FLOOD’s Best Records of 2016
Great year for music, terrible year for everything else.
15. Beyoncé — Lemonade
There’s been a lot of “holy shit” in 2016, but it hasn’t all been the bad kind. Lemonade, while a response to the bad kind, is the good kind. Beyoncé’s masterpiece is a reaction to generations of negativity and oppression, but the fact that it exists is a huge step forward. (It’s also far and away the best her music has ever sounded, but that’s not what’s important right now.) If it takes Beyoncé to make America realize that black lives matter and that women have so much more shit to deal with than men, so be it. Words don’t do justice to this incendiary, necessary work of art; if anything, they only serve to emphasize how much Beyoncé was able to do without having to explain herself. She already did the work. What more is there to say? — Lydia Pudzianowski
Born out of loss, fractured by controversy, Preoccupations has a track record that implies pure chaos. Which is why it’s rather curious that, despite the universe relentlessly pulling on their seams the way that it has, the Calgary post-punk quartet has somehow ended up with one of year’s most cohesive records. How, exactly? Well, for one thing, there are no traditional rock stars in the band. No big personalities fighting for space. On Preoccupations, every member of the group contributes equally throughout, and with a persistent modesty. So much so, in fact, that when Dan Boeckner shows up on “Memory”—an eleven-minute single (!)—he inadvertently betrays his fellow Canadians by stealing the show, if only for just a few verses. That standout moment ultimately serves the band, however, as it takes you out of your trance for long enough to be reminded that this music is still the work of people, after all—and not some goth supercomputer, like it sometimes sounds. This year, as the forces of nature continued to push against Preoccupations, Preoccupations continued to push back. — Nate Rogers
“I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom.” On Coloring Book, Chicago’s Chancelor Bennett pushes for all manners of freedom: creative (“No Problem”), sexual (“Juke Jam”), and above all, spiritual (both “Blessings” and its “Reprise,” “All We Got”).
Viewing his music as access to a higher power, Chance espouses a generous religion, one that finds common space for kindred spirits like Saba, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Jamila Woods; surprising collaborators like Justin Bieber; and mentors Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Kirk Franklin. He brings them all into his kaleidoscopic worship service. Addressing his faith both hilariously (“I might give Satan a swirly”) and poignantly (“Jesus’ black life ain’t matter”), Chance boosts the joyful spirit he brought to Kanye’s defining “Ultralight Beam” to even higher planes.
And when he proclaims “Music is all we got” over the sounds of the Chicago Children’s Choir in the joyous opening track, it sounds like it might actually be enough. — Jason P. Woodbury
From two-thirds of the ashes of Chicago’s Smith Westerns came the septet known as Whitney, and thank god they did. The band’s Jonathan Rado–co-produced debut Light Upon the Lake leapt out of the late spring and tucked itself neatly into the melancholy warmth of early summer with enough chiming guitar, breezy horn fills, and slick arrangements to last until next Christmas. Julien Ehrlich’s throaty falsetto may be the band’s true calling card, as it takes the Bon Iver method to left field and leaves it in the weeds to thicken. “No Woman” is a bonafide mix-tape classic, while “Golden Days” and “Polly” could easily be slipped into your hometown radio station’s Seventies Power Playlist without raising any suspicions. As the dreary seasons of 2016 continue to change for the worse, make sure you leave the Light on to guide you back home. — Pat McGuire
Kendrick Lamar’s fourth offering, comprising songs recorded during the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, could of course be seen as nothing more than an enhancement to his previous works. But to label untitled unmastered. as anything less than a record that stands tall on its own would be doing it and the people it reveres a major injustice.
Situating itself as one of the more artistically poignant rap albums of 2016, untitled unmastered. is an observational study and thoughtful critique of the music industry, race, sexuality, religion, stereotypes, and many other euphemized topics that find themselves woven into the fabric of American life. These varied issues don’t compete with one another for the spotlight, but work together to create a bigger picture. untitled unmastered. further establishes Lamar as the inquisitive person’s rapper, always noting, questioning, and challenging the intricacies of the world that surround him. If it seems like a humble offering, that’s because Kendrick has little to prove to you right now. — Sarabeth Oppliger
10. Frank Ocean — Blonde
In a year marked by loss and tumult, nothing felt more effortless than Frank Ocean’s high-dive splash with Blonde. Ocean has attained a level of artistic and personal autonomy so secure that he pulled his surefire contender from Grammy consideration without flinching. “I ain’t a kid no more / We’ll never be those kids again,” he declares on “Ivy,” indirectly channeling the transcendence of his OFWGKTA roots.
Like more than one of the geniuses who passed in 2016, Ocean is a man of boundless sexual identity. His letter preceding 2012’s brilliant channel ORANGE made this declaration, and there has been a marked sea change in the attitudes of hip-hop ever since. Caustic word rashes continue to feel more and more obsolete, displaced by a resurgence of conscious, analytical, poetic maneuvers. While that Ocean emerged already floating from the chrysalis, Blonde found him stretching out Kodachrome wings, fluttering along to the post-Disney woodwind synths of “Skyline To,” doused with quiet codeine joy.
While the world around us appears set to succumb to great flames, the calm wonder of Frank Ocean was a spot of true beauty in a relentlessly crazy year. It’s a testament to this generational artist’s sagacious ability to see his own face in the throng surrounding him. “There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky / In hell, in hell there’s heaven,” he sings. For the challenging times ahead, may we all adopt Frank’s determination to lead by riding…solo. — Kyle MacKinnel
How much of Alex Cameron is on Jumping the Shark? How well does he know the awful people who populate the album? The answer is either that he is one of them himself or that he’s spent a good amount of time around them. Trying to figure out which is the case made this album one of the most compelling and addictive listens of 2016. How does he know what he knows? How does he make it work so well? The answer to the second question includes synthesizers, reverb, and the presentation of a man alone in an echo chamber.
He’s the lone star of all of his music videos, save for two nameless, voiceless women in “Mongrel.” In these videos, he looks uncomfortable, often sweating and dressed either to the nines or whatever the polar opposite of the nines is. Is this him playing a character? Only he knows—and probably Roy Molloy, who he refers to as his “good friend and business partner.” Of Molloy, Cameron writes, “First time I met Roy he was stuffing lemons in a drain.” Was he? We’ll never know.
Like the characters it spotlights, the album is slick on the outside and morbidly fascinating on the inside. It offers a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer and a lot of talent that makes those unknown answers irrelevant. Regardless of where Cameron’s been, Jumping the Shark makes it possible for us to pay a visit that haunts us long after we leave. — Lydia Pudzianowski
Kanye West’s magnum opus is an uninhibited exhibition of the self—in all its grotesqueries and graces, its fantasies beautiful, dark, and twisted. Its greatness lies in willful contradiction and a brash amplification of the author’s divisive voice. Where the subjects of West’s last two albums—the croissant-demanding deity of “I Am a God” or the sex-starved pharaoh of “Monster,” say—tended toward tweaked and exaggerated versions of Kanye, The Life of Pablo returns to the self-narrativizing of his classic first two albums, all with the added benefit of a decade spent expanding the boundaries of the hip hop genre, and popular music in general.
While some have labeled it Kanye’s “messiest” album, it’s a model of Ye at his most songful: the prog influences of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are employed without track lengths ballooning (“FML”); the industrial affectations of Yeezus are grafted to swaggering, grooveful anthems (“Feedback”); and soul sampling blossoms into an original gospel-fusion track (“Ultralight Beam”).
Of course, all that compositional sophistication stands in contrast to the bald-faced ignorance of a lyric like that irksome Taylor Swift line, or the “Tribe Called Check-a-Hoe” joke, but let me ask you: how much are you enjoying that new J. Cole album? Art benefits from personality, and while Kanye’s recent tour cancellation and mental health scare suggest his mania is no mere performance, on The Life of Pablo, it contributes to a compellingly dense vision of hedonism and vulnerability. Blatant provocations of disgust exist alongside humor (“I stuck to my Roots / I’m like Jimmy Fallon”) and pathos (“You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / This nigga when he’s off his Lexipro”), making for an album that’s far from balanced in its emotional exhibitionism—but that imbalance is as sincere as it is galvanizing. — Sam C. Mac
Like a warning shot, 2016 began with one of our biggest stars falling from the sky. Yet with David Bowie’s unexpected departure also came a tangible sense of hope to cling to: in his own inimitable way, Bowie turned his death into art.
★ was released on January 8, Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday and only two days before he died. Fittingly, it’s a powerful rumination on mortality and what it means to be alive. Its songs are full of a transcendental, spectral power, and an otherworldliness that made even more sense on the tenth than it did for the two days prior. Harrowing and inspiring in equal measure, it was a welcome reminder that despite the darkness, the sadness, and the lacuna that death always leaves behind, there’s still beauty and love in this world.
Of course, this being Bowie, ★ is hardly sentimental or saccharine—rather, the album’s seven songs provide a weird and disconcerting journey to the other side, wherever that may be. With their intermixed grace and horror, the likes of the title track and “Lazarus” sound as if they were created with prior knowledge of what lay behind the existential curtain. Of course, if anyone could say what happens beyond our time on earth, it was probably Bowie, and this phenomenal swansong of a record still serves to remind the world of his unique and transcendental power. — Mischa Pearlman
Andy Shauf’s 2015 debut, The Bearer of Bad News, announced the arrival of a new talent possessing more than a passing fancy for the darkened pop chime of Elliott Smith and Paul Simon. But on the Saskatchewan-based musician’s 2016 ANTI- debut The Party, his subtle and gorgeous tunes capture the characters, ebbs, and ending of a run-of-the-mill suburban fete with all the mature songwriting sensibility of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman and the sharp eye of a wizened wallflower enjoying a cigarette break.
Listen as clarinet, piano, and strings rise and fall through the steady, slow clip of Shauf’s confident tempos and charmingly unique and at-times mush-mouthed delivery. There are sure-footed spaces of uncertainty in the album-launching “The Magician,” sunny and upbeat AM radio pop in “Begin Again,” moments of heart-worn mortification in “To You,” and sparse lulls of sweeping majesty in “Martha Sways.” While Shauf’s party is not necessarily one for the annals of Instagram’s “Explore” tab, it is no doubt an affair to recognize, and to remember. When he asks “Are you running around or just running away?” in the jangly cynical “The Worst In You,” it’s recognized as a cry that each of us have no doubt bellowed from some half-dark hallway of our youth. — Pat McGuire