This year will probably go down as the year the album died—or no, not the album but the album release.
In 2016, you can go ahead and put out music on a multitude of platforms (i.e. Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music, actual physical albums and CDs, vinyls, Soundcloud, etc.), and people will find it and listen if they like it. In 2016, you can put out music any which way you like, with or without a traditional album release cycle (i.e. if you're one of the big guys, it's without; if you're one of the littler guys, it's better with). That's liberating, and exciting.
The music is all that matters in 2016, but of course that's always been the case. On CDs, tapes, vinyls, and online, the music has always been the only thing that matters, the great equalizer and universal language. Two strangers in two different places in the world can listen to 'Crazy In Love' at two different times and they'll both understand that the song is fire.
Though of course, the same song won't mean the same thing to the two strangers. For one, 'Crazy In Love' is a reminder that she's just that, crazy in love and that it actually all started way back two years ago at that tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant where they serve the best pizza in town. For the other, the song is always linked to that painful fight he had with his brother when they couldn't agree on a Christmas present for their father and, like, for some reason, that song was on and fuck would you turn off the damn radio goddamn?!
Music evokes memories, moments and sensations, and always takes on a major place in our lives. Personally, music has always been my second first love, after sports.
But in 2016, I gave music the entire floor, once I realized my first love didn't love me back—at least not enough to make a career in the field. So a little under a year ago, in February 2016, I joined the team at Kannibalen Records, an independent record label established in my native Montreal and created by three dudes I went to high school with. (Check us out!) I do a whole lot of many things there for a living, including, for the purpose of this post, listen to music.
So here's my list of the best albums that came out this year. We call these lists "The X best albums of the year" but each list is really just an author's preference: music is too intertwined with the experience of the person listening to it to be properly and only objectively assessed.
And of course, this list is of my non-Kannibalen Records favourites. I do know who pays me.
Young Thug - Jeffery
We start the list with, in the surprise of surprises, the latest from the iconoclast rapper from the ATL. JEFFERY is Young Thug's third album in 2016, after I'm Up & Slime Season 3, and also undeniably his best. The 10-song album beams with hooks discussing love and identity and everything in between. But the first thing you notice about JEFFERY is the album cover, where the rapper appears wearing quite the Alessandro Trincone dress. It's not a surprise for fashion to play a role here, as Thugger has been so closely associated with the industry since coming to the collective consciousness at the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show.
For the listener, Thugger's appeal comes in the way he consistently pushes the boundaries of whatever he does; the rapper just has yet to meet a status quo he hasn't tried to challenge and change. And JEFFERY certainly follows that formula. Every song is named after the rapper's idols for one thing, and that's pretty dope. Also, Thugger continues to use his voice in ways that you've never seen any rapper do and relying on it to convey emotions and meanings on songs like 'Swizz Beatz,' and my two favourites 'Harambe' and 'RiRi.'
Many have described his style as gibberish, or post-verbal/vocal (like that means anything) but that's missing the point. Thugger is in the feels business, mixing masculine and feminine, light and dark, romance and pleasure, and business is booming these days. You might not always understand him but you'll be goddamned if you're not feeling what he wants you to feel by the end of the song. We lost our dog early in September, maybe you've heard? It's this album that helped me get through it.
Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
It's easy to say so in hindsight but Chance The Rapper's joyful rapping style and infectious charisma, which had made him a beloved icon in rap's underground, were always going to translate well to the mainstream. Because 2016 is the year Chance truly entered the collective consciousness.
I was a Chance The Rapper agnostic before listening to Coloring Book: I had liked his breakthrough Acid Rap, and had loved his guest spot on Kanye West's Ultralight Beam but, like, how much of this was really Chance? A full album, that was different. Bigger, bolder, I guess.
I was a Chance The Rapper agnostic, but the man himself has never shied away from his faith in God. "I'm goin' praise him till I'm gone" goes the chorus on 'Blessings.' On the same song, Chance says blessings keep falling in his lap and the subtext seems clear, that it's cause of his faith. Chance doesn't want us to be mad at him or resent him for being so upfront about his beliefs, and anyway, it would be about impossible. When someone is so clearly at ease with who and what he is, you can only hope for the same thing for yourself.
There's his faith, and the other thing that has come to define Chance The Rapper has been his independence. If you recall, the Southside rapper isn't signed to any major label. (Hi, Chance. I hear Kannibalen Records is pretty fun ;) :P) Maybe Chance doesn't make his songs for free but for freedom, as he sings, but the rapper certainly is free. It's a topic he doesn't shy away from on Coloring Book, notably bringing on Lil' Wayne (who's having label problems of his own) on the iconic 'No Problem' to preemptively rebuff any and every offers from the music industry's major players. Then again, is it really all about independence if your album's an Apple Music exclusive for some time? Not sayin', just saying.
Rihanna - ANTI
Rihanna is not Beyonce and for the first time in 2016, it hasn't mattered. That's fine, because Anti is a better (read: my favourite) album than either Beyonce's Lemonade (i.e. couldn't really care for it for some reason) or Solange's A Seat At The Table (i.e. ditto, for the good reason that she is Solange and I never cared for her). Simply put, Anti is Rihanna's most complete album of her career. It is also, especially, her best; maybe it's not a coincidence it comes a full four years after 2012's Unapologetic, an eternal wait for the artist who until this point had put out seven full albums in eight years.
Whereas her previous albums had mostly followed a tried-and-true approach in pop music—create an album with a few well-concocted hits, forget the rest—Anti is different. If you discount 'Work,' and you should because despite it becoming a massive hit it's not really that good of a song, there really isn't much in the way of obvious, radio-friendly singles on the album. But that increasingly doesn't matter: make good music, and fans will find the singles where they find them. But Rihanna made Anti for no one but herself. You see, the pop star-diva-emperess likes a little bit of a ton of genres and she borrows equally from all of her favourite influences, from dancehall and dance all the way to doo-wop. The album follows a formula we've grown used to, though not from Rihanna: a carefree diva making her way through the world, a 'Desperado' so to speak because 'Yeah I Said It', and shunning love for mindless sex every time, only to maybe perhaps find love by the end, with 'Love on the Brain,' 'Higher' and 'Close to You.'
...Or maybe not: sex with me so amazing, Rihanna croons on the last song of the deluxe version of the album. Sometimes, that's all there is to it.
Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
Where to even begin when it comes to Kanye West's The Life Of Pablo. Let's start with the ending, with all that came after it; as seems to be the case mostly every year, but certainly every year he releases new music, Kanye ruled 2016. Before the announcement of a new album, before the bleached blond hair and his meeting with President-elect Donald J. Trump, before the hospitalization for temporary psychosis, before the cancellation of the remaining dates on the Saint Pablo Tour, before his Montreal show, before his newborn son (i.e. born December 2015 but whatever, he grew up in 2016 mostly), before the thousand memes about how you missed the Old Kanye, before all that, Kanye West released The Life Of Pablo. And before TLOP, the album went through about a thousand different names, Swish and Waves being the two most foremost options.
Will it ever be finished? Let's go there, sure. Will The Life Of Pablo ever be finished? The album went through seemingly an endless number of iterations of versions before settling on the current one, and even that one gave us a bonus song, Saint Pablo, out of nowhere during the year. TLOP is an excellent album, let's go there too. As he's done with just about every album he's ever released (depending on where you fall on 808s & Heartbreak, and Yeezus), Kanye manages to reinvent his wheel while also giving his fans an excellent product. The producer-turned-rapper still has his insecurities but he knows that he's at the top now. He still raps about and slights women who've allegedly done him wrong, most notably on '30 Hours' when he says "My ex says she gave me the best years of her life, I saw a recent picture of her I guess she was right." He still fumes about all the fake friends and cousins that tend to introduce themselves the more famous you become. He talks his shit again, because he always does, naming Taylor Swift on 'Famous' and asking if anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby on 'Facts.' The rhymes are some of Kanye's hardest in a while, with the rapper even outshining the great Kendrick Lamar on 'No More Parties in LA.'
On TLOP, Kanye leaves behind the experimental sound that defined the previous Yeezus for one that is more similar to the album before that one, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It's not quite as opulent as before, because Kanye's life isn't. He's a dad now, so this sound and his songs are most omnipotent. It's still fire music all the same.
Frank Ocean - Blonde
In any other year, TLOP would have done plenty enough to be my favourite album but 2016 wasn't like any other year. It was, after all, a year where Frank Ocean finally released a follow-up to his highly successful debut, 2012's Channel Orange.
Well, make that two follow-ups. After multiple deadline and release date promises, and just as many delays, Frank outtathablue gave us Endless this past summer one random day in August, a streaming-only visual... album, I guess we'd call it? Endless was many things, notably an excellent product, but also somewhat of a ruse: the album turned out to be his last requirement to finalize contract with Def Jam. That set the table for Blonde, the album Frank self-released two days later on his own imprint Boys Don't Cry that was the year's best.
Blonde is still very much a Frank Ocean album. The protagonist is still a mellow, lovelorn and aching Frank Ocean but... maybe he's not quite as tormented as before? Frank knows that he belongs at the top now, along with the rest of pop music's firmament. He can release an album all on his own, avoid submitting anything for The Grammys, and still make it big. It's a true author's work of art, the logical conclusion to what was already apparent on nostalgia, ULTRA and Channel Orange: Frank Ocean is a bad MF'er. He can write a mean (both in the 'hot damn!' and the actual, literal sense of the word) love story, and Blonde has plenty of them, from 'Nikes' to 'Seigfried' and to 'Nights.' They're mostly doomed from the start, the type of love that can never truly flourish between two emotionally unavailable men that meet in gay clubs. They're doomed, but since when has a doomed love story made for bad music?
Your music is seeped in extreme nostalgia and dread over the sense of what could and might have been but fret not on this one, Frank. 2016, with Endless and Blonde, couldn't have gone much better. Do it up, player.