December means a lot of things. It’s the holiday season. Everyone is hustling to find that perfect gift for their loved ones. Holiday parties every weekend. As my family loves to say, it’s also eating season, and I do plenty of that. It’s also “Best of” list season. If more than one of anything happened in a calendar year, December is the time to rank them. I love music. I listen to it all the time. I figure my opinion is worth just as much as anyone else’s, so I’m going to weigh in with my favorite albums of 2016. Here goes…
I was familiar with BJ the Chicago Kid from a few appearances he made on other people’s records, most notably on Joey Bada$$’s first record. His album “In My Mind” was another one I got in to this year. He collaborates with Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Big K.R.I.T. on this record (among others). “She says she wanna drink, do drugs, and have sex tonight…but I got church in the morning.” There’s some cool shit on this record.
I’ve always been a fan of Bruno Mars’ live performances, but he never put out an album that I really liked start to finish until this year. “24K Magic” is the album I never knew I wanted. When I was first starting to get in to R&B music in the late-80’s I was all about music like Bobby Brown, Guy, BBD, and Keith Sweat. Once D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and the so-called neo soul movement of the mid-90’s started, I forgot about that other shit and moved on. Then I heard 24K Magic and I couldn’t help but go back to my new jack roots. I loved it. It sounds like Bruno was built in a lab by Bobby Brown and Teddy Riley. I had no idea I needed more of this music in my life. Listen to this and tell me it doesn’t sound like Don’t Be Cruel 2.0.
In April 0f 2015 I got in on a Kickstarter to help fund the first studio album in over a decade from one of my all-time favorites: De La Soul. They expected a release date of September 2015. Nearly a year later, in August of 2016, we got our album. It was worth the wait. It’s strange to me, because music is so much different than it was when De La was cranking out classic after classic in the 90’s. The other difference is that Pos, Mase, and Dave aren’t in their 20’s anymore. These are grown men now. If they were still rapping about daisies and buddy, that would be kind of messed up. So this record is definitely De La…but it’s kind of not De La if that makes any sense (this is a theme I’ll come back to). Pos and Dave sound the same, and the music is great, and that’s all that really matters.
I always try to pick out a new holiday album to add to my December rotation every year, and this year’s addition came from an unexpected place. One Saturday morning at the Y (that sounds like a euphemism, but it’s not) recently I had finished working out and was waiting for Lucy to get done with her gymnastics class. I was going through Apple Music looking for something new and different. By chance I came across someone called Lauren Daigle and her holiday album “Behold”. It was one of those, “If you liked this, you might like this” lists. I still know absolutely nothing about Lauren Daigle except that she made a damn good album of holiday music this year. It’s got a New Orleans cool vibe to it, and I love her voice. I’ve gotta find this one on vinyl before next December.
Vince Staples put out an EP called “Prima Donna” this year and it was more great shit from one of the most creative voices in hip hop. The title track was one of my favorite tracks of 2016. But, it was an EP, so he gets an EP-sized shout out on this list.
I find Musiq Soulchild to be a reliable source for great R&B music. I feel like he’s always flown under the radar, getting far less recognition than others in the past 15 years. However, I’d put his best records and his best tracks up against anyone in the genre since 2000. This year was no different. In 2016 he put out “Life on Earth” and it had a little bit of everything. The first track, “Wait a Minute”, was another one of my favorite tracks of 2016. Still…this record, like his others, seems to have slipped past with little recognition. It was definitely one of my favorites of this year.
A Tribe Called Quest made their much-hyped return this year. It was one of those things that I always hoped would happen, but gave up on 10 years ago. They showed up on Jimmy Fallon in late-2015 and I figured it was just a one-time reunion. My hopes were put to rest for good in March when Phife passed away. When rumors started up late this summer that an album was coming, I was skeptical. Even more than De La Soul, Tribe is sacred to me. “Low End Theory” is one of the greatest albums of all-time. Despite what people say, I really dug their last two albums, too. Sometimes I think the comeback isn’t worth it if it’s going to fuck up the legacy. I was worried that they were rushing something out to eulogize Phife and it wouldn’t be a proper Tribe record. I’m glad to say I was wrong. Like I said earlier about De La, this does not exactly feel like a Tribe album to me. They hadn’t made an album together in 17 years. A lot has changed. The heart of the group passed away. How could they be the same? Q-Tip clearly still has his fastball, though, and it’s a really good album. I would argue that it’s a bit uneven. The stuff that I like, I really like. The stuff that doesn’t work for me I just skip. It’s not like Low End or Marauders where I can just drop the needle on it and let it play. In the end, I’m glad to say I’ve got new Tribe music in my life and they definitely didn’t fuck up the legacy.
I have always taken pride in getting in early on artists. Don’t we all? Doesn’t everyone have at least one band they brag about and say, “I was in on them way before everyone else.” I definitely claim that on a few bands. We were in from the beginning with Outkast, and that wasn’t easy in Green Bay. It’s not like WIXX was playing Southernplayalistcadillacmuzik. I got in on The Roots way back when “Do You Want More?” came out when I was a freshman in college. I’ve seen them at least half a dozen times live. I was like a proud papa when they got their break on Jimmy Fallon. I’m older now, so I don’t get to claim too many early discoveries anymore, but I like to think I was in on Chance the Rapper as early anyone outside of Chicago could’ve been. Ambrosiaforheads.com was ranking their favorite mixtapes of the year (yet another December list) a few years back and one of Chance’s mixtapes was on it. Since mixtapes are free and I have an internet connection, I was downloading all of them to try them out. Chance was the only one that stood out. “Acidrap” came out and I loved that. This year was obviously his big breakout. Of course he broke out. Someone as talented and positive as Chance couldn’t fly under the radar for long. You just can’t keep someone like Chance down. I LOVE it when people are always positive and are totally unapologetic about it. Chance makes being a good person cool. He makes me want to be a better person. When I’m feeling like the world is trying to kick my ass, I can put on Blessings, or How Great, or Angels, and immediately feel better. Did you see him on SNL last week? He can’t wipe that infectious smile off his face. How can you not pull for a guy like this? It would be one thing if the music sucked, but it’s amazing. He’s a brilliant talent, a poet, and a beautiful human being. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us in the future. Did I mention all of his music is free? He refuses to sell it. “Coloring Book” might be the best album of 2016, and if you’re reading this and you haven’t heard it yet, go to iTunes and download it. It’s free. You have no excuse. Download the album, skip to the final track (Blessings Reprise) and let it take you away. Just read this and tell me this guy isn’t something special:
I speak of promised lands
Soil as soft as momma’s hands
Running water, standing still
Endless fields of daffodils and chamomile
Rice under black beans
Walked into Apple with cracked screens
And told prophetic stories of freedom
Found warmth in a Black Queen for when I get cold
Like Nat King, I’m doing the dad thing
I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood
Make you remember how to smile good
I’m pre-currency post-language, anti-label
Pro-famous, I’m Broadway Joe Namath
Kanye’s best prodigy
He ain’t signed me but he proud of me
I got some ideas that you gotta see
Make a vid with shawty and they ship it like the odyssey
They never seen a rapper practice modesty
I never practice, I only perform
I don’t even warn, I don’t eat it warm, I won’t be reborn
I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public
He keep my rhymes in couplets
He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans
I used to dance to Michael, I used to dance in high school
I used to pass out music, I still pass out music
The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be
I’m getting artsy-farsy, house full of some Hebru Brantleys
You must’ve missed the come up, I must be all I can be
Call me Mister Mufasa, I had to master stampedes
I made it through, made it through, made it through
And everything I gave to you, I gave to you, I gave to you
You got it, you got it, you got it, it’s coming, coming, coming
So are you ready?
All of that said, this wasn’t my favorite album of the year.
Another guy I’ve been a fan of for a long time had a huge 2016. Like most, I first learned of Donald Glover when he played Troy Barnes on the cult classic TV show Community. I started watching Community because of the guy from The Soup (Joel McHale) and Chevy Chase. I ended up sticking around because the cast was outstanding, especially Glover. Then I found out he made music and fell in love with it immediately. I know the Pitchforks of the world have had a stick up their ass about Glover/Childish Gambino for years, but the day I heard “Culdesac” I was hooked. “Camp” had some classics. “Because the Internet” is one of my favorite albums, period. The “STN MTN/Kauai” mixtape had some amazing tracks and showed that he was continuing his progress as a rapper. Then he stopped. The “Kauai” EP was released at the same time, and he’s not rapping on it. He’s singing…and it’s really good. Pretty soon I see him on youtube doing PM Dawn and Tamia covers…and they’re really good, too. Then Glover got his own TV show on FX and disappeared for a while. Now we know why. Atlanta was not only my favorite TV show of 2016, by far (apologies to Game of Thrones). Apparently I’m not alone, because it seems every list I’m seeing has that at the top of their “Best of 2016” lists. He’s also going to be young Lando in the upcoming Han Solo movie. Outside of that Joshua Tree Pharos concert, it didn’t seem like there was anything coming musically. Then a few weeks ago “Awaken, My Love” showed up and blew people away. Don’t believe me, ask Questlove. Bino doesn’t rap a single bar on this album. This is pure funk. The whole thing feels like a nod to George Clinton, Sly Stone, and Prince. I’ve only had a few weeks to absorb this, but I can safely say that it was one of my favorite albums of 2016, and it will stay in heavy rotation for me for a long time. If you like funk, or if you just love good music, this album will be a breath of fresh air.
However, this wasn’t my favorite album of the year either.
I can’t put my finger on the exact date, but it was sometime about a year ago I started hearing some buzz on okayplayer.com about someone named Anderson .Paak. I had no idea who he was or what he did, but I remember the name because it had a period in it. Plus, how do you pronounce Paak? (I’m still not 100% sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced like Pack.) Apparently he stood out on Dr. Dre’s “Compton” album in 2015. I never really got in to that album, so I didn’t pay much attention. He also performed under the name Breezy Lovejoy for a few years. I still haven’t looked for any old Breezy Lovejoy tracks, but I should. By April or May I had heard enough good about him that I figured I better see what was up. So I downloaded his album “Malibu”. Holy shit. Is this guy singing or rapping? I couldn’t tell. I still can’t. Who cares? He sounds like nobody I’ve ever heard. The first track on the album (The Bird) is nice, and it got my attention, but then track 2 came in. “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” is yet another of my favorite tracks in 2016. Again…is he rapping? Singing? It’s so cool it doesn’t matter. As I kept listening the hits kept coming. Then “Room in Here” hit me right between the eyes. It’s got a great hip hop beat, but Paak is definitely singing on this track, and it’s beautiful. Smoothest shit I’ve heard in a while. Then The Game comes in and knocks his guest verse out of the park. How can you not like a verse that includes the line, “She a good girl, maybe it’s too much smoke in the room, and she don’t want that mary jane in her Vidal Sassoon.” Three tracks later he comes back with his breakout hit “Come Down”. This song is impossible to miss even if you’re not looking for it. It’s in commercials. It’s on during every NBA game. He’s performed it on every talk show in sight. If you watch Ellen, you’ve seen Anderson .Paak perform Come Down. If you haven’t watched this yet, you should…immediately.
For months I was sure this was going to be my favorite album of 2016. It’s the best thing I’ve heard since D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” in 2014. But then a pleasant surprise showed up in October. After a lovely summer with Malibu on repeat and as I was getting used to the idea of Anderson .Paak joining the pantheon of my favorite artists, he dropped another album.
I hadn’t looked back in .Paak’s catalog enough to realize that he had also collaborated with a producer by the name of Knxwledge (pronounced Knowledge) in 2015 under the band name NxWorries (you guessed it…pronounced No Worries). NxWorries had been working on an LP called “Yes Lawd!”, and in October this glorious masterpiece was handed down to us as if it was a gift from the Lawd himself. I hadn’t had a music listening experience like this since the first Digable Planets album. I wasn’t sure what I was listening to, but I knew it was really good, and I knew I was going to like it. First off, I feel very strongly that this is a true album, and was meant to be played from start to finish. No skipping around. If you really want to take in the true vibe of this record you need to take 49 minutes and give it your full attention. You can’t fully appreciate “Best One” unless you’ve heard the build up to it. You’re not gonna get the true feeling of the brilliant ride that is “Lyk Dis” until you’ve gone for a ride in “Kutless” first. This is a true album. The tracks just flow from one to the next. I had never heard of Knxwledge before this album, but if this guy isn’t Dilla 2.0, I don’t know who is. His mastery of taking old tracks and blending them in to something new is breathtaking. Plus, his ability to have so much of the music feel jarringly off, yet right on time, is right out of the Dilla playbook. As good as the production is, it wouldn’t be the same without .Paak’s unique delivery and wildly entertaining songwriting. It’s easy to pass many of the lyrics on this album off as misogyny, but I prefer to think of it the way .Paak does: he’s just talking shit. If you’re easily offended, you probably won’t like this album. If you love a great artist at his peak talking about his real relationships with women, then you’ll have no problem with it. Look no further than my favorite track of 2016 (even though it technically came out on an EP in 2015) “Suede”, which features the most absurd lyrics I’ve heard since the Dogg Pound in their hey day. The second verse of Suede goes something like this:
My mama said don’t trust these hoes boy be about your loot
Now if my mama told me that why the fuck would I listen to you?
Never go broke chasing riches
But you might go broke chasing every lil stank ass ho with a tongue piercing now
Clearly Pitchfork was conflicted when reviewing this album. They gave it an 8.2 and called it one of their best new albums, yet went on at great length about misogyny in the lyrics. I’ve never understood this need people have to relate to the music they listen to. I want my music to take me on a journey. I want my music to make me understand what other people are thinking. I don’t want to relate to my music. Music that a married, middle-aged IT guy in Wisconsin can relate to seems like it would be miserable and boring. NxWorries takes me to another place. I’m not going to spend any more time justifying this. I like what I like. I know right from wrong. I don’t call my wife a stank ass ho, I don’t have a sidepiece, and I never chased stank ass hoes with tongue piercings. But, if I’m entertained by an album full of it, I am. So be it. The bottom line is, this music is amazing.
I recently read Shea Serrano’s Rap Yearbook. It’s a really entertaining read if you’re in to hip hop. In it he picks the most influential hip hop track from every year since 1979. He points out very early in the book that some years the track is stronger than others. There are some years that had multiple songs that are more influential than some of the other songs that made the list because they simply came out in weak years. I liked a lot of music in 2015, but Erykah Badu’s mixtape “But You Cain’t Use My Phone” that I would’ve called my Album of the Year in 2015 doesn’t even come close to how much I love Yes Lawd! This is not just my Album of the Year of 2016. It has already earned a place somewhere very high in my all-time list.
In fact, there were at least six albums in 2016 (NxWorries, Malibu, Childish Gambino, Chance, Tribe, and DeLa) that I liked as much as anything I heard in 2015. Anyone who says music is not what it used to be is just simply lazy in my opinion. It’s just such an easy take. Nothing is ever as good as it used to be. Blah, blah, blah… The state of music has never been better. If you can’t find something you like you’re not looking hard enough. Say what you want about the negatives of the internet and streaming. It’s never been easier to find music. For $10/month there are multiple streaming services that can get you any music you from any time and any genre. Musicians are putting more free music out that I can ever remember. The “rock star” in the classic sense may be dead. Who cares? If you just want to listen to good music, there’s never been a better time than now…and if you don’t today’s music, go online and fall in love with the classics. 2016 was also the year that we lost Prince, David Bowie, Phife, Leonhard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Maurice White, Merle Haggard, and Glenn Frey (to name a few). Go back and listen to their stuff. Find out why they were so influential. 2016 sucked for a myriad of reasons. Music was not one of them.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and they can express it on their own website. Mookiefantana.com’s Album of the Year is “Yes Lawd!” by NxWorries, and it’s not really close.