Album Of The Year probably wasn’t one of them, so the joke’s on him after all.
Turns out doing whatever you want is still a better artistic strategy than succumbing to the roar of critical pressure. And hell, there ain’t nothing more country than that. Here’s hoping this soulful, rootsy middle finger of an album takes that trophy all the way back home, and Sturgill gets right back into the studio to make something else completely alien. More than anything, though, I can’t wait till his son finds out about all of this.—C.W.
16. Pup, The Dream Is Over
As it would turn out, when the doctor told PUP frontman Stefan Babcock “the dream is over” after discovering a cyst in his vocal chords, it was really only just the beginning. Babcock screams even harder on The Dream Is Over than he did on the band’s self-titled debut, and it pays off. The result is a thrashing summer soundtrack like no other, filled with sing-along melodies and group vocals that would send the band around the world and back multiple times over before the end of 2016.
The seamless transition between album opener “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” and “DVP” immediately sells Dream as one of the best punk records in recent memory. “Old Wounds” marks the record’s midway point, bringing with it the opening of a mosh pit in your head within the track’s first few seconds, and coming to a cathartic close as Babcock screams, “you know I’ve never been good at anything except for f*cking up and ruining everything, and I’m sick of it!” Perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the penultimate “Familiar Patterns” when the instrumental builds up as Babcock’s audibly frustrated vocals yelp, “they used to say don’t quit your job, but guess what? I never had one!” There is something to be said about the “all killer, no filler” approach to making a record, and there are no weak tracks across Dream’s ten, each subsequent song packing a bigger punch than the preceding.—Z.G.
15. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
For the first time, when my mom yelled at me for obsessively checking my phone on Mother’s Day, I actually had a legitimate reason to be distracted: Radiohead was about to drop a brand new album. With the band on hiatus over the last few years, the cult of Radiohead had felt their hunger for new material growing with each passing day, and the fact that the album was set for a digital release on Mother’s Day did not serve as anything of a deterrent. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead’s first album since 2011’s The Kind of Limbs, they finally revisited a handful of songs written years prior, including the nearly 20-year-old fan favorite “True Love Waits,” which was debuted live in 1995. The combination of familiar and unfamiliar makes A Moon Shaped Pool a very welcome addition to the Radiohead catalogue, as well as one of the most interesting releases of the year.
Filled with lush string arrangements and choral vocals, the record looks back toward Radiohead’s roots, with an overall sound closer to OK Computer than the glitchy overtones The King Of Limbs. With songs like “Daydreaming” (and the accompanying Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video) and “Identikit” landing at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, A Moon Shaped Pool showcases the breadth of Radiohead’s musical ability, resulting in a collection of eleven ever-engaging songs that will make you want to dance, sing along, and cry, sometimes all at the same time.—Z.G.
14. Maren Morris, Hero
G*ddamn, Maren Morris had a hell of a year. Hero is sugary and sly songwriting from a spitfire who knows the south willl always reward outlaw charisma as long as it’s worded right. Morris followed up her breakout track “My Church” with the kind of debut that most artists wish for and few ever achieve; it synthesizes Morris’ old school inklings with her penchant for writing dead ringer pop hooks without sacrificing either.
It does this without relying tired old tropes, taking the momentum from her car-radio-as-church breakout and expanding it to a love-crush (“Sugar”), rueful reflections on loss (“Rich”), a fiery lost love ballad (“Once”) and phoenix-from-the-ashes determination (“Second Wind). The breadth of Hero is matched only by its depth — every single track on the 11-song record is worth listening to, and listening to again. Sadly, this is a pretty rare feat in country music, where albums are front-loaded for radio performance and then stuffed with lesser cuts to round out the record.
Morris was having none of that, and her role as a songwriting and curator of her own sound led to her victorious win as the CMA’s Best New Artist of 2016. As she told it that night, last year she watched the award show on TV in a bar across the street. Don’t be surprised if that storyline makes it onto a hit on her next album. Don’t be surprised if that next album is one you end up hearing even if you “don’t like country.” This woman is far too talented for a single genre to hold her down. Taylor, guard your crown closely — not all heroes wear capes, and most of them don’t just stick to country music, either.—C.W.
13. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Malibu is raucous, regal funk from a west coast zen master who has been quietly (well, loudly) toiling in obscurity for far too long. .Paak’s mesmerizing ability to command attention from behind a drum kit elevated his tour behind the sprawling, whimsical Malibu to one of the best live shows of the year, too. I got my septum pierced this year, and this blurb would be remiss if I didn’t mention his influence on that decision, too.
Like all the best soul singers before him, Paak converts raw sexuality into punk piety and spiritual ecstasy into naked desire. For every thrust there’s a bowed head, for every beach babe there’s an existential undertow. On Malibu, Anderson Paak makes the ocean into holy water, then rides the next wave straight into a sunny funk eternity. And if it ended there, it would’ve been enough.
But instead of ride the wave on his own, .Paak pulls in BJ The Chicago Kid, his entire band The Free Nationals, Rapsody, and Talib Kweli just for fun. On plenty of breakout albums by under-the-radar musicians the inclusion of collaborators is to help boost their own profile. In the case of Malibu, every single one of these guests had their own status elevated by appearing here, on one of the best R&B albums to emerge in recent memory.
But .Paak is also so good at rapping that it’s hard to leave it at R&B without mentioning the fact that he can spit circles around your fav — all while simultaneously playing drums the whole time. I usually don’t stoop to the playground jab of “your fav could never,” but seriously, put on “The Waters” and see if you have any sh*t left to talk by the time that second chorus hits. If not, it’s time to join the fellowship of Free Nationals. Come on in, the water’s fine.—C.W.
12. Rihanna, Anti
In continuing with 2016’s weird habit of only letting an artist succeed on either commercial or critical level, Anti remains an underperforming record in most aspects. But talk to any critic who covers pop in 2016 and they will harp on one thing — how f*cking good and underrated Anti is. There are probably still plenty of people who haven’t listened to Rihanna’s eighth album all the way through. My only emotion toward them at this point is pity.
There is evidence of a struggle all over Anti. First, there’s the name, which was adopted from the initially-teased R8, then there’s the apparently-botched release of lead singles “Four Five Seconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” in 2015, neither of which made the album itself. Then, there’s the fact that Rihanna executive produced the album herself, and unlike any of her other records, that she has her own songwriting credit on every single track. Whatever it took for Rihanna to emerge, relatively unscathed with Anti, I hope she keeps it up for the rest of her career.
From late night burners like “Kiss It Better,” heartsick devotion anthems like “Love On The Brain” and salty, loving drunk dial ballads like “Higher,” this is Rihanna’s most romantic album to date. Which doesn’t stop it from stomping on dudes without remorse on “Yeah, I Said It” and “Needed Me,” or getting fully introspective and personal on the Tame Impala cover “Same Ol’ Mistakes.” There’s a Tame Impala cover on here, that alone should let you know that for the first time, Rihanna has taken the reigns. Though this is Rihanna’s first album not to produce the kind of chart-toppers she’s traditionally enjoyed, there is a much deeper, richer sense of accomplishment at work here. This sounds like Rihanna’s first real labor of love — and the feeling shows.—C.W.
11. David Bowie, Blackstar
I fell asleep listening to Blackstar on the evening of January 10th, and woke up the next morning with David Bowie’s voice still echoing in my head, before quickly receiving word that he was gone. It is, of course, hard to evaluate Blackstar without considering the news that came two days after its release (and Bowie’s 69th birthday). The album proved to be far more than simply just a collection of songs, but also something of a parting gift to fans, with self-aware thematic overtones throughout serving hints to indicate Bowie’s fate. The nearly ten-minute opening title track sees Bowie’s voice sounding more fragile than ever, yet still holding a haunting command over the bouncing bass line and spastic drumbeat. It’s is immediately and definitively darker than anything Bowie had released. Blackstar is a attempt at critical analysis of death and, with tracks like “Lazarus” asking questions about the legacy of an artist and what lies beyond the constraints of life.
Eleven months have passed since the world awoke to the news of Bowie’s passing, and his loss is still heavily felt, with the events of rest of the year proving to perpetuate the overwhelming sense of loss rather than inspire hope. Blackstar is a beautiful, fitting farewell, and one that will resonate with fans for years to come as a relic of an icon lost.—Z.G.
10. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo
It feels weird to talk about this album alongside other albums, given everything Kanye did to make us not think of it as an album. But the end-of-year list isn’t the time for things that don’t fall in line. We’re literally putting things in a row.
So with that being said here’s a few reasons on why Pablo is this high, in no particular order:
- Chance The Rapper’s original “Ultra Light Beam” verse that contained dead silence between “Zambia” and “They don’t know”
- Both versions of “Feedback”
- That thing where Kanye had Rihanna sing Nina Simone and then replaced her with Nina Simone
- The front half of the album sneakily being the better half even though “Real Friends” and “No More Parties In L.A.” come later
- The shameful lack of other Sister Nancy samples in 2016
- The single longest burst of Kid Cudi I’ve ever enjoyed
- The fact that it was fire enough to create an entire career
And the great thing about an album this big, stupid and messy is your reasons for liking it are probably completely different from mine. There’s room for all under Ye’s big-tent monstrosity of an album. We need that kind of inclusivity right now.—A.G.
9. Weyes Blood, Front Row Seat To Earth
I’d hazard a guess that not a lot of people consulting this list will be familiar with this entry. For newcomers, Weyes Blood is the chamber pop project of Natalie Mering, a California singer-songwriter who has released two albums and an EP before this fall’s Front Row Seat To Earth. Because it came out late in the year, and because celebrity music news has come to dominate who receives critical coverage at all, Mering hasn’t received much attention for Earth. But she deserves it.
The name Weyes Blood was a lift from the Flannery O’Connor novel Wise Blood, and though Mering’s music does not channel O’Connor’s blunt, backwoods prose, it certainly draws on her unabashedly American perspective and exhibits the same veneration for participation in an age-old art form. So Front Row Seat To Earth is a bit like a journey through the heart of a Southern California in the ‘70s, it pays obvious homage to the female folksingers who dominated this decade, while still incorporating decidedly “millennial” concepts into the format.
The title track weaves a dark, harrowing operatic into a brassy instrumental, closing a record full of warmth on an apocalyptic note, but “Generation Why” is a gentle, pastoral exploration of eternity and digital dependency, and “Do You Need My Love” peers into the abyss of self-worth and outside desire. The album standout, “Seven Words,” contains the single most beautiful instrumental breakdown in the history of songwriting in 2016 (2:21) in a track that’s about being in love through the break up, or maybe not realizing it was love until it was too late, or maybe hoping that a declaration of love itself will make the timing cease to matter. Somehow, none of these options feel terrifying.
In a year that seemed to put its singular thumbprint on every sound, every lyric, and every hook, Front Row Seat To Earth feels oddly out of time, like a beloved missive from the past, or a beautiful beacon from the future, assuring us, either way, that right now is only as temporary as what we are listening to when we fall asleep. It could all be different when we wake up, and look at earth from an entirely different perspective. It could all change in six or seven words. Some records aren’t meant to fix anything, they just suggest the possibility that pain won’t be eternal. That’s been the role of folk music for centuries now, and the role this Weyes Blood record occupied for me in 2016.—C.W.
8. Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!
Donald Glover has been on a lot of people’s minds for the latter half of 2016. With the stunning first season of Atlanta, he asserted his dominance over television, only shortly before roaring back into music for the first time in nearly three years to deliver the latest offering from Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”. While many were expecting a rap album in line with , lead single “Me And Your Mama” quickly showed fans that this might not be like anything Gambino had released before, with second single “Redbone” confirming this stylistic deviation. And boy, does he deliver.
As with most of his work, Awaken is an examination of what it means to be black in America, except this time lyrics do not sit at the forefront. Instead, there is an emphasis on the instrumentals, a celebration of late ’70s and early ’80s funk, R&B, and soul, which allows this to showcase Glover as you’ve never heard him before. He flexes his vocal range on tracks like “Zombies,” crafting moving melodies over the instrumentals of a very impressive backing band (how about that wah-guitar solo on “The Night Me And Your Mama Met”?). “Awaken, My Love!” is just the latest addition to an already impressive career that has seen Glover dominate almost every facet of the entertainment industry.—Z.G.
7. Beyonce, Lemonade
Look guys, we know. We know you’re tired of hearing about how great Lemonade is. We know you’re probably mad about Bey playing the CMAs and being up for a Rock Grammy.
But listen again. Go back through the album and make yourself understand that Beyonce did that. We didn’t hand her anything. She made one of the better high-profile rock songs to be released this year. It’s not her fault that the best her actual rock foes can come up with is a cover of a decades-old song that heavy-handed soundtracks and sad teens have made a punchline.
Beyonce had no part in Florida Georgia Line and their bro cohorts becoming a thing (credit it where it’s due: “H.O.L.Y.” is great). So is it really any wonder that “Daddy Lessons” was performed at the CMAs 50th Anniversary, when they want to celebrate the excellence and history of country music?
We didn’t all get together and decide to show undue attention to Beyonce. She earned it by being one of the most exciting, consistent and talented musicians currently working in pop music. If someone else wanted to take the this slot from her, they should have tried as hard as Beyonce clearly did making Lemonade. It’s simply one of the best albums released this year. We ain’t sorry.—A.G.
6. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
I am not a Tribe Called Quest expert on any level, which, in some ways, makes me the ideal audience for a 2016 album from the storied hip-hop group. For almost two decades the lauded acronym of ATCQ has floated past in conversations about rap, politics, activism, and heroism, but for the generation that came of age during these years, the only way in to a Tribe album was backwards. For a lot of us, especially rap fans who came to the genre later in life ourselves, that wasn’t homework we’d gotten around to yet.
We Got It From Here… Thanks 4 Your Service allows those fans, of all levels of knowledge, to experience firsthand why this group occupies such a hallowed position within the genre. It’s hard to tell, at this point, whether Q-Tip and his cohort had any real sense when they set out to make this record that Phife was on the verge of crossing over, or that liberal America was on the verge of a hostile takeover, but listening to this album, it sure as hell sounds like a final effort and a warning against both.
But hearing songs like “We The People…” that address exactly the position we find ourselves in this year, and even the hyper-specific final song “The Donald” Imbue this record with of an aura of protest and timeliness that makes it matter more than just another rap album. It feels like both an artifact in the making and the most vibrant weapon yet against the coming onslaught of oppression. Press play and begin to arm yourself.—C.W.
5. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
When Car Seat Headrest got signed to Matador, I was one of those nerds who worried Will Toledo might lose something. Typically, I can’t ever get behind the idea that an artist being able to feed themselves is a bad thing, no matter the result. But so much of what the prolific young songwriter’s career is hinged on him being a DIY dude. Even the name came from the fact that he laid his early songs using his own car as a recording booth.
Teens Of Style dropped at the end of 2015 and I calmed down a bit. The slicker, re-worked versions of old material did sound pretty great. And lord knows he had a back catalog to draw from if he wanted to coast for a bit. It’s fair to say I was not ready.
Teens Of Denial is a massive statement, proof that the scruffiness of those old songs was more necessity than style. Given room to spread out — literally, since he’s now recording in legitimate studios with a full band and not an automobile — Toledo took his depressive, drug-addled ramblings and made them the biggest thing in the entire world. Songs about feeling beaten down and boxed-in shouldn’t kick as much ass as “Fill In The Blank.” The words “I give up” aren’t supposed to sound like a victory. But he’s a newcomer to all this and to paraphrase Toledo himself, how was he supposed to know?—A.G.
4.Solange, A Seat At The Table
2016 more than any year in recent memory has shown us the many ways that musicians know how to protest.
There’s making a sly statement on the biggest stage imaginable like Beyonce. There’s tweeting support and getting behind candidates of choice like Pusha T. There’s posting bail and low-key spreading your wealth like the Carter-Knowles family. And there’s the out-and-out righteously angry protest song like “FDT“. But even in a climate like that, where so many other lanes had already been taken, Solange managed to find one for herself.
On its face, A Seat At The Table doesn’t sound like what we think a protest album should sound like. It’s not angry in a way that is easy to hear. It’s not lashing out at anyone in particular. Faced with a whole lot of flawed and hateful stuff from the outside world, Solange crafted a message of black excellence, conveyed it via some of the most beautiful arrangements released into the world this calendar year, then put a velvet rope around it with a sign that said “Ours.” The album was a way to claim space in a world Solange felt was trying to take too much from her and other black Americans.
As such, I felt more than a little uncomfortable liking the album as much as I did. There’s a song that repeats “This sh*t is for us” and I’m not a part of that “us.” But for all of her line-drawing, Solange clearly makes room for outsiders to observe, to see how great the inside can be while not trying to take it over. If you sit around a table, you can enjoy the contents on it, but the food and the table still belong to the homeowners. Simply saying “What’s mine is mine” shouldn’t be radical, but when too many folks have to worry about being searched or shot when they leave their homes, it absolutely is.—A.G.
3. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
It’s hard to overstate the importance of an artist like Bon Iver. The fact that he’s a righthand producer to Kanye West is not an accident, and even when a whole swath of “White Ferrari” on Frank Ocean’s Blonde is basically a Bon Iver rip, it doesn’t even feel weird. His sound is so pervasive now it has become the kind of element that other artists use like a tool in their arsenal, and of course it stands to reason that two of the other most challenging, slippery musicians in our current era would be just as drawn to this new technique that Justin Vernon midwifed in a cabin with his grief and some AutoTune.
But, what makes Vernon even more compelling on top of ushering in a new breed of sound, is that instead of sticking around to collect his due, he continues to push toward more innovation on every album. 22, A Million builds on his self-titled record in the same way that album built on For Emma, Forever Ago, and none of them are really in linear relationship with each other. Vernon remains first and foremost obsessed with time, and the way he can use sound and writing to engage with the passage of it.
It may be hard to remember now, but when his self-titled record came out five whole years ago, people were similarly reticent to accept his change. Now, most people forget how dissimilar Emma and Bon Iver used to sound to their ear. It stands to reason that a comparable progression will emerge for 22, A Million, which is mostly too dense to unpack in the first couple months of listening. After the dust clears on 2016, many of the albums that made waves this year will fade away. This one will stand, and continue to expand far into the future — it’s a classic album blooming right before your eyes, even if the chance to realize that might be over soon.—C.W
2. Mitski, Puberty 2
I’m Natalie Portman, and I see Zach Braff in a doctor’s waiting room in New Jersey, and for some unknown quirky reason, I make depressed Zach Braff listen to this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear. In 2016, that song was Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.” The rest of the singer’s fourth album, Puberty 2, is excellent — touching on jittery flashbacks of sloppy relationships (album opener “Happy”), exposed-nerve anxieties about seeing the world but struggling to pay rent (“My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars”), and acoustic acceptances of loving the “littler thing” (“A Burning Hill”) — but millennial power ballad “Girl” is a stunner that only gets better with every listen. (My personal record: five times in a row.) Mitski described the song — which starts quietly before the chorus emerges in a dense fog of ear-splitting feedback — as “just a feeling of loving someone so much, and yet being from completely different backgrounds and not being able to do anything about it.” Like much of Puberty 2, “Girl” is an emotionally raw account of adulthood; it’s individualistic yet powerfully relatable.
It’ll change your life, I swear.—J.K.
1. Frank Ocean, Blonde
“Nikes” came out on a night I was getting my heart broken. A record this personal demands a writer meet it in kind, so in order to do it justice I will share that. The rest of the album quickly followed, easy waters to sweep along my flood of feelings and blunted attempts to process the code switch from love and tenderness to pain and disappointment. That’s the hardest part, right? Shelving future plans for expression of love, and comparing them to the memories of past expressions, trying to find a way to undo the past because it hurts now, in the present.
In 2016, there are so many more areas for this pain to manifest — they could be drafts of texts and emails, Snapchat messages, Instagram likes, Facebook statuses, old, private photos, and any number of other digital signifiers. Blonde is an album focused on the interstitial nature of love in the midst of digital trauma. Digital trauma is the pain and loss humans experience through the connections and dissolutions on social networks that we’ve constructed to build relationship and give meaning to our lives online. On first encounter, that sounds difficult to understand, but luckily, this is the specific subject matter that Blonde centers around. There may be no better album on the face of the planet right now to handle the task of sorting how to fall out of love in 2016.
The narrative of the first song off Blonde technically had nothing to do with what was happening in my life, but because romantic pain can fit itself into any shoes, “Nikes” easily became my heartbreak anthem. If you never connected to this record, try revisiting it during a period of grief, odds are, it’ll mold itself to that phase. In some ways, “Nikes” is perfectly suited to the role of comforting during loss.
It’s a song about the way we ask people for the wrong thing, or for more than they can give us, or for more than they want to give us. It’s a song about the way we invest in love and relationships that we know will only give us some of the things we want, how we settle for this because after you’ve lost your heart once, even a semblance of that rush feels like a safer bet, feels better than the numb nothing of never risking it at all. “Nikes” sublimates the speaker himself for the first half of the song in a mess of AutoTune, before Ocean emerges fully in the second verse to try to lift himself up out of the halfway love, to hype himself on spirituality and profess how chill he is with the entire arrangement. He sound confident, and maybe I’d believe him too, if “Ivy” didn’t come in next.
“I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me / The start of nothing…” Hearing that line made me realize there are too few songs about the dashed hopes of a relationship never forged. For all of Lemonade’s powerful examination of a long-term, committed romantic devotional, more of my experience — and the experience of my peers — is focused on this kind of stillborn chance at something real. Inclusions of anecdotes like “Facebook Story” supplement the power of social media and the rise of the internet — and our seemingly limitless options for partners, surveillance, performance and connection — in undermining bonding in this digitally-tethered generation.
In turn, Blonde seems to self-urge a self-reliance, and an easy ability to let someone go without losing your own grace. Though it seems unlikely Ocean would craft songs like this without needing to first hear them himself. And unlike so many songs that urge exploration of casual sex or relationships that come with an obvious or predetermined end date in sight, the undercurrent always remains in Ocean’s songwriting that he’d prefer something eternal. Instead of burying that desire, he keeps it out in plain sight, adding a level of depth to songs like “Solo” (“Stayed up till my phone died”) or “Good Guy” that on the surface seem to celebrate brief trysts, but yearn for something else (“You text nothing like you look”.)
For a man just short of thirty, Ocean sounds wearily familiar with constant loss (“White Ferrari,” “Self Control”), but when I think of any of my friends around this age, I realize most of us are in a similar place. Blonde is a brief summary of a childhood lost, adulthood looming. The clearest boundary between a kid and an adult is the full understanding of loss, and every time I lose someone else, I feel myself age a little. I look around and see other kids like me, who have made it to their thirties, but are too scared of constant loss to even try investing in their own youth.
Besides, there are screens everywhere to stand in where humans have failed us, there are endless recordings of the past (“Be Yourself”), live looped videos, or old snippets of voices that used to love us, we can surround ourselves with these things instead. Except, that’s not the thesis Blonde argues. This is the album of the year because it looks down a long line of past mistakes, memories, heartbreaks, an entire pattern of them, an entire generation of them, and doesn’t give up.
Blonde isn’t about the failure or betrayal or pain of a single relationship, it’s about the way these experiences add up in an individual life, and how a collection of pain forms a person. What Ocean has done with that collection of pain is convert it into songs that shapeshift to suit different needs and situations. He made Blonde into a mini social network of scenarios that listeners can pluck out for different experiences. (And he made damn sure he owned his investment.) “Nikes” might’ve worked for me this year, but maybe it’ll be “Close To You” or “Nights” that I use for my next heartbreak. Maybe I’ll use the lyrics in an Instagram caption, and make a statement that hurts somebody else that I used to love. Maybe, by then, I’ll be above that.
When Ocean isn’t dwelling on lovers from past lives who are coming in and out of his life, or the drugs that mimic this feeling, he’s relying on the memory or presence of friends to help lessen the pain. Characters both familiar and unknown to fans of Ocean and his one-time crew Odd Future weave in and out, and listeners will find certain inclusions oddly touching (“Futura Free”). Other appearances are newfound flexes (“Solo (Reprise)”) that continue to interrogate the boundary between what is real and false in an era of easy representation.
But, after all that, it’s family and old, close friends that surface at the end of Blonde, not lovers. For all the pain that the record expresses, it ends on a single, hopeful question about space and time: How far is a light year? If eternity is only as close as the formulas we use to measure it, Blonde is a measuring stick indicating how close Frank Ocean has gotten so far. Even when it hurt, every time I listened to Blonde this year I think I got a little lighter. Despite it all, the feeling still deep down is good.—C.W.