It feels nearly impossible to keep up with all of the amazing music artists are relentlessly giving us. It’s especially frustrating to stay up to date while the school year has its way with us. Here, in an effort catch you up on what you may have missed, seven StAR music contributors and editors give you what we each thought were the year’s best releases.
What better way to stave off the mixed feelings of leaving Stanford than to revel in the finest, most exhilarating music of the year? It’s the kind of music that makes you have hope for the future, that makes you realize we didn’t peak with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones. Listen to these as a benediction of progress, reinvention, and reverence without longing. (Note: Although a lot of my favorite albums have been covered by StAR in some capacity, I decided to only choose picks that have yet to grace this domain. Such already-written-about omissions include: David Bowie, Lone, DIIV, Andy Stott, Animal Collective, Deakin, and good lord those insane fucks called Death Grips)
5. GoGo Penguin – Man Made Object
GoGo Penguin aren’t going to wow jazz traditionalists with exploratory improvisation, but their growing chord progressions and tight arrangements will appeal to fans of BadBadNotGood and those who love detailed pop structures. An amazing album to throw on for background ambiance (really not an insult). This Manchester trio milks feeling and experimentation out of a tried and true bass/piano/drumkit combination, moving from tenderness to epic muscle (just fast-forward straight to “Protest”). A video game soundtrack to the perfect RPG.
4. Clark – The Last Panthers
“Back to Belgrade”
I watch a veritable shit ton of crime/mystery shows. The likes of Wallander, Midsomer, Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, The Fall, The Killing, The Wire, Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Spiral (a.k.a. Engrenages), etc. all scratch an itch that will never be fully satisfied. This is all to say that I have a bit of a thing for moody atmospheres and enigmatic landscapes—works of art that reveal themselves to me with patience and that hard-to-get caginess. When I heard that Clark had composed a score for new heist-thriller tv show “The Last Panthers”, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. The producer extraordinaire has always displayed immense diversity and care in his craft but hasn’t ever quite attained the recognition of other Warp masterminds like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. I was also skeptical of a score release, considering that—even for a lover of the darkness like me—45 minutes of dissonant strings and queasy thuds can become a little bare and wearisome (sorry Haxan Cloak).
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—The Last Panthers stands alone as its own gorgeous, brutal, rich story. Clark’s fragile piano melodies are reminiscent of (and many times exceed) Arca’s spectral moodsetters. The ambient textures move from chilly tundra to warm blanket. Synths and beats creep in without turning into trite techno. I still haven’t seen the show, but, even if it’s only a pale second to the album, then I’m in for a treat.
3. Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
“Kiddy Pool Dreams”
What better way to induce hearing loss than the pummeling pop of a few gifted Russians? Grandfeathered is the band’s third album and acts as a wonderful distillation of their unique sound. There are the telltale loud-as-fuck guitars, rollicking drum grooves, and blissed out vocals. While lots of reverb-y, effects-driven rock music can devolve into mumblecore chillwave mope sessions, Pinkshinyultrablast trounce these contenders with sheer verve and originality. Each hook wooshes into your body, putting you at the mercy of their turned-to-eleven amps. They describe their records as “thunderpop”, and although that sounds like music journalist nonsense lingo (see PBR&B), I can’t think of anything more perfect. Watch out My Bloody Valentine, these young shoegazers might just outstrip you when you sleep.
2. Anenon – Petrol
Some of my favorite albums ever came after weeks, even months, of perplexed annoyance or mild hatred. Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer makes that list, as does Actress’ R.I.P. So it’s a real treat when an album instantly sticks and stays stuck. Petrol by Anenon fits into this magical category, a concoction of saxophone, strings, electronics, and flurries of percussion that build into thick, revolving pieces. Jazz for ambient lovers and ambient for jazzists.
1. Minor Victories – Minor Victories
“A Hundred Ropes”
Minor Victories are composed of a pedigree that promises greatness (members of shoegaze heroes Slowdive, post-rock progenitors Mogwai, and dark depressives Editors). However, I have to be honest that I’ve only ever had a passing appreciation for all of these groups. The closest I come to any real emotional attachment is “Munich”, Editors’ cracking addition to the FIFA Street 2 soundtrack. Ergo, my instant infatuation with this debut album took me by surprise. There are tense guitar washes, riveting vocals, glorious string swells, and unexpected guest appearances. Minor Victories have crafted a replay-worthy yet approachable album that suits a variety of moods and settings. Between the mournful, driving “A Hundred Ropes”, the perfect dream-pop of “Cogs”, and the full album climax of “The Thief”, it sits comfortably atop my albums of the year. Phenomenal.
5. Richie Brains – Who is Richie Brains?
“Bring Dat Back ft Killa P”
Exit Records decided to have their top producers collaborate on a single album together under the alias “Richie Brains.” One of my favorite labels for footwork, DnB, Jungle, and Dubstep, “Who Is Richie Brains?” simultaneously captures the essence of the modern club sound while providing constant reference to the Jamaican roots that defines British club music.
4. Surgeon – From Farthest Known Objects
Surgeon, an architect of the fast-paced, frantic techno that pervaded clubs in the 90s, has released his newest album in January of this year. An ode to the farthest known objects in space, this album is heavy. Head banging, leather wearing, dirty dancing in the dark behind the speaker stack heavy.
3. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS
“Existence in the Unfurling”
Gorgeous, inquisitive, and introspective, this album is ambient music as it ought to be. Smith has the rare ability to engage the listener with both wondrous sound design and classical composition chops. The album stems from the adventurous music cultures of Krautrock, electronic jazz, and west coast synthesis, but avoids the unfortunate tropes of rambling improvisation and harsh randomized glitch. Smith reintroduces the listener to the wonder of the well played synthesizer, recalling shades of Vangelis, Terry Riley, and Tangerine Dream.
2. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
Fast, intense, and packed with details, Death Grips explores new directions in the post-rap, post-industrial, post-punk, post-sound arena. A group of artist who try harder than anyone else to make full utility of modern technology, the music of “Bottomless Pit” will still sound modern in 25 years.
1. Andy Stott – Too Many Voices
Stott returns with an album that matches the exceptional quality of all his previous releases. Featuring incredible sound design, mysterious structuring, slow and unyielding pace, and murky atmosphere, Stott demonstrates again why he is one of the most interesting modern producers.
5. Fatima Al Qadiri – Brute
Brute is an unsubtle title for a subtle synth-based album that features trickles of the sounds of police states that define 2016’s urbanscape. Separately, the walkie-talkie noises, car noises, and muffled voices would merely be mundane parts of our everyday lives, heard on the street throughout the course of a typical day, but together, they speak to a climate of over-policing.
Some of the album titles indict you before you even listen. “10-34” is the police scanner code for calling in a riot. On another, “Curfew” is in place and the sirens bring your punishment. It’s as if the song asks you, “why are you out?” The driving idea behind this album is that somehow, we are always in the wrong and our society will find a way to punish us. The ambient sound creates a night-time, moonlight atmosphere that gets pierced by sharp beeping sounds and crescendo sirens. It puts you on edge precisely because it all feels so mundane. We hear police in our cities and we see them in the news everyday, making this the quintessentially 2016 album that you’ve never heard of.
4. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
After listening to her newest album, I can now comfortably say that Lana Del Rey is the Sofia Coppola of music, constantly working towards perfecting tales of haunting ennui, album after album. The whisper singing she has become known for is on full blast here. It’s so effortless that you can almost see her behind a diaphanous curtain, lazing around, singing her sensual songs to the ether she barely notices.
As you listen to her lyrics, you constantly feel that there is something you don’t know. How is one “so Art Deco?” It’s infuriatingly opaque and made all the more maddening when you do catch an allusion. Was that a Major Tom allusion, heavily veiled in tones of Lana to a point almost past recognition? Why, yes it was. She so totally owns her aesthetic and her manner of singing and apathetically complaining that at times it is almost too much. Even a full day isn’t long enough for Lana who bemoans at one point, there’s “only 24 hours and that’s not enough.” Lana operates in the space between passion and apathy, alluding to excited states but with her detached voice. She tells us everything about her highest flames only once they’ve died down, once the object of her affections is no longer there. It’s almost as if she isn’t telling anyone specific, she’s just singing her story on Honeymoon for herself and we’re just privileged to overhear it.
3. Beyoncé – Lemonade
When I listen to Lemonade, I gravitate towards a few songs. “Formation” when I want to dance, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” when I want to righteously scream, and “Hold Up” when I have a yearning to listen to a true masterpiece. But everytime I listen to the whole album, I realize I could just as easily be listening to “Forward” to heal and “Daddy Lessons” to reminisce and the list goes on. Beyoncé plays here on familiar bad bitch themes, but it’s on these songs that deviate from her traditional stuff where the album thrives. The visual album is impressive on every level, showcasing her talents singing, dancing, and running an entire visual album production (in secret! again!). It’s impossible to express how important this album is for Beyoncé’s musical trajectory, but it’s far more than that.
It is a powerful expression of existing, surviving, thriving, and ultimately simply being beautiful. In fact, it’s so important that there are several articles that compile and link to OTHER articles about the album. I can express appreciation for the musical range or admire the stunning choreography in the videos or absolutely worship “Hold Up” and how she reuses the lyrics of one of my favorite people (Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs) at the suggestion of another favorite person (Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend). I can do those things, but as to its cultural significance, I defer to the voices of black women authors. This was an album made by a black women inspired by other black women, so we should sit back and listen, not only to her words but also the history of black women’s voices she is now squarely a part of.
2. El Vy – Return to the Moon
“Paul is Alive”
Any album with Matt Berninger is a treat. His voice is hauntingly beautiful, vibrating on the deepest notes and velvety at the highest parts of his baritone range. Such a voice most often belongs to songs about depression and suicide, the realm of his main band project, The National. Here, instead of diary confessionals, we hear his voice sing lines like like “I’m peaceful cause my dick’s in sunlight / Held up by kites / Cause I’m the man to be.” Some of the songs at the start of the album sound like audio collages or monologues from absurdist plays but by the end his voice enters more familiar territory, singing confusion and miscommunication on “Careless.”
But even when he sings that there is “No time / to crank the sun” there is an upbeat electronic undercurrent providing life to an otherwise despairing phrase. It’s a beautiful project that oscillates from stagnant to ecstatic, from depressive to overjoyed, showcasing the chaos inherent in simply living.
1. Adele – 25
“Love in the Dark”
This album is still perfect. It cannot be essentialized as a single thing – it is not only about regret or healing or heartbreak or love, but all of those feelings. There are no simple enemies for Adele at 25, who now churns over each memory and actively resurrects the past with her phoned-in “Hello”s.
The genius of the album lies in the time jumps – she sings of her childhood and then of her child within a few songs of each other. She is content in the present and makes amends to the past in hopes of a better future. It’s an incredibly personal journey of healing, but the album is universal. Only snippets of conversation and dialogue appear. When she belts, “Stop asking me to stay,” it feels as though she captures an entire relationship in five words, but actually we fill those gaps in, inserting our own past relationships into the emotional molds she carves out for us. If my second-ranked album, El Vy’s Return to the Moon, is a showcase of various emotions of mundane life, Adele’s 25 does the same thing for love, but even better.
Anthony Milki (Music editor)
5. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
It bothers me a little bit that somebody gets to both look like a middle-school hunk and write profoundly beautiful songs the way James Blake does. My first listen through the Colour in Anything was frustrating. It pushed me into physical discomfort, taunted me nearly out of my decision to sit through an hour and sixteen minutes of music. These are the kinds of listening experiences a music fan needs to value, because, as much as people will tell you otherwise, listening to music is a skill, and just like every other skill, practice makes perfect, and challenge makes you better.
James Blake’s voice is unprecedented, but it’s blatantly beautiful enough that just about anybody can sense some level of intrigue. The hard part for the listener, for me at least, is how backwards his arrangements feel. Even a hit like “Retrograde” can’t possibly come from a normal person’s musical intuition; that humming the track is built off of feels so wrong, and yet it’s incredibly evocative and gorgeous. The Colour in Anything is filled with these sorts of moments, little challenges that require a listener give the album several complete run-throughs, and despite the length, he feels as though more and more time should be indebted to Blake with each new cycle. As the music settles, the beauty of course doesn’t go anywhere, but what once felt like violent noise softens and itself becomes beauty.
4. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Letting life happen makes for great art. Chance went from 20 to 23 years old between Acid Rap and Coloring Book, and it’s clear he did a whole lot of growing up during that time. On his third mixtape, Chance’s bars are still enchantingly wistful, but they are sharper and often far more complex than ever before. His voice still exudes playfulness, but this third magical universe he’s created for us endures a powerful, jaded realism I’ve never quite felt from Chance’s music. It’s fascinating to hear rap’s most successful nostalgist both continue to push us to adhere to our childish tendencies, and to navigate fatherhood through a mature spiritual lens.
Since Acid Rap, Chance finally became best friends with his idol, Kanye West. Coloring Book’s is most impressive for the adaptability that shaped the creative process, a Yeezyesque desire to simply make the best final product possible. Leave it to Chance to so ambitiously take on the task of acting as pacifier between the two sides of the war for modern hip-hop, between those who value conscientious storytelling and those who value energy and freshness; the album at once features Jay Electronica, Kirk Franklin, Noname, Francis and The Lights, and scholars of litness 2 Chainz, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Thug, and Lil Yacthy. Coloring Book shows us that it is not only possible to merge intricate poeticism and narrative with spontaneous, careless energy, but that the combination makes for the best rap music.
3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
We must cherish Radiohead. The band is one piece of the handful of acts we simply must trust, whose new work, no matter how unfamiliar, we owe anticipation. Radiohead’s got 20 year-old music that sounds too advanced for today’s music landscape, and A Moon Shaped Pool grants official releases and remasters to old floaties like “Burn the Witch” and “True Love Waits” – but you’d never guess their age.
Like with any all time great, it’s nearly impossible to argue that one album stands out as a clear opus – I can’t make the case that A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s best work. It’s not, save “Burn The Witch,” Bradburyesque prophetic like OK Computer, terrified and unintelligible like Kid A – A Moon Shaped Pool feels most like a gorgeous In Rainbows sequel, only even more vulnerable.
2. dvsn – SEPT 5TH
An album not by Drake was OVO’s best of the year, and it’s not even close. A few of Drizzy’s right-hand men, 40 and Nineteen85, executive produced SEPT 5TH for Daniel Daley, a mysterious Toronto vocalist who you can’t even successfully Google-Image search. It would be disrespectful to reduce his album performance to a collection of adjectives, so most simply put: Daniel Daley is one of the best singers in the world – the creamiest of the crop, the 0.1%, regular-season Stephen Curry. Rumor has it he’s approaching his thirties, and it’s easy to wonder how someone this clearly transcendent went unnoticed until 2016, but it takes more than stellar pipes to draw most music fans’ attention – great examples are Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson’s incredible musical irrelevance. I have no idea what he was up to before signing to Drake’s label – I don’t think anyone does – but Daley’s voice is just one piece of dvsn’s brilliance.
Dvsn is OVO’s odd-act-out. SEPT 5TH is throwback R&B merged with the atmospheric production Drake and 40 spread like infection, and (this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing) it doesn’t cater first to its artists’ pop sensibilities like Majid Jordan, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Drake’s music do. Daley’s heartbreak is far more profound than that his labelmates convey, taking us away from Drake’s era of hip-hop’s newfound subject-matter homogeneity, the need to talk about the same sort of relationship failure (again, this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing). Maybe it’s the range in his voice, or maybe Daley’s a different breed of artist, but dvsn is OVO’s most emotional performer.
1. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
Since Yeezus in 2013, Kanye got married, became a father, created clothing line after clothing line, put on fashion shows, gave Adidas their all-time most hypebeast-coveted sneaker, announced his 2020 presidential candidacy, involved himself with the reality show that almost killed Lamar Odom, and became a father again – he had no right to put out the album of the year.
The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s least impactful album, and it’s not his best – it’s the first time he didn’t completely reinvent hip-hop. Yet Pablo adds a fascinating chapter to Kanye lore, the part that comes after the hero’s out-grappled his demons, got the girl, chased the fashion dream. It’s the conflictless epilogue that ordinarily no one should bother to read, but Kanye’s is crucial. He’s happy, and The Life of Pablo is a miraculous victory lap, decadent as hell in aesthetic and candid in lyricism. The album is blessed with a relentless count of breathtaking moments; the instagram sample, Kid Cudi’s “Beautiful Mornin!”, Sister Nancy’s Bam Bamming, the heartbreaking “Real Friends” duel between Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign, Chance’s career-best verse, El Debarge’s androgynous “Highlights” bridge, Desiigner’s broads in Atlanta, Chris Brown singing three asses off on “Waves” – these are the sorts of things that make Kanye the best. He filters out the crappy, lets pass only the dope.
The Life of Pablo’s tracklisting is cluttered, with 7 implicit bonus tracks following the Madison Square Garden listening-party version of the album. It’s also ever-changing; Kanye’s promised us a “living breathing changing creative expression” susceptible to Tidal-first updates at any time of the day or night – this makes for an unsettling and sloppy final product, but that vibe is integral to the Pablo experience. We need a reminder that Kanye made a thick, procrastinated chunk of this music over a few sleepless weeks leading up to the self-imposed February 11th release date. We need a reminder that unlike every other Kanye West album, Pablo’s narrative wasn’t driven by some creative epiphany, thirst for success, or a devastating loss – Kanye simply promised us a great album, and he made magic out of nothing.
Alejandra Salazar (Music editor)
5. Kaytranada – 99.9%
Everything on 99.9% flows seamlessly. Instead of sounding like a collection of songs, it feels more as if you’re listening to a slightly detached, otherworldly stream of thought that Louis Kevin Celestin (Kaytra’s real-life alter-ego) was gracious enough to document. Hints of caribbean rhythms, jazzy interludes, R&B-esque collaborations and classic garage synth make for an extremely textured hour of music that is never boring and never predictable. With all the buzz around Kaytranada’s earlier bangers, 99.9% didn’t have to be this good to be successful — but thank god it is. Later in the tracklist, Celestin samples radio hosts talking about how great his work is and his talent as an artist, a display of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that consistently reminds us: this isn’t just any album, and we’re not listening to just any producer. You can call it cockiness, or arrogance, but it comes across as more prescient than anything else. Kaytranada knew he had a hit on his hands, and he wasn’t afraid to say so.
4. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
Explosions in the Sky dabble in experimental anxiety. Or, rather, they’ve mastered the ability to translate the frenetic, overwhelming sensation of thoughts and feelings hiding just under the surface into instrumental sound; there’s always a low-register guitar strumming in the background, always some faintly clashing cymbals and their signature thundering percussion driving the music along at a pace that feels both languid and rushed at the same time. But just as Explosions in the Sky knows how to crank it up to eleven on sensory overload, they’ve also figured out exactly how to musically interpret that first deep sigh of relief you take after your mind finally clears. The Wilderness does this to the effect of neurotically winding you up in one track, only to offer some gorgeous, lush, post-rock catharsis in the next. The group’s latest album is both electrifying and therapeutic, tense and relaxed, a dynamic musical stand-in for emotional release.
3. Beyoncé – Lemonade
I am aware that Lemonade generally is, and will be, on a lot of people’s “Best of” lists. I am aware that citing Beyoncé on this list might seem like an expected move, as if I’m maybe pandering or lazy (because the way 2016’s been going, it’s definitely not like I don’t have enough options to choose from). But Lemonade is an important album. It’s been said before, but like it or not (and I don’t see how you wouldn’t), this is an album that matters: it matters because of how it proved that pop powerhouses don’t have to simplify their work to profit off of the least common denominator, sacrificing quality to stay on top of the game; it matters because of how it championed Black womanhood in an artistic landscape that so often devalues and erases the contributions of people and women of color; it matters because of how it disrupted our understanding of contemporary pop culture, of what’s capable of being said and being done in the music industry today. Lemonade is the kind of album that Prince once talked about. It’s a work of art that matters, that is fundamentally necessary in both its message and its music.
2. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
While one of the most prolific albums of 2016 thus far is a introspective foray into the complexities of emotional turmoil (see: The Colour In Anything), Chance the Rapper’s newest album is one of this year’s best for entirely opposite reasons. Coloring Book is the next chapter; not necessarily the happy ending, but the light after the storm. Chance 3 is a declaration of resilience as gospel choir and Kanye West’s autotune, a contagious spiritual journey that honors family and community, a euphoric celebration of love and life. This is wordplay and lyricism at its most meaningful, features and collaborations at their most organic, and a tracklist endearing enough to challenge the outdated Grammys rulebook – and if that wasn’t enough, Chance sticks to his mixtape format and democratizes his music for everyone, literally gifting it to the world. Coloring Book is laced with gratitude and generosity and joy, the kind you can’t find with a price tag or a record deal, the kind that is earned by living fully. This album is something special.
1. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
“I Need a Forest Fire”
If it was not obvious from my lengthy analysis and review of James’ latest album release – hell, if it wasn’t obvious from my overly familiar use of “James”, as if we’re close friends or something – I’m a big fan of James Blake. But I swear I’m putting bias completely aside when I say that this past May, James dropped one of the best albums of 2016. With his moody synth and crooning, James’ work taps into an abstract sadness buried so deep beyond our regular emotional register that it’s a shock to the system to hear it play out from our headphones, and it’s even more shocking to hear such uncomfortable, painful emotion sound so beautiful. This is the most concise way to explain his talent: empathy is the mass appeal of James Blake. First on his self-titled debut, then on his sublime sophomore effort Overgrown, and now fully mastered on The Colour In Anything, he succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of turning raw emotion into a Pitchfork-approved headlining act. There is beauty in the language of melancholy, and James speaks it better than almost anyone else out there.
Katie Nesser (Editor-In-Chief)
5. Deakin – Sleep Cycle
Animal Collective’s elusive chanteuse finally delivered his long-incubating solo album this year, and it was worth the wait. Like an aural hug, the man born Josh Dibb’s debut record is humble but winning, an album that invites repeated listening, preferably through headphones, with soft, warm lighting. More than any other album I’ve heard, Sleep Cycle is an evocative, sensory experience. Bookended by two reassuring, lovely tunes, “Golden Chords” and “Good House,” Sleep Cycle contains a multitude of textures, all backed by Dibb’s comforting vocals. Pairs well with: Falling asleep in the bath.
4. Rihanna – Anti
Rihanna’s singles have always been reliably winning, but with Anti, she makes a case for herself as an album auteur. Radio friendly jams like “Work” and “Kiss It Better” don’t distract from the charms of ballad “Love On the Brain” or the shockingly straightforward Tame Impala cover “Same Ol’ Mistakes.” There’s not a skippable track on the album, and most of the songs stand out as career highlights for the prolific Riri. Once a pop star becomes established, they can stop chasing hits and take the initiative to experiment (see Britney’s Blackout, Madonna’s Ray of Light, Beyonce’s latest two releases). It’s a treat to hear Rihanna maturing, and I’m looking forward to years of more pop masterpieces. Pairs well with: Speeding through Atherton and thinking up new ways to scam the millionaires.
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
I have no real idea where TLOP stands in the Kanye discography, but that’s only because Mr. West and his music are so close to my heart, I’ve lost all critical distance. All I know is that there’s no greater feeling than belting “Highlights” while racing down the highway. This is an album of contradictions, with a life-giving gospel choir singing just a minute before a line about a bleached asshole. It’s the perfect encapsulation of why Kanye is such a compelling figure, a near-undeniable genius who refuses to compromise his truth for respectability. Pairs well with: Living your best life.
2. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Daniel Lopatin, who collaborated with ANOHNI on another of the year’s best releases, also released his best solo work as Oneohtrix Point Never with Garden of Delete, an electronic album that draws as much from Metallica and Nine Inch Nails as it does from the producer’s previous work. Centered around Lopatin’s character Ezra, a tortured. pimply teen alien, and his favorite band, Kaoss Edge, Garden of Delete sounds like the soundtrack to an anxious adolescence. Harsh and demanding, yet full of earworms, OPN speaks to the misanthropic teen in all of us. Pairs well with: Wishing you had been a brave enough kid to have had a metal phase.
1. Prince Rama – Xtreme Now
Prince Rama are two sisters who were discovered at a Texas dive bar by Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and now create concept albums around energy drinks and show their art at MoMA PS1. They’re basically a band imagined up by aging sketch comics making fun of pretentious millennials in order to mask their own self-hatred, and they’re almost too on-the-nose “hip” for me to sign off on. And yet. Their latest album, Xtreme Now, is part of the “Extreme Sports Genre” Taraka and Nimai Larson invented, and it’s good enough to forgive any posturing the sisters may or may not be taking part in. Though “extreme sports music” evokes traditionally masculine genres like EDM or metal, Prince Rama give us reverb-heavy chants like “Fake Till You Feel” that capture the ephemeral nature of an adrenaline rush, the knowledge that the highs don’t last. Pairs well with: Being the most avant-garde person in the office.
Katie’s Honorable Mentions: Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion; ANOHNI, Hopelessness; Death Grips, Bottomless Pit; Grimes, Art Angels; David Bowie, Blackstar; Animal Collective, Painting With; Young Thug, Slime Season 3; Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool; James Blake, The Colour in Anything; Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book; Beyonce, Lemonade.
Ned Hardy (a musing)
I learned something about my music-listening habits this year: the records that I think are objectively the “best” at time of release aren’t necessarily the records to which I find myself returning very frequently. Like, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness is a fucking brilliant meditation on militarized patriarchy and ecofeminism and the surveillance era, but it’s an extremely dark record, and listening to it can be quite painful. Maybe I’ll find myself seeking comfort in its icy folds come December, but I really haven’t given it many spins since I left school. Instead, the albums I’ve found myself drawn to most strongly this year have been, for the most part, the unpredictably excellent ones. On that note, and in the interest of full transparency, here’s what I couldn’t stop listening to.
I have to start with Carly. If you came within 10 yards of me at any point over the past 12 months, you likely heard me talking about Carly Rae Jepsen’s sophomore studio album, E•MO•TION. It came out last summer. It changed my life. Maybe I told you that, and played you a song or two, looking at your face out of the corner of my eye. Maybe you were convinced. Maybe you just wanted to grab a beer from my fridge and get the hell out of my room.
Whatever, man. It’s 2016 and I’m done trying to change anyone’s mind. E•MO•TION is out there, floating in the digital ether. You can listen to it! You can determine whether it has musical merit (it does). I’m not here to convince you that a 30-year-old Canadian pop star made the best album of 2015 (she did). But I am here to tell you about an experience I had this year while listening to the music made by Carly Rae Jepsen – the physical context in which I heard magical noises, and the metaphysical ways in which those noises affected me as a human being.
In February, my boyfriend took me to see Carly Rae Jepsen perform in San Francisco. We arrived just as the lights were dimming and quickly made our way to the front of the crowd (sorry?), losing about a third of our $15 gin-and-tonics along the way but blind to negativity, there to love and to lose ourselves in a sea of neon tank-tops and glittering eyelids. The effects of leaving the straight world behind and entering a firmly queer space are very real and very difficult to pin down. Our shoulders loosened, a sway entered our step, and we shed any semblance of performative masculinity. We danced, we sang, we cried. Liquor and dopamine coursed through our veins. Between songs, Carly sipped a whiskey-filled red Solo cup. For a couple of hours, everything was okay.
I tried to replicate that feeling a few months later while DJing a sun-drenched party on the lawn behind TDX. The hour was nearing that strange time between day-party and night-party when you briefly consider sobering up before settling, instead, on lukewarm pitchers and less-than-satisfactory burritos at Treehouse. But the sun was still out, and those who hadn’t wandered in search of sustenance and/or a more synthetic sleeping surface were still dozing on the grass. I didn’t want the party to end – I didn’t want to accept the impending gloom of Sunday morning – so I cued up “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance” and, for a few minutes, everything – from fruitless internship hunts, to late night Adderall XR benders, to fraternity-induced toxic masculinity – melted away. My closest friends and I danced on a picnic table to a house-indebted pop song about, well, dancing on a picnic table (or the elevated surface of your choice). As before, everything was okay, and that’s a testament to the power of perfect pop. Carly saved me, Carly saved you, Carly saved us all. I mean, she said it best: “If you’d just give me a chance, you’d see what I see.” Give her a chance. E•MO•TION awaits you.
I listened to a lot of other music this year, too. Fall quarter was soundtracked, for the most part, by Ty Dolla $ign’s massively-underrated epic Free TC — especially the record’s centerpiece, a gorgeous and painful two-suite track titled “Miracle / Wherever” that I kept on repeat for a good three or four weeks. I also listened to quite a bit of Grimes’ excellent Art Angels, and, yes, I still think that “Butterfly” is her best work to date.
The Life of Pablo took the reins during winter quarter, obviously, although I was fascinated to note that it didn’t have the staying power that I expected it to. I’m excited to return to the album in August, as I have a feeling that extreme heat will reveal some of TLOP’s intricacies that we may have missed. Case in point: why haven’t I heard “Fade” in a club yet? (Side-note: I’ve been having a bit of a Yeezus renaissance this summer and I’ve never felt better. Somehow, that record sounds even better this summer than it did three years ago. Trust me… listen to “Guilt Trip” as you walk through a hot city, or “Hold My Liquor” as you get drunk on someone’s rooftop. You’ll see.)
Spring was all ANTI, all the time, until I fell in love The 1975’s brilliantly-batshit sophomore record I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It – perhaps the best album of 2016, and certainly (in my eyes) the most under-appreciated. Living with The 1975 on repeat was a necessary break from ANTI, though, because it allowed me to return to Rihanna’s record as I settled into life in New York, newly able to see it for the sticky, heat-drenched opus that it truly is.
And, as per usual, I listened to Diddy Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris (2010) in its entirety at least once a month. It continues to stand as the most forward-thinking work of pop music released in the last decade. It sounds foreign and impossible and breathtaking in any city, during any season, with any group of people. Try it out.
I’ll end with this: “Summer Friends” is the best song on Coloring Book. Don’t @ me.