As 2016 draws to a close, we take a look back at the year that was with a look at each month’s most culturally significant mainstream album. Each selection on the list was carefully curated using an array of barometric tests run on our bank of Impose computers that evaluated each artist’s and album’s impact on modern culture.
Or maybe I just picked whichever album stood out to me the most personally. I’ll let you decide-it’s too hard to think over here at Impose HQ with the constant whirring and buzzing of the Impose Computers as they finish up their year end calculations…
David Bowie, Blackstar
“I know something is very wrong, The post returns for prodigal songs, With black-eyed sharks with flowered muse, With skull designs upon my shoes…”
-”I Can’t Give Everything Away”
To many, the loss of David Bowie in January signaled the beginning of 2016’s long descent into madness. To be sure, it was one of the first of what would be many celebrity deaths over the year’s span. I remember seeing his name trending on the day he passed and thinking it was only due to the release of his album Blackstar which was released two days earlier, not suspecting anything untowards like I often do with trending celeb names. When I eventually heard the news, like many, it shocked and saddened me, but it also led to my rediscovering his work.
Of course going through a catalog as rich as Bowie’s is a great listening experience, but surprisingly to me, Blackstar stood up to some of Bowie’s best works. There’s the Earthling-era stuttering breakbeat of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and Donny McCaslin’s magnificent saxophone flutters throughout the album recalling Young Americans-era Bowie.
But perhaps the best and most poignant moments of Blackstar came on those tracks that didn’t sound like anything that came before-from Bowie or otherwise. The tumbling dramatic rock jazz of “Lazarus” or the lush melancholia of the album’s title track are reminders of Bowie’s unyielding talent and the stark reality of a world without him in it.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
“This is a God dream, this is everything…everything.”
- “Ultralight Beam”
Long before he had the ear of America’s President-elect, Kanye West had the attention of many music fans as we awaited any news on the artist’s new album. As the album’s rumored title changed from SWISH to Waves, hopes that it would ever be truly finished began to dwindle. Then, in a whirlwind week filled with Twittering, fashion shows, and an inspired Saturday Night Live appearance, The Life of Pablo made its grand debut on the Tidal streaming service.
TLOP’s exclusive release on Tidal stirred up a bit of controversy over the future of streaming exclusives at the time, but an updated version of the album was soon released across more streaming platforms in April. But it was that first version, and those first songs heard in their entirety on SNL, that stuck with me the most.
“Ultralight Beam” is a transcendent moment on an album filled with phenomenal songs. Perhaps the only problem is that TLOP’s sprawling tracklist does have a few misses among its many hits. For example, the album versions of “Wolves” never connected with me the way previous leaked versions had and, at the risk of sounding very un-wavy indeed, “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)” and “No More Parties in LA” seemed like they were just a few edits away from perfection.
And that is perhaps the ultimate message of the album and its artist. Not unlike George Lucas retooling the original Star Wars trilogy for his Special Editions, so too did Mr. West add his own Banthas and Dewbacks to his original work of art. This quest for perfection is not surprising from an artist as serious and devoted to his craft as Kanye, but it also pushes beyond the tradition of simple remixes to create a new artform: the album as a malleable, always evolving work of art that is never finished and ever current.
Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered
“Hate won’t get you high as this, levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate.”
- “untitled 07| 2014-2016”
With a tracklist and title that read more like studio notes than traditional names, Kendrick Lamar’s March release untitled unmastered. broke from the artform before the first note was even listened to. Made up of demos from Lamar’s modern classic To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled unmastered. is a moody and atmospheric album that deals in a number of serious themes while never letting up the beat. For an album that began as a compilation of demos, untitled unmastered. comes off as quite cohesive although it manages to span a number of genres from jazz to soul to rock and hip hop.
“Ten times out of nine I know you’re lying, but nine times out of ten I know you’re trying.”
- “Love Drought”
A multimedia sensation that sealed her title as the Queen of Pop, Lemonade was an audio and visual experience released by Beyonce in April. While the album stirred up a number of controversies, the biggest impact it may have had on popular culture was the mystery the album foisted upon its listeners. Not since “Who shot Mr. Burns?” did a question take hold of the public like the question of who exactly was “Becky with the good hair?”
While the debate of Becky’s true identity may rage on, Lemonade is so much more than a meme worthy moment. It is an honest and unflinching look at the reality of domestic and celebrity life on a micro and macro level by an artist at the height of her powers.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
“This for the kids of the King of all Kings, This is the Holiest thing, This is the beat that played under the Word, This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd…”
- “All We Got”
As a native Chicagoan, I should say that I have a hard time being objective when it comes to Chicago artists (something I should have mentioned in my Kanye review above). As a born and bred SouthSider, I should say that I am completely unable to be objective when it comes to those artists who happen to be Sox fans.
Luckily, this only causes some favoritism with regards to the handful of actors, writers, musicians, and other artists who come from Chicago but don’t bleed Cubbie blue.
This absolutely does cause favoritism when it comes to White Sox ambassador Chano from 79th, however.
So, while I readily admit I view this record through Black and Silver colored lenses, I also maintain it is a solid work on its own. Coloring Book was a big step forward from his previous solo releases and album with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, but it still maintained much of the rebellious and independent spirit Chance has become known for.
With an impressive list of features including everyone from Justin Bieber to the Chicago Children’s Choir and the aforementioned Kanye West, Coloring Book had wide appeal and recently even managed to snag a few Grammy nominations-a remarkable accomplishment for a mixtape.
But, of course, Coloring Book is more than a mixtape. It is Gospel and hip hop and rap and rock and pop. It is social consciousness and piety and hometown pride and partying. It is as diverse as the city Chance calls home and a glimpse at the future of music from an artist who is the coalescence of countless influences and sounds into something unheard of, yet somehow familiar.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway
“Woke up this morning like I always do, I still like to think that I’m new.”
- “The Hunter”
The first Peppers’ album without producer Rick Rubin at the helm in a quarter of a decade, The Getaway is an accessible, solid album that blends many current pop conventions with the band’s classic funk rock stylings. While it would be easy to say the band is reinvigorated or back to form on the record, that’s something that could be said for many of their recent releases as the band continues to overcome everything from their personal demons to the departure of its members.
Danger Mouse undoubtedly brought much to the table as producer of The Getaway, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers themselves must be credited for continuing to rework their sound to remain relevant and fresh on tracks like “The Hunter”, the funk disco fun of “Go Robot”, the Elton John collaboration “Sick Love”, and undoubtedly on the hit leadoff single “Dark Necessities”.
“And it’s a long way back from seventeen, the whispers turn into a scream and I’m, I’m not coming home.”
- “Bored to Death”
The princes of pop punk are back (arguably the kings, but I had to go for the alliteration) with an album worth of odes to the Golden State and a brand new member: Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba. The album’s first single “Bored to Death” harkens back to classic Blink from its bouncy, bassy riff to its enormous chorus, but the record also manages to forge a new sound for the band.
“Cynical”, the album’s opener, sets the tone for the record by fusing the pop punk perfection of Blink with the more rough and tumble style of Alkaline Trio. While this does render the outing like something akin to an offering from a supergroup, it is nevertheless a supergroup worth listening to as they’ve got something to say and the chops to say it in a fun and catchy way. Things get serious on tracks like “Sober”, but the tension is instantly broken by the sophomoric “Built This Pool” which makes clear the band may have evolved in some ways, but still finds homoeroticism hilarious.
Frank Ocean, Blonde
“No matter what I did, my waves wouldn’t dip back then, Everything sucked back then, We were friends.”
After months of speculation, Frank Ocean’s Blonde finally debuted August 20th, a day after his visual album Endless premiered. An album of dark grooves that at its worst may stumble into self-indulgence, Blonde is a diverse and dynamic offering that lived up to the expectations of many. While it doesn’t offer any instant singles, it does have atmosphere and grooves aplenty that hold up over multiple listens.
The Beatles, Live at the Hollywood Bowl
“The next song-the next song we’re going to sing is an oldie. Some of you older people might remember. It’s from last year and it’s called ‘She Loves You.’”
- Stage banter between “All My Loving” and “She Loves You”
While it may seem odd that a record recorded in the 1960’s (and one that has been available in some form or another for many years) would make a list of 2016’s top albums, Live at the Hollywood Bowl’s raw and fresh sound must be heard to be believed and the album captures a legendary band as simply a band. The Beatles inarguably have a catalog of studio albums to rival that of any other musical artists, but those albums are recorded so brilliantly and perfectly that there is nary an out of place note or scratchy vocal. This is due no doubt to the incredible production of George Martin and the efforts of The Beatles themselves, but-to me-it has cast the band in an untouchable and infallible light. Live at the Hollywood Bowl destroys that image in an exuberant burst of emotion and power.
Remixed and remastered by producer Giles Martin, son of the aforementioned Beatles producer George Martin, the album presents a decades old performance in crisp quality with the ever present and immersive roar of the crowd mixed down to allow the music to shine through. Performances of songs like “Help!” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” remind the listener that The Beatles were an actual rock and roll band and not some staid musical patriarchs on a musical Mount Olympus. The new production techniques used to capture the performance allows the band’s passion and joy to be heard in all its glory, which fortunately for the listener includes plenty of moments that are so imperfect, they’re perfect.
Lady Gaga, Joanne
“Young, wild American looking to be something…”
- “Diamond Heart”
Lady Gaga’s fourth studio album bowed in October-that is if you don’t count Cheek to Cheek, her collaboration with Tony Bennett, or The Fame Monster, the extended edition of her debut record. While the album is at times more of an organic one than her previous outing Artpop, it falls short at points in its eagerness for authenticity. Producer Mark Ronson’s influence is felt throughout and while he does manage to create a whiskey soaked bit of retro Americana at times, he also stumbles into the trap of referencing references for a sound that at times is too polished and too safe to truly stand on their own-almost like an Epcot version of the actual music that might echo from some roadside honky tonk.
This isn’t to say the album is short on brilliance, however. “Diamond Heart” is a breathtaking amalgam of classic rock and future pop while “A-Yo” is a sly earworm that gets better with each listen. There is also the sepia toned folk of “Joanne” and flower power bombast of “Hey Girl” as well as the funky, feminist message of “Hey Girl”, Gaga’s collaboration with Florence Welch. Yet there is also the cliched twang of the still catchy “Sinner’s Prayer” or the overblown verses of “Dancin’ in Circles” that give the otherwise great song an uneven arc.
Metallica, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct
“Crushed under heavy skies, Atlas, Rise!”
- “Atlas, Rise!”
As someone who hasn’t kept up with Metallica much after their Reloaded-era, I’ll say Hardwired…To Self-Destruct was harder than I expected. I suppose my favorite Metallica is Cliff Burton-era Metallica and while I’m sure that’s a cliche, it is nevertheless something nostalgia has cemented. There’s plenty in the Newsted oeuvre that I dig, but for some reason I never really gave this Trujillo guy a fair shake and although he doesn’t share any of the songwriting credit for the album-surprisingly guitarist Kirk Hammett doesn’t either-he makes his presence felt alongside the metal legends as they thrash their way back into the spotlight.
Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!
“Have some time for one another, really love one another, it’s so hard to find.”
- “Have Some Love”
For those unfamiliar with Childish Gambino, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with his alter-ego, Donald Glover, from Atlanta, Community, or The Martian. And if you’ve yet to become familiar with Glover, you soon will when he steps into the shoes of Billy Dee Williams to portray a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming the upcoming solo Solo Star Wars film. For those already familiar with Childish Gambino, I wonder if Awaken, My Love! still came as something of a surprise.
While the multi-talented Glover has already proven himself as a rapper, I didn’t expect him to so ably step into the role of funky soul soothsayer. As with Ocean’s Blonde, I feel that the album succeeds more in creating an atmosphere than in creating instant singles or offering immediate accessibility. This isn’t to say the album isn’t catchy in its own way, but it is definitely a departure from much of what we’ve heard from Gambino that evolves and moves his sound forward in a new and interesting way.