Best Music of 2016: #5-1

10-6 | 5-1

5) Solange
“Cranes In The Sky” – A Seat at the Table


“Got a lot to be mad about” Solange Knowles admits on her third and easily best album A Seat at the Table. It’s a statement born not from personal infidelities (the kind Solange’s romantically-wronged sister Beyoncé is parlaying into a mega-hit album these days), but rather from systemic racial inequities (something Solange knows all too well these days). It’s a matter of fact for African Americans in 2016, but seldom is it delivered with such dignity and grace.

A Seat at the Table is Solange’s love letter to Blackness  — as identity, human condition, privilege and burden. As a metaphor for racial micro-aggressions committed daily against black women, “Don’t Touch My Hair” is lovely, solemn, and perfect in its simplicity. (“Whatcha you say to me?” she and Sampha ask in unison, a heart-stopping mixure of outrage and sadness.) Tasteful excursions into 70’s funk (“Junie”), 80’s electro-pop (“Don’t Wish Me Well”), and 00’s rap (“Mad”) reinforce that A Seat at the Table is an album beholden to neither era nor genre but built from spectacular songwriting.

“There is so much beauty in being black” Solange’s mother Tina reveals in one of the many crucial interludes that thematically stitch A Seat at the Table together. No Limit label boss Master P shares: “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you,” but A Seat at the Table’s true brilliance lies in how Solange hurdles that obstacle while remaining true to her course. She’s made a statement that’s deeply private, political and authentic, without sacrificing accessibility.

“I’m weary of the ways of the world” Solage exhales but transforms lethargy into action. The acquiescence and aerial imagery of “Cranes in the Sky” conjures the very sensation that A Seat at the Table imparts — a high-flying ballet of tension, beauty, and inner fortitude. In a word, sublime.


4) Chance the Rapper
“All We Got” – Coloring Book


Chancelor Bennett is a God-fearing Christian who’s rap career revolves around an unlikely trinity: drugs, autonomy, and Kanye West. In 2004, fourth-grader Bennett bought his first hip hop album, College Dropout, by West, a fellow Chicago native. Seven years later, Bennett earned a 10-day suspension from Jones College Prep high school for marijuana possession, an incident that inspired him to record debut album 10 Days under the moniker Chance the Rapper. That mix tape paired grainy, soul samples with stereotypes of big spliffs, Chi-town violence, and rolling-with-the-windows-down nonchalance. At times, without his soon-to-be-trademark vocal twitches and squawks, Chance sounded a hell of a lot like old Kanye West.

Five years later, it’s the other way around. Lead track “Ultralight Beam” from West’s The Life of Pablo was poised to push rap’s envelope in innovative, gospel-infused directions, but the song (both starring and co-written by Chance the Rapper) now seems more like a precursor to Coloring Book than anything West has recorded. Coloring Book is gospel-rap’s first masterpiece and, released exclusively on Apple Music without the help of a record label, remains a true “mix tape” — an album that nets Chance no profits but awards him something far more precious: absolute artistic control.

Whether exploring record label resentments (“No Problem”, “Mixtape”) or childhood whimsies (“Same Drugs”, “Juke Jam”), Chance paints with the gorgeous, sonic brushstroke of digitally-enhanced vocal choirs, trumpets, and slinky beats. It lends wide-eyed awe to Coloring Book’s hymns of spiritual enlightenment (“How Great”) and earthly pleasures (“Smoke Break”), reminding us that in either case, Chance knows who’s boss — the man upstairs.

On syrupy joy ride “Blessings,” you can practically hear Chance grinning as he proselytizes: “I don’t make songs for free/ I make ‘em for freedom.”  If second mix tape Acid Rap turned Chance the Rapper into a commodity, then Coloring Book makes him a necessity. Fittingly, old mentor Kanye returns the favor on “All We Got,” dropping a chorus whose dual meaning elucidates the paradox of Chance the Rapper — a man with nothing to lose giving everything he has.


3) Radiohead
“True Love Waits” – A Moon Shaped Pool


I heard it for the first time around 1 a.m. on October 2nd, 2000. I had returned home from a midnight album release party (remember those?) with my CD copy of Kid A; a lot of folks had remained at the record store to experience the enigma communally, to gawk at the audacious sound of the world’s greatest rock band dismantling their own canonization. But I needed the solitary darkness of my own bedroom to deliberate. Walkman headphones donned, I had somehow drifted into a deep slumber, likely exhausted from the anticipation, when I awoke to “How to Disappear Completely.”

It was like being born into an alien whale song, Greenwood’s taffy-stretched strings and Yorke’s haunting wail melting into an embodiment of existential longing. I will never forget it. I was 25 years old. I worked a lot, partied even more, and thought way, way too much. The internet was becoming The Internet. Technology was so ubiquitous, so essential, you breathed it in like air. We were about a month away from an infamous American presidential election marred by controversy, miscounted votes, and a victor who may have actually lost. Pre-millennial tension had shifted to post-millennial, and nothing codified that heady mix anticipation and dread quite like Radiohead.

Sixteen years later, I still think too much. That tension never quite disappears. Just shifts around. To the surprise of many, Radiohead are still around too, though gentler, wiser, more humble, more human. Yorke’s separated from his partner of 23 years, a pain he alludes to on the ephemeral “Daydreaming” and sadly beautiful “Glass Eyes.” The planet is nearly a whole Fahrenheit degree hotter, a crisis Yorke laments on global warming protest song “The Numbers”. We have a new American leader elected to office under suspicious circumstances; nativism, fear and distrust abound, personified by those eerie, staccato strings on the low-flying panic attack of “Burn the Witch.”

A Moon Shaped Pool drops on a Sunday. No need to leave the house; it’s a 60-second download from my couch. But I fall asleep with iPod headphones on in broad daylight. I’m exhausted on weekends, not because I work too much or am excited about a new record (although I am), but because I have two kids. These days, I need naps. But I snap awake to a lovely piano melody and aching tenor that I’ve never heard before. Except I have, a long time ago, in an early, acoustic arrangement of “True Love Waits,” one of Radiohead’s oldest, most beloved songs, never recorded in the studio but reborn here like a Phoenix, a priceless gift to faithful fans. It’s a warm bath of electricity, a comfort and hyper-awareness that I’m hearing something strange yet familiar, something impossibly special, something that’s come full circle. It brings sadness and surprise and solace and hope. Radiohead are still around, vital even, against odds immeasurable. I will never forget it.


2) A Tribe Called Quest
“We The People…” – We got it from HereThank You 4 Your Service 


“You on point, Phife?/ All the time, Tip.” So goes the legendary call and response between hip-hop’s Batman and Robin on 1991 masterpiece The Low End Theory. Brazen yet self-effacing, hard-nosed yet dexterous, it was this sort of exchange between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, along with sound architect Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s appropriation of jazz motifs into rap music (an act so astute it now seems preordained), that helped A Tribe Called Quest lay the aesthetic groundwork for hip-hop’s expanding circle of societal influence from one millennium into the next. Without Tribe, there simply is no To Pimp a Butterfly, no Cosmogramma, no Madvillainy.

Yet part of the price of defining a musical era is to remain firmly entrenched within it. The notion of A Tribe Called Quest reuniting after an 18-year hiatus seemed as ill-conceived as it was improbable.  Skypagers had long since given way to the internet and iPhones. The Tribe’s singular brand of peace, inclusion and transcendence seemed as outdated as “Yo, MTV Raps.” Phife Dawg’s untimely death in early 2016 only seemed to highlight the obvious; today’s hip hop landscape — more breakneck, materialistic, and cynical than ever before — was no place for golden age throwbacks like Tribe.

And yet, We got it from HereThank You 4 Your Service does not just exist; it triumphs. Recorded in the year before Phife’s passing and released only days after Donald Trump’s election, the group’s final record is proof that Tribe remain devastatingly on point. Barbed banger “We the People…” reads like a byline to America’s modern-day political quagmire: Constitutional crises, false media narratives, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. “All you black folks you must go/ All you Mexicans you must go/ All you poor folks you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways” is the most brilliant, chilling hook of 2016, a chorus whose sing-along appeal reminds us how insidious exclusionary thinking can become.

On tracks like “The Space Program” and giddy jam “Black Spasmodic,” Tribe’s analog digs receive a tasteful, modern refurbishing. Organic jazz riffs rub right up against rumbling, mechanized beats. Beeps and buzzes compliment the booms and baps. The medium has changed but Tribe’s message of Afrocentric empowerment remains the same: “Let’s make something happen.” We got it from Here… is far more than a victory lap. It’s urgent, essential listening for any era. “Who can come back years later, still hit da shot?” asks Phife Dawg, index finger raised in victory before his final game-winner even clears the net. Tribe can. Swish.


1) Frank Ocean
“Self Control” – Blonde


Blonde succeeds not so much for what Frank Ocean adds but what he takes away. The album feels positively alien compared to the prismatic warmth of Ocean’s debut Channel Orange, like R&B gutted of groove, a hundred hooks without a hit single, a multitude of emotional revelations absent the context. It also certifies Ocean as a sonic auteur who, in the opinion of legendary session guitarist and Blonde collaborator Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, reminds him of another musician who pushed the boundaries between accessible and enigmatic — Miles Davis.  As Patterson attests: “(Ocean’s) got big ears. He hears lots of things.”

Both Patterson and touring keyboardist Buddy Ross each spent dozens of hours recording riffs and textures with Ocean, not knowing how or even if the snippets would ever be used. As it turns out, those sounds became the melodic bedrock for most of Blonde; the serpentine guitar licks on “Skyline To” and “Ivy,” the twilight-glow synth interludes on “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story,” the bridge of “Self Control” when Ocean’s falsetto is processed with unearthly guitar effects. Auto-tuned, pitched, and manipulated, Ocean’s voice haunts the halls of Blonde like an android’s apparition.

The songs are wispy, fleeting and dazzlingly lucid, like the five seconds you remember from some half-forgotten dream.  Mini-suites “Nikes” and “White Ferrari” lay electronic beats, minimalist arrangements and bedroom-style production over the delicate counterweights in Ocean’s psyche — intimacy and casual sex, spiritual epiphanies and Quaalude come-downs, the longing for acceptance and an obligation to be true to oneself.  He connects the dots from unrequited love (“Ivy” and “Seigfried”) to nocturnal joy rides (“Skyline To”) to drugs (“Nights”) to more nocturnal joy rides and drugs (“White Ferrari”) into a montage of vignette-like memories. Blonde feels like aural, abstract sculpture — a manifestation of Ocean’s subconscious. But to call it introspective underestimates the empathy Blonde that engenders.  It’s as if you’re experiencing another person’s altered state.

Ocean’s collage-style method of recording Blonde — hoarding sounds, perfecting vocals and assembling a Where’s Waldo list of superstar cameos —- belies how understated, cohesive, and complete the end result feels.  Even the little anomalies you can only pick up on headphones, like the vocal quiver before “Self Control’s” climactic outro or the whispers throughout “Seigfried,” now strike you as scripture. Ocean’s wordplay is vivid and lurid, meticulous yet surreal: “It’s humid in these Balmains/ I mean my balls sticking to my jeans/ We breathin pheremones, Amber Rose/ Sippin’ pink-gold lemonades.”  This is the work of artist who, as companion album/woodworking tutorial Endless alludes to, had a vision of exactly what he wanted and understood he was the only person on the planet who could have crafted it.

Blonde, in many ways, is Ocean — inscrutable, meditative, gorgeous, polarizing, and unashamedly avant-garde. It’s appeal lies not in its universality (it’s not for everybody), but in the authenticity of its artistic compass. Only Ocean knows where true north lies. Blonde is baffling and intoxicating in the way that most works of genius are when they arrive well before their time. “I let you guys prophesy/ We gonna see the future first” Ocean promises, then creates it before our very eyes.

10-6 | 5-1

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