Most of the people that I know think 2016 was a dumpster fire. Look, there is no reason to pretend it was not. Whether they lost someone in their lives, mourned the death of great athletes, actors, musicians and other artists whose art and presence made living and understanding themselves just a little bit easier, or are infuriated about the election results/the general political climate and/or how systemic oppression impacts their lives, 2016 was...a lot. But honestly, there is no year that is perfectly smooth sailing because this is the nature of life. I still think 2016 was worse than 2012-2015 for me, and those years were also dumpster fires in various ways. For me, music helps to extinguish some of these flames. One of the good things about music, at least in my life, is that it can both calm and excite me as well as can both resonate with my experiences and introduce me to new ones. Most of all, music is a healing balm that serenades my spirit and envelops my entire being with joy, creativity, humor, wit, insight and most of all, love. In 2015, I posted My Top 9 Favorite Albums Of 2015 and Other Music Love and for 2016, I decided to expand my list to 15 albums. The year was rich with diverse expressions in music by some of my long time favorite artists as well as by some artists that are fairly new to me. Below are my top 15 favorite albums of 2016:
1) Lemonade - Beyoncé: As if Beyoncé has not already proven that she is at the top of her game—when she released her self-titled album in 2013, quite the statement on feminism and more, and performed the incredible On The Run tour (which I attended twice) in 2014—she has thoroughly impressed me and so many of her millions of adoring fans with Lemonade. Lemonade is not just an album, or just a film; Lemonade is a line in the sand and Beyoncé is the artist to measure other artists of my generation by; she honestly was that artist prior to Lemonade anyway. I do not mean this in an insulting way to other artists; instead, I am simply pointing out the sizable impact of her vocals, visuals, and themes all immersed into this truly incredible work of art and her impact on pop culture itself.
I love this album because each song is a chapter in a "novel" on the process of grief and on the process of living in Blackness and Black womanhood. Beyoncé has one of the best progressional explanations for grief of all time (intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, redemption); no shade to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). If Kübler-Ross explained how to grieve when someone dies, Beyoncé explained how to grieve when someone lives, but while experiencing an emotional death caused by betrayal, generational traumas and experiences with intersecting oppressions. Lemonade alludes to what comes before denial; the fear, the uncertainty and the worry. Lemonade alludes to what can come after acceptance; a rebirth and a renewed love for self and others. Someone can be living and you "lose" them, over a specific reason, for a time period of immense pain, or forever. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. Sometimes we live in grief. Beyoncé let the world—especially Black women—know that it is okay to grieve. For example, the scenes in the Lemonade film with all the Black women who experienced loss, in the midst of young Black girls who are the future show what is possible after grief, even outside of the romance-only context that some people narrowly view the album and film as. Additionally, since Beyoncé directly addressed Black death (i.e. inclusion of some of the Mothers of The Movement), references miscarriage, and has visual themes that evoke generational experiences with loss, this album references grief in a very literal way as well. Children die. Love dies. Hope dies. The mourning is painful, but it is not a mourning that occurs without the possibility of rebirth.
So many writers—mainly Black women—have shared wonderful things about this album; @zfelice, @FeministaJones and @TheAngryFanGirl wrote some of my favorite pieces. In April I shared "Lemonade: A Southern Visual 'Novel' Unapologetically About The Humanity & Complexity of Black Womanhood" via Storify (with my thoughts on the album and its womanist messages in detail) and here on the blog I shared 5 Inspiring Quotes From Beyoncé On Art, Creative Process and Vision, where I mention "Formation" in detail, which Beyoncé released a couple of months prior to the full album. I enjoyed her Super Bowl halftime show performance; I attended Formation World Tour to see her perform live for a third time in my life; I was invigorated by her performance of "Freedom" with Kendrick Lamar on BET; I was impressed with her performance of "Daddy Lessons" with The Dixie Chicks at the CMAs. While every song on this album is amazing on its own ("Pray You Catch Me" is my personal favorite), as a cohesive work with complimentary visuals Beyoncé truly created the album of the year. I mean, in a single album I get R&B, pop, country, rock, hip hop and soul? And it all makes sense together? Well, it should. These are genres of music that would be nothing without Black influences and history, if not outright Black creation. Beyoncé is nominated for nine Grammy awards and equal as many BET Awards this season. I am almost afraid (nervous, but in a good way) of what she may do next since she always outdoes herself and is a truly gifted artist who moves and inspires me. She is my favorite artist of my generation.
2) A Seat At The Table - Solange: I have been a Solange fan for a long time and I think this album is sublime. I loved her TRUE LP and her album Sol-Angel and The Hadley Street Dreams and I love A Seat At The Table. Solange is the consummate artist and it shows in her writing, her vocals, her choices/collaborations for her visuals ("Don't Touch My Hair" and "Cranes In The Sky" have gorgeous videos; the liner art and photographs for the album are incredible), and in the themes she conveys with this album. A Seat At The Table is music to heal to and music that expresses courage, as a Black person in general and as a Black woman, specifically. The interludes are as important to the album as the songs are. Whether it is her mother (who mentioned her love for Blackness), her father (who mentioned the realities of growing up Black, as a Black man currently in his 60s) or Master P's (who explored the creative process and the notion of "success," as a Black artist in America), each one connects to an aspect of Black experience and emotion that brings a cohesiveness to the album. Solange's voice conveys pensiveness and pride at different points in the album; she mentions the difficulties involved in occupying space as a Black person in America but also clearly loves being Black. The songs that really speak to me are "Weary," "Don't Wish Me Well," and "Scales." While "Cranes In The Sky" is obviously the hit of the album, the aforementioned three songs remain on repeat for me. Although I heavily relate to the more vulnerable themes on the album, I also will not let anybody steal my magic.
3) Coloring Book - Chance The Rapper: I am definitely late to the Chance The Rapper bus, but now that I am here, move over and give me a seat! I adore Coloring Book. Chance The Rapper really made an album "for the people." I do not say this just because he made the album freely available (i.e. on SoundCloud, TIDAL and Spotify) but because the music has an optimism that is not one-dimensional but instead truly aspirational. "The people's champ must be everything the people can't be." Chance The Rapper made music to smile to, to cry to, and music that evokes genuine feelings of hope. "Are you ready...for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?" By the time I get to the end of the album and hear this, I have already laughed and cried and felt warm all over from the songs. The production value is incredible and I am not even remotely shocked that he received multiple Grammy nominations. He deserves them. Awards are not "proof" of talent, however. It is the other way around. Anyone who excels in their field deserves to be acknowledged for it. I adore this album and I have yet to encounter anyone who does not. Additionally, I love Jay Electronica's verse on "How Great." Jay Electronica always knows how to show up and deliver an incredible feature.
4) The Dreaming Room - Laura Mvula: I became a fan of Laura Mvula in 2013 and have not looked back. This current album is a tapestry of living and loving as both political and personal acts. "They strip us down and rape our minds; our skin was a terrible thing to live in. And now, with hand in hand, we free our souls; remind us of our glory." These lyrics are from the powerful song "People" on this album. Blackness. "Nobody ever told her she was beauty. One day, she realized she was already free. The color in her eyes was fire rising. She found the light inside, a new horizon." These lyrics are from the incredible song "Phenomenal Woman" on this album, with a title that alludes to the late Maya Angelou's same-titled poem. Black womanhood. Laura seems utterly in love with the richness that is Blackness and Black womanhood and with colourful and culturally-rich visuals to accompany the aforementioned 2 songs, Laura makes it clear who she is singing about and for. While anyone can and should enjoy her music, as music is universally engaged, people can do so while still acknowledging the very specific messages she conveys in this music. Appreciation should never require decontexualization or erasure. Laura Mvula made a great album and I absolutely love her voice. Additionally, I love that she included “Renaissance Moon” on this album, which is like a classical-sounding reprise to the song “Sing To The Moon” on her previous same-titled album; so neat.
5) Stranger Things, Vol. 1 (A Netflix Original Series Soundtrack) - Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein: Stranger Things is an incredible show and it only makes sense that a remarkable soundtrack accompany it. It sets the time, place, and the emotion that the already well-written Stranger Things show could not do without. In Inside the Spellbinding Sound of Stranger Things on Pitchfork, the author mentioned that the show's music plays a "key role in scene-setting." The two volumes of the soundtrack are magical; I only chose Volume 1 for this list since the track "Eleven" on the first volume is just heartbreakingly beautiful. (Both volumes are amazing though.) It moves from the sound of innocence to the sound of pain before I ever realize it; it catches me off guard every time. It evokes a sense of pathos for the purity in spirit that the show's character Eleven (portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown) is supposed to represent. The hurt child. The misunderstood child. The unique child. The child that deserves to be loved. This song makes me think of my own childhood; the characters in the show are young and growing up in the 80s. My childhood was in the 80s. The way both wonder and loss are conveyed in this soundtrack is stellar.
6) Charlene - Tweet: I have loved Tweet's music for over fifteen years now, so when I learned that she was releasing an album in 2016, I nearly cried. This album is so beautiful. Tweet has a lovely voice and in this album, she is able to convey emotions like mature stories that women know too well and share very often. The song "Dadada...Struggle" completely and thoroughly wrecks me. The bass guitar? That piano? Yes. Her vocals on this song, her passion; I can hear the struggle. What is it like to not want to love someone anymore but you also cannot imagine not loving them? She is torn. There is literally no song that conveys this dilemma better than this one does for me. Tweet makes me think of D'Angelo. If Black Messiah is a political salve for my consciousness then Charlene is a personal salve for my heart. Additionally, Black Messiah touched my heart and Charlene speaks to my thoughts on some of my past younger life. (This album reminds me of my late 20s; because...reasons.) I often listen to these 2 albums back to back. Charlene is flawless.
7) Long Live The Angels - Emeli Sandé: "Baby...I'm not made of stone; it hurts. Loving you the way I do; it hurts." As soon as I heard this on the album, my ears perked up. Black women singing songs about the vulnerability that is willfully ignored within our interpersonal relationships as well as in society at large are songs that I want to hear. Emeli has the pipes; that's been clear. However, what she does with this album is truly tell stories about the complexities of love with a sound that actually makes me think of Valerie June, in a way. There's something kinda...American and Southern about the sound of this album despite Emeli being from Scotland, and bringing her own background and flare to her music. My favorite song on the album is the one I alluded to, "Hurts." However, every track on this album is quality. Put it on, do not expect to skip a track. Emeli offers a complete experience that feels honest and pure. (As an aside, I love that Jay Electronica is on her album, as he is on Chance The Rapper's album. I love Jay Electronica's features.)
8) Anti - Rihanna: Look, I think Rihanna got fed up with being everyone's 'pop star' (although I engage her music as more than "pop" as a pejorative, though I have no problem with the genre itself) and came for our edges this year. This album is her best work; full stop. This album is masterfully crafted. Rihanna took risks and did not give a shit about what anyone thinks of this. The accompanying visuals are an elevation over previous ones of hers that I have seen. The album includes "Work," a song that is not just party music to me or language to mock. She is Barbadian, and I am Jamaican, born and raised as the first-generation of my family in America, so the notoriously White response (endless mocking and melodramatic claims of incomprehensibility) to her accent and language is very offensive to me. Though I did not get into the song at first, once I saw the video, making it a complete experience, I fell in love with "Work." Watching the video for "Work" feels like...being "home." It is the comfort of knowing, feeling, dance, food, and music, in a specific West Indian context, whether that context happens in the Caribbean, the States, Canada; anywhere. "Never Ending" is my favorite song on the album though. Though Rihanna is West Indian, some of her songs evoke a very specific sense of Americana for me. I have said many times that she sings the perfect "coming of age" music for American films. She reminds me of the contributions that West Indians have made to American music and pop culture. Rihanna has been nominated for eight Grammy awards this award season. I love what Rihanna has done with Anti.
9) Emily's D+Evolution - Esperanza Spalding: I started listening to Esperanza shortly before the Belieber drama of 2011, when she won the "Best New Artist" Grammy award and Justin Bieber did not. Some of his irritable young fans, Beliebers, proceeded to destroy her Wikipedia page and engaged in nasty and at times bigoted comments about her win. Five years later, no one better not even dare question Esperanza's vocals and musicianship (she writes/composes/plays instruments as well). She is a genuine talent and it shows up again on this album. Her voice has a kind of magic to it, where it has that certain whimsical quality that a lot of classically trained musicians and/or people with a theatre background have, but it also has the soul and the range. "Farewell Dolly" is my absolute favorite song on this album. I almost feel cheated since the song is less than three minutes long. But this is Esperanza. She only needs 2 minutes and seven seconds to wow me. While Chamber Music Society is my all time favorite album of hers, Emily's D+Evolution is a favorite for 2016.
10) Miles Ahead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Miles Davis: Though my movie schedule was packed for 2016, and I have not had a chance to view and review Miles Ahead (directed/produced by Don Cheadle, who also portrays the role of Miles Davis) for Cinemacked yet, I really enjoy this soundtrack. Miles Davis is a name that everyone knows, regardless of whether or not they actually enjoy jazz. I actually enjoy jazz. The excerpt of "Solea" on this soundtrack is so beautiful that it truly hurts. It is agonizing how great this song is (especially the full version). I have said before that this song is almost unbearable. It is a little too...great. It feels as if it is past just being music. Beyond it. It would be like trying to call my own pulse a song; it is not even just a sound but its sheer existence is necessary to live. "Solea" makes me think of me think of sunshine, open and bright, but also the moon, hidden, sleek and cunning. The soundtrack also includes popular favorites such as "So What" (what Erykah Badu sampled on "Rimshot (Intro)" on her album Baduizm), and a few songs by Robert Glasper and Pharaohe Monch. I really enjoy this soundtrack; it is incredible.
11) We Are King - King: I feel cheated that I did not know about King prior to 2016! Their beautiful light sound makes me think of what a silk robe covering my body on a cool evening with a light wind feels like. Their songs "Carry On" and "Hey" are like lullabies for adults. They are...love. This is literally what they sound like; love. They are 3 beautiful Black women, twins Paris and Amber Strother and their "musical sister" Anita Bias. They received a Grammy nomination for "Best Urban Contemporary Album." This is huge for them; I mean, they are hanging out in a category with Beyoncé and Rihanna. I am so thankful to them for this gorgeous album. It brings me such calm and peace.
12) Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording) - various artists: While I was not one of the monied or the lucky to see Hamilton on Broadway, this play took late 2015 and all of 2016 by storm. Though technically the soundtrack came out in late 2015, I include it in this list since this is when I started to listen to it and when tickets to the play became so coveted that it saturated Twitter conversations for a good while. While certainly critiques can be made of the story—I mean, this will happen with anything regarding historical fiction—the soundtrack has such an interesting sound that is the perfect meld of traditional theatre, spoken word and hip hop.
13) Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 Mixtape - Cardi B: I became a fan of Cardi B's Instagram page—long before her current fame—filled with videos of her experiences with sex work (she was an adult dancer for several years) as well as funny videos with a comedic timing that outshines some professional comedians, at that. Seeing her career blossom, especially so in the last year has been neat to watch. This mixtape is great. It reveals Cardi's creativity, that she takes her music seriously and that she puts effort into showing her skills and passions. "Foreva" was like the song of the summer; it was neat seeing so many different dancers of different backgrounds choreograph routines to this song. Cardi B is not trying to "perform" authenticity but simply conveys an authenticity that is innate and true. She connects with people through her unmitigated honesty, and this happens in her music as well as in her Instagram videos and lately her mainstream media appearances. Musically, this mixtape gives me something that I just have not felt since Jacki-O's album Poe Little Rich Girl. While Cardi B is a proud New Yorker, this mixtape has a sound that perfectly fits into my South Floridian sentiments. I can go from playing skilled veteran rapper Trina, from Miami, to playing the talented new rapper Cardi B, from New York, and it is a seamless auditory experience. I really enjoy this mixtape and I hope that Cardi B continues to prosper in her own way. People who believe in "overnight success" are probably ignoring all of the work that comes before it. Cardi B shares this work with the world. This truth makes her endearing.
14) New English - Desiigner: Enjoying this kid's music came out of nowhere for me; I call him a kid since I am 37 and he is only 19; for reference, my niece and nephew are 18 and 17, respectively. I did not even know who Desiigner was for half of 2016 though he has made music for a while, albeit not always in the mainstream spotlight. However, after I heard "Panda," which I ignored at first until it became addictive, I was curious about his music. Then came along "Tiimmy Turner," which immediately made me think of a "trap Negro spiritual," something that @MVPGO first mentioned on Twitter. I came across a viral tweet by @ovoshamar, which expressed a similar sentiment that a lot of people agreed with. Comedienne Khadi Don made a creative video titled "'F You Masa' by Harriet Trapman," where she created a sound and visual for what "Tiimmy Turner" would be as a modern-day Negro spiritual, a jovial take on an admittedly complex topic. There's a certain melancholy to the sound of the album that draws me in; I honestly think he could rap over some Evanescence songs, especially from Origin, Fallen and The Open Door. I have said before that "Tiimmy Turner" and "Zombie Walk" should be on the soundtrack for a Black gothic or horror film. This is kind of an interesting juxtaposition to me since Desiigner himself has a bubbly personality and over the top stage presence that leans more towards the sunny side than the somber side. If I spend most of my time telling people his age to get off my lawn when it comes to their music opinions, I will let them come back on my lawn for introducing me to Desiigner. Though I do not always stylistically enjoy the subgenre of hip hop Desiigner occupies, I love this album, specifically. It is my number one album to play at the gym, as well.
15) Evolve: The Uprise - Future Fambo: This album is just fun for me to listen to or dance to. I do not have an overly complex analysis about it. It is just fun. The sound makes me think of what music Jamaicans dancing to would sound like if they were characters at a party on a yet to be made futurist show. The baseline on "Bloodclaute Song" alone is enough for me to like this album. I have not heard a baseline that makes me this happy since "Partition" on Beyoncé's self-titled album. My sister introduced this album to me during the Thanksgiving holiday when I was spending time with family. I have not stopped playing it since. While I enjoy a lot of reggae and other West Indian music—growing up in a Jamaican family in the 80s and 90s, and spending my college years in the late 90s at bashments, reggae clubs and soca parties fostered this love—I have not listened to a lot of Future Fambo outside of hearing his work as a DJ on mixtapes. This particular album feels like a Jamaican's take on hip hop and pop, both genres with origins in the United States, moreso than a reggae album though. In August, Jamaica Observer noted the rise of Future Fambo. He has come a long way and it is kind of interesting watching an artist enter the mainstream spotlight in their 40s and not their teens or 20s.
There are some popular albums that are not listed here because again, this is a personally curated list of my favorite albums of 2016. I am not Billboard. I am not The Recording Academy that decides who wins Grammys. I am an artist writing in my own space about the albums that I loved most in 2016. Thus, while Views by Drake is popular, it is not of interest to me. While The Life of Pablo by Kanye West is popular and is considered very good, it is not of interest to me. While Frank Ocean's fans berated him for years, demanding robotic production of an album he "owed" them, then blatantly ignored Blonde after about a week after its release, I thought it was decent. However, it does not make the cut for my top 15 personal favorites of 2016. I love my varied list of 15 favorite albums of 2016; true. But I must say that Black women especially showed up for music in 2016. I mean, Beyoncé’s album alone carried me through 2016. Solange made me so proud. What a tremendous contribution to Black music and culture. Rihanna defined what risk-taking is in music and is definitely receiving the benefits of doing this well. These 3 artists, let alone the other Black women I named above made such an impact in 2016. Black women as creators sometimes seem to give the world more than the world deserves. I am grateful for these creations, nevertheless. 2016 was a great year in music, period. I look forward to what is next for all of these artists (if they choose to continue to create), and for music in general in 2017.
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