Ed. Note: I was preparing to go out of town last Wednesday, and have been unavailable. Due to a very strict schedule, there will be Two Listicles this week. The first was supposed to run last week, and is printed below. The second will be posted later today. I apologize for the inconvenience, The Sacred Wall will return to its former glory in the upcoming week.
Thank you to those who have followed the Sacred Wall recap of the Best of 2016. We’ve finally come to our final category for 2016: Music. Music is the universal language: utilizing lyrical poetry and beauteous music and beats to tell a story, make a point, or simply entertain. While I am admittedly not a proper musical critic, and Sacred Wall doesn’t cover music nearly as much as it should, I’ve decided to turn my critical eye and my easily-entertained ear towards the best albums of the year in order to put together the Top Ten Best Albums of 2016.
The following list is put together through careful study, based on my own tastes and the recommendations of my brother, a music major who has produced and performed his own music, and loves a variety of genres, styles and artists. However, despite his pleas or his recommendations, the final selections and rankings are purely my own. My rules are simple: I’m looking only for the albums that are lyrically complex, musically pleasing, and artistically astounding. Soundtracks and compilation albums are ineligible, with few exceptions (for example, Hamilton, Purple Rain, and the soundtracks of Quentin Tarantino put together an experience on their albums, and therefore could qualify as an artistic achievement).
Before we begin, some albums I thought deserve mentions. Daya’s Sit Still, Look Pretty is an album of empowerment, as is Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman. The Hamilton Mixtape is an interesting concept album ruined by some terrible tracks (why is Jimmy Fallon here?). The Chainsmokers’ Collage is an interesting little album that’s a little too simplistic to ever be great, although I do like the band. Then there are the albums that have a few great songs wrapped in mediocrity, like Drake’s Views, or The Life of Pablo, which features the best songs of the year, as well as the worst. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book didn’t stand out to me the same way as some of the other albums I’ll be listing, but it’s a strong ode to the Christian faith, and that makes it unique in a genre that’s moved more towards consumerism in recent years. Paul Simon continues to put out great work with Stranger to Stranger. And finally, there’s nothing that pains me more than the fact that Lil Yachty’s Lil Boat is just on the outside of the Top Ten.
And then there’s the Top Five songs of the year, which I will list briefly below:
5. Can’t Stop the Feeling!: Justin Timberlake’s Song of the Summer is well-produced, well-sung, and just all-around fun.
4. Too Good: Drake and Rihanna team up for the ultimate break-up anthem. Great beat, great duet, great all around.
3. Cheap Thrills: Two years ago, Sia released the ultimate alcoholic partier’s anthem with “Chandelier,” telling the story of losing control of her life to her addictions. She returns for a sequel this year, where the protagonist has escaped her past issues and is ready to let loose without succumbing to her demons. It’s arguably her best song.
2. Fade: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is a mixed album, to say the list. Regardless of what happened with a certain rival pop star, “Famous” is one of the worst songs of the year, musically and lyrically. However, “Fade” remains one of the most electrifying songs of the year. It’s not as soulful as, say, “Ultralight Beam,” but in terms of pure listening ability, it’s Kanye’s best song of the year, and thus one of the best overall.
1. We the People…: After twenty years, A Tribe Called Quest came out of retirement to put out one more album before member Phife Dawg passed away. And that album gave us the best song of the year. A powerful statement on intolerance and fear, filled with messages that become more and more relevant as time goes on, the song stands as one of the most powerful statements of the year.
Ok, enough with the hold up. Here they are, the Top Ten Albums of 2016.
10. Trolls (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Ok, ok, don’t laugh, and so help me God don’t hit that little red X. But this is the soundtrack that marks the exception to my Soundtrack rule. Trolls was a fine movie, as you can see from my review here. However, even at the time I said it felt like a loose excuse for a bunch of talented people to have a karaoke party. And my God, am I ok with that. From the original “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Get Back Up Again,” two powerfully peppy songs of happiness, to covers of “True Colors” and “Hello,” two of the greatest songs ever written, the soundtracks features rendition after rendition of once and future classics. It doesn’t hurt that the album features artists like Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Anna Kendrick, Ron Funches, and Zooey Deschanel, each of whom bring their a-game. Look, could I have done without a Zooey Deschanel rap song? Sure. However, if the rest of the album is this good, and Deschanel is still a talented singer, I’m willing to overlook it. This is what people refer to when they say “good compilation albums,” and this soundtrack works on every level.
9. 7/27-Fifth Harmony
Girl bands have started to go away in recent years. With popularity tracing all the way back to the fifties and sixties with The Chordettes and The Supremes, girl bands became what we think of today in the eighties, thanks to Bananarama, The Pointer Sisters, and The Bangles, before reaching their zenith in the nineties with the power of The Spice Girls (Colors of the world…!) However, we really haven’t had a classic girl group since The Pussycat Dolls (although if I’m being honest, I prefer the much smaller and much more talented Pipettes). Luckily, we are starting to receive the next wave, and this round may be the most talented yet. And sure, the new wave may have started out of Asia with groups like Girls Generation, but I’m going to focus on good old-fashioned manufacturing with the X-Factor rooted group Fifth Harmony, who put out the incredible album 7/27. Featuring a litany of great radio hits and empowering anthems, the group teamed up with artists such as Ty Dolla Sign, Fetty Wap, and Missy Elliott to put out hits like “Work From Home,” “The Life,” All In My Head,” and “Not That Kinda Girl.” Sure, artist Camila Cabello is already going solo and breaking up the act, but let it not be forgotten that for one brief, shining moment, Fifth Harmony stood tall, and that the world came the closest it has in over a generation to matching the power of the Spice Girls and the triumph of the Girl Group.
8. Joanne-Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga had a stellar 2016. She was nominated for an Academy Award, performed the David Bowie tribute at the Grammys, and released her newest album, Joanne, to great acclaim. Following in Madonna’s footsteps the way most great artists follow in the footsteps of their mentor, Joanne is Gaga’s attempt to prove her talent in all of music. She’s dominated the dance-pop scene with her first albums, then dominated the jazzy side with her Tony Bennett duets. And now, with Joanne, Gaga is ready to get personal and reflective with stripped-down soft rock, teamed with producers ranged from Mark Ronson to Father John Misty, and focused on showing how versatile an artist she really is. Sure, there are some more “dance” style songs, like the great “Perfect Illusion,” “Diamond Heart,” and “John Wayne,” but there’s also the soulful, almost country-esque ballads that make her case, such as “Grigio Girls,” “Sinners’ Prayer,” and, of course, “Million Reasons.” “Million Reasons” is a crowning achievement in Gaga’s songbook. It’s a deeply personal song, dealing with the issues plaguing her life, ranging from death, the loss of love, and her own PTSD, and utilizing the genres of pop, folk, and country. The song plays as an anthem of empowerment in the face of the forces trying to bring us down. It’s what Taylor Swift has been trying to do since the start of her career, it’s what Carrie Underwood did at the peak of her career, and it’s what Stevie Nicks did in her glory days. It is absolutely flawless songwriting, and it is the cornerstone of an already-great album.
7. JEFFERY-Young Thug
It is an album about love, fatherhood, identity, and discovering who you are. It is rich and complex. It is JEFFERY, a book by the artist formerly and currently known as Young Thug. Thug, who returned to his birth name of Jeffery for the album’s release, tells the story of his life, love, fatherhood, and more. The album gets a sexually charged, yet oddly romantic, opening track in “Wycleaf Jean.” Meanwhile, the real Jean doesn’t sing until Track 9, “Kanye West.” Each of the tracks takes the name of one of the figures Thug looks up to, aspires to be, and more, ranging from Jean and West to Rihanna and Floyd Mayweather, and even makes a reference to Harambe the gorilla in “Harambe. The sexual lyrics describe the first time he’s fallen in love, and his desire to settle down with his current fiancée, while also dealing with being a father to six children from past relationships. The album also studies Young Thug’s grappling with masculinity and gender, a question that is clear by looking at the album’s cover, where Thug wears a long, flowing dress. However, with his clever and melancholic lyrics, strong understanding of musicality, and the very personal nature of the album, Jeffery has helped turn his counterpart into a raging success, with a promising future in the business.
6. blond-Frank Ocean
I’ll be honest: I still haven’t heard Channel Orange. I’ve been meaning to get around to it, especially because my brother has told me it changed his life (and I’m fairly certain that’s true, based on his taste before and after this album). But I can tell you this: no matter what, his follow-up album blond is truly a triumph. Moving away from the personal nature of Channel Orange, while still maintaining the reflection of his work as a whole, Ocean has crafted an album that can be best dubbed as “post-everything.” It’s post-rap, post-rock, post-gospel, post-modern, post-IDM, post-everything. It blends these genres into a dreamlike state, sounding like a cross between Pharrell and Prince. Furthermore, it offers up rich, complex lyrics, and contains Ocean’s views on life, with topics ranging from race to consumerism, in a way that only the man who gave us “Forrest Gump” can do. It’s one of the two albums that helped pick up the mantle of Prince’s legacy, yet remained wholeheartedly Frank throughout.
5. Awaken, My Love!-Childish Gambino
Speaking of Prince, I don’t think he received a better send-up since his death than the Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! Donald Glover’s (the Gambino’s real name) first album since 2014, and his first since he launched his television show that conquered television, Atlanta, Awaken, My Love! is something of an ode to the greats, using multiple instruments in a sort of an operatic hip-hop style and mixed with soulful, complex lyrics. Seriously, look at the list of instruments on this album: there’s bass, banjo, organ, bottles, glockenspiel, mellotron, clavinet, synths, and more. The album is a piece of hypnosis, luring you in with its melodic tunes and poignant lyrics, in a way that makes Childish Gambino unique amongst his peers. Obviously the biggest hit is “Me and Your Mama,” which introduces the listener to the dreamlike world that Gambino has built, and “Redbone” may be the artist at his most Prince-like, but for my money, the best song is “Boogieman,” a catchy song with a hook the masters would be jealous of, but with subtly political undertones. It’s a great album by a great artist who is preparing to conquer multiple mediums.
4. This Is Acting-Sia
Potentially my most controversial pick, Sia’s This Is Acting is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated albums of last year. Sia’s last album, 1000 Forms of Fear, was about her struggles and her grief-“Chandelier” is about losing yourself to alcoholism, “Big Girls Cry” deals with grief and depression, and so on. This is what makes This Is Acting such an interesting album. While the last album was so somber in nature, Acting feels like a triumph. Each song feels like breaking away from the fears and anxiety, defeating your demons, if only for the moment, and feeling truly free. What’s more, on top of each song following this theme, making it feel almost like a concept album even more than your average album: “Alive,” “Bird Set Free,” and especially “Cheap Thrills” have a general sense of triumph, pushing away this feeling of depression and your vices to have a chance at a happy life, if only for the moment. It also helps that these are all really good songs. This sounds like a condescending statement, but seriously: how often do you have an album where every song is this good, both as personal songs and as club/radio hits. Look, This Is Acting may not be high art like some of the other albums on this list. But it’s musically compelling, lyrically brilliant, and aesthetically pleasing to listen to. To me, that’s what’s required to stand as one of the best albums of the year.
3. Blackstar-David Bowie
Ugh, what a gut punch. David Bowie was an icon in the music community-perhaps the last true powerhouse the music scene had (Prince had only a few more months to live, and the only real stars I can think of to match Bowie are Springsteen, who is no Bowie, McCartney, who was arguably more famous in his band, and Iggy Pop, who never had the fame that Bowie did). He released Blackstar, one of his most soulful albums, on the day of his 69th birthday. Two days later, he was dead. Things took a solemn turn when it was revealed the album was written and recorded in response to Bowie’s discovery that his secret liver cancer was terminal, thus turning Blackstar into his final gift to us. And what a gift it was. Soulful, reflective, honest, and beautiful, every minute of the album is an absolute Godsend to music. Even at 69 years, Bowie’s voice still has the honesty and raw sexuality that made him a star, even if that sexuality is more akin to “lovemaking” now, rather than passion. It combines several genres in the way only he could, ranging from art rock to folk to jazz and so on. It deals with our own mortality, and deals honestly with a man grappling with his own upcoming demise, and if he feels he has lived a good life, as can be seen in “Blackstar” (the song itself subtly deals with these themes, but it doesn’t help that the video shows the death of Major Tom, Bowie’s first hit song) as well as “Lazarus,” Bowie’s epitaph that remains one of the singularly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard (nothing is more tear-inducing than hearing Bowie begin the song with “I’m in Heaven”). If this album was intended to serve as a way for Bowie to earn his way into the Afterlife, I would say it’s a rousing success, as he went out not with a whimper, but with a bang, and a loud one at that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was obviously only a matter of where, not if, when it comes to deciding where Lemonade fell on this list. I mean, come on. What Beyoncé has done here is remarkable. Lemonade is her crowning achievement, whether you consider it a film or an album (and there’s legitimate debate over this fact, although which list it shows up on tells you how I consider that). It’s a really remarkable concept album, and people will be debating the truth behind it for years (my take: no sh*t Jay-Z cheated, he’s Jay-Z. Most artists probably cheat on their spouse, especially if they’re on the road. Nugent did it, Bowie did it, etc. But still, leave their personal lives to them). However, the ode to female empowerment, marriage, black heritage, Texas Pride, and more makes for one of the most interesting albums of all time. Following a woman’s discovery that her beloved husband is cheating on her, the album traces her desire to figure out how she feels about the ordeal, where she comes from, what it was like for her own mother and ancestors, and finally, who she is as a person. It tells this story through multiple styles, from gospel to rap to hard rock to pop, and even dabbles in country and Louisiana jazz and spiritual. This allows us to have the powerfully awesome “Sorry,” the conquering “Formation,” and the catchy “Hold Up” (my personal favorite), as well as the mournful “Sandcastles” and “Love Drought” and the ferociously fantastic country song “Daddy Lessons” (which has been covered by the Dixie Chicks and led to a team-up at the CMAs that received a rousing standing ovation). Rich with sounds and imagery that hearken to culture, history, and genre play, Lemonade is one of the most remarkable artistic achievements in a decade, and she deserves praise for that. And if you disagree, you can go call Becky with the Good Hair.
1. We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service-A Tribe Called Quest
I didn’t know who these people were a year ago. I’m still a novice to their works. I learned more about their history after being blown away during their Saturday Night Live performance (and anyone who knows me knows I usually use the musical guests as a chance to go to the bathroom during SNL). So for those of you who are newbies like me, here’s a little history. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released their fifth critically acclaimed album before ending their run and retiring. About a year ago, they reunited on Jimmy Fallon in response to the Paris Attacks. Then, in February, the band’s front-man Phife Dawg passed away from complications with diabetes. This led to complete shock from fans when it was learned that, excited by the reunion on Fallon, Phife had led the band, before his death, to record one final album, which he helped write and produce. And the final product is one of the most exhilarating rap albums to come out in recent years. I mean, this is a rap album that samples Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s “Boat Scene” before launching into a takedown of the hatred in the world, “Benny and the Jets,” only to include Elton John-again, on a rap album-and features collaborations ranging from Andre 3000 to Jack White. It’s a shame this album will be going up after that Grammys performance, lest people think that I’m piggybacking on that breathtaking performance. But trust me when I say I’ve had this album picked since November. I think the only proof you need of this album’s success is this: I’m a West Coast fan myself. I prefer the works of N.W.A. and Tupac over the East Coast artists, and I don’t get involved with the modern rap scene that much (this list comes based on recommendations and lessons from my brother, who is a much bigger fan than I am, and even the albums I picked have a much more jazz/soulful lean than most). This album has converted me to the East Coast scene. What A Tribe Called Quest has accomplished here is simply remarkable.
Well, that wraps up the Best of 2016. It’s been a blast sharing my thoughts with you all, and here’s hoping that 2017 is a better year, across every medium! Cheers, all!