Best of 2016: Albums and Songs — First Quarter Report

A look back at the best LPs and singles of the last three months
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A look back at the best LPs and singles of the last three months
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TWO ALBUMS captured the zeitgeist like no other did in the winter of 2016. They’re opposites, as albums come, but no serious discussion of popular music in 2016 is complete without them. They’re the albums against which the rest of 2016’s musical slate must measure up. 

The Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s messiest solo album to date. It is also arguably his most colorful and ambitious. Pablo is a Janus-faced look back and forward. Looking back to his numberless accomplishments in the last decade and change. Forward to, well, the future—West’s every move becomes ingrained in hip-hop’s DNA. Like all of West’s releases, TLOP has become the most discussed album of the year. An event—some would say debacle—ushered in with unprecedented fanfare, perhaps in an effort to dethrone the landmark album until that point: David Bowie’s grand finis, Blackstar

Like Pablo, an assessment of Bowie’s Blackstar is incomplete without considering all the context. On its artistic merits alone, the exquisitely crafted Blackstar is at moments admirable and wearying—often a combination of both. In the context of Bowie’s death, it is harrowing and sublime, so rare it is to have a bona fide master leave us with his self-scribed eulogy. As Bowie likely intended, Blackstar is an interrobang closing out a legendary career. 

So, you could say the bar has been set high. But the rest of the 2016 field hasn’t exactly been slacking. We’ve already heard groovy debuts from startling new talents, sturdy efforts from stalwart favorites, and a notable reinvention or two. Below you’ll find our 20 favorite albums and songs of the last three months: 

ALBUMS

ANDERSON .PAAK, MALIBU

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Malibu will appeal to you, your mother, your son, your pastor, your record shop owner and your favorite local DJ’s, because you feel afraid to classify it as anything. FULL REVIEW

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE, PAINTING WITH

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CHAIRLIFT, MOTH

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Admittedly, Moth is a thoroughly lightweight affair. It won’t change anybody’s life, and it’s probably just a little too left-of-center to launch Chairlift into the mainstream. But not every album needs to be some kind of Bildungsroman. Moth is a breezy, immensely enjoyable pop record that provides just the amount of pep that you’ll need to make it through the winter. It makes a very upbeat soundtrack to cleaning the snow off your car. FULL REVIEW 

DAUGHTER, NOT TO DISAPPEAR

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DAVID BOWIE, BLACKSTAR

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DENZEL CURRY, IMPERIAL

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Three years ago, Denzel Curry was just your average 18-year-old American high school student with modest ambitions of turning a rap hobby into a full-fledged career when he released his debut album, Nostalgic 64. But as demonstrated by last year’s potently psychedelic sophomore follow-up, the aptly-titled 32 Zel / Plant Shrooms, his hunger for creating hip-hop based around both the intellect and the artifice had not yet been fully quelled. While contemporaries like ASAP Rocky had already locked themselves inside luxe studios, attempting to repackage psychotropics as fast fashion for a younger, impressionable generation, Curry seemed more interested in tunneling under the tripwire of constructs and conventions, and sought out mystical practices and otherworldly properties to tap into his brand of rap music. His latest album, Imperial, applies these findings not only in the form of strikingly prismatic and colorful sonic dimensions but in the lyrics as well, which explore a young artist attempting to make sense of a sick society in the Information Age. FULL REVIEW

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER, NEW VIEW

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ESPERANZA SPALDING, EMILY'S D+EVOLUTION

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This is an album of firsts for Esperanza Spalding. Emily’s D+Evolution is her first album of almost all original compositions and her first album on which she has embraced a heavier, often guitar based sound. As a result, despite her past forays into classically influenced territory (Chamber Music Society) and mixes of jazz and soul elements with a pop sensibility (Radio Music Society), this album, opening with dark keys that lead into heavy guitar playing that has more in common with a Cream record than her past efforts, is arguably the first to run a serious risk of alienating her fan base. FULL REVIEW

HINDS, LEAVE ME ALONE

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INTO IT. OVER IT., STANDARDS

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Standards spends the majority of its time actively trying to push “the textbook example of what emo sounds like in 2016” to different places. In an era where bands are still making their bones on the Kinesella-indebted blueprints that luminaries like Capn’ Jazz and American Football have left for a thirsty nation of sensitive people, Into It. Over It. has released an album that actively tries to move past, or at least evolve, that template. FULL REVIEW

KANYE WEST, THE LIFE OF PABLO

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KENDRICK LAMAR, UNTITLED UNMASTERED

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For such a nondescript work, Untitled Unmastered is anything but. Filled to the brim with ideas and musical color, these eight songs aren’t deserving of the treatment they’ve received. No titles, no care, not even an identifiable cover—and yet, to almost any other artist not named Kendrick Lamar, these are career-defining tracks. To him, they’re outtakes, B-sides, one-off performance pieces. A testament to hip-hop’s undeniable spearhead, Untitled Unmastered does away with decadence. There is no flashiness on its facade, nor no grand showing as to how good the music is, it’s simply a collection of eight tracks recorded during the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions that demands to be lauded. Throughout Untitled Unmastered, Lamar makes us constantly aware of the growing distance between him and those around him. FULL REVIEW

KEVIN GATES, ISLAH

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LUCINDA WILLIAMS, THE GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20

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PINEGROVE, CARDINAL

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The tone of Cardinal, the second album from Jersey act Pinegrove and their first on the Run for Cover imprint, is one of exasperation. It’s a coming-of-age album that takes place after the fact. Its authors are not living through life’s growing pains, they’re reflecting on them. Along the line is a steady stream of hard won epiphanies. Pinegrove’s sound bears some of the same indie fundamentalism as Cymbals Eat Guitars, emotive smolder of the Wrens, the unspooled Americana vibe of a Gaslight Anthem. The best songs here are the ones where the music underwrites Evan Hall’s conversational lyrics, “Old Friends”, “Cadmium”, “Size of the Moon”. While it never really strives for inventiveness, Cardinal is steeped in honesty so raw and delivered so loosely that it almost feels like a private show that your friends would put on in your basement.

PORCHES, POOL

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THE RANGE, POTENTIAL

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RIHANNA, ANTI

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As the first high-profile pop release of the year, ANTI was a bizarre way to begin 2016. If you want to experience just how befuddling this record can be, just check out its note-for-note cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, stylized here as “Same Ol’ Mistakes”. There’s essentially no difference between Rihanna’s version and the track that appeared on last year’s Currents because it sounds as if Rihanna simply sang over the recording. In fact, there are places where her voice blends perfectly with the specter of Kevin Parker’s vocals. So why is this on ANTI? Well, it’s emblematic of the album’s attitude—Rihanna’s going to do what ever she damn well pleases. Plus, even if some of her choices may strain the ears or puzzle the mind, there’s still plenty of that classic Rihanna magic beneath the record’s funhouse aesthetic. “Do things my own way, dahling, you should just let me”, she sings on “Consideration”. One full listen to ANTI and you’ll realize—we should probably just let her. FULL REVIEW

SAVAGES, ADORE LIFE

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All of Savages’ core tendencies have trickled into their excellent sophomore effort, Adore Life. This time, however, the proceedings are less self-serious, less inflammatory, and more polished, characteristics that may have augmented the shock value of Silence Yourself. That’s not to say that Adore Life’s pleasures aren’t as visceral, just less overt. FULL REVIEW 

TY SEGALL, EMOTIONAL MUGGER

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SONGS

A. K. Paul, “Landcruisin’”
Anohni, “4 Degrees”
School Of Seven Bells, “Ablaze”
Savages, “Adore”
Anderson Paak (feat. Schoolboy Q), “Am I Wrong”
Chairlift, “Crying In Public”
M83, “Do It, Try It”
Beyoncé, “Formation”

Rihanna, “Higher”
Young Lean, “Hoover”

Kamaiyah, “Hows Does It Feel”
Kevin Gates (feat. Trey Songz, Ty Dolla Sign, And Jamie Foxx), “Jam”
David Bowie, “Lazarus”
Dvsn, “The Line”
Future (feat. The Weeknd), “Low Life”
Radiohead, “Spectre”

Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Esperanza Spalding, “Unconditional Love”
Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled 08”
PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”

Here’s a playlist with most of the songs; the songs embedded above were not available on Spotify at the time of writing.