By Matt Reinstein
10) “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino
Many fans of Childish Gambino were confused when he released the first single, “Me and Your Mama”, to his latest album, “Awaken, My Love!” This song is almost two in one, and contains no rap at all. For a rapper, it doesn’t seem to make much sense why the huge genre switch occurred for Donald Glover, who had a very good 2016, recently ending the first season of his very successful FX series, Atlanta. Let me just say, “Me and Your Mama” was easily one of the best songs of the year. Thankfully, it has a very strange, psychedelic, funky, and occasionally progressive album to back it up. This will disappoint many fans if they walk into it thinking it will be a rap album. It contains no rap at all. What it is, however, is a psychedelic trip with Gambino performing 11 different voices throughout 11 different songs. Though some of the songs don’t live up to the enthusiasm that was portrayed in “Me and Your Mama”, many new fans will emerge as Gambino appeals to multiple audiences with his “bedtime music” album.
9) The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
Come on, you knew it had to be up here. Though nowhere near as good as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Ye still stepped it up coming off of 2013’s Yeezus. With a mix of sounds in this album from a soulful “Ultralight Beam” to the electronic “Wolves”, Pablo has a vast variety of songs with a variety themes leading up to an overall message that Kanye is a “38-year-old eight year old.” We’ve been through this whole Kanye craze through the years, and 2016 had to be his craziest yet. Kanye songs are (of course) “I Love Kanye”, “Feedback”, and the song that started this whole “Panda” phenomenon, “Pt. 2″. Kanye has yet again proved to us that despite his ginormous ego, he has changed the face of rap. Yeezy deserves all of the respect he gets, including his own.
8) Blue and Lonesome by The Rolling Stones
What we’ve learned this year from music is that many musicians have interests in making older genres more relevant in the second half of the 21st century. In The Rolling Stones case, I feel as if Lonesome and Blue is less of bringing blues back to today’s music, rather than it is bringing southern blues back to themselves, while at the same time making a statement that they still have what it takes to be big. And let me tell you, they nailed it. The Rolling Stones have always been to me a blues-rock band, but with their latest album, Mick Jagger and co. prove that they are a full fledged out raw, nasty, blues group. This is similar to Steven Tyler being a Bostonian rocker who at first made music with southern roots, then making the very good country album, We’re All Somebody From Somewhere. But with The Stones, Keith Richards brings in slide guitar, Mick Jagger brings harmonica, and Ronnie Wood brings it with bluesy beats that can resemble Buddy Guy at times. An all-cover album brings life back to Chicago blues to The Stones.
7) Next Thing by Frankie Cosmos
Here, we have one of the simplest albums on the list, and that’s not to sound bad at all. Actually, I think it’s a huge plus. Sure, it doesn’t spark any questions or thoughts, but that’s because Greta Kline (stage named Frankie Cosmos) does all of the thinking and answering for us. It’s easy to listen to, which is beneficial because, while other LPs on the list require complete concentration, Next Thing doesn’t restrict listeners to doing only one thing at a time, making a much more relaxing experience. Its simplicity complements its serenity very well. Though it is easy listen to, there are a few select songs that speak about hiding in shadows, and the importance of coming out and showing who you are, which are very meaningful topics. “Everybody understands me, but I wish nobody understood me,” Kline sings in “Embody”. The songs are also very short, which subtly helps Kline be clear and concise throughout the LP.
6) Untitled Unmastered by Kendrick Lamar
Thank you, Kendrick Lamar. Untitled Unmastered is just what its title makes out to be: raw, jazzy productions from To Pimp a Butterfly that didn’t make the final cut. But thankfully, Lamar realized that these tracks were worthy to be put in their own album. Including the same electrophonic sound with saxophone and trumpets along with other horns, it’s yet another throwback to 70s funk made by an artist in 2016. Untitled, Unmastered may be the one that payed homage towards the genre with the most sucess, as Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic was a flop and while Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” is very good, Kendrick Lamar’s Unmastered knows what it is more than either of those albums do. It’s an attempt to bring soul and funk to rap and pop music, not necessarily altogether, an idea sparked by Kendrick’s last To Pimp a Butterfly. I would be very excited to see what he has next in store for us. Maybe a possible Grammy redemption? Very possible.
5) The Narrative by Sho Baraka
Slow rock and jazz with hints of funk behind bars, speaking of black equality against white supremacy and how rap can affect both. All of these are key elements to Sho Baraka’s The Narrative. From ranting about Kanye to speaking about his humility towards Jesus, The Narrative has a lot to say about today’s society. “I’m deeply loved, I’m forgiven, I have vision/ He has changed my condition on the day he was risen,” he raps through “The Road to Humble, 1979″. With slow beats often in front of classic jazz piano, the sound of The Narrative enhances its meaning. Baraka’s wordplay is also considerably better than others in similar fields: “Executives, they put us on the shelf, they say we counterfeit/ I got the answers, but they don’t know what the problem is.”
4) The Bird and the Rifle by Lori McKenna
Massachusetts native Lori McKenna brings 70s songwriting to 21st century country. Vivid descriptions and metaphors are the roots to this album’s success. The juxtaposition within just the title of the album can bring listeners joy and wonder. Speaking about the positives and negatives of marriage and parenthood, McKenna brings messages of melancholy mixed with love to her album, which gives the LP much more complexity at its core. Producer David Cobb also has some of his best work this year, while also having produced a very good Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The Bird and the Rifle has more emotional depth to it, though. Some may consider this a country album, but while it does have country roots, it also has some indie rock tweaked here and there. In the song, “Giving Up on Your Hometown”, McKenna sings, “I guess even when you stay right here sometimes you can’t go home.”
3) Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Car Seat Headrest, an American indie rock group, has been absolutely nailing the genre by releasing seven LPs since 2013. A nice blend of acoustic and electric with a few synthesizers at times makes the LP one of the best of the year. Vocals that can feel nonchalant really set the tone laid back tone of this album. Though some of the songs can have depressing messages, the sound is completely the opposite. Will Toledo plays with enthusiasm and style through “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”: “friends are better with drugs, drugs are better with friends.” He jokes frequently in this album, which gives us a better connection with the group. From joking about drug trips to girls who can offer empathy rather than sex in “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”, Car Seat Headrest takes us back to the early 2000s and gives us the balance of what can be depressing messages drowned out by funny jokes in fast paced, head-bobbing riffs.
2) A Seat at the Table by Solange
Commonly known as “Beyoncé’s little sister,” Solange has tweaked that name a little differently to “Beyoncé’s little and better sister.” Coming off her acclaimed album, True, her surprise album demolishes any of her previous works. A Seat at the Table is without a doubt her most truly personal album, rather than Beyoncé’s claimed “personal” album, Lemonade. Solange uses this album to speak about topics that are relevant in today’s mainstream media. I can’t help but compare the two albums messages, though, because they do share some very clear similarities. However, I do believe that Solange’s message is enveloped in better sounding music and with vocals that are discreet but prove to serve a much more powerful role, even though one may argue that the vocals Beyoncé’s in Lemonade are louder, therefore more powerful. Imbedded with interludes that speak about other black people’s experiences, they serve a nice break that is beneficial after listening through stories of heavy topics. From the song, “F.U.B.U”: “made this song to make it y’all’s turn/For us, this shit is for us.”
1) Here by Teenage Fanclub
Scottish alternative rock band Teenage Fanclub has been around for quite some time. Formed in 1989, they had released albums on a relatively constant pace up until 2005. Since then, they had only released two albums, their second released in 2010. During their six-year hiatus, they have developed harmonization that can only be compared to The Byrds. Peaceful, yet thought provoking, Hear asks audiences about the need to have someone by your side. From the song, “I Have Nothing More to Say”: “I need only reassurance/ I have nothing more to say/ In the morning I’ll be brighter/ If I lay my ways beside her.” It also talks about the dreams one can have and how to never let them go. This may also be Teenage Fanclub’s most mature sounding album to date. With a controlled amount of synthesizers behind very melodic harmonies, Teenage Fanclub’s Hear is an album everyone can enjoy, opposed to their earlier albums that are still good, but can at times only appeal to those who were growing up within the alternative punk rush in the 90’s. Here is an ageless LP, with similarities to early indie rock, yet maintaining a sense of freshness that helps keep it relevant and fantastic.