I know that time is arbitrary but I do love end of the year lists as a time of accounting for things loved and obsessed over. 2016 as has been written about by people much more capable was the year of Black excellence in music – not that ever year doesn’t see phenomenal work by Black musical artists but this year was a cornucopia of insistent, urgent, important Black music. Intersecting with this was also a year of the album – the surprise album, the album as multimedia project, the album as exclusive to one streaming platform, the album that requested to be listened to in its entirety, the album that was released unfinished and tinkered with. Of course there was Beyoncè’s Lemonade, but also Solange’s A Seat at the Table, the “finally” of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), the magic of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the black queer bravura of Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, the grimey sexy interior space of Rihanna’s Anti and more beyond. Below in no particular order are 24 tracks that really got under my skin and into my head this year – there were others that were also there from the recent past and the far past (a lot of Nina Simone and Emmylou Harris this year) and some that I adored but they didn’t linger (I’m still working through my Lady Gaga feelings). Lemonade isn’t here since it’s not on Spotify (and I wanted to make a playlist) and I am not even sure if you entirely do justice to the music without the video (or maybe that’s just a pretension on my part). But know this, I had “Hold Up” stuck in my head for weeks and “All Night” is my favorite track and I want it played at my wedding (if I ever get married).
And here we go:
1. “Calling All” – Phantogram – I’ve always been into Sarah Barthel’s voice and the sound of this group, but Three was their first album I found necessary listening front to back. The songs are layered with samples, ghostly voices, glitch sounds, and thicker emotions than past albums. Barthel’s sister death by suicide lingers over this album, but this closing track is an all-out embrace of sexual desire and exploration with a mocking chorus that opines “We all got a little bit of ho in us.” One of those tastemaking blogs suggested that this song was ruined by its chorus but I glory in Barthel’s distorted voice tempting the listener and speaking to our baser instincts. A downbeat electronic stomper. “You know you wanna shake.”
2. “Wolves” – Kanye West with Sia and Vic Mensa – I know people have a lot of feelings about ‘Ye but he remains to my mind a true artistic genius – by which I mean what he does creatively doesn’t always make sense and he doesn’t really care when he’s in the grips of inspiration. The Life of Pablo was an album where he let us see him tinker and retool as the album was sort of released and then re-made and reconsidered. I love Frank Ocean but I prefer this version of the song with Sia and Vic Mensa since I love the richness and texture of Sia’s voice alongside the haunting backing vocals. On “Wolves” as on some of his best tracks Kanye perfectly marries his darkest fears and discontent with his lyrical playfulness and sexual frankness. The song sprawls and ever second is thick with eerie sounds and despair.
3. “Fuck Apologies” – JoJo with Wiz Khalifa – Armed with a voice beyond her years, JoJo finally returned with a new album and a take no prisoners attitude. This track is built on a neverending forward motion as JoJo owns her actions and refuses to demure. A perfect R&B track with a looping guitar and JoJo’s forceful vocals this song was on repeat for me for weeks and remains my go-to track for blasting away unwanted criticism.
4. “iT” – Christine and the Queens – My current obsession is the debut album by Christine and the Queens aka the alternate persona of French singer Héloïse Letissier. Moving between genres and languages, Christine toys with gender and sexuality in provocative ways. Watch the amazing video for “Tilted” IMMEDIATELY. Okay, did you? Good. Okay, that song is awesome but my favorite is the album’s opening track “iT” staged as a dialogue between Christine and “the Queens” which are Greek chorus also voiced by Letisser. Despite the protestations of the Queens, Christine becomes a man (elsewhere in the album she calls herself a HalfLady). The song accumulates instruments as it builds before ending simply with the chorus accepting Christine as a man. Divine.
5. “Crisis” – ANOHNI – Jesus Christ, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness was devastating when it was released and 2016 only further got gripped with a kind of fatalism that makes returning to this album difficult and necessary. In spite of the album’s title, ANOHNI (formerly Antony and the Johnsons) is not simply giving up even as she sings about drone bombings, the false progressiveness of Obama, and mass graves. This is a delicate album of electronic music lovingly produced and showcasing ANOHNI’s nuanced voice which can rise and fall like a blues singer. As with many of the album’s tracks, “Crisis” speaks from the place of power and privilege, from the person who caused the deaths of the vulnerable. The despair, the apologia, is uncomfortable and beautiful and never allows for easy escape for the listener. But there is empathy here and that is what makes me tentatively hopeful when I listen.
6. “Unnatural” – the Jezabels – The Australian indie rock group’s album Synthia is appropriately draped in 80s synths cascading over ethereal yet urgent vocals. The singer claims her unnatural status in rich evocative lyrics which jive with the album’s overall feminist bent (on the track “Smile” the chorus calls out men for asking the speaker to smile in public). Standing apart has always been the speaker’s “surplus” and it may mean she consorts with the darkness but it also makes her sparkle.
7. “Blended Family (What You Do For Love) – Alicia Keys with A$AP Rocky – Okay, I know that public sentiment has kind of turned against Alicia and her slightly eccentric public persona but I’ve always loved her. Her album this year Here marked a return to a grittier older R&B vibe when her last two albums seemed to be coasting into the colder realm of smooth R&B and Coldplay style dreamscapes. Like many tracks on Here, “Blended Family” is a song that makes me always sing along. Alicia is in fine voice singing about her own family situation (her very public taking up with producer Swizz Beatz while he was still married with children) and the old school vibe with that guitar riff is warm and inviting. A$AP’s feature works organically and seamlessly.
8. “Ivy” – Frank Ocean – What can even be said about Blonde? Picking a single track is difficult partially since the album is mixed so the tracks flow together in a kind of acoustic poem or fever dream. The triple punch of the first three songs is invigorating but this one stands out to me for that haunting guitar and the amazing control Frank has over his voice. He glides between a nearly conversational sing-song to the crooning R&B voice to the cast off pleas to the lost love. The intentionally jarring distortion of his voice at the end serves to keep the song slightly off kilter and functions like the divot in a perfectly cast pot, reminding us of the human creator.
9. “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange – A Seat at the Table is so fully formed, so perfectly formed and yet the individual songs function like linked short stories in a longer novel. “Cranes in the Sky” has a deceptive lightness acoustically and yet Solange’s honeyed voice sings about the endless search for a way to kill the pain. Solange’s central metaphor of the title cranes flying away mirror the song in its uncompromising beauty in the face of a difficult world.
10. “The Valley” – Claire Maguire – Where her first album was full of pop music bombast on the level of Kate Bush, Maguire’s second album Stranger Things Have Happened is tight and intimate with the scratchy closeness of a 1960s folk album. “The Valley” aspires for the Laurel Canyon bitter sweetness of a Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt. One imagines Maguire singing this song alone in her mirror in a black and white film and as magically as the music arrives it fades away.
11. “rEaR vIeW” – ZAYN – Zayn Malik aka the hottest One Directioner went out on his own this year with a moody alt-R&B debut album that shoots for the murkier and darker end of R&B. This track showcases Zayn’s falsetto as he pines for a woman and recounts what he’s heard secondhand. Malay – the producer for Frank Ocean’s channel Orange – tricks out the song in lush instrumentation and helps push the sense of desperate yearning. Poor Zayn.
12. “But You” – Blood Orange – Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound is a love letter to, in his words, those told they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” Hynes is a dynamic producer (see Carly Rae Jepsen’s last album, Solange’s True EP) but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Freetown Sound includes his voice alongside appearances from Carly Rae, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and others. “But You” is a song of love and an acknowledgement of unseen importance in those unseen by society. Hynes’s R&B vocals are tentative, whispered, yet also intimate and real. He’s not in full voice always and at times allows his voice to break slightly. This song works its way into the feels like the boy at the back of the class with a note he leaves for you to read at home alone in your room.
13. “Ain’t Your Mama” – Jennifer Lopez – My life goal is to age like JLo – if I can look that good in my 40s than I will be blessed. This empowerment anthem uses the mothering metaphor – the woman refusing to baby her partner – to acknowledge Lopez’s age while also reminding us that she is the sexiest triple threat mother you’ve ever met. The song’s stuttering drum beat and her nasal cools pair with a chorus you are meant to belt along with in a bar.
14. “Desperado” and “This Is What You Came For” – Rihanna – When Rihanna FINALLY released Anti it was a dark grimey album, a journey into the imagined fantasies of our cold ice queen sex goddess who wants to smoke up, dance alone in front of the mirror, and have sex on her schedule at her whim. If Lemonade is a public display of complex Black female community, Anti is a private interior world of Black female sexual agency. On “Desperado,” Rihanna crooks her finger at a boy and draws him into her Western fantasy of sex, tells him she doesn’t really want him, but says she’d rather not be alone. AND YOU BETTER GO WHEN SHE SAYS GO. This is the song that makes me dance in coffeeshops. “This is What You Came For” isn’t from Anti; it’s a Calvin Harris summer trifle that shouldn’t linger and yet it burrows deep inside. Rihanna isn’t always the strongest singer (although she’s vastly improved as on tracks like “Love on the Brain”) but her voice is one of the most distinct and it carries an icy vulnerability. She can play her voice like an instrument and Harris harnesses this and chops it up and in other places lets her coo and whisper and telegraph so much need on the dance floor. Her world, we just live in it.
15. “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” – Lucius – This track has the synthy drum and bass sound of 80s pop but also the bright sparkle and blended vocals of a 1960s pop song. The two lead singers weave their voices in and out moving between rich multitracked choruses and softer solo parts. The song feels cheesy at first listen but there’s a sorrowfulness in the lyrics about the wishes for rain to wash away potential happiness; the closing rain noises feel less trite and more like a bit of defeat.
16. “U-turn” – Tegan and Sara – I know not everyone has welcomed the full on embrace of melancholy pop by the pop punk lesbian twins from Canada, but I for one am all as long as their songs come tinged with a nostalgia and regret. Initially a teaser for the new album, I was immediately taken with the ear-wormy wonder of “U-turn” in all its snarky obviousness (“Shape up for I’ll drop you like a call”) and the delightful meta-narrative of a song about writing a love song. The doubleness at the center of the song makes it a kiss off masquerading as a paean to love. Sold.
17. “Phenomenal Woman” – Laura Mvula – Mvula’s first album was beautiful but at times overly mannered and cerebral. Her second album The Dreaming Room opens out with more intentional bangers, moving between jazz, R&B, disco, and world music. “Phenomenal Woman” is brief and direct with a martial rhythm that drives forward a simple yet urgent message, echoing Maya Angelou’s classic poem of the same name.
18. “Running Man/Gospel OP1” and “See Her Out (That’s Just Life)” – Francis and the Lights – Francis Farewell Starlite is the voice behind Francis and the Lights, featured on songs by Drake, Chance the Rapper, and others but just this year releasing his first full-length album. Francis blends an old-school crooner approach with the glitchy experimental sounds of alt-folk artists like Bon Iver (featured on the album) and more avant-garde rap. “Running Man” glitches and pops as Francis multi-tracks himself into a falsetto chorus like a more electronic Bon Iver with poppier aspirations AND AMAZING ELECTRONIC STRINGS. “See Her Out” has an older feel with epic sad synths and vocal stylings which suggest 1980s Peter Gabriel dealing with the heartbreak of the girl who got away. The track is laden with need and recognizable pain.
19. “House on Fire” and “The Greatest” (with Kendrick Lamar) – Sia – Okay, so last year I was singing Sia’s praises and then she released her album This is Acting and my love affair never ended. People criticized her songs for at times turning on obvious metaphors – “House on Fire” doesn’t hide its point and instead places the metaphor front and center and for me this is the song’s strength. The song opens quietly and elegantly suggesting a waltz before layering in instrumentation and Sia’s raspy throaty ever distinct voice. “The Greatest” is a more straightforward empowerment anthem placed on top of tinkling music box sounds and a tropical lightness. Another track that I found myself singing for weeks, especially that promise that “I’ve got stamina.”
20. “What You Do To Me” – John Legend – The beauty of John Legend’s voice cannot be understated. His entire album Darkness and Light is evocative and gives me chills. This track with its deep felt desperation, cooing yet ominous backing singers, and dramatic strings lingers with me. There’s a classic feel to the track’s presentation especially the interplay with the female singers and Legend’s falsetto falling apart in the final minute.
21. “Hold the Line” – Broods – Georgia Nott’s smoky voice implores, cajoles, and insists with the listener. She describes the intoxicating give and take of a relationship over a dense blend of guitar and electronica. An immensely satisfying pop song.