25. Blackstar, David Bowie
David Bowie’s unbelievably compelling 25th (!) and final album finds the shapeshifter taking his last bow. It’s a reminder of how brilliant and eternal his work is. Bowie was a pop star while a rock star. He transformed the music industry at almost every level. While Blackstar is primarily an album about death and the afterlife, it evokes a feeling of being alive. Like Leonard Cohen, an artist who also spoke openly about death in his last record, Bowie proved that art, particularly music, is a lasting statement. Blackstar is astounding. It’s rich with unconventional instrumentation, operatic overtones, and chillingly eccentric poetry. Filled with symbolism and sound, Blackstar has Bowie playing the performance of a lifetime, incorporating elements of jazz, art rock, and even hip-hop. The artistic experimentation doesn’t stop there; the album was, apparently, inspired by works like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, as well as artists Death Grips and Boards of Canada. Blackstar might be Bowie’s final statement, but it marks the beginning of David Bowie as a spirit.
— Sam Rosenberg
24. Cody, Joyce Manor
Cody quietly entered into the myriad of great Punk releases this year. Joyce Manor took some chances on the record that set it apart from their previous work — it is a bit more layered, dynamic. Between its blasts of songs sporting amusing, albeit typical, titles like “Make Me Dumb” or “Fake I.D.,” Cody introduces the acoustic, sincere “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?” The record is introspective and reflective of the oh-too-familiar sensation of feeling out of place. It plays off of that uncertain emotion by dancing around different styles and moods, making it one of the band’s most diverse records to date.
— Carly Snider
23. Yes Lawd!, NxWorries
Anderson .Paak is having a year. His second studio album, Malibu, was released in early 2016 to much critical praise; he earned a spot in XXL’s Freshman Class; he scored his first Grammy nomination. But his most ambitious accomplishment was the release of Yes Lawd!, a collaborative album with producer Knxwledge. Known as NxWorries, the duo seem made for each other — .Paak’s rhythmic sound and Knxwledge’s eccentric samples compliment each other almost perfectly. And though .Paak has already demonstrated his capabilities as a solo artist, the production by Knxwledge undeniably escalates this project to the next level. It’s a match made in heaven.
— Rachel Kerr
22. Black Face LP, ScHoolboyQ
Blank Face LP is by far one of the most underrated albums of the entire year.
As one of the last survivors in gangster rap, it seems that old biases die hard, and ScHoolboy Q’s potent, thoughtful messages on race relations, the Black experience and life at large were buried in reactions of “woah, he sounds angry.”
He does sound angry, and for good reason. “Ride Out,” for example, is a sinister, biting survey of gang culture, assisted skillfully by fellow Southern California rapper Vince Staples. The two dish out realities through gritted teeth, among cackles and gunfire. It’ll pick you up and throw you to the ground, bash your skull on the sidewalk and leave you numb, but you’ll thank them for it.
But the best moments aren’t all skull-bashing. “Overtime,” which rides on Miguel’s pretty hook, “I wanna fuck right now,” finds ScHoolboy’s verse feel nearly soothing. His punctuated bars creep into R&B territory here, showing how “gangster rap” doesn’t necessary encompass what Q accomplishes here.
No matter how you spin it, Blank Face LP is a musical achievement, and a powerfully political one at that.
— Matt Gallatin
21. Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
Some say the 13th time is the charm, and for the absurdly prolific Will Toledo, the man behind Car Seat Headrest, this turned out to be the case. After putting out album after album on Bandcamp through his college days at William and Mary, the still-in-his-20s Toledo hit the indie big time in 2016 with the sharply funny garage power pop of Teens of Denial, his second record since getting signed to Matador.
The album is quotable and sing-along-able front to back, but its legacy will undoubtedly be its centerpiece: “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales.” Despite an unassuming appearance and a very low-key, DIY aesthetic, anthems like “Drunk Drivers” betray Toledo’s stadium headliner ambitions. His oversharing lyrics mixed with old-school alt-rock choruses are surely going to bring Toledo more and more devoted, obsessive followers ready to lose their shit at every witticism. Toledo has already had a hell of a career, and he’s laying the foundations for something even greater.
— Lauren Theisen
20. The Beautiful Game, Vulfpeck
Jack Stratton, headphones on and short shorts flaring, stands perched on one leg in the middle of a field, as “The Sweet Science,” a minute long klezmer clarinet solo and the opening track to The Beautiful Game, plays. He crawls, rolls, fixes the camera and starts to dance. Moving from “The Sweet Science” into the poppy and irresistibly endearing “Animal Spirits,” Stratton, using a droid, introduces the world to Vulfpeck’s second full length album, lip-syncing and executing his improvised dance moves flawlessly, all through the medium of Facebook Live. And the comment my sister left on the video: “Look at those kneecaps.”
But the kneecaps are only half of Vulpeck’s genius. There’s not one, but two songs featuring stellar vocals by Antwaun Stanley — one about Joe DiMaggio and one about an Aunt Leslie. Both are flawless. There’s a spoken word skit introducing the fast paced and funky “Conscience Club” with German passwords thrown in halfway through. There’s Joe Dart’s unmatchable bass playing in “Dean Town” and Theo Katzman’s command of the drums in “Daddy, He Got a Tesla” that’ll make you groove and reflect on your overwhelming lack of talent. There are layers on layers on layers brought to these songs, this masterpiece, which delivers not merely funk music, but ecstatic joy to all those who hear it. Listen to “Corey Wong,” the live instrumental which closes out the album, because it is one of the few recordings that perfectly exemplify the power of Vulfpeck’s music on the audience. As the band finds its groove, so does the audience — their admiration is audible and full of awe at the spectacle unfolding before them.
— Natalie Zak
19. JEFFERY, Young Thug
2016 was a year of uncharacteristically focused, concentrated and refined output from Young Thug. Slime Season 3 hinted at a new direction, as a mixtape that was designed to be heard straight through; at only 9 tracks, it was the most focused we’d heard him. Criticism that you simply “couldn’t understand what he’s saying” began to feel lazy and outdated, and he even showed potential of mainstream success (see: “Digits”).
Under the direction of Lyor Cohen, JEFFERY features Thugger at his most ridiculous and reasonable. There’s a track titled after the late Harambe, our beloved Western Lowland Gorilla who was murdered in cold blood earlier this year, and let me tell you, the song has absolutely nothing to do with Harambe.
But the album moves too quickly for you to try and dwell on the absurdities of each track. At 41 minutes, it’s simultaneously one-dimensional and beautifully nuanced. Thug finds internal rhythms and crevices within each beat, layering his voice to create songs that have structure and variation but sustain the energy of a hook from start to finish.
All of the tracks are titled after his various “idols,” but none are actually about them. “Floyd Mayweather” features semi-pro shit-talkers Gunna and Gucci Mane, who figuratively dodge and weave the thud of the 808s. At the beginning of “RiRi,” Thug tells a story of how his homie was just telling a girl about the same relationship problems Thug recorded before his eyes. The song climaxes with Thug almost chirping; the intended effect isn’t anything for you to understand, but to feel.
He’s incredibly adept at occupying spaces between bass kicks, on top of shimmering synths and beneath rattling snares. He shape-shifts and mutates his voice to custom-fit each track. In the short time since his rise to popularity in 2014, Young Thug has forced us all to rethink the concept of rap music as an expressive medium, and JEFFERY is poised to go down as one of the most disciplined projections of his vision.
— Shayan Shafii
18. Wildflower, The Avalanches
Remember the boat ride scene in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory?” How Wonka pretty much forces a trip on the guests and Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregarde’s dads lose their shit? That welcome uncertainty is kind of what it’s like to listen to Wildflower. It has been 16 years since the act’s last release, the 2000 masterpiece Since I Left You, and the group had been on its own wild trip — mostly dealing with internal attrition. But 16 years of development culminated in this album. Pastoral one minute, panicked the next, Wildflower flourishes with its inherent paradoxicality. Impeccable sampling allows a seamless transition from “Frankie Sinatra,” featuring Danny Brown and MF Doom, to a Bee Gee’s-infused waltz (“Subways”). The album as a whole functions as its own rollercoaster ride, beginning with large-scale chaos and later moving into more isolated, primitive territory. Undeniably ethereal throughout, the key is sitting back and embracing the journey.
— Joey Schuman
17. Light Upon The Lake, Whitney
Whitney’s debut is the light at the end of the tunnel. Both of them fresh off of break-ups, guitarist Max Kakacek and singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich wrote Light Upon the Lake in the dead of winter. The result is a manifestation of timeless nostalgia, an album that, while hopeful and energetic, is underlined by a longing for what was or what could have been, in both a lyrical and stylistic sense.
Defined largely by Ehrlich’s emotion-laden falsetto and Kakacek’s jangly guitar grooves, the band take cues from artists like John Denver, Bob Dylan and NRBQ — they regularly cover the latter two during their live shows — but refuse to be contained within their influences, creating something undeniably distinct. An intensely pleasurable amalgamation of soul, country and rock, you’d be hard pressed to find a better debut than this in 2016.
— Sean Lang
16. Puberty 2, Mitski
When the saxophone first graced my eardrums on the opening track “Happy,” I knew Mitski had created something special. On Puberty 2, Mitski manages to make tenderness and vulnerability two of the most badass qualities an American woman can have. Words fail to accurately describe how her voice floods the auditory system and leaves its impression of raw, feminine power, but dammit, you are going to feel every word on this album: “Your Best American Girl,” a cornerstone on the album, is one of the most transcendent anthems of 2016 — her distorted explosion into the chorus, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / but I do, I finally do,” is just one instance of many that shook my entire being.
— Dominic Polsinelli
15. The Colour in Anything, James Blake
James Blake is a sad boy. A very, very talented sad boy. His music is almost always at least three levels lower on the scale of emotion than “content,” and the results are brooding, off-black sounds and singing which feel like a fall rain, if all of fall was just one long rain. What’s so impressive is that he’s successful with it: Never abrasive, never too downtrodden. Part of that is owed to his fantastic handle of production. Take the opener on this album, “Radio Silence.” It builds to an electronic yell, but it’s so paced it’s nearly maddening. He knows where to place the piano chords, the ticks and turns just right, like he’s arranging the décor of a dark room so it feels just inviting enough for you to peak in. On The Colour In Everything he goes for broke — it’s nearly an hour and a half long. But while it’s stretched a bit too far in places, the barrage of pensive excellence on tracks like “My Willing Heart” and “Love Me In Whatever Way” wipes any missteps clean. He also lets the clouds break ever so slightly here (as the watercolor album art shows). They’re always there, but he doesn’t sulk in them quite as much as his previous works on this attempt. The result is some of Blake’s best work since his debut.
— Matt Gallatin
14. Telefone, Noname
2016 sucked for many people, but not Noname. She toured with Ms. Lauryn Hill, announced and (almost) sold out her 2017 tour, made her “Saturday Night Live” debut … oh, and she dropped one of the most beautifully crafted, expertly paced hip hop albums of 2016. Laying low with only ten tracks, Telefone is a relatively short experience, but Noname fills it with bubbling, doo wop-esque beats beneath sleekly spit rhymes. Her delivery injects an energy into her flow that’s noticeably aware of the rapper’s smile as she stunts about her A1s or quitting weed. The Chicago native isn’t all smiles on her debut LP, though. She ruminates on police brutality on “Casket Pretty” and the emptiness of fame and fortune in the wake of her grandmother’s death on opening track “Yesterday,” two of the record's highlights.
— Christian Kennedy
13. untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar
In the build-up to 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick performed a series of mysterious tracks like a man possessed. Most notably, his performance on the Colbert Report sent shockwaves as one of the most chilling and technical performances of the year. Come album time, when none of those songs made the cut, you couldn’t help but to feel that some of his sharpest material was being withheld from us.
untitled unmastered. is comprised of all the elusive content fans have been clamoring for, still in the same vein as Butterfly yet noticeably more tame. There are no drunk confession interludes, no Tupac daydreams (or even track titles), but at heart it is still a Black funk and soulful hip-hop album.
While Butterfly hardly deviated from its sociopolitical undertones, these throwaway projects were a chance for Kendrick to have fun with it. “Untitled 07” sees him chant “Levitate! Levitate! Levitate! Levitate!” before a beat drop that would have been largely out of place on Butterfly but still too good to keep to himself.
“Untitled 03” is one of the most enticing songs in Kendrick’s entire discography; almost like a monk, he moves through various enclaves, countries, races and subcultures noting systemic oppression and ramifications of cultural values. By the time he begs “And what the man white man say?” he spirals into a mesmerizing rapid-fire release that will leave you struggling to keep up. Though the album version doesn’t contain the extended outro from the live performance, the entire album lives on in the energy of those blunt screams: “What the Black man say? / Tell ‘em we don’t die / Tell ‘em we don’t die / Tell ‘em we don’t die / We multiply."
— Shayan Shafii
12. Freetown Sound, Blood Orange
If 2016 was anything, it was the year of the Black album. Not just albums by Black artists, but albums about Blackness and queerness and not-fitting-into-the-dominant-narrative-ness. Slipped between Lemonade and A Seat at the Table is the third album from Dev Hynes’s project Blood Orange. Freetown Sound sees Hynes at the top of his game. He weaves haunting vocals with samples from slam poet Ashlee Haze, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” and features from Carly Rae Jepsen and Nelly Furtado. On paper, it’s a pop culture explosion. In reality, it’s a carefully calculated blend of sounds and ideas.
Freetown Sound is a walk through Hynes’ psyche in which he picks up each of his insecurities, fears and doubts and holds them up to the light. He pulls them apart and tries to put them back together in one of the year’s purest displays of vulnerability. But it’s no longer just Hynes’s own story — as it was on his 2013 album Cupid Deluxe. This is an attempt at telling as many stories as possible, from that of a trans woman in L.A. on “Desirée,” to his parent’s relocation from Sierra Leone to New York in “Augustine.” The beauty of the album comes from its complexity, its inability to be pinned down as any one thing or the product of anyone person.
Like most great music this year, Freetown Sound is the antithesis of 2016. It’s a powerful pushback against the hatred and regression that spent this year trying to silence the very voices and messages Hynes is promoting.
— Madeleine Gaudin
11. ANTI, Rihanna
I sincerely believe everyone’s 2016 woes could have been cured by just listening to this album over and over and over again. Seriously, we should let Donald Trump get a good listen and then see what’s up. Her magnum opus of sorts, ANTI showcases the sheer volume of Rihanna’s talent. Unlike most of her previous projects, there are no traditional club bangers – with the obvious exception of werk werk werk werk werk werk. It’s since become acceptable for tracks like “Needed Me” and “Sex With Me” to make an appearance in a DJ’s set list, but there are definitely no Calvin Harris features here. Instead, the album relies on raw vocals and inventive production to create the most sonically satisfying Rihanna project to date.
— Rachel Kerr
10. Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown
Best listened to while tripping on the most intense edible that may or not be laced, Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most experimental and stylistically distinct albums of 2016. Not widely well-received by Brown’s fandom, Atrocity Exhibition is a departure from the mundane. With unusual instrumentals and sound effects that pull you deep into a place you’ve never been before, Brown takes on the trippiest of trips. “Rolling Stone” beckons you to explore dusty, Saharan deserts dripping with technolored acid rain, while “Ain’t It Funny” puts you on a smokey racetrack fueled by coffee, adderall and fierce jack-rabbits hopping to some orgy in a far-off, mystical place.
— Danielle Immerman
9. Malibu, Anderson .Paak
Silky waterfalls dripping and oozing with sex is Malibu. Anderson .Paak’s vocals move in and out of the sensual instrumentals in the vibiest, most poetic way possible. The layering of tracks in “Come Down,” the jazz/R&B undertones throughout the entire album and the profound lyrics lurking behind the blissful melodies of the melodic trumpet are what make Malibu, Malibu: a modern music orgasm. Sound these days has the propensity to plateau during the duration of an album, but Malibu spikes with every second that goes by. With radio soundbites placed at the end of songs that spill into the beginning of the next, .Paak’s unique album structure makes Malibu feel like one cohesive piece of art rather than isolated moments connected by silence. The result is a narrative moved by the waves of sound — the waves of Malibu.
— Danielle Immerman
8. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
2016 was a tumultuous year. I don’t really expect anyone to bat an eye at that conclusion. Besides the troves of beloved celebrities that fell this past year, in its actions and statements, Western society gave us enough reason to castigate any little optimism we had remaining for the future. In times like these, artists like Radiohead kept a laudably unwavering finger on the pulse of our impending doom — on A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke’s tried and true idiomatic crooning over Orwellian talking points came to life in a year like ours, affording listeners a welcome and prescient illustration of their emotions and fears (more so now than during its release thanks to some of those fears becoming, astoundingly enough, reality). A Moon Shaped Pool was Radiohead’s bread and butter — it was emotional, abstract, political and striking. While some may balk at the band’s multi-decade reign, they’ve shown time and time again an ability to create apt soundscapes for our emotional and social climates, their latest offering being no exception.
— Anay Katyal
7. 22, A Million, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon, lead vocalist for Bon Iver, is a master of manipulating sound in a way that feels both alien and human. His voice plays a pivotal role in the structure of Bon Iver’s third record 22, A Million — pitched and processed vocals permeate the emotional dissonance in each of his strangely titled songs. He croons about past mistakes, old lovers and the uncertainty of tomorrow. Channeling a more electronic sound, Bon Iver once again finds an opening in the human heart and fills it with the sadness, joy and anger. Shifting away from the lovelorn acoustics of their debut and the lush avant-garde rock instrumentation of Bon Iver, 22, A Million is unlike anything Bon Iver (or practically any other indie rock band, for that matter) has done before. Through a fabric of electronic glitches, 22, A Million articulates some of Vernon’s most difficult songwriting into words that convey clarity, emotion, and genuine depth. 22, A Million sounds like the future — an uncertain one at worst, but a beautiful one at best.
— Sam Rosenberg
6. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest is, fairly unequivocally, legendary. Its reunion album is, fairly inarguably, transcendent. Echoes of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders permeate; the same distinct East Coast sound and conscious spit not only apply but thrive two decades later. Phife Dawg’s posthumous preachings (“We got your missy smitten rubbing on her little kitten/Dreaming of a world that's equal for women”) challenge the listener and society at once to reconsider just about everything. The album is quintessentially Tribe and appropriately unapologetic, steadfastly tip-toeing the line between morality and pomposity, complete with features from André 3000, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. The Joey Bada$$es, the Earl Sweatshirts, the Kendrick Lamars, the (apparently) J.Coles, all anointed in “Dis Generation,” they’re all listening as they continue to build on Tribe Ground. We Got It from Here is pure closure, and it’s timeless. We’re lucky to hear it.
— Joey Schuman
5. Lemonade, Beyoncé
Throughout the latter half of her career (4 — current), Beyonce has masterfully commanded her image and involvements into a smoothly running, entirely secretive operation, taking fans from one perceived peak to yet another unfuckwittable accomplishment. Her sixth album, LEMONADE, continued this trend; cutting through any and all definitions of “genre,” her second visual album brought together a full range of emotional and sonic tones into a stunning narrative of Black womanhood.
There are quite literally too many praises to be spoken: the obfuscated anger of “Don’t Hurt Yourself;” the interludes of Warsan Shire’s poetry, which adds beautiful, invaluable context to the album’s greater interpretations; Serena Williams dancing around a NOLA mansion while Beyoncé sits, one leg over the armrest of her throne; ”You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”; the yellow Cavalli dress.
Beyond individual highlights, though, the album’s most overwhelming feat is the flawless flow between pop, country, rock, electronic, trap, dancehouse and R&B into one cohesive narrative which delivers the Queen’s most lyrically sound project to date. LEMONADE is an assault of intricately crafted, wildly catchy tracks that undeniably shook 2016. Who gives a damn about Becky when we have Beyoncé?
— Christian Kennedy
4. Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
“I’ve been trying to perform EVERY song from Coloring Book on television once,” Chance the Rapper tweeted before his 2016-closing “Saturday Night Live” appearance.
Any other artist, any other album, and this would be stupid as hell. No album completely lacks filler, has that many good songs, has no weak points whatsoever.
But hey, Coloring Book isn’t an album! Chance managed to release it digital-only and call it a mixtape, so I don’t have to worry about whether it’s actually the most perfect album of all time. Instead, I can simply say this: Coloring Book is perfect.
Coloring Book is a mix of gospel and hip hop that somehow manages to be pure and earnest without ever becoming preachy or condescending. Chance has three minutes of a choir that doesn’t sound overblown. He has the best verses from 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne in years. He mixes Harry Potter puns with sober, beautiful meditations on Chicago violence. Coloring Book is a love letter to the world and a party record, a sentimental celebration of life and also a reminder of where we still need to improve.
Track by track, mood by mood, Chance the Rapper inspires breathless awe, hope and respect. He’s joyous and humble and filled with boundless creativity. Still only 23, he was the brightest artistic light of 2016.
“The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” Chance raps on the last song of the album. In a year defined by racism, hatred, fear and death, there’s no doubt that Chance Bennett must be be our champion.
— Lauren Theisen
3. A Seat at the Table, Solange
Four years after her last official release — eight since her last proper album — Solange Knowles has returned with a genre-defying album that is triumphant, nuanced and deeply frustrated. A masterclass in both sonic and thematic cohesion, A Seat at the Table is an R&B album at heart — most of its melodies driven by piano and closely accompanied by percussion. These melodies, however, flow freely, visiting and revisiting the album in short stints, lending even more potency to the interludes that deliver the deeply personal points of the album’s story.
In terms of race relations in the United States, that the past four years have been tumultuous is not a point that is up for contention. Thematically, Solange’s album is a summation of the anger, sadness and disappointment accumulated during these years, but also a demonstration of resilience. It is an unapologetic exploration of what it means to be a Black woman today, an evaluation of progress (or the lack thereof) and an affirmation and reinforcement of Black pride. I doubt that the significance and sheer power of this album can be overstated. A Seat at the Table carries more weight than I, as a white male, will likely ever understand, and I must admit that I do not trust in my ability to do justice to the album.
Any word of criticism that I utter should be taken with a grain of salt, no word of praise necessarily trusted, no evaluation taken at face value. This album is beyond me — beyond many of us — and only if we acknowledge that can we hope to progress. What is ultimately and absolutely apparent, however, is that Solange has earned her seat at the proverbial table; what she’s telling us, all too clearly, is that no one should have to.
— Sean Lang
2. The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
Like all Kanye West albums, The Life of Pablo closes with a satisfying resolution. While “Wolves” doesn’t cap the actual track-list, it feels like the unofficial parting piece; unlike the 40-minute whirlwind that preceded it, Frank Ocean’s fleeting but sobering appearance after “Wolves” brought with it a certain sense of rest and stability. For only a minute, it felt like Kanye was going to be alright after the perplexing and often indefensible buildup to the album’s release.
The seed of hope turned out being all we were offered, as 2016 had Kanye in a knots over a whole host of issues, including the kidnapping of his wife and the anniversary of his mother’s death. It’s an important hindsight; his dynamic with the various guests on the album, and how he creates space for them, paints a bigger picture. The grandiosity of The Life of Pablo becomes unexpectedly intimate and relatable despite initial critical response to the contrary.
Revisiting the album at the tail end of a bumpy year, it’s easy to reimagine the breathless ranting on “Pt. 2” as part of what might be going on in Kanye’s head when he, say, cancels a show after three songs. Or perhaps the paranoia and insecurity of “FML” can be found in his recent hospitalization. But this album isn’t about bleached assholes and sex with Taylor Swift so much as it is about trials and tribulations, as every Kanye album is.
Though renowned for his ability to orchestrate unlikely collaborations, Pablo is surprisingly most gripping when Kanye is alone, frantically teetering between hopelessness and absurdly confident transparency. Throughout the album he alternates between the security of a group dynamic and the retreaded shelter of his character-defining thoughts. Not for the first time (see: Pusha T on Runaway), he channels the voices of others to clear the jumbled mess in his head.
Tracks like “Ultralight Beam” and “Low Lights” hardly feature the voice of Kanye West at all. Yet they shed light on what he clutches onto most dearly to “get through the day”. “Freestyle 4” sees ‘Ye drunkenly snarl fantasies of having sex on the table at a dinner party: He blurs the line between spoken and unspoken, external and internal — what you do and what you want to do. The Life of Pablo is a meditated narration on a real life. It’s about those moments of privacy, depression, laughter, sex, love, confusion, helplessness; it’s about Ye, yes, but it’s also about me and you.
— Shayan Shafii
1. Blonde, Frank Ocean
In a year of anomalies, norm-breaking and the unexpected, Frank Ocean remains his own island. When an artist can get hundreds of thousands of young people to watch paint dry on live stream over a two-week period — he would eventually build a staircase and announce two projects in the same weekend, but nevertheless it was a lot of drying paint — there’s something unique happening. It indicates a shift in what we interpret as “popular culture” or “mainstream music.”
But Ocean is a master of subverting whatever your norms might be. It’s his world, and we’re just living in it. This can be frustrating and confusing. In an Internet era where every opinion is granted the same space on the screen, it even amounts to criticism and anger. As the most prominent gay hip-hop artist perhaps ever, there’s a lot that Ocean is expected to do and say, and when he doesn’t, questions hover in the air among activists and any average Twitter user. But like the genius of his music, he never follows the rules — your rules, that is. Ocean is revolutionary in his expression of his sexuality in that, at least through Ocean’s own voice, it garners little fanfare. He talks about having sex with women in one track, and men in another. Where so many artists have misleadingly co-opted queerness to gain attention (ahem, James Franco), Ocean does the opposite. He’s, well, frank about the struggles he faces as a man who loves other men (“Bad Religion” from his official debut is one of the most powerful musical expressions of sexuality in decades), but never loud. It’s there, and you deal with it or you don’t. Ocean doesn’t care either way. When queerness, particularly male, is so often unapologetically stereotyped as flamboyant, dainty and in-your-face, it’s a refreshing, necessary perspective.
That kind of subversion also happens to be astoundingly fruitful musically. Ocean has yet to release an official project which doesn’t exceed expectations, and Blonde is no exception. It’s less immediately approachable than Channel Orange or even Nostalgia, ULTRA, but when it settles, what you find is one of the most beautiful, shattering pieces of sonic work in the last decade. The quiet build of “Ivy,” the tangibly downtrodden “Siegfried,” the crystal clear “Good Guy” — these are all sparkling, somber moments on a journey which will continue not just tomorrow, but years down the road. With Blonde, Ocean has created something which can be lived in, experienced; it can be taken apart and rearranged as you approach it with your own feelings and your own moments.
Blonde, simply, is felt.
— Matt Gallatin