As this year draws to a close, I’ve noticed one thing about the music released throughout it: R&B and Soul made a tremendous comeback.
As corny as it sounds, many of this year’s best tracks and albums transcended the genres you might have originally wanted to categorize them in. Beyonce managed to play her way into multiple category nods for the next Grammy Awards. Childish Gambino released what is arguably the greatest soul/funk album in decades a few weeks ago.
What’s even better about 2016 is that, in my humblest of opinions, most of the highly anticipated projects that were on the docket were actually released and nearly flawless from top to bottom. Let me explain:
Normally when major artists release their opus-like albums, whether they’re popular on a massive mainstream level (Drake, Taylor Swift, Bey) or a more cult level (Frank Ocean, J Cole, Gambino), they tend to come up short because of level of build-up and hype.
This year seemed different, at least for 75% of the time. Sure, there were some great disappointments (and I’ll cover that later), but for the most part, 2016 churned out some honest-to-goodness classics.
Before I delve into the albums I loved, I’ll start with my 25 favorite songs this year, and this list is going to be dominated by R&B and hip-hop. Those two genres, on the most general of markers, had what may have been the deepest catalogue of releases in years.
NOTE: Any songs not available on Youtube, or Vimeo, I just went ahead and embedded the Genius link to inside the title of the track.
25. Chance the Rapper - Same Drugs (feat. Eryn Allen Kane)
There’s really not much that can be said about Chance anymore. He’s the biggest breath of fresh air in a very muddled rap landscape. With Same Drugs, you get a layered group of verses and choruses from the Chicago-raised rapper. Between the Wendy/Windy allegory present throughout, and the story of lost love, the track is emotional without being sappy. The final minute and a half of the song cascade into the wonderful gospel sounds heard throughout Coloring Book, and provide an easy segue into the poppier notes in the middle of the record.
24. Iggy Pop - Gardenia
I’ll be honest, when I first heard that Iggy was putting together this record, I geeked out for weeks. Partly because, well, it’s Iggy Fucking Pop; he’s a living legend and can do no wrong. Also, because one of my idols (Josh Homme) produced all of Post Pop Depression. The blend of their two styles works well throughout the entire album, and most notably on Gardenia.
23. Young Thug - RiRi
In it’s rawest concept, I think JEFFERY is the most bold mixtape/album that Thugga has ever dreamt up. It’s an hour of tribute music by one of the most polarizing, unruly artists that Atlanta has ever produced, and it spans the genres of dancehall, pop, R&B, hip-hop and modern reggae. RiRi is my favorite of the bunch because it makes the least sense. Four minutes of Young Thug doing his best Rihanna impression over glossy production makes me yearn for a true pop album from the South’s most unpredictable artist.
22. NxWorries (Anderson .paak & Knxwledge) - Scared Money
When the LA duo of Anderson .paak and Knxwledge dropped Link Up & Suede at the end of 2015, you could see the potential for something big. Then Yes Lawd! came out in October, and they proved the potential was more Karl-Anthony Towns than Jimmer Fredette. Though I do think the album runs a tad bit long, the overall product is fantastic. Scared Money tops it all because it transplants sounds from Bobby Brown-era radio soul, and is wrapped up tightly in Paak’s raspy vocals.
21. Schoolboy Q - THat Part (feat. Kanye West)
The Blankface LP was actually my least favorite of Q’s major projects, but this song stood out more than most of his other singles. It’s brash, especially because of Ye’s feature and constant comparisons to Kobe. The two of them are perfectly opposite, Q with his trademark stoner vibe and Kanye going in as the glowing braggadocio.
20. Bas - Clouds Never Get Old
I’m not entirely sure why I love this song as much as I do. There’s nothing overtly complex, or technical, about it. The production isn’t very polished, and Bas’ flow isn’t either. Yet, there’s something about this track that stands out to me, and it has a good bit to do with Bas’ boss, J. Cole. Now, I could go into a massive diatribe about everything I find wrong with Cole, but I’ll simply offer what I find right about Bas: his ability to show emotion in his songs. While his laid back demeanor is present in most of his tracks, he still changes his tone and his flows to cater to his choruses and bridges... unlike the guy who writes his checks.
19. Young M.A. - Ooouuu
Ooouuu is the 2016 version of Hot N*gga, or Lifestyle, it’s a portrait of the Worldstar user. The song that you really don’t want to like, but there’s something that draws you back to it. The beat isn’t intricate, neither are Young M.A’a bars, but they are packed to the walls with easy punchlines. This song is one that I can see myself listening to a few years from now and wondering what happened to her career.
18. Travis Scott - Goosebumps (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight was one of my biggest disappointments of the year, but Goosebumps was a clear representation of both Travis Scott’s niche of emo rap and his influence on some of rap’s biggest names. Kendrick’s feature verse is fun and a fine example of his Jekyll & Hyde flows.
17. Parquet Courts - Berlin Got Blurry
I love Parquet Courts for many reasons, and this track sums up that love very easily. They’re like an odd mix of the Strokes, Interpol, and Father John Misty; with classic indie-alt sounds and very, very straightforward lyrics.
16. Kaytranada - Glowed Up (feat. Anderson .paak)
Kaytranada should be everyone’s new favorite producer/artist/guy-you-knew-about-before-the-rest-of-your-friends. His album, 99.9%, was such a fantastic ride. A theatrical blend of damn near every musical genre under the sun, with added vocal features from every end of the earth (Craig David!), but Glowed Up is so silky smooth from beginning to end, even in the last minute and a half when the track switches from neo-funk to a Foreign Exchange-esque R&B ballad.
15. DJ Shadow - Nobody Speak (feat. Run The Jewels)
I’ll just let the music video speak for itself.
14. Blood Orange - Best To You (feat. Empress Of)
I’ll keep this short and sweet: Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound got me laid this year. If you want more to that story, just listen to the whole damn album. Best To You is four minutes of endless house backbeat and flowing melodies from Empress Of.
13. Noname - Casket Pretty
I was introduced to Noname through none other than Chance the Rapper, and if I ever get the chance to meet the man, I’m going to thank him for it. Noname is more of a poet than a rapper; a Gil Scott Heron-like, spoken word genius who paints Chicago’s dreary street-life like Manet landscapes. This particular song, which lasts all of two minutes, resonates so soundly that it’s almost frightening that you don’t hear her openly weeping during the hook.
12. Danny Brown - Really Doe (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt)
I’ll dive deeper into my love for Atrocity Exhibition later, but I will say that this track is as damn near perfect as modern hip-hop can get. I can see Danny Brown’s verse stick to the walls every time I listen to it. The 80s horror movie chimes on the beat just make this whole song seem like the build up to a gruesome knifing. But in reality, it just ends with Earl Sweatshirt playing the anti-Rick James and getting his Chucks dirty on your couch.
11. Kanye West - Waves (feat. Chris Brown and Kid CuDi)
First off, let me say that I like the original edit of this song, the one before Kanye went, “Whoa, whoa, wait... lemme tweak a few things.” Second, CuDi’s 2008-09 throwback harmonizing towards the latter half of the track almost made me cry when I first listened to this. No, I am not joking; I had to park my car in a random lot on the way to work the day TLOP came out so I could fight back tears.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite track from Tribe’s comeback/Phife tribute album, but this is what will forever stand out to me. It’s exactly what Phil Spector set out to do when he invented the Wall of Sound production technique. The whole song is a constant barrage of reggae patois and ONE GIGANTIC ELTON JOHN SAMPLE. Good lord almighty, this was everything we needed in one song in 2016.
James Blake is credited on the album as the organist for this track, I love him for it. I can’t even begin to explain the way this song made me feel on first listen, but it was mind-altering. Frank Ocean has this inane ability to make me feel guilty for listening to his music, not because it is out of the norm from what I normally listen to, but because it always feels like you’re catching him at his weakest moment; like you’re peering into his dressing room as he breaks down after a set. There’s so much raw, nerve-pinching moodiness in Solo, that it almost hurts to listen to.
8. Vulfpeck - Daddy, He Got a Tesla
Vulfpeck has been the best thing I’ve discovered in my life in the last 12-16 months. Literally everything they release is instantly thrown into constant rotation in my home. There isn’t anything quite as funky, or well-engineered as their music is in today’s music industry. And, if you have any respect for the bass as an integral part of any band’s lineup, then please BOW DOWN TO JOE DART, OUR NEW OVERLORD.
7. Chance the Rapper - Finish Line/Drown (feat. T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Allen Kane, and Noname)
I am not religious in any sense of the word. In fact, I grew up in a very reformed Jewish family that ate bacon at Sunday breakfast, but this song almost made me convert. Only Chance could possibly combine big-house gospel hooks with a Space Jam reference, and a hook from T-Pain. Then, the song breaks and you actually go to church with Noname and Kirk Franklin.
If I could just isolate this entire instrumental, I could see it easily transplanting itself into a Quentin Tarantino score. I’m happy this didn’t end up on TPAB. It somehow seems a bit too violent for that narrative. It’s got haunting horns and rattling high hats that seem more acclimated to a smoky lounge from decades past, but with angsty verses from Kendrick and Jay Rock.
5. Solange - Cranes In The Sky
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, Solange’s A Seat At The Table > Lemonade. Everything about this record, and the lead single here, makes this album nearly flawless. It’s a modern day Lady Sings The Blues. Raphael Saadiq was masterful on production through and through. ASATT might be the best record that comes out this decade.
4. Chance the Rapper - Blessings (Reprise) (feat. Ty Dolla Sign, Raury, Anderson .paak and BJ the Chicago Kid)
I dare you to listen to this song, or watch the performance of it on Jimmy Fallon and not feel moved in some way. Some people find this track preachy, or an example of Chance trying to sound modest while crowning himself the king of conscious, but I just can’t bring myself to find the flaw in this man’s work.
3. Childish Gambino - Have Some Love
The biggest surprise of 2016 came very late in the calendar year. I went into the last few months of this year thinking the next Gambino project would’ve been another laborious effort to make my way through as I gave it my customary listen. Then, I sat back on one of my few days off and pumped Awaken, My Love! through my speakers, and about an hour, I had to pick my jaw and each of my teeth off the floor. Not only did Donald Glover manage to make one of the most adventurous, unprecedented albums of our generation, he brought old school funk (like serious P.Funk, Bootsy Collins, vintage Prince 80s neo-soul) back into the limelight and executed it without almost any hitch. Have Some Love just happens to be the one track out of all that makes me run to my record shelves and binge on something more.
2. Kanye West - Ultralight Beam (feat. The Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and Chance the Rapper)
This is the best song Kanye West has ever made. I will not accept any arguments stating otherwise. Ultralight Beam is the gospel that Yeezus was meant to preach, but couldn’t quite communicate. Big drums, big choir, big verse from Kanye’s protege. Plus, the story of how all of this came together makes the whole thing that much better.
1. Frank Ocean - Self Control (feat. Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein)
I love this song. I can honestly say that this is not only my favorite song by Frank Ocean, but might just be my favorite song ever.
Blond(e) was one of those albums that not only lived up to every ounce of hype and anticipation, it completely surpassed it. I thought Channel Orange was going to be the be all, end all for the brand of alternative/psychedelic R&B that Frank Ocean mastered very quickly, but Blond(e) found a way to be comprehensively better.
Like I said when it came to Solo, Frank Ocean’s music is mentally draining, like you’re spying on someone’s anxiety attack after a bad breakup. With Self Control, you hear the pain in the bridges and hooks. The faint gasp you here at 3:18 is soul-crushing, it’s that one breath in between sobs that you snatch when your sanity briefly comes back to mind.
My indelible love for Blond(e) might wane slightly in the next few months, but like my past endearment towards Channel Orange, it will only take a new listen-through to rekindle the inner fanboy.
Well, that’s it. Those are the 25 songs that made 2016 less of a trainwreck than reality may dictate. In all honesty, I thought the year was much better in terms of polished product than 2015, especially because just about every major superstar in music dropped absolute gems... except for Drake... Views was garbage.