There has been a lot of talk about 2016 as an entity lately. Most speak as though it were a brutal dictator responsible for executing some of our most beloved citizens. While this might seem to be the case, the reality is that 2016 was no different from any other year. It was not “the year the music died.” In fact, it will prove to be quite the opposite.
Decades from now, when the new superstars answer the same interview questions about what inspired them to be great, you can bet that many of them will look back to 2016 and point to the impact this year had on music. The passing of Prince, Bowie, Emerson, Lake, Cohen, Michael, and others does not signal the end of their presence in the music scene, it marks a new beginning. The deaths of these pioneers will serve as an immortalization of their work and an inspiration to many who revel in the nostalgia of another time.
It would be blasphemous to think that any of the greats that passed this year are replaceable. But for musicians, the urge to fill even a fraction of the void those legends left behind will be reason enough for great music to be made. So in an effort to look forward while appreciating the past, here is a list of my five favorite albums released in 2016 by artists that harken back to the musical stylings of yesteryear:
1. Soft Hair – Soft Hair
Soft Hair is an album truly worthy of its cover art. On the cover, Sam Dust and Connan Mockasin are adorned with a serpent and longingly invite you to take a bite from their forbidden fruit [read: debut album]. The duo’s first project together as Soft Hair is an enticing one. The album’s purpose becomes clear in the first 10 seconds of play; it’s time to boogie. Whether that’s a boogie on the dance floor or a boogie in the bed sheets, Soft Hair accepts full responsibility for the bodily motion it may cause.
It becomes obvious fairly quickly that Soft Hair are not of this decade. Their sound is the perfect blend of the 70’s, 80’s, and 00’s best disco and electro. The bass is funky, the vocals are spacey, and the guitar is trippy. All the while, their fun, poppy synths carry counterpoint to the vocal melodies and somehow manage to sound fresh and retro at the same time. The total sum of all these parts treats the listener to a new low-fi dance sound in which you can almost hear the hiss of the vinyl throughout the whole album…even on digital format. For me, this album had the highest replay value of any album I’ve heard this year and always managed to put a smile on my face.
2. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
It’s hard to talk about 2016’s musical landscape without talking about Kendrick Lamar, just as it was impossible to talk about 2015 without kneeling before the massive and unparalleled To Pimp a Butterfly. If there’s one word that can be used to describe Kendrick again and again, it’s relevant. His latest release—impressively put out less than a year after TPAB—is by far one of the most relevant rap albums put out this year. For this reason, it’s no surprise that Cornrow Kenny was able to headline multiple major music festivals in a span of two years and not just one festival season.
On the album, Kendrick grabs the listener by the ears and lets them into the studio with him and his band. When listening to the album from start to finish, you’ll hear a little studio banter between certain tracks which makes the experience all the more intimate. The whole album feels like a jam session between a group of friends, but Kendrick is clearly at the helm. The album starts with some Barry White style spoken word straight out of a 70s porno flick, but quickly moves on to Terrace Martin inspired backing beats that one might expect to hear after TPAB. Kendrick’s energetic and politically charged language takes center stage, and once again his ability to spit bars over complex, jazz-infused rhythms proves that he has the versatility, vocabulary, and style to dwarf most rappers in 2016.
3. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
Nic Jaar never ceases to amaze. His music acts as a sonic collage while our ears act as the canvas. Sirens is no different. If there is one album that correctly embodies the complexity of 2016, it’s Sirens. The aptly titled album signals a warning to its listeners and Jaar’s call to attention is clear from the first track. “We are just waiting for the old folks to die,” he sings to a likely audience of progressive and disenfranchised young people who feel as though they’re just “killing time” before any real socio-political change can take place. Sirens is inspired by the past in that it holds past ideologies in contempt all the way from “Killing Time” to “History Lesson.” The album was released a couple months before the 2016 Presidential election, but perhaps Sirens acts as a harbinger for its outcome. Maybe Jaar is warning that simply waiting for the old schools of thought to die is what leads to their sticking around in 2016; agency forfeiting to apathy.
Regardless of the political overtones of the album, the sound is altogether cubist. Jaar plays with layer upon layer of different electronic sounds that evoke different emotions, all while keeping the listener grounded with his soothing, effected vocals. He mixes and matches these layers to create contrast and a sense of frenzy throughout the album, yet pulls back enough to not seem overly obtuse. Check out Sirens for a very contemporary journey into the intellectual and artistic side of electronic music.
4. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Far and away the most nostalgic feeling album of 2016, “Awaken, My Love!” surprised Gambino’s fanbase with a complete 180 from Because the Internet. Donald Glover’s latest creation almost completely abandons his hip-hop beginnings and gives way to a neo-soul, funkified freakout for the ages.
“Awaken, My Love!” showcases how truly versatile Donald Glover is as a musician and artist. From start to finish, the album plays on themes of R&B, funk, soul, and gospel while Glover adapts to his surroundings using clean vocals and raspy, James Brown inspired screams. “AML” understands the subtle nuances of Gambino’s forefathers’ and foremothers’ classic genres and takes them on a high-fidelity flight into modernity. This album, paired with Glover’s hit comedy series Atlanta—which often satirizes the hip-hop industry as a whole—acts as a breath of fresh air from the bombastic, cookie-cutter, and trap-laden mainstream by an artist who was very nearly a part of it.
5. Seven Impale – Contrapasso
And now for something completely different. I grew up listening to the sounds of King Crimson, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer and my last pick for my top 5 of 2016 would make all of the aforementioned proud. Contrapasso is an album that blends sounds of the 70s prog rock scene with today’s most relevant prog metal. As a follow up to their debut full-length titled, City of the Sun, Norway’s Seven Impale pack energy, musicality, and grace into their latest album.
The album brings back variations on themes from 2014’s City of the Sun and updates them to fit the overall delivery of Contrapasso, a decision which proves fun and tasteful for fans of their first album. Seven Impale’s newest album at times feels schizophrenic and overwhelming, but always resolves to beautiful, thoughtful melodies and phrases. They blend hard and abrasive metal guitar riffs with lively saxophone and organ solos into a jazz-metal prog fusion to awaken parts of one’s listening brain that they do not use regularly.
*Thankfully, artists in 2016 gave us a ton of good music to distract us from some of the many heartbreaks that occurred this year. Some other noteworthy albums from last year that often found themselves on repeat include (in no particular order):
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Floating Points – Kuiper EP
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Steven Wilson – 4 1/2
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here, Thank You 4 Your service
Neurosis – Fires Within Fires